Through the Looking Glass Chapter 22
By Lucrecia Marionette
As night swept over the Western Continent like a silent predator, the thundering claws of the chocobos as they churned up the earth with their wicked talons ceased. They warked and cooed softly to one-another as their masters led them inconspicuously around the side of the first house of the City. Lower Junon spread like shadow-seeking lichen beneath the more high-tech and developed world of Upper Junon perched on a thick, man-made shelf high on the sea cliffs.
The distinct smell of salt and fish hung heavily in the crisp night air, an ocean breeze pushing the distinct scent as far inland as it could. Even in the early darkness of twilight seagulls and petrels cawed and screeched in an oddly soothing fashion overhead as they returned to roost in the vast support structures beneath the Upper City air-path.
Cloud turned back to his companions in the shadow of the small dwelling-place. Giving a nodded signal to them, he reached up and slipped the bridal of his bird off its head with a click of the buckles. Moving around to its saddle, he slipped the leather object in its pack and held onto its neck to keep it steady. It shuffled impatiently in response and eyed its fellow chocobos eagerly. The leader of AVALANCHE waited before his four friends had repeated the task before finally patting the golden creature on its long, slender neck. It let out a subdued warble in response and galloped as fast as it's powerful, clawed feet would carry it over the rolling hills which surrounded the twin-named sea cities. The four other birds promptly followed it, their heavy footfalls thumping into the earth and carrying to the group when the creatures had disappeared over the nearest grassy ridge.
Glancing around the corners of the hut warily to ensure that they were not overheard, AVALANCHE huddled together as far away from a window as they tried to be without leaving the shelter the wooden building had to offer them. They watched each other for a few seconds, gauging how the person next to them was feeling before attempting to speak. The ride had been long and hard; the cold weather had played heavily on their steeds despite their resilience. They were all tired and the prospect of slipping into a warm hotel was not something they felt willing to turn down. Without any news on what had been happening to their friends and other places in the rest of the world however, they had no choice but to stay hidden.
"Whats the plan, Cloud?" Cid asked. The shivering in his voice which had been familiar to their ears all day had lessened dramatically. It went against all their instincts to admit so, but it seemed that the closer they came to the sea, the warmer the climate had become. Despite the certainly unusual weather conditions they felt in no mood to argue against an end to the oppressing chill which had been plaguing them over the past few days. It had not only made their travel on foot difficult, poor conditions had led to shortened tempers and an increase in hostility between group members. As group leader Cloud had felt inwardly glad for the alteration in both temperament and travelling conditions. He continued to marvel inwardly however at Cids ability to pointedly refuse to agree with Sephiroth even though he probably knew that the majority of times the general was correct. That at least had remained constant despite location, company and time.
"We all split up," Cloud replied after hastily gathering his thoughts as four eyes stared expectantly at him. "Ive been thinking about it all day and it seems to be the best option. Moving around as a group in the base of the worlds largest army is suicidal. Besides, as individuals well cover more ground and be more likely to hear news of whats been happening back in Midgar."
A depressing silence smothered them as they mourned their friends, the Turks and Reeve in the cold possibility that their ends had been met in the pursuit of bloody revenge.
"Where do we meet?" Sephiroth questioned to shatter the peace.
"Well make our way to the civilian harbour in no more than an hour. The one which was based on the Upper City is now used for military purposes and we only need basic transport. To get that, we find a crewmember and bribe them with as much as we have to in order to keep his mouth shut. If that works well end up in Costa del Sol before tomorrow afternoon."
Cid nodded in mute agreement with his leader and Yuffie gazed apprehensively in the direction of the sea. She gave a shudder as her stomach flipped with another wash of wind forcing the stench of salt up her nostrils. "I hate boats," she whimpered pathetically. "Even those chocobos were better than a bucket in the middle of an ocean."
Cid snorted a laugh. "My ass is killing me and Ill just be glad for the opportunity to lie down on something flat."
"Yeah, something flat which rocks from side to side and tries to hurl you over the side of railings or bash your brains out on the wall," her voice trailed off and in the darkness she went a peculiar shade of silvery-green.
Turning the mood serious once more, Tifa turned to Cloud, her burgundy eyes glittering like wine in the diminished moonlight. "What happens if we dont all make it?" she asked, obviously trying to seem unemotionally involved and only thinking of the mission ahead.
Sensing this and attempting on some subtle degree to alleviate her fears, Cloud softened his response. "Junon is a big place," he began. "It wouldnt surprise me if one or even two of us didnt get to the meeting place on time. If thats the case then the others are to go on and wait at Costa del Sol. This place is too dangerous to spend too much time in and we want to move on as quickly as possible. Is everyone clear of that? No matter how bad things get, if someones at the boat in one hour and no one else has shown, they get on board and go. No waiting or hanging around. None of us have been stupid enough to get caught and that isnt about to change."
He received four pensive nods and answered them with a rare smile. "Good," he said gratefully. Looking down and pulling back his glove he stared at a watch strapped on his right wrist and glanced up at them again. "My watch says its eight oclock," he announced. "At exactly nine, the hourly cargo transport will be leaving the civilian harbour. We meet outside of it and bribe the first crewmember we come across. No expense can be spared because if we screw up now then theres no way in hell we can find another route to the Eastern Continent."
"And Im sure as hell not ridin any more animals," Cid muttered as he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag from it. "The next time anyone suggests that we wear our asses down to the bone on the back of something not made out of metal, Ill tell them where to shove it. The only thing chocobos are any good for is eatin."
Yuffie gasped with horror and glared at him. "Thats horrible!" she cried in a hushed voice.
"Ah, you only like them cos theyre the only things which dont make you want to hurl."
Cloud grinned to himself and shook his head. "Cmon guys," he urged gently, starting to walk towards the mass of buildings known as Lower Junon. Tifa strode next to him, holding onto his arm as though it would be the last time she ever could. "Well see each other in an hour," he smiled down at her and she beamed back.
"I know," she answered, flicking a bang of deep brown hair over her shoulder (god how he loved it when she did that). "But since you told me that you loved me, I dont think weve been apart for that long."
He laughed and smiled happily back down at her. The couple stopped in the middle of the street and their lips met in a yellow pool of gaudy light thrown out by a candlelit streetlamp above them. They lost themselves in their action, feeling one-another completely for a few seconds. Both felt as though they couldve remained in the moment for an eternity but on the edge of their hearing they heard a peculiar sound. Pulling their faces away but staying embraced, they unanimously turned and looked behind them. Only a couple of metres away stood Cid suppressing a bout of laughter as Yuffie gagged in mock sickness beside him.
Cloud sighed and looked down at his beloved. "I am so glad that were not travelling as a group," he murmured and she gave a bark of laughter.
Moving from the light, they found themselves on the edge of a crumbling, tarmac road. Grass blades had begun to jut up through the thick black layer showing the first signs of disrepair in the city. The lower part of Junon had been poor and polluted since theyd first entered its grounds, but with the use of Mako ceasing, it had become considerably cleaner and brighter. Like Midgar, nature was now starting to cover mans past abominations and embrace modern ruins with ivy and flowers. In the darkness of night however it seemed like any other town; deserted and thoroughly miserable despite itself.
None of them said anything as they took a final glance around, each meeting the eyes of the other group members. Words would only make the parting more difficult, and so with a final gesture they turned in different directions and started to fan out into the city.
Yuffie slunk furthest from the shoreline and watched with a mental cheer as Cloud impassively took the sandy route. With any luck, she had mused. If I stay far enough from the sea then Ill miss the meeting time and wont have to get on that awful boat. And so she slipped into the first of many alleys sandwiched between the back of the street and the chalky sea cliffs.
Ducking behind the nearest house closest to the shoreline, Cloud paused and watched Tifa until she was out of his sight. He loved the way that her hair swayed from side to side with her hips like a pendulum. The way that her blue jeans hugged every curve of her long, shapely legs and the way that her tight, white T-shirt clung to every sensuous shape of her torso made him grin stupidly to himself. She was his, all his in both heart and now body. They had always been childhood friends, brother and sister even but since the Meteor Crisis and the past months events she had suddenly become so much more to him. Even blinking and losing her image for a fraction of a second seemed painful. Tifa Lockheart, the girl next-door had become one of the most beautiful women hed ever laid eyes on. And with the past five years, her looks had only matured making her seem so much wiser and precious.
And damn is she hot!
Cloud almost laughed aloud at his mental exclamation and walked around the corner of the building and down the nearby steps to the sandy golden beach. He shoved his hands in the deep pockets of his new, maroon sweatpants and ambled along the flat grainy shore leisurely. Out of the entire group he had the smallest distance to travel. He could afford to take his time and the sight of a man taking a stroll near the sea was so much less suspicious than a stranger creeping around the docks.
Along the way he occasionally stooped to pick up flat stones from the floor, twisting his body and skimming them across the rough surface of the water. Looks like it might get stormy later he thought to himself, suddenly grinning as Yuffie sprang to mind. She wont be happy he sighed inwardly, wondering whether she would moan as loudly and obnoxiously as she could about the state of her stomach or decide to stay in ill silence during their passage. Remembering that he hadnt brought any tranquillisers with him, he desperately prayed it was the latter.
An odd glittering against the crystalline grains of sand caught his attention and he knelt down to examine what it was. Pulling off one of his gloves, he carefully brushed the sand away to reveal a square, silver object with what appeared to be to be a thin, moveable arm cutting through the middle of it.
Holding it up before his face he raised his eyebrows and stood. "A buckle," he murmured to no one in particular. "How bizarre."
Shrugging, his slipped it into one of his pockets and started to resume his walk along the beach. Glancing to his left he noted that the water seemed much closer than it had been when his walk had begun. The tide was obviously coming in and he calculated that he had plenty of time to get to the harbour before it totally swamped the area of sand. That thought on his mind as he fixed his eyes to the floor before his feet, he almost walked straight past the second strange object on the shore.
He happened to look up at that particular moment for no reason at all and was taken aback to land his gaze on an apparently shapeless mass lying near the incoming tide. It seemed to be long and thin, perhaps very flat judging by the area it took up. In the shadow of the air-path overhead he could tell no more of what he had stumbled across. It was quite a distance from him; he walked near the sea walls which prevent the ocean from rushing up and consuming the city during high tide. The Thing whereas lay as far away as it was possible to be from the defences. In the time that it had taken Cloud to stop and scrutinise the object the water had come up far enough to lap against the end of the object closest to the salty water.
Taking a few faltering steps the ex-SOLDIER managed to not only curse his hesitance, but also his curiosity in the same breath. He now stood perhaps three metres from the thing, and from his new examination point he saw that it was not a normal object; it was a person.
Senses of guilt rushed his mind as he struggled against two demons at once. One of them told him to carry on; he had less than twenty minutes to reach the harbour and who knew how long it would take to check out this person? They were probably just a drunk who stumbled down to the shore and fell asleep in the sand in an alcohol-induced daze. Besides, why should he help anyone? If he did drag the person from their watery bed there was a strong chance theyd recognise him and start screaming bloody-murder, claiming that theyd caught the leader of AVALANCHE the Murderers.
On the other hand, if he did just leave the freezing figure they might never wake up and be swallowed by the tide as it swept up the beach and crashed against the sea wall. Then he truly would be no better than the killer the media claimed he was. He couldnt risk raising an alarm or asking someone else to help otherwise that would be no better than offering himself on a plate.
Clouds brow furrowed deeply as he thought. The waves were now lapping against the feet of the figure. In a short time they would reach up to the calves, then the back and finally cover the face to drown the comatose person. Cloud wasnt even sure of what sex they were. In the very poor lighting he found himself wondering how he even made out the shapeless mass in the shadows. Long dark hair lay in a matted, tangled mess over their face hiding any features and a blanket or sheet of some kind lay over their body giving it the deceptively bizarre form he had noticed. Whoever it was though, Cloud realised as he tilted his head to one side curiously, they were tall. Taller than himself anyway so most likely male.
Coming to a mental conclusion, the ex-SOLDIER took a few long strides forward until he was by the side of the stranger. He didnt have to awaken the figure. All he had to do was carry him or her up to one of the fishing cottages and leave them there to be discovered in the morning. It would be cold, sure, but it would be better than drowning. Besides, for all he knew they might already be dead.
Swallowing hard and preparing for the worst, he knelt down and crudely prodded them. They didn't react, an outcome he was oddly thankful for.
Preparing himself once again, he reached out with a faltering movement and touched the hair. It was covered in sand and a few strands of seaweed were woven through the dark locks. The person had either been there since high-tide that lunchtime, or had come in from the sea earlier. To Cloud, neither prospect sounded good.
Urging himself to make the final movement he slipped his hands beneath the nearest shoulder and tensed his muscles. With a strained breath, he lifted and tipped over the stranger. They rolled onto their back limply like a rag doll, their head lolling to one side and their arms falling whatever way gravity wished them to go. As Cloud recovered his breath his eyes turned slowly downward expecting to find anything from crabs slowly eating the rotten flesh of a sea-killed corpse or perhaps even no flesh at all.
He was even more horrified with the sight that met him. The person seemed completely untouched by any such suspicions or even the sea itself.
The face was untouched by time.
The visage of a man aged twenty-seven and yet sixty-six looked up at Cloud Strife from a mass of raven hair. The blanket which had shrouded the body was nothing more than a crimson cape died black by the amount of water soaked into it. Almond eyes were shut tight and a look of torment so dreadful that it chilled Clouds very soul played on the features of the man. A terrible golden gauntlet lay still, twisted by pain into a deadly claw by the side of the figure and his good hand lay limply across his chest. Unable to quite believe the object that beheld him so powerfully, Clouds heart stopped for a fraction of a second and the blood drained from his face. As though trying to disprove the obvious, he reached out with horrid expectation and slowly pulled down the high neck of the cape to reveal the mouth. Two stark white triangles pushed over the bottom, wan lip; they gleamed in the shadows with an unholy tint. He rubbed his face in the unconscious hope of erasing the scene before him, but blinking hard he realised that it was impossible. Inhaling deeply to calm his nerves, his brain remained stunned despite his best efforts and unable to think of anything else to do, the ex-SOLDIER spoke.
"Oh shit Vincent," Cloud breathed, his voice a higher pitch than usual through sheer panic and shock. "Oh shit, oh shit," he gasped over and over again as though repeating the curse could somehow right the wrong he witnessed.
Snapping out of his stunned daze, he reached down with violently shivering hands to grope the ex-Turks neck. After a few seconds of hysterical searching he forced himself to relax and felt a wave of elation rush over him as he discovered a faint pulse; so weak he almost stood and ran from the place believing his friend to be dead. As he lowered his cheek to the vampires mouth he felt a barely noticeable brush of warm air against his face. Seconds later there was another and then another.
"Thank God youre alive," Cloud said aloud, trying to repress his anxiety and excitement. "But you wont be for much longer. I have to get you out of here."
The tide was now lapping up around the top of Vincents boots which reached up to his knees. Much longer and he would probably catch hypothermia if he hadnt already. His pulse was feeble and his breathing was laboured. With any part of his body touching the freezing water hed die from sheer coldness alone.
Forgetting all thoughts of meetings and time, Cloud grabbed the shoulders of the cloak and dragged the tall man from the touch of the sea. The exertion from such a simple movement exhausted him, the cold air attacking his lungs and forcing him to bend over double into a slight coughing fit. He muffled his discomfort with a degree of anger and scanned up and down the sea wall for a set of steps to the city. To his relief there was such a stairway only twenty metres perhaps along the way he was walking anyway.
He crouched down next to the ghostly figure and with an expression of pure pity brushed a few strands of ebony from the white face. "I hope youre not as heavy as I think you are," he muttered to his comatose companion.
Flexing his muscles and rubbing feeling into his sleeved arms, his slipped his hands under Vincents back and heaved him unceremoniously over his shoulder, staggering back a few steps and almost slamming into the wall. Taking a few deep breaths, he pushed forward toward the route to Lower Junon. Once there he staggered up the stairs and straight out into the main town square. This was a part of town he recognised; hed been here before. To his left there was the elevator up to the military owned Upper Junon which was now free to all who wished to use it. To his right was the road which led to the outer suburbs. But it was the sight opposite the cobbled square which held his attention. Another set of stairs faced him, but these were made from rickety wood, spiralling up to an equally old house perched on a natural cliff ledge about ten metres above the rest of the town.
Cloud smiled to himself grimly. "Priscilla," was all he said before pushing onwards and moving with strained grunts up the wooden structure. The weight on his back crushing his shoulder, he was forced to stop and gather his breath every few seconds. After a climb which he realised dourly would have been no problem to him five years before, he stood at a door. All the lights were switched off inside the cabin and he felt a sudden reluctance to disturb the person inside. As the comatose figure on his back became heavier with the moments pause however, he reached up and gave a soft but urgent banging on the door.
It took several minutes before he was rewarded with a response. There was gentle glow of an oil lamp as it was switched on in the two-room hut. A curtain twitched, and then with a click the entrance opened. A young girl of only thirteen stood in the doorway, bleary-eyed but with a grin on her youthful features. She looked as though she was about to run forward and embrace the figure before her, but noticing his load restrained herself at the last moment.
"Hiya Cloud," she beamed as she gazed with undisguised admiration up at the unruly haired man.
He chuckled wearily in response. "Hi Priscilla," he greeted. "Are you alone?"
She nodded. "Yup, Grandpas out on a fishing expedition with a few other guys from town. He only went this morning so he wont be back for ages."
Cloud sighed and shuffled the weight on his back awkwardly. "Is it okay if I come in?"
"Sure it is," she answered brightly as she stood to one side. Cloud entered gratefully and bent down in a motion preparing to lie Vincent on the floor. "Oh no," she said to stop him and he looked questioningly at her. She pointed to a curtained corner of the room and pulled it aside to reveal a large, single bed. "This is Gramps bed," she explained. "Your friend looks real sick so he can sleep there."
"Thank you Priscilla," Cloud replied gratefully and he slid Vincent off his shoulder and onto the cot. The vampire slumped limply from his grip and his head fell back onto the pillow, his arms flopping to his sides. Cloud felt a nudge on his arm as he attempted to massage the ache from it.
"Whats wrong with him?" the young girl asked innocently.
"I dont know myself," Cloud responded truthfully. "I found him on the beach. Have there been any shipwrecks recently? He might have been on a boat that sunk and was swept to shore by currents."
Priscilla shook her head firmly with a negative sound and Cloud frowned.
"How can you be so certain?"
"There havent been any boats going down for a real long time Gramps says, and he knows everything that goes on around here because hes the harbour master. Besides, the currents near here lead away from Junon towards Costa del Sol," she told him matter-of-factly.
Cloud sat down on a chair next to the bunk and assumed a thinking position. "Then how did he get here?" he mused aloud. "The last accounts I heard said he was on the other side of the ocean."
Priscilla seemed more interested in staring with childlike wonder at Vincents intricate claw and innocently wondering how his arm was turned to gold. Ignoring Cloud as the ex-SOLDIER spoke to himself, she reached out tentatively and nudged the gauntlet. As the whole body of the dark figure twitched she cried out in alarm and leapt back. Cloud sprang to his feet and followed her gaze to the supposedly unconscious figure.
Vincent gave a powerful twitch which jolted through his entire body and his eyes snapped open to stare in a glazed fashion at the ceiling. A smile broke out on Clouds face and he opened his mouth to say something. He was cut off however as the vampiric figure began speaking.
"Lucrecia ? I dont understand . You mean it you mean its actually true??" His voice began in the glacial, impassive tones Cloud was so used to hearing coming from the ex-Turks mouth. But as his demented speech continued, he was almost screaming in anger and frustration. Priscilla, stared with wide-eyed horror at the scene before her and stared backing away towards the door while Cloud inwardly prayed that the demonic man wasnt about to transform. The poor kid is scared enough as it is he begged. Dont let her see that; just dont destroy her like that.
"How can you even consider something like this??" Vincent continued to rant furiously. "Cant you even begin to imagine how wrong it is?? And with him!! Youre doing this with that that bastard!! No! Dont come near me!" His face suddenly fell into an expression of remorse and hurt so deep Cloud almost leapt forward to shake his friend from the fit. Trying to shield Priscillas slight form with his own however, he could do little more than spectate.
" You . You dont mean that. Please ! Im sorry, Im so sorry! Just dont turn away Luc? Lucrecia ??"
The seizure stopped as abruptly as it had begun and Vincents eyes closed tightly once more, his body falling limp.
"I, Is he mad?" Cloud heard a voice whisper. He turned swiftly to look at the trembling girl who tightly grasped his trousers as she didnt take her eyes from the once more unconscious ex-Turk. He knelt down until his head was on the same level as hers. He gently turned her to face him and looked deeply into her eyes.
"No," he said firmly. "Vincent isnt mad. He never has been and he never will be, yhear? Hes just really, really sick and he needs our help. We can make him better just how I made you better when that monster knocked you out into the sea, remember?"
Priscilla nodded. How could she have forgotten? How could she have forgotten the time when her hero had bravely rushed into the ocean to pull her from the gaping maws of a sea serpent? Hed saved her and ever since then hed been her idol and she had one day vowed to marry him. He hadnt quite confirmed whether he agreed or not, but if helping one of his friends would make him say yes, then how could she possibly refuse?
A smile broke out on her face and she nodded firmly.
Cloud patted her on the head. "Good girl," he sighed. "I need a bowl of hot water and some towels. Hes probably going to be very cold from lying out on the beach for so long so we have to warm him up, okay?"
"Sure thing," she answered as she skipped away to a corner of the small room where there was a sink and simple kitchen. Cloud watched her for a few seconds as she hummed some childish song to herself and gathered together blankets, towels and anything else she thought might be useful. Collecting his thoughts he sat back down in the bedside chair and turned to look at his friend.
Vincent was so pale and still that at first glance he appeared dead. His heart sinking in shock, Cloud let out a sigh of relief as he watched the ex-Turks chest rise and fall with a laboured breath and then even out into quick, shallow breathing. He gently reached out and started to unclip the fastenings on the neck of his sweeping cape which had always worked so well at hiding his vampiric secret. When it came to matters of life and death however, Cloud found himself dismissing any private reservations or desires to hide aspects of himself that Vincent held so dear. Cloud realised that he no longer cared whether his friend had to bite peoples necks to survive or whether he truly had been the schizophrenic Turk Reno claimed he was. The icy man who lay so fragile and vulnerable in his unconscious state tweaked the very strings of Clouds soul and made him forget anything which his dark companion had done in the past. This wasnt the time to find out about long-forgotten sins, nor was it the occasion to perform an in-depth personality test.
Tugging slowly on the cape which had twisted around Vincents legs; Cloud carefully dragged it from beneath him and stood up, holding the soaking sheet of crimson before him. He draped it over the back of the chair he occupied and for the first time noticed that one of the leather fastenings seemed somehow naked compared to the others. Fishing around in his pockets, Cloud eventually pulled out the buckle he had discovered lying in the sand on the beach. With an odd smile of understanding he held the silver square up to the leather strap and noticed where the material had been torn as the metal object was ripped off by some force. "Ill fix that later," he told himself as he placed the broken buckle on a nearby table and turned back to Vincent. Walking to the base of the bed he pulled off the gold-toed boots, placing them quietly on the floor.
He un-tucked the ex-Turks large black shirt and undid the four white buttons of the tunic-like front. Lifting up the back with one hand and manoeuvring the item of clothing with the other, he eventually pulled it off and hung it on one of the bed-knobs. He began to turn, but paused as he noticed the thin silver chain around the vampires neck. Reaching down, he straightened it and smiled as the distinct pendant Yuffie had given him only a week before came to view. The sapphire eyes of the lithe metallic serpent flashed at him like tiny stars and the blue lotus flower appeared to bloom before his very vision. As Priscilla placed a large bowl of water next to him, Cloud dragged himself from his thoughts and pulled the bed-sheets up to Vincents armpits. He sat down again.
"You should go to bed now," he told the young girl. "Its too late for you to be awake and nothing interesting is happening."
She stared suspiciously at him, her head tilted to one side as she attempted to read his face. Sniffing, her shoulders slumped and she rubbed her eyes with a yawn. "I am tired," she admitted eventually. "But if anything interesting happens, do you promise to wake me up?"
Cloud nodded pensively with a serious expression. "I promise," he replied and she grinned, giving him a kiss on the cheek before skipping towards her bedroom. She shut the door behind her and the two members of AVALANCHE were alone.
Cloud remained sat down and bent to soak one of the towels in the hot water. Wringing it out he lay it across Vincents chest and stared curiously at him in a pause of silence. Sand gleamed on his skin like glitter and in his ebony hair; it was probably stuck in the joints of his metallic claw and would provide him with a great deal of annoyance for a long time to come. Cloud wasnt sure whether to laugh or feel pity at the thought.
Vincents face was as expressionless as ever to any normal person, but Cloud had spent many hours on night-watch with him had learned to read vague, subtle signs to gain clues to what was flickering through his mind. At that moment there were no creases or frowns of worry anywhere on the impassive visage, but the corners of the lips were turned down in a barely noticeable expression, and every few minutes the eyelids would twitch as he frowned in a distant nightmare.
"What time is it now?" Yuffie asked and Cid looked down at his watch.
"Just coming up to nine now," he answered gruffly, an edge of urgency in his voice. The pilot stamped his feet on the concrete jetty which stretched out into the murky depths of Junon Harbour. A boat so vast it obliterated the stars occupied the water to one side of them. On the other, the ocean stretched on for an infinity to meet the horizon on the very edge of their vision. Despite the sickness stewing deep in the pit of her stomach, Yuffie felt a wave of awe come over her at the sight of the vast product of mans own ambition.
"Its big isnt it?" she gasped with a child-like wonder.
Cid gave a quiet laugh from her side. "You shouldve seen some o the plans I was workin on for rockets and stations up in space when I worked with the Shinra," he replied. "Now they were big."
He took a drag on his cigarette and looked over to the edge of the harbour closest the town. It was pitch black so far from the pathetic lights of the street-lamps and only the glow of his cigarette and the distant stars shed any illumination over the inky water. Against the flickering screen of Lower Junon however there stood a single figure; Tifa.
"Do you think we should wait?" Yuffie asked quietly from the pilots side and he grunted non-commitingly in response. "I mean, Cloud did tell us to leave if someone didnt show up. But I dont think he wouldve wanted to leave if hed been here and someone was missing."
"I think perhaps he wasnt expecting anyone to take so long; especially not himself," Sephiroth mused from the shadows of the boat. "I encountered no hostility on my way here and doubt that he would have. Something mustve held him back."
"A tap-dancin Meteor wouldnt have stopped Spike from getting here on time. I dont even want to think what could be so important hed be willin to miss escaping this damned continent."
Yuffie and Sephiroth made no move to add to the statement and instead continued to stare at Tifas back as she gazed with heart-breaking hope towards the shadowed town. Eventually however their tranquillity was shattered as hurried footsteps approached from the direction of the boat. Cid turned laboriously to face the intruder.
"Look, Im so, so sorry but if youre coming on this boat you need to get onboard now. The Captains getting suspicious and I cant delay him any more," an obviously nervous man spoke quickly. His eyes darted around the jetty, occasionally swaying to see over the shoulders of the trio in the fear they were hiding someone.
Cid turned back with an agonised expression to Tifa, and crushing his cigarette underfoot, walked over to her. "Tifa?"
She turned to him and although she disguised it well, it wasnt hard to tell that shed thought that Cloud had come to her. Her disappointment at the sight of the pilot made his job even harder.
"Tifa, the sailor says we have to go now. The boat cant wait any longer an its already ten past nine."
She bit her bottom lip and looked over her shoulder at the town in one last vain hope she would catch the silhouette of an unruly-haired man sprinting up the shore to take the ocean voyage. She was met with little more than the sight of ever-twinkling lights and the black sea lapping up against the shoreline. The tide had reached its peak in the time she had waited for him.
"Hes not coming, is he?" she questioned softly.
Cid swallowed forcefully and scratched the stubble on his chin as he sought an answer. "Im sure he will," he told her with hidden uncertainty. "If hed been caught then we wouldve heard about it by now. He probably just decided to wait for us somewhere and fell asleep or somthin moronic like that. Im sure all that hair-spray he uses gets to his brain sometimes!"
Tifa tore her eyes from the lights and gave a smile to the older man. "Yeah," she breathed. "We can always wait for him at Costa del Sol where its safer, cant we?"
Cid almost pulled a face as he realised that she was asking him for an answer. Unable to further her torment any more, he simply nodded and gestured for her to follow him to the gangway where their friends were waiting.
Cloud reached out and placed the palm of an ungloved hand on Vincents cheek. It was still freezing despite the almost stiflingly warm surroundings and a look of worry marred his features. Despite himself and warnings that screamed in his brain, the leader of AVALANCHE tugged on the crimson bandages that were wrapped around the forehead of the Turk. As far as he recalled, Vincent had never removed them, but casting his mind back to his previous revelation of not caring whom or what his companion was, Cloud continued. He unravelled the scarlet bindings without faltering and eventually draped then over the base of the bed. At first nothing caught his eye in the dim light of the oil-lamp, but as he scrutinised the parchment-white skin an odd blemish made itself apparent to him. It was a faded pink, the colour of a newly healed scar and about the size of a Gil piece; perfectly rounded and slightly to the left of the centre of his forehead.
Although he frowned at the never-seen mark another feature caught his attention. Just next to the scar-like blemish there hung a pure-white strand of hair, almost invisible against the pale skin. Cloud lifted it gently and was about to brush it back with the rest of Vincents hair when he noticed more. A lot more. From just above the slightly left-orientated scar there was now a streak of contrasting hair lying over the otherwise raven locks of the ex-Turk. As Cloud frowned in deep puzzlement and lowered his face to examine it closely he realised that the shockingly coloured lock was not white, but made up of gleaming strands of silver. He had never seen anything quite like it before. Hed only seen his friend a week or so ago, and was that long enough for such a bizarre feature to suddenly appear? And for what reason?
As he allowed the metallic strands to fall through his fingers for a moment longer, his head jerked up in surprise as there was a distant chiming. He leapt up in alarm and looked at his watch, gasping in horror as nine oclock and all it signified glared back at him.
"Oh damn," he breathed with a sigh of defeat.
He moved quietly to the hut window and gazed over at the distant harbour. The windowpane trembled slightly at the vibrations of a vast engine coming to life on the ocean and his eyes fell upon the sight of an enormous boat turning heavily on the waves and lurching away from the sea-city. He continued to stare at it, even when the lights that ringed the railing along the top-deck like fairy lights had ceased twinkling mockingly and had been swallowed by the ever present darkness. He pulled a face; an ambivalent mixture of worry and annoyance.
What was he supposed to do now that he was stranded on a continent seeking his head on a platter without enough Gil to bribe a sailor to escape? Life was rapidly running downhill with a break-neck speed. Much faster and it was about to trip up and tumble haphazardly to its doom and end in a tragic, crumpled heap. Cloud grimaced at the analogy and walked with lethargic steps to sit down next to Vincents bed once more.
The ex-Turk lay completely still despite the occasional, unpredictable sighs and uneven breaths which drew his chest up and down. The silver streak in his hair lay like an obvious curse across the otherwise pure mane of ebony and a couple of strands persisted to lie across his face without the crimson bandages to hold them back.
"Looks like its just you and me now Vince," Cloud informed him as he soaked another towel and this time draped it across the unconscious figures forehead.
Vincent didnt answer and Cloud sat back in his chair, his eyes still fixed on the bizarre metallic stripe. Once again he reached out as though confirming that it was indeed real. It looked like hair and it felt like hair but it certainly wasnt natural.
Then again, Cloud reminded himself, since Hojos improvements Vincent wasnt exactly natural anyway. Perhaps this was just another manifestation of their latest encounter. Perhaps the stress had just become too much? Hed heard of that before he recalled idly. Sometimes people went grey in their twenties because of too much pressure. Then again, Vincent was about sixty so maybe the new and unusual feature wasnt that peculiar.
He reached up and plucked a random hair from his blonde crop, holding it with intense scrutiny before his face. Nope, its not grey he observed mentally with a ghost of a smirk.
The old wooden chair creaked objectively under his frame as he squirmed to make himself comfortable. It was going to be a long, long night he realised with a sigh. But, at least he knew his friends were safe. They were off on the cargo-ship towards Costa del Sol and if anything, confined in that small cabin he was probably in greater peril than they were. Who was to know what had happened to his vampiric friend? What was stopping him from suddenly waking and transforming into Chaos to tear the city to pieces?
At that thought, Cloud slipped the Ultima Weapon from its holster on his back and lay it between his knees with the handle pushed up against his stomach. Better safe than sorry he justified grimly. Vincents last deep sleep had made him wake up with a fury so vicious he had fought those closest to him. Although the physical wounds had long since healed, the mental scar of the memory ran deep and bled with a venomous anger; it wasnt going to fade away in any great hurry.
As he continued his morose musings, the figure in the bed suddenly twitched and Cloud started in alarm. His hand instinctively grabbed the hilt of his sword but he resisted the urge to spring to his feet and complete the stance. The harsh gold claw at Vincents side clenched weakly and raised slightly as though the owner were attempting to pull it towards him. He was too weary however and it was far too heavy to his feeble muscles.
Instead, he coughed pathetically and slowly opened his eyes, the lids drooping half over them in pure exhaustion.
"Vincent ?" Cloud pressed warily. "A, Are you awake ?"
He received no answer for a long time, but eventually the ex-Turks lips moved as though he was speaking. "C C, Cloud ?"
The leader of AVALANCHE almost laughed for joy at the barely audible word. It sounded painful to his ears, but at the same time he wondered if hed ever been so happy to hear his own name. "Vincent, can you see me?" He asked quickly.
His only answer was a laboured sigh but the eyes remained open and Clouds lips pressed together. His moment of happiness had been premature; Vincent wasnt well.
"Are you okay?" he tried again.
Vincents face tilted in half a nod, but the look of exertion and agony on his face was pitifully apparent. Cloud gently pushed the hot towel on the vampires head down, forcing him to be still.
"Youre in no position to lie," he said firmly. "I found you washed up on the beach. Do you know where you are?"
Beneath his hand, Cloud could feel Vincent move his head to one side slightly.
"Youre in Junon. Im no doctor but even I know youre not well, Vincent. You have to try and tell me what happened. Maybe then I can help you get better."
Vincents mouth opened again but he shut it hastily and with some hidden strength, turned his head to face away from his friend. His eyes closed tightly and he felt infinitely thankful the blonde-haired warrior could no longer see him properly. He wouldve died a thousand deaths of shame if the ex-SOLDIER saw the tear which fell down his right cheek. He gagged on a sob and coughed violently, finding the energy to cover his mouth with his claw.
Misunderstanding the action, Cloud soaked a few more towels in the hot water by his feet and gently pushed Vincent onto his back once more. "Try not to move around. If you do then you might agitate any wounds I cant see. I need to keep you warm; youre still freezing-cold."
Vincent made no move to object and fixed his glazed stare on the wooden ceiling above his head. For a long time, the only sound was the dripping of water as Cloud continued bathing his pale, naked skin with hot water in some attempt to heat him up. He didnt care though. In his peripheral vision he could watch his friend carry out the actions with obvious concern. But it didnt matter; nothing did any more. He couldnt even feel the cleansing water as it washed away the blood and grime from his chest or the way the soft, damp towels smoothed over his arms.
He was cold so, so cold.
Cold like ice; cold like a corpse. Cold like a murderer.
"I killed her, Cloud."
Cloud ceased his nursing with a look of puzzlement and stared at his dark companion. "What are you talking about?"
There was an arduous pause and Vincent blinked slowly, his claw clenching briefly. "I killed her again."
His one-man audience looked away in confusion as he attempted to make sense of the meaningful words. Screwing his face up however, Cloud felt a glimmer of muddled comprehension invade his thoughts. "Are you talking about Lucrecia?" He queried hesitantly. Vincent said nothing more and didnt even blink as his stare bored into the roof above them.
"If you are talking about her, I thought youd made your peace. I mean, I thought youd realised that it was Hojo-"
"Both times " Vincent whispered. "Both times it was me ". Only his lips moved but now the rest of his body was utterly stationary as though evening twitching would somehow destroy him. As Clouds frown fell into sorrow he wondered if the inner desolation of the ex-Turks soul was so great that it truly would shatter him physically to move. He started to reach out towards him in an attempt to somehow comfort his suffering, but he faltered and drew back, continuing to stare with sorrow and bewilderment surging in his brain.
"I dont understand," he breathed eventually. "What do you mean both times? How have you killed her? I thought shed gone now ."
"Yes gone forever. But not to heaven as she always should have . Shes gone to hell shes gone to my hell. And Im the one whos cast her there."
"Vincent, please," the younger man pleaded desperately. "Stop talking in riddles. Just Just let me know whats happened!"
Vincent turned away once more and closed his eyes tightly as another tear rolled from the almond rubies and stained the pillow a darker tone. He gritted his teeth to suppress another sob but it tore through him, turning into a cough as he clutched his knees up to his chest and buried his head in them.
"Im so alone " he gasped through chokes. "I dont have her beside me and now even my demons have deserted me "
Shock hit Cloud and he physically jolted at the blow. "Y, Your demons have left you?" he repeated in amazement. "Is that why youre not Chaos any more? Vincent, whats happened??"
There was no coherent reply as Vincent elapsed into some kind of fit and begun reciting words to himself, his face still buried in his knees as he rocked on his side. Cloud stared on in horror at the sudden change and almost left the room in sickness and puzzlement. The insane murmurs were halted every few seconds by wracking coughs until there was no time at all between muffled words and Vincent was torn to pieces by choking.
Cloud swore furiously under his breath as he pulled Vincent onto his back and coaxed him to release his grip on his legs. The coughs subsiding to weak moans, Cloud pulled the sheets up to the ex-Turks waist once more and gently hushed him. In return, Vincents tightly closed eyes relaxed marginally and his body slackened as he once more slipped into unconsciousness. Checking the vampires breathing and pulse with panicked movements, Cloud eventually forced himself to calm and slumped back down on the wooden chair beside the cot. The ex-SOLDIER shook his head sorrowfully.
It truly was going to be a long, long night
He could feel himself going, but did that really matter? Did anything matter any more?
No shes gone. But I want her back, Id do anything if only to hold her in my arms once more .
Can you hear me Luc..? Can you hear your murderer calling you? Can you hear the way I regret what I have done now just as I regretted for thirty-three years what Id done before?
They say that some people never learn from their mistakes thats right isnt it? They dont... I know they dont because Im one of them.
I wish you werent inside me; I can feel you there you know? I can almost hear you singing if I listen hard enough but I dont want to listen. I dont deserve to listen. I only deserve a thousand times what Ive done to you. You say youre happy sometimes dont you ? I heard you say that you were happy before I took you in but you were lying.
No- dont contradict me. And stop singing!! Damnit! Stop trying to make me feel better! I wish Id never been born, I wish Id never seen the light of day.
But then . But then I never wouldve loved you, would I? Or perhaps I wouldve. Even if I hadnt met you I wouldve loved you just as I do now.
My life would never have been a life if it hadnt been for you. My life no longer is a life now that youve gone away again . But this time there is no question, no ability to place the blame elsewhere. It was me. It was me now just as it was then
Thirty-nine years ago
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