Test of Courage
Over the next several days, they fell into a routine. During the day, Hikari had her language lessons with Tifa and went outside to play with Marlene and Denzel. Nanaki and Yuffie often accompanied them, although the little group never went far from the house. Tifa, Barret, Cloud, and Vincent would take turns keeping an eye on Hikari, depending on who needed to be at work, and used their own limited access to old Shinra and WRO databases to try to find any information on the young woman. Their searches proved fruitless, but at least it felt like they were doing something. Days passed with no word from Reeve, but, despite his growing impatience, Vincent did not disappear from Barret's house again.
At night, Vincent and Hikari would sit in the moonlit living room and talk. Hikari told him what she could about her time in the tank and Vincent told her about the world of Gaia. The somber man was not very talkative, but Hikari's persistent, soft-voiced questions slowly drew the words from him. Vincent told Hikari about the adventures Cloud and the others had experienced over the years, the battles with Sephiroth, the disease called "geo-stigma," the rise and fall of Kadaj's gang, and even a little about fighting Deepground and OMEGA. He also told her of the many strange things he had seen in his travels, from Yuffie's west island homeland of Wutai to the mysterious Sleeping Forest and the Forgotten City of the north, capital of the ancient Cetra. Hikari listened with wide-eyed fascination, drinking up the stories like a parched flower would absorb water after a rainstorm.
"You travel so far, see so many things," Hikari said one evening, a wistful note in her voice. "Wish I could go see too."
"Well, perhaps one day you will," Vincent said, the slight flicker of his smile hidden by his red cloak.
Hikari tilted her head to the side. "Which place your favorite?" she asked. "Where like to go most?"
Vincent thought for a moment. "The Sleeping Forest," he finally answered.
"It is… quiet there. Very peaceful. I like going there to think."
"We go there sometime?" she asked, a look of eager joy on her face.
Again Vincent hid a slight smile. "Maybe," he said, unwilling to dash her hopes, but equally unwilling to make any promises. If Hikari noticed his avoidance of commitment, she made no sign, content to hear more about the Sleeping Forest and the other places Vincent had seen.
But the peace did not last for long. The phone call that Vincent had been both anticipating and dreading came.
He was on the patio with Cloud and Tifa watching Hikari play with Nanaki and the children when his phone rang.
"Vincent? It's Reeve. We've been digging almost around the clock since you came to headquarters but haven't found much. I never realized how many experiments Shinra Corporation was sponsoring both on and under the table until now…"
His grip tightened imperceptibly on the phone. "What have you found out?"
Reeve sighed. "Vincent… this is hard to ask, but I'm afraid Hikari will have to be brought in for testing. We have so little to go on… if we find out more about Hikari's condition as she is now, we may be able to cross-reference our findings in the databases to see if any matches or similar experiments were conducted. That will narrow the field considerably."
Vincent hesitated. "What sort of tests?"
"Blood samples, tissues samples, mental and physical exercises, some bio-scans... it shouldn't be too intrusive. After all, we're not trying to experiment on Hikari, just find out more about her."
There was a long pause. "All right. But go slowly and gently. There's no telling what might happen if she gets scared."
He could hear the relief in Reeve's voice. "Cid should be at Barret's by this evening. He'll bring Hikari to headquarters."
"I'm coming too."
Vincent's voice was firm, brooking no argument. "I'm coming with Hikari. My presence may help keep her calm enough for you to run the tests without incident. Without familiar faces around, she gets nervous, and that would only make your job more difficult."
"All right then. I look forward to seeing you, Vincent, and meeting Hikari."
As Vincent tucked his phone away, Tifa and Cloud fixed him with inquiring looks.
"What did Reeve say?" Cloud asked.
Vincent explained Reeve's plan and when he finished, silence reigned on the porch. Tifa looked up the hill at Hikari who was tickling Nanaki, much to the delight of Yuffie and the two children. "How do you think Hikari will react?" she asked softly.
Vincent shook his head slightly. "I don't know."
"I don't think she'll like the idea," Cloud said thoughtfully, "but if we explain that no one is going to hurt her, that she's among friends…"
Tifa still looked doubtful and worried. "But what if she doesn't want to go?"
"She won't be told until we reach the WRO."
Both Cloud and Tifa looked at Vincent. Cloud looked simply startled while Tifa appeared horrified.
"Not tell her?" Tifa repeated incredulously.
"We can't risk not knowing," Vincent said quietly. "I don't like the idea either, but unless we find out what was done to that girl, no one will be safe. At the very least, she may be a danger to herself."
Cloud nodded reluctantly. It was a nasty trick, but Vincent was right. They had to know.
"Then I'm coming as well," Tifa said. "No, Cloud, my mind is made up," she added, holding up a hand to forestall any of Cloud's objections. "I've been Hikari's teacher for over two weeks now. If anyone is going to explain this to her, it should be me."
The two men exchanged a glance. "Your choice," Vincent said. "The Shera will be here by nightfall. We'll leave before dawn tomorrow."
Hikari quickly added "flying" to her mental list of things that she adored and wanted to do again as many times as possible. It was such a strange sensation to be looking down at the clouds rather than up at them. Strange… but not unpleasant. The sky-ship Shera's flight was smooth and level with a comforting background hum of the engines that made a pleasant vibration in Hikari's bones. Cid had been unable to leave his post at the captain's wheel, but Shera was eager to show Hikari around her namesake. The ship was fascinating, so complex with all its little gears and wheels working together and if one little thing didn't work right, everything would fall apart. "A ship is the physical embodiment of teamwork," Shera said proudly. Hikari wasn't quite sure what that meant, but dutifully filed it away in her mind to mull over later.
The young woman noticed that Tifa wasn't as cheerful as she normally was. Her smile a little forced, and sometimes Hikari caught Tifa glancing worriedly in her direction. Hikari wasn't sure what to make of it, and so she settled for patting Tifa's hand reassuringly, saying, "No worry, Tifa. Sky-ship no fall down. Shera and Cid not let that happen."
Tifa blinked, as if confused, and then smiled back. "Yes, I know. I'm not worried." But the concern did not leave her dark eyes.
Not knowing what else to do for her friend, Hikari wandered back to the main deck where she could see the cream-and-caramel afternoon sky passing in front of them and even below them. She could even walk on the stiff air that made up part of the floor and not fall! Glass, Hikari reminded herself. It's glass, like in windows at Barret's house. That's why we don't fall into clouds.
She glanced back at Vincent. He too had been very quiet during their day-long flight. Of course, he was almost always quiet anyway, but this quiet didn't feel like the ones back in the living room at night. This quiet was more… tense. Again, Hikari had the nagging feeling that something was bothering her friends, but they were pretending that everything was fine. Maybe all is well, she thought. Maybe they just thinking hard.
Hikari walked up to Vincent. "You like flying?"
She couldn't see his mouth because of the mantle of his cape, but the expression in his red eyes softened slightly, which made her imagine he was smiling. "It has its advantages," Vincent said.
"Yes, faster than walking," Hikari said, nodding wisely. "Much faster. And less bouncy," she added with a knowing grin. She could tell Vincent hadn't liked riding Cloud's bike. Vincent blinked in surprise at her words, and then nodded.
"So, where flying to?" Hikari asked curiously, mimicking the scarlet-clad man by leaning back again the wall. She was surprised to see Tifa, who was only a few steps away, jerk her head sharply in their direction. Confused, Hikari looked expectantly at Vincent, awaiting his reply. This time, there was no hidden smile.
"We're going to see another friend of ours," Vincent finally said. "His name is Reeve."
She thought for a moment. "That the one you go see before? When disappeared?"
Hikari's eyes brightened and she clapped her hands. "Good! Want to meet more of Vincent's and Tifa's friends! Friends of friends my friends too!"
But neither of the others seemed to share her joy. Vincent looked away from her and Tifa turned away, her pale face sad. Hikari looked at them curiously, hoping for an explanation, but when none was forthcoming, she skipped back over to talk to Shera. At least she was happy about flying!
The flight from Edge to the new WRO headquarters in Kalm took only one and a half days, as opposed to the week Vincent had spent on the road last time, since they could fly through the night. By mid-afternoon, the Shera touched down at the WRO. Cid had some business to take care of while in Kalm, and he said that he'd be willing to fly them back to Edge when they were ready.
"Say the word and we'll be off!" the rough captain said with a smart salute.
Hikari gave Shera and Cid a hug, much to Cid's surprise and delight. "Thank you for flying us!" said Hikari, eyes shining. "So much fun and so smooth! We fly again, yes?"
Cid grinned and clapped the young woman companionably on the shoulder. "Sure thing, darlin'. Just say the word."
Hikari blinked in confusion. "Say what word? Ouch?" She looked even more confused when Cid and Shera started laughing.
"It's a figure of speech, Hikari," Shera said gently. "I'm sure Tifa will explain it to you later. But right now, I think you have someone waiting to see you."
Vincent turned and saw Reeve in his traditional blue robe-like outfit standing at the entrance. Hikari waved, a smile on her face, and walked towards him in her odd tip-toe manner, a habit that Tifa hadn't broken her of yet. The ex-Turk and the dark-haired girl followed their smiling friend.
"Welcome to the new headquarters of the World Regenesis Organization," Reeve said, spreading his hands in a gesture of welcome. "It's good to see you two again, Tifa, Vincent." He turned his keen, dark-eyed gaze on Hikari. "And you must be Hikari. My name is Reeve, and I'm very pleased to meet you at last."
"Hello Reeve," Hikari replied, bobbing her head politely, never ceasing to smile. She studied him and reached out a hand towards his face with an inquisitive look. "What this? Why have... fuzzies on face?"
It took Reeve a moment before he worked out that Hikari was referring to his moustache and beard. So far, the only people Hikari had met were either women or men with no facial hair. He smiled, chuckling. "It's called a beard, perfectly natural. Some men grow them."
The young woman blinked. "Why? Wouldn't that be hot and itchy?"
"Sometimes it can be in the summer. It's really a matter of personal preference. As for myself, it's far easier to simply trim it than going through all the trouble to stay clean-shaven."
Hikari still looked bewildered and confused, but turned her attention from the blue-clad man to the building behind him. "This bright-big place! So tall! You make?"
Reeve blinked in surprise, and then laughed. "No, not all by myself. We're still recovering from some… bad things that occurred earlier this year."
Hikari nodded, mismatched eyes serious. "Yes, Deepground and OMEGA. Vincent tell me. All okay now?"
Again, Reeve seemed surprised, but hid it. "Mostly. Please, won't you three join me for some refreshment?"
The young woman perked up. "Food?" she asked eagerly. So far, Hikari's experiences with food had been happy and mouth-watering ones.
The head of the WRO laughed uproariously. "You young people," he said, shaking his head and continuing to chuckle all the way inside.
"Friend Reeve not make much sense," Hikari confided to Tifa as they followed him inside. "Is because of beard?"
Tifa started laughing as well, albeit a little nervously, and Hikari looked helplessly at Vincent. "What I say?"
Vincent shook his head, amused in spite of himself. "Don't worry about it. They're just being silly."
"Knew it was the beard," Hikari muttered, which just set Tifa and Reeve laughing again.
Reeve sure is taking his time, Vincent thought darkly, shooting a hard look at the head of the WRO who was laughing with Hikari. Tifa was trying to act nonchalant, but the delay was getting to her as well. Not that he wanted to send Hikari through those tests, but the sooner they got it over with, the sooner they could leave. Heh. Funny I should think leaving more important rather than the entire reason we came here: information, Vincent reflected, slightly surprised at his train of thought.
"Miss Hikari," Reeve said, "while you are here, there's a favor I'd like to ask of you."
"Favor?" Hikari repeated, frowning. "That mean… I do something you need done?"
"Yes, exactly," said Reeve, guiding her towards the elevator, Tifa and Vincent still their faithful shadows. Reeve pressed a button and leaned back against the wall as the elevator began its descent. "You see, Hikari, we don't know much about you. Vincent came here two weeks ago and we've been searching the records ever since, but haven't been able to find anything. Whether that simply means there is no data to be found or if it means we just aren't looking in the right place... well, that I don't know. So, we need your help."
Hikari looked down at her hands and clasped them. "I sorry, but not sure if I be good help. Marlene not teach about squiggles – I mean, writing – yet, so can't read. Not know names of people outside tank besides Miss Lucy. Told Vincent what could about time in tank, but since I not talk so good…" She spread her hands helplessly. "Not sure if can help."
The elevator stopped and as they stepped out, Reeve said, "There is another way you can help us, Hikari."
Hikari stepped out of the elevator, looked up, and froze. The elevator had deposited them in a hallway with wide glass windows that showed an almost panoramic view of a laboratory, complete with preservation tanks, scanning equipment, operating tables, massive computers, and white-clad technicians.
Vincent shivered involuntarily at the memories conjured up by the mere sight of the lab. He had mostly come to terms with his past after the fight with OMEGA, but Vincent knew that he would never be able to walk into a lab without dredging up unpleasant memories. He glanced at Hikari to gauge her reaction.
The young woman's face had gone pale, making her wide eyes and the red tattoo on her left cheek stand out even more. For a moment she just stood there, eyes darting from one white-robed figure to the next before finally settling on Reeve.
"What… what is favor?" Hikari asked, her voice surprisingly steady despite her tensed muscles.
Reeve took a deep breath. "We would like to run some tests on you, Hikari. Blood samples, some scans…"
"Why?" Hikari stepped closer to the lab, placing a hand on the window, and looking at the blue-robed man. She actually seemed more curious now than afraid, but a slight quaver entered her voice.
"We need to see what was done to your body," Reeve explained. "There is no information on where you come from or what was done to you… we need to make sure that you are not sick."
"But already promised," the young woman said, looking at Vincent, red and blue eyes confused. "Already promised not to hurt anyone…"
Tifa stepped forward, placing a comforting arm around Hikari's shoulders. "You don't have to do this, Hikari," she said, her voice fiercely protective. "If you're scared, we can just go home. There's no need to put you through this."
But the girl shook her head. "No," Hikari said softly, "there is need." She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and looked Reeve in the eye. "Will do this. Do tests. And if…" Her voice faltered for a moment. "If find… bad thing… please, take out. Take out bad so…" She paused and glanced at Vincent. "So Vincent can trust Hikari."
One of the female technicians led Hikari into the lab and coaxed her onto a trolley, but made it abundantly clear that Vincent, Tifa, and Reeve had to remain outside. "It's imperative that we be allowed to work quickly and efficiently, and we can't do that with you three cluttering up the lab," the technician said. Neither Vincent nor Tifa were happy with this restriction, but had little choice in the matter.
Vincent was not sure exactly how long the procedures lasted. The scientists took turns, rolling the trolley that Hikari lay on from one workstation to the next, drawing blood, running her through scanners, hooking up various patches to her wrists and temples, and putting her through or into some machines that didn't have an easily identifiable purpose. At one point during the tests, the scientists even placed Hikari in one of the tanks with needles inserted in the back of her neck. The young woman seemed to balk more at the sight of the needles than at the tank, which surprised Vincent, but she obeyed the direction of the scientists without making a fuss. Only the tense muscles of her back and her wide eyes showed her nervousness.
The entire time, Hikari kept her eyes on Tifa, Vincent, and Reeve standing outside the lab. It was as if she was afraid that if she looked away they would disappear, leaving her locked in the lab. When she lost sight of them, Hikari's whole body would tense, only relaxing when her friends were back in her line of sight. Watching her struggle against her terror made Vincent's heart ache.
Finally, the scientists finished their examination. The needles and patches were removed and Hikari was let out of the tank, dried off, and escorted to the door. She looked pale and a little unsteady on her feet, but otherwise unharmed. Vincent released a sigh of relief he hadn't realized he had been holding.
As soon as she stepped outside the lab, Hikari ran towards her friends, grabbing Tifa's hands, her mismatched eyes darting from Tifa to Vincent and back. "You know me?" she asked urgently, eyes wide.
Vincent and Tifa exchanged glances. What was going on?
Their hesitation increased Hikari's agitation and Vincent winced slightly as the young woman grabbed his gloved right hand in a crushing grip. "You know me? You know Hikari?"
"What do you mean? Of course we know you!" Tifa exclaimed. She glared at Reeve accusingly. "What happened? Did they do something to Hikari?"
Reeve looked both perplexed and concerned, but before he could say anything, Hikari released Vincent's hand, wrapped her arms around Tifa in an embrace, and buried her face in the other girl's dark hair. "No," she said softly, her voice muffled. "No, they not… I just afraid… afraid you forget me." Abruptly Hikari pushed away, covering her mouth.
"Are you alright?" Vincent asked, concerned.
"Gonna be sick," Hikari gasped, clutching her stomach. She staggered away a few steps and vomited onto the floor. Vincent crouched down beside the young woman, steadying her, while Reeve offered his handkerchief. When Hikari was done, Tifa wiped her face clean and Vincent helped her to her feet.
"Sorry," Hikari said in a tiny voice, looking ashamed. "Not mean to…"
"Don't worry about it," Reeve said, dark eyes examining her carefully. "I'm more concerned about you. Are you all right? I didn't expect…"
"It okay, friend Reeve," Hikari said weakly, although she still looked pale and ill. "Just made self sick because afraid." She closed her eyes. "Please," she said softly. "Please, we go home now?"
"Yes, Hikari," Vincent said, giving Reeve and the scientists in the lab a dark look that brooked no arguments. "Yes, we're all going home now."
The sun was setting when Vincent, Hikari, Tifa, and Reeve set foot outside the WRO headquarters once more. The Shera was ready and waiting to whisk them back to Edge. Hikari had regained some color and she hadn't been sick again, but she remained a little shaky and her hands trembled slightly. But she still gave Reeve a good-bye hug before Tifa led her into the Shera. Vincent was about to follow the two women when Reeve's hand on his arm stopped him.
"I'll call you as soon as we find out anything," the head of the WRO said. Vincent nodded silently and started to turn away, but again the hand made him pause.
"Vincent…" Reeve paused a moment as if embarrassed, then took a breath and plunged ahead. "I am very sorry to have frightened Hikari so badly. Truly, very sorry. If there's anything I can do to make it up to her…"
"Hikari isn't the kind to hold a grudge," Vincent said quietly. "In her mind, you and the lab are separate things. As far as she's concerned, you are a friend."
The blue-clad man relaxed, which surprised Vincent. He hadn't expected Reeve to be that concerned about what Hikari thought of him.
"She really is one of a kind, isn't she, Vincent?"
"So it would seem," he quietly replied, and then joined the others on the sky-ship. Reeve watched as the Shera lifted off, shielding his eyes with one hand for the dying light of the sun, wind whipping his blue coat. He stood there for a long time, watching until the Shera and its odd group of passengers was out of sight.
Flying through clear skies at night was a breath-taking experience. The stars shimmered like a curtain of diamonds across the indigo spread of the sky and the waning crescent moon edged the clouds in silver. Only a skeleton crew was on duty; Cid, Shera, and Tifa were all asleep in their quarters. But Hikari was not. Vincent had gone to check on her and, after finding her bunk empty, went to the most likely place for her to be: the bridge, the one place she could sit and see the stars.
His guess proved to be correct. Hikari was sitting on the glass section of the floor, arms wrapped around her drawn-up legs, chin resting on her knees. She didn't turn as Vincent came up beside her and sat down, but continued looking straight ahead at the sky passing by. The scarlet-clad man said nothing, knowing from past experience that if Hikari felt ready to talk, then she would.
The silence stretched on for a time as the stars passed overhead. Then, Hikari stirred. "Is friend Reeve mad?"
This was the last question Vincent had expected. "No. In fact, he's more worried that you are angry with him."
Hikari looked at Vincent, surprise evident in her mismatched eyes. "Why would think that?"
"Because the tests made you so afraid that you became ill."
"Oh." Hikari looked away. "Wasn't… wasn't too scared. Not till the tank. And the needles." She shuddered.
"You know that we would not leave you there."
Hikari's face was sad and the fear still lurked in her eyes. "Yes, know that. But you would… if you forgot me."
Vincent blinked. "Hikari, how would that have happened? You watched Tifa and I the whole time. You saw that we never left."
"Yes, but…" Her voice trailed off. "The needles," she whispered.
"What about the needles?" Vincent asked, his voice surprisingly gentle. "Why did the needles frighten you so much? I thought you would be more afraid of the tank."
For a moment Hikari said nothing, as if she was struggling to find the words. "I… I remember something, something pushed away in back of head, but remembered… when saw the needles."
She paused and Vincent waited patiently until she started speaking again.
"When… when was in tank, many things happen. Still not know what or how long, but… hurt. Lots of hurt. They didn't care, the others, the ones outside. Didn't see Hikari, didn't see me." Her voice was suddenly fierce, but then it dropped back into the same quiet, matter-of-fact tone that characterized Hikari's discussions of her past. "Only Miss Lucy see me. She not like others. Young, like me, maybe same. Maybe that why saw me, because could see self in tank. That it could have been her being hurt, not me. Then… then, one day, it happened."
"What happened, Hikari?" Vincent coaxed.
"Miss Lucy… Miss Lucy let me out."
Vincent blinked, startled. Hikari had never said anything about being let out of her tank before.
"She said that was time to go, that was bad thing, very bad thing for me to be in tank. She said Hikari should be outside with birds and grass and sun, not in dark place. So she let me out and tried taking me out of the place with the tank and the blinking lights, and the others.
"But the others caught us. They were very angry with Miss Lucy, very angry that let me out. They still not see Hikari. Put me back in tank. Miss Lucy tried to stop them, but they many and strong. She just one alone. Then they… then they…"
Hikari stopped, taking a deep, shuddering breath. "Then, they put needles in her neck. And, when Miss Lucy wake up… she not remember me. The needles… they made her forget."
Vincent stared. No wonder Hikari had been so afraid, running to him and Tifa, begging them to tell her if they remembered her.
"They put needles in me too," Hikari continued softly, lightly touching the back of her neck. "Put needles in, say I forget all and be good again. But remembered. Like with learning, put memory in back of head where needles couldn't get. Some things fuzzy, need something to call back. But not know, even now, how much the needles took away."
Vincent bowed his head. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Hikari uncurled slightly and touched Vincent's clawed hand. "No be sorry, Vincent," she said, the smile coming back to her face. "Favor done and may help friend Reeve find out what need to know. This is good thing."
Vincent felt a slight smile cross his face. "You always try to find the bright side of things, don't you, Hikari?"
She nodded solemnly, red and blue eyes earnest. "It the only side I know to find."