Lucrecia had not left the house much during her first weeks in Rocket Town. Shera had given her that tour of the town, but it had barely registered. Lucrecia hadn't wanted to be a part of it, nor had she wanted to risk allowing her body the movement.
Once Shera began to spend most of her waking hours at the rocket, Lucrecia thought at first that it was the absence of a distraction that troubled her. Shera was not a loud person, but the house felt too quiet without her moving about. It became a stale and lifeless space, and the sight of every object that belonged to the house's owner rather than to Shera irked her.
The urge to step outside grew in her, but the tug of Jenova had gone. The Reunion had come and passed, and Jenova had decided, it seemed, that whatever pieces of it had embedded themselves within Lucrecia weren't worth retrieving.
No, this was something else entirely. Something... human.
She stepped outside.
The air was cold and crisp, rich with the scent of leaves. It was autumn. Countless seasons had come and gone without her remarking on them, and only now did she notice the color in the trees. Reds and yellows burst brilliantly throughout the town, and traced a line of vibrant color across the horizon, beyond the rocket.
A lifting weight settled back onto her chest as she glanced up. It was the first time she had actually looked, but there it was: Meteor.
These trees would never blossom again in the spring. They would never even make it to winter.
The streets were empty; every last engineer was working on the rocket. Lucrecia made her way up to it, and no one paid her any mind. The metal steps rang beneath her feet as she climbed. Could Shinra technology really save them? She thought she had known Shinra. It was people like her, like Hojo--they might have fooled themselves for a while that what they were doing was for the good of humanity and the Planet, but it wasn't.
Maybe she was still a fool, because she wanted to believe Shera wasn't like that. She wanted this to work.
She wanted Shera to see the trees in the spring.
Lucrecia found her inside the cockpit, performing diagnostics on its myriad switches and levers, making note of every unsatisfactory response. Lucrecia thought that Shera hadn't noticed her, but after some minutes passed, she paused and glanced up.
"I'm sorry, I just wanted to finish that sequence. Is everything all right?"
Nothing had been all right for a very long time. But was it closer than it had been? Lucrecia felt silly, of a sudden. She wondered if this was how Vincent had felt around them. She didn't have the expertise for this kind of work; she could contribute nothing, only watch.
"Is it all right if I watch?"
Shera smiled. "I don't mind."
From then on, they went to the rocket each day together. The handful of laypeople working at the inn brought regular meals, and Lucrecia helped to distribute them, because it was one small thing that she could do. It was maybe the only thing she had done for anyone else since she had given up on her marriage. The engineers offered their thanks distractedly, but not insincerely.
A small distinction that made every difference.
She and Shera would talk sometimes, on these short breaks or when her work required less focus, and at last Lucrecia learned the story of the rocket's failed launch four years prior.
"Do you still believe the oxygen tank was faulty?" Lucrecia asked. She noted that Shera had assigned the task of inspecting them now to someone else.
Shera looked perplexed. "That isn't really..."
"Do you still believe it was faulty?" Lucrecia pressed.
"If you had cut the inspection short, left the rocket, and allowed the launch to go ahead, would it have been a success?"
"It might have been," Shera insisted. She had held onto her guilt for too long to let it go so easily.
"And if the tank had failed?"
Shera held her gaze, still for a moment as she only was when she slept, these days. "...he could have died up there," she said at last.
"It was Shinra who pushed you into making that choice," Lucrecia told her. "The science is only a means to an end for them; they don't respect it."
Shera returned her attention to her work with a furrow in her brow. Lucrecia wondered if anyone had tried to tell her before. For all her self-deprecation, Shera's colleagues deferred to her expertise without question.
"You never felt pressured?" Shera asked her.
Lucrecia blinked. She understood Shera's meaning, but the question caught her off-guard.
"The Jenova Project," Shera clarified, though she didn't need to. "I know what it's like to be a woman at Shinra now, and thirty years ago... Maybe you felt you needed to prove yourself to your colleagues."
Lucrecia watched Shera's hands. Her careful fingers attached a fresh wire where she'd removed a faulty one. She was thorough and unhurried in all that she did, a steadiness that did not yield to outside pressure.
Lucrecia's dedication to her work had been anything but steady. She had wanted to prove herself. She could never tally the hours of sleep she'd lost in the pursuit of her degree all the way through the Jenova Project--not because she had been less talented than her male contemporaries, but because she'd had to surpass their achievements if she wanted to claim even half the credit. In hindsight, she knew that putting that kind of stress on herself had contributed to her poor decisions.
But the want of recognition was no excuse.
"You aren't wrong," she said, "but it was still a choice I didn't have to make. We were all to blame."
"Mistakes can't be undone," said Shera, "but... I wonder if there comes a point where it's all right to let them go."
Lucrecia shook her head. "I've hurt so many with mine. How can you even apologize, when the harm persists? When it's so great as to doom everyone on the Planet?"
Shera glanced at her. "But maybe we aren't doomed. If we can get this rocket in the air, it may be redemption for both of us."
"I haven't done anything to help with that."
"You're here. It's... nice to just have someone around."
Even me? Lucrecia wondered, but to say it aloud would only invite Shera's sympathy. She knew the answer, as improbable as it was. If her company was something that had value to Shera, for now, then she could offer that.
Shinra soldiers swarmed the town ahead of the scheduled launch, under the direction of one of the new generation of Turks. The suit hadn't changed much, and he moved with the same kind of quiet danger that Vincent had.
Lucrecia didn't trust them, of course. If this launch was a success, then any casualties would become brave souls who had given their lives to save the Planet. If it failed, then shortly no one would be able to hold Shinra accountable.
She stuck close to Shera, and it was easy for her to blend in with the engineers. She doubted even a Turk had any cause to be familiar with a face not seen in thirty years.
The auto-pilot was the last and most important function to be restored. Shera passed off word to her colleagues and then let out a breath.
"Not much longer now," she said, offering Lucrecia an anxious smile, "and then we'll know."
Lucrecia kept her doubts to herself. Meteor was an ancient magic; it seemed absurd that this hastily-repaired piece of metal could be any match for it. But Sephiroth was a product of science. Maybe science could save them.
For Shera's sake, she wanted it to.
Shera pulled off her gloves and turned to make her way out of the rocket, but she'd scarcely taken a step before it began to rumble and shake. Her eyes widened and she grabbed Lucrecia's hand.
"This way, hurry."
Shera pulled her down the corridor as the heat began to rise around them. They stumbled into the escape pod and Shera pulled the hatch closed behind them.
"It's launching?" Lucrecia asked. Nestled within the rocket's interior, the escape pod's window showed only more machinery.
"They must have finished loading the Huge Materia already," said Shera. It was a process the engineering crew wasn't privy to. "The pod is heat-shielded, so we should be all right in here, but you should strap in."
The roar of the engines rose around them, and the force of the launch slammed Lucrecia down into the seat before she could fasten the buckle. Her arms grew too heavy to lift, and she shut her eyes against the quaking. It felt like the ship would tear itself apart, but the minutes stretched with that pressure atop her. As they left the ground behind, she felt more grounded in her own physicality than she had in a long time.
What a strange thing, she thought, to put effort into survival. Did she want it, or was it just easier to go along with Shera in that moment? This wasn't intended to be a manned mission. What if they died on impact with Meteor, having clawed for only a few more minutes of life?
The pressure intensified, and then abruptly it was gone.
"Don't worry," said Shera as the noise abated. "The tests on the escape pod were satisfactory. I'll run them again in a moment."
"Of course you checked it," said Lucrecia, a wry smile tugging at her lips. Shera was careful and meticulous, suited to true science rather than Shinra's brand of it.
"It interfaces with a few other systems," Shera explained, "even if it wasn't meant to be needed."
She spoke with the certainty of someone who knew her craft intimately, but there was nothing practiced about the way she unbuckled herself and attempted to rise from her seat. Lucrecia moved on instinct to help her, and they collided awkwardly in the zero gravity. Shera grabbed onto her, and their trajectory carried them vaguely upwards until they bumped softly against the ceiling.
Shera let out a small, embarrassed laugh. "I wasn't supposed to be an astronaut," she said.
"How does it feel?" Lucrecia wondered.
"Oh..." Shera's eyes went round; so focused on keeping them alive, it was as though she hadn't realized until this moment. "I wish I could see it."
Lucrecia caught hold of some of the wiring, and they managed to maneuver themselves back out of the hatch. In the corridor outside, Lucrecia helped to hold Shera steady as she ran through her checks again.
It wasn't as though Shera had never touched her before. In those first few days, Lucrecia had allowed Shera to change her bandages without protest. But since then, there had always been a polite distance between them; they never overstepped boundaries.
Lucrecia had avoided human contact all those years, feeling she was toxic. It wasn't only the Jenova; that was something real and tangible, like a brand to mark her for what she'd always been. She ruined the people around her with her desires.
Weeks in Shera's company, and she'd watched Shera instead grow more at ease, more content, more confident. By the tiniest measure, but it was there, and it happened in her presence, as though she contributed to it.
Shera grabbed Lucrecia's arm to steady herself without a thought. She let Lucrecia keep a hand on her waist. She trusted it, and even more astonishingly, Lucrecia did, too.
Maybe it was only because she didn't expect it to last. They'd both be dead before Lucrecia could poison her. But it was nice, for a few moments, to feel like someone could lean on her.
An explosion alerted them to the presence of others on the rocket. Through a hatch into the next segment of the rocket, they found an oxygen tank exploded, a piece of debris embedded into the floor, pinning a man's leg with it. Two figures lingered nearby, struggling against the zero gravity to gain the leverage to pull him free.
They looked up as the hatch opened, and Lucrecia briefly locked eyes with the spiky-haired blond. One of Sephiroth's puppets?
Maybe no more than she was.
Cid swore up a storm as Shera moved to help him, and Lucrecia felt herself reaching for something coiled deep inside her: the untapped power of Jenova, never sought but now just at her fingertips.
He deflated instantly and apologized, and Lucrecia let out a breath, letting go. She pushed off from the hatch to help them.
Shera initiated the escape pod's release sequence, and they all strapped themselves in. At last, through the window, the stars appeared. Cid undid his straps and plastered himself to the glass, but there was no less rapture in Shera's quiet gaze as she looked out past his head. The Planet hung below them, tiny against the vast night.
The pod rotated slowly, the Planet slipping out of sight and the rocket at last coming into view on its trajectory towards Meteor. The collision was blinding.
In its wake, Meteor remained. Lucrecia met the realization not with a numb resignation but a desperate anger in the pit of her stomach. She had something to lose, now.
A silence stretched between them until finally the woman named Tifa broke it to make the introductions they'd neglected.
"Lucrecia?" Cloud repeated, startled somehow by the name. He exchanged glances with Tifa and then went on, "Vincent's Lucrecia?"
The question threw her. After all, Vincent was dead, and who besides him had known but Hojo? He had had so much disdain for the Turk that he'd never referred to him by name, seeing him as brainless hired muscle, but Lucrecia was no better. To her, Vincent had been a pretty face and a warm body, an escape and at the same time a knife she could twist in Hojo's stomach. She had wanted him to know, thinking nothing of the consequences for Vincent.
She had been a monster well before ever submitting her body to the experiment. One had to be, to do what they had done. Even Gast, in his own way, though he wore his disguise more successfully. She had thought him so good and noble, a scientist in pursuit of nothing but the truths of the universe. And she had lied to herself, styling herself in the same way. Her ambitions were for the future of the Planet.
And all those truths she'd pursued had led them here, to the doom of the Planet.
"Lucrecia...?" Shera prompted, and she realized she had never answered their question.
"Yes," she said at last. "I knew Vincent."
"So, you're Sephiroth's mother..." said Tifa. Her jaw set, and Lucrecia imagined the accusations welling in her throat. Instead she asked only, "What are you doing here?"
What was she doing here?
"...trying," she answered simply. "What about you all?"
"The Huge Materia," Cloud answered. "It's generations of knowledge that shouldn't be used as a weapon. We couldn't let the Shinra do that."
"...it wasn't on the rocket?" Lucrecia asked.
Cloud shook his head, and Lucrecia wanted to scream. All of Shera's hard work, every hope that she had put into this plan, and these idiots had sabotaged it. They would never have another chance at it. The rocket was gone.
Shera glanced at her. "It might not have worked anyway," she said softly.
But maybe it would have.
The others went on talking, sharing stories from the weeks that had passed since their last encounter, but Lucrecia sank into a well of her own thoughts. There had been no point to any of this. She should have let the Reunion carry her all the way north and surrendered her body to Jenova. If she had done that, then she wouldn't care that the Planet was doomed or that Shera would die. There wouldn't have been a her to care.
Wasn't that what she had wanted?
An airship came to retrieve them from pod, after it had landed in the southern ocean. Cloud and his friends met their rescue without exuberance, but they didn't seem to share Lucrecia's despair. They hadn't expected the rocket to work anyway.
Cid was up the ladder onto the deck ahead of her, and she heard his voice call out,
"Hey, Vince! Got a surprise for you, pal."
They knew because he was alive. The realization froze her. It was too much, after all of this, that she should be forced to face him. She thought of letting go. She wasn't high enough that striking the water would kill her, but she might drown beneath the waves, and surely the Jenova inside her couldn't fight that forever. She'd sink into the freezing depths and be forgotten before the Planet faced its end.
No. Shera was below her on the ladder. She would remember, and that wasn't a memory Lucrecia wanted to leave her with.
She tightened her grip on the rungs and then hauled herself upwards.
Vincent met her on the deck. He did nothing but stare until the others had gone inside ahead of them, and then he took a step forward.
He sounded the same. That longing in his voice--for a figment, an idealized version of her, never her. She had thought she wanted it, but she had gone back time and again to Hojo because he knew her. He didn't love her, but he knew her, and even her flaws had seemed like things he wanted to possess. Part of her had understood she wasn't meant to be cherished, only consumed.
"Don't," she said to Vincent, and her voice kept him at bay. He'd always respected her words, even when he shouldn't have.
"You're alive," he said.
She shook her head slowly, studying him. "I thought you were dead, too," she said. He hadn't aged either, but he didn't look the same. A Mako glow had changed the color of his eyes from brown to red, and his hair fell down his back. The clothes he wore looked like something out of the cheap novels he used to read in secret. She remembered plucking one from his hands, reading a passage aloud to tease him.
"Hojo?" she asked.
He nodded, glancing away for a moment, but he couldn't keep his eyes off of her for long. "What were you doing... on the rocket?" he wondered.
Lucrecia smiled wryly. It was an absurd way to meet, after all this time. "I've been staying with Shera," she explained. "A chance encounter. I didn't mean to."
"With Shera..." he repeated, perplexed. "How long?"
"Since Cid left." She hadn't been hiding from him. She hadn't known to hide from him. "And you, all this time...?"
"I was asleep," he answered. "Cloud and the others woke me." He hesitated. "They are... fighting to save the Planet. They believe it can be done, and I aim to help them."
"Don't ask me," Lucrecia interjected before he could go on. She knew some kind of proposal was coming. "I was starved for love, and so I took yours without thinking. I wasn't able to give it back."
"...I didn't mind."
"I know. But I do. I want you to live, but I won't be waiting for you."
Vincent nodded slowly. He looked as though he wanted to say more, but he kept it to himself and went inside after the others.
Lucrecia sank to the floor of the deck. Was it some kind of punishment devised by the universe to present her with people she cared about before the end? To make sure she felt it? She had never loved Vincent in the way that he wanted, but she didn't want him to die either. She thought she'd already killed him, and now she was going to do it again.
A cautious hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she jerked up.
"You never came inside," said Shera, her brow knit with concern. "Are you all right?"
"How can anyone be all right?" Lucrecia wondered.
Shera hesitated. "Cloud and the others believe the Planet is trying to guide them to something. They're going to seek help from the scholar Bugenhagen."
Lucrecia knew the name. He'd been a friend of Gast's, though she'd never met him. A scholar of the Planet... What good would that do now, in the eleventh hour?
Shera squeezed her shoulder. "It isn't over yet. I believe in them."
Lucrecia had believed in Shera. That had been too hard a thing to cultivate for her to extend it to anyone else. But she took Shera's hand and held it fast. It wasn't over yet.