This story takes place almost immediately after the ending to Dirge of Cerberus. I don't own any of it - insert generic disclaimer here.

The Nightmare's Decline

"There's not enough room in this world for my pain/ signals cross and love gets lost and time passed makes it plain/ of all my demons spirits I need you the most/ I'm in love with your ghost"

– Ghost, Indigo Girls

He'd always had nightmares. Dark, violent affairs that left him gasping for air in the middle of the night, clutching for anything, just
something to bring him back from the dark world in his dreams. He would see her face, over and over again, tears streaming, collapsing to her knees with the pain, and he was trapped in that glass case, barely conscious watching the love of his life wither and die from the inside out, Hojo's laughter echoing through his brain, louder and louder and louder until he thought he would go mad, and he would wake up, bed sheets torn into shreds from his claw, more than once holding Cerberus in his hand, pointed at the ceiling, and even once pressed against his temple, ready to end the miserable excuse for a life he led, always screaming her name. It was why he refused the hospitality of his friends and companions, so afraid he would do them harm while in the throes of his anguish. He'd caused enough pain in this life. He didn't need to add anyone else's screams to his nightmares.

Tonight, it began no different. He'd hear the birds chirp first, see her smile as she held out the picnic basket, the beginning of his and her downfall, their undeniable, sorrowful slide into the sins that tormented them both now, over thirty years later. Reliving the rejection, the heartbreak, his stubborn will never relenting. Then he'd hear her saying, "Yes, I'm sure!" With her scientist voice, the voice he hated, so different from the sweet, kind woman he loved. He watched in silence as she withdrew into that cold shell, encouraged by the ceaseless laughter of that deranged scientist. Standing by until his anger broke, reliving the pain from Hojo's gun in waves, the thoughts as he fell to his knees on the hard, frozen stone of the basement. Just… wanted to help… Lucrecia…

Normally, he relived the final battle with Sephiroth, knowing he was destroying her child, although he carried as much blame for his monstrous creation as she did, and feeling that treacherous, deep tug, wondering if he was doing the world a justice or simply hurting his beloved even more. What did he care about, by that point? It moved beyond Lucrecia; he dared not hope it was atonement. To live in this monstrous body for centuries, never aging, forced to reckon with his sins, every night, that was his eternal atonement. For standing by, when he had the power to stop it in its tracks. He helped to save the world because he felt he had things he needed to reckon with. He was tired of inaction. Maybe, he could rectify those sins enough to hold on to his time with her, enough to deserve the chance he'd had to love her, enough for the rest of his long years.

Tonight, though, he didn't get the chance to face that battle again. As soon as her name echoed into his mind, he felt the dream change into something… lighter. He felt that faint glow, like it was reflected through something like glass or murkier like… crystal.

All at once, he was sitting beside the pool in her cavern again, like he'd never left, gazing at her in her confinement, her atonement for her sins. So much alike, you and I, he whispered. Never allowed to die because of what our bodies contain, never allowed to live because of the mistakes we've made.

But Vincent, her melodic voice countered, haven't we done enough? Why are we still punishing ourselves?

He scoffed. All we've done is try to repair what we shouldn't have broken in the first place.

Oh? She inquired. I had nothing to do with the creation of Deepground. And neither did you. And yet we both vanquished that evil. And we were only able to because of what we've done in the past.

He remained silent, unmoving, needing to hold onto his grief.

Does it define you that much? You told me you were grateful you survived, because of what I did. Were those words so hollow?

I only wish that were enough to make this life worth living, he told her, knowing he was once again on the brink of that overwhelming sea of his sadness. I cannot forgive myself, Lucrecia. I've lost you. Nothing will change that. His words to Tifa came back to him…

Too much hope is the opposite of despair. She spoke them aloud. Is that what you're afraid of, too much hope? That spark you felt, looking up at that sky yesterday morning, seeing the ashes of Omega? Are you so scared of such a little thing?

He glanced up, startled…

And abruptly awoke to the sound of soft knocking on his door. Vincent checked to make sure the bed wasn't torn to rags, Cerberus still hanging in the holster, belt looped over the back of a chair. It was the first time he'd slept inside a house for months, much less Tifa's. There was no light from outside. It must still be night. Who would knock on my door at this hour? He rose from the bed, shaking out the folds of his loose pants. He swung the door open quietly, expecting to see Cloud holding a drink or maybe Tifa making sure he had towels for the morning. He did not expect, however, to see little Marlene, clutching her favorite blanket, blinking up at him with sleepy eyes.

Vincent dropped to one knee, arms resting across it. "What are you doing awake?"

She rubbed her eye, and held up a stuffed animal. "Moogle wanted to make sure you were okay."

Vincent surveyed the offered toy. "You can assure Moogle I am fine."

She cradled him against her chest, blowing air against the pom–pom, making it bounce. "He can't sleep, either." She snapped her eyes up to Vincent's, lip sticking out slightly. "Shelke snores too loud."

Vincent snorted his amusement through his nose.

Marlene smiled sheepishly up at him. Vincent had seen that look before; she'd learned it from Yuffie. Something much like panic began to clamor in his brain as she opened her mouth. "Can Moogle and me sleep with you, Vincent?"

He immediately began to tell her no, but her big eyes made him sway, just a little. What if I hurt her? She stuck her lip out a little more. May your dragon god damn you forever, Yuffie. He sighed, and Marlene squealed a little, rushing past Vincent into the guest room. I wouldn't return to sleep, anyway. He stood, shutting the door silently. When he turned, he saw Marlene perched on the edge of the bed, reaching for his cloak hanging off the chair next to it. He stood at the foot of the bed, watching her as she struggled to pull it around her, swaddled in its crimson depths. Her face and the pom–pom from her moogle doll were the only things he could see, and she flopped back against his rumpled sheets. He pulled the chair up to the bed, and she squirmed until she lay against his pillow. She reached out and snagged his right hand, pulling it until he rested his arm on the bed. Her eyes began to droop, just slightly. "Tifa and Cloud were so worried when you were gone…" She struggled to keep her eyes open. "I was worried, too…" And with that, she was asleep.

Vincent sat back as carefully as he could, not wanting to disturb her hold on his hand. Such an open–hearted and bright girl, so dedicated to her mismatched family, that fierce nature quite possibly the only thing she learned from her adopted father. Ever since he first met her, Vincent grasped desperately onto the motivation she brought him; she needed a future, and he had to save it for her. He saw the same grim determination in Barret and Tifa and Cloud while they fought their battles. And, as their prize, they were able to see her grow and blossom. He studied her sleeping features with fondness. So peaceful, so trusting… while holding the hand of a man who can change into monsters.

Too much hope…

He felt the nightmares begin again, but this time, instead of letting it wash over him, he felt the alarm bells in his mind clang, insisting with ferocious intensity to fight them. He struggled, feeling his body twitch as the instinct to morph for a fight tried to settle in. The bells insisted he fight that urge as well. Wake up! They screamed, and he sucked in a breath, frantically clawing for a handhold out when a sweet, clean scent wafted into his nose, and his demons calmed, just enough for him to be startled by it. The blossoms, the wildflowers on the hilltop… He remembered her laugh, that tingle in his chest when she tipped her chin to the sky, lost in her mirth. But this scent was different, not colored with that pain. He inhaled sharply again, clinging to it…

And woke up, just barely, feeling his body twitch with his efforts. Somehow, he had ended up on the bed, slumped against the headboard, a crick in his neck from the uncomfortable angle. Marlene was curled up next to him, serene face buried in his side, still wrapped up in his cloak and clutching her moogle. She unconsciously clenched and unclenched her fist, stirring slightly. Vincent sighed, feeling the tickle of her fine hair against his face, the scent of her shampoo, and knew he was going to slip back into sleep, his subconscious struggle nearly forgotten, a familiar, gentle soprano voice lulling him back…

See? Why would a child trust a monster?