Chapter Thirty-Two: Friend or Foe
“I’m sure Heidegger is going to be after us. It is dangerous out in the open. Going underground is our best option.” Reeve shifted, crossing his arms over his chest as he peeked out of the alley where they were hiding. A noticeable frown was on his face, barely concealing the worry for his friend, who was now in ShinRa’s hands.
“You mean use the train tunnels?” Cloud asked.
Reeve nodded. “Precisely.”
He pointed towards the hatch beneath them, rusted lock long broken; it carried a faint scent of heated metal and burnt oils. Barret and Cid moved forward and worked together to pull the heavy, metal lid, and it came up with a loud screech.
Cloud winced as the ex-executive peeked into the alley once more, checking to see if the noise had been noticed, and one by one, the members of AVALANCHE dropped down into the tunnels. Luckily, their arrival had gone unobserved.
“I’m not sure which way we should go from here though,” Reeve said, scratching his head. “I never really made it a habit to go skulking about in the train tunnels.” He hadn’t designed them either. That honor belonged to someone else in his division, and he probably should have paid more attention to the schematics at the time he had approved them.
Cloud sighed, raking his gaze over the area.
It was dimly lit with only the emergency lights active. Martial law had put a strangle hold on Midgar, and the tunnels barely even rumbled, implying that trains had little to no activity. Thus, the reason they had had to parachute in from the Highwind.
Still, there were really only two choices, left or right.
“There’s no way past it then,” Cloud announced, raking a hand through his blond spikes. “We’ll have to split up.”
Nanaki’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure that’s safe? To divide our power like that?”
“We don’t have time for anything else.” Cid snorted, unconsciously reaching for a cigarette and lighting it, despite the subtle Valentine death glares being sent his way.
The former SOLDIER nodded, his gaze sweeping over his crew. “Aeris, Vincent, Barret, you three are with me,” he ordered quickly before shifting his eyes to the Captain. “Cid, I’m counting on you.”
The pilot pursed his lips but nodded. Inside, he was secretly ranting and raving, cursing Cloud and his mother and his ancestors for being such a dumbass. He hadn’t wanted to be leader the first time. Why the hell would he want to do it again?
Besides, he didn’t want to be separated from Vincent. He couldn’t really explain why, especially since he knew Vincent was perfectly capable of protecting himself. It was just an uneasy feeling that had settled in the pilot’s gut.
“We’ll take the left path; you follow the right. Just… stay alive,” Cloud ordered, finishing rather lamely.
Cid snorted. “Believe me… I have no intention of dying just yet!” He clasped hands with their leader and then turned towards the right. “C’mon, crew; let’s move out!” he ordered, displaying far more joviality than he actually felt.
Cloud stood silently for a moment, watching half of his group head in an opposite direction. He wanted to just say that they should stick together, but practicality won out. They were all mature adults… mostly. They knew what they were getting into. Still, the blond felt responsible for everyone under his command. He would kick himself if they died and he hadn’t been there to prevent it.
“Cloud?” Aeris was worried; he could hear it in her voice.
The blond shook his head, hand going to his sword, if only to be comforted by the feel of the hilt. “Nothing. Come on; let’s go.”
He and his three companions turned and took the left path, inwardly hoping that they would find the way to the cannon first, but it was a long and weary path. They trudged down the silent and dimly lit corridors of the train tunnels, which seemed never ending. Not once did they deviate, nor did they find another ladder or really anything at all.
It was disconcerting.
“Do you suppose this is the right direction?” Aeris couldn’t help but ask.
Cloud shrugged. “Either way, we really have no choice but to continue. It will come to an end eventually. They don’t go on forever.”
Beside him, Barret suddenly stiffened, catching something ahead of them. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing with one finger to a spot of orangish-red light.
It seemed distinctly out of place.
Vincent peered into the gloom, his demon-aided eyes seeing much more than their average human ones. “It is a cigarette… and three people.” He put his hand on his holster and drew the Outsider, cocking the trigger.
The gunman shook his head. “Perhaps,” he answered as the three figures slowly came into view, instantly recognized by Cloud’s party.
“We’re supposed to fight you,” Reno announced, tapping his Electro Rod at his shoulder.
Beside him, Elena and Rude stood stoically, looking just as prepared for battle.
Rude tilted his head. “But ShinRa is finished, and it’s only our pride that keeps us here.”
Blue-green eyes shifted towards his partner before turning back to the members of AVALANCHE, and Cloud shifted, not really wanting to fight them either. It didn’t seem right, not with ShinRa falling to pieces. They didn’t have to be enemies.
“And the pride of the Turks is stronger than anything!” Elena announced, but she remained where she was, not even going for her weapon. There was an odd look on her face as she glanced at her companions, as if waiting for them to respond.
“True,” Reno allowed after a moment, his voice strangely calm. “But we’re not going to fight them. We don’t have to prove anything by fighting them,” he put in softly. “I once heard someone say that.” He closed his eyes, a look of incredible weariness of on his youthful face. “I don’t want to fight them anymore.”
Elena blinked and seemed ready to add something further, but she was interrupted by Rude.
“We didn’t tell you because we didn’t want to risk it getting out,” the bald man said, looking at the blonde directly. “You were a great Turk, Elena, but we’re tired of this. We’re not heroes, but… there are things even we can do.”
The two men exchanged glances before they began moving, Elena’s confused gaze darting between them. It wasn’t until they had passed Cloud and his group that the ex-SOLDIER chose to speak.
“Wait! How do we get to the Sister Ray from here?” Cloud questioned, determined to get information since they weren’t fighting anymore.
Reno paused mid-step, something tightening across his back as he half-turned. “It’s just a few more feet down the tunnel. There’s a ladder.” There was a strange gleam in his eyes as considered something.
“Where’s Marlene?” Barret asked, pushing himself to the front of the group and rather rudely elbowing Vincent aside.
“Probably in the medical center,” Elena answered, shaken from her reverie. “That’s where they’ve been keeping her and the other woman.”
Barret frowned as his hand clenched at his side, suddenly taking a step forward. “Take me there!” he demanded before moving to face his friends. “I’m sorry, Spike, but I realized something while we were in the city. Marlene’s all that’s important to me, and I’ve been leaving her alone. She’s all I care about.”
Aquamarine eyes widened in response at the man’s words. Nevertheless, it was Rude who responded, shooting his partner a strange look before tilting his head.
“We’ll take you there,” he intoned. “Since we’re going with Plan B.”
“Plan B,” Reno murmured distractedly, nodding to himself. “Rude, get Tseng and get out of Midgar. I’m leaving it to you,” he ordered, running a hand through his red hair.
Complete understanding dawned in the bald Turk’s face, even as Aeris gasped. “Tseng’s alive?”
“A bit beat up but alive.” Reno inclined his head at his partners. “They’ll get as many people out of the slums and into Kalm as they can… if there are any left thanks to Archer’s secret evacuations.”
Mako blue eyes narrowed. “And you?”
The redhead appeared thoughtful, tapping his Electro Rod on his shoulder in an almost nervous habit. “You’re going to stop Hojo, right?” he asked, his gaze locked on the floor. “And the others, where are they?”
“Could already be there for all we know.” Cloud explained cautiously, confused by Reno’s strange behavior, “We had to split up.”
“Then, I’m coming with you, yo,” Reno announced.
Cloud blinked in confusion. “What?”
The Turk smirked. “Maybe I’ve come to a realization about what’s important to me, too,” he answered, flicking his eyes to the others. “Don’t die on me, guys. I’m expectin’ to see ya after all this is over.”
What might have been a smile crossed Rude’s normally stoic face. “Tell the boss I said hello,” he responded, turning on his heels and striding down the tunnel, Elena and Barret quick to follow.
Something strange passed over Reno’s face as he looked at the still confused members of AVALANCHE. “Shall we?”
“Cid,” Yuffie whined aloud as she dragged her feet against the ground. “I don’t think this is the right way!”
Honestly, they had already taken one wrong turn when the tunnel had diverged. They had to retrace their steps and take the other path. It threw them off track, adding more time to their journey and settling a new worry over them.
“Your opinion no longer matters,” the pilot muttered.
He strode a bit ahead of the group, trying his best to block out the annoying ninja’s voice and quit worrying about Vincent at the same time. With the recent events, Cid was worried that his demons might try to come out on their own again and that Cloud would just opt to kill.
“Look!” Nanaki announced, gesturing towards the tunnel ahead of them. “It’s ended again.”
Cid cursed loudly. Damn dead ends.
The former executive shot him an amused look. “There is a ladder though,” Reeve commented. “We might as well try it.”
“Be my guest.” Cid gestured grandly, still a bit miffed that he had been made leader again.
Shrugging, Reeve was the first to climb, easily opening the hatch and sticking his head up to identify their location.
“It’s ShinRa HQ.”
Cid chewed angrily on the end of an unsmoked cigarette, feeling as if Cloud had sent them on a wild goose chase. “Come back down then,” he muttered with a wave of his hand, already turning back around. “We don’t need to go there.”
“Hold on a minute,” Reeve suggesting, popping his head back down to glare at the pilot. “What if Archer’s there? I ought to rescue him since it’s my fault he’s in their clutches.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Cid growled. “We have to completely turn back around and catch up to the others.”
A deep voice suddenly resonated through the area, startling the four present. “He’s right.”
All eyes turned towards the darkness.
Rude, Elena, and Barret stepped into the dim light. “Cloud and the others are already preparing to face Hojo. They will need your help,” the bald Turk explained, not at all bothered by their presence.
“We’ll save Archer,” Elena continued, gesturing towards the ladder. “Don’t you worry about him.”
“Where’s Reno?” Reeve asked.
Of course, in the same moment, Yuffie blurted out, “Why are you with them, Barret?”
Rude glanced at the two, faintly amused. “Reno is with Cloud; apparently, he wants to fight Hojo as well.”
“And I’m going ta save Marlene, so get off the ladder and outta my way, ShinRa boy,” the gun-armed man grumbled, pushing further into the area.
Reeve backed down as the dark-skinned man exuberantly climbed the ladder. However, halfway up, he paused and then reached into a pocket, holding out his hand to the ex-executive.
“What is this?” he questioned, frowning at the glowing orbs he now held.
Barret grinned toothily as he started back up the ladder, his voice echoing down to the executive. “I forgot to give them back to Cloud. You guys will need it more n’me,” he explained as Elena and Rude followed the former AVALANCHE leader.
However, the blonde paused at the base of the ladder. “You should hurry,” she suggested as she reached for the rungs. “Heidegger and Scarlet were waiting at the bottom and will probably slow them down, but I guarantee that the battle will have already begun by the time you get there.” She began to climb.
Rude tilted his head in agreement, his gaze sliding to Reeve. “He is waiting, after all,” he added vaguely.
And Cid was already turning on his heels, heading quickly up the tunnels. “Let’s go, crew!” he announced with a brief flip of his wrists, worry increasing his pace. “There’s no time to waste.”
Reeve nodded, glancing into his cupped palms to find every one of Barret’s materia, including the Fenrir summon that Reeve had returned after their battle with Scorpios.
It was Barret’s way of saying goodbye.
“What the hell is that?” Vincent asked in surprise, taking an unconscious step backwards.
“It’s the Proud Clod,” Reno explained, shaking his head.
The mocking voices of Scarlet and Heidegger echoed from the insides of the creature. “G’yaaaa haaa haaa! Here they come!”
Cloud drew the Heaven’s Cloud from its sheath and leveled it at the metal monster, mentally reviewing his stock of materia.
However, Vincent had already started the fight. He touched the Escort Guard on his wrist and the small red materia lodged into one of the slots.
“Black Cauldron,” he announced simply, calling forth the Hades summon.
Darkness fell over the battlefield, and four small fires sprang to life around the circumference of a circle, which surrounded the Proud Clod. It began to spin, and a suspiciously patterned stone disc rose from the floor. It was followed by four columns that formed a stage in front of the metal monster. A gothic chandelier was suspended in midair above the platform, casting an eerie light over the darkened battlefield.
A pillar of light brought forth Hades, who appeared standing over a smoking cauldron. The cloaked skeleton cast a spell, causing the cauldron to erupt and send a tide of crimson and azure smoke over the enemy. The metal armor began to sizzle and hiss as corrosive acid poured over its shining red surface.
Hades grinned maliciously before disappearing in a smoky haze, and Cloud took the opportunity to perform Climhazzard, slicing up Proud Clod’s armor and easily revealing the occupants inside.
Both Heidegger and Scarlet were screaming curses as their monster was easily destroyed.
Aeris finished by casting Comet 2 with a surprisingly calm look on her face. Four comets appeared in the sky, pulled out of orbit by the power of her magic, and slammed into the metal body of the Proud Clod, shattering it into pieces. Smoking and completely obliterated, the metal monster fell off the side of the stairwell, the sounds of Scarlet and Heidegger’s screams echoing harshly.
Reno gaped at the three of them. He hadn’t even had to draw his Electro Rod, much less take place in the battle. They had destroyed the Proud Clod in less than five minutes. Cloud’s group was even more powerful than the last time they had fought the Turks, and the redhead was more than glad that they hadn’t chosen to battle in the tunnels. The Turks would have actually had to try, doing more than their usual half-assed effort.
“That was surprisingly easy.” Vincent snorted, glaring down at the few pieces of twisted wreckage littering the street.
Reno shook his head, trying to fight off the surprise still present in his features. “We can’t afford to use big spells like that near the control panel,” he commented.
“Neither can we afford to stand here and muse about the battle. Hojo is still at the Sister Ray!” Cloud ordered.
He picked up the abandoned sword the Proud Clod had originally been holding and tested its weight. The balance was perfect, and it was stronger than the Heaven’s Cloud.
“Let’s go,” he demanded and ran for the stairs, the other three following after him.
The group of four raced up the metal stairs towards the control panel for the Sister Ray. Already, they felt like they had run out of time.
Cloud was the first to crest the top of the stairs, laying his eyes on their bloodthirsty foe. “Hojo! Stop right there!” He halted right behind the crazed man and leveled his newly gained Ragnarok at him.
The others flanked him on both sides, preparing for the inevitable battle. They were certain the mad scientist would not go down without a fight.
Hojo looked over his shoulder unconcernedly, barely acknowledging their presence. “Oh, the failure,” he mused with a sniff. “And my favorite toy as well, how fitting.”
“At least remember my name!” their leader growled angrily. “It’s Cloud!”
The scientist snorted, returning to the panel. “Every time I see you, it pains me that I had so little scientific sense. I evaluated you as a failed project, but you are the only one that succeeded as a Sephiroth clone.” He tilted his head back and looked up at the darkened sky above him, arcs of electricity raking across it from the rapidly overloading cannon. “I’m even beginning to hate myself.”
“No one can hate you more than I,” Vincent spat poisonously. He glared at the bespectacled man with all the loathing and fury that had been building for the past thirty years. His body was beginning to shake, and he could already feel his demons beneath the surface.
“None of that matters. Just stop this nonsense!” Aeris declared, raising her Princess Guard.
“Nonsense?” Hojo questioned, as if he wasn’t sure what they were talking about. “Oh, this?” He laughed maniacally. “Sephiroth seems to be counting on the energy. So I’m going to lend him a hand.”
The Turk’s brow furrowed. “Why the hell would you do that?” Reno demanded.
“Quit asking me why, you morons,” the scientist retorted with a wide wave of his hands. “Energy level is at eighty-three percent. It’s taking too long. My son is in need of power. That’s the only reason I need.”
Silence fell as nausea gripped Cloud’s belly. “Your son?” he repeated, floored by the revelation as memories of his idol flooded his mind.
Zack had told him of Sephiroth’s nightmares, how they hinted to things that the former General had never expressed. His friend had been more than concerned, worried just what had happened to Sephiroth under ShinRa’s care.
“Nobody knew, except perhaps the monster that goes by the name of a long dead Turk.” Hojo chortled again, clearly pleased with his own humor.
Cloud glanced at Vincent, who returned the look with an even crimson glare. Shaking his head, the spiky-headed blond returned his attentions to Hojo.
“Sephiroth is your son?” Reno questioned, feeling a surprising bit of pity for the General. In all his years as a Turk, that little piece of knowledge had never come to his ears.
Hojo chuckled as he fiddled with another button. “I offered the woman with my child to Professor Gast’s Jenova Project.” Aeris paled when she heard the name of the professor, but the scientist took no notice, continuing on. “When Sephiroth was still in the womb, we took the cells of Jenova-”
Cloud shook his head angrily. “I can’t believe it’s all you, all your fault.”
“Pro-Professor Gast? Daddy?” the flower-girl repeated in a daze.
“That’s right, little girl,” Hojo answered mockingly, facing the group. His lips were twisted up in a spiteful glee, which frightened everyone present. “Your dear daddy was also a part of this, though the coward backed out at the last second. He never was much of a man of science.”
Beside the woman he loved, Cloud’s hands clenched into angered fists. “Today, you will die!” he hissed furiously, taking a step forwards.
“Is that so?” the scientist inquired with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I’ve injected Jenova into myself as well. Nothing can stop me now, especially since I have this!” He held up his hand and revealed a simple, golden band on his middle finger.
“A wedding ring?” Cloud questioned with incredulity; he snorted. “Right. I’m real terrified now.”
Hojo smirked. “This is the Apocalypse band, and by the time you realize its true effects, you may already be dead.” He appeared to concentrate just then, and the golden ring glowed with a rather poisonous luminescence.
Suddenly, Vincent let out an unearthly shriek and dropped to his knees; he began to pulsate. Hands went to his head as a million voices screamed in his mind. One especially was incredibly loud, speaking directly to his demons and ordering them to manifest. A dark cloud appeared out of nowhere, enveloping his body, completely concealing him from his friends.
Grey eyes glinted manically. “I told him that he would be the perfect weapon,” Hojo informed them, “and here, he thought he had escaped from me.”
“What are you talking about?” Cloud demanded.
“You’ll see,” the insane maniac giggled, a high-pitched mad sound that sent shivers down their spines.
Fed up with his insanity and mocking, Reno drew his Electro Rod and growled as he rushed at Hojo, determined to knock the knowing smirk off of his face.
However, the Turk never completed his task. Before he got a chance to even lay a hand on the scientist, a streak of hard flesh and steel barreled into him. One hand wrapped around Reno’s throat and squeezed fiercely, throwing the man far away from Hojo in the same moment that a burst of magic hit the Turk full in the chest. The redhead was like a blur as he sailed through the air, smacking into the control panel with a resounding thump. His head slammed into the metal and left an impossibly large dent, and tumbled off and hit the ground, completely unconscious.
Purplish bruises already were forming around the side of Reno’s neck.
“Reno!” Aeris gasped.
“With this ring in my possession, that damned Valentine is completely under my control,” Hojo chortled.
A strange demon, the same one who had attacked Reno, now stood at the scientist’s side, glaring at them with intense hatred. The two lovers immediately recognized him as Hellmasker, Vincent’s third demon form.
The mad scientist gestured offhandedly, and Hellmasker cranked up his chainsaw, sights set on his two friends as he stalked forwards.
Cloud stepped in front of Aeris and blocked the saw with his Ragnarok. The two wrestled for a moment, strength combating against strength. Still, even with his power, the blond was no match for the greater vigor of the demon. He was slowly being pushed back, and Hellmasker growled at the two of them, eyes flashing menacingly.
“Repel!” Aeris yelled, casting one of her special defensive magics, and a ray of light burst from her hand and smacked Hellmasker in the face, knocking the demon to the ground at Hojo’s feet.
“Did you hurt him?” Cloud asked, shoulders heaving with his efforts.
Aeris shook his head. “No. I couldn’t.”
Cloud hefted up the Ragnarok and cast Aeris a grim look. “We may have to. Go see if you can help Reno.”
But before she could even take a step in the Turk’s direction, Hojo cackled. “Ha ha ha! You’re not going anywhere!” He summoned two monsters from seemingly nowhere, more results of his bizarre experimentation.
They blocked Aeris, and she had no choice but to defend herself, inwardly praying that Reno wasn’t dying, blood pooling beneath his head.
“You bastard!” Cloud spat as he rushed Hojo and Hellmasker.
Yet, the scientist stood back and simply watched as he sent the monster forward to fight. Again, chainsaw met really big sword with an angry grating sound followed by several sparkles.
Hojo laughed louder, his voice becoming shrill and hard on the ears. Cloud spared a glance past his own battle and saw that the scientist was slowly changing into a far more gruesome form.
They needed help, and they needed help, now.
A flash of magic through the air raised the hair on Cid’s arms, and he realized that the battle for the Sister Ray had already begun. He put on a burst of speed as he climbed the stairs, Yuffie, Reeve, and Nanaki hurrying to keep up with him. He had only one thought in his mind. For some reason, he just knew that Vincent was in trouble. He didn’t understand it, but he was relying on gut instinct, and that very thought made him hurry even more.
He crested the last staircase and stepped onto the control platform, nearly skidding to a stop at the sight that he saw. Reno was in a mangled heap near the control panel. Cloud and Aeris were standing back to back, trying to fend off attacks from three monsters, one of which looked remarkably like Vincent’s third demon form, Hellmasker.
Cid’s heart sank. Somehow, he knew that the third didn’t just look like his lover but WAS him.
“Reno!” Reeve exclaimed with horror as he ran up behind Cid. He wasted no time dashing onto the platform, ignoring the other chaos as he ran to the red-haired Turk. One of the smaller monsters made as if to attack him, but Reeve barely spared it a glance as he cast Fire 3 and kept going.
Yuffie dashed past the Captain as well, pulling out her shuriken and attacking the second monster, Poodler. She slashed at it with a vengeance, green blood staining the metal floor of the platform.
Nanaki raced to Aeris’ side, noticing that she desperately needed a Cure 2 or perhaps something stronger as Cid finally overcame his momentary shock and joined the battle. He added his spear to Cloud’s strength, and together, the two of them fought to push back Hellmasker.
“Never happier to see you, Highwind,” Cloud grunted out as they two of them struggled to push against the greater strength of Hellmasker.
“What the hell happened? Why is Vince attacking us?” the pilot demanded.
“It’s Hojo. He’s got some type of ring that controls him,” the leader gasped out.
With a great heave, the two managed to push Hellmasker back and throw him to the ground. The chainsaw skittered out of his hands and across the floor of the platform, and Cid ran forward and kicked it out of reach. However, this didn’t faze Hellmasker at all as he leaped at Cloud. The blond held out his sword in defense, but the demon just grabbed the blade and held on, the sharp edges cutting into his skin.
Hojo chuckled in his new form, that of some strange mating of a golden snake and an eagle. “Your only choice is to kill your friend. He won’t stop unless I tell him to.”
Nanaki growled as he finished applying the last of the Cure 2 to Aeris. The fur on his back rose as he felt an overwhelming anger course through his body, a familiar rage that sparked an even more familiar power prickling across his skin.
Meanwhile, Cid jumped on Hellmasker’s back, trying to subdue the demon, but he was still fighting them tooth and nail, invariably getting hurt in the process. Reeve was now cradling Reno’s head in his lap, attempting to waken the fallen Turk, and nearby, Yuffie finished hacking the last of the monsters to bits, even the seriously charred one that Reeve had managed to slow but not stop. She made her way to Nanaki and Aeris, limping only slightly.
Hojo had gone too far!
The crazed scientist thought he was above the law of man, using sentient beings in his experiments. He hurt those who Nanaki cared about, and yet, Hojo still managed to laugh.
The lion-wolf felt hands thread through the fur on his neck and looked up to see Yuffie standing next to him, glaring at Hojo with grim determination. He felt a tingle race through his body, and suddenly, the amulet around his neck began to glow. Nanaki growled and took off at a dead run at the madman, feeling the energies beginning to gather around within him, enveloping his body in a golden-blue light.
A great wave of power exploded around the room as Nanaki transformed into his demi-human form, attacking from the sky with his claw outstretched, aiming directly for Hojo. He slashed with great force but was repelled by the barrier that the man had erected all-too-quickly. Nanaki landed delicately on his feet, glaring at the scientist with angry eyes.
Behind them, Hellmasker threw Cid off and kicked at Cloud with a loud growl, causing both to scatter in different directions. He bobbed in between the two blonds, unsure of which to attack first before deciding that the Captain was the easier of the two targets.
In that same moment, two spells were cast.
“Ice 3!” Cid shouted, aiming for Hellmasker.
“DeBarrier!” Yuffie cast, pointing one delicate ninja hand at Hojo.
The fierce echo of Hellmasker’s roar accompanied the sound of the Protect barrier shattering, and the demon was slowly encased in a sheet of ice.
“Hurry! Cast Stop while he’s weak!” Cid exclaimed, pushing himself to his feet. He winced a bit from having hit the metal hard earlier.
Mako blue eyes glanced around desperately. “Reeve!” Cloud roared, remembering that the ex-executive had the only other Time materia.
Nanaki was too busy growling and slashing at Hojo, who was trying to frantically dodge the powerful attacks. Yuffie danced around the room, catching and throwing her shuriken in smooth movements.
The ex-ShinRa looked up from the other side of the platform and unequipped the materia from the slot in his armband. Reeve tossed it to Aeris, who caught it easily, turning to cast on Hellmasker before he completely fought off the Ice 3 attack.
The spell hit Hellmasker full force, and the demon instantly stopped. He was still in the same place even after the ice exploded, sending shards in all directions. Hellmasker was frozen in time, victim of a Stop spell.
The spell was only temporary, so Cloud lunged forward and slugged the demon across the jaw, hoping to knock it out. Thankfully, the heavy body of Hellmasker crashed to the ground.
He lay there motionless for a moment before shining with a dark light. In seconds, Vincent was left, unconscious on the metal flooring of the platform.
“Oh, God, Vince,” Cid murmured, dropping to his knees beside the prone form of his lover and ignoring the rest of the battle. He quickly checked for injuries, though he did not try to awaken the gunman until the damned control ring was destroyed.
Cloud sighed at the scene and turned towards the battle with Hojo. Aeris cast her Healing Wind now that she was through with the Stop spell; she was aiding Nanaki and Yuffie, who were both still viciously slicing at the demented scientist.
Laughing manically, Hojo noticed that everyone’s the attention was now on him; his distraction technique was down for the count.
The group was forced to take cover as rays of light and energy came bursting from all areas of Hojo’s body.
At the control panel, Reeve erected a hastily cast Protect over himself, Reno, and the panel itself. The beams of light struck the shield, but it held.
The others threw themselves to the ground to avoid the stinging lasers. A shuriken flew through the air and slammed into Hojo, cutting off one of his arms, and it dropped to the floor with a squelch, blood spurting from the stump.
The ninja reached up to catch the shuriken but missed when a laser sliced into her forearm, causing her to cry out with the pain.
“That’s it!” Cid growled, tired of fighting the maniacal scientist. He pushed himself to his feet and spun his Scimitar in front of him, effectively warding off the laser attacks that came his way. His body began to glow a deep red.
He stalked towards Hojo, gathering power as he prepared to slay the man that would dare cause harm to his lover. “Hojo! Yer gonna regret the day you touched what’s mine!”
With a great roar of anger, he took to the sky, over and over again, performing a series of jump attacks on Hojo. Each one resulted in a large release of energy, and the madman was powerless to do anything, screaming with each stroke, as his eyes rolled into the back of his head.
Cid dealt the final blow, landing easily on the ground behind Hojo. He grabbed a cigarette and lit it as the scientist collapsed in a heap of burned and mutilated flesh.
Yuffie couldn’t resist the cheer that bubbled in her throat at the victory and rose to her feet, hand pumping the air. Everyone else was just as excited, though they were more subdued about it. Reeve took the opportunity to take a moment and shut down the Sister Ray before destroying the panel so that no one could ever use the damned thing again.
Spitting on the body at his feet, Cid reached down and pulled the gold ring off Hojo’s rapidly decaying finger. He eyed the slim piece of metal skeptically, taking in the small script that lined the inside of the ring. It was better off destroyed.
With that in mind, he dropped the ring to the floor and crushed it beneath his boot. For reasons he couldn’t comprehend, it shattered into pieces, despite the fact it was metal, but considering it a job well done, Cid turned away from the battered and broken body of the scientist. He flicked his cancer stick at Hojo and quickly crossed the platform to come to Vincent’s side. He knelt down and gently brushed a hand over the gunman’s cheek, noticing how cool he felt to the touch.
“Vince?” Cid called out softly, hoping to awaken his lover, but Vincent still did not stir.
Meanwhile, Yuffie limped over to her friend. She had landed wrong after getting slashed in the arm and had twisted her ankle.
“You changed again,” she stated, with an air of obviousness.
“Yes,” Nanaki answered simply. “And still I don’t know why. What is the catalyst? Can I even control it?”
She placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. At least, it’s not something dangerous.”
He nodded in agreement, and his golden eyes flashed with happiness until he noticed her arm. “Oh, Yuffie, you are bleeding.”
“So I am,” the girl murmured, looking at her arm, as if surprised to find blood there.
Nanaki tsked and forced her to sit as he pulled out his Cure materia to heal the cut.
A short distance away, Cid traced one finger down the side of his lover’s face. “C’mon, Vince, you can wake up now,” he urged. “Hojo’s dead, and he’s got no power over you now.”
The ex-Turk moaned and stirred, eyes opening ever so slowly. “Highwind?” he asked quizzically as he struggled to sit up.
He instantly winced as pain spread throughout his body. The injuries that Hellmasker had endured were not healing fast enough to suit him.
The Captain shook his head. “What you remember’s a better place to start.”
“Hmm.” Vincent appeared thoughtful as he pulled himself into a sitting position and tried to ignore the stabbing pains in his back. “Confronting Hojo about Sephiroth and the Sister Ray. There are flashes of something else, gold light and black smoke, but that is it.” His gaze traveled over the rest of the platform, taking in Reeve with Reno, Nanaki tending to Yuffie, Cloud checking on Aeris, and Cid looking worriedly at him.
“You transformed into Hellmasker, and well… uh, you attacked us,” Cid explained.
Vincent’s eyes widened. “What! Why?” He had turned into his demon forms plenty of times, but never once had he turned on his friends.
Footsteps across the metal grating of the platform announced the approach of one of the others. “Why didn’t you tell us Hojo could control you?” Cloud demanded, interrupting their conversation.
Cid’s hands balled into fists at his side. “It wasn’t his fault!” he yelled.
“It never is!” Cloud spat sharply in return.
Vincent managed a glare, coughing only slightly. “I didn’t know.”
The spiky-haired man sighed heavily and scrubbed at his forehead, clearly torn. “Dammit, Vincent! How many times? How many times am I going to have to choose between killing you and saving my friends?”
“I can control it, Strife.”
Mako blue eyes rolled. “Like you’ve been controlling it so far?” he sniped sarcastically.
“I remember a time when you were not under your own power either,” Vincent hissed. “Need I remind you as to why Meteor hangs in the sky right now?”
A chilly wind swept through the area, testament to the way the blood drained from Cloud’s face.
Vincent continued, his voice low and cold, “Make up your mind about me now, Strife, because I am not going to listen to it anymore. Either you trust me… or you don’t. I will walk out of here right now; after all, I got what I came for.”
The flower-girl appeared at Cloud’s side, laying a soft and restraining hand on his arm, which trembled beneath her touch. “Cloud,” she murmured softly. “This could be the choice-”
“Augh!” he yelled angrily, slamming his sword down into the metal of the floor, where it managed to stand upright.
A rain began to fall on the group as he contemplated what to do. It was light and gentle and might have been cleansing, if not for the dark aura surrounding all present.
On the other side of the platform, Reno groaned and started to gain consciousness, waking up to see the worried face of his lover leaning over him.
“Reeve,” he whispered, aquamarine eyes blinking blearily.
“I thought I told you to stay safe,” Reeve muttered.
The Turk grinned as he struggled to sit up. “I’m a Turk. Safe is not a word we comprehend.”
“You idiot,” Reeve murmured, but that didn’t stop him from wrapping Reno up in a strong embrace, something he had been aching to do ever since he was forced to run from ShinRa in fear for his life. His lover easily returned the hug, burying his face in the older man’s neck and breathing in his scent.
Cloud turned away from their private moment, returning his gaze to Vincent, who was still staring at him with those eerie eyes. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t.” the ex-Turk pointed out simply. “And that is enough of an answer for me.” He stood to leave, swaying lightly on his feet. As indestructible as Vincent Valentine thought he was, he still needed time to heal from his wounds.
“No,” Aeris declared, gaining everyone’s attention. “The battle for Gaia is not complete. If our strength is diminished by even one, who knows if we will fall or stand? We can’t let such petty disagreements stand between us.”
Yuffie’s voice rose up to join hers, for once sounding strangely sober. “Aeris is right,” she agreed.
Nanaki nodded, a thoughtful expression crossing his face. “The time for distrust and secrets is well past. Sephiroth is a master at mind games. He could easily tear us apart.” He gazed at Cloud, seemingly boring into the blond’s mind with his golden eyes.
The leader sighed heavily, rubbing a palm over his face and digging the heel of his hand into his eyes, as if to ease the ache that was slowly building behind the blue orbs. It was too much. How was he supposed to make these kinds of decisions? He didn’t want to be the one to drive Vincent away but he couldn’t deny the danger the man presented. He didn’t want to be the one forced to defeat Sephiroth yet the duty fell in his hands.
“Cloud?” Aeris’ concerned tone pierced through his angst in the same moment that a gentle hand settled on his shoulder. He hadn’t even heard her step across the ground towards him.
The former SOLDIER gritted his teeth, shaking his head. “Not right now,” he responded softly before raising his gaze to the others who were looking confused. “Just… everyone get back to the ship.” He was met with even more perplexed stares. Growling under his breath, he jerkily rose to his feet, affixing them with a glare as Aeris’ hand slid from his shoulder.
“Get back to the ship,” Cloud repeated, enunciating each word.
This time they obeyed, Cid helping his lover limp away from the platform as Reeve supported Reno. Nanaki and Yuffie cast confused glances towards their leader before they, too, padded quietly away, stepping lightly down the metal steps. Only Cloud and Aeris were left alone on the platform, smoldering bodies littering the ground and a fizzing, sparking console to the far right.
Jade eyes turned towards the man she loved. “Cloud?”
The blond sighed, reaching forward and grasping the hilt of his sword to yank it from the ground, absentmindedly shaking rain drops from his hair. “Answers are not that easy to come by,” he murmured, swinging the blade through the air with a few quick exercises before maneuvering it into the sheath on his back. “I know that he is dangerous and I know that something like this could and probably will happen again.”
“You don’t know that,” Aeris countered, her voice gently chastising. “You really can’t be certain of anything. And honestly Cloud, has he ever actually permanently hurt any one of us?”
Cloud pursed his lips in thought. “It’s not that easy,” he replied, dodging the question.
“We need him,” Aeris insisted. She stepped forward, placing her hands on Cloud’s shoulders and forcing him to look at her. “The battle with Sephiroth can’t be won without him.”
Mako eyes widened. “You know that?” he questioned, not putting it past the Ancient. She could have learned anything while she was in the Life stream.
But she only smiled enigmatically. “The future isn’t set in stone, so no. But I do know Sephiroth is strong.” Her gaze slid to the side as her grin faded. “This may very well be our last.”
A low rush of wind escaped the man’s lips as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, I know. I had planned on doing this sooner but then that damn Hojo went crazy… but there’s something we all have to do before we can even think of fighting Sephiroth.”
“What is it?” Aeris asked, tilting her head to the side.
Cloud merely flicked his eyes away from her, darting quickly over the charred bodies. “Not here. I will tell you when we get back on the Highwind,” he answered.
There was nothing left for them in Midgar. And Cloud had no more plans to stay.