[info]stopthatgirl7 wrote
on November 3rd, 2016 at 06:49 pm

Thagirion: What Is Inside [III] (pt 1)

Title: What is Inside
Series Title: Thagirion

Author: joudama

Fandom: FF7 (AU)
Status: 4/5
Rating: R
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

--

Part III:
中心にあるのは
[What Is Inside]





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。私という存在の中心にあるのは愛だ。

-村上春樹、1Q84 Book 2



--

Two years ago

--


"Do you see now, girl," her master say sharply. "Do you see with your own eyes what they can do?"

"No," Tifa whispers, and falls to her knees at the sight. "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 hillclimber 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, girl," her master 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. And have no past. Because only this is the reality that exists now."

She looks at what had been her home, and the tears begin. Her master comes over, and covers her eyes with a hand, shielding her from it, and guides her away.


--

There was a smart rap at his door, and Hojo looked up from his notes in annoyance, then saw the clock.

"Come in," he said, not bothering to stand until he knew he'd have to for convention's sake.

It was ten o'clock on the nose, exactly when his new assistant was to present herself. The door slid open, and his new arrival walked through.

When the door slid to a close behind her, he stood.

"Ahh, Dr. Laumbe," Hojo said, smiling in the bland way he had to for these tedious social interactions. "Please, have a seat," he said, gesturing to the seat he had placed in front of his desk for this.

"Thank you. And a pleasure to finally meet you again," Dr. Laumbe said, giving him a faint bow he hadn't seen since his time in Nibelheim, one likely long-ingrained in her and that she hadn't dropped even years out of the Narsland area--you could always tell who was from there by that Wutai-esque bow they had retained.

Her eyes gave it away, too - dark brown, almost black, and that familiar shape.

They'd met, once, not long after she was assigned to Junon after the war ended. Prior to the end of the war, she'd been a military doctor, one of the few women in ShinRa's military and one of the even fewer female doctors.

She had the same stiff, military way of standing that rubbed Hojo the wrong way - everything about her was no-nonsense and nothing like the young women who normally worked around ShinRa, all carefully sniffing for a husband. And at 35 and unmarried, it was no wonder she seemed to have thrown herself into her work; it was quite clear she'd have little choice. Her clothing was functional, she wore no make up and only small studs in her ears and a plain bracelet with a small round gem on it on her left wrist, and she made no attempt to hide the beginning of grey barely visible in the dark blonde - which was an unusual color for northerners and had doubtless caused her trouble in her life - at her temples.

Really, he preferred the interchangeable, fresh-faced young girls with their make-up and perfume and heels, and legs that would wrap so tightly against him. They used him to get up the ladder, he used them for a fuck, and everything was simple that way because he usually had no other use for them and he knew how to handle them.

Still, she wasn't there to give him something to look at, but to manage his samples, and everything in her files indicated Laumbe would be more than capable in that respect. And despite the military background, she had a brain for science and medicine, in theory.

Hopefully.

And also hopefully, the moronic troopers and guards would respect a "kindred spirit." At the very least, they would have to respect her rank.

She sat down, retaining that same stiff, military posture, but she at the least tempered it with a smile; at least that one thing seeming feminine about her manner.

Really, it was too bad ShinRa seemed to have almost utterly run out of pretty young female scientists. He was going to have to speak to someone about their hiring.

"So. You come quite highly recommended. There are very few people that have such excellent results with the SOLDIERs in Junon."

Her smile seemed to tighten slightly. "I suppose it helps that I've seen combat as well. I was a front line medic for several years, before finishing my medical degree. I've seen what they've seen. It helps."

Hojo fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Yes, yes. Seen the ‘horrors of war' that breaks some of the weaker ones who should have been washed out of the selection process. We've refined the process to admit fewer of them, but some still slip through the cracks from time to time," he said. "Your work with the more mentally damaged SOLDIERs has actually been a great help to the project."

Laumbe was still holding onto her smile, but it seemed strained. "Yes. Well. Thank you. Helping them is why I focused on psychiatry after the war."

"That is part of why I'm bringing you on for this…special project. It involves a new, experimental form of the SOLDIER process, and I'd like to have you on monitoring it."

The woman seemed to perk up slightly at that. "Oh?"

"As you know, the SOLDIER program has only used male subjects to date. However, I would like to see what might happen if we tailored to process to women."

"You're putting women into the program now?" Laumbe said in surprise.

Hojo gave her a smile. "In a manner of speaking. They are...prototypes, in a way. A test of a theory, if you will. And with both your background and gender, you seemed a good fit for aiding in Project O."

Laumbe smiled brightly, and showed the first flash of enthusiasm he had seen in her for anything other than getting out of Junon. "Well, count me in for this project, then," she said. "I welcome any chance to allow more women into ShinRa's military. And despite some...difficulties, I've enjoyed working with the SOLDIERs so far, so I look forward to whatever I can do to help aid the new program," she said, and Hojo pushed up his glasses to hide another smile.

"Excellent. Currently, the two sa--test subjects being used are both rare cases. One in particular is from an area with a high natural level of mako exposure, so we're expecting to learn a great deal from her no matter what the outcome of the main experiment. Discovering her was, in fact, the impetus for this."

"Oh?" Laumbe said, looking as through she were trying to decide how to process all of that.

"Natural exposure since being in utero seems to cause extra sensitivity to mako. Which leads to the hope that she will 'take' faster and more fully to the SOLDIER process. I'll be comparing her overall process to a male control from the same area in another facility. You will, however, simply be monitoring the two test subjects here and making sure things run smoothly, should you choose to accept your promotion, of course."

"I see no reason why I wouldn't so far," she replied back.

"Excellent. Oh, and, Dr. Laumbe," Hojo said suddenly.

"Yes?"

"You're from Narsland, correct?"

She frowned slightly, as if in confusion. "Yes, that's right."

"Urtharbrun, was it? That's on the other side of the valley from Nibelheim. I was stationed out there for a bit. Tell me, have you ever heard of the Ohnegesichterin?"

She blinked. "Ohnegesichterin? The hungry ghosts in the mountains?" she said, sounding surprised. "Well, yes, I've heard of them. You'd probably be hard-pressed to find anyone from the north who hasn't."

"Do you think they're real?"

She let out an equally surprised-sounding laugh. "There are a lot of things out in the mountains in the Narsland region, but no one has ever actually come across an Ohnegesichterin. If there were real, you would have thought someone would have long ago caught one. They're just fairy tales." She gave him a puzzled smile, but her brow was wrinkled. "Why do you ask? I didn't think anyone outside Narsland even knew about them. They don't even have a name in Standard!"

"No reason," Hojo said. "I only learned on them when I was in the north, and have been doing a bit of cross-cultural study since," he smiled in the way he knew to be disarming to young women, and was pleased to see it worked to some extent on Laumbe. Good. "Come with me, and I'll show you what I'm working on now."

He stood up, and she followed suit. "This way, doctor," he said, gesturing, then stopped. "Is that a bracer?" he asked, staring at the bracelet she wore that he only just now noticed wasn't just decorative.

"Yes," she said, her voice sounding distinctly no-nonsense.

"You'll have to remove it."

"No."

"Excuse me?" Hojo said, completely affronted.

"It only has a Sleep. It is purely defensive and nothing to be concerned of."

"That doesn't matter. It is materia that has not been authorized for this project."

Dr. Laumbe gave him a steely look. "I don't care," she said flatly. "I keep a Sleep materia equipped at all times. Especially if I am dealing with SOLDIERs."

Hojo gave her a strange look.

"They are bigger, stronger, and faster than I am," she said, her voice flat. "And some of them in Junon were a bit...twitchy. Especially after the war. You know what being assigned out to Junon means," she said pointedly. He thought that was a bit rich, since she likely had no idea WHY Junon had been designated the hole they sent the SOLDIERs having breakdowns to - after Genesis, Angeal, AND Sephiroth failed spectacularly, ShinRa had decided to try to cut off at least some of the risk of losing their investment, and set up the psych facilities at Junon. The war had had nothing to do with it, but he saw no reason to disavow her--yet--of her beliefs. "Having a Sleep has probably saved more than one SOLDIER from a court-martial and me from getting my neck snapped by someone having a flashback when I'm trying to administer tests."

Hojo gave her a patronizing smile. "That may be so, but you won't need it--"

"Fine, I get twitchy without it," she said, overriding him, and he felt a sting of irritation. "Like I said. It has saved my life more than once. I will not unequip it."

Hojo found himself wondering if this woman was going to be more trouble than she might be worth.

"It is, as I stated, purely defensive, Professor. You needn't worry about me casting Sleep willy-nilly. Unless my life is in danger, it's just a pretty little gem on my bracelet. I've written up reports for every time I've had to subdue someone with a Sleep. It's a last resort."

As much as Hojo hated to admit it, the woman had a point, and it was a far better route for restraining samples when they grew...unruly...than the current one, for all that had offered new insights. And if worse came to worse, it wasn't as if the small amount of mako used for a Sleep would cause the data to be skewed TOO much.

"Very well," Hojo said magnanimously. "Keep it, but use it only when absolutely necessary. I won't risk my results being skewed any more than they have to be."

She frowned slightly. "I'm not sure how a Sleep could possibly skew your results, sir, but it is and always will be a last resort. I prefer to use my words."

"Good. Now, before we were interrupted," he said, and ushered her through the door.

--

They trade off who prepares meals. Her master is used to cooking for himself, and it always surprises Tifa a little for a man to cook his own food--it just wasn't like that in Nibelheim.

Tifa had long been the one cooking at home - she had taken over cooking after her mother died - so she is used to it.

She doesn't really know when she starts doing it. Maybe because it is a nice day--early spring, not too warm and not too cold--there are no monsters about, and the trees are just beginning to bloom a beautiful pale lavender almost the same color as the
Bergtränen near home that will be blooming soon. But she starts humming as she cooks, and then that turns into her singing quietly.

It is a song her mother used to sing, one that is a well-known and traditional song around the Mt. Nibel area. It is an old song, and so, like most old songs, in dialect.


'Wait, my lass,' the young lad said,
I'll cross o'er the mountains
And far to the sea,

And there I'll make my name
And when I a famed man be,
You will be my bride'

His lass, she bade him on his way,
And then to him she said,
"Where you go, there will I be

If you go to the mountains,
Then I'll be your path
And guide you your way home

If you go far 'cross the sea,
Then I'll be the star
That lights you back to me

"Standard," her master says sharply, though his face had no mouth to speak.

Something in her snaps; breaks. She is tired; it has been a long day of traveling and training, and this small thing is all she has now to connect her to her mother. She knows to only use Standard when they are near people, and until that instant, when she speaks to him, but this--this is her own time, to herself, and she is suddenly angry beyond belief he would try to dictate how she speaks - how she sings - to herself.
"Ich will nicht!" Tifa yells angrily in Narslandische. "Ich will nicht vergessen! Ich werde nicht vergessen!"

The open-handed slap her master gives her across her mouth is the first and only time he had ever struck her. Yes, she has been hit by him many times when she was training, but this is different; this is something devastating in a way that none of the bruises she's ever gotten from being taught to fight have ever been, and the taste of blood in her mouth now is unlike all of the other times she has tasted it.

"You speak using words that have vanished from the world," he says sharply. "Never speak them again, unless you wish to vanish as well. They will be your downfall, and I will not let them be mine as well."

Her master walks away from her angrily, and that day is the last that Tifa has a dialect to speak.




Anneke stopped short when they entered the experiment facility.

At first, it was the sheer scale of it that caught her by surprise. This was nothing like the medical facilities at Junon. Junon had been a training facility, true, even though it now had its own reputation because of the SOLDIERs who were sent there after their initial training there, but there was nothing like what was housed in the ShinRa facility in Midgar.

But what made her breath catch was when she caught sight of the two test subjects.

"Professor--," she began, then stopped because she really had no idea how to even proceed.

Hojo gave her a faint smile. "Yes?" he asked, as if two half-naked women floating together in a tank of mako were normal, and she really had no idea how to process that.

She took a deep breath, then spoke very carefully. "Why are they in one tank?"

Hojo's smile actually brightened, which was not the reaction she had been expecting in the slightest, and it made her feel slightly more unsteady even as it made her hope there was a rational explanation for this.

"What do you know about the SOLDIER process, doctor?"

She blinked, feeling like she had been doing a lot of it that day. "Only the most basic information about the outline of the process, sir. And what I've been told by SOLDIERs at Junon. But they said very little, and what they said, I can not repeat because of doctor-patient confidentiality," she said flatly.

"Tell me what you can, then," Hojo said, sounding bored.

"That they were given injections and then underwent mako immersion."

"Ahh, yes, the very basics, then," he said. "The injections are a special compound that changes their very DNA," Hojo said, his faint smile returning. "Their genes are infused with those of an Ancient."

Anneke felt her eyes widen, and she stared at him. "But...but they're--"

"A myth?" Hojo asked with a slightly mocking smile. "If they are a myth then, behold, a mythical creature. Or half of one," he said, and pointed to one of the young women in the tank, the one with long reddish-brown hair. "Her mother was the last full-blooded Ancient on this planet. And the DNA used in the SOLDIER process is from the DNA of a preserved Ancient found where that one," he said, now pointing at the other woman, "was born and raised."

Anneke felt as if her breath had been knocked out of her. "Amazing," she breathed.

"And they are in the same tank because it is hoped that proximity will help with the process. A kind of imprinting, if you will. Both of them, starting with treatments soon after this one, will be treated with the cells from the original Ancient sample, since this one is only half an Ancient, and it's hoped it will strengthen her own abilities. If this works," Hojo said, "it will yield amazing new potential for the program. And science, of course," he ended. "Even if we learn nothing that will aid the SOLDIER program, it will not be a complete setback, because it will teach us more about how mako is absorbed and processed by the body, which will still know too little about. It is, in a way, carefully controlled mako-poisoning that helps create SOLDIERs, even though we know very little about how it actually works."

"Of course," Anneke repeated, still feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything she had just been told. She'd often wondered about the process that had created SOLDIERs, who had both shone on the battlefield and come to her broken by the war, but it was a closely guarded ShinRa secret, and she'd never thought she'd ever really find out, let alone the depths to which it ran. She'd often wondered if it was war or the mako that had broken so many of those men, and here was a chance to get into the thick of the studies of it and see what happened as it was happening, not fuzzy secondhand accounts from boys who barely knew any science beyond what they'd poorly absorbed in school.

"Still interested?" Hojo asked slyly, and Anneke, her eyes still on the two women in the tank, nodded. "Good. Once you've signed your transfer papers...that's when you'll really start to find out just what kind of work is happening here."

The professor turned and walked out of the lab, clearly expecting to be followed. Anneke headed after him, then paused and looked back at the girls again over her shoulder. The rush of excitement was almost enough to extinguish the slight unease leftover from first entering the room. Almost. Close enough to be getting on with. She was a scientist and this promised all kinds of new potential. It wasn't like she hadn't been involved in any of ShinRa's bizarre work before, and this was a step up from her, being transferred from her work monitoring the SOLDIERs in Junon to here assisting Hojo. And all the possibilities--

The girls were clinging to each other in the tank, and Anneke hurried out the door after Hojo.

--

Tifa woke slower and slower with every time in the mako.

Aerith had no way to properly time it, of course - there were no clocks in their sterile cell - but she could feel it, the same as she could feel how the wrongness seemed to be deepening and taking root in the other woman somehow. It frightened her, almost irrationally, the longer it took Tifa to wake, but she had no idea what she could do to halt it.

She could only wait, and hope Tifa would talk to her. Would talk at all, rather than stare blankly at a wall until she fully came back to herself.

The silence this time stretched on and on, and finally the silence became too heavy to let continue.

"Tifa? Tifa, answer me. Are you all right? Wake up! Tifa! Please?"

The silence dragged on, but then Tifa stirred, just slightly, on her bed.

Aerith was up before she knew it, on her feet and heading to Tifa's side. She sat down on the bed next to Tifa, who was lying on her back, and put her hand on Tifa's shoulder, shaking her slightly to try and wake her up further.

She didn't how long it took for Tifa to finally - finally- open her eyes. But when she did, her eyes were glassy, unseeing, and Aerith scrambled up onto the narrow bed and curled up on her side next to Tifa. Aerith rested her cheek on her hands and waited, watching Tifa slowly come back to herself.

It took so long. It took far too long. And the tendril of wrong she had felt seemed to have thickened; turned into ivy vines that would cause--were causing--what was underneath to crumble unseen if not ripped away soon.

But she didn't know how.

"Ae-Aerith?" Tifa finally said in a small, uncertain voice, turning her head to look at Aerith.

"I'm here. And so are you now. Welcome back," Aerith said and tried to smile. She knew it didn't work very well, but it was all she had. "Are you all right?"

Tifa's opened her mouth, and then her face fell, crumpling into something scared and pained. The sudden fear on her face made something lock up inside Aerith. Tifa always seemed so strong, aside from the terrifying blank times, and Aerith felt the same overwhelming protectiveness wash over her that she felt when they were out of the tanks and Tifa was still unresponsive.

The same protectiveness, and the same sense of helplessness, and without thinking, she wrapped her too-weak arms around the other woman. Tifa tensed for a moment before she turned on her side to face Aerith, the two of them unconsciously mimicking their positions in the tank. Tifa took a deep, shuddering breath, closing her eyes as she suddenly pressed her forehead against Aerith's, and Aerith tightened her arms around her.

Aerith could feel Tifa's faint trembling, and raised her hand to tuck Tifa's head under her chin, and held her like she would a scared child.

They sat like that for several minutes before Tifa spoke, her voice thick and high-pitched with fear.

"Something is...it's wrong, but...but I don't know what. I feel...hollowed out," Tifa said, and her hair was soft under Aerith's chin. Aerith said nothing, only twined one hand in Tifa's hair and waited Tifa to speak. Tifa's words came slowly, as if she were struggling with them. Even back when Tifa had been wary and reticent, she'd never had such a hard time putting her words together. "It's like...like...as if every time they, they stick me with, with needles then in that, put me in that, that tank, parts of me are just getting, getting scooped out like ice cream. And like all that will be left is an empty box, all dented and, and ready to be thrown out."

It was a child's metaphor, in a voice that was just as much like that of a wounded child, and it hurt Aerith's heart so badly so could feel tears pricking her eyes.

"Tifa, I promise you. I promise. I don't know when and I don't know how...but we will get out of here. I know it can be done because my mother did for me. And I promise you, I'll get you out. And we'll find the Promised Land my mother told me about, and I...and somehow, we'll be safe. I'll fix this. I will. I can do it there. I just...I'm sure of it."

Tifa didn't say anything, just pressed her nose against the hollow at Aerith's neck, and began to hum a song she sometimes would sing to herself sometimes when she washed her clothes in their small sink - a song in the dialect of her home, that Aerith couldn't understand a word of - and they lay together, huddled on the narrow bed, and both eventually fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep.

--

It didn't take Anneke long to get everything squared away - she had been living in a ShinRa dorm in Junon, and they had assigned her into rooms in the ShinRa tower on the floor many of the other scientists lived in. She packed herself up quickly and made the arrangements to have her belongings moved. It was the last day at Junon that had been the hardest, saying good-bye to many of the people she had gotten to know and treated, but she wouldn't lie to herself - she was excited, so much she felt like a child the night before her first day of school, barely able to sleep because new things would be happening soon.

She busied herself the last few days before she began working at ShinRa Tower, after she had already moved in, by wandering around Midgar and trying to get a feel for it. She'd lived there before, briefly, as a student, but that had been below-Plate. Above was like a different world.

She also made sure she would be prepared for whatever Hojo threw at her - she reviewed the surprisingly thin materials on what he was doing, strongly suspecting that much of it had been redacted and would stay that way until she was on-site. But that was fine; safer, she knew, to keep everything on site and run fewer risks of information being stolen or leaked.

Hojo met her when she arrived at the labs the next morning. Hojo was an odd man, and something about him put her off, but she wouldn't deny that the man was a genius. He could be charming, she knew, when he tried to be, but there was something false about it.

She spent her most of first day at ShinRa Tower reading through all of the files she was now provided with - I was right, she thought, the files I got before were much, much thinner than this. It was a lot to take in; she spent most of the day at her desk with pen and paper and a highlighter close at hand, jotting notes and marking things that seemed to be of interest.

There was a knock on her office door that broke her concentration. She looked up to see Hojo looking amused in the doorway. "While I appreciate your zeal," he said, and it sounded like he was about to start laughing, "you can go home now."

Anneke was startled when she looked at her clock. "When did it get this late?" she said in surprise - it was almost 2030, well past time for her to have left. "Professor, is it all right if I take these with me?"

He frowned and shook his head. "On-premise only, doctor. Even if you live in ShinRa Tower. This work is at the highest level of security."

She sighed. The highest security level meant all documents were on-site only, and even memory sticks would be scanned before allowed in or out. "Ah. All right. Back tomorrow, then," she said, then rubbed at her eyes.

"Bright and early," Hojo said, his good humor returning. "Tomorrow you start working with the samples."

Anneke felt a tiny smile touch her lips, and Hojo beamed.

--

Part 2

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