Testing results had been distributed at lunch. The topic consumed all conversation. There were triumphant whoops and hollers at promotions, and some poor fellows who stared at their harsh reprimands or even demotions in mute, unfeeling shock.
Zack had ripped open his own envelope with his heart throbbing in his throat and unfolded his score sheet to find only, confusingly, mortifyingly…
A completely blank score sheet.
Except for four words, written in effortlessly elegant script, in a pen that was (only by some unfortunate coincidence, Kunsel assured him) disturbingly red.
See me immediately. –Sephiroth
And now he paced the hallway, unable to muster the courage to knock on the General’s door. He wasn’t sure how he had made it this far, but that alone had exhausted his reserves. Get it over with, he hissed between clenched teeth. You’ll only make it worse if you make him wait.
And so, still sitting, before anything could convince him otherwise, he flung his fist at the door in one graceless knock.
“Come in,” came the silky smooth voice from inside.
Zack couldn’t keep his lips from silently screaming profanities. He’d done it now.
“Come in, Zack,” the General said again, a note of impatience in his voice that made him want to cower instead of enter. So he knew it was him. He couldn’t get away now if he wanted to.
He did his best to convince any god that was listening that he had been an incredibly religious and faithful man all his life. He hoped the million prayers in his head sounded the part, anyway, at least enough to be distinguishable from under the sheer desperation.
Eyes clenched shut as if steeling himself against a blow, Zack turned the knob and somehow got his body inside.
“You asked to see me, sir?” he said immediately. He realized that he was standing at ramrod attention. He didn’t remember snapping into it, but it seemed the most natural position to be in, given the circumstances, which, given how much he hated the stiff pose, said a great deal about the circumstances.
Sephiroth barely raised his gaze from a paper he was writing. “At ease, SOLDIER. Take a seat, I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Zack was anything but at ease as he sat stiffly on the edge of the seat.
“And stop fidgeting.”
Zack hadn’t realized that his fingers and feet had been tapping furiously. The order turned all his muscles to stone.
True to his word, Sephiroth soon finished with a flourish of a signature and his official stamp. He set the document aside and turned his gaze to his captive.
Sephiroth opened his mouth to speak but Zack was faster, his words gushing out nearly incoherently, hands gesturing animatedly in ways that made little sense with what he was actually saying.
“Apparently there was some kind of misunderstanding I really wasn’t trying to take your wife I mean I was happy to see her and I guess the hug was a little touchy-feely and I was so happy oh but not like the romantic happy more like the little sister you thought was dead and you find out she’s alive butI just wasn’t even thinking and it was out of place and I’m sorry and I never meant to do anything inappropriate I’d never touch your wife I mean I’d never touch any woman unless well she wasn’t married and liked it and lots of other stuff you know honor and dreams and pride and discipline and…” he paused only long enough to suck in a breath, “honorable honor and stuff but I know she’s married to you and I never ever meant—“
Sephiroth held up a hand to stem the tide. Zack shut up immediately, panting in the silence that followed.
Maybe Zack was imagining things, but he thought he saw the smallest smile on his commander’s lips.
“My guess is that Angeal gave you quite the talking to.”
Zack nodded, pale and mute.
“He was the one to misunderstand. I never suspected your intentions and there is no punishment forthcoming. You may resume your breathing now.”
Zack coughed and sputtered, not realizing how he’d held his breath. That low hum, was Sephiroth laughing at him?
“Erm…yes. Thank you, sir. And um…it won’t happen again.”
“I trust not. Now, with that aside, I brought you here to discuss the results of your evaluations.”
Zack straightened as a chill ran up and back down his spine. “I didn’t receive any…results, sir.”
“I wished to discuss them with you in person, as your case is somewhat unique from that of your brothers-in-arms’.” He pulled a paper that looked like Zack’s real score sheet before him, but spoke without consulting it once. “In short, your performance in the exams left much to be desired. Your rally was decisive but rash. You showed leadership skills in gathering the men but once you had them you displayed remarkable lack of judgment. Had your blind charge not have met the foe head-on as it did through some stroke of luck, your entire team would have been left in terrible positions. You rely too much on brute strength in combat, and not enough on your brain. This time, it was enough. But it will not always be. You are overconfident in your own skill, and more than once it cost you. The blows you took still did not seem to drive the lesson home.”
Zack took the criticisms silently. Everything the man said was painfully true. Angeal had repeatedly told him as much, but it stung much more coming from Sephiroth.
“However,” Sephiroth said, resting his chin on folded hands and regarding him with bright mako eyes. “Despite it all, Angeal has recommended you for First Class.”
Zack blinked. He blinked again. Had he heard that right? “Wait…say that again.”
“Angeal,” Sephiroth repeated slowly, “has recommended you for First Class.”
Zack sat utterly stupefied. When at last he did open his mouth, he had still been too shocked to keep the only words in his mind from spilling out of his mouth. “For real?”
“Yes, for real,” Sephiroth repeated with emphasis and no small amount of amusement.
“…Oh.” Hardly an enlightened thing to say but so many circuits in his brain were firing that it was a miracle that even that much made it out. “Oh. Um…cool.” Cool? The lights of heaven were shining and he was pretty sure angels were singing too. If shock hadn’t rendered him immobile, he might have sang and danced along.
“Do not think you have made it,” Sephiroth said, and the buzzing euphoria shut off just like that. “Genesis and I still remain highly unconvinced, and we are the ones who have the final say.” He didn’t have to use the word highly, Zackthoughtbitterly, dizzy from being slammed down after such a high. “But I also saw enough in the simulation to believe that Angeal’s claim merits at least an investigation.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means your performance is under scrutiny. You will be tested to see if you really deserve this promotion.”
“I won’t let you down!” Zack said, clenching his fists in resolve. “I’ll show you all that I have what I takes! You guys haven’t seen anything yet!”
“I certainly hope we haven’t,” Sephiroth said. “At least for your sake. Now, if you are ready to go, I will brief you on your assignment immediately.”
“I’m ready for it!” Zack said, the excitement of the situation getting to him. This was his dream! It was right within his grasp! “Let’s go!”
“Very well. Follow me.” He picked up a keyring on his desk, locked a file cabinet, and then briskly left the office.
Zack followed his commander to the elevator. Sephiroth swiped his ID badge and entered a code on a keypad and they began to ascend.
“The mission is highly unique,” Sephiroth said. “Though there may be opportunities for combat and you must prepare accordingly, you must focus more effort on strategy and conflict prevention. If a conflict arises that could have reasonably been prevented, I will penalize you. Severely.”
“There’s more to me than brawn, you know,” Zack insisted, somewhat wounded. “Sounds like a piece of cake.”
“Your overconfidence is alarming. This mission allows no room for error.”
The elevator doors opened and before Zack stretched hallways lined with apartment doors. “Um, sir?” he asked, following him, but uncertainly. “These are the bigwigs’ houses. Are we in the right place?”
“We are,” Sephiroth assured him, slipping a key into a locked door and twisting. “My private residence,” he said, swinging the door open and crossing his arms over his chest, seemingly in a challenge to enter. “Your charge awaits inside.”
Hana peeked her head out the door. “Stop scaring him, Sephiroth,” she scolded lightly, before turning to Zack with a smile. “Come on in! I’ve got tea ready. All this bodyguard stuff can wait until after some pleasantries.”
And that was how Zack Fair came to be seated on Sephiroth’s couch, in his General’s private home, sitting across from the legend himself, receiving masterfully served tea in a ceremony fit for an emperor.
“The Kachnar blossoms,” he said. “I can taste them.” He wished his nerves would settle so he could better appreciate both the flavor of the tea and how artfully Hana had served them. It was hard to say anything more under Sephiroth’s gaze.
“A taste of home for both of us,” she said with a smile, taking his cup and whisking it away to the kitchen. When all traces of the tea were gone, she turned to her husband. “Now do you two need to talk alone, or should I stay?”
“Stay,” Sephiroth said. “This was your idea.”
Zack gawked. “It was?”
“It was,” Hana affirmed, sitting next to her husband, but with a marked space between them. “I guess I’ll let him tell you the whole story.”
“I have been called away on assignment to Wutai with Genesis and Angeal,” Sephiroth said. “And so soon after two back-to-back attempts to kidnap Hana.”
Zack nodded grimly. So much had happened in only the past few days that they scarcely seemed to be days at all. It may as well have been a year since Hana had arrived at ShinRa.
“We have reason to believe that one of the threats has been neutralized,” Sephiroth continued. “However, the larger remains. A man stands at the head of the army that seeks her. You have experience with this man.”
Zack looked blank for a moment, but his eyes ignited when he understood. “Your father,” he spat hatefully.
Hana nodded. “My father.”
“He has an army?” Zack asked. “Who is this guy…?”
“That is not important,” Sephiroth said, too strongly. “But before we go on, Hana and I need to know the extent of your knowledge about him.”
Zack shook his head. “I try not to think about it too much. I was just a kid.” But Sephiroth and Hana waited in silence for an answer and so he sighed and continued.
“He was in the house when I came back,” he said. “Ma and Pa were offering him food to stall for time. I came in full of righteous fury. Somewhere on my journey home I put two and two together to realize that you were running away from him for a reason. I’d grabbed the heavy hoe from the garden and charged in and I…”
Zack trailed off and murmured the rest of his sentence. “What?” Hana asked, gently probing.
“Look, I was a kid. A really dumb, stupid kid.” Color had spread from his cheeks all the way to the tips of his ears.
“Which means…?” Sephiroth asked, one eyebrow raised.
“I…” Zack hung his head. “I challenged him to a duel. With…the hoe.”
“Good heavens, Zack,” Hana sighed, covering her face with her hands. “It’s a wonder he didn’t murder you on the spot!”
“I think I amused him too much for that. He sure got a good laugh out of it. He even let me swing a couple times and yell exactly what I thought right in his face.”
“Zack…” Hana moaned despairingly. “I told you he was extremely dangerous!”
“And you also told me I was your hero,” Zack said. He rubbed the back of his neck slowly, speaking quietly. “It was my dream, you know? It got to my head big time. I was so sure I could save you. I didn’t have a single doubt in all of my tiny brain. That night, I really was a hero. Your hero.”
Hana’s eyes were too glassy, and Zack didn’t know what to say to stop it. Thankfully, Sephiroth intervened. “So you are acquainted with the man?”
“Yeah, I guess you could say that. But it’s been so long.”
“He hasn’t changed,” Hana said bitterly.
“Well at least I have an idea of what I’m up against,” Zack said. “Is that why you picked me for the job?”
“It’s one reason,” Sephiroth said. “The other is to prevent the spread of…certain information.”
“Do you remember what my father looked like, Zack?” Hana asked.
“I don’t think I could possibly forget. The nasty sneer, the weird outfit, that blasted cane, and pale as death—“ Zack stopped abruptly. “Pale,” he repeated, blinking, studying Hana’s own features as he put the pieces together. “He’s from the Continent! You’re only half!”
Hana looked to Sephiroth to answer for her. “That is the information that cannot be leaked.”
“Why?” Zack asked. “I mean, sure it’s a little surprising, but what difference does it really make--?”
“I will treat a leak of such classified information as treason, Zack, and I will see that you are expelled from SOLDIER and left for the Turks to do with as they see fit. Even Angeal cannot know.” At this, Hana noticeably frowned. “Am I clear?”
Zack gulped. “Completely clear, sir.”
“Thankfully,” Sephiroth continued on a milder note, “Hana looks much more like her mother, enough to pass as full-blood.”
But as Zack looked closer, knowing what he did, he could see marks of her Continental lineage in her face. She was just slightly paler, with eyes just wider and rounder. Her hair was thinner, and there was less of it, and her face was definitely shorter and slightly heart-shaped. Though her bangs had been trimmed and trained to mask it, he caught a glimpse of her hairline that was definitely peaked. Any one or two of these things might have been dismissed, but all together, her face could only be the result of mixed blood.
Hana let him study her with a blank face, then smiled forgivingly when he looked abruptly away, realizing he’d been staring much too hard for much too long.
“Okay,” Zack said. “So just guard Hana. Don’t let anyone find out she’s half. Is that it?”
“You will stay in this apartment, and if she wants to go out, you go with her.”
“Stay here?” The idea of staying in his General’s house, with his wife, while he was away, made him uncomfortable on several different levels. “Even overnight?”
“Especially overnight, as that is when she is most vulnerable.”
“Okay, it’s just a little weird, that’s all.”
“You are her guard,” Sephiroth said. “Here on professional business. And I expect your conduct to match your objective – most especially in terms of focus.”
“Yes, sir, but wouldn’t it be more…you know, appropriate to get someone else?”
“The risks outweigh the gains. We don’t know what her father is capable of, and what eyes are not ShinRa’s. Hana trusts you, and that’s what we’re going on for now. In addition, manpower is in short supply because of the war, and no other departments can spare someone for this assignment.”
“Oh. Right.” He didn’t miss how Sephiroth had said nothing about his own confidence in him. His ego had also been bruised knowing that he had been scraped from the bottom of Sephiroth’s barrel, so to speak. “Got it, then.”
Sephiroth nodded. “I’ll show you the apartment when you report here for duty at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. I’ll make all the arrangements with security.”
With that, Sephiroth dismissed himself to his office, closing the door behind him.
“All about business,” Hana said, watching him go. “I hope you know that. He’s not trying to be rude.”
“No, it’s okay. I think I knew.”
“Takes some getting used to, regardless,” Hana said with a smile. “I would know.”
“You seem lots better,” Zack said. “Since…last time we met. Even though you’ve been kidnapped once between then and now.”
“It’s a good day,” she said. “My decorating materials will be delivered later, and I got the guard I specifically requested. Things are finally going my way.” Hana shook her head and rose from the couch. “Rest well tonight. Sephiroth’s going to drill you hard tomorrow morning, so be prepared.”
“All right.” He lowered his voice, looking to make sure Sephiroth’s study door was shut before speaking. “…How likely is it that your father will come while he’s gone?”
Hana clenched her eyes closed. “Extremely likely.”
Zack frowned. “I’m going to keep you safe, I swear, Hana. This time I’ll really tell him what I think, and make him listen too.” He stood up from the couch. “Hey,” he asked as an afterthought, rechecking the office door. “Do you mind if I ask you one last thing? It’s kind of bugging me.”
“Do you stand out in Wutai?”
“Of course I do. Sephiroth is just fooling himself. Anyone who is looking for it can clearly see. Makeup helps, but being unnoticeable was the only real way.” Hana shook her head. “Here on the Continent it’s safer. One look at my skin color and almond eyes is all it takes to convince anyone.”
“So if you don’t fit in in either country, do you really have a home at all?”
Zack wanted to take it back, because he knew that stung her. But, gracefully, she smiled it away. “Home is simply wherever my father isn’t.”