It started, as it always did, with Vincent following his intuition.
He wandered through Corel, a curious stranger in yet a curiouser town; a town run mostly on coal with the Reactor looming in the background.
Vincent avoided two strangers but his hearing caught a soft voice.
"You alright, Myrna?"
A cough followed by a rasped, "I'm fine Barret."
"Doc said it wasn't enough meds. That ShinRa shorted him a box-"
He turned on his heel at that; even Turk training hadn't beaten his empathy out of him.
His Kaa-San had been sick, beyond even a Cura, beyond even human help but... Her cough didn't sound like it couldn't be managed. "... I couldn't help but overhear that you needed medicine. May I ask what kind?"
'Barret' gritted his teeth but 'Myrna' put a hand in his arm. "Kinds," she corrected. "I need two for what I have."
Vincent cocked his head to one side as he listened to her breathing, listened again and murmured, "One for the fluids, one for the inflammation."
'Barret' begrudgingly offered, "Budesonide/formoterol and roflumilast. Why?"
"A good deed in memory of my Kaa-San, nothing more." He glided up the stairs they'd recently left, part of him privately marveling at the silence of his steps. That part of himself he didn't mind and it gave him an advantage. "Budesonide/formoterol and roflumilast please."
"I told you, Wallace—Hiighk!"
Vincent tilted his gauntlet talon just the right amount, the thin skin of the throat curving around the tip.
"You slighted an ill woman and her husband for profit. You skim off of the boxes and then sell them for double on the black market in the East." The bulge in the doctor's eyes said as much, his Turk instincts rarely wrong. "I want every box you slighted her and then a supply for the next three months. If you slight me, Doctor, you'll find that Bahamut has no mercy for fools like you. If I so much as hear of another scheme, they won't find enough of you left to bury. Do we understand one another?"
"... Excellent. Please do not reach for the short sword under the counter as it will do you no good." Vincent replied. "I'm a quicker draw than you and it is... ill-advised to bring a knife to a gun fight." He swept the cape from his hip to reveal Cerberus as he released the doctor.
Vincent counted each of the boxes twice and then hummed as he swept out of the door. Both of their jaws dropped as he carried them down the stairs to look out from behind the boxes. "If you would... lead the way to your abode?"
They walked slowly but Vincent didn't mind and the Wallace house, with its blue shutters and lovingly tended pink flowers, told him he'd made the right decision.
"Here, I'll take those." 'Barret' said quietly, ushering the way through the door with his boot. "Hey... I'm sorry I misjudged you back there."
"...I paid it no mind," Vincent said after a long pause. "You were merely trying to protect the person closest to your heart."
Myrna chuckled at that, soft brown eyes crinkling at the corners. "What can we do for you?"
Vincent mulled it over carefully, Galian rumbling softly as Vincent drummed his fingers against his opposite arm. "... If you know of someone who is making their way to Midgar, I'd appreciate a ride."
"You'd have to bounce around. Nobody heads straight to Midgar these days. The ShinRa menace makes sure of that." Barret rumbed out. "I ain't a fan and I'm not apologizin' for it either."
"You'll find we share a similar.... mentality when it comes to the company and its employees." Vincent allowed. "What path would you suggest?"
"Hmmm. Well, from here, maybe Gongaga and then Cosmo?" Myrna offered as she settled into the cushioned kitchen chair.
"There's a truck goin' to Gongaga in the morning. I'll talk to the driver about lettin' you on. You any good with what you have on your hip?" Barret motioned to Cerberus and Vincent flashed a brief smile.
"With a name like Sharpshooter, I suppose so."
The truck slowed to a stop in front of a massive jungle, the vines enormous and tangled.
"Your stop, Mr. Shooter. May Alexander show you mercy. That forest is full of a great many evils. The town lies due south, that way." The driver pointed. "I'm delivering to the port so here's where we part, sir."
"Thank you for the ride. May Bahamut keep you safe and sound." Vincent replied, vaulting over the side of the truck.
With the noise of the truck in the distance, the jungle loomed over him in the evening gloom. He jumped, not expecting to get very high when his cloak spiraled and dropped him off onto a thick branch that was high enough to be safe from a lot of monsters.
That was our ability, Host; something we must both have a hand in. came the reply. You will be safe from monsters. Travel by the light; there are things even I would not test here.
"This forest, it's very old." Vincent murmured, gauntlet tips digging into the thick bark of the tree for purchase as he glanced down. "Older than you?"
No, Host, but it is not without dangers and we are not steady enough to take on the deeps just yet. Given enough time, perhaps, and enough practice-
"I'm not practicing anything with you."
Chaos gave off the vibe of someone who was dealing with stupidity as he spoke again, his annoyance clear, We are stuck within you, Host. We cannot leave you or vice versa. It is my penance, to be trapped by Fates you cannot imagine.
With it came a backwash of feelings not his own that boiled down to Are you really so foolish?
"I know you not, though you claim to know my abilities far better than my own senses would tell me. What makes you so sure we would do well together?" He fired back as he wrapped the cloak around himself tighter, the howl of the wind through the trees driving his paranoia higher.
Perhaps I have been overly harsh, Host. You do not know because you were resting, a hairsbreadth from Death, beyond mortality that can be saved through conventional means. We are inextorably linked, for far longer than you might like.
"... What did you mean by that last statement, Chaos?" Vincent prodded, the inhuman warmth of the cloak making him lower his guard.
The work done to you by Hojo and another will gift you a lifetime beyond that of an average human. The closest measure of it would be a Firewolf, for they age slowly and have a lifespan of centuries. Chaos offered in the spirit of nightly confessions.
"You're saying... You don't know how long but I will outlive everyone I've ever known?" he choked out.
Unfortunately, Host, the answer is yes.
Vincent awoke to sunlight filtered through leaves, the oppressive heat rumored of jungles not yet at its zenith.
He blinked, rubbed at his eyes and remembered his situation.
A scream, high and terrified, echoed through the jungle.
Vincent didn't even take in a breath, throwing himself to his instincts and hurtling through the tree-tops at a dizzying speed.
He heard another scream, this one wet with tears and he growled as he closed upon the source. Using his gauntlet as a grip, he spiraled down a massive tree and landed in front of a black-haired child who was now actively wailing.
Massive frogs, each of them roughly the size of the child, lunged at him and the child.
Vincent lashed out, his lips peeling back from his teeth and baring them, snarling as he stood over the child. Three times his gauntlet flashed, three times it came away with purple blood before the monsters-which read as Touch-Mes to his Libra Scan-decided to find easier prey than what Vincent fought them over.
They fled with wretched croaks and the child, having curled up into a ball at his feet, slowly unfurled.
Watery blue met fierce crimson and the child didn't flinch but hugged his leg, babbling in no language Vinent had ever heard but the tone was one he knew.
Grateful and happy to be alive. Vincent washed off the gauntlet with a Materia combination, the purple still staining the gauntlet in his haste, and offered his right hand to the child.
The still talking child took his gauntlet and his hand, swinging them back and forth with a happy shriek.
"Where do you live, little one?" He murmured as he lifted the child and settled, with a subtle sniff, him on his right hip.
The little boy pointed east, his finger steady despite the dense vegetation. Vincent walked that way and his sabaton tapped against a stone path hidden in the undergrowth. "Ah."
"I'm Sharpshooter." He introduced solemnly, hesitating at the entrance to the town in front of them.
"Ma! Da!" Zack crowed delightedly, bouncing in Vincent's hold and then going nearly a hundred miles an hour in the tongue Vincent didn't know, nearly falling out of his hold before he tightened it slightly.
The older version of Zack, a man with the same dark hair, whose grey eyes narrowed when they spotted Vincent's gauntlet curled around his child. He said something in the same tongue and then Zack burrowed his face in Vincent's neck.
The rumble that came from him was rusty but automatic, coming from one of the beasts within him, the vibration making Zack giggle.
The grey-eyed man did a double-take, especially with Zack jammed against his neck like a small puppy, Vincent's right hand rubbing soothing circles against Zack's tiny back. "My apologies, not everyone speaks Gongogan in these parts. May I ask where you found my son?"
"... He was being attacked by Touch-Mes in the forest. A large group surrounded him and I found him, ah, crying. I fought them off." Vincent slowly answered, the rumble turning into something a little more like a purr.
"Which would explain the blood on... your weapon?"
"A... prosthetic. It is helpful when I cannot access my gun." He shifted his cloak to the side and offered Cerberus, as he'd found it in one of the abandoned rooms of ShinRa Mansion. It had been a wedding gift from Lucrecia but he'd never had the chance to fire it. "... Would you like your son back?"
Zack snuggled close, humming in the way of small children and playing with his hair, happy to remain with Vincent, who happened to be a stranger to Zack's family.
"No, he looks pretty happy with you. I'm Alric, Alric Fair. I'm a hunter."
"... Sharpshooter. I also hunt, though further up in the Nibel Range than most prefer to go." He offered, carefully shifting his hold on Zack.
"Oh Zack." The bright blues eyes said this was Zack's mother, her equally dark hair creating a startling contrast. "Fran Fair, though you can just call me Fran. Has he given you any trouble?"
Vincent shook his head no and huffed out a tiny laugh when Zack stuck his tongue out, trying to braid some of his hair together. "None at all, Mrs. Fair."
"Oh, Zack's found someone with manners, hmm? Can I call you Sharp?"
"... You may, Mrs. Fair."
"Mrs. Fair is my mother-in-law, so please, Fran or Ms. Fran if you absolutely must be polite. Would you like some coffee, some tea? Breakfast maybe, considering Zack rises with the sun most days and none of us have eaten?"
"I would accept an invitation to breakfast and some tea, Ms. Fran."
"Yes, Zack, I'm staying for now."
Vincent chuckled softly and followed the Fairs to the end of the street, the unconditional acceptance of the Fairs something that he treasured deeply.
Zack sat in his lap, stealing food off of his plate with syrup-sticky little fingers. Vincent allowed it even as he ate at a collected pace and moved the pieces he wanted out of reach.
Breakfast brought with it another Fair, this one far older and less inclined to trust strangers Zack took an interest in. She spoke to Alric in Gongagan, her gaze never leaving Vincent for very long. He ignored it as Zack drank his milk through a straw and then proceeded to offer the bitten and bent straw to him.
"Thank you, Shoot! Straw?"
"... You're welcome, Zack. No thank you. I have one already."
Zack frowned, squirmed in his lap for a little while and then scrambled off of his lap into the further reaches of the house.
"While Zack is off in his room, may I ask what it is you're doing in this part of the West?" Alric asked frankly.
"Traveling to Midgar. There is... something I need to see through, a personal task I cannot divulge." Vincent admitted.
"Will not or cannot?" came the shrewd questioning of the elder Fair.
"Cannot. A directive given to me by something that is... indescribable." He shrugged as Zack pattered back into the room and clambered back into his lap. Zack offered him a plush Nibel Wolf toy, clearly well-loved and washed.
"Yes, I see."
Zack rolled his eyes and pressed the plush into his arms. "Take him."
The reply, when it came, warmed his heart, "You need him more than me."
He accepted it, Fen-Fen cradled loosely in his gauntlet, as Zack happily settled back down to braid more of Vincent's hair.
Vincent followed his little friend's example and did so as well, the chair creaking as he relaxed.
A few hours wouldn't hurt his task, he supposed, and certainly not with a thoughtful child to keep him company.