He loved the woods.
Vincent Valentine sprinted swiftly through the forest around Healin Lodge, his gaze unblinking and steady. A world of trees and streams flew past him at an alarming rate, twigs and leaves crackling ever so slightly under his tread. His feet barely touched the ground, his footfalls making slight, soft contact with the soil, leaving whispers and hisses in his wake. For all his endeavors, the Gunslinger showed no signs of fatigue or exertion, his breathing steady and unhindered. It was a quiet day, the serenity and darkness of the forest unblemished by the light of the sun; such was the density of the foliage and canopy above him.
The Gunslinger took a slight moment to note how at ease he felt within the darkness of the woods. There was just something about the tranquility, the peace of nature taking its basic course blissfully undisturbed by mankind or foreign presences that he enjoyed, the crisp, dry leaves falling around him as they were carried by a caressing draft of cool, autumn air.
Sensing a group of presences ahead, Vincent slowed his pace to a slow, steady stride, allowing his sable, onyx locks to fall gently in front of his crimson pupils and settle against the glacial expanse that was his skin.
A trio of figures stood waiting in the forest clearing that was the designated meeting place, garbed in a display of expensive, formal designer suits that was the official uniform of the Turks, and Vincent Valentine allowed himself a brief flicker of nostalgia as he gazed upon their attire, his memories of his own time within identical vestments playing throughout his mind.
The Turks rose their heads as one as he emerged from beckoning shadows of the trees, their gazes steady and unblinking. There was a moment of silence that a stranger would have taken to be a standoff as Vincent Valentine stood, motionless and imposing, a silent protagonist to an audience of three as dead leaves cascaded around him in a spiraling curtain falling upon a stage of soil and ancient oak.
At the head of the trio stood a young, slender man, his posture slouched into a more comfortable posture. A pair of lazy-looking eyes gazed at Vincent from beneath a positive nest of messy red hair, lips curved up in a casual smirk of recognition.
Reno, Vincent noted with no small amount of distaste, was as unkempt and lazy as ever.
The Gunslinger graced him with a cold, stiff nod.
Flanking Reno stood a pair of Turks, but the only thing that they shared in common were their outfits and stiff, formal postures. To his right stood a tall, dark-skinned man, a pair of reflective sunglasses obscuring his eyes. His body was thickly muscled and in perfect physical condition, towering over his flame-maned companion, and his eyebrows were furrowed in a perpetual frown. He spared Vincent a silent nod, and the Gunslinger acted in kind. Rude was one of the few employees of ShinRa that Vincent Valentine had a grudging respect for.
And to Reno's left, the final member of ShinRa's entourage. A slim, willowy young woman who looked slightly uneasy, as if unsure of how to react, glanced at Reno before returning her gaze to Vincent. Elena was usually as strict and staunch as one could be, but the Gunslinger knew precisely why she seemed to be so flustered in his presence.
Two years before, when Kadaj, Yazoo, Loz had made their foray into the world of Gaia intent on resurrecting Sephiroth by their Reunion, one of their first victims had been a pair of Turks that they had crossed blades with; Tseng, and Elena. Easily outmatched by the trio whom all possessed different aspects of the unstoppable powers that were possessed by Sephiroth, the Turks had been badly mauled and kept as unfortunate and unwilling guests by the Remnants. Torture had been a gift that the three had blessed Tseng and Elena with.
Torture, and, Vincent supposed coldly, several other delights, especially in Elena's case.
The Turks would have undoubtedly died had Vincent Valentine not intervened. The former Turk still retained his unparalleled skill at infiltration and covert tactics, and had been alerted to the Remnants early and intervened. Of the entire AVALANCHE team, Vincent Valentine was probably the only one skilled enough to take on all three of the Remnants at once, and he had swiftly incapacitated Loz and held his own against both Yazoo and Kadaj before liberating the broken, barely conscious forms of the Turks and escaping. Ever since this incident, both Tseng and Elena had been uncomfortable around Vincent, evidently uncertain as to whether they should express their professional contempt for any non-Shinra personnel, or relent and show their more personal gratitude to the vampiric Gunslinger for his part in saving their lives.
"Mr. Valentine." She finally said, clearing her throat and appearing to have a sudden interest in her feet.
"Why have you summoned me here?" Valentine inquired coldly. Despite their supposedly good intentions, Vincent found it difficult to endear himself with any of the Turks, or Rufus ShinRa for that matter. Their actions in hindering the AVALANCHE team on their quest to save the world hadn't elevated them in Vincent's eyes. But still, they had somewhat redeemed themselves in their efforts to combat the Remnants as well as defending the citizens of Gaia against Deepground and thus, Vincent was careful to treat them with an attitude marginally more cordially than hostile.
"The Boss has a favor to ask from you," Reno replied. "I guess it's a little bit bigger than just a problem, otherwise he'd probably have gotten us to take care of it."
"It seems that another small contingent of Deepground soldiers managed to get away from us. We picked up reports from the Icicle Inn and Bone Village that they're harassing the townspeople there."
"So far, the damage has been… minimal," Elena cut in, "but they've begun to use some battle machines and material, and the local WRO garrison are growing concerned. Something needs to be done."
Vincent appraised them coldly. "Reeve hasn't said anything. I would have expected him to report on something like this."
Elena looked distinctly uncomfortable. "President ShinRa assured him that we would take care of the issue..."
"Well, there are too many of them for us to deal with alone. The President decided to request aid from Mr. Strife and AVALANCE."
Vincent Valentine frowned as he absorbed her words. Over the previous few months after the Deepground crisis, small pockets of surviving Deepground soldiers had made appearances all over Gaia, creating discord wherever they went. True to their word, the Turks had dealt with the majority of these disturbances, and AVALANCE had dispatched any Deepground remnants they had encountered, but it was rare and troubling to hear that a contingent had emerged that was too large for the Turks to comfortably deal with.
"Very well. I accept his request on behalf of AVALANCHE. What do you have planned?"
Looking relieved, Elena glanced at Reno.
"Well, a Deepground soldier that we managed to capture and… uh, question gave us the location of their hideout. It's just south of the Northern Crater, somewhere in the mountains-so we hop in, make some noise, and bust out. You cool with that?"
Elena and Rude looked sickened at Reno's casual and crude description of what had obviously been a carefully planned scenario. For his part, Vincent gave a quiet nod.
"I will inform Cloud and the others. When do you intend to strike?"
Rude's voice sounded for the first time during the meeting.
"Within a week."
Vincent found himself sprinting through the forest again, heading back to the Shera and Cid. Preparations and strategies had been finalized, and the Turks had agreed to grant the assistance of all four of the elite Turks-Reno, Rude, Elena, and Tseng-before peeling off into the darkness of the woods.
Sounds exciting. Is this the kind of work you get up to nowadays?
Vincent immediately halted as Lucrecia's melodic voice sounded within his mind, and stumbled to a stop as he felt a sheer, inexplicable surge of relief and joy erupt within him.
"Lucrecia," he whispered softly, "you are back?"
Yes. I'm sorry I left you with so many unanswered questions, but helping to maintain the flow of balance in the world is a little troublesome, even with all of the spirits contributing.
"May I ask you a question?"
Of course-what is it?
Vincent took an unusually long time to answer. "If you exist within the Lifestream… you aren't alive anymore, aren't you?"
There was a moment of silence, and he could just visualize her delicate, beautiful features etched into an expression of concentration as she chose her words carefully.
I... My body is suspended within Mako crystals, as you already know… I guess I'm a little bit of both. Most of my spirit has merged with the Lifestream, but I think a small part of me still clings to life.
Encouraged by her answer, the Gunslinger quietly asked the question he had been wondering for so long.
"If you still exist in life… then…" He trailed off, his mouth suddenly drying, his voice rasping as it involuntarily caught in his throat. "Then… is it possible for you to… return to life?"
There was an instant silence, both in the world of the living and within Valentine's mind. His body was tensed, his eyes closed tightly. For the first time in years, the Gunslinger's heart, or what remained of it, raced with a desperation, an urgency, that was so unfamiliar and forgotten to him that the sensation nearly doubled him over.
A lifetime of longing and suffering twitched and pulsed, blooming like a twisted, pitifully withered flower within his heart.
Vincent… I… I don't think that I could. My soul-or whatever is left of it-is part of the Lifestream now. As much as I love you, my place is here… do you understand?
The Gunslinger nearly buckled as he heard her words. To have hoped for so long, to have wished and yearned and longed, and to finally have been given a miniscule whisper of success and to have it taken away…
The cruelty, the pain, was so unbearable that for a moment, he knew nothing but the deepest, darkest fury and anguish at the unjustness of it all.
For a moment, he wanted to shriek, to rage, to seize every living, breathing thing in the world that wasn't his with his hideous claw and torn, scarred fingers and squeeze, and tear, and scream his agony and frustration until the shrouded fragments of the clouds and the dying ebbing and flowing of the moaning waters could do nothing but shudder in tandem to the song of his sorrow.
But it was an old pain, an old agony, an old torment that had flirted with his decaying hopes and dreams, and Vincent Valentine somehow forced it down within the barriers of his heart.
The trees bowed low in sympathy to the sadness of his voice.
I'm so sorry…
They are reduced to this.
Scientist and bodyguard.
Vincent Valentine watches her as she enters the room with yet another volume from her capacious repertoire of scientific knowledge, settling into her seat with a weary, resigned sigh. Her eyes are downcast, dimmed, melancholic in a way that was so bitter to him that he nearly couldn't bear it. He watches quietly as she begins typing at her terminal, pausing every few moments to glance at a page or flip to the next. The very light seems to have been stolen from her skin, the brightness that was once shining sincerity, enthusiasm, and inspiration from her eyes now replaced by a brooding shadow that was but a microcosm of the true darkness that had made itself manifest in her mood.
For his part, he remains silent. The previous few weeks, the previous few months, have been hard on him, difficult for him to understand and react. He satisfies himself with simply accepting things for the way they are, and is content to remain her bodyguard, allowing himself to be sated by the prospect that as long as he is around to protect her, no harm shall befall the woman he loves.
Things are very different from what they once were several months ago. Sadness and resignation have become but daily routine for them both, and yet they still push on.
The bitterness of rejection within him has faded, only to be replaced with something far worse; the unadulterated agony and refutation of unrequited love. Every passing day he gazes upon her with a longing and desperation, his arms aching to hold her again.
There is a knock at the door, and both of them start, Lucrecia rising from her seat even as the door opens to reveal Hojo, far too imperious and impatient to await proper permission to enter.
"Dr. Crescent. Where is the report that I requested from you on the development of subject nine?"
His voice is hostile and sarcastic, his face twisted in an ugly sneer that Vincent yearns to wipe off that repugnant, cruel visage. His eyes shine with nothing but contempt for his wife, who looks taken aback and broken as always at the severity of his manner, shrinking back as he continues to hurt her in a way that she never believed possible.
"I-I'm sorry-that report hasn't been completed yet. The tests you ordered haven't been completed yet-"
"Must my genius continue to be stifled by your inadequacy?"
She looks bewildered. "I-Im sorry?"
"Your insufficiency and incapability are a constant issue that hampers my progress! Scientific knowledge, Dr. Crescent, and the expansion of such knowledge, is the sole key to the mastery of mankind and this world!"
"But, Hojo, we need more time-" She is cut off as her husband approaches, the few words that have left her lips enough to provoke the man she loved into an inexplicable fury. Immediately, Vincent stiffened, ready to intervene should the need arise.
"Time? Time is a constant barrier, a hurdle to be overcome. Don't try to hide your failures and personal lack of aptitude on time, Crescent." Disregarding the obvious hurt that shines from her eyes, Hojo turns and stalks out of the room. "I expect that report by tomorrow."
Vincent relaxes, watching Lucrecia uneasily even as she remains standing at her previous position, her eyes filled with tears that threatened to spill down her smooth, delicate cheeks.
The Turk simply looked away, his eyes downcast at yet another conversation between Lucrecia and Hojo. He could do nothing. He could say nothing. Ever since the events that had occurred between them.
She turns and looks at him, her eyes alarmed and cautious. He has not spoken to her save when absolutely necessary for the previous few weeks after her marriage, and this sudden change in demeanor alarms her.
"Wh-what is it?"
Vincent Valentine halts before her, his eyes wide and imploring, unusually so for him. His lips are dry; hastily, he wets them with his tongue, preparing himself to give the speech that he has been rehearsing for the previous week. Denial and cold indifference have been useless for him. He knows what he has to say, and he needs to say it now.
"Lucrecia, I'm in love with you."
She is silent, shocked by the suddenness and force of his words, her eyes wide and disbelieving even as she stands there, obviously trying to think of what to say as he continues.
"I'm sorry." His voice is low, interlaced with urgency and passion at once. "I know I shouldn't be. I know I can't be. But I am. I love you."
She still doesn't answer, silently staring at him as he watches her for a reaction, flustered and nervous, his entire body tensed and imploring.
"I didn't mean to kiss you, but I wanted to. But I know you kissed me back! I felt it!" The Turk swallows audibly, his next words catching slightly as he forces them past his lips. "And-and… I think you like me too."
He watches as she registers his speech, waiting desperately for the reply that he yearns to hear. The feeling of utter longing and desperation are completely alien to him, and a part of him is momentarily taken aback at the rashness and boldness of his actions, the irrationality of his feelings utterly bewildering to him.
And still, the words he hears her say baffles him completely.
"No, no, no, NO…"
He stares at her. "Lucrecia?"
She looks at him frantically. "This isn't supposed to happen! You can't love me!"
Vincent frowns in perplexity before taking a step forward, only to have her back away. He stops, seeing her almost hysterical, and slowly extends his hands. "Lucrecia, what's the matter?"
Something catches his eye.
A picture. On her computer screen behind her.
One that looks strangely familiar.
Distracted, he frowns.
"Is that… my father?" He ignores her feeble, half-hearted attempts to protest and walks to the computer screen, his eyes fixated on his father's portrait. "You-you worked with my father?"
Her voice is nearly inaudible. "Y-yes… I did."
"When?" He turns to face her again.
"When we were… investigating the birthplace of Chaos."
He starts as a sudden question floods his mind.
"How come-why did you never mention anything about this?"
She doesn't reply, her eyes filled with tears, and he steps towards her, gently clasping her shoulders with his hands. "Lucrecia? Why didn't you tell me?"
When she replies, it is an exclamation that is both a cry and a sob.
"Because it's my fault he died!"
Vincent Valentine stares at Lucrecia, whom has fallen to her knees, droplets of liquid crystal cascading down her pale, delicate face and falling to the floor. Her body wracks with sobs, and it takes him a moment to react. Slowly, he kneels by her, and takes her body into his arms as she weeps bitterly into his shoulder.
There is nothing even slightly romantic or sexual about their touch, about their embrace. He simply waits until she recovers slightly, before speaking.
"What do you know of my father's death?"
"It's my fault, Vincent."
"Tell me…" He locks her rowan gaze with a gentle yet intense stare of crimson. It takes a moment before she speaks, and when she does her voice is haunted and filled with a self-loathing that stuns him.
"He was a scientist that was assigned along with me to investigate a cave that we discovered, deep within the mountains within a waterfall where we discovered the dormant, slumbering form of Chaos. He was the one who helped me recover Chaos and bring it back to the ShinRa mansion. We were partners; the Omega Project was a research that we both worked on." Lucrecia's head is bowed, tears streaming from her eyelids that Vincent gently wipes away as he waits for her to continue.
"We made progress with Chaos, and managed to keep it stored within a Mako tank that we could monitor it from. Everything went fine, and we collected a repertoire of data that we never dreamed possible. I was so excited in my work, so eager to learn more. But Chaos awoke, and-and he attacked us."
Lucrecia raises her tearstained face to meet Vincent's gaze, and her eyes are filled with nothing but pain.
"He-he saved me Vincent! He d-dove in the way and pushed me aside as Chaos' magic struck him! I had to watch as Grimoire faded away in front of my eyes, that-that thing slowly eating away at him!" Lucrecia's next sentence is a wail of sheer, unadulterated wretchedness. "I couldn't do anything-he died because of me!"
Vincent Valentine does nothing but hold her, his eyes wide at the revelation he has just heard. He has never known anything of his father's death, just a simple statement that he died on a dangerous, scientific endeavor of which the nature was highly classified.
When he speaks, his voice is gentle and quiet.
"Lucrecia." She looks up at him hesitantly, as if afraid to meet his eyes. "My father's death isn't your fault."
"What? Of course it was! He died-" Vincent interrupts her softly.
"My father died to save you, Lucrecia. You didn't push him into the way, you didn't hide behind him. He pushed you out of the way. How is that your fault?"
"No, Vincent, you just don't understand!" Lucrecia's voice has escalated to hysteria once again. "It's my fault! You can't love me-it's my fault your father died!"
He places a finger against her lips, his eyes steady and gentle.
"No, it isn't. Lucrecia, you can't blame yourself for this. You didn't kill my father-he knew exactly what kind of dangers he faced as a scientist. Why are you blaming yourself for this?"
She looks at him, completely dumbfounded by his answer, as if the answer is so blindingly obvious, but he simply adds one more sentence before leaning forward.
"And I do love you, Lucrecia." And with that, he places a careful, wary kiss on her soft, wet lips.
The kiss seem to snap some kind of invisible boundary within her; immediately, she jerks away, and her eyes are filled with self-loathing as she pulls away from him. Vincent looks down, his crimson eyes dulled and unresponsive, his heart plunged into an embrace of glacial ice as she pushes him away.
"I'm sorry, Vincent… I'm so, so sorry… But I can't-I love my husband."
With a quiet sob, she turns and hurries to the door, but turns just before she leaves.
"I'm so sorry…"
The sound of the door closing barely registers in his ears, and his only response is to remain on his knees, alone.
Vincent Valentine pulls himself out of his reverie when he notices Lucrecia move, her head bowed and her gaze melancholic. Unable to do anything, he simply watches as she turns and walks back to her terminal, settling in her seat, her shoulders even more slumped and defeated than ever, her hair swept across her face as she closes her eyes for a moment, her breath curling from her still lips in a whisper that seems to fill the entire room with resignation and sadness.
Vincent Valentine can't help but notice that she won't look at him.
Apologies for the late, late, LATE update. Thank you for your reviews everyone, they inspired me to continue this story. And thank you in particular for your encouraging reviews, Lecidre; they made my day(s). I almost gave up on this story, but knowing that people actually want me to continue has persuaded me to complete it. Expect slightly more frequent updates :) And also, if anyone can recommend any sad, SAD songs (preferably instrumental), it would be appreciated. Music is a requisite for me to write reasonably well.
This chapter is dedicated to Lecidre and Ravynne Nevyrmore.
As always, I hope you enjoy my latest chapter of the story of Vincent Valentine, and, as always, please review.