Dawn came slowly. As the sunlight spilled over her body, light and warmth gradually eased her from her slumber.
When she opened her eyes, she saw wood – long, aged planks running parallel to her body. Besides the small window on her right, there was no light. The wood stretched into darkness all around her.
She opened her mouth to speak, but had nothing to say. Below her there were noises – the murmur of people and the clank of dishes – but these were muted so they almost seemed to be lingering remnants of the dream she had already forgotten.
There was nothing in her mind. No emotions, no thoughts. She felt as blank and empty as if she had just now begun to exist.
She was hardly in a room, more of a large, open closet. There were no adornments on the wooden walls besides a drape of red cloth hung over the window, pulled to the side and tied with plain twine. When she sat, there was only about a foot of space above her head, and the floor was only several inches longer than her outstretched body and just wider than her arm span.
It felt cozy. Familiar. She didn’t care to wonder exactly where she was.
She pulled herself from under the heavy blanket, drawing herself to her knees as she began to neatly fold it. Under her was a futon, and beneath that, tatami mats.
She reached out her fingers and stroked the mat, the feel warm and familiar to her. She smiled. She ran her fingers along the grain of the weave, savoring the smoothness, and then perpendicular to it, feeling the predictable texture.
She had missed these little things so much in the very few days that she had been away.
After she had placed her blanket in the corner, she swung her legs over the edge and stepped down. In the two feet of space between where she had lain and the floor were two large drawers. Once they had been painted, but it was so faded and chipped she could not tell what had been there.
A pair of slippers waited beside her feet. With a smile she slid her feet inside. This, she knew.
She pulled a drawstring in front of her, and three bare, hanging bulbs lit the area.
It was a tiny home. An open door led to a small washroom, lit only by a single bulb, with only enough room to stand in place and turn between the sink, toilet, and a deep bath. There were some shelves, a chest of drawers, a calligraphy scroll hung on the wall, and in the middle of the room, before a set of stairs led down below…
A kotatsu. And from one end of the blanket extended two black army boots, and from the other end, a shock of black, spiked hair.
She clutched her heart as her breath was ripped from her lungs, the violence of the onslaught folding her in two. She could hear the roar of her racing heart in her ears, pulsing pain through her with each beat. She could not breathe. She was drowning. Her rapid, choking gasps brought no relief. Her legs began to shake, and she tumbled to the floor, suddenly too weak to support herself. There she lay, wracked with tremors, helpless, unable to even cry for help.
“Hana!” Hands were around her at once, pulling her up into a sitting position. “Hana, Hana breathe!”
“Nnng--!” She was breathing as fast as her heart was throbbing. It wasn’t enough. She couldn’t keep it in. It left before it could relive her.
I’m drowning. I’m going to die…
“Ma!” Somewhere beyond the pain she recognized the voice as Zack’s. “Ma!”
“Get away from her!” a woman cried, and footsteps thundered up the stairs. “Get out!”
Zack was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
New arms slid behind her neck and under her knees, and she was lifted up. Quickly, she was placed back on the futon, and tucked tightly under the heavy blanket.
The world before her eyes was reeling, spinning, heaving to and fro. But the words awakened something within her, and something in her body began to still. The woman was patting her forehead, a beat slow and steady, peacefully calling her away from the uncontrollable rhythm of her heart.
From the depths of her heart a new, white calm blossomed, a wash of warmth and serenity that gradually worked its way outwards. Her body was slower to respond, but the woman continued to chant until her breathing was shaky but regularly paced, and, in sheer exhaustion, her body fell still.
At some point, when she was only still barely quivering, she became aware of Zack taking her hand and squeezing encouragingly. When she heaved out the last of her tension in an exhale, and fell entirely limp, he brushed her hair off her face. “Is it over?” he asked.
“Yes,” the woman said. “No thanks to you. I told you to stay downstairs.”
She could picture the wounded pout on Zack’s face. “She’ll be all right?”
“She needs to rest.”
“Yeah,” Zack agreed. “Hey, Hana,” he said softly. “Everyone knows you’re safe. There’s nothing you have to worry about anymore, so just sleep, all right? We’re going to take care of you.”
She did as she was told, too exhausted to even dream.
When she awoke the second time it was dark outside. Someone had untied the drape to cover the window. The only light came from the meager bulbs.
Zack and the woman he had called Ma were sitting at the kotatsu, speaking in whispers and sipping tea.
When she sat up, both pairs of eyes turned to her. “You’re up,” Zack said. He smiled, but he seemed tired, and lacked his usual enthusiasm. “Well, good morning.”
Hana shook her head to banish the rest of the sleep and then stepped down again, taking the slippers before standing.
“You’ve slept through the day,” Zack said. “But that’s it. Just one day.”
“Hn.” Slowly, she made her way over to the kotatsu and sat, eyes down and head slightly bowed.
“This is Ma,” Zack said, gesturing to the woman at his left. “She found you. Do you remember?”
“Nothing,” Hana breathed. “Nothing at all. The last thing I remember was…dropping Loveless.”
The woman placed her warm and weathered hands over Hana’s. “Don’t try, young one. Perhaps you are not ready for it yet.”
Ma was an older woman, with age carved in lines over her face and streaked in gray through her hair. Still, her dark eyes shone with life, and her smile was warm and genuine. She was dressed in only a simple shirt and long skirt, a once-white apron covering her entire front. Hana’s heart leaped as she looked into that face, with the eyes shaped just as hers and skin only just darker than her own.
“My name is Matsuko, but these days I’m just called Ma.”
“You’re really Wutaian,” Hana said. “I dared to hope when I saw the tatami, but….”
Ma laughed. “I’ve been here in Midgar so long, child, I scarcely know what I am anymore. But yes. Long ago I came from Wutai, and I dare say that my heart belongs there still.”
“Are there,” Hana paused, “any more…Wutaians in the city?”
Ma shook her head. “My husband and I are the only ones left. Because of the war, Midgar is not the friendliest place for us to be. But we get by, running this izakaya. They may be at war with us, but Midgarians never tire of Wutai food. Your SOLDIER friend here has proved to be quite the example of that.”
Zack grinned sheepishly.
“An izakaya?” Hana asked dreamily. “…You have…real Wutaian food?”
As if on cue, slow footsteps ascended the stairs. Before she even saw the man, she could see steam rising and smell the rich, fishy aroma. He was an ordinary man, seemingly older than his wife, but he had kind eyes and a gentle smile. Without a word, he set the large bowl and a pair of chopsticks in front of her, and slowly made his way back downstairs.
“My husband is a man of few words,” Ma said. “But he’s the best cook outside the royal courts.”
“Oden,” Hana sighed. “Oh…it feels like it’s been ages….”
Zack raised an eyebrow at the soup. It looked to be just broth with large chunks of everything in it, though he could only identify the carrots and cabbage. Hana broke apart the chopsticks and said, “Itadakimasu!” before she began to eat.
“This is real Wutaian food, young man,” Ma said as Hana picked up a large chunk of daikon. “Not the fake stuff everyone else in Midgar likes so much.”
“Huh,” Zack said. “Smells…interesting. That’s not what you serve downstairs.”
“We are ruled by the demands of the populace,” Ma said with regret. “We save the best for ourselves, as we’re the only ones who appreciate it.”
Zack wrinkled his nose but said nothing. Hana was eating so gratefully that he did not want to protest.
When the bowl was empty, Hana set her chopsticks down. “Gochisousama deshita,” she said. “Thank you so much, Matsuko-san.”
“None of that,” Ma said. “Call me ‘Ma’. And I think my husband would like it very much if you called him ‘Pa’.”
Zack cleared his throat and rose to his feet, pretending to check his phone. Hana’s eyes had gotten teary, and something very tender passed between the two women. He felt out of place in that, but was happy for her just the same. She’d just been adopted by people from her motherland, and he couldn’t imagine any better timing than after last night’s catastrophe.
Hana saw him checking his phone and dabbed at her eyes as she spoke. “Is…everything all right?”
“They’re worried, but I told them everything is fine. Angeal’s sending me lots of messages anyway.”
“I should get back,” Hana said sadly, staring into her empty bowl.
“There’s no rush, really,” Zack said. “But if you’re ready, I’ll take you.”
“Let’s go, then.”
“You go get ready, young man,” Ma said. “I want a few words alone with Miss Hana. In the meantime, you go tell Pa to make you something special for the road.”
Zack grinned. “Thanks, granny. For everything.”
When Zack had disappeared, Ma folded Hana in her arms, squeezing tightly as Hana rested her head on her shoulder.
“The early days of marriage are hard, Hime-chan,” Ma said. “Especially when you’re so far from home.”
“Even I’m not so far removed that I haven’t heard tell of the General’s war bride,” Ma said.
Hana felt heavy, like she was sinking into the floor. “I don’t want to go back to him, Ma,” she whispered. “Not now.”
“Hime-chan,” Ma said, patting her back. “I remember how that was. But…for more reasons than the sake of your marriage alone, you must return, yes?”
“You don’t have to do it alone, Hime-chan. No woman should have to. Our doors are always open to you, any time. Sometimes, even the best of men cannot understand the way a woman does, yes?”
Ma unfolded Hana’s fingers and slid a key into her palm. “If you ever need refuge, from anything, come here, Hime-chan.”
Hana returned her embrace, then took a deep breath and pulled away. “Ganbatte ne,” Ma said. “You can do it.”
Hana clutched the key. She didn’t know if she could do it, but she would have to regardless.
“Hey,” Zack said. “One question about last night, and then I won’t say another word, okay?”
Hana cringed, bracing herself, but said, “All right.”
“They need to know how many attackers there were. The Turks, that is.”
“And if I got them all?” she whispered.
Zack sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s the only thing I’ll ask, and I’m only doing it because there might be more out there that need to be taken care of.”
“There were only three, I’m fairly certain.”
Zack quickly texted her answer, and then slipped his phone back in his pocket. True to his word, he didn’t say anything more about it.
They walked the empty streets of Midgar, enjoying the quiet. With Zack at her side, sword drawn to dissuade any ruffians, she felt at ease, and it was nice to see the city without the usual noise and traffic of the day. Loveless Avenue was really beautiful, and she was excited to see the large fountain in the distance.
“You have a new apartment,” Zack said. “A fresh start. Angeal says it’s a lot bigger, with a real kitchen and everything.”
“Hmm. That will be nice.”
“Sephiroth doesn’t even have enough furniture to fill it. You’ll definitely have to do some shopping. You can pretty much design the whole place any way you want.”
Zack gave her a soft nudge with his elbow. “You all right?”
“Just…thinking, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” Zack said softly. “Thinking, I mean.” He reached his free hand behind his head and rubbed his hair nervously.
“Hana, listen. The first kill is unreal. For everyone. It’s something so strange and dramatic that we all remember it as long as we live. It’s heavy, and it hurts for a while. For some it goes away faster than others, or farther back in their minds, but we never really forget. It takes an awful lot to kill another human, and that’s a good thing, but I think that’s also why it hurts so much the first time.
“You just gotta know that you did what you had to do. Everyone has to find a reason for it one way or another – it’s part of being a soldier. Whether you did it for a special cause or out of protection or whatever else, you find the purpose in it, and then you can move on. So…just let whatever you’re feeling out, and we’ll help as best we can, all right?” He put one arm around her and gently squeezed. “You’re alive. It’ll be all right.”
“Thanks Zack,” Hana said. “But I’m not sure I understand it all yet.”
“You’re doing a lot better than I expected, to be honest. I was really worried you had it bad when you had that panic attack but…you’re on your feet and walking, and that’s a good sign. Ma sure knew how to help. I’m really glad she was there.”
“Me too,” Hana said.
“Don’t force it. It’s not good for you.”
“And keep busy! Sitting around is the worst thing you can do.”
The Shinra building was now in view. Hana sighed heavily. “This is it, then.”
“Want me to come with you?”
“No, thank you.”
“Are you scared of Sephiroth?”
Hana’s eyebrows drew together. “Scared…isn’t the right word.”
“He’s been worried too, you know,” Zack said. “Or, I think the word Angeal used was ‘upset’.”
Hana smiled softly and shook her head.
“They said the receptionist has your new card key to access your apartment,” Zack said. “You…want me to come with?”
“No, I’ll be fine. He’s my husband, after all.”
“Then take care. I guess I’ll see you around.”
Zack turned away from the building. He wanted to wander the city a bit to clear his mind.
He stopped just in time as a thought hit him.
“Oh, hey,” Zack called to Hana, coming closer to her so she could hear him without him having to shout. “Just out of curiosity, Ma kept calling you ‘Hime-chan’. Does that mean anything?”
Hana pulled open the doors, not looking back to face him. “Just a sweet little nothing.” she said. “Pay it no mind,” and she pulled the door closed behind her.