Good Intentions Part 2
by Sanche Llewellyn
Chapter V: Payback
Two weeks later, Nestor stood in Hojo's refurbished office, picturing how good it would feel to pull the giggly professor's limbs off and throw him on a hot sidewalk.
"What do you mean, he is not a Cetra? He performed that healing trick right in front of you."
"I tested his genetic material. Hee-hee, he is not a Cetra. He is . . . something wonderful."
What would be wonderful would be carving that albino Cetra freak into strips of jerky.
"So you never had a Cetra subject?"
"Oh yes, oh yes, I had the girl Ancient. She escaped with Avalanche. But I don't need her now, since I have something wonderful."
"You have the boy?" Nestor allowed himself some excitement.
"Sadly, no. Hee-hee, but I have spies tracking him. We'll take him, and he will lead Shinra to the Promised Land."
"In that case," Nestor said. "I would dearly like to meet him. To experience his, wonder."
"Hee-hee-hee." Hojo clapped a hand on Nestor's shoulder. "We make a perfect team."
The heat from the red stone cliffs made the black cape doubly stifling. Even in the evening hours, the sun blasted the bare rock, turning the canyon into a brick oven.
John usually traveled at night, but lately he felt a sense of urgency, something missing from his life these past few weeks. Almost as if, being called somewhere? He hoped the caller had a good reason. He hated telemarketers.
The cliffs rose higher here, offering patches of shade. He sprinted toward the cool darkness for a respite. Other creatures lounged here as well; funny fox-trotting penguins with sand shooting tridents (who were annoying at times), and giant mutant peacocks who avoided him.
The heat had slowed the monster activity as well. John sat on a rock and threw off the cloak, rubbing his reddened arms while questioning his sanity. Why didn't he heed his own advice and hole up during the daylight hours? One of the penguins blew some sand at his legs. John gave it a look, and it hopped away.
"Good time for a nap." He rolled the rock over, checking for scorpions before patting the cool underside in appreciation. He lay against it, pulled his cloak over his body and closed his eyes.
He admitted, walking through the brick oven canyon was not his wisest move, but he still smarted from a harrowing ride on a giant chicken--chocobo, he corrected himself--who had the personality of a wasp nest and the patience of a pit bull. Add to this, he didn't know how to ride, which ended up saving him. Sure, he could stay on the back of a horse, provided it did nothing rash, like move, but a rampaging chicken who stopped to try to get a peck in every few steps? After a hundred meters of frantic dodging, John had tried to leap from the saddle, only to have his leg tangle in the harness, leaving him dangling over the side, bouncing like a bell clapper while the mad chicken galloped along the sea shore, splashed through streams and even tried to roll him loose in a desert.
The scenery, he decided, had been breathtaking, though he would like to see it right side up some day. Finally, the overgrown rooster stumbled into a forest near a blown out reactor, where John was finally able to cut himself free. The old bird rushed at him, perhaps intending to peck him for not paying his fare, when it was attacked and devoured by three giant grasshoppers.
John had then spent the next three days being chased by packs of singing frogs. This hot desert didn't seem so bad after all.
He awakened later to the rumble of a buggy rolling through the canyon. His irritation turned to amusement when he saw his pack of sand penguins rushing the oncoming vehicle. It scraped to a stop. Drawing their weapons, the occupants jumped free.
"Avalanche," John said. Hard to miss. Nanaki wouldn't be easy to forget. Not too many bulky guys with gun arms about either. Spike waded into the fray, swinging that sword with glee. Aeris and Tifa fought side by side, smacking any enemies who ventured too close. They had picked up some new members, he noticed. A brown-skinned teenage girl stood in the buggy, flinging a returning shuriken the size of a tire iron. And, was that a cat perched on a giant quivering marshmallow? Every move it made screamed "bouncy, bouncy, bouncy." Effective though, John noted, watching it flash fry an amorous peacock.
After the melee, the group piled back into the buggy and, after Barret blasted some shots into the sky, resumed their plodding course. John, now energized after his nap (and thanking the lengthening shadows), rose to follow. He could see twinkling lights of a settlement ahead, and its night scene had to be more exciting than the desert.
Near the stairway to Cosmo Canyon proper, the buggy sat being washed by a pair of mechanics. John mounted the stairs only to be told the village was closed.
"How can a village be closed?" he asked.
"We are celebrating the return of Nanaki."
"I'm a friend of Nanaki." Well, he met me in a Shinra hall and I left with my throat intact . . .
"In that case, you are welcome. I can sense the truth of your words."
"Whew. And to think I considered telling you I was on a mission from God."
"Come and experience the Cosmo Flame."
"I'll settle for a cool shower and a hot meal."
"Our inn is always open."
But not the village? John thanked him and hurried inside.
Feeling refreshed after his shower, he sat, wet hair slicked back, facing a plate of curried pineapple and rock shrimp. He breathed in the spicy fumes to moisten his breathing passages, all dry as concrete from the desert air. He was sampling the first zesty morsel when Tifa and Aeris walked in, hand in hand.
"As I was saying, Teef, you need to lighten up and have some fun."
"I know, but every time I try, something awful happens."
"Hello there," Aeris said. "I wondered what happened to you."
"Ew. You're eating a plateful of bugs," Tifa said.
"Rock shrimp," John said, spearing one with a fork. "Just don't count the legs."
Tifa shuddered. Aeris giggled. "Mind if we join you?"
"Not at all. Grab some grub."
Tifa turned as green as Aeris' eyes.
Aeris, meanwhile, sat next to John and said, "I think I'll order a salad."
"Hey John," Tifa said. "Ever been to Wutai?"
"Can't say I have."
"Because," Tifa smiled, "they eat raw fish there."
Something flipped through the air and landed square-footed at the end of the table.
"We do not eat raw fish in Wutai," the shuriken girl said.
"Relax, Yuffie," Aeris said. "Tifa is just teasing our friend."
John speared another rock shrimp. "I guess I bring out the best in people."
"Are you eating bugs?" Yuffie said. "Oh, grossness!"
"At least they're cooked," John said.
"You probably are the type to eat raw fish."
"If the alternative is frogs or snails--"
"You were in Gongaga? What a depressing little town."
"I hear you. Only good thing that happened there is I lost my chocobo."
"That's too bad," Tifa said. "Aren't chocobos cute?"
"This one? This one was, of the devil."
Yuffie stepped around to Tifa. "I'm going to check out the materia shops around here. Glad you're feeling better, Tifa." She gave the woman a hug. "See ya!"
"That was nice," Aeris said.
"Check your pockets, John," Tifa said. "Wow. Everything of mine is here."
"She stole my three gil," John said. "After a haul like that, I believe she genuinely wants to cheer you up."
"I'll take it," Tifa said, starting to look distant again. Then she brightened. "John, I'd like to thank you for what you did in the Shinra tower. Taking the hit for Aeris like that."
"And to think," Aeris added, "I thought I was the last surviving Ancient after all these years."
"There are probably more of you about," John said. "After all, you had to come from somewhere."
"Brown hair, down to her waist? Liked to wear red and blue?"
"Yes." Aeris looked distant. "She was the last of her kind. She told me--"
"What, no aunts, uncles, cousins? She must have had some extended family."
Aeris shook her head sadly.
"None of that," John said. "I didn't cheer Tifa up to drag you down. So think happy thoughts or I'll order you a plate of bugs."
"With what gil?" Tifa asked.
"I might have to borrow from Yuffie. Anyway, I haven't been able to duplicate that healing trick since I left the lab. A couple times I needed it, too. Like when I dropped off that psychotic cat with his new owner, a girl named Marlene. It's like, that cat blamed me, for everything. Raked me, but good. I couldn't make the healing trick work, so Reeve got me patched up."
"Reeve?" Tifa said. "Of Shinra?"
"Mr. Soup himself. He suggested giving the cat to Marlene. She and Fluffy took to each other, though."
Aeris grabbed John's hand. "Can you speak with the Planet?"
"Speaking with planets, trees and furniture has always been a sore spot with me." He patted his medicine pouch. At least Yuffie didn't steal that. "But honestly? I can't recall a specific chat with a planet."
"It's strong here in Cosmo Canyon. Let's try. I'll help you."
"Okay." He and Aeris bowed their heads.
"Do you hear it?"
"Just my stomach growling. Sorry." John speared two rock shrimp. "Maybe I just need a full meal."
"If that's what it takes," Tifa said, "I don't ever want to speak with the Planet."
John gave Aeris' hand a final squeeze. "I'm sure you don't--"
Clink. Clink. Clink. A glowing crystalline orb bounced down stone pillars and dropped into a clear pool below. A palpable wave of sadness punched him like a sledgehammer.
John blinked furiously and realized someone was shaking him.
"Are you all right? What's the matter?" Aeris said.
"Yea." Tifa released him and sat back down. "You spaced out there. Kind of like someone else I know." She bowed her head.
"Were you speaking with the Planet?"
John took a deep breath. "I hope not. I sincerely hope not."
The three of them sat silent. John returned to his meal. Aeris started on her salad, while Tifa sipped a mug of warm milk.
"Hey, there's your friend Spike," John said later.
Tifa looked confused but Aeris laughed.
"His name is Cloud, silly, not Spike."
"Spike?" The blond man's eyebrows rose.
"What kind of name is Cloud?" John asked.
"What's wrong with Cloud?"
"Nothing. It's not as if it's Guybrush Threepwood or something."
All three of them looked at him as if he were from another planet.
"Too many rock shrimp," John said. "Does that to a fella."
"Bugenhagen wants to show us his observatory, where we can listen to the Planet."
"Oh, I want to go!" Aeris jumped up and ran around to Cloud.
"Thought you might. How about you, Tifa? Want to join us?"
"Really?" She perked up. "Of course."
"I'll save your places," John said. "Say hi to the Planet for me." He watched them leave. Aeris had her green aura back, and Spike--Cloud--had a fainter, blue aura. John blinked. The auras were still there. For some reason, Tifa had none.
"You're losing it, John." He looked at his plate. "Too many rock shrimp."
John actually got fifteen minutes of peace, nearly enough time to clean his plate.
"Well, well, look who we have here."
John looked up to see a smartly dressed man with wild red hair, along with a bigger, bald companion. The tough guy stood behind the weasel-like redhead, all business.
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" John wondered if he should take up selling insurance.
"My name is Reno, and we would like you to accompany us."
"No need. Just pull up a chair." He moved Aeris' salad plate and Tifa's half full mug aside.
"We need to get going."
"Nonsense. You just got here. I hear they serve excellent drinks."
" In that case . . . " Reno glanced at his Beefcake companion, who shrugged.
"Care for a rock shrimp?"
Reno cringed. "A Turk does not eat bugs."
"So tell me." John popped the rock shrimp into his mouth. Seeing the sick look on Reno's face, he chewed deliberately and licked his lips. "Just who is dying to meet me?"
"I'm not at liberty to disclose that."
"Yea, yea. Turks. I've heard about you. Anything for a price. But no harm in letting me guess your client, is there? Let's see. Is it, Darth Vader?"
Reno gave him a blank look.
"Tall guy, dressed in black, wears a black gas mask and helmet?"
A memory surfaced. In another lifetime, he recalled confronting a madman who thought it added atmosphere to dress up exactly like that.
"No, then. Already took care of that freak, anyhow. Who else? Jack the Ripper?"
"No, too small time for you. Not enough death for your likes. How about President Shinra? The new one, Rufus, not President Shish-kabob. No? he certainly could afford you, though why he would want me is a mystery. Could be that evil Scarlet, though she is more the type to come after me herself. Hey, how about Loony Green Hojo?"
John looked for a flinch, or a flicker, and thought he found it.
"Aha. Am I right or am I right? What did he promise you? Two extra arms and a tail? Oh, I know." He turned to his companion. "He promised Beefcake here he could grow hair like Tifa."
"Let's go." Reno grabbed John's shoulder to pull him up."
"You're overlooking an important fact." John picked up his remaining rock shrimp between thumb and forefinger. "I haven't paid for my meal yet."
"Well, I suggest you ask for the check."
"Nope. See, I only had three gil, and Yuffie stole that. So I promised Hiro back there I would sing for happy hour."
"Hiro?" Reno chuckled.
A bronzed man built like a stack of manhole covers, wearing a chef's hat, stepped up to the bar.
"Grrr," he said.
"Hiro, meet Weasel. He had interesting things to say about your curried rock shrimp." John inserted the shrimp he was holding inside Reno's shirt.
"That does it." Reno pulled out a nightstick, pushing a button on it so it hummed. His companion pulled out a gun.
"Beefcake, you're not going to shoot me. Put that away."
"He's Rude," Reno said.
"I know that. Pulling out a gun in a place like this. Someone could get hurt."
"His name is Rude," Reno said, gritting his teeth.
"Come," Rude said, gesturing with his gun.
"Do you think I'm more afraid of your gun and Reno's electric dildo than Hojo the mad mutant? Put that gun away. It's too hot to handle."
John gave him the Look. Rude dropped the gun with a yelp, before plunging his hand into Tifa's mug.
John found the expression on Rude's face hilarious, though he stifled his laughter. Reno didn't seem to get the joke for he pointed his nightstick at John's chest and pressed the button. The static discharge flung the albino back onto a neighboring table.
John blinked his eyes to stop the ceiling from spinning. Reno's smirking face drifted into view. As annoyance turned to anger, John realized he buzzed with the charged feeling he had felt when Aeris had healed him in the lab. This time, however, he didn't feel in a healing mood.
He also glimpsed the form of Yuffie in the rafters, drifting through the shadows. Wouldn't want to miss the show.
"So," Reno said. "You can shut up. Maybe I should try that on Elena."
"Hey Weasel," John said too loudly. "Tell us that Wutai joke again. You know, the 'how many Wutaians does it take to polish your shoes'?"
"I believe that calls for setting level two."
Rude was testing his gun with the tips of his fingers. "Reno," he said, "perhaps--"
"No. This little snot is pissing me off." He adjusted his nightstick. "Now. Any more you'd like to say?"
"Yes." John felt the charge within him rush to his fingers. He lifted his arm. "Back-atchya."
The discharge knocked both Reno and Rude back, though more from surprise, as the attack was not powerful. Still, Reno dropped his baton, which several feet kicked around on the floor.
Reno had bent to retrieve his weapon when he found a tree root arm looped around his chest.
"Time to leave," Hiro said. "You are not invited to the show."
"Please, may I feed him some lima beans?" John asked.
"Take Beefcake with you." Hiro winked at John.
"I-I haven't finished my drink." Reno could barely draw breath. Rude picked up his gun, and Reno's nightstick as well.
Yuffie sailed down from the rafters and landed in front of Reno. "So, you're telling Wutai jokes? Wanna tell it to my face?"
"I never--I never told that joke to John. No way could he--"
Yuffie's fist smacked into Reno's nose. The Turk howled in pain. Her hand reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of gil.
"Reno here feels so bad about spoiling your dinners that he's offered to buy you each a new one. Let's hear it for Reno the jerk--er, Turk."
John did notice half the money slipped into Yuffie's pocket. But then, she deserved a commission.
"Please stay for the show," John told her. "It starts as soon as I pull the rest of these noodles out of my hair."
Hiro hauled Reno to the door. Rude stepped politely outside.
"Now I show the little man my special wrestling move," Hiro said. "It's called, the Noogie."
John met some of the others near the bonfire in the main plaza. The Cosmo Flame, forever burning. Much like the Olympic torch on his own world, John thought. Yuffie was there, explaining to Tifa how she had cleaned Reno's clock. Nanaki lazed by the fire, lost in his own thoughts. The giant cat toy, sitting on a stuffed flippered animal, gave out fortunes to a line of eager children. The stuffed animal wobbled like a seesaw with each reading. John thought about getting in line, but he had had enough of prophetic visions.
Turning around, he almost collided with Aeris.
"Sorry. I didn't see--what's wrong?"
Aeris looked up at him, trying to hide the tears in her eyes.
"Bugenhagen wants to speak with you."
"Grandfather," Nanaki said. "His observatory is up top."
"Ah. Did he say why he wanted to see me?"
Aeris shook her head. "Just to talk."
Head low, Aeris walked over and sat beside Tifa.
John expected an older, grandfatherly version of Nanaki. Instead, he found a strange old man with a flowing white beard, and no legs. The lack of legs didn't slow him down however, since he levitated everywhere he went. Convenient.
"Ho-ho-hoo," the man said, "You must be the one they call John."
"I'm also the one I call John."
"Aeris tells me you used her Healing Wind power. Fascinating."
"Why is Aeris upset? What did you tell her?"
"Slow down, my boy. Ho-ho-hoo, you must have patience for an old man."
"Okay. Aeris said you wanted to see me."
"How much do you know about the Jenova project?" Bugenhagen asked.
"Uhm, I saw a trail of blood leading from a chamber labeled 'Jenova' in the Shinra tower. And Hojo mentioned the name before turning into a big green monster."
"So, the specimen Dr. Gast found in a rock stratum is still alive. And Barret said it was missing its head? Jenova beings are highly resilient."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"Dr. Gast spent many years studying the Jenova specimen, believing it to be an Ancient, or Cetra. Ho-ho-hoo, but one day he visited, highly distraught, saying how wrong he had been. Unfortunately, the Jenova project--the injection of live Jenova cells into human subjects--was already underway. Sephiroth was the first result."
"So I take it Jenova was not a Cetra?"
"Correct. In fact, Dr. Gast claimed that Jenova and the Cetra were mortal enemies. The Cetra were protectors of the planet, while Jenova are life-force parasites. They derive their powers from the energy of others."
"But we all do that," John said. "Unless you have figured out photosynthesis. I'm afraid I'm deriving energy from those rock shrimp I ate tonight."
"You eat bugs?"
John didn't answer. An idea was coming to him.
"Perhaps," Bugenhagen turned thoughtful. "Perhaps if Dr. Gast had access to more than one Jenova specimen, he might have drawn a different conclusion. But all we have is that one, preserved for two thousand years. That is, until now."
John rubbed his chin. Then he spoke. "Nestor Granth."
"Who?" Bugenhagen looked surprised.
"Really creepy guy in the Shinra headquarters. He wanted to test a germ warfare thing on me. He told me I was an Ancient, because he saw me do Aeris' healing wind on Shiela, an injured friend of mine. After I destroyed his vials of germs he killed Shiela." He paused. Pain still stabbed at his heart.
Bugenhagen spoke softly. "How did you know they were germ vials? Did he tell you?"
"We're drifting into quicksand," John said. "I had a vision. Not scientific. Won't hold up in court."
"What was the vision?"
"It was terrible. Such senseless death. It was something . . . called the Cetra Plague."
"Cetra Plague." Bugenhagen swiveled, drifting to his bookcase. He pulled out a thin volume and floated back. "I believe Dr. Gast mentioned something about that. Ah. Do you recall if this Nestor person had an aura?"
"Yes, like Aeris."
"Aeris--you can see those, too?" John felt his heartbeat quicken.
"Those sensitive to such things can see them. Ho-ho-hoo, did you think you were going crazy?"
"You don't want to go there. But no, I don't remember Nestor having an aura. Of course, I don't always see Aeris' aura, either. It comes and goes."
"Aeris has a lovely green aura," Bugenhagen said.
"You're right. It matches her eyes. And tonight, the strangest thing, I saw an aura around Spike--I mean, Cloud, except his was faint blue. Though it does match his eyes too."
"Your aura is a strong, clear blue."
"My eyes are pink. I never was good at--wait, did you say I have an aura?" John held up his hand, turning it this way and that.
"You say you used Aeris' Healing Wind. This was, after she used it on you?"
"And you haven't been able to use it since?"
"No. It was like, like a charge. Then it was gone." Then he laughed.
"When Reno zapped me with his joystick this evening? I was able to toss the charge back at him. My, was he surprised."
"Ho-ho-hoo!" Bugenhagen circled John. It was both cute and unnerving.
"You asked why Aeris was upset. I talked with her about her Cetra heritage. She got upset when I told her she was the last of her kind."
"Nestor seems to think there are more of them. Else, why develop a disease to kill them off?"
"That does bear consideration. I was unaware of this when I talked with Aeris. She told me she couldn't be the last Cetra, because she had found you. Alas, I had to tell her. You, John are not a Cetra."
"So that's why she's upset. She's feeling alone. I can't blame her, because I--" Oh-oh. John looked at Bugenhagen. "So, what is the rest of the story?"
"You can see Cloud's aura?" Ho-ho-hoo, you must be very sensitive to pick that one out. I believe he was one of Hojo's later experiments, injected with Jenova cells."
John opened his mouth to speak, but just stared at the floating man, the implication finally sinking in.
"No . . . "
"I am all alone in the world," Aeris was telling Cloud. "I'm the last of the Cetra."
"We're here for you," Cloud said. "You have us."
Aeris looked worse than John felt. "But I'm the only . . . Cetra." She stared through the fire, not even acknowledging Barret when he declared Avalanche to be reborn. Tifa reached over and hugged Aeris. John, meanwhile, lay where he had slumped to the ground earlier, a bit too close to the fire for comfort. He felt as if his brain had been buffed with a brick.
Bugenhagen drifted in; John became aware of the conversation. Nanaki was cursing his father, calling him a coward. This was angst central.
They were forming an expedition party. Yuffie, having sat with a bored look on her face the whole time, leaped to her feet and insisted on accompanying Cloud and Nanaki. Cloud glanced once at Tifa, then motioned his crew onward. Bugenhagen floated on ahead.
"Gee Spike," John muttered. "How many years has she been pining for you? Fine. Don't notice."
He closed his eyes and rolled onto his back. Sleep was nature's best tonic.
John awoke under a blanket and straw hat, in the back seat of the six-wheeled buggy. It was early afternoon, so he pulled the hat brim lower. The others were just climbing back in, breathing heavily. Yuffie sprang in next to him, flushed with effort.
"I just love these new health and energy materia I bought. Really puts spice into a fight."
"Health and energy? Like Granola bars?"
"Speaking of health, how are you feeling? We figured you got sick from eating all those bugs. Well, duh. Gross! What do you expect? Anyway, Aeris wanted to bring you along. They put me in the back seat because I get sick as a rat in vehicles and they would rather I barf out the back than down someone's neck."
"Rats don't vomit, Yuffie," Nanaki said.
"Okay, sick as a dog, then."
The bean bag John had been leaning against spoke. "Hi. I'm Cait Sith. Would you like me to read your fortune?"
Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Less useful than a Wutai fortune cookie."
"Go ahead." John spoke in a monotone. "Not as if it can be any worse than the truth."
"Okay. Here goes!"
The wibble wobble of the beast rocked John like a baby in a cradle.
"Here it is. 'Your whole valley is green.' Technically correct, but let's try again."
Wibble wobble wibble wobble wibble wobble.
"Today is the first day of--"
"The rest of my life. Yea, yea."
"Oh, let me try one more."
Wibble wobble wibble wobble wibble wobble.
"Keep that up and you'll make me seasick," John said.
"Your greatest success will be your greatest failure. Your greatest failure will be your greatest success."
"Now that sounds more like me."
"All settled, guys?" Tifa asked. "Just one more hour to Nibelheim."
Yuffie moaned. John pulled his hat over his face and went back to sleep.
It was twilight when the buggy eased to a stop near a row of Tudor-style houses. John slowly rose, nudging the bulk of Cait Sith off his body.
"Hey Cloud," Barret said, with that 'everyone watch out or I'll start shooting' look on his face. "I thought you said the town burned down. You didn't just say that to get our sympathy, did you?"
"It . . . did. I don't understand." Cloud stared at a house on the end of the block. He started toward it, ignoring the others. "Mother?"
Tifa walked up and took his hand. Together they walked to the door. Cloud paused for a minute on the doorstep, looking around with forlorn eyes. He went inside.
John glanced around the town. Seeing the others fan out towards the shops and restaurants, he followed Cloud and Tifa instead. Nanaki padded after him.
"I grew up here. I spent fourteen years of my life in this house," Cloud was saying.
"Get out. I've never seen you before in my life." The woman looked barely older than Cloud himself, and bore no resemblance.
"This house. It burned down when Sephiroth--"
"Nonsense. This house has stood here as long as I remember."
John eased closer, placing his palms on the wood paneled walls. Nanaki came up beside him, giving a puzzled look.
"Who are you? And what is that . . . creature?"
"I am Nanaki, son of Seto. I am the guardian of Cosmo Canyon." John could hear newfound pride in his voice.
Nanaki rolled his eyes.
"People say that to me too," John whispered. "And I also get tired of it."
"All of you, just leave," the woman said.
"This house is four and a half years old," John said. He stepped to the coat closet door. "Someone went to a lot of effort to false age the wood, though." He opened the door. He jumped back.
Inside, a black-robed figure moaned.
"Must . . . get to . . . Sephiroth."
"Is he your husband?" John asked the woman.
She did not appear perturbed. The cloaked figure wobbled out.
"Jenova . . . reunion."
John was not becoming fond of that name. Cloud stood, eyes glazed, as if his mind were in a blender. Tifa approached the woman.
"Cloud is right," Tifa said. "I lived next door to him. After Cloud left to join SOLDIER, Raine would bring by her special peach pie."
"Raine, Cloud," Nanaki said. "I like it."
"Must . . . go to . . . reunion."
John had to sit down before his brain resembled Cloud's. He walked over and sat himself on the stone floor of the dinette.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the woman said. "I've never seen any of you before."
Tifa tried to hide her exasperation as she went to comfort Cloud. John doubted he noticed her.
"Seph-ir-oth, lead us . . to the . . . promised--" The robed figure crashed into a lamp stand. John sighed and leaned on his hands.
"Cloud?" The blonde woman stood on the stone floor, looking at a younger Cloud lying on the bed. "Just remember." She looked down, and back up. "I'll always be your mother, Cloud."
John blinked, shifting his weight. He traced the cobblestones in the floor. There, faint in the crack, a hint of soot.
Heat. The blast ripped through the roof and rafters like hot lead through a squash. The blonde woman--Raine?--who had been stoking the morning fire looked up to see burning wood and rafters tumbling toward her. With a shriek she threw herself forward, taking the impact on her legs instead of her head. She growled, trying to pull herself free, when a thick crossbeam crashed onto her shoulders.
John peered down. Raine's face, covered with soot and sweat, contorted with pain. Her blue eyes opened wide. Her struggling stilled.
"Who are you?"
John tried to move the fallen beam, but his hands and body passed through it. He howled in frustration.
"Are you one of Cloud's friends?"
John stopped, looked down and nodded.
"Tell him for me." Raine's eyes teared up. The room, unbearably hot, was filling with smoke. "Tell him . . . I love him." Raine coughed. "Tell him, I love him, and I'll always be proud of him."
John nodded again, and brightened.
"Hold on. Don't die. Hold on, okay?"
He rushed toward the door, hoping to sail through it as he had the beam. Its solidity hit him with bone rattling force. He screamed, pounded, rammed it. Then, realizing precious seconds were leaking away, he found the handle and opened it. Beyond, flames raged in the whole town.
John jerked his gaze around, spotting a man in a blue Shinra uniform lying on the ground. John prayed he was alive.
"Over here! A woman. She needs your help! She's trapped under a beam!"
Yet even as he spoke, the words seemed to warp away in the air. He tried to run forward, but the air pulled around him like glue. Still, he struggled on, until the world swirled away in a fiery kaleidoscope.
When he opened his eyes, he saw only stars.
"You all right?"
John found himself in the back seat of the buggy. He turned his head and saw the silhouette of Tifa.
"You lost it in there. Scared us all. We thought you would tear the door down to get out. Then that lady chased us out with a broom."
Clunk. Clunk. The two of them looked toward the row of houses. A robed figure walked into a paneled fence.
"Must," clunk, "get to," clunk, "Sephir--" Whack! The figure stepped on an upturned rake, the handle smacking him in the forehead. He collapsed.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Tifa said.
"A vision. I just need to take my meds." John smelled his sleeve. Smoke and soot. "I tried to save her, Tifa. In a vision, years old I suspect. A friend once told me it's foolish and impossible to try altering history in one of my visions. It doesn't stop me from trying, though."
"What did you see?"
"Her. Raine. Pretty, nice, concerned. She'd still be alive if she'd been standing two feet to the left. She wanted me to tell her son--" John took a deep breath, gathering his composure. Still, his eyes blurred. He tried to sit up, but cried out as a sharp pain lanced through his ribs.
"Easy. The door, remember?" Tifa touched a green gem on her armlet. Green light glowed around her and John felt the warmth ease his aches away. "Rest. I'm going to join the others in the Shinra mansion. You can tell Cloud about his mother when we come out. I'm sure he will want to hear."
John watched as Tifa jogged across the town square to an imposing gray house. He almost nodded off, but remembered sometimes he could slip into another vision. He didn't want another dose of unreality this soon.
He climbed out, brought a soft drink at the drugstore, swallowed his pills with a fizzy gulp, and set out to wander the town.
Near the gates of the mansion, two more robed guys mumbled about Sephiroth and Jenova. A third appeared from behind a truck, mumbling about sparing some change. John dug out a five gil piece before turning his attention to the Shinra mansion, where he heard sound of combat from an upper story window. Gunfire, swearing, flashing of fire spells.
"If I can't help, maybe at least I'll stay out of the way."
With that, he ran up the path to the house. Inside, he avoided most of the bizarre creatures who accosted him. A few floating pumpkin heads breathed a pink gas on him that, had he not been bumping into walls and tripping over loose carpets anyway, would have stirred his mind into rainbow sherbet. Once out in the main hall, he was nearly cleaved by a half-man, half pendulum hanging from a chain. How the hell did that fit in with the local ecology? John dodged, but the hanging guy pivoted for another pass, nicking him in the shoulder. John backed up, snatching a nearby broken lampstand for defense. He noticed several deep gouges in the wood; apparently someone had used this before for the same purpose. He advanced, keeping his eyes on pendulum guy.
"I don't suppose you would simply let me pass," John said. "I mean you no harm."
The guy pirouetted on his chain, lifted one arm and extended his middle finger.
"All righty then." John narrowed his eyes, concentrating on the chain, willing it to snap. He wanted the guy to try crawling across the floor, dragging his pendulum bottom. Instead, he heard a scraping sound behind him and something struck the back of his knees. John found himself sitting in a low wooden chair, watching Mr. Pendulum swung for him, passing mere centimeters over his head.
John twisted sideways to avoid the backslash. The chair tumbled, righting itself after John bounced to his feet. The creature attacked again. John raced for the stairs, where he threw himself behind the banister railing. The chair slid around after him, leaving the pendulum blade to slice a wayward floating pumpkin in half. Pink gas billowed out; John waved it away and scrambled up the stairs. He heard a bump-bump-bump behind him. Looking back, he saw his pet chair had bounced up the stairs behind him, and now sat giving that smug look many chairs often gave.
"You've got to be kidding." Still buzzing from the pink pumpkin gas, he finished climbing the stairs, stopping on the landing when he heard the chairlegs scrape along the wooden floor.
"Stop!" He glared at the chair. The chair looked hurt.
"I do not want another pet." He showed his arms. "I still have scars from Fluffy. So, stay here."
The chair allowed him to continue into a room he thought the commotion had come from. He found various unidentifiable monster parts on the floor. A safe with its door hanging open sat in the corner. The air smelled of blood and ozone.
From here it was easy to follow the party's steps. They left a trail of monster goo and corpses--mostly those pumpkin things, but he also found twisted metal balances and shattered mirrors. Strange. A few floating pumpkins remained to blow their breath at him. John ignored them. When his pet chair shifted when he walked near the landing, John shook his finger at it and continuted on his way.
The trail of destruction led to a wall. Pushing against the stonework revealed a spiral staircase, sounds of combat drifting up from below. The stairs themselves sported bloody dead bats the size of terriers. This place was worse than haunted; it was infested. More dead bats lay in a heap at the bottom. The sounds of combat grew clearer. The crackle of bolt spells, rattle of Barret's gun, the whoops of Tifa as she karate-chopped and kicked at whatever unfortunate creature had considered her a midnight snack.
More spells. More shots. More curses. As John crept around the corner, he heard a watery voice say, "Yang is excited."
Barret's voice replied, "I'll show you excited, you damn zombie freak."
The gunfire sounded like a marching band falling down the stairs.
Barret stood braced against a wall, shooting into an alcove. Cait Sith's ridiculous body lay upended farther down.
John peered into the nook. The crew were fighting a huge double-headed zombie thing. One head hung limp from its neck, while the other one still blazed with fiery eyes. Its limbs snapped in wild contortions, making the body stumble about like a drunk gymnast. Tifa pounded and kicked away to little visible effect. Aeris leapt in and swung her staff. It connected with a satisfying ching across the monster's chest. Cloud leaned against the alcove's wall while Yuffie cast a healing spell on him. Nanaki dashed to and fro, trying to knock loose the spindly legs.
"Yang is excited." It flung a wrist and a white ball exploded into ice shards in Barret's face. He swore, falling hard onto his side. The green glow of healing magic soon wrapped his body.
Yang staggered forward, but then flung its torso back into a hoop shape, nearly scraping its skulls on the ground. What was this, aerobic exercise beyond the grave, proving rigor mortis need not be an end to all fun? Leading everyone in a song, "I'm a little croquet wicket?" Don't you try that, Tifa, or you'll never get your hair untangled.
Aeris clocked Yang with her staff again. A shuriken the size of a garbage can lid sliced into a withered thigh, then flew back to Yuffie. How does she catch that thing?
Yang lurched forward so hard it almost cracked its heads on far wall. Straightening, it sent a bolt at Cloud, whose sword made the perfect lightning rod. Blue sparks shot up his spikes. Hmm. So that's how he does his hair.
"Yang is happy."
A monster with a mood ring. How quaint. No need for self help books here. Tifa apparently did not share its jocular mood; she kicked it hard in the shin. The crack of bone echoed through the room. Aeris, Tifa, Nanaki and a still sparking Cloud closed in for the kill.
Yang made no effort to stop them. It's eyes glowed brighter and brighter--
"Duck!" John screamed and flung himself around the corner. Yuffie followed his lead around the opposite corner.
The explosion shook sand from the ceiling all the way down the corridor. Dirt and body parts flew--hopefully those of that Yang thing.
When it was over, Barret lifted his arm from his head, only to find Aeris draped limp across his legs.
"Oh Aeris . . . " Tifa, battered and bleeding herself, ran over to her fallen comrade. John saw Cloud with a poleaxed expression on his face as he tried to wrench his sword from where it had embedded itself in the ceiling.
"Barret, don't move. Oh God Aeris. Is her neck broken? Someone help. Get some materia--"
"I have a Revive." Yuffie rushed over holding her mega-shuriken. Green light blazed around the fallen Cetra.
"I have a phoenix down," Tifa said. "Here, lift her head, Barret. Come on, come on, come on, Aeris. Come back to us--"
"Aeris?" Cloud still looked as if he had walked into a train.
Nanaki bounded in from the other hallway. "How is she?"
Yuffie hit Aeris with another spell. Her body twitched. She coughed, spitting up some blood. Just another stain on that pink dress. She was going to need some quality shopping time once she got out of this house.
"Aeris?" Cloud said again. "She all right?" He looked at his sword as if it had morphed into a soup spoon.
"She needs rest," Tifa said. "I'll take her back to the inn. You carry on here."
Cloud stood watching the two leave, looking like a boy watching a departing hearse. Then he snapped to his senses. "Wait. I'll escort you through the house."
"Thanks," Tifa said over her shoulder, cutting off any "Don't worry, we'll be all right" from Aeris.
John meanwhile, wanted to see what the fight was about. Stepping over zombie fragments, he found a room with a glowing purple coffin in its center. Frowning, he started to approach when a dark form screeched down from above.
"Hey!" He backed against the wall, fending off the creature intent on inserting its snout into his flesh. "Overgrown mosquito, back off!" He grabbed the proboscis and twisted. A cracking sound mingled with the creature's shriek. John threw up his arms, receiving deep gashes as it raked with its wing claws. Another bat thing jabbed his shoulder. John twisted aside with a yell. He punched the bat in front of him, actually knocking it away, only to have a third take its place.
"This place is nuts!"
A pair of red jaws snatched the newcomer out of the air. Nanaki spat it out, turned and swiped away to John's right.
"Thanks." John looked around for more. Satisfied, he said, "You can say it. This is no place for little boys."
Nanaki looked at him. "Interesting. I would have thought--never mind."
John just shrugged. "Think there's a vampire in there?"
At this, the coffin lid slid aside, allowing a red and black cloaked figure to levitate to its feet. It had perfectly acceptable glowing red eyes and a metal claw for a left hand.
"Who disturbs my rest?" said a deep, annoyed voice.
"Classic vampire line," John said. "Get some garlic, Nanaki."
"I am not a vampire."
"Ah. I see. How foolish of me. After all, living in a dungeon of a haunted hell house, sleeping in a coffin guarded by bloodsucking bats, hovering in the air in your billowing cape, peering at me with red glowing eyes? I don't see how the word 'vampire' even entered my mind."
The vampire-in-denial ignored him. He looked at Nanaki. "Is this your pet?"
Nanaki stiffened. "I am Nanaki, son of Seto, protector of Cosmo Canyon. Who might you be?"
"Vincent." With that, he settled into his coffin, followed by the lid, which levitated neatly into place.
"Not chatty, is he?" John said.
"Perhaps we should wait for Cloud and Tifa to return," Nanaki said.
John shrugged. "To think, all those times people accused me of being a vampire. My eyes are pink, albeit not red, and my skin is bone white. I can't take much sunlight. I don't drink blood, but I am fond of tomato juice."
Barret stuck his head in. "Yuffie and I got Cait working again. Who are you talking to?"
John left Nanaki to the explanation. He didn't think Barret liked him, and besides he was feeling claustrophobic. He walked out and waved at Yuffie and Cait Sith.
"So, live around here often?"
"This place is gross," Yuffie said.
"Do you know what's down that hall?"
"A door. Beyond that, probably something gross." She limbered her shuriken. "Nothing I can't handle."
John felt a strange compulsion to open that door.
"Mind if I take a look?"
"Suit yourself. I owe you for that warning. You fought one of those zombie dorks before?"
"First time. Quite the performer though. Zombie pretzel." He walked down to the door.
Yuffie said, "You let me know if you find any materia in there, okay?"
John found himself inside a combination lab and library. Two vertical fish tanks filled with green liquid glowed in the room's corner. He ignored them and turned into a bookcase lined hall.
A man with waist-length silver hair, a black cloak and a long curved sword, thumbed through a stack of books. He threw the one he was reading aside and pulled another from the shelf.
"Read any good books lately?"
The figure whirled. Apparently he wasn't surprised often. He looked almost embarrassed for it. He had green eyes like Aeris, but devoid of any warmth or kindness. His hair, strangely enough, formed Aeris-like bangs in front (How did they get hair to do that?), but above it all, John could pick out a pale blue aura.
"You are not my mother," the man said, voice flat.
"I'm surrounded by rocket scientists today." John began to pace. "What was your first clue?"
"The reunion is not for you. You do not belong."
"You must be Sephiroth. A lot of people are looking for you."
"Why are you here? Why torment me? Did Mother send you?"
John had a feeling this question carried the same weight as 'Are you a god?'
"In a way." He recalled his earlier, fiery vision. "Why did you kill Cloud's mother?"
"Cloud Strife?" Sephiroth began to laugh. "He told you he has a mother?"
"Of course he has a mother. Everyone has one. Except for me, of course, unless you count the Wonders of Modern Science."
Sephiroth snatched his sword and turned toward him. The blade cut through the air like a whip.
"Hey, don't get all testy. I'm just saying--"
"You will not stop me! Mother and I will take back the Planet from those traitors, those humans. You will not stop me from reaching the Promised Land." He drew his sword back, but in their narrow confines it slashed the spines of a row of books before wedging its end in solid wood.
"Will you calm down? Maybe I should hang out with you. Next to you, I feel downright sane."
"Why? Why are you here? Mother . . ."
"Maybe that's why. Give me your hand, and I'll find your mother." John cringed, remembering one other time, long ago, when he had tried this. The answer revealed a host of truths better left buried. Still, the knowledge had saved him. Now, as for this freak--ugh! John's eyes bugged out at what he saw beyond Sephiroth. A purplish, one-armed, headless female torso lay propped against the wall.
"Geez! Most psychos are content to leave their mother in the freezer. You carry that thing around like monogrammed luggage?"
Sephiroth wrenched his sword free and advanced. John stepped back.
"Nice, uhm, hair. You must go through gallons of conditioner. How long does it take you to comb the tangles out?"
They were now in the lab. With room to move, Sephiroth pulled his sword back for a strike. He seemed in no hurry. He smiled. It was the smile of a man who carried his mother's torso under his arm to all public functions and wondered what the big deal was.
John was running out of options. He noted the buzzing inside. Maybe it would do no good, but, why not?
"Eat Funny Breath." John blew a hot pink cloud over Sephiroth, who started bumping into furniture like his fan club members outside. John began to turn toward the door when something hard clunked off his ribs.
"Ow!" He scooped up the blue sphere. "Why are you throwing marbles at me?"
He pocketed the orb and hurried through the door.
Back at the vampire alcove, Cloud and Tifa had returned. Vincent was still in his coffin. The guy must be the life of the party.
"How are you doing?" John asked Tifa.
"Holding up." She pressed a hand to her side. "Nothing a few cure spells won't fix. And Aeris, she was actually more worried about me." She winced, and continued. "I had to assure her I wasn't on death's door before she would let me leave." She looked at Cloud, a faraway look in her eyes. "Maybe I should have stayed with her."
"Have you told him how you feel about him?" John glanced at Cloud.
Tifa blushed. "My, you're forward. Like Aeris."
"What's the worst that could happen?"
Tifa set her teeth but did not reply.
"In any case, at least you'd know. But I think--"
"Jenova!" The coffin lid clattered to the ground.
"Huh?" John turned to Vincent, who hovered in the doorway next to Cloud.
Vincent pointed his metal claw at John. "Jenova."
Sigh. "The name's John. I know both start with the letter J, and contain many of the same letters, but--"
"You carry the scent, the aura."
"Oh brother." John squinted at the vampire. Sure enough, a pale blue aura sprang into view, stronger than Cloud's but weaker than Sephiroth's.
"I see it too," Cloud said. "I didn't realize it before, but it's strong. It's . . . an abomination."
"You guys, there's nothing wrong with the color blue," John said.
Cloud drew his sword and advanced. John could sense the waves of pain rolling off him. He pulled his own mind in tight.
"Kind of like the sky calling the ocean blue, isn't it? After all, both you and Vinnie here have the blue aura."
"Vincent." He drew a shotgun and pointed it at John's chest. John raised his hands.
Barret flanked Cloud's other side, gun arm drawn. Tifa backed away, looking shocked but unsure. Yuffie stood with a sad expression. Cait Sith simply looked goofy. Nanaki, now where was that critter? Sneaking around behind to tear his throat out? My, my. Things had gone to hell in a flash.
"Sorry," John said. "It's just, I once knew a vampire named Vinnie."
"I am not a vampire!"
"Sure, and I also knew a Vinnie who was a seven-foot tall amazon who one day decided she was a lawyer. Thing was, she wore the bare minimum of clothing--"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Barret said.
"Simple. Not all vampires are named Vinnie, and not all Vinnies are vampires. Here we have a perfect example of someone who is not named Vinnie, and what do you know, he is not a vampire."
"Can we ice this goddamn Jenova freak?"
"Wait!" John held out his hand. "I don't want to fight you."
"Because we'll kick your sorry butt."
"Yes, but I'm not your enemy. I've only been on this planet about a year. I have nothing to do with the Jenova thing your buddy Sephiroth is carrying around with him."
"Sephiroth?" Cloud and Vincent said together.
"Yea, he's back in that lab at the end of the hall, reading bedtime stories to his dead mother."
Cloud whirled around, then turned back. "You talked to him?"
"He was strange, but unlike his brethren outdoors, he can chew his food without help. He spouted a bunch of megalomania crap, taking back the Planet for his mother, yadda-yadda-yadda, and when I told him I never had a mother--being a home grown lab clone--he got all indignant and started waving that long-ass sword around. I felt it better to leave."
"You survived?" Nanaki walked out of the alcove and stood next to Tifa. "You went up against Sephiroth and lived?"
"We didn't fight. Traded insults, maybe."
Cloud spoke up. "Do you deny you're a Jenova?"
John took a deep breath. "No. But I didn't know until I was in Cosmo Canyon. Bugenhagen told me."
Nanaki nodded. A thought dawned. Bugenhagen told you too, you sneaky beastie. John smiled, and Nanaki nodded in response.
"We don't have time to deal with you now," Cloud said. "We are after Sephiroth."
"Are you going to challenge him?"
"I have a score to settle with him. But we can not have another Jenova trotting around. So I'm asking you to leave. Go away, and stay out of our way. Do not interfere. If you do, we will kill you. Understand?"
"I still don't trust him," Barret said.
"Nor do I. But if we fight him with Sephiroth at our backs . . . "
"I'll leave," John said.
"And stay away from Aeris."
"What does Aeris have to do with it?"
"Stay away from her. If you harm her, or even step one foot inside her room, I'll kill you. Do we understand each other?"
No, we don't understand each other, you spikey-haired--
John nodded. "I'm sorry," he said. To Tifa, he said, "I'm truly sorry."
He turned and trudged down the hall.
"Fascinating," Cait Sith said behind him. "Another Jenova."
John turned at that, giving the cat creature a hard look. He opened his mouth at a realization, but shut it and continued his walk. Reeve, you sneaky devil. He knew there was something up with that cat. Maybe he should tell the group. No, they didn't deserve it. They'd learn soon enough, anyway.
John figured one short visit with Aeris couldn't hurt. If Cloud wanted to hunt him down and kill him, so be it. For now, he doubted the guy would deviate from his Sephiroth obsession.
"John, how are you?" Aeris sat propped up in her bed, a tray of soup and bread on her lap.
"I've been better."
"Oh no. Are you hurt?"
"Scratches here and there." John stared at the floor.
"They found out, didn't they?"
John snapped his head up. "You know?"
Aeris smiled. "After you came down so upset at Cosmo Canyon? I noticed your aura matched Cloud's. And I was told I was the last Cetra . . . "
"At least I know what I am." He walked to the window. "What the heck is a Jenova, anyway?"
"My mother would be able to tell you."
"I take it she is unavailable?"
"She died when I was seven. Right after we escaped from Hojo's lab."
"Too bad. I would have like to meet her."
"She would have liked you."
"I don't know. I'm not sure of myself." He turned back to her. "When I was in that basement, when it looked like Cloud, Vincent and Barret were going to attack me, part of me was wanting to duel them. I could feel it rise in me. The thrill. The excitement. I hate to admit it, but it was there."
"But you didn't fight."
"No but if I had . . . "
John laughed. "I didn't have a weapon. Besides, Sephiroth distracted them. If I hadn't told them about him, I'd be dog food by now."
"See? You distracted them, so you wouldn't have to fight them. And don't forget you faced Sephiroth alone."
"He wasn't interested in me. If he had been serious . . . let's just say today I would have a hard time outsmarting a chair."
"Oh John. Give yourself some credit."
"Okay." John sat on her bed, careful not to upset her soup bowl. "But, Aeris?"
She reached over and took his hand.
"I'm not scared of being alone," he said. "I like solitude, to a point. I'm scared of what I might be, or might become. Sure, I'm a cute little goofy kid now, but what if I turn into one of those green monsters, like Hojo did in his lab? I feel like I have a 666 tattooed on my head."
"Ancient myth from another world. It was supposedly the mark of the Beast. Bad luck to have it, all in all."
"We all have the Beast inside us," Aeris said.
"You'd be surprised."
John thought about this. He supposed she was right.
"Tell you what. If you are going out alone, you will need some supplies. There's a spare armlet over there. Do you have a weapon?"
"You mean, something people can take away and hit me with?"
"Hmm, good point. How about materia. Can you use it?"
"With practice, I suppose."
"I have an extra Restore materia in my satchel. You can have it. When you need healing, concentrate on it and you will cast a Cure spell."
"Thank you." He got up, slipped on the armband and, feeling self-conscious, rooted in her bag until he found the green sphere. He held it up.
"Yes. That's the one."
He closed her bag. He clicked the materia into a slot on his armlet and turned back to Aeris.
"There's something I need to tell you before I go."
"When I was in Cloud's old house, or the replica, at any rate, I had a vision. Raine, Cloud's mother? I saw her die. But she gave me a message." He related his experience, including his doomed attempt to save her. "I wanted to tell him what she said, but I didn't get the chance."
"I'll tell him. And I think it's sweet you tried to save her."
"That's me. Sweet but futile."
"No, really. Suppose it had worked. Think of how good you'd feel."
"You're going to make me feel gooey inside . . . "
"Did it feel like the right thing to do?"
"Then do it. Don't be deterred just because it's impossible."
"Sure. Impossibility is just one of life's obstacles, like death and taxes."
Aeris giggled. "Come here."
John wondered if he was going to get a good-bye kiss. Instead, Aeris took his hand and bowed her head. A warm breeze blew through the room, ruffling the curtains. Soothing blue light flickered around them. John felt refreshed, and charged. Aeris' color looked better too.
"Here. I'll put your soup tray on the desk. You get some rest. While it may be good for your complexion, noodles don't feel good when they wiggle down your neck."
Aeris smiled as she lay her head back on the pillow. "Goodbye, John, and good luck. Though I feel we'll be seeing you again."
"Let's hope it's not on the end of Cloud's sword."
The sky was brightening with approaching dawn. John did not want to face the start of his trip in daylight, so he looked for a place to hole up. The inn was out. John looked at Cloud's old house. Much as he would like another chat with Raine, he had worn out his welcome with the current resident.
The taller house next door. Hadn't Tifa said that was hers? Couldn't hurt to peek inside.
He crept to the door, glancing around to see if anyone was watching. Nothing but the buggy. The door was unlocked. The living room empty. Pale light shone through the large windows. Before heading upstairs, he peeked into the kitchen.
Two black robed figures bobbed about in front of the stove.
John sighed. "I don't suppose you two live here?"
"Sephiroth . . . left us . . . over the mountain."
"Must get . . . to reunion."
John rolled his eyes and left the room. He could have a more intellectual conversation with a soup ladle.
Upstairs, John found two bedrooms. One was immaculate, from the quilted canopy beds to the antique furniture and ornate area rug. A robed figure stood staring into the bureau mirror.
"Must . . . get to--"
John shut the door.
The other bedroom was also tidy, but at least showed some latent signs of life. This had been the home of a shy teenage girl.
"Tifa," John said to no one in particular. Apparently this house hadn't burned down like the others. And Tifa had some good housekeepers, even if she didn't realize it. Maybe the robed droolers had day jobs.
John found himself seated before an upright piano. He let his fingers wander over the keys, warming up with simple melodies. He was no concert pianist, but he could play along with anything he could sing. And since his guitar was currently in several pieces back in a Midgar dumpster, this was the only music available.
Time passed. Music was nature's time warp and mind tonic for John; sometimes his escape was so complete he didn't realize he had an audience until they clapped. This time, there was no applause; he merely became aware of a presence behind him when he stooped to pick up a letter that had fluttered from the sheet music. At some point, he must have opened the window for air.
John felt, rather than heard, the figure unfold from its crouched position on the sill. Downstairs, someone bumped into a wall.
"Doesn't the daylight bother you?"
"I'm not a vampire." The presence stood right behind him. John felt too sluggish to be afraid.
"I believe you were told to stay away from Aeris," the sepulchral voice said.
"Don't see Aeris around here."
A metal claw settled on his left shoulder. "Turn around, Jenova."
John lifted his legs and swiveled on the bench. The bright light framed Vincent, making him appear only as a black silhouette.
"Ugh," John said. "Can you draw the drapes? Maybe sunlight doesn't bother you, but it's blinding me."
The silhouette shrugged, then pulled the curtain shut.
Vincent stared, but said nothing.
"So, did Cloud send you so he wouldn't have to get his sword dirty?"
The blow came so fast John didn't see it. The next instant, he was lying on the floor staring at the ceiling. Not-a-vampire Vincent towered over him, red eyes glowing and red cape billowing. His feet hovered just off the ground.
"Killing me will not save Lucrecia," John said calmly.
Vincent lunged so fast John saw only the last fifteen minutes of his life flash before his eyes. Vincent did not strike him, however. He merely held his face a thumb's breadth away from John's. The expression there was not fiery rage, more like frozen pain.
John returned the stare. He heard Vincent's voice from far away.
"Don't. Ever. Reach. Into my mind. Again. Jenova."
John mentally pulled back as tightly as he could. Hopefully Vincent would notice. He wanted to say it was not his fault, that he had great difficulty controlling his so-called talents, especially under stress with physical contact, but John saw the pain in the man's eyes, could almost feel it in his own heart, as if he'd swallowed a brick.
"I'm sorry," John whispered. "For everything."
How easy it would be for Vincent to draw that metal claw across John's neck. Not the most heroic death, bleeding out in Tifa's old bedroom with a troop of head bumping robed minions for company. Vincent looked ready to kill. But he merely raised himself to his feet and turned away.
"Cloud did not send me. I needed to face a Jenova alone."
John said nothing, not wanting to change Vincent's mind about leaving him here alive. John was sure that hadn't been Vinnie's original plan.
"That song you were singing. What was it?"
"'The Song of My Returning.' It's a folk song from--" he stopped, recalling Aeris telling him not to let impossibility stop him from success. He shut his mouth.
Vincent didn't move, didn't speak.
John sat up. He noticed the papers clenched in his hand, a letter and a pamphlet. The second looked like an instruction manual, something to do with martial arts. John skimmed the letter. It was written by someone named Zangan, explaining to Tifa how he had found her nearly dead and carried her back to town to save her. John caught a glimpse of a wicked sword slash across her chest.
"Ouch," he said, squinting his eyes shut. When he opened them, Vincent was staring at him.
"Excuse me," John said. "Can you take these to Tifa? I'm sure she will want them."
Vincent said nothing. Finally he shrugged and held out his hand. After taking the papers, he stepped to the window, slipped through the curtains and glided away without a sound.
"What a daymare." John rubbed his knuckles into his temples. No help for it. Best to get some sleep. He flopped on top of Tifa's bed and passed into oblivion.
Nestor walked down the creaky stairs, expecting yet another tedious speech about the Promised Land. Hojo had spouted dozens of these during Nestor's visit at Costa Del Sol; Nestor had paid more attention to the young females rubbing lotion on the scientist's pasty body. Nestor imagined luring a pair of them into a secluded area. To hell with science; he didn't need to experiment. He knew how to make them scream.
"Over here, hee-hee, I have stored the remnants of the Nibelheim disaster. Not any decent subjects left, after my two prizes escaped. What do I have to do to keep them docile? The Ancients will lead us to the Promised Land where--"
"I believe I've seen this movie before?"
"The subject. The last subject."
"Ah. The Ancient, right?"
The last time Hojo had said that, Nestor had been treated to a three hour journey through the world of impressionist art. Turned out Hojo had a sensitive soul. To vent his mad scientist energy, he toiled to bring his artistic side to life. Dozen of canvasses decorated the upper floors of this house. Hojo had given them names like "And the Ancients Shall Lead Shinra to the Promised Land," while Nestor had thought "Yet Another Jumble of Random Squiggles" would be more descriptive.
"The last subject of Nibelheim. The new hope of the human race."
"The subject is a human female, thirty-six years old at the time of death due to blunt force trauma and smoke inhalation. Nevertheless, I infused the body with mako and injected two sets of Jenova cells. I was hoping the regenerative power of Jenova would revive the body. The mind is probably gone forever, but this was a preliminary trial. Those details could be worked out later. Imagine an army of SOLDIERs being revived to fight again? Shinra would be invincible."
"I thought Shinra was already invincible."
"It is! Hee-hee, but this would make it more invincible."
Nestor didn't argue the point. He knew now that to interrupt Hojo during a rant could spawn a jungle of meandering side-rants that could reduce him to slamming his own head against the nearest brick wall, only to wake up finding an entire week had passed. So Nestor smiled and listened.
"Sad to say, I was not successful in restoring life to the subject. However, I did arrest the process of deterioration. Look." Hojo flipped some switches and the transparent cover of the capsule slid aside. "Feel the softness of her flesh, hee-hee." Hojo drew his finger around the dead woman's chin.
Nestor did not want to dwell on Hojo's other uses for the body.
"However," Hojo flipped his greasy mop of hair out of his eyes. "My Jenova samples were centuries old. Now that we have a young, fresh Jenova, I want to start the project again. Only this time, I will try a blend of Cetra cells--"
"You have Cetra cells?"
"Of course. I took them off the Ancient Ifalna before she escaped. I also have some from her daughter, but those are less useful, given that she is not a pure Cetra."
"May I see them?"
"Yes. I find this all fascinating."
"I only have a small sample here. The bulk is in storage off-site. Hee-hee, you never know, just when you need them." Hojo opened a small canister, pulling out a glass vial. "Ah, from my endangered species collection. Isn't it lovely? Say, do you know how much work goes into collecting one of these?"
Nestor did not and had no desire to hear about it. He brought around an electromag rod, shoved it into Hojo's ribs and dispatched the scientist to an hour of dreamland. He caught the vial before it slipped from the man's limp hand. Stepping over Hojo, he hurried for the exit. He had to get back to his own lab in Midgar to perfect the next sample. If he couldn't track down the boy Cetra, the living cells would have to suffice for the test. Though he guessed he would track the boy anyway. He owed the young Cetra a favor.
Hojo awoke half an hour later, wondering what he was doing lying on the floor. Where was that strange gentleman, anyway? He seemed so interested in his specimens. Rarely did Hojo meet anyone with such a scientific bent.
What was this? His fingers found a vial label on the floor. Ah, now he remembered. He was just about to show--where was that vial? Had the man stolen it? Thief! Was everybody out to ruin his life's work? Why didn't anyone appreciate how much work went into tracking down a specimen like that?
Nothing for it now. Hojo verified nothing else was missing, then moved to straighten the lab for his next round of experiments. He needed that fresh Jenova. Where was he? He sat back to plan. His brilliant mind would come up with something. He walked back to the subject, staring at her with longing before shutting her capsule. He then returned to his specimen canister. After verifying the existence of the vial labeled "Cetra - Ifalna - pineal extract C," he closed the vessel and recessed it into the cabinet.
"Now, to track down that fresh Jenova." He headed upstairs to place a call to the Turks. He palmed the vial label in his hand. Curse that amateur Nestor. Did he think it was easy to find such a sample? He tossed the label down in disgust. It read, "Northern Albino Ground Squirrel - Chameleon Gland Extract."
With a swift backhand of the aurora rod, Aeris dispatched the giant green cricket thing to the great chirping night in the sky. Two others leapt upon the young Cetra, but both times she twisted to the side and brought her rod around to crack the insects across the back. She kicked the carcasses out of her way. The last two steroided crickets tried to catch her by surprise, but she was ready. The first one she blocked so hard it sent the top of the innocent looking staff right through the carapace. The remaining bug got a couple good licks in before Aeris could debug her weapon. Finally she spun about and brought her staff down across the remaining cricket with a satisfying ring. Every dental filling in the rapt audience chimed along with the blow.
"Excellent," the referee named Dio said. The insect corpses flickered and vanished. "Care to continue?"
Aeris, though sweat drenched and limping, clearly said, "Of course."
"Pull the slots," Dio said.
Aeris stepped up and drew back the lever. Various pictures whirled by, finally stopping on an upright frog.
"Congratulations," Dio said. "For this last battle, I'm going to turn you into a toad."
"What, again?" Aeris smirked, patting a pair of materia, one blue and one green, in her armlet.
Up in the balcony, John leaned forward and tapped the shoulder of the long-haired woman in front of him.
"Our mutual friend has picked up a few tricks this past month."
Tifa spun her head around. "John! What are you--"
"I was in the neighborhood. Then the tram broke down and stranded me here."
The crowed oohed as a green dragon appeared in the Battle Square. Aeris held her staff forward, shifting her weight between her feet.
"Her staff was made by a great Wutai craftsman." Yuffie dropped into the seat beside John. Tifa gave her a suspicious look and checked her own pockets.
"That Counterattack materia doesn't hurt either," Tifa said. "And clever trick, Added Effect materia linked with Transform in her armlet. Makes her immune to the toad spell."
"Almost as if she knew," John smirked.
The crowd gasped as a blast of flame knocked Aeris off her feet. The dragon swept its tail around, and Aeris barely rolled aside. The dragon, a smug look on its lizard face, drew breath for another blast.
Aeris growled, pulling herself to a seated position. She bowed her head. "Great Gospel."
White light shone around her as rain began to fall in the arena. Her staff danced away on its own, heralding three angels drifting overhead. She rose to her feet, smiling, fully rejuvenated, her pink dress once ragged and bloodstained now laundered and pressed, her hair once frayed and sweat plastered now shampooed and styled. The dragon fire flowed around her without causing as much as one split end. She raised her staff and smiled.
"That, is way cool," John said.
"Yea." Tifa glumly laid her chin onto her palm.
"Hey," Yuffie said. "I see Barret and Cid. Let's go pester them."
"You go ahead." Tifa stared forward.
"Ah, you're no fun. See you at the chocobo races." Yuffie rose and scurried along the backs of the entire row of seats.
The crowd roared its applause as Aeris clanged the staff down on the dragon's head one last time.
Tifa sat in thought as the spectators exchanged seats. The seat next to her emptied, allowing John to slip into it.
"Tifa?" he said. "Anything I can do to help?"
She shook her head. John followed her gaze. Aeris was prepping for another set of battles. Cloud was there, checking the fastenings on a wide belt around Aeris' waist.
"You love him, don't you."
Tifa said nothing, though tears sparkled in her eyes. They sat through the first battle, where Aeris clubbed a hapless flying snake. Her next battle involved three aqua lizards. Quickly Aeris touched a yellow materia on her staff and said "Beta." Columns of flame, so hot John thought he himself would be charred, shot down into the square and turned the lizards into wrinkled jerky.
"Now that's hot." John swiped the sweat from his eyes.
John saw Tifa hunched over, shoulders shaking.
"Come on. The lizards were only computer generated holograms. Even I know that."
"No." Tifa looked up, brushing the hair from her streaming eyes. "He, he went in to win her the champion belt she is wearing, so now she's going in to win his Omnislash manual. Where does that leave me?"
John opened his mouth but said nothing, swamped as he was by Tifa's despair.
"After all this time, after all these years." Tifa buried her face again.
"It's a shame Spike can't marry both of you."
Tifa's flash of anger slapped John so hard he really did fall out of his seat. Saved her the bother of hitting him. Her face flushed, eyes afire as another Beta spell roared in the arena below.
Well, thought John, he'd stuck his foot in his mouth so he might as well shove it in up to his thigh.
"As I see it," John said with a calm belying the possibility Tifa could shove her foot through his ribcage, "your basic problem is, Spike has all the emotional warmth of a stapler. He doesn't mean to hurt you. It never even occurs to him that you are hurting." John climbed to his feet. "He has feelings for you. They're just, locked under scar tissue."
Tifa stared. The crowd cheered as Aeris flash-fried another brood of unlucky monsters. John began to wonder if under that sweet flower-girl face lurked a raging pyromaniac.
"Believe it or not, this is your best chance."
"What do you mean?" Tifa's voice was still sharp, but she no longer looked like she wanted to kill him.
"Aeris here," John motioned, "was the only one who could crack him out of his shell. She's like a mother to him. Now if you want to be more than a sister--"
"When did you learn so much about relationships?"
"I've had some time to think."
John sat down.
Below, Dio smiled and said, "Let's see how you handle this one." He cast his spell, and Aeris shrank to the size of a garden gnome. The gate opened and five more giant crickets hopped out.
Aeris spoke in a clear, childlike voice. "Beta."
"Am I sensing a theme here?" Tifa said.
"Maybe we should break out the marshmallows."
"So you really think I have a chance?"
"If not Cloud, there are a hundred other sweaty guys in this crowd who'd be all over you in an instant."
She swatted him. "Okay, but--" She blinked the tears from her eyes. "I'm scared."
John took her hand. "I know. But ask yourself. What's the worst that could happen?"
"He could say no." But then Tifa began to laugh. "Sounds silly when you say it."
"Besides, you know he won't. And even if he does, you, who have faced down dozens of bug-eyed monsters--"
"What's the matter, John?"
Tifa stood on the iridescent crystal pillar in a subterranean lake. She clutched at her side while her shoulders shook with grief. Her cheeks glistened with tears. She hopped from one pillar to another until finally she reached a solid stone platform, where she collapsed against Barret, holding him as she sobbed. The big man himself looked beaten, head hanging low. Nearby, Yuffie clung to a railing, also crying. From out on the water, Nanaki let out a desolate howl, a lonely sound of pure misery. Yuffie sobbed louder.
"Cloud?" John said, squeezing Tifa's hand harder. "Did something--"
Cloud appeared in the vision, standing on an island gazebo. His face was a mask of shock. He stooped to gather a pink bundle from the ground--"
"Oh no, no, no!"
John was thrashing in his seat. Tifa was holding his arms, trying to keep his head from slamming into solid objects.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Talk to me."
John glanced toward the arena, catching sight of the three Great Gospel angels hovering in the rain.
"I must talk to her. Hurry. It's vital."
"But she's battling for--"
"Go in for her. Get that Omnislash thing yourself. Just send her up here."
Tifa looked defiant but she rose anyway. John nudged a fragment of his emotions at her and she hurried toward the stairway. He felt drained already. And he feared the worst was yet to come. He closed his eyes and prayed. Not to anyone in particular, just general delivery. To anyone who might care.
"Tifa said you needed to see me?"
John looked up into those calming green eyes and shuddered. He nodded.
"You look upset."
"I was. It's just, I saw, I need to know."
"Cloud doesn't hate you. He actually feels guilty about threatening you. And I told him, about what you saw. His mother."
"I can't help what I am. I just wish, I wish I didn't make a mess of things when I try to help."
"That's what Cloud says about himself too. You're both wrong, you know."
John looked down at Tifa, who dispatched a flying snake with a haymaker, then seized a second snake and used it to batter a third. The crowd cheered.
"I have a talent. I make a friend in sector seven, and next thing I know--she's dead. She wasn't even in the sector when the plate fell. She was probably at her desk, doing her job. Then she's lying on a table in the lab, and Nestor shoots her in the head. No reason. He didn't even do it for thrills. It simply . . . occurred to him that he could. He had a gun; she was there."
"But you're not like that."
"I know that. But my point is--"
"Not your fault. You blame yourself for everything, just like Barret does for losing his family in Corel."
That would explain why Barret was always so angry . . .
The crowd whooped. Down below, Tifa flipped, kicking a giant lizard under the chin, then followed with a low kick to the lizard's companion.
"There's something else," John said gravely.
John glanced at the arena. Tifa held a lizard high above her head before slamming it to the ground. She must have thought it was still twitching, because she stomped on it with both feet before kicking it up toward the stands.
The crowd began to chant. "Tifa! Tifa! Tifa!"
"If she can't win his heart by knocking those lizards senseless," John said, "she can always pound it out through his ear."
Aeris gave him a wary look. Oh-oh, John thought.
"Did you send her in there so she could impress Cloud?"
John decided, since he was already sinking, why not wade farther from shore. "The thought did occur to me, since she does love him, and is scared. Afraid she'll lose him. To ah, you. I mean, you're such a charmer and all. She--oh boy." He covered his face. "I'm sorry. I messed up again." Then he laughed. "You should have seen Tifa's face, when I said it was a pity Cloud couldn't marry both of you."
"You said what?"
John didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Grasping her hand, he opted for the former.
"Should have seen her. I thought I was going to end up like one of those lizards in there."
"I never, I mean Cloud, he reminds me so much of-- the way he walks, I mean . . . I can't believe you actually said that!" Aeris' eyes glistened with tears of laughter. "I mean, it makes a bizarre sort of sense, you see?"
The crowd drowned out her giggles as Tifa pummeled a green mini-triceratops thing into submission before flipping it onto its side.
"I just remembered. Thank you for that Healing Wind you did for me at Nibelheim. I found a family whose cart had overturned and released it to help them. I would have used the Restore materia you gave me, except, uh, I had a bad experience with it."
"I tried to heal myself with it. It worked, too well. I was up three days straight. I ran half way back to Cosmo Canyon. Drink thirty cups of coffee and shove a live wire through your brain if you want to experience the sensation."
"I can't blame you for not wanting to try--what's wrong?"
Aeris. She knelt in prayer in a gazebo, surrounded by an underground lake. In front of her-- Cloud? What was he doing? Pulling back his sword?
"John, you're scaring me."
He realized he was gripping Aeris' hand so hard his own was going numb. He released her hand and seized her upper arm.
Cloud stood, sword poised overhead. He tensed for a strike--
"What are you doing?"
Cloud stepped back, looking shocked. Aeris looked up from her prayer, noticing him, and smiled. It was more than a smile of greeting; it was a smile of victory.
But John felt the impending doom like an onrushing freight train. High above, the black and silver spot appeared. The plunging figure, the leading sword. Sephiroth.
John fell back and screamed. Hands grabbed him. He lashed out, still screaming. He opened his eyes, found a pair of security guards holding him. He saw Aeris, eyes wide, face shocked.
"Don't!" he shouted. "Don't go to the Ancient City of glass!"
He tried to break free, to go to her, but felt something land on his head with the force of a lead toaster. Darkness engulfed him.
Voices floated across the stinging desert. At first, John thought they simply spawned in his head.
A voice John knew to be Nanaki spoke. "I'm sorry I hit him. I thought he was attacking Aeris.
"What was that you used, anyway?" a gruff, unfamiliar voice said. The odor of cigarettes wafted across his nose.
"Stardust Ray. Grandfather recently taught me a way to channel the powers of the heavens."
"Remind me never to make you angry."
"Don't worry, Cid. I just hope he recovers. Aeris is very upset. She said he was trying to tell her something important."
"He can do it without tearing her damn arms off."
"Here comes Tifa."
A pause. Then, "Hmm, he looks almost fragile."
Tifa. The memory of his vision of her. So distraught. So devastated by pain. John had only wanted to reach out.
"I can't think he would want to hurt Aeris," she said, laying a cool hand on his cheek. "I know he was upset about something."
"Don't forget he's a Jenova," a deep voice said. Even though he was lying flat, John could swear the voice came from behind him.
"But not our Jenova." Nanaki said. "Didn't he claim to be a research specimen of some kind? Maybe Hojo implanted some Jenova cells in him, used him as an incubator."
"His aura is too strong. Too pure," Vincent said.
"Still," Tifa said, "he was trying to cheer me up when he, must have seen something. He got all, creepy."
"His Jenova urge must be strong," the vampire said. "He's keeping us alive for a reason. Perhaps he reports to Sephiroth on our movements."
"But he didn't follow us to Rocket Town or Wutai," Tifa said.
"That's right," Nanaki said. "Aeris told me he returned to Cosmo Canyon, then came here. Grandfather confirmed it."
"It doesn't look like he's going anywhere soon," Cigarette Breath said. "Let's get to Ghost Square with the others."
Four sets of feet (two moving in tandem) walked off.
John lay in silence. Peace. Hard to determine how much time slipped by. He may have dozed, but he awakened to a familiar deep voice.
Great. John could almost picture the man's gleaming white fangs.
"I know you can hear me, Jenova."
All in all, it hadn't been a bad life. John was surprised to think this. After all his complaining, all his failures, he still--
"What did you do to Aeris? She is upset."
Play it again, John. "I--I--" His throat felt like gravel and sandpaper. He tried to sit up, but found himself strapped down. His eyelids felt too heavy to open. He tried to speak again. "Ah-Aeris . . . " No use. His mind could form the thoughts, but the voice refused to obey. "S-sorry." He tilted his head back, exposing his neck. Might as well make it easy for the guy.
"She says she has a plan, a plan she owes to you."
What plan? Had John said anything during his fugue state? Anything about the vision? The speck of death falling from the sky? John squinted his eyes against it.
"Do not follow us to the Temple of the Ancients."
John nodded. Vincent must have accepted his answer because John could sense the space had emptied. No footsteps, of course. Walking a centimeter off the ground will do that to you.
Vincent seemed awfully protective of Aeris. John wondered if the fanged wonder had feelings for her. Or perhaps Cetra blood was a delicacy?
"Well lookie here," a new voice said. John almost couldn't place it.
He cracked open his eyes. Wild red hair. Ah.
"I still owe you for that stunt in Cosmo Canyon." Reno tapped his nightstick against his palm. "Nonetheless, we are Turks, and we have a job to do."
We? John opened his eyes wider, glimpsing the bald head of Rude. "Ah," John said.
"Someone is willing to pay a handsome pile of gil for you, and here you are, all tied and gift wrapped."
John swallowed. The gravel in his throat gave way to sand. "Don't . . . don't think you can take the credit. A dog did this to me."
Reno chuckled. "Right after it ate your homework, pretty boy?"
John closed his eyes. He was too tired to bait Reno.
"I see, hee-hee, you've gone above and beyond the call of duty." That squeaky voice. Oh no.
"Hojo?" John opened his eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"Hush, my precious specimen." The good doctor opened his black bag, drawing out a needle fit for an elephant. "Now, if you two would hold the specimen?"
"We're not nurses," Reno said.
"No. I'm paying you much more. In fact, you performed so well in securing this specimen I'll add a twenty percent early bird bonus."
"In that case, I do owe this twerp a favor."
"Hey!" John tried to struggle as four hands grasped his arm. "You can't stick me with that jackhammer. Arrrgh!"
"Stop thrashing," Hojo said. "You'll damage my expensive equipment."
"Your equipment? When I'm done with your equipment you'll never have children again."
"Hold his other arm, Rude." Hojo withdrew the horse syringe, unscrewed a metal vial from it, and replaced it with a fresh one.
As the Turks held his arms in tight grips, John felt his anger begin to rise. He also became aware of the buzz inside him. What was it Nanaki had used on him?
"Hold that arm." Hojo leaned over as Rude's hands closed like fleshy clams. John tensed. To his surprise and horror, the needle plunged into his upper chest. John threw his head back and shrieked. A gurgling noise echoed in his throat.
"Excuse me," Rude said, "Can't you give him something to put him under?"
"Oh, are you a doctor now?" Hojo said. "Hee-hee, another man of science? Which medical school did you attend?" He withdrew the needle. "Unfortunately, I am not in my fully equipped lab, else I could excise the entire thymus gland. For now, if you would be so kind as to tighten the restraints on specimen's legs, I would like to perform a liver biopsy."
"Oh no you don't! You dare touch me again I'll mmf!"
Reno shoved a nasty sweat sock into John's mouth. Subtleties in tastes he never wanted to imagine assailed his tongue. He gagged. Wheezed.
After the straps were cinched so tight John could barely breathe, Hojo leaned over and pressed on his abdomen. It felt like an engine block parked on his intestines. Then a sharp, searing pain, deep, as though a scorching drill bit were digging into his flesh.
John let loose a roar rivaling Nanaki. His left arm tore free of Reno's grasp. When the redhead tried to reclaim his prize, John reached for the nearest object--which happened to be Reno's crotch. Reno's scream made Rude jump back in sympathy. Reno pinwheeled and finally fumbled his nightstick into his hand.
"Got it." Hojo pulled the bloody Roto-Rooter thing free. John's grip relaxed, allowing Reno to unleash his static charge. A mistake, it turned out. The jolt not only made John's muscles clench, but the current rippled up John's arm and beyond.
Reno screamed like a woman.
For John though, the attack was nothing compared to Hojo's treatment. He felt the charge of energy within him build, his rage at the violations peaking.
"This next procedure may cause some discomfort," Hojo was saying. He held up two shining implements, one like a thin dental pick and the other like a curved, spiked spatula.
John jerked his arms up and released Reno's electromag attack. Reno and Hojo fell back, the latter dropping his tools of torture. Rude had jumped somewhere out of John's view, probably remembering the encounter at Cosmo Canyon. Reno staggered, fumbling once more for his weapon. Hojo recovered fully and rushed at John, who released his rage straight into Hojo's face. A force struck the scientist with a thunderclap, slamming him back to the wall.
Take that, you fiend.
Rude's face appeared in John's vision. "Nice limit technique. And strapped down, no less. But the game ends now."
Reno took this moment to fry John with his electric nightstick again.
"Fool!" Rude tried to duck but John's return gift caught him below the chin, as well as flinging back Reno, who slumped unconscious to the floor. A recovering Hojo also took it full in the chest, though he was able to snag his black bag.
"What the hell's going on in here!" Barret's booming voice rocked the room just like the bullets John was sure would follow."
"Get out!" Hojo said "You are interrupting a crucial scientific experiment."
"They came for my liver," John said.
"Hojo." That deep voice, so filled with menace, drifted in like the fluttering of its owner's red cloak.
"Oh, so they released you, hee-hee?" Hojo snapped his case shut. "I'll be leaving now. Though I really wanted . . . no, it'll have to do. I have enough to complete my plans."
"What plans?" Barret raised his gun arm.
"You wouldn't understand. The scientific principles are complex. But, hee-hee, for obstructing my plans, I'll give you something to remember me by."
Hojo lifted a green ball over his head and vanished with a flash. A greenish form began to rise and mold into shape. Guns blazed as Barret and Vincent opened fire.
Still, the creature continued to form, though jostled by the onslaught. John, lying below the firing range, decided enough was enough. He closed his eyes, and released his last gift.
The monster shuddered and melted as shrieking lights pounded it from above. John could see the dark sky now through the jagged hole in the ceiling. He heard Barret say, "Hey, that was--" before slipping back into oblivion.
When he awoke, he was no longer tied to a table. He also was no longer injured. He lay in a comfortable bed, music chiming downstairs, sun streaming through the window, and grotesque furniture grinning around the room. He got up, feeling amazed at his freshness. It was as if he had slept--
He found the complimentary newspaper. Beside a tray with a steaming bowl of soup.
He sat back on the bed. Somebody had known when he would awaken. The food smelled enticing. John, after two days of fasting, dug into the soup and buttery garlic bread. Lemon scented tea and a chocolate chased it down. Finally, he felt able to think clearly.
The paper was of little interest. He did find a pair of envelopes, one silver with an orange embossed chicken on it. Chocobo, he corrected himself.
John, read the card inside.
You should have seen his face when I handed him the Omnislash manual. And thanks to you, I got up the nerve to ask him out. We had a wonderful time! On the gondola ride, I almost told him . . . how I really feel. But somehow, I froze. I feel so foolish now. After all, as you say, what is the worst that could happen? And I do--I mean, I really do [erasure] like him--oh, look at me. I can't even write it.
Anyway, thank you for giving me the courage to take the first step.
John smiled. Holding the letter close, he caught a glimpse of Cloud and Tifa performing (badly) on stage. John shook his head. Without his sword, that guy was so out of his element.
His gaze fell on the other envelope. Pink, with strings of flowers. John picked it up with excitement and trepidation.
So much makes sense now.
I used to be afraid. All alone, the last of my kind. The last of the Cetra.
But now you've shown me what the Planet has tried to tell me all along. What my mother once told me. My life has a purpose, a greater destiny. Cait Sith has betrayed us, so we are off to the Ancient Temple. But even if Shinra gets there first it won't matter. You have helped me see the path. The vision you showed me--
Vision? Oh no, he had shared the vision? John was stunned. Sure, he had shared visions before, but only with someone . . .
"Who was also psychically inclined. And Aeris talks with the Planet. Oh God."
Dreading what came next, he continued to read.
The vision you showed me is the Forgotten Capital of the Ancients. It is there a Cetra can call upon the protective powers of the Planet. If Sephiroth gets the black materia I now know how to stop him.
Thank you for showing me the way. You have given hope for the future of the human race.
And don't worry. I know Cloud won't hurt me.
Your friend forever,
John let the letter fall to the desk.
"Cloud won't hurt you? Honey, Cloud is the least of your worries." That was it. She hadn't seen the rest of the vision. The black spot of hurtling death. He had to find her, to warn her. She hadn't seen the whole scene.
Or had she?
John sat on the bed and slumped forward. Once again, he had tried to do what seemed right. Once again, he had traveled the road of good intentions. Once again, he had met with illusory success. Even pushing Tifa to date Cloud played into the whole dark scheme. For what he had done, none of them would forgive him.
For in trying to warn Aeris, he had brought on the very disaster he had so desperately wished to prevent. He had caused the death of the last known Ancient, just as surely as if he had held the sword himself.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The names of John's limit breaks, e.g., 'Take That You Fiend,' 'Zap Armor,' and others, come from an old spoof roleplaying game called Tunnels and Trolls. Where else can you cast a spell called 'Slush Yuck'?
Plus, you can meet monsters who roll 500 attack dice!