Kairi was on her way back to the church when she was rudely stopped. Someone grabbed her arm. Her eyes narrowed, and she tugged herself free.
"Wait," he said, grabbing her again. "I need to talk to you."
She kicked herself for not noticing the man's presence beforehand. In a crowded area like this, it was difficult to pinpoint an Other's specific magical signature. Well, it normally wasn't for Kairi, but she hadn't slept in a while. And while this was going through her mind, she paused, ever-so-slightly, which unfortunately made her attacker assume she was willing to talk.
Vaan. His name was Vaan. He was at that church with Sora and Riku.
"Wow, new clothes?" he asked. She could hear his sneer in his voice. "Where'd you get money to pay for all that?"
"I can kill you with my brain," she said bluntly. He laughed.
"I wouldn't be too sure. I can't be injured."
"Will that help you when I drop you into a coma?" In response, Vaan dropped her arm, and she kept walking, without hesitation.
"I just want to talk," he said. She ignored him.
"There's a girl who works there, or used to work there. Her name is Penelo."
Kairi's insides froze.
How in the hell-?
Unfortunately, Vaan had noticed the sudden change in body language.
"So you do know her."
The last time Kairi had seen Penelo, the latter was unconscious on the floor of a dank basement lab, bleeding out from a stomach wound that Kairi herself had inflicted.
It hadn't been long. A few hours? A day at most. When Kairi had left, the others she'd knocked out were already waking up. Someone would have found Penelo before she died. At the time, she'd been one hundred percent sure that Penelo would live. That someone would treat her wound. The question is, would Sephiroth have saved her, or left her there to die? For her body to be found by the rest of the team?
The adrenaline was only just fading away from her late night chase and escape. She'd been so concerned with her brother's well-being, she hadn't looked back even once. Now, though, she was looking back, and she didn't quite like what she was seeing.
Penelo wasn't a bad person. She didn't deserve to die alone in a basement.
"When was the last time you saw her?" Vaan was asking. "Is she ok?"
Kairi stayed silent. Since Vaan knew where her brother was, she couldn't exactly run away from him.
"You shouldn't be talking about this outside," she said, finally.
"Fine," he said. "If we go back to the church, will you tell me about my sister?"
Penelo had mentioned having a brother. A twin brother. She turned to face Vaan, and gave him a quick once-over. He had the same pale skin and features as Penelo, and he looked to be about the same age.
The day she leaves Shinra, she ends up ankle-deep in Penelo's family drama.
"Why did you leave?" she asked. He gave her a stupid expression- so unlike Penelo, she thought- so, she clarified.
"The church. Why did you leave the church."
"Oh," he stammered, clearly intimidated by her gaze. "The wolf- er, Riku, I mean- sent me out to get food." He winced. "And blood."
Of course. Sora hadn't been too concerned by living with vampires, so they must not feed on humans. And, of course, they were unable to get their own supplies during the day.
"We'll go together. I have money." She turned around, and strode back towards Union Square. She'd passed by a couple of bodegas on her shopping trip. In hindsight, it had been silly of her to assume that that disgusting church had a supply of, well, anything. Zeke hadn't eaten real, solid food in years, and his diet was going to have to be carefully regulated.
The selection of food in the tiny corner market was, of course, terrible, but Kairi managed to stock up on grainy carbohydrates, and a few meager apples. She swiped one of her stolen cards, shoved the bags into Vaan's hands, and walked out.
"Where do we go for blood?" she asked.
"Uh, Riku said there was a butcher nearby? Or something?"
She rolled her eyes.
The butcher's shop they found was small and dank. No one else was inside, which didn't surprise her.
"Stay here," she ordered. "I'll take care of it."
The bell on the door didn't even work right. The store greeted her with a dull thunk.
This neighborhood didn't seem like it produced many people who could afford fresh quality meats, and, well, the meats in question weren't looking very "fresh" or "quality." On the plus side, this was the perfect sort of place to come if you were a vampire looking for some non-homicidal sustenance. This butcher was probably so desperate for business, he wouldn't mind selling his byproducts for cheap.
"Hey, pretty lady! You here to check out my salami?"
Kairi no longer felt sorry for this man's financial plight.
"Give me all the blood you have," she said. The man's eyes widened, and he put his hands up.
"Whoa. I don't want any trouble."
"Blood. Now," she repeated. "I have cash." She pulled the cash out of her wallet and waved it at the frightened man. No point using the cards for this, or her mystery victim might found out that he'd been mugged by a vampire. Or someone associated with a vampire, in this case.
The man nodded his understanding and went to the back of the shop. Just as Kairi had suspected, he'd kept the blood from the past few animals he'd carved up bagged, for exactly this sort of demand. He handed her two buckets full, not making eye contact.
"Can I get some sausage, too?" she asked, more pleasantly.
"Doesn't matter." He nodded and wrapped up a few different varieties. Kairi didn't wait for him to give her a total. She simply gave him the full wad of cash, knowing that it was far more than enough, and told him to keep the change. He mumbled a thank you, and she left.
"That was fast," said Vaan. Kairi didn't miss the way his nose wrinkled in disgust when he saw the buckets of blood. A few years ago, she probably would have had the same reaction. As it was, a thirst for blood wasn't even close to the most disturbing thing she'd seen.
"Let's get back," she said. "I've been out longer than I should have. And these won't keep for long."
She'd left her brother in a basement. If she hadn't stopped at that bar, she would've been back in less than an hour. She wouldn't have run into Vaan, and she wouldn't have been wrapped up in his sad grocery mission. Zeke was alone with that maniac. A quick once-over satisfied her that Vaan was still carrying all the food and the bed linens she'd purchased, and she set off towards the church, confident that he'd follow.
When Kairi kicked the door open, she was surprised to see that she hadn't surprised anyone at all. The place was empty. She ran through a checklist in her mind.
Zexion and Demyx- still in the basement. Sora's brother- sleeping in the rafters. The other vampire- sleeping upstairs. Vaan- behind her. Sora and Riku-sleeping on the roof.
Wait. Sleeping on the roof? Together?
Well, that was interesting.
"Where's the fridge?" she asked. No answer from Vaan. "Please tell me there's a fridge," she muttered.
"Uh, yeah, it's upstairs, I think," he said. She set off to store her haul. The kitchen was the only room in the housing suite with an open door. The fridge was old, but still cold enough on the inside for her to be comfortable storing animal blood in there.
In any case, with two vampires under one roof, she was sure they'd finish it all before it went bad.
She left the now-empty buckets behind and went back to the main room to collect her blankets. Ignoring Vaan, who had sat down on one of the pews to wait for her, she snatched up her bag and made for the basement.
Zexion hadn't gone anywhere, luckily. He was fast asleep, propped against the stairs, with Demyx's head resting in his lap. Zeke's fingers were wrapped up in the other man's hair and clothes, in a way that didn't look particularly comfortable for either of them. Kairi was not a fan of the attachment her brother had developed to Démé Desmarais, but for now, she couldn't do anything about it without risking Zexion's mental stability.
She could separate them later, once Zexion had readjusted to life in the real world. For now, if Demyx's unconscious body gave him some comfort, they could keep him around.
Like a child with a teddy bear.
When she approached her brother, he stirred from sleep. His grip on Demyx didn't loosen, but he looked at Kairi, and acknowledged her presence. He was dirty, and his hair was far too long, greasy and almost entirely covering his face. The purple color that had been so vibrant when he was younger was now reduced to accentuating how sickly his skin looked.
"Hi," she said softly. "How are you feeling?" He tilted his head to one side, but didn't answer.
"I brought you some pillows, like I said I would." She gently propped him up, and slid one pillow behind his head. She couldn't get a pillow under Demyx's head, but she didn't really mind that.
"It's hot," Zexion said quietly.
"I know," she said. "I'm sorry, but until you feel better, you have to stay underground. Literally underground." While he was down here, unless you knew what to look for, it would be near impossible to sense his presence without being right on top of him. "Get some more rest."
Obediently, his eyelids fluttered closed.
Now, Kairi wasn't really concerned that the people here would sell them out, not after seeing the lengths Sora went to to help her. She hadn't met either of the vampires, though, and she hadn't made up her mind about the wolf. Not to mention the wildcard presented by Vaan, Penelo's brother.
She had to find out what he wanted with her, before she could rest comfortably.
"Good to see you're still with us," Vaan called, as she climbed out of the filthy basement. "Thanks for all the food."
"Consider it a payment, in exchange for hiding me and my brother for the time being," she said, sitting down in one of the few pews that was still upright and functional. Just the act of sitting down was enough to pull her towards sleep, but she couldn't let her guard down just yet.
"Oh, don't worry about that," said Vaan darkly. "I'm no fan of Shinra." He paused. Conspicuously, he was not sitting down, choosing instead to stand a few feet away.
"Which brings us to the point," he said. "Tell me about Penelo. She was abducted about six months ago."
"Before, you just told me she worked for them."
"You're the one who said it wasn't ok to talk about this stuff in the open," Vaan said, with just a hint of petulance in his voice. Kairi tried to think of anything Penelo had told her about her brother, but she was drawing a blank.
Well, it's not like she'd told Penelo anything about her brother, either.
"Yes… I knew a girl named Penelo," she said, careful not to offer too many details about herself or her work. At the very least, she could understand Vaan's brotherly concern, having infiltrated Shinra to save her own sibling.
"Is she alive?" he asked bluntly.
"She was alive when I left."
"What kind of answer is that?"
"Do you know what kind of work your sister does?" she asked instead. Determining just how much Vaan actually knew about Shinra was vital to understanding the boundaries of their little chat. Vaan seemed to guess what she was doing, because he gave a deliberately obtuse answer.
"To put it lightly," she said. "Every day, she's just one wrong move away from getting killed. But you knew that."
With a growl of frustration, Vaan kicked one of the other pews. He was too emotional. Definitely a hazard to have around. When he calmed down, he asked her:
"So what were you doing there?"
Her eyes narrowed.
"No," he said simply. "You're definitely an Other, and probably Class 1, so- experimenter, or experimentee?"
Kairi was taken aback. He knows a lot about Shinra, she realized. Had Penelo found a way to communicate with him? No, that was completely impossible. At the very least, she herself would have found out about it.
Not necessarily. Did Penelo ever figure out how you were programming the computer? a small voice asked, from the back of her mind.
Kairi hated the idea that Penelo had gotten one over on her in return. The more she spoke to Penelo's brother, the more she realized that she didn't actually know her long-time partner that well.
And she still hadn't answered the question.
"…Both." He seemed surprised by her answer, but didn't press further.
"And the other two you brought with you?"
Vaan, who had still been pacing anxiously, finally sat down on the pew next to Kairi, with a loud sigh.
"She chose to go in, you know," he said. "Knowing that it was a one way trip. I told her not to, and she did it anyway. To try to protect us."
From what? Kairi wondered. Some Class 2 and his buddies aren't likely to be on Shinra's radar.
"Why?" she asked. Vaan looked at her with some surprise.
"When was the last time you were, you know, on the outside?"
"I dunno. Years. High school," she said.
"You've missed a lot."
A conversation that had started out simple had gotten much more complicated. She had to do some quick reconnaissance.
"Just to be clear," she said, "your abilities are not the same as Penelo's, right?"
"No, not at all. She repels magic. I can't do that. Like, this one time-"
Kairi shut him up by entering his mind.
A full mind read was quite a bit more complicated than her usual telepathy, particularly with an unwilling target, but it was well within her abilities. She teased information out of Vaan's memories by prompting him, and drinking up the resulting thoughts.
Shinra, she requested first.
"Hey- what? Stop it!" Vaan wasn't able to stop himself from thinking about Shinra, however, and Kairi was treated to a display of gruesome images.
All Vaan thought of in relation to The Shinra Company was death.
Dead bodies, and lots of them, all gruesomely mangled and tortured. Some of them were people he knew, and some not. He and Penelo lived with a lot of other Class 2 and 3 Others, in a sort of underground commune. A community that was under attack from random acts of violence from the Shinra Company. Sure enough, Penelo had been feeding them information about Shinra, through- through the garbage?
She was impressed. And a little surprised that Shinra didn't use an incinerator.
Like always happened when she tried this sort of thing, she was taking in too much information, and she'd have to translate it later. She was so curious, though, that she couldn't help herself.
The bombardment of memories and emotions was too much.
Kairi broke the link.
"So Shinra's been killing Others," she surmised. The details, she could work out later, but the existence of the violence, as well as the perpetrators and victims, were clear.
"Torturing Others," he corrected, rubbing his forehead, even though there was no physical hurt. "And holy hell, you could've just asked."
"I didn't know the right questions," she shrugged.
"How can you tell me to wait out here? We'll never even know why this is happening unless we go and find out. I don't even know where to start, or what questions to ask."
"Penelo, wait! Come back!"
"And Penelo infiltrated Shinra to find out the right questions." She quickly corrected herself. "I mean, to find out why." Vaan nodded. Put that way, Penelo sounded like a folk hero. Her motives were certainly far more noble than Kairi's had been. On the other hand, Kairi had been much more effective an individual.
What had Penelo ever done besides complain?
Despite her dismissive thoughts, Kairi felt a tiny twinge of guilt as she thought of all the times that Penelo had begged her to stop Shinra's experimentation. She'd tried to mitigate the damage, she really had. She'd created Naminé, after all. But now, to learn that the data from the experiments she'd been placed in charge of had been used to develop weapons that were used on Others outside of Shinra-
Wait. Weapons? That didn't make any sense.
Something in Vaan's thoughts wasn't adding up. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, though.
"Um. Hello?" Vaan asked, waving a hand in front of her eyes. "My sister?" Kairi blinked.
"Penelo's tough, and she's smart," she said. "I'm sure she'll be fine." She took the image of Penelo bleeding onto the floor and screaming for her to stop, an image that had burned its way into her mind, and pushed it down into a dark place inside of herself.
"You got out," said Vaan, his voice breaking. "Could she ever-?"
"She's tough, and she's smart," Kairi repeated, knowing full well that her words were unhelpful. Vaan was silent for a long while. Assuming their conversation was over, Kairi moved to head back downstairs and get some sleep. As she tried to stand, however, Vaan stopped her with his words.
"I can't tell what your deal is," he said. Look who's talking. "What's your connection to Shinra? Why were you there in the first place? And why the high-profile escape?"
Kairi snorted, the closest she'd come to real laughter in a while.
"People don't leave Shinra. There's no way to make a low-profile escape," she said. She supposed at this point it couldn't hurt to tell him her connection to Zexion, either. "As for why I was there, one of the guys in the basement is my brother. He was part of the-"
She paused. There hadn't been anything in Vaan's mind about the DIZ Project. Apparently, it was secret even among Shinra's secrets.
"He got kidnapped by Shinra. For experiments," she said vaguely, instead. "I went in to get him back."
"And it took you years to do it?" She shrugged in reply, and Vaan didn't seem satisfied. "What sort of experiments?"
The sort that may or may not have left my only living relative permanently brain damaged.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"So you were right at the heart of whatever they're doing," Vaan inferred. An hour ago, Kairi would have agreed with him, but after seeing the things Vaan had seen, she couldn't be so sure.
"Obviously not, since I had no idea what was going on outside."
Another silence settled between them, and this time, Kairi waited, expecting him to ask more questions about Penelo. What she did, how she was doing, that sort of thing. The harder Kairi tried to hide the fact that she wasn't even sure if Penelo was alive, the more she was sure she'd end up giving it away.
Luckily, Vaan changed the subject.
"What are you going to do now?"
To be honest, she'd never thought that far ahead in her plan, since getting Zeke out of Shinra had been her top and only priority. As it stood, though, it was probably far too dangerous to stay within Manhattan.
"Take my brother and get as far away from here as possible," she said. They'd need a few days to prepare, but with a combination of her and her brother's powers, they could secure transport outside of the city fairly easily.
She'd never actually been outside New York, as strange as that seemed now. She'd heard good things about California, though. Supposedly, the air quality wasn't as bad out there. Or maybe they could hide out in the mountains.
"What about the other guy you brought with you?" Vaan asked.
Démé Desmarais was far too famous to travel openly, and not even Zexion's powers could hide his explosive personality. She would have to leave him behind, for their own safety.
"Not my problem," she said.
"And neither is my sister."
Ah, there it was.
What would Vaan do to me if he knew that I stabbed her in the stomach?
"Not really, no."
Penelo had been her problem, for more than half a year, but she wasn't anymore. Vaan's expression was stony. Then, suddenly, his hand was wrapping around her wrist, as if to hold her in place.
"It's too bad I don't have what I need to get her back," he said, his voice deeper than before. "Some sort of… leverage… with Shinra."
Kairi would have really laughed, now, if she weren't too tired for condescension.
She turned to face Vaan, for the first time since they came back to the church, her eyes meeting his. His expression and his resolve wavered.
"Was that a threat?" she asked. He didn't answer, but he also didn't release her arm.
"I hope you're not thinking of trying to trade us for her," she continued. She didn't break eye contact, not for a moment, not even to blink. "That wouldn't end well for either of you. But then, you know that already. You've seen it."
Shinra would chew this boy up and spit him out on the street. He didn't have even a tenth of the strength Penelo had.
Vaan finally dropped her arm and turned his face away.
"The information you have," he said quietly. "It's the only connection I have to my sister. I'm not asking you to stay behind and help her, I just… I just want you to tell me what you know." He must have sensed that she wasn't impressed with him, because he added:
If she told him everything she knew, and he tried to act on the information he was given, he could end up leading Shinra back to her. Self-preservation was telling her to keep her mouth shut.
On the other hand, though…
Penelo was risking her life to get information about the DIZ Project to the outside. Kairi had only cared about freeing her brother, pursuing her goal with a single-minded determination, but if she turned her back on the Others who were suffering once she'd accomplished what she'd set out to do-
Was she any different from Sephiroth?
She was too exhausted to make sense of any of the information she'd been given.
"Let me sleep on it," she said, finally. "Are you going to sell me out?"
"…No," said Vaan, after a slight pause.
"Good. Don't go anywhere, or do anything stupid." Without waiting for a reaction, she headed back to the cellar door, slipped through it, and crept downstairs. The air was too thick and polluted underground for her to sleep far from the stairs, so instead, she opted to sleep on the stairs themselves. She pulled Zeke's head into her lap to separate him from the already-filthy pillow.
We can both take baths when we wake up, she thought. In the meantime, resting her body would give her mind time to stew.
It didn't take long. The moment she dozed off, she was inside someone else's head.
The view was fuzzy-she wasn't as good at projecting images as her brother- but Vaan's borrowed thoughts gave context to the memory.
He was with Penelo. They were younger.
"I can't believe we have to do this," he complained. An intense revulsion coursed threw him. He was touching something disgusting. Garbage. They were dumpster diving.
"You wouldn't believe the stuff some people throw away. Just grab anything that looks useful." Penelo was holding something bulky.
"Is that a broken computer? What are you going to do with a busted computer?"
"I can fix it," she protested. Vaan felt a mix of jealousy and admiration. "Or at the very least, we can use it for parts. Or sell the parts. Oh, look for any metal you can find. Copper, especially."
"Where do you learn to do all this stuff?"
"It's called reading, Vaan. Try it sometime." He stuck his tongue out at her back. Regardess, he obediently followed her instructions, carefully separating everything with metal parts from the rest of the junk.
"Do you think this can be cleaned?" he asked, holding up a blanket.
"Probably. Put it in the keep pile."
Then, suddenly, Penelo screamed. Vaan felt a rush of panic, and leaped to her aid.
"What is it?" She shook her head, turned, and retched out the side of the dumpster. The smell of fresh vomit wasn't even noticeable over the smell of rotting garbage, and-
"Oh, god. Oh my god. Penelo, get out." Despite her obvious distress, she refused to leave. Vaan felt another surge of admiration.
"I have to see if it's someone we know," she said hoarsely, and she carefully began to move garbage off of the dead body. Vaan helped. He felt nothing for the corpse, only concern for his sister. This wasn't the first cadaver they'd found in this way.
Then, suddenly, the image became clear.
This was a sight that had been burned into Vaan's memory, so thoroughly that it could be transferred to another in full detail.
The body belonged to a woman. Determining her age or what she had looked like was difficult, due to what looked to be severe chemical burns around her chest and head. Most of her hair was gone. Her skin was cracked open, as if something had tried to escape from inside her blood.
"It's Maria," Penelo said softly. She was pointing at something. Deep scars in the woman's neck. No, Vaan knew this woman- they weren't scars, they were gills. Or had been at one time. Now, they looked to have been burned shut. Penelo was holding the corpse's hand. The delicate webbing that had once connected her fingers had been cut clean through.
The image of the corpse was interspersed with other images, of a teenage girl. A girl with long dark hair who always wore it down, carefully covering both sides of her neck. Her hands were wrapped in bandages.
Maria, when she'd been alive.
"She said she was going back to stay with her parents," said Penelo. She was crying. "How did she end up like this?"
"Come on, Penelo," said Vaan. "Let's go back, before someone finds us."
"We can't leave her here!"
"Well, we can't take her with us, either!"
"We have to tell someone-"
Vaan's question hung in the air between them. The hopelessness he was feeling threatened to bury him in trash along with Maria's body. Finally, without another word, Penelo began re-covering her friend's remains.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You deserved better." She squeezed Maria's hand. The hand was ghostly pale, contrasting with the dark blood stains where her webbing had been cut, and the sharp red pinhole-shaped wounds along the veins in her wrist.
Kairi abruptly opened her eyes.
She knew what Shinra was trying to do.
HEY GUESS WHO IS ALIVE
IT'S ME I AM ALIVE
HEY GUYS I AM BREATHING AND I HAVE A HEARTBEAT AND CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS
So, I was re-reading a lot my old fanfics, and, like, I'm a really good writer. "Kyuubi Capers" is probably my favorite Naruto fanfic, and I wrote it. Which kind of makes me a douche. But seriously. My stories are SO GOOD. And I was like, I need to write more of this shit. So I did.
There are a lot of things in this story that I would do differently if I were writing it now. Like, from a characterization standpoint, fitting with this plot, ANSEM SEEKER OF DARKNESS makes much more sense as the villain than Sephiroth does. But when I started writing this I hadn't played FF7 yet. So I didn't know what was going on, basically.
Sorry if there are any continuity errors. I think I caught most of them, but like, it's been a while, and again, I would write this differently if I were starting it now. Like, the whole thrust of this chapter was that Penelo never told Kairi she had any relatives, and Kairi didn't understand how Penelo could have ever ended up at Shinra if she had living relatives, but then whoooops Penelo definitely told Kairi about her brother. REWRITE!
As for what I've been up to, I finally finished my bachelor's degree in December, so now I have more time to pursue my true passion of writing anonymous internet fan porn. Hooray!
HAPPY FIFTH BIRTHDAY, ERASED!
Q OF THE UPDATE: What is Shinra trying to do?