Well folks, this is it, the last chapter of this fic before the much requested sequel is written. (After the Muse takes a well-deserved mini mental vacation for a short period of time to unwind and celebrate the completion of such a long fic. That, and she owes the Missions people some missions.) I want to say thank you again to all of you, the readers, for showing interest in this fic and for supporting it with your kind critiques and enthusiasm for it. Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy this chapter.
Chapter Fifty Three – Echoes
The sky is crying. Tears, hundreds of thousands of tears, falling in somber procession across the worn, rust-dusted steps leading to the sickening olive metal building rising against the shifting curtain of brilliant majestic green in the distance.
Where am I?
Like fireflies. It looks like someone took a handful of fireflies and just let them loose here. I can hear their tiny wings beating against the thick, stagnant air, trying to fly away, but trapped in that ocean of shifting green out there. A low humming sound, like those weird generators, or are they voices? Hundreds of trillions of voices, all trying to speak at the same time over one another.
The water seeps into the coarse fabric of my blazer, dampening the skin beneath with a frightening chill despite the humid, stuffy air. I run a hand over the drenched midnight blue fabric. I'm dressed like a Turk. But I'm not a Turk anymore. At least, I don't think I am. I honestly can't remember.
AVALANCHE. Yes. I was with AVALANCHE. That terrorist organization in Sector Seven. I shouldn't be dressed like a Turk right now.
Sector Seven…Why does that sound like it's important to me? I struggle to recall the memories. Everything is so jumbled and distant, on the tip of my mind, but I can't seem to recall what's in Sector Seven that is so important to me.
Scalding pain radiates along my arm and wells behind my ribs as I sit up, grasping the first of the stairs for balance, the world spinning wildly for several seconds before settling into a blurred undertone across my vision. Ow. That didn't feel very good.
I was hurt. I can remember that much. Someone hurt me. They tried to kill me…There was a lot of blood and it hurt. There was so much blood and I couldn't breathe very well. I felt it.
What happened to me?
It's too bright, as though someone poured all of the mako there is across this place and lit it on fire. I've never seen anything like this, not even in the reactors. Never this bright. It almost burns the eyes to even attempt to look around. Kind of reminds me of one of those freaky lava lamps Reno used to keep in his dorm - only this one is a heck of a lot more advanced and harsher on the eyes.
But that building. I can see that building clearer than anything, even through the rain plastering my auburn hair against my pale skin. That's odd. It looks like the Shinra building in some weird, demented way.
The plate. Sector Seven.
Something is terribly wrong here. I don't work for Shinra anymore. I…I shouldn't be here.
The light flares, making me cower closer to the ground. Something tells me it's a bad idea to try to go down towards Sector Seven from here. It's too dark down that way. That's really odd. The skyline looks almost textured, like a slab of concrete or something close. In the blink of an eye, the ocean of green converges upon it as though it never existed, washing it from view.
I'm so confused. That looked like broken concrete, but that can't be right. A twisted briar patch of metal and concrete couldn't be in the sky. And it's hotter in this area, the air almost completely stagnant and thick with a grainy substance I don't quite recognize. But it's there. I can feel it every time I move my fingertips through the rain.
Forward. I think I'll try going forward first. That's always the safest bet. Maybe I can find someone who can tell me where I am and how I managed to get here. I don't even have a train ticket stub telling me what station I arrived from, or how I ended up lying in a rain puddle on Shinra's doorstep.
That's odd. My leg moves through the air to help carry me up the stairs, shifting uncomfortably with a slightly disjointed motion between the command to move and the actual movement. Walking seems to be a little shaky here.
It's almost like drifting, that feeling of lacking stability with every step I try to take unnerving. Almost like treading—or trying to tread water in a way. But that can't be right. It can't possibly rain underwater. Nor was I anywhere near any deep water where I might have fallen into it by accident and am drowning while trying to reach the surface.
Am I even in Midgar anymore?
Gods that buzzing is loud. But I don't see anyone else here with me. Just, lots of light. And fireflies.
Even the sky is bright, frozen somewhere in the middle of everything. Time seems to have stopped here. That clock up there hasn't moved since I ended up on Shinra's doorstep, whenever the hell that was. How did I get here anyway?
Finally. These damn stairs are behind me. A heavy weariness graces my body as I lean against the wall and struggle to catch my breath. Despite it being thirteen simple steps, it feels like I've run a marathon, the effort difficult and not seeming to get any easier. What happened to me that makes even breathing so difficult like this?
The door opens automatically at my approach, forcing me to halt in my unsteady tracks. I've never seen the doors do that before. It's almost as though…they're expecting me.
Rekka. Where is my shuriken? I glance around, finding it missing. Fantastic. I get to go into the den of the enemy without a decent weapon. I can't even move fast enough to use any of my martial arts skills either. It's as though someone has literally paralyzed most of my muscles to the point of basic movements only, my weary mind not even able to coordinate, let alone execute, many of those very well either. It's one of those nightmares where you're running and can't go anywhere.
"Over here! I think I found someone."
Huh? I thought I heard someone in that jumble of voices. Sounded a little like Rude almost, only, he sounded more than a little frantic about something, if not panicked. That's strange. Rude doesn't panic like that. Must be my imagination. I don't hear it anymore, just that standard buzzing.
There is a flash of light, the room melting into what appears to be the lobby. Crimson carpets adorn the duel spiral staircases and glass elevators are frozen at the first floor, their neon keypads glowing with a sense of hostility amid the scintillating rays of light extending from the mako enhanced lights of the ceiling. This is spooky. Just how I remember it being.
When did I wander in here? I don't recall doing so…
Someone is there, behind the receptionist desk. Their bright green eyes watch me with a slight sense of amusement, her darker hair cascading along her shoulders like some sort of cloak. I've never seen her before. Wait. She almost looks a little like Aerith in a way, but that's just my mind playing tricks on me. Aerith lives in Sector Five. She doesn't work for Shinra.
"Jesshera, I presume?" There is no hostility in her airy tone, only a gentle kindness. She seems to know that I have no idea what in the heck I am doing here and I must look like a confused puppy to her. Confused is really an understatement. I'm just plain lost at this point.
"Y-yes," I struggle to reply, the words grating with a somewhat raspy sense about them. I must have been shouting or something to be this hoarse today.
With a slight tip of her chin and a soft smile, she scratches something down on a pad of paper with a quill pen. They got an eccentric one this time. I have to give them that much. Shinra's never used quills in the time I've worked for them. At least, I don't recall them doing so.
"Your keycard," she doesn't look up from the piece of paper, only beckons me closer to her steel and aluminum desk where a small daffodil sits upon the far corner in a foreign clay pot. "Give it to me please."
Keycard? What keycard? I lost that a while ago.
"But I don't have-" The all too familiar, blade-like piece of plastic brushes against my fingertips from my pocket where I usually carry it. Make me a liar now. "…A keycard."
Alright, now I'm a little more than slightly alarmed. This is impossible. I lost this in Seventh Heaven, after Cloud died. I deliberately destroyed it because it reminded me of what I did wrong on that mission. But, here it is, as though it was newly issued today.
I turn the tiny card over in my palm, reading the laminated lettering in the cold inky font Shinra uses on our keycards.
'Jesshera Shisune Starling'
My trembling fingers trace the letters and the picture. That's me alright. The picture says that's me at least. When did they take this picture? It has my scars from the accident, but I don't remember my old one having these. There's no way that scar should be on this photo. I never renewed this and I don't remember having this picture taken.
But this other part is definitely all wrong. My old keycard never had my real name on it, nor that spelling of it. It always said in cold, black letters, Cissnei J. Starling. No one ever told me what the 'J' stood for until I found out on my own curiosity.
Nor did they tell me that apparently what I've gone by for years is really my middle name, or a crude translation of it. Tseng would have been still learning the language when he named me, maybe. He must have mistranslated it or misspelled it by accident. Or Verdot made him change it.
"No way. People actually survived this…" A female voice this time startles me. It's sharp, harboring a disbelief almost as strong as Rude's frantic words earlier. I've heard that voice before. Not very much of her, but enough to know that she sounds a little like Elena. First Rude. Now Elena.
For a moment, I look at the woman behind the desk, struggling to figure out if she said anything. Apparently not. She's still scrawling something down on that piece of paper of hers. Something I can't read from this angle.
The voice flees before I can search for it, replaced by the fainter sound of scratchy buzzing and the heavy atmosphere of this dark lobby. I could have sworn it was brighter a few seconds ago.
"Did you hear that?" I venture to ask, still watching the doorway where I could have sworn that voice came from. A distant, very distant part of me wants to listen closer, to hear something like that again. It was almost like an echo of some sort. From a tunnel. But there aren't any tunnels around here.
"I hear a lot of things," the woman replies. "Lots of things. Tell me, what have you heard, my dear?"
She retrieves my keycard from the surface of the desk, studying it and once again writes something down. I'm being watched, from the shadows of pilfered light spilling from the upper stairwell to pool briefly in that right hand corner, by the old exhibit room. Something else is here with us.
"Can you hear me?" Another echo, spanning time itself this time. Something deep within my heart beckons me to reply that yes, I have indeed heard whoever is talking. That sounded like…Tseng? Not Verdot as I would imagine, but Tseng. Why am I hearing Tseng's voice?
It's Shinra…that weary watchdog within snarls in annoyance, as though disturbed from some sort of suspended slumber. Of course Tseng would be around here. The man never leaves this place. But, he sounded so close, as though he was standing right beside me. I don't see anyone else here.
"Something wrong, Child?"
"Come on, please. Say something, 'Nei…"
I flinch, a light inkling of pain radiating along my shoulder before quickly vanishing with a fleeting touch of invisible wind. Reno. That was definitely Reno. He sounded a little like someone had run him over with a truck at some point, his words broken and desperate.
"Um…" I step closer to the desk in a defensive manner, my amber eyes darting around to better grasp my surroundings. Even the few windows are darkened with a veil preventing the eerie green light that was once so vibrant and warm from spilling in like it once was. "Miss, I hate to disturb you, but do you know how I got here by any chance?"
It's a stupid question by all standards, better suited for someone who's been drinking way to much all night. I, however, know I was not drinking, at all. And yet I'm seeing brilliant green light with fireflies embedded in their shifting waves and hearing people that don't exist talking right beside me. Something is going on here that just doesn't feel right.
"Same way they all do," her voice turns sorrowful, the joy gone. "Unfortunate accidents, murders, illness, time catches up to them. Some take it upon themselves to bring themselves here. Any one of a dozen ways, I'm afraid."
Accidents? Murders? Am I…
"Hang in there, Cissnei. You're going to be okay. You'll be okay. Hand me that vial, Elena," Rude again. His thunderous tone is almost deafening within these steel-enforced walls. Who? Who's going to be okay? What is he talking about?
"This isn't looking good, Sir. Blood pressure is just falling. We're losing her." Elena's voice is less hopeful, clearly addressing someone close by.
A feeling of cold dread washes over me making me hug my blazer closer to my trembling body for warmth. Something is happening. Something horrible.
"No…Don't do this, Cissnei…" There's desperation in Tseng's voice, as though something is happening beyond his range of control.
What's happening? Why is it so cold?
"Breathe, damn it!"
I turn away from the vacant space to my right where I instinctively sense my fellow Turks engaged in a losing battle, the realization striking like a viper from the encroaching shadows slinking towards me.
"I'm dead." I barely manage to whisper, trembling at the brilliant green ocean outside of this building flaring with hungry intent, as I press my back against the wall and sink to the floor in fear. The Life Stream, final resting place of all souls. "…Aren't I?"
"Come on, 'Nei. Don't do this to us. Not today. Please, not today."
The woman behind the desk stares down at me for several seconds, a look in her eyes that reminds me a little of Reno when he first saw me fall to that sniper rifle. Sympathy, and, a hint of sadness.
"Try it again, Reno…"
"That depends on how one chooses to look at it." She points to the vacant spot where the voices are fading with a long slender set of fingers, a seashell bracelet clicking with the motion. "You are here are you not?"
"I'm trying, damn it! She's just not responding to anything I try…"
Here. As in…the Life Steam…
"It's…just not helping yo…"
"I'm in the Life Stream…" It's not much of a question, more so a quiet reality I'm trying to come to terms with. Everything's so jumbled, the buzzing of voices louder, drowning out what I've heard of my life thus far.
"One more time. We will try one more time."
"One could say that." She quips, as though being dead is commonplace and not a big deal at the moment. Maybe not to her. She's apparently been doing this sort of thing for a long time by the casual nature about her. I've never been dead before!
"But, sir, at this point, she's not likely to…"
"What happens to me now?" Am I stuck here, in this building forever? Do I get to be broken down until I become one of those firefly things out there in the green ocean to be sucked up and processed into fuel eventually? Will it hurt? Or does something even worse happen to me from this point onward?
"That is an order for Reno, not you, and it is not a suggestion."
Shinra. I can't even escape this place in death. This is hell, isn't it? Trapped by the people I've been running from, for an eternity. And there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
The woman behind the desk sets her quill aside and folds her hands in front of her with a gentle, almost curious look in her eyes.
"Child, what are you so afraid of? You have done nothing to warrant being judged as evil."
You have the keycard in front of you lady. You tell me what I might be afraid of for a change. Take a look at that logo and you'll see why I'm so damn frightened of this place. I've obviously done something terribly wrong at some, make that all points of my miserable life. I don't even want to think of what the punishment might be for a Turk turned terrorist, turned Turk again.
"Alright, boss. I'll try, but…No promises though."
Something tells me it is not going to be good.
"It is not for me to decide what becomes of you, dear," she continues, trying to comfort me and put those fears to rest. "But you do not need to be afraid of it."
How can I not be afraid at this point? She doesn't know what this Life Stream is going to do to me. No one does. For all I know, it could throw me to someplace well beyond here, with fire, brimstone and a hell of a lot of pain agony and gnashing of teeth.
"'Nei, listen, wherever you are yo, ya gotta come back to us…Please…"
Come back? There is a violent flash, the building trembling with an explosion of light. I reach a hand out to steady myself, glaring at the door. What in the hell was that?
"Fear too, shall fade with time, Child. The world of the living is separate from here. What was done there, is left there and forgotten with time."
Lose my memories…I'll forget everything that has ever happened to me? Everything?
"Not what I want to hear right now, Rude."
Cloud. I don't want to forget Cloud. Or Zack. Or even Reno. And Tseng.
I…I don't want those voices to leave me.
"Please…" his voice is so broken, like he's crying. "Just come back to us, 'Nei…"
There is a flash, the light engulfing me despite my best efforts to claw my way out of its fiery grasp. Pain. Fiery, damning pain, overpowers my vision and slashes at my soul, wreathing the room in scalding waves of mako light.
"Do not fight it, Child-" I can't hear her over the roaring, thunderous water pouring over me from every direction, the building vanishing into the ocean of tumultuous green water surging every which way, tearing my weakened body into its grasp.
I'm drowning. Every crashing wave of watery light floods my lungs as I struggle to scream, to cry for help, to reach that hauntingly beautiful surface lingering just out of reach. But I can't reach it, the very effort to swim hindered by the cruel water pulling me down into its embrace. Terror wraps around me.
No, please. I reach toward it once more, my strength fleeting with the light starting to fade from my vision. I don't want to drown. Someone, please, help…
A calloused hand plunges into the water, grasping my outstretched hand, the thickened water falling around me with the crash of broken glass as the frigid air caresses my face and invades my lungs with each painful, desperate breath I struggle to draw. I can't breathe very well. Everything hurts.
"That's it, 'Nei. Come on. Breathe. You can do this, I know you can yo."
A flicker of light through the crashing waves threatens to overpower me again and draw me into their clutches. The strong hand holds firm, drawing me onto solid land. Who are you? I struggle to blink the brilliant stinging water from my eyes, only managing to get them halfway open to see who pulled me from the eerie water.
I can barely see anything through this fog of grayish white light surrounding me. There's a flicker of blue, pale blue, painted skies stretching through it like a mosaic canvas. Wings. I can see a few feathers of a pair of wings. Long, elegant, cream colored wings.
They're so beautiful. So warm and soft beneath my touch as I reach a quivering hand out to lightly brush them with my fingertips. An angel's wings. These wings belong to an angel.
An angel I can't see the face of.
The roaring fills the air again, this time louder than ever, the air shifting and carrying the sight of the beautiful wings out of view, replacing it with a peaceful, silent darkness.
"Do you think she's gonna be okay, boss?"
Someone's talking. Another one of those echoes? I struggle to look for the source of the voices, finding only the darkness flooding my vision. I…I can't move. Everything is frozen, restrained by a force I can't fight free of.
"I don't know, Reno. They've done all they can for her. The rest is up to her."
Wait, voices. Human voices. Vague, but I think I hear words. Not very clearly, but yes, words.
I can sense them standing nearby, the soft click of leather against linoleum reaching through the cloak of darkness. My one time fellow Turks. I recognize their weary voices.
Light flashes across my vision with a wave of excruciating pain that stiffens my muscles and grinds my fingers deeper into the surface I'm lying upon. It's stiff, yet soft. A bed of some sort? Gods I wish I could cry out in pain, to let them know I hurt.
That I am alive.
I can't even make my body move, managing only a soft whimper I know they can't hear.
Everything is bright and smudged in those split seconds, whitewashed in dreary mako light, the sharp scent of bitter antiseptic fresh in the air with the shrill, constant beep and hiss of machinery I've never heard before. My arm hurts, that chilled feeling of an IV needle stabbed into the vein working its way to the surface of my mind, the first of the few shapes standing over me slowly coming into hazy view before fleeing just as quickly back into the comfortable darkness.
I'm still alive...