None of that had been what Tifa wanted Vincent to say. He didn’t even understand what his beloved had really done to him, it was far too early to forgive.
She’d wanted him to help her explain, to use his greater knowledge of the woman to prick her into action.
But of course that wasn’t where his focus had been. And maybe, hopefully, this was what Lucrecia needed to hear.
“Vincent…” the figure frozen in crystal whispered. She sounded…not just sad. She sounded like someone standing on the other side of a window pane from something she wanted but had given up on ever having, and Tifa…softened toward her, a little, for that.
She’d always suspected, honestly, that Vincent’s Lucrecia had never really cared for him in return.
And maybe it shouldn’t make it better that she evidently had, at least a little, because she’d still done what she’d done, and to someone who mattered to her—it certainly didn’t make her more trustworthy. But it made her seem…well. It seemed to exclude some of the worst things Tifa had thought of her, in cynical moments.
But her relationship with Vincent wasn’t, bluntly, the one that really mattered right now.
“…you’re forgiven,” Tifa said softly, into the silence that had closed ringing after Lucrecia did not quite accept what Vincent said, because apparently she was going to have to facilitate everything around here. “Even if you don’t think you deserve it. Do you think you can let that go? A little?”
Tifa swallowed. Well, she was certainly being paid attention to, anyway. “Well. Like I said. We need your help.”
“I can’t help. I can’t do anything. I left. I had to go. I’m so sorry.”
Tifa wanted nothing more than to snap at her to get over it already. Brooding and mooning over things that had gone wrong never helped anybody ever, and if you were the thing that was wrong it was twice needful to do better.
But she thought of Cloud. Of how when he sank into himself it was always because he thought he was what was wrong, and all he could think to do was keep himself out of it, away from everyone and everything that could be hurt, because he could only make things worse.
Of how, even if it was important that he get up and try again eventually, and not spend decades rusting away like Cid in his rocket or Vincent in his coffin, pushing him into it while the poison was still dammed up inside his head had never really helped. He only got better when he found a way to move through the fear toward something.
When it was Vincent, the thing he’d needed most, or first, was to see he didn’t have to be so scared of himself, but…
When it had been Cid, he’d been dragged out of his pit by spite more than anything, but only fulfilling his dream at last had brought him real peace.
It wasn’t enough to simply accept, unhappily, that she couldn’t kill Sephiroth or drag Lucrecia out by force, and resolve to make do with words as a substitute. Doing the best she could wasn't enough. She had to make this work.
She breathed in. She breathed out. People had many different ways of thinking. This had been, in some ways, the hardest lesson of her life. She’d been brought up to believe everyone was the same, really. In their hearts.
“Alright,” Tifa said, trying to be gentle. “Let’s get it off your chest. Try to be specific,” she added, feeling suddenly like she was on her own doorstep in Edge again, talking Denzel through making up with the kids from up the street properly after having wiped mud in their hair for saying something rude about Cloud. “You want to apologize about Sephiroth?”
“What about him?” Don’t say sorry he was born, don’t say it, I agree completely but don’t say it….
The frozen vision of a woman in the crystal did not move, but her voice murmured, “You can’t call me his mother. I never got to hold him, even once.”
Okay, good. Important choice of words. “But you wanted to.”
“Yes, I…” She wavered, a note like a wet finger wobbling along the edge of a fine blown glass, and then plunged forward into words. “Hojo said…he knew about my family history, that I hadn’t been quite right for so long…I couldn’t be trusted with him. I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t save Vincent. I couldn’t… I’ve never been able to protect anyone I loved.”
Tifa drew in a breath, shuddering. That cut too near, those words as sharp as freshly shattered glass from a woman she was not sure she was willing to forgive. “If he asked me about you,” she said carefully. “What message would you want me to share? Besides the apology.”
Crystal rang again. “What else is there? I cannot…I didn’t…you can’t call me his mother. That is my sin. I…”
“Nothing else?” Tifa asked. Please, she thought. Please, lady, offer him something better than regret, you don’t know it but you’re in a popularity contest against a psychic space monster and all you have to offer is that you’re human so act like it.
“Tell him I loved him.”
Well. If they were very lucky.
“Yeah?” Tifa prompted.
“Tell him…tell him…”
In a flat voice like rock grinding over rock came the words, “Tell me yourself.”
A gasp. An odd one, because it wasn’t the simple, inadvertent noise of lungs filling too rapidly—the outline of Crescent’s chest within the stone continued not to move—but the idea of one, resonating through the chamber, off every facet and curve of stone, and the water’s surface.
“Sephiroth?” The directionless voice filled the word with a sort of terrified tenderness, a whisper that very nearly bled. “Baby?”
In a clean motion that leapt from long stillness like a sharp blade out the far side of a victim, Sephiroth swiped the orange cloak off his shoulders to pile at his feet, and raised his chin a little further than was needed just to aim his face toward the woman on the dais. Lofty pride. “Not for some time now.”
Irony laced the remark, bitter humor, metal on the tongue like blood, and that sort of response was just what Tifa had feared—that a mother inconvenienced by being a corpse in a mako processing tank was easier to forgive for her absence than one who had been hiding, all the while, in a hole in the ground. One who had left.
The air chimed wordless again and kept chiming until the note was as if a bell could scream, and the light rose until it blinded, until Tifa had to duck her head and compromise between covering her ears and covering her eyes even though eyelids existed and earlids did not and so it ought to have been an easy choice.
But the light was just as bright inside her head as it was out in the world, and her forearm over her face was useless to block it out.
Then the noise and the light both cut out, and when Tifa lowered her arm and raised her streaming eyes a living woman stood above them, where there had been only a shape within crystal. As though the crystal had never existed at all.
She looked just as she had last time Tifa had seen her like this, yellow hair ribbon and delicate hands and designer shoes that were probably long out of fashion, white skirt and white coat and smooth features that did not seem like they could belong to the mother of a grown man. “You’re okay,” Lucrecia Crescent breathed, already taking half a step forward when Tifa’s vision returned, and then hesitating, catching herself with one high heel delicately placed on the highest step.
More or less, Tifa could already hear Sephiroth saying in that bitter, sardonic tone, but he stood silent. No one drew breath.
“Mother.” It was almost but not quite a question, it tried for dignity it did not quite muster, and it ached.
This now was exactly the reaction Tifa had hoped for, supplanting Jenova with what had to be at least a slightly better influence. And yet it made her whole body flash cold and sick, as every hair on her stood upright, prickling. The memory was too strong, of that word in that voice, layered with murder and self-satisfaction.
I’m here now. Mother.
Lucrecia winced, still poised on the steps. “I don’t have the right to call myself that,” she repeated. “I left you.”
“You say you didn’t wish it.” Sephiroth tilted his head, hair whispering against the synthetic fabric. “But…you did not fight.”
Why didn’t you fight for me, he meant, but for some reason did not ask. Too proud, Tifa thought. Too damn arrogant.
Lucrecia ducked her head as if to look away in shame, but seemingly could not actually tear her eyes from her son now that she had seen him, so that the result looked more like a strange slow-motion flinching from a threatened blow that didn’t exist, a magnification of the first wince. Her hands wrung together, once only. “I’ve only ever been trouble to know. I was afraid they were right. That I was mad, broken…mad. That I would hurt you.”
“Madness runs in your family, you said?” Sephiroth asked it softly, his voice modulated now to be like velvet wrapped around a sword-blade. It was a voice to make death threats in. Tifa had heard it used that way, before.
Was he turning? Would Lucrecia Crescent die in another few seconds, for her betrayal?
Tifa wished for her materia. Her gauntlets. Her adult body. Any weapon at all, although she’d learned the folly of attacking Sephiroth with something she couldn’t properly use.
He didn’t have his sword; as long as that stayed true she could at least hope to survive long enough to build and release another Limit, which should inconvenience even him. Fair would side against him if he killed his own mother after her warnings, surely. There was Rhapsodos as precedent, and all. If they could keep him contained in here…
Doctor Crescent closed her eyes. “…my aunt. Three weeks after my cousin was born, when I was still a child, she smothered him. It was hushed up, but I knew. I knew. She didn’t live long, after. I was…heavy with grief and having visions, I couldn’t…trust myself. Not with something so precious. I’m so sorry.”
“It was real though,” Tifa put in, because they couldn’t afford to linger on the madness theory and let it solidify in Sephiroth’s mind and ruin the credibility of her expert witness. “Wasn’t it? What you were seeing. The thing you used for experimental material was still conscious, even though it was dead. You put it into your body and it got into your head. You figured out later it was real after all. Didn’t you.”
“I jumped,” Lucrecia admitted, the words dragged out of her.
There were flaws in her speech, now that it was coming from her mouth instead of the facets of crystal; the slide of a real tongue, the imprecision of real lips moving from one sound to another, shaving gently away at the corners of each crisp syllable; a hint of roughness from a tight throat. “I went up beside the reactor, where I thought I could feel…well, I went out to the edge and I fell, but she wouldn’t let me go.
“I struck the ground a thousand feet below light as a feather, unharmed. I tried to drown, but my lungs closed against the water, and when I woke up I was on the river’s bank again. My hand would go limp on the knife.”
In the present, her hand came up over her face, as though to hide her expression even though it had barely changed, a smooth mask of tragedy with a faint wrinkle between the eyes, and all the sympathy Tifa had not been feeling boiled up against her will.
Suicide was a coward’s escape, she had always believed. It was never something she had considered, even in her darkest days. Would never have permitted herself the possibility. But she had already known Crescent was a coward in far worse ways than that, and the kind of pain that must lie behind that, to trying again and again to escape from having to bear existence, and then having your own body betray you in the attempt, as Cloud’s had betrayed him at the Temple of the Ancients—
Well. Tifa couldn’t say she didn’t understand this part of the story.
“She wouldn’t let you go,” she echoed, gently, to show her understanding.
Crescent nodded, sharp and almost convulsive behind her mask of hand. “I tried to reason with her,” she whispered, and only the amazing acoustics of the watery cave meant the words made it further than Tifa in the middle of the pool. “I told her you were already born,” she said, louder now for her son’s ears. “I told her she didn’t need me anymore. But she said I was…a failsafe, in case the children died or never listened to her. To try again.”
“In those words?” Tifa wondered aloud, because she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard Jenova speak, but it still somehow didn’t sound like her.
Lucrecia looked up, roused a little from her remembered misery by surprise. “…I think she usually left it to me to supply the words,” she admitted. “That was part of why it took so long to be sure she was real.”
Tifa nodded. “So you came here?” she asked, and Lucrecia nodded. Looked up past Tifa at her son and at her former lover, watching her with such similar solemn faces.
But Tifa could see the sorrow and pity and love in Vincent without even trying, while Sephiroth—all she could be sure of, even now, was that he was displeased. And who wouldn’t be?
“I didn’t want to let her…” Doctor Crescent pleaded, with the two members of her audience that really mattered. “I couldn’t go to either of you. I didn’t deserve to, and it wasn’t safe. You were both too vulnerable, and I…” She closed her eyes and let out a little huff of air, like she was weathering a very small kick in the stomach, by far the most human sound Tifa had heard her make yet. “I came here in hopes this ancient place could contain her, even if she ate me away from the inside. That’s why I left you. I’m so sorry.”
The echoes of this apology faded, until the cavern was nearly as silent as it had been before they came, although the sounds of seven people breathing, the slight shifting of muscles that the more human half of their party constantly required to stay upright, and the way Tifa’s presence troubled the water all made the rocky chamber much noisier than it should have been.
Another drip fell from the growing stalactite, and over the soft redoubling crystal sound of it Sephiroth said,
It was not warm or laden with absolution, the way Vincent’s acceptance had been. But it did not sting with cold either, and for the first time since they’d come here Tifa felt something in her chest unknot, with a certain conviction that Sephiroth was not going to kill his mother. At least not right away. And if he was going to kill anyone at the moment he would start with her, so for now…
She had definitely bought time.
“Is the voice still there, in your head?” Sephiroth asked, his voice still giving nothing away. There was barely enough intonation to mark the question. “Do you still hear her?”
“Sometimes,” Lucrecia murmured. They were locked on one another now, like the parties to a duel, but without the same flickering threat of violence about to clash. This didn’t relieve the tension. It just meant there was no obvious outlet for it. “She’s one of the things I’ve felt when I dream, all these years. Her. You. And shadows.”
“Do you expect to become a…puppet, if you leave this place?”
Tifa shivered. It was another word she hated hearing in Sephiroth’s voice, and a possibility she’d been trying to ignore. If she turned out to have gone to all this trouble just to create an extra Jenova…
“I don’t know,” Lucrecia whispered. “It doesn’t feel as inevitable as it did…how long has it been?”
“Twenty-five years,” Sephiroth told her.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
“Stop telling me that,” Sephiroth said. Still with that odd detached tonelessness.
Tifa wished she was behind Sephiroth, with Cloud, so she had the leisure and modicum of privacy to fully experience the sheer terror of this discussion now going on over her head, outside her power to control, without worrying about disrupting it.
Sephiroth added, “You had your reasons.”
The tremulous expression only hinted in the direction of a smile. “You believe me, then?”
“It does seem mad,” Sephiroth admitted. He had folded his arms. Tseng and Fair lurking behind him, flanking the door, were still impossible to make out enough to read them, but Cloud’s face just past Vincent’s crouching figure was set, intent; the way Cloud always looked sizing up a serious opponent but without the confidence of many victories that Tifa was used to see backing that posture.
He was staring at Lucrecia, rather than at Sephiroth’s back.
“But,” said Sephiroth, “I can sense…” He shook his head slightly. “Tell me everything you know,” he said, suddenly crisp, “about Project G.”
“Gillian and Hollander’s branch of the Project?” Lucrecia asked, sounding more like an ordinary person than Tifa had ever heard her. Shocked, perhaps, back into her old everyday persona for a moment, by the reminder of the world of coworkers and project codes. “I’d need…charts.”
“A synopsis, then.”
“Alright,” said Lucrecia, with the unmistakeable overtones of a woman accustomed to humoring people wanting her to explain something complicated in sixty words or less, though a faint spasm crossed her face an instant later, only to be smothered. She folded her hands together.
With a flat professionalism that reminded Tifa of her son but was not quite so annoying, she began: “Project G was the other methodological fork of Professor Gast’s proposal for the JENOVA Revitalization Project. Project Lead Gillian Thorsby had been conducting animal grafting tests for over a year by the time Project S was submitted for approval, and then moved on to using herself as one of the human test subjects, to save time and funding.”
“It was her Project?” Sephiroth asked intently. Tifa wondered why this of all things was what he cared about, but…the intensely intimate way Genesis had spoken to him, mocking, outside the reactor, reminded her of Sephiroth haunting Cloud. But the way Sephiroth hadn’t really tried to hurt the pink creature in the ensuing fight…there was history there she didn’t know. And now he knew they were the same as one another.
Maybe that was the interest. A monster like me, Rhapsodos had said.
Or maybe Sephiroth already knew all about this Project G that Vincent had barely heard of, and Tifa never had before yesterday, but which Zack Fair had known about, and was testing Lucrecia’s knowledge. He asked, “Not Hollander’s?”
Dr. Crescent shook her head. “She brought him on as co-lead in case the process killed her. They started rushing their work once Hojo recruited me for his Project, based on their data.” She faltered, the professionalism she’d pulled over herself to cope with the subject clearly beginning to fail her. “Do you want me to explain it without reference to…us?”
She nodded a little, cleared her throat. Tifa turned and began sloshing back toward dry land; Sephiroth’s gaze hardly wavered. “Their other human test subject,” said the pretty, careful voice now coming from behind her, “was recruited from Lower Midgar for a certain sum of their research budget. Her malnutrition made her a suboptimal specimen but, as I said, Hojo had made the Project into a race.
“Direct infusions of cultured cells from the primary research subject had tended to cause miscarriage and death in their animal specimens, but allowing the cells to colonize a host organism, then infusing cells harvested from that subject directly into the embryos of the same species during gestation, had yielded a much higher rate of toleration.”
Why was Tifa surprised to hear there were a bunch of Jenova hamsters or something somewhere in the Shinra labs. She wondered if they’d escaped after Meteor and infested the ruins or Edge, or if Hojo had dissected them long since.
“The plan,” Lucrecia continued, holding Sephiroth’s complete attention despite somehow making creepy and world-threatening mad science sound spectacularly boring, as Vincent reached down to offer Tifa a hand up and she slogged up out of the pool, “was to use Gillian as a cellular incubator, to increase the primary subject’s chances of surviving to parturition. Hojo thought the Project G leads were being too cautious. He had a scheme laid out to take the concept further and faster, without need for the intermediate step of incubation.
“They weren’t,” she added, with a faint bite, and Tifa, discretely shaking loose water off her feet and wishing the atmosphere of the moment allowed for taking her boots off to tip them out, looked for Cloud before remembering that this Cloud had no personal grudge against Shinra’s Science Head, to appreciate hearing his opinion dismissed. He caught her eye anyway, and offered an encouraging smile.
Lucrecia said, “His process was flawed, but I could see how to make it work. Or I thought I could.” Her mouth twitched, slightly, to one side. “I’ve wondered whether Hojo came to me because he knew getting energy fields to synchronize was one of my specialties, or just because he sensed weakness.”
“You were weak?”
“Always have been.” The smile’s shadow now was bitter, but then her eyes found Vincent and it was nothing at all.
Again with that cultivated flat distance, the scientist went on, “I started having fainting spells toward the end of the first trimester, but by then Gillian’s subject had already needed an oxygen mask twice. Gillian then abruptly tendered her resignation and moved in with a local near her Project staging ground. I found out she’d gotten pregnant only when Hojo had me put under guard to prevent any imitation, and had Vincent banned from the premises.
“Vincent came in anyway, to argue with Hojo, and was shot. I…didn’t find out until Hojo had had him in the lab nearly a week. I spent the next month and a half getting him…stabilized, and the two months after that repeatedly stabilizing you. I had some access to Project G’s data for that. He was a boy. The mother didn’t make it.” She swallowed, and the tonelessness had fallen apart enough for her to sound fragile as she told her son: “You were born a month premature, and as soon as I could walk again, Hojo had me barred from the premises as well.
“I don’t know anything further about what became of Gillian’s project. I’m sorry.”
She had wound up telling him more about Project S than Project G, but that was…probably a good thing.
Apparently disagreeing, Sephiroth said, “So there was only intended to be one subject of Project G.”
Lucrecia’s brow furrowed. “Yes.”
“Do you know why his body would have begun to deteriorate?”
Lucrecia shook her head. “I could only theorize. My data was limited to the gestation. I know Hollander was preoccupied with genetic profiling, as if a catalogue of genetic sequences is at all useful or informative, without context for what any of them mean when expressed. Gillian’s focus was on cell behavior.
“It might be a genetic incompatibility between one of his parents and Her.” Lucrecia shrugged. “Or him and Gillian. It might be something in my specialty. It might be something subtler.”
She frowned, and took another half step down the stairs that led into the pool. “Did he die? Are you…” Her eyes skittered to find Tifa, for the first time since Sephiroth had spoken. “She said you were alright.”
“I’m fine,” said Sephiroth. “And he isn’t dead. Yet.” It was hard to tell from the heavy-edged way he enunciated that last word whether it should be heard as referring to the implacable march of disease or as a personal death threat. Though Tifa didn’t see what in this conversation could have made Sephiroth more willing to fight his ex-friend seriously. Maybe he was just fronting.
Heh. An empty death threat from Sephiroth.
“Did you…want me to work on the problem?” Lucrecia asked. It was tentative, but very encouraging, in that an offer to help with something practical was more than Tifa had seriously expected to get.
“…no,” Sephiroth said. “It doesn’t matter now. Let him decay.”
Lucrecia’s mouth pulled into a concerned moue. She really was very beautiful. No wonder Vincent had fallen so hard.
Sephiroth took the single step he could forward without getting his boots in the wet. Not that he had any reason to worry about that; they went up past the knee, Tifa certainly hoped the damn things were waterproofed or what was the point. “You’re not mentioned in any of the documentation down at the lab.”
Lucrecia’s face raced through overlapping expressions—surprise, alarm, confusion and fear, understanding, before finally settling on a weary annoyance. “Of course I’m not,” she said.
“You mean to imply Hojo removed you from the documentation,” Sephiroth said, and Lucrecia nodded. “There are discrepancies,” he went on. “In the data. That make this seem. Plausible.”
Lucrecia’s mouth essayed a nervous twitch that might have had a family resemblance to a smile.
“I believe where your activities remain in the documentation, you are recorded as Assistant C.”
The frown there was pure professional offense. No one with a Doctor in front of their name had the humility to take being Assistant C in good humor.
Sephiroth folded his arms. The fingers of his left hand—his sword hand—flexed. “Why did you commit to the S Project?” he asked. “Don’t say it was Hojo. He can’t have forced you into it.”
Men had forced women into enough pregnancies, but the level of scientific work she claimed to have done suggested actual intellectual engagement. She’d chosen to experiment on her own child for a reason. It was a good question. A necessary question. One Tifa couldn’t have afforded to ask.
Lucrecia took a small, steadying gulp of air. “My mentor,” she said carefully, “Grimoire Valentine, was killed in a research accident involving volatile historical materials.” She closed her eyes for a moment, taking a beat for yet another regret, which Tifa appreciated since Valentine couldn’t be a coincidence and she needed the moment to fit that unexpected piece into place.
Lucrecia rallied. “When I presented the research he’d died for a few years later, it was rejected by the scientific community, particularly within Shinra. Too many of my conclusions rested on suppositions drawn from archeological data—fairy tales, they called it.”
She was still bitter about this, more than twenty-five years and a number of serious traumas later. Interesting.
Now she sighed, a different flavor of regret. “We thought she was an Ancient. Some of the animal testing showed promising psychometric results. If we could have recreated the Ancients, brought back their powers, demonstrated…” Her left hand made an elegant, impractical fist at her side.
“Your previous line of research would have been vindicated,” finished Sephiroth.
Lucrecia nodded, and left her chin down, staring into the pool. “I’m sorry. It was never that I didn’t want you. Please believe that. It was only after I realized how afraid I was to lose you that I also realized I—that it hadn’t been fair to you. That we didn’t have the right to…”
Tifa realized she was holding her breath again. Everyone was. The stalactite dripped another drop.
Sephiroth said, “Mother,” and stepped into the water.
She’d done it.
Planet only knew how much difference it would make, if it would save anyone, if the future she’d made would even be better for it, but it was done. Sephiroth was nothing if not singleminded. If he was wading across an Ancient cavern to one mother, he wasn’t going to be interested in another.
Lucrecia had finally managed to apologize for the right thing. It was going to be okay.
Motion caught at the corner of her eye.