A Pen Mightier than a Sword
Zack watched the grayish snow hit the windows of the SOLDIER floor and wondered if winter would ever end.
At least it was a coherent thought. He hadn’t had many of those recently. Ever since his promotion to First, he felt like he was living his life in a gray fog. He trained, mostly. It was mindless, brainless hacking away, and sometimes his adrenaline levels got high enough that he started to feel something again – a distant cousin of thrill, perhaps. Angeal came to watch him in the booths now and again, but said nothing. What could he possibly say? That Sephiroth hadn’t meant to betray him? That they were both wrong, and Sephiroth really had promoted him for his skill?
He knew Angeal couldn’t give him any comfort because the man would not lie to him.
Still, it felt a little better to know he hadn’t been abandoned.
Work was slow. He had gotten away with just training for a long time, but today he was playing the role of paperboy. He wasn’t sure how it had happened either. He huffed out a breath and the window before him fogged. He shook his head and turned his back on the approaching storm. He wasn’t getting paid to mope around.
He had an armload of papers and files from Lazard that he needed to get to Genesis and Angeal (Lazard had actually said to get them to Sephiroth, but everyone knew that the General hadn’t been in his office in two days). He knew they hired errand boys to do the menial stuff like this, but his hurt pride was buried so deep in apathy that he almost didn’t feel it.
He wasn’t himself, and he knew it, but he couldn’t care.
He passed by the hallway without a second thought. It was only several steps later that he realized that he’d seen something out of place.
He backed up until he had a good look at the situation. A middle-aged, balding man dressed in a tan shirt and slacks was just outside Sephiroth’s office, locking the door and pocketing the keys.
No one had gone in or out of that office in two days. Zack’s suspicions arose.
“Excuse me,” Zack said, much more strongly than was courteous.
It was ever so slight, nearly invisible under the baggy uniform, but Zack saw his shoulder muscles seize up, and he jumped slightly at Zack’s call.
“What are you doing there?” Zack said, closing the distance between them.
“Custodian,” he said, voice slightly higher than Zack would have expected from a man his age. “Cleaning the General’s office.”
Zack looked the man up and down. “Cleaning?” he asked again. He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms, which looked intimidating even though he was still holding the files he had to deliver. “…With what?” The man had no supplies on him. No chemicals, no vacuum or duster, not even so much as a paper towel. And it was illogical to be cleaning executive offices in the morning, when they were most likely to be occupied.
Zack reached out to apprehend the man when a second man called, “Clark!”
Zack turned to find a second man, dressed in the same tan uniform, next to a custodial cart. “Sorry, sir,” the man said, dipping his head. “Clark’s new. He’s running behind schedule, but forgot to check the General’s garbage can. I sent him back to finish the job.”
“Oh,” Zack said. But still, the pieces didn’t quite click. Something didn’t feel right. “Well…okay. Just do a better job next time. Sephiroth likes to be clean and orderly.”
Clark pulled at his collar and grinned sheepishly, then quickly scurried away after the cleaning cart and his colleague.
Zack watched them go but shook his head. It made sense that they would clean while Sephiroth was out, he told himself.
But when he stepped out of the hallway himself, the two men and the cart were completely gone. They couldn’t have run, because Zack would have heard them. He would have seen them if they were still in the hallway, and it wasn’t long enough for them to have gotten down it in so short a time. He looked down the hallway at all the unlabeled doors – not offices, so probably just closets or mechanical rooms or something, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t heard a door open either.
It didn’t sit right with him. Something was wrong.
“I need to get into Sephiroth’s office. Do you know who has a set of keys?”
Angeal looked at Zack with that trademark stare that spelled disapproval and exasperation. “Why?” he asked.
“Well,” Zack rubbed the back of his neck. “Some guy just came out of there. And it seemed sketchy.”
Angeal raised an eyebrow. “Custodian?” he asked.
“Oh come on, can you just check in there? Something about it seemed…off.”
“All right,” Angeal said, picking up his office phone. “I’ll phone Lazard, he should have a key.”
Angeal leaned back in his chair while the phone rang. “I’m glad,” he said to Zack.
“What, that Sephiroth’s office got broken into?”
“No, that you seem a little more invested in work today.”
“Oh,” Zack said. “Yeah, guess it’s been a while.”
“Hmm,” Angeal said without disapproval.
Angeal’s office was smaller than Sephiroth’s, and rather plain, but it was nice enough. He had a window to let the light in, and though very little was on the walls, a big, stately desk and Angeal’s warm presence filled the space.
“Lazard, it’s Angeal. Zack reported that a custodian just came out of Sephiroth’s office. He said something about it was suspicious.” Angeal listened and then chuckled. “Humor me. It’s got him perked up again.”
Zack glowered at his mentor.
Angeal waited patiently, and then raised his eyebrows, all humor draining from his face. “Oh?” he asked. “Oh…yes, sir. You should probably let security and the Turks know too.” He hung up and stood up from his desk. “You might actually be on to something. No custodial work was scheduled for this floor today.”
“See?” Zack said. “I told you! I’m First Class now and still you doubted me.”
“All right, all right. Let’s just see what turns up for now.”
“That can’t be...” Zack said, staring Tseng down. “I know what I saw.”
“We’re not denying that anyone was in there,” Tseng said. “All we’re saying is that there’s nothing inside – nothing more and nothing less than what the General normally keeps in there.”
“But then why would—?”
“That’s good news,” Angeal said, cutting across Zack. “It’s good that nothing happened.” Though Angeal looked at Tseng, Zack could feel the remark directed squarely for him.
Two Turks in trademark suits left the room, and Tseng waved them away. “I can assure you that we’ve swept the room for everything, Zack. Nothing is out of place.”
“Sweep it again!” Zack said, pointing back inside Sephiroth’s office. “Or at least let me do it!”
Angeal sighed. “The Turks are satisfied, Zack. Maybe the custodian was just a…fanboy…wanting to see where Sephiroth worked.”
“I don’t buy it!” Zack said. “I approached him and he was scared. If he really was a custodian for the SOLDIER floor, he should be used to seeing us!”
“All right,” Tseng said, turning a wheel on his watch. “I’m returning to fill out a report. I’ll notify Sephiroth as well, and we’ll raise security for a few more hours. If you want to go in there, I have no objections, assuming that you are willing to risk trampling on the General’s privacy.”
“It’s his office, not his closet,” Zack murmured.
“Still,” Angeal said, “he has a point. Sephiroth values his privacy.”
“You owe me for not believing me,” Zack said. “So cover for me.” And with that, he let himself into Sephiroth’s office and closed the door behind him.
He regretted shutting the door. The office was rather large, and dark. And knowing whose office it was just made it creepy.
But to reopen the door would be to admit defeat to Angeal, and he wasn’t about to do that.
He flipped on the lights, which helped dispel the shadows but not the feelings of guilt over trespassing – or perhaps it was fear of getting caught – he couldn’t tell.
“All right,” he said to himself. “Now, if I were a creep, where would I plant something?”
He started with the obvious. He opened every drawer in the desk and found only normal office things. All the trinkets, tools, and papers on his desk looked innocent enough. The file cabinets were locked and the invader was unlikely to have had a key anyway.
With all those places eliminated, he didn’t have many options left.
He opened up the heater vent in the corner, but the only thing he found in there was a lungful of dust. Coughing as he stood up, he kicked the grate back into place and groaned. “He had to come in here for a reason…”
There weren’t many places to hide, he finally admitted to himself. Knowing Sephiroth, he’d probably planned his office that way on purpose. He patted the square cushion on the chair across from Sephiroth’s desk, and couldn’t feel anything inside. He dropped it back to roughly where it was and sighed in exasperation.
He wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. He instinctively began doing squats as he thought.
It was as he was coming up from a squat that the answer came.
Above Sephiroth’s desk was a vent on the ceiling.
“Ha!” Zack said, pointing at the grate. “Gotcha!”
He sprung up from a deep squat into a powerful jump, landing with both feet on Sephiroth’s desk. He got to work immediately. He’d never appreciated how tall the ceilings in this building were. He stood at six feet, on a desk, and he still had to stand on his tiptoes to reach the grate. With a little shuffling around and a jump or two, the thing came free.
With a great fwoosh, dust rained all around him.
Apparently, Sephiroth’s cleanliness did not extend to flushing out the vents.
He stood stupidly on his superior’s desk, covered in dust, and holding a useless metal grate in his hand.
He flung the grate aside and looked down at the mess on the desk. Now, after his enthusiasm had been replaced by shame, he realized that it had not been a good idea to jump on Sephiroth’s desk in his combat boots. He did excuse himself from the dust, as really, that hadn’t been his fault. Completely, anyway.
He stepped down with one foot and, as he pulled the second off, files and papers fell to the floor along with his foot.
And that’s when he saw it.
ShinRa folders were manila. He’d seen enough of them to know. Some were coffee-stained manila, or “just got out of weapons training and too lazy to clean up” manila, but all were recognizably, predictably, manila.
This file was bright, neon green.
He stared at it as it sat on the floor amid its manila counterparts for a long time. He’d already wrecked Sephiroth’s office, how much more trouble could he get into, really?
It wasn’t ShinRa issue, of that he was sure. The label was handwritten instead of printed, and the papers were slightly yellowed with age. And as little sense as it made that someone would plant a file into Sephiroth’s office, it was sort of clever at the same time. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would be looked for in a scan. The Turks, if they had seen it at all, had probably just assumed it was his personal file.
Zack was the only one with the audacity to go through his superior officer’s paperwork.
Angeal knocked. “Are you done messing up his office yet?”
“You don’t know that I did!” Zack said.
Angeal had let him pry this far, but he knew he would not approve of him going through Sephiroth’s files. Swiftly, he pulled his sweater out from where it was tucked into his pants and shoved the file up his shirt. With a little fidgeting, he got the file to stay relatively put above his belts. It was uncomfortable to have that stiff stack of stuff pressed so close to him, but he couldn’t think of any other options at the moment. There was no mirror to check, but he felt like it was thin enough that it wouldn’t show too much. Or at least, he hoped.
He turned out the lights and exited, shutting the door behind him quickly so Angeal wouldn’t have a chance to get a glimpse of the inside. “See?” Zack said. “All clear. Even I’m convinced.”
“You’re never that easy to convince, Zack.” From his mentor’s lowered eyebrows, he knew he had aroused his suspicions.
Zack grinned widely and slapped Angeal on the shoulder. “Lighten up. I can admit when I’m wrong. Gotta fly, catch you later!”
He waited until he was around the corner of the hallway before he peeked back. “Oh, and you might want to get a custodian in there. A real one, this time.”
He hightailed it out of there before he could hear any more of the reprimand than his shouted name.
It was only that night, when he was alone in the barracks, that he was able to look at the file. He knew it was a terrible trespass, but something was driving him to do it. There was something eerie about the folder, and though he would brush it off as nothing, he couldn’t shake the whispers just out of his range of hearing – a woman’s voice calling from a world away.
He was filled only with foreboding as he opened the file, meant for Sephiroth’s eyes, labeled “The Jenova Project.”