Vincent breathed deeply, sighing as the acrid hospital scent hit his delicate sense of smell. Mixed with the stench of chemicals was a sick-person odor – urine, sweat, blood. Death.
The steady beep of Yuffie's heart monitor sounded beside him. As had become his habit in the past few months, Vincent was sitting at Yuffie's sickbed, watching her like a hawk. That was his routine. Wake up in his dingy hotel room, eat a meager breakfast, go to the hospital, and watch Yuffie sleep, waiting for the rare times when she was lucid enough to speak to him. Waiting for her to need a comforting presence.
Truth be told, Vincent wasn't sure when he had become a comforting presence for the young ninja, but for some reason, she wanted him there. So he was there. Tifa had offered him a place to stay above her bar in Edge, but he would rather be where he was needed, even if all he could do was sit for hours on end.
He had some time before the visiting period was over and the nurses would usher him out. He didn't look forward to going back to his lonely hotel room and his cheap TV dinners.
The doctors said the infection was spreading through Yuffie's bloodstream at an accelerated pace. That had been the report a month ago. A month ago, Yuffie had slept less. She had been strong enough to get out of bed occasionally. They pushed her around in the wheelchair when the weather was mild.
The doctors said it was only a matter of weeks – possibly even days – before Yuffie's body gave up completely. She couldn't fight it much longer.
Yuffie Kisaragi – twenty-two years old and the current ruler of Wutai. While she was on her sickbed, the other four of the Five Mighty Gods were ruling in her stead, in shifts. When she died, Staniv would take over for her.
When she died. So negative. So final. It wasn't that they weren't looking for a cure – no, they were desperately searching every corner of the globe, tapping all available resources. But this was something the scientists and the doctors had never encountered before, and despite their best attempts, Yuffie was fading faster than their efforts were yielding results.
Vincent studied her. He often did – what else was there to study in this drab little room? She was always so still. Her skin had lost its healthy tone – it was a sickly yellow, like old parchment. Her hair was longer from the months in the hospital, fanning over her pillow in greasy black webs. Her cheekbones were sharp in her thin face, and there were dark circles under her slightly sunken eyes.
A strand of hair was fluttering in her face, moved by her shallow breathing. Seeing it, he reached forward and brushed it gently out of the way. Where once he had been reluctant to touch anyone, months at her bedside had removed any hesitation on his part. Half a year ago, he had been wary of her enthusiastic attempts to hug him. It didn't matter anymore.
Her eyes twitched under her lids, lashes fluttering. She stirred, breathing changing as her eyes opened and her gaze slid to Vincent. A small smile tugged at her mouth, and she reached for his hand. He took it.
"Hey, Vinnie," she rasped. The tight feeling in his chest – that he hadn't known was there – loosened. She was lucid. Thank Holy. There wouldn't be any screaming, any thrashing. He wouldn't have to hold her down so she wouldn't hurt herself as he called the nurses.
But something happened. She started to cough violently, wheezing. And there was a strange, bubbling quality to each expulsion of air, as if there were liquid in her lungs. Coughing had never been one of her symptoms. He had never seen anything like it – the sheer force of it actually frightened him. Terror gripped his heart as he watched her convulse.
She curled in on herself as he sat there numbly watching her. She balled the crisp white sheet up to her mouth, and when she drew it away, he realized with horror that there was blood staining it. An alarming amount of it.
He almost smashed the help button he hit it so hard, and she dissolved into coughing again. He propped her small frame against his chest, trying to hold her in place, trying to rub her back. Trying to do something, anything useful.
As the nurses entered and hustled him out, her eyes met his, surprisingly clear, and she smiled grimly at him, blood staining her teeth red. His gut twisted.
Vincent waited in the lobby for an hour, head in his hands, calm on the outside, roiling on the inside. Finally, after what seemed like forever to him, a nurse called for him.
"Yuffie is asking for you," she said, voice gentle, yet striking him hard.
When he entered, the nurses and the doctor left, and he sat in his chair by her bed, feeling the familiarity. Her chest rose and fell quickly, her breath harsh in her throat. When he looked into her eyes, he felt something inside of him shatter.
Yuffie was truly dying this time. Right there in front of him. And there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop it.
He threaded his fingers into her outstretched hand, scooting closer. She was trembling, and he was more scared than he had ever been in his entire life.
"Vince, I – "
He held up his claw.
"No, don't speak. Save your strength. You have to use that to get
"I'm not gonna get better, Vincent."
"You are," he insisted, even as his mind screamed at him. Liar!
She cleared her throat, wheezing a little. "I have to say this."
He stared as she summoned the last of her energy.
"Tell Cid he can't have his pick of my materia. I don't care if he wants Knights of the Round. I stole that one from Cloud, so he's getting it back." Vincent closed his eyes briefly at the stab of pain in his chest. He really didn't want to hear this. "Tell him if he wants, though, he can have my mastered mime. And all my luck materia. That bastard's gonna need it when he proposes to Shera." Her breath whistled, her face contorting as all the talking took its toll. "And tell Cloud to treat Tifa right or I'll haunt his stupid butt. And tell Marlene I'm sorry I didn't get to teach her how to walk on her hands, but if she keeps practicing she won't fall on her face as much. Barret – tell Barret not to let work kill him 'cause that's just lame. Tell Red XIII I said 'bye, and I hope Reeve will make him a phone that he can use without thumbs. Vincent…"
At her hesitation, he raised his eyebrows.
"Thank you for staying with me for all these months. You could've been doing anything else but staying in this crappy place, but you were here with me instead. I think you might be a little cuckoo, but… thanks." She coughed a bit, trying to regain control. "Thanks for being my friend, Vincent."
Vincent's brow furrowed. Friend. Was he Yuffie's friend? After six months… he had to be. He'd never even thought about it before.
She groaned. "Vince, it hurts."
He swallowed. "I know, Yuffie."
"Don't go anywhere on me."
She smiled softly, a shadow of her former grin.
Twenty-two minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, Yuffie Kisaragi's hand went limp, and her heart went still.
Twenty-two minutes and thirty-nine seconds later, Vincent Valentine cried.
It was the first time in thirty years.
Mysteriously, the day before the body of Yuffie Kisaragi was to be burned, it disappeared from the ceremonial holding building. The guards were found unconscious that morning, on the ground where they had fallen, weapons forgotten. They never knew what hit them.
The door to Yuffie's little house burst open and Tifa skidded in. Vincent had been staying there, awaiting the funeral. She found him sitting at the low table in the kitchen, staring blankly at the wall.
"Vincent!" She was breathless from running. "Yuffie's body – it's gone!"
"Gone?" he asked, eerily calm.
"Yes, gone," she said, trying not to shake him. "We can't find it anywhere, and no one saw anything." Tifa's face was a mix of fear, excitement, and anger. "Who would steal a body?"
Silence hung heavy in the air before Vincent said, "Who indeed."
Tifa stepped closer to him, staring. "Vincent… what… ? Doesn't this bother you at all? Someone stole Yuffie's body, Vincent! Someone stole her body!" This time, she actually did touch him, grabbing him by the collar.
His face was a cool mask, and at that moment, Tifa noticed his eyes. There wasn't any sadness there. He'd spent months at Yuffie's side, watching her slowly waste away, and yet those weren't the eyes of a grieving man. This was the look of a man with a purpose.
"Vincent," she said slowly. "What are you not telling us?" Releasing him, she took a step back.
"Call them, Tifa."
His tone brooked no argument, so she did. It wasn't hard getting in touch with them – they were all there to see Yuffie's body off on the river. Wutainese tradition. They trickled in one by one, various questions spilling from their lips.
"Did you find anything?" Cloud was serious and solemn, and anyone could tell that Yuffie's death – and now this body-theft business – was weighing on him.
"Why'd you call us, Tifa?" The lines around Cid's eyes were deeper lately.
Barret barely fit through the door. "Hey, Tifa, did you find – Oh, hey, Vince."
Red XIII padded in shortly afterward, Reeve not far behind him. They stopped short at the congregation before them, sensing the strange mood.
"Vincent," Red XIII growled, "what's going on?"
He looked at them each in turn, his serenity unnerving. "I know," he said, "where Yuffie's body is."
The room exploded into a cacophony of questions and talking.
"Well, damn, Vince, why didn't you say so?" Cid shouted, his cigarette almost falling out of his astonished mouth.
Barret waved his arms wildly. "Where the hell is it then, man? Who took it? When I get my hand on – "
"I took it."
"What?" Tifa's hands curled into fists.
Reeve sounded strained as he said, "Vincent, if this is a joke… it's not funny."
"I'm not joking. I took her, and I hid her."
Barret lunged forward, but Cloud blocked him, the First Tsurugi creating an effective barrier between Vincent and the angry gunner.
Vincent was the calm in the middle of the storm. "I hid her where she'll be safe until the time is right."
"Until the time is – huh? Valentine, what the hell're you talkin' about?" Cid hissed. "If you don't make some sense soon, I swear I'm gonna pull out my Venus and make you make some fuckin' sense."
Vincent blinked once, slowly. "I'm going to bring her back."
"That's it – he's off his rocker, and I'm doin' somethin' about it."
This time, it was Red who cut Cid off, his hackles raised. "Let him finish, Cid. Vincent, explain. Now." Though Nanaki was defending him, he was clearly not pleased.
"I plan on going to the underworld and taking her soul back."
Silence settled over the room like a shroud. Cloud was the one to break it. "Vincent, that's just a legend. You don't even know if the underworld exists."
"Aerith exists in the Lifestream. She communicates with you, Cloud."
"That doesn't prove anything," Reeve protested. Vincent didn't reply, just folded his arms. "You're doing it anyway, aren't you?"
Vincent's gaze was cutting.