Title: As Equals
Rating: M (for violence, language and sexual references)
Genre: Romance, Angst (Third Genre: Drama)
Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII or any of the pertaining characters, themes or settings. The rights to the before mentioned belong to Square Enix.
Blurb: Very AU, LifeFic, eventual light Yaoi. Cloud Strife: a ShinRa, though he never wanted to be; a Savior, though he never planned to be; a Friend, though he always wished to be so much more. Uncover truths, lies, hidden pasts, romance, rebellions and more in "As Equals."
Extended Blurb: Very AU, LifeFic, eventual light Yaoi. ShinRa are the people that protect the Planet. They are the reason we exist. They are the reason we survive. At least, that's what we think. When a teenaged girl learns the truth, watch as she fights against a commonly held belief, and gives rise to the greatest Hero of our time; Cloud Strife. When Cloud, sheltered and protected his entire life, is thrown into reality, watch as he struggles to keep his head in a world determined to control him. When the daughter of a famous businessman is put under threat from the terrorist group, Avalanche, watch as her four protectors follow to the ends of the world, uncovering plots and braving danger to save themselves, and the Planet. When hearts are won, and in turn broken, watch as they fight to survive in a time that seems fit only to destroy them. "Turks are taught to never care. SOLDIERs are taught to care, yes - yet nothing more. But I ... I was taught to love. That, Zack, is what makes us different."
Notice: Ages and relationships have been tweaked, in some cases very extremely. In a desire to include as few OriginalCharacters as possible, I have shifted relationships between various characters dramatically, and often you may find yourself blinking or raising an eyebrow when you see who is related to who, and in what way. I apologize for this in advance; this is an alternative universe fanfiction, and I will exploit this fact to my greatest advantage in creating this story.
Warning: I have never played Final Fantasy VII, nor Dirge of Cerebus, however I have watched the cutscenes from Crisis Core, completed half of said game, and watched both Advent Children and Advent Children: Complete many times. I apologize if I incorrectly represent any characters in this fanfiction, and in my defense can only say that this is an AlternativeUniverse story. Any information directly related to the original game is retrieved from Wikipedia, and is (I hope) somewhat reliable.
Author's Note: To those of you who have read my other Final Fantasy VII story, "One Chance," this one will be very, very different. For one thing, I will be far more formal about the writing of this fanfiction than my previous one, and have taken a different format in presenting it, as you can already see. Also, far more effort and research has gone into the creation of this story than into "One Chance." To all readers, new and old, thank you for taking the time and effort to read this story, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much I enjoy writing it.
Music Listened to While Writing: 'C.S. Lewis Song,' 'Albertine,' 'Mystery' and 'Scarlet,' all by Brooke Fraser.
There is no such thing as Mako, the Lifestream, or Materia in this fanfiction.
He lies beneath me, his lifeblood flowing like water. I look into his eyes, and I swear I can see the world shining back at me.
His heartbeat flutters, frail, weak. I press my forehead to his chest, trying to capture his stubborn will to live, and keep it there. But we're running out of time, the both of us.
I suppose I should start at the beginning of this. But how do I define "beginning?" When did this story really start? The day we were called to Mission Ops? The day we met? The day I was born?
The truly know - to feel, acknowledge, embrace - what has happened, is still happening, I suppose I should start before I even existed. Only then will you understand.
It was a day like any other in the proud city of Midgar...
Part One: Elena Strife
Chapter One: Scarlet
It was a day like any other in the proud city of Midgar. Traffic roared, slower than usual on this particular day, and voices rose as they battled to be heard in the constant noise. Smells, fragrant and decaying in equal portions, drifted lazily across the bustling suburbs. Today, the streets rang with more excitement than usual, thrill and anticipation a tangible tremor in the air, and the feelings spread until all knew what was happening.
It was the Gathering.
In an open courtyard before the tall, sleek building that was ShinRa's headquarters, over a hundred men and women - more women than men - stood in a straight line, hands twisting nervously, flushed with anticipation.
A crowd, held back by barriers of stone and iron few ever crossed, watched with bated breath. It soon became apparent what they waited for when the glorious doors to the metallic tower opened. Thirty of ShinRa's Children - as they were known - walked gracefully through. Their eyes shone with the same glorified light, muscles rippled under tanned or pale skin. Male and female, the only differentiation between ShinRa's Children, the only division within them, was the clothes they wore; the beliefs they clung to.
SOLDIER wore familiar uniforms - black, blue or purple pants, tucked into boots and a matching singlet, with belts, buckles and sheaths for various weapons scattered throughout. Many of the SOLDIERs had broad, thin, twisted or elegant blades strapped to their waists or back. They walked with power, confidence, assertiveness.
Fewer than the SOLDIERs, gliding with stealth rather than strength, the Turks shadowed them, though their eyes shone just as brightly, and their dark suits couldn't hide the undeniable feline grace and prowess they, as well as the SOLDIERs, possessed.
Turks, SOLDIERs: both Children of ShinRa, once the same, though separated for long years passed from contrasts in opinion too deep to reconcile. SOLDIERs kept peace, in whatever way possible - their role in life was to protect the helpless, to defend them against evil and stop anyone - or anything - that stood in the way of the harmony they strove for. It was against their very being to knowingly take the life of an innocent.
Turks ... it could only be said that they found the opposite to be their true calling. Finding little fault, or guilt, in killing to save their client's life, Turks notoriously held their values loosely. It was only their use to the Planet - or, more specifically, to the Gaian Government - that kept them from the unforgiving Courts.
The glow, the grace, the strength, these were all what made SOLDIER and Turks the same. Their heritage; their legacy. For the Children of ShinRa were different.
Thousands of years ago, an Angel fell from the sky. Her name was Jenova, and she graced the Planet with five sons and daughters, all to a handpicked man named Shin-Ra. These sons and daughters each had eyes that glowed, skin taught with muscles, and walked with movements of elegant beauty. They seemed surreal to the people of the Planet; they were held in higher station than their own, even when Jenova left to grant other worlds her presence.
When the five sons took wives and the five daughters took husbands, their children too glowed; in soul, and with ethereal mystique. Their eyes shone like jewels, and they grew to be as powerful as their mothers and fathers, if not more.
It was soon that these Children decide to join as one, and protect the Planet their "Mother" - Jenova - had deemed worthy of her attentions. And so, thousands of years before this moment, the family known collectively as ShinRa had been formed - named for their Father, the one an Angel herself had fallen from the heavens to love.
The Gathering was perhaps one of the most sacred and holy things ShinRa had granted the Planet with. Every year, hopeful men and women would flock to Midgar - the place where it was whispered Jenova herself had fallen - and present themselves to the Children of ShinRa. It was the highest honor of all to be chosen at a Gathering, chosen to parent a Child of ShinRa.
ShinRa had learnt early into it's formation that to breed one of ShinRa's Children with another led to instability. During the fifth century of their time on the Planet, ShinRa lost almost half it's number to insanity and degradation. They then decided that, to save themselves from death and misery, they would take not each other as lovers, but the people of the Planet. They found, to their delight, that mingling their blood with that of Humans did not dilute their power; if anything, it made them stronger, intensified the presence Jenova held in them. And so, the tradition continued, and it became not an obligation, but a privilege, every child's dream, and for a very few, a reality.
These men for whom it became a reality, journeyed in hopes of bedding a Daughter of ShinRa until she was sure of pregnancy, then leaving, heavy with the knowledge that they, a mere Human, had given the Planet a savior; a ShinRa. The women came to be taken by the Sons of ShinRa, sheltered and loved for every day of her term. Stories were told of the rare, unimaginably lucky women that were kept, adored and cherished as lovers of the Sons of ShinRa, raising their Child - or, as it was said with many of these cases, Children - and dying wealthy, happy, and content.
But stories were never heard - never told, never whispered - of the ones who were not that lucky.
Among the hopeful men and women that stood in swaying lines, a young woman - barely out of childhood - stood with her hands clasped timidly behind her back, her cheeks tinged pink as like many others around her. Her yellow blonde hair was combed until it shone, falling neatly to her shoulders, held back on one side by two black clips. Her blue eyes mirrored the wide, clear sky above her beautifully. She wore a knee-length dress, white and flared in a representation of her purity and youth - for she was barely sixteen, only just out of school, her cheeks still plump from childhood and innocence.
Among the others that stood, waited, she held her breath and watched the Children of ShinRa approach, surreptitiously crossing her fingers behind her back.
This was it. They day all girls dreamed of in their fairy-tale childhoods. She was the only one of her friends to make it past the initial tests - performed by scientists, even a few of ShinRa's own come to see if they were worthy to bear one of their Children - and the elimination process. She could feel their envy boring into her from where they watched in the crowd alongside her family.
Her family. The girl sighed, her shoulder sagging a little. They had, at first, advised against her, gently steered her away, before moving onto less subtle threats, then finally outright forbidding her to go. But that hadn't stopped her. Like every other teenaged girl, she had held onto her dream, and wished for the day when a strong SOLDIER, or dark, mysterious Turk, would sweep her into his arms and love her the way every girl wants to be loved. She held onto her visions of the day her faceless man would ask, no, beg her to stay, the day she would hold their Child, watch it grow, nurture it to be the Pride of ShinRa, the greatest of ShinRa's children yet...
She, Elena Strife, was not to be deterred, her hopes and desires were not to be broken by something to feeble as, "it will never happen." If it never happened, then why did so many stories - be they fairy-tales, urban legends and my-cousin-met-this-guy-whose-best-friend-knew-this-girl's-sister-that-did-it rumors or not - tell of women just like herself, young, beautiful, who became the maidens of ShinRa, and lived life in harmony and riches? Who wouldn't want that? She had made it this far, right? How hard could it be to make it even further?
Lost in her thoughts, Elena hadn't noticed when the SOLDIERs and Turks lined before them. She hadn't noticed when, caught by the dreamy look in her eye, one of the silver-haired SOLDIERs wandered over to her. In fact, she only noticed the stranger's presence when he stood before her, looking down into her blushing face, and cleared his throat loudly.
"Hm? Oh! Oh - sir," Elena rushed to cover the fact that she hadn't been paying attention, embarrassed that she had made a foolery of herself in front of-
Kadaj. It was Kadaj.
The famous SOLDIER, born just over twenty years ago, was made famous for his heroics in saving the children of Junon from a ruthless kidnapping. Over a hundred children had been stolen over the length of three months, but it took Kadaj only a week to track the children down and, single-handedly, kill the band of Humans that took them. He returned the children to their respective homes, a hero, and was welcomed into the highest rank ShinRa could give him; First Class, a class reserved for the greatest of them all. Kadaj's partners, his twins Loz and Yazoo, had joined him soon after for foiling a madman's attempt at assassinating the President of Gaia. The Turks assigned to the President's protection had been distracted, a rare occurrence of itself, but the silver-haired men had taken it all in their stride, and came out victorious on the other side.
"Are you aright? Are you ill?"
Elena's blush deepened when she realized that she was staring at Kadaj with no sign of answer, and stammered her way around a reply.
"I - I, of course not, sir, I was just, um, surprised!" Elena gave a shaky laugh, trying to hide her mortification. Of all the times to fall apart, it just had to be in the most crucial moment!
"I take it you haven't done this before?" Kadaj asked dryly, shifting his weight to rest on one hip while he looked down at Elena with amused green eyes.
"I - no, I haven't, sir."
"I must confess, I have never done this before, either," Kadaj murmured, smiling ever-so-slightly - and in truth, rather creepily as well - in some amusement only he found.
"R-Really? I, uh, couldn't tell. Sir," Elena mentally struck herself over the head, swearing and kicking and berating herself for being such an idiot. This is a SOLDIER! Not just any SOLDIER, the SOLDIER! Come on, girl, pull yourself together!
"I suppose we should move onto formalities, then," Kadaj sighed, looking highly put upon, and extended a hand to Elena. "Kadaj of ShinRa, at your service. Do you consent to being the Mother of my Child?"
Elena barley contained a squeal of joy, and couldn't stop herself from bouncing on her heels a little. Those were the word echoed across the world, the words intoned with longing and desire in every whispered story, and she - she, Elena - had just heard those very words from Kadaj.
"I - yes!" Elena realized that Kadaj was - once again - waiting patiently for a response, a strange smile returned to his pointed face. "Yes, yes, of course! Uh - sir."
Kadaj didn't say anything; instead, he merely extended one arm and turned expectantly. Elena - heart pounding - took the offered arm with a shiver of excitement. But as he walked her to the doors of ShinRa, following the path of a the other couples, she looked over her shoulder to see her parents' faces, somehow definable from the rest of the rolling, screaming, jubilant crowd ... turning away in shame.
Elena woke and looked across the room to where Kadaj stood, fully dressed, adjusting his uniform in the long mirror propped against one wall.
"I have good news," he said, looking at her face in the reflections and smiling faintly. Elena blushed a little and pulled the soft duvet closer around her. She had always known that the first time hurt, but Kadaj had tried to make it easier for her, going slowly, making sure she was ready, making sure never to employ his ShinRa strength and hurt her.
"What is it?" Elena asked, sitting up and fluffing the blankets even closer around her, watching Kadaj intently as he retied a belt.
It wasn't until that moment that what she was doing - about to do - fully struck her. Elena stared up at Kadaj, then lowered her eyes to her stomach, amazed, wary, awe-struck at the thought that at that very moment, a child - not just any child, but a ShinRa child - was growing within her.
"H-How can you tell?"
"ShinRa have always been particularly ... potent when it comes to things like this. But, to be sure: your scent. Hormones, and such."
Elena was, in truth, a little disturbed at this revelation. She knew that ShinRa had heightened senses, but to be able to tell she was pregnant merely from her smell...
"Oh," Elena paused, running a hand over and over the tan colored sheets nervously. "That's ... that's good, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," Kadaj assured her as he slid his double-bladed katana from where it hung beside the door, and swung it a few times, listening intently before nodding and clipping it to the hostler on his back.
"I ... when will you be back?" Elena asked eagerly, leaning forward and almost forgetting her state of undress, remembering just in time to jerk the blankets up a little.
"Later," Kadaj informed her. "There's food in the fridge, if you're hungry."
And with that, he left, giving her a jaunty, almost sarcastic little wave as he went. Elena watched the closed door dreamily, a content smile on her face, before rising and wrapping herself in a soft dressing gown laid out on the foot of the bed.
As she pulled a pre-made sandwich from the fridge, she paused to look down at her stomach in wonder.
She, Elena Strife, was pregnant.
Nine Months Later
Elena looked down at the tiny child she held in her arms, brushing her fingers against the tuft of silver hair that already grew from his fragile head. Smiling in pride, amazement, Elena brushed her hand along the babe's cheek, cooing softly.
Then - suddenly, so suddenly she barely had time to blink - he was gone.
"What-?" Elena's head whipped up to see a white-coated nurse tottering away, the sleeping child cradled against one shoulder. Elena went to rise, but a pale hand reached out to hold her back. "No! Come bac-"
"Elena, calm yourself," Kadaj told her gently from where he stood passively beside the hospitable bed.
"But they have-!"
"Surely you know what happens once the Child is born?" Kadaj sighed a little, looking at her with something that bordered on pity. Elena felt a cold, hard knot of apprehension settle in her aching stomach.
"I - no, please, bring him back-"
"Elena ... you will never ... see him again."
Elena stared up at Kadaj, mouth gaping open, face pale, eyes glistening, heart skipping, a sob choking her. The world fell away from her, all she could see in her mind's eye was that perfect face that told her - as calm as you please - that her child, her precious, precious child, was gone. Forever.
Tears finally overflowed, and Elena pulled the white sheets up a little, grasping them tightly in shaking fists.
"B-But, I thought-"
"You thought that I would take you as my wife? Elena ... I can't," Kadaj reached out and touched her shoulder gently, reassuringly, but all the touch did was make Elena sob all the harder. Of course. How could she not have seen; every time they spoke, every time he came to her in her lush, spacious apartment, every time he touched her face or hand. His eyes had never sparked with love as hers did, his face had never lit up to see her like her face had to see him. He had smiled at her when he came home each night, he had laughed at her jokes, hugged her when she opened her arms in invitation. But he had never, never loved her. Her fairy-tale, her dream ... had been merely that. A dream.
"Elena, you are a Human," Kadaj said softly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "You are weak, too weak to defend yourself against the true horrors that lie out there-" he waved his arm in the direction of the Western Continent, the Planet, the world, "-and as such are what we in ShinRa ... hesitate to call a liability. ShinRa raise their Children away from Humans, Elena, the only thing Humans can do is get in the way, and get hurt. If any of our Children should become ... attached to that Human ... lives are at risk, Elena. And we can't allow that."
"B-But, the m-motto-"
"'As SOLDIERs we care, for all Humanity, as equals'," Kadaj quoted dutifully, closing his eyes as if to block out the pitiful sight her tear-blotched face made. "Yes, Elena, we care - equally. I do care for you ... but only as much for you as for the woman down the road, as much for you as for the boy who sells papers on the corner. I will protect you, I will save you, I will care for you ... as much as for you, as for anyone else." His voice fell to a whisper as he spoke, but Elena didn't need to strain to hear him. She hiccupped, and took a shaky, strained breath, her wet lashes pressed against her skin, her eyes were shut so tightly.
"B-But I l-love y-"
"I'm a SOLDIER, Elena. Please ... I care. I cannot love ... not a Human."
Elena opened her eyes to focus dimly on her covered knees, shock giving her psychological whiplash as she - along with the hundreds of hopefuls before her - finally saw the truth. SOLDIERs, Turks - ShinRa - were there to help, yes. They were there to protect the people, the Planet, against threats, monsters, even once a Meteor had threatened Midgar, only to be deflected by the genius that was ShinRa ... but, even as they protected the Planet, they weren't here to love, to nurture a better future as ShinRa after ShinRa had claimed. They weren't here to embrace the people of the Planet, the natives; the Humans. They were here as much for their own benefit - a reason to fight, a Planet to fulfill their lives - as much as for anyone else's. The pampering, the loving attentions ... they had never been for her, but always for the Child she carried.
Perhaps once ShinRa had done as their motto had intended, eons ago when it had been first spoken. Perhaps once ShinRa had cared for Humans as if they were their own, as if they were equal to them. But time had warped their visions, their values, their morals.
And so it was that Elena Strife realized; ShinRa had become, if nothing else ... selfish.
"At least let me name him," Elena begged, struggling for the one thing that could placate her now that her life's hopes and dreams had been shattered, clinging to one thing that might save her from despair and shame. Her hand reached out to grasp Kadaj's arm desperately, pleading with him. "Please."
Kadaj looked down at her, saw in her eyes that she was broken, knew that she had seen what few ever saw. And as he looked into those eyes, no longer shining, but dull and helpless, he bowed his head in shallow guilt, fleeting shame.
"Yes," he turned away, her grasp falling weakly from his arm. "I will allow it."
Elena closed her eyes in relief, her mouth moving of it's own accord, repeating the name she had chosen.
"Sephiroth ... Sephiroth. Sephiroth..."
Kadaj looked down at the woman, seeing that she was on the brink of a breakdown, and touched her shoulder one last time.
"I will tell them," he assured her. And then he turned, leaving the empty room, leaving the broken-hearted girl, leaving her with nothing but a name and a envelope on the bedside table, stamped with the words, 'Our many thanks. Your child will be the Pride of ShinRa. Here is our gratitude for your donation to our cause,' followed by the well-known motto of ShinRa.
As SOLDIERs we care, for all Humanity, as equals. As Turks we defend, whatever the sacrifice, at the cost of our souls. As ShinRa we shine, and fight for a better future.
After many, many hours of tears that slowly faded to hiccups and dry sobs, Elena picked the envelope up, turning it over in her hands and sniffing once, twice. She read the words printed on the front, snorted humorlessly, and ripped it open.
A thick wad of Gil fell out, all of them crisp red hundred notes. Elena didn't even blink when she saw them - though there must have been thousands sitting in her lap - and reached with trembling fingers for the slip of paper she had seen among them.
It was a photo, one taken when she was but a few weeks into her pregnancy. There she stood, beaming, glowing, and behind her posed Kadaj. He had her arms around her, resting lightly on her stomach. In turn behind them, the ShinRa tower shone brilliantly in the morning sun. Elena's eyes were wide with innocence, but now that she knew - now that she understood - Elena could clearly see the distant glaze in Kadaj's eyes, the way he stood close, yet not too close. The thought brought a sharp sting to her heart, and Elena hiccuped as her throbbing eyes welled up once again.
Elena wiped her eyes, folding the picture and tucking it into her bra, the closest thing she had to a pocket in her current state, having been decked out in hospital gear upon her first contractions.
At least she knew his name, Elena tried to console herself. She could watch his progress from a distance, proud in the knowledge that he was her son ...
She choked a little, and looked around, instinctively reaching for the source of comfort that had always been there. Her eyes snagged on a wireless phone at the far side of the room, and she pushed the blankets down to limp over, collapsing into the chair next to it. She lifted the phone off it's cradle and dialed the memorized number with ease.
It rang three times before it was answered.
"Strife residence, this is Harley speaking, how can I help you?"
Elena's throat clogged when she heard her father's voice, and she grasped the phone a little tighter before forcing out,
At first there was only silence, before finally-
"Elena, is that you?"
Elena closed her eyes and pressed the phone tight against the side of her face, sure that she was leaving an imprint of the keypad on her cheek.
"Yeah, Dad. It's me."
"What happened? Did your SOLDIER leave you?" His voice was thick with anger, yet Elena imagined she could hear a hint of sorrow, sadness, pain, under it all.
"Dad ... he ... Daddy, I got p-pregnant, and I had a b-baby boy, and h-he was so b-b-beautiful and - and -" Elena noted dimly that she was crying, and pressed the heel of her free hand into her eyes, as if to hold the tears back.
"Baby, what's wrong?" All anger was gone, now, and instead Elena could feel his love for his eldest daughter - for her - washing over her, worried now that she was so obviously hurt, trying to protect her as he had those months ago, though she had been too pig-headed to see it.
"H-He took h-him, K-Kadaj, he t-took Sephiroth-"
"Your son, I assume?" Harley's voice was soft, gentle, trying to comfort her from his home down south, in the city of Mideel. Her home.
"Yes," Elena whispered, her breathing calming a little now, her eyes still closed. "Sephiroth..."
"Baby ... look, when you're better, come home, okay? We missed you so much..."
Elena's heart leapt at the thought, and she perked up for but a moment, before memories fell back in place, and she felt such an unbelievable shame wash through her, tear her apart... She and her friends had fought so hard to get to where she was, but now that she'd made it, she'd seen the lies her world was built on. She knew her friends would never understand; they would never see as she had. They would only mock her for not being good enough. Never mind that ShinRa made a point to never love Humans: as far as they were concerned ... she simply hadn't been good enough.
"I ... I can't," Elena sobbed, standing (though she leant against the side of the chair for balance) and facing the phone cradle. "I ... I just can't face them."
"Elena," Elena could hear a distinct panic in her father's voice, now, and tried not to think of how much she would be hurting him - and herself - by doing this. How had something as simple as wanting to her her father's voice ... come to this? "Please, come home, we can look after you-"
"Don't you get it, Dad?" Elena's voice cracked a little, her voice nothing more than a whisper, silently praying for the strength to continue. "I went off to ShinRa like a good little lapdog, I thought - I honesty thought-" here she gave a cynical, rough, bitter laugh, "-that he would love me. But then ... he just ... didn't. I can't go home, Dad."
"Baby, please, don't do this-"
"I've got money," Elena tried to reassure both him, and herself. Tried to convince herself that she could do this, that she was strong enough. "I ... I don't know if I'll call again."
And with that, Elena thumbed the soft white button, and pressed her lips to the back of the plastic phone before she gently placed it back in it's holder.
Ten Years Later
Elena, no longer an innocent girl but now a world-wise woman in her mid twenties, stood behind the cracked bar, and sighed.
Ten years. Planet, had it been that long already? Ten years since she'd lost her innocence, ten years since she'd lost all illusions of grandeur, ten years ... and yet not a whisper, not even a murmur of him, of his progress. The television showed only the fading career of the silver-haired triplets, as they reached and passed their prime, and handed the baton to the next generation; it only showed the rising of that generation, of the new Turk Commander, Verdot, of the recent Gaian General, Heidegger; of Politicians and taxes and hints of a war on the brink with Wutai, ever resistant to the Gaian Government's attempt at dominance over the last "free" country in the world.
Elena shook her head and finished washing the glass, slipping it into an under-the-bar cupboard and rinsing out the cloth before wiping down the bench. It was almost opening time, and soon the place would be alive with the stench of smoke, the rising voices of tipsy men and women, and the low murmurs of the trusty regulars, sitting in their chosen corners and sipping at their next mug of beer.
A bar. Of all the places she thought to see herself in, when she was a child, ignorant, it had been anything but a bar. A palace, perhaps. A high-rise apartment, surrounded by silver-haired children. A modern suburb home, with expensive furnishings and sleek cars pulling in at the drive. A bar? Not Elena Strife, no sir-ey. Elena Strife was destined for greater things ...
Now, thinking back, Elena could only laugh, and rub furiously at a particularly stubborn strain of dirt that had manifested itself in the usually spotless pub.
The night turned out to be slower than usual, a usual occurrence for a Wednesday night. Elena was just starting to shoo the last hanger-ons away, gathering dirty glasses and sweeping up stray crumbs, when the door opened one last time.
Balancing two full trays of empty cups, she half-turned to the door, and said,
"Sorry, we're closing ... up ..." Her eyes widened when she saw the intense glow, eyes that shone in the darkness that was Lower Midgar. She was no fool; she knew a ShinRa when she saw one. And she also knew better than to refuse one when they showed up, no matter what the time of day. "... though for you, sir, we're open anytime."
And so, straining to apply her best, award-winning smile, she walked behind the bar while the ShinRa - identifiable a Turk now that he'd entered the luminance from the florescent lights - took a stool on the other side. His eyes - unnaturally red - followed her every movement as she went to find retrieve a clean glass from the dishwasher.
"What can I get you?" Elena feinted ease, and leant forward on the wooden bench a little. She didn't miss the way the Turk's eyes flitted down before meeting hers once again.
After taking his order and dutifully fulfilling it, she slid the drink across to him, watching as he casually withdrew one hand from where they had been crossed before him, and caught it smoothly, effortlessly. He tilted the drink at her in thanks, then downed the lot in one go.
Wide-eyed, Elena took the empty cup and filled it again, and again, and again, until the tab tallied more than she'd make in a week, and she was beginning to wonder if ShinRa were immune to alcohol; surely the man should be unconscious, if not comatose, with the sheer amount of alcohol he'd consumed thus far?!
The soon familiar routine was only broken once. The man, his eyes once again trailing after her and she continued to clean up the bar, spoke in a low, gravelly voice,
"Do I know you?"
Elena's heart stopped, and knew the man noticed - how could he not, with hearing as sharp as ShinRa were renowned for - but pleaded innocence anyway. Does he know Sephiroth? Does he look like me? Does he act like me? Does he know my name? Does he even know I exist?
"I'm sorry," she said, in a voice was that genuinely regretful. "You must have me confused with someone else." Well ... I should hope not, anyway. The Humans Turks get to know usually end up dead.
"Hm," the man said, clearly unconvinced. "If you're sure..."
It was more than a fair few hours later - Elena struggling to keep awake - when the man stood, surprisingly steady, and patted for his wallet. He frowned, and Elena felt her heart sinking. She'd used over a week's supplies on this man, if he couldn't pay...
"Sorry, sweetheart," the Turk intoned. "Look's like I've only got this on me." He pulled a few fifty-gil notes out of a back pocket, and Elena took them silently, trying to ignore a nagging voice in the rear of her mind that told her it wasn't going to be enough.
"It's alright, sir," Elena assured him, trying to keep her emotions from her face. "I'll manage."
"No, it's not," the Turk sighed, looking at the flushed blonde before him.
Elena took the last cup away and bumped open the till with her hip, throwing the fifties in.
"You know ... I could always pay you ... with something else?"
Elena looked up, saw the shine in his eyes that wasn't Jenova's legacy, and sucked in a sharp breath. She knew that look.
And she also knew better than to refuse a ShinRa what they wanted. She wasn't a fool.
The next morning was tense, awkward. Elena woke to see deep red eyes blinking back at her, and had to stop herself from automatically tensing and moving away. Instead, she fought to calm her breathing and heart, and gave the Turk a hesitant smile.
"Uh ... hey," she said halfheartedly, leaning back so that she propped her body up on one arm. "Do ... d'you want anything?"
"Coffee would be good," the Turk moaned after a long moment of silence.
"M'kay," Elena sighed, sitting up and grabbing a loose shirt, some flannel pants and soft slippers to throw on. She pattered out to the kitchen - adjacent to the bar and where much of the alcohol was stored in the day, when the place was closed - and leant against the counter as she listened to the familiar whirring of the coffee machine.
She, was an idiot.
What on Planet was she thinking, letting him take her to bed?! Was she trying to bring back painful memories? Was she trying to hurt herself? Or, even worse, was she trying to relive the "glory days," was she trying to pretend the last ten years had never happened, and she was still there, still with him, still ...
The short trill of the finished coffee startled her, and she poured two cups absently, carrying them into the bedroom carefully.
"Here," she said, handing one cup to the Turk - who was now sitting on the edge of the bed wearing his uniform black pants (and nothing else), trying to wrestle on socks. "I don't know what you like, so I put a bit of everything in."
The Turk nodded and sipped the coffee, trying to mask his immediate reaction of dislike. Elena, however, didn't miss it, and huffed a little. She watched as the man dressed, shivering a little when he tucked several guns, knives and other such contraptions into hostlers, as if it was common place to do so ... which, for a Turk, it was.
"What's your name?" Elena spoke up, finally, as the Turk was slipping on black leather shoes. He paused, thinking the question through for a moment, before replying flatly,
"Vincent. Vincent Valentine." He stood, stepping closer to Elena, and pulled a small tinfoil sheet of what she correctly identified to be pills from an inner pocket. "Here; take these." He popped the pills out and handed them to Elena, who looked down at them, confused.
"What do they do?" she asked, half fearing the answer.
"They'll kill the child that grows within you."
Elena froze, staring up at Vincent in shock - borderline horror - and closed her fingers over the two pills, shaking slightly.
"The child, Miss Strife. I can tell by the scent," Vincent informed the still woman, stepping around her and heading for the door. "Take them." He turned suddenly, and watched her with a sharp eye. Elena knew he wouldn't leave until she'd taken them, until he was sure.
Trembling hands lifted the pills to Elena's mouth, and she placed them tentatively on her tongue, followed shortly by a sip of coffee. She washed the liquid around her mouth, without swallowing.
"Swallow," Vincent urged her silently, a glint in his eyes that was chillingly threatening.
Elena tensed her throat, began to swallow, but before she did, a thought struck her.
This child ... is a ShinRa. Just like he is. Just like Sephiroth.
The moment the man - the Turk - Vincent - had gone, Elena whirled for an empty cup on her bedside table and spat the half-dissolved pills out, rinsing her mouth with coffee and purging that, too, from her system.
Planet be damned if she was going to let ShinRa take another child from her.
Next: Part One, Chapter Two: Way Away. Elena finds a new home.