When Time Runs Out
Angeal had fully expected things to be messy after Genesis’s little setup. He’d expected to see Sephiroth storm into work with a scowl and lock himself in his office and to not see Hana bringing him his usual lunch.
What he saw shocked him even more.
Sephiroth came in late, of all things, which never happened. The only way to keep the General from his work was extreme sedatives and lots of them. He didn’t say a word except a brief nod of greeting to whoever greeted him first, and his gait was somewhat normal, if less purposeful and slightly slower. Most surprising of all was that he didn’t fully close his office door.
If Angeal hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that it was sadness in his friend’s eyes.
He rapped his knuckles softly on the door to announce himself, even though the door was half-open. Sephiroth looked up from his papers. “Yes?” he asked.
“Good morning,” Angeal said.
“Hm.” Sephiroth slid a stack of
papers into the center of his desk without taking his eyes from his friend. “Is
Angeal waited. Did he really need to say anything? Surely he knew by now why he’d come to check on him.
Either he genuinely didn’t or he was doing a great job at faking it. Sephiroth wasn’t playing the silent game; he was actually waiting for an answer.
“…Yes,” Angeal decided belatedly. “Yes, that’s all. Carry on.”
Sephiroth looked a moment longer, but as neither man could decipher the other, he turned to his work. “I want your report on my desk by noon.”
“I’ll get on it.”
It was one of the most confusing exchanges that Angeal had ever had with the man.
And so he waited for lunchtime. No matter how bad things had gotten between them, Hana had not yet failed to bring her husband his lunch.
At eleven he took a small break and noticed that the women’s bathroom was occupied. He honestly didn’t even know why there was a women’s bathroom on the SOLDIER floor, as all the SOLDIERS and officers were men, but maybe some of the female heads of departments came by from time to time. It was a small, one toilet room, and he’d never in all his time as SOLDIER seen the lights coming from the narrow gap under the door or the dial above the handle read “OCCUPIED” in red letters.
He hadn’t thought too much of it until half-past noon, when he noticed that Sephiroth still hadn’t received his lunch, and the women’s bathroom was still locked with the lights on.
Genesis knew something was up when he saw Angeal put his forehead in his hands and sigh as they passed the bathroom. “What?” the man asked, taking a bite out of a dumbapple. Since the ordeal, Genesis had been abnormally normal and it was infuriating. The redhead followed his friend’s gaze, looked the door up and down, and smirked.
“This is your fault,” Angeal said. “You could show at least some signs of remorse.”
“My fault? I’ll have you know that my genius has devised this perfect plan to be the best thing that’s ever happened to this woe-struck couple.”
Angeal looked up and down the hallway. They were alone, for now.
He softly knocked on the bathroom door. “Hana?” he called, trying not to think about how embarrassing it would be if he had guessed wrong.
“Well, well,” Genesis said, that annoying smirk of his only growing. “Why are you in there of all places, my dear?”
“I hate you, Genesis! I’m never talking to you again!” Hana cried, banging on the door from the inside for emphasis.
Angeal didn’t say anything to soften or dismiss that because he didn’t blame her one bit. “Genesis, I think you better let me handle this.”
“All right,” Genesis said, taking another bite of the apple. “Have fun,” he said as he dismissed himself.
“Genesis is gone,” Angeal said. “Will you come out of there now?”
“…No,” Hana said.
Angeal grimaced, checking that the hallway was empty again. “Then, can I come in?”
At just that moment a Third Class came around the corner. Angeal snapped his mouth shut, but knew that the man had heard by the weird expression on his face just before he promptly turned around and went back the way he had come.
He’d pay for that one for sure.
But it worked. The lock clicked and the words on the door changed to a green “VACANT”.
He already had a witness that he’d asked to join a woman in the women’s bathroom, so he didn’t bother to see if anyone saw him go in.
Hana was sitting down on the tile floor, leaning against the base of the single sink and hugging her knees to her. Beside her was a square package wrapped in bright, Wutaian printed cloth.
Angeal let the door close behind them. He wouldn’t be able to tell if anyone was eavesdropping outside, but Hana didn’t know that was a risk yet, and she would require the privacy to speak. “Aren’t you going to take that lunch to Sephiroth?” he asked.
“No,” Hana moaned, putting her head down on her knees as she continued to shake her head. “I can’t. I can’t see him again. Ever.”
Angeal breathed out slowly. “What happened last night?” he asked.
“Nothing.” Angeal waited, and she groaned again. “Literally! Nothing!”
“…And that’s the problem,” Angeal concluded.
“I think so.” Her voice was very small and strained. “I don’t know anymore.”
“You love him.”
Hana abruptly stood and threw the lunchbox against the wall hard enough to break the plastic case. Curry ran down the white wall. “Yes!” she wailed, sobs rising from her throat. “Yes, I love him, all right? You happy now? I said it! I love him! I can’t…I just can’t…it’s the worst thing that could have happened!”
“Hana,” Angeal said, catching her by the shoulders. “Stop. Calm down.”
She came to herself quickly. She shuddered once, and then slowly sat back down again, staring at the mess she’d made. Angeal joined her on the floor.
“Love is a strong word,” Angeal said softly. “Are you…sure?”
“No,” she croaked. “…No. I…don’t
know. I don’t know myself anymore. But…” She looked up at him, lost and
confused. “What else could it be?”
Angeal took her and embraced her, pressing her head into his chest. She shook, but did not cry. “Every time I look at him I burn,” she whispered. “And…I dream of him every night. I dream of running my fingers through his hair, touching his cheek…his lips…and of resting in his arms. And I…I want….
“It hurts,” she moaned from the depths of her soul. “It hurts so much. I can’t do it anymore, knowing he will never….”
Angeal waited. It was a long time that she stayed silently in the protection of his embrace, gathering her strength and composure again. When she pulled away, her eyes were still dry.
“Don’t tell me it’s a good thing!” Hana said, cutting across him. “I can’t do it. I can’t spend my life as his wife in name only while every moment I ache like this. And it’s not fair to him, either. If he doesn’t…it would be better if I just… Now. Today. Before…anything else can happen.”
Angeal looked down at her despondent face. She had endured nothing but strain since she had come to Midgar with Sephiroth. There had been slander and strife and heartache at every turn.
It was cruel, too cruel, to ask her to stay after what she’d been through.
“Where will you go?” Angeal asked.
Hana looked up at him again. “You…you’ll help me?”
“Yes,” Angeal said, though it hurt to say it. “But take a moment and think. If you are sure this is what you want, then I will help you escape.”
Hana rested her chin on her knees. “It’s not what I want,” she said at last. “But it’s what’s best for him.”
Angeal raised an eyebrow, the lack of the plural all too noticeable.
She could still question and deny it, but he knew what it was that had blossomed in her heart.
And he was starting to think that he knew how to get her to reconsider.
“Walk with me,” Angeal said. “We’ll head out of Midgar. And on the way, if you change your mind…” He smiled sadly, but got to his feet and extended a hand down toward her. “Then, I have to admit that I’d be much happier.”
“I’m sorry, Angeal. You’ve been a great friend. I’ll never forget your kindness.” She took his hand and followed him out of the bathroom.
There was nothing more he could do, but he was willing to bet that Ma would have the words to make her stay.
“Are you sure that Sephiroth doesn’t return your feelings?” Angeal asked her when they were well away from ShinRa.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hana said, hugging her coat tighter to her. “Of course he doesn’t.”
“Not even a little?”
Hana glared at him out of the corners of her eyes. “Stop it. He doesn’t.” She said it with such finality that he knew that arguing would be futile. The way she slammed the door on the conversation like that reminded him of someone else he knew.
The realization made him smile.
She followed obediently, treading through the snow and shivering beside him. She had taken nothing, not wanting to even see their apartment ever again. To keep her warm, he had grabbed an old, worn ShinRa issue winter coat for her and had insisted that she change into combat boots as well. She’d also taken a helmet to keep people from recognizing her. With that gear mismatched with her regular jeans, she looked like an infantryman that had tried to dress for work during a hangover.
“What do you want me to tell him?” Angeal asked.
“I don’t care. Say I died. In some way that there’s no body so he won’t bother looking.”
“…All right.” He didn’t know if he could tell such a terrible lie to his best friend, much less carry that secret for the rest of his life. And Sephiroth wasn’t easy to fool. He would probably guess what had happened no matter what Angeal said.
She took several steps and then severely added, “Don’t you dare tell him anything I said.”
“I wasn’t going to,” he assured her.
They continued their dismal march in heavy silence. It wasn’t until the pair was nearly there that she realized where he was taking her and spoke up.
“We’re going to Ma’s?” she asked.
He would have preferred that she realized later, when there was less chance for her to back out, but he had thought this might happen. “Don’t you want to say goodbye?”
“I guess,” she said after some hesitation. And they continued the trek in silence.
Angeal was the first one to realize that something was wrong. They’d long since left the part of Midgar that received the most traffic, but the number of footsteps in the snow was only growing. Knowing that the izakaya received little traffic before nightfall, the revelation was alarming.
A large group of people had come through here, but he kept his findings to himself. It wouldn’t be fair to make Hana even more upset over something that was probably insignificant anyway.
But she was the one to find the next literal red flag.
At the head of the street that Ma’s izakaya was on, a pole was posted in the snow, and on it flew a red banner torn from some larger piece of cloth. On it, in black ink, was an elaborate but poorly and hastily painted bird.
Hana stopped dead at the sight. “No…” she whispered. “No!” And she broke out into a run.
His heart sinking into his shoes, Angeal followed her to the horror that they both expected would await them.
The izakaya was nothing but blackened posts lying akimbo, thick debris, and gray-white ash, the fire long since quenched. The wreckage was already disappearing under a thin layer of snow, as if the planet itself was trying to hide what had been done.
Angeal reached for his phone and dialed out of instinct. Hana did not hear who he was talking to.
Her world went dead silent except for the throbbing of her heart. She was drawn slowly toward the wreckage like a lead puppet, helpless against the command of the strings. The biting air came in through her mouth but she could not feel its sting.
“Ma,” she whispered. “…Ma? Pa?”
She stepped through what once had been the closest thing she’d had to a home in Midgar. “Ma!” she cried again as panic began to seep through the blanket of numbness.
Her father had once again taken what she loved.
She fell to her knees, and then flat on her face in the snow. She stared at the white as her world tilted and spun. “Ma,” she called weakly. “Pa…”
The earth beneath her was soft, and through the haze in her eyes that blurred the world, there were flecks of green.
She reached toward those small points of color, and with effort, grabbed hold and pulled toward her.
In her hand were tiny, white blossoms on slender green stems amid her handful of snow.
Her heart stopped as she remembered Ma’s words.
“Flowers can’t bloom in the snow,” Hana said.
“Can’t they?” Ma asked, and there was a knowing twinkle in her dark eyes.
The look made Hana suspicious. “And nothing can grow in Midgar. This place…it is death.”
“I am Matsuko,” Ma said. “Literally ‘pine tree child’. And it has not been easy, but I have found life here, and grown.” Ma smiled, wisdom etched into the lines on her face. “And I believe you can too.”
“Ma,” she sobbed as she looked at the flowers.
“I believe in you. You are Yukihana. You are the flower blooming amid the snow.”
“No…I can’t…it hurts…”
“Pain,” Pa said, as she left, “opens the heart.”
And Pa had been right. The pain finally overwhelmed her, and she spilled all the anguish in her soul into the bed of snow and blossoms.
Sephiroth had seen great things in Wutai. There were places where the earth swayed in fields of green, coastlines with silver-white sands, mountains that pierced the heavens, and forests deep enough to consume a man. Though geographically small, especially in comparison to the continents, Wutai boasted some of the world’s true wonders. It seemed like everywhere he went there was something to appreciate, from the simplicity of a natural mako pool to the grandeur of mountains and canyons.
But this place was the exception. If the gods truly had shaped the land of Wutai with their bare hands as local religion claimed, they had forgotten about this place.
It was only a few hours ago that they had started to see the decay of the land as they pressed north. The springy grasslands under the blanket of snow thinned to sandy dirt, the sparse vegetation thick, woody, and dry long before the winter had hit. They had been surrounded by grand mountains with brilliant snowcaps this morning, but the rock giants here had no majesty. The only thing that could thrive in this place was snow, which had gotten only deeper as they had travelled. Snow – dense and heavy and tall – impeded every footstep his men and every cycle of the wheels on the supply truck. They had already had to stop to dig it out twice.
They now traveled through a narrow pass between two graceless, clumpy buttes, the wind whipping and screaming through the path cutting sharp and cold as the edge of a blade.
Even the desert had its beauties, but this wasteland had nothing except an abnormal capacity to sap the energy and morale of his troops.
Sephiroth was in a foul mood because he had failed to calculate the lay of the land properly. Admittedly, the terrain had not been mentioned in his research, though he allowed that when the whole rest of the country was so remarkable, commenting on such an unremarkable place as this would be a waste of words. However, he had also been outright misinformed about the brutality of Wutai’s winters, and that could have been helped with five more minutes of research from the planning team at HQ.
But it was too late for any of that now.
And so he sat in the truck, reading maps and supply registers by the light of a single swaying bulb, trying to make the best of what his small company had left. Food, especially, was low, and if he had to impose rations morale would only sink further. ShinRa, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, had not adequately prepared them for such cold either. They had been assured that the cold and snow would be only a mild issue and their gear had been chosen accordingly. Now, if it snowed tonight, their lightweight tents ran the risk of collapsing under the weight of the snow.
Losing men in battle was unavoidable, but losing men to the elements because of a miscalculation on the part of the supply team was unforgivable.
Next time, he vowed, he would personally replace the entire supply team.
The only solution he could draw was to have everyone sleep in the back of the supply truck for shelter. This would keep the worst of the cold away, but to conserve fuel, they could not keep the engine running for the heat. In addition, it would be incredibly cramped, but they would survive.
It was going to be a long night.
The truck lurched to a stop, throwing his back against the wall of the truck. He narrowed his eyes at the annoyance, but at least the light would be steady now.
“G-Genral, sir?” One of the cadets had hopped on the back of the truck, and the cold wind from outside angrily stung the two men. Sephiroth could not tell if the man was shivering out of cold or fear. He probably looked more formidable than usual with the shadows flickering in the unreliable light of the bulb.
“Yes, what is it?”
“A caravan, s-sir. We’ve intercepted them but there’s trouble.” The man shuddered, his posture faltering from the respectful attention position. ShinRa uniforms, while cumbersome and hot in the heat, did not shield cadets from the cold very well either. “Sorry. Bitter cold out there, sir.”
“I’m sorry, I am working on a solution presently. Tell the SOLDIERS that I authorize the use of fire material to keep themselves and the rest of you warm.”
The man saluted. “Thank you, sir.”
“I’ll be out to inspect the caravan shortly. Until then, do not let them pass.”
He started moving all he could to the sides of the van to make as much space on the floor as possible, but the commotion outside only grew and he knew he would have to finish later.
He quickly assessed the situation as he exited the truck and made his way to the caravan. There were four carts in all, each pulled by old and weary horses. Outside, yelling in Wutaiese at his men, were eight men dressed in work clothes and aprons with tool belts, suggesting that they were craftsmen.
The conflict stopped as he approached, his authority sweeping over his own men and the merchants alike.
“Where is Jones?” Sephiroth asked after letting the silence settle. “He’s the only one who can speak Wutaiese.”
“He’s out scouting, sir.”
Sephiroth frowned. Though silenced, the merchants’ faces held contempt. He knew they were angry with being stopped by ShinRa troops without an explanation, but there was nothing he could do to communicate that he had to search their cargo, and he did not want the tension to boil over into a fight over something so trivial. His hope was that their fear of him would hold their rage in check.
“Do any of you speak Continental?” he called over the men. There were dark murmurs in a foreign tongue but otherwise no response.
“Do any of you speak Continental?” he repeated, louder this time.
“I speak Continental, General Sephiroth.”
It was the voice of a woman, her speech in his tongue flawless, but flavored with the accent of her motherland. Unlike the merchants, she was not afraid of him, and stood tall and spoke with an air of authority that clashed against his own.
The door of the second cart opened, and out stepped the woman. She was dressed in the robes of a miko, all but the front of her hakama covered by a cloak of straw to ward off the cold. She had a large, wide-rimmed hat of woven bamboo, from which fell a thick veil that flowed to her elbows and hid her face from sight.
“Himesama!” several of the men cried. One made a dash for her and tried to push her back inside, but she waved him away with a sweep of her arm.
“What is it you want?” the woman asked.