A Face from the Past
It was raining, hard. So hard that she couldn’t see the road in front of her. So hard that she could no longer even tell that tears were streaming down her face.
She kept running. She had slipped in thick mud, her ankle screamed with each step, but she had to keep running.
Every breath was an effort. Her chest heaved, but the air was more water than oxygen. She felt like she was drowning. Her body screamed for respite but she could not stop. She didn’t have the strength to recall why, but something deep in her mind drove her on mercilessly.
How long had she been running? Hours? Days? Years? The black, angry sky told her nothing.
She knew only one, consuming command: one foot in front of the other, quickly!
But the rain and her own exhaustion were driving her ever deeper into the earth.
After an eternity, it was too much, and she fell to the ground at last. Splayed out in the mud, she didn’t even have the breath or energy to cry for help.
And then she saw a light at the end of the long, dark road.
It was a strangely liberating feeling, to think that the end had come. All the worries of tomorrow dissipated, for tomorrow no longer existed. She gave a choked laugh and laid her head down in the mud, a small smile on her face as the light washed over her.
But then…pain. This light was not kind. It was not here to return her to the Lifestream.
“Hey!” a voice called, breathless. A boy. And he had been running. Rough, calloused hands slapped her face. “Hey! Wake up! Are you hurt? Hey! Hey!”
It was lunch as usual in the SOLDIER cafeteria. Today’s lunch was turkey, or something that might have been turkey in a past life, because it was better than the special, which was more appropriately labeled “mystery slop” by the men.
“It’s gray,” Zack said, staring down at the mass of meat. He poked it once, then twice with his fork.
“Just be glad it’s not yellow this time,” Kunsel sighed.
“And the potatoes---are these potatoes?”
“Shove ‘em in fast enough and you can’t taste them.”
“You know, they’re counting on our bodies to perform. They spend all that money on mako enhancements and training sims, you’d think they could afford to at least feed us better.”
Kunsel shrugged, unconcerned, speaking through a mouth of potatoes. “Maybe the food is pumped up with something. That could be why it’s so bad.”
Zack grimaced, filling a fork with potatoes before thinking twice and returning them to his plate. “They’re sticky.”
“Just eat it, or quietly starve through performance testing. Don’t whine to me about it this time.”
Zack soured, pouting at his food. Lunch break was a joke. All the Second-Class had to eat at the same time, with the army cadets to boot. It was a room full of sweaty, hot, grumbling men straight from training without so much as a shower, because if you took the time to clean yourself, the daily special was all that was left.
“Turkey,” Zack said. “Yeah, I wish.” But he needed all the help he could get to make it through testing. He knew he’d get it double from Angeal if his numbers didn’t go up this time.
“You’re not focusing; therefore, your training time is going to waste.”
“I’ll show you,” he grumbled through the turkey, quickly adopting the so-called “shovel, dump, and gulp” eating method that Kunsel preferred. The man said he was going to patent it and start charging any copy-catting cadets.
“You ever wonder if this stuff is leftovers from the science department experiments?”
“Zack,” Kunsel groaned, turning green. No one knew what happened in those labs except the scientists, and the rest of the world was extremely content with not knowing.
“Seriously, think about it. Monsters go in and never come out and this stuff is definitely not turkey—“
“Zack, if I hurl, you’re my target.”
“Who wadded up your panties this morning?” Zack grumbled, but he could hardly blame his friend. Performance tests were dismal enough, and lunch never helped.
Would anyone make First-class this time? Would he?
“You’re thinking about making First again,” Kunsel said. He hadn’t even needed to look at his friend.
“That’s creepy, man,” Zack said blandly, staring at his next bite of turkey. “You read minds now?”
“Everyone’s thinking about making First right now. You just happen to have your heart on your sleeve.”
“I don’t care what Angeal says, honor and dreams will only get you so far. If you had put your all into your training, you’d probably have made it by now.”
“I don’t need lectures from you, too. Let’s just eat and get these tests over with.”
“That’s the spirit,” Kunsel agreed with a sigh.
“Do you think we’ll be testing on virtual sims this time or those psychopathic droids that Scarlet didn’t get approved?”
“A droid can’t be psychopathic.”
Kunsel cracked a smile. “That was really bad, wasn’t it? One of them zapped me in the face and I had this dumb look frozen on my face for a week.”
“I remember that,” Zack said. “Commander Ziff thought you were making fun of him behind his back at least five times. How many push-ups did you get for that one?”
“Hey, at least I kept my pants on. You lost yours in that fire blast after about five seconds.”
“Those things are supposed to be fireproof,” Zack protested.
“Lucky for you the boxers were.”
“Whatever! It’s not like it’s something we haven’t seen in the locker rooms already.”
“No, but it certainly must have made an impression on the Firsts who reviewed out performance. You did a great job of stop-drop-and roll too, after that little dance-run-and-scream thing. They’re sure to remember you this time!”
Zack regretted bringing up the topic, but at least the mood was lighter now. And he had gotten his lunch down to boot. He hoped it stayed there.
“Good riddance! Something’s wrong when you are happy that lunch is over--”
The room was silent. Zack was the last to catch on, and it was embarrassing that he couldn’t call back his words that echoed through the room.
But no one seemed to notice.
Everyone was staring at her.
She just stood there, in the doorway of the cafeteria, as pretty as a china doll, a lone woman in finery in a room of at least one hundred stinking, grumbling men. She was dressed in a sky-blue yukata printed with large white blossoms, long, square sleeves falling to her waist, which was encircled with a sunny yellow strip tied in a large bow. Her hair was pulled half into a bun high on her head, and half hanging straight and sleek down her back and shoulders. Pinned into its dark depths was a comb of jade, and she wore geta sandals on her feet.
She looked like something taken from a traditional Wutaian painting, quite rudely ripped and pasted into the wholly inappropriate cafeteria in the heart of the Continent.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, with the most charming hint of an accent. “I didn’t mean to intrude, but I need to find General Sephiroth’s office.”
Silence. Not a single word out of a single man.
But everyone was thinking the same thing. They had all heard the rumors about their commanding officer.
“I have some things he left at the apartment.” She held up a bundle wrapped neatly in bright, printed cloth. “He will need them very soon.”
No one wanted to go see Sephiroth in his office. Ever. But on the other hand, if he heard that a whole cafeteria of men under his authority had failed to help deliver an urgently needed package to him….
Eyes started to shift. Who’s gonna take one for the team?
“I hardly need an escort, if you could please just provide some directions—“
One of the cadets rose to his feet, and for some reason a whole battalion burst into raucus laughter – maybe because they were the only ones to know him. Strange that he hadn’t even taken off his helmet to eat lunch.
“I…I can help you, ma’am,” the cadet said, but tripped over a chair on his way to her. Now everyone was in on the laughter. The man scurried over to her with a beet red face. She smiled kindly and followed him as quickly as he ran.
“Well, what do you know? The rumors about our esteemed General are true,” Kunsel chuckled. “She’s quite a pretty little thing, I’ll give her that much. Not my taste, personally, but I can see how some men would---Zack?”
Zack was staring at the space in the doorway she had just occupied, jaw slack and mouth open. Stupidly, he raised an arm, hand limp on his wrist but one finger pointing at the now empty doorway. “She…” Zack shook his head, wild, black spiked hair bobbing. “It couldn’t have been…Hana…”
“Oh? You know her?”
Zack blinked a few times, brows furrowing in concentration as he re-examined her image in his mind. “There’s just no way. No. Way.”
“You should have offered to take her. Then you could have found out yourself.”
Zack put his hand down and seemed to regain his composure. Uncharacteristically, without a word, he got up from his seat and exited the cafeteria.
“Testing is in about ten minutes,” Kunsel called after him.
Zack didn’t seem to hear. As soon as he hit the hallway, he took off after the girl in a dead sprint.
The light he carried was too bright. She could see nothing but black spikes. It hurt her eyes and she groaned.
He let her fall again, and she heard him rummaging around in a sack. Things hit the earth, metal things. It sounded like pans and cutlery. “Ah!” the boy said in triumph. “Here’s my first aid kit! I’ll fix you up in no time, you’ll see!”
She heard the kit pop open, but the boy did nothing. “Uh…” he said. “Um…this…”
He scuffed around a bit, sheepishly. Eventually, he wiped a bit of mud off her face and pressed a small adhesive bandage on a cut across her cheek. “That will help a little bit! Don’t worry, next time I’ll tell Mom to get me a better kit.” Even though “next time” was a pitiful substitute for “now”, he sounded happy. Excited, even.
“Come on, you can come to my house!” Gracelessly, but with good intentions, he pulled her up onto his back, staggering under her weight. “It’s…just a little…ways…you’ll see!”
And so he sloshed through the mud, her feet dangling and leaving tracks in the soil behind them. He accidently let her slip more than once, but always apologized, picked her up, and continued the venture.
It must have been hard. Miserable. But with every step he was smiling, laughing. There was a life and energy in him that could not be thwarted by the elements. He was talking with her about happy things like what his mom was going to cook for dinner when they got there, and how she could have his bed to rest.
Her heart was filled with warmth, and she slipped into a peaceful sleep.
He had almost made it there without incident. He had gotten some weird looks because while it wasn’t technically against the rules to leave the cafeteria during lunch, most didn’t, because it was the only break they got when testing season came rolling around. No one had even tried to stop him, though he had gotten some angry outbursts from people he had bumped into in his haste. He called out a hurried “Sorry!” and continued on each time.
He was just about to turn down the hallway to the SOLDIER offices when an icy voice made him skid to a stop.
“Zack Fair. Second-class.”
He couldn’t see who it was that called him, but he snapped to attention out of habit, an awkward gesture, as he hadn’t come to a complete stop yet and momentum from his speed kept pulling him forward.
The man sounded crazy serious, and that tone was authoritative and threatening enough to make Commander Ziff stand sound like a high-school cheerleader. Besides, his full name and title had been used, and that spelled trouble for sure.
He racked his brains. Had he done anything recently?
“Hm,” the officer said. “Puppy indeed.”
No one but Angeal called him that, but this was not Angeal. Zack overrode his impulse to reply and stayed ramrod straight at attention.
“But he can be trained, it seems. Turn around, boy.”
Zack relaxed and turned around, but jumped and yipped in alarm when he saw who it was he was speaking with.
Zack had never met him in person, but he knew that iconic red coat. Rumors circulating around SOLDIER had it that he was the most volatile of the First-Class SOLDIERS, as well as a drama king. He didn’t much care for anyone below him in rank, and could be hotheaded and arrogant. Angeal talked of SOLDIER pride, but Genesis took pride to a whole new level. He was on a pedestal above the rest of the world and he made sure everyone knew it.
When Zack had asked Angeal about him once, his mentor’s reply had been a small laugh. “I wouldn’t advise crossing him,” he had said. “He does not have my patience.”
Zack tried to put on a smile, hoping he didn’t look too cornered. “Can I help you, sir?”
Genesis’s eyes lit up in amusement, catlike, as if playing with his prey. “I know where I’ve seen you before. You’re that Second who went through last period’s tests sans pants.”
Zack tried to keep a smile but couldn’t withhold a grimace, which probably meant his expression turned out very awkward. He tried not to think about it. It certainly must have made an impression on the Firsts who reviewed out performance, Kunsel had said. Looks like it had.
Genesis grinned and clapped, slowly. “Quite the performance. I enjoyed it very much. You did me quite the favor breaking up the monotony of watching you Seconds scurrying around in the dark.”
“…Thanks.” It was all Zack could say. He was getting angry. Genesis was purposefully toying with him and, unless he wanted to kiss all chances of him getting First-class goodbye, he could not retaliate.
Genesis cocked his head back and red bangs fell over his eyes. He brushed them away nonchalantly, but peered at him through narrowed eyes. “You are from Gongaga, correct?”
“Yes, sir.” What did that have to do with anything?
“Good.” Genesis pulled out a small, fine mesh satchel from his coat, a white ribbon drawstring sealing it tight. Without prologue, he tossed it to Zack, who caught it in his hands.
“Identify any scents you recognize.”
“Uh…” Zack held the bag in two fingers by the drawstring, letting it dangle. “Smell it?”
“Unless you have an alternative method for identifying scents, that would be the reasonable thing to do.”
Zack wanted to roll his eyes, so he closed them tight instead until the urge passed. Under Genesis’s intense stare, he obeyed.
His eyes widened in shock after only the first breath.
It couldn’t be…hers?!
“What did you find?”
“What is this?” It came out before Zack really had time to judge whether the question was prudent or not.
Genesis tilted his head up and looked down on Zack. “Tea,” he said simply. “A special, rare blend.”
“Tea,” Zack repeated and shook the bag, watching the dried leaves and buds bounce in the bag. “Tea….”
Genesis folded his arms impatiently but did not respond.
“If I tell you what I smell, will you tell me who blended this tea?”
“You are hardly in a position to bargain, boy. Especially with the performance exams coming so soon.”
Zack looked down at the bag again. There they are, sure as day… He pinched a bud between his fingers.
“Besides,” Genesis continued, “judging from your reaction, and assuming that you are in this hallway to see someone other than General Sephiroth, your question is unnecessary.”
Zack looked up at Genesis. Had that been the confirmation he’d been looking for under those slick words and cruel smirk?
“Kachnar,” Zack said. “Others call it the orchid tree, or mountain ebony. It’s a flowering tree native to Gongaga.”
“I see. And would there be any reason to include it in tea?”
Zack hesitated. “It can be used in cooking. It’s a delicacy. It also has some uses in medicine.”
Genesis’s eyes pierced into him. They both knew that wasn’t what he was looking for.
“…But I think it’s because…the one who blended this tea…” He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, a small smile and timid blush spreading across his face. “…She remembers the time we spent together under the Kachnar blossoms.”