Hush Little Baby
The child was screaming.
Hojo could hear him, through the music that played softly in the background -- could hear every little whimper, could hear the high-pitched, thin wail that meant the child was in distress. He grimaced, running a hand through his dirty hair, and turned the music up a little higher. It didn't help. The child was screaming, and nothing he did would let him block the noise out of his ears.
It had been three weeks since Lucrecia had died, three weeks of struggling to juggle the care of a newborn with their scientific work, struggling to forget that he'd had a wife, and she had died. He hadn't wept for her; he hadn't been allowed to. Instead, he had stood, pale and dry-eyed, as the young intern had wheeled Lucrecia out to the van. He had passed Gast on his way back into his laboratory; Gast, with the tears trickling unabashedly down his face, Gast with the red-rimmed eyes of a man who had been crying and wasn't ashamed to let anyone know it. He had passed Gast, who had looked at him with disbelief -- /your wife is dying, and you don't even have the grace and the dignity to weep for her/, the thought, nearly audible, clear in his eyes.
The intern, sent to bring Lucrecia to the better care available in Midgar, hadn't returned. A message had come, proclaiming Lucrecia to be dead; no one ever saw the intern again. Hojo had simply nodded, as he had done when the news of Lucrecia's labor had reached him, as he had done when Gast pronounced, firmly, that Lucrecia needed to be brought to Midgar.
And now, Lucrecia's son was screaming. That was unusual; the child was usually well-behaved, quiet, almost eerily so. It was late at night, and the sound should have woken the village girl that the scientists had hired on as a nurse. If it had, she had not been able to quiet the boy; the sound, if anything, was getting louder. Irritated, Hojo stood, pushing back his lab stool and scowling.
Something shifted behind him, in the specimen tank where the Ancient resided. He didn't really notice it; he was inured to the sight by now, was accustomed to his puppet-master moving freely about when he was the only person in the labs. As he was frequently; in the past several weeks, he was the only one who could stand to keep the long hours that had once been so common. The project was dying; even Gast knew that much. Hojo didn't think much of it. Hojo wasn't allowed to think much of it.
/I have been nothing but hands and voice for these past few weeks,/ he thought, sourly, as he let himself out of the lab. /Her hands, and Her voice. I have been nothing but --/
And then he broke off, startled, at hearing his own mental voice, clear and firm. The child's cries redoubled as he sank down to sit on the steps of the hallway, his legs suddenly too weak to carry him. /I am thinking. I am thinking again. I am thinking again, and that -- that monster -- has not made a move to regain control./
/Does that mean I am free?/
Joy lept up in his chest, fierce and strong. It came throttling to a stop when he felt the barest whisper touch his mind, the familiar clouded feeling reaching out to stroke his thoughts. ::Never:: was all it said, before falling silent once more, but it was enough to leave him once again dizzy and shaken.
/Lucrecia,/ he thought, lifting a hand to his forehead, spanning his temples with thumb and middle finger. /Lucrecia, my love, I can only hope that you could, somehow, forgive me./
But Lucrecia was dead, and her son was upstairs, and he was screaming.
The stairs stretched upwards beneath his feet, steep and unsteady as always. Hojo didn't notice. He entered the boy's room without worrying about a light. For one, brief moment, everything seemed almost painfully normal, like a scene out of the life he had once imagined for himself. The child in his crib, fretting over something, the mobile bright and dancing above him. Hojo, the proud father, standing in the doorway and looking down at the boy. His son. His /son/. The thought, suddenly and inexplicably free, threatened to overwhelm him. This was another life, a new life that he had had a hand in creating. For that half a moment, everything seemed so /right/, so perfect.
And then, something seemed to move in the shadows. The barest hint of a motion, whispering of tentacles and a strange, alien gait. The hint of motion that he knew so well, and so painfully, reaching out to the boy. His son.
His heart fell as the boy started screaming again. What he saw next, though, stripped his thoughts bare and left him raw and aching, for despite the screams, the child's mouth was closed. No actual sound was coming from him; the noise that Hojo heard was the sound of the boy's mind, screaming as that thing, that menace, reached out for him.
For one brief second, it all became clear to him. Why he could suddenly think again. Why he was the only one who could hear the baby's wails. Jenova, not satisfied with one puppet, had begun to reach out for the next, the child that had been created with Her powers and Her genes. And in that reaching, had lessened Her grip on Her first servant, leaving him free to once again realize everything that had been done to him.
Sudden rage filled him, and then was gone as quickly as it had come. He stepped forward, and the child's eyes fixed on him, bright green eyes holding mistrust and fear that were far too adult for his three weeks of life. Working quickly and quietly, he picked up the boy, wrapping him in a blanket, and left the room.
The mansion was quiet as it usually was at this time of night; as Hojo glided silently down the front steps, the clock in the front hall chimed the hour, once, and then fell silent. The lock of the front door clicked softly open under his fingers, and then they were out in the cool January air. A few isolated patches of snow lay, dirty and gritty, on the front lawn; it had been a mild winter so far, a fact that the townspeople seemed incapable of not commeting upon. Usually with a shifty glance at whichever of the Midgar scientists were about, as if they suspected that the foreigners were somehow to blame for it.
The thought came quickly, with a hint of the old humor to it: /And who's to say that we're not?/
"Shh," he said to the child, his voice cutting softly over the stillness of the small town. The mental screaming stopped, and bright green eyes blinked back up at him suspiciously even as Hojo carried him down the walkway and through the front gate. He didn't know where he was going. As he shut the gate behind him, he entertained a brief thought of just going on, keeping moving until he found someplace safe for the boy. Someplace away from all the insanity. Even as the thought entered his mind, though, he knew that he would not be permitted to do it, and he bowed his head, fighting back tears. /It's not fair,/ he thought, and -- as if in a dream -- heard Lucrecia's bright laugh remembered in his mind. /Life's not fair,/ her light voice whispered to him in memory, as she had so frequently in happier times when he complained about one thing or another.
He kept walking, his head down, his vision blurred, until he came to a stop at the edge of the village, by the well that hadn't been used seriously as a source of water since Shinra had purchased the mansion and paid good money to put in a water-treatment plant halfway up the mountains. The child still in his arms, he climbed up onto the edge of the well, sitting on its lip and staring down into the dark, deep waters.
"Sephiroth," he said, finally, his voice lying on the air before them like icicles. The boy reached up a hand and grabbed Hojo's hair, tightly, firmly. As if in response. Hojo sighed, deeply, and cradled the child closer.
"I'm your father," he said, voice rough. "I want you to know that. I wanted to tell you that, at least once. I don't think -- I don't think I'm ever going to be able to tell you that again. I have the strangest feeling that this is going to be the last time I'm allowed to think for myself for a long time, and -- you have no idea how much I regret that fact." He sighed once more, breath steaming in the chilly air. "I never wanted this. I never wanted for this to happen to me. To us. To your mother, and to you. I was so happy when she said that she'd marry me. I was so in love with her. And when she said that she was pregnant, for a few minutes everything was all right again, all of it..."
The boy whimpered, softly. Strangely, the noise comforted Hojo; it was the first actual vocalization that he'd made all night. Gently, Hojo brushed a thumb along the baby's cheek, feeling the skin soft and elastic beneath his touch. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "You can feel Her, can't you? She's reaching out for you, and you can't understand any of this. You can't even understand me. You're going to hate me, and I can't even blame you. God, sometimes I hate myself. When I can think about it. Which isn't very often." He laughed, a sharp, painful bark that had no acquaintance with humor. "If I thought it would do any good, I would kill myself. If I could. Except She won't let me, and that wouldn't change anything. I brought you into this world, and I'm damn well responsible for what's going to happen to you."
Fighting back the tears, Hojo looked up and away, his eyes focusing on one distant star. "Sometimes I think it might be better for you if you had died before you could be born. You're going to be used, and used terribly. I don't think you're ever going to understand any of this. All you're going to be able to know is that you're miserable, and you won't even know why. God, I hope you inherited your mother's strength. Your /real/ mother. The woman I loved more than life itself, before this /thing/ managed to get its claws into me..."
But he was being honest, and honesty forced him to continue. "It was my fault," he added. "This whole goddamn thing. I was so young, and so /stupid/, to think that I could handle something like this. Roger and I had so many dreams, and that thing seemed to be the answer to so many of them. Our ticket to fame and fortune. God, what a nightmare. If I could think of anything, anything at all that I could possibly do... But I can't. I have Her poison inside me. I put it there. I first heard Her because of my arrogance and my ambition, and that was what let Her control me long enough to put Her hooks in me. You -- oh, God, you're full of it. I put it inside you, before you even really existed. I was the one to give you over to Her, before you could even know what was going on...."
The baby tugged sharply at his hair, with a strength that was surprising for one so young. Startled, Hojo looked down, into those ancient eyes, the eyes of his son. A strange maturity lingered there, and the tears nearly threatened to overwhelm him again. "I'll do whatever I can," he promised, softly, with every ounce of strength he could summon. "If you ever need me, I promise. I promise that I will do everything that I can, everything that She will allow me. I'm your father, Sephiroth. And I love you. And I want you to know that, now, because you're never going to be able to know that later. I love you," he repeated, fiercely. "And God, I wish that I could /be/ your father, that I could be what you're going to need me to be. I wish I could guard you, shield you, shelter you. I wish I could protect you from all of this. But I can't." A single tear fell from his eyes, and he blindly wiped it away from the baby's cheek. "All I can hope for is that I don't hurt you too badly. That She will let me have that much at least. And that you somehow find the strength to get through all of this without too much pain."
The dam broke, then, and he was weeping, silently, his shoulders shaking as he held his son close. He cried for Sephiroth, destined to be a pawn for his entire life; he cried for Lucrecia, dead years before she should have been. He cried for himself, lost and empty. "I'm so sorry," he repeated, over and over, rocking back and forth. "So goddamn sorry..."
A tiny hand touching his cheek finally brought him out of his fit of grief. Angry at his show of emotion, he scrubbed the back of one hand over his eyes, and then looked down again. The eyes that met his were clear, and seemed to hold some small bit of understanding.
"Sephiroth," he whispered, softly, cradling his son in his arms. For one, brief moment, he was seized with a sudden desire to spare the child any more suffering. The water of the well, deep and hidden, looked up at him temptingly. /You could do it. She is distracted, in trying to reach the boy. She will not be able to regain Her control over you quickly enough. If you threw him in, and then jumped in after him -- neither one of you would be rescued. It's cold enough so that hypothermia would set in within a few minutes, and then you'd be dead. And free. Both of you. And Sephiroth would never know what it is that you know, that a human being is so easily controlled./
And then, because it was cold and he was beginning to shiver, he swung his legs over the side of the well and brought his son back inside.