A pale dawn had come to Nibelheim. The light arrived slowly, leaving a band of violet and starlight as it climbed over the mountains and pushed back the night. Against the sunrise, the old mansion struck a dark, proud silhouette. On its roof, a patinaed weathervane creaked softly as it turned in the lilting wind, adding to the gentle rustle of the budding lilacs and scrubby cypresses on the manor grounds. Professor Hojo had seen this scene many times before, and so could tell you for a fact it would have been much more idyllic if not marred by columns of black smoke rising at intervals from the horizon.
There were fewer left than there had been, or so he was given to understand, but daylight brought what had happened into sharp relief both figuratively and literally. A clipboard rested in the crook of his arm, a fountain pen poised in his hand, ready to record detailed notes in his loping doctor’s cursive. He had already received a rough overview of the previous night’s disaster, but had only managed to commit a single memo to the page:
“Sephiroth - gone.”
He frowned down at the words, annoyed at their meaning, annoyed at the empty space around them, annoyed at his own lack of focus. He capped the pen and replaced it in his breast pocket. There was, if he permitted it, a highly unpleasant feeling crawling through him that couldn't be categorized as annoyance. He turned his mind from it. That was something he could deal with later, very privately, if at all.
There was one more thing vexing him. A familiar droning sound that often interrupted his thoughts to his great irritation: Other people talking. In this case, frantic people talking, people who not only insisted on inserting themselves into the situation, but who lacked the sense and good manners to be quiet about it.
“This is unbelievable,” a middle-aged man with a moustache was shouting. He jabbed an accusing finger at the ranking officer, who so happened to be Zack Fair, an excitable young man not particularly known for his de-escalation skills. He was handling the situation about as well as Hojo might have predicted, which amounted to him holding out both of his palms and gesturing for the older man to calm down.
It wasn’t working.
“You sent my daughter off with that lunatic,” he continued with another righteous stab of his finger. “Now half the damn mountain’s on fire and you want her to walk you through it? Are you crazy?”
“Papa,” protested a mortified teenage girl. “Please!”
“Yeah, mister,” echoed Zack, “Please!” The older man sputtered at the audacity. It won Zack an opening, if not any points with Mr. Lockhart.
“Listen, we’re as shocked as you are, here,” he said, scratching his temple, “But the priority now is working out exactly what happened and making sure this situation stays under control. To do that, we need information. To get information, we gotta find a way back up the mountain. You got me?”
“She’s not going up there,” Mr. Lockhart concluded, crossing his arms sternly. “Not ‘til you’ve found him and made sure he's not… dangerous.”
“Okay, good,” Zack clapped him on the shoulder with a force that betrayed his frustration. “You think it over. I’ll be right back. Doctor!”
Hojo straightened his glasses as Zack jogged toward him. Over his shoulder, Mr. Lockhart’s face was turning a very entertaining shade of scarlet.
“You in charge here, sir?” asked Zack. “Where’s the chief?”
“Director Tseng’s posted on the other side of the mountain path. From the looks of it, he’s already passed through.”
“Shit,” Zack breathed sharply, planting his hands on his hips and shaking his head. “Any intel?”
“Fair,” the Professor answered in warning tones, “I’m waiting for your report, not the other way around.”
“Right, right. I don’t know if I’ve got anything new for you. As far as we know, he left the mansion around 2300 and as you can see, he did not want to be followed.” Zack jerked his head and his thumb back toward the manor, smoking mountains in the background - as though anyone could possibly miss them.
“Everything past the town gates went up in flames. We got it under control, but the power’s been out since 0200 or so - between that and the smoke trails, we figure he must have hit the reactor at some point. We’re trying to get up there to see if the thing might blow, but the locals, ah, aren’t cooperating.” He raked a hand back through his already messy hair and looked skyward, as though a checklist of the details he was meant to cover hung in the air, somewhere over Hojo’s left ear.
“Minor injuries, no civilian casualties - They’re good and spooked, though... Hey, don’t give me that look, Doc. I’ve been fighting fires here, literally. Cloud says they spoke a little before he left, you oughtta try him.”
Hojo pushed his glasses up to pinch the bridge of his nose with a sigh. Who the hell was Cloud? He flipped through the papers on his clipboard in search of the personnel sheet.
“I assume we’re discussing Private Strife?”
“Bingo. Think he’s still at the mansion - want me to go grab him?”
“No,” said Hojo, arranging his papers and dropping his clipboard to his side. He glanced over Zack’s shoulder, where Mr. Lockhart had apparently taken to firmly and loudly stating his position to his beleaguered daughter, in the absence of a better target. With a grimace, Hojo looked back to Zack. “Keep... fighting fires.”
It felt strange, walking up the path to the manor again. When he’d shut the creaking gate behind him twenty-some years ago, he hadn’t expected to return, much less under the present circumstances.
The inside of it was much like the outside - unsettling in its familiarity, and even more so in all the tiny little ways it had changed. It felt like walking into a memory that had started to rot. The atmosphere was all mildew and anxious energy, and as much as he liked to consider himself impervious to the latter, the Professor allowed himself a bit of dawdling at the out-of-tune piano before he pressed deeper into the house.
The stairs - the stairs were really what got him. He had walked that spiral six times a day for thirteen months and hated every goddamn step. They were even more precarious now than they had ever been, groaning under his weight the whole way down. Gast had always told him not to look so dour, that it was the only exercise they ever got.
Gast was an idiot.
“Strife?” Echoes, but no answer. Hojo paused in front of the heavy door in the corridor, rapping his knuckles against it a few times. No answer there, either, nor any sign of a breach. Small blessings. He pressed onward to the lab.
It almost hurt to look at. Whole rows of books had been pulled down from their shelves, the volumes deemed useful piled in uneven stacks around the room. The leftovers were littered in heaps, and it was easy to imagine some had been thrown there with careless and unreasonable force. The equipment fared no better. Much of it was in pieces, pushed in haste or anger from the tables to make space for more teetering pillars of old journals. The rest of it - the rest of everything left untouched - was caked in grime and dust from years of abandonment.
Hojo withdrew his pen, clicked it open again, and added the word “tantrum” to his notes.
The private emerged from the back of the library. Ash still clung to his shock of blond hair and to his uniform, which had also been singed in a few places. One of Hojo’s old project journals hung limply in his hand. His brow was knit in a certain temperamental dismay, an inevitable symptom of his age; he appeared to be somewhere in his teens.
Hojo sighed and readied his clipboard.
“Fair tells me you spoke to Sephiroth last. Report.”
It was, apparently, too much to hope for that Cloud might simply deliver his report. Instead he stayed silent, staring at the floor with his jaw clenched. He tossed the journal loose and underhanded into one of many discard piles, watching its arc and fall.
“You know what happened, don’t you?” He looked hard at Hojo. “He found what you left in the reactor. Then, he found this room, where I guess he found out the rest. Now he’s gone.”
“Did he say anything?” Hojo repeated, feeling his patience evaporating.
“Yeah, he said a lot of things. About being an Ancient and inheriting some great destiny. About Shinra stealing the planet, and how he was chosen to stop them.”
“Very grandiose,” Hojo clipped, underlining the word “tantrum” twice. After a pause, he forced himself to jot the rest of it down in shorthand. It was a paltry amount of information, but he was resigned to it for the moment. There would be time later, and hopefully sources less given to youthful moodiness. “Who else knows?” he asked without looking up.
“Just Zack and me, sir. Will that be a problem?”
“I imagine,” Hojo finished writing, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and fixed the young private with a meaningful look, “that depends on you.”
With a little nod to himself, he tucked the clipboard away under his arm. Confident that he had communicated the thin ice Private Strife had found himself upon, Hojo turned to leave, and was promptly interrupted.
“Professor, you... You were a part of all this, weren’t you? You... made him.”
The ice grew thinner.
“What of it?” he snapped.
“Can the experiment be repeated?”
“I— beg your pardon?”
“Can it be repeated,” Cloud asked louder, firmer. “Can you make me like him?”
He turned back from the entrance and stepped further in the lab. It was rare to catch the Professor off guard these days, or so he liked to think. His work had been accused of lacking vision, but he had a talent for predicting which way the wind would blow. His fingers brushed over the table where their equipment had been, across the glass shard of a broken titration flask. He didn’t, usually, have cause to stop and think about these things.
“It’s somewhat more complicated than baking soda and papier-mâché,” he said slowly, doubtfully, cradling his chin ponderously in his hand. “It hasn’t yet been done, there are countless variables, and who can say what the odds of success are if you don’t begin with the correct… materials.”
“I’m not the correct materials.”
Cloud spoke evenly, matter-of-fact, his blue eyes fixed determinedly on the Professor nevertheless. He held himself straighter, the fists clenched at his sides seeming less like a product of adolescent angst than renewed resolve. It seemed as though in the moment Hojo had looked away, the boy had aged, somehow.
“I failed to become a SOLDIER. I don’t know that I’m even much of a private. The ride here made me sick, and I couldn’t leave so much as a scratch on any of the monsters running rampant - in my hometown. Threatening my friends, my family.
“I can’t just accept it. I won’t. I don’t care what happens to me. If there’s even the smallest chance… Please, Professor.”
He deflated a little, whatever ghost had possessed him dissipating, but his gaze remained leveled stubbornly at the Professor. The fraught silence of consideration hung between them. It broke with a bark of Hojo’s laughter.
“Well, well…” he chuckled. “I suppose it’s possible that will may count for something.”