One More Threshold

Sorry I had to go away
Tomorrow's just another day
Without you here I'll have to say:
Hold on to love, Hold on to love

How's Your Head, Third Day

Any closer and it might have severed his spine, Jed told him in his offhand way as if he was trying to tell a joke, grinning through his beard and his whiskey breath as he expertly fed the surgical thread through the needle and told him to hold still. It was a joke, almost, Vincent thought to himself as he frowned against the inevitably un-anesthetized prick of stitches. An injury like that would have been an inconvenience, definitely, but it never would have been fatal. And maybe not even a real danger, where danger meant the fear of being discovered in a vulnerable, paralyzed state by another predator. Or a human, he supposed.

Because once, he had woken up just outside of Nibelheim, minus his chocobo, with no memory of how he had gotten so close to home. When the last thing he had recalled had been garbled through the filter of Chaos. Injured, then, with a broken leg. And he had come to the conclusion that Chaos, more intelligent than the others (though Vincent hated having to recognize the fact) had taken him most of the way back when he had been unable to do so himself.

Jed never asked him what he did to get these wounds that would never look enough like knifings to bother lying about them. He never even asked after scars that should have been like a road map over his skin by now. He stuck to small conversations with himself most of the time – not so strange considering that he obviously lived alone, and had lived alone for long enough to have gotten his basement living quarters into their present state. And Vincent was forced to accept the truth now, when he used to try his best not to go to the same underground surgeon more than once or twice. In three years, he had come here four times; five, counting today. No use in denying: he was lonely for friendly, incurious human interaction.

He checked his watch.

"Get ready, Smiley."

He tensed a little a moment before Jed tugged the stitches tight. Then there was a snip, and Vincent pulled his shirt back into place.

"Good as new. Price's the usual."

He left some gil. This time there was a small tip; he wondered if Jed would take it for a mistake. It had been a long time since he had felt able to trust anyone.

He shrugged into his coat at the door.

"Take care 'yourself, Smiley. Make 'em stories about how I shoulda seen the other guy."

It was Jed's regular farewell, and Vincent could remember it when he couldn't remember the face of the young woman from whom bought his infrequent groceries.

It was nearly time to go. He walked across the street to the stables in the light drizzle of a dusk that was rapidly turning into night and pulled a small flask out of an inside pocket. He stopped to take a quick swig before capping it and reaching for his cigarettes. One, for the road, because he was going to have to quit. Again.

Though he felt anything but bitter about it. This morning he had looked in the mirror, actually looked, and had remembered himself for a moment. It had been like walking into her arms after years of being away from home. It had felt good; he had made himself stop to watch the sunrise on his way home. Almost desperate, he had grudgingly admitted, to hold onto that feeling, like something sharp and hot had been driven into the ice around his heart. He had been able to imagine her, for the first time in shamefully close to a decade, encouraging him, teasing him, telling him she was proud of him.

It was like pins and needles, stepping into water that was just too warm. But he could still remember what it felt like to be mostly human.

The ride itself took nearly two days, even without stopping for the night. Three hours after dawn, he found himself being ushered into New Junon casually with the morning commerce. He was grateful not to have to produce papers. Kalm had grown into a thriving port, and he had stopped staying there after an incident where even papers hadn't let him in with a weapon on his arm he couldn't remove.

Things were changing so quickly, and he hated it when the evidence reminded him that he couldn't catch up fast enough. Soon, he knew, even Nibelheim would be giving him a pink slip. And it would be time to find another place to hide, another coffin, away from civilization. It was his future, he needed to accept, as long as he needed to hunt for blood to keep his body his own. And he guessed that was going to remain the truth for awhile longer; they, regrettably, seemed unwearied by the passage of time.

New Junon had been built almost entirely over the old city, and, by design, very little of the original harbor colony remained. Even the massive docks had been remodeled during the restoration. Vincent headed first for the inn, and then, after glancing up at a street sign, pulled a piece of crumpled paper out of his pocket. The address was smeared, but readable in her neat, cursive writing. Belatedly, he patted some dust from his coat and tugged his wrinkled shirt into some kind of order before heading north, along roads he was curiously pleased not to recognize.

He had hardly finished knocking on the door when she answered, and something in him squeezed tight as she broke into a candidly delighted grin. It was the differences that saved him, however, yet again. This girl had freckles on her nose, her lips were thinner, her eyes were blue. He forced himself to take a breath and twitched a corner of his mouth, knowing anything closer to a smile would look artificial.

Trina didn't seem disappointed by his greeting's lack of enthusiasm. She clasped his arms in a wordless animated welcome before sliding her hands down into his initially unprepared grip. "I'm so glad you made it. I … I'm so happy to see you." She seemed ready to continue, her mouth moving in silent stutters, until she evidently gave up on words and simply bounced up on her toes to kiss him briefly on the cheek.

It was a shock, for a moment, to have been given something so intimate from someone who didn't really know him very well. And he was temporarily at a loss for the socially appropriate reaction. He swallowed. "Thank you," he told her quietly in something too close to a whisper, and then he grimaced, feeling utterly idiotic.

For a second he knew he had caught her off guard. Her grin faded into a look of awkward embarrassment and her fingers began to droop out of his own, possibly misunderstanding. He felt the uncomfortable sensation of a surfacing blush and inwardly cursed himself. It had been a long time, though at her wedding reception he had given her a kiss on the cheek. This wasn't so different, was it? Two people, family, sharing a familiar greeting. Still, it had been awhile, and he knew it was going to take some time to become reacquainted with things as generally assumed as informal physical contact.

The second passed eventually and she seemed to gather herself. Gently aware, her smile returned, well-garnished with mild amusement. "You don't get many kisses from pretty girls these days, I guess."

"Not recently," he replied, grateful for her light-hearted tone, the opportunity to regain at least a bit of his composure.

She grinned again at him, sincere, unaffected, still delighted to have him here. "Come in. I'll put some tea on. Nathan's at work until two, but Brody should be waking up from his nap any minute. And my mother and sister are coming over for supper later."

He felt like squirming as he followed her in and closed the door. Trina visiting him, he visiting Trina and her small family – that was enough to start. Trying to make conversation with a fifty-odd year old Connie and her second daughter … he didn't feel quite so prepared for. But he had accepted this role willingly, happily, even, he reminded himself. What was the alternative, after all? Continuing to live without any ties to anyone?

Tifa had been right. What was there to do?

He stepped out of his boots before following her into a hallway near the back of the house. She opened the door to what looked like a spare room and invited him to glance around with a gesture. "I hope it suits. I know the paint is purple."

He straightened up. "I have a room at the inn," he began.

Trina frowned in what looked like slightly-amused confusion. "You're family. You don't have to stay at the inn." He didn't reply, and after a moment her expression faltered with some uncertainty. "Would you rather stay at the inn?"

Inns were sometimes loud, sometimes with unwashed sheets and communal bathrooms. He had gotten accustomed to them, but he rarely enjoyed staying, and seldom stayed for more than one night. "No, not really."

She grinned again with a chuckle, as if he had made a joke. "All right then. This is your room. There's a private washroom attached, and … " She hesitated and her smile became a little tight as she glanced in and pointed at a closet. "If you want … " she stressed, as if she was afraid of offending him, " … some of my grandfather's clothes are in that closet."

Which was another way of saying she had noticed he didn't have a bag with him, and that his present clothes were wrinkled and a little travel-worn.

He nodded briefly. "I left my things at the inn."

She gave a small self-conscious laugh and touched her forehead. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed. I just … wasn't sure what you needed, and I wanted to make sure you had everything."

Charming. The similarities certainly went deeper than a few superficial facial features. "It's fine."

She glanced up at him, a hopeless half-smile on her face. "I don't really know you, do I?"

That wasn't going to matter. It surprised him, initially, to realize how much he didn't want it to matter. "Thank you for the room, Trina."

Her smile widened for a moment, the apologetic embarrassment in her eyes fading to a kind of understanding, as if she might have read something in what he hadn't said. They weren't strangers, they were family – like the word was a bridge of connection over whatever unknown history existed. The same word that had brought her into Nibelheim to find him. The same that had convinced him to invite her into the previously undisturbed solitude of his apartment. She had needed to find him. And he had needed to be found.

She took a sudden breath, as if to start over. "You're welcome, Vincent. And, please … " She hesitated a moment before touching the arm of his coat, and something in her expression made him realize that a part of him had come in the hopes of finding something long ago and familiar. Something that would convince him …

Jordan had found him in the house almost two weeks after his mother had died. He had been angry, of course, that Vincent had simply taken off before the funeral. But Vincent had been busy looking at something at the time – a picture, he seemed to recall – that he had found in a drawer while he had been gathering what few things he had wanted to retrieve from his old life. And Jordan, a man who had started his life looking for answers in a world that had continually only offered questions, and had come to middle age without any solutions, and unfairly, prematurely bereft of his beloved wife, Farah, had come to sit with him.

'Where have you been? Dad? Vincent?'

Eventually, Jordan had seemed ready to accept what he had probably known all along underneath his own anger – anger sparked by the splitting grief he had almost had to stumble through entirely on his own. The words, however – not quite an apology, not quite forgiveness – hadn't meant as much then as they did now.

'Just promise me you'll come back.'

Looking for something that would convince him that it was all right, it was time, to take a firm step forward that could also be seen as a step back.

At least for awhile.

Trina was undeniably sincere, her fingers now gripping his sleeve as if he had been trying to disappear. Tifa's face, Tifa's hair, maybe even a little bit of Tifa's magic. But her eyes, almost softly pleading, were suddenly predominantly Jordan. " … make yourself at home."