Brass chimes jangled in the door of the Apothecary shop, and the owner did not look up from his mortar and pestle as he grunted the traditional welcome. They'd leave, soon enough, when they discovered he didn't stock his shelves with miracle cure-alls and the sparkly glow of materia. The customer bypassed the jars of exotic ingredients, powdered jayjujayme antennae and gold chocobo feathers, and strode to the counter, his cloak like a bloodstain in the dim shop.
"Something you're after?" the druggist asked grudgingly. Not many tourists frequented the back streets of Wutai's capital city, especially now after the fall of meteor. They preferred the main streets where the bridges were freshly painted and the buildings uncramped, a place whose war had been long enough in the past that it no longer showed in the very scenery, unlike here in the east quarter. This one might be a connoisseur of the rare, not content with plastic pagoda souvenirs.
"I was hoping you could answer a question of mine," the stranger said, his voice muffled by his cloak.
The shop owner shrugged, setting aside his heavy stone pestle. "Turtle's paradise is six streets down, young man. If that's what you're after--"
"There was once a dollmaker who lived above your shop. Does she still?" Intent crimson eyes gleamed over the stranger's collar, and the druggist, more prone to telling foreigners to get lost, found himself compelled to answer.
"She died. Three? Maybe four years ago?" He picked up his pestle and began to pound garuda horn again, missing the flicker of emotion across the stranger's face, the moment of closed eyes. "Her son keeps the rent up on the place, though."
The druggist snorted disapproval, dumping the contents of his mortar into a heavy white envelope. "By rights the kin-jaa shouldn't inherit so much as a floor-mat, but he's got more gil than I've got care for tradition. Besides, business these days..." he waved a stained hand around the dusty shop. "What's a Wutai dollmaker to an outsider like you, anyway?"
The stranger didn't answer, but placed a heavily armored hand on the counter, powerful taloned fingers resting their razor tips on the marble. "I would like to go up and see the room, if I may?" one sharp finger sliced a groove in the stone as easily as a common man would dent butter. "You don't object, do you?"
The shop owner swallowed and shook his head, his eyes nervous on the gold claw.
"Thank you for understanding," the stranger murmured, and left the shop in a swirl of heavy red fabric and the jangle of brass bells.
Thirty-odd years had passed since Vincent Valentine had stood in the doorway of this small room, shabbier now than he remembered. But the small window still framed the furthest temple pagoda just so, and the sunlight still lay in thick cream-colored stripes across the mats and the lacquered wooden chest. On the worn worktable were the tools of a dollmaker's trade, carving utensils and brushes and needles and boxes of embroidery thread, neatly arranged as though waiting for the craftsman to return.
Waiting patiently but most likely in vain for his extravagant festival garb was a boy warrior doll, his hair not yet worked into the traditional topknot and hanging loosely about his shoulders. He fell easily into Vincent's clawed hand, his unafraid face painted with a touch more grace than usually found in Wutai dolls. It was distinctive as a signature, that line of brow and lip, the tilt of the eyes.
It first drew me to you, you know. You looked just like one of my dolls.
Vincent Valentine was a man used to ghosts and dreams. So it was with little surprise that he turned to look at the young woman sitting at the worktable, her edges blurred and bright, like a photograph taken in too much light.
"I said to myself: Myhn, that's simply the most beautiful man you're ever going to meet, and if you got him in warrior dress, Sweet Leviathan, wouldn't he be something!" she bit off a length of emerald silk thread, and her dark eyes glinted with humor as she looked back at Vincent.
"You never did," Vincent said, with a trace of apology in his tone. He knew better than to try to touch a dream, standing by the chair as she fretted over different strips of brocade.
"Took me enough to get you out of your precious blue suit," she murmured slyly, around the pin in her mouth. "Much less into anything else." She threaded her needle with a satisfied little noise, picking up the bright saffron tunic with a gold New Year's dragon half-formed on the silk. "ah, but I can't say I didn't enjoy the effort."
Vincent watched her pushing her needle, the familiar calluses on the tips of her delicate fingers, the polished knob of ebony hair at the nape of her neck, the way she would hold her lower lip between her teeth as she sewed. How often he had watched her, in that too-short time in this place before his own Nightmare began, the last time he could say he'd been happy.
"I'm sorry I never wrote."
"Oh, I knew you wouldn't." She squinted up at him, sizing him up like one of her dolls. "I always knew you better than you would admit, Mr. Valentine. You wouldn't be kept here." She held up the tiny finished robe, the dragon sparkling in the lamplight. Yellow and gold, Vincent remembered. The colors for a first-born son. Myhn smiled at it, satisfied. "I knew better than to try."
For the first time Vincent noticed the swell of her belly under the protective splay of her small hand, the unmistakable curve under her breasts. "Myhn."
"Oh don't tell me you're surprised." She winked at him. "Not after all the..." she smoothed the embroidered dragon with her fingers, her cheeks tinged pink with memory. "Besides. You really believed that tea from downstairs was fool-proof? And no, I wasn't going to tell you any different." She laid the tiny robe aside. "I knew you would be going. You would have tried to stay, but you don't work that way. I know." She smiled, just to herself. "He's just like you."
Vincent, for the first time, tried to doubt what his eyes were telling him, cursed with his tainted blood and always seeing too much of what wasn't there. "I would have--"
"Hush," She scolded, standing. She came barely to Vincent's chest. "I did it, Vincent. I did it all by myself." Her arms curled around herself, proudly, and Vincent was obscurely relieved that his eyes would show Myhn to him as he remembered her, young and smiling. "Vincent, our son--"
From the doorway there was the clatter of the doorframe in its track, and Myhn vanished, along with the glow of her worklamp and jewel-bright fabric scraps. Vincent, doll still in hand, turned to see. Standing by the door and looking equal parts indignant and confused, was Tseng.
The expression was smoothed over almost instantly, of course. Composure in even the most extreme situations was a Turk trait that Tseng had honed to perfection and one that Vincent had never lost.
"Might I inquire as to precisely what you think you're doing here?" Icily polite, no love lost between them, here after the end of the world. Vincent rather suspected that the measure of respect he got from the Turks had more to do with a sense of common origin than to conceding to the victors. Tseng's eyes flickered to the doll in Vincent's hand and then back up to Vincent's face, the set of his lips going distinctly unfriendly. Wutai was a country whose people had never taken kindly to invasion of any sort, and Tseng was looking most acutely infringed upon.
"Just visiting an old friend." Vincent carefully placed the doll back on the worktable, where it slumped tiredly against an inlaid thread box. "And you?"
Tseng did not answer, crossing the room and picking up the doll to inspect it, as if expecting Vincent to have vandalized it in some way. "Her last one," he said, and some of the ice was gone from his voice, perhaps realizing how careful those sharp golden fingers must have been, to not scar the delicate wood body. "Before she died. Did you know her, Valentine-san?"
"A long time ago," Vincent said, watching the way Tseng's fingers curved around the doll, like Myhn's. "Before I was transferred to Nibelheim."
The name of the small northern village was kind of a bombshell between the ShinRa and AVALANCHE. Even though Rufus and his remaining company had set up base there, Vincent had found that his companions were more prone to saying "With the Turks" or "Rufus" or "The Mansion" rather than the name of the town. Too much reminder, in those high cold mountain syllables, of all that had been done between them.
Tseng sank down in the worn chair by the worktable and Vincent was surprised. Such an unTurkish thing to do, letting down one's guard like that. "She was sick, for a long time. Took her twice as long to finish her dolls. I suppose that was before you knew her, before I was born."
Had he not even said anything, the flutter under Vincent's ribcage would have been the same, just from the way he set the doll carefully back where it had been, the deft movement of fingers to smooth the hair like a shadow of a much smaller hand, fingers rough with needle use and not a trigger. Some part of him had known, of course, known and not been surprised to see Tseng there in the doorway, as if it could have been anyone else. It was that part, the part that made him a good Turk, that kept his voice calm when he spoke.
"No, I left Wutai before you were born."
Tseng sighed and stood up, absently placing the chair back in its precise position next to the desk. "I don't suppose--" he looked at Vincent, and the former Turk felt his throat tighten. "Were you the only Turk here?"
Vincent breathed a little. "No. I was with a small group of Turks. It was before the war, in those days. There were more of us."
"So I've managed to find out. Records from that time are fairly shoddy."
Vincent shrugged. "The Turks as they are now and the Turks as I knew them are two very different groups of people."
Tseng's hand unconsciously went to his wrist, and it was with mild surprise that Vincent saw he wore no watch. "It gave me quite a shock, when I got to Midgar and discovered a pack of murderers and thieves in expensive suits." Tseng drew himself up, almond eyes flashing with pride. "President ShinRa was going to disband them altogether. I convinced him to give them to me."
Vincent might have been smiling, in the high collar of his cloak. "How old were you?"
"Seventeen." Tseng looked around the room, as if just now seeing it. "I had always wanted to be one. A Turk, that is. My mother spoke often of them. Either her information was flawed or they changed drastically since she knew my father--" Tseng stopped, started again. "She was sorry if it made my childhood difficult, but she never apologized, not for her actions. Any other woman would have become a recluse out of the shame, but she," his fingers drifted over the back of the chair, and Vincent wondered what Myhn looked like in his memory, "she was proud. She always said Wutai was hide-bound, that it's what started the war. The circumstances of my birth meant nothing outside the borders of this country, and she knew that, knew I would not stay." Tseng started. He had clearly forgotten Vincent was there. "No matter," he said, and again he was Tseng of the Turks, one of the most powerful men in the world, even now.
"She spoke of your father?" Vincent had never been so glad of his cloak as he was at that moment, to shadow his face, to hide him. "what did she say?" He gestured with his good arm, and Tseng's eyes flickered on the glove, black and fingerless, like his own.
"I doubt my past would interest you."
"On the contrary." Vincent heard the catch in his own voice, and covered it. "I-- had many friends, when I was here. Perhaps I might have known him?"
There was scrutiny in Tseng's eyes, Vincent could feel it. The curse in his blood held some gifts, a kind of empathy, and in Tseng he could sense the memory of a jungle temple, fighting past a desperate wound to remember the first time he had seen this man, this Vincent Valentine. It would be months later before he realized where he knew the name, from the records still left. Only his name.
No record of his previous posts, of his life, of his whereabouts.
Tseng knew all the names, all the ones he could find. Traced to the time around his birth, but there were as many as fifteen in existence thirty years ago, and nowhere did the records say where they were stationed. Rebecca, at LaVitesse, said it was before her time. But Tseng knew the names, certain that one of them, one of them...
Vincent Valentine had been lost to time, sleeping under a crumbing ruin that Tseng now called his home. A Turk, a glorified security guard for an up-and coming weapon company, providing protection for a small group of researchers. Entangled hopelessly in the story they shared. Moreso, perhaps, than he had thought.
Vincent could sense the realization, the almost immediate doubt of such an absurd solution.
"Perhaps you might have," he admitted. "Mr. Valentine."
There was nothing at all Vincent could say. He had come here to find the past, to give a delayed farewell. He had known she would not still be living, had thought nothing of her would remain, her rooms rented to some family or other, her buried ashes marked with simple bamboo.
All of Vincent's dreaming, his nightmare, had been of a boy-child without a father.
But not this one.
"Your mother," he said at last, not to Tseng's face but to his hand, clenched to bloodlessness on the back of the chair. "I was unable to contact her, as I am sure you know. I--" Vincent's eyes wandered to the mark between Tseng's brows, inked into his skin soon after birth when there proved to be no father to claim him. "I did not know--"
"Are you waiting for Cid to come pick you up?" Tseng said abruptly, businesslike. "I can provide you a ride sooner, if you like. Were you planning to go back to Kalm? We need to retrieve Reno from there, anyway."
Vincent stilled. Did Tseng simply not wish to know? There was nothing now to be sensed from him, either in his mind or the unwavering taut line of his jaw. If that was so, Vincent could do little but respect it. "I... I would be grateful. My business here is finished."
Tseng nodded and stepped past him, Vincent heard the door open, catching halfway as it always had. He closed his eyes and thought perhaps it was Myhn coming back from market, to tease him for sleeping too late, to crawl in beside him. An instant, a few seconds, to hold the past a bit longer.
It hung in the dusty air, waiting acknowledgement. And Vincent could see him, suddenly, a boy with skinned knees and hair sliding out of its ponytail, clattering in and dropping his sandals by the door. He aged each time the panel slid back, a boy, a teenager, a young man in a blue suit. In the window there was morning and evening and war and peace, and through all of it Vincent had slept, distant and oblivious.
Vincent turned around. In his thirties, now, the man in the doorway. Older, in fact, than Vincent himself looked. "Yes?"
Something in Tseng's manner changed, his shoulders shifted, or a lightness came in his eyes. "Your watch," He said, unexpectedly. "You left it with Mother. I--" the first trace of a smile, barely. "I gave it to Rufus."
Vincent nodded. It might have been pride, unexpected and overpowering, that made the words so difficult. "I understand."
"Take your time," Tseng said, turning to go. "Rude and I will wait until you are finished."
"No." Vincent shook his head. "No need. I have no reason to stay." He stepped out of the room through the half-closed door, and without hesitation, slid it shut the rest of the way behind him.