A Boat for Two on Stormy Waters
Angeal received a tip from the receptionist that Sephiroth had left headquarters to run errands in town. Now, hours after their return to Midgar, he finally knew where Sephiroth was, but had lost the drive to hunt him down and throttle him.
Genesis had told him quite the story.
He waited in the city plaza, knowing that Sephiroth would pass by it sooner or later to return to ShinRa. He was seated on the edge of the fountain, arms crossed and expression solemn enough to keep any onlookers from approaching. To keep his profile low, he was dressed in civilian clothes and wore a cap that hid his hair and shaded most of his face, but he still got some suspicious looks nonetheless.
But the risk of being found out died with the sunlight. The square was emptying quickly. Rush hour had come and gone, and now only a few people trickled through on their ways home for the night. Now the square was as still as the winter’s night.
Angeal recognized his friend, even though the silver general was also dressed in casual clothes. In his thick hoodie sweater and jeans slightly frayed at the knees, with his hair and eyes hidden from the public and plastic shopping bags in each hand, he blended in well with the city.
Angeal kept his arms crossed as he rose and began to walk to Sephiroth. His friend nodded in greeting well before they were within earshot of each other. Angeal sighed deeply. The words he had for Sephiroth had left him long ago.
“Good evening,” Sephiroth greeted curtly as Angeal fell into stride beside him.
“Is it?” Angeal asked. Sephiroth had no answer to that. “Errands?” Angeal tried again.
“Wood, and silk,” Sephiroth said. “Hana wanted bamboo but I couldn’t find it anywhere so she will have to make do. And gifts and traditional Wutaian food from Matsuko.”
“She wants to carve a small sailboat and float it down a river in remembrance of her grandfather.” Sephiroth gave a shrug. “Where we’ll find a river is still an issue, but it will give her something meaningful to do for a little while, at least.”
“Oh,” Angeal said. In all the confusion about her identity, he had nearly forgotten that she had just lost a loved one. “How is she doing?”
“She is grieving. But all things considered, she is holding on remarkably well.”
“You didn’t leave her alone, did you?”
“No. Zack is with her.”
Angeal frowned. If their relationship was to grow, Sephiroth and Hana would need to go through this together. Sephiroth couldn’t keep running off and using Zack as a surrogate for meeting all of his wife’s emotional needs. He opened his mouth to tell him so, but he could not bring himself to say it, because he had been around Sephiroth long enough to see what others could not see carved into his eyes, the set of his jaw, and the very way he carried himself.
Angeal looked at the bags. He had gone well out of his way to get her what she had asked for. For now, he would have to believe that Sephiroth was doing his best, even if it wasn’t the best.
“We know everything,” Angeal said softly. “Genesis, Zack, and I.”
“You aren’t upset?”
“You would either get the truth or the garbage the media is propagating.”
“You still left Hana to tell us. I know I speak for Genesis too when I say that we would have preferred to hear it from you.” It was an understatement. They had known there had been secrets, but to find out that there had been that much had cut the both of them very deeply.
“Does it make a difference?” Sephiroth was glaring at him dangerously from the corners of his eyes.
Angeal shook his head. It wasn’t worth it to pick this fight; it wasn’t why he was here. “No, I guess it doesn’t.”
But Sephiroth wasn’t stupid, and Angeal knew that he knew that the betrayal had hurt. Ever since Hana had come, the secrets and the lies had built up until now, the trust the three of them had shared was on the line.
Their friendship was not the same anymore, and Angeal doubted it could ever return to what it was.
“Do you have something to say to me?” Sephiroth asked. His defensive anger was gone. He sounded tired, spent.
“I’m not sure,” Angeal said. “When we first landed I had a lot to say. We were both angry and hurt by what we’d learned. And now that we know the truth…words fall short.”
“It was never my intention to deceive you,” Sephiroth said. It was as close to an apology as Angeal would ever get. “I believed the situation would resolve itself…differently.”
The ShinRa building was within sight now. Angeal thought hard. If he wanted any answers, he had to get them now while he had Sephiroth’s attention.
And there was only one thing he really wanted to know anymore. But he would have to approach the topic with extreme delicacy.
“I first started to worry when I saw that story in the newspaper. The journalist wrote that you were going to abandon Hana. I thought about how you’d gotten married at the drop of a hat, and I started to believe the journalist. I didn’t see what had gotten you into it in the first place, so I guess it made sense that you’d pull out now that things were getting hard if nothing was really keeping you there. And then Genesis told me the story, about how you’re some Wutaian heir…”
Angeal paused, and didn’t miss how Sephiroth’s lips curled unmistakably downward at the last two words. “And I assumed that that could be why you snatched Hana up so fast…for that power.”
They walked another block in silence. By now, they were in the very shadow of the building. Angeal slowed his pace to try to buy as much time as he could before they arrived. To his surprise, Sephiroth allowed it.
“I see,” Sephiroth said softly.
“I was very angry and ready to give you the lecture of your life for using Hana like that, but I realized at some point that it can’t be true,” Angeal said. “You don’t even like the power ShinRa gives you, and you’ve tried many times to take less responsibility – like when you gave up your seat at the board meetings. And you hate the limelight. There’s no way you would want to be a monarch with all that attention.”
Sephiroth did not reply, but Angeal felt his friend’s silent relief. “You’ll have to forgive me for doubting you,” Angeal said. He felt every inch the traitor. Sephiroth’s trust was a frail, delicate thing that had been so hard to win.
“It was a logical conclusion to draw,” Sephiroth said. “Given the circumstances, I would have assumed the same.”
“We know each other better than that,” Angeal said. Or at least, he thought grimly, we used to…
“Look,” Angeal said. “You probably thought you could do it alone. Well, it’s pretty clear that the problem’s spiraled into way more than you bargained for. You’ve already unknowingly called in Zack to compensate for what you can’t handle. Genesis and I…we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t lock us out again. And part of that means sharing the truth with us. The whole truth. Because once we know what’s going on, we can help you.”
Sephiroth grabbed the handle of the front door to the ShinRa building as he took his ID badge from his pocket. It was a threat that his patience, and therefore Angeal’s time, was running out. “What are you dancing around, Angeal?” Sephiroth said. “You’ve been fishing for something this whole time. Spit it out already.”
All right, Angeal thought. If he wants to be frank, I can do that. “Why did you marry Hana?”
Angeal could tell that Sephiroth had not been expecting that. Angeal waited, and waited, and waited some more. Sephiroth’s hand was frozen on the handle of the front door, keycard in hand ready to swipe.
And then Sephiroth laughed. It was bitter and sardonic, colder than the chill of the winter night surrounding them.
“You care more about our relationship than the fact that soon Hana or I could be holding one or multiple thrones against our will? That Wutai is in chaos and the Continent will soon join it? I thought you to be more sensible than that.”
“Everything began with your marriage. As much as you try to dismiss it, it’s the root of everything that has happened so far.”
Sephiroth ran his keycard through the scanner and the green light flashed as his request to enter was processed. He was done talking. Angeal had precious seconds left to convince him.
“We’re your friends, Sephiroth. Let us in,” Angeal said. “Let us help you. You don’t have to do it alone.”
For a moment Angeal thought he had him. He reached out to grasp his friend’s shoulder in encouragement, but in that split second, Sephiroth’s mask of fiery steel returned, and all his defenses shot up, sky high and impenetrable.
“What do you want me to say?” Sephiroth’s voice was low and lethal.
“Anything! Help me understand!”
The light turned solid green and the door clicked as it unlocked.
Angeal’s time was up.
But he hadn’t lost entirely.
“In the beginning, it was only about us, what we wanted from each other.” Sephiroth hissed as he ripped the door open. “And that is why we are in this nightmare in the first place.”
Before Angeal’s hand could even brush his friend’s shoulder, the man was inside the building. Through the glass, he saw Sephiroth walk far too quickly away, taking the stairs two at a time.
Angeal let his forehead fall against the glass of the door with a solid thunk. Patience, he reminded himself. Dealing with Sephiroth requires patience....
What had he learned? Certainly that Sephiroth was all too quickly nearing his wit’s end.
…What we wanted from each other…
So it was as he had feared: Sephiroth and Hana were essentially using each other. That’s what their marriage was about: a contract for mutual benefit. Hana had never admitted it outright, but her story made it clear enough that Sephiroth could at least offer her freedom and protection from her father, a chance to live her own life. It made sense, and he could hardly fault her for it, knowing what little he did of her father and her childhood. Maybe there was more he didn’t know about, but that alone might have been enough to drive her to do what she did.
But that was only half of the answer. He was still left without a clue in the world of what Sephiroth could have possibly wanted from her.
“You are dismissed for the night, Fair,” was the first thing Sephiroth said as he came through the door.
“Okay,” Zack said, taking the cue to leave, quickly. He gathered his boots and his coat and waved once to Hana. “Call if you need me.”
Hana looked at the shopping bags Sephiroth held from the moment he entered, but waited to speak until Zack was gone. “Did you find it?”
“There was no bamboo,” Sephiroth said, setting the bags on the table in front of her. “But I got some good quality wood and silk for a small sail. But Matsuko had incense, and she said she could help you get an ihai if you wished. She offers her condolences and says to come by soon. In the meantime, she sent me with several traditional foods and trinkets for you.”
“I don’t have a butsudan,” she said softly. “But…maybe I’ll think about an ihai.” She took the wood block from the bag and Sephiroth opened his army-issue utility knife and set it on the table beside her. She took the knife and awkwardly began to saw a corner off. Her face furrowed in concentration and effort, until she was rewarded with only the smallest clunk as the tiny scrap of wood hit the table.
She sighed. “It’s harder than I thought.”
“Make it smaller,” Sephiroth said. He took the block and the knife from her and sawed the block in half. He handed her the smaller chunk and that seemed to be enough to make the task manageable for her. She set to work with renewed determination.
Sephiroth went to his bathroom to retrieve a roll of gauze bandages, and he was just in time returning with them to hear her hiss “ouch!” He set the bandages beside her and left her to her work. Though it was clear that she had no experience with woodcarving, and she would likely gain many more cuts before she got the hang of it, he neither made any move to deter her nor gave her any further instruction.
Despite her numerous mishaps, she seemed to appreciate that he was letting her do this on her own.
Sephiroth emptied a container of Ma’s oden into a pot and turned the stove on, stirring it slowly with a wooden spoon to heat it. Soon their apartment was filled with the fishy aroma of the stew blended with the incense that Hana had lit in remembrance of her grandfather. Though Hana’s spirit was sorrowful, the room felt oddly at peace as she channeled her grief into action.
“Thank you,” Hana said. “I feel…better now.”
Sephiroth turned off the stove as the contents of the pot began to steam. He ladled broth and chunks of fish and vegetables into a bowl, then set it beside her with a pair of chopsticks. She set aside the knife and held the warm bowl in both her hands. She took a sip of the steaming broth and her eyes closed as it soothed her body and soul.
“I promise I’m done crying, too. I think I’m back in control.”
“You are grieving. There is no need to be apologetic about your behavior.”
“But we can talk about what we need to do next, now.”
“We can spare this night.”
Can we? Hana thought. The situation was getting pretty dire. She stopped drinking the broth for a moment to observe her husband. He was being very…sympathetic. She hadn’t expected this from him at all.
“Did you ever lose anyone you loved?” she asked quietly.
Sephiroth looked up at her with a blank face, but something dark was stirring behind his eyes. “Once,” he replied. “When I was very young.”
The answer surprised her, partially because he had given her an answer at all, but mostly because he had just admitted to having loved someone – even if indirectly. She set her bowl down on the table but kept her hands on it for its warmth. “Who?” she asked, somehow fearful of this new side of her husband.
Sephiroth hummed softly, sadly. “I suppose he was the closest thing to a father that I ever knew.” Now he was preparing rice. Steam rose softly from the rice cooker and in the stillness she heard the murmur of the water boiling inside the machine.
“I’m…sorry,” Hana said.
“It was a long time ago.”
“But that doesn’t mean…” Hana trailed off, blushing furiously, purposely forgetting what she had been about to say. She went back to carving, vigorously, until another shallow cut on her finger slowed her pace.
Sephiroth was staring at nothing, silent as she resumed her carving. Every time she looked up at him he was still in the exact same position, eyes open but unseeing.
The rice cooker beeped and the sound pulled Sephiroth back to their apartment. He served her a bowl and again set it at her side. This time, before he could pull away again, she grabbed his hand, refusing to think about what she was doing.
The move surprised him. He raised his eyebrows, awaiting an explanation.
“If you want…you could…you know…for him….” Sheepishly, she slipped the unused half of the woodblock into his hand.
She kept her eyes only on her carving, breathing in the incense deeply. The fire in her face would not die. Though she had intended to keep her thoughts on her grandfather as she made him this small, final gift, she was finding that it was impossible.
But just past the woodblock that she was so intently focused on, in the background, she saw her husband as he took a place across from her at the table and with smooth, practiced strokes, began to carve.
She didn’t like being here. It was crowded and hot and everyone was intoxicated out of their minds. If she had been allowed to drown her worries in liquor as everyone else was doing, it might not have been so bad, but she needed to be sober if she was to keep her head.
She didn’t want to do this, but she’d been left with no choice.
She told herself this repeatedly as she waited. Her thumbs toyed with the focus wheel on her camera, flicking it in and out and in again, though the device was off. It was a strange habit, but one that kept her sane under pressure.
“Ah, there you are, my darling.” She heard him yell over the throbbing pulse of the music and the mash up of singing, yelling, and raw movement. He stuck out like a sore thumb – way overdressed in way too many clothes from far too long ago.
He approached her. How was it that she could hear the tap of his cane on the floor distinctly, even through the din surrounding them both?
“And I must say,” he said with a disconcertingly sultry smirk, “you look simply ravishing in that little red dress.”
She flushed the same color as her satin garment. It was the only thing she’d had, and even then she still didn’t really fit in with the bright, gaudy clothes everyone else was wearing.
“You said you could help me,” she said.
“That I can,” he said with a twirl of his ebony cane. “I have exactly the story you are looking for.”
The hand that held her pen and pad of paper was shaking. As she moved to slide her camera back into the pouch hung over her shoulder, the pen dropped the floor.
And then, somehow, with a flick of his cane, it was in his hand, offered to her with a brilliant flourish of lace. His smile was dazzlingly white against the hazy hues around him.
“My dear, are you frightened? You have nothing to fear. We both want the same things, yes?”
“No! I mean…yes. I just want the truth. It’s my job.”
“But truth can be woven many ways by a skillful pen, can it not?” And then the pen danced in his hand, brilliant and fast and deadly as it parried, and struck, and felled an invisible foe. She could only watch the dance, transfixed by the art and skill through which an ordinary pen was turned into a masterful blade.
“Your words are power, darling. You are a master of your craft. Your skills are wasted at ShinRa.” His voice was low and earnest, sweet and thick as honey. He reached one hand forward, gloved in brilliant white fabric softer than any flower petal, and stroked her bottom lip ever so gently with the barest tip of his thumb.
She made a grab for her pen and jerked away, breathless, terrified. Who is this guy…?
“You tender little blossom,” he said. “So naïve. Too young even to understand the gravity of the terrible work that your heart calls you to do – a slave to powers you are too innocent to know and too delicate to fully, truly wield.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I just want to write the story.”
He chucked, a sound more dark and terrifying than his honeyed speech. “I do not mind that you lie to me, for I can see the truth behind your words. I care only that you have so convincingly blinded yourself. You will never be great that way.”
She had to move before her last stores of courage deserted her. “I need the story,” she said, hoping her face looked assertive and professional.
“Oh yes, I’ll gladly give it. I’d be honored to have my sad little tale published by so great a writer. But in return, there is information that I seek as well.”
His eyes were orbs of fiery darkness. How could blackness glow? It was impossible, and yet she was enveloped in the warped, twisted light of the shadows.
“Of course. As promised, I have your daughter’s location within the ShinRa building, her security passcode, and the code for the locks in her home.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from her camera’s pouch. “And the blueprint for her apartment, with the layout of its waterways, electrical lines, and air vents.”
He flashed that dazzling smile again, snatching the paper and folding it away in his coat. “Splendid! Then, shall we begin?”
She readied her pen.
But his hand wound around her body, two fingers pinching the pin that held her hair in its tight bun. He lifted it, and shimmering golden waves spilled unrestrained down her shoulders. Her hands rushed to gather the cascade again but her wrists were seized and held in his iron grip.
“If this plan is going to work, dearest Milda,” he whispered in her ear, “you are going to have to break all the restraints that bind you, especially the ones that tie your heart to that elusive silver general.”
“You swore you would not touch him!” she shrieked, panic setting in. “You swore it!”
“And I keep my word, darling,” he purred, running his fingers through her long, blonde hair. “Have no fear. But a bound little captive will not win his attention. If you want him, you will have to show him the glorious woman you truly are, the one you’ve kept tucked away in the dark out of fear of her power. To break her free, there will be pain for the both of you. It is the price of deliverance, of triumph, and it is the only way to him.”
She feared that pain. She feared it very much. But there was no other way.
She forced herself to nod. “I know,” she said.
And that grin again. Every time she saw it, she felt something in her die.
“Now then, we’ll begin with the story. You mustn’t fear the impact it will have on your dearest silver one. Remember that I have sworn it: in the end, he will be yours.”
Milda felt like she was making a pact with the devil, and bargaining with the soul of the only one she had ever loved.
But she was far too far in to stop now.