It was very hard to not let his guard down; this was the easiest mission Zack had ever been assigned. As an extra perk, it came with some of the best food he’d ever eaten.
He had arrived well before first light, and Sephiroth had shown him the apartment, speaking about it more like a battleground than a home. He saw every way in and out there was, including the vents (though how an invasion could be launched through that tiny thing he hadn’t the faintest clue). He had even been shown into the General’s bedroom, though it had taken a harsh stare and a quip that it was only because there was a window to be wary of in there to get him in.
Hana had perched herself on the couch while that happened, seeming dazed and confused for some reason. However, at dawn, she had traded places with him on the couch and the two had gone to the rooftop together.
On day one, only about an hour into the “mission”, he realized with a start just what was making Hana so pensive. She’d been laying on the couch, facing the ceiling, looking intently at her raised left hand when he had caught the glint in the light.
“Holy…!” Zack had shouted. “Is that…?”
Embarrassed to be caught, she lowered her hand and righted herself on the couch. “Yeah,” she said. “He…gave it to me last night.”
She wouldn’t say more about it and made a point to keep her hands folded with the right one covering her left, but he saw her look at it whenever she thought his attention was elsewhere.
Hana spent the day decorating. Zack had moved all the furniture away from the walls, and she had begun to paint the walls a deep, rich crimson. Eventually, he had grabbed a roller himself and joined her. It was soothing work, and Zack had really enjoyed himself.
Finally, at dinner, Hana talked. “He caught me off guard,” she said without prologue after softly slurping her yakisoba. Zack quite liked the sound she made – it made her seem more human. In addition, her slurping sort of gave him permission to do the same, and he was more than happy about that.
“With the ring?”
“Yeah,” she blushed furiously. “I didn’t think he’d actually….”
“So, are you going to let me see it?”
She slid her left hand across the table into his sight.
His first impression had been right – it was huge, and it was hugely jeweled. “Wow,” he said, staring into the depths of the gems. Each, from the largest to the smallest, was intricately cut with so many facets amplifying the light, flashing rainbow flecks with the smallest movement of her hand. Zack didn’t know much about gems, but the diamonds were clear, bright, and brilliant, ensconced in flawless silver nearly as bright as the jewels.
Zack whistled low. “How much did he spend on that thing?”
“I really would rather not know…but I know it was far too much.”
“So…is it supposed to be a flower or a snowflake?” From the center gem, tiny silver branches extended, the width and size of the jewels tapering off until at the tips, the only evidence of diamonds was the tiniest pinprick of light.
“Well, I think that’s kind of the point not to know.”
Zack slurped another large mouthful of the noodles. “Explain.”
“You know my full name isn’t Hana, right?”
“Oh. No, I didn’t.”
“I’m Yukihana,” she said. “Which means ‘snowflake’. But throughout my life I’ve been called both Yuki, which means ‘snow’, and Hana, which is ‘flower’. So I think the ring is… maybe both?”
“Wow,” Zack said again. “I bet he had to have it custom ordered for it to be that related to your name. That’s really thoughtful of him.” He frowned and dropped his fork, heavily tangled in a mass of food. “Who am I kidding? That’s downright romantic.”
“What it really is is confusing,” she slurped another mouthful with beautiful chopsticks. “And it’s too big on my finger and it feels weird and I haven’t been able to think straight since he gave it to me.”
Zack grinned, his smile wide and mischievous. “Confused, huh? Do you feel warm and tingly too?”
“I am not…!” she protested loudly, smacking her hand against the table, but she couldn’t even finish her sentence she was so flustered. She huffed loudly and filled her mouth with food instead. “It’s for show!” she said after some quick and furious chewing, some food still in her mouth. “He wanted it big as part of our act. It’s not like it means anything! Besides, I’m pretty sure he likes seeing me squirm. He’s some kind of sadist, I know it.”
Zack considered pressing her further – she was proving pretty fun to tease – but slowly pieces began to fall into place, and he realized something. “You don’t love him.” A statement, not a question.
Hana looked at him and blinked, chopsticks halfway up to her mouth. She put the food down with a sigh. “Sephiroth would have liked me to keep up the act for you too. But…I can’t. Not to you. I’m pretty sure Genesis and Angeal have figured it out by now too.”
“You didn’t marry him for love.”
Hana stabbed a chunk of green pepper with a little too much force. “No.”
Both took a few bites in silence. Zack finished his, and stood up to serve himself seconds, but Hana swiped his plate and refilled it before he got a change to do so. She already knew him well, he thought, because she’d heaped the noodles exceptionally high.
“So why did you marry him?”
“That’s something I’m not ready to talk about. Not even to myself.”
“Okay.” Zack knew how to take a hint to back off, but he didn’t want to abandon the subject either. “Well, why did he—“
“I haven’t the slightest clue.” She shook her head. “I may be married to him, but I can’t read him much better than anyone else can. But you can ask him if you’d like.”
The thought made Zack choke on his food. “Okay, fair enough. But are you sure there’s nothing…like…going on?”
“Are you trying to get at something?” The way she raised one eyebrow accusingly was strikingly similar to someone else he knew.
“Well no, but he’s really powerful...and famous…and attractive. So I guess I’m just saying that you wouldn’t be the first female to have your hormones scrambled by the guy.”
“Powerful?” Hana asked, tilting her head to one side as her eyes looked at the ceiling, stroking her lower lip lightly with her thumb and then biting it in deep consideration.
“Well, yeah. SOLDIER First Class. Though if we’re really being honest here he’s in a class of his own.”
“Hmm. Famous…?” Her head tilted to the opposite side.
“The sheer number of fan clubs the guy has will tell you that much.”
Zack saw where this was going just in time and clamped his mouth shut. Hana burst into laughter, clapping her hands twice and leaning back in her chair in merry mirth. “That’s not funny!” Zack insisted, beet red in the face.
“Yes it is!” she insisted.
Zack looked around the room frantically. “Is the room bugged or something? Is he going to hear that?”
Hana was laughing too hard to give him an answer, which only made him more nervous. Sephiroth hadn’t said anything about voice bugs but that might have been for a reason.
“He’s my superior officer!” Zack said, voice higher than usual. “And he’s married…to you! I can’t be caught saying that stuff! Forget what Angealwill do to me, I’ll get it straight from him and it will be the last thing I ever get!”
Hana was finally calming down, sighing contentedly. “No,” she said. “The room’s not bugged. But you might have said a little more….” There was the sweetest hint of a pout on her lips.
“I said more than enough and I’m not saying any more!” He was utterly humiliated, not only because he had said so much, but because she’d so expertly played him for the fool.
“Aw come on, don’t be angry. It was just a bit of fun! I promise I won’t tell him.” She could make her dark eyes really big when she wanted to.
Zack was frowning deeply when he handed her his plate for thirds. “You better be glad your food’s so good, or it might be a lot harder to forgive you.”
“If I let you in on a secret plot,”
Hana said as she heaped the plate with noodles again, “will that erase the last
of your grudge?”
“What kind of secret plot?” Zack asked, sensing trouble.
“Revenge,” she said, voice thick with sweetness. “If I have to wear a ring, my dearest pooky-bear has to, too.”
Zack smiled and decided to forgive her, because the thought of Sephiroth being given a ring and being called pooky-bear was pretty funny. And the food was really good.
“Sephiroth never told me that you were evil,” Zack said.
“Not evil. Vengeful,” she said simply. “You called me a hormone-scrambled female. But don’t worry, I’m not selective. My darling Sephy-kins will get what’s coming to him too.”
He blamed the paint fumes. He was pretty sure something had gotten into her head and that was the only thing he could think of.
“We’ll go to town tomorrow and buy the biggest, fattest, most bejeweled ring we can find. I want it to shine right through his glove!”
But for all of her levity, she sure did spend a lot of time staring at her ring and looking very confused.
They never got to the store.
He’d slept on the couch, which he’d moved to be about five feet in front of Hana’s bedroom door. It was as strategic a position as he could think of, with direct view of the front door and dead in the middle of the path from Sephiroth’s room to hers, if they decided to try the window trick again. Just after dawn, and well before either of them had any intention of awakening, the intercom by the front door buzzed – loud and repeatedly.
Hana came out, still squinting with the weight of sleep on her eyes, dressed in a loose yukata that Zack guessed served as a nightgown but could have fooled him for daytime wear. “What do they want at this hour?” She made her way to the door and pushed the button, replying to the beep with an unceremonious, “What?”
“Mrs. Hana, you are needed immediately at the front lobby.”
“Three messengers from Wutai have arrived to see you. One says his name is Hiroki.”
Hana did not move for such a long period of time that Zack sat up to see what the matter was. “I’m coming,” she said, and her voice was very, very small.
Zack knew it had to be bad because she’d dressed in the finest clothes he’d ever seen. This time, she donned a full-on kimono, sleeves only a few scant inches shy of the ground, and a thick obi tied in an impossibly intricate bow on her back. She shone, not only from the shimmering silk of her gown and the silver embroidery, but from the many pins, combs, and ornaments carefully arranged into her perfectly sculpted hair. She had put on makeup, her face washed alabaster white, eyes lined in darkest kohl, and lips red as blood.
He gulped, feeling like he was escorting royalty instead of his little sister.
“Hey,” he said, forcing what he hoped looked like a hopeful smile. “It’s gonna be okay.”
“You don’t know what ‘it’ is,” Hana said sadly.
No, he didn’t. But he knew that whatever it was, it was big, and it was bad.
They left the house and entered the elevator. Zack patiently followed at her pace, which was slow and unbearably heavy. He felt like he was marching to the beat of a funeral dirge, escorted by an empress on the way to the gallows.
“Can I take your hand?” he asked softly.
She gently offered it. Her grip was weak and shaky, but he held tight, wishing he could lend her his strength through it.
They took the elevator all the way down and then began down the stairs to the receptionist’s desk. The first thing Zack saw on his way down was the exquisite finery that the three messengers were wearing. They all wore a vibrant scarlet, and all bore an embroidered, golden dragon on their breasts. Their long hair was tied high atop their heads in a small bun, on which a curious hat was pinned. Officials? From the palace? His heart sank like a stone. What do they want with Hana…?
The second thing he noticed was that the arrival of such high ranking ambassadors had drawn the attention of ShinRa’s highest. The president was there, mumbling something to his son, Rufus, and Heidegger. Lazard, Tseng, and Scarlet were there as well, scattered in the lobby without ceremony, one as clearly confused as the next. The only ones who were composed were the three ambassadors, their eyes on Hana, their faces solemn.
Zack doubted that Hana saw any of it. Her eyes were on the floor one step in front of her feet.
He didn’t know if it was against protocol, but he took Hana’s arm to firmly guide and support her down the steps from the commons to the reception area. She stopped after descending the last step, though there was still ten feet between her and the messengers and even more between her and the ShinRa officials.
“Kazehawa-sama,” the foremost official said. All three bowed deeply from the waist. “It warms the very heart of Wutai to see that you are well.”
Hana did the same. “Hiroki,” she said softly. “It has been a long time.” When she rose from the bow, she was facing straight forward, but her face was stone and her eyes were lightless.
Why don’t they speak in Wutaiese? Zack wondered. The fact alarmed him even more. Did they want the ShinRa officials to know exactly what was going on? For some reason, he did not think this was a good sign.
Hiroki held something balanced on his upturned palms, something covered in a swath of blue silk, embroidered with silver phoenixes. Against their red attire and golden dragons, it stood out as a patch of bright darkness.
“Yukihana, daughter of Aika Kazehawa, daughter of the line of the phoenix back to the legendary mother herself,” Hiroki’s voice was deep and formal, and it rang through the room. Even the receptionist’s full attention had been commanded by his declaration, little though it meant to any of them. “It is with deepest sorrow that we bear news that your beloved grandfather, Ryouan of the Shrine, has passed into the next world.”
The ShinRa officials began to murmur. Zack clenched Hana’s arm as hard as he could, but she gave no response through her mask of lifeless ice. “How?” she said. Her voice could have come from a corpse.
“He fell from the balcony as he watched the fireworks on New Year’s Day. The railing was weak and gave way. The physicians wish to assure you that his death was swift and now his spirit dwells with the gods.”
Hana blinked twice, very slowly.
“Yukihana,” Hiroki said, and for a moment his face and voice were very soft. “Young snow blossom, now the day is come to fulfill the purpose for which you were born.”
Hana was no longer breathing.
“With Ryouan’s passing, you stand as the last surviving heir of the Kazehawa line.”
“No….” It slipped from her lips, quiet as the breath of the dead.
The three messengers fell to one knee, and the two flanking Hiroki bowed their heads. Hiroki looked at her with the deepest sorrow in his eyes before he closed them, averting his eyes slightly to the side as he, too, lowered his head and spoke the words that would damn her forever.
“Behold, all witnesses present, Yukihana Kazehawa of the Young Snow Blossoms, with the true blood of the ancient mother flowing in her veins, as she ascends to fill her birthright as master of the phoenix…”
The blue silk slipped away.
In Hiroki’s palms was a crown.
A circlet of phoenixes, wrought in silver. Wings emblazoned with feathers of fire opals stretched high and tall and intertwined in a delicate, intricate, eternal dance.
Hana’s strength failed her. No one heard the rest of Hiroki’s proclamation, for as she crumpled to her knees, body bent forward in anguish, she screamed.
No one saw her, for all eyes were on Hana as she wailed. It didn’t matter – she didn’t need to be seen, only to see.
Zack had dropped to the floor beside her, and was trying to hoist her up but she was dead weight, unresponsive to anything except the fear or pain or whatever it was that was behind her horrible cries. He was yelling himself, trying to get her to hear his words over her own voice. She could not. Everyone, perhaps even Zack himself, knew that she was too far gone to hear.
No one moved, unsure of what to do or even what it meant.
Neither dilemma troubled her.
She could see the headlines now: SEPHIROTH’S WIFE IS WUTAI’S LOST PRINCESS. Papers would sell faster than they could print them. The people in the slums would use their daily wage to buy the special edition with color photos instead of their supper. Four, five, maybe even a record breaking six reprints.
Snap. Snap. She made sure to get several shots of the courtiers but most especially the crown. That was the icing on the cake. She couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque setup. Royal servants come to fetch the lost princess, all of ShinRa standing by in mute shock. The drama of Zack grappling with Hana to try to calm her was most delicious.
She could spin that so many ways she was getting dizzy from the possibilities. An affair, perhaps? With another SOLDIER no less! Her secret lover fighting to protect her from her terrible fate, at the same time revealing their terrible betrayal to his commander and her husband… In the end, it didn’t really matter. She could play with it, making up a new, juicy scenario for each reprint.
They would eat it up faster than Wutaian takeout.
She smirked as she got a good shot of Hana, kimono rumpled, makeup smeared, delicate hair pins thrown from her hair as she writhed. Ruined. Defeated.
Not only would it be the piece of her career, but she would get to write the same ending for each story in as many ways as she so desired.
Sephiroth will surely have no more of her after this.
Her screams gradually gained form, and eventually they could be deciphered as legitimate words:
“He killed him! He killed him! Murderer…murderer!!”
She jotted it down in her notebook as she left. Murder…that was a delicious detail. She’d have to be sure to include that somewhere too.