57. Youhei: Collaborator
"You're getting soft, old man."
"We're the same age."
Youhei snorted, folding her arms tighter across her chest. "Old is old."
"And that means...?"
"It means I'm hungry and tired and increasingly pissed off. When does this friend of yours arrive?"
Thin light from the single bulb glinted off Wabi's glasses, obscuring his eyes. "He'll arrive when he arrives. No sooner and no later."
"I forgot how much you piss me off with how you talk." She tilted her head back, allowing the crown of her scalp to rest against the cold metal wall. "Useless shithead."
"Strong words for someone who was supposed to kill me and didn't."
She shrugged, inadvertently sliding her head up and down the wall with a grinding sound. "Still time, assface."
She heard him sigh. He sighed a lot around her. Did he always do that, or was she special?
Did she even care?
Youhei was tired. Not just physically exhausted from months of pursuit and near-misses, but the kind of bone-deep weariness that takes hold of a soul too long bound in a trap of its own making.
Unlike a lot of her colleagues, she had chosen to be a Turk. The offer had been made in good faith, just like any regular job offer, and after weighing her options she had elected to accept it. Nobody had to force her. Nobody had to hold something precious over her to make her do something she didn't want to do. She had been given the opportunity and taken it, nice and neat and above-board. She didn't regret her decision.
That didn't mean she didn't have any regrets at all.
Her shoulders hunched as faces flashed through her mind, unwelcome and quickly chased off, culminating in the one now sitting across from her, fingers steepled beneath his pointy chin.
Wabi rarely changed his facial expression. He was nearly as good as Tseng. He had looked the same as ever even when she had caught up with him on a distant snowy mountainside, applying his only Phoenix Down to a man who was supposed to be dead, and she stood over him like some mighty Valkyrie ready to strike him down. Even then he had stared at her with the same cool detachment she remembered from years of working alongside him. She had been so angry the snow around them should ought to have melted. She deserved some kind of a reaction, damn it!
"Give me a fucking reason not to break your neck right now and just take your corpse back to Tseng as proof I completed my mission," she had demanded.
"I'm saving the man who saved your life," Wabi had said impassively, like his nose wasn't bloody and she didn't have him in a chokehold and he hadn't reached for his katana. She hadn't been sure what to make of that back then. She still wasn't.
"Don't you recognise him? Admittedly he has looked better. The dragon guts and mortal wound do have a disguising effect. Look closer, Youhei."
And despite herself, she had. The man on his back in the snow wore a SOLDIER uniform caked in gore, but beneath she recognised the un-aged features of someone she had last seen in the Nibelheim reactor after Sephiroth beat him to a pulp and she gave what was left of him back to Shinra.
Her hold on Wabi had faltered, her voice seeping out from between lips parted in shock before the rest of her brain had time to engage and hold it back.
"But ... he's supposed to be dead."
"Rumours of his demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated."
"But I saw ..."
She had seen Hojo poring over the stretcher, lifting Zack Fair's lips and peeling back his eyelids like the man was some horse he was thinking about buying. She remembered the mirthless way that bastard had smiled when he thought nobody was looking, as though facing the prospect of being allowed off a leash that had previously stopped him doing things he truly wanted to do. Considering some of the things Youhei knew he had done – had witnessed him do – to test subjects, the thought roiled her stomach even now. Hojo was a bigger monster than Sephiroth had ever been.
And yet she had stood by and silently let him spirit Zack Fair, Cloud Strife and the JENOVA biological remnants away. She had not only let him, she had made it happen. She had told herself she didn't feel guilty about that. She had just been doing her job. That was all. Just doing her job.
She was getting really bad at lying to herself.
Once upon a time Zack Fair had stood between Youhei and his own comrades from SOLDIER after Elfé and AVALANCHE stole their humanity and set them on the Turks at Icicle Inn. Zack had pleaded with the two third class SOLDIERS, little more than boy recruits, to fight their way back to him. He had begged them not to obey the orders with which they had been implanted. She remembered the tense set to his shoulder, the pleading note in his voice, so unlike what she had expected from a hardened warrior of the Wutai War. Those men had mattered to Zack Fair and it was irrelevant that he hadn't known them long. People mattered to Zack Fair. Yet ultimately, he had done what needed to be done and killed them to protect others from the threat they had become.
And afterwards he had mourned them, deeply and sincerely, in a way Youhei had never seen before in her life as a mercenary. If Shinra had been unable to rob this powerful warrior of his humanity, she had thought, maybe it was possible to exist within the company without losing all of what you were. To say that had played no part in her decision to become a Turk would be wrong.
She had been so fucking naive back then.
Shinra had taken Zack Fair and, despite everything he had ever done and given and sacrificed for the company, it had chewed him up and held the leftover pieces between its teeth, grinding him down until he was nothing more than a piece of meat dying on a mountainside where nobody could even see.
Nobody except the two Turks who had found him.
Nobody except her.
She was supposed to assassinate Wabi for defecting. She had chased him relentlessly across the country with the specific purpose of ending him. Yet in that moment, with Wabi's life literally in her hands and Zack Fair's at her feet, she had stumbled into a crisis point in her own life and her entire future had balanced on what she chose to do next.
She still wasn't sure whether she had chosen poorly.
"I fucking hate you," she groused now.
"You're a fucking fucktard."
Silence fell between them. The abandoned bomb shelter was objectionably warm. The air smelled dank and sweaty. She was uncomfortably aware of the thin sheet of metal between them and the latrine and its complete lack of windows.
Wabi shifted. "Why what?"
"Why did you defect?"
She had never asked before. She had wanted to know - of course she had - but she had never asked; never wanted an answer really because whatever he said would make her re-examine her own life choices and she suspected that was a bad road to walk down. Things waited in the shadows of that road; thoughts and feelings like cudgels and blades in the hands of skilled thieves and bandits.
Wabi drew a breath. "That depends on what you mean by 'defect'."
"Don't play fucking coy with me," she snapped.
"I'm not." There was that cool detachment again. Ifrit's balls, she hated that so much she could scream. How had she not wrung his neck before now? "I've never defected from what really matters."
"You went rogue from the Turks."
She tilted her head to level a weapons-grade glare at him. "Did you not hear me when I said not to play coy?"
Wabi stared back at her, impassive. "I admit, I went rogue from Shinra," he said softly. "I found myself disagreeing too much with their world view as I learned more about it."
"I discovered ... things in Shinra's files that ... troubled me." The hesitation was unusual enough to make her take notice.
"What kinds of things?"
"You'll find out the full extent soon enough. For now," he went on, unsteepling a hand to hold palm-out against her fresh verbal assault, "I will ask that you trust me when I say some of it was troubling even for a seasoned Turk to read." He paused. "Helena was with me at the time. We were data gathering on an unrelated mission. We found more than we bargained for about some of Shinra's ... less savoury secret projects."
Youhei's eyes widened. "Is that the reason she and Richie ended up dead?" she asked bluntly.
Wabi did not respond for a long moment. "I think so, yes. She did not ... defect, as you put it. She was working with an ally of ours within the system and acted on information he gave her about the Nibelheim incident and its, ah, aftermath. It ... went wrong." He sighed. "She was trying to verify if Project Z really was Zack Fair as our ally had told her. And she died because of it. Richie too, because he was stupidly loyal to her." The corner of Wabi's mouth twitched subtly downward for a heartbeat. If Youhei had not been staring she would have missed it. "He didn't even know what he died over. Imprudent devoted fool."
Youhei's stomach dropped. "But dead is still dead."
"Yes. So ... I completed her mission for her. She … was my friend. Friendship is rare enough for people like us that I … thought I owed her that much." Wabi lowered his gaze. "You helped complete her mission too, in the end. I think she would have found that amusing."
Youhei could not help the snort that shot down her nose. "Helena never found anything 'amusing'."
"She found you hilarious," Wabi said with no hint of deceit. "She just wasn't great at showing emotions." He shrugged. "Then again, who of any of us are? It's not an understatement to say we Turks are a big bag of fucked up."
Youhei boggled. Wabi never talked like that. Never.
"You would deny that summation?"
She swallowed. "Who even are you?"
"I will assume that is a rhetorical question meant to indicate your surprise at this information I have furnished you with and to deflect attention from your struggle to process it all."
Her jaw clicked shut. "You really are a fucking fucktard."
"As before, duly noted."
As if on cue, the door to the bomb shelter opened from the outside. A figure dropped through the gap, landing heavily in a crouch. Youhei was on her feet in an instant, ready to take on whatever enemy had found them, but Wabi's voice stayed her fists.
"Don't be disrespectful," said the figure.
Youhei froze. She knew that voice.
The figure stood. His hair was different and fresh scars and wrinkles crisscrossed his face from the passage of time, but there was no way she could not recognise who was standing before her. Her mouth flapped soundlessly.
"Hello Youhei," Veld said with a rare smile. "Welcome to being dead to Shinra. Felicia is waiting for us in a truck not far from here. We need to move."