It was the perfect type of day.
Well, to be perfectly honest, most people wouldn't agree with him, Cloud admitted to himself as he squinted warily through the suffocatingly thick fog down the single street that ran through Nibelheim. It was a positively dreary spring morning. The sharp chill that always lingered long after the passing of winter cut through his bones, and the cobblestones were slick beneath his feet. The only people who went out on days like this were fools and those with urgent business… not out of laziness, but rather common sense. This kind of weather made it all too easy for even the cautious to fall into one of the ravines that scarred the slopes of Mount Nibel, never to be found. People had died that way before; everyone knew the stories.
However, it was the perfect weather to sneak into places one wasn't supposed to go.
The Shinra Mansion had been made off-limits before Cloud had been born. No one knew why. For that matter, no one knew why it was called that in the first place. Some speculated that the ancient building had once been the home of the family which had later founded the company of the same name. Others suggested that the Shinras had bought the home as a vacation spot. Most laughed at the very idea of that. Who in his right mind would come to Nibelheim for a vacation?
In any case, the mansion certainly had been abandoned for all of his lifetime… and, like most abandoned buildings, had gained its own slew of ghost stories. Cloud, having snuck into it several times before, didn't believe them. The place was definitely creepy, though; it had a definite feel of misuse, and several secret passages. Cloud had found three of those so far: two leading to cleverly hidden alternate exits and the third in one of the bedrooms, opening on a staircase spiraling down into darkness. He hadn't explored that yet, but was looking forward to it today.
Sneaking back around town and making his way into the mansion via one of the secret passages, the five-year-old quickly ran up to the bedroom, excitement pounding through him. He loved to explore, and now he would be going someplace no one else in town had gone.
Cloud Strife was a rather ordinary boy, truth be told. He had rather striking features, with bright hair that mimicked the color of sunshine and blue eyes that were the color of the deepest sapphires… or so his mother often bragged. He was smart and did well in scholastic pursuits, but he wasn't a genius. He preferred his own company to that of the other children, finding the boys' games rather dull and the girls' antics silly. He would much rather explore and discover what was going on around him. More than anything else, Cloud wanted to know things. Curiosity was his greatest strength… and his greatest flaw.
Like so many others, Cloud's greatest wish was to be special. Unique. He wanted to know things no one else knew, do things no one else did. He didn't really want to be famous so much as have something all of his own. Cloud's family wasn't exactly poor, but they weren't rich either; his treasures were few, and most were those of knowledge, not physical objects.
So when Cloud had discovered the secrets passages in the Shinra Mansion, he had been ecstatic, and plotted to keep exploring whenever he could escape from chores and lessons at home. Finally skidding to a stop in front of the entrance to the passage, he flipped on the flashlight he'd brought and began making his way down the long, rickety staircase.
The air was thick and stale, and the darkness almost palpable. Cloud moved slowly, one hand on the cool stone beside him to steady himself, testing each ominously creaking step carefully before putting his weight on it. He itched to go faster, but reminded himself that he had no clue how far down the stairwell went, and a fall here might kill him as easily as a fall in the mountains could have… though it was a lot less likely he'd be found if such a thing did happen. Shaking his head to drive away such dark thoughts, he kept moving.
What he found at the bottom wasn't at all what he had been expecting.
At the end of a short, crudely finished hallway was… a library. Not a dungeon, not a treasure trove, not even a secret room where monsters were kept. Cloud was slightly disappointed, though he admitted he must have been listening to too many of Marcus Franklin's stories. The man had an imagination that ran a mile wide and deep. Still, who knew what these books contained? Maybe he could find something out of the ordinary after all!
Or maybe… something else. Cloud's eyes picked up a strangely straight crack in a nearby wall as he moved his flashlight about the room. Moving quickly, he reached the wall and traced the line with his fingers. It appeared to be a cleverly disguised door, though there was no visible way of opening it. Excited at the finding of another secret passage, Cloud began to carefully examine the surrounding wall. Very few places around here had only one entrance or exit, and there was a chance this passage might lead into the same room as the single locked door further down the hall.
Time slowly crept by as Cloud examined every inch of the wall. It was impossible to tell exactly how long it was, but eventually he successfully located the trigger that opened the passage. Grinning, the boy stepped inside, following the short passage to a small room that, if he were any judge, had to be the same as the one to which the locked door led. Cloud flashed his light around, looking for something interesting. This was just the type of room that hidden treasure, something valuable, had to be in; the door had been locked, after all.
Cloud noticed a large something in the center of the room. He moved towards it, forgetting to watch where he was going… and thus missing the slightly raised tile on the floor.
The blond went flying into the object with a sickening thud. He shook his head, blinking as he saw double. Ow, that really hurt. Woozily rising to his feet, he yanked on the thing to try and balance himself… and let out a startled yelp as the top suddenly came off. He jumped out of the way as it clattered to the ground, fighting back the urge to sneeze at the dust it sent up. When the air had settled, he crept closer to look inside the strange box—
No, it was a coffin, he realized uneasily, pausing. This was a crypt of some sort. Every muscle of his body screamed for him to flee, but… he had to see what was inside. Was he just seeing things because of the fall he had taken, or was it real? He would never know if he didn't look.
The coffin, Cloud discovered, had a body in it. Weird boots, black pants, a long red cloak — and a pale face so well preserved that its owner might have been only sleeping.
Even years later, Cloud still wouldn't be able to tell anyone why he had reached out with one trembling hand to touch the apparition before him. Perhaps his curiosity had gotten the better of him; perhaps he had hit his head too hard to be thinking straight at the time. Either way, he was totally unprepared for the chillingly cold hand coming up to grab his wrist, the flash of red as the person opened cool eyes to look straight at him.
Hojo was certainly employing clumsy assistants these days, Vincent Valentine thought, roused from his slumber by the noise of the coffin lid falling to the floor. He lay perfectly still, eyes still closed, hoping to catch the hapless scientist unawares. Escape was no longer an option, but he still did whatever he could to hamper the bastard's plans, and Hojo hated it so when he lost help. Just wait for the opportune moment…
Quick as a snake, his hand flashed out, grasping the incoming fingers bare inches from him. He held on tightly, preparing to disable the scientist and wreak havoc when he abruptly noticed something. The arm he had grabbed was small and thin, too much so even for a scientist wholly absorbed in his or her work, and when he opened his eyes it was no white-coated doctor standing there, but… a child, a young boy with unruly blond hair, huge blue eyes widened in fear. His mouth worked soundlessly as he stared, gaze flickering between his face and the claw-hand clamped over his own.
Vincent was surprised, to say the least, but over that came the towering anger all over again at Hojo's disgusting, cold exploitation of children. "What are you doing here?" he asked, a little more harshly than he'd intended.
The boy shrieked, stumbling backwards — Vincent let go immediately so as not to chafe his wrist — into the wall. "V-v-v-v-v-vamp-p-p-pire!" he stammered, looking as if he wished he could melt into the stone.
He nearly snorted at that. "Don't be absurd," he said sharply, his voice hoarse from disuse. "There's no such thing as vampires."
The child relaxed a little, though his apprehension was still obvious. "What are you, then?"
A good question… and one he couldn't truly answer. A monster, some would say. A demon, others. Hojo undoubtedly had some scientific term for his current… condition, but he hardly wanted to think of that man's opinion of him. His life had hardly been virtuous before he had taken the job guarding the scientists on the JENOVA Project, and after that…
After that, he found himself for the first time doubting his humanity.
"What are you doing here?" Vincent repeated.
The blond paled. "Um… I was exploring… and I found the passage…"
The former Turk felt himself relax. The child obviously wasn't working for Hojo, and didn't appear to be connected to the scientist in any way. This was all just a harmless coincidence that had ended in his awakening… and quite possibly his freedom as well. "You should go home."
The child didn't move for a long moment, then slowly climbed to his feet, using the wall behind him for support. "Cloud." Vincent stared at him blankly. Why would someone discuss the weather in an underground room? "My name's Cloud." Someone's parents, the raven-haired man reflected, certainly had a very odd sense of humor. "What's yours?" Vincent didn't reply. "Hey, the least you could do is tell me your name! I got you out, right?"
Vincent glanced over at the child and noted the expression on his face. The look of mulish stubbornness surprised him, even more so when he recalled himself often wearing that very expression, a long time ago. Strange to see a reflection of his younger self in this boy, though in so many ways that man had died even before Hojo had touched him… "Vincent," he finally replied. Perhaps now the child — Cloud, he corrected himself — would be content to leave.
If anything, his response had the reverse effect. Cloud relaxed a little more, even going so far as to offer a tentative smile. "Could you come with me back to town?" Vincent stared. "I mean, even if you aren't a vampire—" the boy's tone said he doubted this highly "—you're still from the basement of the creepy abandoned mansion. It'd be so cool!"
"Abandoned?" the man asked sharply.
The blond nodded eagerly. "Yeah, they say no one's lived here for centuries, though I don't think so. Not enough dust and dirt and stuff. Besides, wouldn't the building have fallen apart in hundreds of years? Or was it decades? I can't remember."
Decades? Centuries? Surely he couldn't have slept so long! Had Lucrecia's child died while he lay among nightmares? He shook his head. "It is best for you to go. This place is not safe."
"Go home, Cloud." Vincent's tone of voice forbade any argument.
The boy looked as if he were about to protest, but winced suddenly. His blue eyes were a little glazed, the man noticed. "I guess I should… for now, anyway," Cloud added obstinately, defiantly glaring back over his shoulder. "I'll definitely be back, though, so don't go anywhere. I want to know everything about how you got here. And what this place is. And anything you can tell me about all those books in the library…" Cloud disappeared into a niche in the far wall, his voice lingering behind him.
Vincent shook his head lightly, almost amused. The boy's seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge reminded him so much of Lucrecia… and his observation skills were quite impressive, for him to have found the secret passage. Vincent had known of its existence (it was— well, had been his job to notice such things, after all), but after being locked in this chamber he hadn't exactly been at liberty to find the trigger mechanism on this side, if it existed—
A startled cry broke into his thoughts; instinct kicked in, and he followed it without hesitation. Cloud, his pants covered with dust as if he'd fallen, knelt on the floor of the passage, a hand on his head.
"I told you it's dangerous down here," Vincent commented coolly, arms crossed, watching the boy as he climbed to his feet.
Cloud staggered, and this time the former Turk caught him. "What on earth have you done to yourself?"
"I…" The boy's brow creased in pain. "I don' feel too good…"
Vincent's questing fingers found a lump on the side of the boy's head; mild concussion, his mind suggested. The gunman reached for his Restore materia, remembered Hojo had taken that from him as well, and muttered a soft curse.
"Mama says people shouldn't talk like that, 'specially 'round kids," Cloud said woozily.
Vincent made no reply, steadying the boy on his feet as he thought. The stairs had been rickety even during his time; sending Cloud up them alone, like this, would be tantamount to murder, and though he'd killed many an innocent in cold blood before…
Cloud yelped as the former Turk scooped him up into his arms. "What are you doing? Where are we going? Hey— HEY!" The pair continued up the stairs, the boy gasping in surprise as Vincent abruptly leapt across a half-rotted section of the stairs. "Wow, it's just like flying!" he cried, fear forgotten. He glanced up at Vincent, blue eyes bright with glee.
Vincent didn't say anything, but inwardly he was bemused. It had been a long time since he had seen such a pure look of joy on someone's face, and even longer since it had been directed at him. It felt… strange. Even before his time under Hojo's "gentle care," people had feared him because of his skills and office. He said none of this to Cloud, though, saving words until they'd reached the top of the stairs and he'd dumped the boy unceremoniously on the bed. "Can you get home all right by yourself from here?"
Cloud blinked at him, a little owlishly. "Wow… You sure move pretty well in those weird boots. I'd've thought they'd make it really hard to walk…"
Vincent ignored that. "You're not going to do something foolish and get yourself killed between here and… wherever you live in town, are you?" he asked, growing impatient.
Cloud glared at him. "I'm not stupid."
"Then go home," came the other's reply as he turned on his heel and started back down the stairs.
The blond listened to the fading sounds of Vincent's footsteps and sighed. "He sure doesn't act like much of a vampire," he commented, settling himself more comfortably on the bed.
Vincent made his way back down the stairs, faster now that he no longer was burdened by Cloud. He carefully examined the library, then moved into the lab beyond it. Hojo wasn't one to leave notes and important documents lying about if he could help it; his helpers, however, were often not quite as careful. Vincent doubted he'd find anything classified, but he very well might discover traces of what had happened before this lab had been abandoned. And more importantly, when it had been abandoned. Connecting the trail of clues should be child's play for a former Turk.
It took several hours of sifting through piles of papers — he hadn't realized how much more difficult a task it would be with this claw-thing instead of a second hand — before he discovered the memo.
Sephiroth Project officially moved to Midgar. Finish usual procedures and suspend work.
It was dated two years after he had confronted Hojo, two years after he had… died. Further evidence offered no sign of Lucrecia, nor of what exactly Hojo had done. The trail did appear to lead to Midgar, but… what he would do next, he did not know.
Hojo had taken over Gast's project; at the time, Gast had been ShinRa's lead scientist. Vincent didn't doubt that, provided that someone hadn't replaced him in turn, Hojo held that position now. And the head of the Science Department would not be an easy kill; the ShinRa labs had the best security in all of Midgar, second only to that around the President himself. Vincent had neither the resources nor the men he'd need to successfully penetrate the building and kill Hojo. To fail would result in his death… at best. While he wasn't afraid to die, he did not relish the prospect of further time in Hojo's clutches.
Most importantly, Vincent knew he didn't have enough information to make any major decisions. He still didn't know how much time had passed since Hojo had imprisoned him. It was true that the evidence here indicated it wasn't nearly as long as Cloud had said the villagers believed the mansion to have been abandoned, but it still had been a number of years, and so much could have changed in that time…
The short of it was that he needed more information… and he had just sent the one person who knew he was both awake and was willing to talk to him home with a concussion. He'd treated the boy more like a Turk cadet than a child; he should have realized that someone so young wouldn't have the type of logic an older, more experienced warrior. Dealing with people had always been one of Vincent's weaknesses… and now it might have cost him the one chance he had of finding out what he needed to know.
With these thoughts in mind, Vincent all but flew up the stairs and out of the secret passage. He halted abruptly as he saw Cloud laying on the bed, in almost the exact same spot he'd left him. Blue eyes blinked open to stare at him. "Vincent?"
"I thought you would have gone home by now."
Cloud shrugged. "Didn't feel so good. Figured a bit of rest might make me feel better. Mom says it's supposed to."
Well, staying put indicated more sense than Vincent had thought Cloud had. He sat beside the boy and looked into his eyes intently. It was a slim chance… but it was the only one he had. "Have you ever heard of someone named Sephiroth?"