Thagirion: What Is Inside [III] (pt 3)

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

--

--

The doctor was carrying a bag, and that put Tifa on the defensive. Aerith could see it instantly, the wariness that shot through the other woman like an electric shock.

"I know it's been a few days, but I believe you asked for this," the doctor said brightly, seeming to ignore the way that all of Tifa's hackles went up, and she pulled two hairbrushes out of the bag. "I hadn't had time to go out shopping until yesterday."

Aerith blinked. She hadn't honestly expected the ShinRa doctor to listen to her request, let alone grant it. "I...thank you," she said, taking them from Laumbe. It was a small thing, a simple thing, and yet it sent waves of gratitude through her. She fought the urge to clutch them to her chest when she had them in her hands; something so small and yet something so normal, something that had been kept from them for so long, something that made them human.

"Had they not given you hairbrushes before?" the doctor asked, her eyes slightly wide. Aerate wondered how much she had given away, then felt something in her go cold and calculating.

"No," she said, choosing to give into the urge to clutch the brushes to her chest. "We've been given the very basics - toothbrushes, toilet paper, soap, two changes of clothes, other necessities - but someone must have decided brushes were too dangerous.

"Too dangerous? It's a hairbrush!"

Sorry Tifa, Aerith thought, then continued. "They don't trust us with anything that could be made into a weapon. I'm almost amazed they gave us toothbrushes."

The woman looked mildly appalled, but Aerith knew that above all else she had to be careful - push too hard and Laumbe might see through it, go too slowly and she might get swallowed up into the ShinRa mindset.

"Thank you," Aerith said instead, and tried to let all of the gratitude at them that she genuinely did feel come out.

"It...it was nothing," Laumbe said, but she looked troubled, and inside, Aerith let out a shout for joy.

--

I have returned from the second testing site and examined Sample Z and C. I am more certain that C will make an excellent control sample. I switched them to a dummy solution to return their readings to a baseline, and will monitor both Nibelheim samples as things progress. I almost wish I had sent Dr. L there instead of assigning her to Project O, but I can not deny that since she has started working here, there have been fewer disruptions with XVIII and fewer injury reports on her, which should ensure it is at an optimal baseline, as well as allow to me see if pain had had an effect on her absorption of the compounds. It can be reintroduced if there is a lessening of absorption rates.

It will also be interesting to see the effects on XVIII-A as theJenova cells are introduced. Will this strengthen its abilities as an Ancient, I wonder? Tests will definitely need to be performed.


Hojo's notes on subject XVIII, p. 632

--

The winter is beginning to break.

It is still bitterly cold, since they're close to the mountains, but she 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 this area, 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 her hometown. 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 the town, 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 flowers, which have begun to fill the valley with their scent.

She is so close to home she can taste it. The mountain 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.

She 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 town. 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. She stands there, open-mouthed, and the wind blows through the flowers; the scent of the purple flowers filling her nose and obliterating all other smells before dissolving her nose away.


--

Something was...different. Aerith was unsure exactly what it was, but something was very, very different.

Very, very wrong.

She didn’t know what it was that they had done to her, but they had done something. Something was different and something was wrong.

And it wasn’t just wrong with her.

She could...hear her own heartbeat. It was louder, pounding in her ears. And everything was...sharp. It was as if the world had suddenly grown edges where before it was rounded, and the contrast of the world had been turned up several notches. Everything was more, but not like it had been before. Before, she could feel the pulse of life around her, but now...she had always felt as if she could see the strings of life, stitching it all together, but now she could see how to pull it apart instead of knitting it stronger, and something about that left her feeling cold.

She realized she was shivering. She didn't know when she had started, or why, but...

Her teeth were chattering and she was shivering and shaking and everything was so cold...

Everything after that was a blur.

--

She was in Tifa's bed. That wasn't uncommon, not after they woke from the mako, but it was the first time that Aerith had no memory of how she'd gotten there. And this time, she wasn't the one holding Tifa, to see her through the worst of it until she came back to herself - she was instead in Tifa's arms, clinging to her as she would have her mother when she was frightened by nightmares.

The world was still too sharp; the threads of life still too pullable, and she shut her eyes and buried her face against Tifa's shoulder. She felt Tifa stir against her and she clutched at the scratchy, flimsy shirt of Tifa's scrubs even tighter.

I can't, Aerith thought, suddenly panicked. I can't be strong, not right now, I can't something is...don't push me away, not right now, I can't, please...

And Tifa, bless all the gods, didn't push her away as she came to, as she still sometimes did, Tifa only let out a faint, distressed sound of her own, and wrapped her arms tighter around Aerith.

"Something...something is wrong," Tifa said, her voice sounding strange, and Aerith shut her eyes and pressed her face tighter against Tifa, and then she nodded. She could hear Tifa's heart beating, quick and panicked, and some part of her...some terrifying, alien part that she had never felt before, relished that panic. She nodded again, then tears burst from her eyes and she wept, wept at how the world had been flipped on its axis and turned upside down, at that horrible, hateful feeling inside her that had been somehow put inside of her, and Tifa, first tentatively and then more certain of herself, stroked Aerith's hair until she stopped.

--

Aerith's feeling that something was very, very wrong with them, something new and terrible, was reaffirmed when she finally blearily looked up and at Tifa.

"Tifa...your eyes," Aerith blurted out. "They're...they're..."

Tifa's eyes were as round as Aerith knew hers had to be. "Glowing," she said, and swallowed.

"Yeah. How did you...?" Aerith began.

"Because yours are," Tifa said before she could finish the question, and things suddenly began to make a sick kind of sense. Aerith had seen eyes glowing like that before, like Tifa's - and like hers, for all part of her desperately wanted to reject it - she had seen blue eyes glowing like the sky she never saw.

"SOLDIERs...they're turning us into SOLDIERs," Aerith whispered, more to herself than to Tifa.

"No. No. No, no, no, no, no!" Tifa let out, first slowly, then in a long, panicked stream. "No no no no no, they can't, they--!" she said, jumping out of the bed almost violently. She ran to the mirror and peered at her own reflection; her hands gripping the edges of the sink as she did so.

"No...no no no no no, they can't; I can't be, this is, no--!" she yelled, and suddenly, the edges of the sink made a horrible wrenching sound, as the metal twisted under Tifa's hands.

Tifa let go of the sink and backed away from it as if it were on fire.

She turned to Aerith, her eyes wide and panicked. "I can't...they can't do this to me, I don't want anything to do with ShinRa, or SOLDIERs, especially not SOLDIERs, bot after they...they destroyed my home, destroyed Ni--Ni--my home, they destroyed it, they took it away from me, they can't, they can't, they took my...my father?--and now--!"

Tifa whirled around and ripped the sink out from its fixture to the wall, and slammed it into the mirror, shattering it into a rain of shards, with a loud cry, then hurled it across the room, screaming. Aerith watched, wide-eyed and shocked, as Tifa began to throw everything she could get her hands on, wrenching and twisting metal, yet making not a dent in the walls of their cell.

When everything in the room was all but destroyed, Tifa stood in the middle of the chaos, breathing heavily and blinking back tears of rage, bleeding from her hands and tiny cuts from the shattered mirror that even now were starting to heal as Aerith watched, then Tifa sank abruptly down to her knees with a sob.

Aerith was by Tifa's side before she knew she had moved. It made it easier, it was something stable, to try and calm Tifa down. It was something she could do, despite how inside of her something felt twisted; something that she understood, even if now she could see now how changing a word or caress could break Tifa further. She pushed those alien ideas away as vehemently as Tifa had destroyed the room; rejected those strange and foreign thoughts suddenly inside of her, and did so by clutching tightly to what made her her, at that feeling that told her how to protect instead of destroy.

"I can't. I can't, I can't, I just can't be," Tifa said in a broken voice. "They're...everything I hate, everything I fought against, they...they destroyed my home, my father, they..." she said, before her voice cracked. "I can't be a SOLDIER, I can't!"

"And you won't," Aerith said, despite the tendril of wrongness now inside her whispering to say the opposite. "You won't be what they were. You won't do what they did. We won't be what they want us to be. We won't!" Aerith said, her voice rising and vehement, and her words both for Tifa and herself. She wouldn't be the thing they were making her into; the thing that could only destroy. She wouldn't be that thing, and she for damn sure wouldn't let Tifa become that thing either.

"We're not going to be SOLDIERs. We're going to be something else entirely," Aerith said, and the certainty in her voice surprised even her. "And they're going to find out the hard way they shouldn't have done this to us."

"No. No, they shouldn't have," Tifa said, and there was fire in her voice.

Good girl, Aerith thought, and ignored how that alien thing in her seemed to smile.

--

The words came out of Anneke's mouth before she even realized she'd opened her mouth to say them. "What under the heavens--?!"

The room was, to put it kindly, a disaster area. There had clearly been some attempt made to clean, but only so much could be done about a sink ripped from its mooring and flung so hard it was twisted and bent, a smashed mirror, and a bed frame twisted almost beyond repair.

Well. If nothing else, the levels of destruction showed that the reinforcement of the walls for SOLDIER-level punishment had been adequate. Little else had been, but that had been, at the least.

The brown-haired woman, Tifa, glared at her from a corner of the room that she had clearly staked out as her territory. Tifa was sitting in the corner with her knees drawn up and her head buried in her arms, but she'd looked up to glare before dropping her head back, so only the top of her head was visible.

Aerith, the other subject, didn't look much happier to see her. "What are you doing to us?" she said instead, and the anger in her gaze and voice were almost palpable. "Why are you turning us into SOLDIERs?"

Anneke blinked. This was...not what she was expecting. "What happened here?" Anneke said.

"Answer my question!" Aerith yelled.

"Answer mine first," Anneke snapped, unaccustomed and ill-appreciative for being yelled at by those under her care. There were times when it was unavoidable, and times when it was therapeutic, but often it was something needing to be put down and soothed, and quickly. That was even more true when dealing with SOLDIERs, who needed to be calmed quickly - or given a chain of command to follow - when they were having meltdowns.

Suddenly, Anneke could see why Hojo might have wanted someone like her on hand.

"What does it look like?" Tifa said unexpectedly, raising her head. The heat in her gaze was almost palpable, and Anneke found herself mentally reaching for her materia; ready to cast Sleep should the need arise.

"It looks like someone ripped the sink from the wall and threw it into every available surface," Anneke said, keeping her voice mild.

"Aren't you a sharp one," Tifa let out, then wrapped her arms tighter around her knees and glared.

"Well. There's your answer," Aerith said, lifting her jaw. "Will you answer mine now?"

"You're not being turned into SOLDIERs per se," Anneke said, knowing how important it was for honesty right now. Both women looked like they were ready to launch themselves at her throat, and while she'd certainly seen that before, it was unnerving seeing it from someone like Aerith, who until now had been unfailingly polite. "However, you are being treated as prototypes for a plan for potential female SOLDIERs. Until now, the program has been exclusively male. You'll change that," she said, and smiled, filled with pride.

And she realized a second later that she had done the wrong thing.

"Are you fucking kidding me?!" Tifa roared, jumping to her feet. "The last fucking prototype...your fucking Se-Sephi...that first fucking SOLDIER you grew in your labs, he...he fucking destroyed my home! Burned it all! And the others, they helped him and...and...my father, he...SOLDIERs..."

She broke off, almost incoherent in her rage, her hands balled into fists and her entire body shaking.

"I think you should leave," Aerith said, and there was steel in her voice. "I think you should leave right now."

There were times when you stayed. There were times when you pushed. And there were times when you left, and Anneke knew when it was time for which. "I think perhaps you're right," Anneke said, because as suddenly as she was filled with questions and concerns, she knew now was not the time to push. Clearly there were things she had not been told and questions she needed to take to Hojo, but more than that, she needed to not be in the room right now - not when people fresh and new to SOLDIER strength were not adjusting well and in no mood to discuss it, and it was clear she would not be able to actually help them adjust, not yet, and might do more harm than good by blundering about not knowing the situation; harm both to them psychologically and to her physically. She would return in an hour, after they had both calmed down. "I'll be back, when you're ready to talk," she said mildly. She knew you couldn't force anyone to talk, let alone SOLDIERs, and now was not the time. They needed to process this, and she needed to find out how it was they hadn't known this was going to happen. "I'll leave. It's clear you're upset, and I do want to know why."

Tifa responded to that by screaming, then moving so fast she was almost a blur, picking up the twisted remains of the sink and flinging it at the wall by Anneke's head.

The wall barely dented; the sink crumpled.

"Please. Leave," Aerith said, breathing hard through her nose and each word clipped and careful, and Anneke ducked out of the door as soon as she could get it open, with her heart in her throat and beating far too quickly, and ran.

--

Hojo looked up from his paperwork with slight annoyance when he heard a firm rapping on his door. It was rare that he felt like paperwork and didn't foist it onto others, but when there was paperwork only he could do, and he was in a mind to be bothered with it, he didn't like being disturbed. And here was someone disturbing him.

He pushed the button for the intercom. "Can it wait?" he said, not bothering with niceties.

"No," Dr. Laumbe's voice said back to him, and Hojo sighed. Laumbe had been good at making sure he was not bothered, all in all, so he figured it must be something in need of his attention.

"Very well," he said crossly, and pushed the button to unlock and open the door. "Come in."

Laumbe walked in stiffly, and sat down in the chair across from just as stiffly. "Professor, something a bit...disturbing has happened."

Hojo put down his pen. "Yes? Can you not handle your job?"

Laumbe bristled. "I can and have. But I have a few...reservations, and things I would like to have cleared up about the project."

"Go on, then."

"First, just to let you know, the reinforcements for SOLDIER-level occupants was insufficient. They are still secure, but...the proper reinforcements were not made, especially given the...history...Lockheart has with violence against troopers," Laumbe said, and frowned as she spoke, as if something were occurring to her. "The walls held, but little else did in light of her...tantrum today," she said, after having seemed to search for the word she wanted. "I would have liked to have been apprised of what reinforcements had and had not been done, so I could have tried to have had the gaps filled," she said, frowning again.

Hojo could tell why she was still single. The woman might have been attractive if only she would smile, but she seemed to prefer screwing her face up like she was smelling something bad. At least she's good at her job, he thought.

"Such as?"

"Lockheart--" she began, and Hojo spoke over her.

"Subject XVIII," he said curtly.

"She has a name."

"It is a subject. That is how you will refer to it."

Laumbe blinked and frowned again, then continued without amending her opening. "Ripped the sink from the wall and destroyed it. She--the subject also destroyed their beds. The only thing that held was the wall. The most damage it took was a dent when she flung the sink at wall by my head, which will attest to how much force she--how much force was involved."

"Why did it throw a sink at your head?" Hojo asked, curious despite himself.

"Because I told them they were the tests for allowing women into the SOLDIER program. I thought they would be pleased. They...were not. Which leads me to why I am here."

Hojo gestured for her to go on. He had the feeling things were about to become...tedious.

"And why are you here?" he asked, steepling his fingers together.

Laumbe took a deep breath. "They way they reacted has led me to believe that they did not know what was going to happen, and that if they had, they would not have agreed to it. The way they are acting made it seem as if...as if they had volunteered for or consented to any of this medical testing."

Hojo smiled. "That's because they hadn't. They are subjects, Dr. Laumbe. Samples. They have no consent to give or rights to volunteer."

"What do you mean, they didn't volunteer?" Anneke said, sounding horrified, and Hojo groaned on the inside. This is why he hated working with women sometimes; they were far too soft.

"As I said. They are test subjects. Nothing more. XVIII is a terrorist and responsible for more than one power plant bombing. And XVIII-A is an escaped subject. Or rather, a stolen subject. It was stolen by a former employee for his own...purposes. Subject XVIII-A never should have left the labs to begin with. It has been and always will be ShinRa property."

"That's--" Anneke began, seeming more and more appalled as Hojo spoke. "You can't--this is unethical!"

"Unethical?" Hojo said, his voice rising with anger on the last note. "Dr. Laumbe. I have a question for you. Where is it, exactly," Hojo said coldly, "that you think the advances for the SOLDIER program came from?"

Anneke faltered.

"They came from test subjects, born in this lab. It was human testing that created them. And let's take this further," Hojo said, just as coldly, "where do you think our knowledge of treating illness and the progression of illnesses comes from, nothing? Do you think everyone ever used in science signed a nice little waver," he said with a sneer, "before doctors and professors tested new procedures on them? Are you really so naive? Do you have any idea what this could mean for preventing and treating mako poisoning in the future? Right now, the biggest thing limiting the SOLDIER program--and the greatest risk to those working in mako reactors or studying mako--is the risk of mako poisoning. If we do not understand how it works and every step of how the mako disrupts the brain, then we have no hope of ever being able to treat it. Yes, we are inducing mako poisoning in someone with a rare susceptibility due to life-long mako exposure, in order to find a way to undo the damage that is caused. My intended end result," he said, narrowing his eyes, "is that XVIII not be one of the drooling husks that mako poisoning normally ends in. And that if, gods forbid, the subject does give in, that we learn more about how it progresses and better discover how to treat it. Because right now, we have nothing.

"I was willing," Hojo said, carefully letting a touch of what almost seemed like pain in his voice, "to sacrifice my own son for the sake of improving the world, and you falter over a terrorist? Someone who has bombed Midgar and already caused death and destruction? Are you that weak-willed?" he said, and shot a glance at the bracer she kept equipped, than back at her face.

She looked stung by that, and a muscle in her face twitched.

"Empathy is a laudable trait," he said, lying with a glare, "but it has no place in the laboratory, where sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. What is 'unethical'? To risk countless thousands of lives for two, and two who would see others dead themselves? How many have died in bombs these terrorists have set? How many workers became mako poisoned themselves because of the bombs the very terrorist you're talking about has herself set? That last bomb they planted, three workers got mako poisoning. What happened to them, you can lay at her feet. Should she not be a part of their aid?

"And how many people didn't die because the SOLDIERs were able to end the war more quickly? How many will not suffer because of what we learn here from them? You're angry over two when the future lives that could be saved here are in the hundreds of thousands. Have you no sense of balance, or has empathy," he said, spitting the word out with the same disgust he'd had calling her 'weak,' "robbed you of that as well?" He pushed up his glasses. "It was empathy that first caused you to need that Sleep materia you yourself call a crutch, correct?"

She flinched again, then went ramrod straight as her face went red.

"I understand," she said, her voice quiet and ashamed. "I--I withdraw my objections. If you will excuse me," she said, and gave him a quick bow, not meeting his eyes, before hurrying out of the room.

A slow smile broke out over Hojo's face.

Really, it was far too easy sometimes.

--

She felt like a fool. She could feel how red her face was, and she hated it.

As much as she hated to admit it, Hojo was right. Scientific and medical progress didn't come without sacrifices. Someone had to be the ones they learned for, so they could save countless lives later. What were one or two lives, in the face of countless hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps millions, that could be aided by what was discovered?

And if what he'd said about Tifa was true, that she was a terrorist...

Mako poisoning wasn't pretty. It wasn't nice, what it did to someone. It could rip away someone's mind; leave them so they had nothing left. You would be just an empty husk, and it was only if you were lucky, if you were very, very lucky, that you managed to somehow regain some kind of personality and consciousness afterwards. Most, the vast majority, were just left...empty, as if their souls had been ripped right out of their bodies.

That was what had happened to the victims of the last terrorist attack. The one Tifa--XVIII, she told herself firmly--had been involved with.

She couldn't afford to be soft. She couldn't. Anneke already knew the risks of getting too invested in your patients' lives - it was something that was far too easy to do when you listened to them sob through memories of the war - and, as Hojo had pointed out, now kept material equipped at all times as a result of her own weakness and empathy.

You have to toughen up, girl, she thought to herself. Think about what this could mean. What we could discover. Who we could one day save.

Anneke closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then raised her head, opened her eyes, and walked forward.

She wouldn't be so weak again.

--

Part 4

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