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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 12. Arrival in Nibelheim

The first thing Vincent did on arrival was breathe Nibelheim deep.

Vincent regarded the village with fresh eyes. It was as though his story-telling of Nibelheim, prompted by that unfamiliar urge to comfort a woman who surely did not need it, had opened his eyes. Some buried self catalogued this Nibelheim for when Vincent's life could allow nostalgia. This project was his long-awaited allowance. He breathed, and allowed his footsteps to remain stark in the snow. He would not have to clear his tracks. The crackle of his cough echoed from the cold. Would he have laughed, had he been alone?

Hojo skittered on the ice, cursing. His fall drew Lucrecia down beside him, Gast hastening to assist. With the twitch of a smile, Vincent was very glad he was not alone, forasmuch as he could be glad.

Compared to other communities, Shinra’s presence hardly scarred Nibelheim. (Vincent disliked remembering the battle at Gongaga, and so he did not.) The inhabitants of the Nibel mountainside had a tenacity of purpose that Vincent considered instilled by the presence of that very mountain range. When something so vast, permanent, indefatigable loomed, there was something to be said about a breed of people who chose to persist. They built the ceilings of their houses extra low, as though in deliberate contrast to the overwhelmingly tall mountains; they painted their doors and windowframes in colours that an alpine landscape would never otherwise see. They built in wood, as though the impermanence of that very material gave their town a distinctness against the mountain’s unyielding stone. When Shinra had arrived, in the form of one assassin, one dead mayor, and the reactor at Mt Nibel, the people of Nibelheim had converted their native industry to the production and management of that reactor without hiccup, and without a loss of income. Nibelheim’s currency was the gil; whatever they had used before, Vincent did not know.

Vincent had some vague plan for an induction; process, and procedure, a refuge for a man who viewed society as a grand mystery to be endured. He was daunted by the Shinra-bought mansion itself, an architecture which provoked Ifalna’s instant glee. Fleet, she escalated that central flight of stairs and promenaded down, the angle of her skull baring the vulnerable softness beneath her chin. Ifalna's file history documented her arrival in Midgar, a child as poor as Vincent had been. Very like she had not seen a stair as wastefully grand as this before. Shinra built his structures with a brutal functionality of form, and Midgar’s aesthetics were stolen.

That train of thought, one seemingly on a circle-loop these past days, led Vincent to the inevitable. He turned, and looked.

Lucrecia appeared stricken at the magnificence of their abode.

The blood of Midgar's old guard flushed her native pallor, lips, cheeks, the tip of her nose. Lucrecia's file history documented her family’s fall from grandeur, a manse and estate that prior to the Consolidation had been even more fanciful than Nibelheim’s tenacious citizenry could concoct. Yet surely Lucrecia wasn't old enough to remember the house of her birth?

A smile, more a grimance, and Lucrecia was suddenly aware of Vincent's focus. She murmured in a tone he could not define, ‘What is this supposed to be? Does Shinra expect us to fete the Cetra when we get it to appear?' And the final defence, as always, of her functionality: 'What sort of working condition is this?’

Vincent looked skyward. Lucrecia's voice seemed to shake dust from the ceiling, for the air was temporarily full of sparkling gold motes. The sun, Vincent thought, must have slipped out from behind a cloud. Less at ease than before, Ifalna continued to grace the stair. Hojo let his bag slump with a remark as to the value of their quarters against their weekly wage.

Having no answer for Lucrecia, nor even a question, Vincent returned his gaze to the stair and ignored her.

‘The laboratory-‘ Lucrecia said, sharply.

‘-is in the smithery adjacent,’ Vincent said. ‘Where it was relatively easy to convert chimneys to fumehoods, and the like. This is merely your accommodation.'

'"Merely",' Hojo said, and laughed outright. 'Indeed.'

‘Our accommodation,’ Gast said, his inflection heavy on the first word. ‘I presume you’re one of us, boy?’

Vincent smoothed the grimace that momentarily overwhelmed him. He could not take exception to Gast's efforts to include him; his purpose in being there was to assimilate the knowledge of the scientists, and he surely could not do that from a sniper's distance. But this was insufferable. Gast would not pass Vincent over, for Gast had somehow developed the urge to parent the Project. His attempts at paternalism were redolent of Shinra's manner, with whom Vincent was intimately familiar, yet the comparison did not do of Gast kindly. The compliance of his team often resembled the sniping of a family, true, without the respect and responsiveness that Shinra could command. Where Vincent required decisiveness in his betters, Gast tended to approach with questions. Vincent could not trust the weak to have wisdom.

Gast likely did not realise himself faulty. Over the last days of the journey, Vincent tolerated the paternal motions by thinking of Gast as another unfortunate animal at the end of his scope. In such a way did Vincent navigate much of the socialisation necessary to his survival. Had it not been for this learned detachment, Vincent might have re-lived against his will the countless deaths that occurred at his hand, and the one that had not.

Levi wept! — and that cursed train of thought brought him back, again, to the station's terminus. He had nearly been decieved into thinking Lucrecia unworthy of his attention.

'You want a Turk in your bed, Gast, just ask him outright.'

And that was Hojo, Vincent recognised. Hojo, of all, had been the most vocally disturbed at Gast’s persistence enveloping of Vincent into the fold. Despite his attempts at refinement during his conversations with Lucrecia, Vincent noted Hojo made no attempt to restrain that insult from escaping him.

Gast's vague optimism dissolved into the contemptuous expression he reserved for the Doctor. 'So dependable, Hojo, to provide obscenity where none is needed.'

Vincent had long since noted that Gast's company, unavoidable though it was, beset Hojo's eyelid at random with a small pulsing tic. 'Gentlemen,' Vincent added, a reminder of conduct more than an address, 'perhaps you'd benefit from confirming the laboratory meets your requirements?'

They agreed, as the only rational thing to do, and went directly to the laboratory. Their departure left Vincent alone with the two women.

Ifalna twinkled from the stair. ‘Aren’t going to help us with our bags, Mr Valentine?’

The thought of chancing time spent alone but for Lucrecia Crescent’s company did nothing more than have the hairs at Vincent’s nape stand on end.

‘My apologies, but I will have to oversee the transfer of the c-c—' and Vincent stuttered; daily, it became harder to refer to the creature objectively, '—Jenova into the freezer next door.’

‘The old coal store, I presume?’

From the sarcasm, it was clear Lucrecia was speaking simply to be heard, to not be the one left silenced. Vincent nodded, and added, in case his agreement was not enough, ‘Yes.’

Ifalna looked strangely disappointed. ‘That's some baggage you've got there, Vincent. I don't envy you.' To Lucrecia: 'Shall we to the upper and claim the better rooms?’

As always, when prompted to response by Ifalna's endless ease of confidence, Lucrecia complied. Arm in arm, they were walking away.

Prompted by the sight of Lucrecia’s back, hunched by his one-word refusal to give any more, Vincent called up after them, though he knew his plural ambiguously delivered: ‘I’ll see you at dinner?’

As Ifalna sallied a brave reply, Lucrecia looked back.

At once, the sight of her ascending that stair, the sun gilding her hair, struck Vincent with some shimmering revelation yet beyond his ken; the downcast chin yet upcast eyes, mingled with the fear Vincent could acknowledge he felt at the thought of being alone with Lucrecia. She knew his secrets, his father and his origin. More than that: his fear was tied to being here, in Nibelheim, where the air hung heavy with anticipation, of snow, or storm, or somewhat; the knowledge of his allowance, here; live, Vincent, as though you are one of them. And then, that particular despondant slump to Lucrecia's shoulder, asymmetrical, had Vincent recognise in her a kindred sensibility he found so rarely. Vincent could not even acknowledge his revelation: but some buried self, nostalgic and mournful, recognised in Lucrecia that she, too, was locked in the same solitary confinement which separated him from humanity. Outside their cells, they witnessed others communicate with the fluency of human beings. He and she could parrot, their birdsong of the morning, their words came too late for meaning.

On the tail of revelation, Vincent trembled with the force of the sudden idea, that he could reclaim his secrets and his certainty if he re-cast Lucrecia in a light entirely his.

'Without doubt,' Lucrecia said, 'I think you will.'

Disturbed by the intensity of his emotion, Vincent hastened outside.

Continue to Chapter 13

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