Aerith opened her eyes and yawned as early morning sunlight streamed into her room. Lying in bed a moment, she took a couple breaths and sat up, her torso and arms still bandaged. She wanted to shower but that would be far too much hassle. Stretching, she stood up and crossed to the window. She smiled at the site of the steel panels that had been drilled into the wall to cover up the holes where once there had been a pane of steel bars. Lazard had kept his word, a construction crew had been by while she was on her mission, the bars had been removed and her window locks taken off. Aerith shielded her eyes against the sun and unhooked the latch that held it shut and slid it back, allowing the chilly morning air to sweep into the room.
"Okay, maybe I'll let the day get warmer," she shrugged, closing it again. She opened a drawer under her bed, slipping her nightgown over her head and picking up her uniform from the drawer. She pulled her pants and top on and slipped her feet into her boots. Standing now, fully dressed, Aerith stood in the middle of her room for a moment, thinking. She was still feeling a bit sore after yesterday, so even if she would be allowed, she didn't feel up to trying the simulator. No assignments or missions would be coming. She wasn't quite hungry yet.
"Boredom, my old archenemy," she thought sourly, sitting back on the bed. She'd gotten accustomed to it during her time in Second, when she had no assignments or missions and was stuck hogging up all the spare time on the simulator when the other Seconds were usually away, if not on missions or assignments they had been shipped off to Wutai. Outside the simulator and general wandering, there had been nothing to do. Aerith stood and crossed to her desk, eyeing the few books on the wall shelf above. There were a dozen of them, some on swordplay, some on tempering one's mental and physical discipline, some on hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. Several had been stolen from other SOLDIER members, a few were gifts from Zack or Sephiroth.
"I've read through all of them at least twice," she thought. Her eye fell on the book at the end of the shelf, and she reached out to pull it down. LOVELESS. Genesis's gift to her for making Second. Aerith looked at the cover of the book, front and back both plain pink with gold font simply declaring the poem's title. She flipped through it quickly. The book was divided into chapters, one chapter each for part of the poem and interpretations of its words, one for the missing fifth act and what it might tell, and one chapter discussing the history of the work and its significance.
"Legend shall speak, Of sacrifice at world's end, The wind sails over the water's surface, Quietly, but surely," she read aloud. Part of Act IV.
"Ridiculous drivel," she thought, flipping through the rest of the chapter, which covered various scholars speculating on what or where "world's end" would be, and what sort of sacrifice would be needed there. Some also suggested it wasn't a physical location but a metaphor for some period of time when the world was imperiled. Aerith began to close the book, but thought back to Sephiroth and Genesis and what they had told her.
"Whatever reason Genesis defected, he's definitely managed to convince himself it has to do with LOVELESS," she thought. If she could begin to understand his obsession, what he had learned that had sent him on this path, maybe she could try and talk him down when she confronted him next time, get him to turn back. Perhaps even anticipate his moves. She could learn what AVALANCHE was planning to do. She could prove herself not just a fighter, but a thinker.
"I can read that book any time then," she thought aloud, grabbing her ID card. She swiped it on the door and it clicked open. Looking at her watch as she emerged on the barracks hallway, she noted it was quite early. Would Zack be awake yet? She looked down the rows of identical doorways. She wasn't sure which room was his, come to think of it. She reached into her pocket for her cellphone, then decided against calling him, he may have still be sleeping, or otherwise busy.
"I've gotta work on this socializing thing," she thought. She headed to the elevators, a few other Seconds passing her in the hall. She mentally recited Zack's explanation of the building's floor plan and walked into the elevator, pressing the button for the 62nd floor. The elevator rose and swung open, revealing an empty, quiet floor with two doorways immediately in front of her. Uncertain of where to go here, she looked at a sign next to one of the doorways. "Urban Dev. Research."
"Hello?" Aerith turned her head as an older gentleman in a suit rounded the corner. 'Oh, hello young lady. I've not seen you here before."
"Ah, Aerith, I've heard of you. I'm Mayor Domino," the old man smiled.
"….Midgar has a mayor?" Aerith muttered in disbelief.
"Oh yes, of course. This floor is my office…or rather, contains my office," Domino nodded.
"You're a librarian?"
"Well…in practice, perhaps," Domino shrugged. "Shinra moved my office here on the pretense they wanted me to review their plans to develop Midgar back when they were building the first reactors around the city. Paperwork stacks turned into a library rather quickly, in hindsight. It isn't so bad though. I have free reign of the building, I'm cared for, I have access to the Worldwide Network."
"So the mayor of Midgar is nothing more than a figurehead?" Aerith asked dryly. Was he dim or just a doormat?
"Given the perks of the position, I wouldn't consider it a bad thing," Domino shrugged.
"Right," Aerith shrugged. "Do you keep library records?"
"Yes, all materials that are removed from the library must be signed out."
"Can you…" she stopped as she remembered Sephiroth had asked before and been denied. There was no hope she would fare better. "Can you tell me where I would find specific types of book?"
"Of course, what did you have in mind?" Aerith thought about what she knew about Genesis and AVALANCHE.
"Mythology," she decided aloud. Domino nodded and turned to lead her through the floor.
Sephiroth swung the Masamune and Angeal raised the Buster Sword to block it and knock it aside. He aimed a punch at Sephiroth's jaw but the silver-haired soldier gracefully leapt back to get out of the way.
"You're not as fast as usual," Angeal noted, hefting the broadsword onto his shoulders.
"I've matters on my mind," Sephiroth said coolly, swinging.
"The Great Sephiroth is distracted? That's a new one," Angeal smiled as they continued to spar. The training room's simulated street echoed with the clanging of metal against metal. "I know how you feel," Angeal said softly. "I'm thinking about him too." Sephiroth pushed Angeal back. "Genesis betraying us…makes no sense," Angeal said, rotating his shoulders. "He was as loyal as either of us."
"It is not only that. Aerith came into conflict with him. They chose her over me to track him," Sephiroth said, the training paused.
"They probably didn't trust us to not be emotionally compromised by the mission. If we had seen him, could you promise anyone including yourself you wouldn't have disobeyed orders to follow him?" Angeal asked.
"No. But if in lieu of you or I they see Aerith as the optimal choice to fight Genesis, she and he may cross paths again," Sephiroth continued. "I do not like the idea of either outcome of a battle between them. He perhaps may spare her, perhaps not, but she will most certainly not extend him the same mercy."
"You should have a talk with her."
"She has little interest in anything I say, less than usual if the topic is Genesis."
"Well if she's going to be fighting him she's going to have to change her tune. We'll have to bring her around."
"Approach her and try, if you think you will have more success than I have."
"Perhaps I will." The two fell silent, neither having any further comment on Angeal's declaration.
"You dote on her too much," Angeal said suddenly. "To be blunt, she needs to be taken down a peg, and you're part the reason."
"Do you think I've not noticed her ego problems?" Sephiroth said sharply. "I attempted to cultivate in her a proper sense of confidence and self-respect. I failed. Or succeeded too well. See it as you like, either way, I know."
"I remember the first time I saw you two together. You two look a bit alike, and with how you were treating her I thought maybe she was your little sister you'd never mentioned before," Angeal chuckled. "Then I talked to her and she corrected me with some colorful language."
"Sister, yes…don't let her hear you say that," Sephiroth warned. He thought for a moment. "I've not told you about when I first met her, have I?"
"No," Angeal shrugged. Sephiroth let out a breath and looked away.
"Our first meeting set the tone for our entire relationship. For better or worse…"
"The true nature of the Lifestream may never be known to us. Is man meant to control life and death? Are we able to understand the line between the physical and spiritual? These mysteries have been chased for centuries, and even in today's world where we have learned to refine Mako, we barely understand their answers…what a crock."
Aerith flipped another book shut and tossed it on a pile of five more on the desk. She had speed read her way through several books on the Lifestream. Most were about the nature of the Lifestream, theories about what it really was, rumors about how refining it into Mako affected it, and potential uses for the Lifestream or Mako as technology advanced. The books ranged from speculative science to mythological interpretation. Nothing so far that was actually interesting to her. She was looking for actual information, factual or myth-based, that could help her, not aimless philosophizing.
"Wrong course to pursue," Aerith decided, standing up. She looked at her watch. Not quite yet lunch. She could look at one more, than grab a bite to eat to quell her growing hunger. She looked at the shelves and swept her eyes over them. She had thought starting out with reading up on the Lifestream would hint at what AVALANCHE was doing, and perhaps supply an answer to her growing suspicion her newly growing abilities were linked to Mako exposure. But there had been nothing, only a few pages confirmed that Lazard had told the truth, overexposure to Mako inflicted a slew of ailments on the subject and the level of exposure needed to potentially use magic without Materia would be fatal.
"Gotta be something here," Aerith thought aloud, looking along one shelf. "Mastery of Materia, The Waters of Life, Chocobo Breeding for Dummies, The Evolution of the Beast…" she stopped at she reached one book. She grabbed its spine and pulled it out, turned it to look at the cover.
"Goddess – a Treatise on the Cetra," she read. "Gift of the Goddess…makes sense, but what the heck is Cetra?" Aerith sat back down and flipped the book open to the Foreword.
"One of the oldest mysteries of our planet is the Cetra, known colloquially as the Ancients or Ancient Ones. Legend tells us they travelled the planet in search of a promised utopia full of life and magic. Once we may have dismissed these legends as mythos to be told to children as bedtime tales, but as we learn about the nature of the Lifestream in our modern era, the gap between fact and fiction is shrinking…okay, so what the hell is the title 'Goddess' for?" Aerith muttered. She flipped to the table of contents and scanned them. "The Lifestream, the Cetra, the Promised Land…there we go, Chapter Four, the Goddess," she said, smiling. Suddenly her cell phone rang, and she grabbed it from her pocket. Seeing the number she flipped it open with an annoyed grunt.
"Where are you, been looking for you," Zack said on the other end of the line.
"The library? Doing what?"
"Sparring with the mayor, he's really good with an umbrella. What do you think I'm doing?" Aerith snapped.
"See ya soon." Zack hung up, and Aerith rolled her eyes. She flipped to chapter four in her book.
"Many Cetran legends speak of a guardian goddess that protected the Lifestream. Her name has been lost to time, but we know she was revered and loved as a champion of life. The very possibility that this being actually exists raised questions about the nature of our planet and our perceptions on how we define the spiritual plane of existence. We once considered the Lifestream a myth, but we now know it exists and we can harness its power as Mako and Materia. Will we one day say the same of the Cetra's goddess? Perhaps we already know of her, but her identity as the guardian goddess has yet to be revealed."
"Finally, this is mildly interesting at least," Aerith thought to herself. Still no word on what the Cetra were, but it seemed to be related to LOVELESS. Something about the word 'Cetra' struck a chord with her though.
"Hey." Aerith looked up to see Zack leaning in the doorframe. "Never figured you much for a closet bookroom," he said, coming closer. "What's on the reading list?"
"Trying to figure out what's up with Genesis and AVALANCHE," Aerith said. "Genesis is obsessed with LOVELESS, AVALANCHE thinks Shinra is killing the planet. If we know more about their goals, we can try to figure out what they're planning."
"Makes sense to me. Find anything?"
"Nothing of importance yes," Aerith muttered, shaking her head. "Read a few books on the Lifestream, was nothing worth the time in any of them. Figured this one may have something." She showed Zack the title over her current book.
"Right," he nodded. "Sephiroth said he was gonna talk to you yesterday. He find you?"
"Yes," Aerith said carefully, unsure about security on this floor. "He wanted to talk about subjects that we were told not to tell him about, so I didn't tell him anything," she said slowly, giving Zack a knowing look. Zack caught it and nodded again.
"That why you're here? Got you thinking?"
"Something like that." Aerith thought for a moment, Sephiroth's words as he left her the previous day still haunting her. She knew she wasn't the easiest person to get alone with, but somehow, she had the ear of one of the most powerful men in Shinra, and she always repaid his kindnesses with bitterness and hatred. Then again, with their past together, didn't she have proper reason to hate him? He did have a point on Genesis, though. Genesis had never wronged her, he was annoying at times but aside from being Sephiroth's friend, he was benign. And yet she still felt like she ought to hate him, too. "Zack, be honest. Why are we friends?"
"Huh?" Zack exclaimed, surprised.
"Why are we friends?" Aerith repeated. "I'm a bitch and you know it. So why do you put up with me?"
"Uh…well…" Zack sat down and looked sheepish. "Yeah at first I was just chasing around a pretty face. You kept pushing me away so it sort of became a challenge. But after a while, I dunno. There's just something about you. I think you try too hard to be unlikeable."
"Maybe. Maybe it's not an act and I'm really just that unlikeable."
"No. I've seen it, you hide it but not as well as you think," Zack grinned. "You wouldn't put up with me as long as you have if you didn't like me by this point."
"Shut up," Aerith grumbled, embarrassed. Zack chuckled. She silently admitted she wasn't wrong. Zack was one of the few, perhaps the only, man she trusted.
"You need to loosen up more. If you just stop trying to make everyone think you're so horrible, you might learn to like being liked. You want to make First, that would be a great place to start trying."
"I know the secret to making First, proving my power by surpassing that bastard," Aerith said. She hadn't told Zack about her growing abilities yet, maybe sometime in the future she'd show him firsthand. That was her trump card to someday defeat Sephiroth, once she learned to control them. Not even he had magic without Materia. "It'll just take time."
"You're too obsessed with Sephiroth. Why can't you just be happy with how well you're doing and not worry about him being better?" Zack advised. Aerith glared at him. "Harsh truth, Aerith. No one is stronger than Sephiroth. You're raising the bar a lot higher than it needs to be."
"You don't know anything. Nothing I do matters until I can beat him," Aerith growled. "I'll loosen up and be happy once he's laying sprawled unconscious at my feet." Zack shook his head sadly.
"Whatever you say," he sighed. Aerith clenched her hand. She had never told Zack about the matches, the tests. The day Sephiroth had saved her life. He didn't understand it. Didn't understand she'd spent years holding onto her hate to motivate her, to push herself harder every time he struck her down. She thought for a moment.
"Wanna know the first time he beat me?" she said. Zack looked over at her.
"You've actually fought him one-on-one?" he asked, surprised.
"Too many times to count," Aerith nodded. "First time was when I was twelve. The same day we first met."
"What is the meaning of this?" Sephiroth asked, looking across the lab. The young girl holding a SOLDIER sword too large and heavy for her to hold up properly looked like a civilian, clad in plain light blue clothing and straight-combed long brown hair. She was looking at him fearfully, her eyes wide. The area around them was sectioned off by railings constructed from circular piping.
"I told you, I want to test your strength against a test subject," Hojo lectured from the side, writing on a clipboard. "Aerith! Stop cowering over there and step up." The girl nodded shakily and slowly came forward until she was just a few feet in front of Sephiroth. Aerith looked up. From that angle the difference in age and height was obvious, the strange silver-haired man she had never met before towered over her. Sephiroth looked down at her.
"Alright Sephiroth, try not to hurt her too badly," Hojo said, adjusting his glasses. Aerith gasped. Sephiroth? The Sephiroth? The name at least she knew. Hojo talked about him all the time. He was invincible, the strongest man alive. He actually wanted them to fight? Aerith took a small step back hoping it wasn't noticed. This was it then. Hojo decided she was too much trouble for whatever he kept her locked up for, he was literally trying to get her killed.
"She's a child, Hojo," Sephiroth said, giving him an annoyed look. "You cannot be serious."
"I surely am. She's resilient, I assure you, do not let her age and appearance deceive you. Begin," Hojo ordered. Sephiroth looked down at Aerith as she raised her sword and assumed a sloppy fighting stance.
"I-I can fight," she said nervously. She had to control her fear, he may have been Sephiroth, but she wasn't the child she seemed. She had been groomed for this day, Hojo had told her as much. The day he could compare their skills directly. "I've been trained." Sephiroth took a slow breath.
"Alright," he said, raising his own SOLDIER blade. Aerith raised her sword and took a clumsy swing at him, Sephiroth stepped to the side and she stumbled forward, turning and swinging with the motion. She charged again and he parried the blow, knocking her sword aside. He wasn't even trying as he dodged and blocked her strikes, Aerith showed she did indeed have some marginal training with the blade, but not the physical strength or the experience to use it. If he wanted to he could kill her before she even knew what was happening.
"Aerith, you're embarrassing yourself," Hojo chided. "Sephiroth, stop toying with her!" Aerith gritted her teeth and yelled, running forward with her sword held over her head. Sephiroth knocked her sword aside and slammed the back of his hand into her chest. Aerith went flying backwards, her sword flung from her hand and crashing into a wall. She hit the lab floor heavily and lay stay, the wind knocked out of her. Sephiroth ran up to her and knelt.
"Are you alright?" he asked. Aerith was gasping for air. "I'm sorry," he offered, holding out a hand. Aerith turned her eyes to him and pushed his arm away. She didn't get up though.
"Hm, much less impressive than I'd have thought," Hojo mused, writing. "The most obvious problem is the lack of physical strength, she can't balance herself right due to the weight of her weapon." He looked down at Aerith. "The training regimen will be adjusted accordingly so next time you can make a token effort, something your performance a moment ago wasn't fit to be called."
"Next time?" Sephiroth asked, turning his head. "Are you mad? She's no match for me. A Third could give me a better fight. I won't fight a child like her, she's no business in combat with anyone."
"Oh yes, there will be a next time," Hojo smiled, Sephiroth's other comments apparently lost on him. "She's gotten to the age where she can actually begin training, so that's precisely what she's going to do. Not just against you, security personnel, perhaps some Thirds or other SOLDIER recruits. It will take time before she can approach the expected skill level but we need a benchmark, don't we?"
"I don't feel good," Aerith whispered, putting a hand to her chest. Her chest and back were sore, she hadn't yet caught her breath, and her head was still spinning. Sephiroth looked back at her and helped her sit up.
"Call a medic," he said to Hojo. "She seems to be having trouble breathing."
"Oh please, the SOLDIER application tests are worse than what you did," Hojo snorted. "She'll be fine in a minute."
"Hojo was right. There was a next time," Sephiroth remembered. "I hated having to harm her, even holding back I struck hard enough to bruise. But if I didn't, Hojo yelled at me to not hold back, and when I ignored him, Aerith was pitted against captured monsters he was experimenting on instead. I had no choice, my attacks were a cruel mercy. She was a child, Angeal. There was no dignity in our matches, not a shred. It wasn't training. It was humiliation."
"Hojo is a sick man. He probably just saw it as another experiment," Angeal nodded.
"In time, that changed," Sephiroth continued. "She got stronger, faster, smarter. He was indeed pitting her against easier enemies, and I saw the evidence of her continued battles and training. Her stance tightened, her reflexes quicker, her blows had more force…and every time I entered that lab, her eyes were colder than I remembered from the last. I heard Hojo talking to her. Her other training matches were warm-ups to attempt to get her to my level. Only her showings against me meant anything to him."
Aerith blocked Sephiroth's sword and pushed it aside, trying to lift a leg to kick him but he caught her ankle and pushed it away, Aerith stumbling back.
"You should be careful with kicks, the opponent can easily throw you off balance if they anticipate them," Sephiroth advised.
"I don't recall asking for help," Aerith said.
"I'm your training partner, that's my duty. To help you better yourself," Sephiroth replied.
"Sephiroth!" Hojo called. The two turned. "Enough. Offensive," Hojo ordered. Sephiroth looked back at Aerith, who looked up at him and assumed a sturdier stance.
"Ready?" Sephiroth asked. Aerith didn't respond, and he advanced. She blocked and parried but was driven back, her arms aching. The pain showed on her face until an overhead strike knocked her back against the railings running along the training area.
"Aerith, you're embarrassing yourself," Hojo snapped. Sephiroth swung again and Aerith rolled to the side, Sephiroth's sword cleaving through the steel pipe of the railing and knocking a section of it loose to clang on the floor. Aerith grabbed it and swung her sword at him. He blocked it and she swung the piping next, his hand caught it and twisted her wrist, slamming the pipe into her other arm. Aerith cried out and dropped her sword as pain shot up her arm. Sephiroth brought his sword up, Aerith grabbed the ends of the pipe with both hands and blocked it. Sephiroth hesitated as he backed off. Aerith looked down at her hand, testing the weight of the pipe, and looked back up.
"Come on!" she shouted. Sephiroth encircled her, Aerith narrowly blocking his blows as she moved her new weapon to catch his blade. Sephiroth swung again, and she angled the direction of the piping. His sword slid down it with his momentum and she ducked to jab her elbow into his stomach. He grunted slightly. Music to her ears. She swung the piping up, Sephiroth's head jerking back and the end sailing back his chin. Aerith twirled it in her arm and jabbed it forward, hitting his chest square and sending him stumbling back. Sephiroth's surprise showed on his face, and Aerith grinned widely. She'd landed a blow.
"Impressive," Hojo conceded, tucking his clipboard under his arm to clap a few times. "Would be even more so if he wasn't holding back and letting you get in the hit."
"What?" Aerith exclaimed, glaring at Sephiroth.
"A partial truth. I always hold back. But the hit is yours," Sephiroth insisted. Aerith twisted her face and twirled the pipe in her hand to continue the battle. It slipped from her grasp and she moved to catch it as it fell to the ground. She missed. She looked at Sephiroth, her face red with embarrassment. In spite of himself, he chuckled. The circumstances aside, her efforts and her slips in her cold demeanor when she made mistakes were often amusing.
"You'll have to work on that," he advised. She glared up at him and stood.
"Every moment of my life at that point was training. I exercised to become stronger and faster, then I fought to show my improvements. It wasn't enough. The day was the only time I landed a blow on Sephiroth. No matter how hard I pushed myself, I never hit him again. I tried everything. Nothing worked. And Hojo…that bastard made sure I understand how inferior I was. He once had high hopes for me, to be the next Sephiroth, an even greater warrior than the legendary hero. I was failing miserably."
"He had to have known he was fooling himself," Zack said quietly. "No one even comes close to Sephiroth's power, and you had nowhere near as much training or experience as him."
"I know. Didn't matter. I failed to live up to his expectations," Aerith whispered. "So…there was only one thing to do."
Aerith strained against the door of her small, cramped room. She could hear voices from the main lab, she thought she recognized one as Sephiroth, the other had to be Hojo. But shouldn't make out what they were saying…and there was a third now, a new voice. She thought she heard her name and her curiosity was intensified.
"It's a matter of company policy, outdated ordinance will be disposed of," Hojo said indignantly. "And I'll remind you to know your place before you speak to me in such a manner!"
"And I'll remind you of yours," Sephiroth threatened, taking a step towards Hojo. He'd learned physical intimidation on his part often required little effort, and he hide his amusement as Hojo shrank back from his towering form ever so slightly. "She is not a piece of ordinance you can get rid of. She's a human being, Hojo."
"She's a failed experiment. She was a prototype for the new procedure, and now we've perfected it. The other test subjects have been very promising, the new methods for SOLDIER augmentation will be put in place in a few months. She's fulfilled her purpose, there's no further point to keeping her around."
"Professor, while your words about her being a test subject are true, Sephiroth's are as well," Lazard said. "Aerith has a right to live as much as any of us. Surely there are other options besides disposal we can explore."
"Keeping her around at this point serves no purpose," Hojo repeated. "She was a trial run for the new augmentations, she proved they're effective enough to be used, but the girl herself is nothing now that we've seen the results. It's a waste of money and resources to keep her here."
"Then don't. Let her go," Sephiroth said. "Let her try to live a life of her own somewhere."
"You know we can't," Lazard shook his head. "She is still a subject, she needs to be kept under close observation. We can't risk company secrets falling into the wrong hands."
"If you have any more great ideas, let's hear them," Hojo sneered at Sephiroth. Sephiroth looked at him coldly and thought.
"Dammit, speak up, or come closer, something," Aerith muttered to herself, the murmurs on the other side of the door still indistinct. More shouting, Hojo again, and quieter normal speech from Sephiroth and the unknown voice. Then a moment of silence. She heard footsteps coming closer a moment later, and shrank back from the door and moved to sit down on the bed, pretending she hadn't been listening. The door slid back to reveal Hojo's frame.
"Congratulations," he said snidely.
"What did I do?" Aerith asked, confused. Hojo never congratulated her on anything.
"Like any other piece of outdated lab equipment, I was about to get rid of you," Hojo sneered. Aerith shook slightly, fighting the urge to stand and tackle him to the ground and beat her fists into his face. "But you have a friend who cares for you, for some reason."
"That's enough Hojo." The scientist was pushed away and Sephiroth entered the room. "It may take a day or two, but arrangements will be made," he said, looking down at Aerith.
"You're joining SOLDIER."
"He saved my life with a word, if he hadn't spoken up I would have been killed that day…discarded like trash," Aerith growled, tensing as she remembered Hojo's words. "I don't know why he kept me locked in that cell, why he made me fight Sephiroth, but he had no further use for me anymore. Sephiroth said I deserved better than to be thrown away, so he and Lazard agreed to induct me as a Third Class SOLDIER. I was given a new cell, with security cameras and card key locks."
"I remember," Zack said quietly. "Every time I saw you, you were in training, I never saw you during any free time we had."
"Movements were monitored carefully, if I wasn't in training or eating, I was in my cell. I tried a couple times to move without being noticed. Never got far. Hojo decided he wasn't done with me, keeps doing regular check-ups to test me. Don't know why, don't care. In Third I pushed myself to the limits, trained until my limbs ached so much I could barely stand, then kept going."
"You made Second in record time, a few months. Most take six. I took five," Zack recalled.
"I thought if I kept pushing myself, I could make First. Or at least, now that I was in the open, make an impression on someone, be noticed, be recognized. Never happened. It was the height of the Wutai War. All anyone cared about, anyone talked about, was him. The civilians worshipped him, SOLDIER members idolized him, the executives saw him as a poster child. Shinra's greatest hero. And every time he came home, for however long, he visited me. We never sparred again once I was in SOLDIER, he refused to indulge me."
"Aerith, Sephiroth cares for you. I don't think that way, but he does. He's your friend," Zack said gently.
"He's a symbol of the hell that has been my life," Aerith hissed bitterly. "He's everything I'll never be, should be." Aerith turned her head to look at Zack. "So pardon me for going against the crowd. But it's surprisingly hard to look up to someone when you've been raised with their shadow looming over you."
"It's not his fault, it's Hojo's," Zack said.
"I know," Aerith agreed. "That's why the day I beat Sephiroth in battle, I'm going to head to Hojo's lab after. And I'm going make him admit I'm better if I have to beat the words out of him. Maybe keep going afterwards anyway. Sephiroth, once I've proven myself his superior, I don't care about him anymore. Hojo has worse coming."
"Aerith…you can't," Zack said lamely. He had never seen her so angry, so vengeful. He knew she hated Sephiroth, but this was beyond what he had thought she held inside.
"Why not?" Aerith asked, holding his eyes. "I've been nurturing my hate a long time, Zack. I'm just waiting for the chance to let it out. And it's going to happen someday, I don't care if you like it or not." The two fell silent, and Zack looked away.
"So. Now you know why I hate him," Aerith muttered. "Feel better?"
Zack didn't respond. Aerith looked down at the book, her interest in it faded for the moment, and stood up.
"I'm hungry. Coming?" she asked, heading to the door. She stopped in the frame and looked back. Zack looked up at her and smiled, standing.