This is the final part of this little experiment. I hope you enjoy it.
Four years later…
It had been weeks since Deepground had launched attack on the surface world. Edge was scrabbling to get back together after the battle, though she imagined it would be months, if not years before normalcy returned. It had also been weeks since…
She set her jaw as she polished the bar top aggressively, even though it gleamed enough to show her furious reflection.
Reeve and the WRO were out looking for him. She'd wanted to go too, but he had insisted it would be best if she remained in Edge for now. Who knew what they might find, in place of the intact and alive Vincent that she hoped for. We have a lot of troops Tifa. You have a business to run. Leave it to us. We will find him. She snorted with derision, tossing the damp cloth over her shoulder in the vague direction of the sink. They would find a corpse, most likely. That's what Reeve wanted to say, but daren't.
She was on the brink of giving up hope, and it was her anger that stopped her from breaking down completely. Cloud hadn't known what to say. He had been there in his own way, silent and steady, yet silent and steady wasn't what she needed.
She needed answers. She wanted to know if he was truly gone. Then, and only then, could she mourn the man she had never really known.
They had all stood and watched; mouths open in disbelief as Vincent took the form of Chaos, silhouetted against eerie lavender skies, and ended Deepground's war. Yet when the afterglow of the explosion had faded from their retinas, his shadow could not been seen against the skyline. Her heart had ached for him—he, like Aeris, had sacrificed himself for humanity, so that it could live on. There were times when she wondered if Humanity really was worth the sacrifice, if it would ever deserve preserving at such a high cost.
Selfishly, she would take Aeris and Vincent back, if only to have them by her side when she needed them most.
Sighing to herself, she ascended the stairs, inclined to take a hot shower. Then she would probably waste some more time, waiting.
The call came at 4am, Edge time. Jerking awake at the shrill peal of her PHS, she eyed the caller display cautiously. Reeve. Her hands shook as she opened the device and pressed it to her ear.
"We've found him."
She couldn't return to sleep after that, instead heading downstairs and pouring herself a beer. She drank it in the dark and silence.
First, she slapped him. The sound echoed in the open room, punctuated by the gasps of onlookers. They couldn't know how she had felt all this time, waiting, not knowing… Could he have contacted her sooner, to save her from the sleepless nights, the worrying and despair, from the torture of not knowing what could have been?
Reeve had brought him straight to the seventh heaven, where Tifa and rest of Avalanche waited. They were abuzz with excitement, especially the children, and nobody could quite understand why Tifa paced so restlessly. She needed to see him to believe it was true, and as he stood before her, exactly as she remembered him, she could finally accept the truth.
He was alive.
Much to her surprise, he only outstretched one hand in response to her somewhat violent greeting; an invitation, and a sign that she was forgiven in one.
She threw herself against him, sobbing into that wretched crimson cape as hesitant arms came to enclose her in a guarded embrace.
Sometime into the night, during what had become an impromptu 'welcome-back-Vincent' party, she had found a moment to follow him out of the room. He was retrieving something for Marlene, as per her instruction, from her little pink backpack in the cloakroom.
"I'm sorry," Her words tumbled from pliant lips, too jubilant to care what she might say. His response was a careful smile, the first instance that she started to wonder if something was wrong. If something was different.
"No, I'm sorry. I should have called. But I needed to… take care of some things first."
She cocked her head to one side, narrowing her eyes slightly. Part of her was indignant at his choice to remain cryptic, yet the other, overwhelming part was simply happy that he was back. "I'm just… so glad you're alright."
She squeezed his hand tightly, ducking her gaze from his scrutiny. There was something in his expression she didn't quite understand, and it brought blood rushing to her cheeks. She was mindful of herself, right down to how audible her breathing sounded, even with the background clamour of the party in the room next door.
"We should um, head back." Her mind supplied helpfully, conscious of the jubilant voices and sounds from through the wall. In this small pocket of space though, she got him to herself. Selfishly, she didn't want the time to end.
"Wait," She turned at his exclamation. "I… I don't know how to say this, but… It's been over four years since…Since we met. So much has changed… I never really got the chance to thank you for being there. I don't think I would have gotten through it all, if it weren't for you." He ducked his head, his cheeks heating.
She opens her mouth, then closes it again, unsure of what to say, well aware that she was turning a colour to rival that of his cape. She wanted to hide away, to digest all this information in her own time, and savour the warm sensation in the pit of her stomach. "And that night in Junon… for a moment, I felt… like there was hope. Yet when it all came crashing down, I… You were there, still."
She doesn't know where to begin, to find a good starting point to tell him about how agonising the past four years have been, living with the memories, and the pain of isolation. Never wanting to say how she felt, in case it somehow damaged the uneasy yet steady state they had settled into.
Does he still think of that night, as she does? Does he wish it could be different?
"I wanted to wait until I got you alone, to tell you first…" His hands are shaking almost uncontrollably now, and he clenches his fists to combat it.
"Tell me what?" She blurted out, heart battering relentlessly against her ribs. What could be worrying him so?
"It's Chaos… he's… well, gone."
She blinks, once, then twice, eyebrows coming together in a frown as she tried to process the information. "…gone?"
He nods, swallowing audibly. "I just… I thought you would want to know, before the others. Ah… I'd better give Marlene her crayons. She will be… wondering where I've got to."
He turns and exits the cloakroom, the open door letting in a swell of sound and babble of voices, leaving her stood frozen to the spot.
Free. Free from Chaos. So many imaginary butterflies, her chest felt fit to burst.
He made his announcement before them all next, palms placed calmly upon the table top before him. The woman named Rosso had taken the protomateria from his body, where Lucrecia had placed it three decades ago. Her head was swimming still, unable to retain any detail, aside from the fact that it was gone. Gone. Vincent was free, no longer chained by his perception of inhumanity.
She stood at the back of the room, her heart thudding arhythmically in her chest, clenching and unclenching her hands.
Why had he chosen to tell her first? What did it matter to him?
He wants to know if you still feel the same. It hit her like a lightning bolt, her breathing hitching as she battled with the notion that spiralled uncontrollably around her head. "Are you alright?" Cloud is at her side, taking her by surprise.
"I… I don't know." Her features appear to be at war with one another; does she want to smile, or cry?
"What is it?" The blonde frowns, turning to examine her more closely. "Is something wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong. Everything is… its back to how it should be." She seems to calm herself with her own words, exhaling deeply through her nose.
"And how is that?"
At this, the inner battle seems to have been concluded; a slow, gradual smile ascends to her lips, lighting up her features. "Because Vincent is back. He's really back."
The night eventually wound down to a standstill. The hour is somewhere between midnight and dawn, the darkness out the window absolute. Not a soul disturbed the peace on the streets outside. All was soft, and quiet.
She breathed deeply, staring out of the window. The children had been put to bed in the attic room with Yuffie, Cloud and Barrett had one of the twin rooms, Reeve had left hours ago for his own apartment in Edge. The lights in the bar had long been extinguished, save for one candle-lit jam jar upon a deserted table. Cards and betting chips littered the surface, beer bottles and still-smoking cigar stubs casting twisting sinusoidal shadows on the walls.
All in all, it had been an enjoyable evening. She had taken a few moments to collect herself, calming her racing heart with steady breaths, before re-joining the party. After making his announcement, Vincent had sat in the corner with Marlene helping her draw pictures of everyone in the room to give out hastily before bedtime. Tifa found herself smiling again; the young girl had taken a liking to the lone gunman, in spite of Barrett's wariness.
She stooped to expire the final candle, preparing to head upstairs to bed at last. Yet before she could scent the burning wick, a shadow moving in her peripheral vision sent her whirling around, heart racing.
"Oh! Vincent- you scared me!" He apologised immediately, though she waved it away.
He looked so daunting in his full regalia, despite the intimacy of the gathering tonight; He had been among friends, or the nearest thing to it- he should feel more at ease. His eyes widened in mild-surprise as she approached him somewhat brazenly. Perhaps the beer made her feel braver.
"You know, you should take off that cape. You've nothing to hide anymore." His stance was somewhat guarded at her approach, loosely clasped fingers reaching for the buckles at his throat and chest. He stood silent though, allowing her this boon, inhaling slowly as she lifted the heavy red fabric from his shoulders. Next, fingers trembling now, she reached into his hair, teasing the bandana away. Black hair tumbled free of its binding, slipping between her fingertips. His unsteady breath warmed her skin. Then, she reached for his metal gauntlet, slipping it from his hand and setting it aside.
The nerves had never been right since the experiments, he had told her once. Random twitching and bouts of trembling troubled him if he didn't wear the device, affecting his shooting aim. Yet she saw no need for it at this moment, curious to know why the left hand shook so visibly now. He looked like the room would swallow him, staring meekly at the ground, almost naked without his shield of a red cape and a glinting golden gauntlet.
"There." She stated needlessly, taking half a step back to admire her handiwork. Her mind travelled back to that moment in the mansion, when his mere presence had terrified her so. To look into his eyes was to stare into nothing. He suffered daily from his inner turmoil, tormenting himself mentally for events long past. Now, when she looked at him, she saw a vulnerable man, suddenly given a new lease of life that he didn't quite know how to utilise. A beautiful, vulnerable man.
She rewarded him with a gentle smile, moving about the room and shifting empty beer bottles to save her the task tomorrow. He watched her with barely veiled fascination as she finally stopped to remove her jewellery and set about loosening her braid, seating herself with a huff in the recently vacated booth.
It had begun to rain outside; the gentle drumming on the windowpanes encased them in a cocoon of white noise. She watched him curiously as he crossed to her porch, throwing the door open to the night. The cool air burst into the room, reaching her bare feet first, then enveloping her body in its caress. Drawn to the cool, for she hadn't realised how stuffy the room had been, she sidled up beside him, curious as to why he had come to her this late, alone. They sat upon the top step side by side, huddled there in the light of a single candle.
"Do you… do you feel any different?" Now that the monsters you shared your flesh with are gone.
"I feel…" Fragile, alive, human… "I can't really describe it, but… I feel as if I can start to move forward again."
"Your punishment is over?" She wraps her arms around her thighs, her chin coming to rest between her kneecaps.
"I… I suppose it is." He stares at his folded hands, still not used to seeing them without his metal appendage. The tremors would surely give him away. "You told me once; 'it is the actions of others which affect us, that influence our choices and the paths we choose'. That night, I thought… I thought I would have to run. But you convinced me to stay. You—you told me… you don't need physical intimacy to love someone and—"
He stalled, battling with a sudden breathlessness and bout of tachycardia. Swallowing, he continued. "I've decided something- it took me a while to reach this decision but… well, I have nothing to lose, so…" His hand found his forehead, rubbing at some unseen ache. "I decided that I wanted to be honest for once, no matter what the consequences are."
"Honest?" She tilts her head to one side, considering him carefully. He notes how beautiful her eyes are, and her skin, so pale in the dark. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying—" Deep breath. "That what you told me back in Junon—it's… I came to love you. I don't know when I first realised it but—I do. I've loved you from afar all this time and yet after so long, I thought… I thought you and Cloud-" His pause spoke volumes, more than words ever could. "I didn't want to come here to Edge with my hopes up. I wanted to be ready for that moment when you told me it could never be."
His expression is serene, and she can hardly believe that the same man who once hated himself so palpably was now so at peace.
She stares openly at him, half turned in the narrow space they co-inhabited in the doorframe, seated there upon the step. He cannot help but feel awkwardly exposed, his cape now draped across the back of a chair in the depths of the room behind them. Yet he is long past hiding now.
"I… I don't know what to say." Her eyes never leave his face, her hands gripping her knees rather tightly. "You intended to tell me how you felt, even though… even if Cloud and I were together?"
He ignores her use of 'if' for now, pushing it to the recesses of his thoughts. He daren't allow himself to hope yet. "I didn't want you believing I was tormenting myself anymore. I'm… done with that now. I wanted you to know that I got through my nightmares by thinking of you."
A solitary tear glides down one cheek, leaving a silver trail in its wake. "Oh… Oh Vincent."
She throws her arms around his neck, her face thrust into his shirt. She is holding on almost painfully tight; yet as her scent envelops him, his muscles relaxing against his better judgement, he cannot bring himself to move her. In an attempt to busy his idle left hand, he soothed her back with firm upward strokes, fingertips finding the recesses of her ribs and the small of her back, the sharp jut of her shoulder blade. She feels thin.
Minutes pass, and before long she is curled into him, bare legs draped across his thighs, her arms locked around his chest. The rain continues to fall outside beyond the flickering amber sphere of light, slowly dying, struggling to stay alight in the breeze. Her skin is covered in goosebumps now; he can feel them beneath the thin fabric of her shirt.
They cannot remain here forever, though he wishes it were so. Silently, he slips an arm beneath her knees, hauling himself upright. A quick glance downward and he notes that her eyes are screwed shut, her lips pulled into a firm line. The burden troubles him a little; perhaps more than it would have some time ago.
His hands were never clean enough to hold her then.
He finds enough strength to stoop though, and extinguish the languishing candle flame, plunging the room into darkness.