Beneath the Ice
I see angels trapped beneath the ice
And strangers in my bed at night
Cloudy skies to cover up the feelings buried in the dark
Helen, I think you understand
The night is silent in your hands
I've given everything I have
And when it's gone
There's nothing left but me
"Damn cold, isn't it?"
Vincent started, caught off guard. He hadn't heard the door on the back porch of the mansion, snow piled up deep enough to muffle footsteps. Discovering their source wasn't quite enough to make him relax.
There had been something unnatural about Lucretia since the holidays. It was nothing Vincent could put his finger on, no single instance. Instead it was the sum of tiny fractions adding up to a whole, a paleness in her hair or an illumination in her eyes, the way the perpetually creaky third step of the mansion stairs no longer so much as sighed under her weight.
"You smoke, Mr. Valentine?"
Vincent, watching the reflected snowlight turn Lucretia's lab coat blinding white, the laminated ShinRa ID badge clipped to her lapel reflecting like a star, shook his head. "No, I don't." He watched her fingers, delicate and deft, with iodine stains on the tips, flick the cheap bright plastic lighter. "Never picked up the habit."
"You're lucky." She tucked the package of Figaro slim-filters back into her lab coat, and took a deep contented drag. "But this is my last one, you know. Hojo's orders."
Vincent's eyebrows went up in surprise. Hojo smoked like a Hardy Daytona with an exhaust problem, and why he should be inciting anyone to quit was strange news to Vincent. The kitchen of the Mansion always reeked of stale smoke and his acidic black coffee. "He doesn't want you smoking in the lab?"
Lucretia leaned on the porch post, and tapped a finger into the wet, undisturbed coating of snow on the stair rail. "Oh, god, nobody smokes in the lab." Her eyes narrowed, and she pressed down on the snow a little harder. It gave under her touch, perfect surface crushing in on itself. "But I have to stop, for the project." She sighed, looking down at the cigarette in her hands, and flicked ash carefully into the indentation she had made. "Just as well."
Vincent wondered, with a chill that had nothing to do with late Nibelheim snow, why Lucretia would need to quit smoking for her research, but did not ask. It was not in a Turk's line of work to ask questions of his employers, he just did his job. Still, something thick and heavy had settled on them like clinging February snowfall, as she looked out over the churned snow of the back yard and the towering, heartless face of Mount Nibel rising up over them in the distance.
Vincent followed her gaze, wondering what she was thinking, wondering everything about her, from the exact color of her eyes to the warmth of her hands with their blunt, unpolished nails. But he did not ask, not the whole time she stood there with her breath pluming smoke and cold mist, until the filter paper crinkled one last time and she sighed, stabbing the ember out in her makeshift ashtray.
"Ah, well," she said, and carefully scooped the snow over the ashes and filter, like a grave. "No going back, is there, Vincent."
Vincent looked at the smooth, white surface and thought of it melting, exposing hidden things long buried to decay, limp and wet, in the light of the sun. "I suppose not."
"Back to work, then," she chided, with a wink, as though he had been the one on break. "Oh, here." Her hands were cold as she reached out for his own gloved one, and slapped the half-empty package of cigarettes and the lighter into his palm. "Don't thank me. Stay around here long enough, and you'll need a vice of some kind just to survive."
The porch door closed behind her and Vincent stared at it, wondering when the thaw would come.
Vincent stirred from his perch on the deck of the Highwind, glancing down past the bulwark and cables to Cid, patting down his back pocket with a scowl. "Problems?"
It was gratifying how much Cid jumped, looking wildly right and left and at last up, to Vincent high above him, his tattered red cloak snapping in the wind like a flag forgotten on its pole after a battle. "...The hell are you doing up there?"
Vincent didn't answer, glancing ahead to the light of the Northern Crater dancing on the horizon.
Cid sighed at the deck, fists balled on his hips. "You don't smoke, do you, Valentine?"
It was Vincent's turn to be surprised, to find his recent thoughts quoted aloud. "...No."
"Goddammit," Cid repeated, and he too was looking at the horizon drawing closer. "I'm not gonna make it through this without a cigarette."
Vincent went still.
There had been personal effects, when they went back to check the lab, a neat drawer of sealed plastic containers. Hojo was nothing if not precise. Cloud had said nothing, opening one of them and pulling out an old SOLDIER ID card that did not have his picture on it, a set of dogtags, a faded photograph of a laughing girl in a sundress, her arms full of flowers. He closed the box up again and tucked it away, along with the other one containing a keycard for the ShinRa army base outside of Midgar, and an ID card reading Cloud Strife, Private, 21st Infantry.
Vincent had looked down on the remains of his past-- his Turks badge, the wristwatch he had bought when he left his other one behind in Wutai (stopped at 4:37), ticket stubs from a concert in Midgar, a note from LeVine on Blue Turtle stationary, a scrap of red brocade from a dollmaker's workbench-- and left them where they lay. Only two things he kept: A somewhat flattened softpack of cigarettes, and a cheap, mostly-empty blue plastic lighter.
Blue like deep ice in the crater ahead, blue like her eyes had been once.
The deck of the Highwind thumped softly under Vincent's feet as he glided down from the rigging, and handed the pack to Cid. "Keep them," he said.
Cid grinned, "Hey, thanks--" He ran his finger over the silver foil castle on the label, and blinked in surprise. "What the... They ain't made these for twenty years..." He turned around for explanation, but Vincent was long gone.
Winter was ending.