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How We All Got There (Was a Mystery)

Chapter 13. Vincent Goes Through His Checklist

Solitude was Vincent's usual mode of operation. Restoration of the familiar allowed Vincent to continue as he was, contented by his own performance, and unthreatened by the unexpected depths of his own nature.

Via his files and two sleepless days and nights laced with cocaine and the newest of mysteries, a mako-induced hasting, Vincent knew Nibelheim's names and faces. He avoided contact for now, running through the list as he made his way to the cable pit. Within sat the terminus of a tenuous umbilical to Shinra's dream city. Efficiently, Vincent routed a terminal connection to Arcnet at HQ. He distrusted the advent of network connections, and thus he knew more about them than many of his colleagues, if never quite enough. He returned to the mansion and entered from the rear, pausing at a terminal for only long enough to ensure his connection functioned. In his quarters, a servant's sleeping room adjacent to the kitchen, Vincent stripped. Across the hall, where the outdated bathroom was communal, he noted the fresh wetness of the tiled walls, the infirm towel rail, the trace of Lucrecia's perfume in the air. She had left the radiator on high, a sodden towel over the rails.

Vincent unpacked his personal kit and showered.

Standing at the basin, he considered his sparse product. His potion and adrenaline pills, dehydrated for convience and bulk-packing, were running low. He needed more speed. His comb had snapped during transit. He did not wear cologne customarily, but he was not here to hide; scent could not betray him. He could buy some, surely.

Turning, he caught sight of himself, nude, in the narrow vertical strip of mirror to the right of the commode. He stepped in the pooled wetness from she who had showered before. So, Lucrecia had stood here, too, regarding herself with critical eyes.

Vincent allowed himself to indulge.

Lucrecia would not have the scars he had, the burn stripes and flecks across his forearms and hands. Shrapnel. Grenades. Bullet casings. The early, ineffective models of elemental materia, backlashed across his own skin. Bullet holes, puckered like obscene kisses; knife wounds, the curving smiles. Those were the acceptable scars, the ones that drew comment from those prostitutes with whom he associated frequently. Midgar's bravest callgirls did not mention the clawmarks across Vincent's shoulders, a childhood rending faded to purple shadow.

Lucrecia would never have been left prey to a monstrous attack. Her family would have ensured that, even after the Consolidation.

Here, as well as in the forgotten land of his birth, Vincent's paleness was unremarkable. In Midgar, he could have passed as native as Lucrecia, a lineage attached to the land long before Shinra had come along. In Nibelheim, Vincent could not hide the difference. His skin betrayed itself, thin to the extent that his lips and eyelids, stained with cold-shocked blood, appeared lustful or bruised. His hair, a modish crop, would mark him fresh from Midgar.

A banner more than a man, Vincent dressed himself in Shinra's blues.

Efficiently, speaking only to those who could concern him, Vincent introduced himself and the absent Project to the town. He engaged in an agreement with the inn’s owner: he personally would take three meals a day for his household from her common cookpot. He hired a cleaner. He paid a certain attention to the kitchenhand at the inn, a robust-looking blonde. Vincent knew enough of her to flatter without excess emotion; if her employer clammed up, she would likely let him know if strangers came to town. Vincent did the same with the daughters of the traders who would ride up from the lowlands to swap produce, the woman who ran what was called a boarding house with seven of her ‘daughters’, and with the affectionate gent who governed the local hot springs with a strict gender-based segregation, both as a law and that gentleman’s preference.

Not a stranger had come through Nibelheim for nine months prior to this date. That left only the uncertainly familiar; Vincent neither doubted nor suspected anyone’s involvement with AVALANCHE. His best would involve his vigilance; his vigilance was the best there could be.

Towards afternoon, the mayor approached, seeking a gravity of belly to challenge Shinra's own. Vincent explained what the Project would involve in as much detail as he could. Laughing, the mayor declared it all too mysterious for her, and left Vincent with a ringing clap to his shoulder. The Shinra representatives dutifully acknowledged, Nibelheim went on its way, that town of well-experienced copers.

Vincent collected his four surviving subordinates and set them to a roster. They would be stationed in the buildings surrounding the laboratory. It would be preferable if the scientists never saw the guards, as experience taught Midgar's citizens to distrust a man in blue. Moving Jenova proved somewhat fraught, the village’s children poking curiously at the sweating transport. Whatever Jenova was, it did not like staying frozen. Vincent allowed the four grunts to do their work, pulleys and chains involved in the lifting of that heavy crate from its refrigeration. The children moaned in disappointment: crates like that these mountain children had seen many a time. Vincent distracted them by juggling snowballs.

By then, the cold had made Vincent's lips purple, small webbed veins colonising his cheeks. He could feel it, not quite like pain, but a sensation strangely like sunburn. His skin grew tighter with every moment of exposure. With a flash, a vivid image that replaced, for a moment, reality, Vincent imagined himself splitting open at the seams, clawing himself free from that husk of cold-withered skin and a useless blue suit, the howling beast within unleashed, and thus entirely liberated.

Six freezing balls such an easy lot to keep aloft, Vincent bit the corner of a numbed lip sufficient to bleed, and wondered if his wits were leaving him.

Yet Vincent's association with reality was fleeting at best. Imagination had as much worth as the hallucinations that sometimes took him, six nights of sleep-suppressants and immobility any sniper's self-bought cage.

Vincent breathed the cold deep.

Once Jenova's confining crate was safely re-homed, Vincent made a gift of his snowballs to the children who had remained to watch, each of whom treasured the offer as though they had not thrown snowballs at each other all their short lives.

Continue to Chapter 14

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