The Gilded Bait
Hana’s head hurt. There was a weird ringing in the background that sounded like millions of undulating voices just out of her reach. She felt slightly sad, as if she had just parted with them, as if they had a part of her still that she was leaving behind.
The lights were too bright, but she squinted through the water in her eyes, as driven to return as she was sad to depart. The sensations washing through her were more than just awakening. She felt like she was coming home to her own body after being away for some time. Her mind cleared slowly, immediate sensations and then memories and finally identity falling into a coherent picture.
“…A-Angeeeal?” the word was too heavy on her lips, and it dragged out in a way that it shouldn’t have.
“Good. Now where are you?”
She lazily tilted her head to one side and then the other. “…My bedroom.” Confidence in her answer came only after the words left her mouth. The words themselves came easier.
“…Can you remember anything that happened?”
The question took a moment to process. Then…
“Sephiroth!” she cried, bolting upright. Strong hands held her up as the vertigo tried to drag her back down.
“She’s back, all right,” a second voice said. She recognized it. It was Genesis.
“He’s fine, Hana,” Angeal said. “He’s still in his bedroom, resting.”
“It’s almost four. You were unconscious through the day.”
Her head cleared and Angeal let her go. “What happened?”
“You got mako on your neck, chest, and shoulders. It wasn’t much, but the concentration levels of that stuff were so high that we were worried you could still get poisoning from it. We took you to Professor Hollander, but he cleared you almost immediately and we brought you back here to wait it out.” Angeal pulled out a flashlight and took her chin in his hand. “I need to look at your eyes. Keep talking to me.”
“Why? And about what?” She squinted but kept her eye open for Angeal to examine. It was uncomfortable but he was quick and said nothing about his observations.
“He’s checking you,” Genesis said. “Two of the most obvious symptoms of mako poisoning are problems with speech and memory.”
“Oh. So why do you need to see my eyes?” She was gripped by panic as a thought came into her mind. “Am I…a SOLDIER now?”
That made Angeal laugh. “I don’t know, Genesis. Do her eyes look like they’re glowing a bit to you?”
“That’s not even funny, man!” It was Zack’s voice coming from outside her door. “Cut it out!”
“How strange to hear that from you,” Genesis said in response to the boy.
Angeal shook his head, still chuckling. “I’m sorry, Hana. I don’t know what came over me. I guess in times like this you either laugh or cry…” He cleared his throat and was serious again. “But no, you haven’t turned SOLDIER. You’d have to take a lot more mako than that for a lot longer period of time.”
She smiled nervously. She still didn’t like the joke but she was grateful for his laugh that lessened the anxiety, anyway. “So I’m okay then?” she asked.
“You’re fine. You’re fully awake and speaking and cognizant and you’re not likely to have any further symptoms.”
“Then I want to see---“ She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. She had tried to move and her body had not liked that in the slightest.
“The bruising, however,” Angeal said with a sheepish smile, “isn’t likely to go away so quickly.”
“Holy,” Hana hissed. “I forgot about that…”
“You’re lucky you’re alive. I still don’t know how he didn’t snap you in two,” Genesis said.
Hana felt the blood run from her face. “Could he have actually done that?”
Genesis shrugged. “Wouldn’t surprise me.”
Hana folded her hands in her lap and looked at them. “He’s so strong,” she whispered. “It’s unbelievable. No wonder he’s the best SOLDIER…” She still remembered being crushed against him, and being so sure that he would end her life with his bare hands.
“He is strong,” Angeal said. “But in my opinion that’s not the biggest reason why he’s the best. His strength is tempered with astounding discipline and control. It’s only when he’s pushed to his absolute limits…when he descends into that feral madness…that we ever really see all he is truly capable of. And it is terrifying.” His voice lowered and slowed. “I suspect that’s one reason why Hojo does these things to him. To see him at his very strongest.”
“One day,” Genesis said, “Hojo’s going to make Sephiroth snap for good and the whole planet’s going to pay for it.”
“Don’t be morbid,” Angeal said. “We’ve had enough of that.”
“You started it, my friend.”
Angeal ignored that.
“Can mako exposure cause hallucinations?” Hana asked out of the blue.
“Yes, why? Did you see something?”
“So did I just imagine it…or did Sephiroth…his back…?” she trailed off.
Angeal sighed and Genesis left the room. “No, Hana,” he said sadly. “Unfortunately, that part was real. He has a wing now.”
“Oh,” she breathed. “…Oh.”
“Do you still want to see him?” he asked Hana.
Hana blinked. Did she? Suddenly she was having reservations. But Angeal’s voice was understanding and gentle. She knew he would completely understand if she told him she didn’t.
“Yes,” she said, sounding surer than she felt. “I just wanted to be prepared.”
“If you need more time to prepare—“
“No. Take me to him. Now. But, help me get up.”
Angeal offered her a hand, which she took gratefully. With a little support at the start, she could walk, if stiffly to avoid aggravating her bruises.
Genesis and Zack were nowhere in the living area. She didn’t like the quiet. Not now. She couldn’t stand it, not even for the short walk to her husband’s bedroom.
“Hey Angeal, can I ask you something?” She’d been dying to know, but afraid to ask. Now she feared the silence more than the answer.
“What is it?”
“When they make you into SOLDIERS, is it as painful as…what Sephiroth just went through?”
Angeal frowned and folded his arms across his chest. “No,” he said. “We’re fully sedated for the entire procedure. It’s considered inhumane to make a conscious human endure such high levels of exposure.”
But that’s what they did to Sephiroth…
Angeal squeezed her shoulder. “He’s strong,” was all he said.
Genesis and Zack were with Sephiroth in his room.
Genesis sat on the long ottoman under the window, leaning on a heap of throw-pillows, while Zack had pulled in a kitchen chair. “Heya,” he said, giving her a soft smile and a nudge as she came into the room. “Glad to see you up.” She didn’t doubt that he was glad to see her, but his voice sounded less glad given the circumstances, and his nudge was hardly enthusiastic.
They had moved Sephiroth’s body to the left side of the bed so the rest of the bed would support the wing. Hana took in a slow breath. It was bigger than she remembered. And darker. And fuller. And it was moving softly, the tip curling in and then relaxing again, a part of him perhaps not yet fully accepted and therefore uncontrolled.
She had to look away.
Sephiroth’s entire chest had been bandaged, wrapped tightly in white gauze dressing. The waste bin was full of them as well, though they were deeply ensanguined.
“He’s lost so much blood,” she said. “Won’t he need a transfusion?”
“Can’t,” Genesis said. “Not even from a SOLDIER donor. Hollander said it would only make him worse. Apparently even his blood is special.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know.” Genesis looked at her sideways. “He’ll be fine. Don’t be scared by all those old bandages – those were just from the start. I haven’t had to change the dressings since noon, and he’s got a lot more color back in him already.” Hana thought wryly that it was quite the feat, considering his skin was so pale that there was little color to begin with at all.
“Has he gotten up?”
Genesis held up a syringe. “No. And we’re going to keep it that way.”
“Sweet revenge,” Genesis said, dramatically stroking the length of the syringe with one finger. “For all that paperwork he dumped on me. And all those meetings we have to go to.”
“He needs time,” Angeal said. “The moment he gets up, he’s going to go to work and there’s nothing any of us will be able to do about it. The longer he sleeps, the longer he has to heal. Although,” he admitted, “we don’t know if we have enough to keep him out for much longer. His body metabolizes it way too fast.”
Hana smiled. For all of Genesis’s snarky retorts, he really was acting in the best interest of his friend. “Okay,” she said with a half-smile. “You can keep sticking him then, I guess.”
“I am glad you approve,” Genesis purred. “I look forward to gouging him again in another hour.”
Hana turned her eyes to her husband’s face. The nightmare was over. His face was smooth and peaceful in a way he never was when he was awake, guards down, open and defenseless. His chest softly rose and fell, and the slow rhythm calmed her.
“You all can go now, if you’d like,” she said. “If it’s over, I can take care of him.”
“It’s not over,” Genesis said. “This mess is just getting started.”
“I’m sorry to give you such bad news, especially so soon after this happened, but things are happening at ShinRa,” Angeal said. “And we can’t wait for Sephiroth to wake to respond.”
The change of pace was dizzying. She was grateful that Genesis and Angeal had it planned out for her, because her mind was so occupied on what she would have to do tonight that she had little attention left for what was happening around her now.
Hana didn’t even know her exact location anymore, only that the cab Genesis ordered for her had taken her deep into the city. But she knew the likes of this place. A few times in the past, she had been in a similar building for a similar purpose, but instead of familiar chambers of stained paper and floors of tatami there were rooms of sleek marble, chrome, and crystal, with windows running from floor to ceiling and overlooking the sprawling city beneath. If they hadn’t been on the 20th floor, she would have outright refused to be here. As it was, she still felt uncomfortable with the exposure, standing barely clothed on a pedestal in the heart of the metropolis.
But much was familiar, if not pleasantly so. Most particularly, she knew the throng of women, every one wielding a different tool or three or five, everyone grasping a different place on her body, and everyone giving directions at once.
She pressed her lips into a firm line and raised her arms as she was enfolded in silk. She did enjoy the way it slipped across her skin, at least. It was a brief moment of bliss before the hands flew to her again.
She called on every god she had ever heard of for patience. She had known it would be an ordeal to make it through the night, but she hadn’t expected to be so tried before she even made it to the main event.
Someone was starting on her hair and she let out a yelp. They were moving so fast that her comfort was being compromised. She had already been stuck twice with sewing pins.
She looked at herself in the full-length mirrors, angled so she could see five replicas of herself from different perspectives. She could complain about her treatment all she wanted but she could not deny that they knew what they were doing: her transformation was already stunning and she hardly recognized the figure staring back at her in the mirrors.
“As Sephiroth is still recovering and you’ll be treading on dangerous territory, you’ll need an escort. And there’s only one of us who can navigate the finery and politics skillfully enough for the occasion….”
“How is it coming in there, Hana?” Genesis called.
Naturally, it had to be him. And, naturally, he had overdone it.
She sent a glare in his direction, though he was not permitted in the room as she was fitted so she couldn’t see him. “What was wrong with the department store?” she snapped. The women around her took no heed, continuing their dizzying work. “Their dresses were fine.”
“Perhaps they were fine, but they were not dazzling,” he said. “Any common woman could get a gown there, and you cannot be a common woman tonight. With ShinRa’s elite, respect is only given to those with power, and clothing is a way to make a statement without even opening your mouth.”
Maybe it would be easier to bear if she could forego opening her mouth at all, but knowing that she must do that as well made her heart sink like a stone.
She coughed as a large brush swept powder over her cheeks and she couldn’t talk anymore as brushes and fingers and tools assaulted her face.
The head designer looked on as her assistants worked. She was a strict woman; Hana had known it from the way she dressed alone. Occasionally, she barked orders, but mostly she watched with a scrutinizing gaze that made Hana very uncomfortable. “Too much on her arms,” she said, voice like the crack of a whip. “Take off those sleeves.” Within the time it took her to sigh, she felt the metal scissors begin to trim the gauzy lace away.
“Not too much, Minerva,” Genesis intervened. “We discussed this.”
The woman waved her hands in exasperation but half-conceded. “Take off as much as you can, then. Just leave enough to hide those raw blotches.”
She sadly watched the lace fall away out of the corner of her eye before a metal contraption made a grab for her eyelashes. She wasn’t used to it. In Wutaian formal wear, it was outright indecent to show so much skin. The chill on her arms was almost a foreign sensation, and she missed the long, heavy folds of her kimono.
“You need to stand on their level,” Genesis had said. “Tonight, you will dress and speak and act like you’re from the Continent, like you are one of them.”
Her thoughts turned to Sephiroth. She knew that Zack and Angeal were with him, but some irrational part of her still wondered if he was okay.
“Shoes!” the head designer called. “Silver, I should think. And the tallest we have, ladies, this tiny thing needs some inches on her if she’s going to be taken seriously.”
Hana closed her eyes and tried to blow out her frustration as one of her feet was grabbed from under her and shoved into a shoe. Someone else was rubbing her nails with something that felt like sandpaper.
“Hold still!” the woman doing her hair hissed at her. “Do you want me to burn your ears or not?”
She didn’t, and so she closed her eyes, let her body go as limp as possible, and finally let them position her like a doll, however they saw fit. She felt them test bracelets and earrings, shoes and hair adornments. She felt cold from the marble room and hot from the iron being used on her hair. She stood as she was poked and prodded and painted and posed. She became so swept up in the frenzy of activity that when all hands drew back, it was as much as a surprise as it was a relief.
She felt suddenly exposed with nothing to protect her from the scrutiny of the head designer’s gaze. “Genesis,” she said. “Tell me what you think.”
Genesis came in dressed in formal wear as well. She might have guessed that he never would have been content in just a black and white tuxedo, but his bravado in color and style still took her aback. His jacket was the color of red wine, with dramatic coattails long enough to brush the backs of his knees. Beneath that was a vest of blackest silk, shimmering against the white of his pleated shirt with a bowtie to match at his throat.
He looked her over closely, from head to toe. She glared back. She never, ever thought the day would come that she’d play dress-up doll for Genesis. He hadn’t let her call any of the shots yet and he didn’t look like he was about to start now.
“Minerva, now what is this? I told you to be fast, but not sloppy.” he tsked at the way she was dressed and then promptly proceeded to his analysis.
“More of the applique at her throat,” he said. “And I like the scalloped edge along the collar, but it needs to be more dramatic. Add those tiny pearlescent beads you showed me earlier. But she has on entirely too much jewelry; it’s distracting. And surely that’s not all you can do for her figure.”
“I cannot emphasize any more without drawing undue attention to what she is clearly lacking,” the designer said, looking down her raised nose at Hana.
“I disagree. Fit the bodice tighter. She has a charming figure and it should be flaunted, even if she is noticeably lacking in the chest.”
Hana flared red even as she pulled her arms in to cover her chest. “What didyoujust say!?” As angry as she was, she also felt embarrassed and a little violated to have him sizing up her body to that degree of detail. True though it may have been, she did not appreciate it being spelled out in detail like that.
Genesis waved away the outburst. “Pad it, if you must. And as long as we’re adding flair and definition, put something on the dress to embellish that dainty waist of hers.”
“You---!” She swore that was a smirk she saw. She would have done anything to slap it right off his face, but two women grabbed her dress and she froze as she saw the glint of the light off a needle.
“It will take a lot of time to reshape the bodice,” the designer said, as oblivious to Hana’s rage as Genesis was. “And you did say that time was the one commodity you could not spare.”
“Make it happen. If we are late, we will be late, but she must be spectacular.”
“Very well,” she said. “Girls, back to work.”
Hana could protest no further as she was enfolded in the flurry of women and words and tools once again.
ShinRa sure knows how to make an impression…
She was in awe of the finery. Everything shone, brilliant in the dizzying lights. The crystal chandelier scattered lights to the farthest corners, everything bathed in its warm glow. The silver and gold and the chinaware and flowers and the linens – it was much too much, but it was glorious. Everything from the statue of ice a story tall – lit a deep azure from within – to the tiny rings holding the napkins in their delicate shapes – was perfect and gleaming and expensive. Even the people were animated treasures, dressed in finery and gems and gliding about the room with soft conversation and the tinkling of laughter.
Hana let out a breath slowly through her lips. It was the most beautiful battleground she could ever imagine.
“All this is for me?” Hana asked.
“Not officially,” Genesis said, adjusting his silver cufflinks. “Unlike yesterday, this one is supposedly to celebrate the ending of the war. But I think we both know the truth. The war’s done, but their work isn’t over.”
“Apparently there was some kind of gala in your honor last night, and Sephiroth outright refused to go,” Angeal had told her. “Genesis found him drugged just before eight, a little more than an hour after the festivities were supposed to begin. The timing is too perfect for this to be a coincidence. What they did to him is a part of their game, and for whatever reason, they’re moving forward with it without waiting for him to recover.
“They are repeating the event tonight, under the guise of celebrating the end of the war. And given what happened last night, we think it’s wisest that you comply with your attendance at least for the time being.”
Hana frowned. No matter how prettily it was dressed, the truth was that she had been forced here against her will, to mix and mingle with the people who would use her the same way her father had. And after last night, she knew that the price of disobedience would be steep indeed.
And she had seen with her own eyes what they were capable of doing to dissenters. Even Sephiroth’s faithfulness to the company and how he was indispensable to ShinRa had not been enough to save him from their wrath.
Perhaps her marriage to Sephiroth had not liberated her after all.
She thought of ShinRa with the same vengeful, hot-blooded anger that she’d once thought only could burn for the memories of her father.
I hate them. I hate them all.
“Coat, Hana,” Genesis said.
Hana pulled the heavy winter cloak around her. It was the one thing she had genuinely liked about the way she was dressed tonight. She liked its weight and its velvety, soft warmth that covered her from the hood to the hem trailing the floor.
Genesis undid the ties at her throat himself with hands gloved in white. “Don’t be shy. You are ravishing.” As he pulled the garment away with a flourish, cold air rushed to chill her arms, her throat, and she shivered.
She didn’t like this style of Continental dress. Beautiful though it had been on the hanger, she had felt from the start that it would not suit her, a fact that was only reaffirmed as Genesis had thrown her to a pack of women who had snipped and tucked and modified it – while she was still in it – until it scarcely resembled the original garment at all. Under the supervision of Genesis and a sour woman of a designer, every inch and curve of her body had been scrutinized, critiqued, and then accommodated in fabric and jewels.
It had been a wholly humiliating experience to be dressed and preened like a doll, without any say over what happened to her own body anymore.
And as much as she had protested, Genesis had ordered much of the fabric snipped away until her arms were completely bare. He had conceded to let her wear white satin gloves up to her elbows to hide her bruises, but even those were so tight that they felt like nothing more than another layer of skin. Her throat and shoulders felt exposed as well, only covered by gossamer lace embroidered with tiny pearls and crystal drops on blossoms large and small. As artfully as it had been done, the decision had been mostly strategic – they had needed to cover the raw patches of skin where the mako had burned.
In Wutai, to show so much skin in formal wear was nothing short of indecent, and she desperately missed the long, heavy sleeves of her kimono. Even the rest of her felt exposed under the caress of such light fabric, wrapping her torso in a tight sheathe, waist cinched tightly with a satin sash and a burst of fabric flowers on her right hip, and then cascades of organza falling in a slender column to the floor.
She missed the comforting weight of the kimono, and its protection.
“You need to stand on their level,” Genesis had said. “Tonight, you will dress and speak and act like you’re from the Continent, like you are one of them.”
“Now stand up straighter and throw your shoulders back,” Genesis said and Hana was pulled uncomfortably back to the present. “In this place respect will only be given if it is commanded. You are dressed the part, now you need to act it too.”
They had spent no small amount of time discussing the part she was to play tonight. They assured her that everyone was expecting her to be quiet, shy, and ignorant. It was an act that would no longer work, especially because the main objective of everyone in that room was to take advantage of her. The more she could shatter their expectations and withstand them, the better.
Hana pulled into the front of her mind an image of her husband – how he had looked in Junon as he had rushed towards her and into the fray – icy steel composure with a will of fire only visible in eyes alight with strength. Unmovable. Untouchable. Undefeatable.
She knew it was irrational, and that Angeal and Zack were still with him, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he was all right.
It was no wonder that Genesis had been chosen to be her escort in Sephiroth’s place. He moved with practiced grace, exuding a smug confidence that suited the situation well. Growing up in the upper-class had taught him a thing or two, not the least of which had been where to go to get her dressed and groomed for a formal event in less than two hours. Dressed to the nines in a pristine tuxedo himself, with a dramatic flair from a red wine colored jacket and long coattails to keep him from blending in with the crowd, he made an imposing figure. Perhaps, Hana allowed herself to admit, even more formidable a figure than he was in his SOLDIER uniform.
She hoped his knowledge could help her get out of this ordeal unscathed.
“I feel like they’re sizing me up,” Hana whispered as she gently threaded her arm through Genesis’s. Her entrance had been realized and now she was the subject of most everyone’s attention. Even the chatter in the air took on a different tone.
“They are,” he said. “So now’s not the time to be small. Remember that the only reason we’re here is to put up a strong front. Now, Princess, follow my lead.”
And with that they alighted gracefully into the fray.
So far, she had managed to get by.
It was introduction after introduction after introduction, people practically lining up to meet her. Genesis did most of the talking, and she was grateful for it. He was smooth in speech, and well-practiced. All she had to do was shake a hand when it was offered and say a soft, “Good evening”, or “How do you do?” She had found from the very start that she was instinctively bowing slightly from the waist. She had looked to Genesis for guidance but the shining lady before her just laughed lightly and mimicked her motion, calling it “charming”. “Keep it up, they like it,” Genesis whispered in her ear. And so she did what came most naturally, whether or not her bows were returned.
When her head was filled to the brim with names and her hand was tingling from being grabbed and shaken so many times, she saw someone out of the corner of her eye who had not come forward to meet her, but had been fixing his sinister eyes on her the whole time. A chill ran up her spine. “That’s him, isn’t it?” she asked Genesis.
He turned his gaze the same direction as hers. “Oh, so it is. Old man Hojo himself. Can’t say the tux helps him much.”
The scientist smirked as he noticed that he had caught her attention as well. “Don’t,” Genesis said, seizing her arm before she could take another step toward him. “Not here. Not now. We’ll get him back later, I promise.”
And eventually they made it to the refreshments table. Hana looked at the spread but couldn’t bring herself to eat. The situation had abolished her appetite.
“Champagne?” Genesis offered her a small fluted glass. “It will steady your nerves.”
“No, thank you, I need a clear head. I’m no good when I’m tipsy.”
“Suit yourself,” Genesis said, taking the whole glass in one swallow. “I can never make it through these things sober.” He put his glass on a plate carried by a serviceman and said, “I’m going to need a lot more of these.”
“Aren’t SOLDIERS not supposed to…?”
“You let me handle that,” he said as he downed a second glass. “You just get ready for Scarlet.”
“Who’s—?“ But she could tell who Scarlet was, because she was (barely) dressed in the color of her name, and she was sauntering quickly toward them.
“Hana, little flower, it is a pleasure to meet you at last. I must admit that I expected…well, for you to be a little more from how you’ve managed to singlehandedly turn the company upside down.”
Hana extended her hand, not sure how else to respond. Scarlet looked at it but did not shake.
“And to capture the Silver General himself…you must teach me this foreign magic, little flower.” Her laugh was high and grating, broken up into syllables, something like kya ha ha ha!
“You’re as rude and scantily clad as ever, Scarlet,” Genesis said. “I had hoped you’d display some refinement in both dress and speech given the occasion.”
“And you’re here with this uncouth mongrel? I had so hoped to see you and Sephiroth sharing a dance on the veranda…” She sighed, ignoring Genesis entirely, and swirled the champagne in her glass before taking a dainty sip. Hana wished she could exude even a fraction of her confidence. “Where is that silver beau of yours?”
“Sephiroth is ill today,” Hana said with another bow, misplaced though it felt. Polite, but not weak, she reminded herself, keeping her gaze steadily on the woman’s face. It went against the instincts she’d learned in Wutai courts to look away in respect. “He says to please excuse his absence.”
“Ill?” Scarlet laughed again, raising Hana’s hackles. It was easier to lock gazes with her now that she was angry. “Come now, girl. Sephiroth is the epitome of health. In all the years I’ve been here, he’s never had so much as the sniffles.” Humming softly, she raised her champagne glass to examine her through the liquid. “Surely,” she drawled, “you could think of a better cover-up than that?” She took the rest of the liquid in one go and returned to her with a smile. “So spill the beans. What did Hojo do to him this time? It must be pretty bad if he’s not here.”
So she knows? How many people in that room knew, she wondered. How many of them watched idly as this happened time and time again?
With every new thing she learned, she realized more and more what a dangerous place ShinRa really was.
“In truth, Sephiroth simply did not want to bother with this event,” Hana said. “He finds the company aggravating.”
Genesis raised an eyebrow at her audacity, but did nothing to mitigate the bite of her words.
Scarlet laughed. “That, my girl, is a much more believable excuse. It just might have worked if everyone didn’t already know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hana insisted. Her lie was not lacking in strength for the anger in her voice.
“I trust we understand each other. Poor little Sephiroth. Did you marry him for his strength? What a shock it must have been to find out that in the end, he’s just Hojo’s pet project. An overgrown lab rat, really, and one who’s been carefully trained to submit to its master. It’s shameful that he’s nothing but a pawn of the company. A very pretty pawn with nothing in his soul but the wars and violence he was created to spread.”
It was so fast that she didn’t even remember it happening.
But suddenly Scarlet’s makeup was running, her bangs were dripping, and the front of her dress was wet. The empty glass was in Hana’s hand.
She was aware that Scarlet’s shriek (exaggerated, surely – there wasn’t even that much in each glass!) had drawn the stares of a good portion of the crowd. She looked at Scarlet, then to her glass, and couldn’t bring herself to care.
In fact, she felt…proud of what she had done.
“You’re wrong,” she hissed. “About everything.” And she turned on her heels and stalked away, each strike of her shoes on the stone echoing in the silence.
Genesis followed her. Only when the talking behind them resumed did he speak.
“That was poorly done.”
“You didn’t want to do the same thing?”
“That’s not the point. We came here to put up a front, not make enemies. And Scarlet is a formidable enemy.”
“I don’t care.”
“You should. You probably will really soon.”
Hana didn’t reply. She stopped as she reached the door to the exit. She folded her arms and stared at the door, straight-backed. “I can’t leave, can I?” she asked quietly.
Genesis didn’t offer an answer.
“I’m sick and tired of running,” Hana said, gloved hands clenching into fists. “But I don’t know how to fight yet, either.”
“It takes time. Especially this politicking.”
“I don’t have time!” she said, probably more loudly than was prudent. “Any day now, we’re going to have to face—“
The door before her burst open, and in tumbled Zack, who skidded to a stop only just in time to avoid an outright collision with her. The man was panting, dressed in dress slacks but with a shirt that was only half tucked in and a tie that had been tied in a regular knot, uneven ends diverging at an angle as they ran down his chest. He’d missed a button halfway down too.
“Zack, besides the issue of you abandoning your post, you look wholly indecent,” Genesis said. “And your entrance leaves much to be desired.”
“No time!” he gasped, struggling to catch his breath. “Where is he?”
“Where is who, puppy?”
“Sephiroth!” Zack choked. Hana’s heart plummeted.
“You let him get away?”
“Let him?” Zack cried. “We didn’t expect him to jump out the window!”
Hana’s heart stopped, because at once, she felt the presence of what used to be her husband.
She felt him at her back before she turned, fearfully, to see him. She saw his silhouette first, dark and tall and terrifying on the veranda, surrounded by the dark of night and the distant glitter of stars. She heard the collective gasp as the crowd saw the irregularity in his shadow, the long, strong arc extending from his shoulder….
He walked into the light, and everyone saw.
A wing! The whispers rang.
And for him to enter from the veranda…
He had flown!
He looked the exact same as the last time she had seen him unconscious on his bed. Though dressed in his black SOLDIER uniform pants, the only shirt he wore was the white bandages encircling his chest, his shoulders and arms completely bare. Despite how improperly he was clothed, he held himself as tall and proud as if he had just emerged victorious from a battle. His long katana was bare in the moonlight, ready in his hand, gleaming with the promise of death.
And his wing was at his side, unabashedly displayed for all of ShinRa to see.
He was not wounded. He was not ashamed.
“Has he gone stark mad?” Genesis hissed.
Every step that Sephiroth took was an eternity. Hana, more than slightly terrified, sought out his eyes, and lost her breath anew. Something burned there. Fury. The likes of which she had never known, and something – or someone, she had the distinct feeling – had consumed him.
She didn’t know this man.
She didn’t want to.
She was afraid.
She took a step back to flee, when another sound stopped her dead in her tracks.
Behind her, in the shadows, she heard another sound echo, the sound matching exactly to each of Sephiroth’s footfalls.
It was the clack of a cane against the floor.