Under the Radar
Genesis had on a very smug smile when he pulled Sephiroth’s office door closed behind him. “Well, that was interesting, wasn’t it?”
Sephiroth said nothing, writing with furious speed but looking intensely bored and disinterested. Even so, he didn’t so much as look up to greet Genesis.
“You can’t tell me you didn’t just hear that little exchange between your wife and Angeal’s puppy.”
“That was Angeal’s protégé?” Sephiroth put down his pen and reached for his official seal. There were no less than three official stamps on that paper, to which Sephiroth added his own. Whatever he was working on, it was important stuff.
“In the very flesh.”
“Hmph.” Sephiroth refolded the paper along lines already present and sealed it in an envelope. “I can’t say I’m impressed.”
Genesis grinned. “I’m glad we agree.” He sat himself in the seat in front of Sephiroth’s desk. The man was scrupulously organized. For all of the papers he had on his desk, there was a place and order in a specific stack. Other than the papers, there were only a few office supplies in a silver tray, a phone, a desk lamp, and a spherical paperweight of polished onyx, engraved with the ShinRa logo in gold, resting on a red velvet cloth.
Sephiroth returned his seal to the desk drawer and locked it with a key. Even though the seal had no power to it without Sephiroth’s personal signature, he still kept it locked up, probably because it would be expensive to replace.
Sephiroth rose to his feet and went to his metal file-cabinet with a small stack of papers. He unlocked the cabinet and opened the top drawer with a screech.
“You’re not jealous at all?”
“What reason would I have to be jealous?”
“Your wife was just pounced on by another man,” Genesis said coolly. “Literally. Any lesser man would probably have gotten defensive.”
“His reaction seems reasonable.” Sephiroth finished with the first drawer, shutting it with another screech and pulling open the second. “He believed her to be dead. And we know how excitable he gets from Angeal’s stories. Furthermore, he seems to think of her in familial sense. Even if it had not been so,” Sephiroth looked at him despite not being done, a small smirk on his face, as if he was amused that he would ask such a stupid question, “I am far above being threatened by Zack the puppy.”
Genesis scoffed as Sephiroth returned to filing. “You didn’t even react, even before you knew the whole situation. Even for you, that’s cold.”
Sephiroth didn’t say a word as he closed the third drawer and locked the cabinet, his stack of papers gone.
“Did you and Hana have a spat?” Genesis asked. “She brought you an awfully nice lunch.” He didn’t know what the food on Sephiroth’s desk was, but it smelled delicious, even though he didn’t usually care for Wutaian food.
“We had a disagreement last night.”
“You barely seem affected.”
“Hmph. Surely you are not just now figuring out that our relationship is hardly normal.”
So at least he knew it too.
“What’s the food?” Genesis asked.
“Korokke,” Sephiroth said, sitting back in his desk chair. “Fried potato and meat croquettes, with some sort of Wutaian sauce on the top, and cabbage salad. I don’t even know how she managed to make them with how few kitchen supplies I have.”
Genesis remembered the small pot she had used to boil the water for their tea and the single burner. She would have had to make them one or two at a time, and there were twelve in his lunch, arranged in a pyramid with the cabbage, cut into triangles, surrounding it.
“Impressive,” Genesis said, helping himself to one of the croquettes. Sephiroth sent him a disapproving glance but did not object, taking several for himself.
There was a knock on the door before Angeal let himself in. “Welcome to the party,” Genesis greeted. “Have some of Hana’s cooking. They’re really good. Apparently she’s making up for a little spat they had last night.” Sephiroth glared at Genesis, who was not only offering his lunch to Angeal, but helping himself to another three.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Angeal said and took one, ignoring the waves of Sephiroth’s disapproval. “Do you want to talk about it, Sephiroth?”
“All right, then. What is Hana doing today?”
“Training,” Sephiroth said, taking the korokke and moving them right in front of him, away from his two friends. He took another. They went fast, each only large enough for two bites. “Tseng of the Turks is teaching her to use a gun.”
Angeal frowned and was about to inquire further, but he bit into the croquette, and that wiped his frown straight off. “Holy….” he sighed in pleasure as he chewed.
“She’s also evading the advances of your puppy, Angeal,” Genesis added. “Poor thing. Good thing she’s learning to shoot.”
“Zack is doing what?”
Sephiroth, despite knowing the truth, did not correct him. Genesis was pleased. Sometimes, sometimes, they could scheme together. And until Angeal found out the real story, it might make for an extremely amusing situation.
“You said he had a thing for girls, but I didn’t think even he was that stupid,” Genesis added as icing on the cake. He had to reach out very far, but still managed to swipe two more croquettes.
Angeal covered his face with his hand in despair. “Sephiroth, please don’t dismember my pupil…yet. I’ll take care of it.”
“Hmph,” was all Sephiroth said.
Genesis was as happy as a clown. This would be so much fun. At the very least, Zack would get the “SOLDIER honor” lecture of his life.
He’d have to find a way to thank Sephiroth later.
“We have evaluations to attend,” Sephiroth said, and the food had magically disappeared. Genesis was suspicious, as the plate was gone too.
“The bi-annual scurrying of the Seconds,” Genesis agreed in a flat voice. “I am truly thrilled.” Even so, he got up and made his way to the door. “You coming, General?”
“It’s not like I have any choice in the matter,” Sephiroth said, tucking the sealed envelope from earlier into his jacket.
“Brighten up,” Genesis said. “Maybe something…interesting will happen. Speaking of which, Angeal, you never told us that it was your pupil that lost his pants last time.”
“Can you blame me?” Angeal asked, looking very sober. As the three friends exited the office, Angeal pulled the door closed behind him.
“I could have been jabbing that in your face for six whole months by now, my friend. You have deprived me of most precious fun.”
“You are twisted.”
Sephiroth was going to lock the door when Genesis spoke up. “Hey, I think I left something in there.”
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow in suspicion but turned the knob to open the door for him.
Genesis knew that Sephiroth couldn’t have finished all that food by himself so quickly. He wasn’t a glutton; he ate in small, proper bites. And Sephiroth hadn’t gotten up until now so the leftovers had to be near his desk.
He found it on the seat of the chair, hidden, as it had been pushed in. There was one solitary korokke left amid a few last cabbage petals. Before Sephiroth could react, he pushed the whole thing into his mouth – a little bit of a stretch, but not so much that it was truly vulgar. He chewed openly as he sauntered back to the door, pulling it closed behind him, ignoring the glares of both of his friends.
When he had made a show of swallowing it all, he grinned at Sephiroth and said simply, “I win.”
The sound still made her jump.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Hana sighed and put the gun down. Even with the ear muffs that Tseng had given her, the noise startled her every time. Even the fact that she was in full control of the timing of the shots didn’t make it any better. She hadn’t acclimated as Tseng said she would. Every shot was just as bad as the last.
“I hate guns,” she seethed under her breath.
“It may take time,” Tseng said.
“You’re doing fairly well considering it’s only your first day.”
“Can I have a silencer, at least?”
“They don’t help as much as you’d think, and you need to get used to the sound. If you are ever in a gun fight, being so alarmed by the sounds is a serious weakness. You can’t let them take the advantage that way.”
“So you’ll take away my ear muffs, too?”
“Eventually, yes. You’re not likely to have them in real combat, and you need to be prepared for the way it’s really going to be.”
Hana grimaced and picked up the gun, putting on the ear muffs. Even though she felt like they did little good, she might as well enjoy them while she had them.
She was shooting at paper silhouettes shaped like human bodies. Every time she hit, light spilled through the hole the bullet made, making her successes, or lack thereof, extremely obvious. So far, she’d manage to hit one in the arm and another in the lower torso. Five more of her bullets had not even hit.
“Focus on accuracy first,” Tseng reminded her. “Speed can come later.”
Obediently, but grimacing the whole time, Hana slowed down. She shot six bullets. Four found their mark at least somewhere on the cutouts, if not anywhere vital.
“Better,” Tseng observed. “You might have hit with the last two if your jumping didn’t skew your aim.”
Hana resisted the urge to glower. The one who was really responsible for this misery was her husband. She couldn’t fault Tseng.
“Is that all for today?” she asked, hopefully.
Tseng chuckled softly. “Are you confident you could defend yourself if your assailant came tonight?”
“I could hit him somewhere,” Hana said, gesturing to the random holes in the silhouette.
“If he was stationary, and you had all the time you wanted to react, neither of which is likely. You haven’t yet proven that you could neutralize a threat,” Tseng said. “And Sephiroth did say that your situation was urgent.”
“I’m supposed to learn all that today?”
Tseng shook his head. “It is a bit unrealistic, but I’ll at least introduce you to the concepts. I’m going to turn on the motion, slowly at first. Try to hit as many as you can while I try to find you a better gun.”
Tseng entered a series of numbers on a keypad and a machine whirred to life. The silhouettes began to move, rather realistically. They were following unpredictable paths in all directions, sometimes stopping or changing orientation.
“Aim for the one with the green light on his forehead. Consider the others distractions.”
One of the silhouettes lit up green, clearly visible until he moved behind several others.
Hana grit her teeth and aimed.
She caught his right arm just as he moved into view, but the second shot didn’t hit.
Tseng was gone. She lowered her gun to her side and looked at the wound in the silhouette, bright light spilling from the small hole in the arm.
She had done it. She had hit. She wanted that to be all.
But shooting at bodies would be different. It wouldn’t be a burst of light that signaled when she had hit her target. The thought made her stomach roll.
And now she was calm. When the attack came, she would be a wad of adrenaline and tangled nerves. If she could focus enough to even look down the barrel into the sight, it would be a miracle.
“Not everyone was cut out to fight, Sephiroth,” Hana said.
She closed her eyes and tensed her body to its limit, and then breathed out the tension. As much as she hated it, she knew he was right. He would find her when she was alone.
“I have seen miserably incompetent men find their strength,” he had told her. “I recognize that for some it takes more than for others, but I will not let you get out of this on the excuse that you simply cannot be trained. Surely there’s something in you that can be of use.”
A face flashed before her mind’s eye, and she felt her blood run hot.
Her father had tormented her from the beginning. As a child, she had taken it. She could not do anything else. Then, as she had grown, she had learned to run. Now, as an adult, she finally had the power to fight. She clenched the gun in her hand. This was a weapon – this was power.
The silhouette with the green light flashed into her view, and her father’s face appeared again in her mind. With power born from sheer hatred surging through her veins, she raised the gun and shot three times, her hand steady, her aim true. Three small holes, close together, let light spill freely from the place marked red on the target – the heart.
She felt nothing. No victory, no relief.
For now, she thought, all she had to use to steady her hands and aim was her hatred. It would appease her husband and Tseng, at least.
Somewhere inside, she was mortified that she did not feel guilty that, had that been her father, she would have certainly killed him. She stifled the emotion with the assurance that she had long ago passed out of the world where mercy was an option.
Sephiroth’s phone vibrated and he took it from his pocket. It was a photo message, sent from Tseng.
“Don’t the bigwigs know not to bother you while you’re doing evaluations?” Genesis asked, leaning back in his seat until the top of the back of his chair was pressed against the wall. The three friends sat side-by-side in the observation booth, watching the exhausted second-class SOLDIERS trickle into the simulation room as they finished their individual assessments.
“It is odd,” Angeal agreed.
Sephiroth made an odd noise in his throat that might have been either approval or annoyance. Without a word, he passed his phone to Angeal.
Angeal stared for several seconds. “Hana did that?”
Genesis, impatient as ever, looked over Angeal’s shoulder at the photo of a shooting range training dummy. There was no text because none was needed. Three bullet holes pierced straight through the heart. “It’s her first day? Sign her up for the Turks!”
Sephiroth’s phone vibrated again in Angeal’s hand. “New message from TSENG,” it read. Angeal opened the text and read aloud. “I sent her home after this. She was beginning to behave strangely.”
“What in Gaia does that mean?” Genesis asked.
“Tell Tseng that I’ll send Hana back tomorrow.”
Angeal and Genesis stared at Sephiroth, but he was suddenly very engaged in scanning the observation forms. The two friends knew when they’d been shut out.
Angeal sent a message back to Tseng, as requested. “This is Angeal,” he wrote, “and I’ll make sure Sephiroth takes care of Hana before he sends her back for more.”
“Very good,” was Tseng’s prompt reply.
“How many more are we waiting on?” Genesis asked.
“Two or three,” Sephiroth said. “It will start soon.”
“Looks like the puppy was last to take his individuals,” Genesis said. “That puts him at an automatic disadvantage.” Because the group assessment immediately followed individual testing, the last ones to start ended up without a break between the two sessions to refresh and catch their breaths.
“He has enough stamina to get through it,” Sephiroth said. “If that boy has anything, it’s energy.”
“Thanks,” Angeal said. “I think.” But they all knew it wasn’t really meant to be a compliment.
“There he is now,” Genesis said, gesturing. “Pants intact, even.”
Angeal sent a disapproving glance toward Genesis but it was not heeded. Through clearly winded, Zack was standing taller than some of the other men. Overall, he seemed to be in pretty good shape and very high spirits, even doing some more squats for good measure while pepping up some of his fellow men.
“That’s all of them, then.”
“Great. Let’s make them scurry.”
“You could give Zack three more sec—“
But Genesis hit the switch before Angeal could finish. The room behind the one-way glass went dark. As each SOLDIER put on his virtual reality goggles, a red ID number appeared above their heads, signaling their position along with the light strips running along in their training uniforms. Angeal played with a few dials, adjusting their visuals so the virtual environment the men were immersed in was visible to them as well.
This year’s program was especially difficult. Genesis, Angeal, and Sephiroth had drafted it themselves, and then submitted it to the programmers with Genesis’s instructions to “add more flare wherever possible.” The setting was a desert, with elements set to drain the men before they even started to fight. They would feel the oppressive heat as if it was real, and every step would be harder for them in the deep sand. There was little cover, leaving them wide open and exposed.
The three first-classes readied their pens. Though numbers were used to keep them from knowing the identities of everyone in the room, Zack was easily distinguishable from the rest as number 34. The assessments were simple – the three just had to comment on what they saw, whether good or bad. Some men got few comments, as they didn’t stand enough, which was just as bad as getting slammed with criticism if you wanted to make First-class. So the rules for the men were simple – respond well and admirably to the situation, and prove to a First-class SOLDIER that you deserved to be among their ranks.
Nothing had even happened yet, the men were just orienting themselves, deciding what to do in the situation. Their voices were played very clearly for the three to hear. What they didn’t know was that they needed to decide on a leader within 15 seconds or less or they would be scattered like pigeons at the park.
Zack’s eyes were sharp, and he was the first to spot the trouble. “Over there!” he yelled. “Follow me!” And the men did as he rushed to the shadows on the horizon for an impromptu offensive.
And so it began.
Angeal tried to give at least a little feedback for every man, trying to be honest without being unkind and balance the negative with the positive. He felt really sorry for the poor man who got Genesis’s attention, who only gave out “praise” in the form of scathing sarcasm. If Genesis said nothing about you, it was usually a good sign. It meant he’d found nothing about you to make fun of.
Sephiroth was a different story entirely. Everything he said was entirely fair, but did not say much. Even though he kept the strictest observation of the three, he wrote the fewest comments. He didn’t bother to write anything unless he considered it very worth his time. He was also lucky to give out one or two compliments per session. Praise from Sephiroth meant promotion was pretty much assured.
And so, Angeal was very worried when he turned his head to see how Sephiroth was doing, only to find the Silver General’s eyes riveted on his pupil. He let it go the first time, but after the fourth time, he was starting to get worried. It was clear both from his intense gaze and the comments filling the box for SOLDIER #34 that Sephiroth had only eyes for Zack this time, and he was uncharacteristically picking apart every single move, recording it in detail.
It wasn’t like he couldn’t do that. There were really no regulations on how they should judge, only suggestions. Even if there had been rules, Sephiroth was such a figure of power that if he wanted to bend them, he could.
It made Angeal extremely nervous that Sephiroth was taking such uncharacteristic interest in his pupil. Whether Zack knew it or not, his performance in the next few minutes was his opportunity to either permanently make or break his dreams of making First-class.
“Focus, for once in your life,” Angeal silently prayed for his student.