For What It's Worth
Rapunzel L. Kaeleri
It was done. As done as it was going to get anyway. Vincent keyed the save command on his laptop and leaned back into his chair. His story was finally completed. Well, it was up to date. It wouldn't truly end until he breathed his last. Hopefully Cloud or one of the others would find, read, and then add the ending to what he had written. The record was set straight; he had said all he wanted to say.
Vincent closed his eyes and sighed deeply. He had been afraid the chronicle might not be finished. It was difficult to take down one's memories when one was stumbling around blindly, unable to comprehend anything. Today he knew who and where he was and had managed to make it to his chair. Very few days had been as good as this one. Very few. His eyes still closed against the brightness of the small screen, his mind wandered. Someone had once told him that a person's life would flash before their eyes before they died. Where had he heard that? He could not recall... Still, if that was what dying men and women experienced then let it be so. He was ready. Let it be so...
Vincent's mind wandered through those early days of his life. His brother's birth was the earliest thing he could recall with clarity. Fuzzy scraps and images drifted around in his mind from earlier years, but were too vague to make sense of. He remembered his home and the store his father kept below it. It had been an item store. Its shelves had always been crowded with such things as health restoring potions and elixirs, magic replenishing ethers, and tents if one became stranded outdoors. Countless other items had competed for space on the wide wooden boards. He had spent hours as a boy stocking and dusting those shelves, chasing his brother around the barrels of goods down in the basement, sweeping and mopping the floors... It seemed forever ago, another lifetime... Vincent chuckled softly; remembering the time his brother had knocked him off the ladder and into a box full of hypers. Vincent hadn't been able to sleep for days afterwards. At least he had been able to complete all of his chores and homework at record speed. Their dog, Pocket, had once chewed several holes in a tent... Vincent's father had been furious, but at least the aforementioned tent had been old and slightly moth-eaten to begin with.
Vincent sighed again. He, Geofrey, and Pocket had often gone together into the thick forest that surrounded their hometown to lead a jungle expedition, or to battle imagined enemies, or to hunt equally fictitious beasts. Nothing large or menacing had inhabited those gentle woods until after the Mako Reactor had been built. He and his brother had built a small fort on one of the lower ledges of the plateau which towered to the east of Gongaga. They had camped there over night several times. There were other play places that children had set up along the cliff face and scattered throughout the forest. During the summers the cliff and woods would be alive with children, all laughing and screaming with the delight of three months off from school. Such simple pleasures had brought them all so much happiness... Something as small as catching a lightening bug, or a frog, or discovering a colony of ants under a rock was an event to be rejoiced over.
Vincent didn't remember ever really being angry with his brother. Geofrey had been young enough to look up to Vincent rather than annoy him. He and Geofrey had seemed to have possessed that unusual gene that sometimes occurred among siblings, which allowed them to get along with each other. Vincent had enjoyed having a little brother as much as Geofrey had enjoyed having a big brother. They had often walked to the local school together. Geofrey, still too young to attend school, had tried to follow Vincent on a number of occasions. The younger boy had cried upon discovering that his older brother would be gone for a whole day. The first time Geofrey had cried, Vincent had tried to reassure him that he would return later and had given him the cupcake out of his lunch box. When he was old enough to go to school, Geofrey was again disappointed upon discovering that kindergartners were not allowed to go with their brothers into the fifth grade class.
Geofrey had been in the sixth grade- only twelve years old- when Vincent had proposed his idea to his parents.
* * *
"Dad, I want to go to Midgar. I want to become a Turk. Shinra needs a strong security force for their new Mako research facilities. They're recruiting young men and I'd like to try it."
Vincent's father looked at his son from across the dinner table. "What about your schooling? I don't want you dropping out because of something that's going on across the ocean."
"The new recruits will all be my age. There's a high school there I'll be able to transfer to as well as receive training as a Turk."
"But it's so far away..." his mother said quietly. Everything she said was quiet; she even managed to shout softly.
"I know," Vincent said, trying to keep the regret out of his voice. "I'll be able to come home and visit on leave though."
"It sounds like quite a militaristic organization." Vincent's father remarked. "As a security force, what will you be doing? I'm not sure I like the idea."
"It's no different than protecting the store." Vincent pointed out. "The Turks are sort of watchmen in the Shinra building. I'd be making sure only authorized people get through the door, that nothing gets stolen, that everything is safe. I'd be helping people. ............It's something I'd really like to do."
"Well, suppose we were to allow you to travel to Midgar. How would you get there? We haven't got a Chocobo or a car. It's a long way to Costa del Sol and how would you get across the ocean?"
"It isn't that far." Vincent calmly protested. "Only a few miles. I can go with the mail wagon when it comes around again and I can sign up as a crewman on a ship and work my way across. Besides, I've got some money saved up for once I get to Midgar."
"Honey, that's your money, and Midgar is a big city. It's dangerous." his mother put in.
"I can take care of myself, really. Junon's right next door to Midgar. There'll be a bus that will take any new recruits for the Turks directly to the recruitment office. Here, you can read about it for yourselves." Vincent pulled the thick, folded brochure out of his back pocket and handed it across the table to his father.
"What would we do without you?" his mother said softly.
"You'll have Geof."
Geofrey, who was too intent on his dinner to be paying much attention to the conversation suddenly looked up at the mention of his name.
"Hm?" he asked, mouth full.
"Never mind." Vincent told him.
"Okay." Geofrey nodded and resumed eating.
Vincent's father flipped through the pamphlet. "We'll think about it."
* * *
Finally the Chocobo-drawn cart pulled to a stop.
"We're here!" announced Mr. Revor- the mailman who ran his cart between the villages.
"Thank you for the ride." Vincent nodded to the mailman and hopped down from his seat. He had gotten up at an uncomfortably early hour and it was now early evening. The late summer sky was already beginning to become dark. Maybe he could wash dishes at an inn in return for a place to sleep- if there was an inn. Stopping long enough to pet the chocobo, he hiked towards the town. Costa del Sol was little more than a group of fishing huts and small houses scattered along the coastline. Someone was building a massive wooden structure near the northern part of town. It appeared to be the beginning of a rather large house. Vincent checked the sign posted out front.
Shinra Building Co.- President Shinra Summer Home. Please keep off the premises. Men at work.
Vincent thought about that one for a moment. Why would the head of the Shinra Electric Power Company want to build a summer home here? Costa del Sol did have a nice climate, but it didn't strike Vincent as the sort of place a billionaire executive would want to vacation. A small mischievous grin spread slowly across Vincent's face. The walls and first floor of the house were boarded in as well as the floor for the second story, but there were no door or windows yet, only holes. Wouldn't it be something if he could tell people he had once spent the night at the summer cottage of President Shinra? Vincent chuckled to himself and dropped his backpack inside the window. As long as he left before the construction crew arrived he should be all right. He'd have to get up early again anyway if he wanted to sign on as workman on a ship bound for the new continent. Vincent climbed through the window and landed lightly beside his backpack. Pulling his jacket out, he zipped his backpack closed again and pushed it into a corner. It was more than warm enough to sleep without a cover, but old habits were hard to kick. Vincent wrapped his jacket around his shoulders, leaned his head against his backpack, and soon fell asleep.
Nervousness at the thought of being caught and the sound of bird song woke Vincent before sunrise. In the gray half-light he crawled out of the window and made his way towards the beach. A few fishermen were awake and at work, but no one else seemed to be up yet. All but one of the docks was small and rickety with fishing boats in similar condition crowded around them. Vincent could only imagine how the fishermen managed to remove their individual vessels from the mad tangle of masts, sails, and anchor ropes. It seemed to him a hopeless knot of nautical paraphernalia. Even still, one by one, small boats were beginning to cast off. Vincent easily found the largest of the docks, which was further accentuated by the single huge ship moored there. Vincent found a man in a slightly stained and rumpled sailor's uniform leaning back in a chair fast asleep.
"Excuse me?" Vincent poked the sailor in the upper arm. The sailor fell backwards out of his chair in surprise.
"Geeze, kid!!" he exclaimed in slight exasperation. "What d'ya want?"
"Are there any positions open on this ship? As a member of the crew?" Vincent asked him.
"Yeah sure. Why? You thinkin' of bein' a sailor?" The sailor eyed Vincent critically. "You don't look like the type."
Vincent shrugged. "I just want to get to Junon."
"Oh. Okay. Well, you've come ta the right place kid." the sailor nodded. "Sign here and I'll put ya somewhere an' give ya somethin' ta do. I'm first mate on that." the sailor indicated the huge ship with a jerk of his thumb while shoving a clipboard at Vincent with the other hand.
"Thank you." Vincent stated, writing his name on the form.
"By the way, the name's Jim." Jim took the clipboard from Vincent and looked at it. "You're kiddin', right?" he asked, pointing to where Vincent had written his name.
"No." Vincent told him.
"Sure..." Jim trailed off and then laughed. "Sure, Valentine. Throw your stuff over there an' start stackin' those boxes. We've got some stuff to load before we shove off." Vincent nodded and went to do as instructed.
* * *
Vincent gripped the railing of the ship, his longish bangs whipping him in the face. He'd spent the entire morning running around helping to load cargo. Around mid morning Jim had ordered, "All aboard that's goin' aboard!" and they had cast off. Jim had flung a sailor's shirt at Vincent and told him to put it on and then find a mop to clean up the decks. Vincent had pulled the article of clothing on over his T-shirt. The white and blue shirt was long enough, but far too wide for his thin body. Still, as silly as he undoubtedly looked, it was fun wearing it.
Cheap thrills... Vincent thought and grinned to himself. The decks had been mopped within an inch of their lives and now he was looking over the side of the ship. Gongaga had been about twelve miles walking distance from the coast and consequently this was the first time Vincent had ever seen the ocean. He'd immediately decided he liked it. Everything seemed to be salty- the water, the air, the sand-
"Get your @#!$*& asses in gear!!!"
- the people... Vincent added as Jim roared a string of curse words at a group of individuals. Vincent turned his attention back to the seemingly endless stretch of blue-green-gray water. Jim had said they would reach Junon by late afternoon. Even as fast as the ship was going, Vincent didn't see how that, was possible. Surely the sea went on forever...
Vincent jumped slightly as Jim clamped a hand over his right shoulder.
"Get the decks mopped?"
"Yes, Sir." was Vincent's respectful reply.
"If you ain't the formalest kid I ever came across." Jim laughed, poking Vincent in the chest. "You did a good job. We'll be comin' up on Junon in an hour or so. Get your stuff together if you haven't already." Vincent nodded and turned to look back at the ocean again before going to retrieve his backpack.
It wasn't long until a speck that was not ocean appeared on the horizon. Slowly, the speck grew until Vincent could make out the skeletal structure of the uncompleted harbor that Shinra was putting together. Small dwellings and beautiful ocean front homes slowly became visible as the ship drew closer. The houses were elegant in their soft colors that reflected those of the sun and ocean- pinks, yellows, blues, greens, and other pastels. All the houses were trimmed in gingerbread, some more elaborate than others. Some were so heavily laden with the ornamental carved boarders they reminded Vincent of frosted birthday cakes. Wide porches wrapped around the homes like lace-trimmed petticoats. Another feature the buildings shared was a small, railed-in walkway on their rooftops. Vincent idly wondered what the walkways were for and asked Jim about it.
"Widow's Walkways they call 'em." the sailor explained. "Wives of sailors go up there to watch for their husband's ships returning. Make sure you give that shirt back before you leave."
Vincent nodded and gave the shirt back to Jim before the sailor walked off again.
Sooner than Vincent had expected, the ship slowly pulled into the harbor. Vincent snuck away before Jim could tell him to help unload the cargo. He was afraid the bus for Midgar might have left all ready. The bus, thankfully, turned out to be waiting not far away from the dock and was not scheduled to leave for several hours. Vincent spent his time wandering around the town, admiring the houses and poking his head into the shops even though he couldn't afford to buy anything. He had to save the money he had for when he got to Midgar. Vincent hadn't thought it was possible for any town besides Gongaga to be so pretty. The sparkle from the sun on the sea water seemed to reflect on all the buildings. Perhaps it was because it was the first city on the new continent, and therefore the oldest. The traditional architecture of the strange town was comforting to Vincent on an unconscious level. It was something familiar in an unfamiliar place.
The bus pulled out a little after lunchtime with Vincent and about seventeen other boys in it. The trip to Junon was somewhat noisier than Vincent had anticipated and the jabber and antics of the other boys became unnerving- if not annoying- after a while. Vincent was the only stranger of the group; the other boys all seemed to know each other- as well they should, all coming from the same town. No one really made an effort to include Vincent in the conversation, but he didn't mind all that much. He was too anxious about arriving in Midgar to worry about being excluded. The ride to Midgar was long and bumpy. The bus rolled along gravely, dusty roads which cut through huge stretches of grassy plains. The most interesting part of the journey was the tunnel which cut through a range of low mountains. At the other end of the cavernous piece of highway was Midgar. Vincent had not expected the city to cover such a wide expanse of land, however it was not quite as glamorous as he had envisioned. Much of the wheel-like city still appeared to be under construction. Three of the eight pie-shaped pieces did not seem to be entirely finished. The bus wound its way towards the young metropolis and finally passed through the city gates. Up close, the streets of Midgar provoked the same response in Vincent's mind. The city was impressive certainly, but not what he had expected.
"Ev'rybody out!" the bus driver called as the vehicle jerked to a halt with a sickening lurch. Picking his backpack up off the floor where it had fallen, Vincent was the first one out of the bus. The other boys followed closely behind him. They stood in a group for a moment and stared up at the huge Shinra building. A sign which read, "Recruitment Office- Turks" hung above the entrance they had been dropped off at. Not wanting to stand on a strange city street any longer, Vincent entered with the others at his heels. Murmurs of "WOW!", "This is amazing!", and "This place is HUGE!" from his fellow travelers bounced back and forth around Vincent. He didn't pay much attention. Instead, he pushed open the door labeled "Administration Office". The other boys entered after him in a whispering crowd. Slowly, they drifted away from each other as each boy went to a clerk and began filling out forms.
Vincent laid his pen down and took his stack of completed forms back to one of the clerks. The man behind the desk began rifling through the papers, nodding as he did so. He stopped short suddenly.
"Very cute young man, now what's your real name?" He held up one of the forms and pointed to Vincent's signature. Vincent inwardly sighed.
"That is my name, Sir: Vincent Erique Valentine."
The clerk raised an eyebrow. "I don't have time for pranks. It's too late at night and I'm not in the mood. Now what is your name?"
"But that is my name!" Vincent protested. "You can check my birth records, I can guarantee you'll find it's true."
The clerk leveled a glare at Vincent and then rose and crossed the floor to the nearest telephone. He spent several minutes there with the receiver pressed against his ear. Finally he nodded and hung up.
"All right, I believe you now. I apologize Mr. Valentine," the clerk said with a nod. "We get far too many young men in here with a sense of humor."
"I understand, Sir." Vincent answered sympathetically.
"All right..." the clerk exhaled, flipping through a box of cards and finally handing one to Vincent. "Go down and get yourself a uniform and then find your dorm. You'll be reporting to class first thing in the morning."
"Yes, Sir. Thank you." Vincent inclined his head slightly before turning to find the room marked on the card.
Vincent found the room where he was to receive his uniform without much trouble, but the attendants there did have some minor difficulty finding trousers long enough to fit him. With his set of suits under one arm and backpack slung over one shoulder, Vincent finally struck out to try to find his dorm room. He idly wondered how many other boys he'd be sharing it with. The room turned out to be on the third floor of the section of the Shinra building that the Turks inhabited. He was tired and eager to get settled and get some sleep. Turning the key in the doorknob, Vincent pushed the door open and found three other young men his age on the other side. Vincent smiled nervously and lifted his free hand in greeting. The other boys smiled back, equally unsure what to do. There were two sets of bunk beds and two dressers crammed into the small room.
"Um..." Vincent gestured at the dressers.
"There's space in the two bottom drawers in that one." one of the boys- tall with light brown hair- informed him, gesturing to the dresser next to the door. "You can put your stuff in there. And the bottom bunk over there is empty."
"Thanks." Vincent nodded.
"Um... my name's Kurt, by the way. Hello," the boy smiled sheepishly.
"Hello." Vincent smiled back, shaking hands.
"That's Brownie and Douglas." Kurt pointed out each teenager in turn. Brownie, perched atop one of the upper bunks, was a stocky boy with longish brown hair and a likable grin. Douglas, arms full of sloppily folded shirts, had short red hair and round glasses. They waved and Vincent nodded at them.
"Where are you from?" Brownie asked. "My folks're in Sector Three."
"Gongaga," Vincent replied, emptying the contents of his backpack into one of the dresser drawers.
"Never heard of it." Brownie replied.
"It's on the old continent," Vincent explained. Brownie nodded.
"Doug's from Kalm; so's Kurt."
"Have any of you been here long?" Vincent asked the boys collectively.
"Kurt and I got here earlier today." Douglas said, speaking for the first time.
"I've been here since yesterday." Brownie put in.
"Do you like it so far?"
Brownie shrugged. "I haven't done anything besides fill out paperwork. Classes are supposed to start tomorrow. Nobody knows what we're doing yet- aside from schoolwork and stuff." Brownie flopped backwards onto the bed and made a loud snoring noise. Kurt and Douglas each made a face at the mention of schoolwork. Vincent chuckled quietly. School in Gongaga had been boring at times, but it hadn't been a bad experience. The teachers had been friendly and the students- for the most part- had been nice. Even the homework had been interesting enough not to fall asleep on- most of the time.
"What time do we start?"
"Early." Douglas answered with a slight twist to his mouth.
"REAL early." Kurt added.
"Too early to be legal." Brownie finished. "We're supposed to be up and in uniform before the second bell rings."
Vincent smiled again. If nothing else, at least things would be interesting.
* * *
Vincent was jolted awake instantly, heart racing. He shot up to a sitting position and immediately fell backwards again when his head connected loudly with the underside of the top bunk. He had originally thought the building was on fire. However, it seemed the alarm bell was merely a wake up call. Brownie was right. It was entirely too early. Rubbing his forehead, Vincent sat up more carefully. The sounds of the others dragging themselves out of bed were apparent now that the deafening din of the wake-up bell had ceased.
"There is no possible way it can be morning..." someone groaned. Vincent guessed it to be Douglas. There was a muffled thud as Brownie dropped from his bunk to the floor and a slightly louder thud and a startled yelp as Douglas dropped from his bunk onto Vincent.
"Hey!" Vincent exclaimed upon being knocked to the floor from behind.
"Sorry..." Douglas grunted. "Anybody seen my glasses?"
"Please get off me." Vincent stated; pulling his face out of the carpet and trying not to sound as annoyed as he felt. Someone hit the light switch and instantly all boys were shielding their eyes from the sudden brightness.
"Here." said Vincent, retrieving Douglas's glasses from the floor once he could see again. "Now get off me, please?"
"Sorry." Douglas blushed, replacing his glasses. Everyone hurried to get dressed.
"I feel like my dad in this thing." Brownie remarked, buttoning the jacket of his blue suit.
"It's not that bad." Douglas put in. Vincent kept his opinion to himself, simply grateful that his trousers were not too short. Everyone was thrown into a panic once more as the bell rang a second time.
"Geeze! You'd think they'd give a little warning before they do that." Kurt gasped, hand over his heart.
"Good morning, Gentlemen." the teacher stated in an air of command. "I am Mr. Colski. I will be instructing you in the rules and regulations of becoming a Turk. You will meet your other instructors later. You will be reporting to my class during study halls so I suppose you could call me a sort of homeroom teacher."
Vincent observed the huge man as he continued his lecture. Mr. Colski was a little shorter than Vincent was himself, but twice as wide with a thick, black mustache. Mr. Colski went on.
"You will all report here immediately after breakfast. There will be a fifteen-minute interlude between mealtimes and classes so you will all have time to gather your things and prepare yourselves. I realize that many of your rooms are not exactly close to the classrooms, however that does not give you the excuse to be tardy.
"I do not enjoy doling out punishments, but I will if it proves necessary. I expect each of you to obey the rules and respect me and each other. I will not tolerate pranks, disruptiveness, or put-downs of any sort. Is that clear?"
Vincent and everyone else in the room nodded.
"Now then..." Mr. Colski leaned over slightly to retrieve a note pad from his desk. "I must make sure that everyone who's here is where he's supposed to be." He began barking out names.
A wave of smothered laughter and smirks broke out and rippled throughout the classroom. Vincent shrank in his seat a little. Why did people find his last name so amusing? It wasn't shameful for him to have the last name of "Valentine", but it was embarrassing that people found his name funny. Brownie gave him a sympathetic look from across the aisle between their desks. Mr. Colski cleared his throat loudly and the snickers were abruptly cut short.
"Present." Vincent said quietly. Mr. Colski called the rest of the role and then closed his notebook. Books and tablets of paper were distributed along with pencils, syllabi, and other such materials. Vincent found himself being poked in the back with a pencil. He briefly turned his head to see a young man with red hair discreetly shove a small scrap of notebook paper at him. Vincent took the paper and carefully unfolded it in his lap.
Let me call you Sweetheart?
Crumpling the note, Vincent ground his teeth and hoped that the present seating arrangement was not permanent.
* * *
Vincent ground his teeth and turned his attention back to his paper.
"Matt, leave me alone. I'm trying to write a paper." Vincent informed his antagonist without turning around. Matt was an insolent redhead who sat at the desk behind Vincent. Matt's goal in life seemed to be to make Vincent as miserable as possible. The redheaded boy was forever taunting him, usually about his last name. Vincent's strategy was to simply ignore his pest, but it was becoming harder and harder to simply blow Matt off.
"Sorry......... Cupid." Matt snickered.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" Vincent tried not to growl. "You might try studying. You're already flunking this class."
"Who cares?" Matt asked, repeatedly jabbing the point of his pencil into Vincent's back.
"Please stop that."
"Please stop that." Matt repeated in a high-pitched, mocking tone. "Nice come-back. You're so polite it's disgusting. Be a man and just turn around and slap me."
Don't tempt me... Vincent mentally growled.
"Go evolve somewhere and let me work on my paper." Vincent stated calmly. Matt made no reply to this. Strange as this was, Vincent let the matter go and returned his attention to writing a paragraph on the destructive habits of Zoloms. It was not a topic Vincent would have chosen himself, but was at least one that held his interest. The bell rang, signifying the end of classes for the day. As Vincent stood and collected his books, he noticed the other students were staring at him. A few were snickering.
"What?" Vincent asked as Brownie walked past him.
"Uh... you've got something on the back of your coat."
Vincent quickly put his books down and tore off his blazer. Matt had written a rather rude message in black ink across the back of Vincent's jacket. He clenched the fabric in one fist, his jaw set.
"Uh... Vincent?" Brownie asked, noting his friend's building anger. Vincent crossed the classroom to where Matt and his groupies were standing, laughing up their sleeves.
"Vincent--!" Brownie called, his voice panicked.
"Oooo... Mr. Sweetheart's gonna ask me to stop. I'm so scared." Matt mock-whimpered. Vincent seized the shorter boy by the back of the collar and lifted him so that their eyes were level. The tips of Matt's toes still barely touched the floor.
"Hey! It was just a joke!" one of Matt's lackeys protested. Vincent glared at him and the other boy quickly backed down. He turned his attention back to Matt, who was now beginning to sweat.
"H-hey... I didn't mean anything by it..." Matt stammered, fully aware that Vincent could tear him apart if he chose to do so.
"Vincent, don't kill him. I mean sure he's annoying, but it was just a joke..." Brownie put in nervously. He was also aware that Vincent could easily shred his antagonist.
"Leave me alone." Vincent told Matt evenly and then dropped him.
* * *
Vincent yawned widely unable to cover his mouth, a stack of books under one arm and his blazer in the other. It had been a long day. At least his homework was done and he could go straight to sleep. As long as Brownie didn't have his radio turned up too loudly- Vincent had learned to ignore the radio when the volume was low enough. Something caught his eye and he turned his head to get a better look. Matt and his three groupies were heading down the hall each with an armload of T-shirts.
I'm going to regret asking, I know, but... "Matt, what are you four doing? You know the laundry room is downstairs."
"Yeah, we know, but it's too late to go all the way down now. We're taking these to the bathrooms." Matt replied far too innocently.
Vincent only nodded and opened the door to his room with a feeling of impending disaster nagging at him.
"What the heck...?" Brownie asked groggily. Vincent raised his head from his pillow slightly. He had heard the noise too. A steady trickling sound was emanating from somewhere.
"Mmph... What's going on?" Douglas wanted to know, still half asleep. "It's two at night."
"C'mon, guys, I'm trying to sleep..." came Kurt's voice, muffled somewhat by his pillow.
"No, listen..." Brownie instructed. The boys paused for a moment and listened to the soft sound of moving water. "Something's up." Brownie voiced their collective thoughts. "Vincent, check outside, will you?"
Vincent sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"Ah!!" he quickly pulled his feet away from the floor.
"What?" everyone demanded. Vincent tentatively put his feet down again. The floor was covered with at least half an inch of water.
"The floor's wet!" he exclaimed quietly.
"I'm going to hit the lights." Douglas warned, reaching for the light switch. Vincent pulled his feet up, waiting for the electricity to short out. The lights flickered on and remained that way. Vincent squinted against the brightness and then gawked at the water on the floor pouring in from under the door.
What the...? "I'm going to open the door," he stated, rising from his seat on his bunk. Vincent twisted the door handle and instantly more water gushed into the room, swirling around his ankles.
"What the heck is going on?!" Kurt asked no one in particular.
Vincent's mind flashed back to Matt and his friends and their load of T-shirts. Hadn't they said something about the bathrooms.........? Oh no... They wouldn't... Vincent closed his eyes in disgust, knowing perfectly well that they would.
"My guess is somebody left the water running in the bathrooms."
Kurt got up and poked his head out the door. Other students, still in their pajamas, were beginning to emerge from their rooms into the dimly lit hall. All of them were equally confused.
"I'm really glad I didn't leave my books on the floor." Douglas commented as he dropped to the floor with a splash. Vincent noticed Matt at one of the doorways farther down the hall and went over to him.
"Pretty good, huh?" Matt grinned widely. It took all of Vincent's restraint to stop himself from smacking Matt across the face.
"Matt, why would you want to flood the dormitories?"
"You know the superiors are on the lower floors. We get flooded; they get rained on."
"Matt, are you trying to get us all expelled?" Vincent groaned.
"What?" Matt demanded looking hurt.
"Let's get the water shut off and start cleaning this up." Brownie called to the boys gathered in the hallway. The teenagers hurried to comply. No one wanted to be blamed for the horrible mess. Vincent paused in the act of getting a mop out of the broom closet as the sound of sloshy stomping became apparent on the staircase.
"We're going to die..." Douglas trailed off as a group of very wet and very angry teachers stalked into the hallway.
"WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS?!!" Mr. Colski- who was leading the group- bellowed.
"We got all the sinks shut - Oh boy..." Brownie choked upon seeing the teachers. Vincent swallowed hard and stood at attention, mop still in hand.
"We don't know, Sir. The sound of the water spilling over woke us up."
"Apparently somebody thought it would be fun to clog all the sinks." Brownie put in, holding up a soggy T-shirt.
Mr. Colski nodded. "I see. And whose bright idea was this?" He directed his glare at Brownie.
"Wasn't us, Sir." Brownie told him. Mr. Colski's glare deepened.
"I want this mess cleaned up and when you're done you can all come down stairs and mop up there too. I want to know who did this and until I do, ALL of you are suspended from privileges." The entire collection of teenagers seemed to cringe. Out of the corner of his eye Vincent caught Matt and his friends sneaking back into their room. The teacher noticed them too.
"Hold it right there." he yelled. Matt and his friends froze. "What do the four of you know about this?"
"Nothing, Sir." Matt said coolly. Brownie coughed loudly, causing Mr. Colski to turn and look at him. Brownie held up the T-shirt and lifted the small label at the neck.
"Says 'Matt Contini' on the tag."
Vincent shook his head. Only Matt and his buddies would be dumb enough to pull a prank using their own, labeled clothing. Matt was unsuccessful in repressing a wince as the teacher turned his fury on him.
"All of you get this mopped up and then go back to bed. These four will be cleaning the teachers' quarters."
* * *
It was hot in the library. Stuffy too. Vincent pulled at his collar, trying to unglue his shirt from his back and fervently wished that the workmen would get around to installing air conditioning in the library. He felt as if he were melting. At least his research paper was nearly finished. The other boys scattered throughout the library were placing their finished papers in a shallow wooden box sitting on the counter under the row of windows which took up one wall. The windows had been pushed open so that some of the arid air currents could at least circulate through the sweltering room. Vincent got up from his seat at one of the long tables and stapled his papers together. With a sigh of relief, he tossed the finished report into the box. At that precise moment, the wind picked up. Vincent watched in absolute horror as every paper in the box was lifted into the air and swirled out of the window.
"NO!" he shouted, grabbing frantically at the papers as they fluttered out of reach. The other boys heard his cry and quickly gathered around him at the window.
"No!!" Brownie squeaked.
"What's below the window?" someone demanded.
"The dumpsters..." somebody else trailed off. Douglas turned to face the other teenagers.
"Everybody downstairs, quick! We have got to find those papers!"
No one needed to be told twice. The herd of teenage boys scrambled out of the library and down the nearest set of stairs. Vincent very nearly ran over Douglas on his way through the hall.
"Where's the fire?" Douglas asked, flattening himself against the wall to avoid being trampled.
"All the papers flew out the window!" Vincent panted, rushing past him.
"WHAT!" Douglas shrieked. "Wait for me!" He scrambled to catch up with everyone.
A few minutes later Vincent and Red Barkley- the two of them being among the tallest young men present- were boosting fellow students into the dumpsters.
"This is disgusting!" Brownie gagged from inside one of the dumpsters.
"It's better than having to rewrite an entire paper." Matt put in from another dumpster. Everyone made various sounds of reluctant agreement.
"I found them!!!" Someone cried. Everyone scrambled to over to the specified dumpster. Vincent jumped and managed to grab the edge of the oversized garbage bin and pull himself up. Thankfully, the research papers were lying on top of the bagged rubbish and were relatively unharmed. He and the young man who had made the discovery began handing the papers over the side to their respective authors. Kurt sniffed at his paper.
"Ugh!" he choked. "How are we going to explain this to Mr. Colski?"
* * *
"I want everyone to take the necessary precautions. Take care of yourselves and above all stay AWAY from the infirmary and especially the sickroom. I don't want anyone else coming down with anything. Enough of you all ready have colds and such. Four cases of scarlet fever are more than enough." Mr. Colski instructed the room full of young men. Mumbles of "Yes, Sir." quietly echoed back in response. Vincent fidgeted in his seat slightly. It seemed to him that Mr. Colski and the rest of the staff were overreacting a little. Still, it probably wasn't hurting anyone for Mr. Colski to be reminding everyone to stay clear of the ill, quarantined students. Red Barkley, who sat two seats ahead of Brownie, coughed shakily. He didn't look very comfortable. His face was flushed and he was sweating as if he had been running too hard.
"Mr. Barkley, are you all right?" Mr. Colski raised an eyebrow at the young man.
"I'm... Just..." Red seemed to be choking on his words. "Just fine, Si-" he trailed off as his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped over, falling from his chair to the floor. Everyone was instantly half out of his seat. Muted shouts of "Red!!" began echoing as the replies to Mr. Colski had earlier. Everyone began crowding around Red. Vincent was the first to get to the fallen young man.
"Red?" Vincent asked smacking the other boy's face lightly. "Red, wake up." Mr. Colski began shoving students aside.
"Get back!" he barked. "Get BACK!! Stop crowding."
Red's eye fluttered open at the sound of his teacher's booming voice.
"I... s-sorry...Sir..." he stammered, shivering. Mr. Colski laid a thick hand on Red's forehead.
"Mr. Valentine, help me get Mr. Barkley down to the infirmary. The rest of you return to your rooms."
The morning alarm sounded distant and barely half as loud as usual in Vincent's ears. He didn't care. He had barely slept at all and couldn't move. A terrible heat stabbed and prickled everywhere, both inside and outside his body. His throat felt tight and dry. He could hardly breathe and doubted he would be able to squeeze any words out should he attempt to talk. The sounds of his roommates getting themselves awake and ready for classes seemed to come from miles away. He opened his eyes slightly just to try to stop the world from spinning.
"Vincent, come on, the bell went off. Don't tell me you didn't hear it." Douglas said absently, pulling a T-shirt down over his head. Vincent made no reply and only shivered even though he felt as if he had been lit on fire.
"Vincent, what are you waiting for? The second bell's going to ring any second." Brownie bent down and leaned into Vincent's bunk, leaning both hands on the mattress on either side of his friend's body. Brownie's brow furrowed as he looked into Vincent's face.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "You don't look so good."
"I... I..." Vincent choked on the syllables.
Brownie put a hand to Vincent's forehead. His hand was almost painfully cold to Vincent.
"Whoa..." Brownie said quietly. "Douglas go find one of the teachers or something. I don't think Vincent's going to be able to make it to class today." He turned his attention back to Vincent. "Just hang in there."
"Yeah, you'll be fine." Kurt echoed.
Vincent was not convinced. Here he was, under quarantine in a very small room with five others. He felt awful- as if he were being slowly barbecued. He turned over, trying to find a cool spot on his pillow and glanced around the dim room with bleary eyes. Nobody else seemed to be feeling any better. Red Barkley was occupying the bed next to his and seemed to be asleep. Vincent wished he could fall asleep simply to forget the pain. He had had the flu before and had felt terrible, but he had only been tired and achy. Now he felt as if someone were piling live coals on him.
Red turned over to face Vincent and opened his blue eyes.
"Sorry..." he whispered. Vincent gestured weakly with one hand to let Red know that it was not his fault. He only wished he could stop the fire crawling all over his skin. At least he wouldn't have to tolerate Matt sitting behind him for a few days...
* * *
"I will not tolerate any funny business." Mr. Martor stated firmly. "These are weapons and are not to be treated as toys. You do not touch them unless I am looking over your shoulder. Do I make myself clear?"
Fourteen young men nodded with grave "Yessir's". Vincent and the other ill boys had returned to class a few weeks ago. They were presently lined up in a long metal room with a long wall cutting off a fourth of it. Today they were going to attempt their hand at target shooting.
"Each of you will have your chance to load and fire these weapons. Keep in mind that these are WEAPONS, not toys. These are real shells which, if fired, can seriously injure or kill someone. Do not touch ANYTHING until I come around to make sure you don't accidentally shoot yourselves in the foot. Pair off and select a station. I'll be around to help each of you shortly. Don't touch ANYTHING!"
Vincent turned towards Brownie who nodded. Together they went to the nearest booth. Vincent looked at the single handgun lying on the counter. The weapons store in Gongaga had never sold anything this fancy. The weapon was entirely dark, textured metal and simply put together. Apparently it was meant for training students and little else. Mr. Martor began explaining to the class as a whole how to load the weapons and was just stating that he would be coming around to assist everyone when a shot echoed loudly off the room's metallic walls. Everyone jumped in surprise. A few boys cried out in panic and several reflexively dropped to their knees. Vincent found his own voice was among the cries of panic. However, his cry was one of pain more than surprise. He dropped to his knees and reflexively clutched his left forearm. A small hole pierced his flesh and blood flowed from the wound across his arm and onto the tile floor. Vincent gritted his teeth as true pain began to set in. Brownie had flattened himself against the wall of the booth at the sound of the shot but quickly recovered.
"By the gods! Vincent are you okay?!" he quickly knelt and began searching his pockets. He came up with a small handful of tissues, which he pressed over his friend's wound. Vincent could not repress a gritted cry of pain under the pressure of Brownie's touch.
"What the hell just happened here?!" Mr. Martor bellowed once the reverberations from the shot had faded. Something clattered loudly to the floor. Out of the corner of his eye Vincent saw one of the practice weapons spin slowly into the hall between the firing booths.
"Sir! Vincent's been shot!" Brownie called. Mr. Martor was suddenly kneeling next to him on the floor; his thick and calloused hand around Vincent's wrist. Vincent drew quick, thick breaths through clenched teeth, forbidding himself to cry. Blood poured down his arm despite Brownie's tissues. Mr. Martor frowned and gently twisted Vincent's wrist to the right. Vincent was unable to stop himself from crying out or to hold back sudden tears.
"Does that hurt?" Mr. Martor asked. Vincent nodded, biting back his pain.
"Who did this?" Mr. Martor asked evenly. Silence.
"Everyone into the hall!" Mr. Martor barked. "NO one goes anywhere until I return is that clear?"
"S-sir..." someone squeaked. Vincent turned his head to see Matt, sweating heavily, poking his head into the cubicle. "I... It was an accident. I was just trying to load it like you said and..." he trailed off, voice shaking. Mr. Martor stood and looked at him evenly.
"Everyone, into the hall. Now."
* * *
Vincent wasn't sure he liked the weight of the standard issue pistol hanging inside his blazer. Target shooting was fun in a way, but... He felt uneasy about the prospect of actually having to shoot something or someone. He watched as Matt, stationed at the office door across from him, yawned boredly. Vincent was suddenly very worried about the fact that Matt also carried such a weapon. He was still astounded that Matt had managed to somehow graduate. He shook his head. Matt could be an idiot, but he did manage to scrape together enough brain cells to do something right if the situation pressed. Vincent adjusted his position slightly and continued to scan the painfully empty corridors of the floor. This level was just below the science department and housed only offices for the scientists- "Eggheads" as Matt referred to them. Guard duty at offices of low-level executives was one of the earliest duties assigned to newly graduated Turks. It wasn't the most exciting job, but if he did it well, Vincent was sure he'd be assigned to something more interesting. Tiny footsteps began at the other end of one of the long hallways and a young woman came into view. Vincent's eyes followed her as she wandered away down another branch of hallway. A long brown ponytail tied with a violet ribbon swung well past her waist as she walked. Her lab coat and employee tag confirmed that she was allowed on this floor, but she seemed lost nonetheless. Vincent looked over at Matt for a moment and rolled his eyes in disgust.
"Your eyes will fall out if you keep doing that. By the way, you're drooling."
Matt wiped his mouth on his sleeve; not comprehending that Vincent's remark had been rhetorical.
"Did you see that?" he asked Vincent, eyes still wide.
"I saw. Honestly, you'd think you had never seen a woman before."
Matt shrugged. "Yeah well, you looked too. You can't tell me you didn't think she was cute."
"We're on duty." Vincent growled. "Grow up."
"You sure you didn't forget to take the hanger out of your blazer before you put it on this morning?" Matt asked petulantly. Vincent ignored him. Matt dug a piece of gum out of his pocket and began chewing on it loudly.
"Mr. Colski will shoot you if he catches you." Vincent reminded the other man. Matt only shrugged and continued to crack his gum. Vincent sighed to himself. Matt was not nearly as bad as he had once been, but he was still very annoying, not to mention immature. They were both twenty. One would have thought Matt would have grown up a little after three years of training. Sadly, it hadn't seemed to have affected Matt at all. Vincent turned his head as the small footsteps started again. The young woman had wandered back towards Matt and Vincent's section of hallway. She glanced at each of them nervously and then looked at a scrap of paper in her hand. She bit her lip and adjusted her hold on a stack of notebooks. Matt grinned at her widely, still chewing his gum. The woman backed up an inch or so and looked at her paper again.
"May I help you?" Vincent asked her. She looked up at him sharply.
"I- I'm allowed to be up here." she told him, thumbing her employee tag which was clipped to her lab coat. She seemed very nervous.
"Yes, I see." Vincent nodded. "You seem lost."
She nodded. "I'm supposed to go here." she turned the paper so that he could read it.
Professor Gast- Floor 65, Office C12
"You're on the right floor." Vincent assured her.
"Would... Could you show me where the office is?" she asked, her brown eyes still uncertain. "It's my first day here and I don't know where anything is."
Vincent glanced briefly at Matt, who looked as if he had just swallowed a live fish.
"If anyone asks, tell them where I've gone. I won't be gone long." he informed his colleague who just stared stupidly. Vincent sighed.
"This way, Madam."
"Um... My last name's Sukinya, Lucrecia Sukinya," she stated shyly. "Thank you."
Vincent shrugged. "You're welcome." He couldn't help thinking what a pretty name "Lucrecia Sukinya" was.
"Vincent Valentine." he told her in return, expecting her to laugh or at least question if he was serious, but she didn't. She only nodded.
"Thank you," she repeated softly. "If you hadn't said something, I would probably have wandered around for hours."
Vincent nodded, not sure how to reply to that. However, he was spared having to think of something to say upon arriving at Professor Gast's office door.
"Here you are." Vincent gestured to the closed door with the professor's nameplate on it.
"Thank you." Lucrecia smiled back.
"If you need any help again, please feel free to ask any of us." Vincent told her. She smiled again and then turned to lightly knock on the closed door.
"I don't get it." Matt stated bluntly upon Vincent's return.
"You don't get what?" Vincent asked, not caring a whit about whatever it was Matt didn't understand.
"Why she didn't ask me to show her where she was supposed to go!"
Vincent choked on a smirk and could only shake his head.
"Think, Matt. Think hard."
"Was it the gum?" Matt asked, pulling the gum so that it hung out of his mouth in a long string. Vincent tried not to make a face in disgust. Instead, he settled for a deep sigh.
Matt nodded and spat his wad of gum over his shoulder. "Guess you were right then. I shouldn't have been chewing on it."
Vincent smacked himself in the face.
"You survived." Brownie remarked catching up to Vincent in the hallway.
Vincent chuckled. "He is annoying, but tolerable."
Brownie laughed outright. "Vincent, I think you're the only person besides his three groupies who will ever say that about Matt."
Vincent shrugged as Douglas and Kurt fell into step with them.
"He's never been outright mean to anyone." Vincent pointed out. Brownie nodded.
"All right. I'll give him that."
"Why did they have to pair us off with Matt's friends?" Douglas moaned.
"It could have been worse." Vincent put in.
"How?" everyone asked at once. Vincent shrugged, feeling his friends cringe in unison as Matt and his lackeys jogged ahead of them.
The lunch line in the break room wasn't terribly long, but with Matt and his friends in line ahead of them one could never be certain how much food would be left.
"Hi!" Vincent heard Matt's cheerful chirp to the person ahead of them in line. Vincent looked up briefly to see who it was Matt had chosen to unintentionally harass this time. He began to look down again and then stopped short, his vision snagged on a familiar face. The young woman who had been lost in the office corridors stood ahead of Matt in the lunch line.
"...Hello..." she replied softly, clearly wishing she was anywhere but where she presently was.
"Did you figure out where you were supposed to go? You seemed pretty lost this morning." Matt was trying his hardest to be polite and pleasant, but was failing rather miserably. Vincent found Matt's pathetic attempts at being a lady's man laughable in a sad way.
"Yes, thank you. Excuse me." she pushed her tray forward, trying to put some distance between Matt and herself. Brownie snickered behind Vincent.
"He tries so hard, doesn't he?" he commented. Vincent nodded.
"Why don't you rescue both of them?"
"Miss Sukinya, I don't believe you've met my friend." Vincent spoke up. Both Matt and Lucrecia turned sharply to look at him.
"This is Matt Contini."
Matt blinked stupidly at Vincent, then turned back towards Lucrecia and extended a hand.
"Nice to meet you." he grinned hugely.
"Yes..." Lucrecia laughed, still nervous. "Hello." She looked over her shoulder, desperate for any escape for Matt's clumsily contrived advances.
"Hey Matt, your buddies are already seated." Kurt pointed out from farther down the line. Matt looked around rapidly and then sprinted to join his friends, tray in hand.
Lucrecia sighed with relief. "Thank you." she smiled to Brownie and Vincent in turn. "Hojo, where are we sitting?" she asked the person in line ahead of her.
The young man in front of her looked back. He was about as tall as Vincent, with shoulder-length black hair and was also wearing a white lab coat. He peered at her and then at Vincent through thick glasses. He only shrugged.
"Wherever you like."
"You can come with us." Brownie smiled. The male scientist nodded and picked up his tray. Vincent briefly raised an eyebrow at his friend. Brownie only grinned in response. Heading towards the table, Vincent wondered in the back of his mind what Brownie was up to.
* * *
Vincent pushed the door closed behind him and then flopped down on his bunk. His trio of roommates all looked up from what they had been doing to glance at him. Vincent realized belatedly that he was being stared at.
"Yes?" he asked. Kurt hid a smirk behind his comic book. Douglas began coughing, trying to cover his chuckling. Brownie began trying to choke down his own laughter. Vincent blinked wondering what it was about him that his friends were finding so amusing.
"What?" he asked, sitting up carefully to avoid smacking his head on the upper bunk. Brownie rolled from his stomach onto his back.
"You. It's so obvious." he grinned.
"What's so obvious?" Vincent wanted to know, irritation beginning to pollute his good mood.
"That you've been nailed by Cupid."
"Come on, you've had hearts in your eyes ever since you saw that little scientist in the lunch room."
Vincent felt his cheeks begin to burn and a protest died in his throat as he considered Brownie's words and realized his friend was right. His face became hotter. Brownie fell backwards laughing. Kurt and Douglas joined him.
"I don't see what the big deal is." Vincent stated slightly annoyed. "All of you have 'girl friends'- or how is it you define it? 'Just friends', I believe? You can't tell me that you have no affections for Shimi." Vincent looked pointedly at Brownie who abruptly stopped laughing and blushed.
"Or Milletta." Vincent directed his stare at Kurt who buried his reddening face in his comic book again.
"Or Lamia." Vincent turned to look up at Douglas on the bunk above him. Douglas blushed furiously and shrugged.
"All right, you've made your point. I'm sorry." Brownie apologized. Vincent nodded and shrugged.
"It's all right." Vincent lay back on his bunk again, allowing his euphoric mood to return. He and Lucrecia had become excellent friends since their first awkward encounter in the science department hallway. Their occupations and schedules often intersected and so they had fallen to regularly speaking with one another during breaks and days off. Lucrecia was more than a match for him in interests and intelligent conversation. She was always a delight to be around, even when she was not in the best of moods. However, he had only once or twice witnessed her a little out of sorts. He counted her among his best friends now. They had been all over Midgar together. Vincent sighed happily, recalling everything they'd done together.
* * *
"Hmmm..." Vincent tapped his pen absently against his lips.
Dear Mom and Dad,
How is everyone? I hope Geof's behaving himself. Leave is coming up soon and I wanted to ask if I could bring a friend along. It isn't Brownie or Kurt or Douglas. Actually, she works in the science department. Yes I said 'she'. Tell Geof he can breathe; I know he must have started choking when he heard that. Yes, I DO have a girlfriend, Geofrey. Her name is Lucrecia Sukinya. She's two years younger than myself and her family lives in Junon. She is very nice and quite intelligent. If it is all right with everyone, I'd like to bring her along when I come to visit in a few weeks. Would that be all right? We are planning to stop at her parent's house on the way to Gongaga. She claims they are eager to meet me. I hope they approve... What else?
How are things at the store? I hope everything is going well. Mom, I'm looking forward to eating some real food again. Geof, my side of the room had better be in one piece when I return. Things have been rather quiet here. Classes are going well as is training. I'm hoping to get a decent grade out of my chemistry final, but I'm not sure as yet. Keep your fingers crossed for me. Everyone's been busy with something. Lately no one can talk of anything except the prospect of Mako energy. It sounds odd doesn't it- using materia as a power source? It's supposedly more efficient than coal or wood or even gasoline. I have my doubts, and I suppose everyone else will until the first reactor is completed and started up. What I can't understand is why the first reactor is being built in Kalm and not in Midgar. Ah well, it is my job to question the motives of my assignments and not those of my employers. I've been told Midgar is not capable of supporting a Mako reactor just yet. With all the construction still going on, I can understand that. It's amazing how much city has been added to the place since I came here. All but the last sectors and part of the upper ledge have been finished. I don't think I've ever seen more ladders or staircases in one place before. If you ever decide to come and visit I must take you all on a tour. I went to see the opening of the new play Loveless with Lucrecia the other evening. Very enjoyable. You'd love it, mom; so would you, dad. Even Geof would like it. Lucrecia says it's based off a legend, but if it is, I've never heard of it. I'm inspired to go and scan the library now. With that in mind, I suppose I'll close. Leave a light on for me.
* * *
Hello! I promised I'd write to you and the others, so here's something for all of you to talk about. Sorry it's not more interesting. Lucrecia's home was huge. It's much bigger than my own home at least. Her house is a big, pale yellow, two-story affair decked with white gingerbread. The seaside is barely three blocks away. I've been to the river before, but never to an actual ocean beach. It was very warm there with a lot of sand and wind, but very beautiful. Lucrecia's parents are very nice people. Her father is a physician and works out of a small office in his home. I hope I gave a suitable impression, but they do seem to like me, so I suppose I passed inspection. We stayed with her family for a few days. I f my own family ever had company, Geof and I got to sleep on the floor in the living room and the guest got our room. Therefore, I fully expected to wind up on the couch, but was put up in my own bedroom, which looked out over the street. I could see the ocean through the houses...
I'll say this about the boat trip: it's much nicer to make crossing as a passenger than as a worker. I couldn't believe how much Costa del Sol had changed. That little fishing village I'd told you about has become much larger. The President's "cottage" (mansion) is finished and surrounded by terraced gardens. I've been told someone plans to build a hotel nearby and turn the village into a vacation spot for tourists. I'd forgotten how warm the weather in Costa del Sol was. At any rate, the cart ride inland was long and rather dusty. After seeing Lucrecia's large and elegant city and home, I was afraid of what she might think of my own village and modest home. Still, Gongaga has its own charms and Lucrecia was not disappointed in it. She liked the huge forests and towering trees surrounding the village. Once at home, Mom and Dad greeted her eagerly and Geof- tactless as only a sixteen year old little brother can be- asked her "Are you my brother's girlfriend?" I could have killed him but instead settled for a nervous grin and a deep shade of red. Lucrecia floored him by answering with a "yes" and a big smile. I thought he would either choke or faint. Instead he simply asked "Why?!" Mom thankfully intervened at about that time. Geof was a bit put out at first at having to give up our room to my "stupid girlfriend." However, he changed his tune in another day. I hope Lucrecia enjoyed herself; I think she did anyway. We stopped at a local carnival at Junon on the way back to Midgar. I'll probably get back before this letter does, but I suppose this way I won't be able to leave anything out when I return and you ask me what happened. Well, I'm almost out of paper so I suppose I should stop. Say hi to the others for me.
* * *
Half an hour until they would be reassigned. Vincent and Lucrecia sat in the break room killing time. There wasn't enough time to actually do anything besides sit there, so Vincent went to see if anything had been left in his mail slot while she went to find a seat at one of the small tables. A short stack of about five envelopes waited in the small wooden cave. Fishing them out, he brought them over to where Lucrecia sat waiting for him.
"Anything interesting?" she asked. Rifling through what turned out to be largely junk mail, Vincent shook his head.
"Not really..." he trailed off as the last envelope caught his eye. A Shrinra telegram? Chest suddenly tight, Vincent dropped the other letters on the table and tore open the thin, white envelope.
Mr. Vincent Valentine,
We regret to inform you that the Gongaga Mako reactor has, for reasons unknown, exploded. All dwellings were leveled by the blast and further destroyed by fire. Nearly the entire population of the village has been killed. Among the dead are two men and one woman who have been identified by survivors as Erique L. Valentine, Vanessa A. Valentine, and Geofrey J. Valentine. You are requested to return to Gongaga immediately and attend to the bodies and any possessions still intact.
Shinra Electric Power Company
Vincent simply stood there stunned, unable to move or think. Dead? How could that be possible? He read the brief message again. Dead... His father, his mother, his brother, dead? All of them gone... Vincent simply stared at the paper as the cold reality settled into him like a lead weight. Dead...
"...you okay? Vincent?"
Vincent became aware that Lucrecia was trying to speak to him. He couldn't answer her. Dead... His right arm fell to his side and he dropped heavily into his seat, unable to remain standing. Dead... He stared blankly at nothing.
"Vincent what's wrong?" Lucrecia pleaded. He couldn't answer her. Rising, she took the paper from his numbed hand. Tears began to form in the corners of Vincent's eyes and he brushed a hand through his hair. Dead... The tears slowly began to trickle down his face. He didn't care. Dead... Distantly, he heard the letter flutter to the floor as if fell from Lucrecia's hands.
"........................Vincent, I'm so sorry..." she whispered, her voice choked. Gently, she placed a hand on his shoulder. Vincent did not try to hold back his tears. Eyes closed tightly, he placed a hand over top of hers. Minutes went by but Vincent did not notice their passage. Lucrecia remained by his side.
"There you are." someone stated.
Vincent did not look up. The voice belonged to that of Lucrecia's coworker Hojo.
"You're over an hour late. Where have you been?" He was rather annoyed.
"Vincent? Where the heck have you- What happened?" Brownie asked, entering the break room in search of his friend.
"Guys... not now." Lucrecia pleaded softly.
Hojo crossed his arms, a slight scowl on his face. "Professor Gast will not be pleased."
"He won't mind, you know that." Lucrecia answered, turning towards Vincent again.
"Vincent? Are you okay?" Brownie asked, trying to look into his friend's face. Vincent did not respond. He seemed frozen, only warm tears trickled from his eyes. Brownie looked to Lucrecia for help. She stooped and handed him the telegram.
"By the gods..." Brownie whispered after reading the brief message. "Vincent I- " he broke off unable to find words.
"Will each of you please tell our superiors we will not be able to attend to our duties?"
"Sure." Brownie nodded. "I'll do that. If the company knows, he'll be granted leave to go... clean up... anyway." Lucrecia nodded.
"You will not be excused, you know." Hojo put in.
"I know. Inform Professor Gast anyway please."
Hojo nodded shortly and left. Brownie followed him.
Vincent's grip tightened on her hand.
"Don't worry... I won't leave you."
The trip back to Gongaga passed by in a cold and gray blur for Vincent. He was truly aware of only two things; that his family was gone and that Lucrecia was beside him, holding onto his arm. She had promised she would not leave him. She had not been granted leave, but had come with him anyway. She had placed her own career in jeopardy by going with him. The chocobo cart they had boarded at Costa del Sol had stopped well outside the outskirts of Gongaga. Even several miles out, the damage done by the reactor blast was visible. The once-lush forest had been leveled. Only smoldering ashes and a few charred stumps remained. Even the soil and boulders had been badly scorched, of the grass there remained nothing. Lucrecia gripped his arm more tightly as they approached what had once been Vincent's home village. Every home lay in smoking ruins. Bodies lay in rows covered by charred and sooty blankets and scraps of tent canvas. The stench of death and acrid sulfur hung in air which was thick with black smoke. Lucrecia's stomach turned at the sight of the dead villagers lined up along the side of the main street. Vincent wavered slightly and she tightened her grip on his arm. His expression was still a mix of disbelief and agony. A bare handful of ragged, sooty men and women milled among the dead. Vincent watched them with darkened, hollowed eyes.
"Are you all right?" Lucrecia asked softly, looking up at him.
"I'll be all right..." Vincent responded with the only phrase he had been able to say in days. Lucrecia patted his hand.
"Yes. You will."
One of the bedraggled survivors looked up.
"Vincent!" she exclaimed, dashing towards them. "Oh thank the gods!"
Vincent suddenly found a tall and narrow woman pressed against his chest, her arms wrapped around his neck. Vincent looked down at her, barely recognizing her.
"Mrs. Danelton?" Lucrecia guessed hesitantly.
"Miss Sukinya...!" Mrs. Danelton trailed off, loosening her grip on Vincent to take hold of Lucrecia's hand. Tears streaked clean lines down her soot-smudged face.
"Oh my dear children... Bless the gods you're still alive. Just to see that someone has survived this- This-" Mrs. Danelton broke off, unable to stifle her tears. "Such a horror... Such a horror... And your dear mummy and daddy... and poor baby brother..." The older woman broke down sobbing, covering her face with scorched and bleeding hands.
"Where are they?" Vincent asked, speaking for the first time. Both Lucrecia and Mrs. Danelton looked sharply up at him.
"Oh my dear boy... Are you sure...?" Mrs. Danelton asked timidly, her voice quaking with emotion. Vincent nodded numbly. Mrs. Danelton pointed to a section of the veiled corpses. Vincent took a step forward. Lucrecia followed, her hands still supporting his arm. Kneeling, Vincent gingerly grasped the edge of the torn and frayed tent canvas with the tips of his fingers. All this time, it had seemed to him that none of what was happening had been real. It was as if he had been removed from his body and someone else was going through the motions of his life. It was all a cold and dark dream. Vincent drew back the tent canvas.
And the dream shattered into a thousand razor-sharp fragments.
A woman's face, scarred by fire and marked in blood, surrounded by a cloud of blue-black hair, looked back at him. Her eyes had been closed, but the look of terror was still frozen on her cold features. That was not his mother's face. It was not. It couldn't be. And yet it was. He knew. This was the truth. The empty body lying before him, black and charred and stinking of death was all that remained of his mother. Vincent pulled down the scrap of canvass that covered the corpse to his mother's right.
Dad... A huge burn took up most of one side of his father's face. His dark hair had been singed away to the scalp in one spot leaving seared, red flesh. His teeth were still clenched against pain that had long ceased to worry him. The knot in Vincent's stomach tightened. He reached for the shroud to the left of his mother.
Geof... His brother must have fallen on his face, for though it was dirty and streaked in soot, it was otherwise unscathed. However, a massive wound on the back of his head still oozed dark blood. One of the ceiling timbers from the house must have fallen and struck him from behind. Mild surprise still lingered on his face.
Gods... Cruel reality pierced his soul and his body rebelled at the action. Turning, he threw up. It wasn't fair. Why had this had to have happened? Was there a reason? Why of all places...? Of all people...? Why...? The dancing light of the still glowing embers of the town reflected off something small and metallic hidden within the charred scraps of his mother's collar. Reaching out a quaking hand, Vincent took the object between thumb and forefinger. Gingerly, he lifted it. Opening his palm, Vincent beheld a tiny golden lump of a heart strung on a hair-thin chain. It was dirty, but otherwise undamaged. Closing his fist around it, Vincent pressed it to his chest and gritted his teeth. The little necklace had been the only one of his family to survive the fire. Vincent squeezed his eyes shut against reality that was too macabre to be true. However, images of the blank, cold faces charred by fire and streaked with blood rose in his mind. No... Falling to his hands and knees, Vincent was sick again. This was just too cruel. He felt as though a hole had been gouged into his chest and through his heart. It was all so wrong...
"...and so we commit their souls unto the Planet, and their bodies back unto the dust from which they came. We take comfort in that they shall be rejoined with their loved ones who have gone on before us. And that one day we shall see them once again. Let us pray. Gods of our Planet, hear our words. You who are high above us..."
The words of the classic prayer echoed hollowly in Vincent's ears, not registering in his mind. Numbly, he watched as scoops of scorched and blackened earth were tossed into the three, narrow graves simultaneously. Headstones had been placed at the head of each grave, but the stones were still bare and unmarked. Instead, scraps of cloth with his family's names scrawled in charcoal had been attached to the tombstones to serve as markers until their names could be chiseled into the stones. This struck Vincent as improper, but there was nothing to be done about it. Out of a population of nearly three thousand, two thousand thirty had died. His parents and brother would simply have to wait their turn. Lucrecia still clung to his arm supportively.
Lucrecia sat in her tent, legs folded under her, still in her dark suit. She absently threaded her hair ribbon between her fingers. It was late, but it was impossible to try to sleep. Death was thick in the air, so thick it was almost visible.
Wait a minute... Lucrecia paused in her thinking. Death was visible outside- all too visible. Despite the heat of the evening, she crawled over to pull the tent flap closed and paused again. The still glowing embers of the leveled forest radiated red against the blackened summer sky. The knot which had hung in her throat all day tightened and swelled. So many people... Poor Vincent... His whole family- his whole world- gone in one stroke. She turned her head to look at his tent, which was pitched only a few feet away from hers. It was unlikely he was asleep either. Putting her ribbon back in, she rose and walked over to Vincent's tent. Both flaps were down.
"Vincent...?" she called softly, shaking the tent flaps slightly since it was impossible to knock on loose canvas. "Vincent...?" Hesitantly, she pulled one of the flaps back. Vincent's seated silhouette was dimly apparent against the bloody red light from the still smoldering town.
"Are you all right...?" Lucrecia crawled inside and knelt next to him. Vincent had discarded the jacket of his black suit and his white shirt reflected an agonized orange-red from the embers. He stared straight ahead at the smoking ruins, fists clenched in his lap.
"Look at it." He lifted his chin briefly to indicate the smoking ruins. "I used to live right there. Over there was the Danelton's place." he turned his head slightly to look at where his neighbor's home had once stood. "The school used to be back that way, and all of this used to be trees." Lucrecia softly placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I never expected it." he whispered silently, after a long silence. "I never even thought that one day they wouldn't be here. I always thought that... That they would be here waiting for me. Geof would finish school and take over the store for Dad... Mom would..." He choked on words caught in a tight throat. He shook his head.
"It's funny isn't it? You learn to take them for granted. I always thought they'd be here. Sure Geof would grow up and go off on his own, but he'd still be here. Mom and dad would get older and I guess I knew they would have go one day, but... That was supposed to be years from now, not days ago." Tears finally began to form in the corners of his eyes.
"And not all at once..." He clenched one fist in the other. Slowly, the tears began to stream down his face. Vincent let his chin fall against his chest, teeth gritted.
"It will be all right..." Lucrecia whispered, putting an arm around his shoulders. "Shh... They're all right now. They aren't in pain any more. They will be all right. It's all right..." Lucrecia hugged him, feeling her own warm tears well up and spill over onto her cheeks. "It will be all right..."
Vincent simply clung to her as though his life depended on it. He was almost twice her size, but seemed so small now. Lucrecia smoothed his shaking shoulders as he cried. Finally he could get some of the pain out of his heart. He had been as a dead one himself the past few days- unfeeling and nearly oblivious to everything around him. His stunned state had passed and though he was grieved, his tears proved he would be all right
After a long time, Vincent pulled back and shook his head, wiping away the last of his tears. Emotionally spent, he simply sat where he was, contemplating the tent floor. A dull ache had replaced the stabbing sensation in his heart. At long last he looked up into Lucrecia's equally tear-stained face. She looked back at him with softness in her eyes. Vincent looked down at the small object he held in his hand.
His mother's necklace had been the only possession of his former family to survive the cataclysm.
Mom... he thought, You would have given this to me the next time I came back. You knew. Dad knew. Even Geof knew. I can't now but... Tell me I'm doing the right thing. He looked up at Lucrecia again and held up the tiny pendant.
"This was my mother's... I want you to have it."
Lucrecia blinked. "Me?"
"But... I couldn't. It's the only-"
"Take it." he told her quietly. "Please? Think of it as a thank you. I know you didn't have to come with me. I could not have gone through this without you. Let me give you something in return. Please?"
Lucrecia paused for a moment and then took the necklace from his open palm. A tear slid down her cheek and she threw her arms around him in a fierce embrace.
* * *
Vincent looked up at the massive creature embedded in ice. It stood tilted at an angle as though it had been tossed carelessly aside by some giant. Most of the creature was still buried beneath the ground, but its head and shoulders and part of its torso stood uncovered. It looked vaguely like a human woman. Its face resembled that of a human girl wearing a sort of angled headband, the many tendrils upon its head giving the effect of hair. Instead of arms the creature had what resembled great, torn wings. The hips of the being were still grounded in the rocky soil.
"What is it?" Vincent asked. He was the only part of the team that was not a scientist. Hojo and Lucrecia flanked Professor Gast who stood in front of him. Hojo was all ready madly scribbling notes.
"Dunno." one of the excavators stated, wandering up the their group. "We were plowing up this mountain top to get to the Mako deposits when we found this thing. Figured we'd let the Shinra Brains deal with it since we don't know what the heck it is and the reactor's their project anyway."
"Extraordinary!" Professor Gast exclaimed, running a hand along the ice. Suddenly he froze. He yanked his hand away and shook his head. A quizzical expression on his face, he put his hand to the ice again. After a few moments he turned away and looked to Lucrecia and Hojo.
"Hojo, Lucy, we should begin testing some environment samples before we chisel this thing out. Also, I want some evidence as to any legends the locals may have. I want to at least get a general idea as to what this creature may be."
"It is most likely a fossil of some sort." Hojo commented, scribbling a childish sketch of the being trapped in the ice. Professor Gast nodded.
"Most likely. But a fossil of what? None of the histories contain tales of such a beast."
"A handful of fairy tales do." Lucrecia put in. Hojo snorted and rolled his eyes.
"There is a degree of truth to every fiction." Professor Gast admonished his other apprentice. Hojo shrugged. Professor Gast paced back and forth before the ice block, hand over mouth in thought.
"I wonder how big it is. Is it all in one piece? Are there more? From what time period does it date?" he habitually asked himself out loud. "It would be best if we could transport it to the Shinra laboratory, but I doubt we could fit the creature through the front door." he smiled whimsically. Hojo rolled his eyes at his superior's sense of humor. Professor Gast went on.
"Perhaps we could build around it?"
"We'd be glad to help you, Sir." the excavator who had been talking to Vincent spoke up. "We're already building platforms and scaffolding and stuff in preparation for setting up the reactor."
Professor Gast nodded. "Very well. In the mean time see if you can dig around it without harming any of it."
The excavator nodded. "Sure thing."
Professor Gast nodded and the turned back towards the block of ice and his two assistants.
"Vincent, I'd prefer this not be made public until we're sure of what this object is."
Vincent nodded. "Has news of this gotten to the press?" Vincent asked the excavator. The excavator looked up.
"Huh? Oh. Well, everybody in town knows. That isn't saying too much, though."
"I doubt the Shinra science department will want this all over the evening news. I would appreciate it if you and the rest of the workers would refuse to talk to any of the media should they show up. And they undoubtedly will."
The excavator nodded amiably. "No problem."
* * *
"Please! Be careful!" Professor Gast gritted his teeth as the block of ice containing the fossil swung precariously in the grip of the crane from which it hung. Slowly the massive ice cube was lowered through the roof of the half-finished reactor and onto a circular platform. The three scientists present breathed an audible sigh of relief.
"Fine then." Professor Gast sighed as the ice block settled. "We can begin the process of removing the ice and actually get close to this creature."
Hojo's green eyes took on an eager glint and Lucrecia smiled widely. Vincent, leaning against the wall, said nothing. It had been interesting to watch the trio of lab-coated people hover over their tests. It had alleviated his boredom somewhat. A great deal of his job required that he play security guard and therefore stand around and do nothing. At least this time he had something to watch. Vincent had never really been all that interested in biology, but had found it intriguing to watch science in action. He hadn't known it was possible to tell in what year something had existed just from a pebble or a twig. From what Lucrecia had told him, the thing trapped in the ice was several thousand years old- or at least the debris in the ice was. The ice had been chiseled down recently and was now inside a huge glass cylinder. It reminded Vincent of a pickled frog that had been on a shelf in his ninth grade biology class. The ice had melted enough so that the tip of one ragged wing poked through. Professor Gast was on a ladder, carefully scraping the violet-green flesh with what looked like a wooden popsicle stick. Slowly, he climbed back down and held his findings under a microscope.
"By the gods!!" he suddenly exclaimed.
"What?" Lucrecia asked, looking up from her own work sharply. Hojo left his papers as well.
"This creature is not a fossil, it's still alive! It's dormant! Waiting to be awakened! Look, see for yourselves."
"It isn't possible..." Hojo mused, elbowing Lucrecia out of the way and peering through the microscope. "The cells are still active- not even damaged!"
Lucrecia discreetly elbowed her coworker aside and looked as well.
"Amazing..." she breathed. Vincent raised an incredulous eyebrow but said nothing. He was merely here to see that things went smoothly, not to get underfoot in the scientists' business. Still the questions ran through his mind. How could the creature still be alive? And if indeed it was alive, how could it have survived being encased in ice for so long with no food or water and not even any oxygen to breathe? How could it have remained dormant for so long? The scientists had all ready determined that the thing was several thousand years old! Though the train of thought was bordering on a headache, Vincent was unable to leave the ideas alone. He smirked to himself, wondering if Lucrecia's scientific fascinations were rubbing off on him.
"Ah-ha!" Professor Gast cried. Everyone looked up.
"This... this... thing," Professor Gast tended to forego scientific jargon when excited, "has kept its life cycle at a virtual stand still. A self-imposed stasis! Remarkable!"
Lucrecia and Hojo stood aghast. Vincent was now thoroughly confused.
"Can we awaken it?" Hojo inquired. Professor Gast paused and straightened from leaning over the microscope. The professor bit his lip. The silence hung in the air for several minutes. Finally he answered.
"What we must consider is not 'can we awaken it', but 'should' we awaken it." All ready the ice around the creature is all but gone. I'm not sure we should continue to thaw it just yet. It may be that we are tampering with something which was buried for a reason."
"You do not know that for certain." Hojo stated.
"And neither do you." Professor Gast stated firmly, a crease forming in his brow. Hojo sulked slightly under the admonishment. Lucrecia, ever the mediator, stepped between them.
"Both of you forget, we have little say in the matter. The company as a whole will decide what is to become of the creature. Until then we will leave it is as it is, will we not?" Lucrecia looked up at Professor Gast.
Professor Gast looked at her and laughed. He patted her shoulder.
"Lucy, what would we do without you?"
* * *
"They gave the order to have it thawed." Professor Gast muttered again. Vincent had lost count long ago how many times that phrase had been uttered in just the past hour. The Professor had been both thrilled yet hesitant. He was unsure as to what sort of a force he and his set of protégées might be releasing. The ice around the organism had been melted and now the creature stood submerged and sealed in a tank of cold water.
"Uhm, Mr. Valentine, Sir?" one of the workers approached Vincent, hardhat in hand. "Sir, there's a lady down at the site entrance. She's making quite a fuss about something. She's demanding to be let in. Says she knows something about that creature." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the beast in the tank.
"Knows something?" Professor Gast entered the conversation, striding up behind Vincent.
"Did she say what it was that she knew?"
"No Sir, not exactly. She just said 'I hope I am wrong'."
The Professor's brow furrowed in thought. "I will go and speak with her."
Vincent followed the Professor down the double set of stairs out of the not yet functional Mako reactor and out into the cold air of Mr. Nibel. The high chirping notes of a woman's voice were immediately apparent. Crossing the expanse of open ground, Vincent and Professor Gast came to the barricade. A woman of medium height in a green and blue flounced dress and gray cloak, carpet bag in hand, was arguing with one of the Shinra sentries.
"You don't understand! I MUST be permitted to speak with whoever is in charge! I- " She broke off upon noticing Professor Gast and Vincent.
"Is there a problem?" the Professor asked. The woman turned towards him.
"Are you the head of all this?" she gestured to indicate the building site.
"No. One of the locals is in charge of overseeing the construction. I am merely here to investigate an archeological find."
"You are the scientist?"
"Then I must ask if I may view the object which you are studying."
Vincent looked at Professor Gast who waved him back.
"This is a restricted area, Madam. I'm afraid that unless you are an employee of the Shinra Electric Power Company that you may not stray beyond this boundary. Why is it, may I ask, so important that you see what it is that I am studying?"
"I want to make sure that you are not unleashing the most fearful menace the Planet has ever borne witness to."
Both Vincent and the Professor blinked.
"Perhaps I should explain." she stated calmly.
"Perhaps you should." The Professor sounded confused.
"My name is Ifalna Eidel. I have traveled here from a village far to the north called Icicle Inn. I... received word that something was being unearthed in Nibelheim, that a Mako Reactor was to be built on Mt. Nibel. Many thousands of years ago my people buried an ancient evil here, an evil that will destroy this Planet if it is loosed. I have come to make sure that does not happen." Her face was calm and grimly set. Though the tale was outrageous, something in her demeanor told Vincent that every word spoken had been the truth.
"Who are your people?" Professor Gast asked, a strange glint in his eyes.
"I am the last surviving Cetra," Ifalna stated, "more commonly known as the Ancients."
Vincent was dumbfounded. Why was this woman making sure outrageous claims? Then he noticed her eyes. They were green. But not the piney green or sage green of normal human eyes. Her eyes were greener than anything Vincent had ever seen before; so bright that they could have given off light in a dark room; so full of energy that they must pulse with the very Life Stream itself-- The Life Stream. Was it possible this woman was telling the truth?
Yes. he answered himself. She is. Professor Gast must have come to the same conclusion for he himself moved the barrier to one side and allowed her through.
"This way, please."
"No..." Ifalna whispered upon entering what served as a laboratory. Her carpet bag dropped from her hands and she sank to her knees. "No... Please, please tell me you haven't wakened it yet!" she nearly wept. She shrieked suddenly and clutched her head with both hands. Vincent rushed from his place near the door to assist her.
"NO! NO!!" Ifalna screamed over and over.
"Miss Eidel, what's the wrong?" he tried to ask her. Ifalna answered only with a final drawn out shriek and collapsed onto the floor. Vincent looked up to find all three of the scientists staring blankly at Ifalna. Only Hojo broke the silence.
"What on earth was that about?"
"I'll see she's taken care of." Vincent stated, collecting Ifalna and taking her outside.
* * *
Ifalna- once she had recovered from her initial shock- had told the scientific staff some amazing stories, all of which she claimed were true. Vincent had been present during each of her orations and so had been privileged to hear her explain what she had said. As a child Vincent had heard a few of the stories himself from his family and other adults of his village. The people of Gongaga strongly believed in the sanctity of nature, that nothing should be abused. This was why much of the area was still wild forest. The Planet and its natural creatures were given as much free reign of the land as possible. Humans were only there to borrow from the land for as long as their brief stay in life lasted. When someone died they were not interred inside a stiff wooden coffin. Sometimes a thin layer of cloth was wrapped around the deceased, but most often they were simply laid to rest in the bare earth with nothing to separate them from the welcoming embrace of the Planet. There were no barriers between that person's soul and the Life Stream. Ifalna had explained all this and then gone on to elaborate upon other such customs, how the religious sects had all stemmed from that of the Cetra. She told about the beginning of the Cetra and their tragic near extermination. The one thing she could not explain was how humans had come to populate the earth. Vincent had listened quietly, attentively, but was always tired when at last she finished. It was really too much to absorb at once. Lucrecia shared his sentiments, and Hojo clearly thought the whole thing foolish. Professor Gast, however, never seemed to be satisfied when a story ended. Always he would want to know more. He and Ifalna were presently closeted in the Shinra Mansion's solar with Ifalna speaking about something. Hojo had gone down to the basement lab to do what he called "real work" involving microscopes and slides. Lucrecia, however, had had enough of the laboratory and, as interesting as they were, Ifalna's lectures. She and Vincent took hands and made their nightly circuit of the small town.
"It's so quiet here." Lucrecia was saying softly, swinging hands with Vincent as they walked. "Despite the noise and chaos from the construction site it's still so calm, so comfortable. All the houses seem about to doze off they're so secure in their places. No one builds such houses anymore, not even in Junon."
Vincent nodded, smiling in agreement. The plastered-over stone buildings did indeed appear sleepy and content.
"It is very beautiful here. There aren't as many trees as there were at home, and they're a different sort of tree. A land with so much rock, but still the land is green."
Lucrecia smiled. "You and your trees."
"I like trees. I grew up around them. It is what I'm used to.
"Just as I am used to the ocean." She continued. "Still, I think I could become used to this place... If I could travel to the seaside every now and again. Midgar is at least near the coastline."
An interlude of silence passed. It was not an awkward silence, just the space of a few minutes in which no vocal words were exchanged. Such silences were not uncommon between the two quiet friends. Lucrecia pushed aside the silence.
"It's nice we could both come here. I would have missed you otherwise." She blushed slightly. Vincent smiled a little and nodded. Lucrecia absently fingered the tiny heart-shaped pendant on its short chain around her neck. Vincent watched her do this. She noticed he was watching her and blushed again.
"It's pretty isn't it?"
Vincent nodded in agreement. "Mom always wore it. I can't remember a time when she didn't have it on."
"It must have been very special to her."
"It was. It has a story behind it..."
"It does?" Lucrecia looked up at him, brown eyes curious. It was Vincent's turn to blush a little.
"It's been in my family for a long time. It's a tradition for it to be passed down from mother to the eldest daughter when she grows up and goes off to start her own family. If there is no daughter, then the oldest son inherits it to give to his fiancée." They both stopped. The town gates stood before them, outlined darkly in the setting sun and dim starlight. Lucrecia fingered the pendant again, waiting for Vincent to say something, to confirm her hope. He took her other hand in his.
"Would you marry me?"
Lucrecia's cheeks flushed pink. The necklace held much more meaning than she had originally thought. Had he really loved her that long? Overwhelmed, she backed away and ran off, blinded by tears. She stopped to hide around the nearest corner and vent tears of overpowering emotion.
You loved me that much... Even then... Oh Vincent I... Forgive me for being so blind. I should have known, should have noticed, should have guessed. But I didn't. Wiping her eyes, Lucrecia went to return to where she had left Vincent, but he was no longer there.
* * *
"Of all the careless, irresponsible... I don't believe this!" Professor Gast's frustration echoed from the Shinra Mansion solar, which was serving as his office. Vincent closed the front door behind him quietly. Why had Lucrecia run off like that? Had he offended her? What had he said wrong? Heart in a knot, he ascended the stairs and pushed open the door to Professor Gast's makeshift office. The Professor sat with his head in his hands looking tired.
"Is there a problem, Sir?"
Professor Gast looked up at him and sighed loudly.
"Nothing you need concern yourself with just yet." he rubbed his face as if exhausted. "Would you go and see what has become of Hojo? I believe he's probably still down in the basement. Try not to be to upset by what you may see."
"Yes, Sir." Vincent nodded, blinking confusedly at the last remark. Vincent went down the upstairs hall and into one of the guest rooms. A small wooden door was built into the turret wall. Pushing it open, he descended the narrow staircase and into the dungeon-like basement. The Shinra mansion had been built over top of some ancient fortress and so the foundation and basement resembled something straight out of a gothic horror film complete with cold stone walls with rusting iron chains hanging from them. Aside from the aforementioned chains, the basement was mainly a long stone tube with two doors set into it. One was very short and set into the side of the wall. The room behind it was full of miscellaneous items and equipment. The other door was much larger and was situated at the far end of the rock tunnel. Ignoring the morbid settings, Vincent wandered down the subterranean passage to the second door which was thick and bound in iron. It took a considerable amount of effort to force the heavy door to swing open on its iron hinges. The bottom of the door grated along the floor slightly as Vincent shoved his shoulder against it.
"Hojo?" he called into the laboratory. Vincent stopped short as his eyes met a strange sight. A man about thirty years of age stood next to Hojo, left arm held up at an odd angle with his sleeve rolled back. Hojo stood holding the man's left arm, a syringe in his other hand.
"I'm busy." Hojo stated, not looking up. "Go away."
"Hojo, what are you doing? Who is this?"
"He is one of the construction workers. I told you I'm busy now let me be." Hojo stated curtly, inserting the syringe into the man's arm and pressing the plunger down. The construction worker glanced nervously at Vincent for a moment and then choked as his face contorted in pain. His legs gave way and Hojo quickly set the syringe down in order to catch him. Vincent rushed to help.
"What did you do to him?" Vincent demanded. The worker gagged and convulsed in their arms. Hojo watched him, his expression unreadable.
"No... I didn't give him that much. This wasn't supposed to happen..." the young scientist was saying as the worker sank to the ground.
"What wasn't supposed to happen?" Vincent was confused and angered by Hojo's refusal to answer him. The worker's eyes rolled back in his head. Hojo looked up at Vincent.
"The company wishes to know the effects of Jenova on humans."
"Insects found trapped in the ice with the fossil were found to be above average in every aspect. This is believed to be a result of their containing Jenova's cells."
Vincent blinked, dumbfounded. "And they've given you permission to begin treating humans because of an insect?"
"Not in so many words." Hojo stated calmly, scraping the now motionless construction worker off the laboratory floor. He placed two fingers beneath the man's jaw and then held one of his eyelids open. "Damn."
"He's dead. It wasn't supposed to kill him." Hojo's lips twisted in annoyance. Vincent nearly fell over; Hojo's apathy was bewildering.
"Is that ALL you can say?" Vincent asked, stunned. Hojo spread a cloth over the man's body.
"What else am I supposed to say?
"Does it have any affect on you that this man has died in your arms? That you were responsible for his death?!"
Hojo simply looked at him. "Why are you so upset?"
"You just KILLED a man! I think that is a substantial reason for me to be upset!"
"His death was an accident. My act was perfectly legal- or will be in a few days- so calm down."
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't arrest you right here and now." Vincent growled, shock turning to anger. Hojo stared back at him evenly.
"I just stated that testing Jenova on humans is- or soon will be- a perfectly legal act. I could not have foreseen what happened."
"Like hell! You couldn't have tried it on rats first?!"
"It would have taken too long to import the rodents."
Vincent smacked himself in the face and nearly gagged with disgust.
"Have you no feeling?"
"I do not believe that is an issue." Hojo smirked. "Am I or am I not under arrest?"
"Yes. And you can do your explaining to Professor Gast."
Hojo sneered. "He can do nothing. As we speak he, himself, is processing the paperwork to legalize the experiments. The company shall have its way regardless of whether you, the Professor, or anyone else likes it or not."
A growl escaped Vincent's throat and he lunged to grab Hojo by the arm. The young scientist did not move, but instead put a hand inside his lab coat and then withdrew it. Before Vincent had time to react, a stabbing pain struck him in the left shoulder. He fell to his knees. Looking up, he had time to notice the smoking gun in Hojo's hand and the vaguely surprised expression on the scientist's face before the world went black.
* * *
Why on earth did I ever take this job? Vincent asked himself yet again. He leaned forward slightly to peer over the ledge of the window he, Mark, and Ei would soon be repelling down. There had to be a better way to get the windows of the Shinra tower clean. Vincent's lips twisted at the irony of it all. He was for all intents and purposes dead, and yet here he was still working for Shinra. Except this time he was washing their windows rather than guarding their dirtiest secrets. He had awakened months ago in the Shinra mansion basement in a fog of anesthetic and other chemicals to find his left arm replaced by metal and the building empty. Hojo had shot him, of that much he was certain. Why his arm had been replaced was another mystery. The team had left without him. The town had been cleared so that the reactor could be started and tested without any risk to the villagers. As a result, Nibelheim had been deserted when Vincent awoke. It had taken weeks to return to Midgar, and when he finally had, it came as a shock to discover his own name in the obituaries of a local paper. A body had been found in a back alley and had been identified as himself. No one had believed Vincent when he told them his name was Vincent Valentine. He had had to start again and take a new identity, one of the Midgar poor striving to make ends meet. Vance Vellett was his name now, and his profession was that of a glorified janitor for the Shinra Electric Power Company.
How did I ever get myself into this mess? Another question he asked himself on a regular basis. Shaking his head, Vincent double checked the thick rope connected to the steel swing from which he would soon be suspended. Cringing, Vincent swallowed his vertigo and wrapped the leverage length around his left arm. One advantage to the heavy metal appendage was that it did not feel the bite of the fraying rope and didn't tire after being held upright above his head for endless hours in the cold. Hooking the pail and squeegee on the metal swing, Vincent seated himself on the swing and dropped down from the window. The sudden jerk of his own body weight would have been painful on a flesh and blood arm, but Vincent felt only the impact. The spikes on his boot caps grated against the concrete of the building wall. Ei and Mark dropped down on either side of him and scrabbled along the walls farther away from him. After dunking the squeegee into the bucket, Vincent scrubbed the sponged end against the window glass. He really didn't see the point to cleaning windows that were completely opaque, not to mention over twenty storeys up. The rope lurched suddenly, dropping him lower by about an inch. Looking up, Vincent's heart dropped out of his body as he noticed that the cord had frayed and was rapidly untwisting just a few feet above his head.
"MARK!! EI!!" he shouted to his comrades. The other two men glanced over at him.
"WHAT'S WRONG?" Mark shouted over the howling wind, noting the panic in Vincent's voice.
"MY WIRE'S FRAYED! HELP!"
To what? Vincent wondered, trying hard to remain calm. Both men scratched towards him. Vincent dropped down another two inches. There was barely any fiber of the rope left to hold him up. He quickly dropped both squeegee and pail to lighten the weight. Mark reached out a hand to him. Vincent had to reach in front of himself at an odd angle to grab for Mark's hand.
The rope snapped.
Vincent cried out in terror as his swing abruptly gave way under his weight and his friends became smaller and smaller at an alarming rate. His arm weighted him and he turned in midair to fall head first. There were ledges and outcroppings on the Shinra tower and Vincent bounced roughly down the building's side as his body connected painfully with the protrusions. Panic clenched tighter on his racing heart with every bone-crushing collision and suddenly--
A split second of blackness and Vincent found that he was no longer falling. His eyes were clamped shut and his body vibrated with fear. His heart was going so quickly that it seemed to him that it would stop at any moment. He also discovered he was holding his breath. Exhaling, Vincent opened his eyes to stare into a concrete surface barely half an inch away from his nose. He was crouching on the sidewalk, fingers and toes pressed against the wall of the Shinra building. Blinking in stunned confusion, Vincent dropped to a sitting position on the ground still facing the wall. He was on the ground, but he was not in tiny pieces. A few bruises from banging into ledges and the building wall on the way down were all the damage he had sustained. He had been falling so fast. How in the name of the gods had he survived that fall? Still staring blankly at the wall, Vincent noticed something he had had not seen until now. Claw marks. Massive claw marks gouged at least half an inch deep into the thick concrete. He put his hands against the scratch marks. The claws had been popped on his metal arm, but even still the gouges could not have come from that. The marks had been made by hands over twice the size of his own. His hands dropped into his lap and he shuddered, confused though relieved, his body still on edge from the receding adrenaline. How had he survived? He did not know how long had been sitting there when Mark and Ei came panting up. Both men nearly collapsed when they saw Vincent still alive and relatively unharmed.
"Vance! By the-!! How the-!! You're ALIVE!!!!" Mark gasped.
"How...?" Ei trailed off and poked Vincent lightly. Vincent took a shaking breath.
"I think I'll go on break now..."
* * *
Vincent stepped inside the door which connected the roof of the Shinra building to the rest of the towering complex followed closely by his fellow workers. Though there was no heat inside the tiny, concrete shed-like structure it was blessedly warm. The fact that the wind did not blow here was enough for him. The flesh and blood hands of his friends too stiff with cold, Vincent latched the door against the vicious wind with his left hand. Vincent was still a tad resentful of the false limb, but it obeyed him when his real arm would not or could not do what he wanted it to do. He could feel his nose and fingers beginning to thaw out and the flesh burned and stung as the blood began to flow again.
"It's much too cold to be doing that." Ei remarked with chattering jaws. Vincent nodded in agreement.
"The last time we'll have to do it until spring comes around. Inside stuff from now on." Mark put in happily. They let out a collective sigh of relief. The temperature had been especially low the past few weeks and the wind had been merciless. Outdoor work had to be completed before the snow began and they had finally finished the last of it this evening. Collecting their tools, the trio headed downwards, their metal boot caps clanking and scraping loudly against the ridged metal surface of the stairs. As they descended they were joined by various other workers, all wrapped tightly in their red cloaks. The black and red uniforms issued by Shinra were thin and provided little protection from the elements. Many of the workers had supplemented what the company did not supply with layers of clothing and ratted gloves with the fingers cut off. Nearly all of the people on Shinra's maintenance staff were barely scratching out a living. Most were scrapings which had floated to the surface amongst the slime of the gutter. They were nice people and meant well, but had little education and the worst of luck. A few had suffered accidents and had been left disfigured. They blessed Shinra for keeping them alive and out of prison. Vincent liked his fellow workers well enough, but did not share their opinion of the Shinra corporation. Ei patted him on the shoulder and headed towards the exit.
"See ya tomorrow, Vance."
Vincent nodded and waved as his friend left. As the bulk of the employees began streaming out the door, Vincent slipped to one side and headed towards the nearest monitor. The screen flickered as the workings slowly warmed up and stuttered to life.
"Good evening." the words scrolled across the screen. "Destination?"
Vincent keyed the command: Find. Sukinya, Lucrecia J.
The aged processor whirred industriously for a moment and then produced an answer, though not the one Vincent had wanted.
Query Sukinya, Lucrecia J. not found. Found. Katsuya, Lucrecia S. Sci Dept. Employee no. 870611.
Katsuya? A sickening feeling began at the base of Vincent's stomach. Perhaps it was a misprint? He read it again. No. He had been gone for quite awhile. He had been reported dead by the evening news. That was the whole reason he had assumed this new identity. If Lucrecia had been convinced he was dead, then she might very well have chosen to move on and marry Hojo. Marry Hojo... Vincent did not like the idea. Shaking his head he turned to the monitor once more.
Hmmmm... All right. I can work with that. Vincent keyed in:
Employee 870611- Apt no.
Denied. the screen blinked back at him. No doubt the exact location of a personal dwelling was restricted for security reasons. Frowning, he tried again.
Sci Dept- living quarters.
This time he was greeted with more success.
Sci Dept living quarters. Floor 61. Tower East.
He could work from that. Hastily scribbling his findings on a scrap of paper, Vincent shut down the monitor. It was long past quitting time for the day shift. Unless she was working late, perhaps he could at least catch a glimpse of her. Gathering his cloak, Vincent swept down the corridor. He couldn't very well walk through the halls of the residential segment, however he could check the numbers marked on the window frames outside. Heading for the nearest stairwell, Vincent prepared to brave the cold once more. The scaffolding left by the crew which had been caulking the windows was still up. Inching his way across the narrow ledge, he stopped and briefly looked inside each window. Most had their blinds drawn down, glowing from the warm lamp light within. The wind whipped at his narrow body and tore his cloak from his grasp, flinging it back behind his shoulders. Vincent let it go and inched further. Ah, there were no blinds on this window. Cautiously peering over his shoulder, Vincent risked turning enough so that he could see out of more than just the corner of his eye.
Soft light from a lamp in the center of a round table cast warm shadows around a small room which doubled as both a living room and a dining room. Two places were set at the table. A man was seated in one of the two wooden chairs. A tall man with thick round glasses and a black ponytail. It took a moment for Vincent to realize that it was Hojo. He hadn't recognized him without his lab coat.
A woman passed in front of the window and placed a steaming bowl of something on the table. Her face was downcast to make sure that the contents of the bowl did not spill. She took the chair next to Hojo and looked up. Vincent inhaled sharply.
He choked again and felt his heart twist as Hojo leaned over and kissed her. It was not simply a brief touching of the lips to cheek, but a long moment where Hojo's lips met Lucrecia's. Vincent felt sick. He gritted his teeth against the knot in his throat and turned away. They were married. He had known that, but had hoped, guiltily, that Lucrecia would not have forgotten him so completely. She seemed so happy... Vincent swallowed hard and found himself to be crying, his warm tears freezing quickly in the icy wind.
She is happy. That is all that matters. As long as she is happy then I don't mind. She doesn't need me any more. She is happy with him, with Hojo. She's gone on with her life; I suppose it's time I went on with mine.
Turning, Vincent carefully scratched back the way he had come. Ice had begun to form on the scaffold but the spikes on his boot caps kept him from sliding off.
Sadly, he collected his things from his locker once downstairs and prepared for the journey home. Maintenance staff- at least the custodial division- did not dwell inside the Shinra tower. Vincent's apartment was one of many tiny rooms in a ramshackle wooden building eight blocks away. Slamming the locker's rusted metal door, he turned and exited his place of employment. Gravel crunched underfoot, more loudly than usual it seemed. Vincent did not heed the abnormally loud sound. Tears still fell from eyes blind to all else except what he had witnessed through that window.
Vincent abruptly found himself being grabbed from behind and shoved roughly into a nearby side alley. He had to scramble to keep his footing and lashed out at the nearest shadowy form. The figure grunted and collapsed under his blow, but Vincent was besieged by several more shadows, each savage and quite solid. He found himself pinned to the street, a flashlight pointed directly into his face. He squinted in pain against the blindingly bright light. Looking above the beam of light, Vincent's eyes widened. Hojo stood over him, holding the flashlight.
"I thought I took care of you." the professor growled.
All went black.
* * *
"Geesh, you'd think they'd keep this place up a little better." Cloud remarked to no one in particular as he led the group down into the depths of the Shinra Mansion's basement.
"Now I know why they call it a 'stair well'." Tifa remarked, edging down the narrow, rotted steps which hugged the inner walls of the tower which was indeed very cistern-like. Yuffie whimpered frightenedly from behind Barret. The hallway at the base of the stair well was not in any better condition. Rusted chains, rubble, and -most disturbingly- human bones lay scattered about the cave-like passage.
"I don't like this..." Yuffie whined, tip-toeing past a jaw-less skull.
"Ew!! A rat." Aeris exclaimed.
A short wooden door with a heavy lock was set into the left hand wall. Cloud held up the key and examined it in the dim light. The ornamentation in the key handle was identical to that of the door's lock. Perhaps the key would open this door. Deciding to give it a try, Cloud inserted the key and twisted it. With a reluctant crunch, the lock fell open and dropped to the floor, sending a family of spiders scurrying to find a new home.
"Don't open it..." Yuffie pleaded from the back of the group.
"Yuffie calm down, it's probably nothing more than a wine cellar or something." Cloud told her, shoving the door open. Everyone took a step back.
"Who turned the wine cellar into a mausoleum?" Tifa queried. There were indeed human bones piled everywhere. Three coffins stood in a row in the center of the room. Two of the caskets stood open, revealing the bare white bones within. The one in the center was sealed. Yuffie began to cry.
"I think I'm going to be sick..." she whimpered.
"Yuffie, they're just dead men." Cait Sith told her. This did not help to boost Yuffie's spirits any.
"All these poor people..." Tifa mused. "Nothing but skeletons left."
"They're one with the Planet now, they're okay." Aeris assured her.
"I wonder why this one is closed?" Cloud remarked, kicking the sealed casket lightly with his foot. A low moan emanated from within the coffin. Everyone jumped slightly.
"It's a ghost!" Yuffie squeaked. Cloud blinked and kicked the coffin again. Another small groan answered him.
"There's somebody in there!" he exclaimed, pushing at the lid.
"No, don't open it!" Yuffie begged.
"Yuffie, if the person in here isn't dead, they will be if we don't help them." The heavy lid grated to one side and tilted to the floor with a thud. Everyone leaned forward tentatively to see what was inside.
"A vampire!" Yuffie squealed, throwing her arms around Barret. Barret annoyedly tried to disentangle himself from the teenager.
The young man who lay inside the casket was certainly pale enough to seem dead. His blue-black hair, black clothing, and scarlet cloak only served to emphasize his fair skin. On his right hand he wore a black glove with the fingers cut away and a bronze-colored metal claw took the place of his left arm. He did indeed appear to be lifeless.
"Is he dead?" Tifa asked, looking at Aeris.
"You're asking me?" Aeris blinked.
"Well, you can talk to the Planet."
"How am I supposed to know if he's dead or not?"
Tifa only shrugged. Cloud bit his lip in thought for a moment and then knelt and placed two fingers beneath the young man's jaw. Cloud blinked in surprise.
"He's got a pulse! He's still alive." Cloud shook the man's shoulders and smacked his face lightly.
"Hello? Hey Mister, wake up."
The young man's eyelids fluttered upwards. He looked into Cloud's face. And screamed. Cloud and everyone else leaped back and screamed themselves.
"HE'S NOT DEAD! HE'S NOT DEAD!!" Yuffie shrieked, jumping into Barret's arms.
"What in th' @@$##$&^#?!" Barret demanded, trying to keep Yuffie from climbing over his shoulders. The man in the coffin had scrambled to a half-sitting position and was gasping hard, trying to recover from his shock.
"Wh-who are you?" he finally managed to gasp, still shaking. "Where am I?"
"I'm sorry we frightened you." Cloud apologized. "My name is Cloud Strife." The introductions were passed around and the gentleman sitting in the casket nodded dumbly at each person.
"Where am I?" he asked again, looking around.
"In the Shinra Mansion basement. How did you get down here anyway?"
"The Shinra Mansion basement..." The man in the coffin thought for a moment. "What is today?"
"September twenty-second, 357." Tifa told him cheerfully, tacking on the year. The man in the coffin blinked, looking as though he had just been shot.
"Would you repeat that , please?"
"September twenty-second, 357." Tifa stated again. The man's eyes rolled back in his head and he limply fell backwards with a heavy thud.
"He's dead! He's dead!!" Yuffie wailed, burying her face in Barret's shoulder.
"Yuffie, get a grip! He's not dead, he just fainted. Hey Mister? Sir? Hey Buddy? You awake?" Cloud shook the man's shoulders and smacked his face again. Slowly, the man in the coffin blinked himself awake once more. Cloud pulled him to a sitting position.
"Are you all right?"
"I... I was surprised, that was all," he stammered.
"Are you okay?" Cloud asked him. The man seemed stunned.
"I... I don't know..."
"Lets go outside. It's creepy down here." Cloud told him, pulling the other man to his feet. The gentleman stumbled and collapsed. Cloud caught him before he could fall.
"Are you all right?" Cloud asked him again.
"I... I can't move..." the stranger responded, voice shaky. Clearly he was frightened.
"Hang on." Cloud told him as Barret shoved Yuffie off of himself and took the man's other arm. Together they carried the gentleman outside.
"What's your name?" Cloud asked once the stranger had been seated on a bench near the town gates. The stranger paused for a moment as if in thought.
Twenty-seven years had gone by and he was supposedly dead... Would these children even know? Probably not.
"Vincent." he stated. "Vincent Valentine. If you don't mind, why did you awaken me?"
"It's a long story." Aeris stated. Cloud began from the beginning. Vincent listened as the young man narrated the party's adventures so far.
"Allow me to see if I have all of this correct." Vincent said once Cloud had concluded his tale. "Your name is Cloud, you used to be in SOLDIER, but quit. You have a grudge against Sephiroth and now you're trying to track him down because he's trying to destroy the Planet?"
Vincent nodded. "I see..."
"We're also after Hojo." Aeris added. Vincent looked up sharply.
"Hojo? Professor Hojo Katsuya?"
"You know him?" Cloud asked.
"I... know of him, yes." Vincent stammered.
"You wouldn't know where he is then?"
Vincent shook his head. "No."
"So what's your story?" the youngest girl- Yuffie- asked.
"Me?" Vincent blinked, mind racing for a plausible explanation. How could he explain what he did not understand himself?
"I worked for Shinra myself once. I was a Turk. For reasons of my own, I too was forced to quit the institution. However, I was apprehended and imprisoned in the coffin where you found me."
"Why'd they lock you up?" Yuffie wanted to know.
"A result of my sticking my nose in where it did not belong. They feared I knew too much and had to silence me."
The teenager took the hint and backed down.
"You aren't the only one with a grudge then." Cloud remarked wryly. Vincent gave him a twisted smile.
"It would seem that way."
"Would you like to come with us?" he asked. Vincent had to think about that. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do. All of his friends thought he was dead and would all have moved on long ago. Perhaps by going with these children he would be able to confront Hojo and finally learn what on earth had happened almost thirty years ago.
"If I do come with you, will I encounter Hojo?"
Cloud nodded. "We're after Sephiroth so I wouldn't doubt it."
Vincent nodded. "All right, then. I shall accompany you."
"Where are we going?" Vincent asked no one in particular as the group packed up the next morning.
"Up Mount Nibel." Cloud answered. "Sephiroth was last seen heading that way, so that's where we're going."
The trek up the mountain traced a narrow path hemmed in on either side by jagged rock formations. The trail was steep, but not rough. The territory was thankfully familiar to Vincent. Mountains didn't change much in thirty years. The suspended bridge of rope and wood formed a nervous lump in his throat, but he swallowed it and climbed up behind everyone else. It took them all awhile to figure out how to get out of the maze of pipes and ladders within the cavity of the mountain. Vincent had been in this part of the mountain before, but it had been crowded with construction workers and excavation equipment then. Fortunately, Cloud and Tifa seemed to know where they were going and so he followed along. After leaving the mountains behind, the group arrived at a place with a sign posted out front saying:
Rocket Town Welcome
A huge, metallic cylinder jutted crookedly towards the sky. It reminded Vincent of a huge green bullet, or perhaps a dart. Idly, he wondered what the thing was for. He did not have to wonder long. Everyone in town directed them to a man known as "the Captain". After a brief falling out with a Shinra representative Vincent had never heard of, he and the rest of the group soon found themselves floating in the middle of the ocean on a disabled airplane labeled as the Tiny Bronco. Vincent quietly took a seat on one of wings as Cloud and the group's newest member Cid- the infamous captain of Rocket Town- steered the thing. Vincent had thought Barret's language was colorful, but Cid's proved to be far more extravagant. He kept finding himself wanting to apologize to the women in the group every time Cid or Barret began reciting oaths. However, the ladies didn't seem to be overly upset by it and so he held his tongue. It was disorienting to be thrust into a different time like this. He kept wanting to move by the rules of a different generation and had to constantly remind himself not to. Fortunately he was saved the potential danger of getting odd looks from the others. Cid was busy piloting the plane and the others all talked amongst themselves. The youngest girl appeared to be a little seasick and so hung back from the rest.
"What're you looking at?" she snapped, catching him watching at her. Vincent blinked once in surprise, but only shrugged.
"Are you all right? You seem ill."
"I am." She flopped onto her back on the plane wing. "I don't do boats."
Vincent nodded, but had nothing to say in return to this.
When the water plane finally came ashore Yuffie took the lead.
"I know this place." she announced. "You had better follow me. It gets kind of rough from here." Something tickled distantly in the back of Vincent's mind. That look on her face... Something wasn't right.
"Freeze!" Vincent whipped around to find Shinra troops rushing up on all sides.
"What the @(#&@!&*?!" Barret shouted. Vincent turned back to Yuffie, who was equally surprised.
"Whoa! Hold it! It wasn't me this time! I swear!"
"What do you mean 'this time'?" Cloud demanded, brandishing his huge sword. Yuffie choked and bolted as the Shinra troops moved in.
"See ya!" she squeaked as she dashed off, leaving the rest of the group to deal with the threat of the Shinra thug squad. Exchanging glances with the others, Vincent shifted so that he could cover those with close-range weapons and prepared to do battle. Glancing briefly at the materia slots in his weapon, he received a startling shock. The materia on both his weapon and armor was gone. From the looks of it, no one else had any materia either. Aeris had managed to crawl back from the brunt of the fighting and was madly digging through her backpack for potions and other curative items. Fortunately, the fight was not long and the soldiers were soon sent running. Holstering his weapon, Vincent turned to the others.
"Why that--! She stole out materia!" Cloud was shouting, outraged.
"We've got to find her and get it back!" Tifa put in. Everyone agreed to this. Items were redistributed and the group set out once more. After hours of rigorous hiking up and down steep inclines and across swinging bridges, the pointed spires of rooftops came into view.
"I'll bet that's where she went." Cloud remarked upon spotting the city.
They were received coldly upon entering the village. The weapons shop insisted they were out of stock. However, Cloud managed to claim a prize of some sort at the local bar. Apparently the armload of various bottles he received had something to do with a promotional campaign. The Item shop proved somewhat more cooperative. However, the single materia that Tifa discovered in an empty jewelry box was snatched away when Yuffie appeared out of nowhere and ran away just as quickly. Fed up, Cloud announced that the group was going to see the leader of the city, Lord Godo. Once again, Yuffie appeared just long enough to have an argument with the local Lord and then disappeared. What struck Vincent as most odd was the fact that she had referred to Godo as "dad". It didn't seem possible that the pompous older gentleman could be the father of the rambunctious teenager.
Unfortunately, visiting with Lord Godo got them nowhere and the group spent nearly two hours chasing Yuffie all over town. They lost sight of her near her father's house.
"I think she went in there." Nanaki indicated a massive bell which stood pavilioned across the street. Cloud climbed the pavilion's steps and ducked his head under the bell.
"Nope. She's not under here." On a whim, he swung the clapper against the side of the monstrous bell. A loud, low tone reverberated and a door hence hidden in the pavilion's base slid open.
"Bingo." Cloud remarked, a devious smile on his face.
The passage led down into what appeared to be a storage room of some kind. Straw mats and chests full of items varying from firecrackers to golden coins stood stacked and scattered throughout the room. A giddy, grating laugh pierced the silence.
"What the...?" Cloud trailed off and then turned noticeably green. Vincent blinked and looked from Cloud to the owner of the obnoxious laughter. A rotund, balding man in a gaudy costume of loud polyester and undoubtedly fake gold jewelry stood holding a cigar stub in one hand and his bulging stomach with the other. A pair of more discreetly dressed armed guards stood on either side. Two more guards stood behind him, one was fumbling to keep Yuffie under control, the other held a kicking blonde.
"Cloud!" Yuffie screeched, "HELP!!!" She continued to kick and wriggle. "Let me go!" she shrieked at her captor. "You're asking for some serious trouble!!"
The fat gentleman tilted his head back and laughed again, nearly causing his painfully blonde toupee to slide off his shining, bald head.
"Corneo..." Cloud growled, no longer blanched. Out of the corner of one eye, Vincent noticed both Tifa and Aeris cringe.
"Who?" Vincent asked.
"Some pervert from Sector Six." Tifa gagged. Vincent blinked as Cloud's color paled again.
"Don't ask." Cloud stated. Drawing his sword, Cloud turned his attention back to the Don. "Let her go, Corneo."
Corneo laughed his obnoxious giggle again. "Ah! You again! I must thank you for the new ladies! Now I've got two new chickies!" He whooped with delight and mock bowed. "Some other time, perhaps."
With a quick gesture to two of his guardsmen, the Don fled up a staircase at the opposite end of the room with Yuffie and his other hostage leaving Cloud and the others to deal with the guardsmen. Even without materia it was not a long fight. Disgusted with Corneo's behavior, Vincent followed the group upstairs and outside only to find that Corneo had vanished.
"What a pig." Aeris spat. Even though the interview had been brief, Vincent had to agree. Suddenly, his attention was drawn elsewhere, to a pair of young men both dressed in a familiar uniform. By their blue suits and black ties, these men could be nothing else but Shinra Turks, albeit poorly groomed Turks. The first young man had his red hair spiked in all directions and his shirt tail hung down below his unbuttoned and rumpled blazer. The other young man was slightly more presentable, but dark sunglasses hid his eyes and no fewer than six earrings rimmed his left ear. Vincent idly wondered how these two had ever managed to pass inspection and then remembered Matt. This in mind, he was suddenly struck by a strange sense of deja vu. Looking again at the red-headed boy, he could not help but think how much he resembled Matt Contini, his one-time pest. Vincent quickly swept these thoughts away as Cloud stepped forward to address the two young Turks. Apparently the blonde woman which Corneo was also holding hostage was the third member of the Turk's small espionage party. Vincent couldn't help but shake his head at this. So much had changed, but then it had been almost thirty years. Although there appeared to have been several differences of opinion between the two parties, a truce was called and the groups split up to search the town for Corneo.
It did not take long to determine that he was nowhere in the town. Reno- the read-headed Turk- received a tip and was able to give them a cryptic clue. Corneo was waiting for them at the place which stood out the most. A child pointed them towards the very obvious mountain carved full of statues and other sculpture called Da Chao. After several wrong turns and stumbling into a cave filled with flame, the group discovered Corneo situated on the palm of a huge statue. Both Yuffie and the female Turk, Elena, were tied to the face of that same statue.
Cloud and the others hurried to reach Corneo. It was awkward climbing over the various appendages and limbs of the sculptures.
"This isn't going to work." Cloud grunted, pulling himself over a massive fingertip. "We can't all of us fit onto the hand of that statue. Barrett, Vincent, Reno, you come with me. The rest of you circle back around and help Rude. We'll distract Corneo while you free Yuffie and Elena. Understood?" Everyone nodded.
"You're going to regret this!" Yuffie was screaming at Corneo. "I really wish I would have paid more attention in rope escape class..." she wailed to herself.
"It's not a good idea to fool with Shinra!" Elena shouted, trying her best to seem intimidating. Corneo giggled like a Hyena.
"Lets see..." he mused to himself giddily. "Who will be my new bride?"
Both Yuffie and Elena choked and turned peculiar shades of green.
"BRIDE?!" Yuffie gagged. "GROSSNESS!!!"
"Bastard!" Elena shrieked. "Touch me and I SWEAR...!"
Corneo laughed and laughed. "What to do... Which one, which one...?" He paced back and forth, carefully considering his options while his would-be brides screamed oaths at him.
"I have it!" Corneo announced. "My new love shall be... The cheerful one!" He sank to one knee and held his flabby arms out dramatically towards Yuffie. Elena breathed a visible sigh of relief. Yuffie shrieked.
"Hold it!" Cloud panted, climbing onto the palm of the statue. Vincent awkwardly shoved Barrett ahead of him and up onto the granite shelf. Laboriously, he pulled himself up and got to his feet. It was a less than glamorous entrance, but it wasn't as if anyone was filming them for a movie. Corneo started and jumped to his feet. How such a rotund and greasy old man could move so quickly was beyond Vincent. Corneo laughed obnoxiously and Vincent fought down the urge to cover his ears.
"Let them go Corneo." Cloud stated threateningly, drawing his sword for emphasis. Corneo laughed again.
"@#(&@*^*#*&*!" Barret burst out. "Quit that #($&@^ laughin'! You're just plain sick, that's what!"
"This is no way to treat women." Vincent agreed. Corneo laughed once more.
"Not so fast!" He held up a remote control of some sort and pressed the button. Yuffie and Elena let out identical shrieks as they both suddenly found themselves dangling upside down from the cliff face.
"One step more and down they go! And we'll have squashed tomatoes!"
Squashed tomatoes? Vincent wondered where on earth the Don had gotten that one. Cloud scowled and defiantly advanced on Corneo who whooped wildly and in his fear, dropped the remote. Panic on his face, he watched as it tumbled down the cliff side and out of sight. Cloud raised his sword threateningly.
"You haven't got me yet. Oh Rapps! Here boy!" Coreno hollered. A piercing roar shattered the air and everyone looked up to behold a huge yet narrow, winged reptile. Razor-like spikes tipped its tail and it took a swing at Barrett. The beast's physical attacks were strong, but its magic attack was impossible. It aimed its hurricane at Vincent and suddenly, he felt himself being torn in two. It was as though his head was filling with something else and everything that was Vincent was being drowned. He cried out in both terror and pain as everything went dark.
Groggily, Vincent realized he was still in one piece. Dizziness still lingered inside his skull, but it was diminishing quickly. Blinking himself back into consciousness, he slowly raised himself up on one elbow so that he was no longer lying on his face. Turning over, he found everyone- including an unharmed Yuffie- standing a considerable distance away staring at him. Vincent blinked confusedly.
"What just happened?" he ventured.
"You..." Cloud trailed off. "You tell us. What was that?"
"What was what?" Vincent was becoming more and more confused by the minute.
"'What was what?'! You just turned into some kind of big, blue, hairy monster and roasted that reptile! How did you do that?!" Yuffie blurted out.
Vincent just sat there, his mind suddenly flashing back to when he had fallen from the Shinra tower. The claw marks... Could what Hojo had done to him have triggered such a limit break? Yes. It was not impossible. Slowly, he got to his feet.
"I'm sorry I frightened everyone."
* * *
The Gold Saucer... Vincent mused to himself. I remember when plans for building it were still being compiled... Shaking his head to clear it, he fell into step with the others.
"Home sweet home." Cait Sith mused. Aeris had wound her arms around one of Cloud's and was skipping happily beside him. Tifa, face smooth, had fallen into step with Barret. Despite her smile, Vincent noted the flickers of jealousy that appeared on her face and then quickly vanished. However, he had no wish to entangle himself in whatever was going on between Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris and so kept his thoughts to himself.
There were various attractions at the casino-amusement park hybrid which included a battle arena, chocobo races, a roller coaster mixed in with a shooting gallery, a massive arcade, a theatre, a sky ride, and a hotel doubling as a haunted house. Cait Sith led them directly to the macabre inn. Why a hotel should be decorated as a hunted mansion was beyond Vincent. Wasn't the idea supposed to be that guests should have a restful night's sleep? Not exactly relishing the thought of spending a night in the former set of some B-rated horror movie, Vincent decided to spend as little time at the inn as possible. He didn't really have any gear to store and so decided to wander around and take in the amusements. After blowing a pocket's worth of gil at the arcade, he wandered down to the theatre. It might be fun to pass an evening as part of the audience. When was the last time he'd seen a live performance? That's right. When he'd taken-- No. No he was not going to think about that now. Shaking his head to clear it, Vincent found a seat. Those around him inched carefully away. Mentally, he squirmed slightly. People found him intimidating if not downright frightening because of his appearance. Vincent paused to reflect that if he met someone with a metal claw for an arm with red eyes and dressed like a vampire wannabe, he might be a little apprehensive himself. The curtain went up and Vincent became thoroughly stunned to find Cloud and Aeris adlibbing the star roles. By the time the performance was over, Vincent, along with the rest of the audience, was nearly crying with laughter.
* * *
Vincent chuckled at the memories. Dear Aeris... They'd gone to the Temple of the Ancients after that. Temple of the Cetra, really, now that he thought about it. Aeris at least had insisted on being referred to as a Cetra rather than an Ancient. Vincent could understand this. The term "Ancient" made one sound rather like an antique gathering dust behind glass in a museum. "Cetra" was a much more elegant word left from a language long dead, except for it's use in scientific terms and some religious texts. His own religion was a branch of the faith the Cetra followed. It was actually quite close in relation to the Cetra religion. Both demanded a respect for the Planet and all the creatures dwelling on it. The two beliefs veered off in separate directions at certain points, but one could easily see the link between the two...
"Harm not the trees, not the earth, nor the sea..." Vincent thought tiredly. The lorei of his own village had once explained that this was because the first common humans to inhabit the Planet had recognized the wisdom of the Cetra's customs and had adopted them. Two branches of the same faith...and with Aeris gone, only one remained. Vincent lowered his head a little at the memory.
* * *
Vincent didn't even have time to take a deep breath as Jenova hissed and washed a huge wave of salt water over the entire party. He lost his footing instantly and only had time to tighten his grip on his weapon before being washed over the edge of the platform. With a mighty splash, he felt himself thrust into colder water and realized he was sinking, his artificial arm weighing him down. Oxygen running low, Vincent quickly holstered his rifle and clawed his way to the surface. He broke the surface gasping and choking. It took bare seconds to realize he was not the only one who had been knocked off the platform. Cid was cursing loudly and clinging to Cait Sith who was acting as a life raft. Vincent looked around quickly, struggling against the weight of his arm to keep his head above water. Nanaki was dog paddling nearby.
"Where's Yuffie?" he asked. Both Cid and the toy's faces became blank for a moment before an expression of panic set in.
"Good gods..." Cid exclaimed quietly before shouting, "YUFFIE!!"
Not seeing her above the surface, Vincent plunged underwater once more. The salt stung his eyes, but he ignored it. There. There she was, legs and weapon entangled in long vegetation. Making his way over to her, he grabbed her arm with his flesh hand. Popping the claws on his metal arm, he slashed the seaweed. Now twice weighted, Vincent once more clawed for the surface. Choking for oxygen, he pulled a half conscious Yuffie to where Cid and Cait Sith floated.
"Damn, kid! Don't do that!" Cid admonished Yuffie good-naturedly. Yuffie could only gag seawater in response from her place over Vincent's shoulder as they made their way towards the shore.
"Where are the others?" queried Nanaki, paddling over and slogging onto the sand. Shaking his red fur viciously, he sent a showering spray of salt water in all directions. After much choking and gagging, Yuffie sat up. She bristled at her saturated state much like a Siamese cat. On the verge of a complaint, she suddenly stopped before the words left her tongue. Cid stood as if frozen, looking towards the battle site.
"Oh no..." he whispered. Everyone turned to look. Of Jenova there remained no trace. Instead a small pink-clad figure lay face down upon the glass-like platform.
"Aeris...no..." Nanaki whimpered. Cait Sith covered his face with a paw while his mog mount struggled valiantly against massive tears. Vincent remained silent. Even as Cloud knelt and gathered the flower girl in his arms and gently patted her face in vain attempt to wake her, Vincent's mind took in the fact that she was unquestionably dead. Such a wound would have killed her almost instantly. What life which might have remained had slowly drained away during the battle with Jenova. Tifa turned and buried her face in Barret's ample shoulder as Cloud carried Aeris's prone form down the stairs to the shore where the rest of the group stood.
"Aeris..." Nanaki padded over and nudged her arm gently with his nose. Her hand swung limply, the bracelets encircling her wrist clinking slightly. Tears began to roll from the big cat's eyes. Yuffie covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide and disbelieving. She shook her head slightly, as if to defy the cold reality, before her eyes spilled over with tears.
Slowly, Cloud turned and waded into the water, eyes spilling over with unnoticed tears. The rest of the group stood at the water's edge, looking on with stunned, tear-stained faces. Face blank, Cloud drew Aeris's body out beyond the shoreline to where the sea floor dropped off sharply to a depth too far to be guessed. Resting his forehead against her briefly, Cloud released her body and drifted back towards the group, his back towards them. They watched tearfully as Aeris's body gently sank beneath the surface of the water, her long hair wafting around her in feathery brown waves as she fell. No one noticed Vincent as he knelt and touched the fingers of his right hand to his forehead, his heart, and then held his fingertips against the surface of the salt water.
Rest in the warm embrace of the Planet, Aeris. Go and meet your people, they are waiting for you.
* * *
It was a lonely trek through icy mountain caverns to the next village. A remote little place known as Icicle Inn. There didn't seem to be much there outside of the usual shops and an inn. After a brief encounter with an enraged Elena- she seemed to be miffed about Tseng's unfortunate run in with Sephiroth- Cloud instructed everyone to move on. Vincent, however, was curious about the boarded-up house everyone in town seemed to avoid. While the team acquired new weapons and other supplies, Vincent decided to explore the abandoned building which turned out to include a dusty laboratory on the top floor and living quarters below. A great deal of machinery and clumsy old computer terminals took up most of the wall space on the upper floor. None of it seemed to work with the exception of what turned out to be a movie player. Vincent blinked in stunned silence as reels of Professor Gast and Ifalna flickered across the far wall. And assortment of what appeared to be taped lectures orated by Ifalna, mainly on the Cetra, as well as a small collection of home movies took up space on the database. The last reel ended in black splotches and left Vincent feeling cold inside. Hojo had caught up with the Gast's and had kidnapped both Ifalna and an infant Aeris, simply shooting Professor Gast rather than capture him as well.
* * *
The memories swirled into a murky blur. Vincent put his flesh hand to his head as if to block the sudden wave of dizziness. So much had happened during the time he'd spent with the group, but much of their escapades were a fogged blur. Certainly the events had been fantastic, had changed the course of history, but such adventures were always much less glamorous when one was doing the actual work. His head pounding, Vincent dimly recalled trudging across the great glacier and the unfortunate incident at the top of Gaia's Peaks which released the Weapons and cost them the black Materia, and- temporarily- Cloud. They'd wandered through Midgar to finish off Shinra... What still amazed Vincent was that two of the four Turks they'd gone up against were children of his friends. Tseng was the older of Brownie Alwed's two children and Reno was Matt Contini's only son. The fact still unnerved Vincent slightly. Still, Vincent was glad the group and the remaining Turks- Tseng had been wounded by Sephiroth earlier- had struck a truce at their final encounter and so had avoided any unpleasantness. Once more Vincent's thoughts swirled nauseatingly, but he managed to hold on to them. Rufus had been killed by Ultimate Weapon, but they'd had to take out each of Shinra's remaining top executives one by one. General Hiedigger and Scarlet had remained to cause trouble until the very last. Vincent had always had a sort of morbid curiosity as to how Scarlet had managed to remain in the impossible outfits she always wore... However, it was not a mystery he wanted an answer to. What had happened after that...? Oh yes. As if he could ever forget that...
* * *
The monster that Hojo had become twice over roared in pathetic agony and shriveled, leaving the shape of a human man kneeling on the floor. Hojo looked up at the group and glared murderously at them. The crazed glint in his eye showed there was still fight in him. Like a mad and wounded beast he growled from where he crouched on one knee, teeth bared and blood running from his nose and lip. Cloud and Barret stepped forward, weapons raised, but Vincent motioned for them to stay.
Cloud and Barret exchanged glances and stepped back. Vincent walked slowly towards his old nemesis. Hojo spat a mouthful of blood and released his injured shoulder to thrust his other hand inside his battle-smudged coat. Vincent's steps faltered slightly as Hojo drew out his old revolver. Hojo lifted the weapon and fired. The shot deflected harmlessly off the shoulder cap of Vincent's false arm. Hojo fired again, grazing Vincent's other shoulder enough to draw blood.
"Your aim has not improved." Vincent remarked, coming closer. Hojo pulled the trigger a third time but was answered with only an empty click. The weapon was empty. Hojo looked down at the useless firearm in his hand and then threw it to one side. Holding his shoulder again, he looked up at Vincent, hate burning in his eyes.
"I should have killed you when I had the chance." he bit out, spitting again. Vincent only looked at him. Revenge was his and yet he felt no less guilty. Taking Hojo's life had long been a personal issue, but not now. If he were to only wound Hojo and allow him to live, he would be allowing a dangerous mad man run loose. He would only cause more trouble later. Hatred and loathing were now tempered by duty. He was no longer solely Vincent's problem. Hojo was a man who had knowingly and willingly destroyed hundreds of lives. He did not deserve either mercy or pity, only justice. Vincent raised the barrel of his rifle to Hojo's forehead.
"Now you kill me in the name of your sweetheart? Your sweetheart who left you? Give your heroic soliloquy and get it over with." Hojo spat contemptuously. Vincent looked down at him for a moment and steadied his weapon. Hojo waited, acid in his eyes.
"For every life you've destroyed..." Vincent stated quietly. "Including your own..."
He fired and Hojo slumped backwards onto the floor, surprise still lingering on his features. Vincent holstered his weapon and walked back towards his comrades, face quiet. Hopefully Hojo would be able to rejoin the planet and learn what peace was.
* * *
Vincent couldn't help cringing as the room spun around him again. The back of his neck had begun throbbing. Closing his eyes against the pain, Vincent tried hard not to think back on his past episodes. Mako poisoning combined with Jenova rejection was an unpleasant death sentence. The poison had been eating at him slowly since the day Hojo had first apprehended him. Lucrecia too had died as a result of Jenova rejection. However, that same toxin that had killed her body, had also kept her mind alive and trapped within a half-animated shell. Vincent's own consciousness would not hang around after his body had ceased to function. The Jenova would kill him, pure and simple. Lucrecia had died because there wasn't enough in her body. Vincent would die because there was too much.
Just as there was a minimum amount of Jenova a person could safely carry, there was also a maximum limit. The maximum a person could hold was one Jenova cell for each of their own human cells. The Jenova would eventually integrate into those normal cells. The cells would be saturated with Jenova, but they would still remain human. Vincent had over twice the maximum amount of Jenova in his body. That, coupled with a lethal dosage of Mako had eradicated all traces of humanity from every cell in his body. He'd been able to piece together this and other information from the fragments left behind by Shinra and others. Reeve, who was piecing Midgar back together, had been good source of information. His meeting with Lucrecia had been a help as well...
* * *
"Lucrecia?" Vincent called, dismounting the black Chocobo. Cloud had ordered everyone off the airship to go and search for what it was they were truly fighting for. Vincent did not know what exactly he was really trying to avenge. Perhaps it was simply his own guilt. In any case, he had to set some things straight in his mind and the waterfall cave was the only place he knew to find those answers.
"Lucrecia?" he said again making his voice a little louder. Either she was ignoring him, or was inside the cavern unable to hear him because of the roar of the falls which hid the vault's entrance. Tethering the bird to a nearby outcropping of rock, Vincent headed towards the falls.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness upon edging behind the cascading water and into the cyrstaline cave. He spotted Lucrecia as he had seen her earlier- seated in a natural chair of stone, her chin resting against one hand, eyes closed as if asleep.
"Lucrecia?" he asked hesitantly. Her eyelids slowly drifted upwards and she turned her dark-eyed gaze upon him.
"Why did you come back?" she asked quietly, putting her hands in her lap. Vincent shifted uneasily.
"I... I can go. I just wanted to speak with you." he turned to exit the cave.
"No, it's all right." Lucrecia stated, rising from her natural throne and walking towards him. "It's just... I am dead. You do know that, don't you?"
Vincent nodded. "Yes, I know. Neither of us are quite what we once were." he answered, holding his claw up a fraction so that it was not hidden in the folds of his cloak. "You know that Cloud and the others want to stop Sephiroth."
She nodded. "Yes..."
"And that I can not allow him to destroy this Planet." She looked up at him, her dulled eyes full of pain.
"Yes..." The word was whispered as she lowered her head.
"I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure that he is not killed."
Lucrecia looked up again sharply.
"I don't want to hurt you any more than I have. Harming him is harming you, and I don't want to make you cry." Vincent sighed deeply. "I'm so sorry I wasn't able to do anything back then."
Lucrecia shook her head and smiled sadly. "It wasn't your fault. You were presumed dead."
"Still, I should have done something..."
"I could have said 'no' at any time."
Lucrecia cut him off. "We used to do this every now and again didn't we? Argue over who was at fault for something? We are both innocent and both partly to blame. What's done is done..."
Vincent nodded and sighed deeply. "Yes... I just wanted you to know that Sephiroth will not fall by my hand. And if I can save him, I will."
"Thank you. I won't hold you responsible if you can't."
"But I will."
"You mustn't blame yourself for something that is not your fault. Besides, it hasn't happened yet."
"And you've only ever made me cry once."
Vincent looked up, confused. "When? How?"
"Thirty years ago- the day I thought you had died." Lucrecia closed her eyes and softly leaned her head against Vincent's chest in an embrace. "I've missed you..."
Vincent put his arms around her, tears warming beneath his eyes.
"I missed you..."
"So... you've been here all this time?" Vincent asked as he and Lucrecia walked hand in hand along the shoreline of the lake.
"Yes. It's been a little boring, but I've kept myself occupied during my waking hours. Much of the time I was asleep, watching Sephiroth."
"Asleep? Watching Sephiroth?" Vincent was confused.
"It is difficult to explain. I would sit as though asleep and... dream. What I dreamed, was whatever was happening to Sephiroth. Much of the time I drifted without dreams, but they would come eventually, and when they did Sephiroth was always in trouble. If he was safe, I would not dream of him. It was almost as though he was calling upon me to protect him."
She only shrugged. "I suppose the best way to explain it would be to say that I became a ghost. No one was aware that I was there, but I was there nonetheless and I would protect him as best I could..."
Vincent was quiet for a long moment. "At least you now know that he is alive."
She sighed deeply and looked up at him. "But for how long?"
"I have promised you, I will protect him as best I can."
Lucrecia nodded silently. They went along in silence for awhile, quiet drifting without awkwardness around them.
"What did you find to amuse yourself while you were awake?" Vincent wanted to know. Lucrecia's face brightened.
"I have spent my waking hours making a detailed study of this little cove. You probably didn't notice, but I have quite defaced the cave walls with notes, scribblings, and other findings." She laughed a little, causing a smile to creep across Vincent's face.
"I suppose you wouldn't be able to fill me in on the events of the last thirty years?"
Lucrecia shook her head. "Probably nothing that you'd care to hear about. It's not as if I have the daily news delivered. Between your being locked in a coffin and me being hidden here, I'm afraid we've got quite an empty stretch of time."
"I've been trying to patch together what I can. I do not think Hojo even realized I was still alive. I believe he thought Nibelheim was the last he would have to deal with me."
Lucrecia nodded quietly. "I know a war was waged in Wutai. Sephiroth was there. Other than that..." She sighed. "I can't help you any more than that."
"You know less than I do."
Lucrecia nodded, lips twisted slightly in annoyance. "It is vexing. But tell me, what have you discovered?"
"Not very much..." Vincent paused a moment, trying to find a good place to begin.
"I suppose... Well, I suppose it started with our trip to Nibelheim. You were going to study the fossil that had been found there- Jenova-, and I was supposed to make sure the general public was kept out."
"Mm..." Lucrecia nodded to show that she remembered this.
"The same night I... asked you to marry me..." He trailed off uncertainly and looked over at Lucrecia. "...why did you run off?" he asked gently, voice quiet.
Lucrecia blushed sadly. "I wish I wouldn't have... Maybe all of this could have been avoided. I left because...because it just took me by surprise, I suppose. I was overwhelmed that you'd loved me for so long, and embarrassed because I hadn't noticed your feelings ran as deeply as mine." She smiled sadly and placed her hand against the side of his face. "They still do."
Vincent returned her melancholy smile and tenderly removed her hand from his face. "My feelings have remained unchanged as well. But... I doubt your not running away would have changed anything. I would have found Hojo experimenting on a workman in the mansion basement regardless." The sentence had started out normally enough, but the last few words were growled. Lucrecia looked appalled.
"He WHAT?!" she gasped angrily, mouth open.
Vincent nodded. "He was injecting that big fellow who used to haul the wheel barrow around... I forget his name. He died in our arms... It seems Hojo could not wait for the red tape to be processed. He told me himself that Shinra would be authorizing Jenova experimentation on humans in a week or so."
Lucrecia shook her head, stunned, and sighed. "And to think I..." She shook her head vigorously, as if trying to clear it. "Anyway, what then?"
"Well..." Vincent paused briefly, mentally recapping the events in his head. "I tried to arrest him. I'm afraid I lost my temper after seeing Argus- that's what his name was- die like that. When I tried to force him into a pair of handcuffs, he drew a gun and shot me."
Lucrecia was very quiet.
"When I woke up, I had this." Vincent held up his claw slightly. "The house was empty and the village had been cleared. I presume this was to avoid a second Gongaga..." He choked slightly on the last word. Even after so many years, the loss of his family still stung. Lucrecia placed a soft and reassuring hand on his flesh arm. Mentally shaking himself, Vincent continued.
"Upon returning to Midgar I discovered to my great surprise that everyone thought I was dead... And that you and Hojo were married..."
Lucrecia looked down guiltily. "Believe me... If I'd known you were still alive... I cried and cried for you, Vincent. My heart ached as if someone had torn a huge piece out of it... I felt so empty and so alone... And worse still, when I lost your necklace I felt as if I'd lost everything." Tears should have been flowing down her face, but her cheeks were dry. She was dead, and so could not cry physical tears. Vincent held her close.
"Don't cry... I don't blame you. It's all right. As long as you were happy, I didn't care. I only wanted you to be happy... Soon after I found out, Hojo ambushed me and locked me in the mansion basement again. When I awoke, thirty years had passed and you were gone." He hugged her tightly, sighing a little. "It doesn't matter now. We're together. You may be a zombie, and I may be a mutated demon with a metal arm, but we're together now." He smiled lightly, feeling Lucrecia's nod against his chest and sensing her small, amused smile.
"You're right." she smiled up at him, the corners of her mouth quirked up in amusement. "So what else have you found out?"
Vincent sighed. "Not very much. I've been able to glean a few things about Jenova and what's been happening over the years, but nothing very interesting or useful."
"Tell me anyway." Lucrecia smiled, encouraging. "I'm dying for news, even boring news."
Vincent mentally groaned and laughed simultaneously at her horrid pun. He bit his lip, wondering up he should divulge all of what he'd found out. Looking down at his love, the decision was made.
"I know I'm going to die..."
Lucrecia froze. It took a few minutes to recover her voice. "Die...?"
"Yes. You know there is a limit to how much Jenova a person can hold- both a minimum and a maximum amount."
Lucrecia nodded. "I had too little..."
"...and I have too much." he finished for her. Lucrecia thought for a moment, as if working some complex equation in her head.
"Three years. Perhaps a little longer if I'm lucky." Vincent stated, providing her with the answer before she could speak. Lucrecia put her arms around him in a hug.
"I'll come back to you before then. I promise." he told her, gently wrapping his arms around her in return.
* * *
And so the reason wasn't really vengeance, but a way to redeem himself. Redemption for killing Hojo, and for unintentionally abandoning Lucrecia. Redemption by making sure Sephiroth survived that battle. Vincent rubbed the space between his eyes in a vain attempt to ease the pain. His mind and body still in turmoil, his thoughts strayed back once more. He had tried... Had tried and failed.
* * *
"Geeze! How far does this $%&(@& cave go down?!" Cid demanded to no one in particular, scrambling awkwardly down from a ledge of slick rock. He slipped, but managed to land on his feet and avoid colliding with Nanaki.
"To the center of the Planet." Cait Sith remarked dryly. Cid rolled his eyes.
"@*^*&(_()#$ cat..." he growled under his breath. Vincent sighed. Everyone had become edgy since first descending into the Northern Crater two days ago. How deep the cavern went no one could tell, but they would all eventually find out. Their goal was Sephiroth's lair, and that lair lay at the bottom of the crater. Like a seemly endless, jagged, spiral staircase, the cavern wound down, and down, and down. They were down deep enough that no sunlight penetrated into the subterranean passages. Lanterns and flashlights had been dealt out before the descent and Vincent held his own lantern aloft in his metal arm. Cid stomped along behind him, covering the back of the group while Cloud led. Yuffie swung her flashlight back and forth like a machete, as though she could slice through the darkness like the foliage of a jungle. He didn't blame her for being frightened. All ready they had run across some strange looking rock formations which had turned out to be demon-like creatures of some sort. With only one swipe, one of the beasts had struck down Cloud. Cid had nailed the thing with a limit break while Tifa frantically cast a reviving spell on Cloud. It had been their first encounter with such monsters and was by no means their last. The rock-demons had at least a weak point, but Tonberry's were another story. There were far too many of the sage little turtles roaming around the cavern passages for Vincent's taste. The things did not fight back when attacked, at least not immediately. Instead they slowly plodded towards their enemies as only bipedal turtles could do and when they came close enough, would eliminate a party member with only one swipe of a tiny chef's knife. So far, the team's best defense against the reptilian vermin had been simply to run the other direction. If one did not bother a Tonberry, a Tonberry usually left one alone.
To his right, Yuffie yawned widely. Nanaki grunted a little.
"My dogs are killin' me." Cid grumbled.
"Fine. We'll take a break." Cloud announced. "Nanaki, Cid, and I will make sure the area's secure and set some lanterns around to keep any unwanted pests away. Yuffie, Tifa, get some food together. Vincent, you and Cait Sith get the sleeping bags unpacked. You'll also be taking the first watch with Yuffie."
"Yippee." Yuffie griped.
With "dinner" finished and a ring of lanterns surrounding the group, Yuffie, Vincent, and Cait Sith settled in to watch out for potential predators.
"Why don't you two catch a nap? I'll be fine. It's not like I need to sleep." the stuffed toy offered.
"That is generous of you, but we would not wish to leave you the burden of guarding everyone by yourself. Yuffie and I will be fine." Vincent answered graciously.
Hours passed. Cait Sith continued to march back and forth around the sleeping group like a castle sentry. Vincent sat cross-legged on the ground, rifle laid across his lap. Yuffie sat to his right in a similar position with her Shiruken. Dimly, Vincent noticed her wiping at her face. He looked over at her and she yawned widely. Her face was indeed faintly tear-streaked.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly. Yuffie slowly turned her head to look at him.
"I'm tired... Isn't it time to wake up somebody else?" A long pause. "I don't like it down here..." she whimpered. Yuffie constantly played the tough girl, but now she was what she was, a sixteen year old child. Vincent felt a pang of sympathy for her. This was more than a child should have to deal with.
"Come here..." Vincent held out his flesh hand to her. Head hanging as if she had been scolded, Yuffie crawled over and sat down next to him. Throwing his cloak back a little, he grasped the end of it and put both arm and cloak around Yuffie's shoulders.
"It's all right. I don't like it either."
Leaning her head against his shoulder, she began to cry. "I wanna go home..." she choked. "I know we have to stop Sephiroth but... Right now, I just wanna go home."
"I know... It's all right." he stated quietly, smoothing her shoulder. "Rest if you like, Cait Sith and I will keep watch. You need your beauty sleep," he added with a smile. Yuffie looked up at him, annoyance on her face.
"I can stay awake. I'm not a little kid," she stated defiantly, yet sleepily. Vincent nodded silently. In a matter of minutes Yuffie's head lay on Vincent's shoulder, her eyes closed in the deep sleep that claimed only the truly exhausted. The hours ticked away and thankfully nothing happened. Not bothering to wake the sleeping teenager, Vincent gathered her in his arms and laid her in her sleeping bag before waking the others for their shift. Once he had lain down, it did not take long for Vincent to succumb to sleep himself.
"Doesn't this thing have a bottom to it?" Tifa wondered aloud.
"I better have." Barret grumped.
"Cool it." Cloud told them. "We'll find-- AHH!!!" His statement was cut short as Cloud suddenly vanished from site.
"CLOUD!" Tifa cried, dropping to her knees and holding her lantern out. A set of stairs began leading down from the gravely cavern floor. "Cloud are you okay?!"
"I'm fine..." Cloud's voice shouted back distantly. "I think I found the bottom. Would somebody bring a flashlight down here?"
"Sure. On our way." Cid called, edging down the crumbling stairs.
"Whoa..."he trailed off once he reached Cloud. "That ain't all you found..."
Cloud turned from brushing dirt off himself and looked up at a huge, round passage way. The hole appeared to have been melted into the rock by some intense heat.
"Given Sephiroth's thing for fire, I'd say this is it." Cid remarked. Cloud nodded.
"Yeah. Well, lets get going." The group, weapons poised, followed Cloud through the smooth-walled passage and onto a broken off shelf of tiled rock.
"What in the...?" Cid asked no one in particular, eying the intricate mosaic covering what was left of the floor. "Who the hell would have flooring like this put in all the way down here?"
"Sephiroth may be the villain in this scenario, but that doesn't mean he's guilty of bad taste. Maybe he was trying to brighten the place up?" Tifa suggested.
"Somehow I doubt Sephiroth is responsible for the artwork." Nanaki remarked dryly. Tifa only shrugged in return.
"Nobody's here..." Cloud mused, walking to the shattered edge of the floor. "Something happened down here and not that long ago. What I can't understand is why it's so much brighter down here. I mean, there's actually some ambient light. What I'd like to know is where is it coming from?"
Nanaki poked his nose over the edge. "From below."
Green-blue light was indeed filtering upwards from below the ledge. A set of stairs hung in the air, leading down into the distant light far below. Barret looked over the edge.
"Damn... This thing don't got a bottom! We gonna come right out the other side of the earth!"
"Oh it's got a bottom," Cloud insisted, "and Sephiroth's there waiting for us. Come on, lets-"
The sentence was cut short as something became visible within the blinding light far beneath the ledge.
"What the...?" Cloud squinted at the object, which was rapidly becoming larger and larger.
The headless beast was no mere phantom this time. It rose in a solid body, an eye-bending conglomeration of colors. Too tall to stand inside the cave, the creature lay on what Vincent assumed to be its stomach with its shoulders pointed towards the group.
"Fan out!" Cloud shouted over the creature's screeching. "Tifa! Nanaki! You two take point with me! Cid, Cait Sith you cover us. Barret, Yuffie, Vincent, you three cover our rear!" Everyone spread out and readied their weapons, waiting for Jenova to strike first. It held nothing back in it's attack. Although the beast was powerful, everyone managed to stay on their feet. Soon team members began executing limit breaks. Vincent kept a careful eye on his own meter. Being in the back, he managed to avoid a direct hit by the creature, but still suffered a significant amount of damage. Steadily, the meter rose. He could feel it reach the breaking point. He did not welcome the change that was creeping upon him, but it was either succumb or fend it off. Neither option was pleasant. Shouting a warning to the others, Vincent gave in to the beast threatening to overtake him. It seemed to him that his soul was being devoured- being torn asunder by sharp fangs and claws. With a choked scream, human vanished and demon claimed his place.
Chaos must have been knocked unconscious. When Vincent awoke, it was to the din of a battle yet unfinished. Yuffie's hiking boots were the first thing to solidify into focus.
"You okay?" her shout managed to pierce the ruckus caused by gunshots, explosions from magic spells, and the shrieks of Jenova. Keeping low to the ground to avoid any stray spells or bullets, Vincent pulled himself to his hands and knees. His body still vibrating in pain and shock from the transformation, he bent double and threw up. Still shaking, he staggered to his feet. Wasting a precious second to try and steady himself, he was caught squarely in the middle by one of Jenova's tentacles and slammed to the floor on his back. Vincent's lungs jumped painfully inside his ribcage as his body connected with the tiled rock of the cavern floor. A horrible shiver ran through him as the adrenaline rush increased and pain lanced through his midsection. He quickly checked his limit break meter. It was over half-full. Looking down, Vincent distractedly noticed a deep gash had been sliced just below his ribcage. Blood, dark red and scalding dripped from the wound, darkening his black shirt. He looked up to Yuffie for help just in time to catch a cure spell squarely in the face. Sneezing on the residue from the spell, Vincent turned his attention towards the battle again. Vincent's eyes widened in a mix of surprise and terror as Jenova launched another tentacle in his direction. However, instead of hitting him, the creature wrapped its tentacle tightly around him and lifted him off the ground.
You... I know you... You are one of mine. A voice echoed inside his head. Choking on his panic, Vincent squirmed against the rib-crushing grip of Jenova.
"PUT ME DOWN!" he shouted, struggling vainly. Even with both arms free, it was no use. The creature had him and didn't seem to be in the mood to put him down anytime soon. Several choruses of "VINCENT!" were shouted below him. Jenova continued to hold him aloft several feet above his friends.
"Vincent!" Cloud called, sword poised. "Get out of the way!"
"HOW?!" Vincent shouted back in annoyance.
"Heads up!" Cloud called, slinging a lightening bolt at Jenova. Vincent's jaw dropped in a silenced scream as the volts of electricity chased each other throughout his body. With a shriek that reverberated off the inside of Vincent's skull and the cavern walls, Jenova dropped him. Once again, Vincent's spine hit the cave floor with a force that drove the breath from his lungs and- Vincent was certain- cracked more than a few bones. He trembled in pain and nausea as his meter rose to full.
"This's ridiculous!" Cloud shouted in frustration. "Stand back! It's time for this!" By "this", Cloud meant the Knights of the Round Summons. Someone dragged Vincent back out of the line of fire as Cloud went through the motions of casting the spell. It took time- how much time Vincent was not sure- but the Summons completed itself and the Jenova lay before them, squirming towards its death. Cloud raised his sword to finish the headless abomination when it suddenly shuddered and then lay still. Barely a second had passed before it began to disintegrate before their eyes, shriveling until it was less than half its size. Cloud blinked and lowered his sword to wipe at a cut on his face.
"Okay..." he trailed off. Vincent was equally confused. This was not at all what he had expected. Fighting down his internal demons, Vincent cringed and threw up behind a nearby rock formation. None of the forms had been easy on him and they had become harder and harder to come out of as they became more advanced. Chaos was definitely the worst. Shivering from the smaller adrenaline rush, he spat once to rid his mouth of acid and turned towards the rest of the group, which had thankfully been ignoring him. Yuffie glanced briefly back at him to make sure he was still there. He gave her a weak smile and she returned it nervously.
"Well, I guess that's it for Jenova..." Cloud trailed off. Vincent, the blood from his unhealed wound scalding him, would have liked to argue the point, but said nothing. He couldn't go on like this. Pausing a moment, Vincent dug a curative potion out of his backpack which was lying against the cave wall where he had thrown it. Gulping the last of the bitter liquid, Vincent shuddered briefly as the bleeding slowed to a stop and his flesh began to knit itself back together. The cavern was dark now that Jenova was gone. The colorful mosaic covering the floor was barely visible. The remaining ambient light was soft and greenish, bathing the slick rock walls in an eerie glow that made Vincent's insides cold. Chaos clawed for freedom inside Vincent's head and he repressed the urge to be sick.
Another passageway had been melted through the wall opposite the entrance to the domed space where Jenova had been hiding. The passage was just tall enough for someone Vincent's height to stand in without hitting his head on the ceiling. Sephiroth waited at the end of that tunnel. Looking at the tube illuminated by the green light, the feeling of nausea increased in the pit of Vincent's stomach. Cloud too was surveying the passage.
"There won't be room for all of us to fight in there. Besides, seven against one isn't exactly even." Cloud stated, reasoning out loud. Vincent looked at him.
I made a promise, Cloud. I cannot and will not injure the boy in anyway that may threaten his life, and I can't allow anyone else to, either. Lucrecia... If I could, I would take him back to you right now...
"Well..." Cloud exhaled noisily through his nose and adjusted his grip on his sword. Vincent bit his lip and spoke up.
Cloud seemed to know what he was about to say.
"Vincent, no. I can't ask you or anybody else to face him. Besides, I have a score to- "
Vincent grabbed him by the shoulders, cutting him off and pushing him away from the rest of the group.
"What?" Cloud was dumbfounded by Vincent's behavior.
"I cannot let you go in there. I will not allow it. Sephiroth-"
"Is my problem," Cloud finished for him. "I'll deal with it. This is something I have to do."
"What's the matter with you?"
"Cloud, I... I made a promise. I cannot let anything happened to Sephiroth. I will not allow you to harm him. I-"
"Are you insane?" Cloud demanded, shoving him away. "He's GOT to be stopped! He's a maniac! He won't stop unless he's dead!"
"NO!" Vincent seized him by the shoulders. "He WILL NOT be killed! Stop him, disarm him, I don't care, but do NOT hurt him!"
"You're mental!" Cloud shoved him away again. Chaos battered against the inside of Vincent's skull. Vincent looked at Cloud levelly, eyes twice as red as usual and voice constricted from holding Chaos at bay.
"Cloud... Don't make me do this..."
Cloud gawked at him stupidly. "You wouldn't..."
"Do you really want to find out?"
Cloud's face sank into a scowl and he reached out to push Vincent aside.
"Don't take this personally..." Vincent choked, giving in at last to Chaos's violent pleas for outlet. Cloud's shout of surprise was the last thing he heard.
Lucrecia... Forgive me...
Vincent found first his mind and then his body. He regretted it as soon as he did so. His head reeled with aftershock from the transformation and his body was still immobile and just as stable. He became dimly aware that he was lying in a crumpled position on his back. Someone was smacking his face and shaking his shoulders.
"VINCENT! MR. VALENTINE!! VINNY!! VINCENT!! VINCENT, ANSWER ME!!!!" a thin, female voice was screaming at him. He barely heard it through the swirling mist in his head and the roar of wind and destruction around him.
"VINCENT!!!!!!" It was Yuffie calling him and smacking him around. Laboriously, Vincent forced himself into consciousness. Blearily he blinked his eyes open to find Yuffie staring at him, her usually mischievous eyes full of fear.
"VINCENT!" she squealed happily, quickly hugging him before slapping him across the face again. "You MORON! Why can't you wake up any-- Uhoh... Look out!" she told Cid, and Nanaki who were crammed onto the rock shelf also.
Vincent choked and quickly turned away from them to vomit over the side of the shelf. He hung there until Cid reached out a hand to help Yuffie pull him back. Still too weak to move, Vincent just lay there, wishing the world would hold still. Distantly, he heard Cid yelling orders into his communicator which kept him in touch with the Highwind.
"All right you jokers! Get your *@#&$% @#$('s in gear and get that ship over here NOW!!!!! And I mean NOW!!!!!"
The shelf shuddered violently and Vincent felt it drop slightly. He was struck with panic and his memory flashed back to the time he had fallen from the Shinra tower. He could not repress a small exclamation of panic. Yuffie's blurred face appeared in his line of vision once again.
Vincent could only moan in response and wished he could hasten his recovery. He felt someone grab him by the shirt collar and suddenly found himself flung over someone's shoulder- apparently Cid's judging by the trousers he was currently staring at.
"You first Yuff." he heard Cid order and then felt himself being dragged upwards. After a few minutes he was dropped onto the deck of the Highwind. Yuffie helped him up. With her assistance, he staggered to the railing so he could at least support his own weight.
"Thank you..."he stated quietly. Yuffie grinned.
"Don't mention it. You've saved my butt more times than I'd care to count during this whole thing. It was simply my turn to return the favor."
Cloud scrambled up onto the deck behind Tifa, his face running with blood.
"That everybody?" he panted. Cid glanced around the deck.
"Yep. All humans, westrals, and toys accounted for."
"Good." Cloud sighed, dropping to a seated position the deck. He leaned his head back against the railing. Tifa, who was no less battle stained, dropped down beside him.
"Did you kill him, Cloud?" Nanaki asked. Cloud nodded quietly, eyes closed.
Vincent's heart dropped out of his body at the word. Turning to look out over the railing, he lowered his head and fought back tears.
Lucrecia... Forgive me... I couldn't stop him... I'm sorry... Lucrecia, Sephiroth, forgive me... Gods forgive me...
Looking up, eyes swimming with tears suddenly widened. His lips parted slightly in awe.
"Cloud... Tifa... Everyone... Look...!" Nanaki spoke up.
Meteor, a massive ball of rock, glowing with waves of green energy rolled slowly towards Midgar.
"Gods..." Cloud whispered, coming to join Vincent at the railing.
"Boy am I glad I thought to evacuate the city..." Cait Sith stated quietly. Vincent doubted anyone else had heard the toy.
"We did stop Sephiroth in time...didn't we?" Nanaki looked up at Cloud, forepaws resting on the railing.
Cloud bit his lip. "I hope... Wait. What's that?"
Everyone followed the line of Cloud's pointing finger to see small tendrils of white light flowing up from the ocean which bordered Midgar. Illuminating the seawater so that it shone like the sun, the misty tendrils grew thicker and more solid. Slowly, they wrapped themselves around Meteor so that hardly any of the massive green rock could be seen.
"It's Holy!" Tifa burst out. "It's Holy!! We did it! We stopped him in time! Aeris's prayer was answered! We DID IT!!!!" She threw her arms around the nearest person- which happened to be Cloud- in a happy embrace. "We did it!!" she squealed again, this time turning to hug Nanaki. It did not take long for everyone to fall victim to her happiness.
Holy swept across the plains and mountains surrounding Midgar and drowned both it and Meteor up in pure white light. The sphere of light grew bigger and bigger until it burst upwards, sending a shock wave backwards across the land. Vincent and the others grabbed for the nearest stationary fixture. Vincent abruptly found himself dangling from the railing with his back to the slanting deck and Yuffie clinging to his legs for dear life. Cait Sith was also holding onto the railing, Cid had caught the edge of the hatch which led inside the airship, everyone else had been sent sprawling into the railing on the opposite side of the deck. Cid let loose a string of obscenities and cussed the crew into rightening the Highwind. With such motivation, the airship was soon level once more. Still shaking from the surge of adrenaline, everyone quickly picked themselves up and hurried to see what had become of Meteor.
"No way... Cloud breathed.
Meteor was gone. And Midgar with it. A pile of smoldering ruins lay beneath a thick blanket of glittering particles where Midgar had once stood. The smoke trailing upwards sparkled as though alive with fairies or fireflies. The glitter covering the landscape surged back and forth with Holy's green-white light. Slowly, gently, like waves on sand, Holy's energy lapped back into the surface of the Planet. The Planet was saved.
* * *
And now, here he was.
Everyone had assumed different identities and gone their separate ways once Holy had done its work and Meteor was gone. Everyone had someone or somewhere to go back to. He alone had been left solitary with no home and no family. Nanaki had kindly offered a place amongst the people of Cosmo Canyon and Vincent had gladly accepted.
As a student, Vincent had hated seventh grade and so found it a touch ironic when he accepted a job teaching a lot of fourteen-year-olds composition and world history. The children had all looked askance at his claw and red eyes, but the simple answer "I once worked for Shinra" quickly quieted all unwanted questions. He had no wish to try to explain what had happened to him to his students, their parents, or anyone at all. He had never thought of himself as a teacher, but had actually enjoyed the occupation a great deal. He had not thought it would be so, but being a teacher was enjoyable as well as fulfilling. However, because of failing health he had been forced into retirement after only two years. Vincent sighed a little to himself.
For thirty-three years he had had the physical appearance of a young man in his mid-twenties. The massive amounts of Jenova and Mako injected into his body had kept his aging process at a virtual stand still. That was the reason he had been able to survive for thirty years in a coffin in the Shinra Mansion basement without food or water and limited oxygen. The shock of so such a massive amount of chemicals had forced him into a type of stasis. However, once he had finally absorbed it all, it turned on him.
For over thirty years Vincent had kept the appearance of a young man. Now his age showed all too clearly. The Jenova and Mako had caught up to him. In less than six months his hair had faded to a salt and pepper gray, his skin had been drawn tight across his bones, and his health had vanished just as quickly as his artificial youth.
The physical change he did not mind. It was only natural. However, his declining health was not. Too often he had had to call in sick because he too plagued with nausea or skull-splitting headaches to get out of bed much less get to class. Worse yet had been the times he'd been able to teach but then fainted or fell ill during school hours. Having to hide an illness he did not understand himself was torture. The ability to complain about being ill makes the disease more bearable, but Vincent did not have this luxury. It was not until he passed out in the middle of a lecture that help was forced upon him. Because it was Professor Bugenhagen who had offered, Vincent accepted gladly.
He had been allowed to teach another two weeks before being forced into retirement. Bugenhagen had been drowning him in medicines and other remedies, but none had done much of anything. This was mainly because the medicines had to be injested, and anything Vincent swallowed never stayed in his stomach long enough to do any good. Constantly warring against nausea and bouts dizziness and periods where he would pass out and not wake up for hours, sometimes days, confined him to his home.
To fill his waking hours, Vincent had begun researching the events which had made up his life. Reeve, who was currently leading the clean up of what was left of Midgar, was sending him any and all artifacts which might help to provide some answers. Cloud and Tifa- who had stumbled upon Lucrecia's vault with him- knew only scraps of his past but not the entire story. Vincent himself was still uncertain as to all that had happened to him. He had managed to piece together a more or less coherent picture of what had taken place, but many of the details were missing. Like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, there were just enough pieces missing to obscure the scene. It was vexing to say the least.
Still, it would have to be enough. The Jenova in his body had turned upon him, devouring his tissue in a futile attempt to keep itself alive. He was little more than skin and bone now. The Jenova had dissolved most of his muscle tissue, leaving him barely enough to move. Of his organs, even less remained. What the Jenova did not consume, the Mako soured and rotted until there was nothing left but decayed and rancid cells. His body, desperately trying purge itself of the evil consuming it, collected the toxic waste and frantically tried to rid itself of it.
Idly, Vincent wondered if it was wrong to long for death. It would make a change from lying in agony on his bed or leaning over the toilet for hours on end. Sighing deeply, he looked down at the softly glowing computer screen. He had finished compiling the scraps of information he had so painstakingly hunted for. There was nothing left for him to say. Choking on a wave of nausea, Vincent closed the file but left the icon visible on the computer screen. With a shaky hand, he opened another file entitled "In Case" and then set the computer aside. It was becoming hard to breathe. A cold, shivery feeling made his whole chest shudder and blood rose in his throat. Vincent looked with blood-shot eyes out the window at the black and starry desert sky. There would be no sunrise this time.
His black Chocobo, Ruby, was intelligent and sure footed enough that Vincent did not need to grasp the reigns too tightly. He was too weak to hold on very well anyway. He reigned Ruby to a stop a few feet away from the waterfall. Sliding out of the saddle, he tickled the bird behind the ears before clumsily pulling the saddle off her back with shaking, leaden hands that did not want to obey. The bird cocked her head at him for a moment and wharked softly, confused.
"Go on..." Vincent whispered raggedly, choking on the blood that came with the words. He patted her weakly, and with one final glance back at her master, the bird trotted off.
Turning, Vincent slowly plodded behind the falls and into the cave. Lucrecia's natural, throne-like seat sat empty atop the stair-like rock formation. With agonizing effort, he managed to drag himself across the cave floor and up the steps of the platform. In exhaustion, he dropped to his knees before the chair, chest and arms lying on the seat.
I never dared to hope you had forgiven me... for I had never forgiven myself... Hopefully my part in the Planet's rescue has atoned for what I failed to do... I know now there was nothing I could have done... In another moment... I will see your face... I think at last... I can be at peace...
* * *
It took us almost a week to realize he'd gone and another few days to find him. I feel foolish for not thinking of it earlier, but it didn't occur to us until later. Vincent Valentine wrote his piece and then quietly quit this world. His body rests in the vault behind the waterfall; his soul belongs to the Life Stream. Let this testament stand as the true story behind a legend. The truth told by the man who lived it.
Rest well Vincent, we will never forget you.