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"You can't derive your work from someone else's work or copyright her work without her permission. Therefore, technically, all fan fictions, which are derivative works are copyright violations. While many copyright holders turn a blind eye to such works (…), they don't have to be so nice about it. In the end, it's completely up to the owner of the copyright to decide whether or not to enforce her rights, and prosecute the infringers."

Obviously I'm not making a profit from my fanfiction. FF7 and all its content and characters were created and belong to Squaresoft and its respective partners.

… … …

Chapter 1: Post-Heroism

Vincent Valentine was angry. Yet another Toxic Frog was blasted away by the force of his fury (and his Death Penalty). With a sigh, he deftly brought the gun around and reloaded it. Another quick spin, and the last of the annoying little creatures was consigned to oblivion.

A growl escaped his throat as he inspected the "massacre" around him. Vincent Valentine… one of the saviors of the world, a member of AVALANCHE, the fabled group led by Cloud Strife, responsible for protecting the planet not only from meteor but also itself. He had helped defeat the Emerald Weapon, and yet here he was, reduced to exterminating Toxic Frogs which had suddenly started to appear in the Gongaga area. No, to say Vincent Valentine was angry would be erroneous. Vincent was fed up with his life, and how he had been conducting it up to this moment.

After what AVALANCHE had come to call "The Final Battle" with Jenova's Sephiroth, the group managed to limp back to Cosmo Canyon to lick their wounds. Vincent remembered that night clearly. What course could the heroes of the world possibly take after having saved it? From his point of view, just about anything would have been anticlimactic. The others didn't share his opinion, however.

--------------- roughly 5 years earlier ----------------

Vincent sat back quietly, letting the folds of his cloak hide his face in the flickering shadows of the firelight.

"Well $§#!!! I know where the $!§# I'm going!" Cid yelled, gnashing his cigarette between his teeth in frustration. "I waited too §#!&"§# long already. You all better $§#!$&# decide where the $§!# you wanna go, before I take the Highwind and leave you here!" Cid was not a man who was known for his legendary patience, and currently there was a fire burning in his eyes more brightly than the Cosmo Candle.

The electronic cat bounced around on his huge stuffed moogle dejectedly. "Hey, I never thought about what would happen if we made it out alive! You mean we aren't going to stay together?" A huge paper crane flew towards Cait Sith and sent him tumbling off of the moogle.

"Gawd, Reeve, it's not like you were gonna die anyway. You're a big frickin' stuffed animal, your body wasn't even in the northern crater!" Yuffie smirked as she expertly caught the flying origami and returned to folding it in her lap. Nanaki had showed her some fossils in the canyon earlier, and her current obsession was to discover how to transform the traditional Wutaian paper crane into a "Cosmodactyle," as she called it.

Cait Sith somehow managed to look hurt, despite the fact that he was, indeed, only a stuffed toy. "That's not what I meant, Yuffie! Meteor almost hit Midgar, you know? I would have died too, along with the rest of the planet." The small cat sniffed dramatically for effect as he climbed back onto his toy.

"But we didn't die," interjected Tifa quietly. She was sitting next to Cloud, and it was apparent to Vincent that she wasn't planning on leaving his side anytime soon. For all he knew, Cloud could have stood up and said he was going to jump into the Lifestream right then and there, and Tifa would have gladly followed him. Vincent only hoped that one day the young warrior would be able to see Tifa's devotion as well.

"We need to go on with our lives. It's what Aeris would have wanted," she added, glancing quietly at Cloud. The rest of the group waited, each watching Cloud carefully for his reaction. He was, after all, still their leader in the end. And although he had been unusually silent in the days following his final battle with Sephiroth, the next words out of his mouth would decide what the rest of them would do, despite Cid's blustering.

Mako blue eyes finally looked up from the flickering flames of the fire, weariness etched on his face. "Yes… it's what Aeris would have wanted." He turned to Tifa and gave her a brief smile, before standing up, energy filling the air and command once again in his posture. "We have to go back to our own lives now." He walked around the fire, looking at each of them carefully as he spoke.

Vincent smiled ruefully behind the collar of his cloak; Cloud was skilled at being a leader. He wondered if the young warrior could be pressured into entering politics. Even if he didn't like the task, the spiky-haired blond would be good at it.

"The planet still needs us," Cloud continued. "Maybe it doesn't need warriors anymore. Sephiroth… Jenova… Shinra… the Cetra… they're all gone now. This planet belongs to us, for better or for worse." He paused, looking at the sky. The dramatic effect was palpitable, even if Cloud hadn't planned it. "We can't make the same mistakes as before. We have to take care of it now. It's our responsibility." He levelled a determined look at all of them.

Barret was the first to respond to the unspoken demand. "Yeah, well, I was thinkin' of goin' back to Corel. Y'know, helpin' them rebuild. It would be a good place for Marlene to grow up, where she's meant to be." The huge black man rubbed the barrel of his gun arm absently. "Guess it's time to go home," he finished, embarrassed.

Nanaki spoke up next, his golden eye glowing in the firelight. "I am home, here, in Cosmo Canyon." His tale flicked as he shifted in the firelight. "I am Nanaki, Guardian of Cosmo Canyon. I'll stay here and protect the Huge Materia, and continue Bugenhagen's work." Cloud nodded slightly at Nanaki; his decision wasn't surprising.

What was surprising was Cait Sith's reply, which came next. "I'm gonna stay here too!" the cat mewled happily, dancing around on the head of his moogle. "Well, I mean, Cait Sith is going to stay here," he added, calming down. His high-pitched robotic voice didn't take away from the seriousness he put behind his next words. "It's time for me to stop being the toy cat and return to being Reeve, the manager." The cat drooped comically over the moogle as he continued. "Midgar is finished… between meteor and holy, it's a miracle that any of us survived at all. Aeris' miracle." There was a moment of silence, and then the cat perked up once more as it waved its megaphone around wildly. "But I'm going to move to Junon. They could really use a good manager there, a man for the people. And that's me!"

Cloud looked at Cid next, who just gnawed on his ever-shortening cigarette and grimaced. "Don't make me !#§(#"§ spell it out, Strife!" He folded his arms across his chest, his face darkening suspiciously in the firelight. "I'm going back to Rocket Town as fast as the Highwind can take me," he growled. Quiet snickers were heard around the fire, increasing the intensity of colour on Cid's face. "§#! There's no better place to start an aerial program than in Rocket Town. The world's best pilot and Shinra's best technician are both gonna be livin' there---"

"Together!" came Yuffie's teasing screech across the darkness.

"&(#!" Cid coughed, choking on his cigarette smoke.

"Cid and Shera, sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-" came the singsong reply. A few more snickers were heard before Cloud stepped in and saved the poor pilot.

"Yuffie, that's enough. What are you going to do, anyway?" He directed a pointed look at the young ninja, who immediately quieted down and began toying with the tattered origami bird in her lap.

"Weeeell," she began reluctantly. "I sorta have to keep a promise I made to Godo before I can go back to Wutai," she explained, mutilating the hapless paper toy. "So I'm probably gonna stick around Cosmo Canyon for a while," she finished lamely. It wasn't much of a reply, and she knew it.

"Yuffie, you helped us save the world!" Tifa scolded gently, standing up and seating herself next to the young girl. "What more could Godo possibly want from you?"

Looking at the two women side by side, Vincent noticed how frail and unsure Yuffie suddenly looked . It was hard to remember when she was fighting side by side with the rest of them that the cheerful ninja was still only sixteen years old. She had braved the ugliest incarnations of Jenova with the rest of them, and shared the same nightmares. Childhood just fell away under such extreme circumstances, but after their journey was over, sitting in the firelight, she looked every bit her age. Sixteen, happy, and at times overconfident, but in the end still a child, looking for guidance and approval. It was unfortunate that Aeris was no longer there… but fortunate that Tifa was perceptive enough to see that Yuffie needed to talk.

"Yuffie… come on, what is it? You can tell us, we're you're friends," Tifa said quietly, an encouraging look on her face. She reached down and patted the young girl's hand carefully, giving her a warm smile.

Yuffie remained silent for a moment, the paper crane in her lap torn completely to shreds by her nervous fingers. Then a small murmur came out.

"Ya have to speak louder kid, we can't hear ya," Barret said helpfully. Tifa shot the huge black man an annoyed glance, and he had the decency to look slightly embarrassed.

"I said…" Yuffie squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. "I-need-to-keep-my-promise-to-Godo-and-it's-something-every-Wutai-warrior-has-to-do-before-they-can-become-a-ninja-I-mean-I'm-not-really-a-ninja-yet-you-see-well-technically-I-am-but-I-can't-rule-Wutai-until-I-fulfill-the-vow-I-made-to-Godo-and-boy-I-made-a-big-one-and-well-basically-I-need-all-of-your-materia-so-would-you-give-it-to-me-please?" She inhaled sharply as she finished, as everyone looked confused.

"What the !$?# did she just say?" asked Cid for the rest.

There was a moment of silence, and then Nanaki's voice broke the calm. "I think she wants our materia." And then chaos broke out across the campfire. Barret's disgruntled yell of disbelief, Cait Sith's laughter, Tifa's open-mouthed surprise, Cloud shaking his head and rubbing his temple, and Cid cursing that he left the Venus Gospel behind so he couldn't check that his materia was still in place. Vincent was one step ahead, his hand already on the Death Penalty to feel that the comforting orbs of crystallized mako energy hadn't moved. Yuffie sat through it all quietly, her face slowly getting red. Too late, Vincent realized it was "red like a volcano" and not "red out of embarrassment."

"GAWD! You think I came all the way across the ocean to help you fight that one-winged freak of nature all the way up in the middle of Leviathan's arse just so I could snitch your materia again? Your stuff's good, but it's not that good!" she screamed, her eyes blazing as she stood up. This caused another outburst among the group, which ended with Barret captured in the young ninja's headlock, Cid covered with many more mutilated paper cranes that appeared out of nowhere, and Cait Sith being stomped underneath Yuffie's sneaker while crying "Uncle!" repeatedly.

"Yuffie! Barret! Guys, please! Calm down!" Tifa's threatening voice managed to restore some semblance of order to the group. When they had all finally reseated themselves by the fireside, Cloud stepped forward once more.

"What do you need the materia for, Yuffie? Aeris and I were there when you climbed the pagoda, remember? Tifa's right, what more could you have to prove after that?"

Vincent's curiosity peaked slightly. The rest of the group had never been told what had occurred in the pagoda of Wutai. Apparently it was some sort of tradition that involved the "Five Mighty Gods." Vincent remembered them from the days of the Wutai-Shinra war, when he was still with the Turks. The legendary warriors of Wutai were formidable opponents indeed, but they had disappeared after their strongest warrior, the "fifth god," had been felled by Sephiroth. Vincent knew that the fifth warrior had been a woman by the name of Kisaragi. It didn't take a genius to figure out the connection there. But he still didn't know what had occurred inside that building. Both Cloud and Aeris had been tight-lipped and pale when they finally exited the pagoda, and Yuffie hadn't been with them. It had been three days later before the young ninja finally reappeared and their journey could continue. And then months later when she had surprised the rest of them by obliterating a heavy armoured tank in Midgar alone with the blasting attack she had titled "All Creation." Well, he thought to himself, no better time than the present.

"What did happen in the pagoda?" he asked quietly. This caused silence to settle among the group suddenly.

"He talked…" said Cait Sith in awe, covering his mouth with a large furry paw.

"Yeah, he talked, and of all the things to ask!" Yuffie said wryly, rolling her eyes. "What happened in that pagoda is none of your beeswax, mister, and you're not gonna find it out from me." She glared furiously at Cloud for a moment, before adding "Or from any of us!"

Cloud frowned and looked like he was developing a headache. "Yuffie. Something did happen in that Pagoda that nearly killed you, and now you're telling us that it's not enough? You STILL need our materia? Why?" The young ninja's face set in a stubborn pout, and Cloud sighed and played his ace. It was a low blow, really, but everyone knew about Yuffie's obvious crush on the blond hero. "Please, Yuffie… we need to know. I need to know."

There was nothing like soothing words from a young girl's idol to make her resolve crumble, and as it did, Vincent absently noted once more that Cloud would make an excellent politician. Or at least a lawyer.

"All right, all right. I can't tell you what happened in the Pagoda exactly, but it was a part of this really long, boring and outdated ascension ritual in Wutai!" Yuffie wrung her hands together and jumped up, pacing around the campfire nervously. "Usually only boys go through it, but since Godo managed to have me, that makes me the only heir to Wutai. So I get to be the exception."

She turned quickly, and began to pace in the opposite direction, making Vincent slightly dizzy, so he kept his eyes focused on the fire instead.

"A warrior has to go through all the usual tests to become a full-fledged ninja… weapons mastery, stealth, and a journey to prove yourself." She fidgeted slightly before resuming her nervous beeline around the edge of the fire. "But you have to do more if you want to be the next ruler of Wutai. You have to prove yourself skilled in battle, that I did in the Pagoda. But you also have to bring something back of worth to the village during your journey." She stopped and smiled nervously at the rest of the group. "Well, I sorta vowed to bring back something that no one had ever seen before, something that would make Wutai great again."

"… our materia," Cloud finished drily for her.

Yuffie jumped up and down, and angry expression on her face. "No no no! You don't understand anything, Cloud!" Returning to her original seat, she flopped down by the fireplace messily. "I promised to bring back something that NO ONE HAD EVER SEEN BEFORE." Seeing the group's confused look, she rolled her eyes. "I tried to steal your materia the first time, and I showed it to Godo and the others."

"An' don't think we forgot it, brat!" came Barret's angry reply.

Yuffie stuck her tongue out at him and then smacked her forehead. "Geez, you guys are really dense! I showed your materia to Godo and the others, and then I GAVE IT BACK." A few crickets chirped in the silence that followed. Finally, Tifa broke the silence.

"But… Yuffie. We had already started working on mastering the magic materia back then. You took almost 50 different pieces of materia…" she began slowly.

Yuffie nodded, turning to Tifa with a look of desperation. "You see what I mean? I can't just take your materia anymore. And I don't want to, either! But I still need to bring back something of worth to Wutai. Something that no one's ever seen before! That's why I need your materia. Not all of it, just one little low-level sample of each kind. And not permanently! I just need to borrow them, see, for a couple of years…"

"A couple of years!!!" came Barret's expected cry of indignation. Cid just swore and look confused. "What the $!# do you need all that materia for, Yuffie?"

Yuffie dropped her hand into her lap and looked down shamefacedly. "Trust me, you don't want to know…" she started. "But I promise to give it back, I do! And I'll take good care of it while I have it. You won't lose anything, I swear, but I need to do this, and I want to do it with your permission!" The young girl's voice was tinged with a note of desperation.

Silence settled among the group. It was finally broken once again by Tifa, always the one to smooth things over. There was also a glimmer of understanding in the older woman's eyes, as she leaned over and gave Yuffie a small hug. "Of course you can have my materia, Yuffie. Cloud said it himself. The world doesn't need warriors anymore. We don't need that materia, do we?" As she spoke, her voice rose in pitch slightly, and she glared at Cloud determinedly.

Vincent chuckled inwardly as he watched the silent exchange between Cloud and Tifa. The woman might be utterly devoted to the young man, but she still had a will of iron when it came to helping out her friends. Finally, Cloud capitulated, shrugging his shoulders. He was the leader of the group, and the rest of them did what he said, even if they didn't like it.

"Okay, Yuffie. But you're not getting any of the mastered materia. And we're going to expect you to return all of the summons and high-level magic to their rightful owners when you're finished with them, otherwise, I'm going to come looking for you." Cloud relayed the last part of his message with a stern face, but already the group had descended into chaos once more. Yuffie had immediately jumped up and cheered, and then hugged both Cloud and Tifa wildly while yelling out her thanks. Barret and Cid had immediately jumped up in vocal protest, and Cait Sith's metallic, mewling laughter drowned them all out. Vincent had shared a silent look with Nanaki, and the two had shrugged and left the rest of the AVALANCHE members to their own devices, any hope for serious conversation that evening finished.

--------------- back in the present day ---------------

Vincent sighed as he slowly approached the town of Gongaga. The group had parted their ways the next day after that wild night five years ago. As he had silently desired, Cloud had passed him over in his "inspection." He wondered now if that had been a good idea. If he hadn't been so reticent during the evening and managed to avoid Cloud's piercing gaze, he might not be relegated to hiring out as a monster-killing mercenary in this post-meteor world. Absently, he realized that he had been the only one to successfully dodge the question of his responsibility to the planet.

Cloud and Tifa had asked to be dropped off first in the remains of Midgar, to help the remaining survivors evacuate. He knew that they had eventually resettled in Costa del Sol after a few years, where Tifa opened up a successful resort bar. Cloud was the de facto village mayor, not that there was much to run in the peaceful resort town. When he wasn't being called away on official diplomatic business between the other budding cities, he helped out at the bar, acting as Tifa's very intimidating, if a little short, bouncer.

And as for himself? Vincent had asked Cid to return him to Nibelheim. He remembered Yuffie's taunting call as the airship had lifted off. "Going back to sleep in the coffin for another 30 years, Vince? You shoulda given me all of your materia, jerk!" The tease had been softened by her huge smile and wild wave as they had lifted off, but Cloud had at the last minute turned to him and made only one request.

"Don't hide from the world anymore, Vincent. Wake up."

Vincent growled once more as he stepped out of the bounty office, the thankful chief of the town handing him a ridiculously small amount of coins for relieving the village of its amphibian problems. Eyeing the money in disgust, he shook his head. "This isn't being awake. This is a living nightmare," he mumbled, shouldering his pack and heading out into the forest once more.

… … …

The afternoon sky was covered by the thick foliage overhead, and Vincent's clothing wasn't making his hike through the jungle-like forests any easier. Fortunately, or perhaps more unfortunately, his body had been modified enough by Hojo's experiments not to suffer readily under the effects of the heat. He was still human enough to appreciate the miserable humidity, though.

Everyone has found their place. Everyone but me. Those thoughts repeated through Vincent's mind as he pushed forward aimlessly through the dense jungle. Absently, he realized he was slowly making his way back towards the waterfall. Home away from home. Not quite the coffin in Nibelheim, but still a grave. Yuffie was right, he should have given her all of his materia. It wasn't quite 30 years yet, but he already had five down as a dead man. Perhaps the semblance of living was enough to fool the others, the ones who hired him, along with two random encounters through the years with Reeve and Barret.

When they did meet, they traded snippets and pieces of news with each other. He told them of what he did for a living now. The famous Vincent Valentine, the silent hunter who always got the job done. Only, the years and his time with Cloud's group had burdened him with a conscience. Mercenary work was easy to come by in the ruins of the post-meteor world. Mercenary work for a man with a conscience was a completely different matter, however. Small towns were rebuilding and cropping up all over the continents, and with them the inevitable struggles for power. The others did what they could, travelling from town to town, and establishing peaceful circles of order with their influence over the people. But already more than once Vincent had been hired to protect a newly installed leader from a power struggle or assassination attempt, only to have his ward turn to him with a similar gruesome request. In the end it all came down to killing. Vincent Valentine, former professional killer, had lost his nerve. And now, all that was left was protecting the small towns from the occasional wolves or frogs or flying jokers. This was no way for a man to live. A wry smile twitched his lips at that thought. It's not even a way for me to live, he added silently.

The days turned into nights, and the nights into days. Vincent pushed on, unaware of the passage of time, removing the monsters foolish enough to stand in his path almost methodically. He moved ever closer to his goal, the jungle giving way to plains, the plains to mountains, and finally, the mountains to the soothing crystal water of his home.

Home. Not my home. Lucretia's home, he thought to himself as he looked down from the cliff side of the mountain to the sparkling waterfall below. That thought brought a twinge of regret to his breast. Regret is hard for a man whose heart has shriveled and died. What is this feeling? If not regret…

The unspeakable emotion swirled around him for some time, leaving him feeling breathless, confused, and weak. When he recovered his bearings, he made his way down the mountainside, tripping and falling, until he reached the crystal clear curtain of water blocking entrance to the cavern beyond.

"Lucretia…" he murmured to himself, reaching out towards the sheet of water before him. The feeling stirred in his breast once more, thrashing and turning, demanding to be given release. "Lucretia." The overwhelming presence, the sense of her suddenly rose around him. Memories rushed over him, louder than the roar of the water that pounded on his shoulders. He hadn't even realized his feet were moving, and suddenly, he was inside. Surrounded by the sterile crystalline beauty of the cave. Still as timeless, artificial and cold as ever even now that it was abandoned. A whisper of wind stirred through the cavern.

Lucretia was not here. Lucretia was gone, the phantom he remembered from his last visit was a restless spirit, the remains of what was once a woman with her will prolonged only by the unholy power of Jenova. Still, it had been long enough for her to express her discontent one final time to Vincent. And then they destroyed Sephiroth, and with him, the last remnants of Jenova. And Lucretia. His son and his lover, with one sweeping blow. The feeling pounded through his chest once more, painful now.

"Is this love… Lucretia?" he whispered to the barren cavern walls. They stared back at him mercilessly, unchanging, unnatural, strangely cold and yet beautiful. Vincent realized something as the beast pounding at his breast slowly emerged, tendril by tendril.

"You were never here," he said to the empty walls. "My Lucretia was never here. My Lucretia…" Vincent's voice cracked slightly as he spoke. "… never was." And the beast tore free from his breast, howling with rage, black wings unfurling as Chaos took flight, tearing at the cold, impersonal walls of the cavern, shattering its perfect crystalline beauty.

Some time later, Vincent awoke, surrounded by the ruins of the once pristine cavern. Strangely enough, though his rampage as the Chaos beast had managed to shatter the artificial symmetry of the cavern, even surrounded by the haphazard shards of sparkling crystal he felt the oppressive sterility of the cavern all around him.

Vincent rose to his knees slowly and sat back. Removing the Death Penalty from its holster, he laid it across his knees and studied the clean lines of the gun. Why… why did I come here? Why did I do this?

He thought of Lucretia as he studied the cool metal of the weapon before him. She was so strikingly beautiful, with her long, flowing hair and emerald green eyes. He had been madly in love with her, and would have done anything she asked, anything at all. He had also been so sure that she had felt the same way… so why did she marry Hojo? What mistake had he made? The unfamiliar feeling stirred inside him once more, but this time it was faint, spent from its recent rampage.

The realization made him start. He had transformed into Chaos and destroyed what he had once considered his home. Chaos only emerged from Vincent when he was under duress… or pressure from strong, overwhelming negative emotions. Emotions usually of uncontrollable rage.

"So, I'm angry," he finally said. Now that it was identified, it seemed ridiculous to have taken so long to name the feelings within him. It also seemed, like most of his actions these days, dramatically understated. It's a thin line between love and hate.

The reasons came to him one after another, falling into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as he studied the gun. "It was never quite love, was it," he said softly, running his hand over the gun. He had been too young to see it, only 27 years old at the time, full of hot-headed exuberant passion and mistaking it for love. Lucretia must have known, though. She was older than him, still heartbreakingly beautiful, but dedicated to her career as a scientist before anything else. He was a Turk, the new leader of the group that was doing very well taking care of Shinra's dirty work. Vincent was young, up and coming, a fast mover within the organization. He knew how to do his job, and he did it well, almost as cold and efficient as Shinra himself. He was white hot, and she was to be his girl, or so he thought. His passion, his fervor, it must have affected even her like a disease. The ardor of his attentions overwhelmed her single-minded devotion to her career, and then suddenly, 35 years of work, 35 years of a life dedicated to science were blown away like a candle in a gale force wind. All for a single night of passion, that was all she had ever let him have, but it was more than enough to change their relationship permanently. The realization was sobering to Vincent. It was no wonder she hated him. Loved him and hated him, all at the same time, just as he loved and hated her. Just as they both loved and hated their son.

He stroked the gun once more, Lucretia's gift to him, during their last sally to destroy Sephiroth's will. She had never known him, but he was her son. And yet, she was Jenova… how could she not have known? Thinking too much about the webs of deception they had spun around each other in their lover's fencing game made his head ache and his heart long for the days when everything was simpler. When true love was true love, and Lucretia's actions were just an inexplicable fluke in what should have been a fairy tale romance. But now he realized they had been dancing around each other like wolves in a hunt all this time. 30 years in the coffin had only delayed their game of wits, not removed it. And Lucretia's final gifts were a double-edged sword.

The Death Penalty. A superb rifle, its craftsmanship unearthly in nature. It was almost organic, a weapon that pulsed and responded to his will and desire, growing stronger with each foe he felled from its barrel. But that was the crux of the matter. Without the weapon, Vincent would not have been powerful enough to survive Sephiroth's final onslaught. And yet using the weapon chained him to his fate. Kill, or be killed. Destruction is the only way to power. And you, you will always be trapped in this path. A reminder of your bloody past, and your hopeless future. The gun winked innocently at him, reflected in the light of a thousand crystal shards. The beast stirred faintly in his chest once more.

And Chaos. We can't forget Chaos, now can we. The ultimate monster, the ultimate power. The first transformation had left his fellow companions breathless and more than a little wary of him. The monster within Vincent was uncontrollable, just as all the others were, but this was the only one that gleamed with a spark of intelligence, a spark of consciousness that spoke of the dark side of Vincent's will. He remembered clearly now his last thought, as he had imbibed himself with the flask that unleashed Chaos' power. I'm becoming less human. Lucretia's blessing. Lucretia's curse.

It didn't matter now, for in the end it was he who had won their sparring match. He gave her an unwanted child, she married the sum of her ambition, if only to spite him. He wanted to save her, he came to her with his questions and passion and furious protection, and she gave herself and her child to Hojo completely. He wanted to save the child, and in the end he gave himself to Hojo as well. And they both died and came back, chained to the world not only by science but by their obsession with each other. She gave him his cursed gifts, and they allowed him to win their lover's quarrel. And she died. And he lived on, endlessly. Perhaps she hadn't lost after all.

Some time later, Vincent managed to stumble out of the cave, finally free of its crystalline grasp. He recognized the revelations within himself as huge steps towards self discovery, but unlike all the psychiatrists would claim, he didn't feel freed from his burdens. They only felt heavier, more oppressive now that he recognized that he had been a willing participant in his own damnation.

"Rest… I need rest," he mumbled to himself, running his good hand over his face wearily. The slowly emerging stars of the evening sky greeted him, winking from overhead. Such a clear sky at night in this area was undoubtedly the result of being so close to a pristine part of the planet. Cosmo Canyon was said to be closer to the lifestream than even Mideel or Midgar. But unlike in the other two cities, it didn't happen by circumstance. It was almost as if the denizens of Cosmo Canyon had chosen to live at one with the planet. That calmness radiated outward like a soothing balm from the area, affecting both the land and the creatures that lived within it. And as Vincent studied the twilight sky, he realized that the respite offered by the Canyon was exactly what he was searching for.

Bugenhagen, he'll understand my burden. He might be able to give me some advice. And I could use some rest… some blessed peace. The thought of being able to relax in Cosmo Canyon, welcomed by Nanaki and his friends, was an uplifting one and filled him with energy. As the moon rose overhead, it shone down on the singular form of the tall, dark man, making his way south across the mountaintops.