Aerith stepped off the train from the slums and was immediately accosted by another Shinra infantryman. Three Shinra infantry men were guarding the stairs up to the streets, but the platform was otherwise empty.
"Hold. Company ID miss," the soldier ordered.
"Don't have it," Aerith replied, annoyed at being stopped for this a third time.
"Hang on!" Cloud ran up to them. "She's clear. Zack sent me to meet up with you," Cloud explained at her slight surprise at seeing him. He reached into his pocket and held his ID out to the infantryman.
"Thanks," Aerith nodded.
"Alright, move along," the infantryman said, stepping back and handing Cloud his ID.
"So, were you fighting?" Aerith asked, following Cloud to the stairs.
"Yeah. I got off light though, two other Thirds were with me, we stuck together and looked out for each other. Teamwork," Cloud said. "How about you?"
"Ran in alone, kicked ass, got in over my head and dropped into the slums," Aerith shrugged. "And shut up."
"I didn't say anything."
"You were gonna."
Cloud made a look of acquiescence and didn't speak further as they climbed the stairs to the main streets. Aerith stopped and blinked, stunned at the scene. City workers were moving about rubble, examining downed power lines, and medical crew were examining the injured, some civilians, other Shinra militia. Guard patrols were sweeping through the streets armed with rifles, each escorted by a SOLDIER in First or Second Class uniform.
"I thought they retreated?" Aerith said, confused.
"Yeah. Still hit us bad though. A lot of people were hurt, a lot of chaos went down. And we gotta make sure they left," Cloud explained.
"How's SOLDIER?" Aerith asked. "Sephiroth, Genesis, Angeal?"
"Sephiroth is alive, he's overseeing some things in the tower, what they won't say, same for Angeal. Genesis, won't say."
"Think he got out?" Aerith asked, concerned. Sephiroth being alive didn't mean Genesis was still in custody. She had no doubt that Sephiroth could take Genesis in a fight, but his judgment concerning the rogue warrior was obviously in question. If it had come to killing Genesis or letting him escape, Aerith would wager Sephiroth would let him go. Angeal, she wasn't sure what may have become of him.
"I don't think so. If he did, they would have us scrambling to make sure he didn't leave the city, or at least tell us to be on the lookout for him," Cloud replied. "I'm guessing more they don't want it slipping out to the public that Genesis isn't really dead, and want to make it hard for AVALANCHE to find out themselves if he's still with us."
"Makes sense," Aerith nodded, again impressed with how quickly Cloud judged the situation. Not for the first time she found herself surprised by how deceptively intelligent he could be in spite of his naïve attitude most of the time.
"So what happened to you down there?" Cloud said suddenly, the two stopping as a string of medical personnel crossed the street in front of them carrying two stretchers, each filled with a Third Class SOLDIER.
"I…" Aerith thought about how to respond. All she had seen down there, all she had learned. Was she safe to admit her new hesitations to Cloud? He was intelligent, but she had seen nothing to suggest he was nothing but absolutely loyal to the company. Could she trust him?
"Yes?" Cloud prompted, looking at her curiously.
"I…learned," Aerith settled on. "I really didn't know this city was just a plate over some forgotten hellhole down there. I didn't think you could be telling the truth before."
"Some people even now don't really believe it, out in the world," Cloud agreed. "They have it pretty rough down there I hear. I've been down there for training exercises, it's awful."
"Why does Shinra allow people to live down there?" Aerith asked.
"The people down there are employed, some of them, for Shinra. There's recycling plants down there, scrap processing, construction, military hardware, manufacturing works. An easier way to think of it is that it's literally a slum, the industrial sector where the lower-income families have to stay."
"It shouldn't be easier. We shouldn't be making excuses for having people live with a giant steel plate over their heads," Aerith said bitterly. She remembered the giant columns down there, the piles of scrap, the vast sheet of metal blotting out the sky overhead. She had a flash vision of what would happen if one of those columns were gone and the plate came crashing down, the sky overhead descending with no hope of escape and nothing to do but watch it come knowing…
"I know. It sucks. But moping about how it sucks won't make it suck less," Cloud shrugged. "It's just how things are down there, little we can do." The two reached Sector 8 and Aerith looked up at the Shinra Headquarters.
"Yes there is," she whispered, Cloud not hearing her.
"Work to make it better."
"Aerith!" Zack ran forward as Aerith stepped off the elevator on the 49th floor and hugged her. Aerith returned the gesture, relieved to see him and not caring right now if anyone mocked her later if they saw this. Behind them Cloud stepped over and looked away sheepishly.
"You alright?" she asked.
"A little banged up, but nothing a quick trip to the doctor can't handle. Speaking of," Aerith looked down and fingered the slash across her uniform where Elfé had cut into her stomach. It had scabbed over, but the wound still looked angry, and given her time in the slums she couldn't say with certainty that it wouldn't be infected. "Is the medical center accepting?"
"Yeah, Shinra insisted on its personal staff staying here if they were needed, they've been relocated to the waiting room here." Zack turned to Cloud. "Thanks for getting her here."
"You're welcome. The streets are taken care of, patrols are still moving, not much we can do unless they find something," Cloud replied. Aerith watched noting that Zack's voice had taken on the more authoritative tone she remembered him using in Junon. Cloud was mostly the same, though he may have been standing up a bit straighter.
"Good. Head to the executive room and tell them Aerith has returned to the building safely."
"Understood." Cloud saluted and boarded the elevator again, the doors closing as he pressed a button inside.
"Fancy ourselves a leader?" Aerith said to Zack, trying to sound amused so he didn't take her too seriously. She wasn't sure if he caught it, because while he wasn't offended, he wasn't taking the joke either.
"It's our duty. Part of the SOLDIER manual, when a lesser-ranked member of Shinra needs direction, you give it to them as best as you're able, regardless of your own rank," Zack replied. "Technically Cloud could already be ordering around infantry. They wouldn't listen I'll bet, given he's a newbie, but he could pull rank on them."
"I need to get around to reading that manual one of these days," Aerith nodded, heading towards the waiting area. Sure enough, several small beds from a barracks had been set up along with trays of medical equipment. A few wounded infantryman were sitting off to one side, one had his arm in a sling, another had a crutch leaning on the wall behind him.
"Hey," Aerith waved at the nearest doctor, who looked up at the greeting. "If you've time, care to take a look at this?" Aerith moved her uniform top to show the wound. "Got cut up and dropped into the slums with the wound still open."
"We've already seen the most serious cases, we have time. Have a seat, take off your shirt," the doctor instructed. Aerith say down on one of the bed as the doctor grabbed a curtain that had been hung between two mobile poles with a track running between them and pulled it around to give them privacy. Now it was just her, Zack, and the doctor. Aerith looked at Zack expectantly, and he turned around. Looking back, Aerith lifted the uniform over her head, leaving her clad in her black bra from the waist up. The male doctor maintained professionalism and knelt down to finger the wound.
"A nasty scrape indeed. It's scabbed over now but it may be infected, especially if you were in the slums. It's best to be sure." He stood and grabbed a pair of gloves. "Lay back." Aerith moved to fully lay back on the bed, the ceiling coming into view overheard. The doctor sat by the bed, a wad of surgical cloth and a pair of surgical scissors in one hand, and bottle of antiseptic in his hands, and put them down. "Alright, this will hurt a bit," he warned, easing the scissors open. Aerith hissed slightly at the cool metal but didn't make another sound as the doctor carefully used the blades to peel off the scab.
"Has it begun bleeding again?" she wondered aloud.
"No." the doctor splashed some antiseptic on the cloth and unrolled it to lay it against the cut. "Hold this in place," he instructed, turning his head. Aerith lifted her head to see he was talking to Zack, who came closer to hold the cloth down now. The doctor turned to grab a roll of surgical tape, pulling out a long strip. Aerith gave Zack a knowing look as he smiled at her.
"Don't get any ideas," she warned.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Zack's smile turned into a smirk. Aerith rolled her eyes and put her head back down as the doctor ran the tape over the cloth lengthwise, then cut off two shorter strips to run over the cloth the other direction.
"You're wearing it," Zack said.
"Eh?" Aerith replied. Zack nodded at her arm and Aerith looked to see the red ribbon wrapped around her bicep. "Oh…well, yeah. Was a gift, sort of have to, right?"
"No you don't. If you didn't want to wear it I wouldn't mind," Zack shrugged. Aerith gave him an odd look. Was he testing her, or being sincere?
"…I'm fine. Covers the scar," she decided. Zack nodded as the doctor finished bandaging her.
"Alright, should be fine, can take that off tomorrow morning," he said.
"Elfé gave you that I presume," Zack said.
"Yup," Aerith nodded, sitting up as the doctor finished his work and grabbing her uniform top.
"That's one of the benefits of using a sword over a staff. If you want to fight her on equal ground, couldn't hurt to carry one with you," Zack suggested.
"No thanks. I've got enough," Aerith replied as she pulled her top on. "I've trained with the staff for years, a bit late to pick up the sword now." She stood up. "So, you seem to know what's going on with damage control. What do we do now?"
"We'll need to report to Director Lazard that you've returned, and he'll want a debriefing on what happened in the reactor," Zack explained. Aerith nodded, suddenly nervous. She'd best start thinking up a quick and simple cover story to avoid explaining she helped Elfé and AVALANCHE escape. Lazard was reasonable and friendly, but he would certainly see it as an act of treason. Aerith wasn't entirely sure she would disagree with that perception.
"Why did I help them?" she thought as she followed Zack to the elevators. She was loyal to Shinra, she knew that. She had no illusions about the truth of the company, they were corrupt bastards and a few choice members in particular had made her life hell. But a few others had made her life better, and they employed people, they gave them a means to live, provided electricity to the world. She thought back to Jake and the slums and the Plate. Yes, life down in the slums was miserable, but up here on the Plate, it was comfortable enough, right? Good and evil in equal measure it seemed.
"I'm rationalizing that hellhole?" Aerith was angry with herself for where her thoughts had taken her. Shinra had promised the slum residents a place on the Plate they were raising over their heads and instead trapped them below like vermin. They needed someone to help them, and Shinra obviously didn't care, so who if not AVALANCHE? Then…
"I'm starting to agree with Angeal," Aerith thought aloud, drawing Zack's attention. "Things were easier back before this all began. When we had clear lines."
"What's that?" Zack asked, confused and stopping.
"Forget it," Aerith replied, walking past him to the elevator. She thought again though about those Whole Eaters and Jake's calm appraisal of the number of people they killed regularly. "Zack, what do you know about the monster patrol missions?" she asked as she pushed the button for the elevator.
"Almost no one takes them because they're simple, boring, and there's always more. Why?" Zack said.
"Have you ever taken one?"
"A few, yeah."
"So you know what they are then. Protecting the slums from monsters."
"Yeah, what about it?"
"So you know there are monsters down there, and Shinra just keeps them contained, rather than wipe them out," Aerith pressed. "Why?"
"…huh. Guess I'd never really thought of it," Zack admitted, rubbing his neck. "Why, were things bad down there when you were down there?"
"Things were hideous," Aerith emphasized. "It's dark, it's filthy, the rubble crawls with monsters. Zack, how can anyone live there?"
"It's not easy. They scrounge choice scrap from the rubble and sell it to the merchants who bring down supplies from the plate. Old electronics parts, anything that hasn't rusted away, stuff that can be broken down or recycled. Some also work as monster patrollers for the company, or run maintenance on city facilities down there."
"It's not right. They shouldn't be forced to live that way," Aerith said.
"They aren't. Shinra's never forced anyone to move down there," Zack said, confused.
"Then why not leave? There's other villages, or with the people down there, just found a new village."
"Because it's their home. People defend their homes," Zack shrugged. "Even if home sucks, it's where you were raised, so you get attached." Aerith thought back to the dust, the darkness, the stink and the rubble and the monsters.
"No one would call that home, and if they did they're idiots," she resolved, making sense of it as she could.
Aerith and Zack rounded the pillar in the center of the floor in Lazard's office, and stopped. Sitting behind the desk, eyes darting up as they came into view, was Sephiroth.
"Where's Lazard?" Zack asked as they came closer. Sephiroth leaned forward in his chair, clasping his hands in front of his face. Aerith was surprised to see him like this. He looked tired, weary, concerned. Entirely unlike him. She didn't bother to find some silver lining and savor him looking this way, if he did, it meant something awful had happened.
"He is no longer here," Sephiroth began slowly. "We believe that Bahamut and the chaos in the streets was a diversion. During the attack, Director Lazard ignored Angeal's efforts to get him to a panic room, and returned here to coordinate our efforts for a counter-strike. A force of AVALANCHE soldiers infiltrated the building and abducted him."
"He wasn't guarded?" Aerith asked angrily. Lazard gone. SOLDIER's noble and honorable director kidnapped. She felt disgusted with herself for falling for AVALANCHE's diversion, and that disgust soon shifted irrationally to Angeal who had claimed he was on his way to safety.
"Yes, by the Turks. Rude and Esma were severely wounded trying to protect him. The AVALANCHE troops carrying out the mission were different. We believe they may have been the Ravens Genesis spoke of. They overpowered several SOLDIER operatives on their way to Lazard, mostly through numbers, but their combat skills were evident even so."
"So…all that, the summoning, the civilian attacks, the Mako Reactors exploding, all a decoy for Lazard?" Zack asked. Sephiroth nodded. Aerith made a face. Her fury for AVALANCHE built up again in an instance. All that chaos just for Lazard. There had to be a simpler way. How could they possibly posture with any sense of righteousness after this? Elfé had said she wanted to see the tower burn. Did that extend to all the Plate? Would she really use the conditions of the slums or the rest of the world to justify that much carnage?
"What's the state of the city now? It looks pretty awful down there, and there was a lot of fighting," Zack continued. Sephiroth sat back in his chair.
"Yes, there was. Many members of Shinra's infantry were killed or mortally wounded, as were several members of SOLDIER. Movement through the sectors and the train tunnels is halted except on company business while we investigate how AVALANCHE was able to move such large numbers of troops into the city so quickly. That and the bombing of the 49th floor make it unquestionable that Hollander is not the only turncoat in the company. Clearly, someone still working here is aiding AVALANCHE, someone with authority and access."
"Who?" Aerith demanded. She was eager to see justice done, find out who had nearly sold them all out and make them pay.
"Hard to say, could be almost anyone. I might personally suspect Lazard, but his own life was endangered today, and if he was their mole then AVALANCHE wouldn't take him from here. Could be one of the executives. We'll be all closely watched in the coming days, for they will be trying ones. Shinra infantry troops are being organized to patrol the city to keep order and uncover any potential AVALANCHE spies."
"Keep order?" Zack asked. "We routed them and sent them packing, didn't we?"
"The destruction of two Mako Reactors will strain the city's power supply. Reeve from Urban Development is preparing construction crews to erect power lines to bring surplus energy from the Kalm reactor in a few days. Might be enough, more likely not. In the more likely case that this will not bring us back to full capacity, the city will be struggling with brownouts, and we'll have to organize controlled blackouts of sectors until we can begin to pursue alternative, long-term plans for powering the city fully. Proper reconstruction of the reactors will take at least three months under optimal conditions, and if we're at war again, materials and manpower will be in short supply to spare for city projects."
"And you?" Aerith gestured to the desk. "What's all this, you knowing all this, calling us to meet here." Sephiroth stood and crossed to the window, folding his hands behind his back. Aerith grew more concerned now. Sephiroth never hesitated like this, not that she saw.
"In Director Lazard's absence, President Shinra and the board have appointed me as acting head of SOLDIER," Sephiroth explained.
"What?" Aerith exclaimed. "That's …they're giving their best operative a desk job?" The news confused her. Sephiroth's power would have been of immense use again the Ravens and Genesis, why would they keep him here?
"They do not trust me in the field. AVALANCHE has another spy in our ranks, after all. Given Genesis's betrayal, even Angeal and I are not above suspicion."
"What!?" Zack cried. "That's ridiculous!"
"I agree. Angeal is completely loyal, as am I. But Shinra will not hear of it."
"So it makes much more sense to put a potential spy in charge of SOLDIER, right?" Aerith snorted.
"All my orders will be funneled through Veld and the Turks before they are authorized for dispersal, and my emails and phone calls will be monitored," Sephiroth explained. "Movements outside the building are not to be undertaken without Turk escort. Every action I take will have eyes observing me even if I am not made aware of them." Sephiroth's eyes darted up to the walls. "I have heard talk of 24-hour security cameras being installed here and in my quarters."
Aerith stared, stunned at Sephiroth's words. Shinra was treating their own hero like a traitor, a prisoner.
"And Angeal?" Zack asked, reaching the same thought Aerith was coming to.
"He is being placed under similar restrictions. All missions and assignments he takes will be done with Turk supervision."
"That's stupid," Zack almost growled. Aerith lowered her eyes to the empty chair behind Lazard's desk. The city in ruins, SOLDIER down their leader, their strongest operatives under watch, and the entire planet now knew AVALANCHE was strong enough to challenge Shinra and escape to fight them again.
"They've really done it, haven't they?" she whispered. "They did what they said they would. They killed Shinra."
"No," Sephiroth said sharply, turning around. "Shinra is not dead. They have indeed dealt us a hammer blow, but we are not dead for it. Wounded, but not dead. Not by far. That is why I've called you two here. Aerith, with Genesis gone and I barred from field work, after Angeal you are my choice for our most powerful operative. Zack, you and she work well together and you yourself are a promising Second. You two are on indefinite standby. No missions, no assignments."
"The hell!?" Aerith cursed.
"None, because I may call on you," Sephiroth continued, cutting her protests off and stepping back to the desks. "That is to say I will call on you. I will be speaking to Veld in private about organizing it further. Word of this does not leave the three of us until I speak to him, understood?"
"Word of what?" Zack asked.
"I will be arranging for covert operations with the Turks, the two of you as well as Angeal. If we are to be observed, we will make use of their other talents in the field. You will accompany them to pursue leads on AVALANCHE's bases of operation. If we find a major seat of power, the full arm of Shinra's might will crush it. Smaller bases and camps, you and the Turks will wipe them out. I have spoken to President Shinra, the only one outside the Turks and us to know of this directive, and he has authorized you to exercise SOLDIER policy 12-E."
"Exercise what?" Aerith said, confused. She had never read any manual of codes.
"We have complete impunity on missions," Zack explained. "We can do whatever we want as long as it gets the mission done. Kill, destroy, lie to other company employees, anything. The book just said that doing things by-the-book is out the window." Aerith was discomforted with that authorization. She had never followed official policy much, but she was at least aware there were lines that could not be crossed. And she'd never killed anyone, beaten them unconscious many times, but killing, no.
"Sounds extreme," she said lamely.
"Yes. Shinra is angry, and AVALANCHE will know our fury," Sephiroth said lowly. He put his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "This is the company's sole directive now, all efforts are being redirected to eradicating AVALANCHE. You will be our spotters with which to pinpoint targets for the full tempest of Shinra's rage. This operation is of the greatest importance. Top secret. High risk. All I ask now, is for you to accept this, because even if I could, I will not force you. I know you're both conflicted and have questions, and Angeal and I do as well. But I need you all to be with me on this. I can trust no one else but the three of you now. I cannot trust the executives if they distrust me and when one of them is certainly a spy."
Aerith thought for a moment. She understood the power trust held for someone in Sephiroth's position. She held out her hand. Sephiroth looked down at it, then took it and slowly shook it, the two holding the other's eyes.
"It will be an honor, Director," she said slowly. Sephiroth nodded and Zack held out his own hand.
"I'm in," he agreed, Sephiroth taking his hand.
"Good," Sephiroth said, his mood lifting, Aerith noticed. "Return to your rooms and rest your wounds. I would debrief you normally, but at the moment there are more urgent matters, and I'm sure you would appreciate being able to compose your thoughts for that. I'll call for you three together tomorrow, and we'll discuss our next moves then. Dismissed." Zack saluted, then turned and began walking back to the elevators.
Aerith instead stayed behind. Against her better judgment and usual feelings for the man in front of her, she was worried about Sephiroth. He was visibly shaken. The day had been hardest on him, she presumed. Genesis confirmed to be a willing turncoat and engaging him, Lazard gone and Sephiroth thrust into his place, being suspect of treason, and having to help oversee the reconstruction of the city.
"So, how's it feel?" she asked.
"How does what feel?"
Aerith reached out and tapped two fingers on the edge of the desk between them.
"Your gilded cage," she said knowingly.
Sephiroth sat back in his chair and let out a long breath.
"The bars already seem to be shrinking in on me," he admitted. "I have been aware that any time Shinra wished, they could take my freedom from me, make my life no longer my own, my choices up to them to decide if I can follow them. I am powerful, but I am also loyal, a chain I chose myself in lieu of them using a chain of their own. I never expected them to actually do it anyway."
"You get used to it," Aerith said softly. Her hatred soothed for a moment to offer words of sympathy to her rival, seeing his unsettled he was, sitting in a paradox of simultaneously having more and less power than he had a few hours ago. Sephiroth was a universal symbol of order and control in both positive and negative ways, he never lost his composure. The Great Sephiroth was never worried, or anxious, or tired. Until now.
"I am sure you of all would know that. Angeal and I may be trapped in cages of gold, but at least, they are of gold. More than I would imagine you could say," Sephiroth replied.
"I get by."
"Your ignorance is what sustains you," Sephiroth said. Aerith bristled slightly, taking the words as an insult before Sephiroth continued. "You have lived your entire life in a cage of iron. And then you were freed to live in one of silver. You have more freedom now than once before. But 'more' is a relative term. You still are a prisoner."
"For now," Aerith said sharply. "I will make First soon. And my cage will be shattered. You may now be the one to stand before me and tell me I've been promoted."
"Little would please me more at this moment," Sephiroth said.
"I feel the same," Aerith replied. Sephiroth was silent, then smiled.
"Look at that. Prisoners in arms for only a few moments and already we have begun to understand each other," he chuckled slightly.
"Yeah. Stop it," Aerith said, not having as much ferocity in her voice as she had attempted.
"Hate me if you must, if that is what you need to motivate you," Sephiroth said simply. "My only wish is that, once you achieve First, you can let go of that hate and understand we do not have to be enemies."
"No, we don't. But I'm not keen on us being friends, either," Aerith replied. Sephiroth didn't reply for several seconds, and when he did, it was not further banter.
"I will contact you when I have my first assignment for you. Until then, please refrain from strenuous missions or other activities."
Missions. With the news of Lazard's capture and Sephiroth's new status, Aerith had forgotten.
"Being that you're the Director now, how about a question on company policy?" Aerith asked.
"Be quick of it, there is still chaos to bring to order," Sephiroth gestured with a hand.
"While I was in the slums, I was attacked by monsters. Whole Eaters."
"Yes, the slums are often prone to monster attacks, many have made nests underground and in the rubble. You were unharmed I presume?"
"Some of the residents down there said Shinra posts missions about the monsters only when they get too numerous." Aerith felt her anger at the company begin to rise again as Jack's words about people dying 'once a month' echoed in her head. "Why not just wipe them out?"
"Several have asked that same question in the past, including myself. I'll give you the same answer Director Lazard once gave me," Sephiroth began. "The reason is two-fold. The effort needed to scour the slums of monsters would be prohibitively high, the cost, men and time needed would be a considerable investment in company resources. Second, given that even before the Plate was finished construction anti-Shinra sentiment was in the slums, it has been decided that as long as the monsters are kept out of populated areas, it is better to let them infest the rubble piles and outskirts of civilization to deny anti-Shinra activists a safe haven to plot from."
"…let them," Aerith muttered, her anger growing to full rage. She barely kept her temper in check by reminding herself that Sephiroth was not responsible for this, he was merely relaying information. "And by the time Shinra can be bothered to care, they've already killed people, Sephiroth. Citizens are dying down there."
"Citizens are dying worldwide," Sephiroth said simply. "That is an unfortunate and unpleasant side-effect of war, Aerith. One you are going to have to come to terms with now that you are fighting one on the frontlines. If it is of any consolation, given that AVALANCHE has demonstrated the capacity to infiltrate Midgar, I am certain that it will soon be ordered for patrols in the slums to be stepped up to ensure they will find no sanctuary down there. But that will be for Heidegger and the Department of Public Safety Maintenance to decide, SOLDIER's efforts will be directed elsewhere."
"It's a start," Aerith nodded. "But they'll still just be holding the monsters back, not wiping them out. That's what needs to be done in the end."
"It is for the best," Sephiroth assured her. "I will warn you now, Aerith, of something I had to learn with difficulty as my standing in Shinra improved. Great deeds cannot be accomplished without some measure of unpleasantness, moreso if those great deeds are good ones. If you aspire to heroism and morality, you're going to have to become comfortable with doing terrible things to see those goals through."
"Poetic. You're already starting to talk like Lazard, but that's not the advice he would have given," Aerith said, not having much reaction otherwise to Sephiroth's words. On a personal level, even if she was unpleasant to her comrades and was serving a company as corrupt as Shinra, she comforted herself that in the field, she fought to protect people. She wasn't sure if Sephiroth was trying to goad her, trying to test her, or if it was a sincere warning.
"I am not Lazard. For better or worse."
"Let's hope it's for better," Aerith nodded. Sephiroth began to speak again, but her anger had burned itself out, leaving her hollow and bitter. The wound on her stomach was itching, her mind was still rumbling with conflicting thoughts and emotions, she had to get her phone repaired or replaced. And she was hungry to boot. Too much to deal with, Sephiroth had given them the night off, more or less, she could use that now. Tuning out Sephiroth's words as he began to speak again, Aerith turned and left the office.
"Shinra lets monsters kill the citizens under their watch under the Plate as AVALANCHE unleashes summons on the citizens on top of it," she thought. The arguments she had challenged herself with regarding the morality of her superiors and her enemies were promptly discarded. "Right now they can both burn for all I care." Content with her appraisal of the two, she gathered the rest of her conflicting thoughts and emotions on Shinra and the slums and set them aside to be dealt with later. Or, more conveniently, she'd bury them so deep she wouldn't have to think about them anymore.
This story now has a page on TV Tropes! Search Mother's Legacy on the site to find it and please contribute if you can.