Aerith leaned against one cool wall and tried to think of the bright side. This wasn't too different. There was metal overhead, just like how the plate covered the slums. The air actually smelled cleaner, even if the thick taste of pollutants had been replaced with the slightly metallic one of piped AC. The view wasn't much, was non-existent in fact, but what she could see was tidy and clean. Painfully clean almost. Disinfectant tingled in her nose and she wondered if it was standard procedure for the cells to be this thoroughly sanitized or if there was a particular reason why this one reeked of chemicals.
Windows would have been nice.
So would less glaring lighting.
The lights suddenly died and she took a slow breath. Light wasn't gone altogether, it had just been so radically dimmed it seemed like darkness to photo adjusted eyes. It was a deliberately unsubtle reminder that Shinra expected all its prisoners to get a full eight hours of sleep.
Not for long, she thought, then laughed at her bravado. What she'd feared had finally happened. The nightmarish shadows of her past that had stalked her existence for years had finally caught her again. Even during those precious years of freedom she'd seen the power of that lurking darkness that wanted to swallow her. In the slums, furthest from the reach of Shinra, she had still seen increasing numbers of its agents and influence and known that they were only tendrils of a massive plant. Now she was in the bowels of that unliving creature.
She sighed, she was getting disturbingly dramatic in her captivity. That didn't bode well as she'd only been in this room for a few hours, no matter how much her emotions insisted it had been longer.
Feeling her way over to the hard cot she sank down, sincerely wishing there was a blanket that came with it. It would have been nice to have something she could detach from Shinra and use as hers and as a barrier against her surroundings. She hadn't been here long, the fact that she was sitting unmolested in her cell now didn't mean anything. It had only begun.
Aerith stiffened, everything focused on her ears. There it was again, a soft tapping, almost like a...knock? Who in Shinra would knock? Regardless, she sprang from the slab of an excuse for a bed and pressed the side of her head to the door. Nothing, not a whisper of noise. She pulled back and again heard the soft sound. She tried the wall of the cell next to her. While she could hear some echoes and movement through there, none of them were the one that had first seized her attention.
She pulled back in confusion and uneasy speculation about the mindset that had dictated an insulated hallway but allowed for sound to carry between the individual cells. The rapping came again, slightly louder, and she was able to narrow its location; behind her. She turned slowly. Behind her and...up? Carefully moving her gaze towards the ceiling above the cot she clearly made out a set of tiny eyes faintly glowing in the dim light.
In half a breath she'd yanked off one soft boot and sent it hurtling towards the blue eyed little beast. The two pinpoints of soft light disappeared, but then reappeared looking disturbingly unharmed and she heard her boot bounce off of the bed.
It was low but distinct. She gaped. Rats didn't talk.
Jumping on the cot to get closer to whatever was on or in the wall might not have been an ideal example of prudence, but it was what she did. Habit reared its mighty head and she kicked off her other boot so her mom wouldn't get upset with her for stepping on the furniture with shoes. Conscience clear she stretched up on her toes against the wall and peered in the direction of the voice.
"I thought if I knocked first I wouldn't freak you out. So much for that, huh?"
She felt her heartbeat in her fingertips. That most definitely was not the voice of an animal. It was warm and humorous while still sounding sincerely apologetic.
"Don't worry," she surprised herself by answering. "I'm very...gutsy."
Relieved laughter rolled toward her and her pulse picked up further. What was this...thing? The small eyes came closer, looking almost human.
"So," the voice said in good-natured courtesy, "can I come in?"
"Can you?" she asked honestly. A little nervously she moved her hand above her head and closer to the eyes where her fingers tapped against some kind of grate.
"Sure," came the easy reply. "Just move back a bit so the grate doesn't hit you."
Aerith steadied herself with one hand against the wall at the head of the cot and stepped back. Immediately there was a dull clang and a creaky swing.
She heard a light "ha!" and something hurtled out of the vent. Hurriedly she pressed herself against the wall her hand rested on. A light impact against the far end of the cot settled on her ears.
"Whoa, this thing is even worse than the mattress I got as a cadet."
Her eyes were adjusting a bit more to the darkness, but she still couldn't place the location of the voice until the eyes turned to face her again.
A cadet? "Are you with Shinra?"
"Officially," the voice said cheekily.
That was good? She took a step forward on the unnaturally stiff cot and crouched down trying to make out the diminutive figure. If it was the official part of the company that had kidnapped her...but the Turks were usually officially 'unofficial' -
"Zack Fair," he, Zack was a boy's name, said. "First Class SOLDIER."
First Class sounded awfully official, and even she knew what SOLDIER was. She stiffened and leaned back until her crouch wobbled.
"Uh, reciprocal introduction?"
He had said official like it was a nominal identification. Shinra definitely had factions and groups that operated under the radar, was he one of those? Did that make them good, or even worse than the majority of the company? As long as he was against the part of Shinra that kidnapped her that should put him on her side. Since he was sneaking into her cell, that was the most likely case.
"Aerith," and since it was probably on public record now anyway, "Gainsborough."
"That really works."
She gave him an odd look that he probably couldn't see in the dark.
"Names are important, yours fits you. So how'd you get yourself thrown in one of the cells on the research floor?"
"Are you going to help me?"
"Ah...I'd like to, but it's kind of hard if I'm in the dark about what's going on," his laugh permeated the dry gloom, "so to speak."
"I'm in a cell. What else is there to tell?" Her name was one thing, but just handing over the secret that had gotten her captured and hunted and captured again was something else entirely.
"The 'why' would be be helpful," said his voice gently.
There was something like a sigh. "So we know that we can trust you. Shinra has a lot of enemies, and some of those enemies are just as bad if not worse than the company. They just don't have the same power so you don't hear about them. We just want to know you're not one of them."
"...That would be part of you trusting us.
"Based on my incredible First Class honor, of course."
"You can trust me."
"Can I?" It seemed like everything she said was a question, but they were questions that needed to be asked, because she didn't know who she could trust. He'd just said that just because someone was against Shinra it didn't make them good themselves. Her whole body was tense with indecision and apprehension, and she was starting to quiver with fatigue. She settled, cross-legged, onto the cot.
Despite all her efforts she'd been captured. They knew where she lived, where her mom lived, where she spent her time, and likely that she didn't have a lot of resources to work with. Even if she got out of the Shinra building, what then? That was still contingent on the very slim chance that she could get out of her cell and past scores of floors of security.
She didn't want to say she needed help. She couldn't make her escape depend on that. She couldn't because she still didn't know if there was anyone she could trust, and the reality might be that she had only herself to rely on.
She desperately hoped that wasn't the case.
Show me I can trust you. Do something that shows that you're good.
The blue came slightly closer then sank closer to the mattress, and she had the impression he was mimicking her cross-legged posture.
"You can," he said with absolute and unshakeable confidence. "I want to help you. Please. Let me."
What was the worst that could happen if she trusted him? That he wouldn't be reliable and this was all a ploy to gain her cooperation for a venture that could end in the death of the entire world.
What was the best that could happen?
There would be someone she could depend on, who would understand what she actually dealt with and help with the things she didn't fully comprehend herself. That would be very...good.
"My name is Aerith."
"Yep, and I'm Zack," he said playfully.
"My last name wasn't always Gainsborough."
Her thoughts shifted back to her mother, the one who had green eyes like her own. Her heart raced faster than it had ever run before. "I'm an Ancient."
He didn't seem shocked, albeit she couldn't see his face to read his reaction.
"Thank you, Aerith." He didn't sound shocked at all either, more like he was relieved. "So Shinra just wanted to make sure they had ready access to the last Ancient?"
The thudding in her chest abruptly slowed down. This was not the reaction she'd been anticipating, and it left her with no preplanned response she could fall back on. "They want the Promised Land."
"They think it's a place with an endless supply of mako."
"Is that what it is?"
"I don't know."
"Could it be?"
She was unfamiliar with her heritage, and if there was some well known Ancient maxim about what the Promised Land truly was, it had passed her by. She didn't think it was what Shinra supposed, but she didn't know, which meant there was a possibility they were right. "Maybe."
"Hmm," the blue eyes shifted, like he was leaning back. "Do you know what kind of time frame we're working with?"
"I mean - do you know when, or how, they're going to try to get this information out of you?"
"I'm not sure. I feel like they're leaving me alone on purpose right now, like they want to make sure I'm well rested."
"It's not -" he hesitated, and then said very gently, "it's not something they're just going to ask about, is it?"
She brought her legs up and gripped them against her chest. It was unclear yet persistent, flashes of what had been done to her -
A slight thump caused her to look away from her knees. The eyes were closer still, it was almost like the light from them was physically touching her.
"I can save you."
His eyes looked about a hand span above the cot, and her hands were below average in size. He sounded so assured though, it was a little comforting. Still, there was a heavy amount of doubt in her voice when she said, "Really?"
"It's what heroes do."
"Are you a hero?"
"I try." Her eyes had adjusted enough to see a movement like a shrug. It was odd to see it on someone so small. "It's not really something you can judge by your own standard. I need to act in ways that actually are good, not ways that just make me feel all glory bound. So," shining blue tipped sideways and slitted while teasing wound in his voice, "you'll let me know if I actually make it, right?"
"I won't lie." She did feel better talking to him, but she wouldn't rank his part in that as heroic. It wasn't clear if he could actually help her yet or not, and she didn't want to give him the impression there wasn't anything else he had to do.
"That's what I'm counting on. I need to get things set up. You've been a gracious hostess, I'll now be taking my leave."
"I'll come back."
"When?" Don't go. He made the fact that she'd been imprisoned more real, but he also offered a way out. A way out where she wasn't alone.
"Soon." It seemed like he was edging toward the wall.
"When is soon?" She leaned forward and tried to grip a handful of her maliciously hard mattress, but it stubbornly refused to stay in her fingers.
"Possibly later tonight."
"That soon?" Her back straightened in surprise. Could it be over that quickly? What would happen when this part was 'over'?
"It's not completely up to me."
"Something the 'we' decides?"
"Yeah, but I'll use all my considerable charm to try to move things along quickly."
"Why did you come!" Why did he suddenly drop into her cell and offer hope? Was he trustworthy? Was it all just some ridiculous test that maddest of all insane scientists had concocted? How did she know she wouldn't be struck as soon as she trusted?
"Well, to see if you were worth saving."
"And am I?" she said in dry self-deprecation.
"How can you say that after such a short acquaintance?"
"I'm a very good judge of character."
"Which explains why you're working for a company like Shinra."
"Only officially. Are you seriously trying to convince me not to help you?"
"No." She was angry at how much she felt like crying. What was she supposed to do?
"Know what would help me out?" He stepped to her side, his eyes looking almost straight up.
"I'm amazingly athletic, and I could probably figure this out if I had to, but it's not going to be easy to get back up to the grate. It's like five to seven stories up, from my limited perspective, and I'm an optimist so it's likely even higher than that."
"Give me a boost?"
"Oh, uh, sure."
Her mind hadn't quite figured out how she was going to do that when the eyes moved to where one of her hands was still ineffectively grasping her cot. She took the hint and flipped her hand palm up. There were two points of sensation as he stepped onto her skin, and her fingers reflexively curled toward the pressure. They stopped when her ring finger met with resistance. It took a moment to place the sensation until it registered. It was a hand, a hand in a glove. Splayed out and digits spread it still easily fit on the tip of her finger.
He was so tiny. She didn't know if he was actively pushing against her or just leaning, but the pressure was almost ticklingly light. She was stronger than him.
"Don't bring me up too fast," he cautioned cheerily.
With a nod she slowly began to stand up. The pressure on her finger firmed a very little and she wondered distantly if this equated to holding hands. She wasn't quite tall enough to rest her hand inside the vent while keeping her palm flat, but she could get it just shy of the opening. There was an almost digging feeling in her hand and then he sprang away. Gone. Her hand closed on emptiness.
"Thanks," was said easily. "You should go ahead and try to sleep until I get back."
Right, that was going happen.
"Would you mind pulling the grate back down?"
She hesitantly reached up, but paused as the tips of her fingers hooked over the metal. It was like she would be separating them. It absurdly crossed her mind that she would be cutting off any reason for him to return if she closed the vent. It wasn't like she knew he had a valid reason to return anyway. What if he didn't?
"You'll come back?"
"I'll come back," he reiterated reassuringly.
She tried to pull it down slowly, but that only lasted two-thirds of the journey. Then a spring or something kicked in and the grate jerked away from her hand and slammed back into place against the wall.
"Don't worry, get some rest. If that's possible on that mattress. I'll be back."
The voice was already becoming more distant. Soon he would be gone, and she wouldn't have any way to bring him back. She had only his claim that he would return. She frantically searched for a way to tie them together and further convince him to come back. What was his name again?
She'd waited too long, she wasn't fast enough. He'd already left, he didn't hear -
"Yeah, Aerith. I promise."
A/N: This came about when I was reading a fairytale to a younger sibling and thought how fun it would be to critique it through crossover. Having a lot of ideas for a FFVII crossover and a FMA crossover, I decided to do both. I'm posting both stories at the same time with the casual intent of seeing if the FFVII one or the FMA one is more popular. Feel free to read both. Each story will be three chapters long; beginning, middle, and end.