Chapter One – It Begins
Cloud stared at the tiny village before them and huffed quietly. After fighting so much in the Nibelheim Mountains and destroying the ridiculous Materia Keeper, they had found themselves in front of this tiny ramshackle town. And that wasn’t even mentioning the fact that Cloud’s wonderful sense of direction had them wandering about in said accursed mountains for over a week. Nibelheim had been hell on the emotions and their strength, and then, there was this.
The rusty rocket only made him feel that much worse.
“At least we can bulk back up on supplies,” Tifa soothed slowly, choosing her words carefully. “That last battle nearly wiped us out.” Her eyes captured his own mako-enhanced ones.
Cloud shook his head, pushing some of his spiky, blond hair out of his face as his hand tightened on his incredibly large sword. “Just expected more out of a place called Rocket Town.” He heard the distinct sound of a derisive snort behind him and turned to face the culprit. “What, Vincent?” he demanded.
Behind him, a dark-haired man folded his arms over his chest, his red cloak fluttering in the slight breeze. His left arm sparkled in the clear sunlight, the gold all but glittering. He glared back at Cloud with piercing crimson eyes, a perfect contrast to his startlingly white skin.
“Nothing,” he responded simply, his voice low but sensual. He leveled his gaze at his two companions, as if daring them to say more.
They had found the gunman not but a week or so before, tucked away in a coffin that doubled as a stasis chamber in the basement of ShinRa mansion, having just fought a particularly nasty monster to get to the key and materia inside a safe. What a surprise it had been for the group to discover a quite alive man in a coffin rather than the hordes of Gil and treasure they had been imagining. He had joined their group shortly afterwards, asking if he would be able to meet Hojo.
“Come on,” Tifa encouraged, swinging her long and full brown hair at him, ignoring their sullen companion. “The others will catch up soon, and I for one want to make sure that there are enough rooms in the inn. Last time, I had to share a room with Aeris and Yuffie.” She stuck out her tongue in disgust.
Cloud nodded in agreement and headed for the front gates of the town, the other two members of his team following behind him. “I still don’t understand why ShinRa or Sephiroth would head this way. Isn’t it a dead end?”
Tifa shrugged, while Vincent remained silent. “Does it really matter? Maybe someone here can tell us something,” she finally stated.
It was Cloud’s turn to snort at this as they entered the small town. It consisted of around five or six visible buildings, but there could have been more hidden by the trees and hills. Of course, let him not forget the leaning and rather rusty, old rocket with the words ShinRa No 26 painted along the sides.
“In this ramshackle old place? Highly unlikely,” he mumbled with a sneer.
The three member team stood in the center of the village, observing the minor amounts of traffic passing by them. There were very few people present, a minute amount for even such a small town. Tifa immediately recognized the signs for an item shop and weapon one nearby, while Vincent pointed out the inn in his silent and reclusive way. However, it was Cloud who discovered the story behind the rocket.
Speaking to an older man standing in front of one of the more decrepit looking buildings, the blond learned about the failed mission attempt and received a sword in return for his troubles. It was powerful but not much on materia slots. Shrugging his shoulders in a care-free attitude, Cloud attached the Yoshiyuki to one of his spare sheaths.
‘Who knows,’ the blond thought, ‘it might come in handy.’
Turning to his companions, he ordered, “Tifa, you go to the item shop and replenish the supplies. Vincent, see what you can find out about ShinRa; there’s something about this place that just irks me. I’ll see about our rooms.”
Vincent shook his head. “No, not today,” he said softly. His voice was muffled behind the top of his cloak, but his meaning was obvious. He backed away from the group and turned, heading further into the village on his own, red cape billowing behind him.
Cloud growled and made as if to go after him, but Tifa grabbed his arm holding him back. “No, just let him go. We don’t understand him just yet. Maybe he knows something about this place,” she appeased the blond.
He sneered. “He joined our group, knowing who was leader. He should listen to me dammit!” he cursed, clenching his fist. He almost stomped his feet like a child but thought better of it. He was twenty-one years old for Kami’s sake!
“There is more to him than we know, Cloud. He will come around in time.” She shrugged then, releasing his arm. “And if not, he can just stay here, and we will be less one quiet, cold-hearted bastard.”
Cloud tossed his head. “No, if it comes to that, I will drag him with us. He has power, perhaps too much power,” he allowed briefly. “I want to keep an eye on him.”
“That is most wise of you, Cloud,” came the distinct and growling voice of the fire-cat, Nanaki. Both turned around to greet their friend, a big smile on Tifa’s face. She instantly dropped to her knees to embrace him, wrapping her arms around his torso tightly. She smoothed her hands over his soft, orangish-red fur, delighting in the feel of it on her calloused hands.
“Nanaki, glad you made it safely. How did you get here so fast?” she asked with confusion. “And the others are here, too, I assume?” she questioned him.
Nanaki did his best not to stiffen, not really liking how she hung onto him. “Yes, Yuffie disappeared the moment we arrived. She was mumbling something about Earth and Time. Cait Sith immediately set up shop in the inn, hoping to pick up some free merchandise and a Gil or two. And–”
“We are right here, Cloud. No more need to worry,” Aeris finished for him, Barret by her side. The petite woman, who was clad in pink, flashed a warm smile. Nanaki almost yelped when he felt Tifa’s arms momentarily wrap tighter around his neck, her fingers twisting in his fur.
“Where’s the vampire?” Barrett asked, looking around at the small group with a noticeable frown.
Aeris playfully punched his arm before frowning slightly. “Don’t call him that. It hurts his feelings.”
Barret snorted. “Yeah… right. That bastard ain’t hardly said a word since we dug his ass outta that damn coffin! Fuckin ShinRa! Know they had something to do with it. They always do,” the dark-skinned man all but spat out.
Cloud sighed. “I tried to tell him what to do, and he took off somewhere. He’s probably still around though,” he stated, mako eyes glancing around. “I am sure he will come to the inn when he is good and ready.”
The gun-armed man narrowed his eyes at their leader. “Yer just going to let him wander around and do whatever the hell he pleases?”
The blond shrugged, though his eyes betrayed his true emotions. “There isn’t much I can do to stop him. You’re welcome to try, Barret.”
“Tch.” He snorted. “I don’ care either way.”
Tifa rolled her eyes before clapping Barret on the back. He stumbled under her greater strength, emitting an oomph and giving her a sour glare in return.
“Let’s just relax a moment, ne?” she questioned with a grin. “Let Vincent do whatever the hell he wants.”
“Yeah,” their leader responded distractedly. He couldn’t explain it, but there was something about Vincent that sent chills down his spine. “Alright, everyone,” he replied after a moment, “let’s restock and meet up at the inn.”
There was a general nod of agreement, and they dispersed. Barret and Tifa went in one direction, the gun-armed man still seeming somewhat peeved, and Aeris and Nanaki trotted off in another, leaving Cloud on his own. He didn’t mind it so much, however. It left him with more time to ponder about the enigma of the solemn ex-Turk.
With a final sigh and a narrowing of his eyes, the blond adjusted the sword on his back and strode towards the weapon shop.
* * *
Vincent moved silently through the town, keeping his body well hidden and trying his best to mask his emotions. He could not help but flinch at the looks that some of the townspeople gave him. Parents protecting their children from the menace of the tall, blood-clad gunman, he supposed, and these thoughts only served to cause him to draw further into himself, gaze casting out for someplace to be alone.
There was not much to the small, out-of-the-way village, which Vincent was grateful for. He supposed that had it been a bustling town, he would have gotten more in the way of frightened stares and probably a few attempts on his life.
The ex-Turk sighed then, his mind returning to when Cloud and the others had awakened him not so long ago. They should have left him sleeping in that coffin, in that living grave, for all eternity. He had much to atone for, and if living nightmare after nightmare in eternal torment was not enough, well…he did not know what else to do.
‘How many dreams were lost and stolen with the failure of this project?’ he wondered grimly as his boot clad feet carried him swiftly though unconsciously towards the rusting rocket that gleamed dingily in the midday sun.
Why had he chosen to remain with Cloud’s group anyway? To slay Hojo and only that? Would he return to his slumber after that task was complete? Would Lucrecia’s death be avenged?
No. Sleeping in a coffin was far too good a fate for him. He would have to find another way to atone, for his sin was too great… too much to ever be released.
He found the old, creaking stairs partially hidden behind a rather large tree, and he briefly wondered if the townsfolk were trying to hide their failure, or protect it, before he took a step onto the rusting metal stairs. They swayed for a moment under his weight, and he froze, waiting to see if they would collapse. But no, the old stairs simply groaned quietly and accepted their fate. Smiling sardonically, though none could see beneath the cloak, he began his ascent. Perhaps within the fallen dreams and ancient metal, maybe surrounded by someone else’s failure, he could find just a moment’s peace.
Or perhaps not.
Either way, he could be without Cloud’s idiocy for a while.
He knew he would return to the group eventually, having no quicker way to find Hojo. Yet, sometimes, the foolishness behind the young blond’s mako eyes irritated the gunman to no end, and Tifa’s bubbly personality seemed so fake to Vincent. Barret cursed far too much for his liking. Yuffie was more than annoying, bordering on the edge of insanity, kleptomaniac. The ex-Turk had no qualms with the fire-wolf, Nanaki… Red XIII… whatever he chose his name to be, for he was quiet and did not bother him. Aeris… well, he had no arguments about her either. She was a different story entirely.
The stairs creaked even more as he climbed steadily but did not break. He kept his hands on the railing without really paying attention, flesh right hand on one side, golden sharp metal claw on the other.
It was his punishment… his fate… for meddling in the affairs of one mad scientist.
The cool metal of his left arm, scraped against the rotting material of the stairs. It knocked off random flakes of coppery dust as he climbed, his metallic fingers leaving tiny scratches in the surface. He winced at the sight, once more wondering whether or not he really had an arm under there, not that it really mattered either way. He didn’t have the courage to look.
Vincent shook his head, trying to clear his mind of his thoughts, even as his long hair slid into his face, concealing his features as his headband had slipped out of place. He stood at the top of the stairs, outside the entrance to the rocket, and looked out over the town. It seemed so much smaller, so much more forlorn, from his vantage point. Yet, even as he looked, he redid the headband across his forehead, pulling back just enough of his hair so that he could see. He was so used to it being short, and even now, the gunman was not sure why he kept it long.
Placing a cautious hand on the Sniper CR at his side, his finger curled around the trigger, Vincent stepped through the doorway and into the gloom. His eyes adjusted quickly, being as light or dark made no difference to him.
‘My blessing and my curse… that damned mako…’ he thought to himself, his own mind lost in his thoughts.
“Goddamned ShinRa! Better not be jerking me around this time, or they will find a spear up their asses for sure. Can’t stand that sneaky little bastard Rufus…”
Vincent’s eyes widened when he realized that he was not alone. He unconsciously pulled out his gun, aiming for the figure bent down in front of him, who was messing around behind a small panel. Why he did so when there was no indication that the voice belonged to an enemy only testified to how lost in his thoughts he had truly been.
”Eh?” the stranger questioned gruffly, turning to glance over his shoulder. His sky blue eyes were startling, even as they peeked out from under unruly blond hair. A barely lit cigarette clung between his lips, bouncing up and down with his words. “What the hell are you doing in my fucking rocket?” the man demanded.
Vincent only stared at him, gun pointed at the man’s head, unwavering in its solidness. He noticed that the stranger didn’t seem to be perturbed in the slightest, although he caught the slightest hint of rounding to the other man’s eyes. There was something in those blue irises, familiar yet completely alien.
“Hey, I’m fuckin’ talkin’ to you!” the older man cursed, rising to his feet and angrily turning around to face the ex-Turk. “This is my damn rocket, and you’d better get the hell out of here!”
Surprise registered on Vincent’s features before he could contain it, and he fought to damper and return to his impassivity. “This is your rocket?” he asked slowly, lowering his gun but not holstering it. It was easy to return to his mask and keep the curiosity from his voice, hiding his emotions.
“Damn right it is! Second in pride only to the Highwind, but damn ShinRa took that from me too!” the man muttered, his eyes brightening for only a moment before they dimmed. He took a puff of his cigarette, inhaling the nicotine gratefully. One booted foot continued to tap on the grating beneath them, the other man still not seemingly perturbed in the slightest. He had some guts to stare down a Turk like that, even a former one.
Vincent appeared to think on this for a moment. Damn. He was going to have to find a better place to be alone now. Curse this man… whoever the hell he was.
“Put that damn weapon away, and let me tell you a story!” the man gruffly ordered, tapping his hand at his side, gesturing towards the weapon that he now carried. Vincent was not even sure he remembered the blond grabbing his long spear. He now tried to determine whether or not the stranger was a threat.
Vincent stared at the man, eyes flicking from the goggles on his head to the cigarette in his mouth to the blue flying jacket that he wore over his arms and back to the sky blue irises yet again. Determining that the man was not a danger, Vincent shrugged and holstered the gun. He decided he would listen to his story as he leaned against the side of the rocket’s hallway, looking as nonchalant as possible. He lifted an eyebrow in question, though he wasn’t sure if the blond could see it. He was vaguely interested in the story of the rocket as it seemed to relate much to his own life. He wondered if, in some way, he was to blame for this project’s failure as well.
“Rocket Town’s dreams were built upon this rocket. All the hopes and aspirations of everyone centered on this baby making it up into space…”
And so the man began to tell his story, interspersing it with cursing and blaming ShinRa. Vincent listened patiently, finding something that he at least was not to responsible for.
The stranger’s hands gestured wildly, eyes twinkling with excitement and fondness as he related his story. Anger darkened his features once, and he was more than a bit resigned when he mentioned that to save his assistant’s life he pulled the emergency stop lever. It was noble of him, or so Vincent thought, to give up his dreams to save someone else.
The ex-Turk was much the same, and look at what it had wrought him. In that, he and the blond were alike.
“However, all that is null and void because Rufus is supposed to be coming back today to reinstate the space program!” the man finished happily, taking another deep drag on his cigarette. The tip flared brightly in the dimness.
Those words caught the gunman’s attention. His gaze shifted back to the other man, and he idly wondered why the man didn’t seem perturbed by his appearance either.
“You said Rufus is coming here? Today?” Vincent questioned. Cloud would be very interested to find this out, not that the ex-Turk really cared.
“Hell yeah!” the other man exclaimed, sucking the last bit of nicotine out of his cigarette and putting it out against the wall. The butt was flicked into a corner where a small trashcan rested. “Finally, someone with aspirations… unlike his bastard father! Kinda glad some SOLDIER look-a-like killed him.”
But at this point, the gunman was no longer even listening since the faster he aided Cloud in finding Sephiroth, the quicker he would be able to find Hojo. “Excuse me,” Vincent managed politely, inclining his head, “I must be going now.”
The other man stared at him for a moment. “Whatever.” He shrugged, turning his back to Vincent and kneeling to once more work on the wiring, muttering to himself about ShinRa and rockets and space and mysterious gunmen dressed in red.
All that talking… and the most the blond could finish with was whatever! The ex-Turk was slightly amused and stood for another moment, watching the other man deftly work before deciding it was time he left. And to think, in all that bluster, he had never once learned the blond’s identity, nor had the man asked for his. What a strangely sort of trusting fellow.
Vincent turned and hurriedly left, heading for the inn. ShinRa was coming to this pathetic excuse for a town, and the ex-Turk doubted that it was because of the rocket like the other man had thought. Yet another dashed dream courtesy of ShinRa politics. There had to be some other reason for Rufus to be coming here, and he would bet all his gil, which frankly wasn’t much, that Sephiroth had something to do with it.
Sephiroth… now that was a name that sparked many things within the gunman, none of it good. He was absolutely certain that this Sephiroth was Lucrecia’s child. The signs were all there, and that was yet another sin to add to his growing list. He should have protected her better; he should have dragged her out of that town no matter what she wanted. He should have shot that damn Hojo bastard when he had the chance.
Vincent shook his head gruffly, trying to clear his dire thoughts. Right now, it did him no good. They were better suited for tormenting himself when he was alone, not making himself look a fool in public.
‘You will always look a fool, no matter what you think you may do…’
Chaos… he and the three others taunted him always, speaking to him, even as he tried to ignore them. Chaos wasn’t strong enough to manifest yet, not like Galian, but soon enough, he would be… And Vincent wasn’t sure if he could control him. It was just another atonement to add to his sins, the price he paid for his faults, this broken body of monsters.
Finally, he saw the inn, his thoughtful march taking him exactly where he needed to go. He did not hesitate as he entered the inn, nearly wincing at the horrified look the clerk behind the counter gave him. The young boy with his ridiculously colored orange hair and pimply face immediately jumped to his feet from where he had been propped up, reading some celebrity magazine.
“Which is Cloud Strife’s room?” he asked with no introduction, only expecting a quick and efficient answer. He tried not to sound intimidating, but he realized that his attempt had sorely failed when the boy blanched.
The clerk stumbled back, looking all of fifteen. He probably should not even be working yet, his parents likely owning the inn. He stuttered as he answered, “I… I am sorry sir… but our records are private and…”
Vincent’s red eyes narrowed, but then, Cloud’s easily recognized voice came from the balcony above. “He’s with us,” the ex-SOLDIER said, leaning over the railing of the second floor and looking down at the two of them. He flashed the gunman one of, what he considered to be charming, smiles and gestured that he climb the stairs.
Shooting the desk clerk one scathing glance, Vincent turned on his heels and did just that, stopping when he reached Cloud.
“Well, you decided to return did you?” the blond commented, frowning, his earlier grin now gone.
“Look, Strife,” Vincent began impatiently, “do you want to know about ShinRa or not?” He folded his arms and glared at the younger man, another contest of wills developing between the two.
It seemed ever since the gunman had joined their group, there was a thin line of tension between them, as if Cloud had not trusted him on sight. Whether or not that had anything to do with his surly attitude when they fire awoke him, he couldn’t be sure. When the coffin opened, his initial thought had been that it was Hojo for another round of “let’s torment Valentine in more even excruciating ways today.”
However, after he had seen the two young faces and a strange cat creature peeking in on him, his second thought had been that ShinRa had certainly changed its standards on mad scientists. Then of all things, they had begun to question him, rather incessantly at that. He had still been disorientated from his sleep, enough so that he didn’t even know what year it was, and the idiots had insisted on interrogating him, goading him, and continuously opening the coffin. They had tried to impart their optimism on him, Aeris informing him that he would have nightmares if he continued to sleep.
She knew nothing of the nightmares he had suffered already. If that were all he had to endure, then his atonement truly was not enough. For his failure to protect her, nothing would suffice but his own misery. He had tried to warn the fools to leave before they were ensnared by ShinRa as well, but they had brushed him aside like the idiots they were.
That was until he had heard the story of Sephiroth. He had known then that Lucrecia’s child had indeed been made a monster by Hojo, much like the scientist had done to Vincent himself. He had hoped that they would leave then once he revealed as much as he was willing about his sordid past. Twice more they had knocked on his coffin before he had finally heard their departing footsteps.
But that had been when the demons began to speak to him, and for once, Vincent had listened.
He could sleep in his guilt, wracked and tormented by the past that he couldn’t fix… or he could right a few wrongs before returning to his slumber. For Lucrecia, he would even suffer the company of a merry band of morons. It was for her and her alone that he had decided to leave the coffin that had been his home for thirty years.
Cloud turned on his heels then, startling the ex-Turk’s reverie, and made motions for Vincent to follow him. Sighing softly, the dark-haired man did as he was told, catching up to walk beside the leader of AVALANCHE.
“Well, what did you find out?” the blond demanded a bit crisply, irritation heavy in his voice.
“ShinRa is coming here… today, on the premise that they are reinstating the space program,” he replied just as shortly.
Cloud snorted. “I believe that.”
“The pilot of the rocket told me its story before informing me that he was supposed to meet Rufus at some point this afternoon, presumably at his home. I was under the impression that he lived in town.”
The younger man appeared to muse quietly, one black gloved hand placed on his chin. “That explains the empty house then…”
Vincent did not respond, merely inclining his head.
They now stood in front of one of the few doors lining the hallway. The ex-Turk stepped forward as if to go in when he felt a hand grip his right arm. He turned swiftly, glaring at the spiky-headed boy.
Yes, just a boy. A child leading a group of adults against an enemy far greater than themselves… ShinRa.
Cloud flinched but did not release him. “If you are going to travel with us, I will not have you undermining me,” the blond hissed dangerously.
Vincent jerked his arm free and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Oh? And what would you do then?” he questioned.
The younger man relinquished his hold on Vincent’s arm only to reach over his shoulder and tap on the hilt of his sword, his meaning obvious. “I do not fear you, Valentine.”
The gunman narrowed his eyes. “That will be your mistake, Strife,” he simply stated before turning the knob on the door and striding into the room. Cloud knew nothing of the beast he was truly, not even his lapses into limit break previous explaining the depths of what Hojo had done to him. He was a fool to not fear Vincent, and the dark-haired man knew this well.
Cloud watched his exit for a moment, a troubled look on his face. He shook his head and sighed. Vincent was not someone easily understood or to be taken lightly. He would have to tread carefully around that one.
With that in mind, the blond entered into the room after the gunman, knowing fully that plans would have to be made.