Chapter 7.  "Terms of Estrangement"
7:  "Am I Inside" by Alice in Chains

I woke up before dawn the next morning.  The sky was paling in the east when I looked out the window, and the birds had started their mindless chattering.  Vincent was the first thing on my mind, so, feeling a little curious, I walked through the bathroom and quietly slipped into his room.

He was still asleep, on his side and curled a little into a fetal position.  I silently stole right up to the side of the bed.  He looked so vulnerable in his sleep, the anger and pain erased from his face.  I wondered what had happened to him, and how, if Hojo had done his experiments more than thirty years before, he could look so young.  He didn’t look any older than thirty; his face was unlined, and his glossy black hair didn’t show a sign of gray.  His skin was very pale, and he was too thin; he looked like a wraith.  A “ghost”, indeed.

I knew it would be painful, but I wanted desperately to hear his story.  I wondered how much pleading and coaxing I would have to do to get him to tell me; he didn’t seem inclined to volunteer.  With a quiet sigh, I backtracked and left the room before I woke him.

Cloud met me downstairs a while later.  “Sleep well?” he asked, a sly look on his face.

My eyes widened slightly as I realized that he and Tifa had set me up!  They must have known that Vincent was looking for someone, as he had told me the night before, and when I told them about the nightmares I’d had, they made the connection.  However, they hadn’t anticipated Vincent’s anger and hesitation.  Cloud’s smile faded as he saw the pained look on my face.

“Er…I’ll take that as a no?” he said sheepishly.

I shook my head, pouring myself a cup of coffee.  “He…he doesn’t want to be touched, you know.”

“Touched?  You mean physically, or…”

“Both, maybe.  But he doesn’t want anyone to get close to him.  He’s…”  I trailed off, not sure how much I should tell Cloud.

“Go on,” he urged with an encouraging smile.  I knew I could trust him, so I shrugged and said the rest of what was on my mind.

“He’s afraid to hurt anyone, and he…I think he hates himself,” I said softly.  “I don’t know if I got through to him.  I tried to tell him that…that I cared, but…”

Cloud looked thoughtful.  “They say that you can’t love someone if you don’t love yourself,” he mused.

I nodded; that summed it all up.  “Yes...”

“Then…are you going to try to help him?”

“Do you really have to ask?” I replied with a small smile.  He nodded, satisfied.

After a quick breakfast, we walked out of town proper to the Mansion.  I couldn’t hold back a shiver as we crossed the threshold of that ominous house.  Cloud told me the story of how they found Vincent in his coffin, following the treasure-hunt-like directions left on a strange note.  It sounded like something Hojo would have written for amusement.

I licked at the cut on my lip – it wasn’t worth a spell – as Cloud opened the secret door to the basement and laboratory.  A few ordinary bats flew out, but aside from that, nothing stirred.  Cautiously, we walked down the dizzying stairwell.

The dark hallways stirred no memories for me; I had never been in the hall itself, not while I was conscious.  But Cloud wanted to show me the crypt where Vincent lay for so long, so he carefully pushed open the plain wooden door.  I shuddered uncontrollably when I looked inside; the room itself had changed little since my imprisonment there.  The occupied coffins had been removed, though; Cloud told me that they had been taken for a decent burial in the Nibelheim graveyard.  I nodded; there could be no restful sleep here.

Vincent’s coffin still sat in the middle of the room, however.  Cloud explained that Vincent wanted to leave it there.  Still shivering, I looked inside.  Hojo had been rather mocking, it seems; all told, it was a very nice, and rather expensive, casket.  It was lined with black satin, but I still saw a glint upon the pillow: a strand of long black hair.  I picked it up and curled it around my finger; it didn’t seem right to just leave it there.

Cloud looked at me curiously, but didn’t say anything.  We closed the coffin and locked the crypt, and proceeded to the library.  Crossing that threshold nearly brought me into a faint.  It was exactly the same: the books lining the walls, Hojo’s desk, the horrible tanks.  Cloud, who I imagine had the same experience when he first re-entered this room, held me steady with one arm across my shoulders while I forced the memories back into their dark hole.

“It’s hard, I know,” he said quietly, “but you get over it…and the books here are too important to let fears from the past keep us from coming.”

I nodded in agreement; bad memories weren’t going to keep me from learning about what had been done to me – and to Zack, and to Vincent.  I took a few deep breaths, reminding myself that I was safe, and that Hojo would not be returning.  I gave Cloud a little smile, and then we began pulling books and reading.

That first day just introduced me to the huge scope of Hojo’s notes.  His notes; copies of Professor Gast’s and Lucrecia DeWalt’s research occupied places of their own in that library, and it was Hojo’s work that we were primarily interested in at the time.

When I noticed those last two names, Cloud explained to me that Professor Gast had been the head researcher on the Jenova Project long ago, and Lucrecia had been Vincent’s lover in his old life – and Sephiroth’s mother.  I found that sad, and a little strange: the Jenova Project seemed to have had a greater bearing on Vincent’s life than anyone’s, except maybe Sephiroth’s.  He had been there when it all started, I guess.

We pored over Hojo’s records, choosing to focus on me that day, to finally determine what had been done to me.  It amazed me, the scope of his note taking.  He wrote down everything – what experiments he did, of course, but also what I said, what he said to me, what kinds of music he played for me, under what conditions I went into self-trance… several notebooks just from the year I was under his control.  It would have seemed ludicrous, if he hadn’t been so frightening.

It was obvious from all of this writing that Hojo was a control freak at heart, but he tolerated the element of chaos that Jenova added when she was introduced to a project.  He regarded her as a perfect life form; therefore, he tolerated her various inconsistencies, even though it probably drove him batty.

Yes, it was confirmed for us: I had Jenova in me, and a good deal of makou as well.  Cloud said that the procedures looked quite similar to those Hojo had used for Zack and himself, but the results were different in all three cases – that was Jenova’s random meddling.  My apparent lack of power irritated Hojo to no end; some of his notes on the topic were written with a very bold pen-stroke, as if he had been pressing very hard onto the paper.  This is the last note he wrote on the subject, before I was released from the hospital:

May 2nd.  I am relinquishing control of the Subject tomorrow.  She has been an endless frustration, but I cannot place the blame on her.  Jenova seems to be almost reluctant to touch her.  She has integrated herself fully, and has co-opted the makou well, but nothing is happening.  The Subject is not reporting any unusual mental (the only case was VV’s little “visit”…that in itself would seem to be an indication that Jenova has touched her mind) or physical sensations; indeed, her eyes do not even reflect the presence of makou.  Is it because she is female?  Is Jenova less willing to modify a female body?  Or is she content with the body in its current state?  Or does she just think that this Subject is beneath her notice?  But if that were the case, why would she bother to integrate herself?         

It’s enough to drive a man mad.  Perhaps, however, the Subject will exhibit some hint of new powers while she is in her working environment.  Otherwise, I seem to have wasted my time.

“VV” was obviously Vincent; in earlier records from the time of my first set of nightmares, Hojo had called him “my dear Snow White”, a ghastly reference to the fairy-tale princess sleeping in a coffin of glass.  That was the only mention of Vincent Cloud had ever seen; no one could find Hojo’s notes on Vincent.

Considering how anal he was about keeping records, that seemed odd to everyone, especially Vincent, who knew that Hojo had written extensively about him.  We all agreed that it was highly unlikely that Hojo would have destroyed the records; he would have never gotten rid of any knowledge, judging by the collection he had here.  But where had he hidden them?


Vincent arrived at lunchtime, bringing with him a basket from Tifa.  Cloud and I were quite hungry, since we had left early, but Vincent hardly touched the food.  He didn’t say more than was absolutely necessary, and had nothing personal at all to say to me.  He just continued his reading in Gast’s original notes on Jenova.  He showed a little interest in the brief mentions of him in my records, snorting at the “Snow White” reference, but he soon realized that there was no real information for him there, and went back to his reading.

Cloud told me in an undertone that Vincent was acting very cold today; I was sure it was because of the previous night, but I was rather afraid to try to bring it up.  After a few tense hours, I finally asked Vincent, hesitantly, if he wanted to look at my records.  I thought he might be curious about what had been done to me; Cloud said that he had read the notes on Sephiroth almost eagerly, probably because of the odd connection between the two of them.  But he only looked up at me and said, in an emotionless voice, “I will read everything here, in good time.”

Rebuffed, I took “my” notebooks and sat back down on the other end of the desk.  The entire length of the desk, strewn with books, lay between us, and I found it fitting; we were separated by Hojo’s works.  Cloud watched this little exchange, though, and an expression of impatient anger crossed his face.

“Damn it, Vincent, I don’t know what you two talked about last night, but there’s no need to be such a bastard to her!  She’s trying to– “

Vincent’s cold, red stare cut him off mid-sentence.  “Despite what you and Tifa may think, Cloud, Mara’s and my affairs are none of your business,” he said in his soft, yet menacing, voice. 

I thought Cloud might punch him then, he looked so angry.  But he just sat back in his chair and scowled.  “The hell with that,” he said in a calmer voice, “you’re both our friends, damn it.”

“Then out of respect for your friends’ judgment, stay out of it.”  Vincent’s voice had not lost its threatening edge.

Cloud gave one of his famous shrugs and sighed disgustedly.  “Vincent, so help me, if you – “

“Most assuredly, Cloud, I would take my own life before I hurt Mara.”  Even though he was addressing Cloud, those red eyes were looking into mine.  I shivered, interpreting his statement.  He had answered the statement Cloud had been trying to make, “if you hurt Mara…”  But Cloud had meant emotionally; Vincent’s meaning seemed to be physically, although I was far from sure.  Either way, Vincent was explaining to me, by proxy, the reason for his self-injury; he was punishing himself for frightening me.  I looked away, a little afraid of his angry intensity, even though I knew the anger was directed at himself.

Cloud looked at the two of us and sighed again before picking up a new notebook and continuing his reading.


A few weeks passed this way, the three of us spending our days poring over those records.  Vincent was holding himself away from me, although gradually his cold façade melted.  The situation made me a little angry; he obviously wanted to reach out to me, but he was not letting himself feel.  I tried to explain my feelings to Cloud and Tifa, who felt rather sorry for us.

“He’s afraid to care,” Tifa said sadly.  “The last woman he cared about…”

Frankly, I was a little tired of constantly being reminded of Lucrecia.  I felt almost as if I were competing with her.  I wasn’t very confident about the competition either – a brilliant young scientist vs. … an ex-Turk who was good at throwing little pointy things and thievery.  My self-esteem wasn’t at its peak during that time.

Despite the wide distance still between us, however, Vincent was speaking to me more.  At first my very presence seemed to wound him, but after several days he finally relaxed – as much as he ever could be said to relax.  We talked, a little, about me.  He asked me very carefully about what had happened to me, as if he were afraid to open old wounds.  Well, the wounds weren’t so old or so deep for me; I hadn’t suffered the death of a lover like he had, or of a friend like Cloud.  I was willing to tell him whatever he wanted to know.

He seemed to take some cold amusement from the fact that Hojo had “failed” with me.  He pitied me though, for having been subjected to such tortures for something so meaningless.  “If he wasn’t dead already,” he said growlingly of Rufus, “I’d ship off to Midgar and gut him.”

That rather surprised me; I hadn’t expected him to want to stand up for me so strongly.  I couldn’t understand his feelings for me – especially since he was reluctant to show them.  As for me, I found myself being rather helplessly attracted to him.  He was so lovely and so tragic.  I coldly assessed my feelings several times, wanting to make sure it was Vincent I thought I was falling in love with, and not his tragedy.  But it was as I had felt before; I could see glimpses of what he was like before Hojo touched him – Valentine of the Turks, the lonely one, the noble assassin.  I wanted to know more about him, so I could decide for myself if I could be in love with him.

Strangely enough, before I could work up the nerve to ask him to tell me his story, he volunteered.

“Mara,” he said to me one day as we were walking back from the Mansion, “I…hn.”  He held me back as Cloud continued home, oblivious to or ignoring the fact that we had stopped – and probably the latter.  As soon as he was out of earshot, Vincent continued.  “Now that I’ve heard your story, I…I think you need to hear mine,” he said softly, not looking at me.

Need to hear?  I wondered why he had chosen that particular wording.  “I would like to, Vincent, if you want to tell me…”

He gave me a ghostly smile.  “I don’t want to tell anyone, but…”  He paused and looked hard into my eyes.  “I need you to know why…why I feel the way I do.”

He was scaring me again; he could be so intense sometimes!  “Way you feel about what…?”

“About you…about myself.”  He shook his head.  “You’ll see.”

That sounded almost like a threat, but I did want to hear his past so badly.  “I suppose I will.”

We walked back to the house, joining Cloud and Tifa for a brief dinner.  Cloud looked at us curiously, but didn’t ask any questions.  Vincent excused himself immediately after he finished his usual small amount of food, and retreated upstairs.  It was my turn to do the dishes, so I didn’t follow him immediately, guessing that he would be waiting for me.

Cloud looked at me questioningly with one eyebrow raised.  I gave him a little half-smile to show that nothing was wrong, but I didn’t explain.  I had a feeling that Vincent hadn’t told anyone his full story yet, and I didn’t want to be forced to share his secret, even with these friends.  As soon as I had cleared the table and the sink, I headed upstairs and changed into more comfortable clothes for sitting around and hearing a long story, and slipped through the bathroom into Vincent’s room, knocking on the doorframe.

He was sitting on his bed, in a rumpled white oxford shirt and a pair of plaid shorts, looking like a frat boy.  He looked adorable, but I’m sure that was inadvertent.  He had the same idea I did: this was going to be a long story, and it would be best if we were comfortable.  I was surprised, though, when he rose and pointed at the afghan-covered loveseat in the corner of the room.  I didn’t have one in my room; that place was taken up by a curio of little porcelain figurines.  But that wasn’t the source of my surprise.  I hadn’t expected him to want to sit so close, but I shrugged and walked over, falling into the soft cushions next to him.

He smiled faintly at me, but his expression quickly became serious.  “This is…a terrible story, Mara,” he said softly.  “I am…unhappy to dig up all of these memories.  But as I said, you need to understand what I am now, and why.”

I nodded, searching his face for any clues as to how he was feeling.  All that he showed, though, was a kind of unhappy calm, the resolve of someone who must do something unpleasant.  On a sudden impulse, I took his right hand and held it in both of mine.  His skin was cool, but I felt his pulse strongly in his fingertips.  He looked at me a little oddly, but didn’t pull his hand back as he took a deep breath and began.


This was like "filler" in my head; I had written Chapter 6 and gone straight on to Henkei, while the ideas were still there.  This chapter was just boring after writing Henkei!  But it's done now. 

How about that last outfit Vincent was wearing?  Heh heh.  I was trying to think of something cute, to make him look more vulnerable, but when you add the metal arm into the image, it gets odd. O.o;  But that's how it is for him...

If you really don't want to read Henkei (and keep in mind part 2 is a bit...weird), you can go on to Chapter 8 with probably only a little disorientation. ^.^;

Next episode:  Meet the cast of the Grande Tragedie of Vincent Valentine...

Chapter 6

Chapter 8