Cloud's cry was reflexive. He heard the crisp crunch of bone and saw the arc of blood splatter from the base of Vincent's nose to The General's fingertips, then onto the floor near his own feet. Cloud rushed forward, but arrived a second too late as Vincent went down on his hands and knees, collapsing onto the hard ground in front of him.
"Vince. Vince!" Cloud knelt and grabbed onto Vincent's arms. He hoisted him up an inch, cradling Vincent's head in his lap only to discover the sheer amount of blood pouring onto his uniform. Vincent moaned, half-conscious and reeling in Cloud's arms.
"Humph," The General scoffed in contempt. "Pathetic."
Cloud felt his anger rising. "Was that really necessary, sir?"
Sephiroth, surprisingly, said nothing in defense. He merely watched as Cloud gently shook Vincent, trying to get some sense back into the man. A few seconds later Vincent grunted, lifting his head slightly to catch Cloud's wide-opened eyes. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief, despite the fact he now had seen the extended damage on Vincent's blood-covered face, and slowly started to bring both of them to their feet.
"Get out of my tent, soldiers." Sephiroth ordered. "The meeting is over."
The brunet's glare back at the general instilled an unnamed fear within Cloud. "Come on, let's go." Cloud urged, pulling Vincent along and afraid that another second would ignite the air in the room. Vincent's hands clenched tightly in retaliation, but he did follow the blond toward the exit. Please, God, Cloud prayed silently, let this be over. Let this end here.
They half-ran, half-stumbled out of the tent, a trail of blood dripping onto the ground behind them. "Someone!" Cloud began to yell as soon as they cleared some distance from The General's abode, "Get a medic here! Now!"
Zack dashed into Sephiroth's tent, hair a mess and his eyes for once were mirthless. He found the general sitting by his desk, looking at papers. Zack stepped forward, slamming his fists on the tabletop in front Sephiroth to get his attention.
"Why did you hit Vincent Valentine?" His tone was not amused.
Sephiroth rested his left elbow on the table, his cheekbone atop his long fingers. "News sure travels fast around here."
"Seph," Zack sighed exasperatedly, "the blood trail is still there on the dirt. Why did you hit him?"
Sephiroth shrugged. "Because he had attempted to attack his superior officer."
"Did he really?"
"No, he didn't get to it, if that's what you're asking. Why're you getting so upset? I was punishing a disobedience."
"But you shouldn't have." Zack pulled a chair from the side and dropped heavily upon it. "You should have left him to me. He's not under your command, and if he has actually assaulted you it would be my responsibility to deal out the appropriate reprimand. It's procedure."
"It was a reflex when I sense a threat, Zack."
"Hah," Zack let out a dry laugh. He couldn't remember the last time he had been this serious, or sardonic. "Seph, you broke his nose in two places and almost made him bit off his tongue. I don't think a 'reflex' is going to cut it." He glanced at the white-haired man, who was now staring at him. "Is something else going on here? Did you two know each other before and I just simply missed the history?"
"Shouldn't I be asking you that question?" Sephiroth replied. "He's lucky that I didn't pursue it. This is the army, Zack, I could easily get him discharged."
"You can't get him discharged," Zack stood up again, his expression determined and unyielding, "unless I agree to it. He's my lieutenant, General. And he's also one of my Turks. I handpicked him to be here. I wouldn't have done that if I didn't think I know his character well enough."
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. "Are you accusing me of being unjust, General?"
"Frankly, yes," said Zack. "Although I wouldn't call Major Strife an unbiased witness, but he's the only one we've got, and judging from the way he looked when he recalled the incident, I trust him. Seph, you beat the shit out of Valentine, and I don't have anything to substantiate his threat besides a verbal account of him possibly getting emotional to something you have said. It proves nothing!" He paused. "You can correct me on anything that's inaccurate here. I just like to know."
Zack was not unaware of his blatant partiality towards Vincent. He couldn't really help himself; he cared tremendously about each and every one of his Turks. The Turks were a special force, created during Zack's early days when the Shinra army was in dire need of extraordinary talents. Never one to think inside the box, Zack not only deployed scouts to search for new talents in the usual circles – the army reserves, the police force, and the church groups – but also personally went to some of the notoriously shady areas. He found one of the finest officers under his division inside a small dingy fight club in the streets of Shinra City . Another expert tactician was a pickpocket who had unwittingly tried to lift Zack's travel bag on a bus. And one of the best places for breeding raw heroes, Zack had considered, was the central prison.
It had no doubt generated a huge controversy. The Shinra religion was not tolerant of major sins such as manslaughter and assault, regardless of reason. It dealt fairly light punishment for small offenses like theft, but for the ones who had committed a crime serious enough to be sent to prison, they were pretty much branded for life. Literally, because all of the prisoners were tagged with a five-digit number in an arbitrarily chosen place, and it would stay with them until death. It was usually positioned so that it would be difficult or dangerous for one to remove it himself, and whoever willingly helped the prisoner would face detainment if discovered. The general public was harshly prejudiced against the sinners, treating them at best with fear and disgust. Hence, it was especially difficult for the ones who were unlucky enough to be branded at an easily exposed area, for they could not find solace anywhere they went if they got released.
This facet of the Shinra religion was one that Zack had never agreed upon. Not only was it unfair to the one who had committed accidental crimes, but in Zack's opinion it was also a great waste of human resources post-release. They could not advance further even if they obviously possess the necessary skills and intelligence to do so, and it would be a misuse of talents at best. Zack wanted people like such in his army. He was good at picking out the gems among the trash, and figured in addition to their intellect and fearlessness, he would also get their sense of personal loyalty. And loyalty was a grand asset to a soldier in the time of war.
Therefore, he went through all the major prison systems in Shinra City , hunting for the few rare usable ores in the coalmine. It took quite a while, but he managed to find a few scattered in over seventy prisons around the country and recruited them into his division, giving them the title of the Turks since he couldn't officially promote them to anything higher than a second lieutenant. They were his, and Zack trusted their striking aptitude and absolute fidelity.
He found Vincent Valentine four years ago in a small prison outside Mana. The war was on a temporary standstill, with the Shinra lacking resources to attack and the Avalanche recuperating from an earlier assault. Zack had relatively more free time on his hands. He left his second-in-command in charge of the troops, and went on a solo expedition for his recruits. He received a call from a side resource, telling him about a potential candidate in Noting Hill. Zack immediately headed toward the destination, and before twenty-four hours had passed since the call he was standing at the checking station in the Northwestside Correction Facility, NH Division.
Zack was on his way toward cellblock 17 when he distinctly recognized a sound of pain as he walked past a room with the door slightly ajar. Being unable to ignore it and continue, Zack came to a stop in front of it with an opened ear. The sound came again, and Zack decided to open the door. He stepped inside and saw four guards on their evening break. All were in various states of undress. Two men who still had on their pants were holding down a pale teenage boy on a table, injecting what Zack suspected (and later confirmed) as an aphrodisiac into the skinny arms. One man had settled between the boy's quivering thighs and was thrusting violently. The stale scents in the room informed Zack this was nowhere near the beginning of the activity.
Zack felt bile rising in his throat. He was unarmed, but his fists were raised and poised. The guards succumbed to his anger within fifteen minutes. Two stacks of paperwork and a couple of phone calls later, Zack checked in a hotel in Mana with a shivering and undernourished Vincent Valentine, serving sentence for accidentally killing a girl during a heated gang fight. He was sixteen then, just at the age where he would be tried as an adult. Zack had to pull a few strings, but since it was technically self-defense there wasn't any exceptional resistance. Zack didn't think further than getting the boy out of the hellhole to someplace safe and warm. The important thing was saving him from future abuse and nourishing him back to health, both physically and mentally.
The boy didn't speak for the first three days. During that time Zack had taken him from Mana back to Shinra City , and put him in his own quarters for the time being. He filed a report to the central government on mistreatment of prisoners, and was glad to hear that particular branch was under investigation a fortnight later. Right then, Zack was too busy making sure Vincent showered, ate, and slept. He also went to back to the prison for Vincent's files and any medical records, in case there was something else that they had given the boy that he should be aware of.
On the fourth day when Zack came back from all of his duties, he found the boy in the living room, huddling on the sofa and mumbling to himself. He looked up when Zack walked in, and jumped so quickly that all Zack had heard was a stampede of feet before he was tackled against the door.
"What the- ?" Zack gasped, the doorknob digging into his sides as Vincent latched onto him. He looked at the boy and saw the pupils were dilated and perspiration covered his forehead and chest. Zack frowned.
"Ugh, ugh," the boy panted, "I, I need to – I need it. I need it! Please."
Zack turned his head just time as Vincent leaned forward. His lips landed on Zack's cheek, missing its mark and Zack just then noticed the boy was stark naked besides a pair of underwear. The hardness pushing against Zack was unnatural, in addition to the feverishly hot young body. Zack moved, putting his army training to use and with a well-placed hand locked Vincent into a chokehold on the floor. The boy whimpered, a faint "it hurts" reached Zack's ears. Zack held him down, thinking rapidly about what could have happened within the few hours, then suddenly he understood.
He smacked himself mentally for not thinking about the severity of those drugs' aftermath. He had checked on the immediate effects, but didn't dwell on their long-term addictiveness until now. Zack lifted the boy up, half-dragged him into the bedroom and pushed him on the bed. Vincent was struggling quite violently by then, and Zack, needing to buy himself some time, struck the boy hard on his temples and knocked him out cold. Then he found some of his old clothes and tied Vincent's hands and feet together on the posts. When it was secured and he had a moment to breathe and think, Zack picked up the phone and dialed Aeris's number.
She came twenty minutes later, with her med kit and a rope of restraint. She gave Zack an accused look, called him a blockhead, and then proceeded to tranquilize the boy thrashing on the bed. When Vincent finally passed out, she untied the makeshift bondage, gently wiping the already prominent rope-burn with ointment.
"Why didn't you take him to a hospital?" Aeris asked him. "He probably will fare better there."
"I – uh – can't. Not without more paperwork. I don't want them to send him back again."
Aeris gave him a look. "Is he another one of your . . . ?"
Zack nodded. Aeris let out a quiet sigh. Then she asked Zack for the name of the drug and Zack handed her the examination statements from earlier.
"The doctor didn't tell you about the lingering effects?" Aeris asked incredulously.
"I wouldn't exactly call him trustworthy, considering who he works for." Zack replied.
They retied the boy properly, trying to make it comfortable yet strong enough to keep him from hurting himself during the rehab. Zack folded out his couch in the living room, pulled two sets of blankets out for Aeris and himself to rest in. It was much better that she stayed, for if anything serious happened he would at least have a resort to turn to. She said it probably would take a month or so for him to be completely sober, considering the doses they had injected into the boy and the frequency. Zack paled at the suggestion.
"The war will restart by then. I can't stay and take care of him!"
Aeris stared at him. "What exactly are you planning to do with him?"
"I'm not sure. He actually wasn't on my recruit list, but, well, I couldn't just leave him there."
Aeris smiled. "Well, then we'll just take it one week at a time. If an order comes and you need to be at the front lines, then we'll think of something."
The situation stayed like such for several days. During the day Zack and Aeris would tend to their respective duties on alternating days, leaving someone home to take care of the boy. At night they would keep the door open, even though Vincent's constant thrashing and restrained screams would keep both of them awake at most hours. It was in these restless nights that Zack decided to give Vincent the choice of becoming a Turk. If not for the endurance of living through the torture of the drug, but just for the look in the boy's eyes throughout this ordeal. The determined, hateful, but lucidly clear brown eyes that Zack had grown a respect for.
He went to check the boy one morning and discovered the worst was over. Vincent lay there, eyes wide open but focused. His body had stopped trembling, and color was returning to his pale cheeks. Zack felt his pulse and discovered it was beating normally. He smoothed down a lock of sweat-damp hair, smiled, and said, "Do you remember who I am?"
The boy turned his head, his gaze centered on Zack's face. "Yes. But, who exactly are you?" he asked in a soft voice.
"Zack," The boy repeated. "I'm Vincent."
Later Aeris told him that it was a miracle that Vincent didn't scream until his throat gave out, because the pain was known to be excruciating, even to a full-grown adult. It was even more miraculous that Vincent was capable of walking two days after the clean up with the amount of muscle that had been strained. "You got yourself a pretty decent Turk there," Aeris had commented, when she kissed Zack goodbye and threatened castration if he ever dropped something like this on her again.
Now, as he paced in Sephiroth's tent, looking expectedly at the general for the truth of the passing morning, Zack realized his temper was waning rather quickly. Sephiroth stood up, an odd expression enveloped his features.
"Was what I summarized inaccurate?" he asked.
Sephiroth shook his head. "No, you were quite right."
"Then why –"
"Zack," Sephiroth's eyes glowed, his voice strangely even. "Do you remember the Jenova project?"
Zack frowned. "Yes. But what does that have to do with anything?"
A smile appeared on Sephiroth's thin lips. "Why do you think Major Strife had transferred to your division three years ago? He was an excellent officer; I would rather much have him with my troops than give him freely away."
The pause was unnerving, and Zack realized he should be putting together something obvious, something important, but he failed miserably at grasping that straw. He waited, unsure of where to put his footing, or whether there was one at all.
"Who do you suppose Cloud Strife is? I'm sure you have seen the Project at some point, no?"
And when Zack remembered exactly what Sephiroth was speaking of, he was rendered utterly speechless. A chocked noise came from the back of his throat, along with eyes wide enough to strain his upraised eyebrows. Sephiroth watched him, green eyes narrowed to slits and Zack could only stare back in shock, for the first time wondering what kind of hand fate had again, brought upon them by the sheer power of coincidence.
"That should do for now."
The medic put a strip of bandage carefully across the bridge of Vincent 's nose, reinforcing the brackets that were keeping the bones in place. He then stood up, wiped the last bit of blood away from Vincent's mouth corner and said, "Don't eat anything solid for a few days. And don't even try to speak. I'll go talk with your superiors about your condition." He clasped his hands together. "Thank the Lord that you're not currently active in battle."
Vincent nodded, crossing himself after the medic's retreating footsteps. The pain on his face had ebbed, although he could still feel the throbbing inside his sinus and the thick cotton around his tongue. No solid food, was it? Vincent had experienced much worse. However, it was not the physical pain that irked him, but who did it and why it was done.
He turned his attention to the side, seeing the blond crouched near the bed. Vincent wanted to be angry, but he was willing to hear an explanation. He had indeed saw the exchange within the General's tent, and was even more bewildered that the Major only stood there, plainly taking it all in as if it were – as if it were natural. Vincent didn't think he was the jealous type, but he had never seen Cloud reciprocate to any of the easy-to-reach opportunities, not even with casual flirting. He guess he took it for granted, and now it had descended upon him that there were things that a man, no matter how trusting, would think of when certain evidence hits him squarely in the face.
Cloud was watching him with a worried look, the anxiety from before not drained at all from his face. He moved forward and stopped in front of the brunet, gently reaching for the brace but Vincent jerked his head away. Cloud paused, looked down at the ground and asked softly, "Are you alright?"
Vincent turned away. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Cloud wringing his hands together nervously. "Look, I –" Cloud started, "I don't - Why did you follow me? What did you think would happen anyway? I mean, nothing –"
He broke off abruptly when he saw the sharp glare Vincent threw at him. Cloud fidgeted, face pink and eyebrows knitted in an incensed frown. "Stop asking me what happened! I don't know what happened! It's –"
Cloud broke off again. This time he walked to a chair a few feet away and sat down, his right shoulder leaning against the metal back. His profile was contorted in pain and Vincent felt his anger thinning inside him. Cloud wrapped his arms tightly around himself, propped up one leg on the chair's edge and remained still.
There obviously was something else going on, Vincent realized. He stood up slowly, approaching the blond's chair quietly as not to startle him. Cloud didn't seem to be paying attention, until Vincent kneeled down beside him and put a hand on the top of his left knee. Cloud shuddered and closed his eyes, his voice soft and sounding as if he were talking to himself.
"There's something missing. Three years ago, I don't know . . . I'm . . . not remembering something important. It's – when he – it's blank, but it's not. It's so . . . familiar, and I don't remember why! What had . . . ?"
He looked at Vincent with pleading eyes. Vincent didn't know what he was supposed to express. He was not even sure what exactly Cloud had asked. Three years ago? How should he know what Cloud had experienced three years ago? Vincent could only show his concern, and squeezed Cloud's knee gently in comfort.
Cloud's hand came up and the long fingers caressed the side of Vincent's cheek. "God, I'm sorry, Vince," he let out a frustrated sigh. "Really, why did you have to follow me to the General's tent?"
Because I didn't trust Sephiroth. Because otherwise you would have been in much deeper shit than you already were. Because it was a wild hunch. Because of many many unreasonable reasons that I couldn't possibly tell you right now. Vincent shook his head, only drawing a capital T on Cloud's still bloodstained pants. Because I'm a Turk, Cloud. Because I'm a Turk
He laid his forehead down on top of Cloud's thighs. Cloud said nothing more, but wove a hand through Vincent's short hair, gripping onto the roots in the fashion of raking leaves. It was soothing, and Vincent closed his eyes, willing himself to stop thinking about who was supposed to comfort whom and why did this felt more like the closing of an era than a mere fight. He didn't know whether to take it as the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.
They stayed like so until the sun had begun to climb westward, and the noises of preparation for the evening meal seeped through the fabrics of the barrack walls. Vincent lifted his head, and found himself meeting Cloud's candid gaze. He smiled helplessly, straightening himself up and offering a hand to the blond. Cloud took it, and they both turned to look at the door flap. It was a Friday and they needed to be present at the evening service.
Cloud put his head on Vincent's shoulder. "Did it hurt?"
Vincent shook his head. Cloud let out a chuckle, "Not your nose. I be you'd deny it even if it does. I mean," he tapped Vincent's breastbone, "here."
Vincent swung an arm around Cloud. He shook his head again, once. Cloud shifted, turning and reaching to place a small kiss onto the side of his neck.
"I'm sorry," the blond reiterated.
Vincent held him tighter.