Chapter 2

A/N: Wow, finally got around to continuing this thing. Put simply, I'm meant to be doing about ten maths exercises right now, but, well, first TV Tropes happened and then I felt like writing and, well... As always, expect huge leaps in time and so forth; I write what interests me at the moment of writing. That's all, so let's go!

… … …

Two months ago

"Everyone, Crescent. Everyone is out to steal your work and then claim it as their own, or torch it because it disproves their own and they want funding, or alter it so that you look like an imbecile. Never forget that fact. Science involves intelligence in every sense of the word, heheheh…"

Lucrecia Crescent managed a lukewarm smile at the Professor's… joke? She was never sure of whether the man was serious or not and, truth be told, she wasn't too anxious to find out.

I was supposed to have Professor Gast as my mentor…

As she stood in front of Professor Hojo's desk, Lucrecia did not doubt that he was an underappreciated genius, or that he could teach her a lot of highly useful material. It was just that she also did not doubt that the Professor had never come within three miles of a bottle of shampoo, had an irritatingly nasal voice, an unnerving stare, a shuffling walk and a slightly fish-like odour.

"I'll, um, keep my guard up, then," she replied, faking another smile. The Professor nodded and leaned forward in his chair.

"Exactly; we must do as we must! That's a very valuable lesson, and let me tell you, child, I'd like to see one of those untalented hacks Shinra wanted to send you over to teaching you that!" Professor Hojo pushed his round glasses up the bridge of his nose with some force. Lucrecia noticed that a long, greasy strand of hair had got trapped between his left eye and the glass. It was very distracting.

"They thought," the Professor continued, as Lucrecia tried to tear her eyes away from the hair, "that a woman would be useless. Do you know, Crescent, they even suggested giving you a secretarial position!"

Lucrecia felt her cheeks flame as the Professor gave a high-pitched, derisive chuckle.

But at the certificate evening, everyone seemed so proud of me…Was it all a façade, even then? I suppose it would make some sense, if the Professor is telling the truth…'If', indeed! Ugh, you're quite disgusting, you know, presuming others share your untrustworthiness and deceptive nature. And after everything he's done for you! It's sickening. Absolutely sickening. Even now, you think that somehow, by acknowledging your faults, it negates them! Face it, Lucrecia, you're worthless and you always have been and you always will be, and if you don't behave, you'll be punished.

She bowed her head, feeling the first tears spring to her eyes. Damn it, why did she have to cry so much more easily than other people? Nobody else sobbed when they missed a train, or when someone they barely knew made a rude personal remark, but there Lucrecia would be, nose a bright red giveaway, eyes puffy slits and speech a shaking, incoherent ramble. Oh, Odin, why couldn't she control her voice when she cried? Just that one thing would be enough, just that one, tiny, little-

"Crescent?" Hojo craned his neck to look at the young apprentice, with an expression that almost resembled concern. "Have I offended you? I must say, if you're going to be in this business, you'll need a thicker skin and a stronger stomach, my dear."

Lucrecia tried to shake her head and laugh, and instead managed a hiccoughing sob. She balled her hands into fists as she tried to regulate her breathing, without success.

Oh, Odin, I'm such a mess…

Lucrecia had always known that she wasn't quite… well. She'd always been the odd one out, crippled with shyness because she could easily see through fake smiles. She had acquaintances but not friends, boyfriends but never lovers, and she was fully aware that this was all her fault. People scared her. You couldn't predict them in the way you could a sequence of numbers; they acted irrationally and hurt others in doing so. And other people could just greet strangers; they didn't automatically presume everybody else hated them.

It isn't a presumption, it's a fact. Stop trying to flatter yourself. It doesn't become you.

She wasn't stupid. She knew that her pessimism and her frequent urges to scream or cry for little reason probably had something to do with the way she'd grown up, in the same way that her instinctive flinches at loud noises had 'something' to do with the way she'd grown up. On the other hand, that didn't change the fact that other people didn't get those odd little impulses. Like the time she'd taken a few more sleeping tablets than strictly necessary-

And you even managed to f*ck that up; you were just sick, remember?

And the time she'd stepped out of the moving chocobo carriage-

The bruise on your knee lasted for weeks, not to mention the graze on your palm, but as attempts go, it was hardly phenomenal…

And the time she'd decided, on a whim, to cut half her hair off with her razor-

And then you had to cut the rest off afterwards, because you realised how bloody stupid it looked, and then you cried about it, didn't you? Well, that's what you get when you do these stupid things, and if you do them, what do you expect? I used to have willpower… no I didn't. I was always a coward. I'm just more aware of it now. You disgust me with your melodrama. Grow a spine or shut up or do us all a favour and die. Who'd miss you?

And then there was the time she'd been standing on Mt Nibel, and had tried to fly.

That went well.

"Crescent?" Professor Hojo repeated, as Lucrecia started to sob in earnest. "Crescent, there is no place for a weeping girl in my laboratory."

Lucrecia felt her stomach sink to the ground. Try as she might, she couldn't stop.

"So," the Professor continued, "I order you to get yourself upstairs, make yourself a cup of tea or whatever it is that women do to cheer up, and then, when you are quite certain that you are not going to collapse into a heap of quivering misery, come back down here and you may take some more notes. Understand?"

Lucrecia slowly nodded and managed to laugh through her tears. She still felt like a train wreck, but oh, he was nice!

You don't deserve 'nice'. You don't deserve anything.

The next day, the Professor was mumbling in a similarly paranoid vein. Lucrecia wanted to ask him why he was suddenly so concerned about secrecy, after a good few months of quite a relaxed approach, but she didn't have the courage. Instead, she sat and dutifully took notes as Professor Hojo rambled on and on.

"And they tell Gast, 'oh, it's fine, have as much funding as you want and bring us back a prize', and yet I? I? I am given a dingy old mansion, a few tubes of radioactive material, and a pretty little assistant-"

"Apprentice," muttered Lucrecia, but the Professor seemed not to hear her.

"- to soften the blow! And they think I will be satisfied with that, grateful, even? Well! Well! Are you taking notes on this, child?"

"… Yes."

"Excellent! Now then, I want you to record this- I have had enough! Enough, I tell you! This situation must not continue! No, I will not stand for it, I simply will not, an insult, yes, an insult, no, I have my pride! Assistant! Write! Together, you and I are going to shape history, and we are going to do it starting from tomorrow, and we are going to request, nay, demand the best security Shinra has to offer to guard our research, and you, my child, will be part of the revolution!"

Lucrecia tried to keep her face impassive as Hojo wiped his feverish brow, but inside, she was calculating…

He's frustrated and brilliant; I daresay he's onto something… and if I play my cards right, I can be at his right hand… a Doctor by twenty-three! Famed worldwide before I reach my thirtieth birthday! Oh, imagine Mother's face when she sees… Actually, let's not imagine that… But oh! Maybe he really is all talk, but I don't want to believe that, so I shan't believe that until proven otherwise. Maybe that's silly of me, but I just don't care right now. He's a lovely person, if awkward. Well, I could write the book on awkward…

"I look forward to it, Sir," said Lucrecia, and she gave the Professor a quick smile. He looked at her for a long moment, and then nodded.

"Indeed. I think this could be extremely fortuitous for the pair of us. Especially," he paused, "if you are ready to put science before all else. Then, I think, we will make quite a team."

"I have nothing else," Lucrecia answered truthfully. She felt herself blush under the Professor's stare; she was sure it wasn't his fault, but the way he was looking at her made her feel like a piece of meat on a butcher's slab.

"Family? Friends?" Professor Hojo asked, sounding strangely urgent. Lucrecia blinked; she didn't think he had ever asked her about her personal life before.

"… No, not as such," replied Lucrecia. A quick smile flashed across Hojo's face and then vanished again, quick as lightning. Lucrecia was certain that she had seen it, and it unnerved her, but then her more rational side kicked in.

There are accidents in labs, especially where completely revolutionary work is mixed with a young apprentice, so I suppose it's easier on everyone if there's little paperwork to fill in should said apprentice die. Well, I'm glad I won't be a burden. In that way, at least.

"Excellent, my dear child," said the Professor, before taking her small, pale hand in his (strangely rubbery) one and giving it a quick shake. "We'll make a scientist of you yet!"

He kissed her hand.

"The security arrives tomorrow," announced Professor Hojo a week later, at breakfast. Lucrecia stopped buttering her toast and looked up.

"Oh?" she said. "Shinra approved your request?"

Hojo nodded feverishly. "But of course! They're willing to give me anything right now." He leaned forward slightly, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and giving Lucrecia a sly smile. "Want to know why?"

Lucrecia felt a strange sense of foreboding as she replied, "Why?"

Hojo leaned back again and laughed his high, cackling laugh. "Because their golden boy failed them, that's why! Gast! Gast! Do you know, my dear? Vanished! Completely vanished off the face of Gaia! Last seen in Cosmo Canyon, but now? Who knows? Who knows!" Hojo burst out laughing again.

Lucrecia didn't know what to say. She'd always liked Professor Gast; although she had not known him very well, he had praised her every time they did meet, and had come to congratulate her personally at her certificate evening. He'd come across as a very sweet, old fashioned gentleman, the opposite of the peculiar Hojo.

Because Hojo was peculiar.

Strange things enraged him; she had once used the word 'magic' in his presence and he had bitten her head off. Another time, she had jokingly asked what would happen if their newest area of study, the mysterious 'Jenova', turned out not to be a Cetra specimen, but just your average blonde-haired, blue-skinned woman. Hojo had coldly told her to take the rest of the day off.

Other things didn't bother him at all. She could wear her highest heels in the lab (if she didn't, she could hear her Mother telling her that glamour was everything and she was a failure) and the Professor didn't bat an eyelash. She supposed he wouldn't help her if she tripped and broke her neck, either, but she didn't care. She liked being taller than men; it meant they couldn't look down her top. Although she didn't think that Hojo was on the same planet, let alone thinking about her in that way. Fortunately.

"What sort of security?" Lucrecia asked, suddenly aware that the silence was a bit of an awkward one. "Soldiers?"

Hojo laughed at her ignorance. "Soldiers? Of course not, you ridiculous girl! Pfft, soldiers, honestly…" he broke off to laugh some more. Lucrecia held her tongue. Eventually he sighed (still snickering a little) and shook his head.

"My dear child," he said, "it would be rather impractical to have a whole army in that cramped little laboratory, would it not?"

Lucrecia blushed crimson.

God, I'm stupid.

"No," the Professor continued, "I have requested that Shinra send a single elite unit. Have you heard of, ahem, 'Administrative Research'?"

Lucrecia shook her head.

"Excellent; they're doing their job, then. Well, basically, we'll be receiving a single bodyguard, but the best of the best. I think that's all you need to know."

Lucrecia had a suspicion that that was all the Professor had been told.

"So," Hojo announced, clapping his hands together, "tomorrow, we will meet our bodyguard, and then we will begin our work in earnest. Until then, do as you wish."

Lucrecia continued eating her toast, wondering what the bodyguard would be like.

Six foot two with a golden tan, hopefully.

She stifled a giggle and excused herself.

… … …

A/N: I've put this up because I'm not sure when I'm going to come back to this fic, but I know that there are some people who've been enjoying it, and I thought it'd be a bit mean to leave this not-quite-done chapter on my computer where you guys couldn't read it. Please bear in mind that when I say 'I'm not sure when', that could mean anything between a few days and forever; I'm afraid my interests leap around a lot, and I can't honestly predict when I'll feel like coming back to this. Plus I have exams. Sorry for any irritation caused; feel free to tell me off. :S