(Heya! I've finally played Xenosaga II. Luckily, it only really affects the chapter I haven't written yet, so that's easily fixed. This story definitely takes place before XSII, though, if it would take place anywhere at all. There's only one more chapter to go, and hopefully it won't take too long to finish. Thanks for keeping up with this!)
"And as the stars arise
To call the end of time
With midnight near
I look into my hands
The only thing I've held
Is foolish fear"
-ThouShaltNot, "Last Comfort"
The dark water pooled in the bottom of the drainage ditch reflected nothing but the starless darkness of the sky above them. Her head tilted back by the gentle touch of a hand under her chin, MOMO stared upward unblinkingly, taking in the odd flat black color as Jan silently wiped half-dried blood from her face.
Realian, man, child and dog were currently huddled in the relative safety of the ditch, just underneath a walkway and up against the grate which prevented people from accessing what lay further back. Nate, a sullen expression on his face, sat upon the cement next to the shallow trickles of water, occasionally poking a stick into it and watching its path change. The knapsack of supplies he'd carried was open nearby, the source of the cloth his stepfather was currently using to clean her up.
She could sense him inspecting her as he washed the stains away, serious blue eyes noting the features which, in the real world, humans were so used to now. MOMO couldn't make herself meet his gaze, watching the nothingness of the sky instead and trying not to shiver at the coldness of the water on her skin and hair.
Jan's blood all over her, a memory's blood - but they'd been able to kill Gnosis before, in KOS-MOS' Encephalon, and those mechs and soldiers that had been mere recollections too. What would have happened if I couldn't have healed you? she thought at him, brows furrowing unconsciously at the idea of it.
Finally, he spoke, forcing her to look at him. "MOMO. What are you?"
The girl turned her face aside reflexively at the question, his fingers leaving her skin. The dull, unhappy ache inside her seemed to swell, and she stared down at her knees. "Something you won't know about for a long time," she answered reluctantly. "But it doesn't really matter now."
"Doesn't matter?" he repeated, mystified. "I should say it does. If you hadn't been able to-"
"If I hadn't stopped, you wouldn't have been wounded, Jan!" she burst out. "It - it doesn't matter what I am. Just that you're safe. I'm sorry, but you couldn't understand"
He did not sound happy with the lack of explanation, grudgingly conceding, "Perhaps. But why are you here? Were you sent to help us?"
The Realian let out a long sigh. "No, I I'm here to find someone. But maybe I can help you too."
"MOMO," Nate broke in suddenly, peering up almost darkly from under his mop of red-brown curls. "You sounded like you knew it - Ziggurat Eight. You're looking for-"
She shook her head hard, pressing her fingers against her face, hiding her gaze in her hands. "No," she protested strongly, "that's not who I'm looking for! It's not!" She raised her head as Jan touched her shoulder, taking a breath to calm down, and stared up at the lightless night sky. "He's still here, but somewhere else. I I know it. I can tell..."
The man set down the cloth he'd been using, sitting back down onto the curved floor of the drainage ditch. Leaning forward over one knee, his brows furrowed, he seemed to stare into the distance for a while before finally looking back over at the other two. "I'm sorry," Jan finally murmured. "But there's really no one here but us and it. And now you."
And if you'd been killed? She almost asked the question aloud before realizing they wouldn't know. As far as they were aware, if they died the world would continue, but as she stared out at the shadowy false buildings, MOMO was sure that if the memories she sat beside were destroyed, this entire world, Ziggy's Encephalon, would be erased as if it had never existed. He can't be! she thought in anguish. He can't be trying to get rid of everything!
However her heart sank at the thought, things were becoming clearer. How could Jan and Nate hurt their attacker if they were memories and he - it - was not? The only thing they could do was continue to run and hide
"Hey, MOMO?" Nate frowned, waving a hand in front of her. "MOMO?" She gasped, broken from her thoughts, and looked over at him. "Hey," he said, looking downcast, "I didn't mean it. Don't look so sad, please. We'll help you find him, right, Dad?"
His stepfather was silent for a moment, watching her, and then his expression softened; she was once again forced to look away in pain at the familiarity of it. "Yes, we'll help. But, after everything that's happened today, we'll stay here and rest a while first."
"But-" the Realian began uncertainly. There just wasn't time to rest, not when she could end up trapped here. She couldn't sense Zigg- its presence nearby, but that didn't mean it wouldn't return. And if she slowed them down again
"Let's just try to get some rest," Jan said firmly, leaning back against the curved stone of the tunnel entrance wall. "There's no looking for anyone at night, anyway."
The boy sighed, making a noise of frustration and then reaching to pat Nex, who had lifted his head at the sound. "I can't sleep, Dad, not now. Hey, Dad," he perked up slightly, twisting to look at him, "can you tell us the rabbit story, then? Like Mom used to do. It's my favorite."
Strangely, he looked rather uncomfortable at that, opening his mouth and then closing it again before looking away. One hand clenched into a fist and relaxed over and over again reflexively. "No, I don't think so. I'm sorry."
"Ohh, come on! Pleeease?" he protested; the whine in his voice sounded genuinely upset, and the rose-haired girl cast him a concerned look.
"I'm sorry, Nate," he repeated, a furrow forming between his brows. "I can't."
Wanting to break the boy's resulting dejected silence, MOMO tentatively reached out and put her hand on his arm. "Hey, Nate," she began with a shaky smile, "I've never heard that story. Would you tell it to me?"
He ran his finger through the gravelly dust, drawing a little twisty line there. "Okay," he answered after a moment's deliberation, pulling his skinned knees up in front of him. "There once was this velvetin rabbit, right? I guess that's what it was made out of; this was a really, really long time ago so they didn't have rabbits made like Nex was." He grinned, petting the little dog, and, though Jan twitched at the mispronunciation, he made no move to correct it.
"So," the child went on, "anyway, the rabbit lived in the boy's room and didn't do anything 'cause the boy had all these really cool toys, all new, and the boy had a horse too, it was a toy too but it was real old and when no one was around they would talk about stuff."
MOMO nodded at this, chuckling softly at his enthusiasm. "The toys would talk?"
"Uh-huh! And the horse knew a lot of stuff and so the rabbit asked him, 'what's Real? Is it like being a robot and stuff, and having lights, and talking?' and the horse said no. See, toys can't be made Real, they turn into Real with they're loved for a really, really long time, not just for playing with.
"So, anyway, one night the boy got scared of the dark, and his mom found the rabbit in his room and gave it to him so he wasn't scared anymore. And after that, he slept there and got rolled on and hugged and squashed, and he couldn't talk to the horse because the boy was there. But he was all right after a while because he got to have fun with the boy and didn't just sit there anymore.
"But 'cause the rabbit was velvetin and not plastic he started to get all worn out. And 'cause you couldn't replace the parts his mom was going to throw the rabbit out. But the boy cried and so she said all right, and gave it back and said he shouldn't cry over just a toy. And the boy said 'he's not a toy, he's real!' And the rabbit was happy because it had to be true since the boy said so.
"And, um," Nate paused, frowning, "I don't remember. Oh yeah! So one time the boy took the rabbit outside to play but it was dinnertime and he forgot it outside. And it was getting late and the rabbit was waiting and suddenly he saw some real live rabbits! This was back when real rabbits actually lived outside!" He seemed amazed by the notion. "Anyway, the rabbits were playing and said 'why don't you play too?' and the velvetin rabbit wanted to play but he couldn't. And they came up and sniffed him and said 'you're not a real rabbit!' and he said 'I am too, the boy said so!' but they didn't believe him and then the boy came to get him and the rabbits ran away.
"So, yeah, the rabbit and the boy played a lot and the rabbit started to look old but the boy didn't care or the rabbit either. And one day the boy got sick, and they didn't have medicine in the olden times to fix it. So the boy was sick for a long time and had to stay in bed and the rabbit stayed too until he got better. So when he got better they were going to go on a trip but they didn't know how to get rid of germs so they got rid of all the toys so they wouldn't have germs. And they put the rabbit there too and were going to burn it! And the boy didn't remember about him because he was going to go on a trip. So the rabbit was very sad.
"But suddenly, a girl appeared! She was magic and she said she takes care of the toys, and when the kids don't need them anymore, she makes them Real! And the rabbit said 'the boy said I was Real before', and the girl said 'you were Real to him because he loved you, but now you will be Real to everyone' and she picked him up and made him into a real live rabbit, so now he could play with the rabbits outside! And, guess what, MOMO? I bet that's going to happen to Nex, don't you think?" Nate looked to her eagerly, wanting to see her reaction to his favorite story. However, upon seeing her face, his eyebrows knit together in worry. He leaned sideways, closer to her, uncomprehending. "Hey! MOMO, what's wrong?"
"MOMO?" Jan echoed in alarm, sitting up from his pensive slouch. "What's-?"
"My - daddy," she choked in response, quickly hiding her eyes behind her palms once more. Though she'd started out enjoying the story, as it went on she'd realized something "He told me - just like in the story - if I did good deeds - if I was good," she sniffled, her voice thick with tears, "then I could be real too-"
He let out a hiss of breath, reaching gently to touch her hair, the soft pink fibers drifting through his fingers. The thought that someone could have told her that seemed to anger him, though he struggled to repress it. "You are," he told her, sounding so certain of it that her eyes welled up further.
Human emotions, simulated to facilitate humans' work with Realians - but why did it feel so strong, the hurt so great? "No," she sobbed, "no, you don't understand!" Jan's arm curving around her, he pulled her against his chest, his torn uniform smelling of his blood, and she clung to him despite herself, shaking as she tried to repress her crying. Concerned, Nate knelt nearby, and she could feel his hand patting her shoulder now and again. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't-"
He shook his head, his hands soft and gentle and human, smoothing down her hair over and over again comfortingly. "No. Just go ahead and cry." Jan's voice grew softer then, sad and thoughtful. "Get it all out you'll need to be strong, soon. Too soon"
It felt like a release, the tears draining of all the fear and uncertainty she'd been feeling in this world and the real one, and, all at once, MOMO felt that she knew just why humans cried. And, even if they didn't understand, there was comfort here, even in a world of memories as great as anything she had ever known.
She was much calmer when she finally pulled out of the man's embrace, rubbing at her eyes as she shifted away. Looking rather awkward, Jan reached to rub at the back of his neck, glancing down to Nate and letting out a little sigh. "Please. Rest now."
The silence that descended when they did as he asked was thick, almost like a blanket over them added to the nothingness of the memory-world outside. Unwilling to waste time in sleep, however, the Realian instead closed her eyes, doing her best to sense anything that might be out there. Normally, she would have found a map in her head, a diagram of the area they'd been through recorded in her mind, but there was nothing. It would be like trying to map the contents of a cloud
Frowning, she thought back to all she had seen so far, all the two had been able to tell her about the thing after them, about this city. The destroyed sectors the vanishing people a huge explosion
'It sounds ignorant, in this day and age, to say a place is cursed'
It doesn't touch that one building
"That building," she blurted out, scrubbing absently at her cheeks to wipe away the stickiness of the tearstains there. Nate jerked suddenly, startled, and Jan, slumped back against the curved wall of the ditch, immediately opened his eyes to look at her. "The one that Ziggurat - that it hasn't destroyed. That's where he is, that's got to be where he is!"
"Are you sure?" the policeman asked, his blue gaze perturbed.
She nodded almost violently, grabbing up her Dragon Rod, scrambling out of the 'tunnel' and then springing to her feet; both he and the young boy followed soon after, taken aback by her sudden energy. "Please, Jan, you've got to take me there! I can't find the way in the dark like this!"
"MOMO," Nate moaned, clutching at her sleeve, "don't go there, don't! We can't go in with you! Dad, don't take her there! Please!"
Jan nodded unhappily, oddly enough for him looking at the ground, almost as if ashamed. "He's right," he said softly. "We can't go with you, MOMO; we can't enter there."
"Jan!" she wailed, reaching out toward him insistently, closing her hands around his left arm, nearly hugging it to her. It should have been made of metal "But I have to! It's the only place he can be! I have to find him before-"
He held up his other hand to stop her, and she immediately fell silent, staring up at his familiar face pleadingly but not letting go of him. "I I will take you to the door," Jan said finally, sighing in resignation, "but what you find inside, you must face alone."
"I understand," she told him in a small voice, her chin tucked against her chest as she slowly released his arm; Nate next to her made a soft cry, shaking his head hard. "Thank you for everything you've done."
'Are you scared?'
'A little but I'm okay because you're here with me'
She closed her eyes, her heart aching. I'm coming, Ziggy - I'm here with you, too-
"No, MOMO... I should thank you," Jan returned, a warm presence in the darkness of her vision, in the emptiness that surrounded her. "You are the brightest hope we've found. We've been struggling, holding on, for so long," he went on, his voice softening, "I wonder what it will be like to live here quietly once more."
She flung her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly, burying her face against the stained fabric of his uniform. He knelt down to embrace her briefly, gently pressing his cheek against her hair. For a moment they were still, and then he stood up, patting her shoulder.
She sniffled once more, wiping her eyes, and then nodded silently, following him as he started off again. Nate, a moment later, walked beside her, weeping quietly, his sticky hand fastening tightly around hers.
MOMO didn't know what to say there was nothing she could say. An expectant, waiting quiet filled the world around her, a breath drawn in and held forever. Finally, after a long walk through the still shadows, the street before her opened up to reveal the odd building, pristine and somehow looking taller than it actually was as they came to a stop a fair distance away from its front archway.
Craning her head to see, the girl finally broke the silence, reluctantly letting go of Nate's hand. "There's a light on inside"
"Yes." Jan frowned. "We can't go any further. I'm sorry."
She nodded, swaying a little as she stared upward, bumping her toes against some of the debris littering the street. There was no door; instead, a large doorway loomed on street level, completely dark with no hint of what waited through the portal. "It's okay. You've done enough for me."
"Please, MOMO. You belong here," Nate whispered near her ear. "You're like us. You were here to begin with-"
"Nate," Jan cut in, his hand firmly on his stepson's shoulder, pulling him back a step. "She has to go." He shook his head, turning his gaze to her. "You'll be all right, MOMO," he told her quietly. "It - Ziggurat Eight - won't pass the door, either. It's almost as if it can't even see this place. You don't have to fear it coming for you."
But what do I have to fear instead of that? she asked silently. Why won't you pass the door, Jan? Instead of speaking, however, she nodded, putting on the smallest smile she'd ever managed. "Thank you."
It was the hardest thing she'd ever made herself do, turning her back to them and facing the gaping doorway of the unassuming building ahead of her. Slowly, she took a step toward it, brows furrowing in a determined frown. She could do this, even if she didn't have her friends with her; she would do this, and then she and Ziggy could go back to the real world and everything would be all right again.
Taking another step, MOMO suddenly gasped and stumbled backward a bit as a wall of fire roared up between her and the doorway, its heat blasting her face. It was saying, in no uncertain terms, 'keep out'.
Regaining her balance, she clasped her hands to her chest, refusing to even look behind her. She knew just what she'd see, anyway - a tall, blue-eyed man, pale in the low light, and a little boy beside him clutching a small almost-real dog their gazes of sadness and loss
"Ziggy," she whispered, just barely aloud, "I'm sorry, but I have to. I'm sorry if it hurts you. But please you have to come back to us." She clenched her fists, closing golden Realian eyes against the dancing flicker of the flames. "You have to come back to me!"
Taking a deep breath, MOMO leaped forward, diving directly into the wall of fire, the darkness of the open doorway gaping blackly on the other side, waiting