It's close to sunrise, and Jessie still hasn't slept.
She twists her bandana into knots, twines it around her fingers and then unwinds it again, staring at the place on her workbench where a can of oil was spilled long ago. There are still traces of a dark, uneven blot spreading across the scarred surface, and if she hadn't known better, she might have thought it was a bloodstain. She does know better, but she's got a mind for metaphor, too, and she can't seem to shake the image. There used to be work that needed to be done before tomorrow, explosives made to order and every fake ID checked and rechecked, but that's all done with now, even papers filed away, and there isn't much left to distract her. Just the newscaster's voice in the background, and all the thoughts she can't stop returning to.
Because the thing is, they're not elite, AVALANCHE. They aren't trained, they aren't equipped like an army, they're not SOLDIER. Barret pulled her out of doing repair work in a junk shop when he found out she had a talent for the techie shit, bombs and monitors, you know, and Biggs and Wedge used to be enforcers for some kind of streetcorner pharmaceutical ring, and Tifa fights the best of all of them but she's a small-town bartender, for Planet's sake. And no, you don't last long in the slums if you can't defend yourself, if you can't find a way to adapt. She knows that. But she's learning to balance as she walks the high wire, and what she learned this mission – really learned, not in principle or potentiality but in simple concrete fact – is that her mistakes can kill people who never deserved to die.
That's what scares her more than anything else about this eco-terrorist gig. Not the chance of dying, because there's always that, beneath the Plate. The chance that it's going to be her hand holding the gun when some poor wrong-time-wrong-place civilian bastard goes down. And that – fuck, that's not a chance anymore. Tonight, that's what happened.
She hears a noise behind her, and she jumps in her seat and spins around with pistol drawn, but it isn't an enemy this time – just the SOLDIER, who should have been an enemy and isn't, swinging down from the upper floor with that familiar, uncanny strength. He had flipped down from the roof of the train the same way, effortlessly, and she remembers unbidden how she had pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and leant in to wipe the soot from his face, and how she had found herself surprised when he didn't draw back or push her away, just stood there impassive, eyes shining like cold lanterns.
She doesn't know that she wants to talk to him right now. She doesn't know that she wants him to leave. If he leaves, she won't be able to backhand him across his apathetic, emotionless face. She won't be able to thank him, either. The scrape on her leg is just a fading scar now, courtesy of the restore materia he took from reactor security, but the tenderness of the skin there is enough to remind her of how very dead she might have been, and that's another thing you learn quickly in the slums. How to take debts seriously.
Cloud Strife, she thinks, tracing a finger along the edge of the oilstain that isn't a bloodstain. Cloud Strife and his money.
Cloud Strife, and his money, and the way he just doesn't give a damn about anything else, not the Shinra and not AVALANCHE and not the Planet. And she does envy that, just a little, at least until she remembers the other side of it, the blankness in him just beneath the surface. The way he had looked at her, when she had told him about her miscalculation and the damage it had caused – not even dismissive, just uncomprehending, like he can't even register that it might mean anything at all, or why. She wonders if SOLDIERS can feel remorse, or if it's all burned out of them with the infusions like Biggs says. She can believe it. But that doesn't matter for AVALANCHE, not really. He's a weapon. That's what Barret says, and she thinks he might be right, and you can't blame a weapon for doing what weapons do.
And that leaves her here, sitting and waiting for him to do whatever, somersault across the room one-handed, laugh in her face, turn traitor and massacre them all. But Cloud Strife doesn't do anything flashy this time around, just crosses the room and starts rummaging in cupboards like he owns the place, and it's weirdly tough to think of anyone as a cold-blooded killer when some small childish part of her is too busy thinking about how those are her rations in there, and he'd better not be thinking of stealing 'em.
"Tea?" he asks her, and maybe it's her imagination, but his voice isn't quite so flat this time, and he looks like he might be almost capable of smiling. It's whiskey she's really thirsty for right now, or something from Tifa's back shelf strong enough to strip the paint from the walls, but she knows a bad idea when she thinks one, and tea does sound good. He puts the kettle on a small electric burner, and circles back around to sit beside her, perched on an old crate that used to hold bar glasses and now holds boxes of ammunition. The light shifts on his face, and there's something puzzled about him for a moment, like he's searching for a name for something he can't quite remember, a word on the tip of his tongue. Then he shakes his head, and he's himself again, cool and unaffected.
"You're gonna be useless if you don't sleep," he says, which might sound like a really lousy thing to say to someone, except for the part where she doesn't think it's what he's really trying to say at all.
"Yeah," she says, "Tell me about it."
She leans back in her chair, tapping out a nervous rhythm on the table with her fingers and listening to the static hum of her computer in the background. The silence isn't quite awkward, but she's aware of it, and of him beside her, and there are emotions all twisted up inside her that she doesn't quite know how to untangle. She ought to hate him. She doesn't.
"It does get better, you know," he says.
"Yeah?" she says. She's pretty sure he means it to be comforting.
"Easier, at least," he says, and she nods. And then she laughs softly, because she does know, she's heard the trite proverbs and all those other stories. The television is still flickering with images, green light and fire and blackened concrete, and the words repeating like a train's rhythm in her ears, we did that, we did that, we did that.
And the knowledge, impossible to turn away from, that if she has to she'll do it again. That she'll do it again, whether she has to or not.
"I don't know that I want it to get easier," she says. Funny thing, how childish that sounds. No point in saying I don't want, when the world just gives you what it gives. She should know that by now. She wonders if maybe it's only the fact she doesn't that brought her to AVALANCHE to begin with, and the thought occurs to her, distantly, that there have to be better avenues than this out there for a mercenary looking to get rich. Better schemes than some unwinnable war, for someone who just doesn't give a shit, and she thinks that maybe just beneath the surface isn't anywhere close to the truth of him.
"Jessie," he says, "don't let it get to you." He's looking away again, a little lost this time, and she remembers him kneeling beside her in the reactor, when she thought she was going to die, and wonders if this halfway-stranger is only a trick of the light. But there's no way of knowing and she's too tired for speculation, so she takes the mug of tea that he offers and doesn't say anything at all, just breathes in the steam and lets it warm her from the inside out.
She wonders where he came from, really, what he's after, whether Barret is right about weapons and what to do with them. And then she stops wondering, because it doesn't matter, and she knows better than to pretend it does. Instead, she sets her tea aside, carefully, tilts her head up and pulls him down into a kiss. Which is – crazy, really, because he's a SOLDIER, they don't think or feel the way that ordinary people do, everyone knows that, they can hurt you without even trying. But he kisses back, a little clumsily, his hands tightening in the back of her shirt, and she can't sense any violence in him right now, no trace of the ice she remembers. When she pulls away, he's staring down at her, almost startled. His eyes are very bright and very blue, and there's something remote in the set of his form and features, detached. Looking at him is like looking down into a deep well and seeing nothing but darkness, no way of knowing how deep the hole goes or what lies at the bottom. But that doesn't matter either. Not right now.
“You take care of yourself, Strife,” she says. “We got a lot of work to do, yet.”
He stands and steps away, clasps her arm once, tightly, and then lets go.
“I will if you will,” he says, with a slight, wry smile. “We can call it a deal, maybe.”
He turns the TV off as he leaves, just reaches over and flips the switch, casual as habit. She doesn't stop him, doesn't turn it back when he's gone, though there's something hungry about the dead grey of the screen. The silence it leaves feels like the silence after an explosion, deafening in its sudden absence, but she can feel the phantom trace of warmth where his lips had pressed to hers, and the taste of mint and chamomile on her tongue, and nothing is as obvious anymore as it should be.
“A deal, then,” she says to no one listening. “Don't think I won't hold you to it.”
She pushes her chair back against the wall and props her feet up on the workbench, trying to listen to the white-noise whir of the computer's fan and let everything else just go. Whether or not she'll be getting any sleep tonight, she doesn't know, but morning's on the way, and Strife wasn't wrong about rest. She wasn't lying herself, either – there's a lot of work needs doing, tomorrow and after, and that's true whether AVALANCHE are the right ones to do it or not. And hey, they've got a SOLDIER now. That's got to count for something, right?
Yeah, that counts for something. Jessie smiles to herself, remembering the lights of Upper Midgar flickering past through the open door of a boxcar, distant as constellations, and how no good code is ever as obvious as it seems on the surface, and probably people are no different. And maybe she can figure it out tomorrow, the key to decrypt whatever it is that's hidden in the gap between obvious and true, but she thinks that if Strife would tell her anything, it's that all that can wait until the war is over, and she even thinks she might agree. No codes, no plans, no secrets kept – just the last mission, and the next mission, and whatever comes after.
She closes her eyes, and waits to meet the future.