The Lonely Recluse
Through a dark haze, a faint light greeted his vision. He opened his eyes fully, and found that he was gazing at the sky. The bright blue heavens bore pale downy clouds drifting peacefully above him. He sat up, spying a vast field of lush green grass and flowers swaying back and forth in the soft wind, and it came into view perfectly from up on the hill where he was sitting.
Behind him, he saw a tall, sturdy tree occupying the center of the hill, its lovely green leaves rustling in the soothing wind. A rather young woman, slender, with long, flowing russet hair, leaned against the trunk. So beautiful was she, and gentle in appearance. She smiled when their eyes met.
Her smile and her voice both appeared unnaturally sweet when she spoke.
"I'm going to see my son! My child...my Sephiroth!"
The familiar statement melted all serenity away and obscured the sky and the landscape around him. He reached out for her, but all he could see was her scurrying across the fields, unwavering, while he was frozen in his spot and unable to move his limbs.
"No, wait! Lucrecia!" he called, but the woman did not hear him, and vanished before his eyes.
The next moment, he found himself lying on his back in a dim facility.
He looked up, and two glowing eyes peered down at him, with a monstrous silhouette he recognized at once. The demon snarled, and a shrill cry pierced his ears. In a flash, the monster moved in for the kill
Vincent awakened from his slumber with a violent jerk and a gasp, perspiration dripping from his face. Vexed, he wiped it off on his sleeve. The beast was gone; clearly, he had been having another nightmare.
He found himself in a dark room, lying on top of a soft bed, though still wearing his clothes; he assumed someone must have laid him there. But who?
He froze in his spot when he noticed the presence of another person nearby. When he looked up, much to his surprise, he found Aeris standing next to him, hands clasped behind her back in her usual manner as she leaned slightly forward and peered down at him in a mixture of concern and wonder.
"Hey, it's all right! It's just me," she reassured.
For some reason, Vincent could not tear his eyes away from her, and stared at her in a daze, looking somewhat guilty, as though caught in the middle of a crime.
Almost all night, Aeris had spent lying awake on her back, facing the ceiling where her eyes would dwell as her mind wandered. The majority of her nights here in this village were spent in this insomniac state. Tonight, however, a faint sound broke her train of thought. She lifted her head slightly from her soft pillow, and listened intently when she realized it was Vincent, mumbling incoherently in his sleep. She heard a cry of protest; it was sad to listen to. The strange and sorrowful nature of his otherwise low, composed voice certainly puzzled her, and she got up, venturing over to the bed where he laid in an uncomfortable position, drenched in sweat.
Back to the present, Vincent managed to catch a glimpse of the clock on the wall, and saw that it pointed to seven minutes past two; it was the middle of the night. Aeris stood over him, concerned. He studied her from top to bottom casually: the woman was barefoot, wearing nothing but a white sleeveless, ankle-length nightgown. Although the room possessed only what little light the moon offered, he could see that she appeared to have woken up recently, with her hair somewhat ruffled, and her eyes still retaining a drowsy look. He reckoned he must have spoken in his sleep and disturbed her slumber.
"Are you all right?" she asked after another long moment of silence and hesitation, looking apprehensive and smiled nervously.
"Yeah," he lied, avoiding her gaze. Still, Aeris examined him, knowing that he was obviously hiding something.
His voice grew somewhat softer when he asked after some time, "What about you? I probably woke you."
She shook her head. "I've been up. I heard you talking in your sleep, and you sounded kind of sad. I'm guessing you had a nightmare?"
Vincent confirmed with a single nod. He sat up further and rubbed his temples. Aeris could not imagine what kind of dream could possibly have upset him so terribly.
"What was it about?"
Vincent lifted his eyes briefly to return her gaze. He stated frostily, "It does not concern you."
"I'm just trying to be a friend," she admitted modestly. "Stop being so uptight."
Aeris was neither angry nor bitter, and argued no further; she realized it must have been a sensitive subject matter she was not allowed to touch, and decided to back down, at least for now.
Vincent steered away. "How did I get here?"
"You passed out in the cave; you've been unconscious since."
"How long ago was this?"
Vincent narrowed his eyes and merely hummed a low "hmm."
Silence stretched for a long moment. Aeris shuffled her feet awkwardly, before she finally ventured, "Why did you disappear? What happened
when I found you?"
He scoffed at her inquiry, and admonished, "You'd rather not know."
His dismissive attitude only served to agitate her. She retorted bluntly, "Oh, but I think I should. Since you came here as my bodyguard
and there's been a role-reversal here, as far as I'm concerned. So, as a matter of fact, you owe me an explanation."
Vincent conceded; she was right. Impromptu shape-shifting, and a life-threatening one at that, had not been part of the agreement when he decided to escort her. He braced himself for his reply. Although he hated the thought of telling her, he felt he at least owed her that much, after the trouble she'd gone through to help him. The man sat himself up slowly, always avoiding her eyes.
"I reckon Cloud and Tifa forgot to inform you of my
problem," he stated. "I have an abnormality; I carry a parasitic entity in my body, originating from an ancient-"
Aeris' confusion only grew all the more evident and she gazed at him with more questions in her eyes than before he had spoken. He picked up on her body language, and understood that for an untrained ear, his story sounded absurd as a mythomaniac's tale. A slower explanation was needed.
"Do you remember Sephiroth at all?" he forced out with restraint, watching her face, as though anxious he may have upset her.
Her eyes met his in a significant glance, although she said nothing; he realized that he had struck a chord. Aeris nodded slowly, albeit slightly mystified still.
"And the JENOVA Project?"
Once more, she nodded. "Cloud mentioned it."
"It was a scientific experiment," Vincent elaborated in a detached fashion, "named after an alien entity discovered up north, frozen in ice. Professor Hojo, one of Shinra's most
passionate scientists, injected cells from this life form into an unborn child, carried by a woman who was part of the team..."
His face became softer and more reserved. His voice grew quiet, and his eyes became gentler. Aeris was on edge with curiosity; what could have Vincent so gentle in his temper? He looked at her for a moment and then stared at the ceiling absently.
Somehow that name sounded familiar to her, but she could not place her finger on where exactly she had heard that specific name before.
"She was someone you really cared about, wasn't she?" Aeris assumed.
"I loved her," he confessed candidly.
"But she didn't love you."
Her words stung horribly. Yet, even despite the pang of pain, Vincent retained the same resignation as before.
"She was dedicated to her work; nothing was more important to her," he defended. "I tried to protect her and talk her out of it. I thought I could convince Professor Hojo not to carry out the experiment. But
I couldn't stop the experiment, nor could I change Lucrecia's mind about partaking in it. That is how Sephiroth came to be," he explained. "Of course, there were grave consequences for such a confrontation
for my interference."
Aeris watched him silently in horror while his story unfolded; she already knew how this story would end, and pressed a hand against her mouth, staring at him in her shock.
"Your assumptions are correct," he affirmed her gestured suspicions.
"Is that why
you saw what you had to see?" he finished her sentence. "Yes."
Overwhelmed with compassion, she put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm so
"Don't be; I had it coming."
Aeris was offended. "You can't be serious! Are you suggesting that it was somehow your fault?"
"Professor Hojo was a rather erratic and vindictive man. And I meddled in his affairs."
He hated the most the recollection of waking up, thirty-five years ago, in that dim old dungeon. Shuddering and frozen stiff, he found himself lying on some cold operation table, surrounded by shelves of books and strange chemicals. An excruciating agony took a stab at his chest in a rhythm. The man found it difficult to draw breath, feeling nauseated beyond anything else. An exploding migraine plagued him, and no matter how hard he thought of it, he could not for the life of him remember how he ended up here in the first place. His feverish limbs burned...
He immediately pushed that horrid memory out of his mind.
"You were trying to protect someone you loved," Aeris reasoned.
Vincent jeered. "It was a selfish act; purely selfish. I was with Shinra, an excellent marksman; one of the Turks. I followed orders, regardless of their nature and I never questioned; I helped them lay waste to so many lives. All for my superiors; all to help Shinra build an oligarchy and a system based on oppression and lies. But I didn't care about any of that; I only cared about Lucrecia; the rest of the people I helped murder did not matter to me. I had a job to do, and that was that. Now tell me: you, with all your good faith in humankind: isn't this the retribution somebody like me deserves?"
Aeris withstood his intimidating voice. Still, she insisted, "Maybe that's the price you have to pay for your actions, but you're a different person now. The past is no more than an illusion; it exists only in your memory. And while it's a debt you're paying off, you create your own misery with your thoughts, when you think yourself unworthy of being happy. The only way you will heal if is if you learn to accept what happened, and forgive yourself; that's the only way you can truly move on."
Yes, he thought to himself gloomily, that's exactly what she said as well.
Lucrecia's words echoed throughout his mind, "Make peace with yourself, and put all of this behind you, where it belongs. No matter how difficult it is, you have to push forward and look towards the future. Don't throw your life away!"
Vincent glanced askance at his friend perched so comfortably by his side. He knew not why he was telling her his story, why he was confiding in her at all. Perhaps he deemed her trustworthy. Something told him she would understand. After all, she found herself in a similar position. He knew that if anyone, she would say it like it was; Aeris had never been known to sugarcoat the truth or even be heedful of other people's feelings when asked for an honest opinion; she was brutally honest, told the truth fair-and-square, even if the truth was harsh and even if others would perceive her as rude or insolent. She didn't care for semantics and playing pretend; she was candid, but fair. That was one of the qualities that Vincent appreciated in her; it was that one quality that prompted him to speak. Although vastly different, perhaps even polar opposites, in a way, they were also frighteningly similar.
She seemed to be rather enjoying it, unraveling the mystery that was Vincent Valentine. But what surprised her was the fact that he did not seem to mind it in the least. Rather than mind, he felt ten times lighter having released a burden he'd kept bottled up for decades. Indeed, Aeris perceived it too; the air around him was different than before.
"I suppose, now you can see the reason I was reluctant to join you; I didn't know whether I'd be more of a threat to your safety and wellbeing than I'd be of any help. What happened back in the cave was what I had been dreading all this time."
"However, I will admit, that ever since that encounter, I've felt calm, and
in control. That has never happened before," he mused vocally. "And it was all your doing."
She admitted, humbly but sincerely, "I don't know what I did exactly."
"Whatever you did, you saved me," he declared, looking straight into her two green eyes. "I must say
you've certainly got nerve; you just don't know what's good for you," he said, almost good-humouredly. Aeris smiled.
Reaching out a hand, he acknowledged with humility, "I still owe you my gratitude; I'm indebted. Thank you."
Aeris stared at his hand. When she looked up at him again, much to her astonishment, she realized that for the first time, he smiled at her. His crimson eyes had softened as well and now gleamed at their most sincere. She grinned back at him and reached him her hand, and he shook it.
"You're welcome," she confirmed humbly. "I'm sorry I lost my temper and yelled at you," she said when she withdrew her hand. "And that I called you an 'ungrateful prick'. I wanted to hurt you."
Vincent could not help but let out a soft chuckle to such a blunt statement. "I don't blame you."
A yawn attacked Aeris, and she covered her mouth. Fatigue finally caught up with her.
"Well, I suppose you should go back to sleep," Vincent suggested. "It's almost dawn."
The woman liked the idea. "That sounds like a plan," she conceded, and headed back to the green couch on which she had spent the past two nights.
Vincent, however, was none too fond of letting her sleep on an old couch, and suggested they'd switch places, at least for now. Aeris protested, but her weariness finally got to her, and she let him have the last word, taking the bed.
good night," she murmured, pulling the cover over herself.
"Good night," Vincent replied and took his place on the couch, trying to find the most comfortable position.
"Vincent?" resounded Aeris' timid voice.
"I'm glad we're friends now," she confessed and smiled.
With that, she sunk further into the warmth of the mattress and her blanket, and said no more.
The man would not respond, but a faint smile crossed his lips. He let the thought go, however, and turned to face the wall and closed his eyes, finding some sort of peace which allowed him to drift off into peaceful slumber.
The following morning when she woke up in a bright room, the couch was empty. She climbed down the ladder from her room to the one below, and to her surprise found Vincent already wide awake, sitting on a low stool by the table, apparently working.
"Up already?" he asked, but did not look up from what he was doing.
"I'm an early bird," she admitted with good humor. "But I didn't expect to see you here
Her statement went by unanswered.
On top of the table lay three different guns, all of different types, sizes and shapes. She drew nearer the table in spite of herself, if only to get a better look at the lethal weapons lying on the top. She marveled at these contraptions, thinking that their creator sat in front of her. She examined them for a few minutes in complete fascination.
"You make this stuff?" she ventured at last.
"Yes," he confirmed. "It's what I'm best at I would like to think so, at least."
"You're bragging," she remarked with a small grin. His answer pleased her; she liked the confidence in his tone. "It's not nice to brag, you know," she teased.
"Oh, lighten up! I'm kidding," she said, smiling sweetly. "You can boast all you want, I don't mind."
The man, however, did not respond and proceeded with his work as though nothing had been said.
"They're really something I mean I can't imagine all the work that must've gone into them. Mind you, I don't care much for weapons not at all, in fact; they advocate nothing but violence
"I suppose that's one way to look at it," said Vincent. "Weapons are mere tools for what purpose they're being used all depends on the individual behind them, and various factors."
Aeris said nothing.
His voice softened as he explained, "I don't care for violence myself, mind. However, it is my conviction that people should have the right to defend themselves, by any means necessary. Even if that includes carrying a gun."
Aeris regarded him and cocked an eyebrow at his claim. However, her expression changed when she spotted the elaborate carvings on the handle on one of his weapons. She stared in awe at the beautiful patterns. Some were flowers, and one gun had what appeared to be some kind of serpent on it, and the third had an embossed dragon. All of them intricate and very well-made.
"You carved those?" she asked, charmed by the sight.
"Etched," he corrected monotonously and went about work without looking up.
"Really? They're amazing! It's like
you're an artist," she declared simply, with a wide smile.
A faint chuckle escaped the gunsmith. "Far from it."
"Don't sell yourself short!" Aeris exclaimed. "You have a special talent. I'm a little envious; I wish I could do that."
He did not look at her. He seemed to twist his lips into something that resembled a grin, but Aeris wasn't sure.
Their conversation came to a halt when Irma entered the room, along with a familiar scarred face Vincent had not expected to see.
"Red?" he asked, bemused.
The crimson one-eyed warrior approached their table.
"You are truly lucky that I returned early from my travels," Nanaki confessed, "otherwise you may not have made it out alive."
Vincent looked between Irma and Nanaki, silently demanding an explanation.
Irma explained, addressing Vincent in particular, "Nanaki went to check on you and see if you were all right as soon as he returned, and he brought you both out of there. You were unconscious."
"And heavy," Aeris added and cleared her throat awkwardly.
"You have a very kind friend here who looks after you," Irma added, motioning towards Aeris. "She was with you the entire time you were unconscious."
The young woman smiled and Vincent detected a slight blush on her cheeks.
"It's good to see that you're both well," the elder gushed at the sight of the two after the incident in the cave. "That cave
does not bring out the best in anyone."
Her statement brought about uncomfortable silence. Nanaki and Aeris had nothing to add, and Vincent continued his work without interruption, paying no heed to his surroundings.
"Either way," Irma announced, turning to face Aeris once more, "now that that's settled, why don't you take a look at the things you brought back with you?"
Aeris nodded, and left the room to fetch the documents she had risked her life to retrieve from the cave.