No your eyes do not deceive, this is an update. College and lack of interest kept me down on this during the first few months of 2013, but I'm on summer break now and wanna try to get this going again. Feedback is very appreciated, really, I confess I get discouraged if I think people aren't interested in my work and I really like these story concepts here, so drop a review!
To her great disappointment, Aerith was underwhelmed by Midgar itself. The city's paved streets and dull green and brown and grey buildings faded into an indecipherable mess as Zack lead her through them, telling her about the city. Most of it were things she already knew between the news reports and her education, founded by Shinra to be their seat of power, formed by eight smaller villages united under Shinra, now the Sectors of the city. She was grateful to have him with her, she would have gotten lost on her own.
As they walked, Aerith noticed the civilian population, sparse though it was, occasionally giving her odd looks and heard faint whispers from people she and Zack passed. She recognized the looks from the Thirds and wagered the whispering was of the same, the surprise and confusion over seeing a woman in a SOLDIER uniform. A part of her had wondered if Shinra made her existence public, but in hindsight she now realized that was a dumb question. Of course her existence wasn't open knowledge, she wasn't a First or one of their 'heroes', why would the public care who she was or Shinra want them to know about her? That would change soon.
"We're here," Zack grinned, pushing open the dark doors to a restaurant. Aerith looked up at the sign.
"The Dancing Cactuar," she muttered, a green figure posed as if running forming the body of a sign with the name written over it in neon lights. "I want a real meal, Zack."
"Relax, this place is great, may not look like much but they have an awesome cook," Zack assured her, waving her inside. Aerith followed. The restaurant was more a small café, a long counter running along the length of the narrow interior with tables in front of the windows. It wasn't lit very brightly, and some sort of guitar music played gently in the background over the radio.
"My confidence is not heightened," she muttered.
"Helena?" Zack called, turning his head. The place was empty, but Aerith could hear distant sounds in the back. The door to the kitchens opened and a blond head of hair poked out, brown eyes widening.
"Zack! Oh hi!" Helena said. "Sorry about not being out there, Keiran is still having trouble with the new doors to the freezer."
"No sweat," Zack grinned as Helena walked closer.
"Who's your friend?" Helena asked, turning to Aerith.
"She's Aerith. Get used to her, you'll be seeing a lot of us here together from now on."
"Don't bet on it," Aerith muttered.
"She your girlfriend?" Helena asked, winking.
"If you dare answer that the way I know you're about to," Aerith cut in as she saw Zack's mouth begin to move, "you'll be hobbling back to the tower when we're done." Zack gave her a knowing smirk and shrugged at Helana.
"You heard the lady," he said. Helena nodded with a smile.
"So the usual?" Helena asked.
"Sure, what you want Aerith?"
"Two, I guess."
Helena nodded and walked back into the kitchens, leaving Zack to sit down at a counter and wait for Aerith to sit down opposite him.
"She seems nice, huh?" Zack prompted.
"How much have you flirted with her?" Aerith asked dryly.
"Hey!" Zack cried defensively. Aerith looked at him. "…not that much," Zack admitted. "Loosen up, you're out, you're about, you're eating in a real restaurant. Isn't this what you've always wanted?"
"I guess," Aerith muttered. "It'll take time to sink in, I suppose." To herself she admitted she was disappointed both with the new world open to her now, and with herself for not embracing it. "What was it Genesis quoted one time? 'Freedom is its own objective'. Makes sense. Being free for the sake of being free…the novelty is wearing away fast." She was free now, but for what? To go about Midgar? Why, it wasn't like she'd be getting to know the city for any real reason. Missions, maybe. That was something, Aerith realized, she could look around Midgar and familiarize herself with it for when she had to take on a task here. If nothing else it would distract her for a while from her own confusing emotions.
"So what's this 'usual'?" Aerith asked.
"Bacon cheeseburger with wedge fries," Zack said simply.
"Never heard of either," Aerith said.
"Really? Wow you've gotta get out more," Zack quipped. "Trust me, it's good." Aerith made a sound of acknowledgement, and Zack looked at her curiously as she looked over her shoulder to examine the restaurant. She really didn't know what to make of the place, he noticed. He had heard the tales that she was never let out of the building, but he didn't think they were absolutely true. "You know…you never have told me how you came to be raised in Shinra."
"I know," Aerith said, not turning around.
"Must have been sheltered if you're reacting this strangely to just eating out."
"Bait me all you like, won't work," she said evenly. Zack made a face as she shut him down.
"For all her hatred, she and Sephiroth are too much alike sometimes," he thought, keeping the comment to himself because he knew what type of retaliation it would provoke.
"For that matter," Aerith said suddenly, "how come you latched onto me ever since you joined SOLDIER?"
"What, a guy can't just like a cute girl?" Zack winked. Aerith snorted.
"You like all girls regardless of looks."
"That's not true," Zack said defensively. "I mean, not only if they're cute, but…wow, that was a loaded statement."
"Yup," Aerith smirked. Zack looked away from her and did a double take as he saw out the window. Aerith noticed and turned her head where he was looking.
"They come here often?" she muttered, giving Zack a sideways look.
"Now and then," Zack admitted. "Didn't think they'd show today." The doors to the restaurant opened, two men and two women, all four in black suits, stepping inside.
"Best thing about this place – it's slow," one of them said. Aerith looked over her shoulder. She recognized one of them from Junon, Reno. The other man with him she didn't know, he had medium-length black hair, glasses, and a jagged scar under his cheek. The two women, one had long dark gray hair, the other, shorter red hair.
"Know them?" she whispered.
"The cute redhead is Cissnei, the other woman is Esma. Cissnei's cool, Esma's a bit quiet. Don't know the guy in the glasses," Zack replied. The woman he had called Cissnei turned her head.
"Hey Zack," she called softly. "Who's this?"
"Yo," Zack said, lifting his hand in a wave. "You probably never met her. Aerith, say hi,"
"Aerith," the man in the glasses said, narrowing his eyes slightly as he turned to her. "The Second Class? I thought you were under restricted movements. No exit from the building."
"I've been freed up," she replied, turning her head his way. "Didn't you get the memo?"
"We've received no notifications of this."
"Happened earlier today, ask Lazard."
"As you wish." The man took out his cellphone and flipped through the menu.
"Hiya Aerith," Reno waved. "Meet Cissnei, Esma, and Mr. Policy, who also goes by Errol." Errol lifted his phone to his ear.
"Director Lazard, Errol of the Turks. I'm inquiring about the status of SOLDIER Second Class Aerith…" Errol waited. "I see. Apologies for disturbing you sir…I will. Thank you." He hung up. "Apologies, he hasn't sent out the notifications of your status update yet."
"You can apologize by letting me enjoy my first meal out of that building in peace," Aerith said. Errol nodded and walked away, sitting in a booth on the other end of the building.
"Talk about your cold shoulder," Reno snickered, following him. Cissnei and Esma followed him in turn, Cissnei waving at Zack again.
"Friends with the Turks?" Aerith asked.
"SOLDIER works with them sometimes, they're intelligence and special ops, we're the muscle. Why, got something against them?"
"No. Just curious." Aerith really didn't have anything against the Turks, but she had learned to avoid them as a matter of principle. The Turks were higher-ranking than her, she heard they operated outside standard company hierarchy, their commander reporting directly to the President and their briefings coming from the same. The arrangement meant they were another group Aerith couldn't trust as friends or allies, because their loyalties were outside her small, confined world in SOLDIER.
"Here's your order Zack," Helena walked up to the table, setting down two plates. "I gotta serve them, I'll trust you to pay on the way out."
"Thanks," Zack grinned. Aerith looked at her plate – what did Zack say those were, wedge fries? – and picked up her burger with strips of baking poking out from the sides.
"Go ahead, dig in," Zack encouraged her, taking a bite of his own. "Get used to good food like that, unless you object we're gonna be coming here a lot." Aerith mentally shrugged and bit in, chewing cautiously.
"Not bad," she admitted.
"Letting her out is premature at this time, sir. It isn't too late to reconsider," Hojo hissed.
"With Genesis gone and the usefulness of Sephiroth and Angeal in doubt for the immediate future, we need operatives to contain the AVALANCHE situation. Aerith is needed now, not when you decide we can use her," President Shinra replied.
"But she's a valuable specimen, letting her run wild will endanger the integrity of the project!"
"Valuable specimen?" Lazard smirked beside him. "You make no secret of her inferiority to Sephiroth. What value is she to you?"
"I told you, she's reached the projected age, the cells are due to begin maturing," Hojo said. "Her powers could be growing exponentially as we speak, and if I can't monitor her in a controlled environment and see what's actually happening to her, there's no telling what she could do."
"You've kept her under lock and key for years now, professor, and for what? To wait and see what happens?" Lazard asked.
"You can't rush science of this magnitude. You know as well as I do that the samples are running low, we can't keep the specimen viable forever and any batch could be the last one. Unless I can study Aerith and develop new theories, the days of SOLDIER are done."
"You will have your data, professor, there is nothing stopping your regular examinations from proceeding as usual," President Shinra said. "However, we need Aerith now more than you do. I and SOLDIER owe you a debt for your experimentations, consider this repayment."
"This isn't some financial agreement you can cash in any time you want!" Hojo protested.
"Mind who you speak to," President Shinra said lowly. "We do not fund you so you can experiment however you like, you are funded to develop the methods of SOLDIER augmentation to new heights, and you have done exceedingly well at that. But unless you have proof to back up your arguments that confining Aerith will aid in that goal, then she will continue to be employed as a field operative and not as your lab mouse. Are we clear?"
"No!" Hojo snapped.
"Too bad," the President cut off before he could continue. "Now, Lazard, you had business as well?"
"Yes sir. Reports from Kalm in the aftermath of Genesis' vanishing act." Lazard handed the President a file folder, which he took and flipped open. "Rude and Tseng are trying to keep a lid on things down there, but suspicions are mounting. And there's been suspicious activity around the caves. The two of them have tried to investigate alone, but there's been too many people there to avoid detection."
"Likely, given the timing of Genesis going missing. Though it would be a grievous circumstance, we must face the likely possibility that Genesis is a turncoat."
"No great loss. We don't need a failed experiment clogging our ranks, especially one so easily swayed away," Hojo sneered.
"Genesis was an invaluable member of our ranks, Hojo. His loss is heavy, for more than one reason," President Shinra corrected. "We're facing more issues now than just AVALANCHE's mischief. Genesis was one of the most beloved SOLDIERs of the public, both for his combat skills and his scholarly pursuits. If he were to side with AVALANCHE, who already trumpet nonsense about fighting for the planet, he could be the symbol they need to rally other disgruntled enemies of ours to their cause. And the people will grow uneasy, even here."
"The heroes of SOLDIER help pacify them, give us a better name and help cover up the more unsavory aspects of our rise to power," Lazard agreed. "To have one abandon us is bound to get people thinking about why he might do so."
"Well, we can't have them start 'thinking' can we?" the president snorted. "Suggestions, Lazard?"
"Smoke and mirrors, smudge Genesis's name and seed doubt about how righteous he truly was. And at the same time replace him with a new symbol, one more striking, to draw attention."
"Yes, good…what about Aerith?"
"Her?" Hojo muttered.
"The first and only female SOLDIER, a young up-and-comer in Second, and just as powerful as any First. I can't say I can think of a more suitable foil to Sephiroth and Angeal."
"She may be powerful, but she's not among my top choices for the most charismatic or likeable of our ranks," Lazard said, wary.
"A trivial concern. Charisma can be taught more easily than skill, with the right teacher. See that she gets one, Lazard. And get Veld and the Turks on cooking up some sort of story for her. Something tragic but triumphant I think, adversity breeding a warrior has a fairy tale aspect to it that should take well. Questions are going to be asked about her past, and we'll need the right answers. Get to it."
"Yes sir," Lazard bowed his head and hurried away.
"And you, Professor, I'm sure you've some gene code or chemical formula to work on," President Shinra said dismissively.
"Mr. President, I must again voice my protest on usage of Aerith," Hojo said.
"Of course you must," the president smirked, sipping his coffee.
"She is a delicate experiment, the metamorphosis she's about to undergo could make her unstable. Putting her in the spotlight suddenly is dangerous. She's not simply a toy we can play with."
"I must disagree, Professor," President Shinra cut off. "If you'll recall our conversations about her when you first proposed your ideas for the new Project, that was precisely the usage we kept her alive for." He smiled. "Besides, all tests of new equipment need a beta, a trial run, don't they? Consider this such a trial run, to prepare our public and our public relations for the rise of the next generation of SOLDIER."
"The meal would have been better without the Turks watching us like vultures," Aerith muttered as Zack lead her back to Shinra.
"It's their job, gotta know everything or something like that," he shrugged. Aerith once again noticed the people they passed in the streets watching her. There were more people now, Zack said the work day was beginning and people were on their way to jobs and their children on their way to school. She saw them turn heads to stare at her, but no one had the courage to confront the two SOLDIER members casually going about their day. Aerith was grateful for it, she didn't care to be interrogated by random members of the public.
"So how long before we get our first assignment?" Zack asked.
"Don't know, Lazard said we'll be used as needed but it'll take a few days for the bureaucratic stuff to clear. For missions we're being confined to Midgar – or at least I am. Guess if you're out on your own I'm stuck at home."
"That's a drag," Zack muttered. "Well, if you've got full clearance to the tower now, I can show you around while we wait for something to come in."
"Well, what all are we allowed? Is there anything worth visiting regularly besides the training room?" Aerith asked.
"A bit. 56 through 58 are the barracks, but 58 is for Firsts so it's restricted. 54 and 55 are for security, we're allowed around any time but no real reason to go. 52 and 53 are Weapon Development, we occasionally go there to pick up or help test equipment. Lazard's office is on 51, 50 is a briefing area, and below that aside from 49 I think it's just offices, we aren't allowed in them. 64 is a recreational area, exercise machines and the like. That's about it."
"So aside from 64, no not much to do there," Aerith summarized.
"Nope," Zack agreed. "Sorry. Expecting more?"
"A bit. The real pleasure will be when I can start taking on missions, then I'll be out of that place so often I won't care there's nothing in the building worth visiting," Aerith smiled. The two crossed the street, the Shinra Headquarters coming closer. Aerith stopped and turned her head as a billboard on a building caught her eye.
"What is it?" Zack asked, stopping and turning back to her.
"LOVELESS?" Aerith asked, the billboard showing two male figures dueling as a female looked on. Laying behind them in the background was a wounded third male. Down the street was what looked like a theater, people coming up and a news camera crew with a reporter set up on the sidewalk.
"Yeah, it was adapted as a play, big hit here in Midgar. Didn't you know?" Zack asked, walking back to her. "Genesis goes on about it all the time."
"That explains why I didn't know, I tune Genesis out," Aerith replied. "Or…used to tune. Tuned him out." It felt odd to talk about Genesis in the past tense. He surely wasn't dead, Zack said Sephiroth confirmed he lived. But he may have just been keeping to a cover story, everyone knew Shinra had their operatives memorize 'official' versions of events more palatable for public knowledge. There was no way to be sure. She could ask people but of course she wouldn't know for sure if they replied truthfully. Aerith supposed she'd be given the same sort of treatment now, told lies to repeat to others.
"Last version of the play I heard, three friends are serving in the war, the Hero, the Prisoner, and the Traveler. The Prisoner is captured by enemy forces, and he escapes and is taken care of by a woman in the enemy nation that he falls in love with. The Traveler becomes a nomad, seeking the Gift of the Goddess thinking it can end the war and fighting both sides to find it. The Hero follows the Traveler, and as the Prisoner tries to end the war himself and gets killed, the Hero and the Traveler fight for the Gift of the Goddess. There's been a lot of other versions though, in some all three of them fight in the end, in one the woman was a lover to all three of them at different times, in one version the woman was the Goddess all along. No one knows what the original poems really mean, so they keep changing the play to keep it fresh and portray different interpretations."
"Sounds stupid," Aerith said dryly. "How long are the poems?"
"Five chapters, the first two are each four lines, the third has six and the fourth has eight. The fifth chapter has never been found, so no one knows how it ends," Zack said.
"And they made a whole play out of that?" Aerith snorted.
"Well it's a huge mystery, no one knows who wrote it or how long ago. A lot of scholars have studied the verses trying to figure it out."
"I repeat, sounds stupid. It's a poem, for all we know it was written by some nobody trying to get into his girlfriend's pants," Aerith said.
"As usual, you're too cynical," Zack laughed. "I've read it, I don't think there's anything to it either, but some of the symbolism people connect to it makes sense. Some have connected it to old Cetra legends and the like."
"Right," Aerith nodded. She'd heard about the Cetra, mythical ancient beings that were supposed to be able to talk to the planet and could command the Lifestream to bring life to wastelands. It sounded like silly fairy tale stuff to her, but at least there was some basis in fact for their actual existence. LOVELESS, well if Zack knew the work enough to know that no one knew who wrote it or when, it was pointless to spin stories out of it.
"Genesis used to write reviews of the play, every time they updated it to fit a new interpretation. His reviews stayed the same most of the time, though. Said it was a poor adaptation, skewed the viewpoints of the three to focus on a forced romance and downplayed and simplified the symbolic aspects," Zack said.
"Well if he hates it, it must be good," Aerith smirked. "Come on, I wanna get back and look around and this LOVELESS talk is annoying." She looked down the street, more people were coming and the news camera crew looked to be packing up. "And there's a crowd coming."
"Yeah, the newest version premiered today…Genesis said he had a ticket." Zack's voice turned melancholy at the second part of the sentence. Aerith didn't blame him. Even if he was a twit, Genesis was a SOLDIER like them. Aerith turned away and walked towards the Shinra Headquarters.
"By the way, like your gift?" Zack asked, coming up beside her.
"For your one-year anniversary in SOLDIER," Zack clarified. "I left it on your door handle, didn't you get it?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. Didn't open it," Aerith shrugged. "Told you I don't like jewelry. Gets in the way when I'm training and is a waste of money."
"I know. It wasn't jewelry though," Zack replied. "Wasn't anything big, just something I thought might look good on you. I got it to match your uniform."
"Mm. I'll check it out," Aerith shrugged again.
Clicking the door to her room shut, Aerith stretched. Her first outing to Midgar had been disappointing, but in hindsight she wasn't all that sure what she had been expecting. The lunch had been nice, but the attention she had gotten, she had mixed feelings about. She wanted to be famous, but didn't like having to deal with all the stares and whispers. She was a female SOLDIER, not a mutant. They would get used to her in time, of course. Her first mission or assignment, once she was cleared for them, she would prove to the world what she could really do and it would make the news.
Aerith laid back on her bed, tilting her head up to look at the opposite wall. Thinking for a moment, she pulled out her cellphone and called up the email she had gotten about Genesis earlier. She pondered the announcement again. Sephiroth had been in an oddly good mood when he had taken her to see Lazard, too good a mood for someone who had watched his best friend die a couple days earlier. Maybe the announcement really was a cover-up? Shrugging mentally Aerith scrolled down the email to the contact information at the bottom, and hit the button to call the number displayed. She raised it to her ear and waited.
"Director Lazard." A voice answered after two rings.
"Director, it's Aerith," she replied.
"Yes Aerith, how can I help?"
"You said before I have all freedoms allowed to normal Seconds, right?"
"Yes, save for restrictions to Midgar for missions."
"Does that extend to personal comforts?" Aerith asked.
"Indeed. What did you have in mind?"
"Someone removing the bars and screws from my window. I might like to get a good look sometime," Aerith said, standing and moving to the small window she had. "Maybe open it now and then."
"I'll pass along your request to maintenance, they should be able to come by tomorrow. Anything else I can do for you?" Lazard replied. Aerith smiled. She was quickly getting to like the Director.
"No thank you, sir. You've done plenty for me today," she said sincerely.
"You're quite welcome, Aerith." Lazard hung up and Aerith flipped her phone closed, slipping it into her pocket. She ran a finger along the bars, then turned and looked up at the security camera set into the high corner of the room. She momentarily considered calling Lazard back and asking for its removal too, but didn't want to press her luck. Besides, she had gotten used to it, with her other shackles loosened or removed a camera watching her in private wasn't so bad, she guessed.
"Well…could head up to the exercise floor," Aerith thought to herself. Floor 64, she recalled Zack mentioning. She approached the door and looked over at the shelf of books above her desk. LOVELESS gleamed back at her, gold text on pink standing out boldly. Her attention turned from it to the small red box beside it. Aerith reached out to take it, taking the note from Zack off the lid and flipping it open.
A bright pink ribbon greeted her, a small light green pearl tied in the center with a small gold chain. Aerith set the box down and picked up the ribbon, running it through her fingers. She walked to the mirror in her room and reached behind her head, removing the simple elastic band around her ponytail and tying the ribbon into a bow in its place, the green pearl on top. Aerith took a moment to look at her reflection, bright pink material emerging from the top of her head, and turned her head to get a better look at it. She turned back and stared.
"…I look ridiculous," she muttered after a moment, reaching up and pulling the ribbon loose. She looked down at it. "Then again…he did buy it for me just to be nice, and he'll be expecting me to wear it," she thought. Aerith thought for a few seconds, then rolled the sleeve of her uniform up. The healing red scab from where Elfé had sliced her was still there. Aerith wrapped the ribbon around her upper arm twice, concealing the wound and trying the ribbon up with the pearl again on display. She pulled the sleeve of her uniform down and looked at it. The bump of the pearl was the only visible sign she had something underneath the red fabric.
"Well, I'm wearing it, so he can't complain," she said, smiling slightly. She reached into her pocket and approached the door, swiping her ID through the card reader.
Esma and Errol are based in appearance on two Before Crisis Turks, Katana (Male) and Martial Arts (Female). Their personalities are entirely original, however.