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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 7. On the Attack

Some days out of Costa del Sol, the terrain became rough even for prefabricated rails, the train's progress slowing to a serpentine, vertical climb. Contemplation of the rugged rock through the cabin's windows did little to comfort: rising dust trails marked the location of monsters keeping pace, abiding their distance. Lucrecia had spent the first three days thinking them other vehicles, as the dust trail looked so similar to that raised by the train, only to be told the better by Vincent, in passing.

Pending motion sickness, and with Ifalna’s invitation and example to uphold, Lucrecia had taken the opportunity through a particularly rough stretch to ease her legs. As the train negotiated an upwards incline of rock, Lucrecia powered along beside Ifalna’s easy pace. Neither woman breathed faster for all their effort, both of them having experienced Midgar's endless stairs, but it was notable that Ifalna moved with an ease that had her appear as though she belonged, her hips narrow and always aligned with the direction of her feet. Lucrecia’s pace seemed driven by an internal combustion engine that operated in piston’d fits and starts, her hips inscribing a wasteful figure-eight with each forward step.

There was no road on this route, but Lucrecia started to realized that for this once, the rising dust plumes that kept apace were actually vehicles. It was then she felt the first inclination towards familiar unease: the tension that held Lucrecia in place, still back in Midgar, had dissipated with the distance of an ocean behind them, only to return abruptly. Ahead lay the narrow canyon through which the train would have to pass. The first carriage entered.

Having never experienced this before, Lucrecia abruptly recognized an ambush, too late.

The vehicles drawing closer navigated not in a single line but side by side, to avoid the ruts and dust that each other trailer left behind, so it seemed they were more an invading armada encroaching upon this strange landscape than four small trucks.

It was then that the first explosion went off, some distance along the track, just far enough that had Lucrecia been of a condition to notice, she would have noted the distance allowed the train full time to stop, in safety.

Standing at some distance, Lucrecia and Ifalna watched in a compatible silence as the train's complement of staff disgorged. Vincent was notable from this distance by the navy across his shoulders; blue, even a sky blue, was of no colour that nature in this region could produce. There were some five other men, Lucrecia counted, Vincent at their heart as he gave some curt instruction. She had never seen the other inhabitants of their train before. Of course, she had not expected that Vincent turned himself to cooking their meals, but she had not thought past their solitary cabin to determine who did do the cooking at all.

Vincent did appear to be the only true bluecoat present; he carried only a gun, and his own presence. The others, masked and by the size of their blades, were all members of Shinra’s private army.

Over the jagged crest came a very small army, clad in the greens and greys of AVALANCHE, a pattern of camouflage Lucrecia would not have believed could have worked had she not struggled to pick a count. They wielded primitive firearms and materia, which proved a greater aid to determining a count - Lucrecia counted the flares of firepower.

Lucrecia strove to put a count on their attackers as though a definable ‘number’ would make this circumstance real and manageable. Ifalna tried to draw her away by her hand, but Lucrecia shook free. It seemed nothing could be so important as counting their attackers.

Far distant, Vincent knelt on one knee. Calmly, he set aside his handgun, and withdrew rifle and sight from beneath his jacket. He fitted the two together with an ease of long practice, took aim and fired.

A blurred, man-sized piece of the landscape would become motionless for each bullet the Turk fired. Aware of the blast of Vincent's gun in the same way she was aware of each spark of firepower from the AVALANCHE attackers, Lucrecia felt mildly irritated at how difficult this was making it for her to complete her count.

Ifalna grew frantic in her efforts to draw Lucrecia free from this spell of shock. Lucrecia would not be shaken.

Whether it was the distance of the attackers still, or perhaps Vincent’s competence, there was an absence of melodrama from the whole scenario.

Lucrecia did feel disturbed by her own calm. She was suspicious of how she readily could trust in a competent figure’s right to deprive another of their freedoms: Vincent killed, and killed, and killed, simply because he could. She trusted his competence instinctively; she distrusted her own instinct.

Conscious of having spent her whole life behaving so, on this landscape as alien as the moon itself, Lucrecia could be critical of her own manner. Her tendency to conform to social expectation was peculiar in a location without society. Compellingly, Lucrecia felt motivated by pity to stand and watch and count, when in Midgar she would have - and had - turned her eyes and hurried by. The men and women of the oncoming AVALANCHE, misguided terrorists though they might be, were dying.

Ifalna regarded the scene of Vincent’s massacre as though each detail of that scene filled her with a fascinated horror. ‘Our friendly neighbourhood sniper, indeed.’

‘We should get back to the train now,’ Lucrecia said, or more precisely, ordered, despite having ignored all of Ifalna suggestions to the similar. Her throat turned the words to a rasp.

A shadow passed over them. Lucrecia was conscious of it solely out of annoyance, for the sun was pleasant enough in what Vincent called this land’s winter, and the shadow was cold.

Ifalna screamed.

The great beast beat its wings, ragged fleshy things, which sent a cloud of dust to blind both women. Lucrecia clawed tears from her eyes, hearing nothing but the bird-thing’s hollow cry, and Ifalna’s persistent scream: ‘I don’t understand, I don’t understand!’

Melodrama returned with the immediacy of attack. Lucrecia fought through cyclonic dust to find Ifalna’s shoulders, and curled around the other woman. The contact did much to restore Lucrecia’s sense of self, for even terrified here she was, with another more terrified than herself.

Ifalna’s hysteria was as odd a garment on the woman as Lucrecia had ever thought to find.

Ifalna might have been impaled by Lucrecia’s touch, for she stiffened and cried out: ‘Don’t go away!’ with each word articulated against the storm as sharply as if she had meant each to stand alone: Don't! Go away!

The dust cloud subsided as rapidly as it had arisen. Lucrecia looked up to discover Vincent had delivered temporary salvation, or possibly his subordinates, for the air hung as heavy with the reek of scorched flesh as it did of gunpowder. The cries of the others were distant and incomprehensible; Lucrecia was obscurely ashamed to be found kneeling, and contented herself with soothing Ifalna’s shuddering shoulders.

Vincent reloaded his handgun, eyes still skywards. The raw-fleshed bird was circling, and would bank as though it wanted to dive, but that Vincent would point his gun again. Lucrecia had not heard of the effectiveness of gunfire on monsters, but the beast had evidently been warned, for it would circle and bank again, vulturous. Vincent did not look down. Ifalna sucked in great gouts of air, as though she had been the one struck.

Lucrecia smiled, out of politeness, into the sun which was angled behind Vincent’s crown in that cloudless winter sky.

‘Get back to the train.’ Vincent’s order was unambiguously such. A bead of sweat curled from his hairline to his chin; two, three quite pinkish, and the fourth black as blood; and then he was veiled with it.

‘You’re hurt.’

‘Yes,’ Vincent said. ‘Though the suffering itself is often a matter of choice.’ He turned to keep his eye fixed to the bird’s frantic circles.

Lucrecia’s throat was too dry to swallow, though her mouth, conversely, seemed filled with fluid. She would have spat, had she any way to assure herself of the elegance of the action. ‘For you, perhaps. I didn’t ask to be brought out here, or set upon by terrorists or monsters, nor did Ifalna.’

Eyes still skyward, Vincent withdrew from an inner pocket what appeared to be a small pill, which he swallowed before replying. ‘Have some pity, Ms Crescent, before you think to use another to make your point for you; I suggest you consider my suggestion seriously and take Ifalna back to the train, where her terror might ease a little, and which will leave me free to do my job and protect you both. Whatever suffering you do feel compelled to experience, be assured it will not be at the hands of either monsters or terrorists.’

Ifalna wrenched and rolled against a comfort that had never been more than self-satisfying.

‘I don’t understand! Not where nature is - This world is no longer fit to live in!’

‘Come now,’ Lucrecia said, ‘it’s just a monster, Ifalna, apparently they’re everywhere now. And Vincent’s scared it off.’

‘It’s a coincidence, not a monster.’ Vincent could have been frowning. ‘Two attacks heeled like that. The monsters aren’t usually attracted by gunfire; AVALANCHE isn’t usually scared off by monsters. Coincidence, or contrivance?’

Ifalna held Lucrecia by the wrists. ‘It wasn’t always a monster,’ Ifalna said, urgent. ‘Do you believe me? It wasn’t always-‘

‘There, there,’ Lucrecia said, knowing no other response to what appeared to be irrationality than to soothe.

‘I believe you, girls,’ Vincent said. ‘Perhaps you should raise the topic for discussion with the gentlemen still safely on the train.’

His pre-occupation with their defense led his comment to appear indifferent, patronizing. Lucrecia was discomforted that Vincent seemed entirely unaware of this, not for Ifalna’s offended sensibility, but for that he bitterly conformed with Lucrecia’s general expectations. She was conditioned to awareness by her association with men too much like Hojo, like Gast, where Grimoire had been the point of difference. She did not like finding out Grimoire's son less than Grimoire himself.

‘Your father would not have been so dismissive,’ Lucrecia said.

And with a moment of spite, Lucrecia realized her days of distance suddenly rendered worthless, a new currency placed upon the table.

Pale and bloody, Vincent met Lucrecia’s eyes.

The intensity within had her, even with her own propensity for cruelty well known to herself, quail.

‘This land,’ Ifalna spat, as though that four letter word but stood for another, ‘has been made unfit to live in!’

Freed from the spell cast by Vincent's eyes, the wretched, half-mad bird dove to destroy those who had ventured into a territory not their own. All further conversation ended. Vincent wielded his pistol proficiently. The proximity and sound, of he, sweat and gunpowder and the cologne of his normality, turned into an unexpected terror for Lucrecia; the fleshy reek of blood the back door of a butcher’s, the coiled stink of a bagwoman’s spread-eagled legs; and the bird itself come full force with a second cyclone of its own rotting stink enough to have Lucrecia forget her own distance and cry out.

The sound of that cry returned to her own ears as thin, reedy, desperate. Lucrecia willingly accepted for reality the circumstances which were truly upon her: she did as her treacherous nature commanded, and panicked.

Ifalna’s practicality returned as Lucrecia’s pretence at such departed. The former’s meekness had been such a strange thing, considering her usual manner. Ifalna shoved Lucrecia stride for stride towards the train. Exhausted spasms left Lucrecia no room to protest, though a shame turned into something far more animal would have had her preference to run wild as a true beast off the edge of the sky itself. But for Ifalna’s arm through her own, Lucrecia may well have done so.

As they entered the train, the narrow ladder forced the terror of their pace into a play at politeness, a pause for one to ascend before the other. When both had entered, Lucrecia silenced herself.

Hojo, or possibly Gast, wrenched closed the door and barred it.

‘Doubts and suspicions,’ Hojo said. He glanced out of the window and winced. ‘For our own protection! I suppose I should apologise to the man if he gets back in here alive, it’d be only right to do that after all the bagging I’ve given him. Great god, the size of that thing!’

‘Jenova is worth defending,’ Gast said, uncertainly. ‘Shinra knows that, and Mr Valentine is - one of his best, I was assured, though we are all vulnerable when in motion.’

‘Shut up,’ Lucrecia said.

Out of respect for her and Ifalna’s common breathlessness, or more likely entranced by the evident performance taking place outside the window Lucrecia would not look out of, the gentlemen complied.

After some time of silence, Vincent rejoined them to announce the train would begin its progress again; the track itself had not been damaged. He also made clear that taking air, however seemly the activity itself, would have to be restricted to the times he could offer company. The amount of his own blood that he wore seemed to offer more coverage than the ever-present suit, which had, but for the stains, seemingly come off with less damage than Vincent’s skin.

The offer of his services as polite escort had a fit of laughter, too close to hysteria for Lucrecia’s own comfort, heave its way out of her mouth and into the air.

Vincent swallowed another pill. He drank a glass of water which sat yet undisturbed on the spread of playing cards of Gast and Hojo’s prior recreation. He announced also the death of one of their guards; he did not foresee that the loss would impede them too greatly over the next two weeks. They would have offered healing, had any of them been proficient with such a thing. As it was, Lucrecia thought only to offer the water Vincent had already claimed; Gast to offer a paternal praise which would have fallen awkwardly on ears that did not need it; and Hojo an apology he had already dismissed as without value prior to its issue.

Not unexpectedly, it was Ifalna who dared the conventional silence with an offer appropriate, if somewhat motivated, as they all were, by self-interest.

‘Thank you, Mr Valentine.’

‘My job,’ said he, either as explanation or as a lead-in to a complaint which was not broached.

Ifalna laughed with an enviable naturalness; she babbled in a tone that set Lucrecia’s teeth on edge. ‘It’s really not like me to get so hysterical. I have to apologise. I hope I didn’t embarrass myself by shrieking for my mother, or-or, I don’t know, vowing eternal love or something silly like that - but gosh, Mr Valentine, the sight of that bird, it was revolting, wasn’t it? I’ve been in Midgar for such a long time, I hadn’t realized how wrong all the monsters out here looked.‘

Vincent smiled. At the corner of his mouth, the bloody mask cracked. ‘A long standing battlefield rule, Ifalna: no man’s to be held by anything he says in the heat of the moment. I can certainly extend the rule to you.’

‘An honorary man,’ Hojo said, ‘you do know how to comfort a lady, don’t you, Valentine?’ to which Gast harrumphed a laugh not quite by that name.

Lucrecia was conscious only that she had no mention as coming under that battlefield exemption.

Her safety felt assured for as long as Vincent did not look at her - but as though her very wish for solitude had been a scream for contact Vincent turned, and Vincent looked at her.

Her misery, stabbed between her shoulders hard enough to make her hunch, could not have been sharper.

‘Ms Crescent,’ Vincent said. His pupils were too small for the relative dimness of their cabin, needle-sharp; he continued looking at or into her. ‘You must have been one of my father’s students.’

A contradictory relief that Vincent did not ask her to clarify, but rather leapt to his own conclusion: Lucrecia sighed, for if she had had to justify her statement, she could not have found the courage.

As it was, she only nodded.

Vincent inhaled deeply. An odd expression crossed his face, which Lucrecia belatedly realized was pain leaking through the barrier built of medication.

‘How is the old bastard? I haven’t seen him in - forever. Forever and a day.'

Vincent could have been forgiven his strained tone for the matter of his exhaustion, the bloodiness upon his cheek; the words approximated normality, the circumstance never.

‘I -I’m so sorry.’ Lucrecia licked her lips wet, her heart suddenly a-beat with eagerness. She cursed herself: she had no courage. ‘You-no one told you what-happened?’

Vincent blinked.

Hojo snapped his fingers, sharp in the silence. ‘Valentine. Grimoire Valentine.’

‘Old Grim was your father?’ Gast seemed startled. ‘Why, lad. That practically makes us all family! You were well-chosen for this mission indeed! We’re all so very glad to have you hear.’ He murmured again, as though enjoying the shape of the words, ‘Practically family.’

Resisting the moan of protest Lucrecia could feel rising in her throat, she regurgitated instead words that she had overchewed, for years:

‘I’m so terribly sorry for what happened, Mr Valentine. This is no solace, but at the end, your father passed away at peace, and with his thoughts on you.’

Lucrecia determined he could not guess her lie: Vincent was drugged to the gills, and in pain.

Yet, oddly enough, Vincent now acted more human under the influence than he had through any of his interactions with them so far: Vincent seemed struck, as if by one of his own returning bullets. He choked.

His humanity was so evident that even Hojo clicked his tongue, while Gast expounded, ‘My boy, my dear boy,’ and poured a stiff scotch to replace the water.

With Gast’s hand on his shoulder, recipient of both their pity and a sudden masculine solidarity Lucrecia had never expected, blood still grimed deep under the edge of his fingernails, Vincent drank that neat scotch, exhaled, and set the empty glass upon the table.

Continue to Chapter 8

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