Series Title: Thagirion
Fandom: FF7 (AU)
Word count: 25600
Summary/Prompt: Instead of waiting to breed new Ancients, Hojo decides to simply create a new one from Aerith and a terrorist who remembers more than she should.
A/N: Ahaha, I exist. It's been a rough few years, and I fell out of ficcing because I didn't really have time or the energy because first my job was sucking my soul away, then I changed jobs and had a two-hour commute each way, which killed my free time. But then I listened to Hamilton, and decided it was time to "write like I’m running out of time." That's how y'all got the end of TTYNKAP in one big burst, and why you're hopefully about to get the end of Thagirion as well.
This is for illumynare, who won my help_japan auction. :D
For the sake of brevity, I'm cutting out the extensive author's notes I actually wrote for this--if you are interested, I'll be posting them separately, as an Ultimata, the same as I did for The Things You Never Knew About People. :D --
When Anneke next went to see her test subjects, she was taken aback. XVIII was sitting quietly on her bed, but XVIII-A was breathing in frantic puffs and was wild-eyed.
This was a dangerous situation. Both girls had SOLDIER-level strength and speed, but none of the military discipline that also usually went with them. And it was as if the world were upended – XVIII-A had always been calm and, honestly, docile. She had shown occasional fits of temper, but they had all been in either defense of XVIII or when she had learned what had been done to them. But this was something else; this was XVIII-A in what seemed to be a full-blown panic attack, and that was something that was dangerous when it involved SOLDIERs.
"Aerith. Aerith. Listen to me. Listen to my voice," Anneke said, going over to the girl and putting her hand on her forearm - not in a way that could be seen as threatening.
And Tifa just stared out, unseeing and unresponsive.
"Look at her!" Aerith screamed, and Anneke couldn't think of them as numbers, no matter how hard she tried. "Look at what they - what you've - done to her!" she yelled, her voice going shrill and cracking.
Her hands were shaking. She was shaking.
"Please," Aerith said desperately. "If you have ever had even the tiniest shred of humanity...please, let us go. This isn't right. What they're doing to us, to her, it isn't right! And if this goes on any longer, there won't be any way to fix it!"
Laumbe swallowed thickly.
"They paid me to be a scientist. A doctor," she said, more to herself than Aerith, as if Aerith wasn't even there. "But this is something...this isn't what I signed up to be," she finished under her breath. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, and visibly hardened before Aerith's eyes. "Do you know what you're asking me to do? You're asking me to throw away my entire life, my entire career, everything I've worked this hard for," Laumbe said, frowning. "If I helped you...this isn't something that will just get me a reprimand and a bad mark or something. It means I never work as a scientist or a doctor anywhere on the planet again. I'd be so blacklisted I'd be lucky if I could even get a job so much as cleaning a lab or a clinic."
She shook her head, backing away. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, but I can't," she said. "I can't just throw everything away like this," she said in a panic, and took off down the hall so quickly it was almost a run.
Aerith sank down to her knees and just tried to breathe.
The security cameras almost scared her off. But she walked past it, as she often did - she had been in Hojo's office before, when he wasn't there - he'd asked her once to send him one of his floppies - floppies - via the ShinRa courier when he was at another ShinRa location.
She hesitated, then walked calmly over to where the floppies were, picked them all up, then sat down and popped the disk into the computer.
She had to know.
Once the computer finished reading the floppy - who even uses floppies anymore? she thought - she clicked on one of the files, holding her breath and hoping she'd be able to guess the password.
She almost gasped when the file just opened. There was no password. None. Nor was it encrypted. She could scarcely believe it. Hojo was a genius, but this was incredibly...stupid. No encryption, no passwords, and on floppies he just left sitting around? Mind you, there were few computers that could actually read floppies; hers certainly couldn't, and you couldn't even buy computers now that could. In fact, often the only ones she knew of that could were...the ones that Hojo used.
No wonder he doesn't bother password-protecting them, she thought, as a lightbulb went off and she found herself feeling a grudging respect for Hojo. The very format is protection nowadays.
The first floppy held little of value, as did the second and third, but the fourth disk she popped in contained a folder entitled "Subject XVIII and XVIII-A," filed with files - spreadsheets and text files, including one labeled "Notes."
She took a deep breath, then stuck her memory stick into the computer and copied the entire folder.
As soon as it was done, she put the floppies back, powered off the computer, and left, keeping her head high and trying not to let her shakiness show.
In the silence, she told Tifa stories. It was all Aerith could do. She filled the empty silence with stories. Stories about how she met Zack, stories about the quiet, still church where she would spend her time, stores about evading the Turks.
The stories about evading the Turks always tasted like ashes in her mouth, but she told them anyway.
And still Tifa sat, dull-eyed and hollow, unresponsive and blank.
She picked up a hairbrush and went over to Tifa. Tifa moved easily where Aerith moved her; pliant and malleable. She sat Tifa on the floor and sat on the bed behind her, with Tifa's shoulders between her knees. She picked up the hairbrush from where she had placed it on the bed, and began gently brushing Tifa's hair, since Tifa couldn't even do that for herself now.
"Did I ever tell you about when I was a little girl and decided to color all over the walls of my house?" Aerith said, her voice wavering at first, but steady by the time she finished the question. "Oh, my mother was so angry..."
It wasn't until nearly two days later that Anneke finally gathered the nerve to actually look at the files. She had shoved the memory stick into her purse and left it there, and hadn't touched it since. But it had nagged at her; haunted her, and now, when the lab was quiet and she was the only one there, she finally took it out and plugged the memory stick into her laptop - her's, not the computer at her desk. She hesitated clicking on the folder, then took a deep breath and opened it, and clicked on the first "Notes" file.
She had to know. She had tried to forget about it, get her head back, but she hadn't been able to. She couldn't let it go.
She had to know.
She hadn't gotten far before she started to feel uneasy. The unease only grow, turning quickly into queasiness the longer and more she read.
When she finished, she swallowed thickly as she leaned back into her chair.
It took her a minute to realize her hands were shaking.
"An Ohnegesichterin...he's trying to turn that girl into an Ohnegesichterin?!" she whispered.
She knew the stories--she was from Urtharbrun; of course she knew the stories of the faceless women of the mountains, who tempted children and fools to trade their faces and left them empty blanks.
She also knew, of course, that Ohnegesichterin did not exist--they were surely just folktales to explain mako poisoning that could happen to people who fell into the mako pools out in the mountains--which in a way made whatever it was that Hojo was trying to do worse. He wasn't trying to genetically manipulate a monster into existence, he was trying to erase a girl's mind and replace it with something else. There was science and there was madness, and as she read Hojo's notes, she realized what side of the line that Hojo was on.
What side she was on. She felt sick, but she knew that if she hesitated--if she even stopped to think at all--that she would rationalize this like she had rationalized everything she had done up until that point and everything she had been a part of; would let that other part of her, let the Dr. Laumbe so fascinated by what they could discover, take the place of Anneke. It was now or never. She deleted the files and was on her feet before she'd even finished the thought.
It was much later than it normally was when someone came to their room; late enough for Aerith to wonder for one panicked moment if she's lost track of time. But no - the lights had dimmed, meaning it was light, and she reckoned that they had another hour or so before the lights were turned completely off automatically, when it was fully "night." And yet, here was Dr. Laumbe at the door, alone.
The doctor walked in with a wan smile, then set down the medical bag she was carrying, another oddity. She did sometimes come in with one, to check on them, but this late?
"I was a little worried about Tifa there," Dr. Laumbe said. "I want to double check her, since her readings seem off." Aerith nodded, and moved slightly to the side warily, not sure what exactly had gotten Dr. Laumbe's attention today - Tifa was no different from her normally worrying state, or nothing had changed since Laumbe'd rushed out before. But...but she'd said readings, and Aerith knew that ShinRa was monitoring them and routinely did test and collected blood from them. Had something happened? Aerith knew that Tifa felt wrong, but nothing had--
"You have fifteen minutes before the next patrol," Laumbe said quickly under her breath as she pretended to examine Tifa. "There's an elevator out the back that will let you out. You need a pass card to use it." Aerith was jolted suddenly out of her worried thoughts and for a moment, wondered if she had heard Dr. Laumbe wrong. Then it clicked, and her heart leapt with something she hadn't felt in a long time.
"Where can I--?" Aerith began, and Laumbe made a wry face. "I expect a good bump on the back of the head now, so I can plausibly say you hit me, then hit me with the Sleep I keep equipped. And took the pass off my coat," she said, her voice still at a whisper too low for the cameras to pick up, but good enough for what Aerith's hearing would catch, and she looked down at her badge meaningfully. "Go. Now. Before--before I change my mind," she said, and her voice shook.
"Thank you," Aerith said, her knees almost going weak. She had been almost completely useless at the martial arts Tifa had tried to teach her, but some of it had sunk in. The blow she delivered to the back of Laumbe's head was neat, tidy and effective, and stronger than she had expected, so much so that it knocked the woman out cold. Aerith checked quickly to make she was all right, then swiped the card and the bracer, and hauled Tifa to her feet. "Let's go," she whispered against Tifa's cheek, and prayed to whatever gods might hear her prayer that they either escape or be killed quickly, because she wouldn't let this go on any more.
Or the strength for her to kill them both if neither looked possible. Tifa's hand in hers, she took off at a run, and Tifa, unresponsive and blank, stumbled blindly where Aerith led.
Aerith didn't even realize until they got to the elevator just how high up they were. She'd known the ShinRa building was tall, but that many numbers on the elevator almost boggled her mind.
It was practically a maze just navigating the elevators. A nerve-wracking series of changing elevators and false-starts, all of them almost seeming like they were designed to slow people down. And there were the troopers, patrolling the building in set intervals, that had to be avoided. It would have been easy, perhaps, to just cast Sleep on all of them, but what happened when they woke up? She had to get as much distance as she could between them and ShinRa before their disappearance was noticed. Every second felt like live wires against her skin, but she knew she had to take her time.
When Aerith finally managed to get them out of the building, the shock of cold hit her almost like a blow. She and Tifa had been living in a controlled environment for so long that she'd had no idea what season it was, let alone what the temperature would be, and while the only clothes they had were the light, spring clothes they had both been wearing when they were captured. By the feel, it was almost time for the Mid-Winter Festival. But she had no idea; the cold was like that of mid-winter under the Plate, and things were very different Above.
For one thing, it was snowing.
Aerith had only seen snow in pictures and on vids; a dreamlike thing that wasn't actually real, no more real than any other imagined thing artists could create, or fantasies spun from a storyteller's mind.
She knew what snow was, or had had some theoretical thing that existed, like Bandersnatches and gods of summonings, but out was entirely something else to see them with your own eyes...or, in this case, feel it against your own skin.
Aerith couldn't help it; she let out a tiny gasp at the sight and feel of it, and looked around in wide-mouthed wonder at her first glimpse of snow.
She suddenly felt very small, as if the world contained so many more wonders than she could conceive of. And she felt hope; hope because if the world could contain something like this, a wonder that was for so many so mundane, then perhaps her Promised Land wasn't just her mother's fairy stories, but a thing that could work miracles. "Flee Midgar, and find your promised land," Aerith whispered. "We'll get there, and it will fix us both. I'll make this right," Aerith said, now to Tifa. "I'll make this right for you. I promise."
She squeezed Tifa's hand, and took off for the shadows, shaking off her wonder. It would wait. It would have to. They would escape ShinRa, escape Midgar, and when she found her Promised Land and Tifa was better, she'd make Tifa take her to her homeland, to the wild mountains and wild flowers she had so often spoken of when she could still speak, and they would see the wonders that filled the world.
They were being stared at. Aerith could understand why; two greatly underdressed girls, one looking lost and one barely following in a stumble, rushing through the streets.
The cold should have felt colder, Aerith knew. It had been a shock at first, but then had felt like nothing more than a cool Autumn evening. And then she remembered Zack, telling her about Modeoheim, and how much snow there had been...and how he hadn't even needed a coat, thanks to being a SOLDIER.
But no one knew they were SOLDIERs. They just saw too underdressed girls in the snow, and it meant they stood out.
Aerith ducked them into an alleyway, and sat Tifa behind a few boxes. "Stay here," she said, and Tifa simply stared out, sitting where she had been sat. "I'm going to get us something to wear so we stop sticking out."
Tifa said nothing, but it felt right to be talking to her; telling her what was happening.
It didn't take Aerith long to pop a simple locks - she was a slum girl, and it wasn't like she'd found her church sitting there empty and open all those years ago. It hadn't been a skill she used often, but It still only took her only a little while to pop the ones on a clothing store.
She suspected she could have just broken the lock with her bare hands, but she wasn't quire sure if she was mentally ready for that yet. She felt an almost hysterical laughter try to bubble up at the idea, and so she shied away from it. That was something for later, when they were somewhere safe.
She grabbed two coats, both of which from the feel costs more than anything Aerith had ever touched in her life, and both of which would be long enough to cover their clothes, and two hats. That would be enough for both of them, and would more than make them fit in with the people bustling around the city in winter gear. Then she froze, mouthed, "Sorry," and took several hundred gil she could from the cash register.
They would need it.
She picked up a purse and a wallet, pulled out the tissue paper filling the purse, and filled the wallet, and stuck it into the purse. She put on one of the coats and a hat, and carried the other out to Tifa.
"OK, Tifa, here you go. I know these aren't really your style, but I hope you like them anyway," she said, and held up an unbelievably soft woolen - cashmere, the label said - coat that was a pale pink and reached mid-calf on the her. "I know, pink doesn't seem to be your thing, but it looks so nice, with your black hair," she continued as she put it on her. The knit hat, like a beret, was just as soft, and she put it on Tifa's head with care, the same kind of care someone who could afford a coat like Tifa was wearing.
When she led Tifa out onto the main road, no one's eyes caught on them now. No one saw anything more than two pretty girls, out together on a crisp winter night.
At least, that's what Aerith prayed they saw.
And they had wasted enough time; Aerith knew by now that Dr. Laumbe had to have woken up and have alerted ShinRa security that they had escaped. They had to get away, and get away now.
She walked them until she came to a city map, and her eyes alit on the train station. They could use the train to get some distance between them and ShinRa, and it would give her some time to figure out where exactly to go. It was risky, but it was less risky than staying Above Plate.
She had to get Tifa to the church, but suspected that's where the Turks would look for them first. It was a risk she had to take, though - more than anything else, it was her place, and it would help her quiet that terrifying voice in her head, telling her how to destroy.
She needed to rehear how to heal.
They got on the train and sat in the first car, nearest the conductor, since she figured anyone looking over at them would pay more attention to him driving than to them, and Aerith let herself relax.
They hadn't been on the train more than fifteen minutes before there was an announcement. "Passengers, we are sorry for the inconvenience, but we've just been informed that we need to make an extended stop at the next station. Once we get to the Reactor Station, please remain in your seats. There will be a security check there, and no one will be allowed to depart until the train has been cleared."
Aerith felt her heart sink.
She wouldn't let them get caught her. She wouldn't. She had to get them off the train, even though it was risky, and even worse, because she knew the Reactor station would be crawling with--
Aerith's eyes went wide, as she realized this was exactly the station they wanted to be at. The reactor, after all, would get her where they wanted to go. It was, after all, the way that Zack Fair had taken the first time they met. "Let's go," she said, squeezing Tifa's hand, and stood up and rapped on the glass to the conductor's area. "I'm sorry, but could you please let us out?"
"No one is allowed--" he began, and Aerith gave him a pleading look.
"My friend is sick," she said, and in a stroke of timing, Tifa started to list over slightly, and her head dropped onto her chest. "I'm trying to get her to a doctor, but she's getting worse, and..." she said, trailing off, and leaving the rest unsaid but understood--a security check of the entire train would take a very long time.
The conductor looked at Tifa, then bit his lip, and looked at the rest of the train. Everyone was looking at the other doors, except for one older woman giving him a disapproving look that softened when she looked over at Tifa and Aerith. He sighed, and opened his door, and gestured to them.
Aerith quickly hauled Tifa up, grateful that for all Tifa was blank, she wasn't a dead weight - she would go where lead, and that was enough to perhaps give them a chance, when they had little time and a woman carrying another would garner attention one woman leading another by the hand wouldn't.
"You can wait here, so they'll check you first," he said. "That will get you out fastest."
"Thank you," Aerith said. She knew it was as good as they got - if ShinRa wasn't looking for them yet, they could be out before the word did. And if they were...
Well. She was a slum girl, and now she was a SOLDIER. It would not go so well for the ShinRa goons as it had the last time they had come for her.
The conductor opened the door for the ShinRa troopers once the train had pulled into Midgar Reactor station and come to a stop. "I know you need to check everyone, but there are two girls and one of them is sick, who need to be checked first. If you could look at them so they could get to a doctor, that would really help them out," he said. He tilted his head towards them.
The Trooper shrugged. "As long as they aren't the girls we're looking for, they can leave. Send them out and I'll check their information while the rest of the boys check the train."
"Appreciated," he said, then stepped of the train so Aerith and Tifa would have a clear path out.
Aerith had been listening carefully to the conversation, despite seeming to be fussing over Tifa. Her heart was pounding in her chest - they didn't have ID, and they most likely were the two they were looking for.
Things were about to get messy, and she was glad that they would at least be outside, away from other passengers and hopefully the conductor who had tried to help them. But this was going to be a fight, and she was ready for it.
Aerith carefully led Tifa off the train, making sure the purse she had stolen was hanging on her elbow, so she could easily slip in down to use as a weapon if need be.
As soon as she got them off the train and looked up, the trooper swore.
"Shit! It's them!" he blurted out, clearly shocked.
Aerith took advantage of his shock to drop the purse to her hand, and fling it at his face. He was wearing a helmet, but still flinched back at something being thrown at him, and Aerith hit him with Sleep.
But they had been seen, and soon enough, there would be more troopers swarming out towards them..
They were going to have to fight.
She grabbed Tifa's hand, and was about to run when the conductor got in front of them. "I can't let you--" he began, and Aerith hit him with Sleep before he could finish the sentence.
And then, they ran from the station, into the belly of the beast.
The first floor was almost easy.
The second, after word had spread, was far less so.
She fought her way up, through the increasing waves of ShinRa security trying to stop them. There were more Troopers, more guard machines, more monsters, more guards, more with each floor, as everyone swarmed in to catch them. She fought them and fought to protect Tifa, who could only stand, unseeing and unmoving, as the troopers aimed for her, trying to take out the "weak link" or keep Aerith distracted.
It seemed like it would never end. Like there would be on more ladder, one more floor, one more group to fight, and she was beginning to think it would never end. She was barely holding on, barely able to keep going, and only did because she had to. She would fight until they were free or dead, because they were not going back.
One more ladder.
One more floor.
The cold was a moment of shock, like it had been when they first got out of the ShinRa building. They were out.
She'd had to carry Tifa up all the ladders, and now she put her down and dared to take a breath, feeling almost giddy. The snow on her face was a miracle, a sign they had made it. She grabbed Tifa's wrist and led her to the edge of the top of the reactor building. They had reached the roof, finally, finally, and all they had to do was--
And that instant, she felt the bullets from turrets slamming into her back; more of them than she could count.
She fell forward, knocking Tifa off the edge even though she still held her hand. Tifa dangled from the edge, her wrist tight in Aerith's grasp all that kept her from falling into whatever lay far, far below.
She...she couldn't feel anything. Not anything below the small of her back, where one of the bullets had hit. Above it, there was pain, so much pain she could barely even register it. She hadn't been expecting it, and hadn't had a Barrier or anything up to protect her - she had exhausted herself fighting up, and it took more energy than she had to maintain it when she didn't need to. And now, it felt like circles of burning pain lancing through her, and the blood. She could feel the blood, flowing both into her and pouring out of her. She could feel it flowing into her belly. She could feel the labored sound of her own breathing, of a lung that is no longer filling, and how each rasping breath was causing air to fill the cavities of her own body.
I'm dying. Oh by all the gods, I'm really dying. She knew, then, that even with the full power of the limit break she could feel beating wildly within her, that it wouldn't be enough - it was too late; a threshold had been crossed and she was too far gone.
She was too far gone, but...but Tifa wasn't. She could feel Tifa's wrist in her hands, and the little voice that had always told her how to heal told her, that Tifa had been hit, was hurt, but she could survive it; the light of life was still flickering strong inside her.
And...wait. Tifa's eyes were open, but now something was different, there was something almost there--
She could hear them coming, the sounds on the ladder clattering as troopers climbed up. Aerith used the last of her strength and spoke, the words desperate.
"Please," Aerith whispered, struggling with her words as her lung, the only one working, spasmed. She managed to reach out with her free hand, the one not holding on to Tifa, and touch Tifa's face in the little time they had left. Something flickered again for the briefest moments behind eyes that had been so blank, and Aerith felt the tiniest spark of hope, hope that it wasn't too late for Tifa, even if she knew it was for her. She felt the limit break finally hit and gave into it, focusing all of it on Tifa, healing all of the other woman's wounds completely and exhausting the last of her own strength. "Live. And remember. Live for me. Remember for me."
Take this face, then, Aerith says, and the girl who has lost her face thinks her very beautiful, shining like a goddess in the darkness. Take my face, since you have none, Aerith says, and the girl who has lost her face wants it--she wants her face, wants a face again, wants to be, wants to remember--
The girl who has lost her face reaches out, reaches towards Aerith's, and Aerith closes her eyes.
Then her eyes, nose, lips, her face, are wiped away. The girl who has lost her face stares at the emptiness that had once been a person with a name for a moment, then raises her hands to her own face that is not, and as she draws her fingers across it, she draws features, feels them rising under the tips of her fingers, feels a name and memories and who she is come to her again as she slips on the other girl's face that is now her own; feels herself become again.
"Down, they're down! Get them, hurry up! Don't let them escape!!"
Distantly, Aerith could hear their voices and knew they had no more little time left.
She looked at Tifa again, for one last time. Their eyes met, Tifa's eyes suddenly sharp and aware, for an instant, and Aerith gave her a beautiful, wavering smile verging on tears. Tifa mirrored that wavering smile, and the tears in Aerith's eyes overflowed.
"Find your Promised Land...and see the sky for me," she whispered through the blood in her mouth, the words more breath than sound, the last of what little breath she could manage, and she let go of Tifa's hand. She didn't even feel it when Tifa's hand slipped from hers, or the tears on her checks, or when the troopers, a hair too slow to stop her from letting go of Tifa, grabbed her.
"Dammit, a Cure, does anyone have a--!"
The blinding pain was gone now, and there was only the warmth of her mother's - her real mother's - smile, from all those years ago, welcoming her.
And then, there was only the fragrance of lilies and the warm, white light of the Lifestream that burned away that evil thing that ShinRa had put inside of her, and set her free.
And as she goes into free fall, as she falls through the air to the church below, she turns her face to the sky...and remembers.
End Part III
What's at the core of my existence isn't nothingness. It's not that desolate, arid place. What is inside of me is love.
-Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 Book 2