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Over a glass of Nibelheim pale ale, Hojo grins and presses his wrist against the dancing muscle in his cheek. A nervous twitch of his, spasmodic; it only leaps into being when he's trying.

Vin drinks her scotch like a drowning child.

'Sent out to the sticks too, eh, Valentine? Shinra's not got a lot of faith in this program if he's sending only one of his toy bodyguards for me and Gast together. Either that, or he's not got a lot of faith in his other Turks to keep their mouths shut.' Hojo grins. 'You're pretty good at keeping your mouth shut. So what's your sin, then?'

Coveting my neighbour's pregnant wife, Vin never says.

The flush of shame starts somewhere deep in her chest. Her nipples tighten against starched cotton. Hojo orders them another round. They haven't finished the first.

Ever silent, the barfly drone of justification begins.

Lucrecia's sly, Vin knows that, should be warned off by that; isn't. Vin thought she eradicated all her own idealism or idolisation years ago. The attraction is to Lucrecia - tremendous, problematic, and wholly ridiculous. Women, Grim used to say, are not to be trusted; emotional creatures at the best of times, logical thought is possible but always an alien construction for them. Vin proves that now, hates that proof.

Lucrecia's intelligent as well as sly, and stands, waddles, as further living proof of Grim's theory. She's too intelligent to get pregnant by chance. Women like Lucrecia had all the choices Vin never did; surely she would only fall pregnant by choice, tripped by emotion - or by Hojo's own deviousness. Company policy prohibits pregnant women from working in a lab with untreated mako in the process. Vin does not fail to consider that by inflicting pregnancy, Hojo removes his nearest competitor with one - maybe more than one, Vin admits, reluctantly, bitterly - well-aimed stroke, and no hard feelings between Lu or Hojo that anyone can see.

The worst of that is thinking Lucrecia could have truly fallen for the man. Formaldehyde and a white cloth is a better beginning than the image of those mercury-black fingertips, stroking, inveigling the sanctity of soft white panties, loose between a pair of equally white, soft thighs.

Lucrecia slinks around the manse, her belly barely showing under her coat. She is - always has been - beautiful in a way that Vin never thought to notice before belonging to ShinRa; Lucrecia's years of sloppy living and uncaring confidence makes such an unusual rebellion against ShinRa's uniformity. No ball gowns with distracting d├ęcolletage, no high heels and killer legs on her, no tailored suits or even shapely skirts, no mornings of hard training to reach some distant ideal of perfection, no skill whatsoever with any a weapon, womanly or otherwise. With abstracted expression and a pencil stuck through that bird's nest of hair, Lucrecia Crescent wander s the mansion and accosts lab assistants for updates. She never notices the ink staining her cuffs, the three days worth of coffee stains on her white coat's lapel, her shadow of unremarkable sweat.

Vin dresses every morning with a military rigor. Vin irons her shirts every night before she goes to sleep. In the mornings, Vin stands with shoulders to the wall, listening to the debate around the lunch room table. Lucrecia's voice rises in argument with the rest, a pitch higher than even Hojo's at his most strident, and if Lucrecia's arguments are ruder than most, her pregnancy excuses her that.

Vin sometimes wonders if she needs to pinch herself awake, if this whole scientific endeavour is just a dream; a Promised Land. All wars are ones of privation, lack of food, land, freedom. A place of such pure abundance, to render all war is unnecessary, that seems a stranger fantasy than wanting Lucrecia. In a place of abundance, a Turk has no place.

At night, Vin fa lls asleep as swiftly as ash falls from a cigarette, and never has nightmares. Turks have very little room left for dreams, and nightmares would be a waste of that allotment.

Vin dreams, sometimes, of the definition of freedom.

'So what's your sin?' Lucrecia asks, one day, with the blunt abruptness that characterises all her demands; for pen, for paper, for seventeen uncontaminated six week old samples.

'Pardon, ma'am?'

'You know, for being assigned to my,' her lip curls, just a little, 'to Hojo's crazy thesis. Can't be a smart career move for you, eh?'

'Avalanche has made some threats against this location. I'm assigned to the complex, ma'am, not specifically Doctor Hojo or Professor Gast, to facilitate smooth uninterrupted operations for the length of the Project's tenure.'

'Right.' Lucrecia looks up, bright-eyed, and something tight and tawdry flickers around thin lips. 'Run fetch me a black coffee, then? In the interests of fur ther facilitation, you Turks are good at that. Thanks.'

'How do you like your sugar, ma'am?'

'Oh,' Lucrecia smirks, 'about as sweet as your smile.'

The water pressure proves lacking this high in the mountains. Back in Midgar, standing in the shower is like taking a full-body beating.

Shinra is a traditionalist, and a traditional kind of company, using traditional methods and modes however unlikely the end aim. Women traditionally have two places in Shinra's hierarchy; at the sink or in the bed. Old Grim was both worse and better than Shinra. Vin remembers running away from her father and straight into ShinRa's welcoming arms; here, at last, was acknowledgment. Femininity and all associated with such, acquiescence, the usual underestimation of her capabilities, the expectance of her compliance and the enemy's surprise at the contrary: in ShinRa's ranks, none of this could be overlooked, mocked, denied. Gender was merely another weapon. Shinra was the one who put a name on total whoredom, and called Vin a Turk.

Grim, at least, never expected his daughter to become anything more than what she was, a vessel for someone else's desires. Grim never gave a damn about what happened in the darkness behind Vin's eyes. There was freedom in that uncaring. Shinra expected loyalty that ran more than skin deep.

Vin pats herself dry and returns to her uniform, not with pride, but because to do otherwise would mean walking the street naked.

'Crescent's thesis was flawed to begin with,' Hojo replies, his fingers plucking aimlessly at his napkin, flicking peanuts, picking at the chipped lacquer of the bench. 'We can extemporise all we like as to the benign nature of Gaia's avatars, but they were made for one thing - namely that of terrestrial defence. And the unthinking, instinctual nature of their incarnation - well, to embody and subsequently unleash something like that is wholly flawed in assumption. Thoughtless power can't be harnessed: Lucrecia never really got that. She doesn't think things through herself: how could something as elemental as an avatar ever be controlled?' Hojo manages to spill his drink just slightly, wet spotting on the white of his lab coat. 'So yeah, I got first class on my doctorate, and Lucrecia's just an assistant with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. She might as well whip it out, slap it on the conference desk and get out the measuring tape.'

Hojo laughs long and loud. Vin does not laugh. Vin says nothing, even when Hojo's wandering, mercury-black fingers reach out and alight on the back of her hand, and stroke.

'Not that a lady like you is interested in the science of how such a thing comes about.'

Valentine is not a common name. Vin wonders if Hojo's even made the connection between Vin Valentine and good ol' Grim Valentine, that arrogant old bastard who used to swan around Shinra's privately f unded campus and seduce the fair and few females enrolled. Good assistants, Grim used to say, lend assistance in all realms.

Probably not; Vin is nothing like her father used to be. Their ends might align; their means, never.

Vin leaves her room key in Hojo's palm.

Vin decided long ago that scientists are all of a particular common mind: they are haunted by the world. All science is a striving to eradicate old ghosts, with surgical precision.

A scientist tries to escape reality by wrapping himself in plexiglass, in test-tube shaped abstractions; a scientist breathes only filtered air and denies that scent exists in any other form than molecules on a slide. Vin's smelled the stink of green in the forests around Gongaga; she'd quartered every ocean by the time she turned twenty two. The mark of science and science's offspring, that fat, hungry child of industry, lay heavy on the world. Vin's smelled the rapid turning foulness of the atmosphere, the oil-slick of Shinra's wake, the excretion of Shinra's contempt.

Hojo's thesis is a daydream, and Gast a better man than Hojo turned starry-eyed by fervour, to agree to this. A Promised Land, of abundence: Vin wonders what's wrong with this one when everything that can be conceived can be found.

Vin lives in cities, is a city born and bred creature - yet at strange intervals she finds herself yearning for the unexpected chaos of a jungle, the susurrus of an ocean of grass rising on the wind's tide. She never tells anyone of her longing, this love that could span the world. Sentiment is an especially female kind of weakness. ShinRa's uniform offers her the best form of defence against sentiment.

Hojo sleeps like a trusting child, even in a Turk's bed. Vin takes his keycard, copies the magnetic code, and leaves scientist and his trust to wake alone. The manse is calm at this time of night. Vin has access to all reports produced and sent to Shin ra; she does not have access to the scientists' private computers, nor their personal effects. Hojo's room opens silently to her clone of Hojo's card.

Lucrecia's thesis shows a derangement that should disturb Vin, a preoccupation with what is more mythology than science. Instead Vin feels warmed. Lucrecia knows the wind is changing, turning against Shinra, turning against logic. The world is sick of the haunting of men on her surface, the vapour trails through the sky, the shadow of megastructures blinding the beasts. Rivers and seas dwindle; leaves and vines sigh; and Omega comes, balm and benediction, and the haunting of all the scientists can end.

Lucrecia looks up when Vin knocks, a line of irritation writ between feathery eyebrows.

'Dr Crescent,' Vin says, 'I would like you to talk to me about Omega.'

Lucrecia's smile is like an unexpected dawn, brilliant, and blinding.

'Oh Ms Valentine,' she crows, 'I'm so glad you asked.'

'Your father was Grimoire Valentine,' Lucrecia says. Under the plastic table, their knees touch, Lucrecia's dimpled one pressed warm and hard against Vin's trouser-suited thinness.

'Is that a problem?'

'No, no, on the contrary.' Lucretia rolls her shoulders, a voluptuous movement. 'I only just realised - I've been having dreams - you don't look much like Grim, you see. He'll be so glad his daughter's chosen to assume the burden of his research.' Her eyes are too sharp. 'So truly, give me an answer: what's your sin, Vincentia Valentine, that you're willing to sacrifice yourself so, all for the sake of science?'

Vin starts, hesitates, and decides there is no way to do this but all the way. Omega; the end. Lucrecia uses the word science: she can't mean it, Vin decides. Not in the way a true scientist does.

'I was born female,' Vin says, simply. 'Ol' Grim wanted a son. To follow in his footsteps.'

Lucrecia's hand is warm, sympathetic, and lingers on Vin's shoulder, too long. Not long enough.

'You will make him proud.'

Behind the walls that Vin spent her years constructing, the walls begin. Behind the bars that close off the walls are bars. Vin doesn't think about pride any more: a valueless currency in this current economic climate, where everything tends to get hotter, fast.

'I have faith in you,' Vin says, and marvels that Turks can even lie to themselves.

The daydream of soft white knickers, soft white thighs, the softness that lies beyond; all false on awakening. Lucrecia wears black beneath, with crinkles of hair escaping the bounds of that cloth, and her thighs are soft and dimpled, true, but the skin is hard, textured, veined.

Lucrecia's wet enough to have soaked through. She blames it on the pregnancy. Vin tastes it regardless, her eyes closed tight, Lucrecia's jagged-bit nails against her throat, and facilitates.

If Vin had been born a boy, this might have panned out differently. She can imagine the righteous rage, the rightfulness of her confrontation with Hojo, with her own father - but her strength is not in confrontation. All she can do is what she was born to do. A vessel. A vessel for Lucrecia's will. A channel. This is what she is, what she has chosen to be.

There is - pain.

But there always was pain, Vin tells herself. Always is. Always will be.

Vin opens her eyes.

That sound, she realises, is her mouth open and throat screaming.

Vin's eyes - find Hojo. And Lucrecia. Side by side.

'The body's weak,' Hojo says, disparaging. 'The morphology can't hold—'

'But I was so hopeful,' Lucrecia says, angrily. There's a desperate whine underlying that anger, an eagerness as she looks up at Hojo. I tried, Lucrecia says. I failed. Fix this. Her hands move on her belly. Larger. Much larger. Time has passed; Vin can't think to estimate. 'The physical state of the specimen is perfect, Hojo - there must be—'

'There is, we can enact some of ShinRa's methodology at use on SOLDIER candidates—'

'Won't be enough—'

'Never is, Lu—'

'But we can try.'

'Yes,' Hojo says. His palms are sweaty as he presses against Vin's plasglass cage. 'I can try. You've done what you can, Lu, leave the rest to me.'

Lucrecia beams, brilliant and beautiful and a bitch, and she surrenders.

'I'll get you the charts.'

My sin, Chaos tells herself, wings unfurling across the width of the ocean, is that I believed in things like justice, like the rightness of recognition, and that envy implied worth.

A world-wide calm resonates, muted, self-possessed, and lonely.

Thus comes Omega.

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