Top Guide (In This Town)

Chapter Twenty

A/N: Note for the benefit of anyone who's only played one of the two relevant games, as well as those who've played neither: The appearance of Lucrecia's cavern is wildly different in the OG versus Dirge of Cerberus, and not just in ways that make sense as a direct result of improved graphics.

I've gone for a sort of mashup of the two depictions, leaning toward the OG for the overall layout of the place, but keeping a number of handy visual details introduced by DoC, including their rather startling solution to the previously open question of whether Lucrecia is physically present in the space when not visibly rendered as a standard, moving sprite, and if so how.


Tifa led the party the rest of the way back to the cliffs at a brisk march, this time, defying her injury, in a combination fit of stubbornness and hope that she could get far enough ahead to buy time to take the Potion Cloud had slipped her.

In this she failed; Sephiroth remained close on her tail even as the rest of the party strung out along the dark hillside.

"But seriously why didn't you tell me we had that cloak thing, Tseng," Fair was complaining somewhere behind her, almost drowned out by the roar of the falls, as she finally ducked through the slick opening in the rock.

It wasn't actually low enough that she strictly needed to duck, but the instinct was a good one to keep in the habit of following, just in case, and if Sephiroth brained himself following her lead she would start laughing again, and that would unfortunately not be productive.

Also he might fall into the waterfall and drown, and while she couldn't say she'd be sorry it would be a bit of an anticlimax at this point.

"You were doing fine," Tseng answered tonelessly, voice muffled by the rock.

"Paper napkins!" Zack Fair exclaimed. Oh. This was about the effort to cushion her leg during the flight.

Of course Tseng hadn't helped keep her comfortable, Zack. She'd made him uncomfortable, and he had no reason to trust her. That man could barely manage to care in any useful way for people he actually liked outside the bounds of duty, why would he help her? But she already knew Zack was the kind of person who thought everyone was as good as he was, until they gave him a reason to not think that, and even afterward.

However good he actually was.

"It was—" Tseng's voice and the thundering of the waterfall cut out entirely, both at once.

She'd remembered that, the silence of the cavern, but they hadn't been talking on their way in, any other time, so she'd somehow missed that it cut in like a knife.

In the sudden echoing stillness of the tunnel, a single drop of water fell.

The effect was too abrupt to be anything but magic, and Sephiroth had stopped short when it struck, something Tifa became aware of only a second later when Zack Fair walked straight into his back with a "gmph!" and a "Hey, Seph, warn a guy!"

By the ensuing general noise there had been a bit of a pile-up, only partly on this side of the sound barrier, but when Tifa looked back the passageway was too narrow for her to see anything but the large, quilted figure of Sephiroth several paces behind, and that barely. The brilliance of the orange cloak was faded out to nothing, in the low blue suggestion of light. His hair showed up a little better, and the pale green smudges that were his eyes.

(For a moment she thought he had, improbably, less mako glow than Cloud had had, in the future, but she squinted and realized no, it wasn't that. The vertical lines of his pupils had unfolded in the darkness like the cat's eyes they resembled, and become black pools that swallowed the green of the iris down to a thin ring.)

"Coming?" she asked. It came out hushed. Something about the sudden silence brought it on.

He paused another second, but then he came. "Hm," he said as he caught up with her, which clearly meant I thought the trap had sprung. Tifa couldn't even fairly fault his paranoia. She'd have warned about the silence, if she'd remembered.

"Put your hood up," she whispered, and moved on.

This tunnel was much straighter and smoother than the ones where she and Vincent had staged their running battle with the pink mutants, and it wasn't much further to go until she emerged, without further incident, into a slightly brighter twilight than that of the starlit valley outside.

The cavern was as she remembered it, too round and the earth-glow too evenly distributed to be mistaken for natural. The inset floor was filled by a pool that would have been perfectly still, far more so than the water outside ever managed even at the farthest point from the waterfalls, troubled as it was by the wind…but for the faint spreading ripples still running out from where a stalactite had dripped that one drop.

There was a hint of nacreous sheen to the nearly-smooth walls, over their faint inner light, as though they had stepped within a great seashell left here so long ago that it had had time to develop mineral deposits from the long, slow drip of groundwater, and the walls and water reflected one another endlessly, pearl suffusing the whole dark.

The plinth that stood opposite the tunnel mouth, across the pool, was covered in a riot of vast up-thrust crystal, lit from within not quite the color of Support materia, and this was the main light source in the cavern. The soft glow of it was just a little too bright for Tifa's dark-adjusted eyes to make out whether there was a human figure currently inside.

If there wasn't, this whole stack of cards fell apart.

She glanced at Sephiroth again and found he was withdrawn inside his quilted hood and had a hand up in front of his face, palm out, shielding his vision as if looking at the sun.

So, eyes that could handle dark better suffered worse glare-blindness, too. She was glad he had some prosaic weaknesses to go with his ridiculous powers.

The emergency cloak looked a little less ridiculous in here, the resolvedly blue light continuing to wash the glare out of the orange. Tifa set her forefinger to her lips. She didn't know how this was going to play out, but anything Sephiroth said now was going to make dealing with Doctor Crescent harder.

"Vincent…"

The voice that murmured out from nowhere and everywhere sounded like crystal. Faceted, sweet and high. Tifa didn't know how much of that was because it had to pass through crystal to be heard, but had always imagined the voice was one of the things Vincent had loved first and best about the woman. Could so easily picture him sitting beside her in silence while she talked, happy simply to listen.

She'd never asked. Anything about the two of them. Hadn't wanted to press Vincent on topics that hurt, when there was no need—he always volunteered the things he was ready to say, after all. Hadn't wanted to discourage him from moving on by encouraging him to dwell on what he had lost.

Sephiroth was now squinting at her, acknowledging her gesture for silence but apparently resenting it in the face of sourceless crystal murmurs, as he was frowning. He opened his mouth as though about to speak, possibly to demand to meet her 'expert'—

The altar glowed up, sharply, blinding. Then the light sank, and there she was, the lovely Doctor Lucrecia Crescent, entombed like a fly in amber. Every hair and ribbon of her frozen in time. If Tifa hadn't known better, she'd be certain the woman was dead.

Sephiroth stepped back, either from the glare or the sight. Tifa had foolishly looked toward Lucrecia even though she knew what to expect, and missed the first instants of his reaction; she turned back now just in time to see Zack Fair walk straight into his general's back again, not expecting it to have gotten closer, and rebound.

Vincent, hesitating in the mouth of the dark entry tunnel at the sound of his name, caught the rebounding SOLDIER by both shoulders and steadied him back onto his feet, even as the crystal voice sighed from all around them: "Sephiroth…"

That man, under his blanket of orange fluff, went rigid.

Well. If the sight of her 'expert' hadn't convinced him she'd led him to something more dramatic and relevant than a hole in the ground, that must have. Tifa cleared her throat. "Lucrecia? Doctor Crescent?"

Crystal silence reigned.

Then long eyelashes flicked up, inside the pillar. Sephiroth drew a sharp breath.

"Vincent?" The voice was no less diffuse and chiming, and it matched the open eyes that stared vacantly and did not focus, but there was a little more alertness to it now. Confusion, a hint of dismay, not merely endless sighing regret. "I thought…but why would you be here. No."

In the mouth of the tunnel Vincent's mouth came half open, and everything in him tensed as if to step forward, but he did not. Just stood in place, silent, yearning.

Needing more time, Tifa thought.

It was so much more abrupt a thing for him, coming here now, like this, even if he did come this time more warned of her presence and so less shocked. He'd slept away the years so well that in some ways it must feel like only days since their last parting, and yet all was changed.

He hadn't had the time to adjust he'd gotten, last time, and even then he'd barely known what to say. He needed a little more time.

Everyone always did.

And of course Lucrecia had sensed him entering her place. She had last time too, hadn't she? The cave had stood silent and dim, when they entered while Vincent wasn't with them. An abandoned chapel, featureless. Tifa hadn't even considered…she'd assumed Sephiroth would do just as well as a goad, attract her attention as automatically.

A good thing, maybe, she'd gotten sentimental on Vincent's behalf, and not asked him to stay behind, and go after Jenova while she was gone.

"Doctor Crescent," Tifa repeated firmly, before the woman's attention could fade out and risk wasting this chance. "We need to speak to you, urgently, about your work on the Jenova Project. About…about your son."

"Sephiroth?" The air sang a silent note that was somehow still high and taut, a thin wire on the verge of breaking, not chiming now but ringing the same endless frequency, without swell or fade. "Do you have…news? I think sometimes I…dream of him. I'm afraid sometimes…they're true."

Tifa opened her mouth, and found she had nothing to say. It would have been one thing if she'd been here alone—not as easy as rousing Vincent, because she knew Doctor Crescent hardly at all, but doable.

She could have simply told the truth, the one Vincent had hidden last time Tifa came here to spare her the final heartbreak of knowing what her child had become. Could have explained the risk, and that it was not yet too late. Asked the doctor to come out of her strange exile and save the world from her son, by saving him first. If that wouldn't work, especially with Vincent here, nothing would.

But in front of the man himself?

She couldn't be sure this would work at all. Because even though she knew Sephiroth better than she wanted to, she also didn't know him. Only knew what he had done and said, not what he'd been thinking. If it was love and the promise of truth Jenova had hooked him with, this could work, was what it came down to.

But if it was mostly the hatred, flame, and blood, and the promise of being the most important living being on the Planet, or even simply the promise of a truth that made it all mean something, made it all matter and gave him a mission that ennobled his stupid scientific disaster of an existence—then no. Then this had all been a waste of time, except for the way it had gotten him out of her town.

But that was okay. Because that was enough. It had to be enough.

"He's…grown," Tifa said at last, just as she'd told Vincent. It was the most decidedly true news she could share. Sephiroth was larger than an infant, so he must have grown. "It's been a long time."

"Yes," whispered the crystal. "Long…long…what do you know?"

Tifa glanced back again. Sephiroth's expression was closed, Fair's astonished, Tseng's incredulous, Vincent's agonized but clearly making progress. Cloud had squeezed in past Vincent at some point, while Tifa was focused on the far side of the cave, and was taking all of this in with a wide-eyed wonder that made Tifa's heart ache.

He'd never really been a cheerful child, or particularly prone to strong displays of emotion, she didn't think—she remembered him blank and distant, often unfriendly especially as they got older, but rarely outright hostile; often accused of sullenness by adults. At sixteen and nearly grown, he wasn't much more demonstrative than he'd been at eight, and if it hadn't been Cloud she wouldn't have found this expression anything but a natural and fairly restrained response to this absurd situation.

But suffering, and the pressure they'd all been under as the world tried to end, had burned this innocence out of him over the years since he'd first been this age, made fairytale adventures into something almost quotidian apart from their danger, not worth stopping to marvel at when stopping might come with a cost, and the Cloud she knew was unfazed by wonders.

She'd never seen his mouth drop gently open like this before, simply because he was too amazed to think of keeping it shut.

"Tell me," whispered the shimmering walls. "My baby…."

"Your son is…healthy," Tifa told Crescent, surprised by a rush of feeling for the woman and her absurd, impotent worry for the Demon of Wutai, for the man who would end the world for sheer gluttonous hate of it. "He's…fine right now, but…"

How to be reassuring while still holding her attention? How to ask for what she needed?

Tifa should have planned this out on the flight, once she'd known they were coming here. Or should have spent the flight watching Sephiroth less for murder and more for whatever it was Zack Fair saw in him, that made him seem worth following, worth protecting.

She thought of the disgust in his voice at the mention of Hojo, the way he clearly knew Shinra was a hellhole even if he didn't approve of saying it out loud. Common ground. That would have to do. "He's not…safe. He needs your help."

"I…" Such longing. "I can't help anyone. No. I couldn't even help…Vincent…."

Vincent broke his silence at this, abruptly and without ceremony. "Lucrecia."

"Vincent." The eyes inside the pillar of crystal blinked again and focused, suddenly, taking them all in, picked Vincent out among their number, lurking against the wall, half screened by the bulk of the SOLDIERs.

Still no other part of her moved. Her lips remained perfectly pressed together as her voice resounded, "It is you. You're alive."

"So are you." He was whispering, almost, but he moved forward. Tifa stepped aside to let him past, so he could go up to the lip of the pool, toward the person he respected most in the world. Was it good or bad, to let the focus slide away from Sephiroth? Would it—

"Stay back!" Lucrecia shouted, and the crystal lighting flashed wild with her horror. Just as it had in another time, when he moved to approach the same way. Of course.

And of course Vincent stopped short of the water, nearly stumbling to a halt in spite of all his grace. Every long limb reeling as if he'd been struck.

Last time this had played out, Tifa hadn't known what to think, of any of it. Had stood silent, thinking she had no right to interfere in Vincent's relationship and utterly bewildered at Vincent's admired woman being Sephiroth's mother, and also for some reason alive on a stone altar in an inaccessible cavern deep in the hills.

Now she felt she knew enough to have an opinion, and she found that she was livid.

"No!" Tifa limped forward, past Vincent's frozen form, ripples crazing outward from her feet as she trespassed into the stillness of the pool, "No 'stay back!' We were all within ten meters of Jenova yesterday, what makes you think you're more dangerous?"

"Jenova…" the woman murmured, clearly stunned even across her strange mako crystal distance at hearing that name.

"You have a piece of something horrible inside you, so what?" Tifa chopped her hand through the air, a motion that could have killed nightmares once, and could still knock down a grown man. "So have a lot of people!" Thanks to you, she could have said, but didn't. Failing to feel guilt was not Crescent's problem. "That doesn't make you a danger. It doesn't make you…"

She saw Cloud in her mind again, her Cloud, broad shoulders and mako eyes and the black they both wore in eternal mourning, even as they looked toward the new day. She saw the curl of Genesis Rhapsodos' mouth, as he gloried in his own bitterness. "It doesn't make you a monster."

Tifa shook her head, swallowing. No. This wasn't something she could ride her anger through. That was what made it so hard. "I told you, Doctor Crescent," she said. "You're needed. Please. Wake up."

She stood in the shimmering coolness of a magic cave, feeling the water soaking into her socks, and wondered exactly when she had unlearned a child's wonder.

Not when Nibelheim burned, not quite. When she took an impossible stair down into a magical city too sick with fear for her friend to appreciate any of it, she thought, and then watched her die. So much had died in all of them, that day.

"You can't hide forever."

She waded forward a few more steps, the sloshing against her ankles very ordinary and unmystical. The water grew no deeper. Lucrecia wasn't answering. This wasn't like with Vincent. She didn't know this woman well enough, and she didn't dare punch the crystal to pieces. It might kill her. She looked up into the glow and thought at least Lucrecia was seeing her. Those lovely eyes were still open, and had fallen to her face.

"If you regret not being able to help before," Tifa said, "the solution is to help now. You understand that, don't you?" Nothing. Not even from behind her, outside the pool, except for a long indrawn breath she thought was Zack Fair. "Isn't that your duty as a mother?"

Tifa barely remembered having a mother of her own. She had missed it, all the more fiercely for its vagueness, all her life, until she'd had too many other things to miss to think about it. Being the closest thing Marlene and Denzel had anymore to a mother—the closest thing Marlene had ever had, since she was a tiny infant—had been a matter of trial and error and taking her lessons wherever she could find them, and telling herself that she had to be better than nothing at all.

The one thing she knew for sure about motherhood was that it meant taking responsibility.

"A mother…" Crescent whispered from the walls. "Oh, my child…"

"You're sorry you left him," Tifa pressed. It was important for Sephiroth to know, and it was clearly a point that got a reaction. She didn't know exactly why the woman had left, and couldn't afford to ask right now, when the answer might be something the man in question couldn't stand to hear.

The crystal whispered as it had before: "I'm so sorry."

"And you're sorry about Vincent." Tifa glanced back at him. He was still at the rim of the pool, sunken onto one knee with his long gold claws gripping the edge of the rock as he leaned forward.

Cloud stood behind him, pale in the dimness, forming with Fair and Tseng a staggered line along the wall. Sephiroth stood a little closer, enigmatic under his stupid cloak, which had been the point but now made her nervous. "Have you...apologized? To him, personally? While he was awake?"

"I'm so sorry. Vincent. I'm so sorry."

Right, of course she'd fixate on that. "Okay, having apologized," Tifa said, realizing very belatedly she'd now put herself in the middle of this when she'd intended to lurk in the background as much as she could manage, and only speak up to steer the conversation in necessary directions if it came to that. "What comes next? Because…I think you were always only going to get more sorry, hiding here. That's what happens, when you let time get away from you.

"Because things keep happening, even if they aren't happening to you. You'll look back and be sorry that you didn't do something. You should always do something. Sometimes that's fighting. Sometimes it's being there for the people you care about. But you'll always regret doing nothing."

She'd told herself, after Nibelheim, that that was one regret she'd never let herself feel again.

And then she'd been faced with the potential consequences of telling Cloud she thought his memories were wrong—of losing him, or losing herself, or or or—and said nothing, and at last watched Sephiroth use her silence to chip her friend apart like a raw egg. Until the thin shell of narrative holding him together gave way all at once and he sank into a puddle of formless ooze. Full of protein.

The egg metaphor pretty much stopped working after that, but the point was she knew. She knew what came of not acting. She knew not choosing was a choice. She'd known enough to lecture Vincent, and she was not letting this woman damn the world with her confidence issues. At least when Tifa had taken her week off in the face of the apocalypse, she'd been watching over someone she loved.

(If you ignored her indirect responsibility for Meteor then technically, by turning Vincent into a countermeasure against Omega, this overwrought mad scientist had probably done more for the Planet than Tifa, who'd only ever fought as one in a company of improbable heroes, ever had. But that hadn't happened anymore and might not be useful again so it didn't count.

And turning someone who loved you into a weapon wasn't something Tifa was going to praise anyone for, no matter how many lives it saved.)

"I'm so sorry," Lucrecia whispered, a useless echo of herself.

Tifa bit her tongue. It had been so—not easy, but natural, with Vincent. She'd known the things to say, the places to press, how to get him to sit up and open his eyes and look at her, how to show him what hope felt like in your mouth, even if you couldn't yet get it to melt onto your tongue and give you the taste of its sweetness.

But that was because she knew him. She knew where his hurts were, and how they had healed once before.

Doctor Crescent was a stranger. And she…wasn't even as okay as Vincent had been.

She had more to be guilty about.

"Why are you sorry," Tifa asked, trying for kindness, trying for as little uncertainty as you could put into such a question, because Sephiroth was here and evaluating every second and he had to break right on this, and she couldn't even turn around and see how he was reacting. "For how you failed? Or for what you chose?"

"I'm sorry," Lucrecia repeated, crystalline. "I'm sorry."

This wasn't getting them anywhere.

Maybe she was past waking. Tifa had seen her outside the crystal, once, for just a few minutes, to speak a little, rambling and disjointed, and produce for Vincent the gifts of a fantastically strong gun and the key item for the Chaos Limit, which had turned out to be part of the contingency plot for Omega that it would have been very useful if the woman could have found the courage to explain.

She could come out. But she had gone back.

Tifa had assumed the first step today was to get her to come out, to meet the people she'd abandoned face to face, but maybe that was asking too much. Lucrecia wasn't Vincent, no matter how similar they sometimes seemed. Even if, for Vincent's sake, Tifa had wanted so badly to change the woman's fate. Maybe she should just have focused on getting the truth out of her in a palatable form from the start, and planned to leave her here.

Hadn't Crescent done something useful from her position entombed in crystal, anyway, during the Omega crisis? Vincent and Shelke had both hinted as much, though it could have been some kind of metaphor. Neither of them was much for detailed explanations. So it might be important to leave Dr. Crescent here.

Except Tifa had no intention of letting things deteriorate to the point that an emergency Chaos beacon was necessary, this time.

Of course, what you intended and what really happened weren't even usually the same thing.

Sephiroth was still silent. Hopefully, that meant she hadn't run out of chances or time. One more try.

"I know. You made one mistake, and it cost you everything. But you didn't lose everything," Tifa told Lucrecia. "You lost the one thing you couldn't bear to lose. I know that feels the same. But it's not."

She remembered the feeling of losing everything. Remembered home and dreams all ashes and nothing left but her scars and her rage, dragging herself to Midgar and learning, inch by inch, to live again.

Remembered it again, waking in Junon weak as a kitten from a week in a poisoned coma, to find herself under Rufus Shinra's power, the world doomed and Cloud lost and worse than lost, and her heart beating every second with my fault, my fault, my fault.

Because she had been selfish. Because she'd let his impossible falsehoods stand, afraid of what might lie under them, too afraid of losing him, too unwilling to hurt him, too selfish to help him. Because when Sephiroth had said, ha ha ha Tifa, why are you so scared by those words she had only stood there, because when Cloud had asked if Sephiroth's lies were true she hadn't been able to tell him no. Hadn't been able to believe in him, even though she'd been too much of a coward to confront her doubt until Sephiroth had them cornered.

Please don't think right now, she'd said. As if that was the kind of strength he needed. Don't blame Tifa, said Sephiroth, the cruelest pretense of kindness.

It had made it so hard, waking up knowing what she'd done, how she'd failed; so hard to think of doing anything, so hard to fight, so hard to breathe.

But she had held her breath and reached the key and escaped her bonds and seized her moment and slapped the bitch down and run, forged a path forward for the sake of even a splinter of hope. Run for the sake of being able to keep on running. It wasn't until they'd tracked Cloud down in Mideel that she'd allowed herself to break. That she'd fallen at his feet and wept and said I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll stay here with you until we can both walk out or both burn here, together.

The others had gone on without them. She'd known they would. That was what had made it okay to fall. That if there was another shiny golden wire of hope out there, she knew Barret would find it, that Yuffie and Nanaki wouldn't lose the heart to climb up it, no matter what.

(She'd had less faith in Vincent and Cid, who'd both given up before and stayed that way a long time; even less in Reeve who had so recently been the enemy. But all of them had held the line and kept fighting, until she and Cloud were on their feet again and they could all move forward together.)

Still. If she had found this woman at the foot of Vincent's coffin, she'd have understood. Not agreed, maybe, because in her opinion Sephiroth had been a situation Lucrecia should have involved herself in, one where she'd had obligation and could have been of unique use, but understood.

This…she didn't understand at all. And that was clearly an obstacle to helping.

Cloud would have, she thought. Cloud who turned inward when he broke, who needed time to mourn and mend, time Tifa had always had such a hard time giving him—time the world never seemed to offer. Cloud would know what to say. Her Cloud. Her fragile, unstoppable hero. But he wasn't here now. He never would be again.

Tifa turned. Cloud was solemn and sixteen. Sephiroth was lurking against the wall to one side of the entryway, now, near Zack Fair, with his hood pulled low, and she could read nothing on him. "Vincent," she said. "Tell her."

He drew an uneven breath. The claws of his left hand scraped at the stone. "I," he said, as if words were suddenly unfamiliar on his tongue. "I forgive you. Lucretia. I forgive you. And I…"

He hesitated. They were so alike, caught up in their regrets, but Dr. Crescent said my sin and said over and over that she was sorry, while Vincent said my punishment and had never, Tifa thought, learned to apologize. Only to accept and to atone. "I'm…sorry I failed you."

He said it like he knew it wasn't quite what was needed, but still it was what he had to give. He nodded, very slightly, a dip of his chin inside the high collar of that bright cloak. "I forgive you. I'm sorry."

That's everything. That's all.