ch. 3. call it vanity

.o.

"There's a man outside waiting for Uncle!" The girl replied back. There was a sudden explosion of footsteps, stopping abruptly at the door. Then, a second later, the door opened, revealing the woman who had tended to his wounds the day before. Her face carried a slightly frenzied look, strands of messy, wet hair slapped along her face.

"It's just you," she noted, and Genesis observed how the woman kept a protective arm around a girl-presumably, Aerith. Her reaction showed some kind of fear—and by the look of her relief from realizing who he was, it was probably fear of someone. Interesting. "Fenrir's not here. Would you like to come in and wait for him?"

"That would be… nice," Genesis said.

As the woman stepped inside to let him in, he saw her bend over to the little girl and whisper in a hushed voice, "What did I tell you about talking to strangers?"

"I checked the peephole first! And besides, he's not a stranger," the girl said defensively. "He was here just yesterday!"

Even Genesis found himself impressed with the girl's logic. She was cute. Almost.

Minutes later, when he was sitting on the living room couch as the woman poured him a cup of tea, he found himself looking over the pair. The girl had called Fenrir her uncle and this woman was apparently her mother… so did that make the two Fenrir's sister and niece? They certainly all had the same bright, straw-coloured hair, but when Genesis had looked at the older woman's eyes, her eyes were a vivid, bright emerald; compared to Fenrir's muddy green eyes, the woman's eye colour seemed as bright as a supernova and far more… real, oddly enough.

The woman sat herself down across from him and gave him a polite, smile. "I'm afraid we didn't introduce ourselves last time. I apologize, that was rude of me." She gave him an embarrassed smile. "I was just a bit startled when Fenrir suddenly brought you home." She held out a hand. "My name is Ifalna. And you are…?"

Genesis took the hand somewhat gingerly. "It's Genesis."

"Nice to meet you, Genesis," Ifalna said. She gestured toward the room where the girl had gone to amuse herself. "And I believe you met my daughter, Aerith?"

Despite himself, he let out an amused chuckle as he remembered the girl's interesting antics. "Yes, she was… quite the doorkeeper."

Ifalna smiled. "Aerith can be a little peculiar," she agreed, yet looked proud of the fact. "Anyway, how are you doing? Are your wounds any better?"

"I'm… fine," Genesis answered stiffly, regarding the woman with a suspicious look. "How much do you know about... what happened yesterday?"

"Everything," came Ifalna's unhesitant answer. "You're a SOLDIER with enhanced fighting skills, but something is causing your body to degrade and heal slower. You are becoming weaker with every second, whether you like it or not."

With each word that came out of the woman's mouth, Genesis felt himself drawing back tensely until he completely upright, hand lingering slowly to where he knew his rapier could be easily reached. "And what of Fenrir's intentions? What does he get out of helping me?" he asked, his voice low.

If the woman felt any sort of fear at his interrogative tone, she didn't show it. "That's not for me to tell." Genesis narrowed his eyes, about to retort but the woman continued on talking calmly. "But I can tell you who I am."

"What does that even mean?"

"It means I'll give you a reason to trust me."

He couldn't look away; suddenly, something about this woman screamed power, despite her unassuming frame and demure posture. The way she looked at him, he could almost swear that she could probably read his every shiver if she wanted to. Unnerved by the sudden feeling of self-consciousness, he straightened up even more, determined not to let any of it get to him.

"Fine," he let out in a uncaring voice. "Tell me."

"Despite our appearances, Aerith and I are in no way related to Fenrir," she began. "In fact, before two months, I didn't even know who he was. But then, one day, he suddenly showed up in the Science Department and helped the two of us escape. He forged the proper papers , gave us new identities, and even provided us a home to live."

"The Science Department?" Genesis interrupted. "You don't mean, ShinRa's Science Department."

"The very one," Ifalna confirmed.

"Why were you escaping from there?" he asked in incredulity. "You make it sound as if the Science Department was keeping people captive."

Ifalna merely held out her hand as a response. "Take my hand."

For some reason, Genesis only took the barest of moments to hesitate, before his hand was clasped in hers. Suddenly, a symphony of sounds were coursing through his veins. He felt alive yet dead at the same time, and it was almost like… there was singing in the background. Behind his eyes, he saw flashes of green, faces, voices, holding onto him, clamouring into him, filling him up—he abruptly pulled his hand back, tremours wracking his entire arm. He was suddenly short of breath, sweat dripping down the side of his face. Without even realizing it, he found himself inching back from the woman, who looked relatively unshaken by it all.

"What you just felt was the Planet talking to you," she explained.

"How…?" Genesis was barely even able to get that word past his throat. The Goddess. He had just felt the Goddess flowing through him and it was terrifying. Ifalna, however, was anything but the image of a benevolent goddess. In that moment, eyes bright and fiery, she suddenly seemed the very incarnation of penultimate power, the type that could take breath away with just a single word . It took Genesis his every ounce of pride to keep from leaving the apartment that second.

"It's simple," she said. "Aerith and I are the last of the Ancients."

She didn't even need to tell him; that moment before, feeling the life of the Planet rushing through his every vein, that had been more than enough explanation. But it didn't make sense. Why was she exposing herself to him? What did she get from it?

It him a few seconds longer to get his shudders under control and feel the breath return him, but when it did, he didn't waste any time and looked straight her. "Why are you telling me this," he asked, paranoia lacing his every word.

"I can help you," Ifalna said. "You felt it too, didn't you? The little discordant part of yourself?"

He only sneered at that, determined not to let this woman that he had only met minutes ago to get the best of him. He wasn't about to admit that he had felt something, something inside himself clawing in agony as the woman held his hand.

"You don't think I can't betray you? Turn you in to Shinra?"

Ifalna's smile only widened, the gleam in her eye only seemed to becoming sharper. She took a sip of her tea slowly. "No," she finally said, "you can't. Because I know your secret as well, remember?"

It was starting to grate on him, all this foolishness with his 'sickness', his 'secret'. He was fine; he could still beat out all the SOLDIER Seconds without even a sweat. The only thing that probably kept him from walking out was just his pure curiosity to learn the woman's motivations. "Fine," Genesis responded with a scoff. "If that were even true, tell me this: why are trying to help me?"

"You're not the only one with this sickness, Genesis."

Genesis narrowed his eyes. "So you're trying to make me some sort of lab rat, seeing if you can 'cure' this supposed disease, then? Before you help whoever else there is?" He let out a harsh laugh. "I'd be better off going to Shinra!"

Ifalna sighed and put her teacup down. Genesis tensed up as she reached under the table for something, but seconds later revealed she was only bringing out a laptop. "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this…" she said with a regretful look. She took a few seconds to sign herself onto the computer, before turning it around.

All Genesis saw were a bunch of documents. "What is this?" he said with a look of disdain.

"It's the details of Project G." She pushed the laptop forward to him. "You need to see this."

Genesis put barely any effort into skimming the documents, only seeing the Science Department's usual obfuscation of protocol mixed with unnecessary amounts of scientific jargon. Even by the end up the several-page long article, he still didn't grasp what the project was about (though, he honestly wasn't putting all that much effort into it either), and was ready to turn the laptop back over with his usual scorn, when he found one paragraph that caught his eye.

As of yet, there doesn't seem be any prolonged reaction to the cells inserted; however, there is a possibility that the body may latently reject the foreign bodies. We, as of yet, cannot predict any certain outcomes, though there are theories, the extreme of which predicting that the body may begin to decay faster after being forced to outperform its usual standards for so long. As the current specimens of Project G have become along SOLDIER Firsts along Project S, this will certainly produce ample data to study this.

Genesis found himself stopping, his heart seeming to pause. There were only three Firsts, including him. If Project S could be assumed to mean Sephiroth… then the only other person could be…

"This is fake," he said angrily and closed the laptop screen down. "You're saying I was part of some sick experiment from the start?"

Ifalna gave him an amused look. "You think I would make up all that drivel just to fool you? You think I would have the patience or the time?"

"It can't be true," Genesis insisted nonetheless. "This is absurd."

"If you wish to attempt to find the original document in the Science Department's archives to better convince you, then by all means try. However, do not fool yourself into thinking you are fine." Ifalna looked at Genesis, her green eyes piercing into his. "But I assure you, this is all true. You and your friend, Angeal Hewley, are both dying from what Shinra has done to you, and I'm the only one who can help."

He stood up, finally unable to take any longer. "Stop it," he hissed, "Just… don't say anything more." And so she did, the woman only looking at him unblinkingly, waiting. "I… " He was at a loss for words. "Don't bother telling Fenrir I stopped by."

He didn't even bother to hang around for a response.

.o.

The gnawing feeling didn't leave him.

.o.

He had told himself he wouldn't let himself get caught up in Ifalna's words, would only do the cursory investigation until he found enough to prove her wrong. But as he had found himself navigating the Science Department's records, going through the cross-references and looking up all the annotations, a plaguing feeling began to wash over him that maybe there truly was something hidden within all the mystery that was the Science Department.

However, before he could get anywhere, the sound of approaching footsteps lead him to quickly close the browser.

"This isn't the first time I've come across a SOLDIER trying to hack into the Science Department's archives, but never has it been a First before." Veld casually leaned over the computer. "Does General Sephiroth know you're using his login information?"

Genesis slowly moved his hands away from the keyboard. He had suspected as soon as the first red warning of 'ACCESS DENIED' that someone would probably be alerted to his presence in the system; he just hadn't thought their response would be so fast. That and he hadn't thought that the information he was looking for would have so many layers of protection. Which was another troubling thought; why would there be so many layers? The Science Department had their fair share of secrets, but with Sephiroth's clearance level, it shouldn't have been that hard to access anything.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."

Veld folded his arms. "So you weren't poking around top-level files."

"These are just the cadet records," Genesis said, gesturing towards the screen. Thank the Goddess for alt-f4.

Veld just him a long stare. Genesis didn't dare look away, didn't dare breathe at that moment. "Well... considering your assistance for that one...incident," the man finally said, "I suppose I can overlook this. Just this once." The warning shrouding the older man's tone even made Genesis shudder a slight bit. Still, he kept his calm, leaning back into his chair casually.

"What's so important about the Science Department?" Genesis drawled. "Sending a whole team of Turks after one intruder? And now the leader himself for a single, supposed hacker? Sounds a bit excessive to me..."

"Think what you want," Veld said. "I'm just doing my job." The man gave Genesis a pointed look. "As you should too."

Genesis watched thoughtfully as the other man walked away.

.o.

"Hey, isn't that the guy from ... Genesis?"

Genesis quickly snapped out of his thoughts, looking up to meet the concerned face of Angeal, and immediately, he cursed himself for letting the other man see him this state. A concerned Angeal, while always with good intentions, was exactly what he didn't need now. A concerned Angeal meant a nosy Angeal, with questions and watchful glances.

"Did you know," Genesis quickly said, "that you have some gray hairs?"

Angeal raised an eyebrow. "Is that what you were staring off about?"

You're getting older much quicker, becoming more brittle... It's almost as if your body is degrading, another voice said in his head. Genesis quickly shook it off.

"Just pointing it out," he said casually. "Anyway, you were asking about something before?"

Angeal's look still looked a little confused, but he turns away nonetheless and gestures towards another part of the ShinRa cafeteria. "Over there, isn't that the new Turk recruit we were talking about before?"

Genesis turned to look and sure enough, a few tables away in the corner, he saw Fenrir eating with another Turk. As if sensing his gaze, the man took that exact moment to look up and lock eyes with him. For a moment, Genesis felt the oddest spark of adrenaline rush through him; I'm going to figure you out, he promised the other man right there.

The moment broke when Fenrir gave a head nod of acknowledgment towards Genesis and turned back to what seemed to be a one-sided conversation with the red-haired Turk.

"So you know him?" Angeal asked. "I didn't know that."

Genesis began to busy himself with the food on his tray. "Just went on a mission with him once."

"And? Is he as skilled at that video made him out to be?"

"He's..." Genesis didn't know what word to use. "His skills were adequate."

Angeal chuckled. "Hmm, if you're using that competitive tone of voice, he must have some real skills. Interesting."

"What 'competitive tone of voice'?" Genesis asked, feeling somewhat offended. "I have no such thing."

"Then you have never heard yourself talk about Sephiroth," Angeal replied with a large grin. Before Genesis could further defend himself, the other man was already getting up. "Anyway, I have a mission briefing to get to. I'll see you later."

"Hmph. Bye."

With Angeal gone, Genesis found his gaze being drawn back to Fenrir, if only in curiosity. He wondered if Ifalna had ended up telling the man of his visit. He wondered how in the world the man could have defeated a horde of zoloms by himself. He wondered what name could possibly be more awkward sounding than Fenrir.

He wondered, if it came down to it, which would he would trust: ShinRa or Fenrir.

No, that wasn't right. ShinRa was a corporation made up of people, and Fenrir but a single man. And certain people working for ShinRa were most definitely more precious than some random stranger.

But if it was between the scientists of the Science Department and the Turk? Which would he choose?

"...still can't find her."

"Well, Ifalna and the kid's probably long gone by now, it's been months."

Genesis stiffened up at the name and immediately gave a quick glance towards where he heard the voices. At the table beside him, he saw two scientists huddled together, their conversation continuing in hushed tones that no normal should have been able to hear at this distance. But Genesis was no normal man.

He turned his ear inconspicuously toward their direction and leaned over a bit.

"It's probably for the better."

"I know you're right, but now we have to deal with all of Hojo's temper tantrums about it."

"Planet, suck it up. It's not like he was harvesting your blood daily for all those tests."

Genesis felt himself turn cold. Ifalna couldn't have... had she? Was it possible that everything that she told him, escaping from ShinRa and all that... could it possibly have been true?

As an odd, numb feeling of shock took over his body, he saw a familiar flash of yellow out of the corner of his eye. Before he could second-guess himself, he found himself turning around and calling out to the man walking past him. "Fenrir."

Said man stopped and slowly turned. "Yes?"

"Let's do it." The Turk beside Fenrir seemed to choke, and Genesis realized belatedly his wrong choice of words. But he didn't dare correct his statement, at least not in the company of another Turk.

Fortunately, Fenrir seemed to understand without Genesis having to further elaborate. The other man only regarded Genesis with a long, curious look, before holding out a hand. "Phone." When Genesis handed it to him, the man flipped it open and began to type into it quickly. Minute later, he handed it back, screen open for Genesis to see what he had just done. "I've added myself to your contacts."

"Don't you need my number as well?"

"I just texted myself," Fenrir explained. "I'll contact you later with the details."

Genesis closed his phone, his heartbeat seeming louder than ever as he realized what had just done. This was the side he had chosen. Between the science department and Fenrir, he had made his choice.

It's just one man, Genesis told himself, watching as the man walked off. It's basic strategy. Anything goes wrong, it's still just one man. Nothing I can't deal with.

.o.

It came one day later:

Tonight. Eight O'clock.

.o.

Author's Note: And somewhere far away, as Reno looked at Fenrir's text from over his shoulder, he got the completely wrong idea. Just kiddingg.

I'm back in school! So I'll be honest: I probably won't update this until vacation. Because if there's anything I suck at, it's time management.

But anyway, once again, I thank all of you who take the time to review and add this to your alerts and just everything. Special thanks go out to Lady of the Muses and linds0001 for all the lovely writing advice and support.