Stones: Chapter 1

Cid Highwind had a mystery to solve, and the man hated mysteries. Mysteries tended to be ill-defined, inefficient things; and in Cid Highwind’s experience, inefficiency led to complacency. Complacency led to disaster. Therefore, he suffered no instance of either on his watch, or on his ship.

He hadn’t lived as long as he had under such opposition as he and the other members of the team faced without knowing everything he possibly could about the airship he piloted. From bow to stern, every deck, every quirk of every mechanical device fell under his watchful eye. He took a lot of ribbing about his almost uncanny abilities when it came to knowing the subtleties of his ship, but he just shrugged such incidents off, and went on his way.
Knowing when an engine was heading for a breakdown, or a prop slightly off balance simply by the quality of the hum through the deck plates had saved them all more than once in tight situations.

This was none of those things, but he applied the same diligence to the problem as he would any nuance of mechanical failure.

The problem was the newest member of their team; one Vincent Valentine.

Cid weighed what he knew about the man against what he had yet to discover, finding the enormity of the gap completely unacceptable.
Cloud had filled in the basics. Calling in debts had padded the facts to a certain degree.

Cid now knew the sketchy details of his origins as a former member of Shinra’s Turks; as well as some random information about Vincent being used as little more than a lab rat by Hojo. Being swathed as he was from head to foot in a cape concealing everything of his physical appearance except a small portion of his face precluded any insight in this area, other than the presence of what seemed a mechanical arm. No one other than the silent man’s chosen target ever got close enough to learn otherwise, and by then there wasn’t enough left of them to divulge the secret.

Vincent’s fighting capabilities, which bordered upon the uncanny, were pursued with silent and single-minded dedication. He never disobeyed an order. He was where he was needed, when he was needed, and had saved each of the members of the team from serious injury or death on several occasions. The skill of his marksmanship approached legendary status, even among his former peers.
He never seemed to be injured, of if he was, to recover with the speed of the obviously genetically enhanced.

Questioning Vincent Valentine directly about anything was met with a blank stare, as if he had either not understood the inquiry, or was unable to formulate an appropriate reply. He would merely stare with those uncanny, jewel-toned ruby eyes until the one who had approached him turned away, or instead swiftly disappear if the opportunity presented itself.
Valentine never offered an opinion. Never questioned anything he was told. Never argued, laughed, or even smiled, as far as Cid had been able to determine. Any communication was limited to the fewest words necessary.

The most annoying trait Vincent Valentine possessed, in Cid’s opinion, was his ability to vanish without trace within Cid’s own ship as if he were no more than a ghost; or a figment of their collective imagination.

Valentine had been assigned a cabin as would any other member of the crew upon his arrival, yet no one, to Cid’s knowledge had ever noted him entering or departing from it. He never invited anyone to share his off time, nor accepted any invitation from another, something else Cid had learned early on. The invitation to come by for an evening of cards or a beer had been met with the same, seemingly uncomprehending silence as any other non-vital question presented to him. Cid had only been able to initiate conversation on one occasion. His attempt had been interrupted by a question from a member of the team, and he had looked away for only a moment to deliver a single-word answer. When he turned his attention back, Vincent was gone.

Eventually, after several weeks had passed, Cid took the opportunity under the guise of routine inspection to enter Valentine’s quarters. He was not truly surprised to find them empty; a fine layer of undisturbed dust covering every surface. The room had obviously never been occupied from the day it had been assigned; and Cid felt the first twinges of concern.

Thus it was that Cid found himself back where he had begun; with no more answers than he’d had when he started trying to unravel the enigma that was Vincent. He couldn’t believe he was actually losing sleep over the puzzle; but then again, he was known for keeping odd hours anyway. No one would think it unusual for him to be on the bridge at this hour, and he did enjoy a cup of tea while watching the sunrise.

Idly changing course for the best view of the event, he caught movement in his peripheral vision. Well, now…this was a new development.

The momentum of the airship and the pre-dawn thermals lifted and swirled Vincent’s hair and cloak as he stood at the railing. His head tilted back, eyes closed, his hands resting upon the railing, he was stillness itself in the midst of movement; seemingly listening to something only he could hear. A trick of the breeze, combined perfectly with the angle of his head revealed Vincent’s profile in full for the first time; and Cid was startled to stillness himself; frozen, staring. Vincent was slender, his small frame unveiled as the breeze lifted the cape away from his body. Somehow, Cid had always thought him larger; an illusion gained from observing Vincent’s prowess in battle.

Vincent Valentine was beautiful.

Where had that thought come from?Vincent was male; and guys were well…guys. Not beautiful. No. Not beautiful at all. Cid shifted uncomfortably, frowning, forcing himself to look away. But his gaze drifted back for another look, only to find himself being observed in turn. Their eyes held for several long moments and Cid discovered himself smiling. Then the rising sun burst fully upon the horizon, painting the landscape below in fiery gold and shadow.

Vincent framed in the glow of morning was a picture Cid knew he would remember all his life.

Vincent abruptly fixed his attention upon something below, his head cocked sideways.
They were over the Ancient Forest, and anything noteworthy enough to capture Vincent’s attention merited further investigation. Cid jotted down the coordinates of their position, slowed the ship to hover, and went to join Vincent on deck.

A tiny, shallow lake’s eastern edge was enveloped in a crescent of shadow; the rest bathed in the fierce red of the sun’s early rays. Nothing unusual in itself, but the angle of their observation lent the lake the appearance of a ruby red eye. Cid glanced at Vincent; seeing an expression upon his face for the first time that was more than utter detachment.
His features were softened, a ghost of a smile hovering there. They watched the lake together until the sun rose in full and the illusion faded. Cid went back inside, double checking their position before he went to a small cabinet he had wired with a hotplate for his teapot. He removed two cups from the tiny shelf above and filled them. He didn’t care if the body of water already had a name. It would ever be fixed in his mind by the one he had chosen in those recent moments on deck.

Vincent’s Lake.

Back out on deck, he hesitated. He wasn’t good at idle conversation and from his previous observations, he wouldn’t get much of a response anyway. So be it.
He didn’t ask if Vincent wanted the second cup he had brought; merely extending it to be accepted or declined. Vincent stared at the cup for a long moment, as if it were something he had never before encountered. His jewel eyes flicked to Cid’s then back to the cup. At last he reached for it tentatively, with his black-gloved hand. Cid smiled, nodded. The mechanical arm, gauntlet, or whatever it was remained hidden in the folds of his cloak.
They watched the morning in silence; Cid’s loud, abrasive nature for once laid aside. Instinctively, he somehow knew if he spoke wrongly, Vincent would disappear again.

There was something sad about watching Vincent drinking his tea. Cid’s thoughts conjured the image of someone who seemed to have forgotten there were good things in the world; or, judging from the other’s mostly veiled expression, things beyond his hope of reaching, the simple joys others took for granted.

The empty cabin suddenly made sense to Cid, steeling his resolve to watch Vincent more closely.
In thinking upon himself and the others’ collective eccentricities and outright emotional damage, they were probably the biggest bunch of misfits to ever sail the starry skies. Still, they managed. They should, in all likelihood, have been forever at each other’s throats. Instead they had melded over time into an only moderately dysfunctional, sometimes demented sense of family. Given a chance, Valentine should find his way among them; if he didn’t do anything to deliberately harm anyone. No one should be so alone; no matter who he was.

A plan began to form in Cid’s mind. Move slowly, Highwind; he thought. Steady as she  goes. You may figure him out yet.

*****

Even possessing such volatility as he did, Cid could be stealthy in achieving his ends.
His friends expected his short-fused episodes, adjusting accordingly, knowing them to be not the result of vindictiveness; but rather a necessary venting of stress. Yelling was merely his common method of communication, and was thus taken in stride. So was his tendency to be up and about, prowling and muttering at all hours. Cid was merely being Cid. Thus was his plan set quietly in motion, with no one being the wiser.

He made a point of assigning Valentine’s duties somewhere on the opposite end of the ship from where he would be searching for Vincent’s hideaway, making sure the gunslinger was thoroughly occupied before picking up a toolbox and heading off to the day’s chosen location.

He had searched for days, looking into every nook and unlikely cranny without result beyond a few strands of long black hair and a tiny fragment of red cloth in a shower before finding a single additional clue.

Even so, he almost missed it.

He was in the engine room, tinkering here, adjusting minutely there, when he spied a single, ragged slip of paper behind one of the boilers. He almost tossed it into the nearest bin; determining to have a prayer meeting with those of the team whose job it was to keep the area in pristine condition. Then a partial word caught his eye upon the scrap he held. The script was handwritten, with an elegance entirely in opposition to the humble paper upon which it had been scribed.

Speak to me in silence

Words are stones, weighted upon the soul

Cid reread the simple lines several times before quietly folding the paper and placing it in his pocket.

He made a thorough sweep of the massive room; but there were no other clues. Cid made his way back to the place where he had initially discovered the scrap; thinking.

And looked up.

Far above his head, running the entire perimeter of the room, was a narrow, rarely used catwalk; just wide enough for someone to ascend and overlook the boilers below. His gaze followed its path around the bulkheads to where it disappeared into the shadows behind a maintenance shaft. Cid made his way over to the access ladder; pulled it down, and began to climb.

What he found was a sad little nest; heartbreaking in its sparseness.

The teacup Cid had given him the morning on deck sat beside a small box of basic medical supplies. Beyond it was a single candle, fastened with melted wax to a dented metal saucer. A few crackers and a couple of cookies lay on the edge of the saucer.
Pinned into a scrap of cloth wound with black and red thread was a needle. Tucked further back into the corner was a container of gun oil, and a stash of bullets.
But the most pathetic thing of all was the pillow. It was worn, the edge fraying as if claimed from someone else’s castoff. Peeking from underneath was the corner of a ragged book, with scraps and slips of paper obviously claimed from many sources spilling from inside. Paper like the one he had found. Cid almost reached for the book; but drew his hand back.
He sat in silence a long while, just looking at the rags of Vincent’s life. He reached into his pocket, intending to place the paper he had found with the others in the book, but his hand fell to his side, the paper held loosely in his grasp. At last, Cid refolded it and put it back in his pocket. He rose abruptly; swearing under his breath.

The man didn’t even have a fucking blanket.

He made his way back to the ladder; descended, and left the engine room behind. He went to his own cabin, stripping off his good blanket, and the almost-new pillow. He could always get more for himself from supplies, or from a spare cabin.

Cid placed the bundle on the catwalk close to Vincent’s little hideaway, but did not invade his space again. His gift might be rejected, but maybe it wouldn’t be. He could only wait, and hope.

*********

Two days later, Cid was again on the sunrise shift on the bridge. He lit a cigarette while going about his routine. Distractedly, he fetched his teapot, and reached for a cup. He had almost poured his tea into it when he noticed the slip of scrap paper tucked inside.
He set the kettle down and unfolded the tiny scrap, carrying it over to where the instrumentation gave enough light to read it.

Number three prop blade portside

Thank you

Cid refolded this paper around the first one he had found, and placed them both in his pocket.

He swore; thinking about the crazy maneuvers he’d had to employ to outrun their latest pursuers more than a week before. Something must have happened then. His mind started cataloguing the possible problems as he began searching for a place large and secluded enough to put his big bird down.

************

Cid felt himself break out in a cold sweat when he saw the hairline cracks running along the upper side of the blade between three of the seven prop bolts. Each bolt was the thickness of his wrist, and as long as his arm. If the Highwind had been in a situation to have to make a protracted run for it, there was a very real possibility of the blade shearing completely off.
As it was, with welding, the blade could be mended until Cid could make port for repairs.
Descending for his torch, he wondered how Vincent could have known about a problem that couldn’t be seen from beneath the blade, or when he would have had time to find it. They’d been in the air almost constantly; and Vincent, as far as Cid knew, hadn’t been assigned duties anywhere near the area since the damage would have occurred.

How had he known?

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