A/N: I always intended this to have a third chapter, but for some reason it took me a year to write it.
When Elena awakened again, she headed to the bathroom and found Rude at the sink, splashing his face with water. She watched him, admiring his ability to pull that off without soaking his collar and cuffs, and took his place at the sink while he dried his face.
"Anything change while I was out?" she asked him, through the other towel.
He reached around her to stuff his back onto the rack. "Not much. Barb Jenkins off MBC announced she was going to go be with her family and the rest of us should do that too. Then she walked out while the camera was still on her desk."
"Damn! I miss all the good stuff. You should have gotten me up for that."
"Sorry. She didn't give much warning."
"I was just kidding." She folded her damp towel, looked up at him. "Rude? How are you doing?"
He opened his mouth, closed it again. "...fine," he said, finally. She watched him steadily. "That's it," he said. "What else can you do? I can't sleep. Panicking or getting upset..." He shrugged again. "Wouldn't do any good."
"I just... I can't not face that we're going to die," she said, but she seemed calm about it. "How do you keep it together?"
"I really kind of hope Avalanche is right. Even if it's true we've been burning our dead grandmas for fuel—"
"Okay, that's morbid."
"All right, yeah, that's the point. Even if it's true, at least that means we know what happens to us when we die. Reeve was telling me about it, back during the Cait project. It's like... I guess it's like heaven, your soul is still your soul, it's just... with others." She hesitated, seeming embarrassed. "Like, cosmic oneness and all that. I mean, that's not how he said it, but... it makes it sound nice, at least. And we know it exists, so it could be like they say... "
"...can't help hoping we won't know for sure." Off her questioning look, he added, "Because we'll live."
"Yeah..." she said, softly. "I'm sorry, Rude. I don't think keeping it all inside is healthy, but it might be for you."
"Doesn't feel unhealthy," he said. "Don't worry about it, 'Lena."
"Yeah, there's plenty of other stuff to worry about."
"Why exactly did we buy you pajamas if you're just gonna sleep in your clothes?" Reno demanded as she came downstairs.
"Why do you care?"
"Well, you're gettin' pretty ripe, no offense."
"Shut up, Reno," she snapped. "Like you've got any room to talk anyway."
"Some things never change," Rude said, behind her.
"What, Reno's stench?"
"You two arguing," he said.
"That's not an argument," she pointed out. "An argument is like..." While she was still searching for the words, they were interrupted by a shout from Reeve's office. Elena and Reno both tore for the door, though Reno got there first, and Rude arrived just a second after Elena. The two of them were blocking the door, but he could look over Elena's head easily.
"Here they come!" Reeve shouted, in the slightly squeaky twang he used for Cait Sith, and then he began chanting rapidly in tones too low to hear. Elena took a step forward, followed a moment later by the others. Then, a moment after that, another step. Reeve seemed entirely unphased as they oozed up around him, didn't show any response when his chair was surrounded by a group of intent Turks, all staring at the bank of small black-and-white monitors in front of him. They watched as the fight ended, didn't even notice when he flicked a switch.
"Yes?" he asked. Secretly, he filed away the knowledge that Reno jumped for future smugness.
"We, uh, we were just curious," Elena said, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear and trying to look unstartled. "Uh, how's it going?"
"Good, everything's good," he said, but he was watching the screen with one eye. "Not over yet, though."
"Can they hear us?" she asked.
"I have it muted."
On the screen, Barret turned and shouted something at Cait Sith, and Reeve hit the switch, squeaked "Ready when you are!" into his headset. They watched, transfixed, as the fight carried on – Cait Sith casting spells, the big Corellian firing almost continuously, the young ninja darting forward to the enemies and then back behind the moogle, moving as effortlessly as if they weren't fighting for their lives. Reno caught a glimpse, on one of the monitors, of Cid and Vincent standing back to back, the old Turk firing, the pilot laying about him with a spear.
"Look over there," Elena said, reaching up to point and then drawing her hand back, not wanting to block Reeve's view. She indicated the monitors to their right with her head, where they could all see Cloud, Tifa, and Red XIII leaping down into the glow, see the faint shapes of another fight there.
"Where they going?" Reno asked. Rude shrugged.
"They're—" Reeve dropped back into his own voice. "They're going after Sephiroth."
"On your left," Rude said. Reeve scanned the monitors.
"Other left, Rude," he corrected, then flicked the switch back. "Yuffie, catch!" he shouted, in Cait Sith's voice.
"Wish we could see what they're doing," Elena said in a half-whisper. "The group going after Sephiroth."
"Would it do us any good?" Rude asked, never taking his eyes off the screens. "Can't help them from here."
"Yeah, but I'd like to know."
"I'd like to know for sure it'd do any good if they do beat him," Reno said.
After about five minutes had passed with no sign of the monsters letting up, Reno left the room, returning with a bottle of bourbon and a pot of coffee. Elena found an empty mug she thought had been hers earlier, held it out for a refill of the coffee, and then, after a moment's consideration, tipped some bourbon into it too. She located another mug she thought had been Reeve's, set her own aside to fill it with coffee, and set it within his reach on top of one of the screens. Rude filled another coffee mug with bourbon, leaving the rest of the bottle to Reno. They set the coffee pot on a file cabinet and resettled themselves to watch. Finally, Reeve squeaked "Think that's the end of 'em?" at the group there in the crater. The fighting had lasted for something like half an hour.
"I hope so too," he said, after a moment, apparently in response to something said to the robot.
"What?" Reno whispered.
"Gotta be talking about the group down in there," Elena replied, also in a whisper.
"Cid said he hoped they're okay," he added, in his own voice, then he winced. "Yeah, talking to some people back here." A pause. "You remember the Turks." He flipped a switch, turned to them. "Cid and Yuffie say hi, Vincent said nothing, and Barret says he'll kick your scrawny Shinra asses for good after this is all over."
"It's cute, how he's so optimistic," Elena said, and Reeve laughed and reported that in Cait Sith's voice. "And Yuffie says I have a split personality and need medication," he added, in his own voice again.
"Tell her—" Elena began, only to be cut off by an "Uh-oh!" from him, in Cait's voice.
"Really does have a split personality," Rude observed. Reno and Elena were leaning over his chair, looking at something. "What's going on?" he asked, looking over their heads.
"I can't tell, it's all—"
"From what I can tell, the structure's collapsing," Reeve said, his voice sounding strained. "Nothing personal, guys, but I may need to just concentrate here."
"Fair enough," Reno said, grabbing his half-empty bottle from a filing cabinet and ushering Elena out with an arm around her waist. She looked over her shoulder, trying to get a last glimpse of the screen, until Rude shut the office door behind them.
"I wish I knew what was going on," she said.
"I bet Reeve wishes that too," Reno said. "You saw it, 'Lena, everything was all shaken up. I bet none of 'em really know what's going on, even the ones there in the flesh."
"We're not losin'!" Reeve yelled as Cait Sith from the office. His voice dropped down to more normal levels, a murmur audible only as noise through the door. Reno turned back toward the door, too, all of them quiet so as to listen. "We can still protect what's most important!" he was saying, and voice was his own now.
"He's awful at staying in character," Elena said, with a sad half-laugh. "We're lucky he fooled them as long as he did."
"Yeah, no— Rude?" The tall man had just brushed past them both, and now he stood by the window, hands in his jacket pockets, balled up into fists.
"Look," he said. The sky was dark, as if ready for a thunderstorm, and the clouds glowed an angry red. As if transfixed, Elena drifted toward the window after him, followed a moment later by Reno.
"It's coming down soon," he said, his voice hollow. "Real soon." Elena reached up, squeezed his upper arm. He fumbled blindly for her hand, covered it with his and held on so tight it almost hurt. "Guess this is it," he said.
"Not— it's not here yet. It could still hit anywhere," she said.
"Look how bright it is. It's close."
"Rude," she said. "We're gonna be okay."
He stared out the window for what felt like an eternity to both of them. "No," he said. "We're not." They all watched as the clouds parted, as the baleful red eye that had been staring at them for the last few weeks resolved itself into a cancer the size of a city. Elena drew in her breath sharply. Reno muttered a curse and crossed himself, and Rude made a noise Elena hated to characterize as a whimper.
"Rude," Reno said, worriedly. "I told you not to fall apart, right, big guy?" No response. "Right?" he repeated.
"Oh, Rude," Elena breathed, wrapping her arms around him. He sagged, almost staggering her. "Here, let's— let's get away from the window, for starters," she said, bravely, trying to steer him back to the couch.
"It's still there," he said, but he moved away with her, sat down, and folded over into himself, staring through sunglasses at the arms folded on his knees. "It's all over."
"Something that size could look this big and be headed for—"
"The ocean? Tsunami'd take out half the coast. Something that size takes out more than just the one thing it hits."
"That's not—" She wanted to argue, wanted to convince him things were all right, but they'd both know any words of comfort were lies. "It's not over yet. Maybe Sephiroth's controlling it and it'll go away if they kill him."
"Way Reeve was yelling, they have to be fighting him now," Reno said. "I bet they fell right in on him when things got all shaken up." They heard a "Cure, dammit!" from the office. "Way he's still yelling," Reno amended.
"Can we shut off the TV?" Rude asked, very quietly. Reno complied immediately, and no one spoke further.
They passed an hour that way, listening to the strange roar of Meteor, Reeve's shouts and commands, and the wail of sirens in the distance. "Is that it? That's it?" they heard at last – still in Reeve's voice, he'd apparently dropped out of character for good – and then stillness.
"You think they won?" Reno asked, after a moment.
"Must've," Rude replied. "There's somebody for him to ask about it."
Another yell, through the door, and a panicked "What's goin' on?" Elena started to get up, but Reno grabbed her wrist. "I know," he said, when she turned to glare at him. "But you heard him, 'Lena. He can't see what's going on – you're not gonna learn anything and none of us can help him."
"Is that them?" they heard – he was using Cait Sith's voice again – and then a long pause. "Looks like they're okay!" they heard then. Elena tugged free of Reno and went to the door, and he followed after a moment. Rude stayed where he was.
In the office, Reeve was rubbing his face, slouched in the chair. When the door opened, letting light into the room, he flicked the mute switch and turned toward them. "Cloud and Tifa got separated from us, but they're okay. The place is collapsing, we're not sure about—" he broke off, turning back to the monitors and turning the sound back on.
"What is that?" Elena asked.
"The airship? Must be on autopilot, I guess."
"Or his crew came in for them."
Reeve launched into a flurry of activity, pulling out wires and plugging them into something else. "That what you were wearing in the car?" Reno asked.
"Yeah, I want to see this for myself," he said. "The Highwind's out of control, I can't make out what's going on right now." They made way for him, and he rushed through the room, to the front window. Rude finally raised his head to watch him pass, and the other two trailed after him to the window. A moment later, Rude joined them.
On a normal day, Midgar would be a faint outline on the horizon, the skyline obscured by a haze of pollution that years of Mako power hadn't cleared. On a clear day, the Shinra tower would be plainly visible. Today, they could all see it in silhouette against the baleful red light of Meteor. They watched as the first finger of red touched down on the city, then another, and Elena had slipped out between them and run out the door, slamming it behind her. Reno followed, running out with her into the unnatural twilight.
"It's two in the afternoon," she said as he caught up to her in the middle of the street. "It's summer. It shouldn't be dark like this."
"The weather was beautiful this morning," he said.
"God, Reno. I don't want to die either."
"You think bein' out here can help with that somehow, 'Lena? Just come back inside."
"No," Reeve said. "Holy's coming."
"Holy?" Reno echoed, turning back to look at the executive. He was smiling. He was wearing the headset. "You know something we don't, Reeve? Because it sure would be nice of you to share."
Rude stood in the doorway. Reeve walked out into the middle of the street, searched the sky for the airship. "Holy," he said. "The ultimate white magic, the counter to Meteor – it's supposed to destroy anything that could harm the planet. Aerith was praying for it before she died."
"That helps?" Reno said, his tone challenging.
"Once her soul rejoins the Lifestream—" he broke off. A handful of funnel clouds had touched down on the city now. "Soon," he said. "It has to be soon."
"I grew up there," Elena said softly. "That's our city."
"Mine too," Reno said. "Slums or not. It's my city, it's where I was born and where I— I shoulda stayed."
"They can— I'm going back to the monitors," Reeve said, turning and heading back indoors. Rude rejoined his teammates in the middle of the street.
"Holy," she said. "I never thought I was afraid to die, but..."
"....I'm not afraid," Rude said. "I just don't want to die."
"Yeah." She pressed her fist against her mouth. "I'm glad I never had kids," she said. "And I'm glad I'm with you guys. I just... sort of wish I was with my parents, too."
"Me too," Reno said, in a very small voice, and she turned toward him and gasped. Reno turned as well, and they all watched a streak of white miles wide, coming from the north.
"That must be it," she said. "It has to be." They watched in silence as it hit Meteor and the city, wiping out the funnel clouds.
"Reeve had the right idea," Reno said. "Maybe they can tell what's happening from the air."
"Is it doing any good?" Elena asked, expecting no answer.
"Doesn't look like it," Rude said.
"It looks like it's... is it making things worse?" she said, obviously hoping one of them would disagree. It looked like it'd dispersed, or been absorbed into the red miasma, which had spread rather than dying down.
"Maybe Meteor's too strong."
Reno, searching the sky for the airship, noticed one lighted window back in Kalm proper – then another, more and more. People were opening up their shutters, looking out. He thought he heard a familiar voice, singing some wordless song, a woman's voice – the Ancient?
"...did you hear something?" Rude asked. Elena was looking around, as if for the source of some noise.
"What..." she began, her voice trailing off. Streaks of green light were winding through the darkness, overhead and in the distance. A crack had opened up in the earth near them, and more of the green light was emerging. Mako. "What's it doing?"
"I've never seen it move like that," Reno said. "It's not supposed to move on its own. I mean, it's liquid." One tendril or stream or rivulet was coming towards them. "Uh, 'Lena, maybe we should move?" But he didn't, and neither did his partner or the rookie, as it washed over them all. He remembered his grandmother's voice, suddenly, even though it had been years since he'd thought of it. She'd died when he was just a kid. He remembered the first man he'd ever killed, a guy he'd stabbed in a fight. Why would he remember that? Why did he remember the guy's voice, and how did he know that's whose voice it was? He heard a babble of voices, like being in the middle of a noisy room, but he could hear this one distinctly, talking about – a ball game, that's what that fight was about. As if he'd known the guy, he knew the man had two kids. He wasn't married to either of the mothers but he gave them money when he had any, saw the kids all the time. How did he know that? Why was he on his knees in the street?
"No, stop it! I had to, stop it!" That was his voice, wasn't it? It could have been someone else's. He looked up, saw that Elena had her arms wrapped around herself like someone had punched her in the stomach, and she wasn't crying but her breath came out in sobs. Reno was crying. When was the last time he'd cried? Rude was kneeling, too, staring at his hands. Reno remembered Sector 7, before the plate dropped, remembered faces – individual faces. All those people who should be alive but weren't. He'd doubled over until his head touched cobblestone. The first guy he'd killed for Shinra, a couple security guards, the old man he shot when he held up a convenience store, people he'd forgotten about until now.
Someone was touching him. Shaking his shoulder. He looked up, blinked hazily through the green. He kept hearing the Ancient's voice, but this was Elena. He grabbed her hand, pushed himself into a sitting position, then held onto her hand with both of his as if his life depended on their contact. He thought it really might. She tugged on his arm, trying to pull him along what would have been a step or two if they weren't crawling. He went with her, afraid to let go, until she was near enough to touch Rude's hand.
"'Lena," the big man rasped, and Reno thought he might cry again, just out of relief after hearing a living person's voice. A voice that wasn't telling him the date he killed it, or asking about its family, a voice that wasn't the memory of somebody begging for its life.
"Same thing's happening to you guys," she said, barely above a whisper. "Right?"
"That's why you're okay. Don't have the body count we do," Reno said.
"It's enough," she said. "God, it's too many. I'm not okay."
"I don't see how I can know all this!" he half-wailed. Rude grabbed his shoulder, and Elena had her arms around both of them.
"It has to be over soon, right?" Elena said. "It looks like it's nearly done."
"Once we can move, let's get out of this," Reno said. "Please."
The stream was past them now, and somehow the three of them lurched to the side of the road, huddled against the wall. "I kept seeing them as I killed them," Rude said. "Or feeling. You know how many men I've killed with my bare hands?"
"I used to wish you'd talk more, Rude, but I didn't want anything like this to happen."
"I saw them, I knew about their lives, their families..." Reno said. "I don't know how. I didn't know any of that before."
"Same for me," Rude said.
"Me too," Elena added.
"Is that what they meant? When they talk about the Lifestream, is that what they mean?"
"Maybe that's hell," Rude said. "Someone ran into that, and that's how they came up with the idea of hell."
"No wonder Sephiroth went crazy, if that's what a Mako treatment's like," Reno said. People always made stupid jokes at funerals.
"They knock them out," Elena said. "The SOLDIER candidates."
"It's like having a song stuck in your head," Reno continued, as if he hadn't heard her. "I keep hearing the voices. Do you think it'll be like that forever?"
"It's not the same as they way it was before," Elena said.
"Is that what'll happen when we die?" Rude asked, then "...shit. Forget I said that."
"Maybe if we're practically saints for the rest of our lives?" Elena offered.
"The next ten minutes or so," Reno observed. "I think that's do-able."
"Oh, good, something to look forward to for however long I have left, thanks, Reno."
"Not now," Rude said.
"We died as we lived— bickering." The words were brave, but her voice shook.
"No one's dying," Rude said. "We came here so we'd be safe. We're not dying."
"I'm never killing anyone again, that's for damn sure," Reno said. "Even if I live long enough to get the chance."
"I'm sorry, 'Lena. Even facing certain death, I can't stop being a smartass."
"And I can't stop fighting with you. Or noticing my leg hurts, or really wanting a drink of water." She tried to smile, but it didn't seem to be working.
"I'd take something stronger," Rude said.
"I guess it's normal," she said, then, "Oh, God," as a stream of the green fluid arced towards them, but while Reno felt another rush of guilt as it washed over him, this time the other voices were just background behind the woman's voice, the one he thought he'd heard before, the one he thought was probably Aerith Gainsborough. And then he heard children laughing. When it passed, his heart was beating hard. The angry voices had faded, though he knew that he'd always carry the faces with him.
"Can you believe Strife survived that?" he asked, just to say something, anything, something that wouldn't make Elena make that face again. Maybe she'd even smile. He wouldn't mind seeing that before they died.
"He's tougher than he looks," Rude said, and Elena started laughing. Reno smiled and closed his eyes, knowing full well the tears were leaking out of them again. So much for the Turk self-control. So much for looking cool in front of the rookie. Amazing what stops seeming important when you're facing death and eternal suffering. "Look up there," Rude said, and with a heroic effort, Reno opened his eyes again and lifted his head. The Lifestream was gathering around Meteor. "Think it's any smaller?"
They watched it in silence. "Could be," Reno agreed at last. "Those red clouds are gone, anyway, and the twisters."
"It can't do much without them, can it?" Elena asked. "I mean, it's just kind of floating there now."
"It could hit," Rude pointed out. She looked at him. "Elena, you know if you ask questions we answer."
"You don't have to," she pointed out. Reno closed his eyes again, resting his head on her shoulder. He wasn't much for hugging people. Or shaking their hands, for that matter. But disentangling himself, right now, completely failed to appeal. "Reno, you don't know me that well," she pointed out.
"Huh?" He lifted his head, then grunted as Elena, suddenly, decided to use his shoulder to help herself stand up. From the sound of things, she'd done the same to Rude. He noticed that she wasn't really wet, though the Mako had felt like liquid - her hair was damp with sweat, but her clothes were dry, as were his.
"I need a drink," she said, leaning on them both for support. "Before we die, if we're still going to. Who's with me?"
"I am," Reeve said. "And we're not going to die. Are all of you all right?"
In complete defiance of the evidence, all three nodded. "Got a dose of Lifestream," Reno added, by way of explanation. "I'm comfy. 'Lena, bring me something, would you?"
"Yeah right," she retorted, laughing, as Rude stood too, shakily, and finally, protesting, Reno followed suit. The three of them staggered in together, past Reeve, who lingered in the door, watching the horizon, the slow breakdown of Meteor under a gentle onslaught of white and green light.
"Reeve?" Elena called to him finally. "You up for celebrating?"
"Not totally." Not at all, when he thought about the situation in Midgar. But he stepped away from the door and came in to join them. From the look of things, they'd all decided the bar was an excellent means of support until standing felt less daunting. "Maybe a little," he admitted. The human race had survived, Midgar hadn't been entirely leveled, Sephiroth had been defeated... "It's not an unqualified victory."
"Sort of noticed that," Rude said. His voice sounded hoarse.
"Midgar's got to be..." Elena shook her head. "It must be horrible."
"But we're not dead yet," Reno said. "I call that a win."