Through the Looking Glass Chapter 19
United and Alone
By Lucrecia Marionette
Night encircled the land in a celestial sphere that stretched on for further than any mortal could dare to dream. Stars hung in the blackness like flakes within a snow-globe, frozen in place for the rest of eternity. Like the violent swirl which it must have taken to put the silver torches in their places, a turbulent surge was battling within the soul of the creature as it finally landed.
It was suffering from exhaustion and a hunger more potent than any could ever realise. He'd been travelling across the world, only stopping when he could physically manage no more. And even then he had pushed it.
He fell to his hands and knees, gritting his teeth against the inevitable pain that gripped him as a result of ceasing his flight. It washed over him, shattering his thoughts and sucking the breath from his lungs like a tidal wave. His fingers grabbed the grass that grew under him, and in his agony he tore it from the roots leaving the moist soil to face the elements without its fauna for protection. When it finally ceased its terrible reign over his body, it faded away leaving a throbbing ache in his muscles. He didn't attempt to stand; he couldn't even feel his legs and walking on them would be like trying to control a phantom limb or imaginary extremity.
Instead he remained in his crouched position, his head hanging wearily between slumped shoulders. His eyes were closed and more than anything else, he longed for sleep. His body was tired, but his heart and soul were both on the brink of collapse. How easy it would have been to slip back into that coffin; how easy it would be for him at that moment just to say 'screw the world. I've had my fill and its not a pleasant place' and renounce it. To forget everything that had happened to fall back into an eternity of nightmares. It was what he deserved after all. .
After a long rest, he raised his head and looked out to the landscape before him. It truly was a sight for sore eyes. A vast lake stretched on before him, its surface smooth and unblemished; turned silver by the moon. It was as though someone had placed a huge mirror upon the floor of the sheltered and hidden valley. A breeze, so slight and gentle that it didn't inspire a single ripple upon the mirror blew through the round valley. It carried to his sensitive nose an oddly familiar smell. One of flowers, dew and somehow sunsets. It reminded him vividly of that time when he had been human.
Such a long, long time ago. .
It also reminded him of that place ten or perhaps eleven years ago when. .
He shook his head. That was a memory he'd sought to relinquish. Over all of his sins and time upon this planet that had perhaps been the most insightful. He shuddered at the fleeting images which invaded his brain and thrusted them back. It didn't matter now; it was in the past. He focused his mind upon the scenery before him in order to drive the unpleasant images from his mind.
Still the soft zephyr whirled and washed over him like the delicately shifting water which lay sublimely and perfectly before him. It was so, so wonderful. He would have almost thought it a dream. But no, none of his dreams were like this. They were full of blood, guilt and terrible, terrible memories. This was a haven. The only place in the world, no, universe where his refuge could be found. Perhaps that was why he was so afraid? Tormented by inner demons for so long, it was alien and frightening to him to suddenly feel so isolated and lonely. But somehow he wasn't. .
A look of morbid curiosity overcoming his normally expressionless features, he crawled forward in order to look down into the mirror-like lake. He recalled his past realisation that he had never actually taken the time to look upon himself in his demonic form. Here, hidden by vast screens of pine trees to his back and mountains which stretched on forever all around the unblemished quicksilver he was safe to take his first gaze. He was secreted away from the world and able to do what no man should ever have to do; look at his darkness personified.
A few centimetres from the edge of the grass where it cut out suddenly and dropped into a tiny cliff to the water he faltered. His arms and legs refused to budge no matter how much his sick wondering urged them on. He could almost hear his unhealthy interest yelling and screaming at his unco-operating physical shell and telling it to hurry up and move. Succumbing to the gruesome callings he dared to move first his right hand, then his left. Finally his knees followed and as he swallowed forcefully, his face tilted down to peer upon the gargoylic visage of depravity.
Red eyes met red, backed by the canvas of the night sky both above and below. A demon, a hellish demon stared back at Vincent Valentine; but it was not the right one.
This diabolical demon had skin which was too white and long raven hair that was too black. A frame of red bandages and the high neck of a crimson cape sat at the top and bottom of the ghostly mask. His expression shifted to one of disgust and in an act of anger, his claw stretched down and viciously swiped the water, the gold points tearing through the silver skin. He pushed up from the grass into a standing position, falling over almost as soon as he had come to his feet. Weariness was still playing heavily upon him despite his determination to look away from the monster in human form he had become.
Resigning himself to simply shuffling back from the water; he assumed a slumped, sitting position, his arms resting on his knees with his hands hanging limply before his chest. His cape splayed out behind him as though he'd sat in a pool of blood which leaked back from beneath the ebony folds of his hair.
The cascade of scarlet mimicked in perfect irony the wall of pure, silvery froth which spewed from the side of the mountain wall on the far side of the lagoon to where he sat. His found his eyes drawn inevitably towards it. It was the only source of noise and movement in the lagoon aside from himself although he sat as stationary as possible. All was still; deathly still.
He felt almost as if someone had taken a picture of this divine image and he had somehow walked into it, tainting it with his remorseful presence. The mark of his anger had somehow remained upon the water surface as the ripples in the liquid continued to emanate out from his point of contact as though he were still dangling his claw into it. Shifting his stance slightly so as not to disturb the calmness, he clutched the golden gauntlet of his left hand to his chest with an unconscious guilt.
There was no reason for him to feel so reluctant to shatter the silence. The aura of the place was so utterly unrestricted and peaceful, he could scream and still nothing would mind. Here he could be free; here he could sob or whoop for joy and the world would smile upon him as a parent would gaze fondly upon a happy child. There were no feelings of stifling inhibition or oppression; it was perfect. Despite that. he still couldn't help but feel like the flaw in the diamond.
He stared down at the tufts of grass sprouting up from between his feet, his knees bent up against his chest. So wondrously green it was almost painful to look upon them. Each blade was like a shard of emerald jutting lazily from the earth with a self-acknowledged beauty. It was rare for anyone to even notice the lagoon let alone set foot in it. The plants and rocks moulded to please themselves, achieving a silent perfection for them only to see. And of course the couple.
The soft and highly unintrusive breeze persisted to wash over him gently, lapping away his troubles with every delicate push. It was so light that even his sensitive hearing had ceased paying attention to it. That was, of course, until the voice came.
"...Vin...cent........ . ......"
His head jerked with a startling suddenness, his neck whipping up like a bullet from a gun firing into the sky. Perhaps his ears were playing tricks on him. Only a day or so before he had been questioning his sanity after all. .
No! That was real! This was no trick. . This wasn't the mirage of a dehydrated man in a desert; it was as real as he was, as real as the jewelled, precious surroundings. He shifted his position, sitting back on his heels in order to look to the source of the zephyr. Naturally he knew its origin without even closing his eyes and feeling the tender kisses of the air upon his face. There was only one thing he knew which carried such a seductive and enchanting scent of meadows and summer.
"Luc. , " he whispered in response to the almost silent song of the delicate element.
He held his breath and trained his ears on the phantom voice but was unsatiated. It did not come again and he felt his spirits rise and plummet in less than a second. Perhaps it had been my imagination after all... .
But still that sweet smell drifted across the lake towards him, the cave the place of its birth. He'd come here for a purpose. Even if he had indeed been chasing ghosts his entire life, there was still a goal to fulfil. Now it was time... .
Finding strength from a deep source, Vincent pushed off from the ground and stood firmly, not even trembling or showing a glimmer of his previous fragility. His fists clenched tightly by his sides and his stared out over the lake towards the foamy silver cascade.
"Wait. just a little longer," he murmured as he walked to the edge of the lake and dived in.
The cold quicksilver wrapped around him and the endless darkness below called to him with a song so delicious he was tempted to simply keep on going further down and down. But another melody now called to him, so much stronger than any death could afford and he broke the surface still facing his objective. He kicked back and his arms ploughed powerfully through the water pushing him along at a speed beyond that of any normal human. The ripples formed by his movement splayed out behind him in a vast fan, touching either side of the lake before slipping into obscurity.
Two thirds of the way to his destination, he swerved to the small grassy cliff to the left of the falls and pulling himself out, dripping silver tinted water onto the lush grass as he stood. He shook his head ferally, the liquid spraying out from his clothes and hair and smattering across the ground. Brushing himself down in some absent gesture, he slowly started to walk forward, gaining confidence with every step until he had speeded up into a quick stride taking long distances with every footfall. It came as no surprise that he would reach the curtain of water barely five minutes since pulling up from the water. Again he hesitated, but this time it was barely noticeable.
A flicker of an eyelid; a stride cut short. No, he had been right before. He had come a long way. He had travelled so far and sucked himself of so much energy that the only insanity to be found would be in the decision to turn back. And so he put his hands above his head as though to lift the water of the falls by force alone and stepped through.
The immense roaring and pressure of the cascade almost burst his eardrums, but in a fraction of a second it died down to nothing. The acoustics of the place he now stood somehow muffled the sounds of the outside world so well they were barely audible. In fact, aside from his own breathing and heartbeat, the dripping of the holy water from his clothes was the only interruption.
At first he squinted; his eyes so used to the dark night found even the soft and unintrusive glow emitted by the crystalline walls painful. He blinked a few times in order to clear his vision and took a step forward. How long had it been since he'd stepped on this glass-like floor.? When was the last time he'd swallowed his damned pride to find Her only to have his hopes dashed like ocean waves upon a shore?
But has he took a few more faltering steps he felt different. The cave itself felt different. The delicacy of the spindling stalagmites and stalactites which had existed for so long now they had fused to form elegant pillars which stretched from the floor to vaulted ceiling glowed with a lifelike pulse. The air seemed heavy with the scent of cornfields and meadow flowers. And as he stepped forward through the crystalline corridor and into the amphitheatre of lucid rock he saw why.
"Hello Vincent." she whispered, her voice which although not above a whisper carried so well through the fresh air. "I've been waiting."
Vincent smiled in returned. It was not the smile of irony nor bitter contempt so common to his dour features. It was the smile of genuine happiness and joy which had been missing from his lips for so long. Too long. "I know you have, my love," he breathed lightly. "I have too."
He walked across the room, his metal shoes clipping on the glassy floor with every step, images of himself reflected a thousand times in the facetted and yet somehow smooth floor and roof. He cringed as he paused a few metres from her and an image invaded his brain.
"L, Lucrecia.? Is that you??
"O, Oh my god! Lucrecia I can't believe.! I, Is it. I mean is it really you??
"No! Stay back!
"J, Just stay away from me Vincent. please. ."
A flash of pain cross Vincent's face and he turned away, his eyes closed tightly as he sought to rid his brain of the vicious memory.
Lucrecia's hand lifted up towards. She was sat as he remembered her in exactly the same position as she had been those many years before during the Meteor Crisis; her knees pressed together and her feet pointing to one side. She supported herself with her left elbow locked and her hand resting on the slightly raised platform of crystal at the head of the limpid cavern. Her right hand lay limply on her bent knees on top of the soft white folds of the angelic dress she wore. However, her normally grief stricken, delicate features seemed so much more content as though the weight of the universe had been lifted from her shoulders. Her hazel eyes glittered in the wonderful way they always had done on the past, and her full lips were pulled upwards in a faint smile.
At his hesitation though she reached up toward him with her right hand, her eyes suddenly pleading. A frown marred her expression as she attempted to read his thoughts.
"What's wrong, my love?" she asked in a light whisper.
He looked into her soft eyes with his burning red ones and felt humbled once more in her presence. He shook his head and in a long-forgotten gesture, ran his right hand idly through his hair to brush it back off his face.
"I. I'm just so scared that you'll leave me again," he breathed and a tear fell from her face.
"No. I won't leave you Vincent, because I never have," she responded enigmatically.
He lifted his face once more, a puzzled expression crumpling his forehead beneath the crimson bandages. "I don't understand."
"You spoke with Sephiroth," she started as she began to rise, a flash of remorse and worry flickering on her visage. "I listened to you talking with him, and what he said was true, Vincent. I have been following you. watching you ever since that time.-"
"I do not wish to talk of it," Vincent intervened firmly.
Standing up, she gave a single nod of understanding but still held her hand out towards him. He looked at it for a long time as though expecting her to snatch it away as soon as he moved. However, as he slowly lifted his hand to touch it, a smile once more touched her lips. Feeling a wash of emotions overcome him, Vincent took it and pulled her close to him.
They both dissolved into tears as they held one-another with a feverish desire they knew could never be fulfilled. Lucrecia buried her head in the midnight-black locks of his hair as he held the back of her head and pressed it against his heart. He kissed the top of her head over and over again, the soft scent of her hair filling his nostrils and making him long for the fragile object he held more than he ever had before. Tears streamed down his face from closed eyes and his breaths came raggedly from behind the sobs he fought back threatening to reduce him to a weeping wreck.
"Oh God, Luc," he gasped passionately. "Why us? Why did it have to be us?"
"I, I don't know Vincent," she whispered tearfully in return. "I just don't know."
They held each other for a while longer before eventually parting, still holding each other's hands. They gaze into each other's eyes for a long time before Vincent's face became unexpectedly thoughtful and he turned back to the cave mouth.
"What's wrong?" Lucrecia asked gently.
"I have been here for over an hour," Vincent murmured in response. "And yet I have not changed back into. into that demon."
He heard Lucrecia give a sigh and as he righted himself to look back upon her divine frame he was puzzled to see another, broader smile on her face.
"What's so amusing?"
"You will not change back, Vincent," she answered and Vincent's mouth fell open in stupefied silence. "At least you won't with my presence."
"B, But. how??" he exclaimed once he found his voice.
"I am a part of the Planet now. True, I once contained much Jenova, but with her passing I am kept in a physical form by the sheer will of the Lifestream alone."
Lucrecia avoided eye contact with him as she seemed to find sudden, false interest in a part of the floor to her left. He squeezed her hands tenderly to urge her on and she turned back to him.
"Because. I asked it to, and it granted my wish," she replied unrevealingly after a few seconds.
"Why would you want to return here, to this hell, though?" Vincent pressed with an unhidden curiosity and irritated confusion. "Is there a reason, or did you simply wish to speak with me?"
"I, I can't. really explain," she forced out eventually. She dropped her hands from his grip and sat back down on the platform she had been half sitting on during his entrance. "There are higher forces in this. forces beyond our comprehension."
Vincent sat down beside her feet and looked up at her face, once more taking her hands in his. "Tell me more. please, Luc," he begged quietly and she nodded apprehensively.
"I, I can tell you. what I know and what I understand," she stuttered warily as though fearful of the result of divulging such information. He only blinked slowly in return, his ears tuned wholly to her voice.
"I spoke with the planet before I came to see you in Midgar," she confessed hesitantly. "I knew what Hojo did to you up in the HQ but not the purpose. I couldn't bear the thought of you trapped inside the body of that monster so I pleaded to the Lifestream for an answer. And I got one."
He looked expectantly up at her, but again she avoided all eye contact with him.
"From what I was told, Mako is the only thing powerful enough to suppress a force such as Jenova for she is what induced these changes upon you. Hojo was well aware of the shape changing properties Jenova had when he experimented on you back in Nibelheim all those years ago. Jenova chose what she would turn you into, and everything which you hated about yourself, your willingness to kill, your temper and hatred were all used as the driving forces behind what you call Chaos.
"When I came to see you and I left you to transform in Midgar, it was for a purpose."
Vincent's breath caught in his throat and he was certain his heart stopped as any warmth he had previously felt was sucked from his soul. "You. meant for me to murder those men?" he spoke hoarsely. "You actually. wanted me to tear them apart and end their lives??"
A tear ran from Lucrecia's eye and down her cheek to fall on her lap. "I'm so, so sorry," she whispered. "I didn't want to, you have to believe me Vincent! I didn't want to!"
Lucrecia's head lowered and her hair hung over her face, shielding its porcelain beauty from his eyes. "You had to know," she said quietly. "You had to understand that Chaos isn't just some homicidal beast born from Hojo's experiments. It's you Vincent. It's everything that makes you a Turk and so much more. It's the dark side of you which gives you nightmares and makes you believe that you committed so many sins, whereas in truth it was always me."
"Please don't speak like that."
Lucrecia's head shook violently and her hair whipped around her visage. "No, Vincent. Let me explain. ."
He fell into a guilty silence as she continued.
"You need to know and understand that because of the cure that the Planet has endowed upon me," she swallowed forcefully as she ran her fingers through his soft raven locks. "It was imperative that you knew the reality behind your transformations otherwise the truth could have stolen up behind you and dragged the side of you I love so much into the shadow.
"I admit that I brought you out to face those thugs, knowing full well that you would kill them. However, the final fight against Cloud outside of Tifa's bar was your own doing. Can you see that the awful Turk side of you that I tried to destroy so badly is already breaking through?"
Tears began to flow once more from Vincent's eyes, but he said nothing as the only thing he felt he could ever love confessed her darkest knowledge to him. Knowledge of herself and knowledge of him. He had realised what she had intended for him to do, crouched on all fours like a wounded dog to lick his wounds as he contemplated the cause of his actions in the alley behind Tifa's Seventh Heaven. But to hear them come from her. . To hear such heinous secrets spill forth from such an angelic mouth was almost soul destroying.
"I failed to take that side away from you, Vincent. When we were together in Nibelheim those many summers ago I longed to take you away from the life of murder and deceit. I was like some pathetic crusader attempting to shine a light where my own will was even weaker. I am the one who ended up destroying you because of my lack of resilience. I could have said no to Hojo but I didn't. I could have just walked away with you and together we could have denied the sinful predicaments our lives had become. But you. you were strong. You were prepared to walk away and never look back but I couldn't. ." her voice trailed off and the tears began to flow once more from both their eyes.
"Which is why I am so. happy."
Vincent's head turned to her swiftly as he detected the odd change in her voice. Where her words had been so sorrowful and full of regret, now he could almost feel the aura of joy and elation flow from her like the heavenly light which surrounded her being.
"You are. Happy?" he repeated in bewilderment and she nodded in return, the smile once more upon her precious features.
"Yes, happy," she smiled with a sigh. She reached out and ran a hand down the side of his face. He shivered with pleasure at the feel of that longed for contact and he placed his own hand over hers, pressing it against his skin.
"I'm happy because I am the one who can save you," she exhaled and although he didn't understand her words, he found himself lost in the exhilaration of her voice. "The presence of the Planet is needed to destroy the actions of Jenova," she began once more, gazing fondly upon his face, his eyes still closed tightly. "I am the embodiment of the Planet whilst I exist on the surface, but as soon as you leave me you'll return once more to the rhythm Hojo instilled upon you.
"I cannot walk with you forever. Giving me a body is tiring the Lifestream which is why I do not have long."
"Tell me more." Vincent breathed as tingles ran up his spine from her constant touch.
"The solution is that I coalesce with you, Vincent. We become joined finally. I walk into your body and our souls merge to become one. You shall remain in control; however the changes shall cease and Chaos will be no more."
Vincent's eyes opened wide and he stared up at her in shock. Eventually a smile broke out on his face and he threw back his head to give an exulted laugh. It rang through out the cavern, the glass structures which surrounded them ringing in the delight of his happiness. His soul felt finally free! Hojo's stains upon him would be no more as the hideous changes would fade into the nothingness from whence they came. He could forget finally the impending agony of his changes; never worry about letting himself get too angry or too sad, allowing the blackness to consume him. Freedom..! Freedom..! He'd almost forgotten what the word sounded like!
"Freedom," he gasped in wonder, enjoying the syllables as they seemed to roll of his tongue. It sounded so right to his ears after the oppression of the decades before. Somehow everything seemed perfect; all the tortures he'd faced, all of the nightmares he'd lived became worthwhile, if only to feel the elation that word brought to him when said after so long in captivity!
"F, For how long?" he asked excitedly.
"Indefinitely," Lucrecia beamed back at him.
Vincent's eyes narrowed in puzzlement as he frowned at her, his expression lessening dramatically. "No. I, I mean how long will you remain within me for?"
Lucrecia's face fell as suddenly as she stared hauntingly back at him. "Th, That's. what I meant," she answered and he stood up suddenly throwing back her hands.
"You mean, the only cure. is for me to kill you?? To draw you into myself and suck away that life of yours I have worshiped since the day I was put upon this planet to subdue my own abnormalities??" he exclaimed, his face darkening in anger.
"I'm already dead!" she snapped in return, standing up and taking a few steps towards him. "Look at me!!"
She held out her hands either side of her and Vincent paused. Despite his attempts to ignore it, that ghostly, iridescent light still glowed around her. Her skin had always been pale, but now it was like bleached parchment. Dark smudges like black shadows hung beneath her eyes and her fragile form seemed so much weaker. "This is how I was when the Jenova claimed me," she whispered. "This. this monster you see before you is no better than the one you turn into when you're emotionally disturbed. The only difference is that I must remain like this for the rest of eternity. I cannot return fully to the Lifestream just as I cannot live like any normal person. I must stay here like a typecast wraith from a romantic ghost story and haunt these caves. I'm slowly going out of my mind through sheer ineptness and I hide myself away from those who attempt to reach me.
"I contemplate my sins every day just as you have, and I have finally been offered a release. Would you deny me this solution?" she ended passionately, tears falling freely from her sunken face.
"Of course I wouldn't," Vincent wept as he sank to his knees. "But I killed you once! I can't destroy the existence you have left, no matter how feeble you may think it is."
"I thought you loved me."
"Then do this for me, Vincent!" she cried and the ex-Turk's eyes lowered to stare emotionlessly at the floor.
"If our souls. join," he began falteringly. "Does that mean that when I finally die. you will cease to exist at all?"
"I, I don't know," she replied in teary truthfulness. "And I don't care. I just want to leave this place. Oblivion would be a warm emancipation to this."
"But it wouldn't be for me. . I always held high the hope that when I finally passed away I would meet you in a better place. If I thought that you wouldn't be there, then I would long for that nothingness with you."
"But don't you see?" she said in exasperation. "How I am now. I cannot return to the Planet at all. Would you not rather that in our last times on this Earth we were together in one form or apart for eternity?"
Vincent slumped down against a pillar and held his head in his hands. "I, I just don't know about anything any more," he murmured softly to himself.
Lucrecia looked at him sympathetically before walking over. "The two sides of you; the side which is Chaos and the side I have always known and loved will become as one once again. It is your job to ensure that you have a balance of the two otherwise you may become the murderer you once were. I shall try my hardest to suppress the 'Chaos' and in that way I shall redeem myself. Even if I do go to emptiness and you to the heaven you deserve so much, it can be with the knowledge that I have had my sins cleansed."
Vincent remained in his position of overwhelming confusion for many more minutes before raising his head. "I wish I could find my own retribution," he confided softly and she gave a single nod.
He pushed up from the glassy floor and stood in a shaky standing position, his back pressed up against the pillar behind him. "And by having your personality, your spirit and your energy drained from you. you will have atoned?"
She gave a single, slow nod. "It shall allow me to do that which I failed at thirty-nine years ago. I only ever wanted to take you away from the Turks and hopefully destroy your coldness and murderous ways. By becoming one with you, I can do that."
For a long time only silence existed within in the cave. Heavy, thick and smothering silence which weighed down upon the couple as they stared down at the glass beneath their feet. The rushing sound of the waterfall which had once been nothing, now seemed to become gradually louder in their minds as the world around them faded away into meaningless images.
Vincent's expression became hard and impassive and he did not so much as glance up at the trembling form before him. Kill. Lucrecia.? His friends and even she denied his part in her original downfall. but if he were to go through with this then there could be no doubt. Not only would be rob her of her presence, he would steal her existence. What could justify such an act? What could possibly be the reasoning behind conforming to her will.?
".Love." Lucrecia breathed and Vincent looked up at her, startled at first but slowly acknowledging.
"I know," he said in return. "But. I don't know if I could let myself go through with it."
"You don't even have to do anything, Vincent. If I wished to I could simply do it now; I could have done it the second you stepped foot in the cave but I chose not to. Going through with such an action without your consent would add upon me yet another sin and I could not enter you soiled so. By isolating myself I have had much time to contemplate my behaviour in the past, with this as the only option left to me. Betraying you and doing something against your will would make me little more than a selfish woman only wishing to rid herself of past crimes."
Vincent gave no move or verbal confirmation of her words and instead looked to the cave entrance. "How. long will it take?" he asked uncertainly, forcing his words out with obvious difficulty.
Although he did not turn to face her he could feel the happiness flow from her delicate frame at his interest. "I don't know," she replied. "I'm not even sure of what I'm meant to do. but something tells me that everything'll be okay."
Vincent spun quickly to face her, his blood-red cape whipping around his heels at such an unexpected motion. "Before. we do this, may I ask you something?"
"Yes, of course. What is it?"
"It's. about the Vigilante," he began, immediately noticing the shock which washed over her features. "What is it? Why is it here and what is its purpose?"
Lucrecia inhaled deeply and closed her eyes in thought. "Not even the Planet knows," she said, exhaling her held breath slowly. "But from what I have been told the creature is slowly killing it."
"It's killing the Planet? Then it is not of the Lifestream's making?"
Lucrecia's expression became troubled and her eyes seemed to focus upon objects which he could not see. "There are no answers," she spoke eventually, and when she did her speech took on an odd undertone as though she were talking with the voices of many others at the same time. He found himself reminded disturbingly of the Vigilante.
"It is poisoning us, taking what is not it's in the name of a false cause. There are no answers," she repeated finally.
To Vincent's horror, her eyes rolled back and her knees buckled. He leapt across the short distance between them and caught her, gently supporting her weight and pulling her closer to himself.
"L, Luc? Are you all right?" he questioned fearfully.
He felt her head nod, lying against his chest. "I'm fine," she whispered after a terrifying pause. "But. I'm growing weaker. Have you made your final decision? I. I don't have. long now."
"Yes," Vincent murmured.
"I. love you Vincent Valentine."
"I love you too Lucrecia!"
Her eyes fluttered and shut fully as her form went limp in his arms, her head falling back heavily as she slipped into a divine state of unconsciousness; a smile on her fragile features.
"I said yes!!" he cried out, his eyes darting over the chamber as though he could answer the Earth itself. "Just a few more minutes! Please!!"
No answer came except the cold echoing of his own voice as it reflected off the crystalline structures around him to further his torment. His face twisted by anger, her threw back his head and let forth and ungodly roar, worthy of Chaos as the pain of a sword thrusting through his chest screamed in his body. Still he held onto her.
He fell to his knees, unable to support them both as pure agony tore up and down his spine sapping his energy and mocking him in his distress. Still he held onto her.
As he opened his tightly shut eyes to look upon her angelic face he was shocked to see that he could now see his own palm through the back of her head as she faded away. "N, No! Lucrecia! Don't go!!" he gasped, but his words went unnoticed.
He stifled another cry of suffering as it seemed to come from the very depth of his soul itself. The woman in his arms completely gone, he crossed his arms over his chest in an effort to prevent whatever was bursting from his chest from escaping and stumbled to his feet. He took a few steps and smashed into one of the glass walls, his feet unwilling to co-operate to his screaming mental requests.
He battled back the pain and lurched towards the cave exit. He needed air and the soft caress of the night on his face to rid him of this searing anguish. He needed his friends and he needed her; but she was gone now. Drawn in to feed his inner demons so that he could continue his pointless existence.
As he pushed out of the waterfall and onto the grassy bank he leant back onto the surface of the mountain which circled the lake before him.
"Luc." he wept, as he sank to his knees and put his face in his hands. "I changed my mind. don't. don't ever leave me."
With a final cry of distress, he fell forward and into the lake with a loud and ungraceful splash; swallowed up by the stars as they glittered peacefully on the surface. The moon observed with silent sorrow from her pearly seat.
It began to rain.
Cloud held his hand up to Tifa and she took it gratefully, scrambling up the sheer boulder and half pulled by her aide. That done, the ex-SOLDIER turned back with Cid at his side, and the two men knelt and stretched down to meet the awaiting grasp of Sephiroth. The general took their help without complaint and agilely climbed up to stand with the others on the small cliff.
Cloud brushed his knees down idly and looked over at the place they had once regarded as home. In the early dawn light, Midgar looked like something from illustrations he'd seen in science fiction books. The golden light reflected off the exposed metallic surfaces and the early morning heat made hazes as it evaporated frost on the ground. It almost appeared as though the yellow disc was floating ethereally in a distant mirage. If he were standing anywhere near the Correl Desert he would have simply believed it to be little more than that. However, the biting chill of the night and memories of their flee still burned in his mind and dispelled any fond or dreamlike visions.
He felt a nudge and noticed Tifa moving to stand beside him in his peripheral vision.
"It looks so far away," she murmured wistfully. "I can't believe that only a few weeks ago I was tending bar and thinking about order forms."
".And now we're worrying about our lives," Sephiroth ended glumly.
Cloud pulled his eyes away from the city and looked over his shoulder at the silver-haired man. "Surely we're safe now?" he inquired with a frown. "I mean we're out of Midgar; we've left behind any stories of our misadventures."
Sephiroth shook his head in response and his aqua eyes drifted to the horizon where the first rays of sun were peering over and flooding the landscape. "News travels fast and far. Your friend, the vice-mayor spoke of how the public wished to alert other cities and towns about the danger of the demon. The death of civilians by a wild creature is one thing, but the escape of people wanted for something as extreme as a death penalty may be viewed as something so much worse. Perhaps even the enormity of our threat shall surpass that of the monster's."
Cid lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply from it resisting the urge to lapse into a coughing fit as the icy morning air attacked his lungs. "If you don't mind me sayin'," he started regardless of the answer to his rhetorical question. "But isn't that a bit pessimistic? I mean sure people wanna see us hung, drawn and quartered, but as soon as they find out we've left the city then maybe things'll die down?"
Cloud sighed and looked down at his feet, the Ultima Weapon held out before him with the tip of its blade resting on the rock they stood upon. "No," he said eventually. "Sephiroth's right. Even if he isn't then we can't take that risk. We haven't spent all night getting away from that damned place only to be dragged back. We'd do well to keep a low profile for now."
"So where do we go then?" Tifa asked quietly as though suddenly fearful of someone overhearing them. "We can't just wander around avoiding all contact with people for the rest of our lives, can we?"
"We can always go to Wutai," Yuffie offered with a hint of happiness and pride. "Whatever goes on across the world we'll always be welcome there. My dad runs the place and he'll know we're innocent."
"We have to think of all possibilities," Cloud urged gently. "We don't want to be too casual, but we can't be too cautious either."
"There's Rocket Town too," Cid stated. "It's the same as Wutai when you think about it safety-wise. A lot of people don't even think of it as bein' a proper town and with me as their Captain I'll make sure we get a good reception. And I can tell you one thing, if I have to wait much longer for a decent cup of damned tea, I'm gonna start bustin' asses!"
"You miss Shera then?" Tifa smiled and Cid looked momentarily taken aback.
"Miss that slow, old clapped-out, good for nuthin', technician?" he blurted out. His horrified expression elapsed into an unmistakable grin and he nodded. "Yeah, I guess I am. 'Sides, Alicia hasn't seen her daddy for a month and she's probably forgotten all about me!"
Yuffie giggled. "Cid, I really don't think that anyone could forget about you. Anyway, your house probably stinks of so much nicotine that it would be impossible!"
The couple laughed and the pilot looked at her with an almost sorrowful expression. "Don't think so," he said with an upset tone of voice. "That dumb-ass Shera won't let me smoke in the house!"
The laughter grew louder until only Sephiroth remained standing impassively on a slight overhang which formed a ledge on the cliff. He blinked slowly; eventually using his hand to shield his eyes from the ever-bright light as it grew more intolerable over time. The laughter slowly died down, and no longer feeling out of place he spun on his heel and strode towards the next climb in their journey. The side of the hill had been stepped with occasional flat parts broken by rocks walls. The one he now stood before appeared to be no taller than two metres with only a gentle slope leading upwards after it. Ensuring the firmness of the Masamune in his belt, he leapt up and grabbed the lip of the ledge by his fingers. Grunting through exertion he pulled himself up and stood upon the final obstacle.
"What can you see?" Cloud called up to him as Sephiroth glanced over the crest of the hill.
"A town," came the eventual answer. "I'm not sure, but I believe its Kalm."
Tifa nodded. "Kalm's the only place near here. The next village isn't for another few miles east and there's no point in stopping there."
Cloud gestured in agreement and stared up the minor cliff, thinking hard for a few minutes. "We need to rest and stock up on supplies."
"Do you know where we're going yet?" Yuffie questioned curiously and the leader of AVALANCHE scratched the back of his head thoughtfully.
"We need to get to Junon."
"And from there?"
Cloud shrugged. "We don't know what the situation will be like. We can guess that the world is going to be on red-alert, searching for the 'renegade murderers AVALANCHE', but we can't be certain."
"We get our chocobos and take the long route to Wutai. That way we'll miss out any towns and avoid contact with people all together."
Cid pulled a face. "The seas under the Gongaga peninsula are dangerous though. It was bad enough taking the Tiny Bronco down there, let alone those damned birds. They'd throw us and leave us to drown the second a storm kicked in."
"Best case?" Tifa asked.
"We go to Kalm and see what kind of reception we get. If people don't give us a second glance then we buy what we need to and get our chocobos from the farm on the Grasslands. From there we head across the swamp and to Junon to catch a boat." Cloud finished and glanced around the others.
"So what's the most likely thing to happen?" said Tifa as she leant up against the wall Sephiroth perched upon silently.
Again Cloud shrugged. "We'd be fools to try and predict. Let's just find out what we can. We'll go to Kalm and try to get news on what's happening back in Midgar. Who knows? Maybe we'll even hear if Vincent's passed through?"
Yuffie's head lifted slightly at the sound of her friend's name, but she hastily turned back to the alien-esque city behind her. "Whatever we're gonna do, we'd better do it fast. The city'll be waking up now and when people start to travel and move around, so will the news."
"The child is right," Sephiroth agreed from above them. Yuffie frowned at being referred to as a kid but held her tongue to save the insult for another day. "We are only condemning ourselves by talking about hypothetical possibilities when we could just as easily be discovering them for ourselves."
Cid nudged Cloud and leaned slightly towards the ex-SOLDIER. "Did you understand what the hell he just said?"
Cloud grinned as he moved over to the small cliff. He linked his hands together and looked back to the rest. "C'mon, I'll boost you up."
There was a loud smack and Reno's eyes snapped open, his head jerked to one side as something struck his cheek. He gave a snarl of pain and blinked to rid his eyes of sleep. They eventually focused upon a man wearing a deep purple uniform stood before him, his face annoyingly close and blocking half his vision. Reno pulled a face.
"Ever heard of breath mints?" he snapped irritably and his comment was met with another punch on the face.
He attempted to pull up his hand to rub the now sore spot and give his tormentor a sign of his annoyance but found his hands held tightly behind him. He turned away from the uniformed man before him and glanced over his shoulder. He was sat upon a hard wooden seat; his arms bound tightly with thin rope weaved around the spindles of the chair-back. An experimental yank illustrated that the many knots in the bonds were unmistakably tight. If he dared pull any more than he'd lose all feeling in his fingers; in such a circumstance he couldn't afford to do that.
Fully awake and now fully aware of his compromising state, the flame-haired Turk looked straight ahead once more. The soldier that had blocked his view had now moved to sit down on a similar seat opposite him. A small metal table was screwed into steel panel flooring by the chair side and a small pistol lay on top of it.
Reno's captor looked to be in his mid-forties and well battle-worn. An old, greying scar ran down the side of his face; the only smooth piece of skin on a sun-dried visage which had taken on the moistureless texture of beef-jerky. Hair, which may have once been a golden-brown, was now bleached blonde through outdoor exposure. It was cut very short and close to the scalp in a harsh and unrelenting way. A brush of stubble covered his chin and grey-blue eyes bored into Reno's glittering aqua gaze. But what Reno found most interesting was the outfit that the man wore. It was a perfect parody of the old Shinra SOLDIER uniforms in its dark maroon shades and loose fit with thick belt high on the waist. The only noticeable difference was in the emblem on the centre of the leather band. Instead of the ornate anchor-like symbol there were the letters 'M.O.M.P.' embossed into it; 'Midgar Office Military Police'. Reno found it easy to believe that his counterpart had more than likely been in the original SOLDIER programme when the old conglomerate were in power before Meteor. Although his eyes didn't glow with the sign of Mako-infusion, the harsh contours of his jaw-line and obvious muscular build even beneath the clothes added to the effect.
"Old Shinra employee, huh?" He asked openly and he was answered with a frown.
"What of it?"
Reno shrugged as much as he dared to with the taut bindings on his arms. "Nuthin', just wondering."
The ex-SOLDIER stared at him for a little longer before sitting forward in his seat and glaring with undisguised antipathy and curiosity on his features. "Yeah I was. SOLDIER third class. And you used to be one of Rufus' little pets, huh?"
Third class, Reno repeated to himself. That makes sense; it was only the Firsts which had the misfortune of Hojo's 'improvements'.
"No, I was Turk and still am," he responded coolly, keeping his own expressions in check and relaying nothing physical of his mental ponderings.
"Is that mean to be some kind of threat?"
Reno shrugged again. "Whatever takes your fancy," he grinned slowly.
With quite surprising speed for his age, his captor stood up and shoved a balled fist into the Turk's stomach violently before sitting down again placidly. He cracked his knuckles and drummed his fingers on the table beside the gun. Reno had managed to tense his abdomen muscles in preparation for the blow, but was still winded through shock and took a few deep gasps of pain.
"I know all about you Jerks and your interrogation tricks. Don't think I'm gonna fall for em," the man spat disdainfully. "Try and pull any more wise-cracks on me and I'll wipe the floor with your smart-ass."
Reno bit the inside of his cheek and forcefully restrained himself to hold back the many slanderous retorts bubbling in his mind. Eventually calming himself, he coughed and met the cold steely gaze once more. "What's your name, soldier?" he asked clipply, reverting back to routines carried out many years ago when he had indeed been one of Rufus' pets.
At first it didn't seem as though he was going to get an answer, but eventually the ex-SOLDIER spoke. "Jarrad Reed."
"Well then Reed, third class. I suggest that you let me get the hell out of here before I call Vice Mayor Jameson and get him to ship you off to Round Island," Reno replied emotionlessly with a confident undertone.
To his surprise he was met with a loud and derisive snort. "Mr Jameson has been striped of his titles and is waitin' sentence with your other Jerk buddies down in the cells," Jarrad laughed obnoxiously and Reno felt his heart plummet although his face remained imperturbable.
"When did this happen?" he asked impassively.
"It happened after you three were seen leaving his office late last night by an anonymous source," Jarrad reported smugly.
Reno's mind became a whirl of images and thoughts as a thousand outcomes and questions flipped through his brain. "An anonymous source? I didn't now that Offices were so professional that they'd trust the word of strangers without taking heed," he retorted dryly.
A raised eyebrow was his only answer for a long time.
Reno's eyes began to wander once more around the room he was in. He recognised it as being the interrogation chamber underneath the Midgar Offices where over a hundred identical cells ran like honeycombs through the basement. He'd been down here many times on typical inspections and routine defence checking. Crime bosses and gangs which could prove major threats were few and far between now in strong contrast to the world before Shinra. It was only petty thieves and foul criminals such as rapists who were brought down to these rooms now; the Turks barely got a look in. Reno almost exhaled a sorrowful sigh. As much as he hated to admit it, interrogation always had been one of his favourite duties. .
"It doesn't matter who told us. We still caught you bastards fair and square," Jarrad growled eventually and Reno turned leisurely back to face him. "And not only that, we actually saw you helpin' them murderers away too."
"Where's your proof?"
"We found you sneaking around in the old sewers like the bits of slime you are and watched as you helped that spiky AVALANCHE loser down the hatch onto the rail lines. We would've caught him too if the train hadn't moved away so fucking fast."
"Yeah well, trains are annoying like that," Reno muttered with mock sympathy. "Always moving too damned quickly, huh?"
He braced himself for another blow but it never came and a wary glance revealed that his adversary probably hadn't even heard him. Slightly thankful, Reno cleared his throat and stared at him thoughtfully.
"How did you know who it was we were helping to escape if you only saw one man?" he queried in a tone if voice he hoped disguised any interest. The last thing he wanted to do was let this bastard know he was ignorant about anything.
"With hair like that, how could you mistake him for anyone else?" the fighter chuckled. "Besides, our source told us that you were hiding AVALANCHE and after we found you and your buddies missing it wasn't to hard to see that we were onto something."
"So you saw that the Turks were missing and decided that we were instantly guilty?"
"You may think that the MPs ain't as smart as you Turks, but we're not as dumb as you think," Jarrad relayed with a hint of anger. "When we found you missing we went to see Jameson. It didn't take too much effort to find used medical equipment and food. A quick look over some of the rooms in the presidential suite let us know that they'd been used. We'd have to be blind not to know that somethin's been goin' on."
An anonymous source Reno mused to himself angrily. Who the hell could have known what we were doing when we were so careful.?
"About this information you received," Reno began thoughtfully. "Were they male or female?"
"We don't know; there was a note left on the Mayors desk."
A note in Redford's office. . That place is watched by security cameras constantly.
"Has anyone checked the cameras?" Reno questioned and he was met with a nod.
"Yup, they were all blank. No one was seen goin' in or out 'cause all the film had been wiped."
"Did it just show black when it was played?"
Jarrad nodded again. "It was like it hadn't even been used, y'know?"
Someone must've taken the used films and swapped them for new ones. The camera room is guarded at all times so this has to have been an inside job.
"What about the security in the room? What were they doing?" Reno continued to press impatiently. He was well aware that his constant questions would seem more than a little suspicious and he had long since given up his pretence of disinterest and aloofness if only for information. Jarrad Reed however seemed less than concerned and with an over-inflated sense of ego at his knowledge was only happy to reply.
"There were three men in the room, all found fast asleep. The weirdest thing was when the change-over guards tried to wake them up; they didn't come 'round for ages." Jarrad responded. In his talking he had picked up the small pistol and was now fiddling with it, clicking the safety on and off; looking down the barrel with one eye closed and shooting imaginary targets. Reno swallowed hard as the gun pointed to him but it quickly turned from his face to point at a spot just behind him.
All three guards deeply asleep. They must have been drugged.
"Was there any food up there?" he said after a few minutes of tense silence had elapsed. "Any drinks or sign that they might've inhaled something?"
"How the hell am I supposed to know? I just found this out from someone who works up there."
Reno frowned, his brow furrowed deeply. "So in other words, you have no fucking idea whether anything you've just told me is true or not?" he asked irritably.
Jarrad stood and plated a foot on the edge of Reno's chair between his knees. With a powerful kick, it toppled and the Turk let out a gasp as his back slammed against the cold metal floor. He opened his eyes, squinting against the bright overhead light and watched as the ex-SOLDIER stood over him and pointed the gun at his head.
"Listen you prick," he snapped angrily. "I'm supposed to be the one asking you questions, not the other way round. You're really starting to piss me off and if I put a clip-full of lead in your brain, I don't think anyone would give a shit. Now shut the hell up before I start putting more holes in you than a colander."
"That's enough, Reed," ordered a voice and Jarrad suddenly snapped up and spun around, a look of shock on his face.
Reno attempted to catch a glimpse of the person who had just entered, but the door was obscured by the seat of the chair and he was too stunned to raise his head and look.
"Sir!" the MP blurted out clumsily in typical military fashion. "Sorry, sir!"
"Now pick him up and take him through to the H-Wing. But make sure you put him in a different cell to the others," the same voice said again in a chillingly calm tone.
Jarrad answered with a salute before turned back to Reno. "Treacherous bastard," he hissed. He coughed and spat on Reno's face before righting the chair and undoing the straps which fastened him to the chair. His hands free, Reno reached up impassively and wiped his face, flashing a dark and menacing glare to his captor. The interrupter of the proceedings still stood at the door and watched with a disinterested and thoroughly bored expression as Reno's hands were bound before him and he was pulled roughly to his feet.
He stepped to one side as the Turk was half dragged from the interrogation chamber and out into the seemingly endless corridor outside. As Reno passed the superior however his eyes narrowed in suspicion. There was something oddly familiar about that build and the colour of his eyes. Shaking his head and looking forward, Reno continued to move after his leader making sure to stop and trip as often as he could In order to make life that little bit more difficult.
His journey, that lasted twice as long as they should have courtesy of his awkward behaviour, came to a halt as after a labyrinth of corridors and passages they stopped outside of a cell door. The letter 'H' was painted six-foot tall in fluorescent-yellow paint which almost seemed to glow in the cold light opposite the room entrance. Jarrad pulled a set of keys from his trouser pocket and stuck one into the lock, turning it and pushing the door open. He thrust Reno inside firmly and hastily slammed it shut after him. The bang echoed down the steely passageways and whistling a tuneless song and twirling the keyring on a thick index finger, he walked nonchalantly away from the scene and back to the interrogation chamber.
Certain that he was now alone, Reno slipped his hands easily from the ropes around his wrists and leapt up to look out of the window in the cell-door. He hung his arms out through the widely spaced iron bars and rested his forehead on the centre one. As he stared over at the door opposite him and slightly to the right, a face cautiously emerged. Eventually a relieved and joyous smile appeared on it and Reno grinned in return.
"Hey, pretty lady," he drawled in a mockery of old Western Movies he'd seen as a child in the Sector Two cinema. "Come here of'fen?"
"Reno.!" Elena reprimanded with undisguised happiness. "Am I glad to see you??"
"I didn't know you cared," he grinned and she laughed in return. "How long have you been here for?"
She shrugged, and although serious, the smile did not dissipate from her features. "A few hours. maybe more. But almost a week passed the last time we were all imprisoned!"
Reno nodded thoughtfully. "Hmm. that doesn't sound too helpful. Where are Rude and Reeve?"
Elena pointed opposite herself to the doors in Reno's blind vision. "They're locked up next to you," she reported. "We all waited for you to come back for ages but you never showed and they were both exhausted, especially Reeve. He was still half-asleep when they threw him in there. Rude was questioned before you and he took a bad beating but should be fine. He always was the best out of any of us when it came to keeping quiet."
Reno smirked and gave a nod. "What about you? They asked you anything yet?"
She gave a single nod. "They asked me a few things but not much," she responded. Her expression became angry and Reno covered his mouth to stop himself from laughing as he sensed one of her 'equal rights' speeches on the horizon. "I mean just because I'm a woman they don't seem to think I know anything. It's not that I want to be interrogated, it's just that they're so stupid to presume that I'm just a ditzy woman around for decoration."
She continued talking and Reno turned around and rested his back against the door. A broad grin now covered his face and he shook his head in disbelief. He remembered once when they had been caught by arms-dealers in Junon and she had been a new recruit. Even then she had made such drawn out speeches about the stupidity of men and what sexist bastards they were (only emphasised by Don Corneo's kidnapping in Wutai). But at that time she had moaned about why she was the only one to be questioned. Was it because she was a woman and they thought that she'd be weaker and most likely to spill her guts?
Reno gave a snort of laughter and choked it back as he turned to face her.
".And another thing. When they did sit me down and ask me what we were doing down in the sewers, those moronic pigs seemed too interested in my breasts to pay any attention to what I was saying!" She gave a noise of disgust and glared at Reno. "You men!" she cried in loathing. "You're all the same!"
She turned away from him and slumped out of view. Reno said nothing and decided to let her calm down before speaking with her once more. Although Elena on a chauvinistic rampage was a lethal weapon to own, the circumstances weren't right. He knew every twist and turn of these corridors and passages but it would be futile to escape. He'd designed much of the security himself with cameras on every corner and motion sensors near doorways and exits. Member of the MP and occasionally SP constantly patrolled the premises looking for suspicious events or objects.
He'd been trapped by himself and at that moment felt lower than he'd ever felt before. It was all very well joking and laughing with his comrade, but when it came down to it; it was all a façade. He didn't know how they were going to get away or even where to. There was a city above them with the knowledge of their involvement in the past turbulent month. Surrounding them was steel many feet thick and people watching their every move. It wasn't the best place to be in at that moment he decided. In fact, he realised that he'd rather be walking around the old sewer-system with crap up to his neck and rats gnawing on his head than sat in that cell. Unfortunately he had no choice otherwise he would've picked himself up gladly and stuck a few bits of cheese in his ears to give those rodents something to really enjoy.
And what about this 'mysterious anonymous source'? Who had the ability to get up to some of the most heavily guarded areas of the Midgar Offices? Who even knew the Turks' involvement with everything that had been going on? There was only one answer and it was not a pretty one; Reno pulled a face. An inside spy was the only option and it made his stomach reel to even consider it.
He snorted to himself at his truly bizarre speculations.
"I have to get out of here before I go nuts," he said, realising the very irony of the fact he was talking to himself. "Definitely. ." He finished before walking over to his cot and collapsing onto it.
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