Thagirion: What Is Inside [III] (pt 4)

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

--

--

Despite the initial...uncertainties regarding Dr. L and her overly anthropomorphizing the test samples, things have at last settled down, and she seems fully invested in the project now. The latest sets of numbers are very exciting. The samples have taken on even more SOLDIER traits. More importantly, XVIII is beginning to show symptoms of mako poisoning, but not nearly to the extent that the other N sample has. Contact with the XVIII-A sample may be why the mako poisoning is developing at a retarded pace. I will increase its mako exposure, as well as introduce some genetic material from the A sample, to see if it either speeds the imprinting process or retards the mako poisoning further - either direction will prove invaluable and may allow recovery of the first N sample.

To increase the chance of imprinting, however, I believe that reintroducing injury to the XVIII sample may be necessary. There has been a drop off in the A sample using it's abilities as an Ancient since the cessation of injury to XVIII, which may explain why it has been exhibiting them less. If there is no need, of course, it will not expend the energy.

I will see about reassigning that Trooper Laumbe had removed, but adjust the schedule so he is here on her off days. I wouldn't want to risk her empathy making another unwelcome appearance.


Hojo's notes on subject XVIII, p. 642

--

Tifa was...not all right.

She hadn't been anything that could be called "all right" for a long time, but it was almost as if being turned into a SOLDIER had broken something inside of her, and Aerith had no idea what to do to fix it.

It didn't help that whatever they had done to her had made it harder for her to hear what was wrong.

"Tifa?"

“What?” Tifa finally said shortly, looking over at Aerith. Until then, she had been sitting on her bed, staring off into nothing with no expression on her face. Just...sitting there, not moving, not looking at anything, not doing anything. Tifa wasn't one to normally sit still for very long – she could be still and easily, could almost radiate stillness some times – but it never lasted long, because even her fits of stillness usually only seemed like interludes. But this...it was as if someone had unplugged her, or broken her strings. Or ripped something vital away from her.

Aerith knew far too well that it was most likely some horrible amalgam of all three.

“Are...Are you OK?”

Tifa just looked at her. “Are you seriously asking me that question? Here?”

Aerith felt her shoulders slump. “I know that--” she began, then stopped abruptly when the door opened. A scientist, who wasn't Dr. Laumbe, holding a clipboard walked in, accompanied by several troopers, far more than usually came for them, and, most worryingly, who all seemed heavily armed.

Tifa suddenly sprang to life, leaping to her feet with her teeth bared.

“Nuh uh uh,” one of the troopers said, and Aerith felt herself go cold at that voice.

Him. The one that used to enjoy pushing Tifa just so she would attack and then he could hit her. He hadn't been around since that first day Dr. Laumbe had come, but now he was back, and Dr. Laumbe was no where in sight.

Tifa let out a scream and launched herself at him almost instantly, moving so quickly with her new SOLDIER speed that she was almost a blur.

They were apparently anticipating her speed, and she was hit with a Slow almost immediately. It brought her back to normal speed, and then she was hit almost immediately with more spells, until she couldn't movie.

It wouldn't last long, but...

"Miss me?" the Trooper who had long tormented Tifa said with a smile, and Aerith knew things were about to become very, very bad.

--

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

She 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 flowers 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 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!" she yells angrily. "Ich will nicht vergessen! Ich werde nicht vergessen!"

The open-handed slap her teacher gave her that wiped away her mouth was the first and only time he had ever struck her. Yes, she had been hit by him many times, when he trained her, but this was different; it was something completely devastating in a way that none of the bruises she'd ever gotten from being taught to fight had ever been.

"You speak using words that have vanished from the world," he said sharply. "Never speak them again, unless you wish to vanish as well."

Her teacher walked away from her angrily, and that day was the last that she had a mouth to speak with it at all.


--

Tifa had often, before Dr. Laumbe started, been in terrible shape after the experiments. But she was so much worse now, and that despite her SOLDIER abilities and strength.

The Troopers had hurt her, very badly, and she'd had to watch as they did so. Tifa was strong, but strength had limits and even SOLDIERs could be hurt, and those damned Troopers had seemed to take the fact that Tifa could take more damage to be a challenge. Aerith had screamed at them to stop, had tried to pull them away and get in the way, anything to make them just stop, until they hit her with a Sleep, and then there was nothing until she woke up outside of the tanks, back in their cell, both reeking of mako.

Tifa's body healed faster now, on its own, and that was a small comfort. The bruises that would have been there after a beating were almost gone; the internal damage faded to survivable, the bones already beginning to knit together.

Aerith could feel the power to fix it all in the scraps of life around her, but she could also feel how to rend it all apart; how to slow that healing process down and shatter it, and that terrified her.

"Tifa...Tifa, are you all right?!" Aerith asked, a note of desperation in her voice.

Tifa didn't answer; just stared up at the ceiling blankly, humming a song she would sometimes sing to herself when she was bored, but in a strange, hesitant and disjointed way that terrified Aerith.

Aerith got off her her bed and walked over to Tifa, and sat down next to her on Tifa's bed.

Tifa didn't move for the longest time, and Aerith could all but feel the pain radiating off of her. But she waited, not sure anymore what the right or wrong thing to do was. So she sat there, hating everything, hating how hurt Tifa was, hating how she didn't trust herself to try and fix it anymore, hated being here.

Tifa continued to stare blankly at the ceiling, humming disconcertingly, and Aerith despaired.

Tifa continued to stare at the ceiling, even when she tentatively moved her hand, until her fingers brushed over Aerith's.

Aerith felt her face crumple, felt something in her bend and break, and she wrapped her hand around Tifa's, so tightly she could feel the bones inside Tifa's hand and fingers being pressed together; clutched at Tifa's hand even though she knew it had to be hurting the other woman, and then she tried to force herself to let go, to stop, to--

"I miss the flowers. What...what were they called? They were blue..." Tifa whispered softly then trailed off, and Aerith began to hum the song Tifa had been humming wrong; the song that Aerith sudden realized she hadn't heard Tifa sing or hum until now in a very long time, that song from her home, and that was something that scared her far more than the times Tifa had hummed it oblivious to everything around her.

She never sang it anymore, that song in her Narsland dialect that Aerith couldn't make heads or tails of, and hadn't for the gods only knew how long, when before, when they had first arrived, she would sing it to herself almost fiercely, as if to remind herself of who she was.

Aerith had heard it enough times to know how it went, but she wondered how long before it was too late and there was nothing else she could do but hum songs she couldn't sing.

"I'll get us out of here," she said suddenly, almost desperately, breaking off the words and relaxing the grip she had on Tifa's hand. "Somehow, I'm going to get us out of here."

Tifa didn't answer, but she squeezed at Aerith's hand this time, as tightly has Aerith had been to her own, and stared at the ceiling in silence.

--

Anneke picked up her cup of coffee and took a sip as she read over the paperwork and test results. Things were definitely looking promising - Aerith and Tifa (no, she told herself. She had almost broken herself of the habit, but it still remained. They're not "Aerith and Tifa." They're XVIII-A and XVIII) were showing a smoothing out and strengthening of the results of undergoing the SOLDIER process. XVIII's results were worrying, but only insofar as they indicated the beginnings of mako poisoning. But despite that, she was still up and about; still functioning relatively normally, and the results were already intently promising.

She froze just as she was about to take another sip.

"Healing increased...how would they know that?" she said to herself, frowning. There had been notes about XVIII-A using her latent Ancient abilities to heal injuries XVIII had received - and oh, by the gods, just imagine if they could figure out how she did that; it could revolutionize everything they knew about medicine and treatments - but those had ended when Anneke had reassigned the abusive Troopers. So how had...?

She put her coffee mug down. The dates on those results was from a week she had been in Junon. The doctor who had taken her position had asked her to come back for an emergency with one of the SOLDIERs. Hojo had let her go without complaint, and now she found herself suspicious as to why the man, who had a reputation for not playing well with others, hadn't said a word.

It didn't take long to pull up the records and see who had been on staff that day, and her eyes narrowed in anger when she saw Oritz's name before she let out a sharp curse in Narslandish.

She had had him removed for a reason, and seeing both his name and the notes on injuries and the speed of healing were making her see red.

It was one thing to cause damage in the hopes of improvements for the good of everyone. But this, this was just one man's sadism and cruelty being given sanction, and it was disgusting.

She was putting her foot down on this one.

--

"What do you want?" Aerith said, instead of a greeting, when Dr. Laumbe walked in.

The older woman flinched slightly, before she frowned. "I came to see how you're doing. And to find out what happened a few weeks ago, when I was away."

Aerith slouched back against the wall instead of sitting up straight on her bed, as she had been when the doors first opened.

"Why do you want to know?" she asked warily.

"Because I think something that shouldn't have happened did. Something I specifically changed the staff assignments here to ensure it didn't. But I need to know exactly what."

"That trooper that hates Tifa happened," Aerith said, and she didn't try to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "We're supposedly SOLDIER-equivalent now, right? Didn't mean anything, not when they've got Materia and we don't," she spat out, narrowing her eyes at the equipped bracer Laumbe had equipped.

Laumbe stared at Aerith wide-eyed and seeming shocked at Aerith's outburst, and Aerith found herself not giving a single damn. "Tifa, I'd like your point of view," Laumbe said, turning to face Tifa, and Aerith laughed bitterly before looking away.

Tifa didn't say a word. Not a single thing, just glared daggers at Dr. Laumbe and settled into a sullen silence.

"I can't do anything if you won't talk to me," Laumbe said, and Aerith wanted to scream. "Listen, I know you don't like or trust us, but--"

"Just stop," Aerith interrupted. "Tifa hasn't said anything for...I don't even know how long. Time doesn't matter in here. Two weeks? It's been too long, is what it's been. If I can't get her to talk, you're really not going to."

Laumbe looked shocked. "What?"

"She hasn't said anything. Not a word," Aerith said, and she felt as if her heart were breaking. She wanted to hold on to her anger, but she couldn't, not in the face of something like this and someone, even if it was fake, seeming like maybe they cared. There had been nothing but silence from Tifa since that horrible day. She would sometimes hum brokenly, but there hadn't been any words. Not a single one. Tifa would nod or shake her head, and she would gesture, but...but nothing else. And the worst thing was, Tifa was acting as if she had always been mute; as if she had never had words to speak, and it terrified Aerith to no end, because when she reached out, with that part of her that was old, all there was in Tifa was a black nothingness; as if the tendrils of wrong she had felt for so long had eaten away like ivy at the structures underneath, and they had all started to crumble away into dust.

"This is...I should have been notified of this," Laumbe said, seemingly more to herself than to Aerith or Tifa.

Aerith laughed. She couldn't help it, and the laugh felt wrong. "Who would have told you? Do you think anyone listens to us, let alone even talks to us? Says more to us than to bark orders? They all probably think it's better if we can't talk," she ended in a mutter, the words bitter, as they anger came back.

"Well, I'm talking to you," Laumbe said, frowning. "And I want to know what happened. Now more than ever."

"What happened is ShinRa kidnapped us. What happened is ShinRa is running sick experiments on us just because they can. What happened is that they're destroying us, bit by bit, eating away at what we are, just because we're not people to anyone here. Just samples."

Aerith remembered all too well, the days and weeks leading up to she and her mother escaping; remembered her mother telling her, fervently, that her name was not "the impure sample." And then to be back here, to be back to being 'sample', being XVIII-A, not even the 'name' she'd had as a child...

"They're doing worse than killing us," Aerith said, and looked away, looked at the corner, so she wouldn't burst into tears.

It didn't work. It didn't stop them. But it at least slowed them, made them something should could blink away and ignore.

There was a long silence before she heard the sound of a door opening.

She almost thought she heard a whispered, "I'm sorry" before the door closed shut again.

--

Upon Dr. Laumbe discovering that the Trooper she has issues with had been reassigned back to the project, she threatened to quit the project unless he was removed permanently, I've had to temporarily remove him. It's tedious to find another Trooper as capable as him in regards to pain experiments, but not impossible, whereas replacing Laumbe would be far more tedious, despite her tendencies. She is mostly on board and hasn't raised any objections otherwise, so I can throw her this bone.

More importantly, XVIII is showing definite signs of mako poisoning, and, most promisingly, despite this, she is far more functional than the other Nibelheim sample was at this same stage of poisoning, and she shows signs of mirroring what XVIII-A does, meaning she may be developing Ohnegesichterin 'face stealing' traits and imprinting. There does seem to be some flow in the opposite direction, as evidence by Dr. Laumbe's notes about XVIII-A being more angry than it used to be, but that is of little matter, provided it is small. It could, in fact, but useful, if that blowback can be used to make the Z sample more pliant.

If this continues as I hope, I may be able to both recover the first Nibelheim sample and the SOLDIER Z sample as well.


Hojo's notes on subject XVIII, p. 692

--

After several hours of staring at the ceiling of her bedroom and realizing that no matter how long she stared at it, she was never going to go to sleep, Anneke heaved a signed and got out of bed. She headed to her kitchen and began making herself a cup of herbal tea. She was able to keep herself from thinking while she was making it, but while she waited for it to brew, her thoughts finally broke through. The conversation with--the samples, she told herself firmly--had gotten to her more than she would have liked. She wished she could have taken some of the files home with here, but Hojo had been insistent that everything stay on site.

Hojo was right. She knew he was right...she kept telling herself she was right. This was the ugly side of medical progress. It was something that sometimes had to happen. Sometimes people had to suffer, in order to soothe the suffering of countless afterwards.

But by the gods, it was hard. It was so hard.

It just didn't make sense for Tifa to have gone mute. Or rather...yes, that was a sign of mako poisoning, but it was a sign insofar as once someone was so far mako poisoning that there was nothing left of them that they couldn't talk, but this was...this was something very different. It could have been trauma-induced, but that was very rare in adults, and Tifa had shown no signs that her trauma would manifest like this. It was possible that it was something medical, because the gods knew mako could do strange things to you, but it also could have been psychological, and...

She felt the urge to scream as she felt herself being pulled in two very different directions. If it was medical, she was to document the effects on her sample and watch how it progressed. But if it were psychological...

If it was psychological, she was to treat her patient, and a patient...a patient could not be a sample.

Hojo was right. This is what had to happen, she had to let it go, to not let it get to her.

She kept telling herself that as she drank her tea, and she kept trying to make herself believe it.

--

When their food came that morning, Aerith looked up briefly when the slots opened, but she couldn't bring herself to get up to get them. She felt so tired, even though she'd just woken up. She wanted to close her eyes and drift back off to sleep. It was easier to spend the days like that, just...drifting.

A piece of bread was unceremoniously dropped on her face.

"What on--!" she started, knocking it off her face and sitting up. Tifa was standing at her bed, holding a tray of food. She pushed it out towards Aerith, and Aerith sighed. "Fine, fine, I'm up," she said, and took the tray. Tifa nodded, then went over to her bed and picked up her tray, then brought it over to where Aerith was, and sat down next to her, picked up her own piece of bread, and deliberately took a large bite.

Aerith blinked slightly, then gave a faint smile. "I'm eating, I'm eating," she said, shaking her head, feeling a pinprick of happiness that Tifa was doing something. Tifa wasn't as active as she had been, and there were growing patches of time when Tifa would just...sit in a blank silence, feeling empty somehow, and Aerith would find herself desperately trying to draw Tifa back, to make her react, to make her seem alive again...

She'd needed Tifa to...to not be like that today. She hadn't realized it until just now, but by all the gods, she'd really, really needed that.

And right now, Tifa was glaring at her, until Aerith picked up a piece of fruit and put it in her mouth.

"See?" she said, then Tifa gave her a look but went back to her own food. They ate in silence, as they did everything now, and when the food was gone, Aerith took both the trays and stuck them back through the slots.

Tifa stayed on her bed, sitting there, in such a way that Aerith couldn't go crawl back into it like she wanted.

Aerith stared at her.

Tifa stared back.

Aerith's shoulders slumped, and she sat down next to Tifa with a sigh,

"I'm tired," she said.

Tifa didn't say anything.

"I don't know what to do," Aerith said.

Tifa didn't say anything.

"I'm scared," Aerith whispered.

Tifa didn't say anything.

Aerith put her head on Tifa's shoulder, and Tifa didn't say anything. But she did rest her cheek on the top of Aerith's head, and they just stayed like that. In silence.

And Aerith felt, someone, just a little bit better. She didn't know what to do, and she didn't know how long this would last, but she did know at least she wasn't alone. She put her hand on Tifa's, and Tifa turned her hand over, and their fingers twined together, before Tifa went faintly slack in a way that made Aerith's heart thump hard in her chest.

She shut her eyes and held on tighter to Tifa's hand, and they stayed like this, silently sitting on the bed, until the Troopers and doctor came to take them away, into the mako tanks.

--

Anneke walked into the cell, expecting anger or rage or...sullen silence, or something, but there was just...two girls, sitting next to each other on a bed, one looking ready to break and clinging to the other to keep that from happening, and the other...

Samples. Not girls. They're...

She hit them with Sleep so she didn't have to look at them looking like that anymore, at Aerith looking broken and Tifa looking...blank.

She made the Trooper pry their hands apart and she couldn't watch when he did.

Hojo was...he had to be right.

He had to be.

She suspected she wouldn't be sleeping well again tonight.

--

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

"No," she whispers, though she has no mouth, 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 her home. Her home 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. "Your home 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, girl, 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 began. Her teacher came over, and wipes her eyes away with a hand, and guides her away.


--

Anneke hated that she was right, that she hadn't slept that night. But at that sleepless night had been productive; she'd spent most of it continuing the research she'd started on the treatment and symptoms of mako poisoning, looking for some cases in the literature about symptoms like XVIII was having.

She pushed away how hard it was to think of someone she had seen trying to give and draw strength to someone else as a thing.

She'd been doing reading all day, and she kept on doing reading once she got home, and...nothing. There was nothing. There were no cases that she had found that followed the trajectory Tifa seemed to be on.

Which would indicate something mental, but...but that didn't fit anything of what she knew of Tifa's personality.

There were pieces here, pieces she was missing, and that itched at the back of her brain as badly as trying to figure out how to even think of the two girls in the cell.

She was going to figure this out. She was going to spend the next few days going over every scrap of information she could find in the labs, in her and the other scientists' notes, in the literature, until something made all of this make sense.

Because...because what if Hojo wasn't right?

And it was that question, more than anything else, that was starting to keep her awake at night.

--

Things were...things were not all right.

Aerith didn't know what had happened, but had a horrible fear that they were both reaching a tipping point - while Tifa had been the most tested upon, Aerith knew from the tendrils growing now within her that she was in just as much danger as Tifa was. But Tifa...

Aerith had no idea if she was staring into her own future, seeing how now Tifa couldn't react to anything; was suddenly an empty shell. Aerith had no idea if it was too late or not, but she felt a growing horror as Tifa just...sat, empty and blank.

She wouldn't let that be her future. She wouldn't become that. And she wouldn't let Tifa stay like that.

"Find your promised land. Find your promised land," Aerith whispered to herself, clinging tightly to her mother's words to her.

She couldn't wait any more. They couldn't wait anymore. They had to get out. And they had to do it now, before it was too late for the both of them.

But she had no idea how.

Panic blossomed in her chest as Tifa stared blankly out into nothingness.

--

Part 5

Comments