|Gibson’s Grand Guignol
Author: Guede Mazaka
Sephiroth’s internal clock had never stopped ticking. He knew exactly how much time he’d spent locked inside his own head and body, scratching and snarling till the nauseatingly incessant kaleidoscope of viciously bright colors had dimmed to the sterile shades he knew were really there. He’d been made into an infant again, senses responding to the wrong stimuli and to all stimuli, forgetting how to ignore the less important, how to pretend the sensations were duller than they were. His nerve endings had blown out and healed and blown out again. And he knew exactly how long he’d been conscious for all of that.
They’d taken the restraints off of him during his last blackout, so he could get himself to the grooming area by himself. He’d lost a good deal of muscle mass, he noted. His reflexes had also degraded, probably to the point that he’d barely win a draw against one of the elite soldiers—and he didn’t want to think about who they’d made take over his duties in his absence. Oddly enough, his throat and mouth hurt the worst.
He fumbled for the water, cursing, and then stepped back to squint at his surroundings. Of course they weren’t his private quarters, but they weren’t in the lab area, either. He was standing in a fully-equipped bathroom, with cleaning chemicals and lasers and implant-adjustors all easily accessible. There were a handful of exquisitely-machined metal parts on one shelf, and after some examination, Sephiroth concluded they’d come from some sort of handgun.
“You’re deprogramming. You’re not hearing her on the networks—you’re not even jacked in.” Cool words, cool mouth, too cool so it burns him and yet won’t burn itself, and he hates this intrusion and loves it both for cutting through his madness. “You’ll stop hearing her eventually.”
It was too quiet, Sephiroth realized. The fine mist of water he sprayed over his face and hands, and then into his parched mouth, seemed to din his ears with his hissing. He was used to getting input from all the frequencies flying through the air, from the constant murmuring of Shinra’s private network…and then he’d overloaded. But now it was all gone.
He lowered his hands and stepped back, then stripped himself down. He hadn’t had many implants to begin with, but now the only visible ones were the jacks in his wrists and temples, and the one for Masamune in his right hand, and even those had been modified; he didn’t completely recognize the design features. Sephiroth carefully pressed around them and found himself wincing to various degrees, so they were still relatively new, too.
He’d have to find a way to scan himself to check on the level of deep internal modding he’d previously had, though he already suspected most of those would be missing, too. It was a wonder he wasn’t crippled with ‘plant withdrawal. They were implanting first-trimester fetuses now at the bourgeois income level, but he’d been designed with implants and biomods in mind from the very start so he was intrinsically reliant on them. Quite a few times, all that’d kept him from killing Hojo had been the fact—the supposed fact—that he didn’t yet know enough to maintain himself without the bastard. Logically, de-implantation should have been one of the surest ways to kill him.
Staring at himself now, Sephiroth wasn’t certain whether he was more relieved or furious to find that that had been a false conclusion. And then he thought of all the times he’d woken up on a chilly steel table, limbs frozen while Hojo’s sick-fascinated smile hovered over him, and he raged--
The edge of the counter bent and warped in his fingers, composite plastic not able to withstand the pressure. Sephiroth let go and stepped back, listening to his harsh, quick and angry breathing calm. He touched the uneven ripples he’d made, then reluctantly made himself turn away to the shower.
* * *
After rolling up her sleeves, Elena nodded to Rude. He dematerialized the contam force fields, then switched out the blade in one of his nails and carefully slit the skin-tight plastic covering over the body. He never flinched or showed any obvious signs of discomfort, but his heartbeat rate rose slightly and the heat-regions of his body shifted as blood was channeled away from his midsection: nausea.
The forensics team had done a good job with preservation, so even though it’d been a few weeks since this body had been recovered from the incinerated mainframe building, it still looked as if Elena would get some useful information from it. She picked up a laser scalpel, then glanced at Rude. “Can you bring up what surveillance we had on what happened? I still don’t think Valentine put everything in his report, and he was the only one who made it out of that building alive.”
Rude moved silently away, apparently not even acknowledging what she’d said, but she could detect the biological signs of relief. They were distracting, which was just as well since she disliked activating her good lying routines around Rude and she would have had to if he’d stayed; she knew that Valentine hadn’t been the only survivor. He had told her that much…but Tseng and Neo weren’t to be contacted except in cases of extreme emergency, and Elena would tolerate much more frustration before she risked Tseng’s life just to ask him for help.
She turned back to the body and took her samples with her gloved right hand. Her left hand was ungloved so she could press each sample to the tip of the fourth finger on that hand for analysis. A steady stream of DNA and protein data scrolled past the left side of her vision as she worked: heart, lungs, most of the gut organs from one person. Muscle mass from two others. Brain…
A flag went up for the sample she’d scraped off the femur just as she’d positioned the laser-cutters for the skull. She had a match for one of the missing Shinra employees who’d later turned up mutilated, with missing…missing legs and eyes, if she remembered correctly.
The tiny vibrations in the floor that Rude set up as he approached alerted Elena. She saved what data she had and hastily loaded the samples into the standard analyzer beside her. After flashing a sterilizing burst of electricity over her left hand, she pulled a glove onto it. When he finally appeared, she was bent over the body again.
“Elena.” His monotone indicated something was wrong.
She glanced up, feigning annoyance. He and Reno still believed she was naively gung-ho about work, and if they weren’t to question the other changes in her, she had to at least maintain that. “What? Valentine-san said this had to be done in two hours.”
“Valentine’s calling us back to HQ. There’s a problem with the general,” Rude said.
“They found Strife?” she asked, instantly powering down the analyzer.
Rude shook his head. “No. Sephiroth.”
* * *
Clothes were something of a difficulty. Sephiroth found plenty of Vincent’s weapon accessories, and even a spare red coat, but otherwise the suite held nothing besides the furniture. Vincent’s coat was out of the question.
In one drawer, there was a set of coiled jacking cables, but as Sephiroth stared at them, he felt a sudden, inexplicable surge of revulsion. And he thought that he should have remembered something, someone warning him, but whatever it was eluded him.
After a moment, he flicked the drawer shut and watched the seams seal up to recreate a smooth, featureless expanse of wall. He turned around and slowly scanned the room, trying to think of some temporary solution, and happened to look at the bed with its rumpled sheets.
Several minutes later, he walked out into the hallway, having fashioned a reasonably stable arrangement of folds and tucks and knots around himself. The sheet wouldn’t stand up to any kind of fight, but it did see him to his former quarters before that sort of exertion was required.
After dressing, Sephiroth gradually made his way towards the more heavily-trafficked areas, but then found himself undecided about whom to see first. It was necessary that he understand what were the current conditions, but there were—had been very few people he would’ve trusted to truthfully give him the whole picture.
In the end, he’d decided to try Reeve’s office and was about to head that way when he sensed someone behind him. There was a swish and then an unexpected weight dropping into his hand as he turned around; he’d thumbed for Masamune out of habit, but hadn’t expected that implant to actually still be functioning. The sword made him stagger to the side, but not so much that he couldn’t have parried the other person’s blow, if they hadn’t checked themselves at the last moment.
“Hey, big brother,” Kadaj softly said in a singing lilt. He skipped backwards, then swayed himself into a deeply-recessed doorway. His gloved fingers stayed closed over the frame and he periodically peeked over them at Sephiroth. It was…peculiar. “You’re awake again. Did the prince kiss you, or did they wake you with poison needles?”
“Your sanity hasn’t improved.” Sephiroth lowered Masamune. In top condition, he knew he was more than a match for this failed copy of himself, but right now he wasn’t so certain. Then again, Kadaj had some fresh scabs along his hairline and the pallor of his skin seemed suboptimal; Sephiroth was limited in his analysis by the removal of his optical implants, but he was fairly sure about that.
Someone else started to walk around the corner. They must have been there for a while, but Sephiroth hadn’t noticed them because he’d been concentrating on Kadaj, which was an irritating realization. He should have been more able to compartmentalize stimuli than that.
Unsurprisingly, it was Smecker. If Kadaj showed up, he generally wasn’t too far away because…well, Rufus might be different but the old Head had hated Kadaj, had wanted him tossed off like the others and had just been waiting for a chance. And anyway, Smecker had a knack for showing up just when things were getting complex and then making them worse.
Smecker didn’t seem too surprised, either, which made Sephiroth’s eyes narrow. He noticed and flapped a hand as a privacy shield briefly shimmered around them, then disappeared as it settled in place. “No, no tracking devices were put in you. Actually, we took some out. Look, I’ll let you fiddle with a scanner later so you can see for yourself, but right now we need to talk.”
Kadaj swung himself out of the doorway and skittered behind Smecker, running his fingers along Smecker’s shoulders. “Office?”
“Yeah, sorry. Bunch of stupid fucking Soldier prob—I’ll be back in an hour or so, and then we’ll go out and check in on the double-T’s,” Smecker said, his tone running the gamut from barely suppressed fury to something that was almost genuinely apologetic. He ruffled Kadaj’s hair and didn’t seem at all embarrassed or incredulous of the sweet smile he received in return.
Why, exactly, Smecker preferred Kadaj was an ongoing mystery to Sephiroth. Physical appeal was undeniable, but Sephiroth had seen Smecker’s schedule—work and brain biochem manipulation—and he knew the man rarely had the time to sit down, let alone indulge in that. If he was even capable now—he hadn’t gone in for any of those kinds of cosmetic implants, and he was relatively old when going by the previous standards of human development. On the other hand, Kadaj was loose-tongued enough to let people know they did have intercourse sometime, so it wasn’t merely an intellectual fascination with the failure’s brain.
“Okay. I’ll go start,” Kadaj said, wandering off. He was momentarily outlined in glittering green when he walked through the privacy shield. Then despite his bright silver hair, he seemed to melt away into the shadows.
“Double-Ts,” Sephiroth slowly repeated. He withdrew Masamune.
Smecker flicked his gaze downwards as his mouth briefly shaped itself into a twisted smile of appreciation. “Thanks. Now I can explain that we did temporarily write a routine into you that prevents you from killing anyone on a certain list. When we think you’re reasonably sane, it’ll be disabled.” He turned and waited for Sephiroth to come up even with him, then started walking. “Tseng and Thomas Anderson. Thomas you don’t need to know much about except that he’s helping with some of my research. Everyone thinks Tseng is dead, and we’d be very grateful if you didn’t correct them.”
They went along with most of a six-foot wide hallway between them. The moment Smecker had brought up subroutines, Sephiroth had immediately started an internal scan, only to remember that he currently couldn’t seem to do that. “What else did you do to me?”
“It’s long and technical and some of it Vincent still hasn’t explained to me. You still want that first, or you want to know who you can kill?” Smecker riposted.
Vincent had had a hand in it? Something twisted in Sephiroth’s gut, and he wasn’t sure whether it was disappointment or relief.
Weakened strength did give Sephiroth one advantage: walking slower meant it was easier to hide the hesitation in his step. He doubted Smecker had missed it, but at least the man might put less weight on it. He didn’t need to worry about the resident psychoanalytical obsessive dissecting him when he hadn’t the faintest idea himself what the state of his mind now was. “Am I dealing with Rufus?”
Or you, they both heard. Smecker laughed to himself. “Rufus turned out to be a bright kid. He doesn’t like you, and he refuses to be in the same room as Vince without a third around, but he needs you.”
Did he. A war must be on, in that case. Sephiroth knew how necessary he was to maintaining Shinra’s current level of prestige, but usually when others acknowledged that, they meant in terms of combat situations. “Vincent’s heading up the Turks now.”
“Yeah…” Smecker let his voice suggestively trail off, looking speculatively up at Sephiroth. His eyes were dilated almost to their furthest extent with data input and stimulants; he probably was simultaneously ripping several lower levels of bureaucracy new bodily orifices. At the very least, he was manipulating things so that everyone else stayed away; Sephiroth had yet to hear or see anyone else and this was normally a busy area. “How do you feel about Vincent Valentine?”
He’d phrased that oddly—too formal for him. It struck a chord in Sephiroth, but…he knew how long ago to the fraction of a second since he’d last heard it, but he couldn’t quite recall the exact memory. Only frenzied impressions. “Have you been altering my brain patterns again?”
That seemed to take Smecker by surprise. He went around two corners before he finally answered. “No, I don’t think—ask Vincent. But I think mainly we just fucked around with your body till it could take having most of the implants shut down and some of the biomods undone. You were certifiable for a hell of a long time.”
“Was I.” Leaving aside how Sephiroth felt about that—he seemed to have carried over the ability to freeze out his own rage when it was inconveniently timed—he needed to know what exactly had triggered that, and what had ended the spell.
He had to suppress both a shiver and an odd comforted feeling at the recollection of…that. But there’d been something else, too…Vincent talking to him, telling him all sorts of things he needed to remember fast. Vincent and his red coat sliding down pale flesh, muscles lean and flat beneath the scarred skin.
“Anyway. Reno’s been detached to act as Rufus’ personal bodyguard. Tseng’s operating as a semi-independent--Rufus doesn’t know about that, by the way. Thinks he’s dead. Reeve’s gotten co-opted to do Turk research because we’ve been dealing with wave after wave of clever-ass attacks.” Smecker ticked them off on his fingers. “Network worms. Bombings of mainframes. Our street-guys getting jumped and then broken down for their organs. Same thing’s been happening to the Kisaragis, and they blame us so you can guess what it’s been like.”
“Gainsborough?” Sephiroth said after a moment. He’d never much liked politics anyway, so forcing himself back into that mentality was doubly difficult.
Apparently, whatever had happened to Gainsborough had been rather spectacular, because Smecker didn’t even crack a smile. “Assassinated. Aeris took over and scaled back everything; they’re in shut-down mode right now and we can’t get much info on what’s going on behind their shields.”
“That should help. The Kisaragis are fleas compared to what the Gainsboroughs could have done.” Certainly they couldn’t be enough to force Smecker to speak to Sephiroth like this, with almost no sarcasm or condescension.
They turned into the last hallway, then went into Smecker’s office. The other man immediately dropped himself behind his old-fashioned desk and jacked himself in, spending some time doing various tasks besides answering Sephiroth’s implied question. At least a few of those had to do with reinforcing the security shields and firewalls around the room.
After surveying the place, Sephiroth opted to sit. He’d rather have stood, but his leg muscles were beginning to ache and he preferred to conserve his strength. He also wanted to snap at Smecker to get on with it, but he still wasn’t sure where he stood in relation to others now.
Oddly enough, he wished very hard that Vincent would return, and when he probed that wish, he found it based in a belief that Vincent would make sure nothing negative would happen to him. Of course, negative was a relative term.
She’s taken almost everyone I’ve ever known—certainly everyone I’ve ever loved. She took your mother. She would take you if she could; Hojo made it possible for you to be her son just as much as you are Lucrecia’s. So logically, I should kill you.
…it seems that I can’t, though. And if I cannot see you die, then I will see you live. I promise you that.
“Off in Never-Never-Land?” Smecker suddenly said.
Sephiroth refrained from shaking himself, since he didn’t want to give away any more clues about his internal state than he had to. “What, did someone re-open that street?”
“You know, before Corneo co-opted it to name his virtual-porn market, it was a reference to…fuck, never mind. You wouldn’t have liked the book anyway.” Smecker fiddled around with his handheld. His pupils were slowly decreasing back to normal size. “You haven’t asked me who took your place while you were sleeping, o beautiful one.”
The other man was taking himself down too fast, Sephiroth decided. That had been less flippant and more hallucinogenic haze. “Cloud Strife. Zack would be too compromised, especially since Aeris now heads the House of Gainsborough.”
“Huh. Your fucking strategic mode’s still working. Then again, that’s a basic instinct and even Hojo couldn’t process that out of you, fucked-up excuse for an Platonic that he was. Whatever. You’re right, we had to use Strife. Problem is, he had a lot of the same mods you did, though they were put in when he was a lot older.” Done with the handheld, Smecker exchanged it for pulling up a screen that briefly framed him, like a snapshot of gaunt, stark, ruined humanity. Then he tapped it and a video clip came up; it showed one of the cafés Lockheart ran. She was sitting at a table with Strife and they were deep in conversation. “This was just before we realized just what kind of vulnerabilities Hojo had been building into people like you and Strife.”
Tseng walked in, and Cloud stood up. They briefly conversed, though not a sound could be heard. “Why is there no audio?” Sephiroth asked.
“This is a reconstruction from eyewitness testimony, perimeter heat monitors, electromag spectra readers, things like that. All the direct feeds were destroyed and the data from them couldn’t be recovered,” Smecker said.
On the screen, Tseng had been jacked into a wall station for what appeared to have been a few minutes; the reconstruction was also speeding up time. Then he—he seemed to have a seizure and started to collapse. Lockheart ran to catch him, while Cloud jacked in right next to him. That was a bit unusual, but not unreasonable; top soldiers like him were well-equipped to fight off network attacks, but in practice they called in techs to handle that in order to keep them free for physical activities.
Then…Cloud went stiff. He didn’t spasm as Tseng did, and he seemed to recover after only a minute or so. But something about the way he moved struck Sephiroth as wrong…and right. Strife yanked the jack out of him and grabbed Tifa, who was struggling with the still-seizuring Tseng. Then some kind of explosion blew across the frame, and the feed ended there.
“Strife and Lockheart made it out. Kadaj dragged Tseng out as well, but he was badly injured. Everyone else assumes he died in there,” Smecker told Sephiroth in a crisp tone. Apparently he’d finished seguing into his new biochem levels. “Afterward, Kadaj mentioned that Strife’s body signatures—heartbeat, electromag signature, all that—had all slightly altered. Still healthy, but different. Me not being a fucking idiot, I figured he might’ve gotten infected by Jenova.”
Sephiroth stiffened. He had a series of…odd reactionary feelings and sensations, mostly contradictory, and he instinctively tranced out for a moment to deal with them, or at least suppress them.
When he was aware again, Smecker was watching him very narrowly, with a twist to the mouth that wasn’t very pleasant.
“Thing is, we’re kind of shorthanded. Rufus wanted Strife dead, but we didn’t have a replacement for him, so we just had to watch and wait. And seventy-two hours ago, Cloud got into a bizarre fight with Zack, then vanished.” Smecker lifted his hand and rapidly flicked his fingers in a rippling, contemptuous motion.
“What was the extent of Zack’s damage?” Sephiroth asked, a little concerned. He’d liked the man, even if he hadn’t understood why Zack insisted on playing to his flaws all the time, and he didn’t care to think about who he’d have to take as second-in-command if Zack also was sidelined or worse.
Something about this seemed to amuse Smecker, but there was an odd touch of surprise to his cynical grin as well. “Huh. I have to remember to tell him you asked after him, though the idiot’s not going to understand why that’s a big deal. He’s got a few broken ribs, but he’s mobile. Anyway, I think you can see where I’m going now.”
“How’d you reconcile Rufus to putting me back in command of the army?” Sephiroth would be amused at this answer, no matter what it was.
“Told him the other logical choice was Vincent.” Smecker’s smile widened to feral. “The way the Turks have been restructured, they don’t meet more than once a week unless Rufus asks for an extra meeting. He’d have to see the head of the army every day, given the situation.”
And…Sephiroth had been mistaken. He didn’t find this answer amusing at all. “Then I’ll start by seeing the Head.”
“I let him know you’re coming,” Smecker said, folding in on himself. Now he looked almost genuinely somber. “Go on up. He didn’t change where the office is.”
* * *
Valentine wasn’t there to meet them when Elena and Rude returned: Reno was. He slouched amid the exuberant marble curlicues and beautiful angels of the sweeping balcony, body curled into a niche so high above the ground that when Elena looked past him, the people moving below were mere dots. She felt dizzy and put her hand down, only to have it pass completely through the balustrade with a mildly painful burst of sizzling around her wrist.
“Scarlet?” Rude asked.
“Her idea of a meeting room. Ridiculous, ain’t it?” Reno swung himself over the edge of the building and momentarily floated in mid-air. Then there was a high, staticky burst of white noise and the entire reality collapsed to show the expected sparsely-furnished room. “So when’s Valentine getting here? I had to leave Rufus talking with Reeve. He’s got Zack to deal with next and I’m gonna be there no matter when this shit gets done.”
Elena waved her hand parallel to the ground and a short piece of the sleek floor popped up to provide her with a seat. She pulled one leg up beneath herself and let the other one dangle; a few embarrassing incidents had taught her that this position, even if it was undignified, was least likely to see her lean too far and fall off on her face. “Why were you meeting with Scarlet?”
“I wasn’t meeting with that bitch—she was meeting with me. She wanted to discuss Rufus’ security measures now that Strife’s fucking AWOL for some reason. I told her it was none of her business, but apparently she wanted me to tell her that to her face for twenty minutes while we floated around goddamn Florence,” Reno muttered, kicking at the floor. One of his eyes was so brightly green that the pupil wasn’t visible.
Keeping tabs on Rufus however he could, Elena guessed. Once in a while, she wondered how much that annoyed Rufus. “It was Versailles.”
“What?” Reno turned around, then twisted back as Valentine walked into the room. “Finally. Isn’t it kind of stupid to be calling me off Rufus to talk about how I’m going to protect him? I can only do that when I’m with him, right?”
Valentine sensibly let that pass without a single sign that he’d even heard Reno. He was bundled up today, with a long red scarf wrapping back his tail of hair and sliding down into his eyes. It dropped around his neck and blended with his red coat to turn him, with the exception of his hands and boots, into a column of blood. “Sephiroth’s resumed active command.”
For a moment, they all stood in incredulous silence. Then Reno snorted back an impolitic snarl and spun on his heel. “Then I really need to go.”
“Reno,” Valentine said. He lifted his metallic hand and used his other hand to flex the gleaming fingers one by one, each emitting sharp little clicks as it moved. That was purposeful; Elena had seen Valentine using that hand before and normally it moved as fluidly and soundlessly as if he’d had bones and flesh made of water.
She had no idea what the clicking might come from, or what it might signify, or what it might lead to. And that combined with Valentine’s always peculiarly expressionless face was what probably made Reno turn back around.
“Don’t antagonize Sephiroth unnecessarily. He’s responsible for less than you think,” Valentine added.
Reno wasn’t as stupid as he liked other people to think. He listened to that and his eyes narrowed, so he got that there was at least a second meaning to that statement. “Okay.”
“Sephiroth’s meeting with Rufus right now. You can go.” A tinge of what could’ve been black humor sneaked into Vincent’s voice.
It looked like Reno was going to read it that way, because he glared at Vincent, then whipped around and hurried out of the room. Elena caught a very, very faint subvocalization of a curse at Vincent’s mother in Reno’s wake.
“Rude. You’ll be working with Reeve for the next few days. He needs a leg-man to check on his suspicions regarding network vulnerabilities.” Valentine waited for Rude to leave without really seeming to wait. It was more like he faded into a shadow, then suddenly seeped back out after Rude had left to turn to Elena. “So?”
She warily watched him. “Sephiroth comes back hours after we lose Cloud?”
For some reason, Valentine tended to show more traces of emotion around her. Maybe he thought because of what she was, she wouldn’t be able to parse them as well as a person. Or maybe he was bargaining on her keeping silent so he would return the favor where Tseng was concerned.
“He was steadily improving, but suddenly his progress accelerated,” Valentine said, betraying some concern. He reached up and pulled off the scarf, then carefully folded it. “And some of the anomalies around him have disappeared. Apparently Jenova’s found a new major focus.”
“You think Cloud—”
“Do you?” The scarf then disappeared somewhere beneath his cloak. Valentine watched Elena, his red eyes seeming oddly cool for all their angry color.
Elena shrugged. “He hated the Turks and he was always putting down Tseng-sama in public. And he was third in line, so I didn’t see the point of getting to know him.”
“You’ll regret that,” Valentine told her without a trace of reprimand in his voice. He always seemed to just be observing from thousands of feet of remove. “But it’s uncertain whether Strife can be that closely linked. Lockheart insists that she could still reach the ‘real him’ even if that had been getting harder. What did you find with the bodies?”
“That they’re a match,” Elena reluctantly admitted. She hadn’t yet had a chance to pass on this information to Tseng and she wasn’t sure if she’d get an opportunity to, plus she was cautious of what Valentine might do with it. But in the end, he still was the current head of the Turks and he’d not yet done anything that would’ve allowed her to disobey him.
She suspected that was conscious and deliberate on his part.
Valentine raised one eyebrow, which was about as much as he ever did in order to show interest. “How well?”
“Identical. The stolen organs are being used in these…constructs that have been attacking us. And…” Elena caught herself twisting her hands together and irritably pulled them apart “…Valentine-san, the recovered constructs are too badly damaged for facial reconstruction, but some of the mods in them—”
“—they’re amalgamations. So far, clones largely of Sephiroth, but with other top Soldiers mixed in. Is that what you’ve noticed?” He asked obviously knowing perfectly well what her answer would be.
She retreated into her dutiful subordinate subroutine. “Yes, Valentine-san.”
“I see.” He slightly tipped his head, staring hard at her. Then he half-turned and began walking for one of the side-doors. “Resume your field work. I believe Sephiroth will want to have a discussion with you about this, so expect him sometime today.”
* * *
Speaking with Rufus was thankfully short; Sephiroth didn’t mind the curtness since it got matters hashed out faster.
“You’re up,” Rufus said as soon as Sephiroth came in. He was standing behind the broad, ancient desk that had served too many generations of Shinra heads to bear listing. He seemed annoyed, but his left hand was trembling and the layers of force-fields between himself and Sephiroth made the air sting with the electric smell of ozone. “And you’re a little out of breath. Well, I suppose it makes sense: you’ve been doing little but lying in bed for a few weeks now.”
“I understand that I was strapped to it. If I had been free, I assure you I would’ve been active enough to maintain my previous physical status.” Sephiroth took a seat in the nearest chair, which was in fact a chair and not a floating plank. Its plastic had been textured to feel like leather and it molded itself to him in a slow, insinuatingly subtle manner that made him regret his decision. On the other hand, it indicated that not too much had changed here.
Rufus shrugged and continued to parse between floating screens, as he’d been doing when Sephiroth had walked in. They were transparent so they didn’t obscure Sephiroth’s view, but made one-sided so he had no idea what they were showing to Rufus. “We’ve been informing the army that you were on leave for medical reasons.”
Logical enough; it had happened in the past, though not for such a prolonged period of time. “Blamed the lab?”
“The official stance is that they’re upgrading you so you can better deal with current events. Enough idiots have been talking in dark corners so that even the groundlings have been whispering about Jenova.” The way Rufus watched Sephiroth for his reaction to that name was grossly amateur compared to Smecker, but did show some intelligence on the other man’s part. His father would have blustered more and demanded a reaffirmation of Sephiroth’s loyalty. “Now we’re telling them that Strife’s released command back to you, since you’ve finished recuperating.”
“And are they believing it?” Sephiroth skeptically asked. He’d forgotten to ask Smecker if anything had changed regarding Shinra’s PR machinations, with which he’d had issues in the past.
He’d been expecting the mention of Jenova and thus successfully suppressed any outward signs of his reaction. But interestingly enough, Rufus didn’t seem to buy it. “They’d like to. I suggest you make yourself very visible and pull out a new trick to solidify—excuse me, resolidify their trust in you.”
“Does the high command back this?” That tremor in Rufus’ hand had gotten worse, and now Sephiroth was wondering if it was entirely due to him. The other man…he’d had almost all his implants removed, Sephiroth realized. And he was showing some permanent effects of that, if the strain around his mouth was any indication.
Rufus regarded Sephiroth for a moment, long enough to show that the shock to his system apparently had been extremely beneficial to his brain. The last few times they’d had to have this intimate of a face-to-face, Rufus had been mindlessly sliding his hand up Sephiroth’s thigh while requiring three minutes to get out a coherent—and still irrelevant—sentence.
“You killed my father. Thank you for that,” he finally said. He grinned grimly, briefly, before hardening again. “But don’t expect any repetitions, or any favors. I am the Head. I am Shinra. That’s all to me in the end. Threaten it and suffer.”
“I’ve been informed that I’m sane again,” Sephiroth dryly replied.
A flicker of sympathetic irony passed over Rufus’ face. “So I’ve heard. I should also inform you, if you haven’t already heard, that Valentine has agreed to contract himself to Shinra again for as long as we supply him with crucial information, research developments and various other…services.”
“You think this matters to me.” Did Rufus think Sephiroth was included under ‘other services’? In that case, he was a—but the flash of anger quickly died as Sephiroth reasoned through it.
A moment ago, Rufus had been warning him against endangering the House, ergo Rufus saw him as a separate entity. So no…the hidden hook didn’t lay there. It lay deep in Sephiroth’s gut, which had cringed and twisted into knots of ice at the mention of Valentine. Whom Rufus also spoken about as if he were an independent entity, but one who’d been brought to bay, however temporarily, via the negotiating table.
“I think so,” Rufus finally, slowly said. He was watching Sephiroth very carefully, barely showing any hint of triumph. Then he looked back at his work. “I’ve arranged for there to be a brief ceremony—all you have to do is give a short speech to the assembled forces. It’s necessary in order to straighten out the rumors. After that, I’ll leave managing the soldiers up to you.”
“I see. Thank you for the help.” Sephiroth got up after a momentary pause when the chair seemed to not want to release him. But that was too short to attribute to deliberation on Rufus’ part…except in his choice of furniture.
Rufus smiled unpleasantly. “You’re welcome.”
On his way out, Sephiroth passed the redheaded Turk…Reno. None of the Turks had ever particularly liked him, seeing as their departments often had been set in competition against each other, but the glower this one gave him was peculiarly fierce. It made Sephiroth linger, turn and watch to see the way Rufus lifted his head, the way Reno went right behind the desk.
That…was telling. Across more than one generation…Rufus’ father had fucked the occasional Turk, but they’d never been the ones that had lasted. And they certainly had never been the ones whose names Sephiroth bothered to learn. It seemed like this Shinra was willing to risk more for loyalty. At the very least, he had a better understanding of what might motivate people.
The idea of that made Sephiroth oddly uncomfortable. But he didn’t have the time to dwell on it because a message--
--he could still receive messages?—
--scrolled across his field of vision. His temples tingled a little and he stopped where he was in the hallway to stare. He felt a little lightheaded.
It was short and from Vincent. Coordinates, a situation sketch. Almost like any other field alert.
And the first thing Sephiroth had to wonder about, actually, was why Vincent was once again avoiding him. He’d—Sephiroth took a deep breath, then slowly resumed walking; his head would clear along the way—he’d done that in the beginning, too. Shocked the senses loose in Sephiroth, then run away. He’d eventually returned, and apparently taken some responsibility for what he’d done, but why, Sephiroth still didn’t know.
* * *
“It’s the doge that’s the problem.” Elena tucked herself farther back into the inside corner of the bar and watched Tifa Lockheart deal successively with two midlevel managers, a colonel, and one of the stranger techs. The woman smiled gently at all of them and somehow managed to send away everybody fairly content. “The new one’s paranoid, so he’s blocking access to even just the records of updates and changes to the general protocols.”
Once Tifa was finished with them, her smile slowly slipped away. She tapped up a screen and began examining the bar records again with a grave, closed expression. “I think that’s understandable, considering what happened to the last one.”
“He’s not letting the other two houses in either, so at least he’s being fair.” Though finding out that Gainsborough and Kisaragi had even made queries had taken more hard work than Elena thought Tifa would appreciate. “It’ll backfire, though. This Jenova problem has proven it can reach down and wreck the basic underpinnings of life as we know it. We need to get in and see if she’s gotten to the network protocols yet, since we can’t do the obvious checks.”
Tifa glanced at her, then resumed trying to pretend she was calm. “Elena, I already told all I know. The last time I saw Cloud was a day before he disappeared.”
“You’re the closest person to him. If he needed to go somewhere where he could isolate himself, didn’t he give you any clues as to where that’d be?” Elena asked. She did it nicely, not coming off as too aggressive.
“If he’s not anywhere in Shinra territory, then I’ve no idea. Before, if I wanted to find him and he wasn’t on duty, I checked his room or Zack’s. Or his mother’s old place, but I think you’ve already checked there. I know I wasn’t the only one who knew about them…and those were the only ones he ever told me about,” Tifa snapped. Then she bowed her head and put her hands on the counter, taking a deep breath. She briefly closed her eyes. “So there’s no news of him yet?”
Elena studied her for a while, and eventually decided that Tifa was being truthful. The next time Tifa looked over, she shook her head.
Tifa pressed her lips tightly together, but couldn’t quite make them straight. They rippled as she squeezed her eyes shut again, but harder and with more pain. She had to take several ragged breaths before she managed to regain her composure, but when she did, it was to shoot a surprisingly sharp look at Elena. “Why can’t I see Zack now? What’s wrong with him?”
After a moment, Elena got up. “He’s still recovering, and he’s also much busier since now…”
Both of them turned their heads to stare at the doorway at roughly the same time. Elena had sensed a strange distortion in the background electromagnetic noise that always swirled through the air, but unless Tifa had invested in some very interesting implants for her position, she wouldn’t have felt that.
Sephiroth briefly paused, then spotted Elena and nodded to her. Then he went back out, and people breathed, started talking again. Of course they’d all watched the speech—they couldn’t not, seeing as Shinra had forcibly piped it into every one of its employees’ vision implants—but it was something else seeing him in the flesh again, after so long.
…he looked distinctly unwell, Elena thought. Not sick, but not completely whole, either. But he still had that air of lethality around him.
“You’re different,” Tifa suddenly said. “You don’t talk as much, or let the other Turks embarrass you.” She looked down at the screen again. “I’m sorry I couldn’t…Cloud and I couldn’t drag Tseng out in time.”
Elena blinked hard. Then she forced a smile that would look the way Tifa would expect it to look. “Turks die, Lockheart. It’s in the job description. Just remember…Cloud can’t fix himself. He’s got to come back here for that to happen.”
Tifa nodded, frowning. It wasn’t easy to judge if she was truly taking Elena’s words to heart, but Elena thought she was at least giving them some weight. Which meant Tifa would have to remain under surveillance.
When Elena went out, the thick sting of the air caught her off-guard; she’d forgotten to adjust to the change in pollution level, and for a moment she saw and heard nothing as her body frantically cycled to keep the acid from eating up her lungs. Then her sight cleared to show Sephiroth waiting near the side, appeared unconcerned at all the gawking passersby. He’d changed his uniform: it was still unrelieved black, but he had a shirt beneath his coat, and that famous garment had been completely stripped of all its ornamentation. Buttons, belts, buckles…all gone.
He looked like a blackened reflection of Vincent, Elena suddenly understood.
“I’m told you’ve been tracking some interesting corpses,” Sephiroth said. “What’s the matter with them?”
“I should show you,” Elena replied after a long moment. Yes, she was scared of him, but come to think of it, he couldn’t hurt her nearly as badly as he once could have. Tseng was out of his reach, and…she’d stopped pretending to herself that she was an organic being, so she could always opt out of physical pain.
Sephiroth cocked his head. Strange for him, since he’d always been peremptory and heedless of others before. “Where?”
* * *
This body, Kadaj had brought back the last time he’d taken a message to Thomas, which possibly was why so much of it including the face was intact. He’d acted oddly about it, running his fingers through its hair and refusing to leave it till Smecker had come and said something to him. Calling it ‘brother’ and ‘idiot’ in the same breath.
Elena watched Sephiroth’s hands. They curled their fingers slowly till the tips were just grazing the palm. Then the fingers of one hand gradually straightened, and at first Elena thought she was seeing the shadows in the background through the curve of flesh. Then she realized that black thing pushing at the fingers was really the tip of Masamune, and she prudently backed up.
“Is it one of Hojo’s? I always thought he’d kept around more of them besides Kadaj, and Vincent destroyed Hojo’s personal lab so thoroughly that we were never able to properly account for everything in it,” Sephiroth eventually asked. He sounded calm.
“No. Not entirely, anyway. Eighty percent of the legs and a lot of the major gut organs, like the spleen here—” Elena flicked her finger, and a tiny, harmless dot of light began to dance over the parts in question “—are from Shinra employees who were killed only days ago.”
Sephiroth put his index and middle fingers on the tip of Masamune and shoved it back into his hand. Two thin red rivulets sluggishly streamed down his hand afterward. “Can you tell whether the organs are merely being replaced in an older body, or if it’s been completely built outside of…independently of Hojo’s work?”
“Not from the physical evidence. But the way they fight and move is distinct from you or Kadaj. It’s…degraded,” Elena said.
He looked sharply at her. After a while, he deigned to indicate what was passing through his mind. “Who’s fought them?”
“Vincent Valentine. Also now Kadaj, apparently, since he brought this one in. A few others, but they’re the ones who survived.” That wasn’t entirely accurate, but Elena couldn’t talk about Thomas Anderson without referring to Tseng.
“Not you personally, then.” He walked around to the head and used his uninjured hand to pry up one eyelid. Then he brushed his hands through the silver hair, which seemed an oddly tender gesture for him until he pressed fingers into the temples and Elena understood he was looking for implants. His forehead wrinkled and he stared down at the corpse with an inexplicable look of confusion, then squeezed his eyes shut. “You’ve only seen them after they’re dead.”
“And in much worse condition than this,” Elena acknowledged. She glanced down and saw that she was pressing her nails hard into her palm. “There’s something else. I couldn’t tell for sure with the others, but this one…the blood’s not blood. It’s a green fluid that—Sephiroth?”
Sephiroth had shaken his hands free of the body’s hair and put them down on the table, apparently to support himself as he looked more closely. But then he’d slid his arms so they were balanced on their elbows, freeing his hands to rub over his face; he seemed increasingly distracted and in some pain.
She took a step forward, then leaped back as he jerked his arm and a black shadow slammed into the table. The body’s head hit the floor just as Elena shoved up her hand and took Masamune in the palm, barely blocking it from her own neck. Her heels ground into the floor with the effort and shocks ran from her hand up and down her spine.
Then Sephiroth stopped pushing, though he didn’t lower the sword. He lifted his head to look at her as if it were a great weight. “You don’t bleed either. I never noticed before…but now I can tell. I can feel that,” he said, tone almost curious.
Elena hesitated, then slowly pulled her hand off the blade. He hadn’t swung with full force at her; the cut only went as far as her skin and then stopped before it would have done her any…well, it wasn’t quite flesh beneath her skin. She pushed the flaps up around the cut and held them there so they could seal themselves; she’d save the fine repair for later.
The only sound was a slow, irregular drip from the body’s neck. Slightly iridescent, emerald fluid pooled on the floor beneath it and trailed over to where the head had come to rest.
“It doesn’t congeal,” Sephiroth noted, turning to it. He straightened up, Masamune blurring away, but he still kept one hand pressed hard to the side of his head. “More like a power source, like oil or Mako.”
When Valentine had managed to guess her secret, Elena hadn’t stopped to think about how. She’d just assumed he had caught her out in a rare mistake. When Tseng had figured it out, she’d attributed it to his intuition. But now…“What do you mean, you can feel?”
“Is this another secret that we mustn’t tell anyone?”
“I’d be grateful if you didn’t,” Elena stiffly replied. “The former Head knew, after he’d killed the scientists who designed and built me. Valentine and Tseng—before he died—guessed. But no one else does, and there’s still a prejudice against…” she took a small breath “…cyborg-AI intermediates like me.”
Sephiroth winced and put his other hand up to his head. “Oh? Were you built as a precaution against anyone?”
“I’ve deleted those directives.” Elena began to wonder if she should call for someone for him.
“Why?” he asked. He still seemed sane, but whatever was bothering him wasn’t letting up. “They made you able to evolve?”
She took a step back, but then his head shot up and he fixed her in place with his stare. She bit her lip, then set her shoulders. “I don’t know if they intended that to go this far, but it’s gone that way. I don’t want…to hurt…certain people. Because…I think it would be the equivalent of injuring myself.”
“You didn’t flinch when I cut your hand,” Sephiroth commented. He took two steps back from the corpse, then slowly lowered his hands. He still appeared to be in pain, but to a lesser degree.
“Because that’s not the kind of injury that would hurt me,” Elena snapped.
At first, it looked like Sephiroth would take offense, but then something else got his attention and he turned around. He stiffened, then relaxed a little. “Point made. By the way, Smecker’s told me that Tseng’s still alive, so you can stop talking around that.”
Elena went very still. Then she stayed still because if she’d moved, it would have shown evidence of her sudden temper flare-up; what was Smecker thinking? He really didn’t care about anyone besides himself, did he—
“I never had a problem with him personally, only with him as he relates to Rufus. I…suspect you can also understand that,” Sephiroth said. He flicked a dismissive glance over to Elena as he began to walk out.
She started to ask where he thought he was going, but then closed her mouth. Not because that would have been out of line for her—though it would have been—but because she’d seen a red shape pass by the doorway and she’d also seen Sephiroth’s stride hesitate at it.
After a moment, Elena turned back to the corpse and picked up where she’d left off on analysis. She still feared for Tseng, but…at least she was right about one thing: the attackers so far all were constructs. They weren’t beings. They weren’t Sephiroth, or even Kadaj, flawed as he was.
* * *
“You finally showed up. I know the Turks favor the hit-and-run approach, but the extremes to which you take that are unbelievable,” Sephiroth said. He was furious to hear his voice shaking. The buzzing in his head had completely died away, but only to be replaced with an angry internal roaring. “Are you only interested if I’m too busy raving to really notice you’re there? I wonder what that says about your mental stability.”
Vincent didn’t seem to be listening, more interested by the side of Sephiroth’s face. He reached for it, then frowned and stepped forward. Then he stepped forward again, and at that point Sephiroth realized he was backing away from the other man. He stopped where he was and Vincent’s fingers finally touched his temple. They burned like ice, making Sephiroth hiss through his teeth.
He twisted slightly and pulled up his hands, though what he’d been planning to do with them, he couldn’t quite remember. He was shivering and his breath had started to come short as if he’d been running for hours and hours. His knees were suddenly unsteady. He didn’t understand any of it. “What did you do to me?”
In reply, Vincent cupped the side of Sephiroth’s head. From somewhere inside of Sephiroth came a deep moan; he sagged backwards, hit the wall and slid down so Vincent’s mouth came down on him. It hooked him, held him in place as hands stripped past his clothing to set his skin burning. They passed over his belly and pressed his thighs apart, then moved up between them and he closed his eyes till stinging heat dripped from them. He felt exalted and crushed at the same time.
He took Vincent’s fingers, and then Vincent’s prick, hands grinding flat into the wall on either side of him while the other man forced one of his legs up. He slid further so his other leg bent, was also pushed up Vincent’s thigh, and he was dangerously unbalanced but he couldn’t move his hands from the wall. Vincent bit at his mouth, and kept his teeth in Sephiroth’s lip while his prick seemed to pierce through the rest of Sephiroth’s body, shattering any and all barriers till Sephiroth finally was hanging from him, suspended entirely by his will, and content that way.
* * *
“Where have you been?” Sephiroth asked afterward, in a very differently shaken tone. He leaned unsteadily against the wall, his hands skittering restlessly up and down it while Vincent pulled together his clothing with sharp, over-efficient motions. “It’s that blood she puts in them—it talks--”
“Sephiroth,” Vincent said.
The world shook a little more, then suddenly spiraled around into place with a snap Sephiroth could feel rattle him. He blinked hard, then pushed off the wall and seized Vincent’s arm. “What is going on? Why do I—do that? I was almost—you almost put me back there, back trapped in my own damned…”
“Hojo had wrong ideas about the ideal psychology, and Jenova didn’t help.” Vincent sounded angry with himself. He withdrew from Sephiroth a little even as his hands smoothed over Sephiroth’s clothes more…tenderly. “You don’t know how to handle certain emotions, or possibly you’ve been conditioned to have certain overreactions. I didn’t almost trigger an insane spell in you; I just prevented it.”
Sephiroth jerked away from Vincent and finished righting his appearance by himself. His mind was clearing again, and this time he remembered a little more of those weeks with nothing but himself, Vincent, and Jenova. He snarled, at himself and at Vincent and at damned Hojo, still fucking up his life from the grave. “That’s what you did. I used to react to Jenova that way—now I do it to you.”
“Would you rather be dead?” Vincent asked. “That was the other option.”
“Why is it that you don’t prefer me dead?” Sephiroth retorted. He shifted his weight, then hissed at the hard ache that spread from low in his belly down to his groin. Then he glanced up at Vincent to find that the other man’s face had turned utterly blank once again. “Am I not capable of changing and evolving past what I was made to be? Isn’t that the point of intelligent beings as opposed to—to robots?”
Vincent stared hard at him, the façade cracking a little to reveal uncertainty. He snatched away his hand when Sephiroth grabbed for it.
“Well, now that you’ve got my strings, do you intend on holding onto them like they did? Or are you going to let them stretch so I can be whatever it is that I am?” Sephiroth put one hand back on the wall to support himself. He was speaking with complete sincerity, but hardly with complete understanding. He hated Vincent right now, and he also wanted Vincent to stop keeping his distance with a ferocity that rocked him harder than any physical force had.
“I…don’t wish to hurt you for personal reasons,” Vincent finally, stiffly said. “But I will if I have to. You aren’t Hojo, but you could be the instrument that brings about his idea of the world. I refuse to live in that.”
“And if I am not his instrument…if I avoid that fate, then what am I to you?” Sweat dripped down the side of Sephiroth’s face, but he didn’t wipe it away so he could continue to watch Vincent’s face. “Can you do anything to me that isn’t hurting? Or is that beyond—”
Vincent reached out with his metal hand and dragged Sephiroth forward by the throat. He kissed Sephiroth this time instead of brutalizing with his mouth, and Sephiroth…
…for a moment, Sephiroth responded. He began to lose control of his reaction in the same instant that Vincent violently pushed him away. The other man shut down all emotion again.
“That’s not something that can be discussed yet,” Vincent tonelessly said. He turned and walked away without further comment.
Sephiroth had to watch him leave, too busy struggling to regain himself to stop the other man. But that wouldn’t be the end of it. There’d been a moment, and Sephiroth would see to it that that moment stretched till he was, in fact, independent. He wasn’t a construct and he would not be treated as one, by anyone. He missed Vincent already.
A slight cough made him look up: Elena was standing half-out of the doorway, face carefully blank. “I had more findings to go over,” she said. “If you’re ready.”
“Yes.” He thought a moment, then smiled humorlessly at her. “You do feel hurt.”
Her eyes widened and she stepped back. He’d meant it as a compliment, but if she didn’t understand…well, that was better evidence than any other, wasn’t it? Perfection wasn’t human.
Sephiroth pulled himself together and walked towards her. “Tell me,” he said.