A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
//Lady... my lady, where are we?//
The true idea wasn't 'my lady,' he no longer really thought in terms of 'she' and 'I'. He was her servant, yes, but so much more than that, separated from her influence just enough that he could still think for himself, and make the decisions that had so far kept them alive. He had no idea where she had been leading him now, though, or where the dim, silent room was that he finally crumpled, spent and grateful for the chance to rest.
He was getting weaker, knew that it meant she was getting weaker too. The Crater had changed, he could sense in the air, and in the stone beneath each footstep - it was different, and still changing, and there were many others here now, more people. Though Jenova didn't tell him, he was fairly certain she knew who they were.
Anjele wished they would leave, wished all of this were over and he could be alone with her again. He had never felt love, not like this, and if this wasn't love now it was something even more vital, more primal and perfect. Her attentions were like the sun, and he withered when they waned.
After a while, he gathered his strength, lifting his head up to glance around the room. It was bigger than he'd expected, much bigger, and as his eyes adjusted to the shadows Anjele realized he couldn't see much further than where one pale light above reflected into the darkness. He couldn't see the ceiling or most of the walls past a very large, tall column in the center. He realized, after a long time staring, that it reminded him of the ShinRa shuttle he had seen so long ago in Rocket Town.
//Where are we?//
Jenova had moved away from him when he had slumped down against the floor, and she was now draped almost elegantly against the side of the massive booster. Her fingertips traced the slight curve of rungs that led up into the darkness.
//Hojo wants to use this to go back, to leave once he's finished with this planet. He wants to find another planet to...// An emotion from her, but he couldn't tell if it was malice or disbelief. //He wants to be me.//
//What?! We can't let him do that!//
Flat, dark eyes glanced up at him, shining out of the softer, powdery darkness. Had he surprised her with his vehemence, his sudden concern? Funny, the war seemed so important, so personal now, even more than when he had been human.
//I know.// She paused, still staring at him, head tilting slightly. He'd grown used to the long gaps in conversation, but still was not quite accustomed to the shorthand she employed, sending the images directly into his mind.
He closed his eyes - at least he knew to do that - as she passed on what she knew. Familiar images, it was the lab, steel and plastic and glass and Hojo's central tower, shades of pain in tiny vials, the brighter shade of Mako burning bright and - Cloud? Cloud Strife?!
Anjele's eyes shot open.
//He's here? He's... why? How could Hojo have ever - why is he here?//
The shock had broken him from the stream of her thoughts, but Jenova hadn't finished, he could still 'see' a flicker of motion in his thoughts, shifting like projections on thin fabric, rippling in front of his eyes.
The important image wasn't Strife, but what he had brought with him, two small spheres hanging from a thin cord, discarded on a nearby table. Hojo considered them useless - Jenova knew that - but she also knew more than he did about them, knowledge at a cellular level that, even with all that had been done to him, Anjele knew he would never have.
//Bring them to me. We don't have much time.//
Get them for her, in the dead center of Hojo's lab. And if the scientist wasn't there - he was never far away - if he was there and he saw Anjele it would certainly be the end of it, and of him.
The blonde swallowed hard, ears ringing a little as he shivered, and nodded.
//I'll be right back.//
The third-story bar was silent, empty except for a single occupant and the near-inaudible whirr of the ceiling fans. Scarlet had thought about putting on some music, but that would have required a miniscule amount of forethought, and initiative, and at the moment both things were beyond her. It was almost too much effort to reach for the bottle again, pouring herself another tall, dark shot of Wutai's finest, drinking it in one swallow and stacking the empty glass on top of another, turning several rows of empties into an impressive monument to her drinking ability.
//ShinRa builds a tower, Rufus funds the Planet's largest gun, Reeve gets behind the wheel of a robotic, /annoying/ freak of nature. I have Midgar in shot glass form.// It seemed to fit together just fine.
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs didn't register, completely unimportant, until a shadow appeared in the doorway. Scarlet turned slowly, not out of drunkenness - she was never a clumsy drunk - but more out of a general sense of loathing - herself, the world, everything. Speed and time were no longer of the essence. It didn't matter who was in the doorway, it could be Hojo himself, and it would change things so little.
"I'm surprised to find you here."
The blonde woman scowled, but Melissa only stared back primly.
"I ordered everyone out. I can do that, you know, now that I'm king. President. Whatever." Scarlet downed another shot, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "I ought to have you in front of a firing squad right now, or I could shoot you myself. I still don't know what the hell you were thinking."
"I'm thinking I was right. I'm thinking your little pyramid of glasses agree with me."
Scarlet snorted, one red fingernail tapping against the side of her alcohol-soaked construction.
"What, this? It's nothing, I used to do... shit, I can out-drink Reno, you know that? I did it once, a long time ago. I think that's the real reason he hates me."
A part of her wanted to start swearing, and to not stop until Melissa was out of the building. Logically, Scarlet knew she had cost them nothing - here they were now with all the facts laid out and everyone was still at a loss, but she preferred anger to fear. What did she have left?
"How're they doing, anyway?"
"The Turks? Fine. As good as anyone else, all things considered. Zack asked them to patrol the edge of the area we've captured as he moves the troops, try to see exactly what Hojo's got waiting and what we can afford to deploy... and see if there's any sign of Cloud or Sephiroth, anywhere. Reno wanted Elena to stay behind, she told him to go to hell."
"No one's going to find them, you know."
A long pause.
"Yeah, I know."
Scarlet nodded, taking another drink, though now with Melissa here her stomach was tightening unpleasantly and she could only get through half before she had to stop.
"Do you think he betrayed us?"
"Who, Sephiroth?" Melissa shrugged. "Hard to say. The man I spoke with, I would say no, but the man he was before... the one who decided to destroy the Planet, could he go back to that? I don't know. You know what this is all about, right?"
"Cloud. Yeah, I know."
"How worth is it to be noble, just to lose what you care for anyway? Maybe he isn't even mad... I can't imagine it, but he might have switched sides out of heartbreak. For all I know, he did it out of spite."
Scarlet nodded quietly, all too often it seemed as if the whole world stood against her, and had it really been so wonderful living with Rufus gone? No, mostly just painful, painful and lonely and dull. Her determination to carry on was, she had to admit, fairly illogical. It was all part of the same drive that had pushed her up out of the slums, knowing that if she gave up, if she died, then 'they' won, whoever 'they' were, and that was something she could not let happen.
Pride, not logic, and certainly not a good defense.
"I think Zack knows."
Melissa sighed. "I can assume from his attitude, things aren't suddenly going to turn in our favor?"
It wasn't even worth talking to the man anymore, only Ro tried, and that was only to get what scant information he could about Zack's plans. The only remaining SOLDIER kept himself busy running back and forth from North Corel to Icicle, keeping everyone primed for action - the Turks had finally found Hojo's final defensive line, only five miles out from the Northern Crater. It had been seen from even further away, still not officially approached, though Melissa would lay even money that Zack had been there. Whatever lay beyond, she knew it was pretty much certain it had cost him his two closest friends. It was almost good things were nearing the end, she doubted he could deal with much more.
//None of us can.//
"I can't believe this. Fuck, I've finally got the power, after how many years of having to watch the President from the sidelines and kiss Heidigger's ass for funding and have golden-boy Sephiroth get all the glory but not give a damn about how he could use it, not give a shit about climbing the ladder like he's supposed to - and we're about to lose the goddamn planet /anyway/ so it won't even matter."
Another shot, this one Scarlet finished easily, and surveyed the last half-inch of liquor in the bottle with a heavy sigh. "I'm not even going to get one of those little plaques with my name on it for holding the office... this just bites."
Melissa smiled a little at that, and though she knew it was probably the liquor talking, Scarlet smiled too, knew it didn't actually matter anymore what she did, who she was.
"It's going to suck being Lifestream, isn't it?"
"I would assume so."
Scarlet bit her lip. "So there's nothing we can do, then? No way to win this, or even kill ourselves but at least take him out too? I mean, not that I really want the Planet to end up as a giant, fucked ball of black slag but better that than a fucked ball of slag with him in charge."
"Point." Scarlet noticed Melissa leaning forward slightly. Drunk, she was still sharper than most were sober. No amount of alcohol in the world could blunt her suspicious nature, and she could clearly see the guarded look in the scientist's eyes. "Scarlet, have you considered employing the Sister Ray?"
"In Junon? We haven't used it since Cloud fought in Wutai."
"It still works?"
A sharp frown. "Of course it still works, I built it."
"Fire the Sister Ray at the Crater."
It took Scarlet a moment to recover enough to do more than just stare.
"You're crazy. You're batshit... Hojo /tried/ something like that once already, you know. Years ago, he did it to help Sephiroth, and Jenova - the cannon runs off Mako energy, the same thing Hojo is feeding off of now, the Lifestream. I'm not even sure we have enough power to make a decent shot, but if we did, we'd just be helping him with something like that."
Melissa nodded as if she'd already considered it all. Scarlet realized she probably had.
"I know what Zack's planning, I know what this final battle strategy of his is going to look like. A variation on a theme, just another try at the same thing we've done a thousand times before, to see if we can hit the Crater. Except this time, it'll be all-or-nothing, and if we don't do something, it's going to be nothing. You know it as well as I do."
Scarlet nodded. "He'll get everyone's approval. Whatever Zack wants, it's what we'll do. Hell, I'm certainly not going to argue. We're out of options."
"Anyone who's opposing him just thinks we should have tried it already, when we were stronger... when we still had Cloud and Sephiroth."
"Everyone knows, then, that they're gone?"
Melissa's mouth was a set, firm line. "Nothing stays secret here for long. Everyone knows that they're MIA, everyone believes... whatever they need to believe, and they also know about the Lifestream. That we're dangerously low on time, whatever we decide to do."
"Just like with the Meteor. God, that's really one of those things we should only have to go through once. None of us deserves this." Her head dropped, arms hugging her head as she leaned against the bar. "I get the point, all right? I get it, it's bad to take Mako from the Planet and we're all hideous capitalist bastards... except there's no way to preserve a standard of living without making some sacrifices, and it wasn't as if anyone with half a brain ever liked Hojo to begin with... we all knew he was trouble." She looked up. "I'm drunk and I'm dead tired, and, fuck I am /used/ to shit like this and this still really isn't fair."
Scarlet realized she /must/ have been hammered, Melissa almost looked sympathetic.
"I've been studying the Crater, what information we have... I think there's more than one place to hit it, and it worked in Wutai just fine. I don't want to use it as a weapon directly against Hojo if I can avoid it, but hell, if I could even take a decent chunk out of the Crater wall itself, it might be enough to give Zack and the rest of them a fighting chance."
"... and if you're wrong?"
"What, we'd be /more/ completely screwed?" Melissa arched an eyebrow "If I'm wrong, Hojo will win. If I'm right, he'll probably win anyway. You tell me what we have to lose by trying."
//Cloud won't forgive you, not this time.//
Sephiroth kept an ear open to everything Hojo was saying, just in case any key words managed to rise up past the stream of random nonsense - mostly bitterness, even now the creature that had once been a scientist could name off every injury, every insult to his pride.
It seemed so childish, so pathetic that someone like /this/ was the final, and greatest threat to the Planet. Sephiroth could remember hours and hours of listening to the scientist rant when he himself had been a child, strapped to the chair for injections, tests and experiments. Hojo was always long-winded, especially when working. As he got older, and the procedures became more routine, less painful, Hojo's constant monologues were often the worst part of the entire procedure.
Isolation had allowed the scientist to indulge in monologue, among with many other of his more irritating traits. He still sniffled intermittently while he spoke, hands coming together in a slow, calculated way Sephiroth had always found vaguely irritating. Did he know he was raving? Did he know he was crazy? Did it matter, when he was the one in control?
//Cloud will never forgive you. You've lost him, forever. Win this war. Win a thousand. What does it matter now?//
Rufus's shocked expression surfaced in his thoughts, Sephiroth violently pushed it back down, iron will bending his thoughts into a pure, cool rationale - and if there was a note of desperation in that drive, he refused to admit it. Refusing to hear the truth was so much easier than facing it.
//The consequences, though... for refusing the truth.// He had no answer for that, never had.
Sephiroth hadn't bothered listening to anything Rufus said about the computer system, had never just believed when he could examine a situation himself. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do with the long periods he supposed were 'nighttime' here anyway, for so many reasons trying to sleep was rather out of the question. How long had he been here? A handful of days? A week? How long had Cloud been here?
The one time he really slept, he dreamt he was falling, with no sign of sky or ground or end, and he woke in a cold sweat. It wasn't worth trying after that.
Rufus was surprisingly helpful, intent on getting him what he needed down to the detail. The promise of a plan, each word he spoke of the outside world seemed to bring the man even further out of the shell he had retreated into, to protect his own sanity. Rufus had found blueprints of the main lab, and had filled in all the changes Hojo had made, all the alterations from a memory that seemed damn near photographic.
So far, Hojo had been working mostly in offshoots of the main lab, smaller laboratories that fanned out like an enormous honeycomb from the main. When he went to see Cloud, he always went alone. Sephiroth wondered if Hojo was expressly keeping him from the lab, from all the information he could only reach from the core computer.
The creatures constantly prowling the tunnels and rooms were the scientist's eyes and ears, and so far they hadn't bothered him at all, though he knew that wouldn't last if he set foot into the lab. Hojo had to know, or at least suspect.
//He doesn't trust me.//
It was more than he could ask for, the scientist's trust, though secretly he had been hoping Hojo had lost himself completely to his ego, that he had convinced himself he was invincible enough to make a fatal error. Instead, it was nearly the opposite - Hojo was watching him, always. Never saying anything, but after so many years as his pet project Sephiroth could feel those eyes on his skin, studying his every expression, or lack thereof. He knew he was good enough to pass those tests, he had been calm throughout the Wutai war, and certainly could pass now, even when Hojo would deliberately mention Cloud, searching for a reaction.
//Still alive. Cloud's still alive. He'll never forgive you.//
"... and so, any time now, this should all come to a most pleasant conclusion."
Sephiroth looked up. "Any time?"
Hojo adjusted his glasses, his primary hands more spindly, needle-like rather than the bulky pincers they had been. Sephiroth couldn't remember when they had changed.
"The adjustments have been made." The man made a soft, dismissive sound that still managed to sound like a sneer. "I wasn't entirely sure Strife would survive the procedure. I never designed Project C to handle the stresses of such a transformation, I never imagined I would have to test for such things." One eyebrow raised in amusement, his voice gone musing and strangely cheerful. "I must admit, for all the irksome distractions and setbacks he has caused, I am proud of what I've managed to do with him. So many structural flaws, and he always manages to surprise me."
"What have you done with him?"
For a moment, Hojo stared at him strangely, though Sephiroth was sure his voice had been level, his interest seemingly fleeting at best. He realized, after a moment, that he had managed to confuse Hojo with the question.
"No, no you haven't seen him, that's right. I don't trust you enough yet." He seemed nonplussed saying this aloud, even more of his thoughts spoken aloud than when Sephiroth had known him as a man.
"I've turned him into a battery, I suppose, if you want to look at it that crudely. He will be a conduit for what remains of the Lifestream in this Planet. He is still biologically attached to this world, and his connection to it is nearly as strong as the Ancient's, especially since I've isolated her. He will collect the energy remaining after you and I destroy what remains of Reeve's sad retaliation, and he will help to stabilize the WEAPON. Needless to say, it hasn't been easy even keeping the Fullspawn together, the processed Lifestream it has a startling lack of cohesive properties."
"WEAPON? What do you mean, WEAPON?"
"Did you happen to kill your friend on the way out?"
Hojo answered his question with a question, and for a moment Sephiroth thought he meant Cloud. //No. Killing him would have been merciful.// He frowned.
"The one... I could never remember his name. They decided to try and clone him first before attempting you. I thought I was rid of him after he was terminated before. The only useful thing he ever really did, that, getting Project C to where I needed him."
"Zack." Sephiroth shook his head. "No, I didn't kill him. It didn't seem necessary."
"Pity, that. He was always such a corrupting influence on you and Project C. I only wish I had realized that sooner, when he had been a SOLDIER candidate. It will be interesting, after this war... I will have to learn what makes him the way he is."
Sephiroth could feel his guts twisting at the thought - it had always been one of his greater fears, even though both he and Zack had been SOLDIERs before they were ever friends, and it had been a very long time before that since he had let Hojo into his life, let alone his friendships.
//It's not going to end, if you fail. Hojo has always enjoyed hurting you - envious of Gast, angry at Lucrecia or maybe just curious, needing to break and examine what he can't understand. If he wins this war, he'll spend the rest of time hurting you, Zack and Cloud.//
Cloud, who was still alive, though God only knew how much remained of his lover, what his mind had done under the stress - but he had known, hadn't he? Sephiroth had known Hojo would be swift and brutal and inhumanly vicious.
//You knew, and you did it anyway. Perfect SOLDIER. You did what needed to be done, you didn't even hesitate.// The words, once the center of his pride, were damning now, mocking a humanity that - even if he could claim it - he certainly didn't deserve to have.
//I did hesitate. I did, and there were no other choices, there was no other way - and I haven't lost yet.// He would save Cloud. He would destroy Hojo, and Cloud would forgive him, forgive him the great sin of being Sephiroth. It would be all right, it had to -
Where they stood, surrounded by walls packed tight with machinery, Sephiroth had grown accustomed to the occasional random noise, filtering out all the mechanical sounds, and those of Hojo's body as it slithered, tapped or otherwise made its way around the room. He had no idea what caught his ear, whether it was just the sound or something else, but a glance out of his peripheral vision quickly turned into more - someone else was in the lab, trying very hard not to catch Hojo's attention.
It was a struggle to keep looking, while not alerting Hojo that he was doing so, and trying his best to get a clear view of the intruder. Gray, pale gray and formless, with most of the veins and vessels visible beneath the skin. Bizarre, like a human with his skin turned inside out - but still recognizable, someone he could have recognized had he known them before. Sephiroth was shocked when he realized he had.
He knew the other sensation now, half-hidden by his surprise but now whispering, murmuring softly at the back of his thoughts like a voice in the crowd he could barely hear, even straining to listen while all the time knowing he shouldn't - Jenova. Sephiroth was not a man for fear, or dread, or hesitation, but he shivered, just slightly, as his blood was bathed in ice.
Anjele didn't look much like a human anymore, any part of him not dramatically different still seemed painfully faded - hair graying, eyes bleached - slowly breaking down, transformed or simply destroyed. He had never harbored any fantasies that Mako was really safe, that ShinRa wouldn't lie to him, always, for their own gains. Still, it was unnerving to see someone so dramatically changed in so short a time. To realize how little different he was from what remained of Anjele - slightly altered proportions of Mako, Jenova cells...
//I am not a monster. I am my own creation, not /hers/.//
Heidigger was searching for something, moving very slowly at the corner of the room, in whatever shadows he could find, his eyes nearly glittering, so wide and bright. He made no sound as he crept closer, apparently unaware Sephiroth had spotted him, carefully looking over each inch of the room - there, it was easy to see when he found what he was looking for. His gaze caught on a low table, where Hojo had absently thrown Holy and Meteor. They sparkled, dangling slightly over the edge.
The two Materia held no special interest for Sephiroth, but he had seen Hojo delicately examining it from time to time, lost in thought, perhaps imagining an earlier victory, what he would do if he had known all of this from the beginning. It wasn't such an errant thought, Sephiroth himself had indulged in the same, what it would be like to go back, to know what Nibelheim would bring and face it head on, to meet a Cloud Strife never wounded by tragedy.
//Never forgive you, he never will.//
He had lost all track of what Hojo was saying, thankfully it still didn't seem to matter much. At best, Sephiroth knew he was merely a trophy, another sign of Hojo's ultimate victory over all. Hopefully the scientist would keep looking so high, and ignore all those quietly trying to bring him down from below.
Sephiroth felt his jaw tighten, teeth clenching as Anjele inched forward, moving out of the final shadows but still easily a few feet away from his goal. It was necessarily, agonizingly slow, creeping along while aware that at any time Hojo might notice, that any noise could give him away, or the scientist could just decide to turn around.
Hojo turned around.
Sephiroth knew he had reached a strange equilibrium with who and what he was. At times it still hurt, it would always hurt to know he wasn't human, or once, but so long ago it didn't matter anymore. Other times though, he was grateful for his abilities, the extra speed and strength that could give him an obscene advantage against normal humans, and allow him to at least hold his own against anything else.
It was what enabled him to look as if he were trying to kill Anjele, while making absolutely sure he didn't. Sephiroth brought the Masamune up, as if ready to catch the man through the throat, but he pulled his strike to the barest millimeter instead, not even drawing blood as Anjele predictably balked, and the blade drove into the wall just past his neck.
Jenova had changed the man in more ways than merely what he could see, Sephiroth was amazed by how swiftly Anjele reacted, ducking beneath the blade before he could blink, fleeing at an incredible pace. Hojo wasted no time, lunging past Sephiroth and diving at Anjele. As the man twisted, impressively dodging Hojo's spearing claws, Sephiroth saw the materia dangling by what remained of the necklace, just before the scientist landed a swift strike, slashing through the cord and sending both spheres down to the floor.
Anjele shrieked, a startlingly inhuman sound, lunging after them desperately. Holy was caught just before it slid down through a metal grate to some inaccessible hole beneath - but a second swipe at Meteor came just slightly too late, and he howled again as it disappeared into the darkness. Unfortunately, with all his concentration on the Materia, Hojo had been forgotten, and the scream of despair soon turned to one of terror as a claw slammed into him, another snaking out and lifting him high into the air.
"Why are you still alive? Where is Jenova? What does she want with Meteor?"
Sephiroth recognized the edge of desperation in Hojo's voice, a man who still recognized the tenuousness of his power, and how many variables still remained out of his control. He shook Anjele once, and twice, hard enough to snap his neck, but the man seemed fairly unfazed, struggling hard against his grasp. He finally managing to get an arm free, and slapped the scientist hard across the face. Hojo reared back in surprise, claws clicking across the floor, and Anjele tumbled to the floor, up and out the door well before the scientist could recover.
Hojo moved toward the open door, peering out, claws chattering in irritation against the metal floor, staring more than once at Sephiroth before returning to the doorway, though it seemed to be more reflex than any sort of intimation. Sephiroth stood near the wall he had pulled the Masamune from moments before, certain to seem as bored and uncaring as he ever had been - what should he care if Hojo was annoyed, or even suspicious?
"Will this set us back?"
"No. No." The true measure of Hojo's irritation was always in his eyes, his face could be mostly slack and still his eyes would burn, glittering like balls of coal set alight, pure, white-hot fires. "I can't imagine what she possibly hopes to gain, she can't possibly... no, there's nothing she can do."
His two front claws rubbed at each other anyway, a worried, preoccupied gesture, as he continued to mumble to himself - half in anger, but perhaps, Sephiroth thought, half in something much more like worry. He hadn't thought it could get worse, but if Jenova was planning too, what could it be but her own Armageddon?
He could taste blood, could feel where the inside skin of his cheek had been broken, pressed his tongue against it - his blood. It was the only sensation he had for certain, and Cloud fought to keep it from fading away.
Quiet. It was all very quiet now. Maybe the world was gone, the whole world and all the people and Zack and Sephiroth - but that sounded wrong somehow, too easy. Maybe Hojo had won and - Cloud gasped, he had shifted, twitched slightly, disturbing the wires and long tubes Hojo had slid into his body, setting off another tremor of agony. His skin was still attempting to heal around metal and plastic that dripped occasionally with blood. It took him a long time to do anything but breathe, gasping against the pain as he fought not to shudder - //don't move, don't move//.
Maybe Hojo was keeping him alive for no reason at all. Things had changed here, the pain had only gotten worse but was less frequent than it had been. Maybe he was finally dying - even a SOLDIER's body had its limits - and it was all Hojo could do just to draw it out. It sounded plausible, but for some reason Cloud couldn't believe it. He wanted to look up, to turn his head and see why he had to be crouched on the ground, what the pressure was that kept him bent double, the burning force against his neck and back. It must have had something to do with why he was here, why he didn't dare move. He wanted to know... wanted...
No, he wanted the memories, wanted those more than anything else. He wanted to go away, Zack had told him to go away, told him how once, how to escape in his own mind and dream and Zack had said Zack had -
Maybe Zack was dreaming him still. It was impossible to deny the dark-haired man's strength of will - perhaps he had always been just some figment of the SOLDIER's imagination.
At least he wouldn't have to lose Zack again. No matter what happened now, he wouldn't have to live in fear of being the last man standing. It was finally his turn to leave first - the pain again, searing hot against his spine, he whimpered, no breath left to scream - and things hadn't been so bad, not really so bad.
Whomever he was or had been, it had all been real, and there was comfort in that. For a very little while, he had been loved. It was stupid, weak to think of that, to try and comfort himself with it now. He should hate it, couldn't remember why - he lied to you, he lied - yes, there was that, but he could still pretend it had all been as real as he had thought, and when it had been real it had been beautiful.
He had never had a problem accepting the darkness in himself, admitting that he could possess any number of flaws. If there was another way to live, Zack had known it, maybe Tifa knew it, or Red or Vincent, but he had never quite understood. Maybe he was the only person in the world who couldn't be important on his own, who needed to reflect someone else's admiration to exist.
Once, Cloud thought he saw Elly through the glass, when he could tip his head up just far enough to see. Watching him, with that sweet-sad smile she hadn't had often but he remembered so well. Loved him, she smiled like that because she had loved him. He tried to apologize, for everything, but he couldn't move and she was only smoke and despair anyway, a phantom. All his life he had been haunted, by fear and shame and insignificance. At least now the spirits had faces.
It was not better, not less painful, just different now. No longer the sharp, jolting tortures that seemed to splinter him skin and bone - not better, just different. No longer fearing he would lose - he had lost. Not better, but different.
Hojo was working with his body again, molding it into some new shape and if he hadn't been a SOLDIER he would have been dead a thousand times by now, should have been dead a thousand times already.
A SOLDIER's body didn't give him a SOLDIER's mind, he was still weak there, always weak, and the static was taking over inside his head. Just like it had before, when Zack had been trapped beside him, tried to talk and Cloud could barely see him, barely hear him. White noise, hissing and burbling, not even Jenova this time, or the Planet, just a strange, endless blank. It would have been the Planet, should have been, or at least Jenova, but they were gone, there were no voices left to hear.
Aeris was gone as well. He could no longer see her past the glass of his cage. It was then, Cloud realized, that he could no longer see his cage, or his own body, or the grated floor, just the white, the flat, endless white. He shut his eyes and vowed not to open them, not ever again.
Memory came, finally. It wasn't comforting even though he tried to hold on to Zack and Sephiroth, tried to imagine some past better than what had been real, tried to imagine a future. He wasn't here but at home, in bed, and Sephiroth was nearby, and it was a lazy Sunday morning and -
Cloud tried to scream, writhing even though it hurt, liquid, molten and burning dumped through a tube, down inside of him oh God it hurt it hurt...
He remembered his mother, the pain fading, much later - he was losing time, and memory was no solid anchor, to keep him fixed in the now. Cloud remembered the look in her eyes, when she would stare out the window and wonder why no one had loved her. He knew that look, even then, and though he had tried to love her it had been painfully obvious that it would never be enough. His love could not make up for what being his mother had cost her.
The stars. He should remember them, because they were there for him, always. His absolute, the last one he had, a beauty grander and more important than any tragedy or failure. Life, billions and millions and endless planets teeming with life, Hojo could spend eternity and never touch a fraction of them, never. The scientist was forever doomed only to be a product of the forces he sought to control. He could try forever, he would never have the universe, never the stars.
Cloud almost felt sorry for him. At least he had touched what he had always wanted - or did that make his vision too small? Was it pathetic, did it mean he wanted too little? But Sephiroth had been there and been real, and even if it had all been a lie, it had still happened and he could hold that tight and close, like a bird that had died but all the bones were still curved right, still remembered how to fly.
He didn't move, couldn't possibly turn head or neck or get off knees that had gone numb a long time ago, but with a little shifting and a little pain he could move his hands, brushing here and there along what remained of his body. The places Sephiroth had touched, the places he had kissed and filled with meaning - he was nothing without someone to tell him what to be, what he was worth - the curves and hollows of his body were dusty, chalky. He was covered with something frozen that burned like Mako, but in a strange, new form - new, it was always new, always worse, just waiting for him.
Oh God, what was Hojo doing to him?
//don't want to be a monster don't want//
//don't want to die don't//
Also too late.
He could feel where his bones had been splintered, new limbs of plastic and steel attached, sprouting up through his flesh. Monitors and gauges and wires threading down through his stomach, down through his guts and God only knew what was being pumped into him now, where he was headed wasn't going to be human, not man or SOLDIER or anything else he could imagine.
Cloud was terrified of the white noise, the emptiness, but at the same time desperate for it. It had to come, and it had to come quickly. He was desperate, because he knew he was being prepared, trussed and plucked and gutted like a Thanksgiving turkey - slight smile there, the thought of Hojo in an apron passing bits of him around - and if he didn't leave, if he wasn't gone when whatever was coming finally happened it would be bad. Very, very bad. Worse than going into that blank space, even worse than never coming back.
He kept his eyes shut, his hands didn't move and he did his best to push it all away, to think only of the emptiness - just like meditation, really, think of nothing - and disappear. He'd always wanted to disappear, it couldn't possibly be that hard now, when he couldn't even feel... when it all seemed so thin, transparent, so -
It was much, much later that the ground began to shake, that the very worst things all started to come true at once - but Cloud was quite safe, gone further than any SOLDIER had in training, past anything Zack had ever tried to teach him. Gone so far he couldn't have found the way back, even if he had wanted to.
"Whatever we do, we're running out of time to do it in. His creatures here, they're agitated, and things have been rumbling that shouldn't be rumbling." Rufus snorted softly. "... and I thought this place couldn't get any worse."
He had misjudged the younger ShinRa a great deal, as unfairly as anyone had ever judged him. All this time, Sephiroth realized, he'd been mistaking the man for his father. It had never occurred to him that Rufus could be wearing his own masks, just as many and for just as long as he had. He should have known better, being the heir wasn't any safer than being the General - in retrospect, ShinRa seemed less a company than a living thing, with movements and sensibilities none of them had been able to comprehend.
//... or survive, if you think about it. You've both been given this second chance at life.// He grimaced, //and if this is your time to put things right, Seph, you're doing an amazingly shitty job of it.//
He and Rufus were walking through the secondary tunnels now, Sephiroth wasn't sure exactly where but Rufus seemed to know his way around well enough. A strand of low glowing lights stretched across one wall was the only sign that anyone had ever passed this way. The tunnels were all empty, leading nowhere important, and Hojo's monsters didn't even bother with this area. Rufus had said it all a little too fervently, too gratefully, with his eyes downcast. Sephiroth knew he was ashamed that his life had come down to a simple matter of 'safe' or 'dangerous.'
"I agree, we've got to move. Hojo's nearly finished whatever exactly it is he's doing." He saw Rufus raise an eyebrow, though the man hadn't yet mentioned it, hesitant to speak of anything remotely involving Cloud. "He's told me that he's going to use Cloud to draw out the rest of the Lifestream. As he kills the armies and destroys Wutai and North Corel, Strife will gather that power up, I assume. Hojo isn't being exactly clear, if he even can anymore." He rubbed his temple, wishing for just a slight headache, to take his mind off everything else for a moment. "He also mentioned something about a WEAPON."
It was no surprise that Rufus's eyes widened like dinner plates. A Fullspawn was bad enough...
"Shit, really? Do you think he has the materials, does he know - could he force the Planet to make one?"
Sephiroth had long learned to assume that anything was possible, and much too often, likely.
"Hojo's ambition has always exceeded his ability, always - but I can't be sure. I don't know enough anymore to tell when he's lying. It's always possible he got lucky."
"So what do we do?"
Sephiroth frowned. He'd known the question was coming, had hoped by now to have an answer to it.
"He knows I'm not here as his ally... or he thinks I am, and he knows there's no place for me here. Either way, he doesn't trust me. He was content to support Jenova," - It was still hard to include himself in the past, not just because he could barely remember it - "and myself, when he thought there was no other way. He's had five years to plan this on his own, to fight the war on his own terms. No doubt, he wants the victory to himself as well. He's lying to me, because I might be of some use to him, but he'll never let me into the lab. He won't even give me an excuse to try and reach it."
Rufus shrugged, gesturing toward the Masamune. "You aren't just going to try and kill him, then?"
"If I was certain I could do it, I would. He has so much power now, though, through the Lifestream. I don't think I could take him down long enough to make it to the computers, let alone to find the code and send it out to North Corel. I don't know if he can even die, no matter how many pieces I cut him into, and with all his monsters running about, and Materia all but worthless here - it's a final option. I'll try it if there are no other choices."
He could see the question in Rufus's eyes, knew what the man was thinking.
"Cloud's life is not forfeit in this. I won't sacrifice him to win. It isn't enough just to destroy Hojo, we have to turn the Lifestream around. I need to get into the computers in his lab, or else the corrupted Lifestream doesn't go anywhere, and the Planet dies anyway."
//I lied to him, damn it. I lied to him, but it is /not/ the same thing as serving him up as a sacrifice. I had no choice. I had no alternative.// He stopped pretending he could ignore it, most of his thoughts were with Cloud, would continue to be with his lover until they won this war or everyone was dead.
//Will be with him, even when this is all over... and I beg him for forgiveness and he tells me to go to hell.// Sephiroth knew he would have taken whatever punishment Cloud was receiving, take it and a thousand times worse - if they did win, what was waiting for him - //he will never forgive you// - would be unbearable.
Sephiroth froze - not breathing, not blinking - at the sudden, strange sensation - a frozen touch, nitrogen chilled air against the ridge of his nose, burning at the space behind his eyes.
No, not that tangible, not that real - it went deeper, further than that, reaching out to thoughts, sensations and memories, and it was familiar. He had never allowed anyone even half that chance, to hurt him. He had not allowed her, either, not really... but she had taken weakness for permission.
"You all right?"
He looked up, Rufus was a few feet ahead, staring at him very warily, his expression a mix of worry and measured calculation - how fast he could run, how much of a head start he would need, where the secret passages were he could duck down, all of it.
It came again, but this time Sephiroth had steeled himself, ready to meet the odd presence, a subtle mental nudge no more unnatural than breathing, and at the same time utterly wrong, and his will bucked against it, lashing out in a way even he had to admit seemed overzealous, furiously shredding whispers.
"Where does this tunnel lead?"
He kept his voice calm, as if nothing had changed, and the question seemed to take Rufus's attention at least partly off of him.
"We don't get close to any of Hojo's patrols, no monsters. It splits off ahead, but I don't know where those passages lead. If we stay on the main path, we should be all right, it'll loop right back around to the beginning. You thinking of messing with the system again, when we get back? Making another try on the computers?"
Sephiroth barely heard a word, between the chill presence growing stronger, sending a chill up his spine, and the pressure in his head, steady now but slowly building - //Jenova//. Rufus was wrong, there were monsters here, and she was very close now.
"I didn't know Anjele was still alive." He spoke the words more to hear his own voice than to distract Rufus, to try and counter the strange fiction in his mind with something real. It didn't work well enough.
//Mine. Never his. You were always, always mine.//
He couldn't hide his reaction that time, the words like a blow, a point of steel against his skull - not that it mattered, either Rufus had taken a wrong turn or things had changed here more than he had assumed. The passage had narrowed, crystalline spars growing out from the walls and ceiling, panes, gossamer thin, stretched intermittently between the chaotic beams - a spider web in glittering stone - and at the center stood Jenova.
He knew it was her, knew by instinct, blood and bone, the air heavy with her, saturated, even though she looked nothing like she did before. She was closer to human this time, hair like carved obsidian falling down over most of her star-speckled form, and though she didn't look up, he knew she knew he was there.
Rufus glanced back and forth between them with the look of a dying man. A familiar figure stepped out from behind Jenova, one arm extended protectively in front of her, Anjele, with that pale, near translucent skin, darkness beating beneath, pale eyes that seemed sightless, too altered to still function right. Maybe he couldn't see, maybe he didn't need to, here in this room where everything seemed an extension of her.
"... don't." His voice was phlegmy, a hoarse croak, and he had trouble with the words, it took a great deal of effort to remember what it seemed he had forgotten. "She rests. You... harm her, I won't allow."
At that moment, Jenova's eyes opened, large and luminous like moonlight on water, and looked up into Sephiroth's own. Anjele murmured something neither of them could hear, speaking only to her, but she gestured gently, shaking off bits of crystal as she moved forward. Rufus lunged backward, out of the way, though she barely seemed to notice him at all.
//Mine. Returned... mine.//
Jenova reached a hand out, but paused, and Sephiroth realized he'd drawn the Masamune halfway without ever realizing it, his teeth gritted and his heart pounding hard.
"Don't touch me. Don't ever... /ever/."
He bit the inside of his lip against the sudden onslaught of memories, against everything half-remembered or pondered that now returned in full detail. He finally was given a chance to see all that he had felt so guilty for - but not enough, not nearly guilty enough. The fire, striking down Zack, impaling Cloud upon the blade and laughing, laughing when he cut down the flower girl - even those few clear moments of sanity in all the madness, when he realized there was no way out, no way back, that even in the depths of his hedonistic destruction, there was no peace, and his loneliness did not fade. The only thing to hope for rested in the Cetra girl's eyes, calm even in death, and in the eyes of a man who seemed only a boy, a SOLDIER he never had seen before.
//Mine.// Images flashed behind his tightly closed eyes, she was trying to communicate with him but it wasn't easy, the emotions blurred and muddled and nearly too strong to bear - Lucrecia, his mother, and a sense of love, camaraderie, Sephiroth was the bond between them and somewhere in the madness, perhaps a part of the madness, was that connection - Mother, what did it mean but a love so strong? Jenova loved him like that, loved him, loved him...
"Stop it." Sephiroth didn't dare scream as he had wanted to, as he had always wanted to, grateful that his voice could be ice and cut as deep as the Masamune, in its way. "You have no right to feel anything for me."
He still hadn't moved, not even to slide the blade back into the scabbard, staring into those flat, softly glowing pools - black around the edges, as if this glow was new, vital, and when she stepped back her hair slid away, he could see the soft glow, imbedded in her chest - Holy, surrounded by ridges and softly flowing tendrils as if a place had been carved there, she was rock and not flesh and bone. Jenova took another step back, and another, lowering her hand. It could have been the barest change in expression, or just as easily her presence, still threatening to engulf everything - sorrow. Sephiroth only half-believed it, despite the fact that it could be nothing else. Sorrow, and understanding, and shame.
"... didn't hurt you." Anjele spoke up again, his hand against Jenova's, where she had rested it on his shoulder. "Want... she doesn't want to hurt you. If she ever did... she is not that, not anymore."
"What has she done?"
"Lost... I lost Meteor, but it wasn't important. It wasn't... wouldn't work. Wasn't the one she needed anyway. Holy, Holy will allow..." Anjele trailed off, raising his arms in what he soon realized would be a futile attempt to explain, dropping them with a sigh and turning to her. Sephiroth felt his jaw tighten against already clenched teeth.
"Let her tell me, then."
Surprise, cascading like light on water, and then the thoughts came, tentative and quiet - and he saw Holy, saw that she had accepted it, had forced her body to change, to admit it... she was a conduit, not unlike Cloud.
"Can't... the dark Lifestream, it won't work anymore, but she can keep Hojo from the rest. If she can reach him, reach that place, she can keep it, keep it from him."
It was hard to think about it, Sephiroth found it impossible to consider what Jenova had done, when so much of his concentration was focused on keeping her away, keeping her out of his mind and his thoughts - //she feels different// - ignore that, he had to ignore that, and any chance that this was at all sane.
"Bullshit." Rufus breathed, and Sephiroth remembered he was still there, pressed against the wall, watching with wide eyes. "Jenova tried to kill us all, and she used you to do it. It wanted power, it /wanted/ this. It would do anything to get that chance back. It's out to destroy Hojo, not to help us."
Anjele looked pained, or offended. "It hurts her, to change like that. Holy... it, it's very painful, what she's done. For you."
"Out of guilt?" The laugh was a snarl, Sephiroth only wished it could be more so. "Hardly."
//You hate me so much because I am a part of you.//
It was the clearest thing Jenova had said yet, and there was no trace of sentiment, nothing but fact, and he didn't even have to react, she already knew the truth. He was filled with emotion so familiar it could have been his own, loneliness, despair, a strange sort of nameless longing - and the stars, the stars as he had never seen them, for he had never lived among them. Jenova's eyes blazed, for a moment serene and fearless.
"Hojo took it." Anjele nodded. "Hojo took that from her, forever. The Lifestream, she can barely contain it. Using it... too different, too hard. Impossible, it would destroy her. His dream, it is more than enough to take his dream."
It wasn't enough. Sephiroth could tell Jenova was hiding something, but his instincts were filling in those gaps, nearly as loudly as she could - whatever she was keeping from him, she wasn't dangerous, not anymore. The fact that she had secrets was proof enough of that, her presence a murmur in his mind that he could ignore more easily than his own pangs of guilt. Hojo had made her human, human enough that she was no threat to anyone but him.
He heard Rufus swear under his breath as he tucked the Masamune away, found the young ex-President glaring at him as if he'd lost his mind.
//Funny, he'd be terrified if I actually had.// Sephiroth wondered, given everything he'd done, everything he still might do, if he could ever prove he wasn't out of his mind.
"Well, great. So? You do realize it's worthless to us, /she's/ worthless to us, regardless?!" Rufus had gone from terrified to indignant in a heartbeat, waving a hand dismissively at Jenova, the power of anger conquering all his other fears.
"So she can collect the remainder of the Lifestream /if/ we can get her into the lab Hojo's locked down, past the monsters he's got guarding it and wherever she needs to be to make it work... and then what? Hojo's still got the rest of the Lifestream on his side, and Aeris, and Cloud, /and/ an army he can regenerate anytime he feels like it. It's not a plan, it's barely a failure. What do we do now?"
Being a SOLDIER from birth, being stronger and faster than any other man alive would have been enough to rank Sephiroth as a general, eventually. He got there faster than anyone else because he was - in Heidigger's own words - too goddamn smart. It had kept the rest of ShinRa on edge, it had won the war in Wutai months, maybe even a year before it should have ended, and it allowed him to answer Rufus's question with one of his own.
"Did you know, Rufus, that they fixed the Junon cannon?"
"Hold me lower!"
Vincent adjusted his hold on Yuffie's leg with his human hand, stretching out just a bit, metal claw firmly anchored into the side of the cliff. He figured he had given her a few inches - a disgusted sigh let him know it wasn't enough.
"Ok, just drop me, all right? I'll get a grip here on the rock and climb down."
"I did it all the time when I was little, old man, and besides I think I can see something back there, looks like it could be materia." The ninja girl's hand reached back toward him, gently shaking the glowing materia she held. "It's even better than when I was little, see? I can stick the light right in my cleavage and still have both hands free."
"A woman of many talents."
"Learned it in ninja school."
They were deep in the heart of the Da-chao, spelunking in search of any new materia, the impossible chance that a new Leviathan was sparkling somewhere down in the dark fissures. It was really more of a chance to just get away for a while, to burn off a little energy and think about something other than the war.
"So, have you heard anything about Cloud?" All right, he conceded, there was no way to stop thinking about the war.
Vincent couldn't hear the strain in Yuffie's voice, muffled by the rock face, but he already knew quite well what she sounded like, looked like when she wasn't smiling - and he hated it. She was born to smile, anything else was terribly wrong.
"Nothing. Reeve's doing all right, but from the rest of what they told me-"
"Yeah, I know. Really, just forget I said anything."
"All right." Being an ex-Turk had its advantages, being expected to be the cold, silent type was merely one of them. It was a while before Yuffie spoke again, and it wasn't to mention the war.
"Okay, so I think you'll have to let go here. I'm going to have to get myself into this crack, whatever I'm seeing is all the way at the other end. I'm positive it's pyrite, actually, but I didn't spend all this time with the blood rushing to my head to back out now. Goddamn it, whatever it is, I'll take it with me and use it as a paperweight. What do you think?"
Vincent sighed, wondering if there were a more suicidal way to do what she was proposing.
"I think this place is as structurally sound as the Gelnika /after/ the crash."
Yuffie twisted up, glaring at him for just a moment before she had to adjust her grip.
"Dammit, old man, you can drop me anytime! I think I should go even lower, I can see what looks like some caves just before this place goes under the water table. Hell, I should check out what's underwater, for that matter."
"I don't see how you plan to get it out if you do find any raw Materia-"
"Bitch, bitch, bitch. Man, do all you Turks gripe so much?"
He loved her the most because she was never, ever afraid of him. Every time she spoke - yelled at him, teased him - he was reminded that he was human, at least enough to be loved.
"Only the ones who quit. I think it has something to do with losing the suit."
Yuffie sighed, and abruptly switched topics once more. It was easier to talk about it in pieces, rather than trying to take it all in at once.
"The shamans are talking a lot more with Cosmo Canyon, you know. They've always been our most reclusive group, even when ShinRa won the war, they never really understood us, we didn't let them."
Wutai was an interesting religious potpourri. Vincent was amazed at the depth and breadth of its diversity, the old, nature-based beliefs standing right in line with the more structured religions. Most people seemed to be of a mixture of faiths, holding the yearly festivals while at the same time worshiping pantheons of other gods - and always Leviathan, who was still the symbol of the Wutai state even if the summon Materia itself had been destroyed.
"I wish it didn't mean what I think it means, you know?"
Yuffie once more twisted up to face him, he loved the sparkle in her eyes, the way her lips always seemed poised to smile, even now when she had her mind on darker things.
"They're scared, everyone's scared. I never thought our shamans could get scared, I remember them when I was a child, I was always afraid of them, that they'd know I was misbehaving and turn me into a Thunderbird."
"It's going to be all right, Yuffie."
"Do you really believe that?"
He paused, and finally nodded, and realized he was telling the truth. It wasn't anything to be proud of, really, just the steady nerves he'd always possessed, an inability to worry too much about what might go wrong in some unforeseen future. At times, he wondered if it wasn't a handicap, though he appreciated it now, glad that the simple words seemed to ease Yuffie's mind. The promise of a smile faded too soon in her eyes, though, face going still with growing troubles.
"What is it?"
"Are you going to go after him? I was worried, a little... that you were just waiting to leave Wutai, to go to the Northern Crater, and kill Hojo."
"My place is here with you. Would I like to be the one that kills him?" Vincent closed his eyes against the thought, could feel the vicious smile, the fierce, insane delight - Chaos, stirring deep down, flexing its claws in murderous desire. Once, he had convinced himself destroying the man was simply a matter of honor, but that noble impulse had long since turned to a great deal of bloodlust. "Yes. Very much so. I would sacrifice a great deal to watch him die... and I may get that chance yet. Who knows how this may turn out?"
It wasn't the real question Yuffie was asking, he could see that, as she glanced up at him again, mouth set in a funny line - he remembered the expression on Lucrecia's face, in the set of her jaw when she said that things had gone too far, that this was danger and trouble, Hojo would know, it had to stop. He had kissed each of her eyelids then - so sly and smooth, he had been so cocky, certain of himself back then. Who would cross a Turk, especially a Turk like him? Don't worry, he had told her, when she had been right about everything. When it still hurt too much to imagine what Hojo had done to her, because he had told her it would be all right, because he hadn't been at her side.
It was a strange weakness for a Turk, his imperfect instincts, even stranger with the way the faulty assumptions haphazardly dotted his life. He wondered now if he was right to assume what he was thinking, that Yuffie was really afraid he didn't love her, not as he had loved Lucrecia. His former life as a Turk was his 'real life', and all of this with her was merely a trifle, to be abandoned at the first sign of something better, more exciting, more important.
"I won't leave you, Yuffie." It was what she had been thinking, and he saw her nod, smile growing as he kept his eyes locked with hers. "I pro-"
He cut off, eyes widening, as a sudden tremor shook the entire cavern, a few rocks shaking loose from the ceiling, splashing into the pool beneath them. Vincent braced himself, saw Yuffie dig her hands into the rock as the violent shocks continued, only getting stronger.
He looked up as far as he could, craning his neck to follow her horrified eyes to where an enormous spire was crumbling away, directly above them.
He understood, and let go, diving after her in nearly the same moment, straining to hear the sound of the rock cleaving away as they both fell. The entire cave was collapsing around them, so much rock falling down into the water that Vincent couldn't even make out his own splash.
He struggled beneath the lake as soon as he plunged beneath the surface, the rock must have been nearly on top of them by now - a strong hand stopped him, Yuffie grabbing the material at his shoulder and yanking hard, pulling him back towards her. He could feel a sudden drag of water, a tug at his shoulder where the falling rock dropped through his cape, missing him by inches.
Vincent finally righted himself, kicking back to the surface. He was treading water only a few inches from where Yuffie had wedged herself beneath the overhang, and hooked a foot and hand in the rock beside her They said nothing, listening as the cavern continued to shake and crumble above them. Yuffie had managed to hold on to her makeshift light, he could see her eyes were bright with worry, glancing up nervously towards the thousands of tons of rock right above them, protecting them - for the moment.
"Do you think it will hold?"
"I don't know." He pondered turning into Chaos, though even that wouldn't be enough to save them if the whole cavern came down. Thankfully, even as he considered his options, the rock shower started to subside, a few final shudders and moaning creaks roaring through the darkened chamber - and then all was still. He waited through three breaths, and felt a warm, wet hand slide around his neck, Yuffie touching him for comfort, a sense of safety.
"Vincent, there aren't any fault lines in Wutai. We don't have earthquakes here."
"I figured as much."
She kissed him then, the same fierce, playful, teasing kiss she always gave him, though there was no way to ignore the fear in her eyes as she pulled away, her words breathy but sure as she let go of him, and started moving towards the mouth of the overhang.
"Come on... let's see if there's anything left standing."
1. I hate this chapter, but it will transition me to the next chapter and I don't want to rewrite it - again. Forgive me.
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