Through the Looking Glass Chapter 7
A Prison by Any Other Name
By Lucrecia Marionette
The icy water enveloped them as an explosion roared overhead hurling them downwards with the force of a bullet. She felt the coldness freeze her lungs and limbs and pure panic set in as she felt something smothering and holding her down. She lashed out and heard a muffled cry of pain in the water.
Although her eyes were open, she saw nothing but blackness and bubbles as they burst up from below her. She didn't even know which was the right way up, only that she had to fight to gain the privilege of air. She kicked powerfully and flailed her arms wildly until at last she broke free from the restricting liquid and into the cold air. Seconds later bubbles rose up next to her and a choking figure surfaced from the black water.
"Godammit!! Are you trying to kill me??" he yelled, his fiery red hair plastered to his forehead from the water and his mouth was open greedily taking in lungfuls of air.
"Don't piss me off Reno!!" she argued angrily. "You should've left me up there!!"
"You'd be less than a stir fry if I had!" he objected furiously. "Are you so selfish you're not even gonna thank me??"
"For what?? For making me jump down a bottomless pit and almost drowning at the bottom??"
"Uh, guys...?" called a tentative voice from somewhere in the darkness. "When you two have finished having your little hissy fits, maybe you should think about swimming over here??"
They glared in the direction of the voice and saw a faint island in the dim cavern. Turning back to look at each other and proclaiming an unspoken contest, they both swam as quickly as they could to the island. Yuffie stumbled up the bank first; collapsing exhaustedly in a heap on the ground while Reno limped up behind her.
"I win!" she grinned triumphantly.
"Yeah? Well I could've swum here and back twenty times before you crawled up but because a certain person kicked me in the leg I wasn't able to." Reno contended, clutching at his left leg while Yuffie stuck her tongue out at the bedraggled Turk.
"Kids, kids." hushed Cid sarcastically. "I know that you're both obviously very upset but right now we need to get out of this damned pit, so would ya just shut the hell up??"
Reno and Yuffie sank into guilty silence but not before glaring at the pilot who was sat on the muddy beach, leant up against a large boulder.
"So what do we do now?" asked Elena as she looked collectively at the group assembled messily on the muddy bank. "We can't stay here, that's for sure."
"We have to get out of here." said Reeve obviously. "That explosion has probably sprayed debris all over the city and they'll need someone to help organise clean up crews."
"Like you, ya mean?" Cid questioned as he turned to the executive who blushed and looked away.
Tifa sighed. "That's the most understandable idea." she stated. "We do need to find a way out of here." she paused for a moment and began to look around.
They were gathered on an island of mud that jutted from a brick wall into the dark lake that stretched on in all directions as far as the eye could see. The rushing water was the only other sound than their breaths and low mutterings as they conversed and argued with each other. Boulders, stones and old pieces of scrap and wood seemed to be collected on the bank and they provided useful seats for the tired group of fighters. The soil shore kept to the wall and led off in either direction; the only indication to which way they should walk was the flow of the water.
"Maybe we should follow the river, after all it does lead through the sectors so it has to emerge from somewhere."
Cid looked up and glanced around the black expanse. "Mebbe we should ask Vinny. Looks like he knows how to fly so he might be able to find another route."
Tifa looked around the group and frowned when she noticed for the first time that Vincent was missing. "Hey... where is he?" she inquired eventually.
Everyone began to search realising that it wasn't overly difficult to lose a huge black demon. However, there was no sign of him other than a set of paw-like footprints in the wet mud leading away from them.
"Shit, did anyone see him leave?" Reno demanded as he leapt up. "Maybe he went to alert the surviving soldiers or something-"
"Hey!!" objected Cid furiously. "Are you suggesting that Vincent's an enemy, cos if you are then you'd better be ready to get your ass kicked!!"
"Gladly!" responded Reno as he slid the nightstick from its holder and with the click of a switch, blue electric sparks began to shimmer from it threateningly. Cid lifted the Venus Gospel and swung it in an arc.
"Stop... it." said Cloud weakly from his lying position on the floor. Although his voice was not raised, it demanded respect and the two men ceased their dangerous displays immediately.
"What is it, Cloud?" Tifa questioned eagerly as she knelt down beside him. "Do you know where Vincent is?"
"I, I think I may have an idea." he explained quietly. "While you and me... held each other in the Lab, I heard the Hojo mention something vaguely. I, I'm not sure if I'm right but he said something about Vincent having a release from the Chaos form every night. When you were all talking, I saw him holding his stomach and trying to stay quiet. He crept off and I didn't want to mention it... y'know what he's like... ."
"So he's not trapped?" exclaimed Yuffie, a broad and happy smile on her face.
"I dunno." Cloud answered, shaking his head and lying back down from exhaustion.
"Well... we should find him." Cid declared. "He might need our help-"
Before anyone could say anything more, an eerie wailing emerged from the darkness. Their muscles tensed and their hearts were gripped by fear as the terrible noise subsided leaving a deathly silence.
"What the hell was that?" asked Reno his knuckles white as he held onto the handle of the nightstick.
There was another noise, more recognisable as the cry of a wounded animal or beast but there was an odd undertone in it, like there was more than one voice shrieking at once. There was a scream; definitely more human and Tifa turned to Cid, her eyes wide in fear and worry.
"Oh God." she breathed. "I, I think that's Vincent."
There was a final cry of agony and then the dreadful silence fell upon them once more. Unwilling to wait, Tifa leapt over the cluttered debris and sprang into the darkness, her eyes darting left to right for any sign of the injured man.
Cid appeared beside her, his powerful spear shedding a dim and barely noticeable light that stretched the edges of their visible circle further. They walked forwards together with confident but panicked strides and Cid's quick eyes picked out a huddled figure on the very rim of their vision.
"There!" he called as he pointed the ornate spear towards the shape.
Tifa ran over and saw Vincent who was half-clothed wearing only his black trousers and boots crouched on the floor with his arms wrapped around his legs defensively. He was shivering violently and streaks of mud covered his pale and scarred back while all around were the signs of a struggle printed in the muddy shore. Pools of dark blood stained the floor and Tifa swallowed nervously. Using all of her willpower, she knelt down beside the shivering man.
"Vincent." she said gently as she put an arm around his shoulders. "There's no need to be scared, it's me."
He looked up, his red eyes wide and staring and his lips slightly parted as though he was waiting for something or wanting to speak but unable to find the words.
"Hey man, you alright?" Cid questioned worriedly as he bent down and looked into Vincent's face. "Can you speak?"
"Y... Y, yes." he replied after a moment. "I... I'm... all right."
"You're shivering." Tifa observed quietly and then she looked up at Cid. "Can you lend him your jacket?"
He looked as though he were about to object, but slowly slid the bomber-jacket from himself and lay it on Vincent's back like a shawl.
"Thanks." Vincent mumbled.
The pilot knelt down and looked into Vincent's face, perhaps in an effort to find out what was plaguing him. He almost fell back in surprise as light gleamed from his spear and off two wickedly pointed fangs in Vincent's mouth, partially visible through his slightly open lips.
"Damn, Vincent. I hate to be the one to tell you this but, it doesn't look like everything's back to normal... ." he said gently.
"I know... . I am... far from 'normal'." Vincent responded quietly.
"No, no. I, I don't mean like that. I mean you got fangs! Now you look like a vampire even more!" Cid answered half jovially, uncertain of his dark friend's mood.
"Then nothing has changed." Vincent replied coldly as he stood and clutched the bomber jacket around himself, shivering violently. "I have one hour and then I will change back." he reported eventually. "But right now... I'm hungry... ."
He looked at Cid who stood up with him and there was an odd glimmer in his eyes that made the couple wary.
"H, Hungry?" Cid repeated and his stomach growled loudly. He grinned and patted it. "Yeah, I think everyone's hungry. Hell, I'm starvin' here! I think we all need something to eat."
Vincent continued to stare at Cid with a dangerous spark in his glittering ruby eyes and an uncomfortable silence fell upon them.
Tifa coughed nervously and the tense atmosphere was shattered as easily as a pane of glass by the eerily loud gesture. The attentions of both men fell on her and she was momentarily taken aback by the fangs in Vincent's mouth which were now clearly visible. "Umm..." she began uncertainly. "I, I think we should head back to the rest of the group now. They'll probably be worried."
Vincent snapped out of his trance and stopped shaking, standing up tall and looking half like his usual self. "I must go." he said suddenly to Cid and Tifa's surprise. "I need something to eat and I refuse to find it here."
He took off the jacket and handed it roughly back to Cid before striding mysteriously into the darkness without any apparent motive leaving the couple to exchange puzzled glances at his odd remark.
"Wait! Vincent!" called Tifa as she took a few steps after him. "We can be back at the bar within an hour, you can have something to eat there."
Vincent paused but did not turn around as he seemed to consider the idea. "Speak with Cloud." he responded eventually in a quiet tone. "He'll... explain everything. I'll wait for you all although I doubt that you shall be as willing to see me... ."
He walked away and was enveloped by the shadows as his near silent footsteps dissipated into the heavy air. Cid and Tifa continued to give each other bewildered looks.
"Well that was... weird."
"Weird? Fuck! I thought he was strange before!" Cid exclaimed and Tifa gave him a hushing look.
"He'll probably hear." she hissed but he didn't seem to care.
"Dammit man... d'you think Hojo screwed with his mind too?"
"Cid!" answered Tifa furiously. "Shut up before I make you! Don't talk like that, ever! I want to go back to Cloud. Maybe he can shed some light here... ."
Cid scratched the back of his head and followed after the determined young woman who jogged back to the others that sat wearily waiting for any orders.
"Cloud? What the hell's goin' on?" asked Cid as soon as he entered the circle, launching into the questions that were burning brightly in his mind. "Why has Vincent just ran off into the night like some kind of vamp talkin' about how hungry he is? Shit, he even has the fangs now!"
Everyone turned from the couple that had just returned out of the shadows to the weak figure on the ground.
"He said that he has an hour before he changes back. I tried to tell him that we could get back to the bar and have something to eat before then but he just ignored me and told us to ask you what's going on." Tifa explained. She looked down at Cloud who took a deep breath.
"Well, uh..." he paused and seemed to consider his answer. "It's funny that you called him a vamp... ." his voice trailed off as Cid's eyes widened alarmingly.
"You have got to be fuckin' kiddin' me!" he responded in a barely audible voice. "Y, Y'mean that the vampire... really is a vampire??"
Cloud nodded solemnly and there was silence.
"So... you mean that he'll probably try to bite our necks or something grim like that?" Reno asked openly, disgust undisguised on his features. "Man, that's sick! You've gotta be joking!"
Cloud shook his head slowly. "Vincent told me himself... he wouldn't lie about something like that. It wasn't through choice. Seeing people like Hojo came as a shock and things came to light that I think he probably thought hidden from everyone."
"H, How long has he... y'know." asked Yuffie hesitantly with understandable concern.
"Ah... apparently he's been a... umm, vampire since Hojo experimented on him."
"S, So y'mean when we woke him up from his coffin in the Shinra Mansion basement, he was a bloodsucker?" questioned Cait with surprise.
Elena laughed. "You're telling me that you woke up a sixty year old who looks twenty-seven and sleeps in a coffin and you had no idea?" she laughed again and the members of AVALANCHE exchanged odd glances.
"Well, me an' Barret always made jokes but his eyes used to glow and we learnt not to even mention it after a while because the guy would go psycho!" Cid answered in a half-hearted attempt for an excuse. "There was no way we could know... ." He looked off into the blackness with a dim hope of catching some glimpse of his friend. "He said that he 'refused to find somethin' to eat here'. He obviously doesn't wanna hurt us. This is too weird... ."
"Well... I hate to be that one that shatters the mood but there's a city up there that needs our help. Can we get going now?" asked Reeve impatiently.
Tifa nodded and turned to Cait. "D'you think that you can carry Cloud?"
"I can walk on my own..." Cloud began feebly, attempting to stand but falling back clumsily onto the mud. Tifa gave him a disapproving stare and Cait hesitantly bent down and lifted the young warrior carefully. The black and white cat grinned down at him.
"I'll make your ride as smooth as possible. Thank you for travelling with Cait Sith travel. Co where your relaxation is our revenue!"
"Since when did I programme you to tell such bad jokes?" Reeve questioned with one eyebrow raised.
"You didn't have to programme him... he probably picked it up from being around you so much." Reno laughed and Reeve gave him a blank glance while Elena tapped her foot.
"Are we going now?"
Tifa swallowed nervously and walked to the waters edge, taking a brief second to gauge which direction the wide river flowed in. It seemed that Vincent had decided on the correct route. Turning back to the others she nodded towards where she and Cid had discovered their dark friend. "We go that way if we want to follow the water to get out." she reported.
Without another word exchanged, the group of weary fighters began their trudge to light.
They walked for what felt like hours whereas only forty minutes had passed before they caught sight of light at the end of their tunnel. From their distance they could see an intricate network of vines and branches growing over the exit, disguising it well from any onlookers outside. The light shed down onto them was dappled and weak but through the tangled mass of life they saw fires burning far away casting an orange glow into the dark night-time sky. Reeve's pace increased considerably at the sight until he broke far away from the group and ran ahead to stand and stare through the growth. When they caught up with him finally they saw his mouth open in shock and his overall expression aghast.
"My God... ." he muttered. "Look what that bastard Hojo did... ."
Peering through the branches they saw the devastation in greater detail. Their pathway led out into the Sector Seven Gardens and huge chunks of shrapnel and twisted sheets of burning metal littered the once perfect grass. Occasional cries and screams of anguish would float through the air and touch their ears making them wish that they could crawl back through the tunnel and deny what had happened.
The damage was bad enough in the huge park and none of them dared to imagine what terrible fates had become the inhabited sectors. Reno moved away from them and walked over to a patch in the growth that had been torn to pieces to give a small doorway to the outside world. The vines and leaves had been shredded and by the spacing of the slices it was obvious that a claw had made the damage. He proceeded to push through it until he stood in the night where he took the time to glance around the area. The rest quickly followed and they surveyed the devastation from the new vantage-point.
"The blast radius must've been huge." mumbled Yuffie. "I hope that everyone's alright... ."
"I'm sure that they'll be fine." consoled Tifa, not sounding completely sure of her own words.
"There's no point in assuming anything." commented Reno as he leant up against the wall where the river emerged from and led across the park. "We need to take a look ourselves."
As he said this, the groups' eyes focused on a figure walking towards them from across the expanse of grass. Soon, a blood red cloak and black clothes were more apparent and recognisable as Vincent. Although the members of AVALANCHE felt glad to see him, part of them twisted inside to think of the recently uncovered secret. As they mulled over their individual thoughts and opinions on the matter, they began to scrutinise their approaching companion more closely. His walk was stiff and wary as though he was uncertain what his return and reception would entail. His body language was tense, but at the same time his shoulders slumped and his head was tilted downwards as if he couldn't stand facing them. Although feeling an unstoppable repulsion towards him, they couldn't help but experience a terrible sense of helplessness and sorrow. Who could have thought that he would keep such an important and dreadful secret from them for so long?
He stopped twenty metres from the scattered group and lifted his head to face them; it wasn't difficult to see that he was attempting to analyse the situation and the thoughts of the others. Reno was less disguised in his sickness and turned away from the ex-Turk while Elena felt only curiosity. Rude's emotions were a mystery as always but by the way that he intently watched Vincent's approach it wasn't difficult to see that he too found interest in the dark figure.
Overcoming whatever negative bonds held her back, Tifa walked forward until she stood metres away from the silent figure, his head bowed slightly in guilt.
"H, Hello, Vincent." she said with more fear than she'd intended on showing. "Are you... all right now?"
He looked up but never lost his stature of remorse. "I fear that I shall never be... ."
Forcing a nervous smile to reassure him, she took a few steps forward and held out her hands. "Will you help us?"
He looked blankly at the outstretched hands and she reluctantly dropped them, realising that he wasn't prepared to give anything away at that moment. "I... cannot." he replied eventually. "I have a matter of minutes left... . About fifteen I believe and if I were to stay around any longer then I would only serve to hinder your efforts to help the city."
She nodded gravely but with understanding. "What are you going to do now?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. What can I do? Hojo will be dead and along with him any information regarding my... condition." he shook his head. "There was no way he could've survived the blast."
As he ended, everyone found their eyes looking up the massive pillar-like structure they'd just exited. For the first time they noticed plumes of smoke and fires bursting from the top of the building like a massive beacon. Vincent sighed. "All I can hope to do is continue my research. Perhaps then I can find something to alleviate my suffering. I cannot hope to find a cure. I have been looking for years now without avail."
"What are you gonna do right now, though?" interjected Cid, gathering his courage and walking to stand beside Tifa. "You just stayin' in the gardens or are you goin' home?"
"Home?" repeated Vincent but he shook his head. "No... . I have no home. I went to grab some things. The apartments have been almost totally destroyed but fortunately some of my clothes and books were salvageable."
"Sector Four's been destroyed?" exclaimed Reeve with horror. "Oh my God... . Were there any fatalities? How many were injured? Is everyone safe?"
"I helped those I could but as I said, I had to leave because I have little time left. For what I could see, there were many trapped beneath the rubble and there were a few injuries but no deaths."
Reeve whispered a prayer and clasped his hands while Cait atop Mog patted him on the shoulder comfortingly. "Y'see, everything'll be okay."
The executive nodded and the pair carrying Cloud began to walk away across the grass towards the Six-Seven gate to plan rescue operations. Tifa turned back to Vincent and watched in concern as he grimaced and inhaled sharply.
"It's beginning." he said simply, his voice strained and laced with pain. "I need to leave here."
He fell to his knees and Tifa ran over and knelt beside him. "I'll take you back to the bar. If you get in then you can change there and stay indoors tomorrow. I know it's not perfect but it'll keep you safe and away from prying eyes for now."
He looked about to object when another pain gripped his stomach and he nodded hesitantly.
"I'll take him there." piped up a small voice and Tifa turned to look at Yuffie who seemed nervous but defiant, her small jaw clenched with courage.
Tifa smiled and nodded, stepping back to allow the younger girl to pass. Yuffie bent down next to Vincent and helped him stand awkwardly
"C'mon." she urged gently. "I'll help you walk."
He leant heavily on her and they walked away as quickly as they could manage after Reeve and Cait. Seeing no point in waiting around, the three Turks followed suit although at a more leisurely pace as wounds that had been inflicted upon them began to become more obvious due to the pause in action. As their friends disappeared into the hellish night, soon only Tifa and Cid were left behind.
"They'll need all the help they can get. Perhaps we should follow 'em?" suggested Cid to break the moments' thought.
"Yeah. I want to check on Cloud. Maybe I can take him back to the bar now. I'm worried about him." she confided quietly. "Hojo said that most of the Jenova cells had been drained out of him. I'm so worried Cid... he might die... ."
Tears began to form in her burgundy eyes but she bit her lip and stopped them from falling.
"He's a fighter... he'll pull through." Cid answered comfortingly. "He's survived earthquakes, Mako poisoning and the worst identity crisis this century! He'll be okay. Just you see."
Tifa smiled happily. If it weren't for her friends then she didn't know what she'd do.
"Let's go then."
The back door into the kitchen of Tifa's Seventh Heaven burst open and the two friends stumbled in clumsily. Vincent dropped to the floor, gasping for air and fighting the agony that threatened to rip through his body. Yuffie considered helping but there was nothing she could do except assist in her own way. She ran around frantically, turning on the lights in the large room and pushing all of the stools to the very edges of the floor space to give Vincent as much room as possible. Eventually satisfied she looked back at him as he cried out in pain and clutched his chest feeling every cell in his body beginning to twist and warp into a cruel and demonic design.
She dropped down beside him and he lifted his head to face her. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and his face was pale and panic stricken. "Don't... stay here... Yuffie." he forced out. "It's not... safe."
"I can't leave you... ."
"Please." he begged in a strained voice. "Don't... watch."
He let out another cry and his red eyes closed tightly in anguish.
"I, I just want to apologise." Yuffie stuttered quickly. "I'm really sorry about going into your room. I shouldn't have and I'm really, really sorry."
"That's... okay. Don't worry... . Just, get away from here."
She jumped up and with a final backwards glance, left the room and ran to the bar where she sank against the panelled wood walls and put her hands over her ears, unwilling to hear her friend's torture.
A terrible scream reached her and her face screwed up in malady, the awful sound drilling through her very soul. It was followed by another, more bestial this time and there was the sound of breaking glass as objects were knocked to the tiled floor by Vincent's writhing and transformation. There was a final roar, filled with the agony of torment and then there was an oppressing silence that scared her more than the actual event.
She stood up warily and with hesitation, walked back to the kitchen. Vincent in his demonic form was on the floor on his hands and knees, his head bowed between his shoulders as though he was gathering the strength to move. The massive crimson wings were splayed awkwardly either side of him, bent up against benches and stools touching both ends of the large room. Smashed glasses and jars were all over the tiled floor, no doubt from where the wings had thrown them off in their agonised movements as he struggled to retain control. Changing from human to Chaos had always been an uncontrolled and instinctive feat leaving him with no power of his behaviour and actions. She couldn't imagine how terrible it would be for him to be fully conscious of what was happening.
Gathering her courage, she walked over to a pile of broken glass and began to pick it up in an effort to clean the mess. Vincent lifted his head and regarded her with startlingly human eyes that seemed full of sorrow and pain. Noticing his gaze, she stopped and looked at him.
"It's okay." she said once over the initial shock of how human the demon appeared despite it's gargoylic-cattish appearance. "I'll tidy this up."
He nodded thankfully and sank back into his thoughts with the sound of glass tinkling and crunching in his sensitive ears. He felt heavy and tired; changing back into a human had always left him exhausted for hours after and every fibre in his body longed for rest. His eyelids began to droop but as a loud screech echoed in the air, his head jerked up.
Yuffie stood over a stool that she'd pulled across the floor with a sheepish grin. "Sorry." she apologised lamely. "Why don't you sit over there and get some sleep?"
He looked over his shoulder to where she had indicated and saw a dark corner made by the wall that held the back door and the wall containing the doorway to the lounge and living area upstairs. He nodded and shuffled backwards until he sat in the corner with his back resting upon one of the walls and his right side leant up against the other. His eyelids began their slow descent across his eyes in preparation for sleep once more as an aching weariness tugged at his body. He dozily glanced down on himself and shuddered softly. He looked down upon the massive clawed hands and rough black skin that seemed darker than the night outside. His hearing and other senses were the same as they were in his human form; designed for predatorial purposes. The vampiric metamorphosis had made certain that he robbed others of their life to the best of his ability.
He never killed people, not purposefully at least. Sometimes the insatiable bloodlust became too much and he little say over his actions, just as he normally did in the Chaos form. It was strange; roles had reversed. In his human shape he felt nothing but intense hunger governing his thoughts but as the demon he could rationally think with more clarity that he could otherwise. Appearance certainly didn't seem to suggest reality in this instance.
Losing his brave battle against sleep, he gave in and pulled his legs up so that he rested a pointed chin on black knees. He wrapped his arms around his legs and clasped the hands weakly. As he sank into unconsciousness he drew his wings up around himself, locking the clawed joints at the top together to form a crimson veil that hid him away from the world so that he could deny it even existed. It was easier to think like that.
The cold tiled floor was uncomfortably hard and the wall was crushing his wings awkwardly. He wished that he were lying at home in his bed where he could dream easily. He even willed for the coffin that had imprisoned him for thirty-three years of his life. It was secure and dark, safe from troubles that did not concern him and allowing him to revel in his own glorious downfall. Perhaps dreaming hell would be better than living it... .
Finished with her attempt at cleaning, Yuffie looked over at the huge demon in the corner of the room hidden beneath the scarlet folds of his wings. His breathing was almost silent but it was deep and even; at least he was asleep now.
She sighed with exhaustion and sank down against a bench cupboard opposite him. A yawn escaped her lips and the very sight of seeing someone sleeping only furthered her own weariness. It wasn't long before she lay down with her small knees tucked up to her chest and her eyes closed as she too welcomed oblivion in the chance of forgetting everything for a few hours.
It was early the next morning when the rest of AVALANCHE slunk in through the back doors after an exhausting night of rescuing survivors from the explosion. Vincent's head lifted wearily at the sound of the door opening and he watched through half closed lids as they walked in muttering quiet and tired conversations with each other. Still dark outside due to the long winter nights, they turned on the main light and leapt as they saw the large demon staring back at them from one of the corners. Over the initial fright, they made themselves at home; stirring the young ninja from her sleep and sitting around in a large circle to begin exhausted conversations. The Turks, Reeve and Cait Sith were no longer with them having stayed to work through the morning in order to rescue people from the scattered rubble thrown out from the blast. The damage had not been as bad as they'd expected but the matter was still grave with the death toll rising every hour. Those who had escaped the initial explosion had later been killed by collapsing buildings in the panic and confusion of the situation as fear spread like a plague through the population. Half the battle had been calming them down and trying to convince them that they were now safe.
Cloud had been taken upstairs to bed and Tifa stumbled in fatigue out of the stairway door and into the kitchen. She had to be physically helped to stand and move by Cid who supported her to her stool. Once everyone was ready the conversation and summary of the week's events began to spill out hesitantly.
"How's Cloud?" Cid asked kindly to initiate the talks. "Is he alright?"
Tifa nodded. "Yeah. He's fine at the moment, just weak and tired I s'pose."
"I guess we should be glad that it's nothing worse."
Tifa nodded again.
"H, He will pull through right?" asked Yuffie awkwardly. "I mean you an' Vincent stopped Hojo before he could finish whatever he was doing?"
Tifa glanced over at Vincent who seemed too lost in his own thoughts to contribute in his own limited way to the conversation. She sighed and shrugged. "He seems okay apart from the frailty I mean. He seems to be getting stronger ever time I look at him. Who knows what the future holds... ?" her voice died out and like Vincent she became engrossed with her present state of mind.
After a pause Cid coughed and all attentions in the room were once more brought to the surface. "So, what do we do now?" he asked plaintively. "Do we just sit around and wait for Cloud to get better an' then go back to how everythin' was before?"
That may be difficult... Vincent thought glumly to himself, sighing sorrowfully and shuffling his wings.
Noticing his misery, Tifa looked up at Vincent but then down at the floor not focusing on anything in particular. "We can try... ." she said softly. "But I don't think that this is over... ."
Yuffie and Cid looked questioningly at her. "Course its over." argued the ninja. "Hojo blew the HQ to pieces. He committed suicide and wiped out whatever plans Rufus and him were planning. Surely there's no way that either of them could've escaped in time. I mean, we had to jump down that awful shaft to get away." she continued with a shudder at the memory. "I can't see Rufus doing something like that no matter how desperate he is."
"If Rufus was even there." muttered Cid and the puzzled attention was turned to him. He met it with knowing stares. "None of us saw Rufus right, I mean what if Hojo just screwed up everyone's brains to make them think that he was there?"
They started as there was a low growl from the corner of the room and Vincent glared at them through red slits.
Hojo may have destroyed what little was left of my body but he has not taken my mind. Rufus was there, I can remember him, I heard him and I smelt him. That was no illusion he contended mentally but his thoughts were unheard, only his actions were seen as his three friends began to look uncomfortably at each other.
Eventually Tifa turned to him and he looked back at her blankly. "Cid's not saying that you're lying." she explained. "But you have to admit that it's possible."
Vincent narrowed his eyes but made no move to justify his thoughts as he glanced at the others. I am not completely dismissing it but I know what I saw... .
"It's no use just presuming that everything's worked out." Tifa began in an effort to defend Vincent's unspoken opinions. "If Hojo truly was intending on doing such an insane thing as bringing back Sephiroth," she paused and shuddered at the thought.
Cloud had vaguely filled her in on the plans whilst she tended to him in the main street and the others searched for bodies beneath the housing wreckage. Even now that the brief battle was over, the thought continued scared her. The very possibility that Sephiroth could have been brought back to wreak terror upon an unsuspecting world once more made her body numb and her mind reel. "If he really was going to do that then don't you think that he would've had more protection? We hardly met any signs of life in the HQ and the measly soldiers there couldn't have taken anyone captive, let alone the Turks and two of AVALANCHE."
Her audience of two nodded their heads in grim realisation. All the times that they had created noise enough to declare their presence a mile away they met no resistance. The times that they'd left themselves open to ambush; times when they'd separated and moved around carelessly they'd been perfect to be surprised. It didn't make sense.
"Hojo mentioned Rufus too." added Tifa thoughtfully. "When Vincent killed the only soldier in his lab, Hojo specifically said that he'd warned Rufus not to post any guards. Why would he say something like that if we weren't under his power?"
"I don't want it to, but this is lookin' pretty likely." Cid responded unwillingly. "But what the hell can we do?"
Tifa shrugged. They were looking to her for the answers again when all she could do was make them see. It wasn't easy; she hated taking the responsibility for everyone. She prayed inwardly that Cloud would recover soon. Her heart yearned for him in mind and body; she missed his authority just as she longed for his company. She hated taking charge.
Yuffie yawned and her head began to bow as she lost her fight against sleep and it numbed her muscles and thoughts. Tifa gave her a concerned glance and then looked around the others in the room. Vincent's eyes were half closed and his wings were drawn up tightly around him like a shroud and Cid looked as though he was about to drop off his stool at any second. Tifa sighed.
"For now... we go to sleep. We can talk later when our minds are clear. I'll keep the bar closed tomorrow and we can rest."
Her suggestion was met with understanding nods. Yuffie slumped off her chair and stumbled out of the door and noisily upstairs while Cid gave a wave and sauntered through to the lounge and couch. When the sounds of movement faded out, Tifa slid off her stool and walked over to sit beside Vincent on the floor. He looked down at her with weary interest, exhaustion was obvious on his face and several faint scars that she'd never noticed before that seemed quite fresh covered his arms and torso. She stared at them for a moment, her mind too numb to focus on anything important but she eventually looked up into his gargoylic face.
"How are you feeling?" she asked kindly and he looked down sorrowfully.
How am I meant to feel? Before the torture was bad but now I am trapped like this for eternity. At least in a human guise I could pass as being half-normal but never again can I walk the streets at night or hold a conversation without the impending agony burning in my mind.
My words shall never be spoken and my thoughts closed away more so than before. How am I meant to feel? Hojo's release is only adding to the torment. He offers me a chance at humanity but then rips it from my grasp an hour later. The pain is like nothing I have experienced before and I must do this endless cycle until the end of days...? How do I feel...?
He exhaled deeply and she patted his arm. "We're here for you... never forget that." she whispered. "You can stay here as long as you like and you'll never be a burden no matter what your concerns may tell you. If anything, I'm glad you're here Vincent; in whatever form. I just feel safer for having you or any of the others around. Just don't leave us, okay?"
He looked down at her gently and gave a slow nod. She smiled softly at him. "I'll see you in the morning." she added as she stood and left the room in darkness and silence.
A piercing scream awoke the household the next morning and Tifa leapt from her bed. The lack of sleep was playing achingly upon her limbs but the sound of danger aroused any drowsiness from her muscles until adrenaline flowed though her veins. Without bothering to grab her dressing gown, she tore out of the bedroom and down the stairs where she threw open the kitchen door and leapt through, her fists up and prepared for battle.
She was met with the sight of Jen standing in the middle of the tiled floor, a bag of scattered groceries lying around her feet and a terrified expression on her face. She was staring with horrified fear towards a corner to Tifa's left and she flicked her vision towards the source of the alarm to see Vincent in his Chaos form staring back with glittering red eyes. His face was expressionless and his eyes calm almost as though he was expecting such an event. Snapping out of her trance, Tifa moved quickly to stand beside the terrified waitress to comfort her. She put an arm around the young girl's shoulders and with a degree of effort succeeded in taking her through to the bar. Cid entered seconds later, weariness heavy on his face and the Venus Gospel held weakly in his right hand. He peered around the lounge door and his eyes met with Vincent's.
"Was that you?"
Vincent said nothing but flicked his gaze over to the bar door and back.
Cid scratched the back of his head. "Well, I don't s'pose you could keep the whole scaring thing down a bit? I'm about to drop dead here." He shrank back into the lounge shutting the door behind him as Tifa entered the room once more, stretching luxuriously with a wide yawn. She stopped bleary eyed in the centred of the tiled floor and regarded Vincent tiredly.
"Sorry about that, Vincent." she excused. "It was my fault, I should've put up a sign to warn her or something."
The demon nodded in understanding and began to glance around the kitchen with mild interest.
Tifa looked at a clock on one wall opposite her and sighed defeatedly. "Ten o'clock," she murmured with a groan. "I'll never get back to sleep... ."
She walked over to the kettle and proceeded to make herself a mug of black coffee before turning back to him. "Umm... d'you want one?"
He gave a thin-lipped smile; two stark white triangles where bestial fangs hung over his bottom lip were clearly visible and shook his head as she squirmed awkwardly.
"I don't mean to be awful.... But could you make an effort not to look at me as though you're gonna jump up and eat me or something... ." her voice trailed off as he raised an eyebrow.
I wasn't intending on eating you. In fact, most people taste awful... . He smiled grimly to himself and buried his head in his knees again, drawing his wings up as a veil once more and attempted to sleep.
As he slipped into unconsciousness, Tifa continued to clatter around the kitchen with little else to do, occasionally checking on her friends to make sure they were all okay. It wasn't until midday and several strong cups of coffee before everyone was once more assembled in the kitchen. An uncomfortable silence settled upon them as it always seemed to do after the events of the past week. It was only natural for them all to have their own opinions on the matters at hand but expressing them always seemed difficult.
Like the previous night, Tifa, Cid, Yuffie and Vincent sat in a square in the kitchen with Cloud asleep upstairs, the weariness of Hojo's touch still overpowering him. He had stubbornly refused any nursing or attention and with a reluctant heart, Tifa had agreed to leave him. Still, despite her outward appearance of calm, she still wrung her hands worriedly and bowed her head in morose contemplation.
"Tifa?" said Cid gently and she lifted her head suddenly, startled by the sudden attention.
"Uh, yeah, s, sure... what were we talking about?" she stuttered awkwardly receiving the amused glances cast in her direction.
"We weren't talkin' bout anything yet. I thought you told us you wanted to say something." he urged. She had succeeded in waking them with the promise of an announcement. Nothing major, just something that she thought they should hear.
"Oh yeah... ." she responded softly. "It's really nothing important but I just wanted to get it off my chest, y'know?"
They nodded in understanding and she continued.
"I think... I'm praying that Cloud will be okay. He seems fine, just a little tired and Hojo seemed really annoyed when Vincent and me walked in on his experiments. I think that he didn't finish whatever he wanted to do with Cloud so I guess that he'll be alright." She cleared her throat. "I just wanted to say that your help has meant a lot to me, and to him. I want you all to know that I'll be okay to look after him and the last thing I want is for any of you to feel an obligation to stay because he's ill."
"Hell Tifa," exclaimed Cid. "We don't give a shit about his spiky butt. He can take damn good care of himself and if we're stayin' here, its cos of you!"
Yuffie nodded earnestly with a grin. "Yup. We're here to stay whether you like it or not!"
Tifa opened her mouth to speak but Cid interrupted. "An' before you go all pathetic on me, don't think that we're gonna do nothin' or even barge in on what you wanna do." he said with a stern tone. "We'll let you get on with playin' nurse while me an' Thief will take care of business. From what I've gathered, Vincent did a damn good job of scarin' away your waitress so we can cover for the time bein'."
He stopped and they looked at the proprietress expectedly. After a while, a smile broke out on her face. "Thank you." she answered warmly. "I honestly don't know what I'd do without you all... ."
"You'd go bankrupt, that's what!" Yuffie laughed cheerfully. "Now what do you want us to do?"
Tifa glanced between the pair thoughtfully. "Cid, you'd probably be best tending bar and Yuffie I guess you can cook."
"Cook??" Cid gasped with disbelief. "She'll poison alla your customers!"
"Well," Tifa began smugly as she stood and started making soup. "You're both in charge so it's up to you if something goes wrong."
She flashed them a smile as she ladled some rich chicken soup into a bowl and opened the door to the living area before stepping inside and walking towards Cloud. When her footsteps died out, Cid and Yuffie exchanged ambivalent looks.
"So what do we do now, old man?" Yuffie asked flatly and Cid shrugged.
"Dunno. Guess we should open up."
They left the room and Vincent laughed inwardly before sinking back into feral sleep.
The next week went quietly both emotionally and business-wise. Many of the local customers to Tifa's bar had given up on trying to get served after the bar's erratic opening and closing times over the previous few days. As a result, Cid and Yuffie ended up drinking more than the paying patrons although not enough to get themselves into any kind of state. Tifa remained closely by Cloud's side tending to him and watching him during his dreams. His brief encounter with Hojo and Rufus had affected him deeply and in delirious sleep he cried out her name and begged the two madmen not to come near him. At one point she almost left the room, tears flowing down old stains prompted by his illness.
In the kitchen, Vincent clutched at his stomach as a clock from somewhere outside chimed the witching hour. With a pained grunt, he lifted himself from the sitting position he'd adopted for the seven days when not in vampiric form and dragged himself to the centre of the room. Stifling his agonised cries by gritting his teeth and firmly holding his wings into himself to prevent them from lashing out and destroying the kitchen as they had done on the first transformation. After a minute of controlled and restricted torture, he stood stiffly and brushed himself down looking upon his hands and body with the look of a man who had rediscovered an old friend. Clearing his throat and resisting whatever vampiric urges stirred within his human body, he walked with silent grace to the bar startling Cid and Yuffie who were laughing and chatting to each other in the closed bar.
"I'm just going out for half an hour." Vincent explained, turning away to prevent any questions being asked without success.
"Oh... er, you goin' out to... umm... ." Cid started awkwardly. "Y'know... ."
"Be a vampire?" Vincent inquired, half turning to show only a single red eye. "Yes. I'm afraid that I must."
Yuffie swallowed nervously. "I, It's always good to see you... back to normal."
"Yes... ." Vincent said quietly as he turned back to the kitchen. "I suppose it is."
Without another word, he left the building; closing the back door behind him and disappearing into the night like a shadow.
When he did return, the others including Cloud had assembled in the bar around one of the small tables. He pulled up a chair and sat to one side in the shadows observing them quietly with ruby eyes. Satisfied that everyone was present, Cloud glanced around them dark shadows beneath his eyes enhancing the vividness of his Mako-blue irises that glowed with more intensity and obviousness.
"I spoke to Reeve," he began quietly, his voice barely above a whisper but out of respect and concern they didn't object. "He said that the rescue operations are going well and although there have been a few fatalities, everyone's been coping."
The rest of the group nodded solemnly. "So, er, has he said anything about this whole Rufus thing?" Cid asked hesitantly.
Cloud nodded. "He sent a patrol up to the HQ and they took Cait along with them. They found clear evidence that there was a much larger group of soldiers than you could've guessed stationed there. They were all up on floors sixty-eight through to seventy."
"We didn't get up that far." murmured Tifa. "It's possible that they could've hidden."
"Nah, they would've been blown up when the HQ exploded." Yuffie pointed out. "So where have they all gone... this mini army?"
Cloud gave a slight smile. "It's not even an army. The men that went up there estimated that there were only about fifty soldiers stationed there maximum. As for where they are now... Reeve has no idea. I guess that they must've had an escape route."
"Y'mean they knew that Hojo was gonna go kamikaze?" Cid questioned with surprise and Cloud shrugged.
"It looks like they prepared for whatever circumstance. That seems to be the Shinra way." Cloud's voice became quieter but the brief moment of meditation was broken by a wracking cough that shook through his frail body. Tifa glanced at him concernedly but he dismissed her. "I'll be alright. The change of air will do me better than being cooped upstairs all of the time."
She nodded with half-satisfaction at his answer but continued to watch him carefully.
"So what're the plans for now, oh Great Leader?" Yuffie inquired with a child-like grin.
"For now we leave the dirty work to Reeve. There's nothing we can do to help unless we want to get under his feet." Cloud responded with a reluctant sigh. It was obvious that he wasn't overly keen on sitting back and waiting any more than the rest of them were. "Reeve said that as soon as he had any news, he'd get in contact."
"Maybe it wouldn't hurt to do our own investigations." Vincent said suddenly. "While Reeve concentrates on looking for Rufus, I for one would find great pleasure in seeking out Janus. After all, he didn't seem to be in the building at the time of the explosion. There's a possibility he escaped with Rufus and with no more chance of their insane plan to resurrect Sephiroth going ahead without the necessary cells and equipment, I imagine he would've separated from the whole group. If I remember correctly, he always has been one to choose the winning side in a fight. If he saw through Hojo's madness and realised what was going to be the result, he probably left and intended to put everything behind him."
"I guess you'll want to find him, huh?" Cid sighed. "D'you think he'll having any information about your changes?"
Vincent shrugged. "In the long term I am not important. If I find him I'm sure that I can interrogate him and find out the location of Rufus." He looked up at his friends. "Shinra's plans can still go ahead without Sephiroth but with less of a chance of them succeeding. He's probably scheming to find another route to his goal right now."
Cloud nodded in agreement. "Where do you think Janus will be?"
Vincent shrugged. "I'm not sure but I'm certain I can find something of use."
"But what about your transformations? They'll hinder you." Tifa illustrated and Vincent gave her a peculiar stare.
"I'm well aware of that and although I am outwardly shattered, my mind can still work perfectly. My senses will give me advantage in vampiric or demonic form over any... human." he stumbled over the last word. Gathering himself once more, he looked up to meet her uncomfortable gaze which was mirrored in himself and the others. "I can still do something and I refuse to spend the rest of my time acting as a doorstop when I can be beneficial in any way whatsoever."
Tifa tore away from his hypnotic gaze and nodded. "Yeah... I'm sorry, Vincent." she apologised. "Everyone's slipping away from me again." She sighed but lifted her eyes to meet his once more. "When will you be going... and where? Do you want any of us to go with you?"
He shook his head and stood. "I'll go tonight and I shall start looking in the HQ." he paused and looked at Cloud. "Did Reeve say that he'd moved his investigators from the building?" Cloud nodded and he continued. "I'll return in a few days with or without any news but I cannot sit here uselessly for another second."
"See ya Vincent." called Yuffie.
"Take care." smiled Tifa and Cid gave him a wave with a slight smile.
Cloud stood feebly, leaning heavily on the bar table and looked up to him. "Good luck... and I hope you find Janus. He and Hojo... they deserve hell for what they've done."
Vincent gave a curt nod. "And if I lay my hands upon either of them, you can be certain I shall give them exactly that."
Cloud smiled lop-sidedly and waved him off. "Go on." he urged softly. "Don't get into any more trouble."
With one final glance, Vincent walked from the room and once more into the shadow shrouded city; taking with him the oppressive darkness that acted as his aura.
Cid smiled weakly to himself. "I hope that Reeve hasn't left any of his soldiers in the HQ. They'll have one helluva surprise when Vinny gets there."
The others smiled to themselves but said nothing in return until Cloud once more elapsed into a coughing fit. "I think it's time you went back to bed." Tifa mothered gently and he nodded.
"S'pose." he responded grudgingly, standing up with support from the woman by his side. "G'night." he coughed as the couple moved from the bar and into the kitchen.
In the distance Cid and Yuffie faintly heard the sound of bells chiming one o'clock. The old pilot looked at the watch on his wrist and Yuffie drummed her fingers. After silence clouded the room for a few seconds she sighed indignantly and looked at him.
"How can you stand it?"
"Stand what?" he questioned, his brow furrowed in puzzlement.
"Alla this waiting around. Vincent's gone off to search for clues while Tifa looks after Cloud. Cait and Reeve are busy saving people with the Turks and you an' me are left here to tend bar and look at the tables. Doesn't it make you sick?"
Cid glanced around and eventually sighed and nodded. "Yeah... yeah it does. It's driving me mad but we can't go around barging into what everyone else does. This is what we agreed to do and we can't bail out now."
Yuffie put her hands on her hips. "Jeez, I'd rather be pushing Silvas off me now than stayin' like this for another second!"
"Well what're you gonna do about it?"
She paused and thought for a moment, a broad grin spreading over her impish features as realisation hit her. "I'm gonna help Vinny." she announced triumphantly.
Cid groaned and put a hand to his head. "Yuffie... you really need to stop and think about these things. Tifa really needs us here right now and Vincent probably wants to be left on his own. I sure he can think of better company than a little thief like you."
Yuffie glared at him, but the adventurous spark never left her deep-brown eyes. "I don't care, really I don't. Vincent will probably be glad to have someone to talk, or growl at. I'll just stay real quiet and do a little exploration of my own. He won't even know I'm there. As for Tifa, you said yourself that I can't cook."
"But you're a good waitress!" Cid objected. "I can't deal with this place on my own!"
"Well now that Vinny's gone you can get back the real waitress." She flashed him a happy smile. "See? I do think these things through! Don't worry, everything'll work out great!"
He stared after her, his expression stunned as she skipped upstairs to gather her few belongings. "Bye!" she called as she danced out of the kitchen door and after her unwilling prey like a comical predatory animal.
As the soft light of a new dawn touched it's golden fingers upon the dreaming Midgar, Vincent landed upon the exposed sixty-eighth floor of the Shinra HQ and stumbled forward to keep his balance. Although flying came instinctively, it appeared he still had much to learn about the finer points. He'd delayed his arrival at the HQ for as long as possible, remaining within the Seven Gardens and taking the time to contemplate and think about his future. As expected, walking came as a problem at first, but the learning curve was quickly climbed and he was soon pacing with the same skill he could normally. The entire sector was generally deserted at nightfall and he was left in peace to meditate upon life.
After gathering himself, he walked slowly with hidden anticipation to the edge of the destroyed floor to look out upon the sleeping city like a demon ready to pounce upon the unwitting citizens. He remained in his statue-like guise for many minutes looking more the gargoyle he resembled than usual. His glittering ruby eyes surveyed the map laid out before him until the glare of the sun intensified and the buildings opened to give life into the cold morning air and people began to trickle onto the streets. Although they undoubtedly glanced in the direction of the skeletal pillar they were completely oblivious to his presence. The watcher was undisturbed in his tranquillity.
The faint noise of crumbling rubble and metal alerted him and he pricked up his pointed ears without turning. Either there had been a survivor from the blast or Reeve had neglected to inform AVALANCHE of any remaining patrols scouring the building. He didn't care, let them come. There were two possibilities; they'd shoot him on sight or run away in fear. Whichever way fate dealt him it mattered not. He would find Lucrecia be it in his thoughts or through death and they both seemed the same. At least he had gazed upon a sunrise, his final one that cleansed him of anything else he had done in his long life. He didn't forgive himself and he doubted that he ever would, not that it mattered of course. What was his opinion in the great scheme of things? Who was he to forgive or not to forgive? There was a higher force, perhaps even a divine being who was equipped to make such decisions. He would take whatever hand was dealt to him and at that moment in time he was prepared to sit back and let the die roll against him regardless of the consequences.
The noise increased in volume until he reluctantly tore his eyes from the light bathed metropolis to face behind him. There was no sign of the hidden intruder and he uncaringly turned back to the landscape.
Oh Lucrecia... . Why did it have to be like this? Trapped in this prison like a tame creature in a cage; wanting to escape but terrified of the world outside. It this how it shall always be? Will we ever be together again or shall you only exist in my thoughts?
I thank the gods that you have finally been given your release but I miss your voice, Lucrecia. Can you hear me as I once heard you? You fear I shan't forgive you but in my eyes there was never anything to forgive. If there was anyone at fault, it was me for interfering. At least I could've succeeded in stopping everything and then our lives would be better.
What Hojo did... it was out of spite. I see that now and if I hadn't been there then you and he may've resolved your differences and you could've helped bring Sephiroth up. You could've been the mother you have always wished to be.
Oh Lucrecia... you always had so much love within your soul and you wasted it on me. Is that all we were? Blinded by hidden desires and fate or were we always in control and our downfall was the result? Perhaps we'll never know, but I miss you, my love.
The noise behind him was getting closer and he shuffled the crimson wings upon his back irritatedly; readjusting the black spokes until they once more rested comfortably.
The sunrise is beautiful... I wish you could see it. Morning always was your favourite time of day if I remember. In fact... it's one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. I'll appreciate it for us both, huh? He gave a sad smile. Expressing things has never been one of my strong points. It simply looks like a sunrise, that's all but there is something special about it. Something warming and cleansing. It's been a long time since I've watched one. The last time I believe was during the Meteor Crisis but it was never as wonderful as this. I feel you beside me right now... maybe that's why it seems different. Can you feel it? Something's coming... I hope you'll be with me when it happens.
"I'm always with you, Vincent."
"Of course. I was listening to you talk... I love the sound of your voice. It reminds me of that summer we spent together in Nibelheim before... . Before everything went wrong."
We watched many dawns and dusks together then, didn't we...?
"Yes... yes we did." A pause. "Will you take care of him?"
I'll do anything you ask me to do, but what is it?"
Silence was his only answer.
He sighed wearily and his arms drooped. With clear annoyance he turned to face where he predicted his unseen stalker would emerge from; the battered staircase which had provided himself and the others with a route up the previous week. Thinking quickly, he moved hastily but silently on padded feet to a shadow near the door and pushed his back up against the wall.
Eventually with a pained grunt, the door was thrown open and the intruder was hurled to the ground due to its unexpected opening. They picked themselves up and half-heartedly brushed off the dust and grime off that had accumulated on their dark green tank-top and white shorts. She sniffed unhappily and began to walk away when with a yelp of shock, she found herself being lifted off the ground by the scruff of her top until she was suspended five-foot above the floor. She kicked and swung around furiously in an attempt to lash out and injure her captor but she wore herself out and eventually hung with heavy breaths, her cheeks flustered and her hair tussled.
With laborious anticipation, she began to turn with her arms and legs hanging down uselessly from exhaustion. When her rotation ceased she found herself staring at a muscled black chest covered in rough skin. As she raised her eyes, they eventually met with a set of scarlet orbs staring back at her in a cattish face that bore resemblance to a demonic gargoyle. She grinned sheepishly but the visage remained impassive.
"Hey there, Vincent." she said cheerfully without reaction. "Umm... thought you might need a hand so I came to help."
The grip was released and she fell to the floor with a thump and cloud of dust leaving her winded and in shock. The demon walked away imperturbably and padded back over to its station on the edge of the shattered level. Yuffie coughed and gasped for air, blinking to rid her eyes of the dirt and grit that had been thrown into them and now covered her face.
Flashing him an angry look but saying nothing, she leapt up achingly and moved over to stand near him, carefully keeping a safe distance from the unpredictable figure.
"So, umm... you found anything yet?" she asked pleasantly and he turned to look at her blankly.
He shook his head and turned back to the landscape. She sniffed but remained unabated by his coldness. "Nice view, huh? I bet you had a good view of the sunrise from here... . The dawns in Wutai were always really nice. The best place to watch 'em from was on the very top of Da-Chao. Hey, I'll have to show you sometime."
She looked back up at him with a smile but his interest now seemed to be directed towards the room behind them. She took a few cautious steps back from the edge of the precarious ledge after grimacing as she looked down, and stared into the room with him.
The walls were badly scorched and burnt furniture and stone littered the floor. Entire rooms had imploded being completely destroyed while she predicted that levels further up were in an even worse shape. In several places the ceiling had collapsed and it was common to see one of the main walls blown away, exposing the stale rooms to the fresh air outside.
"Whadaya hope to find anyway?" she asked inquisitively. "Files? Plans? Books?"
He shrugged and walked away from the open side of the level and into the floor itself, glancing around aimlessly and waiting for something to catch his sharp eyes. Nothing sprang out immediately and with a heavy sigh, he moved over to one of the walls that was still in tact and slumped against it, sitting down with his back against the burnt metal and closing his eyes.
"Sleep?" she exclaimed with disbelief. "I've come alla the way up here for something to do and you're gonna sleep?"
He reopened a red slit and considered her curiously before closing it once more and drawing his wings around himself. Watching him for a few seconds, she soon found a yawn breaking out on her own face. "I guess I'm pretty tired too." she said wearily.
Without any sign of recognition, she plodded over to his side and sat down, leaning up against him and sighing comfortably from the warmth that her small body received from his own. He looked down at her with raised eyebrows and hesitantly wrapped a huge arm around her shoulders, pulling a wing over her to encompass them both. She smiled softly in her sleep and sighed again contentedly. He almost smiled himself but instead pushed it to the back of his thoughts and forced his mind to clear in order to rest.
Night polluted the crystal blue sky with inky-blackness. A distant clock chimed twelve as an enormous explosion ripped through the still air and tore away at the earth. The planet screamed and the cries of its occupants joined it in a terrible chorus of death. As the cacophony reached a crescendo, the eruption imploded and horrific silence took the place of the roaring detonation as the reactor collapsed in upon itself.
Sector Two was shattered by the powerful show of fury and as the blast waves radiated outwards with the force of a hurricane, streets and homes were destroyed as with their dying breath, people cursed the gods that had pointed a bloody finger at them. Vincent's screams joined with the horror and as the silence settled once more like the thin blanket of snow that had fallen throughout the day, he fell to the floor in a shivering heap. Yuffie ran over to him, tears in her eyes and she helped him to stand.
He pushed her away with angered determination and strode to edge of the collapsed level to look out over the city.
"Good god..." he whispered in a near silent prayer as his eyes fell upon the source of the destruction.
The Sector Two reactor burned vividly, fuelled by the Mako beneath it as the green liquid spurted upwards in a mesmerising geezer of light taller than the HQ itself. It quickly fell back down and the flames erupted upwards with another huge bang. Vincent stumbled back, almost falling into Yuffie as the searing winds blasted towards them like flares carrying death upon their ripples. As the furious gale became a whisper, they leapt up again and looked back over hell. Where there had once been homes and buildings now only lay a blackened, charred plain with glowing rocks turned magma by the heat and pressure. The skeletons of streets now jutted wickedly from the scorched earth and fires burnt like hellish beacons across the black expanse.
Yuffie began to sob quietly as she put her hands over her face and wept into them. "All of those people, all of those people..." she chanted in a soft murmur over and over again. Overcome by sadness and dismay, she dropped to her knees and tears fell down her cheeks falling onto the rusty metal floor.
Vincent stood rigidly; his jaw set in defiance as screams of anguish and pain only audible to him breathed across whipped wind and whispered unspeakable tortures into his ears. Although his outward appearance was stiff and cold, tears began to mist his own vision until with a low growl, he turned and blinked them back with anger. Although his eyes were clear, his soul cried for the waste and his heart wept for the loss.
He bent down to look into Yuffie's eyes as he gently tilted her head up to face his. "Come on." he said softly. "We should see if everyone's all right."
She nodded and he helped her to stand as they silently left the barren room.
"Holy shit! What the fucking hell was that??" yelled Reno as he leapt off his chair into a standing position; the earthquake like rumblings booming through the contained and comfortable room.
Elena sprang up from the couch in Reeve's Office and sprinted to the window to gaze out upon the city. She lifted the glass and covered her eyes quickly as a burning wind tore through the narrow gap, screaming like a steam-train and hurling all of the piles of neatly stacked paper around the room in a torrent of confusion. When the noise faded out, she once more pulled herself up and looked with wide mouthed horror upon the devastation. The Midgar Offices that stood near the old Shinra HQ in Sector Three had narrowly escaped the destruction of their neighbouring town. Nonetheless, many of the buildings lying on the fringe of Sector Three had fared badly against whatever force had literally melted the next-door section of the massive city.
"It looks like Judgement Day's arrived..." Rude muttered from by her side.
She looked up at him. Bandages were wrapped around his head as signs of their brush with past enemies. His sunglasses still had a place however perched on the bridge of his nose as always and his new suit was if anything more pristine than the one before. His face seemed to crack momentarily under the stress of seeing such a terrible sight and she felt a nudge on her right arm. Turning her head she found herself looking into Reno's sea-green eyes. He blinked and looked away to the city, inhaling sharply through his teeth.
"Godammit." he hissed. "What the hell happened?"
"Looks like there was an explosion." Rude stated with disbelief. " Look, the Mako reactor's been destroyed."
They remained in silence for a short time, the sounds of the aftermath from the destruction carrying faintly on the wind. All three of the Turks sank into morose contemplation until Reno turned and put a hand to his forehead over the large plaster that had been put there to cover the burn. He swore loudly as he accidentally put pressure onto it and strode away from the window to Hades. He began to mutter curses under his breath as he paced backwards and forwards, wringing his hands worriedly.
"What is it, Reno?" Elena asked eventually and he ceased all movement and regarded her with startling insanity in his eyes.
"The bastard did it." he answered cryptically and the female Turk frowned.
"Who? What are you talking about?"
"Rufus of course, you moron!" he yelled angrily and she was physically taken aback by the ferocity in his voice. "Rufus... he's the only one who'll have something to do this. He said to us himself that he was gonna blow up the city and we wrote him off. Maybe he wasn't joking after all... ." he began to pace again with the determination of a mad-man. "Why didn't we listen?? He always was a crazy son-of-a-bitch when we worked under him but he always kept his word. This is his doing. I'd bet my life on it.
"We should've set up security, posted extra guards and watched the city twenty-four hours a day." He stopped and punched the wall with a painful crack. "DAMMIT!!" he screamed. "We could've stopped this!"
"Reno, please..." Elena begged but he stormed away to the exit and put a hand on the doorknob.
"Where are you going now?" Rude inquired concernedly and Reno stared back at the pair.
"I'm gonna go and find Shinra." he announced firmly.
"You can't do that!" Elena gasped. "He'll be long gone by now, he's probably set up timers in all of the reactors or something."
Reno shook his head and Rude moved to stand next to the red-haired Turk. "You haven't worked under him as long as we have, sis. You don't know what the guy's like. He loves the glory, all of the attention. He'll be there, he'll be setting those bombs personally so that he can bear witness to Reeve when he goes to grovel for the city's safety. He wouldn't miss an opportunity like this."
Elena swallowed and looked to the stoic counter-part to Reno who simply nodded. "He's right. Rufus will be there and he's probably expecting us. We can't disappoint him."
Elena gave a crooked smile. "Another Turk rule? You guy's never let things like this drop..."
"It's called 'keeping a date' and right now we're runnin' late. You gonna join the train or jump it?" Reno asked as he opened the door and stepped through.
She pulled a pistol from inside her jacket and clicked off the safety. "I'm ready when you are." she replied stiffly and they left the cosy office to enter the inferno beyond.
Cloud sat up in bed, his eyes wide and staring in fear. Tifa jerked awake beside him, an expression of terror matching his own on her delicate moonlit features.
"An earthquake...?" she asked rhetorically as the shaking of the room died down. Several ornaments that had been house-warming presents on an old wooden cabinet trembled across the polished surface and shattered on the carpeted floor. She jumped at the sharp sound and slipped from beneath the sheets to look out of the window.
From her home in Sector Six the result of the bang was not visible but her brow creased in puzzlement at the sight of a vivid orange glow on the horizon.
"What is it, Teef?" Cloud asked weakly from the bed.
"I'm not sure." she murmured in reply. Looks like there's a fire or something."
"A fire...?" he repeated wistfully, thoughts racing through his weary mind. "Where?"
"I think it's on the other side of the city."
"Yeah... mebbe Two." she finished uncertainly. "I hope that Reeve's alright." she sighed and sat back on the bed, her muscles tensed despite her efforts to remain calm in order to keep Cloud at ease. "It's probably just a bonfire or something."
She shrugged. "Fireworks?"
He shook his head. "No, it was something more than that. What can you see?"
She turned back to him. "I told you, it's nothing to worry about. The sky's just orange, that's all."
He put a clammy hand on her bare shoulder and gently pushed her to one side. She clenched her jaw and watched as his already fearful eyes grew larger. "T, Tifa?" he said frightfully.
"C, Can you remember Nibelheim... when it was... burnt down...?" he stumbled, the words sticking in his throat as he swallowed anxiously but kept his eyes on the glowing hue in the dark clouds overhead.
She put a warm hand over his own and stroked it reassuringly. "Don't worry Cloud, please I'm sure that it's just-"
"Don't play dumb with me!" he snapped angrily, pulling away from her. "The sky, it was the same colour that it is now. I, I can still hear the screams in my ears, Tifa. I can still remember the fires-"
"No Cloud!" Tifa begged tearfully. "D, Don't say it. Please don't say it!"
"I can still remember Him." Cloud ended solemnly and Tifa began to sob into her hands.
"Oh God no. Don't let it be. Hojo's dead... so is He. This can't be happening. It's just an accident! It has to be an accident!" she cried aloud but he ignored her with grim determination and threw back the covers from his frail form.
"I can hear Him calling to me." he muttered. "Only he would do this. Only He could do so much harm in such a terrible way. Sephiroth...? Is that you? You'll pay for this, by the gods you'll die again and again until I have had my justice!"
He stepped weakly from the bed but overcome by anger and resolve, he strode from the room after pulling on his SOLDIER uniform into the hall leaving Tifa in a tearful heap curled on the bed.
"Give me that man
That is not passion's slave and I will wear him
In my hearts core, ay, in my heart of hearts."
Hamlet, 3 ii
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