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part 4 of Genetic Imperialism

In Edge, as in Midgar, there are hundreds of churches.

Hundreds of gods, too, as as churches, each one to deal with the masses of mediocrities that could complicate an individual's life. The god of white laundry. The god of getting an extra offday shift in one's weekly script. The god of not getting run over by security robots while crossing into one of the reactors. The god of the reactor not exploding. Tseng knew no names growing up like this, only roles, and that in itself was born out of Shinra's hierarchy. Individuals were transitory. Only the role persisted.

Vincent calls this a corruption. He tells a tale of back before Rufus' grandfather's time: where each town, each village across the vast continent used to have one heart, one church, one god; each town (so Vincent says) with its patron deity, an association, a purpose. An intangible thing to make one small town distinct from all other small towns exactly like it. Before Shinra.

Tseng wonders if Rufus'll follow through with his new calendar idea: a new calendar to become a blank slate for Edge, no remembrances, no dates of significant destruction; Tseng wonders if that calendar will remember there once was a time Before Shinra. So much memory has been lost already, purposefully wiped out, so much history eroded. Sand, where they thought it stone.

Tseng remembers not understanding the churches as a child growing in Midgar's slums; he remembers understanding them less as he grew into Shinra's shadow. But he remembers knowing their importance, knowing the churches and their unspoken myths worth preserving. Edge preserves what traditions it can from Midgar's rubble, though tradition was scarce to begin with. This particular church forms the new heart. The space is shaped for congregations, and so Edge congregates.

The structure is nearly untouched. No bracing has proved necessary, the roof left gaping wide. Vincent's heels scrape and stutter across the uneven stone, loud and uncaring, and the word rises unwillingly in Tseng's mind, sacrilegious. Tseng keeps his own footsteps soft, light. Shuffling.

Prior to its abandonment, this church's small god was one of penance and rigor, seen in the array of pews, the rigid structure, the direction of that unthinking audience towards the one voice of reason; Shinra had adapted this format for many of his own public spaces, up above, where the rich or the privileged could all gather to hear him tell them how rich and privileged they all were. Shinra never quite achieved this kind of uncompromising grandeur, though: the church's walls were laid on lines of old rules long since forgotten.

Tseng was never surprised that Aerith gravitated to this particular church. She took over a place of divine law, of divine lawbreakers, of divinely-bestowed punishment, a place that sculpted space in such a way to make the individual know his place, and know it was less than everyth ing else. And she grew flowers.

The air smells of dirt. Uncompromisingly, of dirt.

When they reach the centre and its floral providence, they stop.

The flowers are not special now. Edge's springs are watercolour masterpieces, where wildflowers grow in every crack that catches seed from the passing wind.

'Midgar had become strange,' Vincent says. 'I would not have known it, had I seen it. To have needed all this...substructure.'

Substructure. Vincent says it in the same voice that he had previously said corruption. A demon's voice. Tseng ignores childhood memories, archetypal fears; he breathes dirt and remembers himself. Tseng was born in Midgar, irrationality can have no hold on him. In Midgar, Tseng reminds himself, even the demons are manmade, and who am I to fear the manufactured?

Yet the archaic sound of Vincent's speech is disconcerting, and that itself nowhere near as disconcerting as the times he swings full into a street lingo mor e than thirty years dead. Thirty years. Tseng hasn't even breathed a full thirty years; he won't forgive, but he can understand that Vincent's been so long alone that certain allowances must be made. Whenever Vincent talks it's as though only his own ears will hear, a shorthand that acknowledges no humanity, articulated in an accent with unusual sharpnesses and stranger slurs. Tseng finds it an annoyance to draw the intellect, the logic, out of the Turk that he knows remains.

As with most annoyances, this is a necessary one; and an essential politeness. Tseng walked down that aisle slowly, with a visible difficulty of which he was profoundly conscious. He would not be walking at all without the presence of this anachronism opposite him. His savior with a demon's tongue.

Tseng smiles often these days, a youthful belief in the sanctity of untouchable reserve well shattered on Kadaj's - on Kadaj — but it is a grim one.

'Your meaning, sir?'

'We didn't need this, when Midgar was young.' Vincent pauses, unblinking, as though startled at his own words. He reconsiders, and repeats with a smile that could near mirror Tseng's own: 'When I was young.'

Vincent waves at the vaulted space, the shattered tile, the spill of sunlight across remnant pews and chipped stone; his hand glitters gold, a facet of that segmented plate that flicks a spear of light straight at Tseng's gaze. Tseng does not squint.

'Midgar shone like the sun,' Vincent says. 'We didn't need this. Shinra was our god, hopes and heaven all in one. We didn't need...this. Old churches, old structures, a relic of the way we used to live. This...is escapism. Desperation. People come and pray to their tiny gods, let my children stand straight, let my job go well, let my grandmother survive...but the gods are there as scapegoats for hatred as well as vessels for hope, that when grandmother dies, when the children are born reactor-bent, when the grunt's fired, t he small god gets blamed. Midgar soured, Director. Midgar did not used to be so sour, that her citizens needed this sort of sugar-pill to survive.'

'You take issue with the fact that people need something to believe in, bigger than themselves?'

Vincent shakes his head, long and slow, the sound of his hair (not-hair, Tseng knows, it's like fur) rasping across the weave of that tattered cloak. 'People will take what ground you give them, Turk. Shinra should have filled their hearts. Shinra should have received all their hopes. As well as their hate. A balance.' Gold glove and pallid flesh are held out to Tseng, a devious offering. 'You see? Shinra could have outlasted their hate if they still believed in him.' The demon's smile curls, and Vincent says in a voice that fills the abandoned church with echoes: 'In Him, and His Promised Land.'

'It wasn't his to promise, sir. I disagree. I think these churches served - and will serve - a valuable purpose in a c ity of this size. People need to feel —'

'—that they can control what fate affects them? That their prayers will be answered?' Vincent lifts his gaze, which he does so rarely, and Tseng will not allow himself to be daunted by that uncertain sanity. 'A facsimile of control, these churches give, all false control. People think their pettiness worthy of punishment. What do they know of repentance?'

Tseng does not swallow before he says, 'Same as you know. Sir.'

One heartbeat, and Tseng sees the honest hurt, the panic in Vincent's eyes veiled again behind whatever defensive shield has allowed Vincent to survive. Thirty years, Tseng reminds himself, thirty years in a coffin, and he reminds himself about making allowances, but he is angry. Vincent thinks he has the right to judge a people never his own?

'All they know is their own smallness,' Vincent says, as though Tseng had never spoken. 'You should never have allowed these structures to happen, Turk. If you had been doing your job correctly.'

'If you had been doing your job correctly,' Tseng says, level, 'Turk, then Sephiroth would never have been born.'

Vincent says, 'Yet neither would Aerith have been.'

Tseng can't resist snarling, nor smiling, and both expressions feel like something Kadaj would have recognized as pain.

'What was she?' he asks. Grates. Begs. A flicker of pink catches the very edge of his peripheral vision, but he knows not to turn now; he remembers and does not want to remember a smile more wickedly mirthful than she had any right to feel. 'What is she? You must know. You knew her mother, you knew the whole story, only you. Only you, and Hojo, and Hojo never told us anything.'

'Tighter than a time-keyed lockbox,' Vincent says, almost agreeably. 'To think, I dared assume I could relax. Such a small project for a Turk to have assigned, such a menial service to provide; to watch him, and to watch her; why, it was nearly a ho liday, so far out of Midgar and in that snowed-in and impassable so-called pass. I thought I could learn to ski, even.'

There. There, the hint of humour, of humanity -

'You know something, tell me. Turk to Director.'

'Turk to Director, I told Veld—'

'You didn't, because if you had, Veld would've told me—'

'I told Veld,' Vincent repeats, hollow and booming and a voice to end all worlds, 'that it was personal.'

A lull, in which Tseng hears the hammer of his own heart, too fast for what this is, just words. Just a game, to a creature like Vincent. Dust scatters through the sunlit air between them.

'Personal,' Tseng says, and smiles again. Not pained, just an easy, easy smile. 'A personal pettiness, Vincent, that's the term you used, and for that personal pettiness, absolutely unworthy of punishment. Which means your unlife now is an accident. This is no unavoidable fate, no penance that will see your soul sink to salvation in the Lifestream; you are an accident. A personal pettiness. And how can you ever apologise for Sephiroth, for what your personal pettiness made of the world?'

'Aerith was an angel,' Vincent says, abruptly. 'Just like her mother.'

Tseng's heartbeat, again, too fast. Deafening him with hope. 'I thought angels had wings.'

'I thought there was a standard of intelligence required to be proven prior to assumption of Directorship.' Vincent holds out his hands again. 'Are we both mistaken, Tseng?'

'Tell me more.'

Vincent grates, 'Earn it, Director.'

'Sephiroth had wings,' Tseng says. 'A wing. Aerith didn't.'

Vincent bares his teeth, nearly laughs. He turns to the side, steps into the flower bed, and draws a line through that loose earth with the point of his boot. The scent of dirt - is intense. Tseng breathes it deep, strives to ground himself. Slum-born, this plot of flower-growing filth was the first, the only earth he ever delved. The rest of Midgar had only rust-dust and reactor ash. Dirt, earth, and the brush of Aerith's hand against his thigh, his fingertips across her wristbones, her waist, her shoulder blades. She was not fragile, not at all. Solid, wide-hipped, terrestrial, earth.

'Angels come from the earth. Only demons come from above. Angels have small need for wings.'

Vincent is full in the sunlight now, cast in monochrome shades by that brilliance; he turns his eyes to the blueness that shows through the absence of church. His eyes are liquid red when they catch the sun. Tseng follows that gaze. It is easier than looking at Vincent, standing right there, bootheels gouging that earth.

'Tell me, now,' Vincent says, absently, 'the plate, it used to shadow here?'

Tseng can find no secret question within the question. 'Yes.'

'Yet Cloud told me of the flowers here, which somehow grew even when bathed only in the plate's shadow.'

'That's no angelic proof. There was sunl ight here for as long as I can remember. We assumed it a trick of deflection, reflection; it happened, on occasion. Catching solar power grew unnecessary once the reactors were in place, in any case, we just assumed—'

Vincent snorts. 'She was an angel, Director. That is all I know. Yet you will not accept.'

'We didn't help her,' Tseng breathes. Aerith's breath in his ear, his lips on her own; I'm sorry, he would've said, had it ever been more real than a dream. She would have smiled at him, thrown his apology back in his face; Aerith always seemed to understand. A tolerance that struck Tseng as so barbed, considering his role in her life. 'We should have helped her, if that's - if what you say is true. But I didn't. It was too late.'

Vincent continues to look at Tseng, critical, expectant. He could wait years, Tseng realizes, and still look the same, patient and implacable.

'It got personal,' Tseng admits. 'Personal. Petty. Personal. I had to watch her for years, Vincent, you can't know—'

—what it was like. The words fall, unspoken.

'Tseng,' Vincent says, flatly, 'I have told you what Aerith was. Now shall I tell you what Aerith is?'

'Aerith is dead,' Tseng says, before Vincent can taint the words.

A nod. Just one, and in a manner so much like Veld's old curtness that Tseng wonders at the years of unspoken association there. Better to wonder about that than to think about -

'Aerith can offer you no forgiveness,' Vincent says. 'Dead is gone, Tseng. Your repentance for sins of omission, all your own. And this, you will believe me - I know what it is like.'

'I didn't do—' Tseng says, 'I should have done more—I should have—I very nearly loved her—'

'Better to have your regrets for solace, Turk, than to have your failure.'

Allowances, Tseng reminds himself, diplomacy, politeness towards the man that saved him from the Jenova-spawn triplets; wariness of that barely leashed earth-eating beast living under Vincent's dead skin; but all of that fades to background grey, dusty unimportance against a far more brilliant truth. Tseng breathes dirt, breathes earth, and remembers that Vincent's coffin was never buried, that the man never knew the embrace of a sacred soil; he remembers that Vincent's chains are not his own to wear.

'Vincent,' Tseng says, 'go away.'

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