The trek back to the village was remarkably short. Cloud made it as far as the outskirts of town before he collapsed completely. Tired as he was, Zack stooped to collect him, but Vincent beat him to it. Although as tall as the general, he was half as wide. Both Zack and Cloud were shorter, but more solidly built. Despite this, Vincent hefted Cloud onto his shoulders piggy-back and carried him the rest of the way as if he were no heavier than a ruck sack.
The village clock struck 4am. They had spent roughly two hours inside the mansion, though it felt as if it had been much longer. Three beds and five men made for some awkward arithmetic, especially since one was occupied by the other guard. Sephiroth could have ordered Zack and Cloud to share, but they needed what little rest the remaining night could offer. Therefore, he had Vincent deposit Cloud on one of the vacant beds, and ordered Zack to lie down on the other before he knocked him out with a sleeping spell. His second-in-command obeyed without further protest and collapsed onto the mattress where he promptly began to snore. That left the general alone with the experiment. They regarded one another awkwardly. There was a long wooden bench with a homespun cushion against the opposite wall. It was not nearly long enough to accommodate either of them, but it might offer a few hours of semi-comfort while dozing upright. Sephiroth gestured to the article of furniture and opened his mouth to speak, but Vincent shook his head.
“I have slept long enough,” he said. “I am going outside. I want to be sure the stars are still there.”
Sephiroth could not argue with that. He watched silently as Vincent stole out the window, a living shadow in the darkness. With a sigh, Sephiroth unhooked Masamune from her place on his back and sat down on the bench, laying her across his knees. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned his head back against the wall and tried to sleep. He might as well have climbed to the moon on a ladder of stars. His mind was too full.
No one, not even Professor Gast, had ever told him much of anything regarding his parentage. To be fair, he did not remember ever asking him. As a small child, a rotation of nurses had seen to his needs. When he was old enough to see to himself, they had disappeared. After that, it had been tutors of all sorts: academic, combative, weapons, and so forth. He’d been taught everything one destined for a life in the military ought to know. He’d been bred for this, it was his purpose in life.
But who had bred him?
Other people had families; mothers and fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. Cloud had a mother yet living who dwelt just across the square. Zack had parents across the sea in Gongaga. Everyone came from someone. Surely he, Sephiroth, had not sprung from one of the Professor’s petri dishes? He hoped not. The subject had only really been addressed in any kind of detail during that great and excruciatingly awkward milestone of adolescence known by many as ‘The Talk’. Sephiroth had not had a talk so much as he’d had a book shoved at him with the instructions that he was to ask Professor Hojo if he had any questions later. He’d had questions, certainly, though not the usual sort a thirteen-year-old boy might come up with. One of the many points burned into his brain at the time was that children came from parents. Where then, were his?
“Your mother is dead,” Professor Hojo had told him. “She died giving birth to you.”
When he’d asked for a name, he was told only “Jenova”. As for his father… Normally the Professor had an answer for everything, but this time, it had taken him several minutes to respond.
“He is of no consequence,” the Professor had said eventually. “He was an intelligent man. He knew many things, yet for all that, it must be said that perhaps he was not very wise.”
The Professor had fixed him in his narrow stare, the lenses of his glasses flashing opaquely in the harsh fluorescent light. “See that you do not repeat his mistakes.”
What that was supposed to mean Sephiroth had no idea, and still didn’t. At the time, he had assumed it was because his father had let his mother die in childbirth, something that surely could have been prevented. For the longest time, he had not thought about it. Now, however, his brain refused to consider anything else. With a sigh, Sephiroth stood. He was tired, yes, but it was mental exhaustion. He did not need physical rest the way the other men did. Even Zack, SOLDIER 1st Class, needed some sleep. Setting Masamune on the bench, he crossed the floor to the window and leaned out. Craning his neck, he could just make out the flutter of Vincent’s cape beyond the upturn of the rain gutters. Edging out of the window proved to be the hardest part. Once balanced on its wide sill, it was no great effort to climb up onto the steeply pitched roof.
Vincent seemed surprised to see him, looking away from the eastern horizon at the approach of a second person. Here in the mountains, one of the highest elevations on the planet, the stars were as close as a creature bound to earth could ever get to them. Although Sephiroth knew full well the constellations were cosmic flames burning hundreds of thousands of millions of miles away, it seemed to him that if he stretched out his hand, he might be able to touch one.
“All present and accounted for?” he asked, deadpan, remembering Vincent’s earlier remark. Despite his lower face being hidden by the collar of his cloak, Vincent’s smile did not go undetected as his cheeks rose slightly and small crinkles formed at the corners of his eyes.
“As near as I can tell,” he replied, equally flat.
For a long moment they sat quietly, contemplating the night sky.
“I saw you once,” Vincent remarked, his low voice sliding in under the silence. “You could not have been more than five or six. I don’t think you saw me.”
Sephiroth blinked. “Where?”
“In the lab. I was in one of the rear areas, and the door was ajar.”
“Why do you think it was me?”
With his right hand, Vincent reached and flicked the end of Sephiroth’s bangs with one finger. The general flinched slightly, unused to having people not wearing white lab coats poking into his personal space.
“This. Even then, your hair was this color. That and your eyes.”
Sephiroth nodded. “Why were you there?”
A shadow passed over Vincent’s face. “I was...having some work done,” was his cryptic answer. Sephiroth got the impression he was not referring to makou injections.
“Did Professor Hojo do that?” Sephiroth nodded at Vincent’s left arm, “or is it armor?”
The silence hung heavily between them. There were a hundred questions Sephiroth wanted to ask, but it seemed cruel to do so. Vincent had been the subject of something horrible and gruesome, of that Sephiroth had no doubt. It would be worse than rude to probe such a wound, and so he held his peace. There would be other times; rather, he assumed there would be. Best to ask about something else.
“...tell me about Lucrecia?”
Behind his collar, Vincent smiled, the red glow winking out briefly as he closed his eyes.
“She was my best friend,” he began, voice soft as the distant thrum of the night creatures. “My father mentored her as a student, and we’d known each other before then. I was happy when I was assigned to the Jenova project, knowing that we’d be working together.”
“Did you fall in love with her?” It wasn’t much of a question, the answer fairly obvious, but Sephiroth wanted to keep him talking.
Vincent dipped his head, his red gaze dropping from the stars to the roof tiles. “Yes.”
Sephiroth said nothing, afraid any interruption would cut off the meager flow of words.
“Yes, I fell in love with her,” Vincent continued at last. “I had hoped we might become more than friends but...it didn’t work out that way.”
Vincent seemed to be struggling for words, or perhaps for phrasing. Perhaps a redirect was in order.
“What was the Jenova project?”
“Professor Gast was fascinated by the legend of the Cetra,” Vincent explained, his tongue having loosened now that they’d side-tracked to a less fraught subject. “A fossil had been found farther north, and had been transported as far south as Nibelheim where it could be examined but still be kept frozen. They called it ‘Jenova’, assuming it was the remains of one of the Cetra. Shinra thought the creature they’d unearthed would provide them with knowledge concerning the fabled Promised Land.”
“But it didn’t turn out that way.”
Vincent shook his head. “No. Far from it.”
Turning, Vincent looked at him, fixing him in place with his red eyes. The expression there was too complicated to read: deep sadness, yet also kindness, and perhaps, strangely, pride.
Sephiroth blinked. “Me?”
“Yes. You see, only the Cetra knew the location of the Promised Land. It was believed they could communicate on a different level from normal human beings, similar to the way in which they were able to commune with the planet. Since there were no surviving Cetra, Shinra decided to make one. Jenova’s cells would be implanted into an unborn child, the idea being that that child would then be the first Cetra to walk the earth in many thousands of years.”
“So Jenova is my mother.”
Vincent shook his head. “/No/,” he said, putting rather more emphasis on the word than intended. “No, Jenova was just some dead thing they dug out of the earth. Your mother was a beautiful woman named Lucrecia. Yes, you carry some of the fossil’s genetic makeup, but you are your mother’s child, Sephiroth. Despite Shinra’s best attempts, you were born human.”
Vincent’s speech had been intended to offer consolation, but fell somewhat short of the mark. If he were perfectly honest, Sephiroth was not sure how he felt about this turn of events. To be human was to be base, inferior, worthless. That had been Professor Hojo’s view on the subject. All his life Sephiroth had been told to strive to be better, to be more than human. If he dared to show weakness, it was forcibly removed. To the best of his knowledge there was no one faster, no one stronger, no one greater than himself, and yet…
Attention returning to the present, Sephiroth looked over at Vincent crouched beside him on the ridgepole. Despite the warning that he’d been scientifically altered, Sephiroth had not been the least bit afraid of the Professor’s forgotten specimen. Aside from his height, Vincent was not physically impressive. Even with Turk training, Sephiroth did not doubt that he could engage in battle with this silent man and win. But that had been before he’d gone four rounds with a series of monsters. The first three hadn’t been that hard, just annoying, the only truly difficult thing about them was that they’d come one right after the other- that and making sure that Zack and Cloud stayed alive. It was the final form that had made him stop short, triggering a sinking feeling in his stomach that he thought he’d left behind him a lifetime ago. Not since...since… He could not remember the last time he’d gone into battle without the knowledge that he would emerge triumphant. Facing Vincent’s demon, he’d experienced the ice-cold hand of doubt squeezing his guts. He hadn’t known if he would win, but he had to try. He was not going down without a fight, and he was not going to abandon his men.
It was hard to believe all that was trapped inside Vincent’s narrow body. He might have been human at one point, but now… The Professor would probably know the exact percentage of Vincent’s humanity. It was he who had done this, after all. Perhaps Vincent had been a sort of practice run, a way to test procedures before he tried them on--
Sephiroth hacked off the train of thought as if severing it with the blade of Masamune. He did not want to think about that now. He did not want to think about the nearly twenty years he’d spent living as an experiment himself. Command had brought him freedom, and while he was still bound to Shinra, he was no longer bound to the science department- at least not in the way he had once been. Perhaps if his mother had been there…
But then, she’d gone along with it, hadn’t she?
“Was my mother the same kind of scientist?” Sephiroth asked, penetrating the silence. “Was she like the Professor?”
Vincent shook his head. “No, not at all. I don’t believe she would have done what she did if she didn’t believe it would be safe. I didn’t agree with her decision but...” He tried to smile, but it came out rather twisted. “You turned out all right.”
Sephiroth considered arguing the point, but decided in the end to let it go.
“What about Professor Hojo? Did he understand the risks?”
“Your parents were making the best of a bad situation,” Vincent said slowly, carefully choosing each word.
“Bad situation?” Sephiroth repeated. Vincent looked away, uncomfortable.
“They were not married when your mother discovered she was expecting. I think she believed in what they were trying to do, but I also know she was frightened.”
“Frightened?” Sephiroth felt his brows draw together in confusion. “Of what?
Vincent shook his head. “Of her situation. Of Hojo. Perhaps she was even frightened of me, I don’t know. All I know is that I could not change her mind, and when I tried to speak to Hojo, he shot me.” Turning, he looked Sephiroth in the eye. “He has terrible aim.”
If that was some sort of gallows humor joke, Sephiroth did not see the humor. Vincent sighed heavily.
“Your father was not a morale man, Sephiroth. He was intelligent, I will grant him that, but it was all academic. When it came to consequences, he was extremely short-sighted.”
“Are you certain he’s my father?” Sephiroth asked. “What about you?”
Vincent blinked. “Me?”
“Yes. Couldn’t it have been you?”
Bizarrely, the older man blushed, his white skin turning nearly as red as his cloak. “No, it could not.”
“How do you know?”
“Because /nothing happened/,” he said, sounding rather scandalized at the idea. “Your mother and I barely even kissed. She thought of me as an older brother. She did not love me the way she loved Hojo.”
It was difficult to miss the bitterness in his voice.
“...did the Professor love my mother?” The idea of the Professor loving anyone was so alien he couldn’t not ask.
“He did not protect her,” was the evasive answer. “Then again, neither did I. I let the one I loved, the one I respected most, face the worst alone.”
Sephiroth was not sure if ‘the worst’ was supposed to mean an unplanned pregnancy, Hojo’s advances, or the Jenova project in general.
“That was my great sin,” he went on. “I could not save her, and I could not protect you.”
It puzzled Sephiroth to think that he would ever need protecting. Then again, he would have been an infant at the time. Children that small would need someone to look after them, to keep them safe. What would have happened, he wondered, had this man not been locked away?
The stars had begun to swirl around his head, dancing in glittering patterns in the blue-black of the night sky. At once Sephiroth started, head jerking up. Someone had grabbed his arm. He went to jerk free, prepared to fight, and then remembered where he was. Looking down confirmed that it was Vincent’s gloved hand that held onto his arm near the elbow.
“Go ahead,” Vincent told him quietly. “I won’t let you fall.”
Sephiroth seriously considered taking him up on the offer, but dawn was already beginning to chase away the stars, replacing their white light with gold. Vincent smiled and closed his eyes as the first fingers of light stretched out to warm the cold mountain air.
“I’ve been dreaming so long,” he murmured, “I’d begun to fear I’d never wake up.”
He should go down and rouse the troops. He should collect Masamune and be sure that breakfast was being prepared while his men dressed. He should say something to the head of the SOLDIER program when they returned. The one guard had proved utterly useless, but Strife showed amazing promise for having washed out once already. His only faults were that he was not very strong, and rather inexperienced, but time would cure both these things. There was potential there, something to work with. Sephiroth would see that the boy had a second chance. But all that could wait just a few more minutes.
Sunrise to Sephiroth had always been the hour at which one got up, and little more. This morning, however, would be different. Perhaps all other mornings would be different from now on. Sitting on the roof, he squinted into the horizon with Vincent, watching as the sun rose red and orange over the dark gray spires of the Nibel mountains.
“Your nightmare is over,” he remarked. Vincent turned to him and smiled a little behind his collar.
Sign up to rate and review this story