Author: Guede Mazaka
Vincent buys a cellphone.
He does this after they’ve saved the world, after they’ve saved Cloud, after Cid had collapsed beneath the table at the celebration party and Tifa had quietly fussed Cloud into bed for the night. She’d looked up as Vincent had moved towards the door. Her head had tilted to the side so her hair fell across her face in a familiar way, shading to the past, and she’d smiled wearily. “Keep in touch.”
It’d been something more than a statement and less than a plea, a sign of the sea-change that was taking place in the world. The war wasn’t in the earth, the Lifestream any more, but in the people. He should know—he has so much of it flowing through his veins.
He buys a cellphone at six in the morning from a sleepy-eyed salesman who’s barely awake enough to remember to hand Vincent a user’s manual. The sun hasn’t yet crested the hill and the shadows hide the misshapen monster that is Vincent’s hand. He’s learned how to work around its deformities and somewhat come to accept its strengths, so it takes only a few moments to understand how to flip open the phone without spearing it.
When he holds it to his ear, there is a *click* and a whirring sound. Then to his surprise, a voice he recognizes:
*Welcome to Shinra Networks,* says Rufus Shinra, slight flattening of voice a giveaway that it’s a recording. *I am pleased to extend my personal greetings, and hope you find our service reliable, fast, and always eager to serve you.*
The smile comes, but it is humorless without being grim, sardonic without being dark. It matters little to Vincent what new tentacles Shinra might be growing; the one tooth it had that concerned him has long since been drawn, and the grudges he held against the company have been drawn out for so long that they have exhausted him. His appreciation of the irony and the new, careful wording is purely intellectual, the same way he appreciates a fine rifle shot.
He flips shut the phone and goes on his way. He’s been too long in this city.
* * *
The Forbidden City. Whatever wonders it once held and may still hold apparently are not for him, despite what he has flowing through his veins. He’s lived here, made his bed in its abandoned cracked chambers and hunted his meals down its corridors, and yet he has not experienced even a shadow of what makes Cloud drop his voice and turn his head away when he speaks of it. He still cannot fathom what gave so much life to the passionate hatred in Kadaj’s eyes.
It is peaceful, in its way, but it is a peace that is not for him. Vincent first came here because he thought its isolation would numb him to acceptance, but now he sees it instead fanned his last embers of yearning. He drifted here and stayed to watch Kadaj and his brothers’ frenetic struggles, not because he was absorbing any of its tranquility.
When his phone rings, it hardly disturbs the place though it causes him to faintly stir. By the time he turns away and answers it, he has already said whatever form of goodbye he feels is necessary.
He bought the phone but neither gave nor took numbers before he’d left. But he supposes only a few questions would have been necessary to identify him, and of course the President would have access to logs of everyone who bought his phones. Vincent pauses, watching the digital name blink on the cell display, before putting the phone to his ear.
*Mr. Valentine?* Shinra’s voice is flat, but the absence of modulation comes from fatigue and not from the effects of technology. He hides it well, but then, so do the Turks that are trained to protect him.
Vincent remembers, vaguely, a quiet staring boy who watched the guns at men’s hips and the small earbuds in women’s ears rather than the long flowing skirts and low-cut tops. He also remembers, somewhat less vaguely, a man who had no qualms about ordering other men hunted down yet insisted on repudiating his father in his first speech, which had been intended to announce his independence from the previous President.
*Valentine. I apologize for intruding on you like this, but I have a proposition that I believe will benefit both of us. We’re still excavating the underground areas of the old Shinra building and in the process we’ve discovered…rooms that appear to have served as Hojo’s archives.* The more Rufus speaks, the more inflection his voice gains. But it is a slow, uneven process, and every so often he catches himself. *We’d like your help in determining what they contain and what might be the best way to dispose of them.*
Silence, Vincent has found, is a useful answer. It allows people to project whatever answer they wish onto it, and if they find themselves unnerved by the shadows they see, then the blame lies squarely on them.
*…Mr. Valentine? Are you there? I assure you that you will be handsomely compensated for your services.*
And what, exactly, does this man think Vincent would do with the kind of compensation Shinra obviously has in mind? Rufus is not stupid; he probably has a better idea than Cloud of how Vincent has spent the past few years.
*And...if we can speak confidentially, your services would also provide a great help towards the rebuilding of Midgar. My in-house team has deciphered a little of Hojo’s work and they’re afraid he might have left us surprises that haven’t yet been discovered. This would be for the sake of the people as well.*
It’s curious how people cling to labels and symbols. Cloud still wears the uniform of SOLDIER, though he has long since repudiated the meaning and training behind it—or so he claims. Shinra talks of his team as if he had more than a skeleton of an operation, half those too old to have gone into the last battles and half those too young to have gone either.
Vincent has bought this cellphone, with manual included, but that does not mean he has also bought how to move from observing and observing to responding. He may be dissatisfied with how he and the world relate, but it still is easier to stand back and wait.
*I…hope you’ll consider carefully what I’ve said.*
The phone clicks off.
* * *
The harsh landscape around Midgar currently suit Vincent better. They are empty, unforgiving and wild, but they bear the marks of man: long pitted roads, the occasional piece of litter that’s been carried so far from the city, the glow of the nighttime city on the horizon like a false sun.
*Mr. Valentine, your help could potentially save many lives, whereas your intransigence has resulted in the unnecessary injury of several of my men. I know you may hold some grudges against Shinra Corporation, but the fact remains that we’re the only ones with the know-how to rebuild Midgar.*
Rufus’ first call was just after dinner. Now they tend to be later, coming when the stars have already been out for hours and hours. Vincent supposes the other man assumes they keep the same hours. The more Rufus calls, the less tired he sounds.
The Geostigma had its good points, Vincent thinks. It reminded people that the planet could turn against them, if it wished. It was a curb.
*I’m growing tired of this little game.*
The other end of the line seems to go to a genuine desk phone, because Vincent can clearly hear the sound of it slamming into its cradle. He remembers the skeleton of the new Shinra Tower and wonders if the President’s office will be the first to be restored. New beginnings, old trappings, same ending.
By now he’s learned how to store numbers, how to check call times and IDs, how to set his phone to filter calls. The last is necessary because somehow Tifa has also discovered his phone number and so everyone she and he both know also try to call. They are remarkably persistent, considering he has not answered a single one. Kadaj interested him because the man worried the Lifestream; Vincent still finds it difficult to understand the point of everyday interactions.
His voicemail no longer works. It is too full, but emptying it would require listening to the messages left for who they think or wish him to be, not who he is. Or who he was.
He is beginning to remember who that was. Truly, without glosses, before the soft warping of love took him. Without the war with Sephiroth to distract him, without the hissing of Jenova in his veins, he is beginning to become that man again. The wounds Hojo left on him were deep, but they have scarred over and the slow grind of time is wearing them back to match their original shape. Somehow he doubts that his old traveling companions will like it much. They would understand change from worse to better, but they would not understand stripping away false layers to find the ugly truth.
* * *
Red XIII had been exploring up north and had recently returned. He has just finished telling Vincent of some interesting ruins he’d uncovered in the snow, tail flicking restlessly just short of the tall grass, and now he is asking how Vincent has been.
“Fine.” Out of courtesy to Red XIII, Vincent has made camp on the ground. He prefers to spend the night higher up out of long habit and as the moon rises, so does his discomfort.
“You’re still wandering?” The great cat lolls, always inches away from starting a wildfire. His muscles are sleekly full beneath his rich fur and even his scars seem to fade against his easy vitality. The traveling life suits him as it does not Vincent. “Or are you running? I’m sure no one still holds your past with Shinra against you. No one except yourself.”
In that the wise Red XIII has not quite grasped the truth. Vincent turns to stare at Midgar, its silhouette a jagged, broken thing beside his memory of it whole. But from here it still looks beautiful, clean and gleaming beneath the moonlight like a sharper echo of the Forbidden City. Untouchable.
But unlike the city of the Ancients, when Vincent goes into Midgar he knows he’ll find it all too touchable. Filthy and ragged and imposing its tattered, brash idea of life on the earth.
“It’s been long enough. You can forgive yourself now, I would think,” Red XIII says.
“I can’t.” The wind rises, blowing up the flame of Red XIII’s tail so Vincent can feel its heat on his face. He puts his arm over his knee and leans his chin against it, contemplating whether to elaborate. If he remains silent, that would be no more and no less than what everyone expects from him.
Red XIII grimaces, an oddly human expression on him. “Why not?”
Vincent’s clothing has shifted, and so has the cellphone, now nudging gently at his chest. His connection with humanity, supposedly—he’d had a handheld radio before for the same reasons, but in neither case had the intentions been the same as the results. “Because I never held my past with Shinra against myself. I hated them for what they did to me, for what they allowed Hojo to do to Lucrecia and me.”
The planes of Red XIII’s head and muzzle smooth out. He studies Vincent for several seconds, tail swishing slowly behind himself. “So you feel no guilt about what you did in Shinra’s name.”
“Not unless it happened after I met Lucrecia. They hired me as a Turk. The Turks do not take on people that have many moral compunctions.” There is no sense of lightening that accompanies Vincent’s words, nor an increase in the guilt he does carry. He does not age, does not grow and change, so the present cannot burden him. The past has already laid its full weight on his shoulders; it has no more to give.
Red XIII blinks slowly, his tail settling till it almost lies flat against the ground. Then he rises, smooth in his abruptness, and silently pads off into the darkness.
Vincent stands as well, and by the time the phone rings this night, he is high atop a narrow cliff that is very close to Midgar, so close he can make out the individual points of girders of Shinra Tower. They stand even taller than the cliff, and they rise from a dense collection of all that is best and worst in humanity. He remembers mostly the worst. He remembers that Jenova was from space, but those who released and aided her were all from this world.
He clicks ‘answer’ and puts the phone to his ear.
*Valentine.* Rufus is tired again, and a new note of resignation underlies his voice. *Well, here we are once again. I’ve locked this room from everyone so I can beg and plead like a whore without anyone overhearing, and of course you’re not even going to say hello.*
The training Shinra gave him helped sustain him in those first days back in the world, trying to re-adapt quickly to life. The same could be said of Cloud, but Cloud, Vincent suspects, thinks of it as rightful compensation for what came later. Vincent doesn’t consider it a gift either, but rather a tool. Still, he feels no shame about merely possessing those skills—his guilt lies in what he was unable to do with it.
*I don’t know why I bother. Of course it’s not like my resources aren’t already stretched thinner than a virgin’s protection in the slums, and it’s not like I’m someone who minds losing the few loyal people I have left to the leftover whims of a dead nuisance like Hojo.*
“He was more than a nuisance,” Vincent says.
The line is dead silent for several long minutes.
“You should recheck your records. I was a bodyguard and assassin, not one of the scientists.” Vincent peers over the sides of the cliff. Sometimes he wonders how far his seeming abilities stretch. He can be injured, of course, but during his wandering he has received wounds that should have killed him, and yet not even a scar remains. “But you know this. You’re calling me because you think you may be able to evoke more old loyalties out of me than you can from Cloud.”
*…I’d heard you had turned senile, or something of the sort,* Rufus eventually says. He pours something in the background and Vincent can almost smell the alcohol. Rufus’ father used to slam down raw rotgut after-hours; his mother preferred brandy. It would be interesting, in a vague way, to see if either side had won out or if a new one had actually been born.
Shinra was Vincent’s life for a very, very long time. He knows best how to talk its language, swim in its walks, stalk its heights, but he has kept this to himself. There hadn’t seemed to be a place for it anymore, or a purpose that could use it without inspiring either paralyzing guilt or equally paralyzing indifference in him.
“I never climbed ranks, Shinra. I was hired as one of your elite,” Vincent adds.
Rufus laughs. Something about the sound speaks about unraveling. *You sound like you still are one. So the leopard can’t change its spots, no matter what your old friends from AVALANCHE say.*
“They never were leopards. Your argument doesn’t apply.” Vincent turns his back on Midgar, but only to find a trail down the cliff. “And you don’t seem to understand what you say either. You don’t trick or beg from a leopard.”
*I’d say you beat it into submission, but I don’t think that’s what you had in mind,* Rufus dryly replies.
This time, Vincent hangs up on him. Shinra had never been able to see quite to the horizon in Vincent’s time and it seems the same problem still exists. Vincent cannot erase enough of the imprint human life has left on him to fully enjoy the peace of the planet.
There is nowhere to go but back to Midgar. The planet does not have what Vincent needs, so he has to consider people once again.
* * *
At night, red and black look the same. Cid once asked Vincent why he wore such a bright color, and if Vincent had been in an answering mood back then, that would have been what he would have said. Now he says nothing because it should be obvious: he passes from roof-top to roof-top without a single head in the streets below turning. Even at this late hour they are still teeming with scrabbling, scraping, knee-knocking life.
He settles on top of a church, or an old building that has decayed to resemble a church. It is not the one where Aeris picked her flowers, which is the only genuine old church of which Vincent knows. But he hasn’t been through most of the city in a long time; perhaps some of the people have rediscovered religion.
The phone is in his hand and he has his thumb over the ‘answer’ button when it rings. “You call regularly.”
*Do I?* Rufus is thrown. Ice clinks in glass near the receiver. *Consider it a sign of how much I do need your expertise.*
Vincent’s companions on this roof are large dark birds. They stay too far in the shadow for him to gauge the shape of their silhouettes, and when he moves, the fluttering of his cape frightens them into the air. Despite his appearance and the assumptions of others, he is still a man: the birds recognize this. “Yours or Shinra’s?”
An exasperated sigh drifts over the line, followed by a loud, long swallow. *Valentine, I really am tired of this.*
“Then it’s strange that you call me. I haven’t seen even the hair of a Turk on my trail, and no one has stopped by to say that you are harassing them because of me.” Looming high, so close it effectively is the sky for this part of Midgar, is Shinra Tower. The steel girders make a black web over the glittering stars. “Why are you calling me?”
*Because--* Rufus starts, tone patiently imperious.
“No.” What happens to Vincent’s voice is not a result of Hojo’s experiments. What happens to it is something that he could do before he ever knew what the inside of a lab looked like, is why he survived to wear the blue suit and stand impassively behind the previous President. “Why are you calling me?”
The winds blow differently above the city. They are faster, rougher, less predictable, but with skill one can ride them. From his new position in the beams of the tower, Vincent sees the city as a collection of little stars bounded by the dark winding bars of roads and the larger chains of buildings. He can still hear it, but as a low rumble whose only distinct quality is how it speaks of vitality: a different kind from that found in the wind that blows through a canyon or over the plains. A hoarser, grumbling one laced with mechanical sharpness and the occasional high joyful note that the wilderness, it knowing only the peaceful cycles of nature, can never achieve.
*…I’m not lying when I say Shinra Corporation needs your help,* Rufus finally says. His voice is tight and somewhere in the background behind him, a wind is blowing.
“You’re not answering the question either.” Vincent turns around on the girder and drops into the hollow center of the building to land on a lower level. He can make out some scorch marks from the battle against Bahamut as blacker slashes on black beams. “What is it you want, Shinra?”
Here are outlines for a mid-tower gym, if Vincent is reading the plumbing correctly. And then on this level would be some sort of finance office because there is the half-built shell of a vault in one corner. And down there, on that level, should be administrative operations of no consequence, except for the fact that Rufus Shinra is pacing its incomplete floor with cell in one hand and glass in the other.
The other man tosses the glass so it smashes against a corner. He sways slightly as he walks, which is enough to tell Vincent that there is no other audience.
“Elena and Reno are in the hospital because of something Hojo left behind. I want for that to not happen again, because believe it or not, I do have some concern for certain people. I want for your stupid friends to understand that keeping order in a city this large requires some form of central authority. I want for you to stop acting so superior, you useless freak.” Rufus stops near the edge of the unfinished floor, back to the gap and to Vincent. He takes away the phone and his shoulders move in a sigh. Then he puts the phone back to his mouth. “We’re both survivors of the old Shinra, but what gives you the right to—”
He hadn’t heard Vincent before, but he hears the sound of Vincent’s rifle cocking. He does not turn around, though his body stiffens. His free hand curls hard against his thigh.
“I am Shinra. I am its twisted body with its seeds of evil that one must constantly fight to remain ascendant over,” Vincent quietly says. His ears can pick up, though few other people walking this earth could do the same, the ragged sound of Rufus’ breathing. “Hojo wrought better than he realized. He made me in your image. The lust for power, the flaws it widened, the grotesquery it left in its trail…all of that is in me. And that is why you keep calling.”
Rufus lifts his head sharply at that and takes a step forward. His hand remains pressed hard to the side of his thigh so that trouser-leg is dragged up enough to show bare ankle between its cuff and the top of his shoe.
“You call me because I am Shinra and because I am not. I can stand outside of it now, but I knew what it once was from brilliance to failure. I was under its skin, sucking its prick, bending over to let it rip out my soul and begging through tears for more. I know what it’s like.” Vincent crouches lower so he can brace his rifle on his knees. It is an awkward position, but old reflexes ease his muscles into position. “Between Cloud and Sephiroth, your company has been shattered.”
“It’ll be rebuilt,” Rufus says. He grits out the words, stingy with his breath. His hand is clenching and unclenching against his thigh and he is leaning slightly forward, as if he suffers from a coiling in the gut.
“And you think you remember, but you only ever knew a small part of it. Your father never told you everything and you didn’t have time to learn, so now you want a pattern. You want me to look at Hojo’s old files…what you actually are asking is that I show you how it was. That I show you how it dug nails into your skin and flayed it off slowly, how it made you enjoy sucking the blood from its fingers. How it could impale you on itself and have you writhing on the floor begging for the privilege. How you hated it but still stood in front of the mirror and treasured the long scars on your thighs, the bruises around your throat and the sick feeling in your stomach. Shinra.”
This planet is not merely a planet, and Midgar is not merely a city, and what Vincent has finally come to understand out in the wild is that Shinra never was merely a corporation. Things take on lives of their own, take root and have to be watched and pruned from there on, lest they rage out of control. As they once did, and as he does not have a desire to see them do again.
As Vincent spits the last word, Rufus gasps once and staggers forward so he is bent nearly double over his knee. The cellphone clatters to the floor as he weaves, arms wrapped low around his abdomen. First forward, then back so he briefly teeters on the edge of the long fall.
His blond hair shines against the rough planking, spreading almost in a halo as his head hits the ground. It looks nothing like Lucrecia and for that, Vincent remembers gratitude.
His back is still to Vincent, but he forces Vincent away to turn around and then he arches back, neck exposed and arms flung wide. His eyes make a valiant attempt to watch while Vincent delicately savages the clothes from him, baring his skin in less than a second without inflicting permanent damage. This Rufus should already know from his precious Turks.
Though Rufus does not, Vincent notes, know often the initial clench of muscles against another man’s prick, the bite of sharp teeth on his neck above where his collar lies. He jerks and spasms to the wrong rhythm till Vincent takes his come-smeared prick and grinds it against his belly, rubbing the right one into his bones. Their feet hang off the floor, dancing faster and faster over the abyss till finally Vincent throws himself back, gathers himself and lunges forward onto solid ground.
When he leaves Rufus, the man is curled into a ball, shudders drawing his muscles tight. One arm is groping for the cellphone, which Vincent has temporarily borrowed. He easily finds the right number in Rufus’ phonebook.
Vincent leans against a girder and looks out over the city. In one corner, a black plume of smoke is dirtying the night’s face, and in the other, a thin thread of silver-tongued bells adds its voice to the night. “Tseng. Come pick him up at the Tower.”
He walks back to leave the phone by Rufus’ now-limp form before he goes.
* * *
Rufus sits in his temporary office, weight currently tilted onto his right hip. In the hollow of his hand, he has an unused rifle-bullet that he’d found beside his phone the other night. This message is easy to read.
Against his ear, he has his cellphone and he is listening to its new greeting.
*Shinra,* Valentine’s voice says, crisp and dark and terse. *Building from the past into the future.*
This one is harder. He might…he grimaces and holds the phone away from himself, but cannot quite bring himself to drop it on the desk.
He’ll have to call and ask.