Title: Breaking the Silence
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Characters: Cloud, Tseng
Prompt: 054: Air
Word Count: 2854
Summary: They would not try to comfort each other, and had perhaps found the one other person who could understand why they carried the guilt they did.
Author's Notes: I think I took some liberties here. Minor spoilers for pretty much the whole compilation...I stayed away from the central plots of Before Crisis and Crisis Core, but drew on some of the character histories, particularly where Zack and Aerith's relationship is concerned. I made up a name for Elena's sister since she never gets one, and if anyone can tell me how old Tseng actually is, I'll buy you cookies :) Most of this is just me filling in gaps...if anyone spots anything that contradicts something known to be canon, please let me know :) Pairings referenced in some way: CxT, CxA, TxA, TxE, Tx(Gun Female), ZxA
Part I: The Unforgiven
"Tifa said you'd be here," his voice sounded strange, caught in the wind over the cliffs.
Cloud turned. His face never betrayed it, but shock coursed through him at the sight of the intruder. "You..."
"Yes. It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
"Go away. I've got enough other ghosts to deal with," and he turned away, letting the wind sting his face. There were ghosts everywhere after all, though they usually waited until he was asleep to visit.
"I'm not a ghost," Tseng started, then his voiced dropped, just as it always did when faced with his own existence. "I could never have been that lucky."
Cloud made a small sound of annoyance, though he bought the man's plea. What reason would he have to haunt him anyway? "When did you see Tifa?"
"I stopped by the bar."
It wasn't a bar yet, and Tifa kept a very close eye on who was allowed inside during construction. "She let you in?"
"We...met a few days ago. She didn't tell you?"
"I haven't see her." Hadn't seen her in over a week, actually. The fact she knew where he'd be told him she didn't buy his excuses of finding supplies or making contacts. Maybe it should have encouraged him to stop by more frequently, but he found it only made him more determined to stay away. She couldn't keep concerning herself over him.
"It's none of your business."
He clasped his hands behind his back and nodded his head just slightly towards his former enemy, "you're right."
They paused. The strong winds dropped a little bit exposing the ring and crash of the construction in the distance.
"So is this common knowledge now?" Cloud didn't bother looking away from the fallen city.
"I'm sorry?" Though after he spoke, he realized what Cloud was asking.
"Your old lackeys."
"They...know I made it out."
"How'd you do it?"
"Reno and Rude."
"They never told Elena." A slight smirk flickered across his lips as Cloud recalled that day at Icicle Village. His cheek had been bruised for a week.
"I asked them not to." He hadn't gone to Healin with the others, making it a point to only stop by when Elena was gone. Still, he thought she knew. He'd left a cuff link there on accident once, and found it replaced by one of her earrings. Maybe he'd left it on purpose, maybe he wanted her to know. He was going to have to see her eventually.
"She still doesn't know. Why?"
"And that, is none of your business."
Cloud scoffed at the echo of his own words. Rufus was gone and the Turks were separated. Maybe it really was the end of Shinra.
Tseng took a step closer to the edge of the cliff, sliding a scuffed shoe back and forth across the dust. "Do you blame yourself?"
Cloud felt his jaw lock. "Why are you here?"
"I asked you why you were here." In less than ten minutes this man who was supposed to be dead had now brought up the two topics he refused to speak of.
He inhaled, though he knew he couldn't blame Cloud for his rigidity. Was it really his place to speak to him at all? "To apologize," he finally stated.
"You shouldn't take credit for my mistakes."
Cloud finally looked again to the man beside him, expecting sarcasm or mockery or anything but the earnest, pained expression on his face. "Your mistakes. Hmph. Just leave."
Tseng watched as the other man turned not just his face, but his whole body this time to face slightly away from him. He knew this wouldn't be easy. "Soldier never got along with the Turks. I'm sure you remember."
"You know what I remember."
"I was actually in a helicopter. We thought we could reach you before...it is possible to outrun the Turks. You aren't the only Soldier who knew that."
"Don't refer to me as Soldier."
"I don't know if I was trying to be noble, or if it was just the easiest way of still obeying orders without getting my own hands bloody. It was never how I wanted things to turn out, for either of you. I considered him a friend as well."
"Funny. You feel guilty, but it didn't stop you from kidnapping his girlfriend."
He could feel the malice in the words as the wind carried them from over Cloud's shoulder. "That..." He cleared his throat, unsure of how to continue.
"Don't tell me that isn't my business. Because it damn well is." For the first time since Tseng approached him, Cloud could feel his pulse beginning to quicken. Make that three subjects.
"I knew Elena's sister even before I joined the Turks--"
"--Don't change the subject. You wanted to talk about this, now I'm listening. If there's anything you need to apologize for-"
"--Let me finish. Elena's sister--I was infatuated with her. She was older than me, and I was always impressed with her. She was cold and unyielding--the memory of that is largely why I wanted her in the Turks years later. After I joined...my first mission, was to bring the last Ancient...the last Cetra, back to Shinra." He paused, realizing that this was the first time he'd actually told this story. He watched Cloud; he was still facing away from him, but his muscles had relaxed enough to show he was listening.
"I was disappointed in the mission. I wasn't allowed to use force or threats...I was supposed to convince her to return willingly. I couldn't take her unless she agreed to go. Finally a Turk, and I was given a passive assignment.
"She remembered Shinra, of course. It had only been a few years since she escaped...I doubt she ever forgot her time there. Seven years, and for a child..." He trailed off. Sometimes just thinking about a child living since infancy in a laboratory still gave him chills. "I talked about it with Helen--Elena's sister--after a time. I was always more emotional than she was, always took failure harder. She told me...she said as long as the girl...as long as Aerith remembered her time in Shinra, I would have a hard time convincing her to go back. So instead, I should try to convince her to go to me. We were...only a few years apart. The perfect age difference to try and inspire idolatry, to take advantage of the need all girls her age had for male attention.
"I tried. And I suppose it worked, in its own way. We became close...but I was the one who fell for her. I thought she only ever saw me as a big brother, but I...I loved her."
"It was more than that."
He paused, caught off guard by the interjection. "I'm sorry?"
Now it was Cloud's turn to take in a deep breath. He couldn't bring himself to turn around, but for some reason he found himself interested in the man's story even if it seemed more than anything to contradict his actions the day the plate fell. "She...talked about you. Never in detail. She tried to talk about her past sometimes, but I never listened the way I should have. I always thought I'd have time to learn about her after we found Sephiroth. But I could tell you were important to her. Never made much sense to me." He paused. Maybe it wasn't about learning about Tseng's past, so much as understanding pieces of the story she'd tried to tell him so many times. "She cried a lot, when you...when we thought you died, until Barret yelled at her for getting so upset when you were the enemy. I think she still talked to Tifa about it, but we...didn't have much time, after that."
He nodded. Tifa had mentioned that when he saw her the other day and it had surprised him, but not nearly as much as hearing Cloud confirm it. "We all thought we had more time." He let the words hang on the air for a moment before continuing.
"Hojo never forgot about her, though President Shinra did for a time. Not long after you joined Soldier, actually. But I kept seeing her. I claimed it was to make sure she remained safe until we could resume what Shinra was calling the "collection assignment," but really, I just wanted to see her.
"I met Zack before she did. I think if it had been the other way around I would have hated him. She really liked him...or at least, she wanted to. He was no one like she'd ever met before."
"He was hard to resist," the faintest trace of a smile twitched in his lips before the reality of past-tense chased it away. "I was a shy country boy when we met...he even got me to laugh."
"He was rare in Shinra, especially in the upper ranks. Most of us, if we weren't jaded and bitter before, became so the higher we climbed. He wasn't in it for the money and prestige, and he wasn't trying to run from his past...he just wanted to help people. I think she saw that in him...saw in him the good she wanted to believe was in all people. He was crazy about her, though. I was...relieved, in a way. He would have died before he let anything happen to her."
"Turns out he did."
Tseng ignored the comment, unsure of any implications of accusation. "Afterwards, it was hard for me to see her. She knew I knew where he was, but never pressed too hard for answers; her intuition probably told her she was better off not knowing. But, he asked me to keep her safe. Made me promise. Hojo was so busy during those five years...she was probably the safest she had ever been."
"So you just waited until he died to break your promise." The bitterness had returned to his voice. This story was going nowhere...he didn't need to hear about the other men who had loved her.
"She wrote him 89 letters, and gave every one of them to me to deliver. 88 of them remained locked in my desk until Weapon destroyed the Shinra building. But I think he got the last one. I gave it to the agent I'd sent to find you two...I never got to ask her about it before she died, but I'm sure she found a way.
"After that day...after being so close I could hear the shots fired over the roar of the helicopter blades...I couldn't see her. Hojo was furious over your escape, and demanded we bring him 'the Ancient' immediately as retribution; he blamed the Turks for failure whenever he could. I waited a week, and then I sent Reno after her."
"The day I met her."
"The day you met her. When Reno told me...I snapped. I don't ask for forgiveness, Cloud. Trying to explain it...it only makes what I did sound more abominable. There are no excuses. Zack was my friend, and I lost him over my own inaction. Helen was killed along with most of the other Turks that same week, on a mission I was in charge of. When I heard she was with you, it was too much. I knew she would go with you, because of Zack. Because she would be able to sense his presence on you. Then Rude told me about Tifa's little side mission to Don Corneo's...it was easy to see what was going to happen. She couldn't get involved with Avalanche. If she was going to end up with Shinra anyway, it was damn well going to be on my terms."
"And she just went with you?"
"She did...after I threatened to kill Marlene if she didn't."
"All this for love."
"Possession, Cloud. I told you, there is no excuse. Her freedom, her happiness, became secondary. The only thing that mattered was keeping her close...even if it meant she would hate me."
Cloud did not respond. The anger from before had returned, his arm twitching towards the sudden weight of his sword...it would be easy. He could finish what Sephiroth had already tried to do...what he should have completed. He went as far as lifting his right arm from where it lay crossed over his chest, before stopping suddenly. "I let her leave Midgar."
Tseng had braced himself for an attack, and started at Cloud's words. "...."
"She said she wanted to find out about herself. She thought following Sephiroth would help. I didn't want her to go, but she and Tifa teamed up on me. They thought I was just trying to be chivalrous. So I agreed...I didn't want to upset her. We'd just met. If I left her behind, I didn't know if I would see her again. I wasn't ready to say goodbye.
"I knew what was going to happen in that City. After everything in the Temple, she left. I dreamed about her. She told me where she was going and what she was going to do. Then Sephiroth told me we had to kill her. We. Not just him.
"I knew he was with us, somewhere. He tried to take over my mind, made me draw my own sword on her. I knew. But then she smiled at me, and I couldn't find the words to warn her. I couldn't do anything but look at her smile. And then we were both covered in blood...her blood. And that damn smile was still there.
"I let her leave Midgar. I was too distracted by a smile to warn her that Sephiroth was there somewhere. And I was so weak-minded that I couldn't even stand on my own two feet and had to be carried from Nibelheim. You may have started it, but I finished it."
The two men stared at each other now, understanding passing through them for the first time. They would not try to comfort each other, and had perhaps found the one other person who could understand why they carried the guilt they did.
Tseng finally broke the silence. "Tifa misses you."
"Three times. She's almost been killed three times because of me. My best friend and her best friend were killed because of me, right in front of my eyes. I can't watch her die in front of me too."
"Then you at least owe her a goodbye." Tseng refused to let his stare falter despite the boundary he knew he had crossed.
For once, Cloud did not turn away. "At least she knows I'm alive. When are you going to tell Elena?"
"Her sister...I killed her sister. Or at least, I may as well have. And I allowed the one person I would have died for to become mixed up in something that eventually killed her. Elena was always trying to impress me. She's less reckless, like this."
There was an unspoken fear of betrayal in the words of both men. It had grown darker since their conversation started: the wind still tore at their clothes, but the melody of cranes and jackhammers was drawing to a close as the grey sky shifted towards black.
"She and Tifa...they were so close. It wouldn't be fair to either of them."
Tseng nodded. "Helen and Elena never got along. But she met them both, at different times. Elena...has no idea, about any of it. I can't tell her. And I can't base everything on a lie."
Cloud felt a light buzz in his pocket as the ring from his phone cut through the air. It would be Tifa. He didn't even have to look to know.
Tseng watched the younger man take a hesitant step forward, as though to extend an arm for a handshake, and they stood inches apart for an awkward moment before moving together towards an embrace. Two men who could barely speak to others for fear of forming another connection they would one day have to lose, and they clung to each other. It was a physical connection more intimate than either had experienced. Neither knew who started crying first but their tears blended together in an almost poetic expression of fear, guilt, and love.
Time stopped in those moments, and when they finally broke away, drying their tears and exhausted from the catharsis, the construction sounds from below had grown silent, the rising moon breaking cracks into the black clouds.
"Give Tifa my regards." The starting roar of a motorcycle broke through the muggy silence at the end of his words.
"Only if you tell Elena she owes me a rematch."
Tseng walked slowly down the hill following the tracks of the bike until they veered towards Edge, and stared between the road and the distant lights of the mountain lodge. He gave a small nod to Midgar whose ruins lay in between the paths, and turned towards Healin. He could be there in an hour.