Chapter Two: Past Meets Present
A short time later, Cloud and his party stood at the entrance of Nibelheim. The moment they got a good look at the town, he and Tifa's mouths dropped open in synch. Tifa gasped aloud, reaching out to grab a hold of his upper arm. Cloud froze in place, as if he'd be struck by a powerful ice spell.
The town was perfect, just as they remembered it from childhood. Neat wooden homes lined the stone streets and the old well still marked the center of town, the location of the promise Cloud had made to Tifa all those years before. Smoke rose from the chimneys of some of the houses and several people walked about, absently carrying out daily routines in the bliss of normalcy. The ordinary appearance of the town and the beauty of it all was the very source of Cloud and Tifa's collective distress.
"It can't be! Sephiroth burned this town to the ground five years ago!" Tifa cried in confusion, covering her mouth with both hands.
"I can't believe it," Cloud whispered. "It's like nothing ever happened. My house was burnt the ground... but there it is, untouched. How can this be real?"
"He's here," Aeris said, breaking into their shock with her soft, calm voice. "I don't know what's going on, but I do know that Sephiroth is close by."
"Maybe he did this?" Yuffie asked, speaking is a hushed tone as she clutched her weapon, expecting a fight. Part of her desired one, too, because anything was better than this confusion. A fight was something she could understand and settle without much worry.
"I'm not sure," Cloud mused. "He has a lot of power, but this may be beyond even him. How could all of this be an illusion? There's just no way. No, this… this is real."
"I can't believe this," Tifa repeated, still looking around in awe. Her eyes were wide with disbelief, and Cloud feared for a moment that she might cry. But Tifa quickly swallowed her emotions and got a hold of herself, her hands balls into fists within her gloves.
"I believe I may be able to offer an explanation," Red said, causing the others to look down at him as he sat at their feet. "This may all be part of a very elaborate and well done cover-up on the part of Shin-ra."
"Say what?!" demanded Barret, glaring harshly at Red as if it was all his fault.
"If you will give me a moment to explain," Red said, sounding almost like a professor in a lecture hall and clearing his throat before going on. "Shin-ra lied about what really happened here five years ago in the media, did they not?"
Cloud nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah. They didn't want it known that one of their own, especially someone with such a high rank, had gone insane and done this. So on the news and in the papers they blamed it all on an accident in the reactor. They claimed Sephiroth was killed in a big explosion, which also destroyed the town. We know better than that, of course, and that their claim that there were no survivors was also false. All I know is that something in that library made him snap..."
"Shin-ra holds a lot of power and wealth," Red continued, realizing Cloud was not going to say anything more. "They could have easily cleaned up the mess and rebuilt this town to keep up appearances, to make the damage look minimal, and to hide any evidence that might have explained what really happened here."
"How dare they!" Tifa shouted, causing a few passing residents to look at her oddly. Aeris placed a comforting hand on her shoulder in an attempt to calm her.
"It makes sense, and it's not beyond them," Aeris said gently. "I know it must hurt to see what they did to your hometown, Tifa, especially after what you already had to face here. But we have something more important to take care of right now. We can figure this out later."
"She's right," Cloud said, sounding pained as he continued to stare at his childhood home, standing across the street just as he remembered. "Being here again is hard enough without facing the fact that the Shin-ra may have done all this to hide the tragedy we have to live with every day. But Sephiroth is here and we have to deal with him first."
Tifa nodded her head slowly, finally seeming to relax a little. Red favored her with a rare smile, coming to stand at her side for support. Tifa couldn't help but smile back at him, mostly because the expression looked so silly on his cat-like face.
"Den we head in and get dat damn murderin' nut case now?" Barret asked, anxiously pacing nearby and glaring about with intense dark eyes.
"Yes," Cloud said with determination. "It's time I paid him back and got rid of him like I should have five years ago."
"So you guys know he's here... but where?" Yuffie asked doubtfully. Her eyes continually scanned the ordinary-looking town as if she expected Sephiroth to appear and kill her at any moment.
"Someone has to have seen him enter," Red said logically. "This is a small town and he would tend to stand out. He would be hard-pressed to make himself unassuming, given his appearance, state of mind, and past fame."
"Let's ask around then," Cloud decided, walking farther into the town. "Don't make yourselves seem suspicious, though, and don't alarm anyone. I want to handle this quietly without involving any of the locals. Especially if they might be involved with Shin-ra somehow…"
"Gotcha, leader," Barret said obediently, though his use of the title seemed born out of his wish that he'd been chosen in Cloud's place.
The group entered the main part of town and walked down the street, approaching a man who seemed to be out for a walk and had paused by a building for a rest in the shade. Cloud marveled at how real everything looked, how unchanged it all seemed. It would be so easy to forget anything had ever happened. If only he could erase the memory of what he felt that day... the heat of the flames, the terror of finding his mother dead and seeing Tifa so badly injured. If only he could stop the nightmares, where Sephiroth came to kill him every night when he tried to escape it all through sleep. If he could just stop hearing the strange voice inside his mind and wondering who he really was...
Cloud shook his head as if to physically control his thoughts, sheathed his weapon, then calmly walked up to the man by the building. He smiled widely despite how ill he felt, attempting to look friendly and harmless.
"Excuse me, sir, but could you help me?"
The man looked over at him with a jerk of his head, taken by surprise. His eyes filled with immediate suspicion as he studied Cloud and the others behind him. "What is it, boy?" he asked, looking as if he might take off running at any moment.
"We're looking for a friend of ours and we were wondering if you'd seen him," Aeris continued, sensing that Cloud was unsure of how to proceed. Cloud and Tifa visibly cringed at the thought of Sephiroth being their friend. Red rubbed his head against Yuffie's leg and purred, playing the part of a loyal pet so as not frighten the man away. Inside, however, he grumbled at the humiliation of his usual role any time they entered a town.
"He's wearing a black cloak, carrying a big sword, and he's got long silver hair and green Mako eyes. Have you seen him?" Yuffie picked up, anxious to get moving again. All this talk was boring. But she knew she looked young and harmless and had a better chance of getting information from people than most of her companions.
"Hmm, yeah, as a matter of fact..." the man began slowly, thoughtfully rubbing the stubble on his chin. "I did see a man in black come through here earlier today. He went right up to the old mansion, never saying anything or looking at anyone. Odd fellow..."
"He's very shy," Tifa said, forcing herself to smile even as her stomach twisted into knots. Sephiroth really was here. It wasn't that she didn't trust Cloud and Aeris' feelings, but knowing that someone had actually seen him finally made it real. It made the terror she felt that much stronger, but there was no turning back now.
"Oh, I see," the man said, accepting the explanation with a hint of a smile. "Well, I hope you find him. Good day." With that, he nodded and briskly walked off into a house nearby, as if desperate to escape further questioning. Or maybe just the strange group itself. Nibelheim was rather isolated, after all, and the appearance of the group right after the bizarre stranger had to seem out of place.
"Well, that must be Sephiroth," Cloud said, watching him go. "I thought he might go back there..."
"Shall we?" Aeris asked, looking ahead to the large, dark mansion looming before them. Her gentle green eyes remained calm despite the fear that had begun to grow inside her. She knew she had to remain collected for the others, especially Cloud, so she bit down on her worries and readied her battle staff as if she actually had a chance against Sephiroth in a physical fight.
Cloud nodded with determination. "Let's go." With that, he turned and walked bravely ahead, the others falling into line behind him like ducklings after their mother.
Cloud held back a cough as he walked through the dusty entranceway of the mansion, peering into the shadows and holding his sword out in front of him. The others stayed close behind, alert and prepared to fight. Cobwebs and dust covered most everything in sight, including the furniture, the broken light fixtures, and the walls and ceiling themselves. They were able to see fairly well thanks to the sun, shining with a pale glimmer through the dirty windows. The floor creaked beneath Cloud's feet with almost every step, causing him to cringe each time. He had a strong suspicion Sephiroth knew exactly where they were, but saw no need to give him extra warning.
"Hey Cloud," Yuffie whispered from behind him. He had just reached the base of the stairs that would lead up to the balcony, and from there to the hidden entrance of the basement library. He turned his head in annoyance and quickly mouthed 'What?' to the girl, not wanting anything to distract him.
"Red found something," Yuffie hissed back, annoyed by his irritated expression. Cloud shrugged and sighed inwardly, then walked the short distance back to where the others had come to a stop.
"What is it?" Cloud whispered to them, his voice echoing dully across the rotting wood structure. He shivered as he scanned the room once more, feeling as if the walls themselves had eyes and ears.
"I believe it is a note of some kind," Red said quietly, his voice sounding more like a low growl as he tried in vain to whisper.
"What's da damn thing say?" Barret prompted impatiently, his eyes trained on the stairway ahead.
Red quietly cleared his throat. "It is rather faded and aged... but I believe it is attempting to inform us that someone is locked in the basement. It also says there is a key in a safe upstairs to open the door."
"Someone is locked in the basement?" Tifa asked doubtfully. "They'd have to have been down there for an awfully long time. I think this might be a trick."
"Ol' Sephy probably wants us to come down there so he can hack us to bits," Yuffie said, winning harsh glares from the others for the mental images she caused them to form.
"I don't think so," Aeris said with a soft shake of her head, the white materia she wore in her braided hair briefly catching the dim sunlight. "That note looks very old, and I don't believe Sephiroth would bother with something like this. I think someone may really be trapped down there."
"We don't have time for this," Cloud whispered urgently, his expression tense. "Sephiroth is down there in that library, I know it..."
"But what if someone really needs our help?" Tifa asked, though she was as anxious to take the fight to Sephiroth as Cloud was.
"They're probably already dead if they're down there," Cloud replied. "No one has lived here for years."
"But there's always a chance," Aeris said, smiling slightly. Cloud looked at her and sighed heavily. Why could he never say no to her?
"Fine. We'll go look in this safe and see if there's a key, since we have to go down into the basement anyway," Cloud gave in. "But if it's not there we're moving on. We don't have time to play around."
The others accepted that and nodded in agreement. Cloud led the way back to the main stairway and cautiously began to climb.
He paused on the landing at the top of the stairs, causing the others to come to a halt behind him. "I think I remember a big safe in the room to my left," he said. "I spent some time in this building when Sephiroth wouldn't come out of the basement..."
No one doubted their leader's judgment, following him as he turned left and entered a hallway. Pausing at a door to his right, Cloud stopped and turned the dusty knob, then peered into the room with cautious blue eyes.
"I was right," he whispered over his shoulder. "There's the safe, right where I remembered it."
He entered the room with the others behind him and approached the safe, noting the heavy combination lock sealing it closed with a frown.
"Damn... Dat thing is locked, and good," Barret observed.
"That it is," Red agreed. "And with a combination lock the likes of that one, it could take an eternity to crack the code."
"Wonderful," Yuffie grumbled.
"Wait a minute," Aeris said, coming to the front of the group. "It's not going to be as hard as you think."
"Why's dat?" Barret demanded, tiring of Aeris' indirect manner of speaking.
"Did you look closely at the note Red found?" she asked, unoffended.
"There were numbers written on the back of the paper. They appear to have been written there fairly recently, but..."
"Sephiroth?" Tifa immediately asked.
"I'm not sure," Aeris admitted. "But someone wants us to open this safe. We might as well try it, right?"
Cloud shrugged and took the paper from Aeris' much smaller hand, then carefully entered the sequences of numbers scrawled on the back of the yellowed note. He was still fairly surprised when he heard a sharp click as the lock accepted the combination.
"Amazing," Cloud mused, shaking his head and smiling slightly. What would they ever do without Aeris?
Cloud pulled the door open and found the safe empty, aside from a few small objects lying at the bottom amid the dust and dirt.
"Materia!" Yuffie exclaimed, causing everyone to shush her in a panic. Not bothered, she roughly pushed her way through the others, grabbing a small red orb and placing it into her arm guard.
"You little thief," Barret growled, removing the other, more common types before she could snatch those as well.
"I saw it first!" Yuffie objected. "That makes it mine!"
"Stop arguing already," Cloud ordered with annoyance. "We'll worry about the Materia later. For now, we've got the key, and we have to find Sephiroth before he gets away."
Cloud reached down and picked up the dusty key from the bottom of the safe, quickly handing it to Tifa, whose hands were not tied up holding a weapon.
"The next logical step is to find the door to which this key belongs," Red said confidently, turning and heading back out into the hallway and across to the other side of the stairs. The others followed wordlessly, knowing they were only minutes away from facing Sephiroth.
A few moments later, Cloud stood before what appeared to be an ordinary stone wall inside a rather nondescript room. He studied it intently, turning his head to one side.
Tifa watched him closely, once again admiring his shining blue eyes, their natural beauty enhanced by his past exposure to Mako energy. Sephiroth's face suddenly flashed through her mind's eye, his green eyes glowing in the same way. They would have been very attractive as well if not for the evil emanating from his stare. She shook her head, knowing her nervousness was getting the best of her.
"Yo, you losin' it? Staring at a wall an' shit..." Barret said, giving Cloud an odd look as he continued to study the unadorned surface before him.
"No, this isn't just a wall. It's a doorway into the basement. I was trying to remember where the switch wa- Aha!" Cloud smiled slightly, then reached down into the far right corner of the wall and pressed a small button no one else could see. A click sounded and the wall slowly slid open, revealing a narrow passageway that contained a spiral staircase. It led downward at a sharp angel, into the beckoning darkness below.
"That leads to the basement," Cloud said quietly. Everyone knew that it also led to Sephiroth, so there was no need for him to remind them. An eerie silence met their ears as they strained to listen, not a sound coming from below. Sephiroth was always a quiet man, Cloud thought nervously, stepping first into the darkness.
The group climbed down the narrow, winding stairway, no one daring to speak. Sephiroth could be anywhere now, appearing at any moment to face them in a final confrontation. As they reached the bottom of the stairs and crossed through a crude, rock-walled tunnel reinforced with planks of wood, there was not a sound aside from a distant dripping of water.
At the end of the short passageway, they entered another tunnel, this one more finished with wooden beams and a doorway directly up ahead. Cloud gestured at the door with his sword, signaling that it was the entrance into the library, the place where he believed Sephiroth was lying in wait.
But as he began his approach, Tifa placed a firm hand on his arm, startling him and bringing him to a halt. She smiled apologetically when he met her eyes, then pointed behind them. Only then did Cloud realize the others had stopped, standing back against a wall at the beginning of the tunnel.
"What is it?" Cloud whispered, following Tifa back to the others.
"A door... and it's locked," Barret said as they reached him, bent over and closely examining the rusty knob. "Looks like it takes a key, too."
"This may be where the person is trapped," Aeris said. "The key we have might open this door."
"I still think Sephiroth may have done that to trick us into going in there..." Tifa said with worry. "Be careful." She handed the key to Barret and took an apprehensive step backward.
Barret accepted the key and took it between two of his large fingers, then tried to place it into the lock. It fit perfectly despite the rust, and a sharp click told them the key had done its job. Barret retracted it and placed it in his pocket, then slowly turned the knob. As he pushed the door open a crack, the others gathered around to curiously peer inside.
"An empty room?" Yuffie asked after a tense moment of silence. "There's nothing in there but those... coffins!" she shrieked, finally noticing the large wooden boxes strewn about the room. There were bones, too, carelessly hanging from some of the coffins and messily adorning the floor along with several decades' worth of dirt and cobwebs. There was a metal table carelessly shoved up against the left wall, a dark substance that looked suspiciously like blood encrusted upon its surface.
"My god," Tifa whispered. "What happened down here? All those bones..."
"I have no idea," Cloud whispered, gathering his courage and entering the room first. "I've never been in here before." The others were quick to follow, no one wanting to be left alone in the corridor in case Sephiroth was nearby.
Inside the cold, musty room, Cloud looked about in horror at the many coffins and remains of bodies, long dead and decayed down to their bones. He wondered why they were locked up inside the room and who had put them there. He suppressed a shiver as he approached the largest of the coffins, a decorative one that sat apart from the others in the center of the room.
Cloud examined the coffin more closely and saw many detailed designs on the lid, making it stand out from the others even more. It was almost as if it was meant to be noticed, and it appeared to be somewhat newer than the rest, but not by much. The others stood perfectly still behind him as if afraid any noise they made would literally wake the dead.
Cloud came to stand in front of the center coffin and absently ran his fingers through the dust covering some of the designs on the lid. He could hear Tifa gasp in horror as he touched it, but ignored her and kept his eyes on the wooden box. There was something about this one that bothered him, and he planned to find out what it was.
The lid of the coffin moved.
Cloud jumped back, his heart leaping into his throat as he held his sword protectively in front of him. Someone behind him screamed, probably Yuffie, and he heard Barret utter a five-alarm obscenity.
"Someone is alive in there!" Aeris whispered urgently, startling them all further.
"No damn way!" Barret hissed, his dark eyes as wide as they could go.
As if in answer, the lid of the coffin moved again. Cloud leaped back even farther until he stood just barely before the others, and everyone soon had their weapons out and ready. Slowly, as they looked on in terror, the lid of the coffin slid farther to the side with a soft scraping sound. A hand in a black, fingerless glove appeared, gripping the edge of the lid as it eased the cover away from the coffin's opening.
Sephiroth! Cloud thought, tensing and gritting his teeth. So it had been a trick…
The lid continued its painfully slow journey across the mouth of the coffin, guided by the disembodied hand, until it finally reached the edge and fell. It dropped to the ground with a loud crash that caused Yuffie to grab onto Red's mane in terror. She quickly realized what she had done, though, and immediately released him as her face turned crimson.
"Who... who's there?" Cloud called, trying to sound unafraid and failing. He wasn't sure if he expected an answer or not, waiting tensely while silence filled the room. He could hear every strained breath of his teammates just behind him, trying to convince himself that he was trembling because of the chill in the room and not due to fear.
A man suddenly sat upright in the coffin, turning his head to stare at them with blood red eyes. Yuffie screamed again, but the others managed to hide their terror better and simply stared back at him in disbelief.
It was certainly not Sephiroth, Cloud observed with some relief. The man seated in the coffin, staring half-blankly as if he wasn't completely alert, had long black hair held back from his pallid face by a red bandana. He wore a matching red cloak that flowed across his shoulders and down his back like a river of blood. The collar obscured part of his face, leaving only his eyes and nose exposed, and a black shirt held closed by multiple buckles could just be seen beneath it. He raised one hand to his head and absently brushed back his wild hair, and Cloud saw to his shock that it was actually more of a claw, made of a gold metal that ran all the way to his elbow.
What is he? Is he human? Cloud wondered as he continued to gape at the man. How the hell was he alive in there?
The stranger seemed to focus his eyes after a moment and narrowed in on Cloud, who was standing closest to him, in confusion. With one swift movement, he stood in the coffin and performed an agile forward flip, landing softly on his feet beside it. A gun of some kind gleamed in a holster at his hip, though he made no movement to reach for it. Cloud remained on guard but didn't see any reason to treat him as a threat just yet.
"Why have you awakened me?" the man asked gruffly, his deep yet quiet voice coming out gravelly, most likely from lack of use. He also had a slight yet distinct Wutaiian accent.
"We didn't know anyone was sleeping... in there," Tifa said cautiously, eyeing him with suspicion. "We found a note that someone was locked in the basement, and..."
"How long has it been?" he demanded, studying his clawed hand with detached interest, as if seeing it for the first time but not really caring much.
"How long? Since when?" Cloud replied, confused.
"Since I was locked down here and entered into my long sleep," the man answered, as if it were obvious. "What year is it?"
Yuffie answered him with the correct year, sounding like a frightened little girl, and the man's strange red eyes widened in shock. "Almost thirty years..." he whispered after quickly doing the math in his head.
"You've been locked down here, sleeping in a coffin, for thirty years?" Aeris asked him, taking a step forward with a sympathetic look on her face. Somehow, she managed to appear completely unafraid.
"Yes... Though I did not realize it had been so long. I have slept all this time, trying to atone for my sins... The nightmares have haunted me endlessly."
"Your sins?" Cloud asked, loosening his grip on his weapon a bit. This man did not seem hostile, but there was definitely something odd about him. He had no idea who he was, and his appearance was both strange and intimidating. He was quite tall and towered over everyone, though it was difficult to tell his build because of the way he held his cloak wrapped around himself like a shield. He still had not reached for his gun, however, and seemed completely disinterested in most of the group as if he barely noticed them. Cloud kept his sword at his side instead of sheathing it so it would be there if needed.
The man nodded his head, his eyes taking on a burdened look as some of his thick hair fell down into his face, hiding it from view. "I failed the one I loved. My sweet Lucrecia..."
"Oh... So, um, what's your name?" Tifa asked the man a moment later, mostly to break the uncomfortable silence following his dark statement.
"I am Vincent Valentine. A former Turk."
"Turk, huh?" Barret asked with a brief snort. "So who locked yo ass down here, then?"
Vincent looked away, as if he was not going to speak again. From behind, Yuffie elbowed Cloud in the ribs. "Psst! Shouldn't we be checking on Sephiroth instead of talking to this weirdo?!"
Somehow, though she whispered very quietly, Vincent heard Yuffie's statement and his head snapped in her direction. His hearing seemed to be quite beyond that of a normal man.
"Sephiroth?!" he exclaimed with obvious surprise. It was the most alert he'd seemed thus far, and Cloud tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword just a little.
"You know Sephiroth?!" Cloud replied with equal shock.
"If we speak of the same person... yes. In a way…though I only saw him once before being locked down here by his father."
"His father?!" Cloud, Tifa, Barret and Yuffie all asked at once.
"Yes... I am certain his identity was kept a secret from everyone aside from the top members of Shin-ra, so you would not know. Sephiroth most likely does not know, either."
"Who is his father?" Cloud prompted further, curious and overcome with disbelief. He had never even thought about who Sephiroth's father might be. All he knew was that Sephiroth believed the Jenova creature was his mother, and that he was somehow created as the result of an experiment performed in the Shin-ra labs.
"Hojo," Vincent said, making the name sound like a vile curse. "He was a scientist with Shin-ra Incorporated at the time."
"Hojo?! You're serious?" Tifa questioned, her eyes wide. How was it possible for the pale, sickly Shin-ra Science Department head to be the father of a man such as Sephiroth?
"Very. He is Sephiroth's father, though I am certain his son was never told. Sephiroth must be an adult by now..." Vincent yawned, as if the thought of such time having passed had made him tired again despite his thirty years of rest.
"Wait a minute..." Aeris began quietly. "If Hojo is Sephiroth's father, then how is Jenova his mother?"
Vincent studied Aeris for a moment, his red eyes intense. "Because she is not."
"But Sephiroth said he read in the library here that she is," Cloud said, holding a hand to his forehead. "He thinks he's an Ancient, and he's trying to take over the Planet with her."
"No..." Vincent whispered, a look of alarm crossing his face. "What happened to him? I was locked in here shortly after his birth, after being... altered... by Hojo." He glanced down at his clawed hand and sighed heavily. "I failed her..."
"Failed who?" Barret demanded, growing aggravated.
"What does she have to do with this?" Tifa asked, wrinkling her brow in confusion.
"She... was another scientist with Shin-ra. She was also Hojo's wife... my lover... and Sephiroth's birth mother."
The room was silenced for a good twenty seconds after that statement, Vincent looking down at the littered floor as the others exchanged shocked glances. Cloud watched him for a moment, beside himself. It seemed they had wandered into this forgotten room and come across much more than he ever would have expected.
"You're saying Sephiroth is not Jenova's child? He's not an Ancient?" Cloud finally voiced for all of them.
"No," Vincent said sadly, finally raising his eyes and looking as if the he bore the weight of the entire Planet on his shoulders. "He is just a man... one who was made the victim of his father's scientific theories."
"I'm still confused," Tifa said, shaking her head. "You mean Sephiroth isn't who we think he is? Who he thinks he is?"
"He must have found out about the experiments and interpreted the information incorrectly... It is a long and painful story," Vincent said quietly, walking back to the coffin and peering inside as if preparing to go right back to sleep.
"Vincent," Aeris spoke up, walking over to him without fear and placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked down at her oddly for a moment, as if unfamiliar with human contact after so long. "Sephiroth is here now, in this building."
"He's gone insane... He's killed many people and is now trying to take over the Planet. We have to try to stop him before he hurts anyone else, and knowing your story may help us do that."
Vincent sighed quietly, then hung his head for a moment, appearing to be deep in thought. Finally, he looked back toward the others and slowly nodded.
"I made a promise to Sephiroth's mother long ago," he began, "A promise I was never able to fulfill because I was locked in this room soon after her death. I told her I would look out for him, and prevent his father from ruining him if she could not. I see I have failed even more than I thought... Please, tell me all you know about Sephiroth, and then I will tell you of my past."
"That's fair," Cloud said, glancing down and getting a nod of agreement from Red, who Yuffie still hid behind. He still held his doubts about this strange man they'd just found in a coffin, but he looked so sincere, and he definitely knew things he could not possibly be making up. They had to stop Sephiroth, and trusting him to keep his word was a chance worth taking. "Sephiroth was my hero when I was young," he began, speaking in a hushed tone as if he thought the former General himself might be listening. "I joined SOLDIER when I was fourteen because I wanted to be just like him, and I was thrilled when I got to go on missions with him sometimes. He wasn't like I expected him to be from what I read in the papers, though. He was very quiet and serious. He never spoke about himself... He was a strong leader we all respected and listened to, but he had no real friends and never showed any emotion. He'd make a joke sometimes and try to fit in with the other SOLDIERs once in a while, but he never seemed comfortable and would end up keeping to himself. I tried to get to know him but he really didn't want any part of me. He kept everyone at a distance, but I think deep inside he was lonely."
"He always seemed in control, though," Cloud went on, Vincent watching him closely with his cloak held close around him. "Then, about five years ago, I was sent on a mission with him here, to deal with a problem in the reactor. I was especially glad to come along because Nibelheim is my hometown. I was amazed by the way Sephiroth battled the monsters in the area, and I felt weak compared to him."
"He would have to be quite strong, yes," Vincent interjected absently. "That was the idea..." Cloud didn't know what he meant by that but continued with his story anyway, trying to suppress the anxiety the memories caused him.
"We traveled through town to the reactor a day after arriving. The previous day, Sephiroth told me his mother's name was Jenova, but that he had no hometown and didn't know anything about his father. He actually laughed when he said that, and I had never even seen him smile other than that arrogant little smirk he'd get sometimes... It was a bitter laugh, I guess. When we got to the reactor, we left Tifa, who was serving as our guide, outside with another SOLDIER, and Sephiroth and I went inside to look for the problem."
Tifa sighed, Cloud's story creating a vivid image in her mind. It was amazing how clearly she could remember of that day. "I was so happy that Cloud had come back home," she said wistfully. "I hadn't seen him in so long. I was impressed that he was in SOLDIER, so I didn't really pay a lot of attention to the other man with us or to Sephiroth. I guess I should have..."
"Sephiroth seemed fine," Cloud said again, as if to stress that point. "He was cold and quiet, but that was normal for him. We went into the reactor and found a broken plug, which I easily patched up. When I finished, I saw Sephiroth looking into one of the large pods in the reactor that was connected by a tube into the center chamber. I thought they just carried Mako energy to power the city..."
"But it was more than that, wasn't it?" Vincent asked softly, his voice heavy with sorrow.
"Yes, much more," Cloud answered, sharing a brief, painful look with Tifa. The others remained silent, listening intently. Though they'd heard this story recounted by Cloud in the Kalm Inn some time ago, it was no less fascinating the second time around.
"Sephiroth told me to come over and look inside, saying something about finally knowing what Hojo was up to. He thought Hojo was a very sick man... and he was right. I looked inside the pod like he told me... I had to stand on my tip-toes. I'll never forget what I saw inside. It was a person, but not quite human anymore. Hojo had placed people inside the pods and exposed them to intense Mako energy directly from the reactor to see what would happen. He thought he could create a super-race or something."
"Hmm... He was always obsessed with that idea," Vincent mumbled to himself. "Perhaps due to his own weaknesses..."
"Sephiroth explained what he thought Hojo was doing, and then got a strange look in his eyes. It was almost like fear, something I'd never seen him show the slightest hint of before. He told me that it was a more advanced version of what was done to 'normal' members of SOLDIER. I asked him what he meant by that... why he was implying that he was different..."
"He knew, then..." Vincent whispered. "On some level, he knew he was not like the others."
"It seemed that way, though he'd never voiced it before," Cloud said, his eyes on the far wall as he spoke. "My question must have made him really think about it, because the next thing I knew, he was attacking one of the pods with his Masamune, just hitting it over and over as if he'd been holding in all this anger and fear for so long that he couldn't stand it any more. Then everything went crazy. One of the creatures broke out of a pod, and Sephiroth stormed out of the reactor. I followed him, but he had already gotten by Tifa and the other SOLDIER and headed back to town."
"He looked so upset when he came out of there," Tifa added. "I'll never forget the haunted look in his eyes..."
"Back in town, we were told he came in here and locked himself in the library. He didn't come out for almost two days... And when he did, he had lost it. He must have read something down here about himself that made him go insane. The last time I spoke to him he was rambling about humans being traitors, saying he was an Ancient and the rightful heir to the Planet. Right after that is when he left the mansion and went outside... Then he burnt Nibelheim to the ground."
Vincent sighed heavily. "And the tragedy continued... I was not able to prevent it. I should have been there all along."
"I'm sure you would have been if you could have gotten out of here," Aeris comforted him quietly, instantly drawn to help this strange man she had only just met. It was so like her.
"Sephiroth completely destroyed the town," Cloud quietly continued. "It's been somehow rebuilt since, but on that day it went up in flames. Almost everyone died, either in the fire or by his sword. I followed him back to the reactor, where I found him inside the main chamber, trying to free Jenova. He had already killed my mother, Tifa's father, and badly injured the other SOLDIER and Tifa herself. I was so mad that I attacked him. After that, I don't remember anything... All I know is that somehow I survived, and the next thing I heard about Sephiroth was that he was dead. I left SOLDIER and ended up back in Midgar a time later. It was after that we learned Sephiroth was not dead at all. We've been tracking him ever since he killed President Shin-ra and freed Jenova from Hojo's lab, trying to stop him before he hurts anyone else. And… well, that's my story," Cloud finished with a deep breath, feeling emotionally exhausted. He hated to speak of the horrors of that time, but he knew it was necessary.
"I will keep my promise to you," Vincent said, his voice full of guilt after hearing what had become of Sephiroth. He stared down at his boots as he spoke, a heavy gold metal much like his clawed hand that ended up a sharp point. "My story begins when I joined the Turks, about thirty-three years ago."
"Umm... how old are you?" Yuffie rudely interrupted, leaning forward and squinting at Vincent. He seemed something other than human, but could not possibly be as old as that statement would have made him. Even with as little of him as was visible, it was obvious that he was not an elderly man.
"I was twenty-seven when I was place inside this coffin," he answered, resting his normal hand upon it. "I do not think I have aged since then, at least not physically. But I assure you that my mind has felt the strain of those years. That is of no consequence, however..."
Yuffie continued to stare until Tifa elbowed her.
"One of my assignments was to accompany members of the Science Department to gather samples of a strange creature that had been found frozen in the mountains of Nibelheim," Vincent continued. "Lucrecia and Hojo were already married at the time, and they were two of the scientists on the trip, along with Professor Gast. The two of us had spoken often, mostly because she felt sorry for me. I was quiet and tended to avoid conversation, so she tried to make me feel less isolated on the trip. We became friends and often ate our meals together. Hojo was usually in the lab until very late at night and she was lonely. I learned that she was not happy in her marriage, because he seemed to love his work more than he cared for her. We spent more and more time together, and grew very close... Eventually, we became more than friends." Vincent's tone was unemotional and detached, but his eyes were sad despite their coloring.
"We didn't think Hojo knew, but in the end I believe he did, or at least strongly suspected. It was during this time that Gast identified Jenova as an Ancient. The highly-classified Jenova Project developed from his discovery... as did Hojo's scheme to make a name for himself."
"What did he do?" Tifa asked quietly, as if she expected the answer would be an undesirable one.
"Gast and Hojo knew that Mako energy exposure in controlled doses gave ordinary humans increased strength, but realized that the Jenova creature was even more powerful. They devised a plan to inject Jenova cells into human beings, in addition to the Mako. And they decided that the best way to try this was with an unborn child..."
Cloud's eyes widened as he realized where Vincent was headed with his story. "They used Sephiroth..." he whispered.
Vincent nodded, confirming his fears. "Lucrecia had always wanted a child, but Hojo said he was too busy and seemed uninterested. Then, suddenly, he came to her with this idea, assuring her it was risk-free and that their child would be born with incredible gifts. She trusted him and loved him, even though she admitted he did not feel as strongly for her. She thought it might bring them closer together and prove her love to him. She went along with the plan, and a short time later, told me she was pregnant with his child."
"Dat seems kinda rude, if she cared about ya an' all," Barret scoffed, shaking his head in disgust. Vincent glared at him and frowned as if the slightest insult of the woman he loved hurt him deeply.
"She did not mean to hurt me," Vincent insisted. "She told me that she loved me... but she was married and wanted to be with her husband. They had their work in common and had been together before I ever arrived. She was trying to do the right thing... Even so, we remained together during her pregnancy. I tried to talk her out of the project, but she was set on it and would not back out. She underwent injections of Jenova cells and Mako energy into her womb on a weekly basis, and she seemed fine, as did the child. She was happy and looking forward to his birth. She had learned that the baby was a boy and decided to name him Sephiroth." Vincent paused, shaking his head as if he still couldn't quite believe it had happened.
"Hojo responded to his child's impending birth differently. He grew more attached to his research and the project, and began speaking of his wife and child as if they were mere specimens on which to test his theories. He wanted so badly to gain fame and outshine Professor Gast. Lucrecia noticed the changes in her husband and his obsession with the experiment, and she told me that she was frightened. I should have taken her and ran... But I did not have the courage, and she wanted to stay."
"Just before the baby was born, she asked me to promise her something. Looking back, it was as if she knew what was going to happen. She asked me to take care of her child if she was ever unable to, to make sure his father would not use him to further his career. She loved her baby, and she wanted to be sure that he knew it and would not be harmed. I loved her just as strongly, so I agreed. I do not know how I would have been able to fulfill that promise, but I was determined not to fail her."
"On a day soon after, I heard rumors that she was in the medical center and expected to deliver the child. I waited anxiously, trying to appear normal, but worried all the while. I had reason to be uneasy. The next thing I heard was that she had died while giving birth. I never learned exactly what happened, but I was shocked and enraged. To deal with my grief, I remembered the promise I made to her and decided to carry it out. I went to the laboratory, where I thought the baby would be, and sure enough there he was. Sephiroth. He was in an incubator and attached to so many monitors he was hard to see, but when he looked back at me with his mother's green eyes I knew what I had to do. I started to open the incubator, to take him away... but it seemed Hojo suspected I would attempt just that. He was waiting for me and shot me in the chest. I must have been brought here after he was… finished with me. I have slept until today, haunted by what I have done and trying to repent for my sins..."
Vincent hung his head, then slowly climbed back into his coffin and laid down. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, finished with the group and about to return to his slumber. "I would appreciate it if you would replace the lid before you go."
"You're really going back to sleep?" Red asked, incredulous. "Haven't you spent enough time in here?"
"No... The guilt is still with me. I have not yet atoned."
"Vincent, lying in there and beating yourself up won't change anything," Tifa said calmly. She decided that she liked the man, as tortured a soul as he appeared to be. He seemed to have buried his emotions over the events he'd just shared, but she had no doubt that they were still there, hidden beneath his blank expression.
"Don't you want to try and right the wrong that was done to you, and to Sephiroth?" Aeris asked, stepping up to the coffin and reaching down to cover Vincent's normal hand with hers.
"What do you mean?" he asked, already sounding sleepy again. "It is too late. Nothing can bring back Lucrecia..."
"But Sephiroth is still alive!"
Cloud threw Aeris a puzzled look. She was being vague again, and he had no idea what she was getting at. What did she possibly think Vincent could do against Sephiroth? He was only one man, one who seemed to have given up long ago.
"It is too late," Vincent repeated. "He is a grown man, one who has committed many sinful acts from what you have told me."
"It's never too late to change," Aeris argued with a smile.
"What are you trying to say?" Cloud finally asked her. They had already wasted enough time talking, and he could feel Sephiroth's presence nearby, calling to him. He needed to settle the score soon or he feared he'd go insane from the pressure.
"Sephiroth is trying to take over the world because he thinks he's an Ancient. He thinks he isn't human, and that makes him different," Aeris began in her gentle voice. "But from what Vincent just told us, he is very much human, and not so different at all. He had two parents just like everyone else, and Jenova is not his mother. We've also established that Sephiroth does not know any of this yet."
"And?" Barret prompted.
"What if Vincent told him about his real parents?" Aeris asked, her eyes shining with hope. "If he knew that he was human, and that his mother loved him, might that not stop him?"
"You think you can stop a monster like Sephiroth by telling him that his mommy loved him?!" Cloud snapped with sudden anger. "Aeris, you weren't there. You didn't see the evil in his eyes or watch him kill without remorse! He didn't kill your mother and nearly take your best friend from you! He didn't ruin your whole life!" Cloud's face flushed red and his eyes burned with anger. Tifa put an arm around his shoulders, trying to calm him. Cloud suddenly realized that he had raised his voice, and that the others were all staring at him. He took a deep breath before he spoke again in a much quieter tone. "Aeris... I'm sorry," he said softly. "But I hate Sephiroth. I hate him for what he's taken from me."
"That hatred blinds you, Cloud," Aeris replied, not the least bit angry. "You've blamed all of your problems on him, and in part it was largely his fault. I don't condone what he did. But when you look at what was done to Sephiroth, he's a victim too. He was a victim of his father, and of Shin-ra's greed."
"Victim my ass," Barret said bitterly. "He's a damn lunatic!"
"He has done a lot of terrible things," Aeris agreed. "But think about how you would feel if you suddenly discovered that your whole life was a lie, that you were not who you thought you were. He was angry, and scared, and he had a right to be. His biggest mistake was the way he chose to deal with those emotions."
"You think he is not beyond help, then," Vincent said with a hint of hope in his deep voice, sitting up in the coffin and rubbing his eyes with his normal hand. He appeared interested in the discussion again, turning to face Aeris and tilting his head slightly.
"I don't think anyone is beyond help if they're willing to accept it."
"This is crazy!" Cloud protested again. "We came here to kill him and end his evil, not to coddle him like a lost child!"
"I have to agree with Cloud," Tifa said. "Sephiroth almost killed me once. He's insane, and very dangerous. I'm not about to risk my life trying to help him after what he's done."
"I don' trust da son of a bitch," Barret said. Vincent's head snapped in his direction and he glared across the room, and Barret quickly realized what he had just implied. "Oh... heh. Sorry."
"I am not sure what to think," Red added. He noted that Vincent didn't find his ability to speak odd in the least. "What Aeris said makes sense, though I am not sure one such as Sephiroth would want any help even if he is not beyond it. He is a very sick man... but I do not think we should rule out this idea."
"What?!" Yuffie exclaimed. "You think we should just... just... talk to him?!"
"He has incredible power. So far, our efforts to defeat him in battle have failed. All we have done is track him down, attack him with harsh words, and then attack him with weapons. If that strategy is not working, why not try a new one he is unlikely to expect?"
"That was what I was going to say," Aeris said, smiling her thanks to Red. "It won't hurt to at least try. Attacking Sephiroth will be dangerous and may well end with all of us being killed. Talking to him and telling him the truth for once in his life can't hurt. If he doesn't listen, we can always revert to our original plan."
Red nodded, signifying that he found the strategy quite logical.
"Fine, if it will get us moving again and closer to ending this," Cloud snapped, still angry. "Vincent can come along and talk to him if he wants. But the second he reacts with the least bit of hostility, I'm going to kill him."
"That would only be fair," Red agreed. "We can give him one last chance to stop the violence, and if he does not wish to take it..."
Aeris nodded. "At least he will have been given a choice."
"You would do this? After what you have told me?" Vincent asked, standing again and stepping out of the coffin. He seemed to be much more awake now, wearing a look of renewed determination.
Cloud only shrugged, still not fond of the idea, but Aeris smiled up at him supportively. "If we simply killed him without giving him a chance to learn the truth and make a choice, we would be no better than Shin-ra."
"You are good people," Vincent stated, finally reaching for his gun. Everyone tensed, but quickly relaxed when he only checked to see if it was loaded and found it ready. "He is here now?"
Cloud nodded and pointed in the direction of the library.
"All right, then. I am ready. I have nothing to lose but my life, and without fulfilling my promise it has no meaning anyway." He silently exited the room and walked down the hall toward the library, the others close behind.
((Author's Notes: My version of Cloud's past is somewhat AU, as you'll see later on as well. As for Vincent's story, that is my interpretation of what happened based on what was shown in the original game. I've also always believed he is from Wutai, even before I saw images of him as a Turk fifteen years later when I picked up writing again that really removed any doubt (He looks about as Asian as Tseng in those if you ask me). This is the major turning point for my entire Alternate Universe, and why I got the entire idea for this fic in the first place. I always wondered… why didn't Vincent just TELL Sephiroth the truth when he had the chance? The poor guy never knew who he really was, and died not knowing. Would it have made a difference? It sure would have been worth a shot! And I think Vincent sure as hell would have tried anything to set things right. ~ JenesisX ))