Come Back: A Lover's Prayer

Rescue Mission

Cid was right. If he had told Cloud and the others what it was he saw, they wouldn’t have believed him.

“It’s <beep> Jenova, and seems the bastard OD’d on stamina drinks.”

“Which one of all is it, though?” Cloud asked.

“What do you mean, which one?” Aerith asked. “Were there more than one?”

“Yes, four of them. Birth, Life, Death and Synthesis,” Red explained. “Each one uglier than the one before, but only Synthesis was a real problem.”

“I think it’s the Death one,” Cid said. “But, damn, how the hell did it get so big?”

“What is Jenova?” Vincent asked, completely lost.

“Jenova was named ‘the calamity from the skies’ by the Cetra,” Aerith replied. “It is a creature from outer space that crashed into our planet and tried to take it over. It spread a virus that almost completely annihilated the Cetra race. As far as I know, ShinRa found it, and began experimenting with its cells. Sephiroth called it ‘mother’, since he was infused with those cells while he was still in the womb… Professor Hojo did that… the same man that meant to experiment on Red XIII and me a few years ago… Part of what made Sephiroth so strong were those cells. They also drove him mad.”

“Sephiroth ‘rescued’ Jenova from the ShinRa headquarters when our mission to save the planet began,” Cloud continued. “And he somehow managed to spawn four monsters using different parts from its body. The first three were rather easy to get rid of, but the fourth one, Synthesis… well, it was called that for a reason. It wasn’t as strong as it was resilient, and killing it off took a lot out of us.”

“Yeah, I still remember how annoying that fight was,” Cid commented.

“But, from the sound of it, none of them was as big as this one, right?” Vincent asked.

“Nowhere near… Cid, I think you’ll have to get us close enough to attack, ‘cause we’re not gonna scratch it from the ground,” Cloud said.

The pilot lighted another cigarette and nodded. “Had a feeling you’d say that. It’s a darn shame, we’d just waxed the ship.”

“We’ll help you clean it up once it’s all over,” Cloud called from the hallway as they all headed for the deck.

This new and improved version of Jenova was nearly as big as Ultimate Weapon had been, and just as disgusting as the ones that came before it. It was very similar to the first three– especially Death, as Cid had pointed out before –, but had a slimier look to it, and it was dark shade of red, like a puddle of blood.

Cloud, Red and Aerith were at a disadvantage, since their weapons were close ranged, and would do no good from that distance. They would have to rely heavily on magic, and hope their ethers and elixirs would be enough to sustain them through the battle. Vincent and Sephiroth would have to find the beast’s weak point fast enough to make all their bullets count, as well, but it didn’t seem like their revolvers would do much good against the hideous thing.

“Strategy, Cloud?” Red asked, readying a fire spell.

“Let’s try the bullets first. Sephiroth, aim to the forehead. Vincent, you aim to the chest… let’s see how it reacts.”

Both men did as instructed but, as Cloud thought, to no avail. The bullets ricocheted off the monster’s body, slimy as it was, causing no damage at all. After cursing under his breath, he said, “Very well, then. Red, hit it with fire. Aerith, hit it with lightning after that, and I’ll send some ice its way. Should all fail, we’ll have to try something else.”

Red launched his fire spell against the creature’s chest, and Cloud cheered. The beast recoiled, albeit slightly, as the fire managed to melt Jenova’s outer jelly-like armour. “Vincent, Sephiroth! Try shooting it now!”

They did, and the bullets got through this time around. The damage was still minimal, but there was progress, and Cloud would hang on to that for as long as he could. “Now, Aerith, Red, let’s hit it with Flare, Fire and Ifrit, all at the same time. Aim for the head, hun, and you keep aiming at the chest, Red. Vincent, Sephiroth, as soon as you see the jelly melting on those two areas, shoot at it. But make every single shot count! Go!”

The all-out attack began not two seconds after Cloud’s command, and it worked perfectly. The three fire-based spells melted Jenova’s upper armour, leaving its soft and weak body exposed to Vincent and Sephiroth’s attacks. After around five minutes of non-stop assault, the creature began to swell up, readying itself to launch a single desperate attack.

“Cid, get us the hell out of here!” Cloud yelled at the top of his lungs. “Everyone get inside! It’s going to self-destruct!”

They all ran inside as fast as they could, and barely made it to the lower deck of the ship before Jenova blew up. The explosion sent the ship spinning out of control for about six kilometres before Cid could recover control over it. Still, he had to make an emergency landing between the Nibel Mountains and Nibelheim, because the blast set fire to one of the ship’s motors.

Once safely on land, they all got out of the ship, assessing the damages sustained.

“God damn it all to hell!” Cid yelled, stomping his foot on the ground. “That <beep> son of a <beep> had to trash my goddamned motor, hadn’t it!? It’s going to take me weeks to fix it! Arrgh, I want to poke its <beep> eyes out!!”

While Cid had his fit, Aerith was using Cure to tend to everybody’s injuries which, luckily, were minor. “We’ll help you fix it once we set everything else right, Cid, I promise…”

Still fuming, Cid walked over to them, lighting another cigarette. “Ah, <beep> it. It’ll give me something to do over the next few months, at any rate. How are you all holding up?”

“Nothing too serious, just some small scratches and bruises,” Aerith said, finishing up on Cloud’s arm. But when she looked towards Cid, she gave a little scream and covered her mouth with her hand. “Cid! Your head, it’s bleeding so bad!”

“What?” Cid asked, bringing a hand to his forehead, then examining it and noticing it was covered in blood. “Ah, fantastic, just what I needed, a <beep> gash on my gosh darned head.” He noticed Aerith’s concern and waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. I’m sure it’s only superficial. Head’s just a big bleeder, ya know?”

“Here, sit, let me patch you up before you faint,” Aerith said.

Meanwhile, the other four were looking towards Nibelheim.

“Do you really think he’s got them there?” Red asked Cloud.

“Yes, it seems quite logical. If he found Vincent there, keeping Shimmer at the same place would be tons easier than having them at different places.”

“If you’re so sure, why did we split up, then?” Vincent asked.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry. I don’t like putting all my eggs on the same basket, and all that junk.”

“That’s very wise, young man. Our only problem now is that we’ve lost our transportation,” Sephiroth pointed out. “Should we need backup, there’s no way it’ll get here fast enough.”

“Didn’t Daemon say something about a bracelet?” Aerith asked after Cid and her reunited with the rest.

Vincent scoffed. “Yes, he did. But the cheap trinket works only halfway. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up taking his entire team to the Chocobo Farm while trying to come here.”

“Reeve has his chopper,” Cid informed them. “And the Tiny Bronco’s at Rocket Town. Shera can pilot it and come pick us up if we need a quick retreat.”

“Better call her and give her a heads up regarding that,” Cloud said. Cid nodded and walked back to the Highwind while dialling Shera’s number. “I want this to be as quick as possible,” Cloud went on. “We go in, take Vince and Shim out if they’re there, and we go out. If the doppelganger is there, I want you, Vincent and Sephiroth to take Shimmer out of there as fast as you can, Aerith. Cid, Red and I – and Vincent too, if he’s feeling alright – will try to hold him back just long enough for you to be safe.”

“Got it,” Aerith said. “Should we call the others to see if they’re alright?”

“Not yet,” Cloud replied. “First I want to make sure they’re really here. Once we know, we’ll call them. And anyway, chances are they’re busy with some clone surprise, as well.”

“Shera’s getting the Tiny Bronco ready as we speak. She’ll land close to Nibel’s coast and get closer once she sees any of us running out of Nibelheim,” Cid said when he returned.

“Good,” Cloud nodded. “Now, let’s go in… as usual, let’s expect the unexpected.”

They all nodded and moved towards Nibelheim.

The explosion could be heard all the way to Nibelheim just as if it had happened in town and not several kilometres away. By that time, Vincent and Shimmer had already left the ShinRa Mansion and were hiding at Cloud’s old house. The city was once again deserted, so they were not disturbed by anyone. When the explosion came, the whole house trembled, and Shimmer feared it would collapse on them. But it didn’t; it held on and once the noise calmed down, silence returned to envelop it all.

“No…” Shimmer whispered, standing up and running towards the door. Vincent caught her before she could open it, and she struggled to get free. “I want to see what happened! Let me go!”

“You won’t be able to see anything from here, so settle down,” he said, holding her with extraordinary ease.

“But what if something happened to them!?”

“Nothing happened to them, believe me. He’d be gloating if that were the case.”

“Why are we still here, anyway? Why can’t we just leave?” She was still struggling, but weariness began to take over her.

“They’ll come here, and we’ll have a better chance of standing up against him all together. Besides, you won’t be able to make the trip to Rocket Town by foot in the state you’re in.”

The young woman finally stopped struggling and simply stood limply against Vincent’s taller frame. “Fine… could you let me go now?” He did, and she sat on one of the beds. Her breathing had become laboured ever since the little fit she had down at the mansion’s basement, and she feared the virus Craig passed onto her might’ve been tampered with so it would act faster. She hadn’t brought it up with Vincent in order not to worry him, but she guessed he already knew.

Once he was sure she wouldn’t try to go out again, Vincent sat at the table once more, cleaning the guns he had found at the weapons shop. They were old and not his preferred kind of gun, but they would have to do until he could find his Death Penalty. “Do you know how to use a gun?”

Shimmer looked at him, her eyes weary and dull. “Yes. I prefer gloves and claws, though. But, I can do with a revolver.” She frowned and lifted her hands before her eyes, and saw they were shaking badly. “At least, I think I can…”

Vincent looked up and saw her hands shaking, too. “How long have you been like that?”

“I don’t know, I noticed just now.”

“The virus is acting up faster than it should, isn’t it?”

The girl sighed and nodded. “Yes. I think it’s a new kind of virus, but I can’t be sure.”

“If it was a regular virus, how long would it have taken to make you shake like that?”

“After first acquiring it? A day. A bit less, perhaps.”

“Which means you have about a day less than we originally thought, right?”

“Yes, I think so…” She covered her face with her hands and rested her elbows on her thighs, sighing heavily. “Unless the speed grows exponentially, in which case I’m lost.”

“You’re not lost; we’ll get you out of this.” Shimmer nodded, and Vincent stood up and walked towards one of the kitchen’s cabinets. “Do you have a headache?” She nodded again. “I’ll make you some tea, and then you’ll sleep until we can get out of here.”

“Alright…” She whimpered and clutched at her chest, falling to her knees. “No… please…”

Vincent whirled around and strode towards her, visibly concerned. He knelt next to Shimmer and held one of her hands in his. “What’s wrong? Is it Craig?” Shimmer nodded. “Is he the one making the virus go faster?” Again, a nod. “Can you fight it back?”

“I…” She swallowed hard before trying to talk again, and squeezed Vincent’s hand with all her strength. “I need to be away from him… Otherwise…” A new wave of pain ran through her, making her scream a bit. “He’s going to make my heart blow up…”

The dark-haired man helped her up and onto the bed, and then he went to get cold water and towels. Vincent carefully washed her face with his claw, while he held her hand with his good hand. “You just need to hold on a little longer; Vincent’s on his way, along with Cloud, Aerith, Sephiroth, Cid and Red. They’ll be here soon, so hold on. You’re strong enough to hold on a while longer, I know.”

After a few agonizing minutes, the chest pain diminished, and Shimmer relaxed some. “Vincent, you have to get me out of here soon… I can’t take much more of this. Between the virus and his attacks, I’ll wear out…” Her voice was barely a whisper, and her breathing was even more laboured than it had been less than an hour before.

“Just a little while longer, I promise. As soon as Cloud and the others get here, we’ll get you out and away.”

Shimmer nodded and curled in the bed, shivering slightly. “I think I’ll pass on the tea… I’m tired…” And she fell asleep.

Vincent stood up and paced around the room, trying to contain his anger, and with it, Chaos. Things were going very bad very fast, and he didn’t like that. And, as irony would have it, now that he needed to be in touch with his comrades, he couldn’t do it.

He looked at Shimmer, curled like a lost and frightened child in the bed, shivering and visibly preoccupied and in pain. He wondered how much longer could she hold on like that, and how long was Craig willing to let her live. Or, rather, how long was Craig going to keep on torturing her like that. It was then that he noticed the bond between the doppelganger and him was weakening, and he felt a surge of fear and apprehension taking over him. Knowing what Craig was up to and how he felt was part of what had kept him and Shimmer alive since they met at the basement, and with that knowledge gone, they were at a greater risk than ever before.

He stood still in the middle of the room, eyes closed and his body relaxed. He focused on the doppelganger with all his might, and managed to pick up his train of thought and emotions. Craig was… what? Angry? No, that wasn’t it. Even if he hadn’t managed to kill the people aboard the Highwind, he had gotten rid of the aircraft, and that was enough for him at the time being. But he wasn’t happy, either. Something bothered him greatly, but he hid it well, for Vincent could not find out what it was. However, knowing that there was something making that demon nervous was enough to appease him… at least a little.

Vincent exhaled deeply and began pacing around the room again, trying to clear his mind enough to pinpoint Craig’s location. He’d been at it for about ten minutes when a pink blur went by the window closest to the road towards the mansion, and Vincent’s heart skipped a beat. He ran towards the table and got one of the revolvers, and then he returned to the window and looked outside.

To his great relief, it was Aerith, along with Cloud, Cid, Red, Sephiroth and… himself, from another world and another reality. He saw the absence of the metallic claw, and felt a slight pang of jealousy hit his heart. He dismissed it and thought about what must be done. So he slowly opened the door and walked towards the road where Cloud and the others could have a clear view of him.

“Cloud, Aerith… we’re here.”

Everybody turned towards him, weapons at the ready. Vincent simply raised his hands, the revolver safely tucked away on his slacks. “It’s me, don’t worry.”

“How do we know it’s really you?” Red asked, his tail swishing frantically.

Vincent thought for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry, there’s no way I can prove it’s really me, since he has all my memories and could easily use them to fool you. But if I were Craig, I think I’d have my Death Penalty with me, and all I got is this silly relic,” he said, pointing towards the revolver.

Aerith was the first to drop her guard and walk towards him. “What did I say when you finally decided to come along with us?”

“‘That’s a quick change of heart.’”

“And before that, when you said you were having nightmares?”

“‘You’ll dream about bad things if you sleep in a place like this.’”

“And about your punishment?”

“‘So your punishment was to sleep? That’s… kinda weird.’”

She smiled and hugged him tight. “It’s nice to see you again, Vincent.”

He hugged her back, smiling faintly. “It’s nice to see you, too. I missed you while you were gone… But, how did you know it’s me? I told you he has my memories.”

“It’s the way you said it all. It’s your way of saying things. There’s no copying that.”

Cloud and the others joined them, and they all shook hands and hugged – although in Red’s case, the hugging was a bit awkward and funny looking. Sephiroth and Vincent came in last, and were introduced by Aerith.

“They’re Sephiroth and Vincent from the planet where Shimmer got help to bring me back to life. And, this is our Vincent,” she said cheerily.

“I know,” Vincent said, shaking hands with the other two. “And, speaking of which, Shimmer’s in Cloud’s house. We have to get her out of here as soon as possible, she’s very ill.”

“Ill??” Vincent asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Craig infected her with the Fire virus while we were on the mansion’s basement. And, I don’t know how, but he’s making it act faster. She’s having symptoms she shouldn’t have until twenty hours from now.”

The other Vincent didn’t wait a moment longer and ran into the house. Sephiroth went after him, leaving the other five to catch up.

“Where is the doppelganger? His name is… Craig, you said?” Cloud asked.

“Yes, it is. But I don’t know where he is, exactly. The bond we have is getting weaker, but from Shimmer’s state, I should think he’s not far from here. We need to get her away from here, Cloud, and we need to bring her the antidote.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Cid asked lighting yet another cigarette.

“I think her brother can go to their planet and get her some. I wouldn’t want her to go there and stand trial,” Vincent said.

“And lose Vincent again,” Aerith added. “We can deal with Craig later if he chooses to follow us or anything.”

“Right,” Cloud said. “Vincent, how are you holding up?”

“I’m quite alright, except for the lack of my shotgun. I’d like to know where that bastard left it.”

“Well, never mind that, I’m sure we’ll find it eventually. Aerith, you, Sephiroth, and the other Vincent should get Shim out of here now. Vincent, Red, Cid and I will stick around in case Craig is still in town. Meanwhile, you get to Shera and fly to Cosmo Canyon. It’s the safest place around.”

Aerith nodded. “Alright, I’ll go get them.”

She went to Cloud’s house and found Sephiroth and Vincent sitting on either side of the bed, talking softly to Shimmer. The brunette girl cleared her throat and shyly walked closer to them, not liking to disturb them. “I’m sorry, but we should get going in case Craig’s around.”

“Very well,” Sephiroth said, standing up. “Can you carry her, Vincent?”

“Sure,” he said, standing up as well. “I’ll just need you to guard my back should she slide or something.” He helped Shimmer sit on the edge of bed, and then he knelt in front of her with his back turned to her. He wrapped her arms around his neck, and slid his arms beneath her thighs, finally standing up and carrying her piggyback style. “There we go,” he grunted. “You alright, honey?”

“Yes…” she whispered. Then she looked up and smiled at Aerith, offering her hand to her. “Nice to see you again.”

“It’s nice to see you, too… But you don’t look so well, dear.” She took her hand in hers, and after reciting a simple spell, a cooling wind enveloped Shimmer and Vincent, making them feel refreshed and with renewed strength. “There you go, lots better,” she said with a warm smile on her lips.

Shimmer smiled and thanked her, and then they all went outside. Cloud walked up to them and took Shimmer’s hand in his, looking at her apologetically. “I’m sorry I didn’t keep him away from you, Shim… but it’ll all be alright now, I promise.”

The young woman shook her head, smiling. “Don’t worry, it’s fine. It’s nice to see you all again.”

“It’s nice to see you well, too,” Red said.

“Yeah,” Cid agreed. “No, just leave town and walk a little until you spot a woman with reddish-brown hair with a cool blue and red plane. She’ll take you to Red’s hometown, and we’ll catch up with ya soon enough, okay?”

“Okay,” Shimmer replied. Vincent turned around to leave, but she said, “Wait. Vincent?” Both men turned to her, and she giggled. “I mean, this world’s Vincent.”

“Yes?” he said, walking towards them.

Shimmer took his good hand in hers and squeezed it gently. “Thank you.”

Vincent nodded shortly, and said, “Go on, now. We’ll talk later.”

Aerith hugged Cloud and kissed him goodbye. “Take care,” he said, handing her a PHS. “If anything should happen, call us, and we’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“Will do. And take care, you too.”

As soon as Aerith and the rest were safely out of town, Cloud turned to Vincent. “What do you know about this Craig guy?”

“His main objective with whatever monster he sent your way was to put the Highwind out of commission, to leave us without reinforcements.”

“I swear, if I see that <beep> son of a <beep>, I’m going to rip his lungs out!” Cid spat.

“So, what is he planning now?” Red asked.

Vincent shook his head, “I don’t know. I know there is something bothering him, but I can’t be sure what that is. He is quite content with having cut our fastest way out of here, but he’s not happy. He’s lying low, and as I said, I can no longer tell where he is.”

“But you said he can’t be far,” Red reminded him.

“Yes, that I did. Not in town, however. Maybe in the outskirts.”

“You sure about that?” Vincent nodded and Cloud sighed. “Very well, then.” He looked around and frowned. “It’s all for the better, anyway. I don’t like this place one bit… Let’s follow the others at a distance. I don’t like moving in large groups.”

“Just let me return to the mansion and see if I can find my gun,” Vincent said.

“You’re quite attached to that thing, aren’t ya?” Cid asked.

“Not anymore than you’re attached to your ships, friend,” was his reply.

“Touché,” Cid said, tossing his cigarette to the ground and stepping on it. “I’ll go with ya to the mansion. You go on ahead, kids. We’ll catch up with you.”

“Gotcha,” Cloud said. “Be careful, and call us if something comes up.”

“Speaking of which, we should probably call the others to see how they’re doing,” Red said.

“Oh, true. Well, we can do that while you two go look for Vincent’s weapon.”

“Right-O,” Cid said, and he and Vincent left for the mansion.

Cloud dialled Reeve’s number, but there was no immediate reply, as there should have been. He was about to hang up when Reeve’s shaky voice came from the other side of the line. “Cloud?”

“Reeve? What happened? Are you alright?”

“Oh, thank god you are! Yes, we’re fine, but you wouldn’t believe what we just went through!”

“Well, given what we went through, I don’t think I’d have trouble believing you. What was it on your side?”

“Jenova, only bigger, meaner and messier. But, what do you mean, ‘on our side’? Something happened over there?”

“Yeah, we had a Jenova of our own to deal with, but we’re fine. The Highwind is completely trashed, though. But, good news is we found Shimmer and Vincent, and they’re all right. Aerith is escorting Shimmer, Sephiroth and the other Vincent towards the Tiny Bronco, and Shera’ll take them to Cosmo Canyon.”

“Good, ‘cause we’re in no shape to continue a search. Do you need backup, though?”

“I don’t think so, but we’ll call you if anything comes up.”

“Yeah, do that. Should we wait for you here?”

“Yep. As soon as we make sure the doppelganger’s not on our trail, we’ll reunite over there.”

“Got it. We’ll, I’ll leave you now. Reno’s being a cry-baby.”

“Am NOT!” Came Reno’s voice from somewhere near Reeve.

“Don’t yell in my ear, you moron! See ya soon, Cloud.” The call ended.

“Well, the Midgar team is doing well,” Cloud informed Red. “They had a monster of their own to deal with, though.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the same story with Tifa and the rest.”

“Me either,” Cloud said while dialling Tifa’s number.

“Cloud, is everyone alright!?” Came Tifa’s desperate voice.

“Yes, Teef, everything’s alright over here. How are you guys doing?”

“Oh, Cloud, it was horrible! There was this huge, ugly, disgusting copy of Jenova, it nearly killed us all!”

“Is everyone alright?” Cloud asked, worried. “Do you need us to go there?”

“No, no, it’s all right. We managed to get rid of it in the end, but we’re all pretty beaten. We ran out of potions and other items, so we had to walk all the way over to Icicle Inn. We’ll be fine as soon as we stock up, though. But, Shimmer’s nowhere to be found, and no one has seen her or Vincent around.”

“Don’t worry about that, we found them here. Shera’s going to take them to Cosmo Canyon, ‘cause we ran into Jenova, too, and the Highwind’s crashed.”

“Oh… is everyone alright, then?”

“Yeah, we’re fine. But we need to get Shimmer an antidote, since the doppelganger infected her and she might die within a few days. Is Daemon with you right now?”

“My, that’s awful… and yes, he’s here. I’ll pass the phone to him.”

“Thanks,” Cloud said, and he heard the phone changing hands, and a low grunt, which he assumed was Daemon’s greeting. “Daemon?”

“Yeah, it’s me. I heard what you told Tifa about my sister. How is she?”

“Not so good. Vincent says the doppelganger is doing something to speed up the virus, and she’s already presenting symptoms. What we were thinking is, maybe you could go back to your home planet and get her the antidote, then return to apply it here.”

“Sure, I can do that. But I’ll need someone to go with me; don’t think I can manage it on my own.”

“No problem, take whomever you need. But, before you leave, could you bring the rest over here at Nibelheim?”

“Yah, we’ll be there in a few moments. See you then.”

“See you,” and he closed the connection.

“They’re coming over?”

“Yeah, the more the merrier,” Cloud joked. He then turned towards the mansion, and saw Cid and Vincent coming out, the latter with his shotgun in hand. “So soon?” Cloud asked while walking towards them.

“It was inside the piano,” Cid said. “It was one of the first places Vincent insisted on checkin’. Guess it’s one of those things you learn with old age,” he joked.

Vincent simply raised an eyebrow and shouldered his gun. “Learnt it at ShinRa, actually. But, never mind. How are the others?”

“They all were attacked by Jenova clones, but made it safely in the end. Well, relatively safely, at least; they’re all in pretty bad shape. I told Reeve and the Turks to stay put in Midgar, and Daemon will bring the others here in a few minutes. Then he’ll go back to their home planet along with one or two of us to bring the antidote for Shimmer.”

As if on cue, Daemon, Tifa, Yuffie and Barret appeared beneath the well tower, and Daemon made a happy exclamation in a language no one understood. “It worked! I knew it only needed cleaning.”

“Vincent!” Tifa exclaimed, and ran to hug him. “It really is you! I’m so glad you’re alright!”

Vincent hugged her back, smiling faintly. “It’s good to see you again, Tifa. And you too, Barret and Yuffie.”

Yuffie hugged him, too, and Barret shook his hand. “Welcome back, vamp.”

His red eyes closed to slits and Vincent said, “I am not a vampire.”

Barret laughed –quite a roaring laughter it was, too– and said, “Just kiddin’, Vince.”

Daemon approached Vincent and offered his hand. “My name’s Daemon Falastur. Thanks for helping my sister.”

The taller man shook his hand and nodded. “No problem. Now, who’re you taking with you?”

“I’m going with him,” Yuffie said. “My ninja training might be of help.”

“Yeah, especially if you can pull off a trick like the one you did when we first arrived in Wutai Island…” Cid mumbled.

“Will you ever forget that?” Yuffie asked, rolling her eyes.

“No,” was her companions’ reply. She simply rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “So-rry.”

“Do you need anyone else, Daemon?” Cloud asked.

“No, I think Yuffie and I have it covered. More people might mean trouble. Besides, there are a couple of people back home that can lend me a hand, as well.”

“Alright, then. How long do you think you’ll take?”

“Not more than a day. I’m pretty sure about that.”

“Very well, then. We’ll be at Midgar by then, most likely. In any case, be sure to have your PHS with you when you return, Yuffie, so you can call us.” Yuffie nodded, and Cloud hugged her. “Take care, kid. And best of luck.”

They all hugged her and shook hands with Daemon, and wished them good luck.

“Before you leave, I have one more question. In case we run into the Craig –the doppelganger, that is– is there something we should know or do?” Vincent asked.

“Yes. By now, he can’t transform into anyone else, since he spent too much time being you. He’ll be weakened because of this, but don’t get overconfident. Doppelgangers are formidable enemies, and you’ll have a hard and long fight before you can defeat him.”

“Are there any good news?” Barret asked.

“Doppelgangers are vulnerable to water, and very easy to poison. Fire and lightning do nothing to them, because of the marks in their bodies. Physical attacks mean nothing to them, but as far as I know, bullets and swords work as well as they do with regular human beings. And, if you can, aim for his column and the place where the head joins the neck. Always from behind, remember that.”

“Why from behind?” Tifa asked.

“That’s their softest side, because every time they transform, the transformation begins there.”

“So, basically, slash their back and cut off his head is all we need to do?” Red asked.

“Pretty much, yes. But sneaking up on him won’t be easy, and even if he can’t transform, I bet he’s got a bunch of tricks up his sleeve. So, again, don’t be overconfident.”

“We won’t,” Vincent said. “Good luck to you both.”

“And to you, too,” Yuffie replied.

Then, after adjusting some dials in his bracelet, Daemon and Yuffie disappeared.

“Is everyone armed and stocked up?” Cloud asked. Everyone nodded, and he unsheathed his sword. “Let’s all be on our guard and way then.”

As Daemon instructed Cloud and the others on how to take on Craig, Aerith and the other three were still on the lookout for Shera.

“I just hope Cid explained her you two would be coming along,” Aerith said, referring to Vincent and Sephiroth. “I don’t want her to have a heart attack or anything of the sort.” Shimmer giggled, but then a coughing fit interrupted her. “Are you alright?” Aerith asked, concerned.

“Yeah, don’t worry…” she lied. “Just need to rest some.”

“And get the antidote,” Sephiroth added.

Shimmer cringed. “And that little detail, too.”

“We’ll ask your brother to bring you some. I’m sure he’ll manage; he seems like quite a resourceful fellow,” Aerith commented, and giggled when Vincent scoffed again.

“Is something wrong, Vince?”

“Well, your brother found a bracelet that allows him to tele-transport and whatnot… Seph and I suffered the effects of his trinket on our way here.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were aiming to arrive to the City of the Ancients. But, first we ended up in the snowfields. Then, on a mountain range, and after that, a crater. When we finally made it to the City, we landed in the middle of the lake.”

Shimmer giggled and coughed again. “So, when Aerith means resourceful, she means he can use that thing to go back home and get me the antidote?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. I hope Cloud remembered to call him and the others to make sure they’re all right.”

From somewhere to their left –and above them, and to their right, and seemingly all around– a macabre laughter could faintly be heard. As they all came to a halt, Aerith and Sephiroth on their guard, the laughter increased in volume and madness. It chilled Aerith’s blood, as it reminded her so much of Sephiroth’s mad laughter.

“Who goes there?” Sephiroth called.

Shimmer groaned as her head swam and her heart hammered at thrice its normal speed within her chest. “It’s… him…” She whispered in Vincent’s ear.

“Show yourself!” Sephiroth demanded while Vincent helped Shimmer sit down.

“No need for that. My work here is done, and you’ve given me the information I needed to fulfil the second part of my task.”

“What do you—?” Vincent started, but then Shimmer answered his incomplete question.

“He’s going after my brother…” She said with difficulty.

“Indeed I am. That ought to be more fun than sending dull clones your way, at any rate. And dear Shimmer is as good as dead, so why bother her anymore?”

“You cowardly bastard…” Shimmer murmured, deliberately trying to make his pride get the best of him. “What’s the matter, afraid to finish the job yourself? Or are you so scared of us that you’ll flee before having to fight us?”

“Do not call me a coward. And do you really think any of you would stand a chance against me? You’re nothing but pathetic human beings, chained to your decaying bodies. I am immortal and powerful! Getting rid of you with my own hands would be a waste of my time and effort.”

“Keep telling yourself that if you like, Craig. But it is you who doesn’t stand a chance against us. You’re just scared, is all. No shame in that, really.” Another strong assault to her heart made her scream in pain, but she wasn’t done yet. “Sure, go ahead, bust my heart… you’ll still be a coward, and a bastard, and a monster.”

“Why would you want me to come out and confront you, being in such a pathetic state? You didn’t strike me as the suicidal kind.”

“I’m not, but I like to face my enemies head on, no matter what the circumstances may be. I don’t run away like a coward and pick on someone else.”

While Shimmer teased and provoked Craig, Aerith managed to get her PHS out and call Cloud. “Something wrong, Aerith?”

“We’re near the coast, Craig’s around. Get here, and be quick about it.” She then hanged the phone, only to discover Shimmer’s taunts were working.

“I told you not to call me a coward!”

“Is there any other name for what you are?” Another tug at her heart made her scream again, while Vincent tried to make her stop. “I’m okay… don’t worry. He’s not coming out to face us. He’s probably scared of guns… maybe that’s why he got rid of mine before we got here…” She laughed weakly, and then added, “It’s probably why he took Vincent’s shotgun away, too.”

“I am not afraid of guns!! ”

“Then get the hell out of wherever you are and face us, you murderous bastard!” Shimmer yelled at the top of her lungs, making her companions jump in surprise. “Get out and finish your goddamned job, if you can!” The hatred in her voice and eyes transformed her into a completely different person, and the sound of her words floating into her ears scared even her.

There wasn’t another retort from Craig. At least not a spoken one. Shimmer had heard about the doppelgangers’ demon-like origins and abilities, but never in her life had she experienced the scope their abilities could reach. In less than a minute, the skies darkened and a cold wind began to blow through the land. Thunderbolts and lighting filled the air, falling dangerously close to the small party. Shimmer sighed with mixed relief and weariness, and looked apologetically at Vincent. “I’m sorry you got pulled into this mess… and I’m sorry I’ve made it worse.”

Vincent smiled at her and kissed her forehead. “I plunged into this, so you shouldn’t be sorry. And, by making it worse, you’ve also made it better.” He then stood up and readied his gun, moving so that he and Sephiroth were now guarding Shimmer’s front and back, while Aerith covered a flank. “So, any ideas on where should we aim?”

“The back of his head, where the column begins. Cutting off the head would do the trick, too, but we’ve no swords.”

“Cloud will be here with the others soon enough,” Aerith said, checking her Materia. “All we have to do is hold our ground while they get here.” Once she had every orb in its place, she cast Wall on each of them, and a Shield on Shimmer. “I’m not a very good fighter, but at least I can give us a bit of protection.”

The lighting storm got worse by the minute, and the earth around them began to tremble. Shimmer had her eyes fixed on a small hill about half a kilometre from their position, and told Vincent and Sephiroth to turn so they were facing it. “That’s where he’s going to make his appearance. He’ll throw something heavy our way, magic most likely, and move when we’re distracted. His speed is unbelievable, so be on your guard… and, when you shoot at him, make it when his back is turned to you. That’s his most vulnerable side.”

“Got it,” Sephiroth said.

“What is taking him so long?” Vincent asked after another lighting beam landed close to them.

“He’s biding his time,” Shimmer said, clutching her chest again. “But he’s close, don’t worry…”

“Look!” Aerith said, pointing in the direction of Nibelheim. “It’s Cloud and the others!” She announced, waving to them.

In the precise moment that Vincent, Shimmer and Sephiroth turned towards Cloud and the rest of the team, a lighting bolt fell on the hill Shimmer had pointed out before, and Craig materialized there. Taking advantage of their distraction, he hurled a fire sphere towards Shimmer and the other three. It would’ve hit and wounded them severely if Aerith hadn’t cast Wall before. But even though the damage was dramatically reduced, the wall wasn’t strong enough to keep all the fire at bay, and they still felt the scorching heat upon them.

While Craig generated a second fire ball, Cloud and the others reached Aerith and the other three. Tifa healed them while Aerith restored the Wall and shielded everyone. Meanwhile, Cloud instructed Vincent and Sephiroth to take Shimmer back to Nibelheim while they took care of the doppelganger. Vincent carried Shimmer again, and the three of them ran back towards Nibelheim after Red cast Haste on them.

Cloud was about to give instructions to everyone when a second fire ball reached them, engulfing them all in a sphere of flames. Aerith’s Wall once again held back most of its effects, but Cid had to cast Ice to make the flames freeze and be rid of them. While Tifa and Aerith went over the healing and shielding process again, Craig disappeared from the hill, and Cloud took the opportunity to give them directions.

“You remember what Daemon said: aim to slash his column and cut his head off. Tifa, Aerith and Red, you stay at the rear to heal and restore our Walls and Shields. Also, casting Haste wouldn’t be a bad idea. Vincent and Barret, do what you do best: shoot the darned bastard ‘till he bleeds to death. Cid, if you can get close enough, I’m willing to bet your spear will also damage him. We’ll all have to alternate between attacking and luring him to give the others a clear shot, so let’s stay in groups of two, okay? Cid with Vincent and Barret with me.

“Those in the rear, if you can get a clear shot, soak and poison him,” he continued. “And refrain from using summons, they take too long and we can’t take any chances.” Just then, Craig reappeared closer to them, fire ball at the ready. “This is it, team! Just like old times! Let’s kick some butt!”

As soon as he said those four last words, he dashed forward, closely followed by Barret. Cid and Vincent sprinted in the opposite direction, all of them nearly flying now thanks to Red’s Haste spell. Cloud and Barret met the doppelganger head on, dodging his fireball by mere inches. The blonde man slashed at the monster with his sword, but only managed to grace his arm, while Barret’s shots missed him by half a foot. All this was just a taunt, since they were giving Vincent and Cid a chance to sneak up on the doppelganger.

The first one to make his move was Vincent, who took aim towards Craig’s head, but only managed to wound his shoulder, as the doppelganger whirled around at the last second to dodge the attack, not quite making it. It was then that Tifa cast a poison spell on him, hitting him squarely in the back, poisoning him with ease. As soon as he was hit, Craig disappeared again, making Cloud and the other three regroup while Aerith healed them.

“He’s too darned fast!” Cid said, panting. “How are we supposed to hit him like that!?”

“Can’t ya try n’ slow ‘im down, Red?” Barret asked.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Red called back.

“Fools! You’ll never beat me!” Came Craig’s voice from all around, as the lighting intensified. He then reappeared behind Aerith and the other two, hurling fire bolts at them, and sending them flying face-first several meters.

“Aerith!!” Cloud screamed, running towards her.

“Cloud, no!” Vincent called after him, but the warning reached the younger man too late: Craig trapped him in a fire sphere, and then disappeared again.

Barret and Cid cursed, and together with Vincent, they ran towards Cloud and the others. Cid put the flames out and gave Cloud potions while Vincent and Barret tended to the two girls and the red beast. They weren’t quite finished yet when Craig reappeared behind them. This time, he sent a rock shower their way, but Aerith managed to create a single Shield above all of them, stopping the rocks. To gain more time, Cloud cast Ultima, hitting his target, but seemingly making very little damage. And, again, the doppelganger disappeared.

“We need to split up again,” Cid said, “and we need to keep the bastard from disappearing like that.”

“Someone must catch him and hold him down,” Vincent stated. “It’s our only chance of beheading him.”

“Who’s gonna do that, huh?” Barret asked. “It’s not like any of us is strong enough to hold that thing still.”

“None of us is, but Chaos might be,” Vincent mused.

Cloud stared at his crimson eyes, and frowned. “You think you can control that thing and make it do what you want it to? Won’t it go on a blind rage like it used to?”

The dark-haired man shook his head. “No, it won’t. I transformed into it to escape from the basement, and I controlled it just fine. It just took me a bit of time to transform and tame it, but it should be easier this time.”

“How long do you need to do that?” Red asked.

“Five minutes, at most. After that, leave it to Chaos.”

“Very well, then,” Cloud said. “You should get started now that we have a bit of a rest. Red, as soon as Chaos is here and we’re sure Vincent’s in control, cast Haste on it, and you cast Shield, Aerith. Then, as soon as Craig appears, we’ll try to corner him, to make things easier for Chaos. Once Chaos has it down or whatever, Cid will slash his column, and I’ll cut his head. Everyone else be on your guard.”

Vincent stood up and walked away from the group, once more concentrating on all his bad memories, on every single reproach he harboured against himself, using that fury to call forth Chaos. He blocked out every sound and movement around him, so he missed the moment when Craig reappeared, and Red and Tifa attacked him with Bio and Stop. Stop didn’t work, but Bio sent him flying backwards, giving Cloud, Cid and Barret time to corner him.

It was at that moment that Chaos decided it was time to make its appearance. Surprisingly, it didn’t oppose to Vincent taking over as the dominant will. And so it was that Chaos darted directly towards Craig, tackling him and holding him tightly. They struggled and rolled around for a good two minutes, but finally Chaos managed to subdue the doppelganger, exposing his head and part of his upper column.

Wasting no time, Cloud and Cid moved in for the kill. Cloud buried his sword on Craig’s neck, sending a spray of dark green blood all over the place, while Cid’s spear cut open the monster’s back, also sending blood flying all over. As soon as that was done, Chaos moved back and allowed Vincent to return just in time to see the doppelganger twist and contort madly.

“I think we should back away,” Vincent advised, panting slightly.

“It’s a good idea,” Cid chimed in, retreating. “Doesn’t seem like this will be pretty…”

And in fact, it wasn’t. As the doppelganger’s life slowly faded from his body, his thick, dark blood spread all over the grass beneath him, burning it as it oozed and flowed along. It was then that Cloud noticed his shoes had holes at the tip where the blood had touched them, and his sword rusted in the areas that had penetrated Craig’s neck. Cid had to throw his spear away as the blood began to eat away the wood.

“Holy <beep>!” The pilot exclaimed. “Why the hell didn’t Daemon tell us about this?”

“I don’t think he knew,” Vincent said as they reached the others. “I think this particular doppelganger was not a common one.”

“You can say that again,” Cloud said as he held Aerith close to him. “Is everyone alright?” Everyone said yes, and he nodded. “Good. Then let’s find Shera, tell her we’ll need a bigger transport, and get Shim to Midgar.”

“And then what?” Tifa asked.

“And then… well, then we wait for Daemon and Yuffie to return,” Cloud said.

Cid lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply, and slowly exhaled the smoke. “I hate waiting…”

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