Lucrecia had never felt Sephiroth's will so strongly as when he passed again through Nibelheim, but by the time she reached the town, he'd already moved on. The shuffling, black-cloaked figures were too simple to follow him, but she knew the way. As a younger woman--as if the Jenova would allow her to be an older one--no, as a stupider woman, she had travelled the mountain trail many times.
But in those days, it had been thick with trees, not this barefaced tangle of stone spires. And then, she had always walked it with Vincent as her shadow, ready to catch her should she miss a step or to ward off any monsters that might appear. The ones that looked like monsters, at least. The ones she hadn't chosen for herself.
This time, she didn't even have that.
When Lucrecia woke, she could no longer sense the presence of her son. The pull that had drawn her from her cave had passed her by.
She wanted to weep. For the loss. For her obedience. This thing that connected her to her son was not some motherly intuition but a parasite, and she'd come all this way without even a thought to resisting it, just like any one of Jenova's pawns.
And for what?
"Oh... You're awake."
Her gaze fell on a woman approaching her bedside. Gentle brown eyes behind large round glasses.
Lucrecia knew she ought to have questions. Where was she? Why had she been brought here, and who was this woman? But none of it mattered.
Sephiroth was gone.
"Are you in very much pain?" the woman asked her.
Dully, Lucrecia became aware of a pain in her right arm. She lifted it from the blankets to find a bandage wound neatly around her forearm. She'd been nearly through the pass when some monster had sunk its teeth into it, and after that, she didn't quite remember. She wondered if this wound was deep enough to scar. Her arms should have been scored with marks, but with how quickly the Jenova healed her, there remained only the tallies she had made before she'd invited it into her body.
"I'm sorry, I don't have any materia," the woman went on, "but I could bring you some painkillers."
"No, that's..." Lucrecia's voice came out in a rasp. When was the last time she had used it? She didn't need words for Jenova.
"Water?" the woman suggested, and to this, Lucrecia acquiesced.
The other woman stepped out of the room, and Lucrecia shifted to prop herself up against the pillow. The curtains were drawn to soften the daylight, but the dim made the room feel small and cramped. Boxes crowded the floor space, leaving a narrow path from the bed to the door, and atop some lay tools and gears and metal bits, but it wasn't the clutter of an active mind. The blueprints taped to the wall beside her curled up at one corner, revealing a discolored section of wall beneath. It had hung there for some time without ever being completed.
Another might have looked at this room and instantly assumed it could only belong to a man, because women weren't so messy. Lucrecia knew better. She had never been the dutiful wife who kept a neat house, though gods she had tried it. As though making the bed would have fixed everything that was wrong with them.
The woman returned, deftly navigating the boxes, and offered her a glass of water.
"My name is Shera," she said, sitting down atop a crate. "May I ask yours?"
So polite. What was the point of it? But she took a long drink of water and answered, "Lucrecia."
"Lucrecia," Shera repeated with a cautious smile. "It's nice to meet you."
Lucrecia knew it wasn't, but that wasn't why she couldn't coax the rote pleasantry out of her throat. It had been decades since she had heard anyone speak her name. For so long, she may as well not have existed, and here this stranger sat breathing her back into reality.
Shera said her name as though it mattered.
It didn't. She had worked so hard to make it matter, but she had no doubt that Hojo had taken credit for every one of her achievements. He would have done it out of spite, but in the end, maybe it was a favor she didn't deserve. He had erased her from the list of perpetrators.
In avoiding Shera's gaze, Lucrecia looked past her out the door into the room beyond. She could make out part of a dining table, a white coat draped over one of the chairs. Her brow furrowed, because she could see her own resting across the foot of the bed.
"Hm?" said Shera, turning to follow her glance. Not quite understanding, she offered, "It's just us here."
"Are you with Shinra?" Lucrecia asked her.
"Oh..." Her hands twisted in her lap. "Sometimes, I suppose. I'm an engineer with the space program, but of course the work's been stalled on that for some time."
She said it as though it were common knowledge, but Lucrecia hadn't kept up well enough with the world to know there'd ever been a space program.
"Are you in trouble with them?" Shera asked carefully.
Lucrecia almost laughed. What could that even mean? What more could they possibly do to her? "No," she said, shaking her head. "But I'm not anxious for a reunion."
A different sort of Reunion, perhaps, whispered something in the back of her mind. She pushed it down.
"I see," said Shera. "Then you aren't with Cloud and the others."
"They were here yesterday, just ahead of President Rufus. I think they had ties to an anti-Shinra group... but they're gone now."
"Is that why you helped me?" Lucrecia asked her. "You thought I might be one of them?"
Shera shook her head. "None of us really knew what to think. Not many people come through the pass... The Shinra are still at the inn, so I thought this would be safer for you."
"So you'll harbor someone you suspect of having anti-Shinra ties."
"I don't believe in Shinra's brand of justice," Shera said firmly.
"What if I did deserve it?" said Lucrecia. "To be disappeared?"
In response, Shera said something unexpected: "I don't think they would understand what the punishment was for."
"...no," Lucrecia had to concede. "They really wouldn't."
Once she was up for it, Shera gave her a brief tour of the house, promising one of the town once the last Shinra troops had left. She offered Lucrecia a towel and some clean albeit ill-fitting clothes, and Lucrecia accepted the opportunity to wash up because it seemed like the easier thing to do.
It was the extra toothbrush in the bathroom that first caught her attention. Not the fresh one that Shera had provided her, but the one already settled beside the sink, bristles worn. Beneath the sink was a man's shaving kit.
When she returned to the room to dress, Lucrecia checked the dresser. Nothing but men's clothes. A man's room after all.
Where was he?
Shera had made tea in the meantime, and sat at the kitchen table with an extra cup waiting to be filled. Lucrecia's hair was cold and damp against the back of her neck, and the tacit offer was enticing. She sat down.
"The man you live with," she said, "is he coming back?"
Maybe she should have been more delicate; after all, there was a sadness about Shera, and maybe he was dead. But Lucrecia had tired of tip-toeing around other people's feelings a long time ago.
Shera looked at her, and then dropped her gaze to her teacup. Her hands curled around it, seeking warmth. "I don't know," she said. "He left without saying." After a moment, she added, "If he does come back... well, you can take my room."
Lucrecia hated her a little, in that moment. Self-effacing. So determined to please.
"I am not your responsibility," she said.
"No," Shera agreed. "You're my guest."
Lucrecia said nothing. This hospitality wasn't anything she should have agreed to. She avoided people with good reason, and even with Sephiroth gone from the area, Jenova's pull was ever-present. North, these days.
It was stronger lately than it had been, even though the distance was greater. There was a purpose to it, a plan that Lucrecia had yet to grasp. If she went, then she could understand it, be a part of it: the great Reunion.
A realization settled in. If she left this house, she wouldn't have the strength to return south.
Lucrecia had never really fought for anything that merited fighting for, but she had always been stubborn. Whether her autonomy was of any worth, she didn't want to let the Jenova win. It didn't count for anything. It wouldn't be a blow that mattered. But she was going to strike it, anyway.
"Thank you," Lucrecia said at last. "I think I will stay, for a little while."