The last thing that Sephiroth remembered was stabbing Cloud through the chest. It was that particular feeling of tension as steel moved through muscle that had suddenly shook Sephiroth free of the peculiarly numb haze that had been controlling his body just moments before. As he came to, and realized what he was doing, the world seemed to still as a cold-blooded horror grabbed ahold of him; it wasn't the violence, no, Sephiroth had long desensitized himself to all that, but rather that he had such loss of control, over himself, his mind, his body, to the point that some alien presence had been able to take him over.. that. That was inexcusable.
And then the moment passed.
Then, there had been that swallowing darkness that suddenly had overtaken him. Now, as he woke up to the sound of sparking electricity and short-circuited wires, Sephiroth felt all his instincts kick in with overwhelming intensity and relief. No crawling iciness anywhere. He was completely in control.
It took Sephiroth a few seconds to blearily open his eyes and pick up off the ground, but as soon as he was up, he took to surveying the scene to try to figure out exactly what had occurred while he had been out. Cloud was no where to be seen, though y the looks of the blood trail, the boy had not left too long ago. A dark question of whether the boy would even survive grabbed at Sephiroth, especially considering that wound and if ShinRa's infatry ended up catching up to him... Sephiroth quickly dismissed the thought. Considering the way the boy had adjusted to the mako, especially under duress, Sephiroth wouldn't be surprised if the would had already started healing. No reason to worry about that, he would catch up to the boy later. First...
Sephiroth walked forward to pick up his Masamune, and ended up in front of the now dullish green tank containing the remnants of the... thing that had mysteriously been able to take over his mind. Just recalling the sensation made Sephiroth tighten his hold over his sword instinctively: no doubt Hojo had something to do with it. The madmen was the worst possible mixture of megalomania and curiosity and Sephiroth felt no semblance of affection for the man. It was without a hint of remorse that Sephiroth recalled feeling slightly vindictive at seeing Cloud kill the scientist as Sephiroth had felt the urge to do so many times, only having been restrained by lack of any real justification, as well being somewhat disenchanted with the idea of the inevitable political power struggle and complications that he would have to deal with in the wake in the scientist's passing. But now? Sephiroth looked over the woman-like creature in front of him in disgust. He had a feeling that after he found out exactly what this thing was, he wouldn't be staying at ShinRa too long.
Taking another glance, it was then that he saw it, the long crack in the tank and a similar fissure in the woman's body right where the crack was-suddenly, Sephiroth realized that was about the exact height that he had stabbed Cloud at. Meaning, as Sephiroth had pierced his blade through the boy's chest and had gone further... he must have cracked the tank and eventually ended up stabbing the creature as well. That must have been how Sephiroth had finally snapped out of his daze.
The thing... had indadvertedly killed itself.
He didn't even think about it, his hands having been fingering the Firaga Materia the whole time; in a matter of seconds, woman-thing-creature was on fire, embers spitting and burning up its every inch of flesh. It took a long second for Sephiroth to drag himself away, but the sound of approaching footsteps finally drew Sephiroth out of his reverie, and he realized that whatever backup to the alarm was finally arriving. Without lingering another second, Sephiroth walked briskly to one of the still functioning computers and started to downloaded whatever files he could with his clearance onto one of the USBs lying on the desk. As the last of the files were loaded onto the drive, a flood of footsteps echoed into the room as the troops finally arrived.
"Put your hands up, we've got you surrounded! Someone, quickly bring the fire squad!"
Sephiroth took out the USB at a leisurely pace before turning to the group. "I see we have to work on emergency response times," he said, glancing critically at the group. "I've been here for at least ten minutes."
"G-general Sephiroth?" the apparent leader stuttered out, glancing at the fire "Is that you-?"
He narrowed his eyes. "You think anyone would so foolish as to impersonate me?"
The man gaped for a moment, clearly caught between protocol and fear. "That is," he quickly started to say, "you look a little different. I will have to ask for identification."
Sephiroth gave the man a long look at his gall, but figured it was useless to really argue the point any further. He supposed it was commendable that the man was at least following protocol closely. "Here," he said, drawing out his ShinRa ID from his pocket. As the man came out to take it, Sephiroth happened to catch sight of his reflection in one of the broken tanks and finally understood the man's hesitation. Somehow, his hair had suddenly taken on a shade an ebony, all traces of its previous silver state completely gone. Odd; was this perhaps a side-effect of the creature's demise? Sephiroth fingered a lock curiously; he wasn't sure if he liked the change just yet.
"... Thank you, sir," the man finally said, handing back the ID. "No offense was meant, it's just protocol. So what exactly happened here?"
"I'm afraid I don't know," Sephiroth replied smoothly. "I only happened to be passing by when I heard the alarm, it seems I had gotten here too later and was unable to avoid... casualties."
"Sounds like AVALANCHE, probably after SOLDIER research again," the man replied, looking around. "We'll probably have to bring some containment team down too, in case of chemicals." He looked to Sephiroth. "Will you be taking part in the investigation?"
"... No. I believe your team will be enough."
"Understood," the man said, and then proceeded to bark out orders to his team.
Before Sephiroth left, he took one last look at the fire that was once was the mysterious woman creature, and felt his grip on Masamune tighten a little.
"You're going to look for Angeal?"
"Yeah," Zack confirmed.
Not that she hadn't been expecting it. As soon as the first reported sighting had come, Aerith had known that there was absolutely no way that Zack would be staying in Midgar, that it only would have been a matter of time before he took off. The month that Zack had been gone on his mission, Aerith had pretended that it was like practice, to see if she would be able to go back to a life where Zack didn't visit her everyday. Maybe she would write him letters, she imagined, and would hand them all back to him when he finally came back.
And then something changed.
Now, when he finally announced his decision, only one day after he just came back, Aerith found making her own as well, finally putting words to something that had festering in her for a while.
"Then..." Even though the words haven't even come out yet, Aerith couldn't believe what she was going to say. And yet she couldn't stop herself. "Maybe we should... just be friends."
It seemed to take a good few seconds for Zack to process what she just said, but when he finally hit him, she could see the colour draining from his face. "I... what?"
"Zack, you know I really cherish you," she said with all the sincerity in her heart. "But, I... I haven't been honest with you, lately."
"You mean, the whole being an Ancient thing?"
Her eyes flew up, alarm and suspicion pounding her heart. "Who told you that?" she asked, her voice coming out a little sharper than she had meant it to.
"Oh..." He looked embarrassed as he answered. "Just. Cissnei told me about the Turks watching over you... But is that it? Are you worried about that?" He looked at her searchingly. "It's something else?"
She opened her mouth and phrase came to her mind, reasons and reasons but the words just didn't seem right, no matter how she arranged them. "It's..." She tried. "I... I don't know what it is." She forced herself to keep eye contact with him while trying not to tangle her hands too much in each other. "I don't think a long-distance can work; I'm not going to wait for you."
For a long while, he didn't say anything. It unnerved her that she couldn't read his face, couldn't tell if he's angry or hurt, it unnerved her that she was actually going through with this. "And what if I stayed?" he asked softly.
She stared at him for a long time. Looking into his bright eyes still made her heart race, and she found herself remembering so many sleepless nights playing out possible conversations, setting up the different scenarios where they would have their first kiss, wondering how she would react.
And then she remembered killing a man, how as she held Tseng in her arms and watched the approaching clone close in, her thoughts had only been of Zack, praying that he would come and somehow save her, even as she picked up the pistol in Tseng's hand and shot with shaky hands at her attacker.
"But you won't," she replied gently.
Zack, far too kind for his own good, finally just nodded. Told her that he understood.
Later, when she told Reno the news, she didn't feel as horrible as she thought she would. He still ended up buying her a new dress, a light, canary-colored, flowery little thing, 'to cheer her up'.
Bu she knew she didn't need anything like that, though she is grateful to have something to replace the white dress that had soaked up far more blood any dress ever should. Instead, she went to her garden and found the paper that had been left behind among its depths. Just reading the title again made her smile as she thought of that short scene of silliness, and only made her more determined to go along with her decision. This was it. She was going to work for ShinRa.
With that, Aerith put THE BACK UP PLAN into her pocket, and left her garden for the last time.
"Cloud Strife doesn't work for ShinRa anymore."
Sephiroth had thought there would be a mass search for Cloud the moment that ShinRa viewed the security tapes and saw the former cadet wreck the Science Department. He thought it would be simple to find the boy, considering all the personnel that would be out looking for him; after all, all exit points would have been hard to get by and there were only so many corners in the city that one could hide.
To his surprise, the video tapes of that night had been conveniently unusable. Hojo certainly never installed cameras in the lab itself, probably never wanting video evidence of his more shady experiments, but the video cameras in the hallways had also short-circuited that night and had nothing recorded. Even more curious, all of the logs of personnel swipes at each checkpoint never registered any suspicious names, so either Cloud had stolen a scientist's ID card or someone had erased his name from the log. But the oddest thing of all, all of the witness accounts had ended up describing not even a man, but a tall, mysterious woman as the traitor. Sephiroth didn't think Cloud was the cross-dressing type, so that meant that there was someone very powerful covering up for him.
Yet who? It all seemed so ridiculous, that there was someone who cover up for even the murder of the Head Scientist. Even if it had been a hit, why, out of all people, choose Cloud?
And so, when Sephiroth found himself face-to-face with the very Turk who had led the investigation of the Science Department incident, he couldn't help but wonder.
"You're telling me he resigned?"
Tseng gave Sephiroth a short look, lingering on the hair just like everyone else had upon first seeing the man's new look. Sephiroth entertained the brief, vain thought of dying it back to its original colour, if only to not get that reaction. "He resigned the morning you returned to Midgar."
Sephirtoh narrowed his eyes a bit. The man didn't seem to be hiding anything; but then again, with this man, Sephiroth had never been able to tell. "So suddenly? Without any reason?"
"Several employees left ShinRa after the attack on the city to return home. Cloud Strife is certainly no anomaly," Tseng explained. "Rest assured, his replacement will be just as capable."
"So he returned home?' Sephiroth pressed.
Tseng looked at Sephiroth curiously. "Yes. I believe so."
It was only later when Sephiroth looked up Cloud's file that he realized what had been bugging him about what few Project S files he had been able to access. Nibelheim. He had heard of the town before, but he couldn't remember why.
Now he knew-it was Cloud Strife's hometown.
"Are you ready?" Cissnei asked, voice soft and waiting. The question was mere formality; Aerith knew there was no concern in the other girl's tone.
If anything, the Turk seemed to look at her with a sort of disdain. Aerith wondered if Zack had told the other girl anything; she knew that the two were close friends and had felt the occasional spark of jealousy when Zack had mentioned the other's girl name.
But the look could have just been easily a judgment on her situation; Aerith had a vague idea what she was getting into when she had accepted Tseng's offer on that faithful day. More than once, the phrase had crossed her mind: 'selling out'.
A slight shudder of apprehension passed through Aerith's body from the weight of the realization: the time had come to follow through. She would never regret her decision. But that didn't mean she wouldn't fear it.
"Yes," Aerith finally answered. "Let's go."
Cissnei didn't wait a second longer. She pushed the door open and lead the girl into the room.
Aerith couldn't help the short gasp that escaped her when she caught sight of the opulent office; in the slums, this room alone could have easily housed two families, it was so large. There was a leather couch on the side, accompanied with a mini-bar and appropriate modern art and decorations. However, what caught Aerith's immediate attention was the wide window behind the desk. The glass presented the most glorious and terrifying scene of Midgar Aerith had ever seen. The city had never looked so small and far away, the sky never so close Even still, Aerith still felt the barest tremor of fear at seeing the blue expansion.
"Ohoho!" A booming voice interrupted her reverie. "So this is her!"
"Yes," Cissnei answered. "This is the last of the Ancients, Aerith Gainsborough."
Aerith reluctantly tore her eyes away from the sky and turned her gaze to meet her new employer: President Shinra. Despite the tension that gripped her as she laid eyes upon him, she couldn't help but feel that man felt less impressive than he should have been. He was just a man, balding and rather short of stature, and his beady eyes betrayed no sense of intelligence as far as she could see. Instead, he seemed to look over at her with a calculating satisfaction and Aerith suddenly realized she had seen that look before on another man's face: Hojo.
"It is nice to meet you," she found herself saying, bowing politely.
"Oh, the pleasure is all mine, my dear," the man insisted. "I must say, it is a honor to be in the presence of the last of the Ancients! I'm sure the press will love it when they hear that you'll be on ShinRa payroll!"
There was a sinking feeling in Aerith's gut, but she kept the cordial smile plastered on her face. "I can only hope that I do your company well... Though when Tseng presented the offer to me, I'm afraid he didn't specify exactly what my responsibilities would be?"
Shinra waved off her concerns uncaringly. "A pretty girl like you shouldn't worry about things like that! No, first, why don't you join me to dinner? I'll introduce you to some of my associates! And of course, we'll discuss your housing?"
"Housing...?" Aerith repeated, a touch of alarm descending onto her.
"Of course! We can't have the last of the Ancients in the slums. It would be scandalous!" He didn't seem to take notice of her expression of reluctance and continued talking. "We'll also have to plan for your first press conference and properly introduce you to the world, but don't you worry, it'll all get figured out." He stood up and began to put on his coat. "But dinner first? Let's not get too much into business right away."
"A-ah... of course," Aerith agreed. She tried to ignore the apprehension she felt, had to ignore it. She wouldn't get anywhere if she couldn't even stomach some networking, especially since that's basically what it sounded like she was. A networking tool.
But as she found herself following the man out of his office, she could only think of how, not even once, the man had called her by her name.
Shinra eyed her like she was a prize horse.
"My dear, have you met my son? This is Rufus."
The man in question gave a slight upturning of his mouth, which looked to be as close of a smile Aerith was going to get. The lips that kissed her hand ever so fleetingly were just as cold.
"Pleasure to make your acquaintance," Aerith let out.
"The honour is all mine."
His son, on the other hand, looked at her like an enemy.
The dinner wasn't really a silent affair, no. The President knew how to talk up a frivolous storm of plans and press conferences and other exciting things, and most of the time he was explaining the every detail of how her future was going to be the fairytale come true.
However, Aerith couldn't help how acutely aware she was of how Rufus Shinra didn't seem to be participating much in the conversation. Perhaps it was because his complexion and physical features happened to remind her of another blond-haired, blue-eyed person, perhaps that was what unnerved her so as she felt his frigid stare from her peripheral vision.
So when the President excused himself to the restroom, Aerith suddenly found herself seizing up a slight bit, sitting closer to the edge of her seat, just in case she needed to do... anything. It was not the first time that Aerith found herself wishing she had her own gun, though it would be quite the task to get one. Of course, there were guards around, and Rufus certainly wouldn't do anything in their presence, but Aerith still couldn't shake off the feeling that this man in front of her was worse, so much worse than his father.
It took her a little too long to slowly unclench her fingers, but she eventually raised her eyes to meet his. When she does, his smile widened a bit and a chill slid down her shoulders and arms.
"How are you enjoying the food?" he asked.
"It's quite delicious," she responded. "I've never even seen half these dishes before."
He continued to regard her, placing his chin in his palm as he tapped his fingers lazily upon his cheek. "You know," he began, "I always wondered just exactly what Hojo had been borrowing my Turks for, but the paperwork and politics for that had always been too complicated, and I figured, knowing him, I probably didn't even want to know. But it turns out, all this time, it had just been to look after you."
She smiled, and wondered what kind of response he was looking. If was he even was looking for one. "That must have really killed the suspense of it all," she finally said, lightly.
He smiled with her. "Well, you shouldn't put yourself down quite like that. You are certainly important, I would say."
Aerith only smiled. "Such high praise," she replied demurely. This is where any other girl would have flirted with him, and she almost would have attempted to, if only to make him think less of her, to make him underestimate her. But she was no actress and that sustaining such a persona would be too much. So she settled for a more taciturn demeanor, and hoped he would bore soon. "I'm sure that's not true."
"Oh, I'm sure that you know quite well how much my father certainly needs your presence. With the rather dramatic... downfall, shall we say, of the Science Department, ShinRa needs any positive press it can spin at this moment, even if it be a tenuous story of the sudden appearance of the Last Ancient and her glowing endorsement of the company." He took a quick sip of his champagne, never taking his eye of her the whole time. She didn't dare look away. When he continued to talk, his voice took on a more rhetorical tone, soft and curious, almost as he was just talking to himself now. "Of course, I can see the advantage of my father taking you under his wing. But you, on the other hand..." He finally broke eye contact. "I must really wonder what you get out of this arrangement."
I got a helicopter, enough money to buy a hospital, and some shares of the company.
Aerith slowly locked her fingers with each other, and leaned forward, placing her chin on her intertwined hands. "It's not so complex as you seem to think. After the attack on the city, I simply realized life is short. I'd rather live a life of luxury and power, even if there are a few strings attached." She gave the man across from her a rueful smile."You must think me selfish."
"Selfish? No, certainly not." Rufus narrowed his eyes at her, but kept the amiable quirk of his lips in place "Pitiful would have been my first word, but now, I'm starting to think you do know quite well that the life of a puppet isn't a one of power."
"You seem to speak from experience." Aerith pushed the weight of her head onto one hand as she appraised him, giving her tone only the slightest touch of curiosity, almost talking to herself. "I wonder what kind of story you have."
His stare turned flat, and his grin seemed to lose a bit of its softness. "Ladies first."
But Aerith just smiled, and sipped her champagne.
Lorelei Strife was not was Sephiroth had been expecting. Not that he had been expecting anything in particular other than perhaps a woman who shared some of Cloud's physical attributes, but when he knocked upon the address in Cloud's file and white-haired, almost haggard-looking woman answered the door, Sephiroth almost asked if her daughter was around. Knowing better, he merely only hesitantly asked, "…Lorelei Strife?"
The woman narrowed her eyes sharply at him. "Who's asking?"
"I'm—was, Cloud's superior officer," Sephiroth answered. "I'm the area for a mission, but I figured I would drop by. Is he around?"
If Cloud was here, it was unlikely he'd be hiding in his home. The boy was too smart for that. But surely he would have alerted his mother to danger, perhaps have told her to leave town. Yet the woman showed no discernible reaction, no suspicious twitch that indicated she was hiding something. Instead, she only raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"Cloud?" she mused, her tone now curious, as she gave him another look over. Then, her gaze suddenly widened in recognition. "Why, I know who you are! You're General Sephiroth!"
Sephiroth started in slight surprise. After his odd hair discolouration, he had decided to take advantage of the natural disguise it afforded and had decided to change his look. Not only did he end up with a haircut that left hisnhair barely touching the nape of his neck, but he took on civilian clothing, as well as a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses. How had this woman recognized him so speedily, when most of Shinra's personnel had barely given him a second look?
However, it seemed that that was all the information the woman needed, her demeanor becoming less fierce. "Come in, General. I'm afraid Cloud isn't here right now, but I was just about done making dinner. At least accompany an old woman through her dinner," she said, her tone suddenly inviting. "And you can just call me Lory."
As he sat at the living room table while Lorelei busied herself in the kitchen, he found himself looking around and just taking in the feel of everything. The house was smaller than he was used to, but the bare and minimalistic layout made the smallness seem comforting. Sephiroth had imagined some industrial town with a slightly vile and secretive undertone, something that would match his mysterious image of Cloud, but Nibelheim was more nature than machine and almost peaceful to a fault.
His eyes finally found a set of photographs on the wall, all clustered together by the fireplace. Moving closer, he realized that they were all pictures of Cloud at various, awkward stages of the life. He saw a quiet, surly teenager, crossing his arms as he stared, unamused, at the camera. Then there was the young boy, looking utterly enthralled as he held a stick like it was a blade, brandishing it proudly. Next to that one was the baby, dressed up like a chocobo, sleeping peacefully.
And then there was the one of the woman holding a little infant, an infant who shared her bright cerulean eyes and golden locks. Beside her was a tall, sandy-haired man, looking equally as proud of the baby boy, holding the two of them protectively. The picture gave Sephiroth pause; the woman certainly wasn't Lorelei Strife. Lory looked to be about sixty, and must have had Cloud during her forties or so, while this woman only looked to be around twenty or so. Yet the woman certainly shared Cloud's features, the same high cheekbones and soft face shape, even the same small crooked smile.
"That's Liesl," Lorelei said from behind him. Sephiroth quickly turned around as she came up beside him. "My sister. And Cloud's biological mother." She doesn't look particularly pained as she tells him, only longing, a perhaps a bit tired. "I adopted him after she and her husband were in a car crash."
"How old was he at the time?"Sephiroth found himself asking, nothing the lack of the two's presence in any other photograph.
"Two. Doesn't remember a thing," she replied. "Anyway. Dinner's ready!" she said, changing the subject as she guided them back to the living room table. " Now why don't you tell me how you know Cloud?"
"I worked with him," Sephiroth answered, sitting himself down.
The woman's eyes grew large. "So he actually got into SOLDIER? After the radio silence I got from him after results were out, I had assumed the worst…"
Sephiroth paused. Cloud was not in SOLDIER, but after his unorthodox mako injection, he was most certainly at the level of one. "Well, not exactly," he finally answered. "He had been my secretary, up until a week ago."
The look of disappointment never came. Instead, Lorelei's eyes grew even wider, and she even started to giggle, the girlish gesture seeming seeming a little out-of-place coming her sharp features. "No," the woman finally got out. "You're kidding."
Sephiroth placed his head on his hands, looking at her curiously. "Is there something funny about the position?"
"Not the position, no, but that he got the position? He must have been tripping over himself to serve you coffee! Oh, now wonder the boy didn't tell me a thing, I would have made too much fun of him." The woman cackled a bit further.
"And why is that?"
"Oh, surely you noticed?" Lorelei said. "Cloud—well, he grew out of it a little bit—but he was such a Sephiroth fanboy. How do you think I recognized you; ten years of just seeing at that life-size poster in his room, I should have recognized you sooner!" She gave him a conspiring look. "He probably confessed his love to you at some point, right?"
Sephiroth only felt bewildered. "I… can't say he did."
"Probably got better at hiding it then," she said. "Did you know, you are the reason he wanted to join SOLDIER? After all those tales of the Great Sephiroth who won the Wutai War, all he wanted to do was be just like you." She gave him a bright grin. "What wonderful irony, the week after he quits, you're coming to his home to find him. Were you coming to ask him back?"
Sephiroth paused, thinking about that one, brief spar with the boy, feeling a chill run along his fingers as he recalled the details. In all honesty, Sephiroth should have won on all counts; stamina, familiarity with mako's effects, experience, skill—yet Sephiroth had allowed himself that brief second of surprise and exhilaration, that slight pause, and the boy somehow knew where to look, how to capitalize on his hesitation. More than anything, Sephiroth knew he wanted that rematch, where they would both be at full health. Where Sephiroth might find a true opponent. "Yes," he finally replied. "Yes, I would like him back."
A hand suddenly grabbed onto Aerith's wrist.
"Wait. Your stance is wrong."
There was something incredibly wrong about being close enough to Tseng to feel his warmth, yet be far enough to be so very aware of that short distance of cool air between them. Of course, her heart racing slightly, she thought of Zack and his hugs, but she also couldn't help but remember the one time she had held Tseng. The memory didn't cause her to shake as it once did; instead she had resolved to turn that moment into a mantra: never again.
Tseng's touch was soft and cool as he corrected her hand's hold on the practice gun. "You'll want to practice holding the gun with two hands for now; you don't have quite the arm strength to handle the recoil just yet." His foot nudged at hers lightly. "You'll want to spread your legs apart a little further, to balance yourself. Lower your shoulder a bit. Alright. Try again."
Aerith fired the rounds again, each shot reverberating through her body uncomfortably. Shalua had also told to feel as though the gun was an extension of her body, but Aerith doubted she'd ever understand what that meant. Or if she wanted to.
Looking at her work, even though she didn't stumble as much from the recoil, it looked as though her aim was still as shaky as before.
"I don't think I have much talent for guns," she noted, calmly.
"You are not suited for it," Tseng agreed bluntly. "You don't have the body strength. Or the mindset."
Aerith looked to him patiently, feeling no offense, only curiosity. "Mindset? Are you talking about focus?"
"No, you're certainly determined-I think that you found your way into a shooting range that you should not have clearance for shows that more than enough," he said, giving her a pointed look. "But do you really want the power to end a man's life so decisively? Can you be that cold? Because it looks like you don't really want to be holding a gun."
She looked up at him, and quirked her mouth ruefully. "I am, admittedly... angry, when I hold that gun. I hate myself for wanting the power, when all these years I've always tried to focus on healing and helping others I hate that can rationalize to myself why I need this: death is inevitable, survival of the strongest, the world is cruel, words that I'm sure countless before have used."
Aerith paused, chewing on her thoughts a bit more. While the words were heavy, almost poisonously dark, she somehow felt detached the emotion she was letting go. Lately, after dealing with all the politicians, reporters, managers, lines and lines of people that she had to smile and repeat her story to, she had come to understand why Rufus Shinra had taken on his deceptive, sneeringly amiable way of speaking. Even though she had been starting to feel less sincere, less genuine, less like herself, the detached, yet cordial persona had become almost the perfect mask to speak through, to the point that the mask had started to become a little part of her, a little semblance of control over her emotions and thoughts.
Now as she thought through her reasons, she knew objectively, she had picked up the gun partly out of naivety, but also partly out of real, genuine lust to feel what it was like on the other side of the suits, to understand what it was like to be the ones with the power to protect, the power to kill, the power to control life and death and still be human at the same time. It had only been when she had been against the Genesis clone that she had understood that it wasn't so simple, as horror yet relief that the man in front of her was dead and would not be hurting anyone she cared for, that shooting a gun wasn't simply a black and white judgment call.
"But I just don't ever want to be in that position again," Aerith finally said. "Even if having the power to kill makes me into a cold, desensitized person, I can't help but think: what if I had missed that time?"
"Then I would be dead," Tseng responded levelly, "which would admittedly be regrettable. But as you just mentioned, it is inevitable. I will, conceivably, die one day."
Aerith gave him a long look. "Not if I can help it."
Tseng seemed almost amused at this, if the slight crinkling of his eye indicated anything. "It is not your responsibility to protect me."
"Why not?" Aerith asked. "I mean-at this point, I know that I would probably do more harm than good-but just speaking abstractly, since it is your job to keep me out of harm's way, does it mean I can't do the same for you?"
"I am a hired body; if you are to put yourself in harm's way for my safety, it defeats the purpose of my position." Tseng almost looked like he was enjoying himself with their pseudo-argument. "As the last Ancient, your life is significantly more important than mine."
"ShinRa depends on you; you raise the population's morale."
She giggled, her tone was more curious than bitter. "If all the population needs is this manufactured Cinderella story, then it doesn't really need much, does it?"
Tseng only continued to look at her. "You are more than a manufactured Cinderella story, Miss Gainsborough."
Aerith raised an eyebrow. "Then what am I?"
He took the gun from her hand and reached into his inside pocket, taking out a saffron handkerchief and started to wipe off her fingerprints from the gun. "Put it into perspective: you're the last Ancient, an unbelievable miracle. Even if ShinRa is using your name to improve their reputation, parading all your community service as their giving back to the community, it is your name that people are falling in love with, not ShinRa's."
He put the gun back into her hands and guided her into the proper standing position again, correcting her as she moved along.
"You talk of wanting power, but you out of all people, do not need a gun for that. Now, let's start again."
First, Sephiroth found the tanks, all of filled with strange, monster-like creatures, save for one in the middle; empty, the tank only had the word JENOVA adorned across it.
Next, Sephiroth found the files detailing the experiments that had taken place in that mansion, and with heart-stopping horror, he realized that the deformities he had seen earlier were once men.
From there, it was all a blur, a numb feeling having taken over Sephiroth's body. It had been traumatic enough just reading the details, going over Hojo's meticulous, almost gleeful accounts of his process, but seeing the pages, and pages, and pages, of notes on him alone, his data, his reactions, his samples—was he even human at his point?
Or was he just a monster, just like the rest of those men?
But the final blow doesn't come until he finally stumbled across her name: JENOVA. The source of all the experiments, the sample from which all SOLDIERS were born, it had all come from the innocuous form of a woman. Apparently, she had been his mother—and apparently, Sephiroth had burned every last inch of her.
But that was the one thing Sephiroth was unwilling to believe. Perhaps a month, he might have. Perhaps a month ago, he would have thought this piece of information to be the answer to why he had always been so different, why there had always been that aching, almost lonely feeling that he was special. But now, in this detached, shocked haze, if there was one thing he absolutely refused to trust, if there was one painful inch of determination keeping him from crumbling to some unexplainable form of despair, it was that thing that had taken over his mind, his body, that had grabbed a hold of his senses with its chilling tendrils and words and controlled him—that that alien was his mother.
And then he found the man sleeping in a coffin.
Considering the context, the man looked...surprisingly normal. Relatively normal. Had arms, legs… one hand. And a claw. But still, recognizably human.
Then, upon closer inspection, the man somehow looked familiar,t hough Sephiroth couldn't place the connection. As the man opened his eyes to peer up at him, there was something about him that nested a small pinch of suspicion, in his gut, something that made Sephiroth pause.
"Do you know who I am?" he finally asked, when the man made no move to start a conversation. But the man only continued to inspect him, his bright eyes focused, yet oddly distant at the same time. After a few seconds passed, Sephiroth began to wonder if whatever experiments that must have been performed on the man had damaged some of his facilities, but after the longest pause, the man finally began to speak.
"...Interesting." The man narrowed his amber eyes. "So this is what my mind imagines Lucretia's son to look like."
The man seemed to more talking to himself, and for a moment, Sephiroth thought perhaps Hojo really had somehow destroyed this man's sense of reality. But the name struck him familiar, until Sephiroth remembered where he had heard the name; it had been the name of one Hojo's lead scientist on Project S. "You don't mean... Lucretia Crescent? You said I'm her son?"
But the man was already closing his eyes and turning back into the coffin.
Sephiroth refused to let it end right there. If this man knew something, especially about his parentage, Sephiroth knew there was no way he was letting this lead get away. "Wait!" The man made no response, even Sephiroth reached out to shake his shoulder. "Don't go back to sleep!" More silence. Then, Sephiroth asked, "What can I do to make you convince you this is not a dream?"
He waited. He waited for what seemed like the longest time, or maybe it was just a few seconds, but Sephiroth's patience and control had long grown thin after what he had discovered at the mansion, and with every second, he felt himself helplessly inching closing towards... Something. Perhaps it was just frustration. Or maybe it was something worse.
Then the man suddenly spoke again. Back still turned towards Sephiroth, he answered, "Nothing. This is impossible."
There was something odd about the man's calm, unwavering belief that he was hallucinating. Sephiroth only wondered what could make someone like this. "Why?" he pressed.
"Because you look like me." A pause. "And Lucretia never...it's impossible."
Sephiroth stopped; that's why the man had seemed familiar. Especially with his black hair, Sephiroth realized he did bear a striking resemblance to the odd stranger in the coffin. Is that made him trust the man so, made him desperate to know who this man was?
Yet there odd undertone of guilt in the man's voice made Sephiroth pause. "Who was she to you?" he asked, wondering if approaching it at a different angle would work. Nothing. Silence again. So Sephiroth, softly, maybe almost pleadingly, said, "Please. Hojo is dead, and I... I don't have anywhere else to turn. I just want to know what the truth is. Of who I am."
It was as if those had been the magic words: the man suddenly turned around and was sitting up straight, eyes looking blazingly lucid as he stared down at Sephiroth. "... You say Hojo is dead?"
"Yes," Sephiroth replied quickly, the hope in him so overwhelming, the pressure in his chest practically hurt. "I can prove it, if you need."
The man continued to stare at him, a calculating gaze marring his features. Finally, seemingly coming to a decision, he nodded and got out of the coffin. "What year is it?" he asked. When Sephiroth told him, a small snort escaped the man, and he looked down at himself grimly. "Then I am... fifty-seven already."
Sephiroth stood up to join the man, giving him an appraising look. "You must have some story," Sephiroth finally said. "How shall I address you?"
The man paused, looking a little pained as he thought about it, but finally settled on a simple, "... Vincent is fine."
Perhaps it had been overkill to show Vincent the autopsied body, yet it seemed like that sight alone was what truly shook the man out of his reverie. As they left the morgue and reached Sephiroth's apartment, it was only then did Vincent turn to Sephiroth. Somehow, it seemed as if the man was truly looking into Sephiroth's eyes for the first time, his features contorting into a mix of conflict and despair. It was the most emotion Sephiroth had ever seen the man display.
"You said you wanted to know the story of your origin," Vincent asked. Sephiroth nodded. "The alien they call Jenova is not your mother."
It felt as some hand had suddenly let go of his heart, a urgent sense of relief flooding Sephiroth's every nerve. He trusted this man. He didn't know why, but he did. "Before, you said... Lucrecia Crescent is my mother."
"Yes." Vincent paused, hesitating a bit before he went on. "I had been the Turk assigned to look over the Jenova project. I was never comfortable with the liberties Hojo took with experimentation, but never said anything until... " Each word seemed harder for Vincent to get out, his voice seeming to waver the slightest bit as he went on. "Until Lucrecia, who was pregnant with you at the time, started becoming from all the experiments on her. I tried to stop Hojo, but he," Vincent cast a meaningful look at his body, "did this to me. By the time I recovered, she was... Dead."
Sephiroth watched the man closely. "You loved her," he realized, softly. It was hard to reconcile the idea that a man who looked to be no older than five years older than him had once been in love with his...mother. But if that was true, then could it possibly be...
"I did," the man admitted. "But...the feeling was not returned. She had married Hojo, instead."
Sephiroth stopped, a cold dread gripping his chest. "But did you ever... With her..."
"No," Vincent replied firmly. "Never."
"Then..." Sephiroth couldn't believe the words were coming out of his mouth. "Hojo is my father?"
For a moment, there was dead beat of silence.
This time, it was Vincent who broke it, his tone soft, curious, contemplative. "And yet, you look so much like me."
When Aerith suggested participating in community service and giving back, her agent had been more than thrilled, and between the photo shoots and interviews where she would endorse ShinRa products with a large smile, she is scheduled volunteer hours with after-school programs and community development.
Fortunately, that put her in contact with Reeve quite often. And each time, the answer is the same. "No news," he would say, and then sometimes would pass on a message from her mother or Shalua. Today was one of those days, but after a month, there was something quietly devastating about the news.
And so, as she walked along the road back to her place, she was so out of it that as she turned a corner, she nearly knocked over the person coming around.
"Oh, sorry," she murmured out, before her eyes glanced over the person in front of her and realized she recognized him. "You're General Sephiroth!" Based on the person's look of surprise, it seemed that he knew her as well. Aerith stuck out her hand anyway. "I've been wondering if I'd ever meet you. Let me formally introduce myself: I'm Aerith."
He shook her hand. "Our reputations appear to proceed us both. I must apologize for that earlier moment, Miss Gainsborough," Sephiroth said. "My mind's a little distracted these days."
"I am equally to blame, General," she assured him, still somewhat surprised at seeing the former SOLDIER in the flesh, especially considering how... normal he looked. Compared to the pictures of a fierce, silver-haired hero, the man before her had short black hair, and was dressed in the most simple of clothes, looking no more out of the ordinary than other man. If not for her run-in with him, she probably would have walked by him on the street without notice.
A grimace of a sort crossed Sephiroth face. "I'm not the general of anything anymore, Miss Gainsborough. I'm sure news of my resignation must have traveled through the company grapevine by now."
That it had, but Aerith kept silent about that. "Then how shall I address you?"
"Sephiroth will do." There was a small look of hesitation on his face, before he suddenly out of the blue asked, "Would you care for dinner with me?"
Aerith felt her heart stop in disbelief. Was the former SOLDIER asking her out?
He must have seen some sort of horror on her face, as he quickly amended, "Not in the romantic sense. I only wish for some company, nothing more."
Aerith smiled, relief settling into her chest. "Then I accept your invitation."
It turned out Sephiroth, former General and poster-boy on ShinRa, lived on the block right after, in a walk-up apartment. Yet as Aerith entered the small, one bedroom apartment, the smallness seemed somewhat homely, and made her think of Sector 5, and its small cosiness.
"Are you surprised?" Sephiroth asked, watching her curious glances.
"I can see the appeal of such a residence," she answered honestly.
Sephiroth began to unpack the groceries. "Like what?"
"For security reasons, there are far less ways to enter and thus less to guard. And considering how much living quarters can cost above the Plate, it is certainly wise to be frugal if possible." Aerith gave Sephiroth a long look. "But what are your reasons?"
He takes the seat across from her, to her surprise bringing a tea and pouring a cup for her. "Anonymity."
Aerith would have continued the conversation, but when she looked at him, there was a thoughtful look on his face and she held her tongue, waiting for him to voice whatever was on his mind. "Can you..." Sephiroth started off slowly, "well, would you be able to tell if someone was a Cetra?"
Aerith blinked. That, she had not been expecting. "I'm sorry...?"
"It must seem like such an odd question, right?" His tone is nonchalant, yet there is a tight undertone of urgency to it. "Some... scientists have speculated that perhaps my unique aptitude and physicality is perhaps because... well. That I might be a descendent of the Ancients."
"Well, I've never really met another Cetra, um..." Aerith thought about it for a moment. "How about this: have you ever heard singing, sort of in the back of your head? Or maybe felt like the wind was talking to you?"
"No," Sephiroth replied. "I can't say I have..." He leaned back casually into his seat, a small smile gracing his face. "Then I'm not one."
"Why do you look so relieved at that?" Aerith asked curiously.
"There was a fire in the Science Department," he explained. "And with Hojo's... passing, I just wanted to make sure there wasn't anything I might have needed to know that might have gotten destroyed accidentally."
"That would be some secret to keep from you."
"Well, I wouldn't be surprised. Speaking of which..." Sephiroth cast a look at an envelope on the table. "Would you remind me to read that later? I somehow keep putting it off and forgetting."
There was that odd look again on his face, the slightly tired, slightly conflicted look. With the odd questions and overall atmosphere, Aerith could only wonder what was going on, what kind of circumstances had put the former SOLDIER into such a state. So she just nodded. "Of course."
During dinner, Aerith found herself unexpectedly bonding with the former General, sharing stories of what it was like to be a figurehead and face for ShinRa, surprised that she found such a companion who could empathize with her situation so closely. As the night came to close though, her eyes fell on the mysterious letter and she remembered the man's odd request. So before it slipped her mind, she took it and put it in front of the man.
"Remember, read it," she told him firmly.
Sephiroth froze a bit, his amiable countenance slipping a bit as the the white object came into his line of sight. Slowly, his hand reached out and picked it up. He was going to read it in front of her, Aerith realized. Noting the slight shake in his hand, she realized that perhaps that was what the point of his sudden invitation had been. Perhaps, he had needed someone there while he opened that mysterious letter.
Suddenly, feeling uncomfortable, she averted her eyes as Sephiroth broke the seal and scanned the contents.
And then she heard the exhale.
Vincent was his father.
Vincent was his father.
They had agreed, upon receiving the letters containing the results, that they would meet again in a week, after having read the results.
Now, as Sephiroth sat across from the man, he wasn't sure what to feel. Before, when he had read the results, it had only been relief that Hojo had not been the one who fathered him. But now, he wasn't sure what to feel. After all, the man in front of him was still essentially a stranger. Not to mention that he looked no where near old enough to be his father.
"Your birthday," Vincent finally asked. "It's not in May, is it."
"No..." Sephiroth answered, a little confused. "I was born in September."
A thoughtful look crossed Vincent's face. "Then... That's it. While I was in my coma, Hojo couldn't resist doing one last experiment." His face twisted into a dark grimace. "A child of Jenova... and Chaos." Vincent looked at Sephiroth then, his eyes so dark they took on an auburn shade. "If I had known, all this time, that I had a son..."
They were silent for a moment, and Sephiroth finally realized he had never asked himself: what exactly did he want from the other man? All this time, he hadn't even dared think beyond reading the results, too anxious that it would turn out the walking megalomaniac that was Hojo would be his father, not wanting to raise his hopes too much. But now, having come out on the other end, finally knowing his true parentage, finally knowing what exactly had shaped him to be this way... now what?
After all, essentially, they were strangers.
And then Vincent began to speak, almost as if reading his mind, answering his question. "I want to be in your life," the man finally said, quietly. "I don't deserve it, I know. But if you'll let me, I want to... get to know you."
Sephiroth felt his heart speeding up, the oddest warmth crawling over his skin. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he wondered if this was really happening. Somehow, the situation seemed all so surreal-family. Perhaps this is what having a family felt like.
"What do I even call you...?" Sephiroth asked after a beat. "Father?" Somehow, he liked saying the word, especially after twenty-five years of never having the chance. Father.
"I-" Vincent choked a bit, and Sephiroth was surprised to see the man's pale face redden the slightest bit. "Whatever makes you comfortable..."
President ShinRa was dead. President ShinRa was dead and Aerith was the one to officially release the press statement to the news.
Instead, she did something different.
"In the wake of the President's passing, to honour his memory, I'm also proud to announce ShinRa's new energy initiative! We are in the process of researching alternative, re-useable energy and if all goes according to schedule, we should be able to implement these resources very soon."
There had been a stunned silence as everyone stared at her. In particular, Aerith viscerally felt Rufus' hard-edged stare cutting into her back. But the silence broke quickly, reporters coming up with tentative and hesitant questions at the unexpected turn of news, and Aerith answered them all confidently, eloquently, all the while her heart threatening to burst from her chest.
This was it. This was the moment when she declared war on ShinRa.
The very second she ended the press conference, everyone surrounded her with their own questions, asking why they hadn't been informed of this, who exactly was heading this initiative and authorized it, but before Aerith even had the chance to explain, Rufus had cut through the crowd and had taken Aerith's hand.
"You will all be updated on this later,," he assured, "but let's just give our girl a rest, hmm? She's had to do a lot." He then proceeded to quickly drag Aerith to her dressing room and close the door shut behind them. As soon the lock clicked, he lost his smooth smile, ice-cold eyes narrowing at her. "Explain."
She had prepared for this, but now that she was actually experiencing the confrontation that she had played out in her head so many times, her heartbeat only seemed louder, hands only that much clammier. But she kept her composition; if that was one thing she had picked up from Rufus Shinra when it came to dealing with people, it was his unyielding demeanor. "Give me six months and I will turn this company around. I know I can fix that Science Department and create safer, more accessible energy."
"You know?" he said softly. "You are barely eighteen, and you think you can change this company..." He chuckled darkly. "Talk about naive; you think you are the first optimistic, know-it-all to wear that company badge, thinking they can change things for the better, save the world and whatnot? As if it is simply some matter of inspiration. Don't be naive-the world revolves around hierarchies of power and always will." He approached her, forcing her to lean on the desk behind her for support as he closed the distance between the two of them. "So maybe you think you know some science. But what do you know of money? Of management? Of people? Oh, Miss Gainsborough, humans can be ugly creatures; do you really think yourself capable of such a revolution?"
She kept her gaze steady. "You are only twenty-two yourself. Can you really fault me on age, of all things?"
He clucked his tongue, wagging his finger at her. "But I have been playing this game for far longer than you-no, I've been groomed for this world since I was born."
"Then you will know what I propose can only be in the company's best interest," she challenged. "This will silence the critics that have faulted Shinra for not pursuing more sustainable energy, make electricity less expensive to produce and thus available to more of the population, and improve the company's reputation."
"Best interests?" Rufus gave her a condescending sneer. "And what of the funding that would have to go into this research? Not to mention that these benefits are entirely dependent on where this research actually succeeds-and can you honestly promise me that?"
"I can." And then she brought out her trump card: a small flashlight, small the size of her palm. She clicked it on. "See this?" She unscrewed off the bottom and showed Rufus the inside, where a small orb was suspended and crackling. "It's a fragment of Materia."
"A fragment?" Rufus scoffed. "You can't just break Materia like that and have it function-"
"I can," Aerith said. "I know how."
That seemed to stop Rufus momentarily, a brief flash of shock crossing his features. "You mean to... mass-produce Materia! Make it more freely available to the public!" He said incredulously. "Talk about madness; it'd be the advent of anarchy! Can you imagine the chaos? That is why there needs to be a centralized system that controls all the power; that is the only way society works."
"You only believe because you have not seen any other system," Aerith countered. "How would you know what works or not? How are to know what people need when you've only lived looking down on all of us?"
He shrugged. "The world is unfair. There are hierarchies. It's only foolish to think and hope for otherwise; better to adapt and to play to win . But, fine. Ideological points aside, what if I still don't believe you? What's to stop me from slandering your name? Pay off the newspapers to write stories about how you've just been a fraud all along?"
"Would people believe it so easily, after all the effort your team has put into making me the most loved citizen of Midgar? Could all your hard work so easily reversed?"
"I think people tend to believe the worst in others."
"I think you tend to believe the worst in others," she countered. Tseng's previous words suddenly came into her mind. "But I don't think people would give up on me so easily. People may fear and think the worst of ShinRa-but they've fallen in love with me. You've made sure of that."
Rufus chuckled. "Is that the game we're playing then? That whole question of fear vs love." He smiled. "Fine. I like that. Let's make a deal. I'll give you a year, a monthly stipend, and the seat of Head Scientist. But," he said, pausing for suspense. "Every month, you must be seen in public having dinner with me."
Aerith stopped. "Why?"
Rufus' grin grew. "Because then, after the year, when your crusade fails..." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring. "I'll propose to you, after having 'fallen in love', and you'll accept. It'll be sweet, young love and all that fairytale nonsense the press eats up."
She stared at him, trying not to let the horror show on her face. "When my crusade fails...?" she repeated questioningly."And what if it doesn't? What if I succeed?"
"And how exactly are we measuring success here?" he asked.
"Revenue," she said decisively. "We'll make a bet; if I can't increase profits by fifteen percent by next year, then I marry you. But if I do..." She paused. "You give me partial ownership of the company. You give me a seat on the Board of Directors. And I receive title of co-president."
"I'll agree to a seat on the Board of Directors."
"And partial ownership of the company."
"That's absurd and you know it."
"Only if you think I can actually win this bet." She leveled her gaze. "How confident are you in your perspective of the world?" Almost daringly, she added, "I wager I can change it."
She watched him carefully; she had grown rather familiar with Rufus Shinra over the month. He was cocky and often couldn't resist showing off his power. But he was also shrewd and was not one to take the riskier bets. She could only wonder which side of him would win this one.
"... Okay. I'll agree," he finally said. "Just you see, Miss Gainsborough. People will reveal their true nature to you soon enough." And before she could even reply, he picked up her hand and suddenly, was sliding a ring upon her middle finger. Stunned, she didn't even move as he drew her hand to his mouth and kissed it gently."Let this be the mark of agreement, hmm? Truth be told, this actually was my mother's; I'd been carrying it around for a while now, as my father had been hoping that I would eventually woo you. But I guess I won't even have to do that now."
Breaking out of her daze, she drew her hand back quickly and stared at the ring apprehensively, the fit a little snug. It was surprisingly modest, a single diamond adorned by a small lone wing on the side, but undeniably beautiful.
"We'll see," she promised, softly.
In her pocket, the cell phone that Aerith didn't quite remember putting there suddenly buzzed.
Aerith. He's woken up. Come ASAP.
author's note: The last part of the series will be called Dialectic. Keep an eye out for it. In like. Next year.
Wheww. So I posted this previously, but then realized a whole ton of canonical errors, so I fixed it and expanded on a bunch of things, like adding in a whole bunch of awkward Sephiroth and Vincent scenes. I had so much trouble with Sephiroth, because I still wanted him to go through the sort of hysteria-teetering-on-the-edge-of-insanity breakdown at he finds out his history, but I wasn't exactly sure how to write it. Gotta read up on my angst and study a bit, haha.
As for Aerith, I kept making her a bit too catty and I was like, "No! Got to make her a bit nicer and quirkier!" Not sure if I really succeeded though, especially whenever she talked with Rufus, because I always wanted her to match wits with him. Even though I won't pair her with anyone officially, I'm sort of considering writing short little one-shots exploring how I would actually write her paired with sayyy Tseng or Rufus or even Zack in this universe. So keep this piece on author alert if you're interested!
Anyway, thanks for reading this far! If anything is confusing, just let me know; I probably forgot to explain and tie up some questions.