This Silent Sacrifice
Cloud stared at the sleeping figure of the SOLDIER. The bow of Kunsel's mouth had slackened, and Cloud could see the pink of a tongue through the sagging bottom lip. Kunsel seemed to be one of those blessed people who didn't drool in their sleep. If it had been Cloud's head propped so awkwardly between shoulder and chair back, there would have been a little line of moisture adorning his chin by now.
Cloud was faintly amused by the nonsensical directions this thoughts had taken. The humor fell away all too quickly though as what the SOLDIER's presence represented resonated with him. He was free, but at what price? Kunsel and Vincent had already informed Zack and Sephiroth of his discovery. They were waiting for him. They were waiting for a Cloud that no longer existed, maybe never had in Sephiroth's case. Cloud didn't know what Sephiroth saw when he looked at him, but it wasn't the truth. It couldn't be.
Zack stirred at the direction his thoughts had taken, and Cloud forced himself to stop the self-destructive turn; it only served to hurt Zack. But that didn't change what he'd decided to do. There really wasn't any other choice.
Zack and he had argued fiercely for some time as Kunsel slept on, unaware of the battle of wills taking place in the body on the bed.
Cloud had woken up to cool moonlight staining the walls in fanciful shapes, and known he'd been sleeping for a good number of hours. His body still felt stiff, and he rubbed at the joints of his elbows where the needles had pushed the Mako like fire into his blood. But overall it was nothing he could not endure.
Cloud eased himself from the bed, careful not to awaken the sleeping SOLDIER. Zack was still shouting at him in his head, telling him he was making a mistake, but Cloud was too stubborn to be moved. His lips twisted when he realized he was still wearing the cadet uniform he'd been captured in. That would be the first thing to fix, right after getting hold of some weapons.
His boots were set side-by-side against the hotel room's wall, and he shuffled softly over to them. He hiked one under each armpit, sweeping his eyes over the room one last time, gaze lingering on Kunsel's figure for longer than was wise.
Cloud, you're being an idiot! Cloud brushed Zack's warning away, and turned his back on Kunsel.
He'd collected a bit of Gil since his little trip across worlds, thanks to the men he'd murdered and cleaned out in the slums months ago. He'd been paranoid enough to keep the money on him at all times –along with the two knifes he'd flinched which the scientist had unfortunately relieved him of, but they'd been more interested in his body then the cash in his wallet. It was enough to get him a ride out of Junon. He hadn't, couldn't, think any further than that.
Cloud Strife was running away. Again. And Zack was banging about between the walls of his head –trapped, trapped, trapped—and couldn't do a thing to stop him.
It was all very simple in Cloud's mind (was more of a mess then anything he'd ever faced. Gaia, but it was so fucking hard to think straight! If he could only clear his head…) he couldn't let Zack or Sephiroth see him like this. And if he stayed here, stayed with Kunsel and Vincent, he knew the choice would be taken from him. They wouldn't understand his reluctance (desperation) to keep this from Zack and Sephiroth. If it had been Cloud's choice no one would have ever known just how broken he'd become.
Cloud slit the hotel room's door open, peeking around the frame to play eye-spy with a Turk and an ex one. He couldn't see Tseng's crisp, straight-backed form loitering outside the door, nor Vincent lurking about the shadows like a great bat, but that didn't mean they weren't there. Still though, he'd just have to deal with them if they chose to confront him. He wasn't a weak, unenhanced cadet anymore; he could handle a tail, even one as skilled and inhumanly-powerful as Vincent.
Cloud slipped out the door, shutting it with a soft click, and loped down the dimly lit corridor. It didn't escape his notice that he was walking more like Zack then his usual slow, almost apologetic stride –he always walked like Zack when the air smelt of heat and up-coming battle. But he buried the knowledge deep under his mission. He had to focus on getting out of Junon, not getting swept away in self-deprecating thoughts.
Cloud made it across the street before Vincent emerged like a ghost from the moon-dark shadows. Vincent's hair swallowed the pale light, casting back nothingness. His red eyes had that feline night-shine to them which would have reminded Cloud of a cat's if their pupils had been split. But what struck the breath from Cloud's lungs was not the eeriness of his ex-lover, but the ridged lines of that pale pale face. This truly was a stranger staring back at him; his face as closed as a fist.
"Running away?" Vincent's voice was sharp as a serpent's tooth.
Cloud didn't answer. He wasn't going to ask forgiveness. Not this time. Not for saving himself. He made to shoulder past Vincent's unmoving figure, but was halted by the unforgiving shackle of a metal hand upon his bicep.
"You're not even going to tell him goodbye, are you?" Vincent demanded, voice hot and righteous. They were the words of a father protecting their child from anything, anyone seeking to harm.
Cloud had recognized it before, but it wasn't until that moment he truly understood what it meant to have Vincent be a stranger to him. No, more than a stranger. The Vincent staring at him, with eyes as severe and brittle as the Planet's bones wasn't the one who'd risen out of the box to AVALANCHE peering in. This one held the mace of Father in his hands and wasn't afraid to bring the full weight of his punishment down on the heads of those who hurt what was his to protect.
Cloud was suddenly, shamefully aware of how often he'd taken Vincent's support for granted. Cloud had always been the leader, and Vincent, Tifa, Barret, they were the ones who got his back, caught him when he fell again and again. He expected Vincent to step aside and let him pass merely because he said to. That was just how it was. If Cloud said 'leave it' then the others would back off, give him space they wouldn't have granted anyone else. And here was this Vincent not fitting into the unspoken rules. It threw Cloud, jarred him like a bad landing.
"Well, Fair?" Vincent prodded.
Cloud jerked at the metal hand holding him (His Vincent never would have tried to physically restrain him. Never.) "It's Cloud," he snapped with a glare at the not-Vincent.
"Ah," Vincent released him. "The famous Strife." Cloud couldn't help flinching at the words (and oh, but they'd been dipped in mockery!). "He told me about you. I'd gotten the impression you weren't a coward, but I see I was mistaken."
Cloud couldn't help the sneering twist of his lips. They'd done this too, though of course Vincent didn't remember, but you didn't spend a decade in friendship without earning a few snapshots of blinding, venomous arguments. And given their two personalities, both with the tendency to bottle things up until they exploded –violently—the nasty, cutting words had a way of building up and simmering, earning interest.
"You're one to talk of cowards," Cloud spat, a sunburst of rage at Vincent's too-true words not heading the warning in the back of his head. "Hiding away in a coffin while the world passed you by. Real brave of you, Vincent."
Vincent, his Vincent, would have lashed right back at Cloud. They would have kept up a pointless battle of tongues for a few short, vicious moments before both coming to their senses and either apologizing with a look, a touch, or stalking away to mutually brood over their churning resentment for a few days before making up again.
But this wasn't that Vincent. And for all this one's sacrosanct anger at Cloud running out on his grieving son like a high-class con-artist, underneath all that was still the man who was chained by guilt and remorse. Who used the whip of self-hate to rip the flesh off his bones again and again and again deep, deep in the bowels of the Shinra Mansion, with only the slow thoughts of stone and the howling demons in his head for company.
Vincent flinched, and Cloud felt it in his bones like the cold, cold slide of the Masamune between his ribs.
For one brutally naked moment Cloud saw the brokenness inside, before it was shuttered behind walls of steel and miles of ice. Vincent Valentine had not been a Turk in name alone. He knew how to dance the dance of masks, had graduated from the game to become the master.
Guilt thickened Cloud's tongue, choking off the words of apology until they would not come. It had always been like this for him. In the most important, most vital moments of his life, his words had failed him. When Reno was asking him if he cared whether Marline and Denzel lived or died, when Tifa demanded to know if she, they, were more important than the past, when Zack was dying, dying, dying in his arms and he was like a useless windup toy repeating back the words thrown at it.
And then the moment for forgiveness had passed, and Vincent's metal hand loosened, falling off Cloud's arm like the flesh had turned into something repulsive.
This Vincent may not have known the spears that could have torn Cloud apart like the other one had. He hadn't learned the power to make Cloud rage and slice up a den of monsters (no longer possessing the human release of bitter, lonely tears). He hadn't walked beside Cloud while Cloud was buried in a fantasy world where he played hero and SOLDIER First Class, or known the greatest most secret shames of his life, but this Vincent was hardly weaponless. Nor was he one to lie down and take a hit like the one Cloud had delivered without payback. Cloud wasn't a friend, lover, who he would make up with in time and kiss all the 'sorrys' into the smooth muscles of his back. He wasn't a companion he'd wandered the world with, fought impossible battles beside, and had his back and saved his life countless times. Cloud was a kid who'd hurt the only thing he had left to live for. The kid who was running away without even a word to the man who'd grieved, destroyed himself, for just a rumor of Cloud's survival. Cloud was a little shit who threw his mistakes into his face and pissed on them.
"He grieved for you," Vincent lashed back, the hissing words shaped into daggers, bullets, nets, whatever would hit some sense into the selfish boy before him.
Cloud looked away, chin dipping, hair swinging in front of his eyes. Oh, it hurt to hear those words, but it wasn't anything he hadn't already known. Zack and Sephiroth, even Kunsel, they had missed him. He knew it intellectually. Just as he had known when he'd balance himself upon the edges of cliffs, the sleeve of his black sweater ripped off to reveal the rot infesting his left arm, slowly sickening his whole body, and debated what it would feel like to fall, that Tifa and the kids would miss him. The thought had kept his toes gripping the ledges even through the darkest days of the Geostigma's corruption, but it didn't bring a smile to his heart. The thought was a loadstone about his neck, and now so too was the thought of Zack and Sephiroth grieving his death. It was one more responsibility he'd failed, one more sin upon his shoulders, not a warm breeze of knowing he'd been loved.
They were waiting for him, expecting things from him, and he could not deliver. It was the Geostigma all over again, and he didn't have Tifa's softly brutal words ringing in his ears now. There was Zack, yes, the Zack in his head, but he only served to remind Cloud of all that was wrong and broken within him.
When Cloud didn't answer Vincent delivered in a voice like a rapier: "You don't deserve him."
The gunman turned away from the stubbornly mute figure of the boy who'd spat upon his son's heart. He bent one last look over his shoulder at Strife, hoping his last words would have had some effect, would have motivated him to say, do something. But there was nothing. The boy would not be goaded into returning with Vincent, and Vincent had seen the Mako flashing in the boy's eyes: the boy would not be forced into returning either, not now.
Vincent's mouth flattened, eyes narrowed to slits, and he spat with disgust: "Go then. Good riddance."
Cloud watched Vincent's retreating back, feeling helplessness tie about his feet like a jail crow's chain ball. He could neither speak nor go after the disappearing one-time friend. He both wanted Vincent to come back, to have a chance to explain, and wanted Vincent gone, leave him to the wreck he'd become.
He was running away and he didn't want anyone pulling him back. If he tried to explain himself Vincent might find the right words to stop him, and Cloud didn't want to chance that. He couldn't endure any path but the one he'd chosen.
So he left. Left that shadowed curb where the corner streetlights didn't quite reach, left Junon where the streets were as ordered as a grid map and Shinra patrols loitered about in too many shops, around too many corners. He headed east to nothing and no-one, the goal of a weapon the only plan in his fractured brain. A weapon and running.
Vincent slipped like the dark side of the moon into the unremarkable hotel room where the Second Class SOLDIER Kunsel still slept awkwardly on the lone chair. His metal-toed boots made no more sound then a cat's paw across the thick carpeting.
Kunsel shifted in his sleep. His head lulled like a doll's and his ass slid further down the hard wooden seat until he slouched, wide-legged like one of those tough-guy, grill-mouthed, gun-flashing gang runners under the Plate. The picture was only missing the impossibly baggy pants those overgrown kids styled.
"Strife's gone then?" Vincent's head whipped around back towards the still open door. Tseng leaned insolently against the door frame, eyes fixed on Vincent. That look, so causal, so guarded, the perfect mask, reminded Vincent violently that this was the first time they'd been alone together since That Night.
His eyes slid away, down to the shadowed, uninspired place the carpet met the wall. "Yes. Strife's gone."
"Hardly a surprise. The kid was more than a little touched in the head." Vincent's eyes snapped up, and Tseng sliced him a superior smile. The Turk's face was as arrogant as the moon. "You didn't actually think I wouldn't have ways of eavesdropping through a hotel room door, did you?"
Vincent didn't reply. Of course it wasn't altogether a surprise. Tseng was a Turk after all. Vincent just supposed…what? That Tseng would respect the boy's privacy? That was incredibly naïve. Maybe he'd spent too long locked in that coffin and forgotten what it meant to be a Turk.
Then Tseng, as if reading his mind said, all brutal, unapologetic honesty: "You shouldn't trust me, Valentine."
Vincent glared at Tseng; he didn't need the Turk to spell it out. He was well aware everything the Turk had seen, heard (honestly and dishonestly) would be reported back to the boss, Rufus. "I'm well aware of the price of Turk 'help.'"
Tseng's mouth twisted into something that didn't quite reach the sardonic smirk he'd no-doubt been aiming for. "Just see you don't forget. The Turks belong to him. But things haven't really changed all that much since your time, have they?"
Vincent's lip curled behind the shield of his cloak. No, no they hadn't. Vincent was torn between disgust and the intimacy of personal experience.
Turks sold their souls to the company. Their reasons for selling themselves likes slaves were as varied as the personalities they developed to get them through the life they'd embraced like whores laying themselves down upon the pimp's silken bed. Tseng had been bought by Shinra, and Shinra owned him. Just as they had owned Vincent until they'd thrown him away, released him from the cage of loyalty and the job, and tossed him into the pit of disposable.
"I'm a bit surprised you didn't try dragging him back to Midgar with you. I'm sure the general would have thanked you even if you had to truss Strife up to get him there." Tseng said, eyes laughing at Vincent, mocking Sephiroth's pain.
Vincent realized with stunning clarity that he hated Tseng. Tseng was a bastard who enjoyed cruelty. Tseng liked his job. He loved it. The power (illusionary though it was), the ability to lay down one's conscious without the guilt, be able to say 'it's my job' and sink a bullet into the target's forehead, so neat and clean and exhilarating. Tseng fed off of the freedom he'd obtained from disposing of his humanity.
Tseng watched Vincent with those sly, smirking eyes. The ones that didn't care how much the knife they twisted in Vincent's gut hurt; the ones that enjoyed another person's pain.
It made Vincent sick to think he'd once wore a suit the same color of blue. That he'd once dirtied his hands for Shinra, taken orders from Hojo, allowed his conscious to be shushed and shushed and shushed until it got lost somewhere deep inside all the blood he was downing in. It was terrifying really, how easily it was to commit atrocities. They just kept piling up, the not-so-big-sins at the bottom of the pile, carrying the base for the bones of a tower reeking of death and decay, slippery with the black stains of sin.
Vincent knew all about sin. He was intimately familiar with its destructive nature. The standard cut and paste definition of sin was doing something you should not do. Vincent had enough of those types of sins on his hands to send him on a one-way trip to purgatory. But there was the other kind of sin he'd committed too, the one that had sentenced Lucrecia to death and his son to years of torture at Hojo's hands. Sin was also not doing what you should do. And for committing this sin Vincent would never forgive himself.
Vincent's muscles trembled with suppressed violence. Tseng seemed oblivious to the hurricane of rage he'd stirred up in the gunman. He shrugged his shoulders in a move that seemed impossibly elegant for something so famously plebeian, and tossed the glossy tail of his black black hair over his shoulder, giving Vincent his back as he sauntered down the hallway.
Vincent wanted to hurt Tseng. The Turk (and Vincent could never forget the man's profession now) tossed hot coals of contempt on his head, using words as slippery as eels and just as fanged to convey his 'friendly warning.' But most of all, in true Turk fashion, he was pretending nothing had transpired between them. And that Vincent could not abide. Not after spending days upon weeks gutting himself over how he'd violated (and been violated) that night.
Vincent hadn't made a conscious decision to follow the Turk, but he found his feet moving forward as the blood pounded hot and heavy in his ears. He wanted to commit violence against Tseng, wanted to punch the imperious smirk off his face.
But no, that wasn't right, it wasn't him. He didn't lash out in anger. He wore his cool, untouchableness like a badge pinned to his breast. His ability to think logically and clearly even in situations that would have lesser men surrendering to their baser natures had always been his crowning jewel. He was ice, and it had made him a damn good Turk.
Were even one of these violent thoughts his at all or was it the demons he was letting rule him all over again? Where was his control? His humanity?
He wasn't Vincent Valentine Turk anymore. He'd been torn apart and sewn back together upon the altar of science. Somewhere in the cold, screaming burning green green green innards of the Shinra mansion's basement he'd lost the man he'd once been. But if he couldn't fight for some scrap of his humanity, if he couldn't honestly say he was still more human then monster, then he should do a favor and pitch himself over the nearest cliff (only that wouldn't kill him, would it?).
The demons screamed in Vincent's head, telling him to break Tseng. The demons wanted to push Tseng down on his knees until he submitted and begged Vincent not to stop. The demons demanded violence and blood and submission to their alpha status.
Vincent wouldn't give them anything. He had more than just the illusion of control over his own body. He had to have more.
He wrestled for control, he would win. The fight inside his head pulled a growl out of his chest, and that one tell was all it took for Tseng to spin around, graceful as a dancer, gun cocked and ready, finding aim right between Vincent's eyes. Tseng had only been feigning nonchalance while his every sense had been straining, heightened like a Turk on a mission.
But it wasn't Tseng's readiness that had Vincent staring; it was the flash of terror in his eyes as he spun. The terror smoothed out to blankness the next moment, his hand on the gun not trembled an inch, but it had been there and Vincent had seen.
Vincent was sick all over again with the memory of what he –Chaos—had done. (That moment when Tseng lay under him, staring up at nothing. The vulnerability split open across his face, brokenness sharpening the angles of his cheekbones and the bones about his eyes, deepening the brownness of those eyes, adding curves of pain to the shape of that mouth.) Tseng's fear punched all the breath out of Vincent. He was left armorless against the crime he'd committed.
Vincent had to look away from the memory of what he'd done. Monster. Abomination. He'd killed, been a hired gun, failed the most important people in his life, endured the horror of wakening up to demons in his head and the utter demise of his humanity, but he'd never ever raped someone until Tseng. It was a whole new level of depravity that left a grim like dirty oil over the pores of his skin.
He wanted to justify it. It was only human nature to justify one's actions when they know they've sinned: I couldn't help myself. Didn't you see the way she was looking at me? She was asking to be fucked. He was being a prick. He deserved to be taken down a peg or two! You don't know what I've suffered! Don't I deserve some happiness too, some pleasure?
All the flailings of a child refusing to look into the face staring back at them from the mirror, refusing to see their own vileness for what it is.
Vincent let the shame feed on him like sharks upon a carcass. It was nothing less then what he deserved.
And he'd almost let the demons win, almost surrendered to their bays for blood and violence. How close he had come to hurting Tseng all over again, and for what? A few tossed out words of arrogance and cruelty?
He looked into Tseng's eyes, watched the Turk knit his mask of cocky pick over the bare bones of an ever-so-fragile mind, and a pike of renewed remorse struck him.
He'd done it again. He'd let his prejudice and weakness for judging others blind him. He'd done the same with Lucrecia only instead of seeing a heatless, power-hungry killer under her skin, he'd imagined an angel.
"You try too hard to fit people into the boxes in your head, Vincent. It's why you'd never make a good scientist, son; you judge and dismiss things too quickly. You have to open your mind to the possibly that you don't know everything, and that there are forces and patterns in this world outside your control or understanding. That, Vincent, is what makes a true scientist. Well," his father had added wryly, "That and an annoying insatiable curiosity."
He'd gotten Tseng all wrong. He'd thrown motives and faces and desires into the mixing bowl that was Tseng's character, and stripped the Turk of his humanity. He didn't know a thing about Tseng. Not one goddamn thing. Maybe Tseng did enjoy holding others under his power; maybe he did relish in cruelty, and get a kick out of other's pain. But Vincent didn't know that. He'd only assumed. And the end result of Vincent's hasty assumptions based off the mask Tseng presented the world, and the lighting-fast rage it had ignited in Vincent, had led to this moment. It had tacked yet another sin upon the ox collar Vincent already struggled to breath beneath.
Vincent had been trained as a Turk to make quick-fire judgments based on a limited amount of information. You didn't always know if the gamble would pay off, if the target would swing right or left, if they were really packing or just compensating for an old injury, if they had backup on the stairs, if they had a watch dog he'd have to find and kill first, if the information your Turk brothers and sisters had collected was still accurate two days later, if the prostitute in the target's bed would be a she-cat with a hidden .22 magnum mini revolver in her bra or a whimpering mess.
His tendency to fit people into boxes, categorizing them in seconds, had been an asset in the Turks. One he'd honed until he'd done it unconsciously, and not known how to stop. It hadn't been a weakness until he'd misjudged Lucrecia so disastrously. He'd known Hojo was a slime-ball from the moment he'd laid eyes on the scientist. He'd taken Hojo's cut-out and slipped it into the box of cold-blooded scientist long before Lucrecia told him about the Jenova Project. But even he had not realized what a psychopath Hojo was until it was far far too late.
He couldn't bring himself to look into Tseng's eyes as he forced out another apology through a throat that felt choked with nails and came out just as weak and feeble as the mere words were. "What I did to you that night…I do not deserve forgiveness. I forced myself upon you, but I wish you to know—"
Tseng cut him off in the middle of his solemn speech. The Turk's shoulders straightened and he'd gone back to looking at Vincent's down the fine point of his nose. "You really are a self-absorbed bastard, aren't you Valentine?" Tseng's lips curled into a sneer. "Get over yourself. If you'd raped me do you actually think I wouldn't have shot your balls off by now?"
Tseng holstered his weapon and turned his back on Vincent, though now Vincent could see the tension in Tseng's body with the way the suit stretched a little too tight across the blades of his shoulders. "I've got a report to send on a deserting cadet and comatose KIA deserter to deal with." Vincent could only blink as Tseng swaggered down the hallway as sleek and powerful as a panther tripping on godhood.
Tseng acted unaffected and untouchable, but Vincent had not been imagining things when he'd seen the Turk heaving up his guts in the bathroom after their last encounter, nor had he forgotten the lost, fragile look in Tseng's eyes. Vincent wasn't going to dance around this in his head a thousand times wondering if he'd gone crazy or if the Turk really was that accomplished of an actor.
Whatever Tseng claimed, Vincent had hurt him. And it had been rape. But he didn't believe for one moment that Tseng was playing at anything by denying the truth of what Vincent/Chaos had done. Tseng was in denial, but this was no game. And Tseng's refusal to face exactly what it was disturbed and worried Vincent on a whole new level.