The puppets friends would all die. They tangled the strings on the blond boys mind and enabled him to elude the near total control that kept the other clones slavishly obedient. True, the boys already disordered mind could still be manipulated, but the comparative effort that this took made the process seem inefficient. This, coupled with the fact that the boys friends would in all likelihood become directly antagonistic once the plan was revealed made this Avalanche a liability, one which Mother would not tolerate. The blonds friends would die and the one called Aeris Gainsborough would be the first to go.
The silver haired man pressed his palm to the cold steel of the cell door and, focussing his will for a moment, was soon rewarded with a soft click and the sliding of the doors beneath his hand. Sword in hand, he advanced on the little pink figure lying on the cot. What he saw took his breath away. His murderous plans were forgotten as a hundred questions burned into his mind. How had such a delicate flower fallen in with Strife? What had she done to deserve captivity in the hell that was the Shinra laboratory, a hell he knew all too well? He sank silently to the floor beside the cot so as to better observe her features.
Delicate bones, a finely arched brow, skin like cream, a bit pale, perhaps, the effect of either the lighting or life in the sunless slums. A lovely face framed by dark curls with just a hint of honey. What colour were the eyes that lay behind those dark lashes? Were those lips as soft as they looked? The man averted his eyes, inhaling deeply in an attempt to slow his racing heart, trying hard to collect his thoughts. He could have had his pick of beauties in his previous life, among these wretched humans, so much so that he had tired of beauty and grown to ignore it completely. How then, could this girl, Aeris, if the label on the cell door was correct, have such an effect on him?
Slowly, he turned to look at her once more. Her hands, clasped on her stomach, looked as delicate as her face. She had a slender figure, with a waist his arms ached to wrap around. The bottom of her dress was undone, revealing such a length of shapely leg that he had to turn away again, blushing. It had been a very long time even for him, but still, how could this mere slip of a girl, lovely as she was, affect him so deeply? Why was he drawn so powerfully to her, even as she lay asleep and unaware? He sought the answer in her face, in that expression of restless troubled sleep.
She seemed too beautiful to be of the planet she walked on. If ever angels had walked among men, they had forgotten this daughter of theirs behind upon ascension into heaven, left her to lie in this cold steel cage with not even the thinnest sheet to warm her. The man sighed heavily, torn between wanting to take her out of this hell to safety and a desire to explore her body with more than just his eyes. Her lips seemed so inviting. Almost without thought he found himself moving closer. Surely a light brush across her lips could not hurt. He could feel her breath on his skin. Just a hairs breadth more
She is a danger to us! Kill her now, Son! his mothers cry was urgent and shocked him to the core. The ever present burning of the mako in his blood intensified, searing his body in a familiar torture. He refused to cry out. Mother, as always, ignored his pain. Look closer! See for yourself what power she carries!
It was true. He could see it now, see what was invisible to those with only human sight. Waves of pure magical energy flowed like lightening in her veins, permeated every cell of her body. Did anyone realise what forces lay within this girls body? Did she? Her power could easily match his own. To his second sight, she glowed with more power than he had ever encountered in a living being. No doubt that was why she was locked in this cage like a lab rat, as he had once been. She was like a brilliant galaxy in a sky of fireflies and in the puppets company could prove a powerful adversary or a powerful tool, if he could find a way to harness her energy, to control her
His mind worked quickly at formulating a plan, one that would allow him to use this angels power to achieve his mothers plan and fulfil his desires at the same time. A wicked half smile touched his lips as he reassured the voice that raged within his mind that he knew exactly what he was doing. True, the extra effort would be needed to control the puppet, but one glance at the beauty sleeping on the cot convinced him that it was worth it. Soon, pretty, he whispered as he stood, and with one last look at the sleeping girl, went about the business of freeing the blonde puppet.
It was nearly a week after the massacre at Shinra Headquarters that the rag tag group of insurgents deemed responsible made a none too quiet entry into Choco Bills territory, the best little chocobo farm on the planet. The moment the giant birds spotted a spiky yellow head in the distance, they clamoured at the gate of their enclosure, warking out greetings to their approaching kin. Dammit, will ya listen to that racket! Barret huffed as Cloud made his way over to the corral and was almost immediately smothered by the birds that rushed over to meet him at the fence.
Hey, quit that! the blonde leader protested as one of the birds playfully nipped his ear.
Damn chickens must think youre family, Spike. God knows you got bird brains as it is.
Cloud made a small sound of disgust, Well have to see if we can rent a few of these guys. Theres no safer way to cross that swamp.
What? You afraid of a little mucky water?
Any response Cloud might have had was cut off as Tifa, Aeris and Red caught up. Aw, how cute! Aeris rushed over to the fence and leaned over to pet the chocobos, who must have decided that the newcomer smelled better than their strange brother judging by the speed with which they abandoned him.
Hm. Disowned already, Cloud shook his head and made his way to the farmhouse, Are you guys coming or not?
Right behind you, Cloud, Tifa gave a parting pat to one of the birds and followed after Red and Barret. They were not even at the door when Choco Bill himself came out.
Now whats all this fuss Bill trailed off as he took in the huge sword the serious young man he was addressing carried, and then the nasty looking contraption the huge black man had in place of one arm and the four-legged thing that did not look like any pet he had ever seen. Even the pretty young woman behind them had a fighters glove and looked like she knew how to use it.
The young swordsman inclined his head slightly in greeting, easing Choco Bills fears somewhat. My friends and I need to cross the swamp, the blonde said, and wed like to know if we could rent a few of your chocobos to do it.
Bill sighed in relief, Well, I cant lend you any of those out there, unfortunately. Im stabling them for someone else. He looked over at the corral, where the birds in question were vying for the attention of a sweet looking girl in a long pink dress. How had that pretty little thing gotten mixed up with the rough looking group before him? What I can do is sell you some supplies so you can catch some of the wild ones that live around these parts. Theyre sort of scrawny but theyll get you across.
I appreciate that. Names Strife, by the way, the blonde said but did not offer a handshake.
Bill replied cheerfully anyway, Pleased to meet you. What followed after cursory introductions was a lengthy discussion about the properties of the various greens needed, the best ways to avoid scaring off the skittish wild birds and the cost of the necessary materia, during which they were joined by the girl in pink, and the man with the contraption arm, Barret, grew increasingly impatient.
Dammit! Why cant we jes walk out over there? There aint no reason a little swampy groundll stop us!
Choco Bill was not surprised, Thats what most folks think until I tell them about the Midgar Zolom.
Barret looked angry, Whats that? Some kinda Shinra reactor waste?
Barret! Tifa nudged the big man, Shh!
Bill pretended he had not heard. No, its a giant snake that will kill you as soon as look at you. My Billy thought that it might have been the reactor runoff from Midgar that created the Zolom, but some folks from Shinra came by to explain that its just a freak of nature. Just one more thing the planets given us to deal with, I guess.
Strife looked up, Shinra told you that?
Sure did. The head of the Administrative Research department himself came down here to explain it all. Again, Bill pretended that he did not see Barret seething or Tifas attempts to keep him quiet. No point getting on the wrong side on this band of toughs, even if they did look a bit scraggly. The girl in pink sighed sadly.
Hmph. Figures, was all their blond leader said. He was apparently a rather close-mouthed young man. Bill noted on air of intent preoccupation about Strife but knew better than to pry openly.
Bill continued, I gotta hand it to you, Strife. Youre smarter than the last one who passed through here. Tall man in a dark coat. The sudden burning attention of Strifes mako eyes nearly gave him a heart attack. It took him a moment to realise that the entire group was watching him, with nearly equal intensity. Even the big feline seemed to be paying closer attention to what Bill said than any dumb animal had a right to. He just walked right out over there. I hollered out to him that he needed a chocobo but he didnt even look back. Just kept walking. I heard a lot of hissing and some monstrous shrieking out there a little while after. Im sure the Zolom got him, darn fool.
Strife asked anxiously, Did you notice if he had a tattoo?
Bill pondered, Well now that I think back on it, he did seem to have some sort of dark mark on his hand, a small one mind you, but it could have been a tattoo.
Strife sighed, and then asked about purchasing the chocobo lure materia, so Bill directed him out to the stables where Billy would handle the business. It was best if the kids learned early on the proper way to manage their inheritance after all.
Sephiroth sat in a corner of the cave and bit back a cry of frustration. Getting Strife to follow was proving to be an agonisingly slow process. The boy had not only dawdled for hours at the chocobo ranch, but had actually decided to spend the night. He could not simply follow like a good little puppet. He just had to stop to eat and sleep. The tall man pounded the cave floor, sending up shards of mythril. It had been necessary to slow his own progress down considerably just to make sure that the thickheaded blond did not lose the trail. This only increased the chance that those fools from Shinra would catch up with him first. They were already scouting out the terrain ahead, between the cave and Junon.
He made small sound of amusement. Here he was trying to be selectively hunted by lower life forms. The novelty of the situation was intriguing. It took his mind off the pain that threaded through his head. What was left of Shinra Incorporated would be avoided simply enough. The old man had brooked no contradiction from his underlings. The companys top brass consisted of little more than the late presidents yes men. Chances that the entire group all together had two neurones to rub together were slim. Sephiroth let out a low, quiet growl at the thought of a certain bearded incompetent who for years had held the position that he himself rightly deserved. The Shinra heir, an obnoxious, prissy little fool with more ambition than common sense hardly possessed the capability to commandeer the immense corporation into creating more than a distraction. It might even be possible to get them to do some of the work which Strife might prove too slow to accomplish.
Dull pain pounded through Sephiroths skull at the thought of the puppet. His handling of the weak clones abilities were proving to be a contentious issue between Mother and himself. The boy was moving far too slowly, as Mother constantly reminded him, because he kept making sure that his friends could keep up. Cloud Strife played the part of leader well, the former General had to allow, but being a clone, he should not have. No clone had a right to feelings of responsibility to anyone other than Sephiroth. A clone especially did not have the right to the ever-growing ties of kinship to which Strife was falling prey, despite the best efforts of himself and his puppet master. Friends were a distraction. Sephiroth wondered for what felt like the millionth time if he should have simply gone with the original plan and slaughtered the blonds friends in their beds. Except for her, of course.
A soft shadow of a smile graced his lips as he pictured her. Aeris. Even the sound of her name in his mind was able to dispel the worst of his pain. He had watched her through the puppets eyes for part of the day despite the throb of Mothers protests in his mind. There had been a few problems to overcome for his subtle spying to be possible. The first was the blonds own preoccupation with the other woman, Tifa. Sephiroth remembered her. She had become the buxom type, which Sephiroth did not favor, but the fact that she had survived the blow he had dealt her spoke of a hidden tenacity.
Once Sephiroth had managed to pull Strifes mind away from Tifa, there was the issue of looking at the preferred subject without being caught. If Aeris saw Strife looking at her with interest, she might be inclined to respond in kind. The very idea sent a surge of jealousy through him. Military training in covert operations, he was pleased to note, adequately covered his lack of subtlety regarding the opposite sex. While he had kept Strifes body in an animated discussion of greens with the ranchers son, he had also been able to observe Aeris chatting happily with the ranchers young daughter. Aeris had such a lovely smile.
The air of fragility that had been so apparent while she slept had nearly vanished in the light of her vibrant waking nature. He had gleaned from Strifes mind that she was not much of a fighter, though her ability to heal was phenomenal. The brilliant emerald shade of her eyes had been a pleasant surprise. Her step was sure and graceful. The silver haired man found himself mesmerised by the way her braid swung when she walked, the end almost seductively flicking around her hips. He had foolishly gotten carried away with his observation of those fine hips and that narrow waist. The one called Barret had noticed that Strife seemed to be openly staring and had slapped the little blond so hard in the back of the head while berating him about two-timing that Sephiroth had been shocked out of the puppets mind for the time being.
The puppets problems were his to deal with. Sephiroths only concern was getting that beautiful girl to desire him as much as he did her. Then the power she possessed would be at his command just as his clones were. Mother still insisted that the girl was a danger and had spent the better part of the afternoon telepathically shrieking at him to get rid of her. Sephiroth let out a sigh that echoed softly through the cave. He had never directly disobeyed Mother before and the argument inside his head had been frightful. He was sure that the pulsing headache she had spitefully left him with was meant to be a sort of spanking, but it was nothing compared to the aching feeling of being abandoned by his mother. He knew it was only temporary, but he had to force himself not to cry out for her.
He made himself as comfortable as he could on the cold cave floor. Before she vacated his mind, Mother had harshly suggested that he simply take the girl when she slept to get it out of his system. As he sat, forsaken and lonely, on a cold stone floor that threatened to steal any warmth that had been his, the thought was almost appealing. One thought of that smile brought him back to his senses. For reasons he could not explain, he could not bear the thought of that smile turning to tears, no matter what Mother said. An unfamiliar discomfort formed like a knot in his chest. He sighed again and prepared for a long sleepless night.
Aeris rose quietly from her bed and walked over to the window, taking each step with careful haste so the floorboards would not creak and wake everyone. She leaned out, enjoying the cool night air. Everything felt so different here, away from the machinery of Midgar. The air was so fragrant. The earth was cool. She had felt grass beneath her feet for the first time. The planet had spoken to her of the world outside the city, where greenery was so abundant that one need not fear crushing it underfoot. It would remain undiminished and replenish itself in season. She smiled, softly. It was strange to walk on the grass and wildflowers like so much pavement when she had spent her life growing and protecting such things with fierce passion. It was truly different, so truly wonderful out here, yet her heart could not be light.
There were no crowds radiating black emotion as they eked out a living. There were no clouds of anguish or hopelessness or drunken forgetfulness. For the first time that she could remember, the voice of the planet was clear. But still sorrowful. The collective draw of all Shinras reactors harvested spirits from their restful interludes by the thousands and fed them, as they screamed in the way only souls can, into wires and gears. The planet was weakening and only Aeris, its last gifted daughter, could hear its dying keen. Its piercing cry set her apart and so often denied her the joy she tried to inspire in others.
The planets cry was not the only one that had pulled her from her sleep. The voices of her Cetra ancestors were clearer than ever. Child, you are in danger!
A rueful laugh escaped her, When have I ever not been, Idahn? The Cetra term for addressing an elder rolled easily from her mind, although she had never physically spoken it. More voices joined in, trying to impress upon her the gravity of the situation, but Aeris could only catch a few words from the noise.
to the west
waiting for you..
Hes there now!
Aeris was unperturbed, To the west? If you mean Sephiroth there is no need for such alarm. I know hes there. He is a danger to us all, but mostly to Cloud, I think.
The connection grew faint but one voice stood out among the clamor of desperate warning, Be careful, dear daughter. You are our very last.
The words seemed to echo in the silence. That was the cold truth of her existence. She was the last, alone. She looked skyward, trying to blink back her tears, unaware that westward sat someone who would have sold his soul to wipe them away.
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