Final Fantasy VII; Life Ever After Chapter 4 , Friendship


Wyna's works that inspired this chapter: First Watch... which I can't find now.


********************

Darkness, fire crackling nearby, its heat warming his face. A blanket had been draped over his body and a pillow placed beneath his head. A howl echoed in the distance, birds twittered as they settled in to roost - all the sounds of the dying sunset.

Someone took a deep breath nearby, dropped something small on the ground then scraped at the dirt with a boot - Cid Highwind and his seemingly unending supply of cigarettes.

So he had failed then; Chaos had beaten him once more. Would he ever be allowed to rest?

Vincent opened his eyes. A large bonfire smoldered a few feet away, he could see the Sierra silhouetted by the failing sun, not far beyond the fire. Glancing up, he saw Cid's boots. The Captain was sitting on a log, staring absently at the fire, another white stick glowing between his lips. Was he watching over the prostrate Vincent?

"Where are the others?" Vincent asked, his dry voice cracking at first.

Cid looked at him, a little surprised at first; "Heh, was startin' to think yah'd never wake up." He nodded toward the airship; "They're inside, sleepin' ah guess. Reeve's been contactin' some o' ShinRa's people. Said he'd try to find Hojo's files... yah know."

Vincent knew; they hoped to find a "cure." He believed in none.

He saw Cid bend down, lifting something from behind his feet. He lobbed it in Vincent's direction. A heavy, chunky lump of metal clanged in front of Vincent's face - it was his Death Penalty.

"Lose it did yah?"

"Something like that."

"What were yah doin' with it in that cave?"

Vincent closed his eyes, not ready for another berating from the Captain. "Why ask when you have already assumed?"

"So, ah take it mah assumption was right?"

Silence.

"Why?" Cid sighed. "Why yah tryin' to end it?"

"I'm losing to Chaos. Ever since the Northern Crater - it has been getting stronger." Vincent sat up slowly, his body fully healed from the fall. He looked at Cid; the Captain was still wearing his jacket over his shoulders; torso and right arm bandaged. "I don't want to hurt anyone else. I just... Hojo is dead, I've avenged Lucrecia. I should have died long ago."

"Shut yer yappin!" Cid butted in. "Ah don't lose friends easy, Valentine, an' ah consider you a friend. Understand?"

Vincent sighed, picking up his gun. Again the question came; "What now?"

"Ah told yah that already! Find a way to fix this."

"And if we cannot?"

"We keep lookin'."

"And where do we look?"

Cid took another deep drag of his cigarette before stubbing it out with his boot.

"First call; Reeve's people are gonna see what they can find in any remainin' ShinRa records. And..." he faltered, looking at Vincent for the first time since he had woken up. "We're gonna go to Nibelheim."

"You think you will find something in the Mansion?"

"Worth a try."

Everyone's woes always seemed to come back to ShinRa - and more often than not to Hojo. Vincent was not the only member of the reformed AVALANCHE to have been tormented by him - Cloud, Nanaki and Aerith had all been directly affected by him. And thanks to Hojo, Sephiroth had been born - a blight on the life of every living creature on the Planet.

"When?"

"Mornin'," Cid stood up, stretching his arms towards the dying fire. "Comin' in?"

Vincent merely shook his head. Cid returned his backside to the log.

"Yah think ah'm leavin' yah alone again yah got another thing comin'!"

Despite himself, Vincent smiled; "Thank you."

They sat quietly, watching the embers dance and flash. Vincent on the ground, Cid on the log.

"Hey," Cid grinned at his friend. "Remember our first watch together? We'd known each other 'bout six hours."

"Yes, you were obnoxious."

****************

Heavy droplets splashed at their feet, a crack of thunder rolled around the valley. Vincent stared up at the rivulets of rainwater rushing down the grey stone that towered above them as Captain Highwind grumbled beside him.

Barely twenty four hours had passed since Vincent had been woken from his long slumber. It had been a solitude he was told had lasted, almost uninterrupted, for twenty seven years.

"Always get the crap shifts, all the f***ing time."

Vincent said nothing. The man on watch with him was loud, brash and had a terrible way with words. The sooner this night was over, the better.

"Is it true," Cid's voice cut through the gloom. "You're a vampire?"

Why did Cloud Strife, a stoic and clearly powerful young man, keep this buffoon on his team?

"Because," the Captain spoke again. "You don't have those pointy teeth."

Vincent sighed: "Highwind?"

"Yes, Vampy?"

"Shut up."

He heard the Captain chuckle behind him and looked back; Highwind was lighting another one of his infernal cigarettes. The silence continued, pock-marked by the thunder.

Movement caught Vincent's eye. A small group of creatures was sniffing among the rocks only a few hundred yards from the camp. Vincent thumbed the trigger of his gun. It had been a long time since he had fired a weapon; was he still worthy of the title of sharpshooter? There was one way to find out.

He slipped from beneath the sparse protection of the overhanging rocks and picked his way towards the beasts.

"Highwind!"

"Huh?"

"Monsters!" he pointed at the pinkish, six-legged, armoured monstrosities that were moving toward the camp.

"Oh, shit!" the Captain hefted his lance and shot toward Vincent on silent feet.

"I make six."

"Yeah, easy targets till they notice us. Li'l bastards'll curl up and start spinnin'. Difficult to get through their armour once that happens. They're called Spirals"

"Perhaps we should wait, see if they veer away from the camp."

"Once they catch wind of it they'll be straight for it," he clapped Vincent on the shoulder. "Come on, lets see how good yah are with that pea-shooter. If we both take one out before they go on the defensive it only leaves us with four to deal with."

Vincent nodded and raised his gun. He would fire when the Captain hit his target. For his part, Cid took a running leap into the air. Lightning bounced off the mountains, peels of thunder erupting simultaneously. Vincent kept his eyes on the beast he was about to kill through the bright blue flashes.

A squeal of agony, cut hideously short, burst from one of the monsters and Vincent fired. His target fell to the ground; dead. The four remaining Spirals howled. Was it the loss of a pack-mate, or the pure animal rage of the chance to kill?

Vincent had experienced both, he knew they were a part of animal and human nature alike.

The Spirals curled into their defensive balls, spinning with devilish speed. Cid flew into the dark air, leaving Vincent as their only target. What was the Captain thinking?

One Spiral hurled itself at Vincent, a flurry of teeth and claws. He fired but the bullet bounced off the thick, horny armour. Cid's lance suddenly landed in its path, toppling the spinning mass over. It squawked as it sprawled across the sodden ground.

Vincent fired at its underbelly, blasting a jagged hole in the soft flesh there. Heavily damaged, it limped back to its pack before it could be hit again. Cid took up his post at Vincent's side.

"Yah missed!"

"I hit it."

"Yah missed its vitals!"

Vincent did not return a jibe. He set his eyes once again on the pack; another Spiral was heading their way. Cid brought down his lance but there was too much warning and the beast swerved.

Vincent fired, it was too late; the creature ploughed into him, knocking him back. Its claws dug deep furrows across his chest. Dazed, his head thumping from the rocky collision, he heard Cid cry out. The Captain tumbled beside him, blood running from his mouth to mix with the rain.

"Bastards," Cid winced as he stood, a hand flying to his side; broken ribs. Vincent threw him a Potion. The Captain knocked it back; "Got many more o' those?" Vincent shook his head. They had not been well stocked. "Damnit!"

Both on their feet again, they watched the Spirals in their bizarre dervish, rain and mud spattering the boulders around them. The injured beast was at the back of the group. Unable to spin, it spat and snarled, tail whipping the rain soaked ground.

Vincent fired at it. Weak and slow, it was unable to dodge or deflect the bullet. It fell dead. Cid gave Vincent a thumbs up and leapt at another. They had formed a square, the three still living and one dead, the two at the front stood closer together than the two at the back. Cid had launched himself at one in the front row. His lance hit, tearing lose chunks of armour, but the Spiral kept on turning.

For their part, the other two lunged at Vincent, the first running straight towards him. Distracted, he missed the other, wheeling around behind him. Its jagged teeth sank into his right shoulder as its four front legs clawed at his back and sides.

Animal rage pulled a scream from deep inside him, a sound he had not heard since he had woken up on Hojo's table. He threw his gauntletted arm over his shoulder and grabbed the beast's head. Metal claws sank deep into its bony skull. It howled, releasing its grip. Vincent pulled it over his shoulder, hurling it into its partner.

Crack of thunder, Cid's voice, snarling beasts, cold rain running down his face, heart racing. The Galian Beast, the name he had heard Hojo use for it, was taking over his body and he could do nothing to prevent it. He screamed, his voice filtered through the Galian Beast's rage. His mind clouded with its blood lust, he felt powerful legs propelling him forward, claws tearing through bony armour, washed in hot blood.

Seconds and it was over; the Spirals lay dead at his feet. Steam drifted from his hot limbs as the rains began to diminish. Its lust for death satisfied, the Galian Beast returned control to Vincent, lying dormant again inside his body and mind.

The ex-Turk collapsed in the soft earth. It was the first time he had killed something with those monstrous hands.

"No," he whispered, horrified and disgusted by the creature that he had become. "Why...?"

"Vincent?" a nervous voice asked.

The Captain?! No! He saw it!

"Get away from me!"

"Hey," Cid said, the waver disappearing from his voice. "We won. Yah kicked their asses!"

Won?

"That was awesome! Where the hell did yah learn to do that?"

Cid did not know the truth, he did not know of the vile corruption of Vincent's body.

"It was... nothing... just get away!"

Cid's lance touched the mud in front of Vincent's face, his feet behind it.

"Yah don't seem too pleased about this."

Vincent pushed himself off the ground, facing the Captain.

"About what? That I am infected with monstrous beings? That I have not been the master of my own mind and body for over thirty years? That I was tortured and experimented on by a man destined to destroy the woman I loved?!"

Cid did not take his eyes from Vincent's as he shouted, as the voice of Chaos loomed in his throat - Cid was not afraid of him. Through ignorance or damned foolhardiness, the Captain stood his ground as Vincent gave voice to emotions he had dwelled on in his dreams for decades.

"Then yah gonna use the crap Hojo did to yah against him, ain't yah?"

Cid's blunt, simple response caught Vincent off guard. He had not thought of it that way. Yet he shook his head; "I'm a monster," he whispered, staring at his blood soaked hand, the clawed gauntlet smothered in ichor.

"Yer a man," Cid said. "Yah just... got a few extra things the rest of us ain't."

This arrogant, selfish, obnoxious man was comforting him? Vincent looked up at the Captain to see him smiling in the pale dawn light.

"Come on," Cid grabbed his arm. "Sun's comin' up. We'll go warm up on the campfire."

Vincent followed him in silence, a simple word bringing light to his dark life; friend.

*****************

Rosy fingered dawn crawled her way across the rocky ground. The fire had died away to glowing ashes while the two men had reminisced, talking of past times as if they had happened many years before - when in reality mere months had passed.

"We should get inside," Cid said, stifling a yawn. "Yah can sleep on the journey."

"And you?" Vincent rose gracefully, cloak drifting in the cool breeze.

"Ah can trust the ship to mah crew once ah give out the orders."

Cid found Vincent spare quarters, ordering the mess to send up food before leaving for the bridge. Vincent lay down on the small bunk, fully clothed. His body ached, hungered for sleep - but he could not rest knowing he was returning, once again, to the ShinRa Mansion.

A hollow knock at the door startled Vincent; had he been dozing? At the door stood a girl, she was short and plump in the face, pink cheeks crinkled as she smiled.

"I bought you something to eat, Mr. Valentine, just as the Captain ordered." She pushed a silver tray towards Vincent. There were plates of food protected by silver covers, a jug of coffee and a mug with cream, a mound of chocolate cake sat under a muslin cloth.

The girl pouted as she looked up at Vincent, neck craning at his height; "Oh, but you look tired. Maybe I should have brought cocoa instead of coffee."

"Coffee is fine," he did not feel like sleeping.

"But it'll keep you awake, and you need to get some rest, the Captain said." She pushed the tray at him again. "So, I better be off and leave you alone. Do you want cocoa? I can get cocoa."

"No, but thank you." Vincent surrendered, taking the tray.

"No problem!" she grinned and almost skipped away.

Vincent pushed the door to with his foot and set the tray down on the bedside table. Sitting on the bed he lifted the covers off the plates and placed them on the floor. Little wisps of steam rose from the hot dishes; a creamy, chunky soup and a warm roll, a platter of meat, vegetables and yams. Homely, comforting food - cooked by mothers across the Planet.

Vincent smiled a little, wondering if Cid had ordered the exact menu - Cid, a mother figure...

Bending down, Vincent unbuckled his boots and kicked them into a corner, then did the same with his cloak.

It had been a long time since he had eaten a proper meal. After meeting AVALANCHE he had always been on the move, never a chance to stop, catching a quick snack whenever the chance arose. Even when they had taken the Highwind there had been little chance to eat.

And before that? Vincent did not want to think about it. But he could never escape it - every day he was reminded of his betrayal, and his torment. It was his punishment. He looked down at the gauntlet on his left arm. He undid the buckles and let it slip to the ground, reminded of its weight now that he could not feel it. A thick black glove veiled his arm to the elbow; he pulled at the fingers, sliding it off. Opening and closing his hand he stared at the scars that made a patchwork of his flesh; he would never forget.

He returned the black glove to his hand before taking up the bowl of soup, trying to push his painful past away with food he did not need to consume.

*******************

Vincent was woken by a knock at the door again; he had drifted into a deep sleep. He found himself leaning against the wall, the empty plates and bowls scattered about the bed. He had not intended to fall asleep, it had snuck up on him and he had not resisted.

Another knock and a call from Cid; "Hey, Valentine, get up!"

"Have patience, Captain," Vincent returned, navigating past the clutter.  He opened the door to Cid, eyes still sleepy. He looked down at the younger man, waiting to be told they had arrived and he was about to re-enter his nightmares.

"Heh," Cid grinned. "Don't think ah ever saw yah without yer creepy apparel. So, yah got a right arm after all! Have to tell Barret he lost the bet."

Vincent shut the door.

"Ah, come on Valentine! Lighten up, it was a joke."

"Have we arrived at Nibelheim?" Vincent called through the walls as he re-dressed.

"Yeah," Cid replied. "We're waitin' for yah."

Vincent opened the door, now fully clothed; "Who?"

"Cloud, Yuffie, Reeve and Tifa," Cid began to walk away, leading Vincent to the hold where they could depart the ship. "Barret's stayin' back with Marlene, 'n' Red says he won't be much use with the books; no thumbs." As if to illustrate his point, Cid wiggled a thumb in the air.

"Cloud wishes to return? And Tifa..."

"Yeah," Cid snorted. "You all got history there ain't yah? Ah guess they wanna face it with yah." He clapped the taller man on the back.

Cid had landed the Sierra just outside Nibelheim. Yuffie, Reeve, Cloud and Tifa were waiting at the entrance to the town as Vincent and the Captain disembarked.

"You don't have to come," Reeve was talking to Cloud and Tifa.

"No," Cloud shook his head. "The more people are looking the more chance we have of finding something."

"We're a team," Tifa smiled at Vincent. "We work together."

Vincent nodded as he walked by them, into the town. It was just after sun-up - the town was silent, dead. No one stopped them as they entered the grounds of the Mansion. Reeve spoke as he pushed open the door.

"Aside from your entrance a few weeks ago, no one has disturbed this place in years."

A small flurry of dust greeted the intruders, swirling in the growing sunlight. Tifa ventured in first, followed by a reluctant Yuffie and Reeve.

"You going to be okay?" Cloud asked Vincent.

The older man looked through the open doorway. When he had been woken by Cloud and his friends, Vincent had left the building in a daze, astounded by the decay and state of disrepair the mansion had fallen into.

"One way to find out," Vincent drawled as he crossed the threshold.

"Still creepy," Yuffie whistled, hopping up the stairs after Reeve and Tifa. "I think all the monsters have left though."

It did seem that way; they came across no enemies as they made their way down the twisting staircase to the basement. Vincent stopped as he passed the door to the crypt, Reeve and Cid beside him. Why could he not just slip back inside there and return to his sleep?

He felt Cid's hand on his shoulder. "It was so easy," he said, still looking at the door. "I just... dreamt for nearly thirty years. I could pretend none of the hideous mess I had created had happened."

"Come on, boy," Cid pushed his shoulder, forcing Vincent's feet to move. "We came here for a reason, remember?"

Vincent's eyes moved to the ground as he continued walking into the library.

"Where do we start?" he heard Tifa's voice as he walked past them, drawn to another room; one they had not entered yet at the far end of the library. The door would not open, Vincent drew the Death Penalty and blew out the lock. Wood chips sprayed from the frame, the door flew open into the room with the force of the shot.

Inside stood a blood stained and deeply scarred table in a small stone room, surrounded by old computer terminals, a large lamp above the table, restraints for wrists and ankles. Vincent's eyes fixed on the table, bile rising in his throat.

There were hushed murmurs around him, but he could not take his eyes off the table. It had been the centre of his miserable existence for so long. Had it been months? Months of agony and fear; unable to move, unable to flee. The only company had been Hojo and his knives, his tubes and phials.

Someone pushed passed him, into the room; Reeve. He was looking at the computers, touching the buttons. The lamp sparked, shining an angry hot beam onto the bloodied table. Vincent jumped at the sight of the bright light.

"S-sorry," Reeve offered. "This looks like an old recording terminal. Hojo may have kept records. We might still be able to access them..."

Vincent tried to speak, to stop him from starting the play back, but could form no words.

"Ah," Reeve almost sounded pleased as he found the right switches.

Vincent began to shake; over the meaningless words of Hojo he heard his own screams and strangled pleas. Without thought he raised his gun at Reeve; "Make it stop."

Reeve stuttered, turning to the panel again, fumbling with the keys.

"Make it stop!"

Cid moved through his line of sight, pulling the power cord. Vincent's screams ended.

He lowered the gun, arm shaking. He turned around, making a dash for the stairs. "I have to... get out of here." He heard their yells behind him, Yuffie being called back. He did not stop, taking the twisting staircase in one leap. He ran and ran until he found himself in the bright light of the morning.

"Don't... no, don't!" Chaos clawed at his mind, scratching its way out of his soul. He dropped his gun, falling to his knees. "Get back!"

"Vincent?" Yuffie stood behind him. "Vincent, you can fight it!" He felt her arms around him, hugging him tighter than he thought her capable. "Don't let it win, Vincent. I know you can fight it!"

Chaos knew better. Vincent felt it roar, felt it rip through his body. There was no pain though, no vision of his claws tearing Yuffie apart. Only darkness.
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