[fic] Thagirion pt 2 - That Desolate, Arid Place

Title: That Desolate, Arid Place
Series: Thagirion
Author: joudama
Fandom: FF7 (AU)
Status: 3/5
Rating: R
Word count: 11,100
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: This is for illumynare, who won my help_japan auction. :D  She made an incredibly generous bid, and as someone actually living in Japan, I am extremely grateful.  Also, I'd ask that if you enjoyed this fic, to please consider donating to $5 or so to a charity.  It doesn't really matter which one, but it'd be a way for the spirit of help_japan--and all of the help_* auctions--to keep going.
 
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 Ultimania. :D
 
Also, ahahaha, I didn't figure it would take so long to get another part out; I have been having a hell of a year - between work, studying, and injuries (including one that left me unable to type without pain for several months) & doctor trips (woo-hoo, rare collagen disorders~ asdfghjkl;:), I haven't had much time to work on it. Sowwy! ^^;;

And thanks to everyone who offered to beta; I just got too impatient after I did a read-through. ^^;;; Next time, I line betas up BEFORE I finish; I should know this by now. >XD;;;;;

--
 
Part II: 
荒れ果てた潤いのない場所
[That Desolate, Arid Place]

 
--
 
私という存在の核心にあるのは無ではない。荒れ果てた潤いのない場所でもない。
    -村上春樹、1Q84 Book 2

 
-- 
 
They sat like that for so long Aerith's legs went numb.
 
She didn't even notice.
 
She would have given anything, as she waited and held on to Tifa, to have had a Cure or have been so exhausted that a limit break came out.  She felt it, then, deeply in her bones, that she truly was only half a Cetra; that she lacked an ability she felt her mother must have had, to have been able to fix whatever tendril of wrong that was beginning to snake its way into Tifa. 
 
But it was something she couldn't do, for all she could feel it.  All she could do was hold on to the other woman and wait for her to come back from whatever place it was she had gone. And to pray, more than she ever had in her life, that they would somehow find a way out.
 
It seemed like forever before Tifa finally moved or made a sound, but she finally let out a faint "nngh," and shifted slightly.
 
"Tifa?" Aerith said slowly, feeling both relieved and filled with dread at the same time.
 
"Nn," Tifa let out softly, then exhaled heavily.
 
"Take your time," Aerith said, her voice gentle, rubbing Tifa's back.  Everything is going to be fine, Aerith told herself.  Tifa is fine. Nothing...nothing bad could have happened this fast anyway.
 
I hope.

 
"No...no, I think I'm OK," Tifa said after a moment, sounding tired and groggy, and as if she was waking up from a deep sleep.  She let out a long sigh, and didn't lift her head. "What...what happened?"
 
That didn't sound like a good sign, but Aerith knew no good would come of panicking. Plus, she thought, they hit her with a Confuse before whatever under the Heavens they did to us.
 
Best, she decided, to go with the mildest truth of what she did know.
 
"Do you remember what happened before the Confuse?"
 
Tifa frowned slightly, then pulled herself up, away from Aerith and sat across from her.  "I remember...there was...yeah," she said again, brushing her hair out of her face.  "There were...men, right?  Scientists...troopers."
 
Aerith nodded.
 
"OK.  Yeah.  I remember everything before that..jerk hit me with whatever it was.  A Confuse.  Bastard," she muttered under her breath, and something about the way she said it made Aerith think Tifa didn't curse very often.
 
ShinRa will do that to a person, she thought. 
 
"After that, it's all a giant muddle," Tifa said, shaking her head.  "Odin's breath, it still feels like a muddle," she said,sighing and rubbing her temple.  "Like...like I just can't completely shake the Confuse. Just kind of off," she finished, trailing off and her shoulders hunching in as she wrapped her arms around herself.  "What under the Heavens are they going to do to us? What did they do?"
 
Aerith looked at her hands.  She folded them on her lap when Tifa'd sat up, and without thinking, she'd put her left hand on top of her right, and the clean, black lines of the XVIII-A tattoo screamed out at her.
 
She covered it with her other hand, and it seemed wrong, somehow, how the tattooed skin felt the same under her fingers as the rest of her.

"You probably don't want to know," she said softly, and Tifa flinched almost as if Aerith's words had slapped her.  Then Tifa narrowed her eyes and lifted her jaw.
 
"Doesn't matter if I want to know or not," she said, and there was a flash of strength in them.  Then she blinked and made a face.  "Ugh. I smell like someone shoved me in the mako fountains in Mt. Nibel!" she said, wrinkling her nose.
 
Aerith blinked.  "I don't know Mt. Nibel, but you're not too far off about being shoved in a mako fountain," she said, and Tifa stared at her.  "They put us in a tank of mako. Then...I don't know, something knocked me out after put us in."
 
"What under the Heavens...!" Tifa said, sounding dumbfounded.  "Why?! Don't they know how dangerous--!"
 
"They do," Aerith said softly.  "They know exactly what mako can do."
 
Tifa's eyes went wide.  "I," she said slowly, "have got to get out of here. I'm not gonna be ShinRa's lab rat!"
 
Aerith frowned. "Hey, what about me?"
 
Tifa's eyes narrowed suddenly.  "I still don't know if I can trust you," she said, a sudden edge to her voice.  "I don't remember them hitting you with a Confuse," she said, and there was something so sharp and cold in her voice Aerith flinched at it. "And how do you know that ShinRa knows what mako can do?" Tifa said suspiciously.
 
It stung, more than a little, but Aerith couldn't really blame Tifa for her wariness - she'd seen those scars.  But still...
 
They were going to be stuck in here, with ShinRa doing only the gods knew what to them while they were, and the only chance they had of getting out was to work together.  Aerith held up her left hand.  "You saw this, right?" she said, and pointed to the tattoo, and Tifa flinched this time.  "I'm in this, same as you.  I don't know where they got you from or why, but they just...they just snatched me up, right out of the old church I always used as a safe place. I thought I'd gotten away, but...They had just been playing with me, all these years and letting me think I could get away if they really wanted me," she said, hating each word and her own stupidity over the years.

She'd always laughed it off when ShinRa was watching, telling her mother it'd be OK and they hadn't once caught her yet because she was always careful.  "My mother must be so worried," she said, more to herself than to Tifa, and her voice cracked.  She hadn't even thought about her mother until just then, but now that she had...Aerith didn't even know how long it had been, she she guessed it had been close to a day, at least, probably more, and the idea of her mother waiting and waiting for her to come home...
 
She wondered if Tseng would at least have the decency to tell her mother something.  She thought he would, but...
 
She sniffled suddenly, and blinked quickly, but she could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid, all these years, I was so stupid.
 
"I've got to get some sleep," Tifa muttered. "Look.  We'll...we'll talk after I've gotten some sleep.  They kept me pretty sleep deprived until they dumped me in here, and I can't think," she said, her voice small, and Tifa suddenly seemed different, almost like another person, and Aerith wondered if that was a glimpse of who Tifa had been, before whatever made her into someone so angry and mistrusting had happened.

...She'd seen those scars. And those came after whatever had made her into a terrorist.
 
"Go ahead," Aerith said with a sigh.  "They were nice enough to fix the bed that got broken while we were in the mako tanks," she said, and the giggle that came out to that sounded mad even to her own ears.
 
Tifa gave her a long look, the moment of vulnerability gone, replaced with wariness again, then shook her head.  "Which one's mine?" she said.
 
"I really don't think they bothered to assign them," Aerith said, with another insane grin fighting to come to her lips. If she didn't watch it, she was going to start laughing, and then she'd be sobbing uncontrollably, and she didn't want that. She could feel her nerves fraying, and she tamped down to control them before they shattered out of her control.
 
"Then I'm taking the one on the left," Tifa said slowly, still wary, and laid down without another word, facing the wall and her back to both the cell and Aerith.

The mad urge to laugh until she sobbed came back, and never had Aerith felt so alone, or wanted so much to go home.
 
--
 
Tifa opened her eyes slowly, feeling not quite awake, but finally not bone-crushingly exhausted.  It had been what felt like far too long since she'd felt anything like rested, and this seemed like the closest she had been in as long as she could remember.  She closed her eyes again and sighed before rolling onto her back and stretching.
 
Reality, though, crashed in on her as soon as she opened her eyes again and saw the unfamiliar ceiling that was so much like the ones in the cells she had been in, but different.
 
"No," she said, and sat up.
 
"'Fraid so, and good morning," Aerith said from the other side of the room.  Aerith was sitting on her bed, not doing anything. "Or something like that. It might be closer to afternoon."
 
"How long was I asleep?" Tifa asked.  The inside of her mouth felt like something had died in it, and she wanted a glass of water, a bathroom, a shower, and a toothbrush in whatever order she could get them.
 
"About a day," Aerith said, and Tifa's eyes went wide.  "I thought you probably needed the sleep," she said with a faint shrug.  "Plus, they didn't come for us, so I figured it was better to let you get some rest while you could.  We're going to need our strength."
 
"This isn't a bad dream, is it," Tifa said flatly.
 
"I wish it were," Aerith said softly, and something about the way the other woman looked down at her hands made Tifa begin to suspect she wasn't just some ShinRa agent in her to trick her into giving up names of other members of AVALANCHE, that maybe Aerith was in this just as much as she was.
 
Or maybe she's a good actress, Tifa thought.  They didn't shoot her up with Confuse or inject her with weird whatevers. I can't trust her. I can't trust anyone here.
 
"Bathroom?" Tifa finally said, and the corner of Aerith's lip turned up in something almost like a bitter smile.  Then she gestured towards the corner of the cell furthest away from the door.
 
"Oh, no way," Tifa said wide-eyed, shaking her head.  There was a small metal toilet in the corner, and a small sink with two plastic cups, two toothbrushes, toothpaste, a small bar of soap, and a roll of toilet paper on it next to the toilet.
 
"I'll just look at the wall until you're done," Aerith said, pinking slightly, and Tifa felt her whole face flame red as Ifrit's flame.
 
There was no going around it, though, and Tifa tried not to think about it too hard as she went over to the metal toilet.
 
Tifa was no stranger to embarrassment, but this, having not even the semblance of privacy for something like this, made her wish a hole would open up in the floor and just swallow her whole.
 
She hated ShinRa.
 
When she was done, the flush sounded loud to her ears - but not as loud as the splashes from using the toilet had felt - and she washed her hands, feeling hollow.  That hollow feeling remained as she brushed her teeth, then filled the cup and drank down the oddly metallic-tasting water that came out of the tap.
 
She dried her hands on her skirt before looking around the cell, looking at anything rather than look at Aerith just yet.
 
It was bigger than the cells she'd been in up until then.  She'd been in solitary confinement cells until then, and those had barely had room enough for a bed and the damnable toilet in the corner. This cell, though, had clearly been designed to hold two people, even if there wasn't all that much room. The corner with the toilet and the sink, two beds, and nothing else. There was room enough to move around, but not by much, and nothing there for them to do.
 
Tifa paced for a bit in the small area, glad enough for at least that, before she stopped and wrapped her arms around herself.
 
"So...um...so, tell me about yourself," Tifa said, needing something get rid of the awkwardness and humiliation she was feeling just then.  She didn't know anything about this girl she'd been tossed in with, and only the gods knew how long this would last.
 
She could hear how forced it was and felt even more pathetic for it, but she figured better this awkwardness than just silence.
 
"Well, what do you want to know?" Aerith asked, turning now to face Tifa.  She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, her skirt loose enough to allow it.  "I mean, I'm just a flower seller."
 
"Yeah, and I'm just a bartender," Tifa said flatly, narrowing her eyes. Something didn't make sense at all - 'just a flower seller' nothing.  If Aerith was there, it was because either ShinRa wanted her to disappear, or she was working for them.
 
She'd thought Zangan a coward for constantly running from ShinRa; now she realized he had known something she didn't, something she was learning more of every day they had her.  She already knew how treacherous they were; had seen them rebuild and repopulate Nibelheim all in under a few months to cover what Sephiroth had done.
 
She'd gotten the wrong lesson when Zangan had rubbed her face in what they did, she knew that now. Zangan had been trying to warn her, and she'd...
 
...She couldn't trust this girl.
 
"You said something about this not being a jail.  That they were going to experiment on us. What did you mean?"
 
Aerith stared at her and blinked a few times.  "I meant exactly that.  They're going to experiment on us.  I think they already started."
 
"And you know all that how?"
 
Aerith lifted her jaw. "Because I was born in one of their labs.  They experimented on my mother. She escaped with me and my father, one of the scientists, when I was five. That's how I know."
 
Tifa sucked in a breath, taken aback. That was not an answer she'd been expecting. Then shook her head.  No.  She couldn't trust as neat and tidy a story as that. Not yet. "They didn't come after you?"
 
"Of course they did," Aerith snapped.  "Both my parents were killed when we escaped. My biological mother left me with the woman who raised me. And the Turks came by often enough to let us know they knew where I was." She shrugged. "I guess they decided I wasn't important enough to recapture since my mother was dead. Until now."
 
"That...doesn't make much sense."
 
"Well, I wasn't the one they were experimenting on at the time. For all they knew, I was useless to them.  They were watching me the whole time to see if I would be, I guess, and it looked like they finally decided I was," Aerith said, and the words sounded bitter.
 
Tifa looked down at her hands, torn between wanting to believe Aerith and wariness.  It could go either way. It really was a matter of how important she was - she'd been important enough for them to capture alive and torture days on end for information, but was she worth this much of a facade?
 
...but ShinRa was so, SO very good at facades.  She wouldn't have thought Nibelheim worth the effort they'd gone through, either.  Zangan's home, they'd wiped off the map so completely it was as if it had never existed, but hers...
 
"Here," Aerith said, taking something out of her pocket and holding it out.  "It's not much, but it's all I could keep.  They took your tray of food away when they took mine, even though you'd been sleeping and hadn't eaten."
 
At the sight of the small roll, Tifa's stomach suddenly burst into life.  She suddenly felt so hungry she could have eaten her own arm off, and she felt a wave of gratitude wash over her before she squashed it as hard as she could.
 
"Thank you," she said, bowing slightly without realizing it in a motion engrained in her since childhood as she reached for the roll.
 
"They should be back something in an hour or two.  Try to hold on until then," Aerith said gently.
 
"I've gone without before," Tifa said shrugging.  "And this'll take the edge off."
 
"Things must have been hard for you," Aerith said gently, and Tifa shrugged again as she took a bite.  The bread was pretty terrible, dry and hard and nothing like the thick, heavy breads from home, but right then, she didn't care.  It was bread, and that at least was something.
 
"You don't become a terrorist for no reason," Tifa said after she swallowed, and a faint, sad smile touched Aerith's lips.
 
"No," she said, "I suppose you don't."
 
They fell silent, and Tifa ate her bread.
 
--
 
"Both of you, up!" a voice yelled sharply, and Aerith's head jerked up.
 
Her heart sank.  She had been more bored than she'd ever been in her life, but this wasn't something she wanted to happen.

Tifa all but leapt up from the floor, where she had been doing exercises.  Aerith had watched her for awhile, feeling lazy and a bit pudgy at first, then in mild disbelief as Tifa just kept on doing sit-ups past the hundred mark. Her stomach started to hurt just watching Tifa, and watching someone exercise did get dull after a bit, so she'd started running her fingers through her hair, trying to detangle it as best she could. A hairbrush wasn't among the amenities ShinRa had graced them with, so all she had were her fingers.
 
So she was detangling as Tifa was counting push-ups, when the troopers and the scientist came.
 
Tifa had very obviously been trained in some kind of martial art, of that much Aerith was now certain.  Tifa quickly went into a fighting stance with a smooth, practiced grace, and was rewarded by one of the troopers leveling his gun right at her.
 
"You don't want to do that," he said.
 
"You don't know anything about what I want to do," Tifa said defiantly, and was rewarded quickly when the trooper, faint trails of a Haste around him, slammed the butt of his gun into her belly a shade too fast for her to block.
 
"I do know you don't want to piss me off," he said as Tifa gasped. "Trust me on that. Now, are we going to do this the easy way, or the you-regret it way?"
 
Tifa looked like she wanted to say something, but Aerith jumped in.  "Tifa...no.  Please."
 
Tifa gave her a hard look, but put her hands in the air.  
 
"Smart girl," the trooper said.
 
"Drop dead," Tifa said sharply, and this time the butt of the Hasted trooper's gun hit her hard in the jaw.  Tifa let out a sharp, pained cry and clamped her hands over where she'd been hit.
 
"Don't break the sample!" the scientist said sharply, sounding alarmed.  "If it's injured...I'm not authorized to use any materia besides this on it!" he said.  
 
Aerith had run over to Tifa while this was happening, ignoring the other trooper with this gun trained on her.  Blood was seeping from between Tifa's fingers.
 
"Let me see," she said softly. Tifa's hands were shaking, but Aerith was able to pull them away from her jaw.
 
Tifa's broken jaw.
 
"You cruel bastard!" Aerith said sharply, and the trooper turned his gun on her. 
 
"Now, you already saw what happens when someone gives me lip. Do you need a lesson as well?" he said warningly, and Aerith clinched her jaw so tightly her teeth ground together, clamping down on the angry words that wanted to come screaming out.

"We are on a schedule!" the scientist said in irritation. 
 
"Aren't you going to help her?" Aerith said disbelievingly, not able to hold it in.
 
He ignored her.
 
"Both of you, hands where we can see them," the other trooper said.
 
Tifa's blood was dripping down onto the floor, guns were trained on them both, and Aerith raised her hands.
 
--
 
"What," Hojo snapped angrily, "have you done to my sample?!"
 
Bennett swallowed thickly.  "She was resisting, and..."
 
Hojo leveled a stare on him, then pointedly looked at the troopers, their guns, then back to Bennett.
 
"I do not," Hojo said, his voice sounding just as angry as before, "want to introduce uncontrolled variables into my experiments!" he snapped, then pushed up his glasses, and Bennett felt his stomach dropped. "We have no idea how pain is going to influence the intake of the compound. That is not a test I intended to begin at this early stage! Baselines must be established first!"
 
"Do...do you want me to Cure her, sir?" Bennett said weakly.
 
Hojo's eyes narrowed, and Bennett knew he'd said the wrong thing.  "What did I just say about uncontrolled variables? And are you a complete idiot?  A Cure or potion would most likely completely clean all of compound 164 out of her system."
 
"Wait, wouldn't that take an elixir or an Esu--" Bennett began, and his words dried up quickly at the look on Hojo's face.
 
"Are you lecturing me on compounds I myself have developed?" he said, his voice no longer angry but almost terrifyingly conversational.
 
"No, sir," Bennett stammered nervously.  "I was mistaken.  You're right," he said.
 
"Put them into the tanks.  As they are.  And if those idiotic muscleheads excessively damage my samples again, without my permission and in uncontrolled situations, well," he said, and Bennett could figure out the end to that.  "Oh, and Dr. Bennett," Hojo said, in that same conversational tone, "If I were you, I would hope that today's numbers come out surprisingly well.  The other direction would be...unfortunate," he ended with, the light glinting off his glasses, and Bennett swallowed again, his throat as dry as his hands were damp.
 
--
 
"Where were you born?" she asks as they hike.  Tifa still tires easily and feels occasional twinges of pain from the time Zangan will not allow her to talk about, and she needs a distraction from the pain that is oddly intense that day.  And it has become a challenge for her now, to drag from Zangan where he is from, to make him admit that he is from a place that had been--because if he does, then it means she can remember Nibelheim, that Tifa has the right to remember.
 
"The place where my mother was."
 
"And where was that?"
 
"The place where she bore me," he answers with a smile, and will say no more. 

 
--
 
Aerith slowly opened her eyes.  She blinked for a few minutes before getting her bearings and sitting up.  The world was sharp, somehow, and clear, and she wondered if it was the mako.  She had no idea how long they'd stuffed her and Tifa in the tanks, but it seemed it was long enough for it to make things seem almost too in-focus.
 
Was this how Zack had seen--how Zack saw--the world?
 
She shook her head to clear it, then looked over at Tifa's bed. Tifa was lying on it, eyes open but not focused on anything, and Aerith felt her stomach drop. "Tifa?"
 
No answer.
 
She got up, feeling unsteady, then went over to Tifa's side, and flinched.
 
Tifa's jaw was still broken.  The blood was gone, but...
 
"Dear gods, how could they just leave you like this?" Aerith said, shocked.  "I'm sorry," she whispered, and gently prodded Tifa's jaw, to try and do something; to set it if nothing else.
 
Tifa didn't move at all, just lay there with her eyes staring at nothing, and Aerith fell to her knees by the bed and bowed her head, clasping one of Tifa's hands in hers.
 
This was not her place; not the church where she could always hear the Planet and focus that still, small voice into life, but she had to try.
 
Don't do it, a voice warned her. They'll know for sure what you are and what you can do if you do.

Aerith hesitated, then felt a wave of shame for it. They already know, she thought. And I am what I am. I won't let them take that away from me.

She took a deep breath, and felt the tendrils of a whisper around her, and focused on it.  She wasn't sure why she could hear it now, but she wasn't going to question it.  That wisp was what she needed, and she felt her hair flutter with the whirling tendrils of power as she pushed herself into a Limit Break.
 
It was just barely enough in this place and her at only the bare basest level that could trigger a Limit, but it was enough, and that was what mattered.  She couldn't fix the wrongness she could just barely sense in Tifa, but she could fix this.
 
This was not her place. But she was what she was.
 
She laid her head on the mattress of Tifa's bed and closed her eyes.
 
--
 
Tifa felt like her head had been pulled open, her brains stirred around with a stick, and then her head shut back closed again.
 
"Ugh," she let out, and slowly sat up, then rubbed her temples, trying to get her brains back in order.
 
Something stirred by her, and she looked over and down quickly.  Aerith was sitting on the floor by her bed, asleep with one arm on the bed and using it as a pillow.
 
Tifa's shifting seemed to wake her up, and Aerith looked up at her sleepily. "Are you OK?" she said, rubbing her eyes.  "How's your jaw?"
 
Tifa frowned for a moment in confusion, then her eyes went wide as she remembered.  She raised her hand to her jaw and cheek gingerly. "It's...it's fine. It's not broken anymore.  It doesn't even hurt," she said.
 
Aerith let out a sigh of relief.
 
"Good of them to at least fix that," Tifa said, but the words sounded bitter even to her. 
 
"Yeah," Aerith said, looking at her hands. "It was the least they could do."
 
"I'd be amazed they did that much," Tifa said, and this time the anger she felt came out, "but they always were good about cleaning up their messes so there was no proof."  She touched her stomach, where the scar from Sephiroth's sword would always be.  They may have been able to erase everything else he'd done, but they'd never be able to erase that from her very skin.  
 
That, or any of the other scars they had left her with.  "Bastards," she hissed under her breath.
 
"Tifa..." Aerith began, and she looked concerned.  "Are you...what did they...why are you so angry? It's not just this, is it? Or anything they did before...before they put you in here," she said, almost as if she was shying away from saying it.
 
"Before they tortured me?" she said flatly, and Aerith flinched, but nodded.
 
"Like that's not enough?" Tifa said, barely even able to believe this.  She had every right to be angry; who was this girl to act otherwise?

"Something made you into a terrorist," Aerith said softly.  Her voice was hesitant, but there was something strong and certain in her eyes.  "You're not even my age, I don't think.  So what happened?  No one just decides out of the blue to try and blow up reactors."
 
"I joined AVALANCHE," Tifa said, not caring if Aerith was a spy or not, "because I hate ShinRa and everyone connected with them. I hate them, I hate the Turks, I hate the SOLDIERs, I hate all of them.  All of them! Everything connected to this company is rotten to the core!"
 
"I'm not really a ShinRa fan myself. But they're not all bad," Aerith said, her words slow and careful.  "My...my father worked for them. My boyfriend was...is...was a SOLDIER," she said, frowning slightly. "They're not all bad. And..." she trailed off, biting her lip.
 
She definitely didn't trust Aerith now.  She covered it with a faint smile.  "Bad breakup or roller coaster or something?"
 
Aerith smiled, but it didn't seem to reach her eyes. "Something like that.  One day he went out on a mission and never came back," she said simply, and the smile fell off Tifa's face as if she'd been slapped.
 
That hadn't been the answer she was expecting, and something about the way Aerith looked down at her hands, picking nervously at her skirt, told Tifa that at least some part of what Aerith had said had been true - she recognized the way loss, real loss, looked, and it was written all over Aerith.
 
"I'm sorry," she said, turning red, and Aerith just shook her head.
 
"It was years ago," she said softly.  "Three years ago.  One day he left, and just...he never came back."
 
Tifa's lips quirked up into a smile that held no humor.  "Three years ago, eh?  There's a coincidence."
 
Aerith gave her a questioning look, and Tifa continued.  "You want to know why I hate ShinRa?  Because three years ago, ShinRa troops and SOLDIERs came to my home town and burned it to the ground.  They killed almost everyone there.  They killed my father," she said, her voice growing softer.  "And almost killed me," she said, and unconsciously touched her stomach, where the first of many scars she had gotten from ShinRa was.  "And then, they erased everything they had done."
 
"Oh," Aerith said, almost breathlessly in a gasp. "Oh. I'm so sorry."
 
"That's why I hate ShinRa.  Why I swore to tear them down.  But look how I ended up," Tifa said bitterly. Zangan had been right, and it was like a Poison had been cast on her, the way it ran through her veins. "A captured 'terrorist' and now I'm their lab rat."
 
"The terrorist and the flower seller," Aerith said with a quirk of her lips. "What an odd pair we make."
 
"But why?" Tifa finally burst out with.  "Why would they want to experiment on you? On us?"
 
Aerith didn't say anything for a moment, searching carefully for words.  "Have you...have you ever heard of the Cetra?  The Ancients?"
 
Tifa frowned slightly.  "Kind of. Aren't they some kind of myth or something?"
 
Aerith smiled sadly.  "No.  They weren't.  They were real.  And I'm the last one. Or the last half one. The last full-blooded Cetra died with my mother.  And the only reason I ever saw the outside of a lab in the first place was because my ShinRa scientist father died trying to get us out."
 
Tifa's eyes went wide. "Oh," she finally said, and then neither one of them said anything for a long time.
 
--
 
It would seem that while that idiot assigned to work for me can not keep the trigger-happy troopers in line, he has lucked out - insofar as that moron's attempt to break the only intact Nibelheim sample I have on hand may have opened up a new vector for it to imprint on the Ancient sample.  Unless he is lying to me, the Ancient used its own abilities to repair the damage done to the N sample.  XVIII would still have been in a susceptible state, so it may be more likely to imprint whatever ability XVIII-A used - most likely a Limit Break.  I will have to test for this at a later date, however, since it is far too early in the experiments to begin adding variations, and the numbers from the test results the next day may be outliers, as this was only the second day of injections and mako insertions, and the beginning always shows the most variation.  However, this is something to keep in mind.
 
If nothing else, this may help induce bonding between the two, which can only aid in my results. Provided it is done in a controlled way. I will not have controllable variables introduced wildly and ruin my experiments.  Hopefully, the N sample will become docile sooner rather than later, so troopers are no longer necessary.  
 
If it does not, however, measures will have to be taken.  If worse comes to worse, I suppose I could sever it's spinal column or some other such surgical procedure. I don't need it mobile, after all, just viable. And I still have samples on hand from other subjects, including S - if worse comes to worse and these fools taint my data too much, it could at the very least make a useful incubator.
 
Hojo's notes on subject XVIII, p. 42

 
--
 
The troopers and the scientist came back.

And whenever they came, Tifa didn't fight, for all she still went into a defense stance before she was hit with the Confuse, and Aerith was grateful enough for that.
 
--
 
"Do you see now, girl," Zangan says sharply.  "Do you see with your own eyes what they can do?"
 
"No," Tifa whispers, and falls to her knees at the sight.  She had often imagined Nibelheim as it had been before ShinRa and their SOLDIERs came, but this...this...  "No, this can't be right, how--" she says, shaking her head furiously in her confusion, unable to believe what her eyes are telling her.
 
It is Nibelheim.  Nibelheim as it had been, before Sephiroth and the other SOLDIERs came.  But...but it's not right; none of the people there are right. She can tell that even from here; her eyes have always been so sharp her father used to say she had dragon eyes, able to spot even a huegelsteiger goat on the side of the mountain from far away.  The people there look so much like people who had died, but they aren't, even though they live in houses identical to what had had been there. It has been less than a year, but already, there is no sign of all the destruction of that terrible night.  "No."
 
"This is what they do," Zangan says again, but there is no anger in his voice anymore, only sadness. "Nibelheim was never destroyed, no one was killed, and they made your memories a lie.  You are the one no longer in step with the reality they have made. This is their power.  Your home is a lie, Tifa Lockheart, but they will make you a liar and kill you for it to make that true. Do you see now? So chose. Go back there and live a lie, or disappear and have no past. But the path you're trying to create now will only end with you hunted down and erased.  If you want your revenge so badly, stay in the shadows. Wander and strike in the best way you know. But if you attack straight, alone and with rage, screaming about the past they have erased, you will be swatted down. This is the reality that exists now," he said, his voice harsh. "And you must make your peace with this much of it or you will be destroyed."
 
She looks at what had been her home, and the tears begin - but they are not of sadness. They are of rage, so strong and overwhelming that she is shaking because she has no idea what to do with the rawness of it. 

Her master covers her eyes with a hand, shielding her from it, and guides her away.


--

It always took Aerith a while to get her bearings, after.  It was always a bit like waking from a sleep but still being tired - her brain was sluggish as if it was still half-full of dreams. Or rather, it was more like dreaming while awake; like everything was a little too bright, a little too sharp, a little too hyper-real, even though her brain felt like it was two steps behind.

She didn't know how to possibly describe it. She just knew she didn't like it, any of it, and she never got used to it, even though she'd lost count of how often it had happened.

She sat up, then felt dizzy, as if she had moved too fast, and she steadied herself with one hand on the bed.  "Whoa," she said, and shook her head, then looked over at Tifa's bed.

"Tifa? Are you OK? Tifa?" Aerith said, and sighed at her own repetition.

She really should have known the answer by then.

Tifa was not OK.

She always hoped it would be different, but it never was.  Whatever it was they were doing to Tifa - whatever it was they were injecting her with - left her in a strange, disquieting blank state that never stopped being unsettling.

Aerith got up and headed over to Tifa's bed. Tifa was lying there like she'd been dumped when they scientists finished with them. Aerith wondered, for a moment, how the scientists and their troopers brought them back - they always walked the two of them into the tank room, and then everything after going in the tank - after the strange jolt of panic at being in the mako, lungs and mind panicking no matter how many times it happened, no matter how much she knew it was ok, that they could breathe the mako somehow and not drown, her body always panicked, at first, and then it was nothing but dreams, and that feeling of dreaming awake when she returned to reality, still smelling of mako and staring up at a gray ceiling.

The scientists walked them down at gunpoint, but how did they bring them back?

It didn't really matter much.
 
"Tifa," she said softly, and brushed some of Tifa's hair, stiff with dried mako, out of her eyes.

No response.

She wished she had a hair brush.

She sat down next to Tifa on the bed. "Tifa," she said again, a little louder, and nothing.

But she felt something, a tiny spark of something, something bright and different from the tendril of wrong she could also feel, and it always gave her a tiny hope - she suspected that tiny little spark was Tifa, was Tifa coming back, and she always focused on it, and let her voice and her touch, light against Tifa's hair, or her shoulder, or her back, help guide Tifa back.

"Come on, up you go," she said, and pulled Tifa up sitting next to her. Tifa was limp, pliant, and her head fell onto Aerith's shoulder. Aerith put her arm around Tifa and rested her head on top of Tifa's, feeling for that spark, and taking in the warmth of another person and the comfort it brought.

Something in her relaxed, and she realized, feeling almost sick at herself as she did, that she liked this.
 
She liked Tifa like this better than the constant wariness when she was awake. Liked for a moment not having Tifa sullen and suspicious in one side of the room. Liked being able to care for someone in some small way.  These moments, where Tifa was blank instead of wary and distrustful, leaning against her like a helpless child would her mother.  The days in between when the scientist would come, Tifa would sometimes say almost nothing at all to her and Aerith always felt too hesitant to even try to break the almost oppressive silence from Tifa after the first few times ended in Tifa abrupt pulling back and going wary, and leaving Aerith feeling more alone and on edge than she could ever remember.
 
It disturbed her even as she took the small moments of peace; of some kind of safety and contact, and she hated that feeling.

This couldn't go on.

She didn't dare let this go on.  She wouldn't let ShinRa turn her into whatever this would make her.

They would talk. When Tifa woke up, Aerith was putting a stop to this, somehow.

And while we're dreaming, she thought wryly, then sighed and closed her eyes.

Later. For now, just...later.

For now, there was this, this moment of quiet without sullenness, without the weight of a distrustful stare.

And the warmth of someone else, and someone to care for, in the only time and only way the other woman would allow herself to be.

She let the time pass quietly, the only sounds that of their breathing, strangely in sync.

Breathing, just breathing, as the world finally settled into normal - as normal as it could be in this place - and went from being too sharp and too slow into normal.

The mako, she knew, did weird things. But she also knew it was the Planet; the very thing that let her able to feel even a little of whatever was happening in Tifa, let her reach for the tiny spark was best she could.

When that feeling of a spark came closer as it also, paradoxically, got harder to sense, she knew it meant Tifa would be waking up soon, something that was a relief as much as part of her that she hated found it a disappointment.

It wasn't just the mako doing funny things to her, she knew.

"Nngh," Tifa let out softly, then took a deep breath.

It was always the same - that faint grunt, then a deep breath. Then this, a moment of confusion before Tifa pulled away.

Always the same, and it always somehow hurt, so when Tifa pulled away from her this time, a little too jerkily when Aerith was feeling so raw, and with something so distrustful and suspicious in her eyes, still, something in Aerith just snapped.

--

Tifa always hated waking up after whatever mad experiment ShinRa was inflicting on her was over.

She hated the way her head felt, she hated how things felt wrong, and she hated feeling weak. It always took her a while to get her bearings. But she always woke up the same - feeling somehow safe, with Aerith nearby, either sitting on the floor by Tifa's bed, and next to her with either her head on Aerith's lap or with Aerith's arm on her shoulder.

Always waiting for her to wake up, like she was seeing how long it would take, and it was always like this, always - Aerith was always awake before her, and it also seemed so odd that she focused on that and stomped down on any feelings of safety and warmth. It was always every single time, which was not safe, more like it was one more scientist observing her, and--

The thought hit her uncomfortably, but it would make so much sense, and--

--and Aerith was yelling.

Tifa'd never seen her do that, never seen her angry (something that was also far too suspicious for her tastes, but now, all of a sudden, and directed at her, made her eyes go wide with surprise.
 
"Now look!" Aerith said sharply. "In case you missed it, I'm smelling pretty mako tank fresh myself! They're dumping me in there, same as you!" she yelled.  "So quit acting like I'm some ShinRa spy or something!  They're doing this to both of us!  I don't know why you won't trust anyone, but it's time you started trusting me, because I can't take this any more!" she yelled, and was on her feet, pacing angrily in the small room.
 
 Tifa startled. "What? I--"
 
"Stop it!" Aerith yelled, and something in her voice quavered.  She gestured around the cell, then at her hand, at the black XVIII-A tattooed on it.  "I'm just like you right now! I'm just as trapped and just as scared, and I can't take any of this anymore!" Aerith yelled, then wiped angrily at her eyes. "I just can't!"
 
If Aerith was acting, she was a good actress. She was shaking, and she balled her hands into fists as she bit her lip, as if trying to stop more words from coming out.

Tifa desperately wanted to be able to trust Aerith, to trust someone. But she'd learned, the hard way, that trusting usually just got you slapped in the face.
 
But she didn't want to be in this alone, whatever it was this was. And she was tired, so tired, of being on edge all the time.
 
She wrapped her arms around herself tightly, feeling tired and weak - like she should be stronger than this, like she shouldn't be fine staying on guard all the time, shouldn't feel this need she kept stomping on to depend on someone so much. And she hated all of it; hated the feeling and hated having the feeling.
 
She hated what ShinRa was doing to her...and she realized she hated what they were doing to, and not just because of the experiments.
 
Maybe Aerith was a spy. Maybe ShinRa was willing to go that deep to get information out of one piddling little terrorist.
 
Or maybe Aerith had been telling the truth all along, that she was a much a prisoner as Tifa was, and Tifa had been making both of them even more miserable.
 
She looked up, at Aerith's face, and into her eyes, and they had the same gleam as the SOLDIERs had.

The same gleam her own had, when she looked away and over at the mirror above the sink and saw her own reflection.

Green eyes gleaming like Sephiroth's; brown eyes gleaming like mako pools.

"I don't trust you," Tifa said, her voice small. She looked at her hand, at the black XVIII, and at the XVIII-A on Aerith's, and shut her eyes. "Because I've seen ShinRa wipe out an entire town and then refill it with actors taking dead people's places.  That's what they did to my home," she said, biting her lip and still not opening her eyes.  "But...I'm not that important, am I? All this. Not even that's big enough for ShinRa to do all this," she said, letting her shoulders drop.
 
"I don't trust you," she said again, before she looked Aerith in the eyes again. "But I'll try."
 
--
 
Time passed slowly, in the cells.  There was little for them to do, besides talk to each other, and wait for the next time the scientists and the troopers came.  Tifa still stayed tight-lipped about a lot of her past, and Aerith didn't press it because she had seen those scars, but did her best to fill the silence with stories about when she was little, all the while careful to stay away from anything related to ShinRa.  Most of the time, though, it was so quiet Aerith wanted to scream.  She hated being cooped up as much as they were, and so far away from life.
 
She couldn't hear the Planet here, and that silence made the other silence so much worse.
 
Tifa didn't seem to mind how quiet it was, somehow, and kept herself busy by training.
 
Aerith had to admit, Tifa had a grace about her when she went through her katas - she did them, now; she'd hesitantly asked Aerith if she could move the beds around so she could practice, and Aerith had been so grateful for that small change she'd agreed. They would move the beds into a corner when she wanted to train and back when she was done, and Aerith would watch her as Tifa, eyes shut, went through her forms.

Tifa'd had training, a good bit of it, and with nothing else to do but exercise most of the time, she'd somehow gotten more muscular than she had been when they arrived.  Aerith marveled at Tifa's dedication, and figured it a good thing - if they were ever going to get out, she figured she'd have to do the one charming their way out of the cell, somehow, but it'd be Tifa being in top fighting shape that would give their best shot at getting out of the building.
 
A little voice sometimes suggested she ought to at least try a push-up or two, then she'd look at her pathetically thin little arms and then Tifa's, and give up before she even started, figuring she didn't need the humiliation on top of everything else. Plus, she didn't want to push it; do anything to upset the fragile trust Tifa seemed to be struggling to give her.
 
But there was something different about today. Tifa opened her eyes and looked over at Aerith as she was going from a punch to a block.  "So," she said, staying in position with one arm up in a block, "You want to just sit there, or you want me to teach you this?"
 
Aerith's eyes widened slightly in shock.  Tifa had never spoken to her when she was working out; only pretended Aerith wasn't there - or rather, tuned her out the way they had both learned to do to have any semblance of privacy.
 
"You...you don't mind?" Aerith said hesitantly.
 
"No," Tifa said, shaking her head.  She went out of the stance, and gestured for Aerith to come over.
 
Aerith was glad that day she was wearing the scrub-like clothes they had been given instead of her dress.  They only had three outfits each, the clothes they'd been wearing when they came, and two coarse, ill-fitting sets of scrub pants and short, side-tying hospital gown-like shirts.  Those two outfits were taken away once a week for laundering and they were given clean ones, but they still kept their clothes from before, as if a reminder there was a world outside of the labs.
 
Plus, it gave them more to wear, so they could wash their dirty clothes in the sink and let them air dry draped over the beds.
 
"Stand like this," Tifa said.  "This is the basic stance, and all of your power and stability will come from it."
 
"Like this?" Aerith said, and Tifa shook her head.  
 
"Close.  Hunker down a bit more, but keep your back straight and stick your butt out."
 
Aerith blinked, not at all sure how that was supposed to work.  "Okay..." she said, but gamely tried.
 
"Good!" Tifa said, nodding.  "Now put your arms up like this."
 
--
 
Once they got through the basic stance, Tifa told Aerith to make a fist.
 
She took one look at the fist Aerith made and raised an eyebrow.  "You've never fought before, have you?"
 
Aerith raised her jaw slightly.  "I have!  I did grow up in the slums. I've had to fight a couple times!"
 
Tifa smiled, just a little bit. "OK, a different question. You aren't very good at fighting, are you?"
 
Aerith laughed in spite of herself. "I...no. I was much better at talking my way out of it or running away," she said self-deprecatingly. "And usually I had something on hand if it came down to it. I'm much better with a staff than hand to hand.  After all, you could find a good length of pipe anywhere, and if you did, all you have to do is just whack someone over the head with that and take off."
 
"I always liked getting right up in here," Tifa said. "Show 'em not to underestimate me. Here, make your fist like this, see?  The way you're doing it, you could break your thumb."
 
"Well, that would be counter-productive," Aerith said with a laugh, and mimicked how Tifa had made a fist. 

"Punch so you hit with the first two knuckles.  Like this," she said, and threw a single, straight punch.
 
Aerith tried it.  Her form was completely wrong and that punch wouldn't have so much as bruised a fly, but it wasn't that bad for what was very clearly a first attempt.  "Not bad.  But you're too exposed; turn yourself more sideways so you're a smaller target," she added, putting her hands on Aerith's shoulders to position her better. "Right, like that.  Now try again.  And remember, aim with your first two knuckles, and draw your arm back as you twist, so it's got your weight behind it."
 
--
 
"OK, I'm done, mercy," Aerith panted. She wiped sweat out of her eyes with her arm and winced slightly. "I think my arms are about to fall off."
 
"Wimp," Tifa said, but she said it with a grin.
 
"Yes. I am," Aerith said, laughing herself.  "I am a stinky, smelly, weak wimp whose arms are about to fall off. I'm so glad we're both on the same page with that."
 
Tifa laughed.  "Get some water. You probably need it."
 
Aerith nodded, still breathing hard.  Tendrils of her bangs were plastered against the side of her face from sweat, and she looked like she was wilting.
 
"Wait, like this, first," Tifa said, and went into the stance she had first taught Aerith, the base stance. Aerith whimpered, but copied Tifa's stance.  Tifa crossed her arms in front of her chest, then brought them back to her sides sharply.  Aerith mimicked it.
 
"Now bow to me," Tifa said, and bowed slightly to Aerith.  Aerith copied her again, and Tifa went out of the fighting stance.  "OK, now you can go get some water, wimp."
 
"Water!" Aerith croaked and rushed over to the sink and turned the faucet on, then drank three cups of water one after the other, as fast as she could fill her cup.
 
Aerith started splashing water on her face, and Tifa turned away when the other woman started to take off her loose, hospital gown-like shirt.  There was very little privacy, but they gave each other what they could and just got used to the rest.
 
Aerith bathed as best she could in the small sink, then washed her shirt and bra, and Tifa thought.  
 
In an odd way, even though it had been on a whim, it was deciding to teach Aerith something of fighting that convinced her that Aerith didn't actually know how to fight.  You could hide a lot of things, she knew, and lie about a lot, but your body never lied.  That much she knew - you couldn't hide training.  If someone had trained, seriously trained, how they moved and positioned themselves gave it away as clear as day.
 
You couldn't pretend not to know what you were doing when something had become a reflex, and Aerith just didn't have those reflexes. Not only that, but if you learned one way of fighting, it tended to bleed over when you started a new one - fighting stances, the way you made a fist, footwork, all of it.
 
But Aerith didn't have any of that bleedover.  None of that muscle memory. And while there was a chance they could have sent someone completely untrained in any kind of fighting style in as a spy...it wasn't likely, not when they knew Tifa could fight as well as she could. It wouldn't have made any sense for a ShinRa spy - a Turk - at all.
 
But it would make sense for a flower seller who happened to be a half-Ancient snatched up off the streets.
 
"I'm going to be very sore tomorrow, aren't I?" Aerith said, sounding slightly mournful.
 
Tifa looked over on instinct.  "Probably," she said, and Aerith groaned.
 
"Oh, well.  I needed the exercise anyway. I used to walk around so much," Aerith said as she dried off with a small hand towel.  "I do wish they'd let us out to shower more than once a week. My hair could do with a washing now," she said, but gave Tifa a lopsided smile.
 
"I just want a real bath," Tifa said, giving in just a little.  She tried not to talk about things that were out of reach, but it was so hard sometimes.
 
Aerith let out a longing sigh.  "Oh...a bath.  A nice, long bath.  Hopefully with a lot of hot water."
 
"And bubbles," Tifa said.  "And soap that didn't seem like they got it from some industrial bargain bin."
 
"Like that shampoo they give us," Aerith said, making a face as she put on her spare shirt.
 
Tifa made a face. "I had better shampoo when I was out living in the woods for a year and making it out of lichens," she groaned.  "I swear, when we get out of here, I am heading for the first hot spring I can find. First one. And not getting out until I'm all wrinkly."
 
"You can make soap out of lichens?" Aerith said, sounding surprised. "And you know, I've never been to a hot spring." She spread out her wet shirt and bra to dry over the edge of her bed.  "I've been to the public baths in the Little Nankyo part of town, but never to a real hot spring."
 
"They're so wonderful," Tifa said, sighing.  "There's this one I went to, there's some kind of mineral in the water, and it just makes your skin so smooth afterwards." She sighed again, just remembering it.
 
"You'll have to take me to one when we get out of here," Aerith said, and Tifa realized she kind of wanted to, and she wasn't quite sure where that came from.
 
"Deal," Tifa said, and Aerith gave her a bright smile she couldn't help but return.

Then they both fell silent as Tifa untied her shirt and went over to wash.
 
Aerith hummed to herself, toying with her nails and offering that bit of privacy as Tifa bathed, and Tifa thought it didn't really matter if she wanted to go with Aerith to a hot spring one day or not. 
 
It was nice to dream, to dream of being free and to dream that they were simply normal girls, friends from who knows where, if only for a little while.
 
--
 
Things fell into a pattern.  Every few days, the troopers and scientists would come, and throw a Confuse on Tifa, then inject her with whatever it was they did.  Then they would take them away, into an area with mako tanks, and force them into one, and time would stop.
 
When were put back in their cell, Aerith would usually be all right, after a bit, but Tifa...Tifa would always have that same, glassy stare, with her pupils wide and blown out like she was still Confused, and the faint, wispy tendril of wrong still snaking through her before it faded.  While she waited for it to fade, Aerith would often sit by Tifa's bed and talk to her, or sit cradling Tifa, so she at least felt like she was at least doing something. It always seemed to help, somehow.
 
Then a day after they were returned to their cell, and the next, the scientists and troopers would come again, and take their blood. And then nothing, until the cycle started again.
 
Tifa had gotten good, most of the time, about not fighting the troopers.  But not every time. And not this time, not when it was the one trooper who tended to manhandle her the most.
 
Aerith was pretty sure Tifa's shoulder dislocated when she tried to throw off the trooper as he was strapping her down into her bed, just before the scientist cursed and hit her with a Confuse, then jammed a needle in her arm that made Tifa go limp.
 
--
 
"Where were you born?" she asks as they hike.  She still tires easily and feels occasional twinges of pain from the time her teacher will not allow her to talk about, and she needs a distraction.  And it has become a challenge for her now, to drag from him where he is from, to make him admit that he is from a place that had been--because if he does, then it means she can remember Nibelheim, that she has the right to remember.
 
"The place where my mother was."
 
"And where was that?"
 
"The place where she bore me," her master answers with a smile though he has no mouth, and will say no more.

 
--
 
There was something different this time.  Aerith didn't know what it was, but she could tell - that little tendril of wrong inside Tifa after the tanks suddenly gotten a lot more...she wasn't sure.  She wasn't sure how to put it into words. Something that was wrong had suddenly gotten a lot wronger.

It was as if...it was as if that tendril of wrong she'd always felt snaking around the periphery had suddenly found that tiny spark that was always there hiding, and was trying to grow over it, like ivy choking a plant beneath it.

It scared her in a way she couldn't begin to put into words.

But there was nothing she could do.  Nothing beyond what she did now, sit cradling Tifa as she stared out at nothing, trying to coax that spark to burn brighter, trying to bring Tifa back, and waiting.
 
The silence and the wrongness was crushing her.  So she stroked Tifa's hair, and began to talk.
 
--

Things are progressing smoothly with the samples, but I find myself running into outside problems, namely the idiots on my staff.  XVIII has again been damaged prior to today's tests. While I do plan introduce injuring them to push XVIII-A to limit breaks to see if it will continue to try to heal XVIII and if that will aid with the imprinting of abilities after genetic splicing has begun, these must be controlled and done in such a way as to intentionally deepen the bond between them. 
 
I especially do not want an unforeseen variables to continue to be added in to the testing, since I have begun reinforcing some of the bonding that seems to be happening by introducing Jenova samples into this round of genetic manipulation, first with the sample from N. I will begin introducing Jenova DNA into the Ancient sample once I have finished the comparisons between the parent sample and its own, to finish weeding out the genetic impurities from Gast.  This is a delicate task, but the Ancient sample is only half Ancient, so introducing pure genes into both should produce interesting effects, and possibly boost the ability of sample A to bond with XVIII, and vice versa.  However, this will inadvertently mean the two of them will undergo the SOLDIER creation process, which can either be a plus (potentially testing the outcome of samples incubated and born from a SOLDIER mother) or a minus (reduce both of them to sniveling husks, or give them the strength to escape).
 
I have ordered their holding areas to be reinforced to withstand SOLDIER-level strength, and today's mishap finally pushed me into requested the doctor working with the SOLDIERs in Junon I was looking at be transferred here to assist me to replace the idiot I'm firing once I jump through these ridiculous hoops and the transfer request goes through.

I am requesting Dr. L for three reasons: a) she is female, so I suspect she will have a gentler touch with my samples, b) her files note that she is good with handling the more difficult SOLDIERs, i.e., the ones who have ended up unsatisfactory for various reasons and have been sent to the facilities in Junon, so she should be able to control both the troopers AND the samples, and c) being military-trained, all of her reports on the SOLDIERs she has treated are meticulously detailed and she seems to have an eye for noticing small changes, which could be invaluable at this stage.  Once everything is in place in a month or so, I should have adequate baseline data and will be ready to proceed.
 
Pity she's a bit past her prime, though. Would have been nice to have a pretty young thing about again.
 
Hojo's notes on XVIII, pg. 169

 
--

"When I was a little girl," Aerith said softly, "my mother bought me this big set of crayons.  It had all these colors. I just loved it," she began.  She didn't know if Tifa could really hear her or not, but that didn't seem to be important.  She couldn't just sit there, in that preternatural and eerie stillness.  She needed to say something, needed to interact with Tifa in some kind of way.  "One day, I decided the paper I was coloring on just wasn't big enough, and I'd make the whole wall pretty," she said with a faint smile at the memory.  "So I drew flowers all over the walls.  And when my mother got home...oh, she was so mad at me!" Aerith laughed at that, and rested her head against the top of Tifa's for a moment.  "She told me if I wanted flowers around, I had better go grow them myself, not draw them on the wall!  And then she brought out a bucket of soapy water and a rag and made me scrub the whole thing down.  It took me forever!  Then she took my crayons away for two days!  I was so mad!
 
"But you know," she said with a faint sigh, "There was one place that just never got clean.  No matter how hard I scrubbed, there was one flower that never quite came clean.  Even now, there are still traces of it on the wall and Mom just shakes her head at it and tells me what a silly child I was.
 
"When we get out of here," Aerith said, "I'll show it to you. Maybe you know a way to get that crayon off the wall," she said.
 
She fell silent, but hugged Tifa tightly.  "I promise you'll get to see it one day.  That and the flowers I grew instead of drawing on the walls," she finished, and hoped someday that it would be true.  "We'll escape from this place, and find the Promised Land my mother told me about."
 
She would get them out.  Somehow, she would get them out.

She'd do what her mother had told her, so long ago, and she'd get them out.
 
--
 
End Part 2
 
--
 
What's at the core of my existence isn't 'nothingness.' It’s not that desolate, arid place. 
  -Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 Book 2
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I think the thing which sticks with me about this is the way that Aerith, unwittingly, duplicates with Tifa what Zack is doing with Cloud. It's understandable - both Aerith and Zack are caring people, and they're social people, so they're each going to try and bring their companions back to reality, rather than letting them get caught up in their heads. So they're both going to talk to the person they're with, even if that person isn't capable of talking back; they're both going to try and bring in little things like touch and comfort, to give the other something to come back to.

(I'm trying to remember - is this a universe where Zack and Cloud have survived and will eventually escape? Or have they already been disposed of by Hojo for not being successful candidates for whatever it was he wanted in the first place?)

I like how Tifa is so distrustful of Aerith, and how the destruction of Nibelheim (and its recreation as a shadow of its former self) have scarred her so deeply. She doesn't trust easily, and I get the feeling she probably never will. She is working on trusting Aerith, though.

Other interesting notes - Hojo's little bit of sexism about the new doctor he's bringing into the process ("pity she's a bit past her prime"); the casual brutality of some of the troopers (have they been told Tifa was a terrorist, I wonder?); Zangan's continuing reluctance to speak about his birthplace and home town (now eradicated); and Aerith's fear about using her healing abilities.

(One typo/grammo I spotted, in the third paragraph of Hojo's final set of notes: "I have ordered their holding areas to be reinforced to withstand SOLDIER-level strength, and I today's mishap finally pushed me into requested the doctor working with the SOLDIERs in Junon" - I suppose this could be passed off as an error from the original transcription, or an error on the character's part, but it looks as though you were halfway through one sentence (at the second "I") and then started another. Just for the sake of reference.)
In this 'verse, Zack and Cloud do survive, since that's part of the prompt (ahaha, I'll get to the actual prompt at some point, instead of all this lead-up).

And yeah, Tifa was just destroyed by seeing Nibelheim. In the game, it was five years after, and she'd already seen a lot of things, but here, it wasn't even a year, and she had no context at all, and it just hit her like a ton of bricks. She definitely doesn't trust easily after that, and she also knows she had to have been turned into ShinRa by someone in her own group in AVALANCHE, so she's had that hit as well.

And Hojo. Oh, god, Hojo. I'm writing him as a straight-up sociopath, one of the rare kinds who wasn't made that way but was just born broken. In his mind, all living things are just things for him to use - people are either a) useless (most people) or b) tools (ie: samples - SOLDIERs and test subjects, or scientists - people to run his experiments. He basically sees women as tools for him to use - in this case, things to fuck. (Tifa and Aerith don't even fit that category, since they're "samples" to him.) So the new doctor, while she is of use to him as a scientist, is of no use to him as a woman.

Ironically, the new doctor is only in her early 30s, which shows another way how effed up Hojo's view of women in particular is.

As for the casual brutality, it's not just that some of them know she's a terrorist - some of them are just bastards with power. :(

(and gah, I missed that I. Fixed now; thanks!)
*brb, flailing* *a lot* *also waaaaah*