“What is it?”
Zack grimaced. After the harshness of the last few hours, he would have liked to start his phone conversation with the standard three rings and then a nice, normal, “Hello, who is this?” But Sephiroth was not known for his geniality.
“It’s Hana, sir,” Zack said. “I mean, she’s fine! Physically, anyway. But something big happened and I don’t understand it but I thought you should know right away.”
“So three royal messengers came from Wutai, right into the front lobby. The President and some other bigwigs were there. They said a lot of stuff that made no sense, and all I got out of it was that her grandfather died and they gave her a crown. Lots of stuff about a phoenix and chosen blood or something.”
Sephiroth was silent for just long enough for Zack to get that he understood it all and it meant something pretty bad, but then it was back to business. “I will make preparations to return immediately.”
“What…now? What about the mission?”
“The war is over. Wutai has surrendered.”
Zack wasn’t quite sure he heard right. “Just like that? A week ago there was no end in sight!” What in Gaia happened over there? he wanted to ask, but was sure that if it hadn’t hit headlines yet, it was still confidential stuff.
“How did her grandfather die?”
He had figured that he wouldn’t get an answer to his question, but Sephiroth’s brusque dismissal of it altogether still stung. “They said he fell from the balcony watching the fireworks on New Year’s. Hana…doesn’t buy it.” It was an understatement. After her manic hysteria had given way to exhaustion, she had still cried murder with all of her dwindling strength.
“I don’t either. Zack, you are not to let her out of your sight, not for one moment.”
“She kind of wants some space now—“ but he trailed off. Sephiroth’s hostile refusal to reply made it clear as day that he was stupidly defying an order. “Understood, sir,” he said.
“I will be back shortly.” And then he hung up.
Zack closed his phone and put it back in his pocket. He went to the kitchen table where he had set his sword to rest since nearly the beginning of the mission. Next to it was the crown, nearly glowing in otherworldly splendor.
A crown. Zack didn’t know a thing about Wutaian government or the headwear thereof, but he did know that those things weren’t given out easily.
Zack took his eyes away from the artifact and took his sword in hand. Sephiroth’s orders had left no room for fudging. And if it was a fight that was coming, he would be more than happy to oblige.
Hana had fallen still in her room, but he wasn’t worried. She was spent – physically as well as emotionally. He rapped softly on her door and then turned the knob.
She wasn’t sleeping, just laying on her futon staring at the ceiling. There were no windows in her room, and the only light she’d kept on was a small lamp on her dresser. The dark, heavy pall came from much more than the lack of light.
Zack silently seated himself cross-legged at the foot of her futon, sword rested across his lap, back to her to allow the most privacy he could. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Your husband’s orders. He’s on his way back now. I’ll be still and quiet so you can pretend I’m not even here.”
For a while, she did. But then her voice came, quiet and strained. “Please sit beside me.”
As he made himself comfortable at the side of her futon, she slipped a tentative hand over his thigh. Zack understood and seized it in his own, holding tight.
He closed his eyes. He couldn’t tell her things were going to be all right, or that it would all be okay. The disturbing thought went through his mind that he didn’t even know who she was. Was she really royalty? What had she been hiding from him…from all of them?
He smiled wryly. It didn’t matter.
Perhaps against his better judgment, he trusted her.
“I’m here, sis.”
Somehow, for those dark hours, it was enough.
As far as the three SOLDIERS were concerned, their job was done. Their business was war, and surrender was as good as a closed case for them. The rest was up to the diplomats, and they’d just as soon not be present while they did their part of the job. The company was being slow about their return trip to Midgar, and in the meantime, they sat bored out of their minds in ShinRa’s modest fort.
And so it was no small amount of fury that Genesis returned from lunch to find that Sephiroth had managed to get himself a chopper ride back to Midgar – without him.
Angeal suspected that Sephiroth was calling in on some special favors from the company for him to be released from duty so quickly. When he really wanted something, he got it, and ShinRa usually bypassed their thriftiness and efficiency to please their prized weapon and poster boy. If Sephiroth used his trump cards any more often than he did, Angeal would have said he was spoiled rotten. Genesis already believed it, but kept quiet because he had developed ways to try to weasel himself into the shining generosity that the company bestowed upon its silver child.
He couldn’t do that if he was already gone.
“They scheduled our departure for tomorrow morning.” Angeal tried to be the voice of reason and peace. “It’s only a difference of a few hours.”
“He has developed a nasty habit of deserting us to the bigwigs since Hana got here.”
Angeal couldn’t argue with him there. The meetings back at ShinRa had only gotten more frequent and heated. He doubted Sephiroth knew it, but Hana was a big reason why. ShinRa could only float on the story of their fake romance for so long, and now they were beginning to ask real questions. The company didn’t long tolerate unknowns – especially ones from the nation they were at war with, who had a vague and increasingly shady background, and who were living within corporate headquarters.
“It’s not her fault.” Or at least, she wasn’t trying to make them miserable.
“I know it’s not her fault, it’s his. He should start managing the management on his own.”
The rest of the day was agonizingly uneventful. Even Angeal’s not-so-gentle reminders that Genesis should be using this time to compose his mission report did no good.
But morning came, and with it, the promise of home.
They both were all too happy to leave. They entered the helicopter and breathed a sigh of relief. At least back at headquarters they could focus on training.
“Morning paper?” the pilot asked, handing back a newspaper. “Hot off the Midgar press. Third reprint in less than twenty-four hours.”
“I don’t read the paper,” Angeal said, holding up a hand to politely decline.
“You will read this one,” Genesis said, seizing it from the pilot. And as soon as Angeal saw the large photo on the front of Hana crumpled in defeat, he did. Both men read quickly, even the roar of the chopper fading away as a clear but horrible picture was painted for them.
“Sephiroth,” Genesis hissed, “had better have a really good cover up this time.”
She was there when he arrived, ever in the shadows. He walked with furious grace inside, not even pausing to regain his bearings after he set foot on the ground again.
Click. Click. Click.
After watching his regal arrival, she viewed her results on her digital camera. Her snapshots were flawless. It was a moving scene, more perfect than a painting. The colorless sky and dying light of dusk, the dull tones of the helipad, and against it, the stark blackness of his coat, and the vivid silver of his hair.
The war hero, his mission accomplished, arriving home only to turmoil.
Turmoil that she, herself, had created for him.
She groaned as she reached the third shot. Something large was obstructing the view of his hair – an ugly black smear on perfect silver tresses. She rubbed at her display screen, but it was not a flaw on the device. What was it that had gotten in the way? It was so blurred she couldn’t even tell.
No matter, the other two images would suffice. His back was tall and straight, his shoulders squared to the challenge, and his face set in a grim determination that she knew all too well. It was a look that, until now, she had only seen in memories. Now, at the very least, she could capture it forever.
He probably doesn’t even remember… And droplets of water fell to the display screen.
Someone was assaulting the front door.
Zack jumped and grabbed his sword. He hadn’t expected an invasion to come through such an obvious entrance but he wasn’t picky. Made his job easier, at least.
They weren’t being subtle at all. Lots of angry shouting. But it sounded like just one person…?
Zack sidled his way to the door, and dared a peek through the peephole in the door. The face was recognizable, though blown out of proportion through the convex glass. In another situation, it might have been funny.
Zack activated the intercom with a press of a button. “Uh, can I help you, Commander Rhapsodos?”
The assault stopped, and Zack watched Genesis’s eyes narrow and his face grow grotesquely huge as the man on the other side of the door put his face close to the peephole, though in vain; he would not be able to see inside. “What are you doing in there, puppy?”
“I’m under Sephiroth’s orders to guard Hana while he sets some things straight.”
“So he’s back?”
“Yeah, he got in last night.”
“But he’s not here?” This time it was Angeal’s voice, his angry voice. Zack cringed, knowing the danger in that tone well.
“Yeah, he went…somewhere.”
“Just as well. I’d rather Hana not hear this.” And he heard Angeal storm away.
“So, puppy, it’s you and me. Are you going to let me in or am I going to have to get creative?”
“Look, it’s just me and Hana. If you have issues with Sephiroth you should really talk to him…”
“Let him in,” Hana said softly.
Zack turned to look at her. Especially since they had discovered that yesterday’s incident had made it to the news, she had been silent, sitting still on the couch and staring blankly into the distance. “Hana, you need to rest…”
“Let him in.” It was even softer this time, no more than a breath. Zack sighed and unbolted the door.
Genesis bypassed Zack entirely, not even sparing him a glance. He went straight for Hana, despite Zack’s protests. He walked slowly to her until he stood not even a foot in front of her, using the full advantage of his height and power. There was no fear in her, only deep sadness.
“So,” Genesis said slowly, “Princess, I think you have some answers for me?”
Hana closed her eyes. “Sit down, Genesis,” she said. “It’s a very long story.”