Her voice beyond the wall became painfully tempting weakness; to take comfort in her presence, but he was too well trained. He loved listening to Ifalna, loved holding Aerith laughing in his arms, yet still remained the terror that tomorrow they would disappear. Even as he gradually came to recognize Ifalna's voice, even as she seemed to predict his thoughts, Sephiroth never entirely believed they'd stay.
Nothing stayed except Hojo, with his smells and the stinging pains. All else disappeared in time.
Yet ages passed, and here they were. Ifalna marked off years, explaining their meaning as she did so. Even as Aerith stood on her own two feet for the first time, stumbled to take his hands. Somehow, where nothing had lasted, they remained.
It was a shameful weakness, but their voices embedded deep in his mind and dreams, an essential part of him. Necessary. Inevitable. Little by little, he believed, despite all he knew. Maybe…maybe they could stay…
But, though neither of them understood, both he and Aerith felt the passage of time, and Ifalna saw it. And he began to hear strange tones in her voice as she spoke of "other" things. "Outside." "Before." "Home." "Away."
Sephiroth didn't understand the words, no matter how he tried. But Ifalna did. And he knew something in them was important, because when Ifalna spoke them her voice filled with intensity and pain and warmth he simply stared at the wall between them, wondering how anyone could feel so much and not shatter? She loved "outside" more than he'd ever loved anything. Just the word filled her voice with light. Even after long days and long tests that sapped body and mind, she would still sound so happy.
He couldn't fathom her strength, how she endured so much. Hojo called him special. He said normal people couldn't survive what Sephiroth did. Yet Ifalna endured, cared for Aerith, sang. How?
Ifalna seemed to know. Sometimes at night she fell so silent he felt she could see him through the wall. As if she knew he sat there awed and that he could understand nothing.
He wanted to. More than…anything. But he couldn't…
A low sigh, and he heard her lean back against the wall. "Don't worry, Sephiroth," she said, and he'd look at the wall again. Like a fool, reaching out his hand to touch it, pretending through it their hands touched.
"Someday, you'll understand," Ifalna promised him, even as he despaired. He startled every time, glancing at the blank wall, and then she'd laugh brightly, as if sensing his surprise, too.
"Someday, I'll show you. I promise."
And, though it was unforgivable weakness, one he never should have had, he believed her implicitly, each time. And the promise brought a strange tingling to his fingers, that if he closed his eyes hard enough, he could imagine was her fingers.
Someday, he would understand. Someday. Ifalna would show him.
Six years in cells
Echoing yowls ricocheted through the dark hallways, and she huddled against the cold wall. The lights were bright and hard-edged outside, but here they barely shone, and shadows twisted in the cell corners.
Where was Mama!? Why wasn't she back yet?
"Aerith?" His voice, calm, quiet, was muffled by the wall.
"Sephiroth!" She pressed backwards towards him, met by the cold tiles. She wanted to run to him, bury herself in his arms.
"Don't be scared." She could imagine him looking at her, eyes glowing, face somber. Holding onto her.
Sephiroth treated her like glass. Why did he seem to think she'd break if he touched her?
What she wouldn't give to see him now.
"Aerith, it's ok. I'm here."
Biting her lip, Aerith nodded firmly. Right. Sephiroth was always here.
He was the first thing she remembered beyond Mama. Strong arms holding her, rocking her to sleep, warm and safe. Even when he was covered with hurts, he held her all night.
Mama said he'd protected her since he was a baby. Mama always looked so sad when she talked about Sephiroth. Aerith could tell she wanted to hug him, but he was never allowed into their room. Mama only knew Sephiroth's voice.
Only Aerith saw them both. It wasn't fair! Why did Sephiroth have to sleep all alone? Bad Man hadn't let her into his room for weeks. She didn't understand! He'd been alone for so long!
"But...Mama," she whispered plaintively. "Sephiroth, why won't he give Mama back?" Tears tugged at her eyes, but she stubbornly brushed them away. She couldn't cry! Not when Sephiroth could hear.
He would cry for her if he heard. She had seen him, curled in a tiny ball, as if he were asleep, but whimpering. No tears, but it was just the same, and she wanted to make it stop! Why did the bad man hurt him like that!?
Why did Bad Man hurt Mama!?
"Aerith, Ifalna will come back soon." She could hear his tone shift, the shaking he did not let into his words.
"But what if he...!" She faltered. What if he had did to Mama what he'd done to Sephiroth? Mama lying on the ground bleeding, or rolling around in pain, or screaming in her sleep. No! She had to be brave! She had to!
"Sephiroth, what if she's-"
Her panic was a blade in his back between shoulder and spine, the kind of pain that made it impossible to think rationally, left him twisting even if it snapped the scalpel still in his flesh. He couldn't bear to know he couldn't help her!
He'd do anything to tear down that wall, even if he broke his hands! He wanted to hold her hand, tell her everything was alright. But he couldn't get to her. He couldn't. The wall separated them, and he couldn't even tell her it was alright, because he didn't know. He had sworn not to lie, not to her.
She was shivering; he could hear it, stifled sniffles she tried to hide. Why couldn't he get to her!? Why wouldn't Hojo let him see her? He hadn't seen her in weeks, only heard her voice muffled by the barrier. Hojo was keeping them apart, leaving Aerith alone instead of with Sephiroth when he took Ifalna.
Where was Ifalna!?
His hands were shaking. Gritting his teeth, Sephiroth struggled to force them still. Couldn't he even control his own body? How could he possibly help Aerith!?
"Aerith…" He swallowed and tried to say something to stop the fear in her voice. It made him want to attack it, chase it away, make it stop. The need frightened him; he wasn't supposed to feel so strongly at all. And yet every fiber of his being shivered in rage at Hojo for causing this, for taking Ifalna away.
"Aerith, you'll be safe," he murmured finally. "Don't be afraid." That, at least, he could swear. He would not let anything happen to her.
She swallowed, he heard it, the catch as she breathed. "I-I'm not s-scared of that, Sephiroth. I k-know I'll be ok. Y-you're here."
She was shaking now, trembling, and it made him want to scream in frustration. He couldn't even see her!
"I'm s-scared for M-Mama…"
He was, too, and he couldn't tell her that. He knew what went on out there. And Aerith did, too. Maybe even more than he did, because she'd seen him at times he couldn't even remember.
Sometimes he wished she'd never seen him, never known what happened, so that she wouldn't cry for him. Ifalna didn't know all that went on; he'd begged Aerith not to tell her. He couldn't bear to make her worry, when she was already trying so hard to keep Aerith safe.
He didn't know what Hojo did to Ifalna, either. Only the smell of her blood.
That same terror clenched in his gut. If Hojo had hurt Ifalna…
What would he do? He couldn't…Nothing, because… Because Hojo knew everything, and he was just…
He closed his eyes, biting his lip, because that strange stinging was in his eyes again, and that meant he had to control himself. Still, even if he tried to stop, well rehearsed answers flashed unbidden in the silence. He was nothing. He knew nothing, could do nothing, could change nothing… He couldn't even help Aerith! He could do what he was told, be what he was destined to be. He was created, trained, taught; everything he knew came from someone else, even his strength. Hojo had given him strength. By himself, he was just an…experiment.
That's what Hojo said. Just an experiment.
To everyone except Ifalna. To her, he was…something else. Why?
He needed to ask her, needed it like he needed to breathe, but he feared to. No one had told him how to ask something like that. And…and something in him screamed that if he failed, she'd turn from him, disappear, take Aerith with her, and he'd be alone again…
His hands trembled. Terror threatened to swallow him again, but he couldn't let it! He had to be strong. He had to! Who else would protect Aerith? Aerith needed someone stronger than him!
She could never know how scared he was. That would end everything.
Aerith glanced at the wall behind her. The silence made her bite back tears. His silence was lonely and angry and scared, and it broke her heart. She could never do anything to help him. He could hear her, but it wouldn't do anything unless she could touch him, and she couldn't reach him!
"S…" She took a breath, realizing she'd whispered. "Sephiroth…"
He didn't make a sound when she said his name, and she didn't know what he would've said, if he would have. He had no chance.
An unfamiliar sound echoed from the hallway, scrabbling feet, panted breaths. Something running.
Instinctively, Aerith shrank back against the wall, clutching her knees. Nothing ran in the hallways. They were dead-space, everything carefully led and monitored, on strings or tethers or chains. Even Sephiroth, when taken outside, looked at his feet and seemed to shrink. So what was-!?
She heard movement through the wall, bare feet on the ground as Sephiroth leapt from beside her. She could picture him as she had last seen him, tall and stronger than he looked, fists clenched, standing in front of her.
Sephiroth always protected her. Despite knowing he couldn't reach her through the wall, it made her feel safe.
The sound grew louder, Sephiroth's movements became quieter as he tensed, moving smoother, quicker. Aerith stared at the glass door, wondering what was loose out there.
She had seen some of the monsters that lived here. Their dark eyes and gruff snarls made her shiver as she walked by their cages. They were scary. But…still, something about them always seemed sad. Walls around caging them in. Had this one escaped?
A word she didn't know, but her mother did. Aerith didn't understand the meaning, only that it was something confused with danger and hope and "outside."
Sephiroth held his breath as the strange sounds approached the cell-block. It was footsteps, he was sure now, hearing the pitter-patter and harsh breathing. Something on two legs, running, sprinting. He swallowed, nails digging deep into his palms. If it continued on, if it didn't turn, he wouldn't have to worry.
Go. Stay away…
Half a breath, two steps, the sound suddenly became much louder.
His heart leapt into his throat. It was coming this way! Aerith was closer than he was, her cell on that side. If it was dangerous he wouldn't even know until-!
Without thinking, he threw himself against the door, clawing at it with his hands. He wouldn't let them hurt her!
It was stupid. Doors were like the walls, immortal, impervious. Like Hojo said. He might as well have tried to reject the sting of mako.
The automatic defenses activated the moment he touched the glass, electric current sizzling, lancing through his body, and blackness speckled his sight as he crashed to the ground, burns screaming on his hands and arms where the shock had entered, head aching from the impact, choking on the smell of singed hair. Pain, making him grit his teeth and curl into a ball, clenching his fists against residual twitches.
The only thought, though, made him struggle to rise, to blink blurriness from his eyes, to move, to get to her!
Panic; he'd lost the steps in the flickering scream of burning nerves, the thunder-clap of discharge ringing still in his ears. Close sounds cracked in the air, he nearly smelled nearby flesh, but he didn't know-
"Aerith! Aerith, I'm here!"
Sephiroth froze. Ifalna!
"Mama!" He heard Aerith jump to her feet, run to the door, yet he could not quite process it. Ifalna…? She had been running…?
But, why was she running? Where was Hojo? No one could move in the hallways without him. The doors, the locks only listened to him. How was Ifalna running?
"Mama, what's going on?"
Wincing at the pain, Sephiroth rolled to his knees, staring as he heard key-tones, electric whirring, and then pattering tiny Aerith-feet. Hands clenching tightly on cloth, breaths just short of happy-sad sobs as Aerith clung to her mother.
But…Hojo hadn't said a word.
Ifalna had opened the door!?
But… but no one could open doors but Hojo. Shocks awaited anyone else who tried…
"We're getting out of here, Aerith, tonight!"
His gasp breathed with Aerith's. Those were Ifalna's words, making her voice soar with warmth and hope such that he shivered. She'd always told him that she would do it, someday. That she would get "away."
And she sounded so achingly sure it for a moment made him need desperately to believe, and excitement coursed through him.
Ifalna was going to do it! To finally accomplish that powerful thing that had somehow kept her singing for so long! She would take Aerith "away," and they would be "free." And she said that once she'd done that Hojo would never be able touch them again.
Hojo would never touch Aerith again! Lightheaded from the shock as he was, it seemed the world trembled with joy.
Then, suddenly, the warmth in him ran jagged and cold. Something had frozen. He heard but did not process the tones of Aerith's awed exclamations, Ifalna's triumphant words, scuffling of excited feet on cold tiles. He didn't even register the soft cry of despair cold in his throat.
Ifalna had promised. She would take Aerith away.
And "away" was somewhere he could never go. Hojo said "here" and "now" were all he could ever have. He didn't belong anywhere else, like he knew they did.
And Aerith…to make her safe, Ifalna would take her "outside." Because she would do anything to keep Aerith safe. Because she was… She was Aerith's mother.
The needle stabbed him, pain in his chest, far worse than that of the electricity before. Ifalna was Aerith's mother. Much as he had clung to Ifalna these past years, that would always be the difference between him and Aerith.
Ifalna was Aerith's. He couldn't take her from Aerith. Aerith needed her, needed "away," needed "outside." She needed to be taken from Hojo's reach. Otherwise…otherwise she'd…she'd hurt. She'd become bent all wrong, and stop smiling, stop laughing, and start crying… He couldn't bear to see that happen to her!
He bit his lip, reveling in the physical pain to mask the needle somewhere in his chest. He'd…he'd never see Aerith again. Because they were going "away." He would be alone again.
The needle twisted, and he blinked the stinging from his eyes. It had to be this way! He had accepted that. He'd always known it would come to this. So why did it still have to hurt?
For Aerith to be safe he'd give up anything, everything. Sephiroth crouched there on the ground, repeating the mantra. Aerith would be safe. Aerith would be safe!
Her voice snapped him made the needle shiver, jerking his head painfully towards the door. He was so happy to hear her say his name, to hear her voice. "Ifalna…!"
He sounded so small, so hollow, shaking in the silence.
"Goddess, did he hurt you today!? Are you alright? Sephiroth?"
The stark worry in her voice tangled something inside him, heart beating in sudden fear. Why was she wasting her time? Hojo never stayed disappeared for long. She had to take Aerith and-
"I'm…" His voice broke, to his horror. She had to go! Why couldn't he for the words out of his mouth? The needle in his chest twisted savagely, desperately.
"Hang on, I'm going to open this door!"
He knew it was impossible, that only Hojo could open his door, but the conviction in her voice froze him in place. Still, he didn't understand. Why wasn't she running? Why was she…?
Key-tones, overlapping and harsh. A flat, grating computer-sound, breaths of frustration. Sephiroth stared straight ahead, fighting a building wave of panic. She couldn't. Only Hojo could open that door; he'd tried. She'd be shocked, she'd fail, Hojo would catch her! Why was she wasting time? Why wasn't she taking Aerith and leaving? He'd be here soon!
Thudding seconds, twelve heartbeats, a growl of frustration startling him. He breathed.
A sudden cold on his skin, the air moving, and his chamber reverberated with the soft hiss of the door drawing back.
Sephiroth stared. Ifalna had opened the door. How…how was that possible?
The needle dissolved.
He could not move, could not speak as Aerith flew through that magical doorway, tears in her eyes. Thin, wiry arms clamped around his waist, he caught her, wrapped her close, buried himself in her, trembling like a child.
Aerith held on, eyes brimming with excitement, grinning. "Sephiroth, you're ok!" She buried her face in his chest, hands tightening possessively. "Mama, Mama, he's ok!"
His heart seized, and curled around her there, he was powerless to let go.
Footsteps. Fingers locked around the tiny girl clinging to him, Sephiroth shivered. His gaze was drawn upwards.
When he saw her, he stopped.
A woman stood before him, appearing starkly into segment of hall he'd stared at for years. His lost words garbled, and so he sat silent, taking in the sight with a strange terror that if he did not look now she would fade to dust.
Ifalna was a name, a voice that lived beyond the immovable wall, just within his reach, but no further. She…she couldn't…he couldn't see her. If he saw her, if she saw him, she would disappear, realize how wrong he was, and Ifalna's voice would disappear.
But he couldn't look away.
She would disappear today anyway, after all. And he had longed to see her so many times.
Strangely, the woman before him did not resemble Aerith. Aerith was bright green eyes, endless smiles, bouncing about with endless energy, a tiny, fragile thing that awed him with her joy in a place like this.
He found himself staring into…blue eyes. Awed, cautious blue eyes. He'd never seen anything so blue before.
Or maybe he'd never seen anyone that looked at him so deeply. She seemed to see every part of him, down to his trembling, his numb hands clinging to Aerith. Something in the blue, something about the way she stared. She looked at him just as intently as he stared at her, eyes trailing from his face all the way down to his toes.
She didn't have Aerith's hair. Hers was darker, straighter, longer, waving gently down her back. Sephiroth blinked, trying to reconcile what he saw with the name he knew. But it was hard… She was taller than he'd imagined, thin and delicate, with thin hands and long fingers. The same medical gown as he wore draped around her as he'd never seen. She was thin, maybe thinner than he was.
So different than he had imagined, so far beyond his ability to envision. She…she was the most beautiful being he'd ever seen… If he hadn't felt Aerith's arms solidly holding him, he would have thought the woman before him couldn't have existed. The world was too harsh. Anything so lovely could not help but die, be destroyed by people like Hojo. Beautiful things weren't strong enough to survive, that's why he must not care about them.
And yet her blue eyes were somehow stronger than anything he'd ever seen.
As if it were an incantation, some spell to keep a spirit here, near him, to prove to himself she existed, Sephiroth felt the name slip from his throat, a mere whisper. "…Ifalna."
The sound of his own voice wavered in the silence, as though it might break. But the being before him returned her eyes to his when he said it. She cocked her head, staring into his eyes.
Her eyes were beautiful.
Slowly, the woman stepped over the threshold. Sephiroth swallowed, trying to breathe. She was beyond everything he had ever seen, ever known, and she was here, standing in his room, his only placein the world. She…she had to be real! The shadow she cast on the floor, reached his hands, his knees, and he felt the chill on his skin.
One step, two, and she stood within arm's reach, still staring at him as if he were from another world. He wanted so badly to reach out and touch her. Or somehow make her speak, hear her voice. Because…
because until he heard it, he couldn't know if she was really...
He knew who it was. It had Ifalna. Yet…somehow he was still terrified, and he didn't know why.
She was still staring at him.
"Goddess…look at you…"
Sephiroth's heart skittered, he missed a breath. It was her! Something in him was trembling, shivering, and he couldn't stop. It was…
She stared at him, eyes wide, shaking her head a little as she looked him up and down. "Just…look at you…" she whispered.
Why was she whispering? Why did she sound like that!? He searched her eyes desperately. Look at what!? What did she see? Why was she staring at him? Did she see…what she'd heard all those years, that thing that he didn't understand? Or was he…
Did she see now that he was just an experiment…just…and that she had to go…
No! He didn't want her to go…!
The look in her eyes was incredible; warmth and happiness and sadness and confusion and so many other things. Even clearer than he'd heard in her voice. She looked…
She looked like she'd never seen anything like him before.
Ifalna licked her lips and slowly crouched, her eyes level with his.
Her sudden closeness made him flinch, startling Aerith in his arms. Even fear seemed to numb as his throat closed. Sephiroth froze, caught between two impossible needs as she slowly reached a hand towards him.
It…it was Ifalna. He knew that. She had claimed that voice, she carried it... There was no other who could be so beautiful as she. He could hardly believe that she was here, right in front of him. He should be grateful he even got to see her, not running away… Not…
But…but he couldn't…
Every instinct, every memory screamed to flee from strange hands. Sweat slid down his spine as he clung helplessly to Aerith.
Ifalna's breath caught in her throat as Sephiroth jerked back. His eyes remained locked with hers, the most unearthly eyes she had ever seen, but the his sudden flash of fear was so startling, so visceral it made her soul shiver. Such terror didn't belong on so young a face. He shied away from her hand as if expecting to be struck!
No child should ever suffer that much…
She still couldn't look away from him. All attempts to soothe him with froze in her throat. Because he was so incredible, gentle, strong, and yet so lost and afraid and strange. Everything she had heard through that wall for so long, and more.
A silver haired boy, Aerith had said, with glowing eyes. Big hands, small smiles, and tears that were smaller still. And Ifalna had heard it, had known it to be true, the lostness in his voice, the pain he endured slipped into his voice, blood on his tongue, tears in his loneliness, the terrible truth of his life, one she shuddered even to fathom. She'd raged in horror and hate and pity. How could any one put a child through that?
But she hadn't seen that innocence, that wonderful, incredible, painful hope that flashed across his face, followed immediately by the horrible, heart-wrenching understanding that he flinched away from her in fear. That the child she'd longed to help so badly was also now almost fifteen, no longer a child, and he had suffered for every day lived of those long years. He was terrified of her offered hand.
The thought of what hands had done to him made her nauseous.
Ifalna felt tears sting her eyes. What could she say to such a beautiful and horrendously mistreated boy? How could she…how was she to answer address that hope and that pain in the same words?
She couldn't. The Goddess could heal all wounds, but she was not so wise.
So she reached out a trembling hand, slowly, slowly, as if to a skittish deer. And looked into his eyes, and tried to smile, to show she wouldn't hurt him, wouldn't let anything hurt him.
If she could touch him... But would he even let her?
Sephiroth wavered as Ifalna reached towards him. Each inch her fingers drew closer fueled the racing of his heart, the thudding of his pulse in his ears. He couldn't breathe. And yet he remained still, muscles rigid and locked. Just as strong, perhaps stronger, something kept him here… something he didn't understand. He…he wanted…he needed…he didn't want to run from…
The needle shivered again, and he as if his entire body were trembling, as if only Aerith's arms were holding him together, holding him here.
D-Don't go…please! D…don't…
Ifalna looked at him, a slight, somehow shaking smile. Her eyes were so warm and beautiful and she chased his eyes when cowardice made him look away. Somehow, if he looked at her, he could pretend he wasn't so scared. She just looked…
He didn't know the word. That was the worst part. But somehow her smiling at him overcome that shame, as well.
Very, very gently, she brushed his cheek.
Sephiroth blinked, eyes wide, as he felt each of her warm fingers, caressing gently, almost as if not touching at all, but with such warmth it made him catch his breath. This was…
She stared at him with the same wide eyes as she traced unknown patterns of his face, as if seeing something he couldn't.
Sephiroth breathed, afraid to move. She…she was so careful…like he'd break if she moved too fast. Why? Why was she so gentle…with him? He was supposed to be strong, supposed to… He wasn't…no one was supposed to treat him like he was…
Fragile. Precious. Breakable. Like Aerith.
He didn't understand. And…and it was shameful, it was weak, he would never survive because of it, but…
But he liked this. He…he wanted to close his eyes and engrave her touch into his skin, so he could have it always, never forget it. Because…because somehow when she touched him she touched the shivering needle and she caught it in her thin fingers and held it still, and the pain was gone.
But…but she had to go…
Breath stopped in his throat, and Sephiroth shuddered. The needle wriggled free, embedding itself deep and making him swallow a whimper. He…he had to get her hand away, get her away, because the longer she stayed here the more it would hurt when she left! She had to leave now! He couldn't…the needle only stayed still for her, and she must go or risk… He wanted…he wanted her to go, to get away!
He wanted to pull back, but he couldn't. He…no, he wanted to stay! He wanted…
You have no wants. You only obey. An experiment couldn't do anything else…so why did he feel this way?
He stared at Ifalna, shaking, begging her to let him go, or to keep him, to do anything! To make him understand. She had promised…!
Ifalna felt Sephiroth tense, stared as a surprise, joy, fear, and pain filled green eyes in horrifying succession. Goddess, he looked so tortured, so afraid and lonely and confused! And only because someone had touched him gently!? Her throat choked with pity. How could anyone do this to him?
"Oh, Sephiroth…" Tears stung her eyes, though she knew crying wouldn't help him, wouldn't help any of them. But who could see him here trembling in abject fear and not weep? "I…I'm sorry I didn't come sooner!"
Sephiroth jerked as she pulled him into her arms, pressing him close. The sudden sensation of Ifalna all around him left his mind blank, the sudden closeness, another person on every side, in every escape path. Reflex demanded retreat, avoid immobilization or face pain.
And yet…he didn't feel afraid. He should but, strangely he only felt the warmth. It was…warm here, with Ifalna wrapped all around him. He felt her hands on his back, pressed hard over the scars. But…it wasn't… Her arms covered Hojo's marks on his shoulders and somehow he felt not even a flutter of fear. Somehow, Ifalna's hands…were different from Hojo's.
"I'm sorry I waited so long," she whispered, and her hands clung to him.
Sephiroth swallowed. Closed his eyes.
Ifalna wouldn't…hurt him. He…he knew that. He had no idea what he was supposed to do now, but he knew that.
Ifalna released a shaky breath and withdrew. Sephiroth stayed still as the panic at being surrounded faded away. But the warmth went, too, and some part of him missed it.
Ifalna sat back, and Sephiroth cocked his head when he realized her eyes shone, like Aerith's did when she cried. But…he thought adults didn't have tears. Hojo said once you became strong, once you could defend yourself, you couldn't cry. Tears were weakness, and the weak died.
But…but it looked like…
Wouldn't she cry, if she could, for Aerith? Not…not him…?
Ifalna smiled at him, and a sudden fire lit her face. Aerith looked up, finally loosening her grip on Sephiroth to look at her mother.
Ifalna's hands clenched into fists on her knees and she raised her head proudly. "Come on. We're getting out of here!"
Aerith squeaked with glee and ran to grab her mother's hand. Ifalna pressed her lips to her daughter's forehead, and stood.
A cold shiver gripped Sephiroth's spine as he watched the little girl and her mother cross to the doorway. Could…could they get out…? Hojo said no one could get out unless he allowed it. So, what chance did they stand? Could Ifalna hope to…?
If Hojo found them, he would be beyond cruel. Sephiroth knew that, at least. Disobedience was the greatest sin…that's what he always said. And Hojo told the truth. Bereft of Aerith to cling to, his hands dug into his arms, nails gouging the skin. If they were caught…
And yet Ifalna seemed so confident, so strong, so achingly sure that he didn't know what to do. He wanted to believe so badly!
Ifalna smiled and stepped through the door, suddenly lit brilliantly by the hall's lights. Aerith followed. Sephiroth took a deep breath as the footsteps echoed off the walls of his room. Their shadows fell on him, and the tiles beneath his knees felt frozen, but he refused to look away. They just had to go now… They would go "away," to a place where Aerith and Ifalna would be safe. Ifalna would take care of Aerith.
He had to believe her. He did believe her. Hojo wouldn't ever hurt Aerith again. That was what he wanted. That was all that mattered.
So why did it hurt!? His nails must have drawn blood; scratches stung beneath them. It felt like something twisted in his chest, not a needle anymore, something bigger, a dagger or some poisonous snake, fangs buried in him. His eyes were stinging again, his hands shaking even as he fought to hold them still. Sephiroth grit his teeth on some little sound building in his throat, some sort of choke. Wasn't…wasn't he strong? Why was he struggling for silence, biting down on his own tongue? This was what he wanted!
He had been "strong enough" for years, why did he still feel like this?
Ifalna glanced back, surprised, when Aerith tugged urgently at her hand. Looking down, she followed her daughter's eyes. Sephiroth sat just where she'd left him, kneeling on the floor, shoulders hunched, arms drawn close to his chest, quivering. Unmoving.
Harsh lines of shadow fell in slashes across his face from the angles of the cage that had so long enclosed him. Her own shadow fell on him, too, making the light of his eyes reflect eerily in the dark as he looked up at her with a forlorn expression meek and dim on his face.
Tears welled up afresh and she had to fight them down as she hurried back to him.
Sephiroth watched, puzzled, as Ifalna re-crossed the door-way. She crouched down again, eye to eye, and offered a hand, palm up, fingers open. The same hand whose touch still tingled on his skin. Ifalna cocked her head. "Sephiroth?"
He smiled and winced in one motion. He loved to hear her say his name. Even though it jerked the cruel, twisting thing in his chest, because he knew he was losing her forever, it still soothed something else buried even deeper. The scratches on his arms stung as he dug in his nails, and waited.
Ifalna's eyes filled with tears, he could see them, and she smiled.
"Sephiroth, come with me."
Everything, the pain, the shaking, even the beating of his heart stopped.
Ifalna wanted him…to come with her? With Aerith? To come "away," to go "out?"
Ifalna's smile wavered, her eyes darkened. "I'll get you out of here. Sephiroth, I promise."
She'd promised before, too. Promised she'd show him "outside." Only Ifalna ever "promised." She treated him like he was…something else. One did not make promises to an experiment, after all.
The doubt disconcerted him, made his eyes dart from her face to her hand and back. He knew what he was. Hojo knew. But…if she was right? If he was…something else, then he could be "outside." If Hojo was…?
But Hojo was never wrong. He knew everything. It was impossible.
And yet…Ifalna had opened the door.
Ifalna held her hand before him, waiting. "Trust me."
She was smiling again, and when she smiled he felt like something fluttered in his chest, a tingling on the backs of his arms. Something about her tone and her eyes made him…made him want to…
For that instant, it almost felt like Hojo was wrong, and Ifalna could change anything she wanted if she smiled at him.
His hands quivered. He longed to touch her hand, to see if it felt like Aerith's, warm and delicate and fragile, but with a grip that never let go. But he couldn't make himself reach out.
Ifalna looked so sure, as if she really could do it. As if he really could…
'Trust.' Hojo used that word sometimes. Sephiroth didn't the sound of it on his tongue. But Ifalna said it almost as a prayer, with a little warm lilt to her voice. So…which was it? How was he supposed to "trust" if he didn't even know what it meant?
He didn't know. Sephiroth looked up, biting his lip, and found Ifalna still watching him closely. And he realized; he did not but obviously Ifalna did. And she had promised to show him, someday, the other things he didn't understand; "away," "outside," "free." She had promised.
Hojo never promised.
He wanted to believe Ifalna when she promised. So, then "trust" must be something about her voice. And that he believed in.
Hesitantly, Sephiroth reached out and took her hand. Her fingers felt strange, so long was he accustomed to Aerith's. Instead of holding a hand, tiny fingers wrapped in his, he felt like he was the one enveloped, his hand surrounded by her fingers. She squeezed tight.
Ifalna grinned, the expression stunning him with its brightness. She rose to her feet, looking down at him, still holding his hand. "Come on."
He didn't let himself hesitate. Indecision after deciding a course of action was unacceptable. Sephiroth stood, blinking at Ifalna as she pulled him as if to help. She stepped back, leading the way, and Sephiroth followed her into the bright light of the hallway.
Aerith's small fingers caught his left hand and Ifalna's remained firmly entwined with his right. And for all the instinctive fear of stepping beyond his bounds, Sephiroth felt somehow like he was floating. The needle was gone.
This…this, he decided, was what flying must feel like.
"This way," Ifalna whispered, and they ran.
A/N: Proof I am not dead! Egads! Alma is not a zombie!?
I am terribly sorry for my delay. Life, it seems, conspires to make me a slow author. Anyone who still bothers to watch this story, this is proof to you that I haven't abandoned my tales! I just am easily sidetracked and discovered another fandom I love equally well.
I hope you enjoy this chapter. I want to hug poor Seph.
Thank you all for reading! ~Alma