Rocket Town grew quiet again in the wake of the launch. Shera watched Cid and his new friends depart on the Highwind, chasing Aeris's memory. Shera had met the woman only briefly, and now it seemed all their hopes rested with her.
The town looked strange without the rocket. The great metal supports of the launch pad rose up into the air, reaching. Shera lifted her gaze higher. The slow turn of the Planet meant Meteor hugged the horizon, leaving the sky clear overhead. She had been up there. She could count the hours since on one hand still.
It was a wholly different perspective. This town and her life in it became infinitesimally small. Back on solid ground, their gravity tugged at her again, but it couldn't seem to catch hold.
Four years was too long to punish herself for mishandling a situation where the mistake hadn't even been hers. But not so long that she couldn't come back from it, if she had the time.
"Let's go inside," said Lucrecia. Gravity weighed heavily on her, Shera could tell. She followed Lucrecia into the house and watched as she put the kettle on.
"I guess it's out of our hands now," Shera said, hoping that might offer some relief.
Lucrecia's hands curled around the handle of the oven, and her head dipped forward, her bangs obscuring her face. The wrong thing to say.
"I'm sorry," Shera tried instead. "I got your hopes up, and then..."
"No. It made me feel alive."
Shera placed a hand atop Lucrecia's. "You still are alive."
But Lucrecia pulled away, loosening her grip on the oven so that she could reach for the tea.
Shera took down two mugs from the shelf overhead. "It made me feel alive, too," she admitted quietly. "I suppose it turns out that trying to live completely for someone else isn't really living. You have to be a little selfish."
Lucrecia shook her head. "I think it's a very dangerous thing, for me to be selfish." Even as she said it, she dropped a tea bag into each of the waiting mugs. She knew Shera's preference without asking.
Shera knew what Lucrecia was doing, and she knew that offering forgiveness wouldn't help. Maybe Lucrecia's mistakes weren't so great as she imagined, but she had made them, and the consequences were inescapable. Pretending otherwise would just be patronizing.
"Sometimes," she began cautiously, "when I listen to Shinra's broadcasts, I think about justice. It's hard to escape the idea of punishment. I know... I was doing it to myself. But I didn't think of it that way. I thought, I'd do everything I could to make it up to him. Reparations, not punishment."
"What if it can't be done?" Lucrecia asked.
"I don't know. But everyone has something to contribute, don't they? All those years you spent alone, maybe you avoided hurting anyone. But when you let yourself stay here, you helped me."
"You helped me," Lucrecia corrected, glancing at her.
Shera shook her head. "I know you see it. You've had so much time to think about everything, you offered me a different perspective. You've been on my side, the way I think you wish someone had been on yours."
The water had started to boil, and Lucrecia turned off the stove before the kettle could whistle. "That doesn't mean I can keep it up," she said.
Alongside her doubts, the words implied something else. At the start of their arrangement, Shera was sure they'd both assumed it to be a temporary one. The more time passed, the more uneasy Shera had been about ever bringing it up, afraid that would put an end to it. It seemed Lucrecia had her own fears about how that ending might go.
Silly, really. Wasn't the ending already in sight?
"We may not have much time anyway," said Shera, smiling ruefully. "So never mind about always. Do you think you could keep it up for nine days?"
Lucrecia looked at her, uncertain. "...I want to," she said. "But it is selfish."
Shera shrugged. Whether it was or not, what more could they do? "Then let's be selfish, before the end."
Lucrecia's hand found hers this time, fingers cautiously seeking out the spaces between her own. Shera took a step closer. Lucrecia was taller than her, and Shera had to lean up to kiss her. Honestly, she hadn't had much practice at it in a while, and she came away with her glasses smudged.
Lucrecia laughed softly, and the sound made Shera's heart swell in her chest. Lucrecia plucked the glasses from her face, folded them, and carefully set them aside. "Shall we try that again?"
They let the kettle and the waiting tea cups sit forgotten on the stove, and Shera led Lucrecia for the first time to her own bedroom. She had never really wanted Lucrecia to see it, as though her own mess would scare Lucrecia away when Cid's hadn't. There was less to trip over on the way to the bed.
Shera let her coat drop by the door, and Lucrecia tugged Shera's hair loose. She shivered as Lucrecia ran her fingers through it, nails grazing her scalp. She found the bed behind her and sat down clumsily.
That broke the kiss, as Lucrecia didn't follow.
"Um," said Shera, her face heating. "Too fast?" She wasn't used to fast. Maybe she was doing it wrong.
"No, I... I'm not sure I can do this. I'm sorry."
"Oh... Well, that's all right."
Lucrecia dropped down onto the bed beside her and took her hand, which only added to her confusion. "I mean that... I'm not even human, anymore. That must change things."
Shera studied her a moment. She looked human, of course, but she didn't look her age, and there were things she heard and felt that Shera couldn't. Maybe that was it.
"Does it feel different?" Shera asked her.
"It's been a long time, right? Your body's changed."
"...that isn't really what I was worried about," Lucrecia said.
Oh, Shera realized. Lucrecia had described the Jenova inside her as any number of things. A curse. A virus. A poison. She was afraid of hurting Shera. But Shera understood enough by now, too, to know how Jenova spread--and how it didn't.
"I don't know if you realize this," said Shera, "but I've already heard so many raunchy jokes about sleeping with aliens. I think I'm prepared."
Lucrecia let out a helpless, astonished laugh. "That's it?"
"Mmhm." Shera looked down, twining her fingers with Lucrecia's. "We can take it slow, though, if that's more comfortable. I just didn't want to be too slow, and run out of time."
"The situation does call for fast," said Lucrecia. "And it's... what I've always done, so I guess I got scared, for a moment. I always jumped into things without thinking about anyone else."
"It's all right this time," Shera promised her. "I know what I'm getting into."
Lucrecia nodded, and leaned in to kiss her gently this time. Shera met her eagerly, welcoming her in.
Shera woke first, on the day of Meteorfall. The autumn chill had crept into the bedroom, and she tugged up the blankets that had begun to slip in the night. There was a gap between the window and its frame that Shera had never thought to fix. It wasn't her house, after all.
She wondered if Cid would come back, if they all survived the day. Since the rocket, she'd had time to reflect on his apology. All these years, she'd blamed herself, and she'd let him blame her, too. His dream had died, and he'd needed an outlet for his bitter disappointment, but it had been her dream, too. In focusing on his loss, she'd avoided her own.
The stalled trajectory had been hard on both of them, but instead of helping each other through it, they had let it fester into something ugly.
She thought that things could be different now between them. It wasn't only that they had achieved their goal, that they'd both been among the first human beings in space, but they'd both become unstuck. He with Cloud and the others, and her in her smaller, slower way, with Lucrecia.
But she knew it wouldn't be enough of a change, if he came back to Rocket Town. If they tried to resume living side-by-side as they had, it would be too easy to fall back into old habits.
So she didn't fix the window, because the house was temporary. If they lived through this and he came back, then she would leave. Maybe she would find her own house, with windows in the kitchen and shelves in the workroom and a bed that was actually meant for two people.
Not that she minded the closeness. It affirmed for her that she wasn't invisible. As the world ended, she thought she wouldn't die forgotten in the background of someone else's story, but in the center of her own. In Lucrecia's company, she had remembered how to be someone.
It was almost noon when Lucrecia woke, sobbing. Shera held her as Lucrecia clutched at her, her fingers knotting in Shera's nightgown. Her tears left a wet spot against Shera's chest, but at last she calmed, drawing long, shaky breaths.
"A premonition?" Shera asked.
"He's dead," Lucrecia whispered. "Sephiroth."
Shera brushed Lucrecia's hair out of her face, wondering how much to ask. Was some part of her relieved? Did that make it worse?
"...I'm sorry," was all she said.
"I know... I know that by now it was the only thing to be done. But..." Lucrecia pressed her lips together, fighting down a new wave of tears. "I wish I could have been a mother to him. I wish that I had had that in me. He could have been someone else."
There was nothing Shera could say that would lessen her regret, so she just held her for a while.
"Jenova's gone, too," Lucrecia added softly, at length. "It's... quiet."
"That's good," said Shera. She hesitated. If Sephiroth and Jenova were both dead, then... "Does it mean that...?"
Lucrecia had no answer for her, so they left the bedroom to switch on the radio. Many stations had gone silent, but one news feed continued an increasingly disjointed broadcast. Between panicked callers and staticky relays, it became clear that Meteor had descended on Midgar. Voices out of the city itself had already gone silent, leaving only the repetition of their last harried reports.
Lucrecia switched off the radio.
"Come on," she said, and she tossed Shera her coat.
Midgar lay nearly on the other side of the world and faced Meteor in the dark of night, but the sun was shining as they stepped outside. Old man Lan gave them a solemn nod as they passed before returning his pensive gaze to the sky.
They went on past the rocket launch pad, across the field, and into the woods beyond, taking their time. Shera understood without asking that they had no particular destination. But if they were going to die, Shera didn't want to die shut up in that house listening to panicked strangers.
The trees were a gentle presence around them, shading them from the daylight, sheltering them from any awareness of the wider world. There weren't any sounds but their own, no birds or rodents busying themselves for the coming winter. Had they realized it wasn't coming after all?
A chill swept through the forest, like the kind that came with a sudden storm, but there was no wind to bring it. Shera didn't know what it meant.
They stopped to sit on a fallen trunk, leaning into each other.
"I'm sorry," Lucrecia said softly. "I wanted there to be a future for you."
Shera was quiet for a moment. "I was thinking," she said, "it might be nice to go somewhere new."
"After all this. There's no reason to stay with the rocket gone, and Shinra's... nearly killed me twice. I don't think that's much of a job."
Lucrecia hummed a short laugh. "No. But I'm sure your talents would make you welcome anywhere."
Lucrecia looked at her skeptically.
"You don't think a biologist has anything to offer?" Shera countered. "Or... you could learn something new, if you want to get away from it."
"...that's probably for the best," Lucrecia decided. She looked out into the trees. "I'll find something menial, but useful. Like splitting logs."
"That may not be the ideal proposal, in the present company."
Lucrecia laughed again, and Shera treasured it. If it was the last sound she heard, that would be all right.
But the day stretched on. Some warmth crept back into the air. Branches shook overhead as a pair of squirrels chased each other through the trees.
"...shouldn't the world have ended by now?" Shera asked at last.
"I would have thought so," said Lucrecia, meeting her gaze with one of uncertainty.
They started the walk back. As they cleared the treeline, Shera could make out a voice calling for them. Dana ran across the field to meet them.
"It's gone," she said breathlessly, leaning her hands on her knees. "They say... they say it's just gone."
"Meteor?" Shera said. She knew it was what Dana meant, but it was so perplexing.
Dana nodded. She straightened up. "Um, the reports don't make a lot of sense. Green sparkles coming up out of the ground and a big blinding light. I don't know what happened, but Meteor's gone. Vanished."
Shera exchanged looks with Lucrecia.
"You're absolutely certain...?" Lucrecia wondered.
"Michael managed to get on the phone with somebody in Junon. They sent up the, um..." Dana twirled a finger in the air as she searched for the word. "The military helicopters," she finished. "To get a look."
Shera had never let go Lucrecia's hand on the walk back, and now she felt Lucrecia give it a gentle squeeze. She squeezed back.
It took time to sink in. Part of Shera wondered if they weren't all just getting their hopes up over what could be a false report. But Dillon, who'd similarly gone outside of town to face the end, insisted he'd seen it, too--those green sparkles. They were more like threads, he said, an energy rising up out of the earth the color of Mako.
So many in town had sought to face the end privately, separately, but they gathered in the street to wait out the rest of the day together, as if they needed each other to bear witness that another day really was coming. Someone brought out a grill and made food for those of them who hadn't given a thought to it all day.
They watched the night fall, and waited.
The stars came out. The moon rose, its color untainted by Meteor's red glow. Radio reports continued to be patchy and confusing, and it felt like the broadcasters kept their own vigil, determined not to go silent until they were sure the end hadn't come.
When the sun rose over the horizon, a few people cheered. Exhausted, they hugged and congratulated each other, and finally dispersed their watch. Shera collapsed back into bed, forgetting her shoes and her coat and everything but Lucrecia's arms around her to keep her grounded.
When she woke later, Lucrecia had found a world map and taped it to the wall of her bedroom. She smiled, holding out a strip of cloth.
"What is this?" Shera asked, taking it bemusedly.
"A blindfold. You're going to pick where we're going, and then we'll pack."
If it was sudden, Shera didn't mind. They'd done enough waiting around. Smiling, she drew the blindfold across her eyes, and she felt Lucrecia settle on the bed beside her and hand her a dart.
She threw, hearing it thunk into the wall, and there was a pause.
"...that's the ocean," said Lucrecia.
"Oh no." Shera pulled up the edge of the blindfold. "Is it at least close to anything?"
Lucrecia got up to approach the map. "...Gongaga?" she said, her tone suggesting she'd never heard of it.
"There used to be a reactor there," Shera reflected.
"Used to be?"
"If I recall, there was an accident a few years back. The town was devastated."
Lucrecia nodded. "The kind of place that might have some use for an engineer, maybe."
"Yes," Shera agreed, "and plenty of trees, if it's really your dream to become a lumberjack."
Lucrecia smirked at her enigmatically. "We'll see," she said. "I think... I'll give it nine days, and see if it grows on me."
Shera stood and took her hands, pulling her down into a kiss. They had so much more time ahead of them than they'd thought, and Lucrecia's words weren't a commitment to always, but they were a promise to try something new with her. As they each pulled free of the gravity of their old lives, they wouldn't be alone.