"I want it to work," he says, with a nod that he turns into a brief kiss. "They think it has a good chance to, but it's on the cutting edge. No promises made, no contracts signed, you know?"
He cracks a half smile, one that she knows is for her benefit alone. She reaches up to touch his dimple, run her fingers over his stubble.
"Sounds like a one-way trip to me, officer." she murmurs, but he knows the tone of her voice, knows that what she's really saying is, I love you and I trust you: come back to me.
He says the words out loud to her: "I love you, and I'll come back to you, Sara," and she feels the promise float on her skin before he seals it with a kiss, and draws her to him.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Vash?" he hears one of the scientists say, and he's brought back to the conversation from last night.
"Haven't I already signed my life away?" he quips, causing a short chuckle from the others, though the head researcher frowns.
"Jeffrey..." she starts.
"No, no — look. We're on a time crunch, and we want to figure out where he is, right? We have to catch him, and this is the fastest way. Or at least, there's a chance that this will bring us to him before the next victim appears. So, yes, I want to do this, Doctor Hill."
The head researcher — Dr. Amber Hill, of Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Mayo — nods at him.
"Alright, Vash. If you're sure. The neural net is set up, and we just have to do the transfer," she says, and looks at him, asking the question one more time, silently.
"Beam me up, Scotty," he jokes, and closes his eyes as someone in the room presses a button and he experiences a sensation he's never had before: his brain starts to itch.
When he wakes up, he's not exactly himself anymore. He's... Joseph Gordon, escaped serial killer. Or, at least, as close as modern science and supercomputing can get, compiled from background information, interviews, and many, many personality profiles of the man, from many angles, courtroom appearances, and psychological evaluations. That's what he learns later, much later.
At first, his initial thoughts are jumbled, the sort of jumbling that comes from being drunk, or high, or both at the same time. He remembers that he’s Jeffrey sometimes, but his memories are more of Joseph. Sometimes, he thinks he’s an officer, sometimes, he remembers killing a person, two, several — but he didn’t, did he? Did he?
As the days go on, he straightens his mind — minds — out, and starts to be able to answer questions more lucidly. He’s helped out by a kind doctor whose name is Amber, and a police officer that he finds familiar but can’t name. When he’s confused about who he is, they tell him: he’s Jeffrey Vash, but he’s also Joseph Gordon, and they want him to be Joseph and tell him where the real Joseph Gordon is — they tell him that Joseph was undercover but agreed to do this, and he needs to do it to help, as he's agreed to, and somewhere, deep down inside, a part of him seems to agree: he needs to do this.
He needs to remember, they tell him, remember his past and how he got here, and where he would be now, and he tries, but it’s too hard: there are too many things he doesn't quite know about himself.
“Take me to where I grew up? To where the memories should be?” he asks, and they do.
To Joseph’s elementary school, where classmates picked on him all day to the point that he wouldn't go to recess; to his high school, where he was thrown in the trash can, where there was a game of 'make Gordon's face hit the brick wall as many times as there are bikes parked outside'; to his first job at the local convenience store, where a gang came in and held his hand under boiling water for a minute, simply for daring to talk back to them when they were stealing.
In each location, Jeffrey — Joseph — remembers a bit more, fills in a bit more of the puzzle. He can't quite tell the police officer what he wants to know about where the other Joseph is now, but he starts guessing at details of the murders they already know about, and more often than not, he's right — about where the body was placed, about how the crime happened.
He also can't help but find that Amber seems more and more concerned about him, but there's a job to do. And in a way, the murders are almost... fun.
They go back, finally, to his childhood house, one that's long been burned down, but the frame is still there, and as he walks through it, he sees images that he shouldn't — couldn't — have, because there were no images that were been recorded of this. His mother, tall and skinny, redhaired; his father, lankly, with long fingers, hair loose in a ponytail; his uncle, heavier, thickset, with a smile that made Joseph feel safe, a smile that was absent that night. The fight. The fire. The red ribbon of blood, spraying out in front of the fireplace.
He freezes, for a moment, and understands.
It’s his skin, specifically.
He hesitates for one, long, second, simply frozen in place, but in the end, he finds his phone, dials a number, speaks into it.
"He's in one of the homeless shelters, looking for the next person that he'll be killing," Joseph says, knowing with absolute conviction that what he's saying is true. It is, after all, what he should be doing right now.
In fact, he figures, he can do better than that. He asks for a map, and an officer brings one over. He scans it, thinking through what he wants to do, where it would be safe and where he would find a good, safe victim, someone that he'd enjoy taking apart, piece by piece, and he taps a point on the map.
“The family shelter,” he says quietly, “the one that caters to the orphans. He’s there, probably sitting in the back, watching the dinner line. You'll have twenty minutes.”
With that, the sirens sound over the phone, and Jeffrey Vash’s job is done.
He sits still for another moment, and then turns to find the nearest window that's still intact, and very methodically punches through it, reaches through, and draws the jagged shards down both arms, opening them up.
“What— what the—” he hears the panicked call behind him, as he rams his head into the crossbeam, as everything goes blessedly, mercifully dark.
He doesn't stir, looking down at the bandages on both arms, at the handcuffs.
"Vash?" Sara tries again. "I got here as soon as I could, Vash, they wouldn't tell me what happened, I just needed to see you. Vash?"
"I'm Joseph," he says, thickly, to the ground.
"No," she says, trying to fight the tears. "They caught him. You're Vash."
"No," he responds, still not meeting her eyes. "I'm Joseph Gordon. I have his memories, his fears, his desires, his needs, his everything. I can't ever be let out, because I would do what he does, because—"
"Because you think you're him?" she asks.
"Because to truly know someone, you don't have to love them, or whatever it is that you say. You have to be them. You have to internalize who they are, everything they are, everything they have been. I am more Joseph than I'll ever be Vash again," he says, spitting out the words at the end, reaching up to start beating his face with his hands.
"No — you made a promise, Vash," she says. "And I know this might have been a one-way trip but I also know that if you were truly Joseph you wouldn't have turned yourself in. There's still some part of you in there, and by God, I will stay here until I find him — until I find you."
"I love you, and I want you to come back to me," she says, and stares at the man on the other side of the glass, a man flanked by two burly orderlies, a man who promised her that she would come back to him.
After a moment, he lifts his head, looking back at her.
"Sara," he starts, and even though she knows he's about to disagree with her, she also knows that he's still in there, somewhere.