Playing dress-up for the press got very old, very fast, for the both of them.
She’d hauled a small cart full of clothes into the dressing room, all pre-approved by Sephiroth, or at least not meriting a grimace. In the beginning, she came out with the item on to get Sephiroth’s opinion (he may not have been the most savvy in women’s fashions but even he knew more than she did), as well as to entertain the press, who had lost none of their vigor even after this long. But after feedback on three shirts and two pairs of pants, she had more of a feel for how things were supposed to fit and so she stopped the fashion parade, evaluating each item in the privacy of her own changing stall. The press was sorely disappointed but could do nothing with Sephiroth standing vigil.
He was remarkably patient, seemingly very content just to sit and be.
When she came out she had enough clothes to constitute a small wardrobe, at least enough to go a week without doing laundry. Sephiroth deterred the paparazzi, who were practically salivating to get a peek at Hana’s final selections, by heaping the clothes unceremoniously at the bottom of the cart, out of sight. “Shoes?” he asked.
“No more,” Hana moaned as quietly as she could. “I can’t do it.” She let her head fall against his chest, hoping the press caught the blatant cue that she was exhausted.
“One pair of shoes and we’ll get out of here. You can’t wear those geta sandals in the winter.” The crowd was starting to grate on him as well. He gripped her shoulders, righting her posture, and pushed the cart along.
“Take your shoes off and size your feet there,” Sephiroth pointed to a measured diagram on the ground. “Pick a pair of boots. They’re versatile enough to last until we get you more options. I’ll get socks.”
Hana slipped her feet out of her shoes and began. She had her size in five seconds, and then grabbed the first pair of boots she saw, barely looking at them. She stuffed her feet in, scuffed around a bit, and determined that they were a good fit. Content, she sat down and showed her find to Sephiroth, who had returned with several pairs of plain white socks. Without a word, he put the boots back and selected the same style in medium brown instead of black. She did not protest in the interest of getting out of there as fast as possible. He gave a small smirk, as if reading her motives. Like you don’t want out too, she thought, and would have stuck her tongue out at him if it hadn’t been for the press.
“We did well,” Sephiroth said. “Are you hungry?”
Hana looked behind her. She couldn’t decide if her hunger was strong enough to brave eating in front of the paparazzi or if she could wait until they reached the privacy of ShinRa headquarters. “Uh…” she said, torn by the dilemma.
They purchased the clothes without incident. Hana had to wonder how the press was coping, kept as they were at such a distance from them. She wondered if any of them had a good enough zoom feature on their camera to get a glimpse of the clothes she bought as they were briefly revealed to be scanned before disappearing into bags. When it was done, Sephiroth, in a theatrically gentlemanly gesture, grabbed all three large bags of clothes in one hand and led her out of the store with the other arm loosely draped around her waist.
And then, blessedly, they exited the store. An enormous, empathetically shared relief washed across whatever bond existed between them in reality. We did it. Hana shared a small, genuine smile and Sephiroth gave nod of acknowledgement. It’s over.
He led her to a small, brightly colored stand set up in a corner of the mall not far from the exit. “Two, please,” he said, sliding several gil across the counter. “And a small cone.”
And so, with minimal time lost, the pair received hot dogs that they ate out of napkins on the go. Sephiroth gave her the ice cream cone, and she beamed up at him, laying the enthusiasm on thick. Starry-eyed lover, final act, she reminded herself. Even so, even if it had only been a stunt to show the press how spoiled she was (…was she…?), it had been a nice gesture and she appreciated it. She told him so, quietly, as they finally exited the mall. He hummed softly in response.
The doors to freedom swung open and Hana greeted it with a sigh of pleasure. The day was beautiful. The skies were clear, the beaming sun taking the bite out of the crisp air. A fountain ran in the middle of a plaza, its quiet murmuring swallowed up in the sound of…
…Hundreds of screaming people, clamoring to get into the mall, held back by police tape, fences, and no less than ten armed ShinRa infantrymen.
“Oh,” Hana said. “That’s why we weren’t swarmed.”
Sephiroth grunted, staring in stunned dismay at the throng. The resolute, silent sentiment was as shared as it was unspoken: I’m never doing this again.
“I’ll call the cab,” Sephiroth said, setting the bags on the ground to remove his phone from his coat. “If the infantrymen are here, chances are that it’s close by too.”
Hana seated herself on a stone bench, looking out at the crowd. A sudden flash of light made her cry out and throw her hands over her eyes. A camera? No…too bright…
Squinting cautiously, even though the light had disappeared, she scanned the crowd, and gasped.
“Sephiroth,” she said. “I can’t get in the cab. He’s here.”
Sephiroth took the phone away from his ear, examining the people intensely. “Don’t let him know you’ve seen him!” she hissed. Sephiroth looked at her out of the corners of his eyes in exasperation, but nonetheless continued his search with a softened gaze, nonchalantly and naturally eyeing the crowd.
“Ah…over there,” he said, not concentrating too long on where his target was, but not letting the man out of his field of vision either. “I can see the resemblance.”
“What do I do?” she turned her gaze up to him.
Sephiroth pocketed the phone. “Do what you must,” was all he offered.
Sephiroth hummed as a cab bearing the ShinRa logo slowly broke through the gathered crowd. “I suggest we both take the cab,” he said.
“Can he follow?”
“Easier to follow a cab than break into the ShinRa building,” Sephiroth said. “It’s his move, now. If he’s smart, he’ll seize the opportunity.”
Hana looked out into the crowd and met those dark, familiar eyes for only a moment. It hurt. She felt something very akin to physical pain lance through her chest. Fighting back waves of emotion, she rose to her feet and timidly wrapped her arms around Sephiroth’s forearm, holding it close, and keeping her eyes on the ground. “Let’s do it, then.”
“Do what you must,” Sephiroth repeated. “In the end, you must decide for yourself.”
He led her to the cab and opened her door for her. She did not meet his eyes as he entered the car. Hana couldn’t feel Sephiroth’s eyes on her either.
“Back to the ShinRa building?” the cab driver asked.
“No,” Hana said. “Please take me to the izakaya. The Wutaian Pub…Ma’s place.”
“And I will return to headquarters,” Sephiroth said.
And then they were off.
Through the window, Hana could see a lone man weave deftly through the crowd, and could see the ripples of movement his flight made through the densely packed people. Before the crowd was out of sight, she saw him again, at the forefront of the throng. He had broken through.
She was too far away to see his eyes, but he had a small pocket mirror and was directing the sunlight at her. Light flashed across her vision again, and she got his message loud and clear.
I’ve found you.
He was on her trail.
No one was on the street outside Ma’s izakaya. It was far too early in the afternoon for most people to frequent the pub. She didn’t even know if Ma would have opened the place yet. She didn’t try to enter, but crouched down under the large red lantern, back against the wall, hugging her knees.
When Sephiroth left in the cab, with only one last glance, it felt like abandonment, but it would have been worse if he had said something, she decided.
Her heart was throbbing hard in her throat, breathing shaky and hands trembling. She had known this would be coming, but she didn’t know how to prepare for it, and so she hadn’t even tried.
She still didn’t know what she would do.
And so she waited. It was, once again, all she had the power to do.
And then he came.
His face was much as she remembered it, untouched by time’s passing. He still had that youthful, boyish face, seemingly too young to be grown into manhood. His skin was tanned from long hours beneath the sun, eyes dark and fierce but lacking the depth and wisdom of years. The dark, violent scar along his jawline not faded one whit more than it ever had been since childhood.
But this time, he was dressed for the rugged life he led. His pants were denim - torn, patched, re-sewn, and stained – and on his feet were scuffed hiking boots. The only sign that he had any ties to Wutai at all was a peek of a blue, high-collared changshan shirt under a brown leather jacket and the belts strapping his scabbard and quiver to his back.
“Niisan,” Hana said, rising to her feet.
This time, he looked like the wild man that, deep down, she had always known him to be. It still frightened her. It was the same voice and face and eyes, but playing the role of a rugged wanderer that she did not recognize.
“Sister,” he said, approaching slowly, as if he knew that the change in him would alarm her. But when they were side by side, he did not hesitate to close the gap between them and grabbed her in a tight embrace. “I’ve found you at last!”
Hana let it happen. “Brother,” she said, and embraced him back. She wanted to believe things could be the same; that their bond hadn’t changed. For now, she ignored the years and the change wrought in both of them and imagined herself as a little girl basking in the adoration of her faithful big brother.
“You’re safe?” he asked. Hana smiled, remembering how he would dote over her every time she came home with the smallest scrape or…she pushed the memories away.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m safe.”
“When he took you I was so scared he—“
“No, no. I’m okay.”
“I came as soon as I could—“
“I knew you would,” and tears sprang to her eyes. Her brother, her protector, here at last. She rested her head in his shoulder and let herself be that child again.
“Come on, it’s all over now,” he said, resting a hand on her head and pressing her into him comfortingly. “It’s time to go home.”