Thagirion: What Is Inside [III] (pt 2)

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

--





It was hard to tell in the cell how much time passed. There were no windows, so they couldn't see the lights of the plate going up or down to mimic the sun - or see the sun itself; Aerith had no idea if they were above Plate or below, or even if they were still in Midgar - and there were no clocks in their cell. The counted the time by when meals arrived and the changing of shifts, and the days by when the scientists came to drag them off into the mako tanks.

The weeks, Aerith counted by how often the troopers lost their temper with Tifa and attacked her, and she had a sinking feeling one was coming up soon, especially since Tifa had seemed so fragile lately. She had a horrible feeling Tifa would lash out sooner rather than later.

They both looked up when they heard the heavy footsteps of troopers coming towards their door. And pretty much as Aerith had feared, Tifa rolled off her bed and onto her feet in a way that never ended well. It just wasn't in Tifa not to fight, no matter hopeless her odds or how many times it ended with her bruised and bloodied. As much as Aerith hated seeing Tifa afterwards, she deep down admired how Tifa refused to make it easier for them. She couldn't stop them, but she wouldn't go easily.

The door opened, with two troopers and a woman Aerith had never seen before instead of the researcher who had always been there, coming in. "Both of you, on your feet and hands where I can see them!" one yelled, as the other readied his bracer.

Aerith knew that one by his voice and she felt her stomach instantly go as cold as a Blizzaga. She didn't know his name - or any of their names - but she knew his voice, and he was the more vicious of the troopers, the one who seemed to hate Tifa the most and who got violent the fastest. He was the one who had first broken Tifa's jaws, all those weeks or months ago, and quickest to hit with the butt of his rifle. Aerith got off of her bed meekly, hands raised, and she watched the woman out of the corner of her eye to see how she reacted.

Her reaction was one that made the first touch of hope Aerith had felt in a long time rise tentatively in her. The woman actually looked slightly stunned by both the troopers actions and then Aerith's own overly subservient one. While Aerith normally did as she was told, she played it up today, specifically to see what the woman would do. The woman's slight frown and double take indicated that whatever she'd been expecting, it hadn't been this.

Tifa was also frowning at Aerith's reaction, and it seemed to make her belligerent mood worse, which was the last thing Aerith wanted. She narrowed her eyes, and instead of raising her hands, she went out of her tense position into what Aerith knew by now was one of her fighting stances - and it was one of her more versatile ones, one she called a cat stance, where her weight was deceptively mostly on her back leg instead of equally balanced like it looked, so she could attack as fast as a Thundaga bolt from it.

"I SAID hands where I can see them!"

"You can see them," Tifa said, a combative smile on her face that was all teeth. "Look, they're right here. Want a closer look?" she asked almost sweetly, making her hands into fists and holding them in such a way that Aerith knew the second that trooper got near her, Tifa was going to launch an almost blindingly fast attack.

"Tifa!" Aerith yelled, "Please! Don't antagonize him, you know he--!"

"You and your godsbedamned smart mouth," the trooper said, ignoring Aerith. He had a short temper, and Tifa was very, very good at setting it off. He stepped forward and lifted his rifle, clearly intending to hit Tifa with the butt of it before she could strike at him, when the woman beside him let out a sharp, "Trooper, stand down!"

The trooper startled, instantly reacting to the command in it, and even Tifa did a double take at it. Aerith felt her own eyes go wide at the sharpness in the other woman's voice.

"But ma'am," the trooper began, "This one is--"

"Sir," she snapped, narrowing her eyes as she corrected him. "I was ShinRa military before I shifted into the medical and research side, and you will respect that. And you will obey my orders, without comment or excuses, or I will have you demoted back down to 'private' so fast your head will spin, corporal."

The woman then gave him a tight smile, and Aerith just blinked. "Or, if 'sir' is too difficult, how is 'Sergeant Major'? I was a ShinRa army medic, corporal, before I completed my medical training, and the 'army' part wasn't for show. I started OUT with a higher rank than you. So stand down."

"Sir!" the trooper said sharply, going stiff as he realized just how much she outranked him, and Aerith and Tifa looked at each other.

"Good to see we're on the same page. Do not contradict me again," the woman said, narrowing her eyes. Her spine was ramrod straight, almost as if made of steel.

"Sir, yes, sir!" he barked quickly, and stood down stiffly.

The woman turned to face them, and gave them both a faint smile as the steel in her spine seemed to soften. "Hello. My name is Dr. Anneke Laumbe. I've been brought on to keep track of and take care of you two," she said, and Aerith was shocked at being spoken to, after all these endless days, weeks, and months, like a person. The small touch of hope she had felt before grew stronger at it - the only way her mother had been able to escape with her all those years ago was because of her father. She didn't know this woman, but if she really did see them not as "samples" but as humans, deserving of the courtesy of an introduction...

It may have been only the slimmest of chances, but she would take it; would grasp at it with both hands as desperately as she could.

"My--my name is Aerith," she said, swallowing and stepping forward, and letting a bright smile come onto her face. "And this is Tifa," she said, gesturing at Tifa.

Tifa's jaw clinched, and she said nothing, just kept her wary gaze on the trooper and stayed in fighting stance.

"Pleased to meet you," the woman said, giving them a faint bow, and both of the troopers were open-mouthed at Laumbe. I can work with this, Aerith thought. And I have to. "Let's begin then, shall we?" she said brightly. Then she turned to level a sharp glare at the trooper who was always the most violent with them. "After the Confuse has been cast, you will stand down until I give the order not to," she said. "Only if there is a clear and present danger of injury will you be given permission to lay hands on either of them. And you will keep your firearm holstered until otherwise authorized. Am I clear?" she said, narrowing her eyes.

"Yes, sir," the trooper said, with a look on his face like he had tasted curdled milk. "Understood, sir."

"Good," she said. "Ladies, I believe you know the drill. Let's just go ahead and get started, since I don't want to start out behind schedule. Derrison, if you please," she said through tightened lips while giving the other trooper a nod, and he raised his arm with the bracer and cast.

--

The winter is beginning to break.

It is still bitterly cold, since they're close to the mountains, but Tifa had grown up in these mountains, and she knows what the air feels like when the season is finally changing.

She doesn't know why they were back in Narsland, since her master has always refused to answer whenever she asks where they're going. She accepts that she must simply trust in him and go where he leads. He is her master and he is sometimes capricious and inscrutable. But he is still teaching her, and she wants him to continue, so she has learned to bite back her questions, for all it galls her not to know.

But now she knows. She knows this area, this valley. She knows it best from the other side, but still, she knows it.

They are close to Nibelheim. She is close to home.

She won't ask him to take her home. She doesn't know if she wants to go; if she is ready to go...or if she's ready to not go; if they continue past Nibelheim, no closer than they are now. She's not sure which will hurt more, seeing it or being so close and not knowing what has become of it.

They walk through the valley without a word. The valley is patchy with half-melted snow, but peaking through is the surest sign yet of spring - the delicate purple bergtränen flowers, which have begun to fill the valley with their scent.

She is so close to home she can taste it. Mt. Nibel is looming before them, and once they cross it, only a day or so...

Her master stops abruptly. "You know where we are," he said, turning towards her.

Tifa nodded.

"Do you know why we're here?"

She shook her head, not knowing where this conversation could be going.

"We are going back to Nibelheim. Because you are going to see," her master says, his voice as blanks as his smooth, featureless face, "exactly what there is for you in your old home. You still rage, loudly, and rail against ShinRa despite everything I have told you. So you must see for yourself, since my words consistently fall on deaf ears. You will see exactly what ShinRa has done and the power they have."

He turns and walks away. Tifa stands there, open-mouthed, and the wind blows through the flowers; the scent of the bergtränen filling the air and her nose, obliterating all else.


--

Anneke was preparing for a fight, but she had already decided she would not be backing down.

"I want Trooper Oritz removed from this assignment," Anneke said, deciding not to waste any time on a preamble once the door closed behind her in Hojo's office.

Hojo raised an eyebrow. "Oh? I've no idea who he is; they all look alike with their helmets. Why do you want him removed?"

"He is unnecessarily violent and antagonistic towards the test subjects. Tifa - XVIII," she said to his blank look, "in particular." After she had seen how he had reacted to Tifa, Anneke had gone back through their notes on the subjects, and had seen redacted medical reports of injuries. She had no idea how badly Tifa had been injured, but Anneke was no fool.

"Ahh, yes, that one. Yes, he has been a bit of a problem. Hot headed. But," Hojo said, giving her a shrug, "he is also good at handling XVIII. She is...violent, when she wishes to be."

Anneke felt her eyes narrowing - it didn't make sense that a volunteer subject would be a violent case, let alone so violent she required such harsh treatment, and if she was that violent, why under the Heavens were they using her as a test for SOLDIER? It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. "Why is she so violent?"

Hojo looked annoyed. "Why should I know? You are the one with a knowledge of psychiatry. That IS why you were brought on," he said sharply. "Calm her down."

Anneke felt her chin raise defensively. "Then get rid of Oritz. As long as he's there, she will likely remain antagonistic. I can tell you that right now. And that will likely get worse as she undergoes SOLDIER training."

"Changing the rotation will be difficult."

"Why do I even need two troopers? I am already equipped with a bracer and I did serve in the war, so I'm strong enough to cast rudimentary materia spells without problems. Instead of one trooper guarding and one casting, give me one trooper and a Confuse of my own."

"Now Anneke..." he began, and she felt herself bristling.

"I have handled full SOLDIERs in the midst of war flashbacks on my own, professor. That is why I am here, is it not? I will not be able to 'handle' them if they see me with the enemy. And Oritz is the enemy to them, that much was very clear."

Hojo waved a hand in the air. "Fine, fine, if you think you can handle the samples without as much backup, I don't care. The idea for bringing you on was so I would not be bothered with these mundane trivialities."

She fought the urge to grind her teeth. "Thank you, sir," she said instead.

"Is that all?"

"Not quite. I'd also like to change procedure a bit. I think it might be best to cast Confuse closer to insertion in the tanks. It just seems...cruel to do so in their room. As well as dangerous. It means there is greater need for restraints and a greater risk for injury."

"The troopers are armed and wearing armor. XVIII can't injure them too badly."

"I wasn't talking about them, I was talking about her. And, if she is starting the SOLDIER process, her not being able to injure them unarmed will not last long. Trust me on that," Anneke said darkly. It was suddenly clear to her that Hojo was underestimating what exactly a SOLDIER was capable of, for all he was the father of the project. Or perhaps he was underestimating his test subjects because they were women. Either way, something like that could be a fatal mistake, and she would be damned if she would be the one paying for it.

She had let her guard down once around an unstable SOLDIER. And it was why she had never gone unequipped again. She still had nightmares, of glowing brown eyes too close to her own, and the feeling of rock-hard hands in an unbreakable grip around her throat before being thrown like a rag doll across the room.

Underestimating SOLDIERs was not a mistake she ever made again.

"Anneke, I am a busy man. These petty logistical details are taking time away from my research. Do whatever you want with the rotation. I don't want to be bothered with anything that's not data. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"You may go," he said dismissively, looking back down towards the paperwork he'd been looking at when she came in. "I'll send you the personnel roster so you can adjust it to your liking. This is your job, not mine," he said, and she could tell when she had been dismissed.

"Thank you, sir," she said, standing and giving a bow even though he didn't bother to look up, and she felt a small thrill at the carte blanche that his words meant.

--

When Tifa finally opened her mouth to speak, her words were not what Aerith was expecting.

"Why are you sucking up to them? To that…that bitch?"

Tifa almost never swore, and the few times she did, she always tripped over the words a bit. Because she used them so rarely, the times she did, they always felt stronger and more vehement than the casual and vulgar curses of the troopers are them. Aerith found herself slightly taken aback by them, but decided it wasn't the time to address whatever had caused so much instant venom.

"Because she might be a way out," Aerith said simply. They were curled up on Tifa's bed, as they often were after the experiments now. Tifa still woke too slowly, but she seemed to come back to herself faster this way, and Aerith wouldn't lie to herself and say she didn't find her own comfort in being so close to another person after whatever it was they ShinRa scientists were doing to them. Tifa's nose was pressed against the hollow of Aerith's throat, and being so close, Aerith could feel all the tension practically radiating off of the other woman. Tifa had been awake for a long time before she'd spoken, first lax then trembling as she tried to put herself together, then slowly growing tenser and tenser, all the while not making a sound. "We can't stay here, Tifa. We can't. But we can't escape on our own. There's no way we can get out without help. We're going to need someone on the inside to help us out, or we'll be here until we rot. Or Hojo is finished with us," she said, bitterly. "And I don't even want to think about what kind of state we'll be in by then."

"I don't like her. I don't trust her," Tifa finally said, her voice shaking slightly, and still with that too-young tinge it had when she was still recovering. "She's a scientist! She put us in that tank. She--she ordered them to hit me with that Confuse like it was nothing."

"That's neither here nor there," Aerith replied sharply. She softened the snappish words by twining her hand in Tifa's long hair and letting out a sigh. "Just...just play nice with her. We have to make her see us as people. Not...not samples. Not subjects. People. We need her to let her guard down around us so we can escape."

"I'm not sucking up to her," Tifa said hotly. She tightened her hands around the cloth of Aerith's scrubs at her waist. "I won't do it."

"Then don't," Aerith said, putting her chin on the top of Tifa's head. Tifa let out her own sigh, and Aerith could feel the soft flutter of the other woman's eyelashes against her neck as she closed her eyes. "But I will, Tifa. I'll do whatever I have to to get us out of here. We have to go, and sooner rather than later," she ended, biting her lip. She didn't want to say it, but the creeping wrongness she'd felt in Tifa was growing, and growing faster than ever, and there was something about it that terrified Aerith in a more unsettling way than she had words to express. "And this is the only way I can see to do it. It's the only way that I know can work. Security is too tight on us. We need someone on the inside to help up, or we'll be lab rats forever."

"I don't like it," Tifa said in a small, tight voice.

"It doesn't matter," Aerith said softly, and rubbed her cheek against the top of Tifa's head. "And for the record, I don't like it, either. But I'll do what I have to to get us out of here."

"You act like I'm helpless," Tifa said. "Like I can't help."

Aerith laughed. "'Helpless' is the last word I'd use for you. But you're...you're so straightforward and honest. And that's good," Aerith said vehemently, hugging Tifa at her words. "But it won't get us out. It's a detriment in this...this twisted place. I've been dealing with ShinRa a lot longer than you have, and I grew up under the Plate, in some pretty tough areas," Aerith said. "I can play their game a little better.

"Besides, we're a team. We have to work together!" Aerith said with a smile. It didn't matter if Tifa couldn't see it; she'd hear it in her voice. "I butter her up so we get out, you beat the daylights out of everyone in our way. I'm...I'm not so good at that part."

Tifa laughed. "You've got a point. I'm way better at punching the stuffing out of people and at blowing things sky high."

"I'm leaving it to you to leave this place in shambles," Aerith said, relieved to hear Tifa's soft laugh.

"I will," Tifa said, her voice more muffled as she pressed her face slightly closer to Aerith's neck. "I'll burn it to the ground, same as they did to...to...I won't let anyone touch you once we get out of this cell. I promise."

"I'm holding you to that," Aerith said, her voice barely above a whisper, and she bit her lip, hoping that they wouldn't get out too late. She didn't know why Tifa had changed what she was going to say mid-word, but she didn't think it was because Tifa didn't want to talk about it. She'd sounded like she either couldn't gather the thought or couldn't recall it, and neither boded well. The tendrils were growing; were beginning to burrow into TIfa even more, no matter what Aerith did. It was beyond her ability to fix, but she hoped...if they could get to her mother's Promised Land, then maybe...

Long moments passed, before Tifa spoke, her voice sounding half-asleep. "I wonder what season it is."

"It's been so long. But...maybe spring? I'd like it to be spring."

"Me, too," Tifa said. "There were flowers that bloomed in very early spring, little purple ones that had the most amazing smell. They were called...they were...they... They were little purple flowers that would fill the entire little valley near home with their scent. It's how we knew spring had come, when we saw them starting to peep through the snow."

"We'll have to go see them when we get out," Aerith said, not missing how Tifa had struggled, and Tifa nodded.

"Tell me about them. About Nibelheim," Aerith said, and haltingly, her thoughts broken in places and fractured; stuttering and tripping over words and names that wouldn't come, Tifa did.

Or rather...Tifa tried. And that was enough.

--

Dr. L has arrived, and is making changes that will hopefully end these ridiculous uncontrolled-for eruptions. And also she hopefully will not bother me with anymore tedious interruptions. Especially now that we are at a delicate stage.

I will be leaving the day after tomorrow to obtain data on the samples who had been able to defeat S. They are both quite disappointing - I am more and more convinced that it was a fluke they defeated S - but they should provide suitable control data for Project O, especially the male Nibelheim sample. When I return, we will begin full genetic manipulation of the samples in Midgar using the Jenova cells. The Midgar Nibelheim sample has been showing signs of mild mako poisoning, as well as responding as expected to Compound 164, and the introduction of Jenova cells should speed this process. There are also reports of growing closeness in the Midgar samples along with the XVIII-A sample using her abilities as an Ancient on XVIII, all of which mean the imprinting stage should go more smoothly (it is also hoped that splicing genes from the full-blooded Jenova sample into XVIII-A will increase her own abilities as an Ancient, since she is only half). If that does happen, I may use the other Midgar sample to see if that makes more feasible as a clone of SOLDIER Z instead of an S. clone, since both were utter failures in that respect. The male Nibelheim sample may not be a complete waste, if this research proves fruitful.

All in all, these are exciting times.


Hojo's notes on subject XVIII, p. 597

--

Anneke sat back in her chair with a sigh. Professor Hojo was almost ridiculously demanding when it came to documentation. For everyone but himself, she thought in annoyance, because the man was well-known for his ability to push off paperwork he saw as beneath him onto other people, as Anneke had learned to her detriment. 'Project assistant' had also translated into "paperwork monkey," and when she wasn't documenting every speck of information she had observed or obtained from the test subjects, she was was doing Hojo's abandoned paperwork.

Still, it would be good to make herself somewhat invaluable to him. Anneke wasn't the most ambitious of people, but she also wasn't completely lacking in it, either - while she would have been content out in Junon, she'd take advantage of this chance to make a name for herself. She knew that it was because of her experience with SOLDIERs that had her out here, but she wasn't completely sure how treating SOLDIERs with PTSD exactly translated into overseeing an experiment to test if women could be brought into the project, other than she would know better than most signs of mental distress, but she wouldn't question it.

She frowned suddenly. She knew signs of PTSD, yes, but neither of the test subjects should be experiencing that. The SOLIDER program had strict psychological requirements, made stricter after the (highly classified) desertion of Generals Hewley and Rhapsodos, followed by the even more highly-classified loss of General Sephiroth and Lt. Fair. She'd only met one of them, General Hewley, when she was stationed in Wutai, and it was hardly under the best of circumstances - in the middle of a pitched battle, spells and gunfire thick in the air, and she'd still been a combat medic, trying to make it through to the injured. He'd seen her, yelled, "YOU! You're a medic?!" then was grabbing her arm and dragging her even more into the thick of it, keeping the enemies off of her while she clutched at her medical kit and tried to keep up. He dragged he over to several badly-injured men, and kept the Chochung projectiles and attacks off of her while she worked. She'd done her best, but Cure, Life, phoenix downs, and modern medicine only went so far, and two of the men still died before reinforcements could arrive.

Hewley'd been a good man, and she could tell the loss of men he'd tried to get help for weighed on him. Years later, when she looked back on both what she'd seen of him that day, and the few rumors she'd heard about his disappearance (and presumed death), and with what she knew now, she had no doubt the war had been more than he could stand, and perhaps it had been that more than anything else that had defeated him.

But that had nothing to do with her situation now. She specialized in PTSD. There was no reason two healthy girls who had volunteered for this would be under the same stresses as troopers and SOLDIERs who had seen warfare. She wasn't the only psychiatrist ShinRa had; why bring her on?

Something about the situation nagged at her, but she put it out of her mind. Who was she to question her luck?

Still, she thought, I need to observe them carefully. I need to get a baseline for who they are, so if I see a problem developing, I can say something. I'll talk to them a bit, she decided, get a read on them. How can I catch a problem if I don't know them first?

Likely that was it. It would be easier for her, a woman, to talk to two young women, and she would know if the mako was making a difference, or if the testing was getting to them. While there were other psychiatrists, there were very few women psychiatrists on the ShinRa rolls, and even fewer who knew what SOLDIERs were like and had heard from them what the process was like and the stresses that alone caused.

So it's decided, she thought, and nodded once to herself. They're my patients AND my subjects. I want this to go well, and if Hojo wanted a psychiatrist to assist him, well, it had to be for a reason, so that's what he's getting for them.

Still. Something didn't quite...I'll look over the notes again, she thought. There's got to be a hint in there why Hojo would want to bring on a psychiatrist rather than a researcher.

That settled, she picked up her pen and went back to filling out the mountain of paperwork Hojo had left behind.

--

It was morning, and Aerith was guessing by the way her stomach woke her up that it had to be close to breakfast time. What day - how long since before they went into the tanks, or since they were brought back - she had no way of knowing, and it had long ago ceased being anything relevant. The routine was the same, even if the particulars were unclear.

The routine changed, however, when instead of the food being shoved unceremoniously through a slot in the door, the door instead opened, and the scientist from yesterday walked in, a wary trooper carrying two trays of food.

"Good morning, ladies," the woman said. "How are you?"

Both Aerith and TIfa just stared at her, dumbfounded. They looked at each other, before they looked back at the woman, and Aerith finally let out a confused, "Fine...?", her voice rising to make it a question. The trooper seemed just as wary as they did as he put the trays of food down, for all Aerith couldn't see his face.

The woman - Laumbe, if Aerith recalled correctly - blinked slightly at their reaction, then continued. "I was unaware that was such a difficult question. And there really is no right answer to 'How are you', other than a lie. You don't need my approval for your answer."

Tifa continued to stare at Laumbe. Tifa's bewildered and distrustful stare seemed to make Laumbe stumble somewhat. She focused her attention on Aerith.

"Is there anything that you need? It does seem like your accommodations are a bit...austere," she said, seeming to search for a delicate way to describe the sparse room. Both she and Tifa were wearing a pair of scrubs, with their clothes from before carefully hung and drying on the rungs of their bed frames.

"That's...that's one way to describe it," Aerith said, forcing a smile, falsely bright, to flicker across her face. Be friendly, she thought. Make her like you.

"Is there anything you need?" the woman asked again, giving the room a quick sweep with her eyes, then looking back to Aerith.

Tifa continued to stare, frowning. She only took her eyes away from the woman's face to take in the bracelet at her wrist, one very clearly equipped with materia.

"We're fine," Aerith finally said. "As much as we can be, anyway. But...a hair brush or two wouldn't go amiss."

That line made the doctor frown slightly, but the expression was quickly gone. "All right," she said, giving Aerith, and then Tifa, a small smile.

Aerith returned it; Tifa did not.

"Enjoy your breakfast. I just wanted to check in on you this morning. If you need anything, please, let me know," she said, and gestured with her head for the trooper to leave. "Good-bye," she said as she left, and Aerith and Tifa looked at each other again.

--

"Ma'am," the trooper said once the door was closed. "I just want to state again that I don't think it's a good idea to go in there without armed escort."

"Nothing happened," Anneke said, feeling annoyed.

"This time," the trooper, Gonzales, said. "The red-headed one is usually OK, but the other one, that brown-haired girl...she's dangerous, ma'am."

"But all she did was glare at me. I've faced worse."

"This time," Gonzales repeated. "But ma'am, she's dangerous. She's a terrorist, did you know that? And a trained fighter. When she goes on the beserker, it takes at least two troopers to contain her."

"Again, noted," Anneke said.

"There should be two troopers at all times," he said, as if he had to said it to her before they even got to the door.

"I have seen combat, trooper," Anneke said, beginning to feel annoyed. "And I have faced down SOLDIERs, alone, having war flashbacks, and done it armed only with a bracer equipped with Sleep. Are you trying to tell me I should be afraid of two girls barely old enough for their Coming of Age?"

The trooper faltered at Anneke's sharp tone.

Anneke continued, irritated at once again having to assert herself and her orders. "Your concerns are appreciated and noted. However, my orders - and make no mistake, these are orders, trooper - stand. I have seen how some of you treat those girls and it is of no surprise to me that one of them is violent. You bring it some of it on yourselves, and it is going to stop.

"Get used to the new status quo, Gonzales. If you're so afraid of a teenaged girl, perhaps you should be reassigned."

She would give Gonzales credit. He didn't shrink back at the subtle insult. "I served in Wutai as well, ma'am. And that's how I know teenaged girls can be just as deadly as full-grown men. The teenaged girls over there would go just as suicider as their men. So...so just please don't underestimate her. Either of them."

Anneke softened slightly. "Noted," she said, but this time gave him a slight smile. "If there's even the slightest hint of this going south, we'll up the security. But let's see for now, all right?" She tapped her bracer. "These has served me well. I will use it if I need to."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Now. I have some work to do. Thank you for your concern. Really," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

"You're welcome, ma'am," he said, and Anneke dropped her hand and headed towards her office, mulling over his words - specifically that she was a "terrorist."

There had been no mention of that in the files. She frowned as she closed the door to her office as she realized there had been no mention at all of not only the girl being a terrorist, but of her past. For either of them.

She sat down at her desk, and tapped her finger against it as she thought.

--



Part 3

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