To say that Vincent Valentine was not a fan of irony was something of an understatement.
Discovering only after defeating Omega and sending it and Chaos back to the Planet that Chaos, the harbinger of death and the bane of his existence, was in fact the linchpin of his sanity was a perfect example of this.
As tiring and tormenting as Chaos had been, he had kept the rest of his inner monstrosities under control. Now, without his presence, the rest of them kept competing to fill the gaps in his psyche and it was getting harder and harder to block them out, and keep them under control. He'd never thought he'd miss Chaos, but it had been much easier to concentrate on one demon than three different squabbling ones.
He had always struggled to control his demons in battle, but that was different. In battle, his demons were useful. Having to restrain Hellmasker whilst surrounded by his companions in Tifa's bar, or holding back Galian Beast while accepting a mission from Reeve was growing more and more difficult, and more and more dangerous.
He had long before learned to block out the voices in his mind, to ignore his demons' impulses, but their whispers in his mind were getting louder, at times almost drowning out the world and people around him. More than once, he had found himself having to forcefully hold back a transformation, having to physically remove himself from a situation until he could control himself once more.
It was getting to the stage where, despite his years of experience, he genuinely doubted his ability to contain them.
The irony of it was that if this had happened to him a few years ago, he would not have hesitated to leave. He would have gone back to his coffin, regretting nothing, thankful only that his presence was no longer endangering his comrades.
But now, for the first time in decades, he had something to live for, a purpose beyond revenge that drove him. He had someone he didn't want to leave behind.
He wasn't quite sure when it had happened, when exactly he had gone from merely tolerating her presence to actually craving it, but Vincent was unwilling to say goodbye to Yuffie Kisaragi.
They had grown closer, since the defeat of Deepground. They had fought together, and he had worried about her throughout their battles. That didn't change after his return. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised to see that she felt the same way about him. Her relief in seeing that he was unharmed was only matched by her anger that he had stayed away for so long. Vincent had never been simultaneously hugged and punched at the same time before. It was not an experience he was eager to repeat, yet as he spent more time in Yuffie's company it was something he was forced to resign himself to.
After Deepground, filled with something approaching optimism, he had agreed to work with Reeve and the WRO to make sure that the organisation was completely destroyed. He had often been paired with Yuffie, as she had been the one who had been locating their bases.
It had been hard, dangerous work, but that hadn't bothered him. In fact, it was the most at peace Vincent could remember feeling in years. He had an important task to do, people who relied on him and trusted him, all in a precious time before his demons began to trouble him.
Much to his surprise, the close proximity to Yuffie hadn't bothered him at all. They worked well together, and he was amazed at how well they got on. He wasn't sure what had changed between them, whether it was him or her or their circumstances, but he actually started to enjoy spending all that time with her.
It wasn't until after one difficult mission, one where they had both narrowly escaped with their lives that things ultimately changed. Yuffie, giddy with relief and adrenaline, had thrown her arms around his neck and kissed him full on the lips.
It had been nothing more than a brief, friendly peck. But something had shifted inside him and he had been the one to pull her close, the one who had turned it into a true kiss.
Yuffie's response had been flattering to say the least, though when she drew away he couldn't say which of them had been more surprised.
He had been even more surprised to find himself falling in love with her. The concept was so foreign to him that he had not recognised it until it was too late. Even after he had learned to forgive himself, and had started moving past his feelings for Lucrecia, he had not expected to feel this way, ever again, never thought he was capable of entering another relationship, especially with someone so different from him. But they had grown so close, so fast, and he had not wanted to examine the growing, tentative emotions in case they withered away under scrutiny. He had felt nothing but apathy and anger for so long that these tender feelings were almost bewildering to him.
He had been so distracted by his emerging happiness that he had not noticed the demons stirring, not until they were clawing at his control and screaming on the inside of his skull.
Even then, he denied what was happening to him. He fought them down, he pushed them back, he held them in and he ignored them as much as possible. He had a life now, not just an existence. He had fought so hard for it, and he wanted to live it. But he knew that soon he would have to remove himself to keep the people around him safe. Soon, all of his efforts would not be enough.
He would not endanger the people around him. He would not risk hurting Yuffie.
His decision became final when he awoke one night to find that he had half-transformed into Death Gigas while he was asleep. He was holding the tiny ninja in arms that could crush her into two with the slightest pressure, with hands that could tear her spine from her body without effort.
The horror of it made him go cold, but despite all his efforts, it took him nearly an hour to force the demon back into hibernation within his mind and he realised that he had waited too long.
He knew that Yuffie had never been intimidated by his demons. In fact, to a sixteen year old girl, bored with a long trek over featureless plains, they had been an endless source of fascination. That was what worried him. She would take no steps to protect herself from him.
He was going to have to leave her, for her own sake. More than that, he was going to have to make her let him go. Yuffie Kisaragi was stubborn, determined and sticky-fingered; not one to let go easily of something she wanted. She wouldn't accept his reasons, she wouldn't listen to sense.
If he was going to push her away, he was going to have to push hard. He had tried unsuccessfully several times in the past to get her to leave him alone, but he had never managed it. And now that he actually wanted her around, he had to force her to leave him.
He truly hated irony.
He waited until Yuffie and Tifa went away to pick out Yuffie's bridesmaid dress for Tifa and Cloud's upcoming wedding. Not only did that give him a few days to work up the resolve, Yuffie would be in a disgruntled mood anyway, from a weekend of being measured and pinned and prodded into wearing something feminine for a change. It would be a lot easier for him to get her angry at him if she was already irritable to start with.
He had cloaked himself with all of the coldness he had learned as a Turk, but he didn't know if it would be enough. He listened to her break her way into his flat (he had given her a key but for some reason she always picked the lock. He upgraded it occasionally just to keep her amused) and took a deep breath, deliberately shutting away his own feelings. They could be dealt with later, and he needed to be convincing now.
"Heya, Vince!" Yuffie declared as she clattered her way through his living room door and threw her bag onto his chair. She'd obviously come straight here, rather than going to her own home first. The thought almost broke through the barriers he'd erected, but he kept them firm. This was necessary. "Man, I'm beat. Who'd have thought picking dresses would be so tiring? And Tifa kept making all these jokes about ruffles and shiny peach satin. At least I hope they were jokes…"
She went up on her toes to kiss him, but he took a step back, holding up a hand to stop her. Instantly, she froze, looking into his face to try and see what was wrong. She knew that something was bothering him, she'd learned to read him well in the months they had been together, but she hadn't been able to get it out of him. He could see the wariness as she regarded him, but her tone was deliberately upbeat as she asked, "What's up, Vinnie?"
He looked at her, memorising the way she looked at him in those last moments that she was still his. Then he said, as blandly as he could, "Yuffie. I'm tired of pretending."
She went pale, but faced him gamely. "Pretending?"
He nodded sharply, once. "That this is what I want. That I've moved on. I've tried to be… normal, but I don't want…" he couldn't quite bring himself to say you, but Yuffie heard it anyway and flinched at the word he didn't say.
"Vince, I don't understand!" She paused and stepped closer, reaching for his hand. He drew it away, but it didn't stop her. She lifted her chin stubbornly, and said, "I love you, Vincent. And I thought that you-"
"When have I ever told you that?" He interrupted, pushing away the pang of pain and longing from her words, and watched the range of emotions play openly across her face. He had been rejected before himself, almost this brutally, and he could too easily remember what it had felt like. He had not told her of his feelings, but not due to the lack of them. The words were so strange, and so precious, he had not been able to think of a way to get them out. That was coming to his advantage now.
"Vincent, I know something's bothering you, and I'm pretty sure that it's not me. If you just tell me what's wrong-"
"I've told you." He informed her, before sucking in a deep breath and saying the words that he knew would make her hate him. "I'm tired of pretending it's you I see whenever we are together."
The words were like acid on his tongue and something twisted bitterly inside him as he watched her stagger under the impact of his cold words, lies as ruthless as bullets.
He waited for the anger, for her to lash out at him, to punch him in the face or to hack off his hair with her Conformer. He would almost welcome it. It was his own fault; he should have left long before either of them got this attached.
But Yuffie didn't say anything, not for a long moment. And when she did, she spoke only two words in a soft, small voice, so unlike her usual one. "I'm sorry."
And with that, Vincent knew that he had achieved something that Shinra and Sephiroth, the remnants and Deepground, war and loss, had never managed. He had broken Yuffie Kisaragi. He hated himself.
She was staring at him, blinking rapidly. "When I see something I want, I just take it. I never think it through. Of course you don't want…" Her voice broke then, and she turned jerkily away from him and headed for the door.
"Yuffie." His voice was rough, even for him, but Yuffie didn't seem to notice. She turned back, and he could have kicked himself when he saw the hope in her eyes. He nodded towards the chair. "Your bag." She picked it up and left without another word, without even looking at him. The noise of the door slamming shut tore into him, and he dropped his mask, letting himself feel the pain and the self-loathing that washed over him.
He had wanted to make her angry, he had relied on it to shield her from any hurt she felt. But she hadn't been angry at all, and it worried him.
But she was Yuffie. She would be fine, she was always fine. The hurt would fade into anger, when she got over the shock, and then she would forget him.
She'd be safe. That was what he had to focus on.
She would be alright. He just wasn't sure if he would be. He was alone again, aside from the mocking voices in his head, and he felt it more acutely than he ever had before.
Vincent was obscurely relieved when he got to work a couple of days later and found that his locker had been ransacked and that all his materia was missing.
She really would be fine.
Reeve had asked him to investigate the Shinra Manor in Nibelhiem, as there had been reports of disturbances. Vincent wasn't concerned, most people avoided the manor, for good reasons, so he assumed that it would just be children messing around, or teenage lovers looking for a place to be alone. That didn't stop him from seizing on the excuse to leave Edge. He didn't want to run into Yuffie, not this soon. He didn't want to see what he had done to her, and he didn't want his resolve to be tested.
It was better that he left, for the both of them.
The manor filled him with mixed emotions, as always. He had his share of treasured and terrible memories attracted to this place. Part of him wanted to see it restored to its former state, and another larger part, egged on by the various entities in his mind, wanted to burn in to the ground.
But all of his musings were interrupted when he made his way down the circular stairway into the basement. It had been ransacked. Books and papers were scattered everywhere, files and been opened and discarded, and all the left-over equipment had been destroyed.
Someone really had been here, and they had obviously been looking for something. As Vincent searched through what was left, he discovered that only the files on him were completely missing. Someone had been investigating him.
Clamping down on his anger, as it only agitated his demons; he called Reeve and informed him of his discoveries, to find that Reeve was just as disturbed as him, although for slightly different reasons.
"We sealed the basement," Reeve reminded him. "Only a high-ranking WRO member has access to the password." After Reeve had established the WRO, and began to study some of Shinra's old files, he had decided that some things were too dangerous to leave lying around unguarded.
"Do you know it could be?" Vincent asked, as calmly as he could. He knew he should have destroyed his files while he'd had the chance.
There was a musing silence on the other end of the line. He knew that Reeve was contemplating all of the people who had access to the password, and had interest in the files.
"I'll send you a list of people who might have wanted to examine the files. Use your discretion, Vincent. I'll send you a new password to reset the door while you're there as well."
Vincent didn't reply, but Reeve didn't seem to expect one. As he waited for Reeve's messages to come through, he forced himself into calmness.
He would find who had done this, the person who had violated his privacy in such an unforgivable way. Not even his friends knew the full details of what had happened to him, and he hated the thought that a stranger could read all the particulars. He would never want the experiments that he had undergone to be repeated on anyone else.
And well, he had wanted to avoid Edge for a while, anyway.
Strangely, Yuffie felt almost like she was cheating on Tifa.
She was sitting in another bar. And while this one didn't have any delicious home-cooked food on offer, the same level of hygiene or the convenience of having her best friend behind the bar that Seventh Heaven had, it did have one advantage.
Here, no-one cared about how much she drank. She knew that Tifa watered down her drinks if she was feeling concerned, which was happening more and more lately.
Not that Yuffie had been moping around. She didn't mope, not for anything. Whenever anything bad happened, she tried to channel all the sad feelings into something productive. When Wutai had lost the war, instead of wasting time feeling bad about it, she had tried really, really hard to restore all that had been lost. Sulking never fixed anything, after all.
This meant that she had spent a lot of time working recently. She'd signed up for every WRO mission going in the past few months, trying everything to block the memories of Vincent's eyes staring at her so emotionlessly, and his voice, cold like climbing up Gaea Cliff in booty shorts, telling her that he…
She cut the thought off with a swig of beer. She didn't mope. She didn't.
But the problem with working so much was that it had exhausted her. Reeve had walked in on her asleep at her desk one to many times, and like the good friend and bossy boss that he was, made her take a week off to recuperate.
But now that she had nothing to do, she couldn't stop herself from remembering their last conversation, and it hurt. She had never expected Vincent to return her feelings. It was enough for her that she had the opportunity to spend time with him as a friend, more than enough to know that he was safe, not blown to bits after his fight with Omega. Even now, remembering the time when she thought he had died was enough to make her feel queasy.
Despite the fact she had never expected his love, it tore her up inside to know that she didn't have it. Knowing that everything that had happened between them, every memory that she had cherished was a lie was a truth so bitter she could hardly stand it. She had truly believed that he had moved on enough to be with her, but she had just been fooling herself. Why had she ever thought that Vincent Valentine would want to be with her, of all people?
When she wasn't busy not-moping, she just felt angry. She didn't regret breaking into his locker to steal his materia, although she hadn't kept any of it. In fact, the profits from the sale of it had funded her last few rounds. She just wished she'd punched him in his stupid, beautiful face while she'd had the chance. She wished she'd managed to persuade him not to give up on them so easily.
She didn't know if she hated him, or if she just missed him. Probably both, and that was why she was so miserable.
Today had been a particularly bad day. She'd (almost literally) bumped into Vincent at headquarters, the first time she had seen him around since their conversation. He didn't acknowledge her, he hadn't even looked at her. He'd swept around her so rapidly that not even his cloak had touched her. It had made the coil of pain around her heart tighten almost unbearably. She really was nothing to him.
She didn't blame Tifa for being concerned about her, but she just couldn't face the sympathy tonight. She just wanted to forget how sad she felt. Besides, Tifa had enough on her plate, with the bar, the kids, Cloud and the wedding. She didn't need to baby-sit a heartbroken ninja as well.
She drained the last of her beer, but before she could order another one, a hand came into her line of sight holding a fresh bottle. She sighed, not in the mood to be hit on (but, hey, free beer was free beer), but stopped in surprise as she recognised her unexpected companion.
"Don't usually see princesses in a place like this, yo," Reno observed lazily, taking the stool next to her without asking.
"How many princesses do you know?" she asked with a shrug, taking a sip of the drink. She liked Reno, in a 'keep your enemies close' kind of way, and bantering with him could be pretty fun, but she just wasn't in the mood for company.
But he didn't say anything for a long time, just joining her as she made her way through the drink he'd bought her. It was only when she'd finished that he'd nudged her arm, smirking.
"Betcha can't get that guy's phone number," he challenged, pointing at a man a little further down the bar, who was slumped over a glass, looking even more miserable than she felt.
Even tipsy and depressed, Yuffie was not one to back down from a dare. She rolled her eyes at him, before going and successfully getting the number from the man. Her victory cheered her up a little, and when she returned to her seat she was smirking.
"Right, you get her number now," she challenged in return, subtly pointing at the harassed looking barmaid. Reno only smiled, before turning his attention towards the woman.
Yuffie actually had a good time that night, Reno being a more effective distraction than alcohol from her heartbreak. Their challenges became more and more ridiculous until they were kicked out, and Reno left her sprawled over Tifa's front doorstep as he wasn't sure where she lived and she was in no fit state to tell him.
After that night, she and Reno started meeting up a couple of times a week. They didn't do anything much, usually just relaxing at different bars or going to the cinema, nothing special at all. She found him fun to hang around with; it made a nice change to spend time with someone who actually laughed at her jokes instead of just tolerating them, and who didn't act as if the world had ended if she accidentally relapsed and picked someone's pocket.
She was starting to feel a little happier. Doing stuff with Reno was much more entertaining that working all the time, or just sitting around dwelling on what had happened, anyway. She knew that Reno could tell that she was sad about something, and he was shrewd enough to work it out for himself, but he never mentioned it. She was glad. She was honestly tired of thinking about it.
One night, they'd gone to see a horror film so bad and utterly un-scary that they decided to rent the first two in the franchise to watch back at her flat, somewhere they could mock them without being shushed every five minutes by the wimps who were actually frightened by it.
She'd been totally absorbed in the awfulness of the film when Reno curled his arm around her shoulders. She turned to him, surprised, just as he leaned towards her and kissed her.
She hadn't been expecting it at all (well, she had expected it on the first night but when he hadn't tried to come on to her, she'd assumed he simply wasn't interested), and pulled away with a gasp.
She had never expected to see Reno look awkward about anything, but he covered up the emotion with a careless shrug. "Sorry, babe. Worth a try, though, right?" She stared at him for a brief moment, still absorbing what had happened. She'd never really thought that way about Reno, although she would freely admit that he was pretty hot and that they had fun together.
She knew that she still loved Vincent, still wanted him. That hadn't gone away, no matter how much she had tried to make it. But he didn't feel the same way about her. He never had. Was she really going to spend the rest of her life pining for some jerk who didn't want her? Just because she loved Vincent didn't mean she was going to turn into him.
She tugged Reno back down to her and sank into the kiss. After a long while, when he asked where the bedroom was, she took his hand and led him there.
Strangely, not that much changed between them after that. They still hung out and had fun together, just more often than not the fun ended up happening in one of their bedrooms. It wasn't serious, and she was fine with that. Reno didn't pretend around her, didn't make what they had seem more than it was. He might not love her but he very definitely wanted her, and it was a balm to some of the wounds that Vincent had caused her.
She carried her new enthusiasm into work with her, and flung herself back into helping Tifa with her wedding plans. She knew that Tifa had a lot of doubts about this new relationship, but like the good friend and harassed bride she was, she didn't openly question her sanity. She even let Yuffie invite Reno as her guest to the wedding; he and the Turks had been coming anyway, but as her date they would get to sit together, which she was especially glad about. She wanted all the support she could get, as Vincent was coming to the wedding.
Tifa hadn't been sure whether or not to invite him, due to female solidarity and all, but Yuffie had told her to go ahead. She hadn't wanted to make their friends choose between them. That didn't mean she was looking forward to seeing him, although she told herself not to worry about it. After all, it wasn't as if he was going to talk to her or anything.
She still missed him. The ache in her chest had eased, but it hadn't gone away. Tifa had assured her that it would in time, and she was usually right about this sort of stuff. She just wished she could hurry up and get over him already. She hated being so miserable.
Vincent hadn't wanted to come to Cloud and Tifa's wedding, but even if he had been able to ignore the fact that Cloud had taken the time to specifically call him up and request that he come, Tifa sending a tailored suit to his flat had sent a more determined message that his presence was required. Besides, he was trying to be a better friend, even if he hadn't been doing a very good job of it so far.
So he took time out from his investigations to return to Edge. He had tracked down most of the people on Reeve's list, but so far none of them seemed to be responsible for taking the files, not even the ones who'd had the closest ties to Shinra. He was almost at a dead end. Aside from a few of the names he had not been able to trace, he had managed to unearth nothing. He still didn't know who had taken his files, or why, and it was frustrating him and frustration just fed his demons' restlessness. He felt like he was going round in circles.
Vincent had firmly squashed down Reeve's suggestion to get Yuffie involved in the investigation. He didn't know if he was simply being practical, or if he was subtly trying to match-make, but either way he had worked too hard and had given up too much to put her in danger now.
Yuffie hadn't looked at him once all day, not that he could blame her. He looked at her though, as often as he could get away with. Her fears about the style of dress had proved unfounded he noted, the silver-blue dress that Tifa had chosen looked beautiful on her. He'd been worried about her, the last time he had seen her at headquarters there had been huge shadows under her eyes and she had just looked so sad. He'd walked away as fast as he could. The urge to comfort her had been strong, and he didn't want to undo all the effort he'd put into making her hate him.
She looked much happier today, dividing her time between Tifa and, for some reason, Reno. He didn't like the way the Turk was looking at her, or the way he so casually touched her, but what could he do? He had forfeited any right to protest.
At least he wasn't the only one annoyed by Reno. After he had stolen Barret's drink for the second time, the big man demanded angrily, "what're you doin' here, Turk?"
He smiled at them, though when he met Vincent's flat glare, the grin turned from mischievous to knife-edged. "Yuffie invited me. We've been spending a lot of time together." The meaning in his voice was impossible to miss.
Barret wrinkled his nose in disgust, and Cid swore softly next to him, looking carefully at Vincent to measure his reaction. He hid the fact that his trigger-finger was twitching, suppressed the howls of rage from within his skull, and said coolly, "I don't care what you do to her."
Yuffie was sitting at the other end of the top table, her back to him as she spoke earnestly with Tifa. The only indication that she had heard him was the stiffness of her bare shoulders.
Reno gave him a look of distain, before rising to his feet and leading Yuffie out onto the dance floor. Vincent sat, not looking at them, fist clenched, until Barret and Cid's attention had been diverted elsewhere. Then he got up and left.
Really, what had he expected? For Yuffie to mourn for him forever? Of course not, she was far too full of life for that, she could bounce back from anything. And while it hurt to know that she had got over him so quickly, he knew that he had no one to blame but himself.
He hadn't just ended their relationship; he had poisoned all of her memories of it with his lies. She had nothing to comfort herself with, no reason to cling to what they'd had. He didn't blame her for choosing a man completely opposite to him in temperament.
Reno had better treat her well at least, or else he would…
"Vincent? Is everything alright?" Reeve's concerned voice broke into his musings. He realised he was shaking. He had been on the verge of a transformation and he hadn't even noticed. He needed to leave.
He nodded tersely in response to Reeve's question, quenching his anger and hurt to shut the demons away.
Before he could walk away, Reeve casually announced, "I have a new lead for you."
He turned back, eyes flashing. "What?" he demanded flatly.
Reeve took an instinctive half-step back, his eyebrow rising at the threat in his voice. Vincent shook his head, trying to hold himself together.
"What?" he asked again, more normally.
"His name is Dr. Janus Hine, an ex-employee of Shinra. He applied to join the WRO's research department but failed the psychological entrance tests. One of my other researchers just confessed to being blackmailed into giving up the password to him," Reeve informed him, his disappointment leaking through in his tone.
"Where is he now?" Vincent asked, feeling something like relief. At last, this would be over soon.
"Somewhere in Midgar, apparently. She wasn't sure of the exact location."
Vincent nodded grimly. Midgar was a ruined warren of a city, but it wouldn't be hard to track someone down in it. There were plenty of people who were willing to talk for the right price, or the right amount of persuasion.
"Come by my office tomorrow. I'll give you Hine's file," Reeve offered, raising his voice as the band launched into a lively number, making conversation more difficult.
Vincent inclined his head as Reeve walked away, leading Elena out to dance as the female Turk beckoned to him with a smile.
Vincent caught one more glimpse of Yuffie, smiling at Reno as his hands lingered at her waist, before he stalked away. He couldn't stay here and watch that.
Besides, he had business in Midgar.