Now it was Sephiroth’s turn to dwell in an eerily empty apartment.
The days since Ma’s izakaya had been burned to the ground had changed Hana. He knew it before he had even been told the news, when she had stormed in, wordlessly grabbed the gun she had once named Baka, and stormed out. Now, she spent her days and nights locked in the Turks’ Training Rooms, training with her gun in either deadly silence or screams of agony masked by furious bloodlust. The veracity with which she attacked the dummies was stunning as she exacted her displaced vengeance. Everyone there gave her a wide berth or trained elsewhere. Sephiroth checked on her every now and again, but said and did nothing to either encourage or discourage her actions. Once, late at night, when he had found her collapsed awkwardly on a metal bench in sleep fueled by mental and physical exhaustion, he had draped a blanket over her shivering body. Other than that, he had not approached her. He doubted that she had even seen him from the booths where he observed her in silence.
He contemplated how odd it was that his apartment no longer felt the same. He had always lived alone – from the very beginning of his life as a lab specimen. In many ways, he expected, even needed the solitude. But now the difference was palpable. Even when he had locked himself in his room to read, he had known that Hana would be in her bedroom, or scuffling about doing housework – never far, always within reach, though he had seldom actually reached to her. He had to admit that it was uncomfortable without the assurance of her mere presence, perhaps because it was she that had taken a drab apartment and turned it into the closest thing that Sephiroth had ever known to a home.
He slid a bookmark into the text he was reading and set it aside. He could not focus on the words today. He stared out the window in pensive silence instead. It was too quiet. Hana had been right – even this small hiatus from the quiet workings of home life was making him antsy.
He stood and took up his sword. He had not trained in several days, and it would be a distraction to fill the time, if nothing else.
He had exited the apartment and was locking his door when his cell phone rang. He traded his keys for his phone in his pocket, not pausing his departure from the residence floor. “Tseng,” he said curtly in greeting.
“Sephiroth,” Tseng returned. The two men held mutual appreciation for each other’s brevity. “There is news.”
“Matsuko, and the court of Wutai.”
She had lost count of how many shots she’d fired. She’d thought that the more she shot, the better she’d feel, but she had been wrong. Why she still continued her rampage, she couldn’t even say herself.
But continue she did. It was not enough to take out every last dummy, she had to reset the program, do it again, and again, faster…faster…faster.
Day and night meant nothing in this place. She slept when she collapsed, ate or drank when her vision blurred. She knew she was past her limits. Her body cried for her to stop, but her soul cried louder, and so on she danced with the phantoms of her pain.
It continued until a flash of silver deflected one of her bullets, casting it aside as easily as swatting a fly. She stared at the place it had occurred, searching in vain for a residue of light in the smoky mist.
The flash had been bright and quick enough to cease her assault. She stopped, and began to feel. Sweat was dripping down her face, plastering her bangs to her forehead, and her entire body was bathed with its salty sheen. Her chest was heaving, breathing so hard that she was close to choking on each breath. And her side was split by pain.
She wavered, but raised her gun to begin anew.
“I said enough, Hana,” and she staggered as the room was flooded with light. The cool mist dissipated in the warmth, and the dummies circled around her and then were retracted, rank and file, into the ceiling.
In the wide, empty gymnasium was only her and her husband, his blade drawn and shining in the light.
“Why…?” she asked, and her voice was hoarse. She grimaced and cleared her throat to try again so she would sound as angry as she felt. “Why did you stop me?”
“Because you are on the verge of collapse. This has gone on long enough.”
“I can ta—“
It was so quick that all she saw was a blur of silver – whether from his blade or his hair, she could not tell – but then he was behind her, and she was locked against him with one iron arm across her abdomen and the terrible length of his blade ghosting perpendicular to her throat.
“Yield,” he hissed, his breath warm in her ear. The power of the command drove the breath from her lungs.
Her gun hit the floor with a clatter.
After several seconds of eternity, he released his hold, and she slid to the ground, body heaving and shaking as she fought even to remain on all fours.
The water bottle he gave her was filled with a bright blue liquid. She drank it down so eagerly that she almost didn’t notice how bad it tasted. But it was cold, and refreshing, and stopped her uncontrollable quivering.
“We have work to do.”
Hana raised her head to look at him through the limp lengths of her black hair. “What?”
“The Turks found a witness. Before they burned the izakaya, men dressed in black took Matsuko and her husband from the building. They are likely still alive, though captive, and kept in a mansion in the capitol city that your father uses as his base in Wutai.”
Sephiroth didn’t allow her to process it fully before handing her a scroll of red and gold. “And this came from the imperial palace.”
Numbly, she took the scroll and unfurled its lengths. The paper was thick, and the calligraphy hand-painted. “It’s…a summons. From Godo.”
She gently rolled up the scroll. “I have to go,” she said. “Back. To Wutai.”
“We leave immediately.”
Sephiroth took the scroll from her and waited until she had pulled herself to her feet. “You were going to storm your father’s fortress yourself?”
Hana stared at him blankly.
“And,” Sephiroth said slowly, “I received a direct summons myself.”
“Oh,” she said, and her face fell as she began to understand. “Oh…”
“Regardless,” Sephiroth said. “We leave in an hour. And don’t forget your gun. You will need it.”
“It’s not like you need our permission,” Genesis said. “You’ve done whatever you’ve wanted ever since that girl got here, which, I may note, has not included any of your duties at SOLDIER.”
Angeal shrugged, a small smile betraying that he secretly sided with his redhead friend. “If that’s what you need to do, then we’ll help you.”
“You’ll help him,” Genesis corrected. “I’ll have a hard enough time helping myself with all his work on my plate.”
The three SOLDIERS could hear Hana in the other room, murmuring to herself in Wutaiese as she gathered her things. Her urgency was contagious, and the air in Sephiroth’s apartment was heavy.
“I’m sorry to push this on you…again,” Sephiroth added when Genesis sent him a glare. The addition seemed to placate him somewhat. “But Hana and I have to get to Wutai, quickly.”
“How long will you be there?” Angeal asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t even have a guess.”
“You know Blackwell’s still here at ShinRa, wreaking havoc under the surface,” Genesis said. “You’re just leaving him to us?”
Sephiroth pressed his lips into a fine line. “My sincerest apologies. I will be in contact with you about everything. I will do as much as I can to hinder him overseas, at his base. Tactically, this may be the best course of action, as I gave up most of my political power here anyway.”
“We have the authority that you had,” Angeal said. “And we’re on your side.”
“Speak for yourself,” Genesis muttered, but Sephiroth knew better. He knew that under the redhead’s act burned a loyalty that Sephiroth had and would entrust his life to.
“ShinRa approved this?” Angeal asked.
“No,” Sephiroth said. “I pulled my last strings to get us out. I know I am overstepping my boundaries, even with the leniency given to Firsts.”
“With things the way they are now,” Angeal said, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. ShinRa knows they’re losing you. They’d never let you go.”
“I remain loyal to SOLDIER, Angeal, I just—“
Angeal answered his friend by gesturing toward Hana’s bedroom, where her furious efforts to locate everything she needed could be heard. “ShinRa’s not first on your list anymore, my friend.”
Sephiroth’s eyebrows lowered and his eyes darkened. “Regardless, I know I’m leaving you in a political mess.”
“You’ll get one over in Wutai, too,” Angeal said, clapping Sephiroth on the shoulder. “Take care. Come back safely.”
“Anything to add, puppy?” Angeal asked.
Zack had sat quietly at the kitchen table, silent as to the proceedings of the conversation. Hana had served him tea, which he was sipping absentmindedly. At Angeal’s remark, his frown deepened.
“…Or are you still embarrassed about trashing Sephiroth’s office?” Genesis asked.
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. Zack glared at Genesis. “How did you find out about that?”
Genesis flashed Zack a brilliant smirk.
“What happened to my--?” Sephiroth shook his head and held up his hand. “You know what, I don’t want to know.”
“You got off easy, pup,” Genesis said.
“There’s nothing you want to say to Sephiroth before he leaves?” Angeal crossed his arms over his chest. He was getting at something.
Zack only became more defensive. “What would I have to say?”
Angeal sighed. “Apparently, nothing.”
“I would speak with you in private for a moment, Zack,” Sephiroth said. “If that is all right with you.”
“Then we’ll go,” Angeal said. “Keep in touch, and be careful. Blackwell will find out you’ve left soon, and I doubt he’ll let you go so easily.”
“I anticipate trouble. We are prepared.”
“Despite how you’ve treated me, I don’t have any particular desire for you to come to harm. I do not withhold my usual best wishes,” Genesis said casually. “May the Goddess protect you and such.”
“Thank you, Genesis. We will need it.”
And that was all that was said except for curt goodbyes at the door. Both men said a few parting words to Hana, who sent them with her blessings and a deep bow at the waist.
The men were accustomed to this. They parted for various missions and assignments all the time. It was in the job description. It was normal.
But something about this farewell felt different.
Something about it felt…final.
“Zack,” Sephiroth said when the other men had left. “I know you don’t understand why I promoted you—“
“I think I’m starting to, actually,” Zack said. “I don’t…like it…but I see why you had to do it, too.”
Zack might have been able to read his commanding officer by the flickers in his eyes, but the older man closed them, and his face was as cool and solid as marble. “…I am…truly sorry, Zack. I did what I did…knowing that your trust in me would be a casualty. As a General, I have a duty to protect my men as best I am able, and in this, too, I have betrayed you.”
Zack shrugged. “You’re in a rough spot,” he said. “I can’t say I forgive you, but I can understand you, at least.” He took another sip of his tea. “And…I know you didn’t do it for yourself, either.”
Both men looked into the bedroom, where Hana was closing three suitcases.
Sephiroth nodded. “For now, I will be content with that.” Sephiroth set a ring of keys on the table in front of Zack. “These keys are to the materia safe in my office.”
Zack’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “No way…for real?”
Sephiroth chuckled darkly. “Yes, for real. I would not have you face your task ahead without being properly armed, at the very least.”
“But you’re the one headed—“
“I have taken what I need for our mission. The rest is yours. Use them with caution. Such powerful materia is bound to raise ShinRa’s suspicions.”
“Sweet Gaia,” Zack breathed, dangling the keys before his eyes. “I can’t believe this.”
“Don’t destroy yourself with them. It is very possible to do so. They were meant for SOLDIERS far more experienced than you.”
“Oh yeah, no sweat. I can handle it.” But Sephiroth was not convinced, and he felt rather like he’d entrusted a large bomb to an overgrown toddler.
“…Very well, then,” he conceded. “Is there anything else you need to discuss with me?”
Zack paused, taking his eyes off the keys and then putting them down on the table. “Well…” he said. “I found a…uh….” His face contorted into strange expressions, and his mouth opened several times without noise. Finally, he gave up, shaking his head vigorously. “No, it’s nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
“…Yes.” The answer was a long time in coming, and it raised Sephiroth’s suspicions.
“All right,” Sephiroth said. “If that’s all, I wish you the best.”
He extended a hand down to Zack, which the man took and shook firmly as he clapped his commander on the forearm with the other. “You take care,” Zack said. “And watch out for Hana. I’ll see you again soon.”
Those last words had fallen out thoughtlessly, and they turned the air bitter. Zack bit his lip, wishing he could take them back. Sephiroth himself seemed to sober knowing that he could not respond to them – he could not say that they would ever see each other again, much less soon.
“First Class SOLDIER, Zack,” Sephiroth said. “…Do what is needed.”
Zack left his commander with a slow, two fingered salute. “Yes, sir,” he whispered in reply.
The file was gone.
Zack had scoured his own half of the bunker, and then raided his companion’s. He searched everywhere. He stripped the sheets off the beds, dumped the contents of every drawer, tore open every bag or piece of luggage he could find.
It was useless.
It was gone.
And he knew he hadn’t misplaced it. He had slipped it in his pillowcase under his pillow, and had checked compulsively that it was still there. Only now, after he had returned from leaving to say goodbye to Sephiroth and Hana…
In the sty he left in his wake, he shouted his frustration.
He didn’t know why he couldn’t tell Sephiroth about the folder.
He didn’t know why every time he opened it the name Jenova rang in his head for hours.
He didn’t know why he was haunted by a ghostly blue woman in his dreams last night, submerged in mako, her shrill cry piercing him to the soul – “OBEY”.
He didn’t know why someone had been so careful to place the file where only Sephiroth would see it, and then so meticulously steal it back so that Zack would not be able to.
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