.


19. Barrett and Bruin


Barrett hefted his duffel and gestured for Marlene to climb into his other arm. She pulled a face but did so, scrambling up to his shoulder with more dexterity than an average three year old. She kept her place better as he walked, too. People usually stared when they first saw them, but given Barrett's thousand-yard stare and line-backer build, they didn't stare long.

"What's this place?" Marlene asked, gripping the back of his neck as he alighted from the train.

"Farfig."

"Aren't we going to Midgar?"

"We gotta change trains. We'll head for Midgar in the morning."

She pulled a face, but it cleared when she spotted one of the food-carts set up by the tiny station. "Can I have one?"

Barrett followed the line of her finger to a woman selling toffee apples. There wouldn't be much fruit that wasn't imported in Midgar. He didn't really want to go there, but that was where the work was so he had opted to swallow his pride and take Marlene there to start a new life. It helped to think that Midgar was famous for being the most fortified place in the world against vampires. Now that Marlene was his responsibility, he owed it to both her and her parents to do whatever it took to keep her safe, even if that meant joining Shinra and doing double shifts to afford her five portions of fruit and veg a day and a house to cook them in.

"Sure, sweetheart."

He advanced on the woman and bought two toffee apples. Marlene chomped happily on hers, while his looked faintly ridiculous in his massive hand. He stared at it, turning it so he could look at the other side of his hand. Not so long ago it had been a charred, blistered mess. Now it was as good as it had ever been. He had Bruin to thank for that.

Just thinking about Bruin made the spirit shift sleepily in Barrett's mind. Bruin typically only woke fully when it was time to eat or fight, which he seemed to enjoy with equal gusto. Barrett liked eating, but if he could go the rest of his life without fighting he would be happy. Becoming a Shinra infantryman was counter to that, but again, it had to be done if Marlene was to have the kind of life she deserved. Vampires had already killed her parents and his wife, and the battle to defeat them had burned Corel to the ground, leaving her and himself homeless and with only each other to count on. Having Bruin gave Barrett an edge in combat. His healed hand and all those dead vampires in Corel proved that. Why shouldn't he make accepting the spirit into himself work to his advantage further now the mines were closed?

They found a cheap motel to stay the night. Marlene bounced on the bed until he told her to go wash and clean her teeth. Dutifully she did so, while he laid out pyjamas he had bought along the way. She marched from the washbasin to the bed with serious little steps and treated getting ready for bed like it was the most important task in the world. She was a pretty serious little kid; probably acted too old for her years, but considering what she had lived through Barrett knew she could have been a lot worse.

When the vamps attacked, Eleanor had doused her daughter with holy water and locked her in the reinforced basement, reasoning that newly infected people would mindlessly go for the easier target than try to get through a steel door. She hadn't expected the newly infected to be her own husband. Barrett had found her when the town was already in flames, dying from a bite wound to her femoral artery. She was still in better shape than his own Myrna had been. After realising he hadn't been turned too, Eleanor had told him where Marlene and the basement key were and died in his arms. Barrett had all but destroyed his hand on the hot metal of the door handle. Thankfully Marlene had already passed out from a combination of heat and airlessness and so hadn't heard her mother's screams when Dyne came home and attacked her.

Dyne. Thinking of his best friend made Barrett fist his new hand involuntarily. He had chased Dyne and the other vampires without thought or reason, finally catching up to them on the cliffs outside town. He hadn't thought about Marlene, unconscious under a bush where he had left her. He could only think of Myrna, Eleanor and all the other townsfolk who had been murdered. Grief and pain from his burns had made him crazy. Did he think he could defeat a pack of newly turned vamps with the tree branch he had picked up to use as a stake? He didn't know. He hadn't cared about anything except finding and killing them.

Except that it hadn't worked that away. Seeing a monster with Dyne's face had thrown him. The hesitation had cost him dearly. If it hadn't been for Bruin's offer, made when Dyne's fangs were inches from his neck, he would be dead now, and Marlene too. It wouldn't have been long before they found her. Instead, Barrett had ripped into them with the abandon of a raging beast and hurled their bodies off the cliff. When he came back to himself he had finally crashed and wept, but known Dyne would have thanked him. The old Dyne, anyway.

When they started this journey he'd had no clue how to look after a child. He had only a little more idea now, but he and Marlene had muddled along in a way they were both comfortable with and would continue to muddle along. The alternative made them grateful for what they had.

"Read me a story?" Marlene asked solemnly.

They had a grand total of three books that fitted into his duffel. They were limited to what fitted and what he could carry, which was actually a lot, since Bruin's strength was Barrett's and Bruin could tear open a tank if he felt so inclined. Books, however, took a backseat to two changes of clothes each, money, identification, plus hygiene paraphernalia, water canteens, cooking and camping equipment for when they had to camp outside. The journey from Corel to Midgar had been neither straight nor easy, but they were at the penultimate stop now.

"Which story?" Barrett asked.

Marlene gave her choice great thought. "Betsy Bunnie and the Twelve Little Bunnikins."

He tried not to wince. "Not Picky Pig? Or Lady Lovely Loves Licking Lollies?" While stories that warned against the perils of nose-picking or licking frozen flagpoles weren't his bag, they were still better than the syrupy tale of how Betsy Bunnie cooked twelve different suppers for her twelve spoilt brats.

Marlene shook her head. "I want Betsy Bunnie."

Barrett sighed. "All right, sugar-nip." He fetched the book and cracked it open on one knee. "Betsy Bunnie was a very busy bunnie-rabbit. She had twelve little bunnikins to care for: Bernadette, Bernice, Brenda, Bitty, Buckley, Booboo, Bobbi, Brittney, Buffy, Bulma, Becky and the little bunnikin, Baby. One day, Baby set down her knife and fork and said: "I don't want to eat carrots today, Momma. We've had carrots that are boiled, carrots that are roasted, carrots that are baked, carrots that are raw and every other type of carrot you can make. I want something else!" So Betsy Bunnie folded her arms and said …"

By the time Bernadette, the oldest bunnikin, got her turn to demand a food other than carrots, Marlene had fallen asleep. Barrett gamely finished the story in case she could hear, tucked her in and hesitated before kissing her forehead. She fidgeted, but smiled and snuggled down like warm blankets were the best defence against all the evils the world had to offer.

Barrett watched her, marvelling that a person could care so much about a child that wasn't his own. He would die for this little girl. He considered scenarios in his head in which someone, man or vamp, threatened her. Yep, he would kill for her too. He and Myrna had never been able to conceive, so they had both doted on their goddaughter from the moment she was born. Now Marlene was all he had left of his wife, his best friend, or anything from his old life.

He was half changed into his own sleepwear when someone knocked the door. Frowning, he glanced at Marlene, but the noise hadn't woken her. He crossed the small room in a couple of strides and looked out the peephole. A woman stood on the other side. He didn't recognise her and thought about ignoring her, but she knocked again, louder this time, and Marlene stirred.

Barrett put the door on its chain and opened it as far as it would go. "Yeah? Whaddya want?"

The woman looked up at him. Most people looked up at Barrett. She had long brown hair and a smoking hot body poured into a mini skirt and tight white top. Her body language was aggressive, but her outfit screamed sex appeal. Barrett had been approached by women in similar dress a couple of town ago and tried to shut the door.

"Listen, sister, I ain't buying what you're selling."

She stuck her foot in the way. "I'm not selling anything."

He snorted. "Yeah, you just knock on the motel doors of men you don't know for kicks. Try next door. He was on his own and looked pretty desperate." He tried to shove her foot back with his own, but it was like trying to move a granite statue. "Buzz off. You ain't my type."

"Actually, I'm exactly your type." For a moment her brown eyes flashed red-gold and her pupils thinned to slits. Barrett had time to register the change before it was gone.

It didn't mean much to him, but Bruin roused in the back of his mind. The spirit usually took a long time to wake, but this time he sat up so fast Barrett reeled with inward vertigo. Barrett felt him lumber forward, seeing the girl through his eyes. He could see what was going on in the world without taking over Barrett's form, but human sight gave him sharpness of detail when he didn't have his own physical form. It was a lazy way of operating, but Bruin was lazy whenever he could be.

"Can I come in?" the young woman asked.

Let her in, Bruin instructed.

"Why?" Barrett asked.

"Because I have an offer you don't want to refuse," she said.

She's like us, Bruin informed him.

Barrett looked at the girl again. She had a spirit inside her too? That would account for the eyes. Shit, did that happen with him and Bruin? Marlene had never said anything, but that didn't mean –

"This isn't a conversation for out in the hallway," the young woman said.

"Uh, yeah, sure." Barrett unhooked the chain, figuring he could take care of anything she tried now Bruin was awake. "What's your name?"

"Tifa," she said as she stepped inside. She dropped her volume when she saw Marlene. "Tifa Lockheart."

"Nice name."

She shrugged. "You're Barrett."

"How'd you know that?"

She gestured to the bed. "I heard her call you that when you were buying toffee apples."

"You been watching us, girly?"

"Only until I could be sure of what you are."

"And now you're sure?"

She nodded. "Well, not me, but she can tell."

Barrett eyed her speculatively. "Your spirit?"

She nodded. "They can sense each other and recognise each other when they get close. She wanted to be sure who yours was. Apparently she, ah, has fallen out with a lot of them." She looked around, as if checking who could overhear, before leaning forward to whisper even more softly, "I can believe it. She's not the easiest personality to get along with." She pulled back with a wince, eyes focussing vaguely above Barrett's head. "Yes, I know you heard that. You hear everything I do."

Girl's right, said Bruin. She's a bitch.

Barrett turned his head to one side, taking his eyes off the young woman – Tifa – so she wouldn't think he was talking to her. Usually when he did that he worried someone would think he was nutty as squirrel shit. It was kind of refreshing not to have to worry about it. "Who is?"

Bruin was prevented from answering, however, when Tifa clutched the side of her head and her knees buckled. Barrett caught her reflexively, but she struggled out of his grip and rounded on an invisible someone behind her.

"You do that again and we're going back to the mountains, you hear me? No, I won't make out like you're all sweetness and light. Why? Because you're not! You complain all the time and … what? I'll get to it, okay? Because it's not the kind of thing you just say off the cuff the first time you meet someone. No, not even if they had a spirit of their own!"

"Ask me what?" Barrett made a palm-down gesture. "And keep the noise down, huh?"

"Sorry." Cheeks flushed, Tifa turned back to him. "When I accepted her offer, I never imagined she'd be so difficult to live with."

Barrett nodded. "What made you do it?"

She met his eyes. "I suspect the same thing that made you agree to house your spirit: vengeance, grief, loneliness."

"Not so much the last one, but yeah to the first two."

Tifa dropped her gaze, but not like she was talking to someone he couldn't see. "Vampires … a vampire killed my father. It got into my village. We had a mako reactor there, so we should've been secure. We weren't. The whole place was burned to the ground. Survivors were … there were only a few. Shinra took them, including two of their own. My best friend was one of them. He …" She stopped. "If it hadn't been for him and the man with him, the vampire would have come back and either killed or turned me. I tried to stop it after it killed my dad." She tugged at the neck of her top. For a moment Barrett thought she was offering something he wasn't interested in, but she was just showing him a livid scar that ran from her left collar bone, across her chest to the top of her right breast. It had been made with some sort of blade and healed without medical treatment, leaving an ugly reminder of what had happened to her. "I should be dead now. I'm not because of those two men."

Barrett shook his head. "Sorry, sweet-cheeks, but I ain't interested in no rescue scheme."

"I don't know where they are. It's most likely they're –" She cut herself off. After a moment she took a shuddering breath. Barrett got the feeling she had practised this speech a lot before confronting him, or someone like him. Actually saying it, however, was a different matter. He knew that feeling. He hadn't talked about Myrna, Eleanor or Dyne since it happened. If he ever had to tell a stranger about his losses, he would find it hard too. "It was over four years ago. I doubt they're alive now. What I'm asking, Mr. Barrett, is your help in stopping the past of Shinra responsible for the vampires."

Barrett blinked. "Come again? Sorry, sweet-cheeks, but you got your wires crossed or something. Shinra's pretty much the only thing stopping vamps from eating us all alive."

There had been others who tried to do the same job, but they were inevitably ill-equipped, ill-informed or so overzealous they died their first time facing a real vamp. Shinra was the only power in the world with enough money and influence to make a real dent in the vampire population. Coupled with their monopoly of mako and electricity, plus however many other projects they had going that didn't get as much media attention, and the company had a stranglehold on the entire world's economy.

Tifa shook her head. "She told me. It didn't take me as long to accept it as she thought it would, but after what I saw and heard at the Nibelheim reactor …"

Barrett's eyes widened. "You were there when the vamps killed General Sephiroth."

She gave a harsh laugh, and then clamped her hands over her mouth. "Sorry."

Marlene hadn't woken. "Don't worry about it. What's so funny?"

"General Sephiroth was the vampire that torched my village."

"No way!"

"His sword gave me this scar." She yanked at her neckline again. "Shinra never publicised it. He was their top weapon against the vampires. Can you imagine the fallout if it emerged that he was turned and then killed an entire village of people? They hushed it all up and took away his second in command and my friend to do god knows what to them afterwards."

Barrett wondered if he had let a crazy person into his motel room.

No, said Bruin. Truthful. He never said much, but what he did say, he meant. Barrett felt the spirit flex his claws in response to something and growl. Ask her about Jenova.

"What's Jenova?" Barrett asked.

Tifa's expression darkened. "She's the original vampire. Think of her like Patient Zero in a pandemic. All the others come from her. Shinra has her body. Sephiroth took part of it, apparently, but they've had her body for years. They could use it to destroy all the vampires, but instead they set themselves up as the saviours of the world and raked in all the money they could without actually stopping the virus from spreading."

"Sound like something a conspiracy nut would say."

"Ask your spirit. They know. They fought Jenova the first time around, when she first came to this planet. It happened a long time ago – long before any of our ancestors would have written anything down. They thought they'd put a stop to her for good, but Shinra found her and resurrected her evil. I don't know if that was what they intended to do, but it's what happened. Now those spirits who are left are trying to defeat her once and for all. We have technology and things now that they didn't have back then, so maybe now we can finish what they started. Destroy Jenova and all the vampires will die too."

Barrett couldn't believe it. The answer to the vampire infestation couldn't be nearly as simple as that. Shinra couldn't have been sitting on the ultimate solution all this time and not taken it. They couldn't! Nobody was so motivated by profit they would do something like that. Nobody was that cruel.

Right?

"I'm not asking you to believe me. Not straight away," Tifa said quietly. "I just wanted to put the ideas to you because of who and what you are. I wasn't sure if your spirit had explained things to you yet; or if you'd accepted what it had to say. I don't know your history or anything about you except that, in this much, you're like me." She drew herself up to her full height – which still made her look like a bug next to Barrett's gigantic boot. He wondered what kind of spirit she had inside her. "I'll be on the train into Midgar tomorrow. Carriage E, Seat 34. Let me know your answer then."

"Answer?" Barrett repeated. "What answer? You ain't even asked me a question."

"I'm asking you to help me save the world," she replied. Unlike the ones that came before it, that line slid out smooth as a knife in hot butter. "And all the people in it we still care about."

"Who're you fighting for if your family and friends are dead?" The question was a harsh one, but Barrett was acutely aware of the tiny body in the bed.

"My tutor took care of me after Nibelheim. We parted ways when I told him about my plan. He's still alive." She looked at the door, as if she was eager to go through it now she had said her piece. "Somewhere. He's a good man, but he's not an insurrectionist."

"Is that what you are?"

"I'm trying to be a good person. Ask the right people and they'll call me everything from a terrorist to a saviour, but that's not what I'm trying to be. I just want to be a good person and make up for not being able to save my loved ones before. I was too weak then. I'm not now. Maybe this won't make it right, but if it'll do some good and potentially save a lot of people, then I'm going to try it, no matter how many enemies it gets me. I'll understand if you don't want to get involved, but I … I …"

"You okay?" Barrett frowned and leaned down to see into her suddenly slack face. "Girly?"

Her eyes snapped into focus. The irises blazed like an open fire around catlike pupils. When she spoke, it was in a harsh voice, like someone who smoked sixty a day and followed it up with lots of hard liqueur. "Human."

Barrett backed off. "Aw, hell no."

Tifa smiled. It was the most disturbing expression Barrett had ever seen on a person. Her beauty only made it more alarming. "Scared, human? You should be."

Bruin growled but made no move to take over. Barrett went for his duffel, sliding the stake he had bought from its sheath, but she just laughed.

"That'll kill the girl, but not me. I'm not a damn vampire."

"What the hell are you?"

"Someone who knows fire." Her eyes crawled with flames. Her upper cheeks reflected the glow, casting the rest of her features in shifting shadows. "Far better than you do, apparently."

"What?"

Not enemy, said Bruin. Listen.

"Only one vampire ever set a fire, and he was special. Your 'Silver General' isn't like the others. Didn't you ever wonder about the conflagration that took your precious town and turned it into delicious ash? Or was that too much trouble for your puny brain to labour over?"

Barrett's brows drew together. "What're you saying?"

"Think about it, idiot." Tifa took a step forward. Nothing about her body language was as it had been. She moved with a fluid economy of movement that reminded him of cats and other predators. "Shinra never came to fight the vampires in your area, did they? You never saw one of their number even after the attack. But one of my people was drawn by the flames, so I know through their eyes what happened. You had a mako reactor, didn't you?"

"Uh, yeah."

"A new one."

"Yeah."

"People weren't happy about it. It was poisoning the ground, killing all your crops and making your coal mine obsolete. There was vandalism. Sabotage. Nobody ever came forward, but you knew about it."

Barrett knew who had done it, too. Dyne had led the most vocal resistance against the reactor and Barrett had suspected his friend of taking it further, but they had never spoken of it.

"Shinra knew, too. They sent men and one of Jenova's creatures. What was one town to them, compared with a reactor in jeopardy? They put the cat amongst your chickens to justify setting the henhouse ablaze."

Shinra had … brought the vampires to Corel? And then razed the town to cinders? Barrett couldn't believe it. It was too horrible.

Bruin paced. He was agitated.

"Bruin, is this true?"

Think so. She's a bitch, but not a liar.

"Of course it's true," Tifa retorted in that raspy voice. "What would I have to gain by lying about that? There are others like you; other avatars who would jump at the chance to join our mission. You're not the only one with brute strength at your disposal."

Bruin growled. Bitch.

Tifa grinned. "I'll bet your spirit just called me something offensive."

"Sorta."

She laughed like a collapsing bonfire. "Like I haven't heard it all before. People rarely like my kind, human. We aren't fond of humans, either. You creatures are weak and pathetic, but in this case, you're useful. Think about what the girl has said and what I've told you. Make your decision: do you want to avenge your people or keep your spirit from joining the fight? He might find someone else to work with if you aren't up to the task."

Won't, Bruin assured him. Chose you. Happy with you. Happy with your cub.

"Ask him why he needed you. I'll bet you never have."

Barrett had asked. He just hadn't pushed when Bruin was vague with his answers. Apparently Bruin hadn't thought him ready to accept the truth. It sure wasn't a small task to be faced with. This Tifa girl's spirit, however, had no such qualms about niceties.

She gave another disturbing smile before turning away and opening the door. She slammed it back with a flick of her wrist, not caring about the noise or the cracked plaster where the handle hit. Her strength was impressive. Abruptly she shuddered and grasped the doorjamb for support. When she looked at Barrett her eyes were back to soft brown and her expression was appalled.

"I'm so sorry! She's –"

"Don't worry about it." Barrett waved her off, mind reeling. "Really."

She bit her lip. "For what she said, I truly am sorry."

"I said don't worry about it." Barrett's voice went up a notch.

"Barrett?" Marlene was sitting up in bed, covers clutched to her and eyes wide as new moons. She looked terrified.

He immediately went to her side. "Nuthin' to worry about, sugar-nip."

"Who's that lady?"

Tifa staggered out of the door. Apparently her spirit pulling that stunt had sapped her energy. "I'll go. Will you, uh, think about my proposal?" She had her eyes on Marlene as she asked.

Barrett glanced down at her, hands going protectively around her tiny shoulders. "I'll think about everything that was said tonight, but I ain't promising nuthin'."

She nodded, as if that was what she expected him to say, and closed the door behind her.


Hojo looked over the notes. The patient had been one of his subordinates, present when Jenova was transported from the North Crater. His vitals had faded faster than cheap paint in sunlight. He couldn't take in solid food and had been put on an IV for nutrition, but it had done little good. His body kept rejecting everything until he died back in Midgar.

Could his death really have been from a tiny nick on his finger? The man hadn't even thought it important enough to report when it happened. The interview with him in his hospital bed read that he had accidentally pierced his protective glove on her fang, but had washed the cut thoroughly and disinfected it. He was a careful fellow, not given to overreaction. The report concluded the cut was not the cause of his death, instead deciding a history of blood disorders in his family was the blame.

Hojo suspected otherwise. He was glad he had asked for the Nibelheim lab instead of bringing Jenova back to Midgar. He had more freedom here, away from the prying eyes of his superiors and 'cohorts'. As if Hollander or Faremis could possibly equal his genius with their own petty projects?

He set down the notes and went to the containment tube. Jenova's hair billowed around her. Hojo wasn't one for poetry or flights of fancy, but how could anyone not recognise her beauty as something more than mere mortals could ever hope to achieve? Those fools –

"Sir?"

He turned. "Crescent."

His aide crossed the room in quick, efficient steps. "The new security officer has arrived."

Hojo scowled. 'Security officer'? Spy, more like. Shinra wanted him back in Midgar, working on his mako research. They didn't understand the importance of his work here! This was the last thing he wanted to deal with.

"His name is Grimoire Valentine."

"Valentine," Hojo repeated, as if he actually cared. He cast one last glance at Jenova and followed Crescent from the room and entered the elevator for the upper levels. "Let's get this over with. We have work to do. You can show him around the facility in my stead, then check on the latest cell cultures. They should be ready for review."

"Yes, sir."

Crescent was the best aide he had been given on this project. No doubt Faremis and Hollander had creamed off everybody else with a brain for their own projects, but they had missed her. She was attractive, if tall for a woman and given to wearing impractical high heels. They had probably seen her shapely figure and mass of untameable auburn hair and assumed she was the airhead she appeared. Her attractiveness, however, concealed a sharp mind and a determined dedication to science that Hojo could appreciate.

"The last cultures showed increased levels of activity, sir," she said as they disembarked from the elevator.

"What was the catalyst for that batch?"

"Co-enzyme Q-10."

He considered this, but they were nearing his office, so he was prevented from telling her his thoughts as he went through the rigmarole of meeting the latest obstacle in his work.

"Professor Hojo?" Valentine stuck out a hand to shake.

Hojo surveyed the hand before actually touching it: square-fingered, rough-palmed, the hand of someone used to doing dirty work. Yes, no doubt this man was a spy sent to watch him. Or was it sabotage now? The thought curdled in the back of his brain, making his teeth grit as he did his best to play nice.

"You must be Grimoire Valentine. Miss Crescent told me of your presence."

Valentine didn't seem impressed with the limp handshake. He didn't go so far as to wipe his hand on his coat, but it was close. "She was quite complimentary of you too, Professor."

Hojo caught her looking embarrassed from the corner of his eye. "She was?"

"Well, of your work here. Apparently you're breaking all sorts of bounds in the name of science. I'm something of a scientist myself, actually. Did a degree in biochemistry and was halfway through my Masters when I joined Shinra instead."

"Oh?" What was this, some TV show where you shared your life story with a bored audience?

"Mm. Had to give it up and bring in an actual wage when my boy was born." Valentine laughed. "Hard to be a professional student when you're mother and father both."

"How heart-breaking." Hojo wondered whether sarcasm could be used as a verb.

Valentine was apparently impervious to it as both verb and noun. He shrugged. "Had to be done. Needs, musts, wants, eh? But I'm sure you know all about that, right Professor?"

Hojo's head snapped up. What was that supposed to mean? He tried to read the blank look in Valentine's eyes and failed. "Indeed," he said non-committally. "I do apologise for our time together being so short, but you'll have to excuse me, Mister Valentine. I have work that really does demand my attention – time sensitive, critical work, I'm sure you understand. Miss Crescent will show you around. She's more than capable of explaining how things work around here."

"Of course, Professor." He hurried forward to take over babysitting duty.

As Hojo sped from his office, Grimoire watched him with surprise. "Is he always so antsy?"

"The Professor is a genius," Lucrecia said defensively.

"I don't doubt it. You don't get to be his level and get your own facility like this unless you've got something special. I wasn't trying to be insulting. What I mean is, does he always get so uncomfortable around strangers? He couldn't wait to get away from me. He clearly doesn't want me here."

Lucrecia looked embarrassed. "He'll come around. He wasn't comfortable with me either, at first. He just has trouble adjusting to change."

"Not good for a scientist." Grimoire slapped his hands together before she could protest. "So, shall we get this show on the road?"

Several levels below them, Hojo felt as if he could breathe again. Jenova stared sightlessly down at him, bubbles flowing upward around her from the aerating apparatus. He met her dead-eyed stare and felt whole again.

WATCH HIM.

The thought arrived in his mind fully formed. It could have been his own. Maybe it was.

"I know," he murmured.

HE'S DANGEROUS.

"I know!" His teeth squeaked from gritting together. Grimoire Valentine would not get the drop on him. Hojo wouldn't let anything interfere with his work. No, no, no, he most certainly wouldn't.


To Be Continued ….


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