AHA! You all thought I was dead! Nope! I've read every review, and I may not have answered every single one (I tried, though), but I appreciate them endlessly. Thank you all SO much. :3
So, what does sylver have to make up for like... a YEAR absence?
An extra huge WCDYB, of course! After so long, I tried to get back into the swing of things. I read through the whole story tonight, and decided to finish it. You guys read it all, gave such nice reviews, you deserve at least that! I'm not sure if I'm coming back for SURE, but I'm giving it a shot. This was written very late at night, so I'm not sure if it's what you expect.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Square Enix.
No words, no matter how large a person's vocabulary might be, could describe the feeling of entering that building again. Or, better said, what was left of it. The group of us entered through the main doors, past whatever few minor office employees that were rushing out. A few steps in, and I almost buckled to the floor. Rude, who seemingly expected this, caught me immediately. I could recognise everything in that lobby as it was when I was a proud Turk; a top dog at the company. Not only that, but I seemed to realise where we were going; back to the lab. As I was steadied on my feet, they felt glued to the floor. Like a scared animal, I had frozen. All of the others looked at me, and I barely heard a few of them urging me on. I mumbled something, but not even I could make sense of it.
I couldn't do it. The utter helplessness, anger, hate, and fear told me that I couldn't. My eyes might have said it, because Vincent seemed to read it in me. The caped man wasted no time in fixing this little interruption.
"Reno!" he suddenly snapped, stepping in front of me. His outburst shocked us all. I could have sworn Tseng himself jumped a little. It was just so stern and sharp. "Is THIS cowardice what Turks are being trained these days?" I could see my ex-coworkers were offended by that, as was I. Yet, my weak shields had left me standing straight, and in some manner at attention.
"No." My statement was firm, but simple and hiding much intimidation. I knew Vincent was not afraid to practise 'tough love' (so to speak) on people. It was hard to forget him tossing me over the handrail of the Highwind that day. "I'm not a Turk anymore. Don't—"
"If you are an Ex-Turk, then act like one!" Vincent cut me off with that tone again. If I was in any other state of mind, I might have mused on the idea of Tseng and Vincent in a yelling match. "You are stronger than this, Reno. And you are not alone this time. Now, start moving!"
Perhaps I was too stunned to argue, but I did. My feet freed themselves from their invisible binds, and I started walking. As did everyone else, possibly because of pure intimidation concerning the dark man. I only caught a glimpse of their faces, but everyone was shocked. Especially Cid, whose unlit cigarette fell from his mouth as his jaw fell slack for a moment. We went from walking to running very soon, finding the halls seemingly unscathed from the explosion. Perhaps only the top floors were hit, and the rest was faintly damaged with debris.
As I ran with them, I could only consider how long it had been since I left Avalanche. The obvious clues could be seen in Tseng's healed wounds (although he still did not look in the best condition) and my own healed foot. It had been treated, but it took a while to get back to normal. Perhaps adrenaline was forcing me to run, but the injury inflicted on me on the day of my capture outside the hospital could not have been ignored if it was still a problem. I saw other signs of the time span, however. Avalanche seemed like a family that had been broken and brought back together. Much like us Turks. Cloud had a different air about him that I could not describe. Yuffie seemed more mature, in some strange way. And Cid, although I would bet my life he still had a foul mouth, seemed a little more reserved. Only a little.
I could only imagine the things they went through while I was curled up in that cell or strapped to that table. Aeris... I wished she was there. This was no time for compassion or gentleness, but some moral support or protection from Vincent would be nice (I refused to deny that he would have kicked my ass if I had not moved).
As us Turks lead the way to the lab, all of us picked up even more speed as we neared it. We burst through the doors, and I was surprised at my own willingness to cross the threshold. But, again, I felt a crippling numbness hit me as I stepped in. However, shouts in a familiar voice shook me free. This time the words were not spoken harshly, or coming from Vincent. Reeve could be heard, seemingly across the lab and in another section. Cait Sith sped ahead, and we all soon followed. Reeve? Why would he still be in here?
"Stop, Hojo! This is madness!" We heard Reeve again just before reaching the next part of the lab; a part I had not seen in what felt like forever. A strange, gargantuan control panel stood there, at which Hojo was working furiously. Reeve, at the bottom of a set of metal stairs leading up to the eyesore of a machine, was yelling up at him. The executive seemed desperate, although we could only see his back.
"Reeve! Get away!" Tseng shouted. He was ignored, as our friend started to climb up the steps towards the scientist. Reeve was a peaceful man, but not a soul could honestly claim he wasn't brave. Tseng shouted after him again, and Hojo seemed to find the time to look up from his work. Reeve attempted to tackle him away from the controls. Something was more chilling than normal. What was Hojo doing? I shook my head suddenly and wildly. We couldn't watch this, as the two men wrestled. Vincent's words had yet to leave my tattered mind. Before I knew it a handful of us, I could not figure out who or how many, ran towards the scene. The familiar sensation overwhelmed me, of heat and dizziness, and the mad professor screeched as many volts of electricity coursed through him.
At the same time, he managed to throw Reeve, who had been surprised by this, off. The executive fell down the steps, but Tifa and Rude caught him before he made impact with metal or the ground. Almost the entire group was on Hojo then. Fuelled with rage and hatred, we all struck. This time Hojo was prepared, and a strange, unseen force pushed us back sharply. I stumbled back before tilting my weight to fall on one knee rather than on my back. My right hand tightened instinctively as I stood; I wanted my EMR.
Everyone collected themselves, and we faced Hojo, who seemed unwilling to leave his post. He snarled at us, and something about him made me more uneasy than usual.
"Don't you dare place yourselves between me and my son. He needs my help, and none of you will interfere!" His voice was... inhuman. I struggled to understand before I heard Vincent to my right.
Now Hojo's interest seemed to be grabbed, as if he had just noticed Vincent. "Mister Valentine!" Despite the new strangeness to his voice, Hojo seemed pleased. Conversational. He turned to us fully, cruel eyes on his former Lab Rat as he smiled and brought his hands together. "It has been too long. Yes, you remember Sephiroth, don't you? Your Lucrecia and I's little experiment."
I tore my eyes from Hojo to look at Vincent. All of Avalanche was watching him as well, but not with shock. It was in quiet concern. His eyes did not only glow; they went wild. That growl of his arose, and his temper flared in the most silent and frightening of ways. His gun was pointed towards the scientist and fired without a second's notice. I understood this action; it was all Vincent had to say. The gunshot could sum up all of those painful years he had suffered, all of the hate in his soul. The bullet struck its target in the stomach; apparently Vincent wanted him to die slowly.
A gasp, and a series of coughs and gags escaped Hojo, and for a moment I thought it was all over. But I should have learned by then that things are never so simple. The coughing melted into laughing, a strange cackle that made Rufus' cruel laughter seem like a warm chuckle. Every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
"My son needs energy. Something only the cannon can give him! I am not so easily strayed from my duties, Valentine." He growled back at Vincent, but there was a smile on the scientist's face. I could not help but gasp at the growing blood spot on his white labcoat. The blood was black, much like my own. It was then that Tseng turned to Reeve, who seemed reluctant to leave, and barked at him to go. The poor man seemed determined to do something to help, despite having no weapon of his own.
"GO, Reeve. Make sure any survivors are out of the building!"
I only barely heard this, as I was horrified by the blood on Hojo. The bleeding also seemed to cease, and he appeared unharmed. This was even more frightening. Seeming to catch my expression, Hojo laughed again.
"The results of my experiments always go to good use." This was said before a crackle of electricity sounded, and Cid suddenly let out a pained curse and crumpled to the ground. Not only were Hojo's eyes filled with twisted amusement, they were glowing. As others went to help him, RedXIII and I struck Hojo with magic while the rest ran in for an attack. It seemed the offense from afar worked, but everyone else was struck away suddenly. Hojo's arms had suddenly stretched into strange, shapeless things that could only be compared to tentacles. They glowed green like mako, but otherwise seemed to match his skin tone, quite nauseatingly. He slowly stepped down the small set of stairs as everyone collected themselves. He was calm, but that made it even more frightening. Out of fear, I must have tried to freeze his morbid new limbs, as I lost my thoughts for a moment. It must have been shaken off, because he laughed and extended one of the 'arms' towards me at a shocking speed. Apparently, they could stretch. I panicked and stumbled back, but two gunshots rang out. Black blood sprayed about for only a moment before Hojo hissed and reached for Vincent. It was now time for Avalanche and the Turks to really work together.
Tseng and Elena both fired their handguns towards the mutant's chest, and as Hojo needed a second to recover, I struck with fire that burned at his morphed skin. Then Cid, who had bounced back from his electric assault, lunged and stabbed into the side with his spear while Hojo was distracted. This continued for a long time, everyone managing to get their attacks in, but at the same time our enemy refused to go down, and was able to lash back at us. I was already so tired before this began, how I refrained from collapsing must have been a miracle. It felt like forever that we fought him. Us Turks were used to quick battles. Capture, interrogate, kill, forget. That's how it always went... This was something beyond the pattern I had grown to count on. This time, I had been the victim of kidnapping. There were no questions to be asked. Yes, we would kill him, but not a single person who lived through this was bound to forget it.
In the midst of the hectic battle, I put a strip of fire between us and Hojo once he got too close for comfort. But I found myself swept up by one of those twisted, mutated arms while I was trying to concentrate. I was not thrown, but pulled to his side of the flames. The fire licked up at me like the tongues of famished snakes before I was thrown to the hot ground and held there, the appendage forming around my neck and squeezing. Between the heat and the pressure on my windpipe, I could hardly breathe. I grasped at his 'hand' desperately. It was all a blur, but so devastatingly real. The others tried to come to my aid, but Hojo used his own apparent unnatural abilities to raise the flames too high for them to pass. He looked down at me with a cold, but smug look. My squirming and gasping seemed to amuse him greatly. The damned bastard.
"Number 00937593." He hissed these words slowly, only loud enough for me to hear. "Quite possibly one of my most successful experiments yet. Certainly a helpful one." My vision was fading, the world was darkening, but a sudden small jolt of electricity seemed to snap me back. In my confusion, panic, and anger, I knew what he was doing. He wanted me alive and awake.
"Bas...bastard!" I choked after much effort. Hot tears were streaming down my face. I could barely hear the shouts of those on the other side of the wall of flames, but it was just us, now. Hojo and his Lab Rat. If I had been in the state I was in before I was helped by Avalanche, I might have given up. I would have seen no point. I would have accepted that I was a number. A rat. A sinner who deserved this. Torture, flames, tears, panic... this was hell. Not a little cell, no, it was this. I wondered if James Naroll would show his face anytime soon. No, he was not in hell. Hell was where bad people went. He wouldn't be here.
Damn. I wanted to apologize.
"I gave you purpose Reno." Hojo then said, keeping me awake with another jolt. "I made you and Valentine more than ShinRa's dogs. I made you pieces of scientific achievement. I made you worth more than what you ever were in your blue suits." His tone was light, and tinted with a thin chuckle. "You're welcome."
I knew then that I was screaming, but I heard one that was not my own. It was Vincent without question, but there was something horribly wrong with him. His screams chilled me for a moment despite the intense heat of the fire. As if everything could not get any worse. I knew then that if anything was going to happen, I had to do it. I had to do it myself. But it was so hot. My body ached. My lungs screamed more than I did. The world; Hojo, the flames, the ceiling illuminated by the orange fire, it was all spinning. He was squeezing tighter. I was dying. I shut my eyes tightly, and I must have screamed again, but I felt the strongest wave of power that had ever washed over me. It consumed me, and Hojo's curse and a sudden lack of heat told me that I had acted.
I was released as he staggered back with a screech, I remember gasping for several seconds, and many people came to my aid. I must have passed out, or at least hallucinated, but as I snapped my eyes open to see Hojo, a terrifying roar was heard and some crazed... beast was attacking him. It was purple and winged, with claws unlike anything I had ever seen. I coughed and gasped as someone held me to sit up, but although I had no idea what was going on, nobody was looking at me. We were all watching the horrid scene before us. The monster, a demonic creature, delivered several strikes and a blow that without a doubt killed the scientist. As his throat was grasped in sharp claws and ripped away, and his ribcage crushed under strong feet, we knew that it was actually over. The blood-chilling scream of Hojo and the sickening crack of his bones was nothing but the final words of the most terrifying horror story ever created.
Everything seemed dead silent. It was a moment that simply dangled. Slow motion. Fast forward. I wasn't sure how it went. But it dangled. Then, the monster that had put an end to it all fell to the floor, its wings wrapping around its body and turning dark red. Yuffie staggered to her feet and moved towards it, but Cloud stopped her. All we did was watch for the longest time. But braving one glance at those around me, I came to a realization that hit me like a bullet to the head; Vincent was not with us. The wings became more clearly red in colour, and the entire form writhed and changed shape. It took my mind a few seconds to settle, but the right recollection came to me.
"He made me a demon's host."
I tried to get to my feet, but I was too weak. I shamelessly crawled towards my friend, calling his name desperately. I slipped through the ones grabbing to hold me back, but I made it to him. I watched as the wings became that familiar red cloak, and Vincent came back to us. But, he was still a heap on the ground. I got the others to help haul him away from Hojo's mangled body. We lay Vincent on his back on the unscorched floor, and he woke up after a few minutes. His eyes shut tighter for a moment before opening halfway. His breathing was calm and even, which was a relief. He did not look at us, he turned his head to look at Hojo, the pitiful corpse on the ground. He stared at it for the longest time. He said nothing.
"Vince...?" Cid finally broke the silence. It was strange to hear the gruff pilot speak in a concerned manner. Vincent silently stood with an effort I knew he tried his hardest to hide, and looked at Hojo again.
"We should get out of here." Cloud said quietly. Everyone agreed, and we got ourselves together. Rude helped me walk as I was still weak, while Tifa and RedXIII carefully and gently guided the stunned Vincent away. Everyone else seemed fine to walk, despite being battered and bleeding in some way. There was nothing but the sound of footsteps as we walked out; no one had a word to say. We stepped outside and it seemed to hit me. It was over. Hojo was dead. ShinRa was done. I was dazed suddenly as well, and Rude had to support me even more. They finally sat me on the pavement as we stopped by the sidewalk. By now, people had gathered on the streets to see what the explosion was about earlier. Fire trucks and ambulances were scattered around. People only seemed to be focusing on the top floors; not where the battle of my life had just taken place.
As we had stopped, Reeve found us. He had done what he could to help the emergency crews, apparently. Obviously, he was concerned about us and had a rapid fire of questions for us. Seeing something like what he had was bound to spark some curiosity. As he was told we were all alright, more or less, he looked around us and pointed.
"What about that guy?"
We followed his guiding point to see Vincent walking off toward the entrance to an alley. A few of us walked after him (I staggered, myself) to see if he was okay. Before he could say a word, the tall man leaned against a brick wall, tugged the top of his cloak away from his face, and was sick to his stomach on the pavement. Tifa, seemingly just as caring as Aeris or Elena, quietly soothed him and pulled his long hair back out of his face. Cid had his hand on his friend's shoulder in silent reassurance. I could only watch, stunned. Calm, collected Vincent losing his last meal like this? I felt quite sick myself, but maybe my stomach had finally given me a break. Maybe I was too stunned.
"Vincent..." I could only choke, at a loss for words. "Y-you okay?" While he could not reply, coughing and trying to catch his breath, Cid turned his head to look at me. The concern and understanding in his eyes caught me a little off guard.
"It's been building on Vince for years, what Hojo did." The pilot told me. "After a fight like that, he's lost his nerve. Can't blame him."
"No, y'can't..." As I muttered this quiet agreement Cid and I looked back at Vincent, who was leaning his head against the cool bricks and allowing Tifa to comfort him.
"He's only human, after all."