This AN is going to take place behind a rock, where I'm hiding from you, dear readers. So please, whatever mental image you have of me, just place a rock in front of that image. Moving on. . .
It's been about a year since I last updated, but it's finally here, the last chapter. I really am sorry.
Most of all, I'd like to apologize to Quixotic Coquetry, the winner of last chapter's "guess the dying people" game. This chapter is dedicated to you, dear. =)
I'd also like to name Lady Gunblade as an honorable mention. She was the only other person to get it right.
For those of you who are curious, here are the answers:
Red head from Midgar, hid from cops as a kid = Reno (almost everyone got him. . . I'm curious if that's mostly because of his iconic red hair, or the fact that he was hiding from cops. . .)
Blonde from Icicle Inn, jealous of her sister = Elena
Guy with a bandana, from Kalm = Biggs (I've always called it a bandana, but I realize now I probably should have said headband to be clearer. Apologies for that, all.)
Girl with auburn hair from Junon = Cissnei
Brunette from Junon = Jessie (Big surprise to me how many people forgot Jessie. Her death was a very tragic event to me. As for the "relationship" between her and Cissy, there was once a (very short lived) rumor that Jessie and Cissnei were one and the same, since we never learn Cissnei's real name. I actually wish this were true, because that would bring a whole new level of tragic to her death, but alas, it's impossible. Cissnei would have recognized Cloud)
Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII. Square-Enix wouldn't have made you wait as long as I did. =(
In Chocobo Chicks, whenever the girls needed something, it was usually either provided by a friend, or found using magical means that typically made use of the power of love and friendship. If they needed something the enemy had, however, they would have to break into a stronghold, sometimes donning disguises, and sneak around only to be caught and forced into an action packed battle that they always won.
Aerith didn't have any friends who happened to have Mako lying around. She didn't have magical powers either, so she was in a bit of a pickle. Really, how did someone go about obtaining Mako? Sure, it was everywhere, but at the same time, it wasn't. And although she knew about some very unguarded and unsafe reactors throughout the world, she couldn't very well afford a trip to Nibelheim or Wutai. Plus, tromping around a Mako reactor was dangerous. She wanted to help her patients, not give herself the same illness they had.
So, that left her only one option (that she could think of, at least), and that was the "breaking into the enemy stronghold" path. She felt bad thinking of the nurses and doctors of Midgar Hospital as the "enemy," because she loved them, but she needed the personal file of a certain Vincent Valentine, known Shinra Electric employee. Since that file was hidden away in the records room (which she didn't have access too) she had no choice but to break and enter. As Priscilla once said in episode 59, breaking and entering was kind of okay if it was done in the name of love. On some subconscious level, Aerith clung to that ideal.
The Chocobo Chicks consisted of a team of three, however. Aerith was alone, which made things decidedly more difficult. She needed to enlist some help, but from who? Any favors Zack and Cloud may have owed her flew out the window when she made them cut a slit into their own flesh. That was a pretty big favor, after all. Yuffie was always willing to help, but she was still recovering from her attack. Genesis was mean, Sephiroth was scary, Mr. Heindeggar wasn't stealthy (at all), and Mr. Hojo was (not to be mean) completely useless. It was times like this when she missed Barret. He would have helped her, and he would have done a good job too. So, that left two people who might help. One that would be in it for the cause, and one that would be in it because he cherished her friendship.
"You want me to what? God dammit girl, yer not making any sense!"
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand where you're coming from either, Aerith. Why don't you just ask for the information you need? Stealing a file, well, that's not a very honorable thing to do."
"I know it isn't, Angeal, and I feel horrible, but there's no other way! Look, I just need you guys to make a distraction so I can grab the keys and get it. I can probably get the file and be out in ten minutes!" Probably being the key word, but she decided not to mention that.
Cid chewed on his toothpick, frowning deeply at her. "What d'ya expect us to do? Fake a heart attack? I don't need his help for that," he said, pointing a thumb in Angeal's direction.
Aerith shook her head. "No, that won't do. They'll know right away if there isn't any real danger to your health. And that would only bring a few nurses and doctors anyway. I need the whole desk to clear out. I need. . . pandemonium."
Angeal raised an eyebrow and Cid grinned, accidentally biting his toothpick in half.
"Thatta girl! Now you're talking."
Aerith wasn't exactly sure what Angeal and Cid were doing, but she was grateful, even if she did think they were going a little overboard. Water was creeping down the corridor toward the lobby, yet at the same time, the fire alarms were going off. She heard a large crash that sounded like glass and winced. Over the top, maybe, but necessary, she supposed.
This "pandemonium" was made worse when Zack and Cloud (Zack because he was a snoop, and Cloud because he was (unofficially) Zack's caretaker) decided to show up on the scene. Zack practically dragged Cloud down the corridor, happily splashing in the water and ignoring the protests and reprimands of the nurses and doctors they were passing.
Aerith was tearing the nurse's station to pieces, looking for the keys when Zack came running back at high speed, carrying Cloud bridal style and screaming "Don't worry babe!" while Cloud rattled off a string of inappropriate phrases and words. Old Mr. Hojo and his walker were slowly making their way across the room and Zack nearly plowed into him. Moving more swiftly than he had in years, Mr. Hojo just barely managed to dodge getting run over, though he did get clipped in the head with Cloud's foot. He stopped to shake his fist at their retreating figures and grumble old man stuff, only to be bowled over moments later when a tidal wave came spilling out of corridor C, bringing pieces of small equipment like bottles, trays (pointy contents on top or not), and more than a few canes with it. Aerith's eyes widened as she uttered the first (and likely last) curse word to ever pass her lips. She found the keys and booked it down the stairs, silently thanking Zack for his naturally disastrous ways.
She knew where the file lockers were, but she didn't have a clue which of the thirty keys in her hand was the correct one. So she tried them all. Hastily, she tried all thirty with no luck. She took a deep breath and tried again, trying to keep her hand steady, and this time found it after ten keys.
She stepped into the room and the automatic lights came on, went off, then moments later returned with a whirr. They were probably working off the generator now. Again, dangerous, but. . .
"Thank you Cid," she murmured, making a beeline to the back of the room. Valentine would be near the end, after all.
She heard a few screams upstairs and ignored them as she hurriedly sifted through the file cabinets. She found Valentine quickly enough, but there were well over sixty of them. Again, she started at the back, looking for Vincent. Once she found it, she hastily wrote down his contact information on her stomach (the perfect hiding spot), and replaced the file. The whole search took much longer than the ten minutes she promised Cid, but. . .
A crash sounded upstairs and, when she stepped out of the file locker, she saw a light trickle of water coming down the stairs.
. . . she was pretty sure the boys made sure she got a little extra time anyway.
Deciding not to risk it though, she carefully made her way upstairs and braved the elements in search of the eye (or rather, eyes) of the storm. She found out from another nurse that all of the patients on the fourth floor capable of moving on their own had been asked to go to the fifth floor, for safety's sake. Aerith pretended to help with the chaos as she stealthily replaced the keys in the (destroyed) drawer of the (destroyed) nurses' station, then inched her way back to the staircase then when no one was looking, hightailing it to the fifth floor.
She found Angeal first, flitting around trying to calm down some of the older patients.
He turned around then, saying a few more words of comfort to Mr. Zangan, made his way through the crowd to her.
"Aerith!" He reached her and, bending over to reach her level, dropped his voice to a whisper, "How did everything go? Did you get. . . what you needed?"
She nodded, beaming up at him. "Sure did! And it's all thanks to you and Cid!" she said, throwing her arms around his torso. He laughed and patted her back.
"Well, I can't say I'm particularly proud of what we did, but. . . if there's even a little hope," he smiled grimly, "Just do your best, alright?"
Aerith nodded against his chest, then slowly released him. "Right. I will."
"There's my girl!"
Aerith spun around, a smile instantly lighting up her face. "Cid!"
Cid's face changed, and it took her a few seconds to realize it. The broad grin he was sporting fell from his face, and his eyes widened almost comically. His (new) toothpick fell to the floor. "Angeal! Shit!"
He started running forward and Aerith turned, eyebrows furrowed in confusion, just in time to see Angeal drop to the floor in front of her. She gave a startled yell and dropped down next to him, pulling him into a sitting position. "Angeal! Angeal, wake up!"
She hadn't noticed Zack and Cloud in the crowd, kindly helping Mr. Hojo find his walker. They both looked up when Cid first yelled, and watched as one of Zack's dearest friends at Midgar Hospital collapsed. They both went still.
"Angeal?" Zack whispered, his eyes moving frantically as he tried to take in the scene, "Angeal!" He let go of Mr. Hojo, letting Cloud support his weight, and ran toward them. Cloud didn't hesitate as he unthinkingly pushed Mr. Hojo off him and rushed after his boyfriend. Mr. Hojo's startled cry as he fell to the floor went unnoticed.
"Angeal! What happened?" Zack knelt down next to him and took him from Aerith, able to support his weight much easier.
"I-I don't know he just," Aerith trailed off as she glanced around. She needed help. In her panic, only one person came to mind. Her longtime neighbor and childhood babysitter. He wasn't Angeal's assigned doctor, but. . .
"Tseng! Tseng, help!"
"Aerith? Aerith, what is it? Hold on, I'm coming!"
But he was always there for her, and that's what mattered.
Tseng was at her side in what seemed to be the blink of an eye. Angeal's breathing had become erratic, and Zack was nearly having a panic attack.
"Room 62 is empty, it's just up the hall. Zack, Cloud, help me carry him there. Aerith, go downstairs and find Miss Crescent, tell her Angeal Hewley is having an attack. Then I want you to find Dr. Nanaki. Understand?"
Aerith nodded and flew down the stairs. Her feet were submerged in water the moment she reached the bottom.
She ran through the lobby, kicking up water and splashing other staff members as she did.
"Miss Gainsborough! What are you doing? Splashing around in a frenzy isn't helping anyone."
She spun around and spied Miss Jenova across the room. She decided not to waste the effort running to her and just yelled instead.
"Miss Jenova, do you know where Luc-I mean, Miss Crescent is! I need to find her, it's an emergency!"
She had all of the staff's attention at "emergency." Reeve was the one to answer her.
"Corridor B! Last I saw, she was near the 40's section!"
Aerith didn't waste any time, sprinting down the corridor and shouting a distracted "Thank you" as she did. She got lucky. Lucretia hadn't moved far from where Reeve had last spotted her, and she wasn't in a patient's room, which made her MUCH easier to spot.
"Lucretia!" Aerith came to halt in front of her, desperately trying to catch her breath. "Angeal's. . .having an attack. . . Tseng," she took a large breath of air, "Fifth floor, 62-A. I'll find Red."
Lucretia (wonderful woman that she was) understood everything Aerith said and immediately abandoned what she was doing as she ran toward the lobby. Aerith glanced quickly down the hall (just in case Dr. Nanaki was around), then ran after her.
When she reached the lobby, Lucretia was already gone. "Dr. Nanaki!" she yelled. She could tell in a glance he wasn't in the room.
"Corridor C!" Reeve yelled out again. She didn't bother with a thank you this time as she took off down the hallway. She'd have to remember to thank him later.
She was halfway down the hallway when the fire alarms stopped. She'd become so accustomed to the sound, it was almost eerie without the piercing screech. She continued down the hallway, accompanied only by the hollow sound of her own splashing feet.
"Red!" She found him with a few nurses and another doctor near the end of the hallway.
"All the wires were ripped out. See here? It looks like we're," Dr. Nanaki paused at the sound of his name and looked up. "Miss Gainsborough? Is there a problem?"
She was bent over, hands on her knees, as she tried to breathe. "Angeal. . . attack. . . 62-A. . . Tseng. . . you. . . ." Instead of wasting the energy to say "fifth floor" she just feebly pointed toward the ceiling. He was off like a bolt of lighting, not waiting to hear anything more. Aerith watched his figure disappear and slumped down on the ground, not caring that she was getting her butt thoroughly drenched. The other doctor and the nurses glanced at her, then went back to what they were doing without a word. She hugged her knees to her chest, thankful for perhaps the first time in her life that she was being ignored. She kept her face down when she felt the pinprick of tears sting her eyes. This. . . everything. . . it was all her fault.
The firefighters came and left. The water was cleaned up and the electricity was back up, without the support of the generator. The fourth floor (and some of the third) was still a little (meaning a lot) messy, but most of the patients were moved back to their respective rooms. Angeal was still on the fifth floor, in 62-A, but they were planning on moving him back to his room soon. After all, moving comatose patients about was a fairly easy affair. They never complained.
It was difficult to say who was the most upset. Sephiroth was talking a lot more, which was extremely unlike him. At one point, Aerith caught him walking toward Angeal's room next to Cloud, of all people, and conversing with him. She couldn't remember a time when she'd ever seen Cloud look so uncomfortable, even when he was being courted (so to speak) by Zack.
Genesis, ever the opposite, was eerily quiet. Sometimes, before she left for the night, Aerith would see him sitting by Angeal's bedside, reading passages of Loveless to his childhood friend. Other than that, he never spoke. It was unsettling, watching Sephiroth talking (talking!) to Genesis, while Genesis silently stared off into the distance, occasionally nodding to show he was listening.
Cid's change in behavior wasn't that noticeable to those that didn't really know him. He cursed a lot more, and started chewing manically at his toothpicks. He was going through about 20 a day. Aerith had a good feeling that if anyone was feeling what she was, it was Cid. The Mako poisoning attacks (as Aerith now called them) were always random and typically weren't triggered by anything. They were never this severe either though. There wasn't a doubt in either of their minds that Angeal's state was caused by the events of that day, and they both blamed themselves for letting things get so out of control.
Anymore, Zack and Cloud seemed to work as a single unit, so even though Cloud didn't know Angeal terribly well, he was still acting like it was his father that was lying on that bed. That was how Zack was acting, after all. Cloud spent all his time at Angeal's bedside, doing whatever he could for the man, and Zack split his time between fretting over Angeal, and fretting over Cloud. It wasn't unusual to see Cloud sitting at Angeal's side, only to rush off to the bathroom when a coughing fit started. It wasn't unusual to see Zack sprawled across Angeal's torso either, in an eerily deep sleep. No one was sure if he was passing out from fatigue, or from illness. Aerith had a sinking feeling it was the latter.
The day of the incident (Cid called it "Doom's Day"), Aerith stayed late to help clean up. As soon as she got home, she lifted up her shirt and copied down the text on her stomach onto paper, which she folded and carefully stowed away in her purse. That was a week ago, which was far too long. She had to see Vincent Valentine, and she had to see him soon.
Of course, it didn't help that Vincent didn't live in Midgar. He lived in Kalm, on the outskirts of Midgar. Then again, given his profession, there was probably a very good chance that he wasn't in either place at the moment. That's where PHS's came in handy. Traveling was a problem, but phone calls were a piece of cake. Aerith gave him a call the day after she'd obtained his information. He wasn't in Kalm (which was cool, because she didn't have a car to get there anyway), but he was in Midgar. Sure, he was clear on the other side of the rather massive city, but hey, that's what trains were for, right?
He was busy until Saturday though and, truth be told, she was too. Between school and the hospital, she didn't have a lot of free time. She wouldn't have minded skipping one day of class to see him (her dad probably would have, but whatever), but since he was busy anyway. . . well, it all kind of worked out.
Once, when she was a kid, Aerith knocked over a vase of flowers her mom put on the counter. The flowers were okay (thank goodness), but the vase shattered. Aerith blamed it on their cat, Cait Sith, and her parents believed her. She'd never felt more guilty in her eight years of existence. That was the first time she ever lied to her parents, and the last time she ever lied to her mom. When she stepped out Saturday and told her dad she was going to spend the day shopping with Tifa, she was lying to him for the second time.
The train ride took her about two hours, but it only took seconds for her to find the Shinra Electric Corporation building. It was the largest building in the world, after all. It was kind of hard to miss.
She felt a little self-conscious, walking into the massive building all alone. She felt worse once she was inside, and realized she stood out in her "civilian" clothes. She hesitantly approached the secretary, fidgeting slightly. The secretary ignored her just long enough to be considered awkward before glancing up at her.
"Hello Miss. May I help you?"
"Uh, yeah." Aerith cleared her throat and giggled nervously. "I'm, uh, here to see Vinc-I mean Mr. Valentine! I'm looking for Mr. Valentine's uh. . . office." She smiled sweetly. "He's expecting me."
The secretary raised an eyebrow, then turned to her computer and started typing at an unbelievable speed. "One moment." In considerably less than a moment, she glanced back up. "Eighth floor, room 967. You'll want to take the elevator up, go down the right hallway, make two lefts, then a right. Make sure you knock before entering."
"Right! Right, of course! Thank you! I'll just. . . be going now. Um, thank you. Again." She walked away from the desk, trying to keep her composure and searched for the elevator. She heard a cough behind her and glanced back at the desk. "Yes?"
"Elevator's on the other side of the room, sweetheart," the secretary said, pointing her thumb to the clearly marked double doors.
Aerith laughed and made her way over. "Oh. I knew that. I was just. . .looking at your paintings. They're lovely. They remind me of the ones we have at the hospital. That I work at." Color was rising to her cheeks. Who knew Shinra Electric was so intimidating! "Thank you," she murmured again, ducking into the elevator. She bumped into a man coming out in an impressive looking suit and clambered to the side, uttering a string of apologies that went ignored. She hit the button for the eighth floor and, as soon as the doors closed, she slumped against the back wall and took a deep breath. About ten seconds later the doors reopened and several people in suits walked in. She immediately stood up straight and tried to smile politely at everyone. No one smiled back, so she decided it'd be best just to keep her head down. People were constantly getting on and off, and her whole ride up ended up being rather tense (on her part, at least).
When she reached the eighth floor, she was more than a little relieved that she was the only one getting off (even though she had to fight past the crowd of ten or so people getting on). However, as soon as the elevator doors dinged behind her, a cold feeling of loneliness sweep through her. Was she the only one on this entire floor!
She made a right and continued at a steady pace down a rather long corridor, her footsteps echoing loudly around her. So she wouldn't forget, she silently repeated the instructions from the secretary to herself. Right, left, left, right. Right, left, left, right. Easy enough. Right, left, left, right.
After two long corridors, and one short one, she finally made her last turn. Over forty doors loomed in front of her, one of which held Vincent Valentine. She glanced at the door numbers, clearly embossed on the front of each door. The secretary said Vincent was in room 96. . . something. She bit her bottom lip. 96 what? There was another number, what was it?
She groaned out loud and kicked at the ground. She was so stupid! How could she forget something so important! She eyed the doors around her. That was fine. She would just have to use the process of elimination, that's all. She already had it narrowed down somewhere between 961 and 969. That was a start, right?
She continued down the hallway until she reached 961. She knocked. No one answered. She knocked again. No one answered again. She tried the doorknob then, finding it locked, decided to move onto the next door. Rather than bounce back and forth across the hall, she decided to do 961, 963, 965, 967, and 969 first, then (if need be) go across the hall and try the adjacent doors. 963 was (presumably) empty as well, with a locked door, so she moved on. She knocked on 965 and was somewhat delighted and somewhat horrified to receive an answer.
The door opened and a blond man with glasses and a blue, pinstriped jacket opened the door. "Hello." He glanced over her, as if trying to size up her importance. "Can I help you?"
"Hi, I'm looking for Mr. Valentine. Is he here?"
"Depends what you mean by here. If you mean, in this room, then no, I'm afraid he's not."
"Oh, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bother you." She turned to leave when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Aerith half-turned around. "Yes?"
The man smiled wryly and gestured to the left with his head. "He's right next door. You weren't that far off."
Aerith smiled and nodded. "Thank you very much."
The man nodded in acknowledgment before retreating back into the room, closing the door behind him. Aerith strode over to room 967, took a deep breath, then rapped on the door twice.
"Come in," came a smooth, baritone voice from the other side. She grinned and twisted the knob, stepping inside.
Vincent was sitting at a desk, reading something over. A far cry from his hospital garb, he was wearing a smart blue suit with a black tie, polished black shoes, and black leather gloves. He looked considerably healthier than the last time she saw him.
He glanced up from his papers, then stood and walked toward her, firmly shaking her hand. "Miss Gainsborough."
He let go of her hand and returned to his desk, gesturing for her to sit down across from him. She gingerly settled herself in the plush leather seat. "Mr. Valentine, I need your help." No sense beating around the bush. She might as well get right to the heart of the matter.
"I gathered that much from your phone call. What exactly do you need help with?"
"Mako. I need some."
Both his eyebrows went up, but otherwise his face remained unchanged.
"Not a lot!" she continued, "Just a little bit. Like, a vial full." She dug through her purse and pulled out Cloud's vial. "This size would be fine."
This time, his eyebrows went down, furrowing in the center. "Is that blood, Miss Gainsborough?"
"Well, yes," he opened his mouth to say something and she cut him off, "Hear me out first! There's a very good reason for this!"
She explained the situation. She tried to keep it brief at first, explaining the key symptoms of the disease, and the main points of her Mako poisoning theory. Vincent turned out to be a very good listener, however, and it wasn't long before she found herself nearly in tears as she explained about Angeal's coma, and how it was her fault, and how Zack and Cloud were so so so much in love, and it really wasn't fair. She told him about life-loving Yuffie, who was so young, and the very talented Genesis, who would surely contribute something great to the arts, whether it be through writing, acting, or singing (she heard rumors he was good), if only he had the opportunity. Vincent kept his gaze down while he listened to her ramble on. When she finally ran out of things to say, an unsettling silence filled the room while she waited for him to respond.
Finally he glanced up. "Mako poisoning fades."
Aerith could feel a lump forming in her throat. "I know, but-
"Miss Gainsborough. . . Lucretia is very fond of you, she told me so herself."
"Huh?" Lucretia? That was a bit off topic. . .
"It's for that reason, and that reason alone, that I'm going to tell you this." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I've had certain suspicions about Shinra for a long time, but I've never said anything. What you've told me. . . coincides, in a sense. If my suspicions turn out to be true. . . then my silence will be a sin for which I can never be forgiven. The suffering of your friends would be my fault."
Aerith was starting to feel a little uncomfortable. Vincent certainly had a flair for the dramatic. She'd have to introduce him to Genesis sometime. . .
Vincent stood up and started toward the door. Hastily, Aerith got up to follow, grabbing her bag off the floor.
"How many samples of blood did you bring, Miss Gainsborough?"
"Just two. I would have gotten more, but, well, I'm not even supposed to have these two. Zack and Cloud did me a huge favor with this." She followed him down the hallway, then turned down two more before he finally brought her to a dimly lit room. They stopped in front of a counter, and he reached into his breast pocket, pulling out a set of four keys.
"Stay back. Mako isn't dangerous unless you come in physical contact with it, but you still shouldn't stand too close."
Aerith nodded and took a step back, watching as Vincent unlocked three separate locks on the side of the counter, then lifted the top back. As soon as it was open, a bright green light flooded the room. Vincent reached in and picked up a pair of prongs, then carefully used them to grab a small vial from the racks inside. On a nearby counter, there were several beakers and pieces of equipment Aerith couldn't begin to guess the names of. Vincent found a stand, seemingly made to hold that particular sized vial, and placed it inside. He put down the prongs and held his hand out toward Aerith.
"May I have the blood samples?"
Aerith handed Zack's over first and, when he didn't lower his hand, she placed Cloud's down beside it. He set them down on the table and opened a box, pulling out an empty vial. He squirted something inside and swished it around before dumping the contents down a sink built into the counter. He did this to another vial, then placed them both in stands identical to the one holding the Mako. Next he found an eyedropper, and unscrewed the top to Zack's blood. He put three drops in the first empty vial, then took Cloud's blood (he used a different dropper) and repeated this step with the second empty vial. He took one last clean dropper, and unscrewed the Mako vial.
"When Mako is introduced to the blood stream, it fuses with the blood to make one liquid. If enough if introduced, the blood's pigmentation will lighten. Your friends' blood is normal, so if there is Mako in them, it's an extremely low amount."
Aerith felt her spirits drop. "Oh."
"However, I've often wondered what would happen if. . ." He paused to put a few drops of Mako in Zack's vial. The green liquid momentarily merged with the blood, turning it a florescent orangey color, then quickly floated to the top, much like oil would with water. He repeated the process with Cloud's blood and got the same result. ". . .someone were allergic to Mako."
By the time Aerith got home it was dark out, and her head was reeling from information overload. Vincent nearly had a breakdown while talking to her. He had suspicions about Shinra, sure, and he felt horrible that so many people were suffering like Zack and Cloud, but that didn't change the fact that he was a Shinra employee. Speaking out against them was a big deal, even if his only listener was a teenage girl not yet out of high school, with little to no pull in the world.
Aerith tried her best to put the puzzle pieces together on her own, and that helped Vincent a little. He seemed a little more comfortable telling her whether or not her hypotheses were correct, than just telling her straight out what the deal was. They beat around the bush for an hour before Aerith finally started getting the picture.
"Wait, so, you said Mako, in small amounts, wouldn't affect a normal person at all, right?"
Vincent had his head in his hands and was staring at his desk as if doing so would combust the wood.
"So, I could be ingesting Mako, right now, every day, and nothing would happen?"
"But if someone like Zack or Cloud did that, they'd get sick eventually, right!"
"Sooo, that must be what's happening, we just have to figure out how the Mako is getting in their system!"
Aerith tapped her chin. "Well, um, you work with Mako a lot right?"
"My specialty is finding Mako. I don't really handle it too much. I've read a lot about it, and I worked with it a bit when Shinra first took me on." He paused and glanced up. "Lucretia was actually the one who told me about Mako and how it reacts to blood."
"Okay. Well, Shinra uses Mako for pretty much everything. Do they use all of it? What's going to happen to all those vials in that room, once you guys are done messing with them?"
The question seemed to make him uncomfortable. "Contaminated Mako doesn't run as efficiently. It will be disposed of."
Vincent went quiet. "They did do a lot of research, before they started dumping. . . they've never known Mako to harm animals. . . or plants. . ."
Her mouth suddenly felt dry. She licked her lips, half expecting them to feel cracked, but they were soft and moist, as usual. "Vincent. . . Mr. Valentine, where are you dumping the Mako?" She thought it was a low blow, using "you" rather than "Shinra," but it worked. A pang of guilt flashed through his eyes and he spilt his soul.
"Water sources. Rivers. The Ocean. Reservoirs. Shinra," he took a deep breath, "we didn't think much of it, since the Mako didn't seem to have any affect. I don't agree with it, I never have, but. . . I had no reason to object. . ."
Figuring things out from there was a cake walk. The city's tap water was filtered from a local river. If Mako, watered down to a low concentration, had no effect, why bother making sure the filtering system worked on Mako? Those in control of water waste management or whatever might not even be aware Mako was in the water. If Shinra wanted to keep it a secret, for fear of a bad public reaction, well, it would be kept a secret then. That's what power meant.
Aerith thought of Zack, drenched in water while he tried to stuff a breakfast roll in his shower pipe. She thought of Yuffie, downing glasses of water, trying to clear her throat after a coughing fit. She thought of Cloud, filling her watering can and watering the flowers. Angeal, covered from head to toe in water, because he was too nice to say no to her. All of them, drinking it, bathing in it, brushing their teeth with it. By the end of the day, the amount of Mako they'd absorbed may have still been low, but to someone who was allergic. . .
She wasn't sure what to do. Bottled water, that was really the same as tap, wasn't it? The kind straight from a natural spring was even worse, because that meant there was zero chance Mako had been filtered out, right? Maybe. There was always the chance there wasn't a single drop of Mako in whatever spring such-and-such brand of water was using. How was she to know? How was anyone to know?
She mulled this over the next morning on her way to the hospital. She had to tell someone, but who? Lucretia. . . wouldn't believe her. If she heard it straight from Vincent's mouth maybe, but from Aerith, no. That wouldn't do. Tseng. . might. She'd have to catch him on one of his open-minded days, of course, and he was having more of them lately. She ran through a list of people in her mind as she passed through the double doors, heading straight for the elevator. She didn't realize the receptionist failed to greet her, which was odd. She also didn't notice the small, slightly sympathetic glances cast her way as she crossed the lobby.
When she stepped out of the elevator though, the impregnable silence filling the fourth floor was unignorable. Everyone seemed to glance up at once, in one big wave of apprehension, and Aerith tried to brace herself. As expected, Lucretia was the one to approach her.
"Aerith," she paused to wet her lips, then placed a hand on Aerith's shoulder, "Those boys need you right now. Angeal–Angeal is. . ."
She didn't want to hear it. She shrugged Lucretia's hand off her shoulder, and took a step back, nearly returning to the confines of the elevator.
Lucretia bit her bottom lip. "Aerith. Mr. Fair. . . Zack. Zack is. . . well. . ."
Zack. That's right. Zack was what mattered most now, him and Cloud. They did need her. Slowly, she stumbled past Lucretia, walking in a daze. As she became more sure of her footing her pace increased and she wasn't really sure when, but at some point she started running and suddenly she was in front of Cloud's door, banging loudly. When Zack opened the door, she only took a moment to take in his red-rimmed eyes, underlined by dark circles made darker by the sudden paleness of his skin, before she fell against him, bringing them both to the ground. Zack held her impassively for a few moments before he placed his head atop hers. Cloud came from somewhere in the room and knelt behind him, wrapping his arms around his lover's neck. Zack took his hand and gave it a firm squeeze.
"Aerith. . . I know this sounds weird, but do you mind crying for me? I don't think I have any more left. . . Cloud either, but I. . . I feel like I shouldn't be done yet," the single arm draped over her shoulders tightened, "You know?"
Aerith was already sobbing freely, but she nodded anyway. "Of course Zack. Every one. Every tear. They're all yours."
"Thank you Aerith," She could feel his body shaking, "Thanks."
She went to Tseng the very next day, and bared her soul. She confessed to taking the boys' blood, something to be severely frowned upon even if she did have their permission, and she told him of all her exploits and findings. She left out the part about inadvertently causing the flood to get Vincent's contact information. No need to disclose every detail, after all. When she finished, she felt like a little girl playing detective, trying to tell a famous detective she knew more about a case than he. She was exhausted from the day before, and she knew without a doubt she would fall into a sobbing fit if Tseng laughed at her.
Tseng didn't laugh.
He didn't smile, or grin, or smirk, or anything. He just stared, his eyes narrowing in contemplation.
"And Mr. Vincent Valentine agrees with you?"
She nodded quickly.
His gaze dropped to the floor, "These are some pretty serious allegations Aerith."
His eyes flicked upwards toward her, "And you've broken rules to come to this conclusion."
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, then stood from his seat across from her, "I have some phone calls to make. Ask Lucretia to my office, would you? And Red. Page him as well."
She stood so quickly her vision swivelled. "You mean it! Tseng, you're really going to. . . Oh Tseng!"
"Don't cry!" Tseng reprimanded, looking only slightly alarmed, "I haven't promised anything yet. I'm going to be very busy from now on, a lot of work needs to be done. So just," his hand was pinching the bridge of his nose again, "just do what I asked." That said, he turned to walk away.
He half turned to regard her, and she felt kind of stupid as the words tumbled from her mouth, "You were always. . . my favorite babysitter, growing up."
He watched her in silence for a moment before a small, almost unnoticeable smile touched his lips. "I was your only babysitter. . . moron." And then he left.
Priscilla never cried. Not once. She didn't have a reason to. Everything always turned out okay in Chocobo Chicks and really, compared to real life, the problems they faced weren't really all that bad.
Aerith wasn't Priscilla though, and she never would be. She cried. She cried often, and she was crying now.
"It's not fair, they couldn't, they just couldn't. . ."
Reeve held her, too bashful to pull her close but too good-hearted to pull away. He awkwardly ran his hand up and down her arm, thoroughly unsure if that was an appropriately comforting gesture. "Shh, it's okay Aerith. Zack and Cloud (Aerith let out a wail at their names and he couldn't help but wince), they're. . . better off now. They're together, and happy. . . that's all that matters."
Aerith hiccupped. "But I-I-I didn't even get to say goodbye! I just wanted. . . one last time. . ." She broke into a fresh round of sobs and threw herself into his chest, clutching his jacket and ruining his shirt with her tears. Reeve threw his arms out as if she had burned them, then reluctantly wrapped them around her, patting her back.
"It's okay Aerith. They would have said goodbye if they could but. . . considering the situation. . . everything happened so fast. . . don't be sad. Shhhh, it's okay, it's okay."
"Aerith?" They both looked up. "Um, not to interrupt your. . . time. . . with your. . . murse (Reeve gave a pitiable glare). . . but. . ."
Aerith let go of Reeve's jacket and stood up straight, wiping the tears from her eyes and smearing her already blotchy mascara.
Zack held out his arms. ". . . would it be okay if we got a goodbye hug?"
He didn't have to ask twice. She bounded into his arms, nearly knocking him over before swiftly letting go and grabbing Cloud, who was standing quietly to his left, and planting a messy kiss on his cheek. He scrunched his nose and wiped at his cheek, which was so him that she couldn't help but laugh. She enveloped him in a quick hug then let go and latched herself back onto Zack.
"I thought you guys already left!"
Cloud regarded her with a wry smile. "Is that why you were crying?" He reached forward and gently wiped some of her mascara away. She nodded and Zack pushed her away, grabbing her shoulders and looking her square in the face.
"You thought we left?" His did his best to look offended. His best wasn't that great.
Aerith gave a guilty smile. "Well, everyone said you did, and I wouldn't have blamed you, but I wasn't sure where you were going, or what your parents had planned, or how soon. . ."
Zack nodded curtly. "We are leaving soon, but we would never leave without saying goodbye to everyone! Especially you," his eyes softened, "We wouldn't be here without you."
"Tseng did all the work. I just," she shrugged, "had thoughts, I guess. So, what kind of plans do you guys have? Are you going to keep staying with your parents?"
"Nah, we're moving to Gongaga! Just like we planned!" Zack swung an arm around Cloud's shoulder and pressed him to his side. Cloud smiled softly, a light blush dusting his cheeks.
"It'll be difficult," Cloud, ever the realist. "Neither of us can drive and our education is extremely limited. . ."
"But I've been talking to Kunsel, who spoke to his parents, they have like, tooooons of land, and they gave us this super awesome deal on a pretty decent chunk of land. . ."
"And with the money we got from the Shinra lawsuit we have just enough to build a house and get some tools-"
"-so we'll, you know, see how that plays out. Vegetables and stuff can't be that different from flowers right? And you taught us pretty well about all that," Cloud smiled shyly, "We're going to have a little flower garden out front though."
Aerith smiled back, "And a dog?"
The boys exchanged a look. "Yeah. Mog."
"We're leaving tonight," Zack said, scratching the back of his neck a bit nervously, "Ma and Pops bought us airship tickets, as going away presents, which is kind of ironic cause we couldn't go away without them but. . . anyway, we've never been on one before, so we're a little nervous," he leaned closer and lowered his voice, "I heard about this really cool thing called the mile high club, which I totally want to join but Cloud's being all, 'Nooooo, ewww, that's weird!' but trust me, once we get-oof!" He was cut off by Cloud's elbow jabbing into his stomach. He smiled sheepishly.
"If things go well, and we make money, we'll come back to visit. And you'll always be welcome to stay with us too, whenever you'd like," Cloud said, meeting her eyes.
She nodded. "Thanks, I'd like that."
It had been almost two years since that fateful day when she told Tseng of her suspicions. A long legal battle ensued in which President Shinra was found guilty of illegally disposing of dangerous substances and causing the death and illness of countless individuals. He was sent to prison nine months ago and his son, Rufus, became the new head of the company. Aerith wasn't sure how much better a person he was (he seemed to have a cold look in his eyes. . . that could have just been her imagination though), but he did make sure Shinra was running legally and that the unprocessed Mako was being disposed of safely. She couldn't really ask for more than that.
Since then, the Mako poisoning patients' health had improved dramatically. Sephiroth was the first to be given a clean bill of health. He was dispatched from the hospital a little more than two months ago, though he hung around until Genesis was released a week later. They left together and no one at the hospital had seen them since. Yuffie was next. Her father (who turned out to rule like, the entire region of Wutai, meaning Yuffie really was as much of a bigwig as she boasted) burst into the hospital days after they called him, tears and snot running down his face as he picked his little girl up in a bear hug and swung her around, loudly proclaiming his joy. When he finally put her down, Yuffie punched him in the stomach and yelled at him for making a scene. Aerith received letters from her frequently.
All the Mako poisoning patients were gradually released. Having been exposed the longest and, as a result, having the most severe cases, Cloud and Zack were amongst the very last to be released. Zack was deemed ready to leave first, but the doctors decided not to release him until Cloud was able to leave as well. It was unprofessional, but so many rules had already been broken regarding the two, no one thought one more would hurt. They figured the boys would appreciate it, in any case.
"How long are you going to be interning here anyway?" Zack asked.
Aerith smiled. "Just another year. Once I get my associate's degree Tseng said they're going to hire me on as a nurse."
Zack scrunched his nose. "Nurse? You should be a doctor!"
Aerith giggled while Cloud explained that she was going to need a few more degrees after he associates to be a doctor. Zack didn't look convinced.
"That's stupid. They should make an exception for you. Hell, they should be giving you a freaking Bugenhagen Peace Prize!"
The boys stayed for a while, following her around while she worked and occasionally leaving to big farewell to their other friends. Aerith couldn't help but think how weird it must have been, saying goodbye to all the people they'd lived with for so many years. They lived in the hospital for most of their lives, and now they may never see it again. . .
"Well, we're gonna get going Aerith. Ma and Pops are waiting. They already gave us goodbye hugs, but I figure they still have at least three more to give us. Ma probably isn't done crying yet either."
Aerith smiled gently. "I can't really blame her. I don't think I'm done yet either. . ."
The boys smiled gently and hugged her goodbye, one last time.
"Don't worry Aerith, we'll write! And it won't be too long before you see us again! When we decide to get married you can come be my best person!"
Cloud frowned. "I thought she was going to be my best person?"
"You can have Sephiroth."
Cloud frowned more. Aerith laughed.
They dragged out the goodbye for a few more minutes but eventually they had to leave. Aerith watched them walk out of the hospital doors for what was probably the very last time.
"You made a big difference in those boys lives, you know."
Aerith didn't need to look. She knew it was Tseng before he had even spoke.
"Of course I did. That's what white mages do."
Tseng raised an eyebrow, smiling in bemusement. "White mage?"
When Aerith Gainsborough was in first grade, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She cried when she was told she couldn't be an all-powerful white mage, but really, it was the truth. She couldn't be an all-powerful white mage.
"You realize mages don't exist. . . right, Miss Gainsborough?"
"White ones do. You're one, and I'm one. A little one, but I'm learning. And you know what? I bet I'm going to be really great, eventually. Maybe not all-powerful. . . but great."
Tseng shook his head. "Whatever you say, Aerith. Whatever you say."
She couldn't be an all-powerful white mage. She could be a doctor though. And that was just as good.
And then Rufus took over the world. The end.
This story went in a direction I just did not expect. To tell the honest truth, Cloud and Zack were both supposed to die. Somewhere along the line though, that changed, and I found myself at a loss. I really tried my best with this. I actually probably would have scrapped the story if it wasn't for you guys. You're all amazing, and this is for you.
Thanks for sticking with me, despite the horrible wait I put you through.
(Point out any mistakes for me please? These chapters are so long, I know there's tons, try as I might. . .)