To Cleanse a Darkened Soul
Vincent slipped quietly into the darkened foyer of the Shinra mansion, shutting the door against the icy wind howling through the streets of Nibelheim. At least it was warm here. Warmer than it had been up at Icicle Inn at least. Wearily he unbuckled the holster around his waist that held his handgun and tossed it in the general direction of the coatroom. He winced as it landed with a muffled thud that seemed to echo throughout the drafty mansion. The house was far larger than was necessary for just him and Lyria, but Reeve had insisted on cleaning out and renovating the Shinra Mansion and giving it to them as a very large wedding present. It didn’t seem like they’d even been married for long and already they were celebrating their first Christmas together. With a reflective sigh, he mounted the grand staircase in the front hall, cursing the evil architect who would make a staircase this long without considering that some of the people who came up it might have been tired, cold and in desperate need of sleep in a proper bed. Pushing open the door slowly and avoiding the creaky floorboard in the bedroom, Vincent pulled off his jacket and dropped it on the floor. Carefully stepping over another sensitive floorboard he sat down on the bed and pulled off his shoes. Vincent began to unbutton his shirt, but stopped, deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. He glanced over his shoulder at Lyria, who was curled up, fast asleep under the blankets. She was beautiful, especially when she was asleep. Vincent had long since stopped wondering what she saw in him. How this exquisite, perfect angel could have shyly handed over her heart, without a moment’s hesitation, to him, a literal half-demon. He shook his head. Thinking about it was dangerous, it made him almost believe she deserved better. Besides, he was too tired to think. Carefully pulling back the covers, he sank down into the warmth of the mattress. Almost unconsciously, his metallic left hand slipped sideways and touched Lyria’s bare skin. Lyria responded with a little squeal at the sudden cold and rolled over to face him, suddenly awake. “Oh, damn it…”
“Sorry, Lyria…” he whispered as Lyria’s sleepy green eyes focused.
“You’re home!” Despite the fact she’d just been jolted out of a sound sleep; the young doctor’s happiness was sincere. “I’ve missed you so much…” Lyria slipped her arms around his neck.
“I missed you too.”
“Are you tired?” There was a strange note about Lyria’s voice.
“Really tired?” Her tone was a little more persistent, but Vincent still couldn’t place her meaning. He closed his eyes and started to slide into a welcoming sleep.
“Really, really, really, tired?”
“I told you, yes!”
There was a slight pause. “You’re rather dense, aren’t you?”
“Lyria, my brain’s frozen…what is it you want?”
Lyria pulled closer and pressed her lips against his cheek. “Guess. I’ll give you a hint; I’ve really missed you…”
Lyria’s hand ran down his chest and felt one of the buttons of his shirt. “Vincent, are you still dressed? That’s going to make things awfully…Vincent?” Too late, he was asleep. Lyria smiled and laid her head against her husband’s chest and he coughed slightly, breathing a little shallower and less rhythmic than normal. So he was really tired. Oh well, there would be times later when he wasn’t tired…
“Good morning…” Lyria greeted Vincent as he rolled over to face her. The young doctor was sitting on the bed, watching her husband sleep and wearing pair of extremely short pajama bottoms, a tank top and one of her husband’s white dress shirts for work.
“Morning…what are you doing wearing one of my shirts?”
“I always wear these when you’re gone; they help me feel less alone in this big empty bed.” Lyria lay down on her stomach and kicked her feet in the air. “Speaking of which…”
“I didn’t really greet you properly last night,” Vincent finished.
“Right. Let’s get down to some serious greeting, ‘k?”
Lyria had slowly started to break away from her constant need to be held or cuddled, mostly because her husband had started to have to leave on trips where he would be gone for a week or more. Now it seemed like her addiction was back in full force (it always returned around the same times Vincent did) and her emerald eyes sparkled in the bright morning sun that came through the bedroom window. Outside the fresh fallen snow glimmered on the slopes of Mt. Nibel reflecting the sun that blazed in the sky. “So why were you so tired last night?”
“There was a lot of work we had to do in Icicle…”
“Like what?” Lyria was always curious when it came to Vincent’s job.
“Well…it’s the headquarters of a resistance movement that Reeve wanted us to try and reason with…but…”
“Oh…” Lyria noticed the hint of guilt in her husband’s voice. “So you were shooting people?”
“We tried not to; we did everything we could to negotiate with them…”
“I know…it’s all right, I would have been very upset if you’d gotten hurt…” Lyria snuggled closer to her husband. “Very upset…”
“I wouldn’t have been thrilled either.”
“I’m just glad you’re home…”
“Why is this house always so cold!?” Lyria exclaimed, attempting to strike a match so she could light a fire in the living room fireplace.
“Old heating system.”
“That’s no excuse. I’m freezing.” Lyria shivered and abandoned the hearth, deciding it would be easier to let Vincent warm her up. “I like my new heating system.”
“Is there a reason you always need to be held?”
“Does it bother you?”
“No, I was just wondering…”
“I don’t know, I guess because I need some reassurance that you’re here, and you aren’t going to leave me, and that we’ll stay together…you’re awfully tense, you know that?”
“It’s not your fault; just relax a bit, ok?”
“Come on, I want to make breakfast and it’s cold in the kitchen…”
Lyria slipped out of Vincent’s arms and headed for the kitchen, but came back in a few seconds and snuggled under his arm. “Too cold to go by myself,” she explained.
“Are you on holidays now? Christmas is coming…”
“Yeah, at least until Reeve calls us up again…”
“I hope he doesn’t…I hope he leaves you alone so we can spend Christmas together…”
“I’m sure he will.”
“Speaking of Christmas…I miss everybody…” Lyria sighed. The only person she could really keep in touch with was Tifa, but because of her new baby, Tifa was extraordinarily busy. “Do you think…do you think we could maybe have them over for a weekend? For Christmas maybe?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“ Reno and Rude and Elena too.”
“Really? I have to phone Cid! Christmas is…good lord, only three days from now! I better hurry…” Lyria rushed out of the kitchen, heading for the office.
“What about breakfast?”
“Make it yourself. Surely you’re capable of that?”
“Well...I could try…but then the house would really warm up because I torched the kitchen.”
“I like the term ‘tired’ better.”
“Oh fine…but not until after I phone Cid,” Lyria decided.
“I do get fed though, right?”
“Yes, yes…” Lyria sighed and pulled her housecoat around her body tighter, her only defense against cold hallways of the mansion leading to the study.
“Why don’t you get dressed?”
“Are you saying you don’t like me showing a little skin?”
“Not if it’s going to give you frostbite.”
“Your concern is touching, but I have to call Cid. If you wanted, you could go get me a sweater and my jeans…”
“All right.” Leaving Lyria to get in touch with the pilot, Vincent headed upstairs to the master bedroom. Rummaging through Lyria’s bottom drawer, he pulled out a pair of neatly folded jeans and a red sweater. When he reentered the study, Lyria was perched on a chair, legs hugged tightly to her chest and laughing joyously into the phone.
“Did he really Shera? Oh lord…that’s hilarious…hang on dear, put Cid on so he can talk to Vincent, I’ve got to get dressed…”
Lyria took her clothes from Vincent and handed him the phone. “Talk to Cid. Tell him what I want.”
“Hello? Hi, Shera…I’m fine…yes…I suppose it’s going well…sure…Nice talking to you too…Cid? Hi.” Vincent glanced up as Lyria tripped trying to pull on her jeans and fell on the floor. “Don’t hurt yourself, dear.”
“Shut up, Vincent…”
“No, I wasn’t talking to you Cid…yes; I guess it is good advice…Lyria wants everyone to get together at our house for Christmas…you think you could…Yeah, everybody. Do you think they’ll mind if we have Reno, Rude, and Elena over too?...Come on Cid, they aren’t that bad…they have been very helpful, and they’re working for Reeve now…you don’t need to pick them up, they can probably take the chopper…Hang on, Lyria wants something…” Lyria tugged on her husband’s arm, she was sprawled on the floor next to the chair he was sitting in. “What is it Lyr?”
“I wanna talk.”
“Cid? Lyria wants to talk to you…”
Lyria grabbed the phone and held it against her ear with her shoulder while pulling on a pair of socks. “Cid, honey? Are you gonna phone everyone before going to pick them up, or should I do it?...what? Well…I’d like to…yeah…oh shut up…Cid! Watch your mouth!...yeah, of course I’m cooking Christmas dinner...well, beer isn’t the most traditional thing to baste a turkey with…tell you what, I’ll have Reno bring some liquor for you. How’s that sound?...Great. Love you too. Buh-bye.”
“Cid said ‘I love you’?”
“No. I just do that to bug him…”
“Nice of you.”
“Really? I didn’t think so…what would you like for breakfast?”
“So you’ll be here? Oh excellent, Cid should be there to pick you up within a couple days. Thanks so much, Yuffie…I’m looking forward to seeing you too…yeah, so far Tifa, Cloud, their daughter, Barret, Marlene, Cid, Shera, and Red are coming. I’ve yet to call the Turks and try and get in touch with Reeve…yeah he’s impossible to talk to nowadays…yes, I’m planning to invite the them…Oh stop it, Yuffie…my husband is a Turk, you know…c’mon…Turks are people too! All right, all right…I’ll see you soon. Love ya’. Bye.”
Lyria hung up the phone and crossed Yuffie’s name off her list. Since morning she’d made breakfast, phoned Barret with whom she talked for an hour, made lunch, phoned Red talking with him for even longer, then read a book for half an hour between calls, tried to call Reeve and failed, and had just completed her call to Yuffie. “Vincent! Yuffie’s coming!”
There was no answer from the rest of the house. Lyria got up from her chair reluctantly and went to the door of the library. “Vincent?” She yelled into the hallway. Lyria headed upstairs to her bedroom. The chamber was dark and Vincent was lying on the bed. “Are you sleeping?”
“Sort of…someone’s yelling is keeping me awake.”
“Still?” Lyria sat down on the bed and lightly pressed a hand against his forehead.
“You’ve got very cold hands.”
“I think you have a fever…how are you feeling?”
“I’ve been worse.”
“Did you dress warmly when you were up north? It’s possible you’ve got a bit of a cold…” Lyria moved her hand and laid it gently against her husband’s chest. “Your heart beat is awfully rapid…breathe deeply, ‘k?” Vincent obliged and winced slightly. “Did that hurt?”
“Are you cold?”
“I’d appreciate some more definite answers.”
“In all honesty, I’m not feeling very well…”
“Have you been coughing a lot lately?”
“Oh…poor darling. Sounds like pneumonia…”
“How’d I manage that?”
“Did you feel the same way when you were up at Icicle?”
“Yeah, it started almost as soon as we got there…Is it serious?”
“This is probably the tail end of it. Don’t worry, it’s a very mild case and you’ll be better by Christmas.” Lyria pulled a quilt from the end of the bed and tucked it around her husband. “Go to sleep, ok?”
“Ok…” Lyria gently kissed his forehead. “I’m going back downstairs to finish calling people. I’ve talked to everyone, but I haven’t been able to get in touch with Reeve or the Turks…”
“Use my PHS if you want to talk to Rude or Reno. You won’t be able to get either on their office phones…I can’t help you with Elena, but Rude probably can. I don’t know whether you’ll be able to get in touch with Reeve though.” Vincent coughed slightly when he finished speaking and shivered a bit.
“Stop helping me. Go to sleep.”
Lyria glanced around, looking for her husband’s cell phone. “Vincent where…”
“It’s in the same holster as my gun. I threw that somewhere downstairs last night.”
“I didn’t feel like putting it away.”
“All right. I’m going now…you sleep, ok? You’ll get better sooner if you sleep…”
Lyria left the room, closing the door behind her quietly. Down the stairs and in the large foyer, she found Vincent’s PHS tucked in his holster beside his gun. Gingerly picking up the weapon, she pulled out the small cell phone and, for lack of wanting to disturb her husband and not knowing where to put the firearm, laid it back down on the ground where she’d found it. Happily she returned to the study and sat back down on her chair. Flipping open the small phone, she quickly dialed the number that appeared on the small screen next to Rude’s name.
“Hello, Rude?...Hi!...no…well, he’s got a bit of pneumonia, but it’s nothing serious. I’m just using his phone to call you…Well; we’re having a bit of a get together for Christmas and…hey! Is Elena there?...Can I talk to her?...Hi Elena! D’you and Rude wanna come down and visit us and the old gang for Christmas? Uh huh…yeah…sure. We’ve got lots of spare rooms so everyone can stay overnight for a couple days…that’s a great idea! I’ve never been skiing…so all Turks can?...I guess that makes sense…I don’t know if Vincent will be up to going though…pneumonia, actually. He’ll probably be sleepy and lethargic for the next couple days, but it’s a very mild case he should start getting better soon…no, it wasn’t Rude’s fault…or Reno’s…I think it’s just he doesn’t dress properly when it’s cold out. You might want to keep an eye on Rude too…speaking of which…what are you doing in such close proximity to…oh…what?…Elena!…too much information…ok; I gotta let you go for now, Elena. I’ll see you soon…buh-bye…”
Lyria ended the call and dialed Reno’s number.
“Hiya Reno!...no…nothing’s wrong…I’m just using his phone because I didn’t know what number I could reach you at…I was wondering…do you maybe want to come over for Christmas? I know it’s a little sudden…if you want to spend Christmas with your family I totally understand…oh…that’s sad…my family are all dead too…well, everyone else is coming…and Rude and Elena I think…Elena thinks we should all go skiing…I’ve actually never been…he’s sick, he can’t teach me…you’re sick minded, you can’t teach me either…So are you coming or not?...great…oh…would you mind bringing some liquor? I promised Cid, but I’ve got nothing in the house besides some wine in the basement and I’m too scared to go down and get it…one more thing…umm…do you know if I can get in touch with Reeve?...I tried that…no?...well…I’ll try again, maybe on this phone…thanks Reno…Love ya’…bye…”
Lyria hung up the phone and stared into the fire she’d started in the fireplace. The flames danced and flickered, casting odd shadows on the wall. It wasn’t late, not nearly, but sunset had already fallen and the stars were sparkling like diamonds flung at random against black velvet. Lyria sighed and got out of her chair to pace before the fireplace. Idly she picked up the wedding picture on the mantle. There was such a contrast between her and Vincent. Even in the picture, clad in black, dark hair, red eyes, and only the slightest hint of a smile on his features, Vincent almost seemed to radiate an air of regret and sadness. And, Lyria, held in his arms, gown of purest white and green eyes sparkling with the utmost joy and happiness was almost the exact opposite. He took lives; she tried to give them back. Such a contrast and yet she loved him more than anything. His past was dark and fragmented hers bright and sunny with a sense of warmth and belonging. So different they should have been incompatible, but for some strange reason, some loophole in the depths of human psychology, they fit together with near perfect accuracy. She smiled as she remembered when he had asked her to marry her. It was unorthodox, but if he had done it any other way it would have been too far out of character.
Lyria opened the door of her apartment in a daze. She entered, dropped her backpack on the floor and threw herself onto the couch, crying almost hysterically.
“Lyria? What’s wrong?” Lyria heard Vincent ask as he entered the room and felt and hand gently rubbing her back. “Hey, come here…” Lyria didn’t stop crying as she sat up and let Vincent hold her tightly. She was trembling and once in a while, even as her weeping slowed down, a stray sob would rack her body and she’d start crying again. Eventually she calmed down to the point where she was still crying, but had worn herself out too much to keep up her hysterics. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“I…th-there was a little girl in the hospital…” Lyria whispered. “She’s been there for a while now…”
“Yes?” Vincent still held Lyria closely, letting her lay her head on his shoulder.
“Sh-she had cancer and…oh, god…I thought she would get better…she was doing so well…but…” Lyria burst into tears again, unable to continue.
“Hey…calm down, it’s ok…”
“No…no, it isn’t…I tried so hard…I did everything right, but she…she just died…I…”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“But what if I could have…”
“Lyria, you can’t live your life suffering the deaths of others.”
“She was seven years old! Seven!” Lyria seemed almost angry now. “Why? Why take a little girl with her whole life ahead of her?”
“You know I can’t answer that. If you want a philosophical response, go talk to Red. The only thing I do know is that no one can stand against death forever.”
“Do you always let the mortality of human beings cut you so deeply? Don’t let it linger, for god’s sake. It’s a terrible world where a child of seven can die, but you can’t dwell on it. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been surrounded by death for as long as I can remember. I was all but dead for thirty years. I let it change me. Too much. I sincerely wish I hadn’t because now I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. I held on to the hatred, even watching Hojo die wasn’t enough. I still hate him and I’ll never stop. Hatred is a very strange feeling. It was probably one of the few things that kept me alive, but it killed something inside. Compassion, I think and maybe humanity.”
“No…they’re still there, they’re just buried deep.” Lyria had stopped crying but was still nestled close to Vincent.
“Maybe. Are you still upset?”
“Oh. Really? After all that I still couldn’t make you happy again?”
“I’m happier, but not as much as I could be, it’s still very depressing.”
“I’ll try again. I think we should get married.”
“What!?” Lyria exclaimed, sadness vanishing to be replaced by shock.
“I think we should get married.”
“I heard you! Are you serious?” Lyria asked, looking in Vincent’s eyes.
“If you want me to be, I am. I’ve been meaning to ask for a while now.”
“Of course! Do you mean it? We can really get married?”
“Sure. Here, I bought a ring a while back.” Vincent pulled out a small box and handed it to Lyria.
“My god! How much did this cost?” Lyria gasped, looking wide-eyed at the large diamond on the ring he’d slipped on her finger.
“A fair bit I guess, I’m making money far faster than I can spend it so it felt sort of good to walk into a jewelers and pay cash for his most expensive piece.”
“Why are you being so nonchalant? Aren’t you happy?”
“This is so sudden…”
“Why? We’ve been living together for almost a year and a half now, right?”
“Ok, so it isn’t sudden…” Lyria giggled. “Where should we get married?”
“I don’t know, it’s up to you.”
“All of it?” Lyria exclaimed. “I can’t plan a whole wedding on my own!”
“Are you crazy? We have to get a church, decide where it will be, make a guest list, we need a florist, a caterer, a photographer, somewhere to hold the reception…not to mention my dress, bridesmaids…who’s going to be my maid of honor? Do you want Reno, or Rude, or Cloud, or Cid, or Barret for best man? Would Red be able to? I don’t know what we’d find for him to wear…it might offend a couple people to have a dog for best man…I guess Marlene could be the flower girl, but do we know anybody with a little boy to be the ring bearer? Good god, we haven’t even set a date yet!”
“Maybe you should call Shera too. I actually have to go pretty soon, we’re starting a mission in Junon today.”
“What am I going to do while you’re gone?”
Vincent pulled out his bankcard and handed it to Lyria. “Here. Have fun.”
Lyria looked at the small rectangle of plastic in her hand and then at Vincent who stood waiting expectantly. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“I thought we had already established my sincerity. I thought the ring was rather serious.”
Lyria laughed and embraced Vincent. “I love you…”
“I love you too.”
Lyria brightened slightly, happy for the affirmation that Vincent loved her. She decided to run upstairs and see if Vincent was hungry. Knocking lightly on the door but receiving no response, she slipped into the dark room and shook her husband’s shoulder. “Vincent? Hey, wake up…”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“No? I thought you were tired…”
“I am…” he was interrupted by a sudden bout of coughing. “If possible, I’m more worn-out than before, but I can’t sleep…”
“Coughing too much?”
“I could make you some tea or something warm. It might help…”
“Of course…any particular preference? I think tea would be good, something herbal maybe?”
“Whatever you want to make.”
“All right…I’ll make just plain Earl Gray tea, ok?”
“I’ll come sit with you when it’s done and we can talk…unless you’re too tired.”
“I’ll probably be all right if you just want to talk.”
“Ok…don’t go anywhere.” Lyria skipped out of the room and hurried to the kitchen. Humming idly she put a kettle of water on the old cast iron stove and turned the burner to its highest setting. Abandoning the kettle for a moment, she stepped into the pantry and reached for the canister of tea on the top shelf. It was just above her reach as she didn’t like tea and if Vincent ever wanted any, he made it himself. Stretching to her full height of five feet eight and a half inches, she grasped the edge of the container and tilted it into her other hand. Lyria smiled slightly at her triumph. She wasn’t nearly as tall as her husband, but she was still capable of being independent around the house, however lonely she got. The kettle whistled and Lyria reentered the kitchen, teabag in one hand. Grabbing the kettle off the stove she poured the steaming water into a waiting mug and dropped in the teabag. She was slightly unsure of how long to wait, but decided that two minutes would be enough. Lyria frowned, attempting to remember how her husband liked his tea. Cream and sugar? Just cream? Just sugar? Neither? She’d heard somewhere that it was only proper to have cream or sugar, but never both. That might have eliminated one option except for the fact that in all probability Vincent didn’t care whether it was proper or not. Lyria decided she would run upstairs and check, just to make sure. She sighed and dashed up the stairs again and stepped into the bedroom.
“Vincent, what…” she began.
“Nothing. No cream, no sugar.”
Lyria stamped her foot. “How can you always tell what I’m going to ask?”
“You always forget little details. Usually they’re minor bits and pieces of information that don’t seem important at the time, but when you get a little farther along in whatever it is you’re doing you realize what you forgot.”
“Oh. I didn’t know I did it that often. I’ll try to stop…”
“I don’t mind, it’s rather endearing.”
Lyria smiled. “You’re so sweet. Making my shortness of memory sound cute…”
“I have to go back down and…” Lyria looked blank for a second.
“Finish making tea,” Vincent finished for her, sitting up in bed and leaning against the pillows.
“Right. Where would I be without you?”
“Lost somewhere. And I wouldn’t get any tea.”
Lyria laughed. “Yeah. Ok, I’ll be right back.” Lyria slipped out of the room and returned minutes later with a mug in one hand.
“Thank you.” Vincent took a small taste of the tea. “Awfully strong, isn’t it?”
“Sorry. I let it steep when I came up to ask what you wanted. I could make some more, if you…”
“No. You’ll get distracted on your way down and I’ll never get anything to drink…”
“Now you’re making me sound like an airhead. A minute ago I was ‘endearing’ now I’m an airhead.”
“But a very endearing airhead.”
“Not funny.” Lyria sat down on the bed next to her husband and nestled comfortably beside him. “You’re warm…”
“Careful. I don’t want to burn you…”
“Don’t worry. Are you starting to feel better?”
“I think so.”
“That’s good…I’m so excited to see everyone…”
“I can’t wait to see them all…do you think they’ve changed?”
“Cid might have, being married to Shera now…other than that…”
“I don’t think he has…I’m excited to see Marlene though…” Lyria snuggled closer and fell silent for a while. “Vincent, do you ever think about…about having kids?”
Lyria hadn’t exactly expected the response she’d gotten from her husband. Vincent sighed and set his tea to the side. “I knew you’d ask this someday…”
“What do you mean ‘can’t’?”
“It’s not so much I can’t as I’m not willing to.”
“Why not?” Lyria asked, looking up into Vincent’s eyes. It was obvious what he felt was painful and he looked weary.
“You know what I am. It’s genetic. The very thought that I could curse a helpless child with such an evil power…”
“Lyria, I just…you have no idea what Chaos is like…” Vincent shuddered, physically terrified at the mere thought. “Changing…is absolute agony, a few seconds in my own little corner of hell. You’d think after years of the same transformation the pain would lose some of its edge, but it’s still as bad as when I first tried. Fighting as Chaos is even worse…it’s like seeing something through another person’s eyes. Except killing everything that stands in its way drives this person…if nothing else, Chaos is single-minded. It doesn’t let anything stop it, not even injuries that would be deadly to humans…even if it’s Chaos’s body that takes the blows, I can always feel the pain. Chaos can take far more than I can and sometimes it’s too much and I have to let go…lose control of Chaos…but the irony is when I do let Chaos have free rein, it unleashes power devastating enough that it levels anything in it’s path. Then the battle is over and I can change back…but I always know that it’s going to happen again and one of these times I might wake to see the corpses of my friends scattered about, because I couldn’t control the demon I am.”
Lyria was in tears by the end of his description and she let him hold her close as she cried. “Why? Why you? It’s…it’s just not fair…”
“I know it isn’t. I used to tell myself that it was my punishment for letting Hojo, Gast, and Lucrecia unleash the evil that they did. Now I know differently…I could have done nothing in the face of Jenova, but I did try…and look what it earned me…” Vincent held up his artificial left hand and examined it with revulsion. “I can’t hold a child with this…this has been stained with too much blood…”
Lyria gently took his left hand in hers and kissed it softly. “I don’t care. I don’t care about blood. I see blood every day; my hands have been stained too.”
“Not with the blood of people you’ve killed, the blood of people you’ve saved. Even if we did have a child he’d live with a murderer for a father. What will you tell him when I have to go? ‘Daddy can’t tuck you in tonight because he’s down in Midgar shooting people. Your father isn’t even really human…he just looks like it. Inside he’s really an evil beast…by the way, there’s a chance that if you get to angry or if you hurt yourself you’ll turn into a demon and start killing things…’ How could a child live a normal life with a father like me?”
“I wish there was something I could do…” Lyria whispered, tears still streaming from her eyes and she tried to get even closer, laying her head against Vincent’s shoulder.
“So do I.”
“Lyria, be careful!” Tifa called from the ground where she was sorting through a box of Christmas decorations. The young doctor stretched to place a star atop the Christmas tree Cloud had dragged in. It was the morning of Christmas Eve and Cloud and Tifa were helping Lyria and Vincent decorate their house for when their friends would come in the evening. Cloud and Vincent were hanging Christmas lights outside and Tifa and Lyria were decorating while little Aeris was playing in a playpen in the corner of whichever room Lyria and Tifa happened to be in.
“I’m fine, Tifa.” Lyria answered, finally securing the star and leaping down from the ladder she’d been using. “Doesn’t it look gorgeous?”
“Absolutely,” Tifa agreed. “We’re pretty much finished in here, right?”
“Yeah. Let’s head to the kitchen and we can start on lunch for Cloud and Vincent…” Lyria scooped Aeris out of the playpen and held the little girl up. “How are you doing angel? You’re getting pretty big, about two years old now aren’t you?”
Aeris then giggled and cooed as Lyria hugged her tightly. The little girl truly looked like a tiny seraph that had strayed from heaven and decided to stay with Cloud and Tifa. Big brown eyes with a hint of laughter always just beneath the surface, a little button nose and soft lips the color of fresh picked pink roses were the features that Aeris greeted everyone with. It was impossible not to love the little girl, even just by looking at her.
“She’s just perfect, isn’t she?” Tifa smiled and took her daughter from Lyria’s arms.
“Yeah…” Lyria sighed, watching Aeris nuzzle her cheek against her mother’s shoulder and closing her eyes.
“What’s wrong Lyr?” Tifa asked, swaying from side to side and running her hand up and down Aeris’s back, lulling the little girl into sleep.
“I just…the holidays always depress me a little…” Lyria lied. “Come on, let’s get to work. I guess they’ll want something warm to eat, huh?”
“Yeah…have any soup?”
“We could whip some up quickly. Let’s get to work, I’ll bring Aeris’s playpen.”
“Speaking of which we should make sure there are rooms for everyone…with the proper beds and such…”
“Talkative, aren’t you?” Cloud asked Vincent sarcastically, stapling another section of wire to the edge of the roof. Vincent was perched on the roof handing Cloud wire while the ex-mercenary stood on a ladder, attaching the lights to the eaves of the house. It had gotten dark already and the light shining through the windows of the house was warm and ruddy, opposite the icy cold darkness outside.
“Not really,” Vincent answered dryly.
“Liar,” Cloud accused.
“So what if I am? Would you really want to know why?”
“Are you back into that old habit? You’re a goddamn idiot, you know that?”
“You? Calling me an idiot? How ironic, ‘Mr. Give-the Black-Materia-to-Sephiroth’ is calling me an idiot.”
“Shut the hell up…” Cloud answered angrily.
“Sorry…I’m a bit…I don’t know…confused, I guess…”
“About what?” Cloud asked, regaining a civil tone. “Lyria causing problems?”
“No…I don’t really want to talk about it…”
The pair worked in silence for a while until Vincent asked. “Cloud, what exactly happened when you fell in the Lifestream? I wasn’t really paying attention when you told everyone what happened…mostly because I didn’t care…”
“You didn’t really care about anything for a long time, huh?”
“Yeah. I just remember you were different afterward.”
“It was strange. Tifa was there and we were together, in my mind, sort of. It was like we were going through my life and sorting out where things had gone wrong…”
“Did anything change?”
“Huh? Well…I did, but not any of the events…”
“Could you explain it any more?”
“Well…I felt like the lie I’d been living for the past few years was washing away and I was myself again…”
Vincent fell silent and Cloud looked like he was about to ask a question when the faint whirring of helicopter blades caught his attention. Cloud glanced up at the helicopter approaching from the direction of Midgar.
“That’ll be the Turks,” Vincent commented, bracing himself against the wall and hanging on to the edge tightly.
“Yeah, probably…where do you think they plan to…” Cloud was cut off by the roar of the helicopter as it landed on the roof. There was a sudden tempest of swirling snow and wind as the chopper landed, a muffled shouting, and the helicopter took off again. When the snow cleared Reno, Elena, and Rude were standing on the roof, grinning.
“Howdy, Valentine,” Reno said cheerfully as Vincent shook snow from his hair. “Whatever happened to Cloud?”
“I think you blew him off the roof…” Vincent answered, striding to the edge and looking down at the mercenary, who was attempting to remove himself from a snow bank.
“Oops.” Elena grinned; the blonde Turk was wearing a Santa hat, the only thing offsetting her navy suit. Reno was dressed as usual in a wrinkled blue suit with a bottle of brandy in one hand. Rude didn’t look any different and still wore sunglasses.
“Are you all right, Cloud?” Reno called congenially.
“Go to hell!” Cloud responded, equally jovial. “Get your ass down here, Turk!”
“Shall we?” Rude asked, gesturing to the ladder.
“Why not?” Reno turned to give Elena a hand lowering herself onto the ladder, just as Vincent jumped off the edge and landed nimbly on the ground next to Cloud.
“I’ve never been able to figure out how he does that without breaking his neck…” Elena muttered.
“One thing’s for sure…he’s a goddamn freaky ass bastard, ain’t he?” Reno agreed.
Rude only nodded and followed the other Turks down the steps. Elena had already reached the ground and was hugging Vincent and scolding him for being outside while he was sick.
“Could someone please help me get out of this snow bank?” Cloud demanded.
Reno laughed and gave him a hand up. “Interesting to be on the same turf and not trying to kill each other, isn’t it?”
“Meh. I’ve been in odder situations…” Cloud grinned. “Get your Turkish asses inside the house.”
“Sure. It’s damn cold out here.” Elena shivered and hugged Rude.
“Are you two…together?” Cloud asked.
Vincent pulled Cloud out of range of Rude’s fist and scolded his subordinate. “Rude. No hitting.”
“Isn’t it goddamn obvious we’re together?”
“Oh, lay off Rude. It’s Christmas. Let’s go get drunk,” Reno said, running ahead to the house.
“Elena!” Lyria shrieked, running down the stairs and embracing her friend. “How are you doing? Vincent never talks about you, even though I’m always asking…”
“It’s not his fault. We don’t see each other much; I’m actually the head of another squad…” Elena returned the hug and held her friend at arms length. “You look incredible; the cold weather is always so hard on my skin…”
“Mine too, but I have a good moisturizer. It’s called Lily Petals. I guess you haven’t met Tifa’s daughter Aeris? She’s just adorable…hey, Tifa! Bring little Aeris over here!”
“Ooooh! She’s so cute! How are you doing Tifa? It’s hard to believe you were even pregnant…”
“Thanks Elena…d’you wanna hold her?”
“I’d love to!”
“Let’s go into the den and sit down so we can talk some more…”
In the midst of the chatter between the three ladies the doorbell rang and as Vincent opened the door Shera, Marlene and Yuffie burst in, adding to the clamor.
“Hi! Ooh, I’ve missed you all sooooo much! Hiya Elena! How’re you doin’?”
“Auntie Tifa! Auntie Lyri! And…who’re you?”
“Yuffie! Are you actually getting taller? And you’re properly dressed too…it’s a different look for you.”
“I’m sorry we just burst in like that…Cid was so slow getting here, and I was so anxious to see all of you…can I hold Aeris?”
“My name’s Elena, I take it you’re Marlene?”
“Yup! I’m seven!”
“Sure Shera. Why don’t all of you get your wet things off and put them in your rooms? C’mon, me and Tifa will show you, let’s go upstairs.”
“What exactly do we do with our coats?”
“Just throw them over there, we’ll deal with them later…”
In a sudden agreement several, heavy, wet coats were thrown in the general direction of the group of guys standing by the door, one hitting Barret, the other Cid, and one draping over Red.
“Anyone want a drink?” Reno asked tentatively as the girls disappeared up the stairway, laughing and giggling.
“What’d ya’ bring Reno?” Cid asked, removing the coat from his head
“Tifa doesn’t like me drinking at holidays…”
“Jes’ cuz Tifa don’ wan’ ya to you ain’t gonna drink nothin’?” Barret snorted, dropping the jacket that had been thrown at him on top of Cloud.
“I don’t drink.”
Lyria skipped into the bedroom, giggling like a little girl. “I had such an amazing time!” It was well after two in the morning and the guests had just decided to break up their little get together with the hope of resuming in the morning. Rude and Elena were sharing a bedroom, as were Tifa and Cloud with Aeris tucked in her crib, Shera and Cid, and Yuffie and Marlene. Barret was in his own room, snoring loudly and Reno had long since passed out on the couch downstairs.
“We talked about everything…what did you guys talk about?” Lyria got undressed quickly and rummaged in her drawer for a moment.
“Nothing much really.”
“For six hours, you talk about nothing?” Lyria asked incredulously, pulling her nightgown on.
“I didn’t say ‘nothing’…we just didn’t talk about much…”
“Whatever. You guys are weird…” Lyria snuggled into the bed beside Vincent, curling up tightly under the blanket. “I’m cold…”
“You could come closer, if you wanted…”
Lyria happily complied and nestled closer. “Merry Christmas…”
“Good morning,” Lyria greeted everyone, entering the living room where her guests had gathered. Shera, Tifa, and Cloud each had mugs of coffee and Cid and Barret were showing signs of wear from the previous night’s drinking. Neither looked worse than Reno, who was still passed out on the couch. There were multitudes of presents underneath the tree and there was a fire crackling on the hearth.
“Hiya, Lyr!” Yuffie grinned. “We’re gonna play a game, it’s called “Scare-the-hangover-out-of-Reno, wanna play?”
“Sure, sounds like fun…I’ll go first.” Lyria gestured to the window and Vincent smiled and walked over, pulling open the curtains.
“Augh…” Reno moaned weakly, covering his face with his hands. “Oh god…I’m in hell…”
“Merry Christmas Reno!” Lyria yelled.
“Lyria? What’re you doing in hell? And why are we celebrating Christmas?”
“You aren’t in hell…”
“Sure feels like it…”
Yuffie’s grin was pure evil. “Hell, Reno? Even after last night? I would have to say last night was fairly close to heaven…”
“ Reno!” Shera exclaimed, catching on quickly. “How could you? You’re lucky she isn’t a minor or you could be arrested!”
“W-what?” Reno jerked his head up, color draining from his skin. “Y-Yuffie? What are you talking about?”
“We all know what she’s talking about,” Tifa put in. “Honestly, we heard you all the way down the hall…are you two animals or something?”
“If you got me pregnant, my father’ll make you marry me…” Yuffie put a hand on her tummy.
“Oh god…oh dear god…no…you’re lying to me…you must be…” Reno looked up at the others, all of whom had managed to keep straight faces. “You aren’t lying…oh god…kill me now…” Rude grabbed Reno by one of his arms and hauled him to the window. Vincent threw open the casement and helped Rude hurl Reno out into a pile of snow lying several feet below the window.
“Are you good and sober yet?” Elena called conversationally.
“Sober is not a good state of being. If any one cares I’m also cold, wet, hung over, and a potential father. None of those are good,” came the muffled response from the snow bank.
“Well, actually you’re only sober, cold, wet, and hung over. Not a potential father,” Lyria confessed. “We made that part up…”
“I hate all of you.”
“Oh come on Reno. Get in the house; we’re going to open presents!” Yuffie called.
“Would anyone mind if I just stayed out here and froze to death?”
“ Reno, get your ass in the house and open your goddamnit presents!” Cid yelled.
“Well…I guess I’ll go make breakfast…” Lyria said, detangling herself from the pile of wrapping paper and ribbons and straightening the necklace Vincent had gotten her, a delicate gold chain with a small ruby pendant in the shape of a perfect rose just opening with tiny diamonds gracing the petals like dew. She’d gotten her husband a heavy gold signet ring with an eagle carved on it, wings spread and soaring to the sky. Yuffie had gotten lots of materia and was attempting to find places for them all. Shera had received a flight jacket just like Cid’s with the word ‘Lieutenant’ stitched across the back. Cid had received several bottles of cognac and was currently attempting to open one to share with Reno. Elena had gotten Rude a new pair of sunglasses and Rude had gotten Elena a tiny little silk negligee. Cloud’s present from Tifa was a new armlet with linked spaces for his materia. Tifa had gotten a chenille sweater with long flared sleeves and a hood. Vincent and Lyria had decided that Reno would be better served by the wine they had in their basement and had presented him with the keys to the wine cellar, to be opened when he could figure out a way to transport all the bottles, he and Cid were currently congratulating each other with a toast from Cid’s new stock of liquor. Barret had gotten a cross stitched plaque reading ‘Home sweet home’ for placement in his new house, the mayor’s residence in Corel. Red received a delicate crystal feather, iridescent and seeming to glow with every color of the rainbow. Marlene and Aeris had each been swamped with a large number of presents from everyone and were playing together on the floor.
“You want some help, Lyr?” Tifa asked.
“Sure…” Lyria was interrupted by a sharp ringing tone. All the Turks, (except for Reno, who was toasting Cid’s victory over the bottle of cognac), immediately reached for their cell phones. Vincent’s was the one that was actually ringing.
“Hello?...Merry Christmas, Reeve…thank you, sir…what?...oh…but…sir, it’s Christmas…are you sure it’s urgent?...can’t it wait, at least until…”
Lyria snatched the phone from her husband. “Reeve? You leave us alone; we’re having Christmas…why don’t you come down here?” Lyria clicked the phone off and stood up. Looking around the room and spotting the still open window, Lyria smiled slightly and tossed the phone outside. She then pulled the shutters closed and drew the curtains.
“You’re going to get me in trouble, you know that?” Vincent commented mildly.
“If you’re that worried go get your phone.” Lyria gestured out the window over her shoulder. “Now what does everyone want for breakfast?”
“All right, let’s run through this once more.” Lyria looked around at her friends who were standing in the front entrance to the Shinra Mansion dressed warmly and carrying either skis or snowboards. “We go up to Mount Nibel, strap flimsy looking boards to our feet, and fly down the mountain at four billion miles an hour then climb back up again and repeat the sequence? For what purpose? Fun? Exhilaration?”
“It’s an adrenaline high,” Cloud explained, shifting his snowboard.
“I heard a story once about a guy who walks into a bar and orders a drink. He starts talking to the man next to him about how he lives his life to the fullest as though every day was his last. He lords on for a while about the rush of adrenaline and how pretty soon he’s going to catch a bus to get to a skydiving school. The man who’s sitting next to him is the quieter, conservative type. He listens politely until the man finally finishes and leaves. Moments later there’s a monumental crash and when the man looks outside he sees this guy lying in the middle of the road, hit by a bus.”
“What’s this story supposed to mean?” Cloud asked.
“I dunno. I didn’t hear the whole thing. Look both ways before crossing the street maybe?” Lyria shrugged.
Everyone laughed and there was a sudden knock at the door. Lyria smiled and turned to answer the door. Standing with his hands in the pockets of his ten thousand Gil, perfectly tailored, blue suit with a cat on a stuffed Moogle behind him was Reeve.
“Hey!” Lyria exclaimed, embracing the Shinra president. “Mr. Reeve took time off from work to rub shoulders with the common people! Get in the house; we’re just heading out to go skiing!”
“Sounds like fun. Can Cait come too?” Reeve gestured at the cat who jumped up and waved happily then lost his footing and fell backward into the sack the Moogle was carrying on his back. “Oh, Cait…” Reeve pulled the small animal from the sack and straightened the Santa hat he wore on his little head.
“Who’s this?” Lyria asked, looking curiously at Cait Sith and ushering Reeve into the house where he was greeted with warm embraces and handshakes.
“I’m Cait Sith, pretty lady! I take it you’re the lovely and charming Lyria Valentine? Pleased to meet you, although I believe you may be lost. You see, angel, heaven is up that way…” Cait Sith pointed upwards to the sky and leapt off the Moogle’s back and onto Lyria’s shoulders.
“That’s Cait Sith…” Cloud muttered. “He’s almost as irritating as Yuffie.”
“Hey!” Yuffie yelled.
“I like him…he’s cute.” Lyria said, stroking the cat on the head.
“The lady has taste,” Cait commented.
“He’s actually a genetically modified robot,” Reeve put in. “A cat with a couple microchips inserted in various places that give him human characteristics. But he doesn’t act like it. He’s very well programmed.”
“You dare call me a robot?” Cait said defiantly. “I’m as human as you are boyo!”
“Whatever you say, Cait,” Reeve shrugged. “Bring my stuff inside…if you guys have room for me…”
“Always, Reeve,” Lyria laughed. “Come on, I’ll take you upstairs…”
Cait Sith leapt back over to his Moogle and struck a dramatic pose. “Hi ho, Moogly! Away!” The cat kicked the stuffed animal in the head and it surged forward, knocking Cait off his feet and into the sack again. Lyria giggled and followed the animal partway up the stairs.
“You all go on ahead, I’ll help Reeve get settled and we’ll be there soon.”
“Are you sure, Lyr? We don’t mind waiting…” Vincent offered. Lyria thought her husband looked rather handsome in a black turtleneck and jeans, hiking boots, and a warm red scarf.
“It’s all right; we’ll only be a minute.” Lyria pulled off her mittens and headband and tucked them into the pocket of her jeans. There were varying degrees in the amount of clothing everyone wore. Yuffie being most covered in a ski jacket and snow pants and earmuffs, Red not wearing anything and Cloud wearing only his old SOLDIER uniform. Cid was dressed as he usually did, minus his flight goggles, which Shera had confiscated and was wearing to go with her new jacket. Reno and Rude had both abandoned their suits for the first time and while Reno looked quite charming in a red sweater and baggy pants, Rude just looked out of place and rather uncomfortable. Elena wore fluffy pink earmuffs and a matching pullover and Tifa looked motherly in a white ski jacket, matching Aeris’s light blue one. Barret wore a plain black jacket and Marlene was excited in a bright red snowsuit.
“O’ course she’s sure! Some of us do mind waiting. Get your ass outside Valentine!” Cid called from the doorway.
“Cid, be nice! At least Vincent has the civility to ask,” Shera scolded and took the opportunity to club her husband in the back of the head with one of her skis.
“Ouch! Dammit!” Cid rubbed the back of his head.
“Let’s just go already!” Cloud exclaimed.
“Cloud wants to run over more Moogles,” Tifa added, by way of explanation. Cait Sith looked horrified and pressed his small hands against his chariot’s ears.
“I do not! Just because I accidentally hit a couple virtual reality Moogles on a video game at the Gold Saucer, Tifa goes all animal rights activist on me…”
“Monster!” Elena accused.
“Ahem…” Red cleared his throat and glanced at Vincent and Cait Sith, who was spluttering indignantly.
“Oh…sorry guys…you all act very human, I forget sometimes…” Elena apologized.
“Not at all Elena,” Red said urbanely. “Shall we go? By my estimation, Reeve and Lyria could have been finished by now…”
“Yeah, let’s get outta here,” Barret agreed, boosting his daughter onto his shoulders. “See you on the slopes, Mr. President.”
“We won’t be long,” Reeve assured everyone. “I’ll just change into a sweater and some more comfortable leg wear.”
“Whatever.” Those who hadn’t already gotten bored and left headed out the door and towards the slopes of Mt. Nibel. Lyria led Reeve up the stairs to a room near the end of the hallway, Cait Sith in tow, commanding his mount to carry his master’s baggage.
“This’ll be your room, Reeve. I know it’s not quite as luxurious as what you’re probably used to, but…”
“It’s fine Lyria. Far better than what I’m used to.” Cait Sith entered the room, perched astride his Moogle who was dragging Reeve’s bags. “Just put it there, Cait and go wait downstairs with Lyria…leave the Moogle here, though.”
“Certainly, sir!” Cait through out his chest and gave a crisp military salute. “With pleasure, sir! I live but to serve, sir! Do you want your shoes shined, sir?”
“That’s enough Cait.”
“Of course, sir! Come along, civilian.” Cait Sith leapt onto Lyria’s shoulders again. “Onward!”
“Oh, you’re so cute!” Lyria giggled, exiting the room and heading downstairs.
“So…how’re you doing, gorgeous?” the cat asked, lounging comfortably on Lyria’s shoulder, small body stretched out and tail twitching slightly.
“That’s nice. I hear you’re quite the physician.”
“Who’s been telling you all this?”
“Reeve, mostly. Sometimes other people talk to me, but not too often…”
“Poor kitty…” Lyria stroked Cait’s head sympathetically.
“Is he giving you that old sob story again?” Reeve asked, coming down the stairs. “Ignore him; he just does it to get attention from women. He spends his days lounging around eating fish and living the high life.”
“See? Even Reeve is mean to me sometimes…” Cait buried his face in his paws in mock despair. “What’s a poor kitty to do?”
“Oh, cheer up, Cait. Tell you what; you can help me ski…” Lyria suggested. “I’ve never been before, so you can help Vincent teach me…”
“Okey dokey,” Cait agreed and his expression brightened.
“Speaking of Vincent, how’s my best Turk holding up?”
“Best? And what do you mean by ‘holding up’?”
“Yes ‘best’. What I meant by ‘holding up’ is how’s his health? Reno said he seemed a bit under the weather when they were at Icicle…”
“He had a bit of pneumonia…but it’s clearing up now…you mean he was still working even though he was sick?”
“It seems so…he’s very devoted…”
“I’ll yell at him for it later…” Lyria decided. “Let’s hit the slopes Reeve!”
After a hard day of skiing the company retired to the den of the mansion for hot chocolate, popcorn, and a general triage to let Lyria have a look at all manner of injuries they’d picked up. Yuffie had frostbite, Cloud sprained his ankle landing one more jump of the ski ramp, Reno had crashed into a tree and was complaining because Lyria said that under no circumstances should he be drinking hard liquor with a head injury, and Cid was just plain tired and stiff and was not helping Reno at all by proposing that they open a bottle of his newly acquired wine.
“That was fun…” Tifa ventured and was greeted by murmurs of assent from the uninjured parties or groans and whining from those who hadn’t been as lucky.
“My skin’s so chapped! I’ll never get it back to its beautiful angel softness!” Yuffie whined, brushing her fingers against her cheeks.
“How’s your ankle Cloud?” Red asked politely.
“Not too bad…” Cloud was stretched out on the couch with his foot propped on a pillow on Tifa’s lap next to Aeris who, on occasion, poked her father’s foot and giggled as he jokingly made faces at her.
“C’mon Reno, just one bottle…” Cid pleaded. “I need somethin’ to loosen me up…”
“Hell no, Cid. If I’m not drinking, nobody’s drinking,” Reno answered firmly.
“Please Reno? I wouldn’t mind a glass of wine…” Shera added. “Besides, don’t you remember how extremely hung over you were this morning?”
“No, I don’t remember. I want to relive the magic…but I can’t, ‘cuz Lyria,” Reno shot a glare at the young doctor who was curled up on her husband’s lap in an armchair, “won’t let me…”
“I’m as goddamnit stubborn as you are Turk! I’m gonna keep buggin’ ya’ ‘til you give up…”
“Don’t be so greedy, Reno!” Elena scolded. “It’s Christmas…”
“Yeah,” Reeve agreed. “Share the wealth or I’ll give you a pay cut…”
“Aw…hell…” Reno grumbled. “All right…where is this wine cellar?”
“I’ll show you, it’s in the basement. Grab your nightstick…Lyria, where did you put my gun?” Vincent gave Lyria a slight shove, but she refused to move. “Come on, Lyr, get off…”
“Don’t wanna move…”
“Fine.” Vincent stood up and Lyria tumbled to the floor. “Where’s my gun?”
“Not gonna tell you…meanie,” Lyria assumed a pouting expression and stuck her tongue out at Vincent.
“No you aren’t.”
“Lyria, just tell him already…” Reno complained.
“Nuh uh.” Lyria shook her head.
Vincent sighed and scooped Lyria off the floor. “I’m sorry. Please tell me?”
“Oh…all right…it’s in the foyer…”
“In the same place you threw it after you got back from Icicle.”
“You didn’t put it away?”
“All right. Thank you, we won’t be long.” Vincent dropped Lyria less than gracefully into the chair. “Come on, Reno.”
“Right behind you.”
Vincent led the way to the entrance hall and grabbed his handgun from the holster in the corner of the room. He half considered putting it away where it belonged, but decided against it and tossed it back where it had been. Leading the way back up the stairs and into the spare room Reeve was using, he pressed a spot on the wall and stood back as the door swung open.
“Sinister,” Reno remarked, peering down the spiraling staircase.
“Worse than that.” Vincent started down the staircase. “Watch where you…”
Reno didn’t hear the rest of the warning and skidded down several steps and past Vincent, catching a protruding stone that jutted out of the wall to stop himself. “Damn it! Thanks a lot!”
“I did say watch where you step…” Vincent answered indifferently.
“Yeah, well…” Reno made his way carefully down the rest of the stairs, still holding the wall for support. “Where’s the wine cellar?”
“This way.” Reno followed Vincent down the hallway to a small room near the end.
“What’s in there?” Reno asked curiously, looking at the door of the lab.
“Don’t go in.”
“Because…it’s a laboratory…just stay out, ok?”
“Oh…I get it…sorry.”
“It’s no big deal…get ready, there’re probably a bunch of bats in here…” Vincent flicked the safety off his handgun and opened the door slowly.
“Hoo boy…there’re a lot of the little bastards aren’t there?” Reno whispered.
“Do you want to get rid of them or try to sneak past?”
“Get rid of ‘em. I hate bats.” Reno pulled out his nightstick and swung it experimentally.
“What are the odds of you hitting a bat with that thing?”
“I can do it.”
“Are you sure? They’re very hard to hit, even with a handgun.”
“Just trust me.”
“Not if I can help it. Ready?”
“Always. Just don’t hit any of my wine.”
“Don’t worry about it. Here goes…” Vincent jerked open the door and fired rapidly at the ceiling. There were several startled squeaks as Reno clubbed the few that tried to get through the door and into the hallway. After silence fell, Vincent fired a couple more times for good measure, then re-holstered his gun.
“That’s all?” Reno poked a couple of the dead bats in the middle of the floor. “Funny, I thought there were more…”
“You weren’t wasting ammo shooting them.”
“Yeah right, like you hit all the little buggers. There’s no way in hell you’re that good a shot…”
Vincent arched an eyebrow at Reno and casually fired at one of the bottles on the wine racks, shattering it and spraying red wine everywhere. “Oops. I guess you’re right. How clumsy of me.”
“Hey! Cut it out!” Reno protested and started examining labels on various different bottles.
“Just grab one and let’s get out of here, bats are probably the least of our worries down here…and I’m running out of bullets.”
“Give me a moment…there are some really excellent vintages here…”
“I didn’t know you were a connoisseur of wine…I’d always gotten the impression you’d drink anything, regardless of vintage, vineyard of origin, or alcoholic toxicity…” Vincent commented, keeping a close eye on the door for any of the monsters that lurked in the basement.
“Shut up. Wow…some of this stuff is really rare…” Reno picked up one bottle and examined the label closely. “This one’s older than me…”
“Older than you in terms of your date of birth or in terms of your looks?”
“Date of birth.” Reno carefully replaced the bottle and selected one with a slightly newer label.
“Why are you taking that one and not one of the older vintages?”
“Because I have no wish to waste something as precious as a ’49 bottle of Bordeaux on Cid and Barret. For all I care, they can knock back a couple glasses of antifreeze. Are you two sure you wanna give all this to me?”
“It’s of no value to either of us. I don’t like wine and Lyria says it makes her sleepy and it’s not worth risking her neck going down in the basement for.”
“Oh. Ok, thanks.” Reno rubbed some of the dust off the bottle with his sleeve and cradled it carefully. “Let’s head back up.”
“Yay! Reno’s back!” Elena shouted as Reno and Vincent reentered the room.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Who wants a glass?” Reno asked.
“No, thank you,” Lyria declined, stretching out comfortably in her chair with Cait Sith in her lap.
“I’ll pass too,” Red agreed.
“I’m good with just hot chocolate,” Tifa added.
“So we need…” Reno counted quickly. “Eight glasses?”
“Seven, Reno. No wine for you…” Lyria answered, still cuddling Cait Sith who was purring ecstatically.
“Aww…come on, just a little…”
“No. It’s dangerous.”
“Fine. I’ll be right back,” Reno said, exiting the room and heading for the kitchen.
“Why is the cat in my chair?” Vincent asked.
“Because he’s cute and he’s cuddly and he didn’t throw me out of my spot.”
“I’m bigger than he is…”
“No dice. You lose, Turk,” Cait Sith announced.
Vincent sighed and sat down on the couch beside Red, looking slightly dejected.
“Oh…” Lyria shifted guiltily. “Get off Cait, Vincent you come here…”
“What?! Hey! That’s not fair!” Cait Sith whined as Lyria lowered him to the floor and stood up so Vincent could have his spot back.
“Sorry, Cait,” Lyria apologized, settling back down on her husband’s lap.
“Hmph.” The small cat folded his arms across his chest and stalked over to sit in the corner and stare at the wall.
“What’s he doing?” Lyria asked curiously.
“He’s throwing one of his little fits. He does this from time to time if he thinks he’s not getting enough attention,” Reeve answered, pelting the cat in the back of the head with a couple pieces of popcorn. “He’ll get over it.”
“Could someone give me a hand with these glasses?” Reno called from the doorway and Shera got up to assist him. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Shera handed out glasses and Reno poured for everyone who asked.
“Now…I did have a bit of an ulterior motive coming down here…” Reeve announced.
“What?” Tifa asked, bouncing her daughter in her lap.
“Well…I needed to discuss something with the Turks and since they were all so conveniently gathered here, I figured I might as well come down and…”
“Oh, Reeve…must everything be business?” Elena sighed.
“Sorry, Elena…but this is urgent…there’s a terrorist group that’s been acting up lately. They’re called Neo-Hurricane, a parody of Avalanche and the Neo-Midgar project. Anyway, they’ve been planting bombs throughout Midgar. We suspect their headquarters is in the ruins of Mideel…”
“And you want us to investigate?” Vincent finished.
“Yeah…please guys? It’s really important…”
“It’s our job, Reeve, you don’t need to plead every time,” Reno said, dismissing Reeve’s argument with a wave of his hand. “The Turks follow an order, that’s why we get paid the big bucks.”
“I’m still not used to ordering you people around like that…any one of you could kill me here and now, as easily as flicking on a light switch…”
“That’s the thing, Reeve. We could, but we won’t. That’s why the Turks are the best.”
“I know…but still…I feel bad…like I’m taking advantage of your loyalty…”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve all got salaries above a quarter of a million, Vincent lives in a mansion that you gave him and Lyria for a wedding present, me and Rude share the penthouse of the most expensive apartment building in Midgar, Elena’s got more jewelry than she’ll wear in a lifetime and we’ve all been around the world at least six times over. To me, it seems like we’re the ones taking advantage of Shinra…” Reno continued. “When should we leave?”
“Probably in about a week…I’m sorry to be calling you guys off so soon after Christmas, but…”
“Reeve, what did Reno just say?” Rude asked. “We’ll go, no questions asked.”
“If it’s urgent, we could probably leave even sooner…” Vincent added.
“Well…it would help…but I…”
“It’s our job, Reeve. We’ve got to neutralize this group before they can do any more harm.”
“So…when would you leave?”
“Day after tomorrow sounds good to me…What about you and Rude, Vincent?”
“I don’t think it’s an issue…” Vincent answered.
“I’m fine with it,” Rude added.
“Thanks so much you guys…” Reeve said sincerely. “I don’t want another threat to my city…”
“It’s our job, Reeve! For Christ’s sake, stop thanking us, already!” Reno yelled.
“I hate to have to cut this gathering short though…” Reeve said.
“It’s no big deal, Reeve. Me and Shera have to get back soon anyway, so anyone who wants a ride back with us would have to leave soon too,” Cid added.
“I’ve got work to get back to in Cosmo Canyon…” Red spoke up.
“I was gonna go materia hunting…”
“Corel won’ govern isself…”
“I have to get back to my own squad…
“Aeris is starting to get a bit of an earache…”
“I left a lovely tabby back in Midgar and she’s probably gettin’ lonely…”
“So you’re all just…leaving?” Lyria asked, sounding a little disappointed. “But you just got here a couple days ago…we have all this catching up to do…”
“Don’t worry about it Lyria, we’ll get together again soon…” Tifa promised.
“Yeah, we’ll have a reunion in February, how’s that sound?” Shera added.
“I guess…I still wish you guys didn’t have to go…”
“Bye!” Lyria shouted, waving as the Highwind took off into the skies. When the ship had vanished from range of view she sighed and walked back into the house. Vincent, Reeve, and the other Turks were exchanging information on the terrorist group in Mideel as Elena, Rude, Reno, Reeve and Cait Sith prepared to leave.
“So we’ll pick you up around midnight, on Tuesday?” Reno asked Vincent.
“I think so. Probably best to get started as soon as possible…” Vincent agreed.
“Well…I guess we’ll be seeing you soon then. We’ll be on the roof waiting for the chopper. Watch yourself, Valentine,” Reno waved slightly and headed out the door with Rude following.
“Take care…” Elena hugged Vincent, then Lyria. “I’ll try and take time off soon, and we’ll have coffee or something, ‘k?”
“Sure, Elena,” Lyria answered.
“Good-bye, Lyria, it was wonderful seeing you again…” Reeve smiled as Lyria embraced him and lightly kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry I just burst in on you like I did…”
“It was no problem Reeve…we were glad to have had you…”
Cait Sith shoved his owner aside and bent to kiss Lyria’s hand. “Farewell, dear maiden. Your perfect countenance and gentle manner shall grace my dreams forever more…”
“So poetic, Cait…” Lyria laughed and stroked the cat’s head. “I’ll miss you…”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, darlin’! We’ll all be together again soon!” Cait took a firm grip on his Moogle’s head and drove his heels into the side of its temple. “Bye-bye!”
“We’ll see you soon!” Reeve called, closing the door behind Cait.
As soon as they’d left, Lyria smacked her husband in the back of the head with her hand. “I can’t believe you! How can you be so insensitive?”
“Huh? What did I do?” Vincent’s tone was mildly confused and slightly defensive.
“Honestly, we finally all get together in one place and I’m looking forward to spending some time with my friends and all of a sudden you propose that they all leave!”
“I never said that!”
“Well, when you agreed to go on that assignment for Reeve that got everyone started…it might not have been so bad if you had let it wait a week but, nooooo, you had to suggest leaving early!” Lyria’s eyes were blazing with anger.
“Lyria, it’s my job! There are innocent people getting killed by this terrorist group and it’s up to us to stop them!”
“So? It still could wait, you’re supposed to be on holidays!”
“This is important! If there was someone dying in the hospital and you were needed, you’d go, wouldn’t you?” Vincent countered.
“Of course I would!”
“Well, how is this different? There are people who could die if we don’t do something about this!”
“There are people who will die if you go! All that’s going to happen is you ‘ll go to Mideel, make some minor attempts at negotiations with these people and then blast them to smithereens!”
“If that’s what we have to do, then we’ll do it,” Vincent answered coldly.
“I don’t get you. Sometimes you seem almost willing to go out and shoot people!”
“How can you say that? I’ve told you it’s hard for me…”
“But you still do it! It’s like you’ve been totally desensitized! You shoot a person and it’s just another drop in a bucket, one more enemy of Shinra, down the drain!” Lyria was shouting now, anger getting the better of her.
“It’s not like that!”
“Oh really? What is it like? Mr. Reeve takes a dislike to someone and you go out and put a bullet in his brain?”
“Lyria, I’ve been shot before! I know it’s no picnic! That was probably one of the scariest things that ever happened to me. A few seconds with the full realization that I was going to die…I go through that every time I fire a gun!”
“Then how is it you aren’t a complete wreck?”
“Well…I can’t let something psychological like that bring me down when the lives of my coworkers and of others are at stake!”
“It’s starting to seem like your job means more to you than I do!” Lyria turned from her husband and folded her arms across her chest.
“No, Lyria, that’s not it at all…I just…it’s different…”
“Too different. Sometimes I wonder if maybe we’re too different to be together.”
“I’m starting to think the same thing…I think maybe I’ll leave earlier than I planned. The chopper hasn’t come yet, I’ll catch a ride to Midgar and we can start our assignment early.”
“Fine. You do that.” Lyria’s voice had a bit of an icy edge to it.
“I will. Bye.”
Lyria didn’t turn as she heard the door slam behind her. Instead she ran upstairs to her room and threw herself on the bed, sobbing. After a few moments she heard the whir of helicopter blades grow and then fade to nothing. Lyria kept crying for a couple more minutes before finally letting her tears slow and sitting up. She picked up the phone and dialed Tifa’s number. “Hello, Tifa? I know it’s soon after the party and all, but could you come over and talk to me? I think I’ve done something really stupid and I feel terrible…I just really need someone to…oh thank you Tifa…I’ll see you soon…bye…”
“Cloud? Watch Aeris for a while. I’m going over to Lyria’s,” Tifa announced, handing the little girl over to her husband.
“Why? We just got back.”
“It’s important. Just trust me, ok?”
“All right…if you say so…c’mon Aeris, you can watch the Chocobo races with Daddy, ‘k?”
“Chobo!” Aeris giggled and clapped her hands together.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Cloud patted Aeris on the head and kissed Tifa goodbye. “Don’t be too long.”
“I won’t, don’t worry,” Tifa promised, returning her husband’s kiss. She pulled on her coat and stepped out the door into the chilly winter morning. She walked briskly over to the Shinra mansion and knocked on the door.
“Hi, Tifa…” Lyria sniffed, opening the door.
“What’s wrong Lyr?” Tifa exclaimed, slipping an arm around her friend’s shoulders.
“Oh, Tifa…I…I’ve done something horrible…” Lyria rubbed her eyes and blinked back tears.
“Calm down, honey, it can’t be that bad…come on, you go sit in the den and I’ll make you some coffee and we’ll talk, ok?”
Lyria nodded unhappily and headed for the living room. Tifa hung up her coat and hurried to the kitchen to make coffee. When she finished and brought two steaming mugs to the sitting room she sat down beside Lyria and patted her knee comfortingly.
“What’s the matter Lyr?”
“W-well…you know how I was so upset about everyone leaving?” Lyria sipped her coffee and sniffed again. “After the Turks had gone I threw an absolute fit and me and Vincent got in a big fight…it was irrational and petty and stupid, but I was upset and I…”
“Oh…” Tifa started to sense the direction the conversation was taking.
“I was absolutely terrible to him…I can’t believe I said some of the things I did…so now he’s left early for Mideel and he’s mad at me and…and I feel so awful for the things I said to him…”
“What did you say, exactly?”
“I told him I was mad that he had brought up the subject of everyone leaving and that I was starting to think that his job was more important to him than I was and…” Lyria didn’t finish and instead laid her forehead on her knees and started crying again.
“Lyria, don’t cry…come on, it’s not that bad…” Tifa rubbed a hand up and down her friend’s back gently. “He’ll come back and you’ll both have had time to cool off and you won’t be mad anymore. You can apologize and then you’ll make up and things will be back to normal again…”
“You think so?”
“Of course. Me and Cloud used to fight all the time, but we always sorted it out later on…”
“I hope you’re right…”
“Hey! What are you doing, Vincent?” Reno yelled as the dark haired Turk climbed into the chopper. “You’re coming along?”
“Lyria and I decided there’s no sense in having you come back two days later if you can just pick me up now…if that’s all right…”
“Yeah, of course…you can stay with me and Rude until Tuesday, unless you wanna leave early…”
“The sooner the better.”
“I didn’t anticipate you coming back, Vincent…we still have to stop at Midgar to drop of Elena and myself…” Reeve added.
“Fine with me. We can leave after we finish in Midgar.”
“Why the sudden rush to get away from home?” Elena asked as Vincent sat down beside her.
“No reason. The sooner I leave, the sooner I get back…”
“Oh…” Elena fell silent, but didn’t voice her suspicions that there was something more to Vincent’s abrupt desire to leave Nibelheim.
“We’ll probably be busy for a couple hours, Dale!” Reno yelled to the chopper pilot who had landed his helicopter just outside the ruins of Mideel to drop off the three Turks. “You know the drill. If we need sudden evacuation we’ll call you!”
The pilot nodded and took off again, leaving Reno, Rude, and Vincent standing in the open field. It was close to midnight and a sliver of the moon shone high in the sky, outlined against the stars.
“All right, let’s go… Reno, did you call ahead and make arrangements for us to meet with the leader of this group?”
“Of course I did. You told me to, didn’t you?”
“What’s with you? You seem sorta off tonight…”
“I’m just…it’s nothing. Don’t worry about me.”
“Hey, you’re our boss. We’ve run through too many leaders not to worry when one starts looking off color.”
“If you say so…” Reno shrugged. “Let’s get going, we don’t wanna be late…”
“Yeah…” Vincent led the way down a weed choked path to the burnt out and tumbledown buildings of what was once Mideel. The trio wandered carefully down the silent streets, weapons drawn and eyes scanning the area.
“Halt!” A sharp voice broke the nighttime stillness and the three whirled to face a rough looking man with a bandana around his forehead stood in an alley with a shotgun leveled at Vincent’s chest. “Who’re you?”
“Turks. Don’t point that at me.”
“I ain’t got no reason not to shoot you right here…”
“We’ve got an appointment. You’ll make us late if you shoot our boss and we have to gut you like a fish…” Reno growled ominously.
“You talk big. Skinny bastard like you hidin’ in a stupid suit…”
“Ok, skip the shooting; I’ll gut you like a fish anyway…”
“ Reno, cut it out.” Rude firmly laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’re here to negotiate, not pick fights with local hicks.”
“Local hick, am I? You goddamn city folks ain’t got no respect for us…we’ll show ya’…Midgar ain’t gonna last with us bombin’ it like we are…”
“Congratulations, you’ve succeeded in making us late,” Vincent said, sounding only slightly irritated. “As is always said, no good deed goes unpunished…” Without a second of warning Vincent’s handgun was out of its holster and he fired a single round at the man, striking him dead between the eyes.
“Nice shot,” Reno commented. “Good thing you had the foresight to bring a silencer…”
“Of course. Shall we continue?”
“Certainly.” As Reno passed the body he paused for a moment to give it a vicious kick. “I am not skinny!” he muttered under his breath.
“You are rather juvenile though. He’s dead, Reno, let it go,” Vincent said, not turning around.
“How the hell can you always hear me?”
“You’re not very quiet.”
“Yeah, well…” Reno trailed off as they approached a doorway at the end of the alley.
“Now, you shut up.”
Reno bit back the remark that danced on the tip of his tongue as Vincent rapped on the door.
“Who’s there?” a muffled voice from the other side of the door asked.
“Turks. We’ve got an appointment.”
“One minute.” The grating of a deadbolt lock followed the familiar sound of a shotgun being loaded. “Ok, come in…”
Vincent calmly tucked his gun back in its holster and opened the door into a dingy room lit with a single light bulb. Sitting at the table was a rather polished looking man in a dark suit with long blonde hair and several rings decorating his fingers. Around the edges of the room were several harsh looking men, armed with either guns or long blades.
“Turks, eh?” the man asked, examining the three men.
“May I have your names?”
“That’s Reno.” Vincent pointed to the red haired man who gave a kind of half salute with his nightstick. “That’s Rude.” Rude, as usual, did nothing. “I’m Valentine.”
“I see…you were sent by President Reeve?”
“For what purpose?”
“He wishes to know your demands and what it will take to stop your organization from terrorizing our city.”
“What shall I tell him in response?”
“I’m not entirely certain…I’ll tell you tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you and your men can stay in one of the old buildings.”
“Sir, we do not have authorization to…”
“Take it or leave it, Valentine.”
Vincent looked slightly annoyed. “My superiors will not be pleased.”
“I don’t give a damn about your superiors. You aren’t leaving.”
“Am I to understand that you are ordering us to stay?”
“It’s certainly shaping up that way, isn’t it?”
“Fine. We’ll discuss your terms in the morning. If you don’t let us go then, we can have a battalion of Shinra soldiers here in an hour.”
“Heartless aren’t you?”
“I’ve killed one of your men tonight. Let’s not allow for an instance where I shall be forced to make it three.”
“If even a single person attacks us, I’ll shoot you myself.”
The man laughed. “Cold blooded killer. I like that.”
“We’ll retire for the evening then.” Vincent turned and left the room with Reno and Rude close behind.
As soon as the Turks had left, the man chuckled to himself and beckoned to one of the mercenaries along the wall. “I want those three dead.”
“Damn…” Reno muttered. “Reeve’s gonna love this one…”
“It’s not our fault. We’re rather outnumbered,” Vincent answered. “Let’s try to find a building that’s at least slightly defensible. I don’t trust a single person in this camp.”
“Me either…” Reno answered, casting a glance over his shoulder at a mercenary with one eye who was sharpening a blade and staring at them evilly. “Where do you think we should go?”
“How about the old clinic?” Rude suggested quietly.
“Good idea. If it’s in good enough condition, at least…”
“First bit of luck we’ll have all evening if it is…” Reno grumbled. “This is not the best situation we’ve ever been in…”
“ Reno, shut up.” Vincent pulled out his gun and slowly pushed open the door of the clinic. “All clear…I’ll take first watch. You two sleep.”
“You sure? I could go first if…” Rude began.
“I’m fine. I’ll wake you at around four, how’s that sound?”
“I suppose…” Rude sat down on one of the beds that hadn’t been too badly damaged.
“Rude, just let him do what he wants. Now, shut up and let me sleep,” Reno whined.
“All right…make sure you wake me.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Vincent left the building and leaned against the wall, gun in hand. “Cold blooded killer…I guess I am…maybe Lyria was right …”
Vincent sighed and glanced towards the crater in the center of Mideel, where an eerie green glow radiated into the night. The Lifestream. Somewhere, below the sea water that gushed and ebbed against the rocky cliffs was the life force of the planet. Cloud said it had changed him, but how? Did it change Aeris, Hojo, Lucrecia, and Sephiroth, four very different people, all united by death? Vincent sharply glanced up as he heard a small noise. His blood red eyes swiftly scanned the area, seeing more clearly in the dark that in daylight and spotting several armed mercenaries advancing slowly towards the clinic. “Oh damn it…” Vincent slipped into the building and shook Rude’s shoulder. “Get up, we’re in trouble.”
“Huh?” Rude sat up and kicked the bed Reno was lying on. “Get up lazy ass, we got problems.”
“The hell? What’s going on?” Reno asked, sleepily fumbling for his nightstick.
“I think we may have been set up. There are about six mercenaries coming for the clinic. In all probability wanting to slaughter us in our sleep,” Vincent said grimly, loading his gun.
“Not happening. No one catches us off guard.” Reno swung his nightstick several times and flicked the power level on the shock generator to high.
Rude smacked a fist against his palm and crouched by the doorway. Reno and Vincent waited on opposite sides, ready to attack whoever entered the building. They didn’t have long to wait, as soon there was the sound of muffled whispering through the door. Reno snorted quietly in disapproval and was about to make a remark when Vincent silenced him with a glare.
The men outside suddenly burst in and yelled in surprise as Reno electrocuted the first; Vincent shot the second and Rude delivered a powerful punch to the neck of the third.
“Here we go!” Reno dashed out the door into the fray with Rude close behind and Vincent firing cover from the window. By now the yelling and shooting had alerted the others and they were beginning to attack in more numbers than the three Turks could handle.
“ Reno! Rude! Come on, we’re getting out of here!” Vincent yelled, firing a few more rounds as the other two ducked back into the building. “Try and get the back door open.”
Rude sized the door up with a quick glance and then kicked it dead center, splitting it down the middle. “Let’s go.”
Reno dashed through the door and waited behind the building, Rude followed and, after picking off a couple more mercenaries, so did Vincent.
“Now what?” Reno asked, panting heavily.
“Call the chopper and we’ll make a break for the edge of town.”
“Ok…” Reno flipped open his PHS and quickly dialed the number. “Dale? Hey, man, we’re in a bit of a sticky situation here…well, we’re sorta caught in a bit of a fire fight so we can’t have you landing anywhere too near the shooting…we’re gonna try to get to the edge of town, so maybe you can pick us up then?..uh huh….great…see you soon, hopefully…bye.”
“Can’t you make your phone calls a little more professional?” Vincent asked, peering around the corner and firing several rounds. “We are Turks…”
“We are also in major trouble. It helps keep things light if you blow it off…” Reno shrugged.
“Whatever…are you two ready to run?”
“Whenever you are.”
“Ok…go!” Vincent broke into a sprint, still loosing bullets from time to time as the three dashed around the corner of the clinic and towards the edge of town. There were a couple angered shouts as the Turks ran past, stopping only to shoot, club, or punch anyone in their way. The majority of the mercenaries were beginning to realize they were outclassed and began to back off, leaving Vincent, Reno, and Rude with a free path the edge of town, until the man in the suit stepped forward.
“Hold it right there,” he commanded sternly, drawing a machete from its sheath at his belt. “Back up, kids.”
Vincent arched an eyebrow and fired at the man. With a movement so fast none caught it; the man lifted his machete and stopped the bullet, sending it ricocheting off.
“Nice try. Stand down, Valentine.”
“You do not give me orders.” Vincent nonetheless backed a couple steps away from the man, only to find the edge of the crater behind him.
“I do now. What’s the expression used in your situation? Caught between a rock and a hard place, correct?”
“Something like that,” Vincent answered, eyes narrowed in hatred. “Let us go.”
The man laughed. “Not likely. I hope President Reeve will take this warning seriously. Turks are quite difficult to replace, are they not?”
“They’re also very difficult to get to the point where they need replacing.”
“You talk fast. More entertaining than the riff raff I hire.”
“More expensive too,” Reno growled.
“And harder to kill,” Rude agreed. “Bring it on, blondie.”
“Thank you, I believe I shall.” Without warning the man leapt forward, blade lowered, and charged at Vincent. The Turk dodged the attack easily as Reno and Rude ran forward to engage several of the mercenaries who had mustered up the courage to attack. Reno lashed about with his nightstick, delivering quick, painful jolts of electricity to whomever he managed to contact with the weapon, while Rude slammed his fists into the bodies of his opponents, often rewarded with a sickening crunch as he broke bone. Reno had a spare moment and turned, just in time to so see Vincent fall to his knees and the man in the suit pull his bloodied machete from the Turk’s midsection.
“Oops. So sorry,” the man apologized mockingly, raising his weapon to finish Vincent off. “Hey!” The man yelled, as his target suddenly flickered and vanished. “What in the hell…?”
“Oh damn…” Reno muttered, flashing back to the Shinra headquarters and replaying the scene that had unfolded in Lewis’s laboratory again in his mind, remembering Vincent’s transformation. He’d only seen it once before, but the mere thought scared the hell out of him. Reno closed his eyes as he heard a dreadful roar behind him. The mercenary he had been facing paled and took off at a blind run, screaming. Reno whirled to face the demon, who had grasped the blonde man and lifted him above his head as a man might lift a child. Chaos ignored the terrified screams from the man and launched himself into the air, powerful wings beating and carrying him out over the glowing green water of the Lifestream. With another bellow, Chaos hurled the man downward, towards the water.
Reno winced as the man plummeted down into the deep water at the center of the crater. He shuddered as the demon howled his triumph and out of the corner of his eye, caught a movement. It seemed almost in slow motion that Reno watched one of the mercenaries raised his rifle and take careful aim at Vincent. Time seemed to stop as the bullet erupted from the barrel of the gun, then sped up again as Reno heard Chaos howl in anger and pain as the bullet entered his body. He was dimly aware of Rude attacking the mercenary who had fired as he looked up to see Chaos seem to almost falter then flicker and fade. “Shit…” Reno breathed. “Rude!”
“Oh god…” Rude kicked aside the mercenary with the gun and joined Reno by the edge of the cliff. Though only a few seconds had passed, they seemed to have dragged for hours as Reno saw Vincent reappear and fall, hitting the water hard before going under. “Well that’s the end of it…”
“What?!?” Reno exclaimed. “You’re just giving up on him like that?”
“You saw how he hit the water. If he wasn’t already dead from that gunshot, he was out cold and he’s more than likely going to drown.”
“But…maybe he woke up when he hit the water…” Reno felt sick, looking out over the water with desperate hope. “C’mon Vincent…”
“Forget it Reno,” Rude said sadly, taking off his sunglasses and rubbing his eyes. “He’s gone…”
“Wait!” Reno exclaimed as Vincent suddenly broke the surface and began swimming towards the side of the crater where the slope was gentler and created a small cove. A faint red stain trailed behind him and Reno assumed it was from wherever he’d been shot. The dark haired Turk stood up as he entered the shallow water, stumbling forward several feet before crumpling to the ground.
Rude started climbing down the side of the embankment, easily lowering himself from one boulder to another. Reno glanced about for an easier route, but, finding none, sighed and tentatively followed Rude. Only a few feet down, he lost his footing and fell, landing on a rocky outcropping, several feet below the top of the cliff.
“Owww…” Reno grumbled, getting to his feet and surveying the drop from the brink of the ledge. It was about seven feet. Reno sighed again and decided to save himself the pain of falling. Taking a deep breath, he leapt off the edge, managing to keep his balance a few moments after landing, then falling over backward and sitting down hard.
“ Reno, quit joking around, he might be hurt…” Rude scolded his partner, landing gracefully next to him. “Come on.” Rude walked forward and crouched down by the still form, slumped face down on the rocky beach, water still lapping around his waist.
“Well?” Reno asked, getting up and joining Rude. “Is he ok?”
Rude carefully turned Vincent onto his side and felt for a pulse. “I’m not sure…I don’t think he’s breathing…”
“What?” Reno pressed a gloved hand against his leader’s chest. “Oh no…what do we do?”
“This like what happened to Tseng all over again…” Rude muttered.
“Shut up! We can’t just…we have to do something…” Reno trailed off. With a sudden inspiration he spun the dial on his nightstick to its lowest setting and touched it to Vincent’s chest. A quick press of one of the buttons on the handle sent a mild electric current through the still form.
“ Reno! What the hell are you doing?” Rude exclaimed as Vincent’s body jerked and he suddenly coughed up a small amount of blood and water.
“Is he breathing again?”
Rude held the tips of his fingers in front of Vincent’s nose and mouth. “Yeah…just barely though…”
“Thank god…now what?”
“I dunno. Why don’t you try shocking him again? After all, he’s just been shot, dropped fifty feet, and nearly drowned, it’ll do him good,” Rude answered scornfully.
“Hey, at least he’s not dead. I’m calling Dale; we should get him to a hospital…”
“So they can electrocute him professionally?”
“Just drop it!” Reno fished his PHS from his back pocket, only to find it dented and its usually brightly glowing screen dead.
“Oh damn it…Rude, gimme your…”
Rude didn’t wait for him to finish as he pulled out his small cell phone. “Don’t break it.”
“For god’s sake, I’m not gonna break your stupid…” Reno trailed off as he finished dialing the number and held the phone to his ear. “Dale? Yeah, sorry about that…hope we didn’t worry you too much…we’re in a bit of a situation here…how close can you safely land to the northern edge of the crater?…I think there’s a flat space along there somewhere…yeah, Vincent is…pretty badly, I think. He wasn’t breathing for a couple minutes…we just don’t want to have to move him too far, in case he’s broken bones or something…I don’t think there are any enemies left, but you might wanna be careful, just in case…uh huh…ok, hurry. Bye, Dale.” Reno clicked off the phone and handed it back to Rude. “He’s gonna try and find a landing space on the northern edge. If he can’t he’ll come down and give us a hand bringing Vincent up.”
“I might be able to manage. He’s rather slender, sorta like you, except you seem more on the scrawny side…”
“What the hell do you mean?”
“Emaciated. Skinny. Gangly. Skeletal. How else should I put it?”
“I dunno. Whatever. You think you can lift him?” Reno bent and lifted one of Vincent’s arms around his shoulder and pulled him to a half kneeling position. “Ugh. I sure can’t…”
“That’s because you’re scrawny.” Rude easily lifted Vincent to his feet and helped Reno carry him to the base of the cliff. “How do you think we’ll get him up?”
“I dunno…is there a gentler slope anywhere?” Reno scanned the face of the cliff for an area that wasn’t as steep. “Doesn’t seem like it…”
“Well…I didn’t get this job because of my looks…” Rude sighed. “I just don’t wanna hurt him any worse…Look at his shoulder, that bullet went clean through…”
Reno was about to say something when the steady thud of the helicopter blades cut him off. Glancing up, he waved at the pilot and was surprised to see him begin to lower the chopper down, onto the beach.
“Is he crazy?” Rude muttered.
“He’s a good pilot. And you just said you don’t want to risk injuring Vincent more than he already has been,” Reno answered, not taking his eyes off the helicopter as it slowly landed on the beach, pelting Reno and Rude with small pieces of gravel. “Way to go, Dale!” Reno yelled, jogging forward as the pilot hopped out of the helicopter.
“No problem, Reno. After all, I am the best of the best,” the pilot announced, sliding his sunglasses up his nose. “Get your friend in the chopper; we’ll head back to Midgar.”
“Yeah…is there a hospital with a helipad that you could land at?” Reno asked, running forward to help Rude, who had lifted Vincent again and half dragged, half carried him over to the helicopter.
“Sure is. Midgar General. Shouldn’t be a problem if we phone ahead…” Dale helped Rude secure a seat belt around Vincent’s waist. “Hoo boy, he’s not looking too well, is he?”
“No, he certainly isn’t…” Reno agreed, climbing into the passenger seat. “Hurry up, Rude.”
“I’m in, take off already.”
The helicopter slowly rose into the air and then sped off into the starry night in the direction of Midgar.
“Where…am I? What’s going on?” Vincent sat up and gazed around. It was black, nothing more. Just darkness, extending forever in all directions or at least as far as he could see. He rubbed his eyes and stood up, reaching for his gun, but finding his holster empty. Glancing around his surroundings, he looked for some sort of sign of where to go. Finding nothing but more blackness, he sighed and headed forward, deciding it was better than just standing around, unarmed, and waiting for something to happen.
“Hello, Vincent.” The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t possible for him to be hearing it. Well, it was possible, but far from healthy.
“Aeris?” Vincent turned to face the young girl who was standing behind him, though moments ago there had been nothing but shadows. For being dead, she didn’t look all that different, still in the same pink dress and boots, long brown hair swept back in a ponytail and still wearing a warm, hopeful smile. “What’s going on?”
“Calm down. There’s no need for you to be worried.” Aeris walked forward and laid a hand on his arm.
“I’m not worried…” Vincent felt a little strange lying to someone he knew was dead.
“Yes you are. I can tell. Don’t worry; you aren’t dead, if that’s what you’re thinking…”
4“I hadn’t even considered that…but…I’m not, right?”
“No, you were pretty close for a little while, though…you aren’t exactly out of the woods yet. You’ve changed, back when I knew you, you wouldn’t have cared either way…” Aeris sat down on the ground and held on to the tips of her boots, rocking back and forth slightly.
“Yeah…a lot’s happened…what do you mean ‘not out of the woods’? All I remember is… Reno…and Rude…and Chaos….”
“Do you know what happened?”
“Sort of…the blonde guy stabbed me, pretty badly because everything started to go dark and then Chaos came. Everything is sort of hazy after that, but I remember watching the blonde guy fall, then a gunshot, and I guess I blacked out after that…
“That’s what I thought. That’s about where the Lifestream took over. You might as well sit down.”
“What?” Vincent sat down next to Aeris.
“The Lifestream takes over the minds and bodies of people who get to close to it. It’s a potential threat to have people who are alive come in too close contact.”
“What does that mean?”
“Basically, anyone who gets to close to the source of the Lifestream is ‘possessed’ and brought to a safe distance.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You blacked out and you would have drowned if the Lifestream hadn’t taken control.”
“All you’ve told me is three variations of the same thing. And I still don’t get it.”
“Well, then shut up and stop asking questions. Tell me what’s been going on, I missed a lot…”
Reno held out his hand for Rude’s cell phone and quickly dialed the number Dale told him. “Hello, Midgar General Hospital?…Listen, this is an emergency. I’m a Turk flying in from Mideel and one of my coworkers is injured…I don’t know, I think it’s serious. I’m not sure what’s wrong with him…no…I don’t think so…umm…stop asking me questions lady, I put bullets in people, I don’t take them out…listen, we’ll be on the helipad in about five minutes, I want people ready to take care of…I don’t know the details! He’s pretty bad, ok? He took a bullet in the shoulder and it went straight through and he stopped breathing for a little while…he fell of a cliff…ok, do you want me to tell you what happened or not?…just get some goddamn people on your %^&#*&’ roof!” Reno slammed Rude’s cell phone shut and handed it back to him. “I hate doctors.”
Rude was about to answer when Vincent suddenly choked and gasped for air. “Hey!” Rude quickly unbuckled his seatbelt and knelt down, in front of Vincent, bracing a hand against his uninjured right shoulder and forcing him to sit up straight instead of slumping forward. For a second his eyes blinked open, but they were blank and glassy, having opened more out of reflex than consciousness.
“Rude? What’s wrong?” Reno asked, twisting around in his seat.
“I dunno…” Rude answered, studying Vincent closely. He suddenly coughed again, but this time failed to draw breath afterward. Rude swore and drove his fist into Vincent’s chest, forcing him to choke again and cough up more blood..
“What the hell are you doing?” Reno shouted. “Jesus Christ, Rude!”
“You yell at me for shocking him then haul off and break his ribs?”
“My reasons were the same as yours so we’ll call it even.”
The pilot eased the helicopter down on the roof of a large building with a red cross blazoned on the top. As the chopper landed, Reno leapt out and beckoned to a team of paramedics who were waiting by a door near the edge of the roof.
“Are you a doctor?” Reno asked a man in a white lab coat.
“Yes. Dr. James Everette.”
“Get over here,” Reno commanded, leading the doctor to the helicopter. He pulled open the door and pointed to Vincent, who was slumped in one of the helicopter seats, eyes closed and a small trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. “Deal with him.”
“What happened?” the doctor asked, climbing into the helicopter and carefully taking Vincent’s pulse.
“We were in Mideel on…business…and things got a little out of hand…”
“Let me rephrase this, what happened to him?” The doctor opened one of Vincent’s eyelids and shone a small flashlight directly into the blood red iris.
“Umm…it’s sorta complicated, but he fell about fifty feet after this guy shot him in the shoulder,” Reno answered helpfully.
“Why is he all wet?”
“There was water in the crater. He hit pretty hard.”
“Was it deep? Did he go under long?”
“A couple minutes…is he all right? He stopped breathing…and he’s been choking on blood ever since we got him outta the water…”
“It’s too early to tell,” the doctor replied evasively. “We’ll move him to a room and examine him a bit more thoroughly.” The physician waved at two paramedics who stood waiting with a stretcher. “Johnson! Clark! Take him down to the IC ward and have the nurse start him on blood and oxygen.”
“What? Intensive Care? Why? Is he in bad shape?” Reno asked worriedly as the two paramedics carefully shifted the lifeless form of his boss onto a stretcher.
“I told you, we can’t tell yet…”
“Listen, can we at least come in?”
“Through the main entrance, not through here,” the doctor gestured at the door near the edge of the roof. “This entrance is for emergency personnel only.”
“Ok…I guess we’ll go by the Shinra building and tell Reeve…take care of him, ok?” Reno asked, suddenly worried.
“Don’t worry, this is one of the best hospitals in the world, if he’s going to get better, it’ll be here.”
“What the hell does he mean ‘if’? He’s not going to…die…is he?” Reno brushed aside his thoughts and climbed into the helicopter. “Go fast, Dale. Rude call Reeve so he can be ready to go…”
Rude nodded and dialed Reeve’s number. “Reeve? Vincent’s been injured. Badly…”
“Rude! Don’t be so goddamn blunt!” Reno grabbed the phone from his partner. “Reeve? Calm down, he’s at Midgar General, we’re just coming by to pick you up, so we won’t have as much of a problem getting past security…someone’s gotta tell Lyria…I sure as hell ain’t going to…be careful how you break it to her…send a chopper for tomorrow…ok, we’ll be there momentarily…see you Reeve.” Reno sighed. “What a night…”
“I’ve definitely had better…” Rude agreed as the chopper landed on the roof of the Shinra building. Reno and Rude jumped out and ran to the door to the staircase leading down to the main part of the building.
“ Reno! Rude!” Reeve yelled, beckoning to the pair from the elevator. “Come on, I’ve got a car waiting…”
“Thanks Reeve. Have you called Lyria?” Rude asked.
Reno quickly recounted the events of the evening. “And now they won’t tell us what’s wrong with him…”
“We’ll fix that…” Reeve said grimly. “Intensive care?”
“Yeah…you don’t think it’s…you don’t think he’ll die, do you?”
“I’m not a doctor…I’m not looking forward to having to tell Lyria…”
“We thought maybe Elena could do it…” Reno suggested.
“Good idea…” Reeve fell silent as the three reached the parkade and stepped into a waiting car. Rude slipped behind the wheel and for once Reno didn’t argue. The tires screeched as he backed the car out of its parking space and sped up the ramp. The trip to the hospital seemed longer than before, partially because they were forced to take the roads rather than the skies and the silence in the car seemed to stretch the time. Finally arriving at the hospital Rude dropped Reeve and Reno off at the front entrance.
“I’m gonna go get Elena, we need her to tell Lyria and she’ll be worried out of her mind if we just phone her.”
“Good idea. I’ll call if we find out anything…” Reeve answered, waving to Rude and entering the hospital to find Reno arguing heatedly with the man at the front desk.
“You shut up and goddamnit listen to me! About ten minutes ago we dropped off a man with a rather serious injury; we need to know where they put him! He’s tall, about six feet I guess, dark hair, red eyes…and his left hand is a metal claw…”
“I’m sorry sir, the computer doesn’t list patients by physical description…did he give a name?” the man answered coldly.
“He wasn’t $&%#&@ conscious! How the hell’s he supposed to give a name if he’s half dead?”
“Back off, Reno,” Reeve commanded, stepping up to the counter. “Excuse me sir, I’m President Alexander Reeve of the Shinra Corporation. One of my men was injured earlier this evening and I’d like to check on him, talk to his doctor and such. Could you possibly check if there was a patient admitted in the past ten minutes? He would be in the Intensive Care ward; under the name Vincent Valentine if your paramedics checked his wallet…he’s a Turk, like Reno here.”
The man nodded nervously, finally recognizing Reno as one of Shinra’s elite. “Twentieth floor, room four eighteen…”
“Thank you,” Reeve answered simply, curtly gesturing to Reno and heading towards the elevator. Reno took a moment to stick his tongue out at the clerk at the desk, before hurrying into the elevator after Reeve.
“Damn jackass. Why the hell do they put people like that in hospitals?” Reno grumbled jabbing the button for the twentieth floor with his nightstick.
“ Reno, not everyone who disagrees with you is a jackass. You just aren’t very tactful,” Reeve said disdainfully, tapping his foot as the elevator climbed higher.
“Tact isn’t the biggest issue for me right now. All of the Turks are going to be a bit high-strung for a while. There’s a bit of a feeling of invincibility that comes from putting on this suit. We do what we want, we mouth of to authority figures, and we shoot people who get in Shinra’s way. All the bravado and nonchalance we build up is torn down when a Turk gets hurt or killed. You can’t notice it in Rude yet. If he gets a chance later on he’ll go off somewhere and start breaking things and Elena will be really depressed for a while, not her usual bubbly self.”
“What about you?”
“Me?” Reno laughed bitterly. “What do you think I’m going to do? If the reality is going to be Vincent’s death I’ll go home, find a couple bottles of liquor and drink until I can’t remember my first name. That’s my way of dealing with reality.”
“That’s not healthy Reno…”
“Is what Rude does healthy? What about Elena? They have their ways, I have mine. At least they’ve got each other. Don’t you remember what happened when Tseng died?”
“Excuse me, sir?” a secretary called, knocking lightly on the door of the head of Shinra’s office.
“What?” Rufus asked, looking up from his papers with mild irritation.
“Um…Tseng’s been killed…”
“What?! By who?”
“I don’t know the details, sir. I just know that Reno, Rude, and Elena showed up in a chopper a while ago and with his body.”
“God damn it…do you know expensive it’s going to be to replace him?” Rufus groaned.
“Ah…I don’t know sir…”
“Never mind. What are the other three doing?”
“Well, Elena hasn’t stopped crying since she got here, Reno seems to be attempting to drown himself in liquor and Rude has taken over the entire training floor and is breaking things.”
“Shit…those three are high-priced. Is Elena going to need counseling?”
“I can arrange for it, sir.”
“What about Reno?”
“I don’t think he’d appreciate it.”
“Well…see if you can get someone to talk to him…”
“I’ll try, sir.”
“Yeah. Just what is Rude destroying?”
“Weightlifting equipment, walls, vending machines, and anyone who gets within ten feet of him.”
“This is not good…Which of them seems most rational?”
“Rude, I guess…it make take some work to get him to the point where he can be approached without endangering the lives of employees.”
“No chance with Reno or Elena?”
“Elena’s devastated and Reno’s gotten to a stage of inebriation that’s a good deal past just drunk.”
“Fine. Get Rude in here.”
The secretary scurried out of the room and about five minutes later, crashing noises and screaming echoed down the hallway. Rufus winced and jumped slightly as the double doors to his office suddenly burst open, leaving one hanging by the bottom hinge and the brass nameplate on it dangling from one corner.
“What do you want Rufus?”
“God, Rude! You nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“Rude, I am your employer, watch your mouth…” Rufus threatened.
“Or what? You’ll have me killed? You’ve lost one Turk already, how much is that going to cost you?”
“I really don’t need this right now…”
“Well, then why’d you drag me up here?”
“Because I thought it would stop your destruction of company property! Clearly I was wrong.”
“If there’s nothing else, I’d like to get back to that.”
“No! Rude…wait…uh…I can’t let you.” Rufus stood up behind his desk.
“What I mean to say is…um…I need your help…”
“Oh yeah? With what?”
“Well, right now, you’re the most stable of the Turks…do you know anything of Reno and Elena’s situations?”
“I see…well, I need you to go deal with them.”
“To put it simply, because Tseng is dead. Normally, he’d be the one I would send for something like this, seeing as he was most experienced and reliable, but with his death comes the chance for each of you to prove your worth.”
“And you chose me?”
“Rather, you chose me, Rude. Your behavior, while destructive, is aggressive and that’s what we need in a situation like this.”
“You want aggression with Reno and Elena? So I should go beat them senseless, or what?”
“No, no, no, that’s not what I mean. I’m trying to say that you’re the one who’s coming through this without breaking down or resorting to raging alcoholism.”
“I sincerely hope it’s Elena who broke down and Reno who’s the raging alcoholic.”
“There’s another reason, you know those two better than anybody else.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ll take a shot at dealing with Reno, but I think Elena needs a professional to talk to.”
“Very good. Now, I believe Reno’s on the lounge floor, unless he’s moved since I last heard from my secretary…”
“I’ll find him.”
“ Reno?” Rude glanced around the rooftop of the Shinra headquarters. Rude had searched floors sixty and up with no trace of Reno. If he wasn’t on the roof he was either in one of the hundreds of offices on the other floors or outside the building and roaming the streets of Midgar. The latter was a possibility Rude didn’t even want to consider.
“Yeah?” the Turk’s familiar voice was slightly slurred.
“What are you doing?” Rude asked, sitting beside Reno on the pile of crates near the edge of the roof.
“Drinking…” Reno indicated the half-empty bottle of amber liquid he had in one hand.
“I see…I guess you don’t wanna talk?”
“I could if you want…I won’t be very good conversation. I’m drunk…”
Reno laughed and took another drink. “Yeah.”
“Have you talked to Elena?”
“She’s really upset.”
“I don’t blame her, I’m not exactly thrilled either.”
Reno stood up and walked to the edge of the roof, looking out over the lights of Midgar. “Rude, how many people do you think I’ve killed?”
Rude shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not sure…”
“Give me an estimate. Lots, right?”
“Well…yeah, I guess.”
“I mean, think about Sector 7 alone…that was hundreds of people…”
“Was it like this? For all their families and friends? It’s never been someone I knew…”
“ Reno, why can’t you get drunk like a normal person and pass out or throw up or something?”
Reno grinned. “I’m special.”
“No, you’re an idiot. You’re going to go to sleep tonight then wake up tomorrow morning with absolutely no memory of anything you said. I, on the other hand, will have to lie awake in bed tonight, thinking about all the junk you were saying and how many people I’ve killed.” Rude snorted. “The only thing I’m getting consolation from is that you’ll have a massive hangover tomorrow.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“Yeah, right. What are the odds of that happening?”
“Don’t ask me, I’m drunk, remember?” Reno stood up and finished the last of his bottle. “I’m going downstairs to find something else to drink.”
“Are you sure you should?”
Rude turned to stare out over Midgar’s upper plate, his eyes traveled aimlessly to the section that had collapsed over Sector 7. He heard the door to the stairwell open and close and seconds later there was a muffled crashing noise. “ Reno, you idiot…” Rude muttered under his breath. He got up and walked calmly over to the door and looked down the stairs to see Reno’s still form crumpled at the bottom, broken bottle of liquor still in his hand. He sighed and jogged down the steps two at a time. Rude lightly kicked Reno in the ribs and then turned to see Elena coming up the stairs.
“Hi, Rude…” Elena sniffed, eyes red from crying.
“What happened to Ren…oh…” Elena noticed the other Turk.
“Drunk.” Rude bent down and half lifted, half dragged Reno to where Elena was standing.
“Umm…I think I’m going to stay here tonight…I don’t want to go home alone…”
“I’ll stay too. So will Reno, mainly because I don’t want to have to drag him down to the parkade, stick him in my car, drag him to his apartment and stick him in bed.”
“How can you be so calm, Rude?” Elena asked as Rude continued down the stairs.
“I don’t know.”
“I feel so…I can’t believe it…” Elena choked back another sob.
“Yeah…you had a thing for him didn’t you?”
“I don’t know…I thought I did for a while, maybe…but I think it was more respect and gratitude. He sorta took me under his wing and showed me the ropes when I first came up…he was better than all three of us put together…” Elena pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, attempting to hold back more tears.
Rude decided Elena need him more than Reno did and dropped his partner on the ground less than carefully. Elena buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed without restraint. For at least ten minutes Rude held her, until he accidentally shifted his foot and stepped on Reno’s wrist.
“Oops…” Rude nudged Reno with his foot again. “We better find somewhere to put him.”
“I was going to go sleep on the training floor…there’re beds and stuff…” Elena sniffed and wiped her eyes.
“Yeah. Get the door for me.” Rude hauled Reno off the floor again and carried him through the door.
“You’re gonna stay too?” Elena asked, following Rude to the elevator and pressing the button.
“Sure. It’s too late to be out on the roads.” The doors slid open and Rude dropped Reno on the ground again.
“Be careful,” Elena admonished, kneeling down and taking Reno’s sunglasses off his head, folding them and tucking them into his front pocket. “Just because he’s drunk is no reason to throw him around like that.”
“Poor Reno…he’s going to feel absolutely awful in the morning…why does he do that? Drink the way he does?”
“I guess he doesn’t know what else to do. He’s had a rather rough life and I think he finds comfort wherever he can.”
Elena didn’t answer and idly brushed a couple stray locks of Reno’s messy red hair off his forehead as the elevator stopped at the training floor. “Dear god…Rude, did you do this?” she gasped, looking around at the destroyed furniture.
“Uh huh.” Rude sighed and pulled Reno off the floor again. “I’m not carrying him anymore.”
“It’s not much farther. Just down the hall.” Elena hurried ahead and stepped into the darkened room at the end of the hallway. She flipped on a light switch and pulled back the blankets on one of the beds. “Put him here,” she directed pointing at the bed. Rude dropped Reno for the third time and Elena gently tucked him in. “I feel like his mother.”
“I don’t know that Reno ever had a mother.”
“Lots of people have mothers, Rude.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I mean I think he was born and then his mother died. It’s pretty rough to be an only child, growing up in an orphanage so he joined the Turks when he turned sixteen.”
“What about you?”
“I didn’t know the Turks drafted people…”
“They don’t anymore.”
“Oh…” Elena yawned. “I think I’ll go to sleep now…”
“Ok.” Rude kicked off his shoes and sat down on one of the beds. “Good night.”
“I’ll be right back.” Elena slipped into the change room and Rude lay down on his bed. There was a soft rustling from the locker room, but Rude paid it no attention and pulled off his sunglasses before closing his eyes.
“Rude?” Elena said softly, walking up and laying a hand on his shoulder. The blonde Turk was wearing only her white dress shirt, which reached just to mid thigh. “Thanks for listening…”
“No problem Elena. Have a good sleep…”
“Morning…” Elena greeted Reno as the redhead rolled over with a weak groan. “How are you feeling?”
“Like hell,” Reno mumbled, pulling a pillow over his head and turning back onto his chest.
“Want some coffee?”
“Please. By the way, where’s…” Reno didn’t finish as Rude’s hand grabbed him by the back of the jacket and hauled him out of bed.
“Rude, be careful…” Elena cautioned, sipping her coffee and watching idly from Rude’s bed. During the middle of the night she’d gotten lonely and decided to curl up with Rude, to help abate her loneliness.
“Don’t worry, I’ve done this before.” Rude dragged Reno across the floor and towards the showers, opening a stall and throwing him in.
“What the…” Reno was cut off by a rush of water as Rude reached in and turned the shower on full blast.
“$%^$! Rude, that’s cold!” Reno yelled.
Elena giggled and Rude smiled at her as he braced his back against the door. “Are you sober yet?”
“The hell I’m sober! Lemme out, bastard!” The shower door was jolted as Reno threw his shoulder against it, having about as much effect as he would were the door made of stone. “Ow.”
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Elena called.
“Too late…come on Rude…I’m cold…” Reno pleaded, teeth chattering.
“All right…” Rude opened the door and Reno tumbled out, dripping water on the floor.
“Oh, come here, Reno…” Elena patted the bed next to her.
“I’ll get you wet…”
“It’s ok. Come sit down, I’ll get you some coffee, ‘k?”
“Yeah…why’re you being so nice, Elena?” Reno wrung some of the water from his ponytail and sat down next to Elena.
“I suppose ‘cause you’re really hung over and I feel sorta bad for you…”
“Oh. Thanks. People don’t usually feel bad for me…”
“Well, I do. Turks have to stick together.”
“Thanks Elena. I know it’s my own fault…”
“ Reno, you talk too much…”
Rude knocked on the door of Elena’s apartment. “Elena!” he whispered loudly. “Elena, wake up!”
There was a crashing noise and some muffled swearing from inside the apartment and moments later the door opened, revealing a sleepy Elena, in a short nightdress, rubbing her knee.
“Rude? I’m too tired for sex right now…” the blonde mumbled. “Come back tomorrow and we can do whatever you want, but…”
“Elena, this is an emergency.”
“Hmm? Well…I guess if it’s an emergency…maybe if I had some coffee, we could fool around a bit…”
“No, Elena, not that. Vincent’s really badly hurt and we need someone to tell Lyria…”
Elena suddenly looked more alert. “Why me?”
“Why do I have to? I always get stuck with these kinds of jobs…Lyr’s gonna be really upset…”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Please…we need you. Do you think I could tell her? Reno bit my head off in the chopper because I was too blunt when we told Reeve…”
“Why can’t Reno do it?”
“Because Reno’s a moron. He’s not exactly the most sensitive person on the planet.”
“Well…I guess not…all right…I’m coming. Wait there.” Elena shut the door of her apartment and reemerged moments later, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. “So now what?”
“We’ll head to the hospital and check in with Reeve and Reno. Come on, I’ve got a car outside.”
“What’s wrong with Vincent?”
“I don’t know. He’s in pretty bad shape though…”
“Surely you can tell me more than that?” Elena persisted, getting into the passenger’s seat of Rude’s car.
“No, I can’t. I’m not a doctor. You can find out when we get to the hospital.”
“A lot’s been going on…” Aeris said softly. “I missed so much…Cloud and Tifa, Cid and Shera, I didn’t even get to meet Lyria. She sounds like a wonderful person.”
“She is. She’s perfect. You would like her very much.”
“Why do you sound so remorseful when you say that? You’d think you’d be happy.”
“It’s…I don’t know…Tifa and Cloud named their daughter after you…”
“Really? Oh…that’s so sweet…” Aeris giggled. “Is she a pretty baby?”
“Yeah…blonde, brown eyes, always laughing.”
“Oooh! I’m so glad…what about you? Do you plan to name any kids after me?”
Vincent looked away and stood up. “Aeris, when can I leave?”
“Huh?” Aeris stood up too and put a hand on his shoulder. “Whoa, wait a minute. You aren’t going anywhere. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“There’s nothing to answer.”
“What’s the matter? C’mon, you can tell me…”
“I…I’d really rather not…”
“Sheesh, you’d think Lyria would have been able to break you of this habit of thinking no one cares about you.”
Vincent sighed and sat down again. “You really want to know?”
Aeris waited expectantly for a few moments. “Well?”
“I told you about Lyria. She’s perfect. I’m far less than that.”
“Oh…you think she’s too good for you?”
“I know she is.”
“Then why did she marry you?”
“I don’t know.”
“More importantly, why has she stayed with you? It takes more to keep two people together than a bunch of vows and a honeymoon.”
“She deserves better. She wants to have kids, I won’t do that.”
“Do you know what happened to me? To make me the way I am? You don’t understand what it’s like being…being someone’s science experiment.”
“My mother was a ‘science experiment’. I understand a lot better than you think.”
“What did Gast do to your mother? He asked her questions about her race and about her life and about how she was different from humans. What do you think Hojo did to me? He made me different from other humans. He didn’t care how I felt about it.”
Aeris gently laid a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “You’re right. I don’t understand. You could show me, if you wanted…”
“You don’t want to see.”
“I can handle it. Show me. I want to understand.”
“Do you really?” Vincent’s gaze was sad. “Even if you did really want to, I don’t know how.”
“It’s easy, I’ll teach you. Here I’ll do it first. Close your eyes…” Aeris instructed.
“Just wait, I have to think of a strong memory…that isn’t too personal…ok, here goes…”
The blackness suddenly faded and disappeared to be replaced by the tranquil stillness of the city of the Ancients. Aeris knelt near the edge of one of the pillars, hands clasped in prayer and lips moving slightly.
“Are you watching?” Aeris’s voice echoed in Vincent’s mind.
There was a noise as Cloud leapt from one of the pillars and landed before Aeris. Mako eyes glowing brighter than usual and seeming slightly unfocused Cloud walked forward and lifted his sword. Aeris didn’t seem to notice and didn’t look up from her meditation. Cloud tensed and brought his sword whistling down through the air towards Aeris.
“Cloud!” Tifa screamed.
“The hell you doin’?” Barret echoed.
“Wha…” Cloud stopped his sword stroke in midair and blinked a couple times and green glow in his eyes faded slightly. “Aeris!”
Aeris finally looked up, eyes alight with devotion. A small smile lit up her features. There was a rustling noise overhead and Sephiroth dropped from a hole in the ceiling above, plunging his sword into Aeris’ back.
Vincent cried out and dropped to his knees, pressing a hand against his chest. He could feel cold steel piercing his midsection and life starting to drain from his body. “Aeris!”
“Oh! Sorry!” Aeris exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I completely forgot. Here, I’ll make it stop.”
The pain abruptly vanished. “Thanks.”
Aeris slumped forward into Cloud’s arms as Sephiroth drew out his sword. The vision flickered and faded, shifting back to darkness before Vincent’s eyes.
“I’m sorry about that…” Aeris helped Vincent to his feet. “I forgot I was sharing more than just the images of what happened.”
“It’s all right. That was nothing.”
Aeris looked slightly offended. “It was a bit more than nothing. I died there, you know.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I meant I’ve had far worse.”
“Oh…do you still want to show me?”
“You want to see, don’t you? How do I shield you from what I remember feeling?”
“All you do is remove that part of the memory from what you convey to me…this is going to be hard for you…experiencing all that pain again…”
“You relived your death, I’ll relive mine.”
Aeris shivered slightly, despite the lack of wind, cold, or anything that would normally make a person shiver, except fear and an icy feeling she had in the pit of her stomach.
“Excuse me? Are you Dr. Everette?” Reeve politely asked a man in a white lab coat who was pointing to a clipboard and giving instructions to a nurse.
“Yes. How may I help you?” The doctor turned to face the President of Shinra.
“I’m Alexander Reeve of Shinra Corporation. Earlier this evening one of my men was brought in by helicopter. Reno says you were the doctor on call. Could you tell me his condition?”
“He’s an employee of yours?”
“Yes. His name’s Vincent Valentine.”
“Ah. Well…” the doctor examined the clipboard in his hands. “To be blunt he’s bleeding internally and the blood is draining into his lungs. If it isn’t stopped he’ll quite literally drown in his own blood. Now, he’s on medication that will slow and stop the bleeding so it shouldn’t have a chance to get any worse, but he is in fairly critical condition…”
“Will he be all right?” Reno asked. “He got shot in the shoulder, is that bad?”
“It’s too early to tell. He’s under observation; I’ve got the nurses keeping a close eye for any change in his condition. He was actually pretty lucky with his shoulder, there’s no severe tendon or muscle damage and it should heal in time.”
“That’s it?” Reno exploded. “Can’t you do any better than that?”
The doctor looked slightly irritated. “Would you like the truth?”
“I thought we were getting the truth,” Reeve said suspiciously.
“Partially. To be honest, that isn’t all that’s wrong with him. In theory, he should be awake by now…but he seems to be even less responsive than would be considered normal.”
“What do you mean?” Reno asked sharply. “Is he comatose?”
“No…or if he is, it’s not a normal coma. There is neurological activity, but in the wrong areas for a coma. It’s possible that prolonged lack of oxygen has done brain damage, but it will take more tests to prove that.”
“How the hell…” Reno began angrily, but Reeve cut him off.
“I trust in your medical competence, Dr. Everette. I’m sure whatever route you decide to take will be in the best interest of Vincent’s health.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. I assure you, we shall take the greatest possible care of him.”
“Unfortunately I now face the rather daunting task of informing his wife,” Reeve sighed.
“His wife? I was of the understanding that not many Turks are married…”
“Not many are. He’s probably been married for close to half a year now. His wife is a lovely woman, Lyria Valentine.”
“Dr. Lyria Valentine?” Dr. Everette asked, a note of disbelief in his voice.
“Yes…you know her? She’s a gorgeous creature, chestnut hair, rather petite figure, green eyes.”
“I thought I knew her…but…never mind, I don’t think it’s the same person…”
“Whatever…May we see him?”
“I suppose.” The doctor opened the door and Reno stepped forward to get a look at his comrade. There was an IV by the bed draining blood into his body and a respirator forced oxygen into his lungs.
“Does he really need all that?” Reno asked, slightly shocked at how pale and lifeless Vincent looked. He tried to stop himself from thinking about how pale and dead Tseng had looked in the Temple of the Ancients and suppressed a shudder.
“He doesn’t need it…it’s more of a precaution. On his own he’d barely be clinging to life, but this ensures his condition stays stable.”
“Critical, but at least stable…” Reno muttered acidly.
“Reeve!” Elena called from down the hallway. “Sir, what’s going on?”
“Didn’t Rude tell you?” Reeve asked, looking at Rude as he and Elena walked up to the small group.
“He told me as much as he knew…I don’t think that’s very much though. I was also thinking that instead of phoning Lyria, I’d take a chopper in the morning and pick her up. Just to save her the rest of the night worrying…” Elena looked into the room over Reno’s shoulder. “Oh my god…is he really this bad?”
Reno shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. I hope not…”
Elena leapt from the Shinra helicopter and landed lightly, black shoes crunching on the powdered snow in the fields just outside Nibelheim. She waved to the helicopter pilot and jogged towards the town entrance. Elena walked up the snowy streets of Nibelheim towards the small hospital. It was still early morning and the snow shimmered a rosy pink as the light of dawn crept over the roofs of the houses. Elena sighed and entered the hospital. She walked up to the front desk and smiled at the man at the counter. “Excuse me; is Lyria Valentine on call tonight?”
“Yes.” The man didn’t look up from the form he was filling out.
“Umm…may I speak to her?”
“It’s against protocol.”
Elena narrowed her eyes. She did not approve of having to deal with someone she could easily pound to a bloody pulp. She pulled out her ID card and held it in the man’s face. “See this? This means I’m a Turk and I can do what I want, say what I want, and wring the necks of people who get in Shinra’s way. I’m a member of Shinra--it says so on the card,” Elena pointed to her Shinra employee number, “And you’re in my way. What does that give me authorization to do?”
The man looked up at Elena, who looked rather menacing, baby blue eyes gleaming coldly and angel pink lips pursed in disapproval. “Umm…”
“Second floor, maternity ward,” the man answered nervously. “Don’t hurt me…”
“You got lucky buster.” Elena turned towards the elevators and headed for the second floor. Looking left and right down the hallway, she suddenly heard Lyria’s familiar laugh float from a room to her left. She approached the door and listened for a moment to the conversation between her friend and a woman who was apparently a new mother.
“I’m so nervous about finally being a mommy…” the woman sighed, looking lovingly at the baby she held in her arms. “My husband’s been really supportive though. I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
“You wouldn’t have been pregnant for one thing, but I know what you mean…” Lyria answered. “I miss my husband terribly, especially since we had a big fight just before he left and I’ve been regretting it ever since…”
“Oh no…” Elena thought.
“What was it about?”
“I was just in a bad mood and I took it out on him…I wish I hadn’t…”
“What’s his job?” the woman asked, then hushed her child as it made a slight whimpering noise.
“He’s a Turk.”
Elena sighed and knocked on the door of the room. “Hey, Lyria…”
“Elena!” Lyria exclaimed, standing up from her chair beside the woman’s bed. “Hi! I didn’t expect to be seeing you so soon…”
“Am I interrupting something?” Elena asked. “If you’re busy with a patient…”
“Oh, no. Not at all, I’m just talking with Helen about her baby…isn’t she beautiful?” Lyria gestured at the small bundle the woman was holding in her arms.
Elena looked at the sleeping child the mother cradled and smiled. “She’s a gorgeous baby…”
“I’m actually done my shift, so you could come over to my place for coffee if you want, I’ll just get out of my doctor costume.” Lyria plucked at the white lab coat she wore over a cream-colored cable knit sweater and business slacks. “It’s been great talking to you, Helen. I’ll try to stop in tomorrow too.”
“That would be nice; I’ll be out of here by Friday, though, right?”
“Uh huh. I’ll be seeing you around, ‘k?”
Lyria smiled and waved as she headed out the door and down the hall to her office. There was silence for a while as she changed quickly into a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt. “So, Elena, are you up for a cup of coffee?”
Elena bit her lip. “Lyr, I’m not sure how to say this…”
“What?” Lyria asked a shadow of worry in her voice. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Vincent isn’t it? Oh god…Elena what’s wrong? He isn’t…dead is he?” Lyria asked, tears already glowing in her eyes.
“No, he’s at Midgar General Hospital…”
“I need to see him.”
“The chopper’s just outside town. C’mon, we can be there in fifteen minutes.” Elena looped an arm through Lyria’s.
“Is he…badly hurt?” Lyria asked fearfully.
“I don’t know. I got my info from Rude and he’s rather closemouthed. From what I understand they were in Mideel and things got a little tense…”
“Do you know what’s wrong?”
“I wish I did, but no one’s telling me anything.” Elena waved to the chopper circling above Nibelheim and headed towards the main entrance of town with Lyria in tow. “I’m sure he’ll be ok.”
Lyria didn’t answer as she climbed into the helicopter after Elena. Choking back a weak sob, she buried her face in her hands.
“Hey…c’mon, it’s all right…” Elena patted Lyria’s shoulder. “He’s a Turk, he’ll pull through…”
“B-but…what if he doesn’t…what if he dies and the last words I ever said to him were said in anger? Oh, Elena…”
“Lyria…he’ll be ok…” Elena said, gently laying an arm across her friend’s shoulders. “Just…calm down…”
“Elena…I just…I feel so bad…”
“Don’t worry…it’ll be ok…” Elena continued her efforts at comforting Lyria until the helicopter touched down on Shinra’s roof. “We’re here.”
Lyria silently followed Elena to the elevator at the edge of the roof. She sighed as Elena pushed the button and the doors slid open. “Do you really think he’s all right?”
“I’m sure he’s fine…well…not fine…he’s not going to die, ok?”
Lyria sniffed and rubbed her eyes. “I’m scared…”
Elena sighed and stepped off the elevator as it arrived at ground level. “Come on, I parked Rude’s car on the street outside…”
Lyria allowed Elena to lead her through the bustling Shinra lobby and out to the street. She climbed into the car and sat down in the passenger seat. “I interned at MG…I wonder if anyone will remember me…”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Elena wove through traffic towards the hospital and pulled into the parking lot.
Lyria got out of the car and walked towards the entrance of the hospital. “Which ward is he in?”
Elena hesitated. She’d been trying to downplay the severity of Vincent’s injury. “Intensive care…but…”
“What? Elena you said…never mind, let’s just get going…I’ll judge for myself how bad he is…” Lyria quickened her pace and shrugged off the hand that Elena laid on her shoulder, evidently upset that she had been lied to.
“Lyria! Lyria, wait…I’m sorry…I didn’t want to worry you because I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with him and…”
“I know, Elena…” Lyria sighed. “I just…I’m so frightened…I’ll die if I lose him…”
Elena fell silent as Lyria approached the front desk of the hospital. The man at the desk cast a disdainfully bored glance at Lyria, slight sneer lighting his features. Elena had to admit Lyria didn’t look her best, eyes red from crying, faded t-shirt, and holes in the knees of her jeans. Without waiting for her friend to speak, Elena pulled out her ID badge and grabbed the man firmly by the collar. “Turks. Where’s Vincent Valentine?”
“T-twentieth floor…room four e-eighteen,” the man gasped, staring in wide-eyed horror at Elena.
“Thank you.” Elena grabbed Lyria’s hand and pulled her towards the elevators. Pushing the button for the twentieth floor, Elena sighed and leaned against the wall. “I’m tired…”
“For what? Not your fault…” Elena smiled at her friend.
“You could go home if you want…” Lyria offered.
“Nope. I’m sticking with you.”
“No problem.” Elena stepped off the elevator and let Lyria take the lead. She seemed to know very well where she was going. She hurried to a doctor just stepping out of room four eighteen.
“Lyria! Lyria Kindred…” the doctor exclaimed. “Do you remember me? James Everette? We used to…”
“Huh?” Lyria looked closely at the man. “Oh! James, I didn’t recognize you…” Her eyes travelled over his shoulder and through the half-open door he stood in front of. “My mind’s sort of elsewhere…”
“Then you are married to…”
“Yes…may I see him? Please, James…”
“Of course…by all means…” Dr. Everette stepped out of her way and let her through the door to Vincent’s room.
Lyria pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down. Her eyes travelled over the still body on the bed. Vincent’s eyes were closed and his lips slightly parted. Lyria gently laid a hand on his chest, bare down to his waist except for a bandage wrapped tightly around his ribs and one on his left shoulder, and traced her finger over the scars lacing his torso. “Vincent…” Lyria blinked back tears and tightly grasped her husband’s hand. “I’m sorry…” she whispered. “Please…I didn’t mean anything I said…”
Dr. Everette stood in the door with Elena at his side. “And I thought living through Meteor was a surprise…” he said softly, closing the door.
“Huh?” Elena asked. “What do you mean?”
“Lyria…is the last person on earth I’d expect to see crying over the injuries of a Turk, let alone married to one…”
“But…Lyria adores Vincent…”
“She was never like this before…not at all…”
“Get a doctor over here,” a big man in a blue suit and carrying a chain mace directed, hurling a young boy with a bloodied right arm to the floor of the lobby of Midgar General Hospital.
Lyria looked up at the man and rushed forward, kneeling by the young man. “What happened?”
“Drafted him, but our friend here didn’t want to go…” the man delivered a vicious kick to the boy’s chest and he cried out weakly in pain.
“Stop that!” Lyria exclaimed, carefully helping the young man sit up.
“I’m a Turk and he’s my prisoner, so I’ll do what I want,” the man growled, lifting his mace threateningly.
Lyria stood up and glared coldly at the man. “No, you won’t.”
The man laughed harshly. “You gonna tell me what to do, girly?” He grabbed Lyria’s arm tightly and pulled her close. “No one tells me what to do…”
Lyria flinched as his grip tightened and reached into the pocket of her lab coat. In a smooth motion she pulled out a small syringe and drove it into his arm.
“Wha…” the man released Lyria and stumbled backwards drunkenly before collapsing on the ground.
“Lyria!” a doctor exclaimed. “What did you do to him?”
“I just gave him a mild sedative…” Lyria answered innocently, kneeling back down by the boy who had watched wide eyed as Lyria felled his captor.
“Mild?” the doctor asked with an arched eyebrow. “It would take more than a mild sedative to drop an ox like that…”
“All right, so it was a strong sedative. Who cares? Just get someone to drop him off in the dumpster in Shinra’s parking lot.”
“Lyria, you’re going to get yourself in trouble with the government…”
“Damn the government, James. I’m not going to sit idly by and watch Shinra’s stupid Turks pull innocent young men from their homes and families…” Lyria answered hotly.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt…”
“Let them try and get me.” Lyria tossed her head defiantly.
“Lyria, this is serious…”
“Don’t worry about me…now, what’s your name?” Lyria kindly asked the young man.
Lyria cut him off before he finished speaking. “Don’t give me your last name. If I don’t know, I can’t tell, right? Where’re you from?”
“Lovely town. But, for our purposes, we’ll patch you up and get you on the next train to…umm…how about… Costa del Sol. You can lie low for a while and then head back to Corel to see your family.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I hate Shinra, specifically the Turks,” Lyria answered simply. “Nothing makes me happier then messing up their plans in whatever way I can.”
“Lyria? Hating Shinra?” Elena said sceptically. “Are you sure? She’s the best of friends with all us Turks and even President Reeve.”
“The company’s different, now that Reeve is in charge…”
“Well…yeah…” Elena still found it difficult to believe.
“I should go in and check on her…” Dr. Everette entered the hospital room and found Lyria, reading over a chart at the end of the bed.
“James…these numbers…his vital signs are all over the map…” Lyria murmured, scanning through the values on the chart. “Surely…is there some mistake?”
“Not that I can tell, Lyria.”
“But…but it’s so inconsistent…at one point last night he could barely breath on his own and his heart rate was dropping like a rock, and now he seems almost…”
“Almost like he shouldn’t even be here, except for the fact that he’s nearly comatose…”
“Yes…have you run any neurological tests?”
“That’s another thing…the results were…far higher than we expected for a patient in his condition…”
“That’s conflicting with his physical responsiveness…” Lyria sat down by the bed again. “Have you done blood tests? X-rays?”
“Both, there’s nothing wrong save for fractured ribs showing up on the X-rays. Even that isn’t serious…and we’re still waiting for the blood test results.”
“But…he’s so cold…is there anything else?”
“Well…we were going to call in a specialist on Mako poisoning…he might have been exposed to fairly high levels of Mako radiation being near the Lifstream,” Dr. Everette answered.
“The Lifestream? I don’t understand…Elena, could you please explain?”
Elena quickly ran through the details of what Reno and Rude had told her. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you more…”
“That’s all right Elena, it’s good enough…” Lyria lightly touched her fingers against her husband’s cheekbone. “I’ll make him better…”
“Are you ready to try?” Aeris asked.
“I guess…” Vincent answered almost absently.
“We’ll start with something we both remember…hmmm…how about…oh! I know! How about when we first met you? I was there…to be honest; you scared me half to death.” Aeris smiled and looked at Vincent expectantly. “Ok, go ahead.”
“I’ll try.” Vincent closed his eyes and thought back to the morning that Cloud, Aeris, and Red XIII had showed up at the Shinra Mansion.
There was a grating noise as a key turned in the rusty lock of a door to a forgotten chamber of the abandoned Shinra Mansion.
“Cloud…I don’t really want to go in there…” Aeris pleaded. “Can we please just leave?”
“Aeris, I didn’t figure out four insanely difficult clues…” Cloud began.
“What are you talking about? I was the one who figured all those out!” Red protested. “And they weren’t that difficult…”
“Well…I didn’t kill that thing in the safe just to leave without finding out what’s in here.”
“It wasn’t just you, Cloud,” Aeris said scornfully. “We helped too…and for my part, I want to leave. What about you, Red?”
“I must admit, I’m curious…” Red said. “Hojo went to a lot of trouble hiding whatever’s down here…”
“Exactly,” Cloud said triumphantly. “It could be a weapon or something that could help us kill Sephiroth.”
“Why must your mind always be on weaponry?” Aeris grumbled.
“You don’t have to come in if you don’t want to…” Red said.
“Are you joking? I’m not staying out here alone!” Aeris protested. “I’ll come in…”
“Ok, don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe…” Cloud promised.
“Thanks Cloud…” Aeris answered gratefully as Cloud pushed open the door to the darkened chamber.
The room was dark and musty, cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and several coffins against the far wall. Cloud held his sword at ready, and approached one of the caskets.
“Cloud!” Aeris exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
“I wanna see what’s inside…”
“That’s a coffin! Are you seriously…”
Aeris was cut off as Cloud wedged the flat of his blade underneath the lid of the coffin and pried it upward, pulling out nails and letting the lid drop heavily to the floor.
“Cloud…” Aeris gasped, studying the man lying asleep in the casket. He had wild black hair, almost to his shoulders, black clothing except for a dark red cloak, and looked only a couple years older than herself. Aeris couldn’t quite get past the concept that he was nailed in a coffin, in a locked room, the key of which had been in a safe with a vicious monster to defend it and a cryptic set of clues lending the only hint to the combination. All in a mansion that had been abandoned for nearly thirty years. It was rather obvious that his slumber was not meant to be disturbed, despite the fact that he didn’t look like he was sleeping very peacefully.
“He’s…alive?” Red asked, obviously puzzled. “This mansion has been empty and devoid of human life for nearly thirty years…”
“And so it remained, until you arrived.” Aeris jumped slightly as the man spoke, opening his eyes and sitting up. “To wake me from the nightmare…who are you?”
“If you were having a nightmare, aren’t you glad someone woke you?” Aeris cocked her head to the side. “Of course, you’ll definitely have nightmares if you try to sleep here…”
“Why did you wake me?” His voice was very quiet, as though he hadn’t talked in a long time and was just remembering how.
“I don’t know. It was Cloud’s idea. We’re sorry,” Aeris apologized. “Why are you here anyway?”
“For what?” Cloud asked, leaning on his sword.
“My sins. There are many, I doubt I shall ever be rid of their burden.”
“Oh…we’re fighting Sephiroth,” Cloud announced. It was one of the surest ways he knew of drawing attention to himself.
“You know Sephiroth?”
Cloud half smiled. That was the question he’d been waiting for. “Well, you see…” Aeris rolled her eyes as Cloud launched into a big elaborate description of their mission.
By the end of Cloud’s narrative, the man was noticeably irritated; as though what Cloud had told him was not something he had wanted or needed to hear. “Leave me be.”
Cloud looked mildly startled as the man lay back down and by some strange power flipped the cover back onto the coffin. “Hey! Wait a minute!” Cloud pulled the lid off again.
“What do you want?”
“You could, at the very least, give us your name…”
“Vincent Valentine, formerly of the Turks. Now, let me sleep.”
“You’re a Turk?” Cloud interrupted, before Vincent could get the lid of his coffin back on.
“I was a Turk. Not anymore. I have no affiliation with Shinra now.” Vincent hesitated for a moment. “Have you…have you ever heard of a woman named Lucrecia?”
“Lucrecia?” Aeris asked, slightly concerned by the faint note of pain in Vincent’s voice.
“Yes…my angel…Gast’s assistant and mother of Sephiroth…”
“Sorry, never heard of her,” Cloud said dismissively.
“Cloud!” Aeris scolded then turned to address Vincent. “Was she your…?”
“No. She’s dead. And it’s my fault…because…I couldn’t stop her. I couldn’t stop Gast, I couldn’t stop Hojo, and I couldn’t stop Lucrecia. Now, leave me.”
Cloud didn’t stop him as he lay back down and returned the lid of the coffin to its respective place. “Let’s go, I have to sharpen my sword after that pointless battle.”
“Bye, Vincent…” Aeris called softly, following Cloud out the door.
“Well…I don’t know that it was entirely pointless…we did get the Odin materia…” Red murmured.
“Yeah…I guess it wasn’t a total…”
The three turned and were rather surprised to see Vincent.
“Yes, Vincent?” Aeris asked politely.
“Were I to go with you…would I meet Hojo?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s him and Sephiroth we’re after,” Cloud answered.
“Then…may I come?”
“Sure, why not?” Cloud grinned and continued on down the hallway and up the staircase.
Aeris caught up to him. “Cloud!” she hissed. “Since when are we after Hojo? You lied to him!”
“So what? We’ve got a new ally.” Cloud seemed rather pleased with himself. “I’ll just mentally add Hojo to the list of people we have to kill. Sephiroth, Rufus, Heidegger, Scarlet, Palmer, Turks, Hojo. There, happy?”
Aeris folded her arms and glared at Cloud.
“Oh, fine. Here, I’ll put him second on the list…”
“Cloud, that’s not the point…”
“Whatever. Hey, Vincent! What sort of weapon do you use?”
“That was good!” Aeris beamed. “You’ve got a very sharp memory.”
“Is that a blessing? There are a lot of things I would really rather have forgotten…”
“I think most memories are good.”
“Memories are good if a person’s life has been good. Otherwise, memories can be a curse,” Vincent answered. “Are you still certain you wish to see?”
“Yes, I am. I’ve never met someone who’s as bitter about life as you are sometimes. I want to see why,” Aeris said, ignoring the slightly nervous feeling she had in the pit of her stomach.
Lyria rubbed her eyes and studied the test sheets spread out on the table before her. None of them made any sense. It was getting late and the numbers and figures on the charts seemed to flicker and dance before her eyes. She’d talked to four other doctors, two specialists, and consulted every medical textbook she could get her hands on. No one seemed to have any record of symptoms similar to Vincent’s. Lyria sighed and folded her arms in front of her on the table. The room was dark except for the light of a small reading lamp on the desk she used. Idly she shuffled the papers and stacked them neatly before getting up and sitting down by Vincent’s bed again.
“Why? Why can’t I figure this out? I don’t understand…” Lyria whispered, burying her face in her hands. “What’s wrong with you?” Tears slid down Lyria’s cheeks and she pulled her knees to her chest, balancing on the chair and rocking back and forth. She closed her eyes and waited for the comfort she had come to expect when she was upset, but knew wasn’t coming. More than anything she wanted a warm embrace, for someone to hold her tightly, stroke her hair and tell her everything would be fine. She didn’t want just someone, she wanted Vincent. Lyria was beginning to realise how much she had taken for granted.
“I don’t know what to do…what do the others do when they’re confused? I could…I’ll phone Red. That’s who Tifa calls when she’s in trouble…maybe Red can help…” Lyria stepped out of the room into the dimly lit hallway and headed for the payphone near the elevators. She glanced at the clock; it was far past midnight, meaning Red was sure to be in the observatory. Pulling a couple Gil from her pocket she dropped one into the slot on the machine. She quickly dialled Red’s number and twisted the phone cord between her fingers.
“Hello, Red?” she whispered, not wanting to wake up anyone in the ward who might have been asleep.
“Lyria? This is quite a surprise. How are you? Is everything all right?”
“I’m…I’m absolutely terrible, Red…nothing’s right…” Lyria blinked back tears and told Red the entire story. “And now no one has any idea what’s wrong with him and…I just don’t know what to do…”
“Calm down, Lyria. I can be there tomorrow morning, ok?” Red promised. “I think I can help.”
“You do? Oh Red…I hope you can…” Lyria whispered.
“Are you ready? This isn’t going to be pleasant,” Vincent warned Aeris for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“I can handle it. I’m more worried about you.”
“If you can, I can…I’m starting now, close your eyes…”
Hojo hurried through the narrow passage of the Shinra basement, assistant in tow. He hadn’t quite realised how long nine months was to wait. Lucrecia wasn’t taking the pregnancy well. She was constantly weak and tired and Hojo had decided it would be ideal to give her a booster shot of Jenova, just so he wouldn’t have to risk losing the child in her womb. Idly he passed a door in the side of the passage, but stopped. He was bored of waiting for Lucrecia; she had another three months to go and he wasn’t looking forward to attempting to occupy himself with pointless activities in the laboratory of the Shinra building.
“Lewis, go on ahead,” he instructed his assistant, “Get the Jenova and meet me in this room here.”
“Yes, sir.” The assistant scurried into the other room. Hojo smiled, the young scientist showed promise. There was a certain insane devotion he had to his work, which Hojo wholeheartedly approved of. Hojo pulled a key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock of the room; it was really more like a tomb, where Hojo had stored his specimens when he had been working with Gast and Lucrecia. He smiled and rapped on the lid of the central coffin. “Valentine, I’m back…”
“Go away. I’ll kill you if you open this coffin.” The answer was quiet, so much so, that Hojo barely heard it.
“Yes, I’m sure. Remember what happened the last time you tried? Tsk, tsk, naughty boy, threatening to kill his creator.” Hojo grabbed a crowbar from where it was leaning against the wall. “I’m bored, you see. Watching Lucrecia get fat is not my idea of a good time.”
There was no answer from inside the coffin as Hojo wedged the crowbar under the lid and heaved upward. There was a snapping noise as some of the wood splintered and the lid of the coffin tumbled to the side.
“Hojo, leave me be. I’m paying for what I did. A million times I regret it. Is not this suffering enough?” Hojo smiled at the slightly pleading note in Vincent’s voice.
“Oh no, pet. You have not yet begun to truly regret trifling with Jenova…” Hojo grinned again and grabbed Vincent’s collar, pulling him into a sitting position. “Out of the coffin.”
“Come now, don’t be difficult, or I’ll have to use my new toy…”
“Yes. This little gem.” Hojo proudly displayed a small black box with a dial in the centre. “Watch…or, rather, feel what my plaything can do.” Hojo pointed the device at Vincent and spun the dial. The effect was instantaneous. Wave after wave of pure torture racked Vincent’s body. For a few seconds that seemed like eternity, he had no knowledge of where, who, or what he was, only of the absolute agony spreading through his limbs.
“Had enough?” Hojo’s voice grew into clarity from the darkness that had surrounded Vincent. A weak moan was the only response. “Shall I do it again? Or will you get out and come with me?”
“You won’t come?” Hojo beamed. “That’s an awful shame…”
“No!” There was a sudden, desperate strength in Vincent’s protest. “I’ll come…not again…”
Hojo laughed. “Don’t worry there’s going to be more, later,” he promised.
“Dr. Hojo? What are you…” Hojo’s assistant entered the room and stared in surprise at Vincent, who had barely managed to get out of his coffin and was slumped on the floor, leaning against the side of the casket. “Sir, what…”
“I’ll explain later, Lewis. Right now, get this waste to the laboratory; we’re going to have fun tonight.”
Lewis smiled at the evil grin on his teacher’s face and helped Vincent to his feet. Dr. Lewis surmised that the young man was probably not much older than himself and didn’t seem terribly strong. The brown of his eyes was tinged around the edges with red and seemed to glow with a strange sense of pain. Lewis shuddered and helped him stumble down the hallway to the lab. Once there, he let Vincent drop to the floor in exhaustion.
“Oh, get up,” Hojo snorted derisively, unlocking a pair of manacles that hung on the far wall. “Come over here.”
“I…can’t…” Vincent gasped.
“Oh, yes you can,” Hojo answered, reaching for the black box in his pocket. “Don’t make me do this again…”
Vincent groaned and stood up. Weakly he stumbled to the wall Hojo indicated and let the scientist bind his hands above his head before relaxing and kneeling on the ground, with only the shackles holding his weight.
“Thank you. Now, I have to explain to Lewis just what I did with you, so you sit tight while we go upstairs and look at my notes.”
Vincent lowered his head as the two scientists left the room and let the darkness that had engulfed him for the past months return and dominate his consciousness.
“Wake up,” a stern voice commanded.
“No, I don’t want to…”
“Come on now. Don’t be difficult. I know you can hear me, the very least you could do is answer.”
“Leave me. Let me sleep…”
“If you don’t get up of your own free will, I’ll have to force you…”
“I can’t…just…leave me alone…”
“Is he dead?” a new voice asked.
“No, just stubborn…here, why don’t you give my toy a try?”
“Could I, Doctor?”
“Sure, why not?”
Vincent felt a twinge of pain for a second, but it stopped almost immediately after it started.
“Oh come on, don’t just nudge it. You really have to let him have it, like this…”
This time the sensation was sharp as a knife and lasted far longer. When it finally stopped Vincent opened his eyes and stared up at Hojo and Lewis.
“Gave up, huh?” Hojo smirked. “Too bad. Oh well. Anyway, just thought I’d let you know some of my plans. You see, all I originally did to you…with dear Lucrecia’s help, of course…was make a small modification that allows for an increase in strength and stamina when a person is injured, which was what kept you from dying from the bullet you took in the chest.”
“Don’t…how dare you even say her name…bastard…” Vincent managed to gasp.
Hojo looked mildly amused. “Feeling rebellious are we? Haven’t you discovered that standing up to me only earns you suffering? Lewis, hit him again, and try to do it right this time.”
“I’ll try, doctor…” Lewis said dubiously, taking the control and wrenching the knob as far as it would go and holding it.
Vincent cried out weakly and blacked out.
“Nice try, but you went too far for too long and he passed out. That’s the problem; you can have an intense amount of pain for a short while or a lesser amount for longer, but not both.”
“I guess that’s a drawback…”
“Not really. When you get to be good at it, you can hold it at a constant intensity that’s between the ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ levels for a good length of time before he can’t take it anymore. We’ll make sure you get lots of practice. The highest setting is good for quick jolts while the low setting is actually ideal for long stretches of time; it’s something you can leave on overnight, for example.”
“That’s quite useful. Is that a built in function or would you have to stand here holding the knob?”
“You know, I never thought of that…good idea, Lewis…”
“Thank you sir, should we wake him up again?”
“It’s probably not necessary; I just figured that I would let him know our plans…not that he’d understand…”
“Of course, sir…shall we get started then?”
Vincent’s eyes flickered open again, this time independently with no one forcing him and with an effort he glanced around the empty room. No Hojo. No Lewis. Nothing, except for a single torch left burning and casting eerie shadows about the wall. It was ironic that Hojo wouldn’t so much as give him a glass of water, but left a light on in the basement at night. For what may have been hours or only minutes he stayed awake, idly watching the shadows of the flames dancing on the wall.
“I can’t do this…he’ll kill me…what does he want?”
The fire gave a particularly loud pop, sounding almost like gunfire and Vincent jumped slightly. The shackles holding his wrists dug into his flesh and he winced, trying to readjust his weight so he was not entirely dependent on the chains for support. The attempt made him dizzy and he gave up with resignation. For lack of anything else to do and because some strange force was preventing him from the sleep he desperately wished for, he returned to staring at the flames before finally slipping into a daze and eventually falling asleep.
“Wake up, Valentine!” Hojo crowed, bursting into the lab with a small vial in one hand. “I’ve got a present for you!”
“Go away…” Vincent murmured.
“Come now, it’s a good thing! It’ll help you especially because you’re such a pathetic weakling…”
“If it’s a bullet I would very much appreciate it between the eyes.”
Hojo laughed at the bitter tone of Vincent’s voice. “Melodramatic aren’t we? And ungrateful, I bring you a present and you say you want to kill yourself…or rather, you’d like me to kill you…” Hojo came closer, smiling even more. “Sorry, but that won’t happen…you’re going to live a long and painful life if I have anything to say about it…”
“I’ve got a lot left to do to you, my friend.” Hojo held up the vial of red liquid. “This is only the beginning.”
“What…” Vincent stopped and shook his head. “I don’t care what you do to me…”
“No? You should…you should care very much, especially since what I plan to do is more than likely going to be agony for you.”
“Worse than what you’ve been doing so far?” Hojo couldn’t tell if Vincent’s tone was fearful or sarcastic.
“Touché, Valentine.” Hojo inserted a syringe into the vial and drew out almost all of the red liquid. “This is Galian blood, merged with the same chemical that causes an increase in strength with injury or pain. However, it is very special Galian blood. Perhaps I’ll explain later.” Hojo carefully selected a vein and drove the needle into Vincent’s arm. “There we go. Now, I have to make a phone call to Shinra HQ, but Lewis will be in to check on you later, he’s out scouting the village for little girls to rape right now. He’s got very voracious appetites in that department…”
Vincent didn’t answer and was instead staring at the small prick where Hojo had inserted the syringe. His skin felt like it was burning and the feeling was rapidly spreading. He looked up, but Hojo had already gone, leaving him to wonder what was beginning to happen to his already battered body.
Red hopped out of the car Cid had rented when he’d arrived in Midgar with the airship. The pilot had adamantly refused to let Red go alone when he’d been told about Vincent. Shera had wanted to come, but was feeling a bit under the weather and had to decide against it.
“Hurry up, Cid!” Red called, loping through the crowded streets leading to Midgar General Hospital. People gave him wide berth and paused to point and whisper behind their hands because, after all, a talking dog isn’t something you see every day.
“I’m comin’!” the pilot shoved his way through the crowd, who didn’t part for him. “Slow down, ya’ mongrel!”
“I don’t appreciate that, Cid,” Red said, sounding a trifle offended as he waited on the steps of the hospital for his friend to catch up.
“Sorry. Just a little tense.” Cid ran up the steps as Red entered the hospital.
“Hey, mister!” the man at the desk exclaimed, getting up and aiming a kick at Red, who danced nimbly to the side and avoided it. “You can’t bring a dog in here!”
“The hell I can’t. Who’s gonna stop me?” Cid pulled a cigarette out of the package tucked in his flight goggles and lit up.
“You can’t smoke either! I’m sorry; I’ll have to ask you to leave…”
“Yeah, right…” Cid blew smoke in the man’s face as he walked up to the pair. “You gonna #%$@% try and make me?”
“Cid, may we try a little diplomacy?” Red asked.
“The hell we need diplomacy for?”
“You’re a pilot, so I guess you aren’t quite as familiar with the concept…just let me try, ok?” Red turned to the man. “I’m sorry about him…it’s important that we get in to see a man in the Intensive Care ward…”
“Let me guess. Vincent Valentine,” the man groaned. “I should have guessed…why is it that everyone who comes in wanting to see him is either physically or verbally abusive? I mean, god…I’ve had several Turks and the president of Shinra…the first swearing like a sailor…or a pilot,” the clerk glared at Cid who grinned and pointedly shoved his middle finger in the man’s face, “the next this blonde woman and a man who looked like a brick wall in a blue suit…he threatened to…” the man flushed and mumbled something. Cid laughed coarsely until Red glared at him. “Then the blonde woman came back with this other woman who looked like hell.”
“Lyria…” Red murmured.
“@%$! That just happened to be a very dear friend of mine, bastard, so watch your mouth…” Cid growled.
“Argh…umm…anyway, just recently the redheaded guy came back…he went right upstairs, didn’t even bother asking permission, just barged right up…” the man grumbled. “Sometimes I wonder why I put up with this…Hey! You can’t just…” he shouted as Red and Cid headed for the elevator.
“Like I said before, you gonna $%^@#& try and stop me?” Cid called, pressing the elevator button. “Thanks for the info buddy, which floor is Intensive Care?”
“I can’t let you go up there!” the man howled.
“Listen, you tell me or I’ll make what Rude said sound like tickling…” Cid warned as the elevator doors slid open.
“Hey, Cid!” Reno exclaimed, sounding surprised to see the pilot. “And Red! What’re you two doing here?”
“Howdy, Reno!” Cid greeted the Turk happily. “I’m just droppin’ Red off because Lyria, in her infinite wisdom, decided she’s in a situation over her head and needs the help of ol’ Red. You want a smoke?”
“Cid, you shouldn’t smoke in a hospital…” Red sighed.
“You ain’t no goddamn fun, Red. Would you like a smoke? Help you loosen up a bit. God, you’re almost worse than that bastard over there.” Cid gestured at the man who had returned to the counter and was poised to phone security.
“Yeah, he gave me problems when I first got here.” Reno glared at the man until he slowly lowered the phone back into its cradle and sat back down at his desk looking reluctantly acquiescent.
“How’s Vincent?” Red asked.
“Unpredictable. One minute he’s fine, the next near death. Lyria’s frantic; it’s driving her up the wall that she doesn’t know what’s wrong with him…”
“I see…well…I suppose that’s to be expected,” Red answered. “Which floor is Intensive Care?”
“Twentieth, he’s in room four eighteen. I’m going home to get some sleep, could you try and get Lyria to do the same? Not go home I mean, but maybe go over to Elena’s place or something because I don’t think she’s been sleeping at all since she got here…”
“No? Sounds like something she’d do. I’ll try and talk to her,” Red said. “Thank you Reno. It was nice talking to you.”
“No problem.” Reno waved as Cid and Red stepped onto the elevator and paused for a moment to give the finger to the clerk at the front desk.
“Heh, I like Reno. He’s a real bastard,” Cid remarked as the elevator doors shut, grinning and lighting another cigarette.
“I’d always been of the impression that being a bastard was a bad thing.”
“Nope, not if you’re a real bastard like Reno is. Rude’s good too, but not the same as Reno.”
“You called the man downstairs a bastard, how is this different?”
“Now, that guy was just a plain old goddamn irritating bastard. Those are run of the mill, like insurance salesmen or mosquitoes. They’re just the sorta people you just wanna smack.”
“And the distinction is?”
“It takes a real character to be a genuine bastard like Reno. He’s the sorta person you love t’ hate, but you don’t hate him ‘cuz he’s funny in a bastardish sorta way.”
“Cid…” Red sighed. “You’re a real bastard.”
“Why thank you, Red.” Cid smiled and dropped his cigarette on the floor, grinding it out with his foot. “I appreciate that. With a little work, you wouldn’t make a bad bastard yourself.”
“I’m not sure how to take that…” Red murmured, stepping off the elevator and shrugging off the startled looks he got from several doctors and nurses.
“Four eighteen…this way then…” Cid headed down the hallway and waited outside one of the rooms for Red to catch up.
“Shall we go in?” Red asked.
“Could you open the door please? I have no thumbs, you see, that makes the doorknob a rather difficult concept for me.” Red gestured at the handle of the door with his muzzle and Cid pushed it open slowly. Lyria was perched on a chair hugging her knees to her chest and crying quietly.
“Lyria?” Red called gently, walking up the young doctor and nudging her with his nose.
“Red…I’m so glad you came…I don’t know what to do…” Lyria’s face was tearstained and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was in a messy ponytail and she wore a pair of ripped jeans and a faded t-shirt. Red grudgingly had to admit that the description ‘like hell’ was probably fairly accurate. Her dishevelled outward appearance was beginning to indicate that her spirit was getting a little worn.
“Hey, Lyria…” Cid said quietly, putting a hand on her shoulder. “How are you doing?”
“Awful…” Lyria stood up and brushed some of the hair from her eyes. “I’m such a mess…”
“Yeah…” Cid agreed. “Would you like a smoke?”
Lyria smiled sadly at the pilot. “No thank you, Cid. Have you got any idea what those things are doing to your lungs?”
“Burnin’ em up, fillin’ em with tar, and turnin’ em inside out.”
“But you still smoke?”
“Yup. So…how’s Vincent doing?”
“I don’t know…whenever it seems like he’s going to be ok, he all of a sudden takes a turn for the worse…”
“Well…talk to Reeve. He can have the best doctors in the city…”
“Cid, as soon as I entered Midgar airspace the best doctor in the city was me. And I don’t know what’s wrong…” Lyria looked near tears again.
“C’mere Lyria.” Cid gently gave the young woman a tight hug. “Red’ll fix it. Red knows what to do…”
“Oh Cid…I hope he does…it seems like forever since…” Lyria laid the side of her head on Cid’s shoulder and let a couple tears fall from her eyes and soak into the material of his jacket.
“I just hope he doesn’t wake up now, or I’m gonna get shot…” Cid murmured.
Lyria laughed weakly. “Yeah…”
“Come on, kid, you look like hell. Go get some sleep at a hotel or something. Hey, how ‘bout we phone Elena and you two go somewhere? A spa or someplace.”
“I can’t…I can’t leave with him the way he is…” Lyria glanced at the bed where Red was examining her husband.
“Red’ll take care of him. Nothing’s gonna happen. Besides, we can’t have him waking up then immediately dying of shock when he gets a look at you.”
“Go. You look like hell and you wanna be pretty.” Cid firmly put an arm around Lyria’s shoulders. “We’re gonna go call Elena, and if she won’t come I’ll take you myself.”
Despite herself, Lyria giggled at the thought of Cid getting a facial. “Oh…but…”
“No ‘buts’ darlin’. C’mon, we’re going now. We’ll be back around suppertime.” Cid led Lyria from the room and down the hall to a payphone. “Call Elena.”
“All right…” Lyria dropped a Gil into the machine and dialled Elena’s cell phone number. “Hello, Elena?...hi, it’s Lyria…no, there’s no change…Cid is forcing me to get out of the hospital and he wants me to go to a spa or something…I know, isn’t he just…what?...Oh, Elena, not you too…I’m fine, I don’t need…yeah, sure you can talk to him…” Lyria handed Cid the phone.
“Hello?...uh huh…I thought so myself…with pleasure! Thanks doll! I’ll talk to you soon, bye.” Cid hung up the phone and grinned at Lyria. “Elena says I have her express permission to drag you down the hallway if you refuse to go.”
“Cid, I really don’t think I should leave…”
“What good has it done for you to be here?” Cid countered. “Now come, I will drag you if I need to.”
“Oh…” Lyria let Cid take her hand and pull her down the hallway to the elevator. “But what if…”
“If anything happens, we’ll call you.” Cid pushed the elevator button and shoved Lyria in. “No more thinking about Vincent. Now you think about yourself.”
“That’s not how it’s done…” Lyria sighed.
“I don’t care. You need a break.”
Lyria looked like she was going to answer, but instead sat down in the corner of the elevator as it plummeted to the ground floor. They stopped at the main floor and Cid scooped Lyria off the floor and carried her out of the elevator. He was rather chagrined when he didn’t get to make any rude gestures at the man at the front desk, but decided it was better for Lyria’s sake. He walked out the automatic doors and was surprised to see Elena leaning against her small teal sports car.
“Hiya. Didn’t expect you to be here so soon…” Cid commented, setting Lyria on her feet.
“I was in the neighbourhood anyway and my apartment isn’t far. You ready to go, Lyria?”
“I don’t think I should leave…” Lyria pleaded half-heartedly, knowing it wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
“Too bad, off you go.” Cid waved as Elena pulled Lyria into the car and drove away. He re-entered the hospital and went through his ritual of “greeting” the clerk, getting on the elevator and heading for the twentieth floor. He entered the room and sat down in a chair in the corner.
“Lyria left?” Red asked.
“Yup. She deserves a break, she’s lookin’ beat…so do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“I think so…I’ll try to explain…you understand what happened?”
“He fell off a cliff in Mideel into the Lifestream?” Cid said, propping his feet up on the table before the chair.
“Correct. Now, what do we know about the Lifestream?” Red spoke as though he was explaining something to a small child.
“That it’s a bad idea to let pokey headed morons fall into it,” Cid answered sarcastically, recalling Cloud’s past experience with the life force of the planet.
“Do you want me to explain this or not?”
“All right, I’ll shut up.”
“Ok. Do you know what the Lifestream is?”
“Umm…a bunch of dead people?”
“You’ve got the right idea…it’s where the life energy of people is stored when a person dies and until a person is born. But life energy is life energy and it’s all the same. The Lifestream has a conscious mind. Or, rather, a collective mind, made up of a small portion of the consciousnesses of those who have died. This is what I believe to have shielded the planet from Meteor. Somewhere, beneath the surface of our planet, the minds and memories of all those who have passed on exist.”
“So there are a bunch of brains making up our Planet? And I thought Mako was bad…” Cid snorted.
“There is a big difference between a brain and a mind. A brain is simply the vessel for the mind. When the body dies, the brain shuts down and the mind is freed. When it’s freed, it goes to the Lifestream.”
“Red, where’re you goin’ with all this? What’s wrong with Vincent?” Cid said, lighting a cigarette.
“I’m getting there…all right; we know after he fell in the Lifestream he was in fairly bad shape right?”
“Bad enough that for a few minutes, he was technically dead…”
“Yeah…” Understanding was beginning to flicker around the very edges of Cid’s mind, but was still quite a ways from his grasp. “Keep goin’.”
“So what happens when we die?”
“Our brains…” Cid started, comprehension was beginning to penetrate the outer layers of his awareness, the parts occupied by Shera, the Highwind, and his bikini goddess.
“Minds,” Red corrected.
“Whatever. Our minds end up in the Lifestream…”
“Precisely. But, his mind was rather abruptly called back, courtesy of Reno and his incredible electric nightstick.”
“I like Reno,” Cid protested.
“I’m not saying what he did was bad, heavens no. Vincent would be dead if Reno wasn’t as resourceful as he is. The problem is it’s quite a sudden way of bringing someone back.”
“At least it worked.”
“Our problem stems from the fact that his mind was exposed to the Lifestream long enough that it began to be absorbed. Then all of a sudden he was called back. The jolt was sharp enough to bring back his subconscious so he’s capable of breathing and such, but the conscious mind, the part people think with, is still stuck in the Lifestream.”
Cid looked confused; he’d thought he had a vague grasp of the matter until Red had started explaining things. “Well, why didn’t the thinking part come back too?”
Red shrugged. “This is where the situation gets murky. I believe it’s because there’s someone keeping him there. It would have to be someone with a very strong mind though…”
“Like who?” Cid asked.
“There aren’t many people…Aeris could probably do it, being an Ancient and all. So could Sephiroth because he’s half Jenova.” Red suddenly looked worried. “Come to think of it, Hojo could too…he injected the cells of Jenova into his body…I only pray that it’s Aeris…”
“I’ll pray to my bikini goddess too,” Cid agreed.
“Yes…” Red sighed and leapt onto the bed at Vincent’s feet.
“So what can we do?”
“Nothing. All we can do is wait.”
“$&*#!” Cid swore. “Just wait?! For how long?”
“I don’t know…” Red curled up and laid his head on his forepaws. “As long as it takes.”
“Elena!” Lyria exclaimed as her friend swerved around a corner and skidded to a halt in the parking lot of a two-story building. “You drive like a maniac!”
Elena looked slightly offended. “It’s called aggressive driving and it’s looked on as a skill in my profession.”
“In the real world it’s looked on as road rage.” Lyria got out of the car and massaged her side where her seatbelt had dug into her skin. “Let’s get this over with; I want to go back…” She stepped carefully over a pile of greyish brown slush and onto the sidewalk.
“Lyria, lots of people see a trip to the spa as something to look forward to…”
“Lots of people’s husbands aren’t stuck in the hospital with god-knows-what wrong with them.” Lyria kicked a small stone out of her path.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Maybe Red’ll make him better and you’ll get back all pretty and rested up and he’ll be waiting for you.”
“Elena, are you dumb or just naïve?” Lyria asked acidly.
“Hey! Lyria, that wasn’t nice!”
“Sorry…I’m worried. I haven’t stopped being worried since I got here.”
“It’s ok, I understand.” Elena pulled open the door of the building and entered the foyer.
“Wow.” Lyria looked around the room with wide eyes. Contrary to its bland outward appearance, the interior of the building sparkled. The floor was covered with jet-black marble tile and the walls were pristine white. There was a simple fountain in the centre of the lobby, crystal water leaping in jets before a large grand staircase with black steps leading to an upstairs balcony with black doors spaced at regular intervals along the wall. At a circular wraparound white desk sat a woman with short black hair and pale skin talking quickly into a headset and typing rapidly on the keyboard of a jet-black computer. The only other door on the main floor was curtained off with several strands of beaded crystal.
Elena leaned against the counter casually and the woman at the desk held up one finger, the crystals that studded the black nail sparkling. “A box of chocolates to room fifty eight, Mrs. Redens? I’ll send it up right away ma’am. Thank you for calling.” The woman hung up the phone and typed something on her computer screen, then turned to Elena. “Welcome to Nirvana, Elena. Good to see you back again…and you brought a friend…who is in desperate need of our attention.”
“Uh huh. Good to see you too, Blacki. This is Lyria,” Elena pointed to her friend.
“Hi,” Lyria said shyly.
“Lyr, this is Blacki. She’s an old friend of mine. They only hired her here because she fits the colour scheme”
Blacki laughed dryly. “Welcome to Nirvana, Lyria. I don’t suppose you’ve been here before?” Blacki asked, politely shaking Lyria’s hand.
“No, but it’s beautiful…”
“You’re in for a real treat, how long do you plan to stay?”
“Not long, only until suppertime, I’ve got to get back to Midgar General…” Lyria’s expression of wonder at the interior of Nirvana faded slightly and she looked crestfallen again.
“Oh…one of these…” Blacki nodded wisely. “Let’s see, someone close to you is hurt, right? Hmm…not a son or daughter, you’re too slender to have been pregnant…hmm…not a sibling or a parent, your aura isn’t right…boyfriend?”
“Husband, actually.” Lyria held up her left hand and the golden ring she wore caught the light. “How could you tell?”
“The way you look, I’ve seen lots of women come here with problems like yours. That’s why Nirvana is here, for women who are going through rough times and need someone to make them feel pretty and special again. So only for the day then? Well, we’ll put you down for a massage, and a manicure, makeover and facial, and I’ll have our personal shopper get a look at you and select an outfit for that will best compliment your hair colour and eye colour and such, how’s that sound?”
“That’s sounds wonderful…” Lyria answered, slightly bemused and a bit bewildered. “Why do you people do all this?”
“I told you, women like you are so worried for other people they care about that they let their appearance and personal wellness deteriorate. We make it better. Trust me; you aren’t the worst we’ve seen. Why, Elena was a wreck when she first came here, after her boss died.”
“Tseng…” Lyria said softly, glancing at her friend, who had lowered her eyes sadly.
“Uh huh. Well, enough thinking about people other than yourselves. Would you like a black robe or a white one?” Blacki asked.
Reeve knocked lightly on the door of Vincent’s room, waiting for a response and hoping he hadn’t interrupted anything.
“What’re you doin’ Reeve? Just go on in!” Cait Sith instructed. “You’re the President of Shinra! Ain’t no one gonna stand in your way!”
Reeve gave the cat perched on his shoulder a warning glare. “Cait, this is very serious. I brought you here because you might be able to help, please behave yourself.”
“All right, all right…” Cait grumbled. “I’m just trying to lighten the mood.”
“We don’t want a light mood right now.” Reeve opened the door and looked in. “Hello?”
“Well, hello, Reeve,” Cid greeted the president. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“He brought me! Cait the Magnificent!” Cait Sith announced, throwing out his chest and bowing with a flourish. “Thank you, thank you, sorry, no autographs.”
“Why did you bring Cait Sith?” Red asked.
“I think he might be able to help. I’ve been talking with Vincent’s doctors and apparently the only problem stems from the fact that he’s out cold and won’t wake up. But I’m also told that there’s a conflict with his physical responsiveness and his neurological responsiveness. In other words, his body isn’t functioning, but his mind is. The tests they’ve done show that his mind is as active as someone who’s conscious.”
“That’s consistent with my theory,” Red acknowledged. “But how can Cait Sith help?”
“I’ll tell his fortune!” Cait explained, leaping from Reeve’s shoulder onto the bed.
“What?” Red asked, perplexed.
“What Cait means is that he’ll analyze what’s happening in Vincent’s mind. It’s how he ‘tells fortunes’, by analyzing the thought patterns in people’s heads and putting them into words as ‘fortunes’. Of course, a lot of the time, the way he words things makes his readings seem way off.”
“How’re we supposed to get help out of his readings if they’re way off?” Cid asked.
“He’s not going to embellish his readings like he usually does. He’ll tell it like it is and maybe we can get a deeper insight to what’s wrong with Vincent.”
“Sounds good. This could be very helpful.” Red sat up on his haunches and looked expectantly at Cait. “Are you going to begin?”
“Hold you horses, Fido,” Cait said disdainfully. “This is the work of a master; I have to get in the zone.” Cait massaged his temple with small catlike fingers and then jumped lightly onto Vincent’s chest. “Oh dear, he’s got more scars on him than a Wutain swordfighter…lessee, one, two, three, four…my this one’s big, we’ll count it for two…”
“Cait, could you please just get to work?” Reeve asked.
“Oh fine.” The small cat placed one of his gloved paws on Vincent’s forehead. “Here we go…” Cait closed his eyes and a look of concentration crossed his features.
“Well?” Reeve asked, after a few moments of silence.
“He’s remembering something…”
“What?” Red asked, laying a paw on Vincent’s chest.
“It’s very traumatic for him. I sense fear, and pain, and…hatred. A very, very deep hatred. I can almost feel it myself it’s so strong…”
“Who does he hate and fear more than anyone else?” Red mused.
“Hojo!” Cid exclaimed. “It’s Hojo!
“Can you get any deeper, Cait?” Reeve asked.
“I’ll try…” The cat moved his other paw and pressed it against Vincent’s forehead. He closed his eyes and clenched his small teeth. “C’mon…lemme in…” Vincent’s body shuddered and sweat started to bead on his forehead. He shook his head, trying to break Cait’s hold.
“Easy, Cait, don’t go too fast…” Reeve cautioned, watching Vincent intently.
“Let go, Vincent…stop fighting…” Cait murmured. “I’m almost there, just a little farther…”
“Be careful…maybe you should stop,” Red said worriedly. He could see Vincent fighting against the invasion of his mind, efforts getting more and more desperate.
“No, I’ve almost got it…just a little more and I’ll be in…” Cait seemed to make one last effort and suddenly Vincent suddenly tensed and cried out, eyes flying open. Cait yowled and leapt several feet in the air, landing on the floor and running up the curtain by the bed where he clung to the bar at the top for dear life.
“Vincent!” Red exclaimed as the Turk’s eyes slid out of focus again and his body relaxed. He was breathing heavily and sweating, evidently having exerted himself past his limits.
“Is he ok, Red?” Reeve asked, trying to coax Cait down from the curtain.
“I think so…he’s no worse than he was before at least…what happened, Cait?”
The cat didn’t answer, still clinging to the curtain.
“What’s with you, pussy cat?” Cid asked, reaching up to try and get Cait down. The cat hissed and swiped a paw at Cid. “Hey!”
“Cait!” Reeve scolded. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small remote control. He pointed it at the cat and pushed a few buttons. Cait’s arms and legs suddenly unlocked from their death grip and he fell to the ground. Reeve scooped him up and stroked his small head. “What happened? Did you see what you expected?”
Cait shook his head vehemently. “That was scary!”
“What did you see?”
“I saw what he saw. I only got right down into his mind for a few seconds and then I got kicked out. It was like being slapped except it was in my head, but for a little tiny bit, I experienced what he was remembering.”
“What?” Red prompted.
“A dark chamber…a man with a knife…and sudden pain…horrible pain, right there.” Cait pointed at Vincent’s chest where a deep scar ran.
“Then what? Was there anything else?”
“I felt like I was…changing…all this hatred was embedding itself in my…his…body and I guess he feels like that when he transforms…” Cait shuddered. “It was an awful feeling.”
“I see…” Red touched his nose to Vincent’s forehead. “Good god. He’s burning up. I’ve never seen a fever come on this quickly…did you feel anything like that when you were in his mind, Cait?”
“Come to think of it, it was a little warm in there…what does it mean?”
“I’m not sure, but we’ve at least established a brief contact between his conscious and subconscious mind…”
“Morning Valentine!” Hojo crooned happily, entering the lab. “How did you sleep?”
Vincent didn’t answer, as usual. Answering wasn’t necessary, it made him dizzy to talk, and there was an outside chance that if he didn’t answer Hojo might think he was dead and put him back in his coffin. Unfortunately the odds of that happening were slim to nil.
“Good morning, Dr. Hojo,” Lewis didn’t look up from the microscope he was peering through. “I have a bit of a concern…he’s got a fever of 104.2° and I’m worried it might be impeding the progress of the Galia more than it should be.”
“Hmm…well, fever is only natural. It’s the body’s defence against infection, but you’re right, the Galia injection should have overcome that…let me have a look.” Hojo bent over the microscope and adjusted the focus. “Uh oh…just as I thought…hmm…”
“What’s wrong, doctor?” Lewis asked.
“The original injection I gave him way back when is fighting off what we’re trying to give him now. There were two ways this could have gone. Ideally the chemical that was infused with the Galia blood, the same as I gave him before, would merge with the previous injection and overcome his defences easily. What’s happened is the previous injection has started to combine itself with the cells in his body and is working against the Galia.”
“Oh…” Lewis looked angry. “It was such a perfect plan!” He grabbed the small black box from the table and pointed it at Vincent. “You wrecked it!” This time the amount of pain Lewis inflicted was not too much or too little, but held constant and the right amount.
“Come now, Lewis. It’s not his fault…” Hojo said.
Lewis dropped the controller in shock and Vincent lifted his head to stare at the senior scientist. Lewis considered giving his boss a jolt with the controller; just to see if it would bring him back to his senses and Vincent was now firmly convinced that the fever ravaging his body was making him delirious, as he couldn’t possibly have heard what he thought he had.
Hojo regarded the two pairs of eyes staring at him for a moment with a small smile. “I didn’t say stop,” he finally said.
Lewis grinned and Vincent lowered his eyes again, mutual faith in the cruelty of the scientist restored.
“So what are we going to do?” Lewis asked, after he finished with the controller.
“Well, fortunately, I prepared a backup plan.” Hojo smiled. “All we need to do is get the original chemical and the new one working together against a common menace.”
“How do we do that?”
“Simple.” Hojo picked up a cruel looking blade from the table. “We just need to stimulate the injury reaction. The chemical will respond, therefore inciting the Galia.”
“Oh! I get it!” Lewis exclaimed triumphantly. “So we just stab him and he should react?”
“Of course. Would you like to do it?” Hojo asked politely, handing Lewis the knife.
“Would I ever!” the young scientist answered excitedly. He looked like a child at Christmas time.
“Very good. Now, we don’t want this to be life threatening, so don’t aim for any vital organs. He’s no good to us if you kill him.” Hojo stepped back and motioned to Lewis. “Go ahead.”
“Why’d you step back?” Lewis asked, turning to Hojo.
“I want to observe. Now do it quickly,” Hojo ordered.
The memory grew hazy for a moment, as Vincent almost seemed to feel something pushing on his mind. A little startled, he let his consciousness push back and force the outside influence away. Aeris didn’t appear to notice the momentary lapse and the memory soon grew sharper.
Lewis hesitantly drew the knife and walked slowly toward Vincent. He braced a hand against the young man’s shoulder and he lifted his head weakly. His eyes had almost completely changed in colour from brown to red, leaving only a thin ring of the original shade around his pupils. Lewis was slightly anxious, cringing slightly as he met Vincent’s eyes. Those eyes made him nervous; they were haunted and deep red, almost glowing with pain and hatred. It was the hatred that worried Lewis. He knew that if Vincent ever broke the chains that held him he would tear him and Hojo to pieces without a single qualm. Beneath the hatred though, there was something else, something deeper and more intense.
“He’s scared of me!” Lewis realised. “Pathetic creature…he’s at my mercy…pity I have none.” Confidence restored, he smiled and drove the dagger forcefully into Vincent’s chest.
“Careful!” Hojo said sharply. “I don’t need him dead.”
“Nothing happened!” Lewis whined as Vincent’s eyes fell shut and he dropped his head onto his chest. Lewis supported him with his free hand as he fell forward. There was hot blood running down his arm and soaking his lab coat, but he didn’t care. “Why didn’t it work?”
The sensation returned, trying to force its way in, bearing down on Vincent’s mind. Again he struggled and fought back against it, but whatever the entity controlling the invasion was seemed to have grown more determined. He broke away again and returned the focus to the memory, which had almost faded in the pause.
“Hmm…give the knife a bit of a wrench, that might help,” Hojo suggested, stepping further back.
Lewis twisted the knife viciously and Vincent’s body suddenly tensed. “Hey! I think it’s working!” Lewis said excitedly, pulling the blade out and shoving Vincent into a standing position.
“Yes…it certainly is…” Hojo exalted.
“H-hey…now what happens?” Lewis asked, still holding the knife in one hand and partially supporting Vincent. He nervously glanced at the young man, his eyes were open again, but the fear had vanished. It was the fear he had found comfort in, solace that the tortured soul before him wouldn’t rebel and break free. The hatred was growing alongside a strangely feverish look of courage. “Hojo?”
“Vincent?” Aeris asked as the vision flickered and died, returning to blackness. “What’s wrong? Why did you stop?”
Vincent didn’t answer and fell to his knees. “S-something’s happening…”
Aeris knelt down beside him. “What? What is it?”
“I don’t know…Aeris? Aeris what’s going on?”
“Take it easy. I can’t help you if you’re panicking. Here, lie down and try to tell me what you feel…” Aeris let Vincent sink back into her arms, feeling his tension.
“Someone’s…trying to get inside my head,” Vincent mumbled weakly, pressing a hand against his forehead to try and get rid of the sensation that someone was drilling a hole in his skull. “God…Aeris, make it stop…”
“Shhh…” Aeris laid her hand on his and closed her eyes. “Oh damn you, Cait Sith…hang on, I’ll have him out in a minute.”
“W-what?” He felt a sudden pain, sharper than before and he cried out in surprise. The darkness vanished to be replaced by a sudden bright light. Someone called his name, but before he could answer he was engulfed in blackness again and Aeris was shaking him gently.
“Hey! Are you ok?”
“Y-yeah…I think so…what happened?”
“Nothing of great importance,” Aeris said dismissively. “Are you ready to keep going?”
“I guess…” Vincent answered, sitting up and focusing his memory again. “Brace yourself…”
Vincent’s body flickered, faded, and disappeared, much to Lewis’s shock. “Where is he!?”
“It begins…” Hojo breathed, eyes alight.
Suddenly there was another flicker and a beast with vivid violet fur was standing before Lewis, held back by only a pair of chains around its wrists. It snarled and flexed its arms, straining against and snapping the chains easily. Lewis stood rooted to the spot as the creature rose to its full height and snarled at the young scientist. In a rapid motion it brought its wrist upward, the heavy chain still attached swinging and striking Lewis in the side of the head with a sharp crack. The scientist screamed and dropped to the ground clutching his head, blood pouring from the wound and mingling with Vincent’s. Prey effectively, immobilized, the Galian Beast snarled again and crouched to move in for the kill. He pounced, claws extended, ready to rend the flesh from Lewis’s bones. In midair he was struck by a bolt of invisible force, just before reaching Lewis. The creature was hurled backward with the strength of the blow, striking the wall with an impact that would have killed a human. The beast growled and turned to the new threat, Hojo.
“I think that’s quite enough,” the scientist said firmly. “Stop it.”
The Galian Beast roared again and launched itself into the air, once again stopped by an unseen power.
“Now, what did I just say?” Hojo scolded, narrowing his eyes. A greenish light surrounded the beast and it shuddered violently then flickered and faded again. Vincent’s body returned and he fell to the ground heavily. “Blessed be Jenova…Did you have fun?”
Vincent didn’t respond and Hojo frowned. “You better not be dead…” he muttered under his breath, striding forward and nudging Vincent with his foot. When there was still no reaction, he grabbed the young man’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back. His eyes were glassy and unfocused, completely red now, all traces of humanity spent and staring blankly at the ceiling, but he was breathing. “Oh good…”
An agonizing scream from Lewis interrupted Hojo’s thoughts. “Oh bother…hang on a moment…” Hojo kicked Vincent again and turned to the younger doctor. “Did you see, Lewis? It worked brilliantly…”
“H-help…” Lewis whimpered, covering his face with his hands.
“Oh stop it. This is nothing compared to what you’ve been putting Valentine through…I do believe we’ll have to remove your eye though…”
Lewis whined again and Hojo sighed. “Come along, we’ll have to do it quickly…you’re such a bother, now I have to leave Valentine here on his own…but I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”
Hojo heaved Lewis off the ground and helped him out of the lab, walking past Vincent without sparing him a glance.
“Ugh…sorry…” Vincent mumbled as the memory flickered and faded away. “It’s hard to keep that up…”
“Don’t worry about it…are you all right?” Aeris asked. She was slightly pale and her eyes looked pained. “Hey, sit down for a minute…”
“Gladly…” Vincent sat down on the ground and rubbed his eyes. “That’s not easy to do…”
“Tell me about it. I feel drained and I was only watching…”
“I must feel like hell then.”
“Would you like to take a break? I know it’s got to be hard on you…”
“Yeah…I think I will…are you starting to understand?”
“All too well…” Aeris sighed. “I’m rather shaken…”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have shown you.” Vincent shook his head. “You can tell your situation is bad when the nightmares blend with reality and you can’t tell where one starts and the other leaves off. Then reality starts to be worse than nightmare and you wish for nothing more than death with no promise of afterlife. The one thing I prayed for, beyond hope of answer, was to feel nothing. The idea of feeling warm, or comfortable, or happy was beyond my grasp, I knew only pain and less pain. There are still days when I wake up and the shock of feeling nothing is overwhelming. Except…” Vincent lowered his eyes, an obviously painful memory returning.
“Vincent, for god’s sake, stop it! If there’s something wrong, tell me. I can help.”
“No. This was long ago.”
“Show me. Show me what you mean. Is it truly so horrid?”
“It’s not bad. It was the one dear memory I held of Shinra Mansion after Lucrecia left.”
“Well, then why won’t you show me?”
“Just because a memory is dear, doesn’t mean it isn’t also very painful.”
“Oh. Worse than what I’ve seen so far?” Aeris asked. “I’ve seen cruelty beyond measure. What could possibly be worse?”
Vincent looked at her with a strange expression. “Love,” he answered simply and let another memory fill the darkness.
The mansion was dark and silent. Lucrecia walked the halls soundlessly, not disturbing the dust on the floor. She heard Hojo pacing the most habitable room in the mansion, formerly hers. The other was in his room, moaning and wailing. Shuddering, she tried not to think of what he might have been doing. Silently she entered the room on the corner, Vincent’s room. Or it had been. Lucrecia shook her head sadly. “Why, Vincent? Was your life truly so worthless?” Lucrecia was yet undecided about her feelings for Vincent. She cared for him, or she had, before…when she was alive. And she had to see him. Where was he? His room was cold and empty. Lucrecia smiled, fondly remembering how warm the room had been at one point. She shook her head, now was not the time for memories. She walked to the far wall, to the hidden door of the dark chamber. It swung open before her, with no effort on her part. With a sigh, she headed down the spiralling steps, feeling the darkness around her, but remaining unperturbed. The passage was dank and silent the only light seeping from beneath a door at the end of the hallway. Somehow, perhaps because death seemed to heighten her senses, she could feel he was there. Quickening her pace yet still soundless, she opened the door to the dimly lit laboratory. She’d known it existed. Hojo was not as discreet as he thought himself to be and he’d even brought her down, once, after Vincent had attempted to take his own life. Hojo had promised her, before she left for Midgar, that he would not let Vincent die and Lucrecia knew he had kept that promise…Was Vincent here? No…this was where Hojo did his experiments; there was no reason for him to be down here. Her senses must have been wrong…”He’s probably out on the town with some woman,” Lucrecia thought bitterly, then shook her head. No, not Vincent. Not so soon after her death. She wondered if he even knew yet. Lucrecia glanced at the weakly guttering torch in the corner, willing its flame to grow stronger. Being dead had its advantages. The lab now illuminated, Lucrecia glanced around the dark cell, eyes falling on a still figure, crumpled facedown on the ground. “Vincent? No…not…it can’t be…” Lucrecia thought, subconsciously stepping forward. “It can’t be…” Lucrecia knelt on the ground, very gently laying a hand on his back. The fabric of his jacket was torn and stiff with dried blood and awful scars showed through, like cuts of a whip. But she could feel he was alive. “Vincent?” her voice was a ghostly whisper, a memory of what it had been. Needless to say, he didn’t hear her. Tenderly, blinking back tears, she pulled him off his chest and into her arms. “Oh, Vincent…” Lucrecia lightly laid a hand on his forehead, jerking it back almost immediately. His skin felt like it was on fire…or was it just that her hands were so icy cold? Again, making use of her transience, she pressed her hand against his forehead, hoping the sudden chill would wake him up. A deeper awareness sensed that he was starting to stir, in the depths of his mind, not yet physically conscious. One aspect taken care of, she stared, horrified, at the dreadful cuts and scars that ran across his torso, crossing and intertwining, mingling old blood with new. “Vincent…I’m so sorry, Vincent…I didn’t want this to happen…” Lucrecia whispered, softly kissing his forehead. It was the kiss that woke him. Again Lucrecia pondered if it were chance or by means of the coldness death had shrouded her body in. She abandoned her thoughts as Vincent’s eyes opened, taking a long moment to focus. Lucrecia nearly burst into tears at the sight of his eyes. They put her in mind of ice stained with blood, no trace of warmth or happiness left. Only pain and a deep fear.
“His voice…oh god…Vincent, what happened? I can barely hear you, are you truly so weak? Where’s the voice I remember? The strong, quiet voice that was always certain, even when nothing was right…you knew, didn’t you? You knew about Hojo and you knew about me…” Lucrecia shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
“Please…tell me, is it really you? My Lucrecia, not some horrific phantom my mind has conjured up? Will you simply flicker and vanish like so many other times? Or will you turn into an evil demon and…”
“Hush, Vincent,” Lucrecia scolded soothingly, sensing the effort it took for him to speak and shaken that her memory still haunted him. “I’m really here.”
“Lucrecia…” She felt his hand searching for hers and tightly grasped his fingers, lifting his hand and pressing it against her cheek. “You’re…cold?”
She flinched at her mistake. “No, you have a fever…”
“Oh…are you really here?”
“Is it truly so hard to believe? Oh, Vincent…my Vincent, what nightmares have plagued you? I’m sorry I let this happen…”
“Please answer me.” It wasn’t a command or a question, but a plea. A desperate cry for affirmation.
“Yes, Vincent, I am.” Lucrecia smiled and gently squeezed his hand. “I’m right here.”
“Is it important?” Lucrecia had no wish to explain that she had been allowed until the first dawn after her death to find her loved ones and visit them one last time. She had no wish to tell Vincent she was dead. The shock would probably kill him…yet; maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. If he died, maybe they could be together and he would be free of all the pain that bound him.
“No…if not how…then…why?”
“You need me.”
“Yes…yes, I do…Lucrecia, I…”
“I know, dear heart…you don’t need to say it.” Lucrecia stopped him from speaking the words she knew were in his mind and heart. They were a curse, those words. Three very simple words and she had been Hojo’s. Only when Hojo said them, there was no emotion, no true feeling. None of what she knew Vincent felt. “What has happened to you?”
Vincent closed his eyes and didn’t answer for a long time. Lucrecia wondered if he’d passed out. “Vincent?”
“Much has happened. Too much.”
“What are these scars?” Lucrecia asked, touching one of the deeper cuts with a fingertip, flinching when no blood stained her fingers and praying Vincent hadn’t noticed.
“These are nothing. Lewis found a blacksnake whip in one of the old stables and it’s his second favourite toy.”
“A whip?” Lucrecia was horrified at the thought. How could he endure such cruelty? “Oh Vincent…”
Despite her state and despite the situation, Lucrecia felt a twinge of anger. “It’s not nothing!”
“You’re mad at me? I’m sorry, please don’t be, I didn’t mean it…don’t leave…”
“No, no, no, I’m not mad at you…” Lucrecia kissed his forehead again, feeling his sudden panic lessen and berating herself for being so insensitive. Vincent was obviously in a very unstable emotional state, returned from a point of no emotion to a mix of confusion, love, and a sheer terror that she would leave. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”
“It’s…it’s alright. You won’t leave, will you?”
“No…no, Vincent, I won’t…” Guilt tore at her heart. She would leave with the dawn, whether she was ready or not. How long could she lie to him? “I’m so sorry I let this happen to you…I didn’t want…it wasn’t supposed to be this way…”
“It wasn’t you…Hojo…made me what I am…”
“You don’t understand, Vincent and I don’t think I’ll let you. It wasn’t just Hojo. I helped too. I held the knife and spilled your blood, for the sake of testing Hojo’s stupid new drug and with the foolish prayer it would bring you back and I would be yours again. I don’t deserve your love and devotion. You should hate me…” “I shouldn’t have come…” Lucrecia whispered the last of her thought out loud.
“What? Why not? Please don’t say that…please…I want you here…”
“Oh dear one, you don’t understand…” Lucrecia said softly.
“I don’t want to understand if it will make you leave. I’ll live the rest of my life in absolute ignorance if you promise not to go away again…”
“No…Vincent, I don’t…”
“Lucrecia, please…you can’t leave. Not again…”
“Damn you Gast. Damn you Hojo. Damn you Jenova. I curse even you, my son, my Sephiroth. All of you, look what you’ve made me do to him. I hope your family dies, Gast, for all your crazy theories and hypotheses. Hojo, you should burn in the deepest pit of hell for taking my virtue and my dignity. Jenova, I don’t know what you are or where you came from, but I hate you with everything this world has given me, for taking my soul. And Sephiroth, my baby, my little boy, born with Mako eyes. Why did you have to kill me? What evil is in you already that, from the second you were conceived, the stirrings of your life in my body prophesied my doom? Even if my life had to be forfeit for yours, did you have to take me so close to dawn that I would have so little time left? Damn all of you…”
“Why won’t you answer me?”
“I have to leave.”
“I can’t stay,” Lucrecia’s tone was emotionless, despite the anguish tearing at her heart. She could sense the dawn coming, she had little time left. She didn’t want to suddenly just vanish, even if it meant spending as much time as possible with Vincent.
“Why not? Was it something I did? I’m sorry, please, Lucrecia…”
“I’m sorry…I loved you Vincent…” Lucrecia whispered, gently lowering Vincent to the ground. “I need to leave…believe me; I would stay if I could…”
“You were right, you shouldn’t have come. I’ve endured pain beyond measure of comprehension, I’ve wished for nothing but death ever since you left. Now you return only to leave me again? Simple death wouldn’t be enough to end this pain.”
“I’m sorry! Please forgive me, Vincent…” Lucrecia pleaded. “No, don’t forgive me. I don’t deserve it. Not after all I’ve done to you. And you blame yourself…oh Vincent, if only I could make it all better…change the past, undo what I did…”
“I could never be angry with you. Just leave. If you must, you must. I can do nothing to change it.”
“I’m sorry…” Her heart like lead, Lucrecia turned and left the laboratory, figure fading as the dawn broke and death claimed her spirit, bringing her to a place where she could mourn what she had lost and what she had given up.
Lyria and Elena entered the hospital looking totally different. Lyria had abandoned her jeans and t-shirt for a pair of tailored tan slacks and a gauzy white lace jacket over a wine red tank top. A stylish canvas bag slung over her shoulder completed the outfit and gave her a place to put her things. Elena still wore her blue suit, but with her hair and makeup done, she looked much more rested and pretty.
Elena giggled and pointed to the sign the clerk had set up on his desk.
“To those looking for Vincent Valentine: He is in room four eighteen on the twentieth floor. Please do not abuse the clerk for information because he has none. Thank you, the Management,” Lyria read out loud and smiled. “Let’s go.” Heading down the hall to the elevator and up to her husband’s, Lyria knocked on the door.
“C’mon in!” Cid called as Lyria opened the door. “Hey, hey! There we go Lyria, now you look pretty again!”
“Hi, Cid. Oh. Hello, Reeve, what are you doing here?”
“Just visiting. I brought Cait Sith.” Reeve pointed to the small cat who was dozing on his shoulder. “I actually have to go, get back to headquarters. The most powerful company in the world doesn’t run itself. I’ll leave Cait here though. Cait? Take care of Lyria, ok?” Reeve gently deposited the small cat on Lyria’s shoulder and gave the young woman a warm embrace. “Don’t worry, Lyria, Vincent will get better…”
“Thank you, Reeve. Take care…”
“Farewell, mon capitan!” Cait saluted and waved to his owner, who rolled his eyes and headed out the door.
“I’m glad you’re staying, Cait,” Lyria said, smiling slightly and stroking the cat’s head. “You always make me feel better.
“I live but to serve, my dear, gentle lady.”
“Has there been any change?” Lyria asked, coming over to the bed where Red still sat. Gently she touched her fingertips to her husband’s cheekbone. For a moment she frowned and looked slightly puzzled. She pressed the back of her wrist against his forehead. “Red, does he have a fever?”
“That’s what I thought…”
“Should I be concerned?” Lyria sat down on the bed and absently laid her hand on Vincent’s chest. “It seems terribly high…”
“I don’t think so…it’s not causing any problems…”
“But what started it?”
Red sighed. “You know what the problem is with your race? You’re too concerned with first causes. What does it matter what started it? Why don’t we worry about how to stop it?”
“What if knowing what caused it could help stop it?” Lyria countered.
Red chuckled. “Still sharp, aren’t you Lyria?”
“Yes, Red, I am,” Lyria answered with a smile.
“You seem in a better mood.”
“I am…I’m still worried of course, but I feel better. Especially now that you’re here and you know what to do.”
There was another knock on the door and Elena went to open it. “Who on earth…probably just a doctor…” Elena opened the door and was rather shocked to see Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Yuffie, and Shera standing there. “Hey! What are you guys doing here?”
“Sorry we’re late…Shera had to pick us all up in the Tiny Bronco because Cid took the Highwind,” Cloud said.
“Shera! My little Lieutenant, flying the Tiny Bronco!” Cid grinned and held out his arms. “C’mere stardust! Tell me how it went.”
Shera giggled and smiled, joining her husband in his chair. “Hi darling.”
“So how’s Vincent?” Tifa asked, giving Lyria a hug.
“Red, would you explain?” Lyria asked, returning Tifa’s embrace and turning to Yuffie.
“Of course, Lyria.” Red stood up and proceeded to explain his theory.
By the end of his description, Barret, Yuffie, Elena, and Cid looked blank, while the others were silent, taking in what Red had told them.
“Aeris?” Cloud finally said.
“If we’re lucky,” Red answered. “It could be Hojo or Sephiroth too…”
“Oooh…I hope it’s Aeris…” Yuffie exclaimed.
“So do all of us, Yuffie,” Tifa answered.
Lewis silently entered the laboratory, single eye glinting and reflecting the icy steel of the blade in his hand. He was furious. Hojo had performed a hasty surgery, but it had not been enough to save Lewis’s eye. He should have been angry with the scientist, it was his fault, but instead his wrath would fall on Vincent. Lewis stopped for a moment, the young man truly looked helpless, not even strong enough to remain conscious and lifelessly slumped against the wall. Blood had soaked through the once white shirt he wore and dried, fusing the fabric to his skin over numerous scars. Hojo had been surprised and delighted to find that the deep wound Lewis had inflicted had healed itself after Vincent had changed, an added bonus of the Galian injection. He had expected to return and find Vincent dead or dying, possibly beyond hope of recovery. It hadn’t healed as well as it would have with the proper medical attention, but nonetheless, it wasn’t life threatening. Lewis felt no mercy or compassion as he raised his knife above his head. With a deep breath he swiftly brought it down, ready to spill the life from Vincent’s body. His hand froze in mid air, as though another hand had firmly closed its fingers around his wrist. Lewis howled in frustration and struggled to free himself. His cries woke Vincent with a start and he looked up to see Lewis standing over him with a gleaming blade, poised to attack. His eyes lit up, not with fear or dread, but with a sudden, desperate hope. His eyes seemed to beg Lewis to complete the knife stroke and end his life.
“Drop the knife,” Hojo’s voice commanded. “Drop it Lewis. Can’t you see that’s exactly what he wants?”
Lewis looked hard into Vincent’s pleading eyes. “He does…he wants me to kill him…”
“Put it down, I’ve a better way…” Hojo said, coming forward and removing the dagger from Lewis’s hand. Vincent closed his eyes in defeat as Hojo laid the knife on the table.
“Doctor, he could have killed me!” Lewis’s eyes shone with an insane lust for vengeance. “Let me return the favour…”
“Fool. Don’t you understand? Death is no punishment for one in his situation. Death would be an end to the torture, an end to the pain. There’s something else, isn’t there, Valentine? Something you’ve been holding onto, the only thing binding you to life…”
“What?” Vincent whispered. His voice was quiet, barely audible.
“Oh come on, you know what, or rather, who, I’m talking about…I’ll give you a hint, Lewis and I will be leaving soon…”
“Ok, another hint…someone’s died…”
“What are you talking about?”
“God, you’re dense…Sephiroth has been born!” Hojo said, smiling happily. “I got the call about five minutes ago.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Vincent was already starting to get light-headed from talking and just wished Hojo would leave.
“Lucrecia’s dead! Weak thing didn’t survive the birth…my son, Sephiroth, is alive and kicking though…”
“You remember, the woman you had a thing for? She’s dead now.”
“Yes. She’s dead. And you know whose fault it is?”
“You…you killed her…”
“I didn’t. You did. You could have stopped her, but you didn’t. All you did was watch and let it happen…”
“No! I…I tried!”
“And failed. Because you’re a pathetic, miserable wretch. There you go, now there’s nothing left for you. Have you any family? No, Shinra took care of them. Friends? I don’t believe so. I wouldn’t even call you a Turk anymore, it takes a human to be a Turk and I think you fall rather short in that category. Hmm…I don’t think that leaves anything then, does it?”
“Then…let me die…”
“Sorry. This is your punishment. Lewis and I will be leaving soon. And you’ll be staying here. Can’t let a monster like you get out and attack people. So back in your coffin, in your little dark room you go.”
“That’s it?!” Lewis shouted. “You just lock him up again? Where he just basically gets to close himself off from the world and be as good as dead? It’s not enough!” In his fury, Lewis took the coiled black whip from his side and lashed it through the air, snapping and cracking. He began whipping Vincent as hard as he could, cutting his skin deep and flicking blood around with every stroke.
Hojo watched silently as Vincent didn’t react. Lewis howled, struggling to hit him harder, but finding he had reached the limits of his strength. Angrily, he hurled the whip away and grabbed the controller twisting it to an amount he knew Vincent could handle. Still, he didn’t respond. With another scream, Lewis spun the dial as far as it would go, but achieving no result.
“Stop it Lewis,” Hojo commanded quietly. “He can’t feel it anymore.”
“No! He has not paid! He shall suffer!”
“He is suffering. More than either of us could make him. We’ve broken him, Lewis.”
“Destroyed his soul, there’s nothing left. He still feels the pain, but it doesn’t affect him. There’s something deeper that hurts even worse than anything we could ever do and our attacks pale in comparison. The human spirit is not limitless. His will was strong and endured intense punishment, but we finally broke it.”
“How long will it last?” Lewis leaned forward and looked closely at Vincent. Though his eyes were unfocused and glassy, tears fell from their crimson depths, mingling with blood and sweat.
“It can never be repaired. As long as he lives, it will scar him more deeply than the physical wounds you inflict with your little rope. In a way, locking him up is the ultimate punishment. Trapped, helpless to do anything, alone with his worst enemy, his own tortured mind.” In an almost fatherly gesture, Hojo gently laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “It’s over, Vincent. Valiant effort, your contribution in the face of science will not be forgotten. You can rest now.”
In that moment, Lewis was convinced he had not, nor would he ever under stand Dr. Hojo. “What are you…?”
“He can’t feel it, so it doesn’t matter, does it?” Hojo pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the manacles around the young man’s wrists, supporting him carefully as he fell forward. “Poor wretch…”
Lewis was thoroughly confused. “Dr. Hojo…is there something wrong?”
Hojo sighed. “No…it’s just this is the first time I’ve had such a challenge breaking someone and in a way, it’s a shame it’s over. No more waking up in the morning with the motivation: ‘ok, this is it, today I make him snap.’ He’s been a tough opponent.”
“You feel a kind of…affection?” Lewis asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Almost. It’s ironic, the thing it took to break him was the very event we were biding our time for…I suppose my son’s going to be taking up all my waking hours now. I’ve got all this genetic engineering to do to him…Valentine’s been excellent practice though.”
“I think you know the rest of it…” Vincent said quietly, letting the memory fade and be replaced by the darkness.
Aeris stood up and clenched her fists. “That isn’t fair…”
“That someone did that to you! It’s awful!”
Vincent shrugged. “It’s in the past.”
“Don’t just blow it off! It’s not fair!” Aeris repeated, obviously upset.
“Calm down, I’m not getting worked up about it…”
“You’ve lived with this your whole life so you’re used to it!”
“Aeris, as I said, it’s in the past…like it or not, I can’t change it, and neither can you or anyone else.”
Aeris stamped her foot. “No! I want to change it…” Aeris trailed off and a strange look grew in her eyes. “I can’t change the past…”
“I’ve never seen you this upset…”
“Wait here.” Aeris abruptly vanished.
“Like I have a choice…” Vincent muttered.
“Hey, isn’t there a visitor limit in hospitals?” Reno asked, poking his head into Vincent’s room. “I count…seven people over the limit.”
“And you care?” Tifa said sarcastically. It had only been a couple minutes and everyone was still lingering in the hospital room after Red’s explanation.
“Come to think of it, no, I don’t. Rules are made for Turks to break them. C’mon in Rude.” Reno entered and looked for a place to sit. Lyria was perched on the bed next to Vincent, and Red was curled up at the foot. Cid and Shera were in an armchair in the corner of the room and Cloud was balanced on the edge of a table, one arm hugging Tifa who sat beside him. Yuffie and Elena both stood near the window, chatting quietly, and Barret leaned against the wall by the door.
“Hey, Cloud, any chance I could…” Reno asked, glancing at the table. Tifa stretched out her legs across the open space. “Ok, then…” Instead he turned to Cid and Shera. “I guess you two are a little too comfortable to move and let a world weary Turk sit down?”
“Go to hell Reno,” Cid said, sinking deeper into the chair.
Reno frowned and idly kicked the lever on the side of the recliner. Shera shrieked as the chair tilted backward and Cid swore. “Bastard!”
“A real bastard,” Red agreed.
“That wasn’t very nice…” Reno grumbled, turning to Red. “Any room left on that bed?”
“Nope,” Lyria answered. The young doctor was sitting comfortably with her back against the wall, almost completely in the bed, holding Vincent in her arms. She’d calmed down noticeably, but still found comfort being close to her husband. Cait Sith was perched on her shoulder and, in an odd reverse of roles, was gently stroking her chestnut hair.
Reno sighed and sat down on the floor. “This isn’t fair, just because I get here late…”
“Oh come off it Reno, Rude and me are standing,” Elena scoffed.
Suddenly all the light in the room died, leaving it pitch black, only the starlight shining from the window. There were assorted profanities from Reno, Cid, and Barret, and screaming from Yuffie and Elena. The others were startled, but didn’t show it.
“What happened?” Tifa asked, snuggling closer to Cloud.
“Everyone, just sit tight,” Red cautioned. “I’m sure it’s just a power outage, the lights will be back on momentarily…”
Yuffie stuck her head out the window, and looked around. “The lights are on everywhere else…”
There was a sudden crashing noise from the centre of the room and more swearing erupted.
“#$^%! Get this ox offa me!” Reno yelled.
“The HELL!? Who you callin’ an ox, Turk?!?” Barret shifted his weight.
“Oh GOD! That &$#@$% hurts! Stand up, moron, don’t roll over!”
There was a shuffling noise and a click from the door near the wall. “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the door won’t open,” Rude said.
“What?!” Yuffie shrieked, running in the direction she thought was towards the door and tripping over Reno.
“OW!!!! All of you ^*&$#*@ stop it! Yuffie, get off!”
Yuffie squealed again as Reno shoved her. “Watch where you’re sticking your hands Turk or I’ll…”
“Ok, everyone calm down!” Red yelled. “Let’s assess the situation. Where is everyone? When I call your name, say where you are. Cloud?”
“I’m still with Tifa, on the table…”
“Mmph,” Tifa said. “Erm…I mean, I’m right here…”
“What are you doing?” Red asked.
“None of your business!” Tifa responded archly.
“I won’t pursue that…Elena?”
“I’m by the window.”
“I’m still here,” Lyria reached out and brushed her fingertips against Red’s back.
“Cait Sith too!” Cait exclaimed.
“All right. Cid and Shera?”
Shera giggled. “Right here, Red…”
“I sure as hell hope the lights don’t come on Shera…” Cid muttered, tip of his cigarette glowing red in the dark.
“I don’t think I’ll pursue that either…are you and Yuffie still tangled up, Reno?”
“GAWD! Red, shut up! Eagh! Mental image!” Yuffie yelled.
“Hmm…I don’t think it’s that bad an idea…” Reno commented.
“SICK! Barret, if you’re still around here somewhere, club Reno!”
“Can do…” There was a muffled thudding noise.
“Hah! Missed me!” Reno taunted.
“Not this time, now I know where you are,” Barret said, swinging his arm and striking Reno’s stomach.
“How’s that for a mental image?” Yuffie lashed out with one of her legs, aiming where she thought Reno was.
“Ow. I’ve had better.”
“That’s everybody…” Red said.
“Hey! You forgot me!” a female voice protested.
“No, I didn’t…is that you Lyria?”
“Nope, wasn’t…CHRIST! Reno! Get your hands off me!”
“It wasn’t me, I swear. I think it was Barret.”
“The hell it was Barret! Ooh, you’re in trouble when these lights get back on…”
“Was it you Shera?”
“It was me!” The voice was definitely familiar. “You all get rather sexual when the lights go off, you know that?”
“Who’s talking?” Lyria asked.
“You wouldn’t know me, would you? Lyria, right? Pleased to meet you, I’m Aeris Gainsborough.”
“Aeris?” Several voices exclaimed in unison.
“Yup. Let’s get some light in here, ok?” Suddenly a muted white light grew from the corner of the room where Lyria was sitting with Vincent. Aeris smiled at the shocked faces glowing in the light. “Hello, everyone.”
There was a stunned silence.
“Aeris?” Cloud whispered.
“Don’t sound so shocked. Vincent didn’t panic when he saw me.”
“Then it was you!” Red exclaimed, relief in his voice.
“Yeah…I’m sorry, guys. I just got so lonely for all of you and when Vincent all of a sudden showed up I jumped at the opportunity.”
“It’s ok Aeris…” Tifa said. “We’ve missed you too. If you’d all of a sudden popped up we’d have strapped you to a table and never let you go.”
Aeris shuddered and suddenly looked serious. “That reminds me why I’m here…” She turned to face Lyria and smiled gently. “You are Lyria, correct?”
“Y-yes…” Lyria was slightly apprehensive. She’d never talked with a dead person before.
“No matter what he says, I don’t think you’re too good for him,” Aeris commented.
“He said that?” Lyria asked.
“Uh huh. I don’t mean to say that you aren’t good…it’s just he deserves you. You’re a wonderful person.”
“Thank you…before he left…we got in a fight, and I said maybe we were too different to be together.” Lyria lowered her eyes in shame. “Now I know better. It’s not that we’re too different to be together, it’s that we’re too different to be apart.”
“Beautifully put.” Aeris clasped her hands in front of her. “But you still regret that he refuses to have children?”
“Well…yes…but I don’t care about that now. I understand his reasons.”
“You know, I can’t change the past. No one can do that, but I…we, actually…can influence the present,” Aeris said.
“We?” Lyria asked.
“Well…I can’t do it alone…I’m breaking a billion rules just being here, but there were enough people supporting the idea so…”
“Aeris what are you talking about?” Red interrupted.
“All right, I’ll try to explain. All of those who think Vincent’s had a rough life raise their hands.”
Slowly everyone lifted his or her hand (or paw), wondering what Aeris was up to.
“Now, everyone who thinks that killing Hojo didn’t end the problem.”
Again, every hand shot up.
“Ok, good. Now, who here would give him back his old life if it were possible?”
Everyone nodded and held up their hands again.
“Excellent. Then we’re all agreed.” Aeris seemed quite pleased. “Very good then. I’ll get ready to start.”
“Start what?” Lyria asked, subconsciously tightening her hold on the sleeping form in her arms.
“Changing the present.” Aeris closed her eyes and spread her arms wide, aura growing stronger. She reached out a hand and touched Vincent’s chest, fingers reaching right through Lyria’s.
“What are you doing?” Lyria gasped as the same glow that surrounded Aeris enveloped Vincent.
“Don’t worry.” Aeris’s voice was toneless and had a certain choral quality to it. “We’re taking care of it.”
The light grew brighter, near blinding and everyone in the room closed their eyes against the glare. Through the bright light Lyria heard Aeris’s voice whisper, “Take care of him, ok? Lord knows he deserves it.”
“I will Aeris. Thank you…”
“I’m back!” Aeris exclaimed reappearing beside Vincent. “Miss me?”
“Would you like to go back now?”
“You mean I have a choice?”
“Well…you could have gone back at anytime…but I sorta kept you here…are you mad at me?”
Vincent shook his head. “No, Aeris. I understand. I’m glad I could help.”
Aeris giggled and gave Vincent a hug. “Well, since you took time to help me…I should do something for you…”
“I don’t need you to give me anything.”
“It’s not something I plan to give; it’s something I plan to take away.”
“Shut up and let me work.” Aeris closed her eyes and spread her arms, palms facing upward. A myriad of colour that would put a rainbow to shame erupted from the dark void and swirled around Vincent and Aeris. “This is my final gift, the purity of the Lifestream.”
“I don’t understand…”
“You will,” Aeris promised with a smile. “How do you feel?” The colour swirled again and Vincent felt a strange sensation pass through his body.
“On the contrary, you’re quite normal. Now get out of here, the Lifestream is no place for the living.”
“That was rather abrupt. Well…good-bye, Aeris. Thanks for…whatever it is you did.”
“No problem, happy to do it. Say hi to everyone for me and tell them I’m sorry I turned off the lights, they’ll be back on momentarily.”
“You’ll understand in a minute. Bye Vincent.”
Lyria looked around as the light faded. It seemed even darker in the room after the sheer whiteness of before. She hugged Vincent tighter and idly ran her forefinger over his chest, searching for the familiar scars that she knew were etched across his torso. She frowned slightly, not feeling the one she was looking for. Lyria couldn’t think how she missed it; it was one of the deeper ones, running almost vertically between where his lungs would be and about two and a half inches in length. It scared her to think of what might of caused a scar like that, obviously deliberate as it was made in precisely the right place to just miss piercing his lungs and above any other vital organs.
“She’s gone again…” Cloud said sadly.
“At least we know she’s all right,” Tifa’s voice answered comfortingly.
“I never doubted it,” Red added.
“EAGH! RENO, I’M GONNA KILL YOU!!” Yuffie screamed.
“Oops. I may have gone a little far on that one…” Reno murmured sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Yuffie, it’s just you have a very nice body…”
“Really?” Yuffie giggled. “Thanks…”
“Don’t listen to him, Yuffie,” Vincent cautioned, shifting his weight a bit. Lyria reacted instantly.
“Vincent! You’re finally awake!” Lyria pulled herself out from behind Vincent, letting him sit up for himself. “I’ve been so worried!” Without hesitation she wrapped her arms around his neck and felt him return the embrace. “Wait…something’s different…”
“I know…” Vincent smiled. For the first time in years, he perceived feeling in his left hand. “I think I understand what Aeris meant.”
“I’m just so glad you’re back…I’m sorry for what I…”
“Never mind that. It’s in the past. Who’s all here?”
“Everybody. You scared all of us.”
“Yeah!” Reno voiced his agreement.
“No one’s blaming you, darling,” Lyria said, snuggling close to her husband. “We’re just glad you’re back.”
The lights blinked on again and Lyria looked closely at Vincent. “Your eyes! They’re…different…”
“Are they? I wouldn’t know.”
“Yes, they are. They’re brown now, not red…and…” Lyria lightly ran a hand over his chest. “There’s not a scratch on you! As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had dozens of scars and cuts and…”
“Aeris is thorough. Let’s get out of here, I hate hospitals.” Vincent stood up and looked around. “Where’s my jacket?”
“Right here.” Reno tossed him a pile of neatly folded clothes. Vincent easily caught it and pulled on his shirt, not bothering to button it up and pulling on his jacket.
“Let’s go, then.”
Lyria smiled and caught up to her husband as he opened the door. She slipped an arm around his waist and he squeezed her shoulders tightly. “I’m glad you’re back…”
“I know. I’m sorry I suggested leaving.”
“It was my fault…if I hadn’t blown up at you; you wouldn’t have left in the first place and…”
“And we wouldn’t have been able to dispatch Neo-Hurricane, no one would have gotten to see Aeris again, and I’d still be half-human, haunted by a past I should have let go of long ago.”
“Well…if you put it that way…I’m still sorry.” Lyria reached out and pressed the elevator button and the doors opened. “Hee hee. Come on, the others are still back there, let’s not wait.” Lyria stepped into the elevator and pressed the down button, then kissed Vincent firmly.
“Hey!” Cid yelled, skidding down the hallway as the elevator doors closed. He punched the button again and the doors reopened. He was met with a venomous glare from Lyria as Vincent reached out with his free hand and pressed the button to close the door. “Oh…oops.” Lyria giggled as Cid blushed, but her attention soon returned to Vincent.
“Where are we going now? Home?” Lyria asked. “I’m not looking forward to taking the Highwind back…I just want to be alone with you…”
“Me too, but I’ve got an idea…” Vincent answered as the doors opened. “Why is there a sign with my name on it?”
“Oh…the man at the counter is rather difficult. He gave us all problems when we were trying to get in to see you…”
“And now he’ll give us problems trying to get out,” Vincent finished as the man stood up, and held out his hand as the couple tried to exit.
“Are you Vincent Valentine?” he asked.
“I’m sorry; I cannot allow you to leave until your doctor has signed a release form.”
“Please…it seems like ages since we’ve been together and we’d just like to go home…” Lyria pleaded. “I’ll sign the form and take full responsibility…”
“It’s against protocol. Dr. Everette will be back tomorrow, until then, you’ll have to stay here.” The man seemed smug and more confident in his ability to boss around a man in recovery from a two-day stay in the Intensive Care ward.
“I don’t believe that’s very fair,” Vincent said quietly in a tone Lyria had only heard him use once, when the couple had been taking a night time walk and a drunk in the streets of Nibelheim had approached her with intentions that were a little more than friendly. Needless to say, Vincent had not been impressed and decked the man with a punch that would rival one of Rude’s. “I’m perfectly fine and unless you’d like me to demonstrate, I suggest you let us leave.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that…” the man folded his arms. “Now, unless you’d like me to call security, I suggest you get back to your…” Vincent didn’t let him finish and delivered a bone-shattering uppercut. The clerk stumbled backward, spitting out blood and teeth.
“Jumpin’ Junon! Violence is not always the answer!” Cait Sith exclaimed, poking his head out of the bag on Lyria’s shoulder. Lyria jumped and looked in surprise at the small cat.
“What is Cait Sith doing here, Lyria?” Vincent asked.
“I don’t know, I forgot about him…” Lyria flushed slightly, eying the cat. “Umm…how long have you been in there?”
“A while now. I sorta started rooting around after I dropped my crown in your bag, but it’s sorta comfy and I decided to stay in for a bit.”
“This whole time?” Lyria blushed a bit more.
“Yup. You know, you two are a very cute…” Cait started, but didn’t finish as Lyria gently but firmly pushed his small head back into the bag and pulled the drawstrings shut.
Vincent smiled slightly and grabbed Lyria’s hand, heading for the door. “Is Reno’s car in the parking lot?”
“I think so…his is the bright red sports car?”
“Yes…there it is, let’s try a little car jacking…”
“What?” Lyria exclaimed. “How?”
“A while back there was a screw up at the dry cleaners and I ended up with one of Reno’s suits with his keys in one of the pockets. I took the opportunity to get them copied, just in case…”
“Just in case what?” Lyria asked incredulously as her husband pulled a key chain from his pocket and opened the driver’s side door.
“Just in case the instance arose where I would need to steal Reno’s car. Get in already.”
“We’re stealing Reno’s car?” A muffled voice asked from Lyria’s bag. “Hoo boy, he’s gonna be mad…”
“Shut up, Cait,” Lyria sat down and buckled her seat belt. “Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t this generally classified as ‘grand theft auto’?”
“We aren’t stealing his car, we’re borrowing it,” Vincent answered, shrugging his shoulders and backing out of the parking space. “Besides, rules are made for Turks to break them.”
“Is that like your company motto or something?” Lyria asked laughingly.
“Maybe unofficially. I think the real motto is ‘Fortitudo, Animo, Pietas’ or ‘Strength, Courage, and Devotion.”
“Quite a difference between the official and the unofficial. Where are we going, by the way?”
“Shinra headquarters, we’re going to see if Reeve’ll lend us a chopper.”
“Good idea…what are we going to do with Reno’s car?” Lyria asked. There was quite an evident change in Vincent and so far Lyria was enjoying it. “And if Reeve doesn’t give us a chopper are we going to steal one?”
Vincent smiled again. “I don’t think so; I don’t know how to fly a chopper.”
“You’ve changed,” Lyria giggled again.
“Do you mind?” Vincent asked, pulling into the Shinra parking lot. “I just feel sort of different, like my outlook on life has been totally changed.”
“That’s good.” Lyria hugged her husband as he got out of the car.
Vincent’s cell phone rang and he pulled it out and flipped it open. “Valentine.”
“VINCENT, GET YOUR ASS BACK HERE WITH MY CAR!!!” Reno yelled. Vincent winced and held the phone at arms length. “I SWEAR, IF THERE IS SO MUCH AS A SCRATCH ON MY CAR I WILL KILL YOU!”
“Calm down, Reno, I didn’t crash your car…”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t crash’? What did you do to it?”
“Nothing. Your car’s fine…except for…”
“Except for what?!”
“Sorry, Reno, you’re breaking up…we’re in the parkade and the reception is just awful…” Vincent closed his PHS and tucked in the breast pocket of his jacket. “Shall we go?”
“Ooh. That was mean,” Lyria said, giggling wickedly. “ Reno’s gonna be mad…”
“Hey!” Cait Sith exclaimed. “Are you two gonna be fooling around in the elevator again?”
“Cait! Shut up!” Lyria opened her bag.
“What? If you’re gonna be bringing me places you can expect commentary!”
“We don’t really want commentary right now,” Vincent explained, popping the trunk of Reno’s car with the remote control on the keychain. He scooped the small cat from Lyria’s bag and dropped him in the trunk. Before Cait could react, he slammed the door and took Lyria’s arm. “Now shall we go?”
Lyria looked at the car, then back at her husband. “We’re just going to leave him there?”
“Don’t worry; it’s not going to be long before Reno gets here. He’ll let him out.”
Lyria laughed and rapped on the lid of the trunk. “Hear that Cait? Reno’ll be here soon…”
There was a sullen yowl from inside the trunk and Vincent smiled. “Oh stop it.”
“Let’s hurry. I want to be well outside the city by the time Reno finds his car.”
“Why? We didn’t do anything to it.”
“Exactly. He thinks we did. He’ll be mad when he finds out we lied.”
“Oh. Ok, let’s get out of here then.”
“Another elevator. I like elevators.” Lyria pushed the button. “There nice and quiet and…reasonably private.”
“Know what I like doing in elevators?” Lyria asked archly.
“I’m not sure, give me a hint.”
About seventy floors and several rude interruptions (all of which had been dismissed by icy glares from Lyria) later, the couple reached the top floor where Reeve’s office was located.
“Good god, this building is big!” Lyria exclaimed.
“It has to be. There’s a lot that happens here…” Vincent led the way down the hallways to Reeve’s big office. He knocked lightly on the door, but there was no answer and he pushed it open cautiously. “Reeve?”
The President had just picked up the phone and held up a hand, not looking up to see who was at the door. “Hello?… Reno? Slow down…what?…he is?…oh thank god…hmm… Reno?….Reno….Reno! I can’t do anything…yes, I know he stole your car…an Ultima?…pricey, Reno, very pricey…Vincent wouldn’t crash your car…listen, he’ll probably be here soon and…”
“Hey, Reeve!” Lyria called, waving at the President, who looked up startled.
“Oh! Hello, Lyria, Hello, Vincent…yes, they’re right here Reno…” Reeve jumped, as there was a sudden, loud stream of profanity from Reno’s end of the conversation. He held the phone away from him, and winced. Looking around a bit, he slowly opened one of the drawers of his desk and placed the phone inside. Reno was still swearing at the top of his lungs, oblivious as Reeve shut the drawer and looked up at Vincent with a grin. “Stealing Reno’s car? Dear god, you just move from one life threatening situation to another, don’t you?”
“I would have taken Elena’s, but I didn’t have her keys…” Vincent said, shrugging his shoulders apologetically.
“Ah. Where’s Cait, by the way?”
“He’s downstairs, waiting in Reno’s car. Maybe he can calm him down a bit…” Lyria interjected smoothly, half glancing at Vincent.
“Ok, do you two want to go home?”
“Very much. Could we get a chopper to take back to Nibelheim?”
“I’ll go you one better, seeing as you’re my favourite and all…” Reeve smiled and winked. “Take my private jet. Gorgeous little machine, nice, quiet and first class all the way.”
“Thanks a million, Reeve…” Lyria blew the president a kiss as she followed her husband out the door and down the hallway to the hangar where Reeve’s plane was kept. “You know, I almost lost you…” Lyria snuggled closer to Vincent. “I never want to go through that again…”
“I’m sorry I let it happen, but maybe it was worth the risk…”
“I don’t care, just don’t do it again. I thought a lot how my life was before I met you and now I can’t imagine what it would be like if we weren’t together…”
“Yeah…you just lied to, Reeve, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t lie, I just…embellished reality. He is waiting downstairs in Reno’s car for Reno to show up, isn’t he?”
“Yes…ok, so it isn’t a lie.”
“Of course not. I’m perfect, I never lie,” Lyria said teasingly.
“Perfect, yes, eternally truthful, I’m not so sure about.”