Why am I starting a new thread? I don't know, it seemed like the thing to do.It was Sephiroth who noticed. It was always Sephiroth who noticed. Other people had their on and off switches, mission mode on and they were all professional, all die hard trained killing machine, mission mode off and they were as normal as they make themselves with bad jokes and alcohol. The White General had no off switch for his instincts. It wasn’t training, because they’d all gone through training and even Zack didn’t always wake up from a sound sleep with a gun in one hand and a blade in the other. Pure carnal instinct. Predator instinct, and it never went away. Zack had finally resorted to unloading all the accessible firearms before they slept, because even a twitch in dreaming, or a moth fluttering against the tent canvas, would result in a cold metal barrel against Zack’s temple and cat slit eyes reflecting moonlight and absolutely no humanity.The great general Sephiroth, he harrumphed when Cloud started in on his idol worshipping. You try sharing a tent with him in the jungle. Couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve tripped over that silly sword of his because he won’t let it out of hand. He snores, too. And whines like a girl about his coffee.And Cloud would give him that ‘are you making this up’ look, and Zack would end up trying to look innocent and failing, and Cloud would get his exasperated expression, and so on and so forth.“It isn’t going to work.” Sephiroth was specifically not looking at him, his coolly distant gaze directed out at the milling execs in a deliberate Do Not Disturb warning.Zack shrugged, brushing at his uniform. Twittering Priscilla, useful though she might have been in chastising superior officers who tried to skip out on boring social functions when their XOs were in forced attendance, had left an awful lot of glitter in her wake when she’d finally flounced off. “Oh I don’t know. I think Beatrix is definitely due for another advancement, no one would oppose the motion with her record…”“I’m not talking about that.” There was ice underneath the words; Sephiroth was notorious for his frigid neutrality in the political maelstrom of Shinra and he did not care to have that truth challenged.“Oh ye of little faith,” the other SOLDIER muttered. He’d been expecting this, Auron had all but hit him over the head with it. “You want me to stand by and watch him get killed?”“He is Veld’s problem.”“Veld isn’t doing shit about it.”“To your knowledge.”Zack rolled his eyes. “Conspiracy and whatever the hell little underhanded spy games Veld has running aren’t the same as giving the kid a bulletproof vest and some decent guards. You’ve heard the rumors flying around about assassination. It’s too hot for the Turks to pussyfoot around executive egos.” Or Presidential ones, he added mentally.“Then it is far too hot for SOLDIER to even be involved.” Oh, and Seph was mad now, he’d finally deigned to glance Zack’s way, and there was nothing cool or distant about his snapping gaze.Zack didn’t flinch. Zack was the only one who never flinched, and the only one who ever saw past the professional irritation to the friend who was, in his own twisted way, concerned.“He’ll die, Seph.”“You don’t know that.”“We both know it. It’ll all be very convenient and he’ll get shot and he’ll die.”The General remained unmoved. “People die.”“He’s just a kid.”“Those die too.” By your hands. By mine. Stop playing hero to lost causes.But someone had to. “Begging your pardon, General asshole sir,” he retorted, “but this isn’t the bloody jungle and we’re not at war. It’s called ‘murder’ here in civilization and where I come from we don’t stand for it.”The words in reply were nothing more than a hiss of breath. One black gloved hand was hard on his shoulder, forcing him into the wall, and anything but a genetically enhanced superhuman, or Zack On A Mission, would have winced at the grip that had crushed human skulls before. “Regicide is also murder, you fool, and that’s where this is headed. If that boy tries and fails, anyone supporting him will…”“..be there to make sure he doesn’t fail.” Sephiroth went still, and for a moment Zack wondered if he had gone too far. Auron had been watching them from across the room, but now he pushed off from the wall, doubtless wondering if he’d be needed to cart out a body in about three seconds.Too late to take it back, and it was the truth anyway. “That man dropped a bomb on a city full of refugees, Seph,” Zack reminded his commander softly. “A target of no military value. It killed a few rebels. It killed sympathetic resistance cells. It killed sick and dying people who didn’t care which way the war went any longer. It killed some of our own troops who were trying to help with the wounded. Are you honestly telling me that you would prefer him to his son at the helm when we go off to the next jungle?”The pressure decreased slightly. Zack had already won, just as he knew he would, but it didn’t make him feel any better wringing the admission of it out of a friend.Sephiroth stepped back, once again cold and remote and his voice a study in clinical disinterest. “You could burn for this.”“We all burn for something.” I’d rather it be me than you. It was obvious, at least to Zack, which one of them had less to lose.A ripple went through the fall of silver hair, indicating something that might have been a sigh. Zack seemed to inspire those. “You might have at least said something.”The SOLDIER rubbed at his bruised shoulder, thankful the mark wouldn’t show under his shoulder armor. “Why ask permission when you already know the answer and are planning to ignore it anyway?”“You were a sergeant for entirely too long,” Sephiroth muttered. A pause. “Dincht and Kinneas? I thought you were trying to keep him alive.”Zack grinned. “That’s the trick of it, isn’t it? I can’t try too hard or someone might get suspicious about my ulterior motives. Of course, I could always just say I’m recruiting him for my harem.” He cast a sideways look at his General.Sephiroth didn’t bat an eyelash. “I pity that boy.”“I pity him as well,” Auron remarked, materializing at Sephiroth’s side. “He just reeled out looking like someone hit him with Poison. Punch was a little harder this year.”Shit. Zack whipped around, seeking blond spikes and a red ponytail amidst the sea of heads….…and found one, the wrong one. Zell was trapped in a press of people and looking frantically for escape without resorting to shoving bodies aside. Irvine he couldn’t see, but somehow Zack doubted that he’d left for anything resembling his mission, if he’d left at all. Probably was drowning in sequined evening gowns and diamond decorated bosoms as usual.Shit.Sephiroth being Sephiroth and having just lost an argument felt the need to comment. “Your ruse of questionable concern seems to be working,” he said blandly. “I’m having trouble believing it at all.”“Not helping,” Zack growled. “Looks like Tseng beat you to it anyway.” Auron nodded at a closing door, but he was talking to empty air. Zack was already wading through bodies.Sephiroth sipped his champagne and waited, watching his XO’s progress. Right on cue, a secretary latched onto the dark haired SOLDIER’s arm. His determined expression faltered into one of pure horror as she dragged him over to her friends, including some of Zack’s more avid admirers, and he realized that there was no way he was going to be able to escape gracefully, if at all.“This is why I don’t come to parties,” the General remarked in irritation, handing off his glass to Auron. “Someone gets drunk, Zack attempts to take responsibility, and I end up cleaning up the mess anyway.” He set off purposefully through the crowd towards the cornered Zell, and people melted from his advance like prairie grass in the wind. It was a gift.Auron watched as Seph reached a terrified looking Zell and set off on a new course with the blond SOLDIER in tow, heading for the doors Tseng had disappeared through. Then Zack caught his eye, winked with a manic grin, and mouthed ‘Told you.’ Auron rolled his eyes behind his glasses. He was too old for this.
Righto, this is supposed to lead up to Rufus and Rafe's little interlude in ze hallway or whatever. I didn't feel like spamming comments.
Surely, Rosalind, newly of the Turks, reflected, An office party has to be better than sentry duty out in the cold...She was late, of course, having been assigned to oversee security during the first part of the affair. Not that anyone seemed to have missed her, and she was still not one of the latest by far.It seemed that she'd missed something, though, because there was some kind of organized exodus towards the door. Very subtle, and almost invisible amidst the typical exchange of people in this kind of stand-around affair. But it wasn't so much how many people were leaving, as who was leaving.Tseng first -- navigating his way through the crowds with a smoothness she envied, and very discretely shutting the door after him. That, in and of itself, wasn't anything to raise an eyebrow at. Perhaps he had an errand to run, or had to go to the bathroom, or had simply gotten tired of the entire affair. However, that black haired second in command of Sephiroth's had turned, rather abruptly, muttered something that might have been a curse, and set off in hot pursuit. Only to get waylaid. And then, the clincher -- General Sephiroth himself, all flowing silver hair and feline grace, had stalked out of the room, sweeping up a SOLDIER in his wake.Well. That was a lot of top brass heading out at the same time, and goodness knew why. And since discretion was the better part of valour, and a Turk did not do the whole charging into battle yodelling war cries thing, it was probably safe to bet that given the choice of staying or following, staying was probably the better bet.Fortunately, staying also had its advantages.Adjusting her Turk badge, Rosalind stepped through the doors and headed towards the spiky haired XO. At least there was a source of information who looked like he could do with a quick save.
Feeling enormously pleased with himself at having so easily set up his recalcitrant best friend, Zack was more than willing to put up with the inane chatter of his admirers while he ticked off the seconds Sephiroth remained absent. If his luck held, there might be a conversation between two people who daddy Shinra had tried very hard to keep apart. Access to the White General was jealously guarded, not the least by Sephiroth himself, who had never been what one would term social. He listened with half an ear to what the girl on his arm was saying, nodding at appropriate times and telling vulgar jokes at others to make the girls blush. He oculd rattle them off without thinking, which was helpful because his mind was completely elsewhere. Hopefully Tseng wouldn’t ruin it. The bastard might, just to be contrary, just to protect the Heir from ‘dangerous influences.’ Nevermind that Rufus could use all the dangerous influence he could get. It was time a few people in this company started taking him seriously or they would never take his succession seriously, and Zack dearly wanted someone’s succession to get taken seriously. He had chosen this path as a soldier and he knew his duty, but he also had been raised not to sit idly by while a man drunk on power dropped bombs on hospitals. But it was out of his hands. He knew that better than any. If the only thing he could contribute was protection and some smattering of interest in the situation from the General, then so be it. It was better than nothing. It was at least an accomplishment, while Veld schemed whatever he was scheming and the other execs refused to throw their weight behind anyone. And Rufus was, after all, not very old. The very, very least someone could offer him was an assurance that he would not be gunned down in his sleep or while waving to a crowd. Zack could offer that. It was beyond his nature to withhold it, as Cloud would have pointed out and Sephiroth had far too many times in the past. Lost causes. None of them were lost causes. Only causes that people gave up on because they were too damn selfish or stupid or frightened to put their faith in.A flash of gold caught his attention, and he glanced aside to see one of the rookie Turks –Rosalind, wasn’t it?—in close vicinity. Busted, and he couldn’t refuse the rescue. Hopefully whatever she wanted didn’t have anything to do with Rufus, Tseng, or Sephiroth, and she’d forget it in the midst of trying to smack him. Most girls ended up doing that for some reason.“Ladies! If you’ll excuse me, I must attend to some pressing business with dear---.” He stepped up to her and caught her familiarly around the waist, making a show of inspecting her …badge, “---Rosalind here.” He beamed at the secretaries’ pouts and disappointed noises. “Guns and explody business, you understand.” He kept his expression fixed until they’d all flounced off.“So! Come to ask for my number? Didn’t take long, but I can see you’ve got good taste.”
The man -- Zack, she remembered now, from her academy days -- took to the rescue cheerfully and willingly enough, although she had to suppress an internal grimace at his familiarity. Carefully, she attempted to extricate his arm from her waist."Good show, sir," she murmured, nodding discretely at the bunch of retreating backs. And paused. Something felt very subtly wrong. Normally, she would have gotten straight to the point, asking just what it was that General Sephiroth had been up to, and whether he'd like to continue his pilgrimage towards the doors before it had been so rudely interrupted......but this Zack wasn't making a beeline for the exit like the script said people normally did. In fact, he was looking entirely too earnest and entirely too pleased with himself, and didn't seem set on moving at all.Cue confusion.Cue a momentary falter in what should have been a familiar dance."You seemed... rather keen on leaving, earlier," she said, choosing her words carefully. "Was something the matter?"When in doubt, don't show your hand, her father had taught her. Don't give away what you know on a silver platter. Pity was, theory was always more straight forward than practice, in these cases.
Damn the Turks and their skills of observation. Or rather, damn this Turk and her skills of observation. Zack’s beaming smile didn’t falter in the slightest, but he wished that for once in his life things would just go the way he’d set them up without everyone and their bloody dog interfering or not-believing or just otherwise not going along with what he wanted to happen.He figured God felt like this all the time. “Something the matter?” he repeated, blinking innocence. “Of course not. I was just thinking to myself, Zack you complete retard, you went off to this party and forget to turn off the pilot light for the oven.” He leaned in and confided, “I’m cooking cactuar. Best cactuar chef in Midgar right here, you won’t find it anywhere else.”“So I was set to rush out of here, that sort of thing always happens, forget my own head next if it wasn’t attached, but then I realized, gosh, the pilot light shuts itself off, on account that I burned down the last three apartments that way, and some nice person finally volunteered one of those brand new types that turns off automatically.” He beamed like a madman. "Now tell me, do you have one of those fancy automatic ovens at your place? Cos if you don't, I'm sort of an expert. Do the Turks get full kitchens? I'd love to see your place. I'm kind of also an expert in breaking in new mattresses, too, if you know what I mean." Leer.
As evasions went, this wasn't half bad. If she had been one mite less concerned about her duty, Rosalind might have been tempted to ask what cactuar tasted like. After all, it wasn't as if her first pay check had come in yet, and she was running a tad low on groceries...But still.Evasion, evasion, evasion. Definitely not going according to script, and she had to fight back a sigh. And the urge to cuff him. His pick up lines were horrible, after all. But she had been through worse at the Academy, after all. Well, at least it was spot on evidence that something was definitely afoot."You're saying that General Sephiroth went to turn off your oven for you?" she said. "Perhaps I should go and assist him, then."
Shiet. Well, nothing for it."It'd probably be a better idea if you didn't, actually. My General is a man who likes his privacy...if you know what I mean."She probably didn't. But she would. Seph didn't always approve of the Turks and their tactics and he definitely didn't approve of their versatile loyalties. They had an irritating habit of poking their noses into things that didn't concern them. Like now, for instance."You see," and he lowered his voice conspiratorially. "The General never had what you'd call a very homey childhood. It's always nagged at him, y'know? So his therapist says--do you know he has a therapist? Very nice lady, very good on the couch, but if I told you her name he'd slit your throat in the night, so--anyway, so his therapist Vera says, Sephiroth, you need to do something about this before it becomes another psychosis like your paranoia about hair curlers and paper towel rolls. So every now and then he goes out and, y'know, tries to make up for it. It's good for him, really, but he'd be horribly embarassed if anyone knew. Well, more like homicidally enraged."Pause for suspense. "What I mean to say is, Rosie--can I call you Rosie? Hey look, champagne, have some. Anyway, what I mean to say is, you really do not want to follow General Sephiroth right now. There are things a man has to do in the privacy of his S.I.C's quarters, and wearing a frilly pink apron while he cooks is one of them."
So tempting to call him on the blatant lie -- it had to be a blatant lie. No one could put Sephiroth and pink aprons together and still be speaking anything vaguely in orbit around the truth. Or even encamped in a neighbouring solar system.Therapists and stupid excuses and what nonsense. Rosalind could feel the edges of her temper curling in, like paper that had been held in a candle.But she was more angry at herself for making the wrong decision than she was angry at Zack. Someone was probably just doing the cover up job that the General had requested of him -- keep the party in line, excuse the General's absence, make up little lies for him -- except that someone wasn't making up very good lies on the spot. Besides, that in no way explained Tseng's behavior, and if the Director moved, she could bet that it had nothing to do with SOLDIER, or Sephiroth or----it had to do with the Company, then. Something sufficiently high up on the executive chain that both SOLDIER and the Turks would voluntarily and spontaneously get themselves involved. Perhaps something to do with the President.But if it had been something in the way of a security breach, her PHS would be ringing right now, and Veld wouldn't be here, and the other Turks -- those who weren't drunk, at least -- would have started moving by now. And Zack wouldn't be trying to cover Sephiroth's tracks.Ergo, not something they wanted the average Turk involved in. Ergo, not something she should really be poking her nose into, especially since Reno and Rude senpai-tachi hadn't exactly gone running either.Okay, now she really wanted to know what was happening. And now professionalism bid her stay at her post and not go running into places where she was clearly not welcomed."I don't drink," she admitted. A habit she had never gotten into -- after all, a Turk didn't drink on duty, and a Turk was always on duty, even when she wasn't. Well, no point chasing dead ends. Clearly, she wasn't going to get anything out of Zack by just talking to him. Maybe she could station herself closer to the doors, or talk to the other Turks -- not Veld-san, of course, but maybe one of the others......Wait, where were the others?...Oh fine. Perhaps some of the other party goers would know what was happening. Provided that they weren't totally sloshed yet. The least she could do was to go and listen to the rumors, and get something to eat. She was starving.Nodding at Zack, she made polite excuses and attempted to move away. Except that his hand was still clamped around her waist.
Zack gaped. He couldn't help it. Oh, it had been something of a complete lack of shock when Cloud announced, way back in the day, that he didn't drink (because he'd made a promise to his mum, a promise he'd broken approximately an hour after he'd told Zack about it because promises to mums were promises to mums, but this was an order from a superior officer), but Rosalind? Rosalind was a Turk. More to the point, Rosalind was in the Turks with Reno.Zack didn't share his commander's animosity towards the Turks mostly because of Reno. One found it very difficult to resent kindred spirits for any reason, or at least spirits that could drink as much liquor as Zack knew Reno could and still navigate the skeletons of under construction skyscrapers with a can of spray paint in hand. And everyone wondered who had Xed out the 'Kilroy' on 'Kilroy was here' on the side of the latest towering corporate building and started to write something over it. Started to, except that he/she had apparently at that point fallen off the scaffolding, as evidenced by the red streak running halfway down the building before the paint had run out.You had to admire a guy like that. Unless you were Sephiroth, in which case you immediately looked suspiciously over at your XO. Bastard.Anyway, a Turk that didn't drink was against regulations, the real regulations and not the ones written down on paper, and Zack wasted no time in announcing it. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that," he declared firmly, ignoring Rosalind's unsubtle hints that she'd like to escape now, thanks, and gleefully maintaining his hold on her slender waist. A certain flower girl would be beating him bloody with that stick of hers right about now. "Schmoozing is part of a Turk's job description, don't argue with me cos I checked, and schmoozing essentially includes drinking at boring corporate parties. Now what I'm sure you meant is that you don't drink this fancy imported champagne crap, and I entirely agree with your taste, and we should find something more to your liking." A muted growl reached his ears, and he almost smiled in sympathy. How many times had he heard that one, watching Cloud study away for some exam and forgetting to eat for days on end and protesting when he was reminded about it that he didn't have the gil to spare. Neither apparently did brand spanking new Turk recruits. "Do you like Wutai food, by the way?"
This was a test. A training run. It had to be. See how far they can push the new Turk before she snaps. Wutai food.Wutai food.She took a deep, deep breath. "Zack-san. Thank you." And perhaps another time. "But I'm still on duty, and I still have things to attend to." Can I break his wrist if necessary?But... the little mental voice that had perked up at the mention of Wutai food was getting louder. It wasn't as if she really was on duty any more, and besides, this Zack was pretty good looking, and she could probably shoot him if he tried anything -- she had plenty of experience doing that -- and Wutai food and if there really was a mess, someone else could go and clean it up. It wasn't as if she was about to go and get hopelessly sloshed, like some people seemed bent on doing. As long as she avoided the punch...But this holding on thing was getting annoying. Glancing over, she began contemplating all the ways she could possibly break his grip. Alternatively, she could always kiss him. That usually made them let go.
The tensing of her muscles said reluctance, or maybe just aversion to being handled so familiarly, and he knew that her ‘thank you’ was a prelude to a ‘thank you but no thank you.’So he didn’t give her the opportunity. He had no more pressing business to keep him out here wasting his time, and the girl was very cute, after all. Too uptight for her own good, shamefully unaware or uncaring of her own striking beauty, and quite deadly. All of his favorite qualities.Okay, the descriptions ‘easy’ and ‘racked’ and ‘raging nympho’ were also some of his favorite qualities, but one couldn’t have everything.“Actually, you aren’t on duty, because you were first shift,” he said innocently, and taking a step back allowed his arm to slide from her waist. All teasing aside, he wasn’t really interested in making a new employee, a comrade in arms, feel uncomfortable or the victim of sexual harassment. Anyway she’d probably break his wrist. “I took a look at the rosters earlier to see when you got off. Thought you might be interested in a better introduction to your new job than all this..” and he waved dismissively at the nonsense around them, “..from a fellow academy graduate.” Granted, as an older, out-of-city (and underfunded) recruit Zack had only gone through the upper level programs that fed directly into SOLDIER’s professional training, but it was still academy work and he’d had either most or all of her instructors and he’d walked across the same stage as she to receive his half ass diploma. He canted his head to the side and smiled his most winning smile. “It’ll be my treat, I know this great little place down in Sector 3…you don’t mind a little dangerous living going below the Plate, do you? And I can promise I’m better company than drunken execs or your mates in black. I’ll even tell you the story about your Reno-senpai and the Soleil transvestite, if you’d like to hear. I bet you even Tseng doesn’t know that one.” Tseng couldn’t. He’d have dismissed or shot Reno, or both.
How would he know that I'm an academy graduate? she wondered with sudden suspicion. And why would he be checking the rosters on my behalf?It felt vaguely like a Choose Your Own Adventure game at this juncture, now that he had actually let go of her.Choice a) Run away screaming from the scary stalker.Choice b) Go along and figure out why he's stalking you. Then shoot him.You're a Turk, she told herself firmly. Fully equipped. You can probably handle anything he throws at you.Besides, from what she'd heard, Zack-san wasn't the bad sort. A little like Reno-senpai in the whole taking life way too easily and annoying his superiors, but he got the job done, he was a decorated veteran of Wutai, and, from what she'd gathered, not the type to bring a young woman on a date to the Slums and kill her, or worse...And wasn't he rumored to have a girlfriend somewhere? Or, more likely, a harem.Regarding him thoughtfully, Rosalind contemplated the rest of her options. They mostly involved hanging around a party where everyone was getting more and more drunk, where she suspected that it wasn't just the punch that was spiked, but maybe even the food as well. And cold buffet snacks (that were rapidly being finished by Palmer anyway), weren't her idea of food. She watched as another drunk exec threw up on another drunk exec, as the not-so-drunk people around them tried to pull them apart before they came to blows.Maybe it would actually be safer in the Slums at this juncture.Good thing the President and the Vice President weren't here to see what utter debauchery the executive got up to in their absence. And even if they had been here, they wouldn't be as disgustingly drunk as the rest. She was sure of that."You aren't afraid I'll drag you into a dark alley and shoot you?" she said lightly.
He almost snorted. At this point, being dragged into a dark alley and shot would probably be the most interesting thing that'd happened to him all week. "Is that standard Turk procedure on all first dates?" he asked, secretly glowing at the victory that was almost within his grasp. "I mean, I've no qualms about dark alleys if that's really your kind of thing, miss Rosalind, and there's an awful lot I'm willing to put up with at the hands of a pretty girl." He waggled his eyebrows ridiculously at her. "But I'll have you know, it takes more than a bullet or eight to stop a SOLDIER, especially when we're in love."
"In love?" Rosalind choked. He couldn't be serious. Turning away to look over the assemblage so that he couldn't see the slightly wistful look at that crossed her features, she lowered her voice. "You shouldn't throw that word around so carelessly. It's not a shallow concept." You shouldn't make so light of something so serious.Subconsciously performing the usual pre-run weapons check (pistol, materia, extra clips, silencer if necessary, tucked into a back pocket, wallet, keys, ID cards to get back into the building), she scanned the room again once more. No, there really didn't seem to be any reason to stay."Shall we go, then? Before it gets too late."
"Absolutely in love," Zack declared, daringly capturing her hand in his and kissing it theatrically. "From the very first moment I saw you. Your lovely golden hair, your gorgeous ..uh," he checked quickly—"your gorgeous green eyes, your absolutely stunning collection of hidden weaponry that you're contemplating using on me this very second…"Oops. Withdrawal. He'd miscalculated, she was one of those. Too studious for her own good during the academy, he'd bet. The type that didn't take compliments well if they weren't about her grades or her martial skills. As defensive and skittish as Cloud."I can't help my honesty, miss Rosalind. Wasn't trying to be too forward. I'm from Gongaga, you see, and we country boys have a reputation as being a little too free with the truth for the likes of Midgar's finest and most sophisticated." The manic grin softened into something a little more real. "But it is the truth, that you're a very beautiful lady. Every man in this room stares when you walk by." A lot of envy in those stares, too, he wasn't making that part up at all. It wasn't every suit at this party that had a lady Turk as his conversation partner.But she was right about the lateness of the hour. If they were going to leave, they ought to do it now.He offered to drive, wincing a little as his bruised shoulder complained loudly when he fished out his keys. The other option was taking one of the trains down, but that wasn't hardly so classy as having a private vehicle, even if it was a functional, military issue all terrain type. The place he had in mind was in Sector 3, a quiet little business district with mostly family owned shops, and people who ran the Jade Dragon were one of the many native Wutai families who'd left their homeland to look for better jobs on the continent. The waitresses were the oldest daughters, the cooks their father and brothers, and food as authentic as you could get without a trip across the ocean. "Zack-han!" Zack almost but not quite flinched as a familiar figure detached itself from one of the tables and flounced over. A pretty faced young man in SOLDIER casual uniform, short silver hair slicked back from his temples. Wide blue eyes, cheeks flushed and a little tipsy. "I thought you said you were busy at some corporate thing all night and couldn't join us." He was actually pouting. "Past tense, Angel," Zack returned. "I managed to slip away." "Not alone, I see," someone called from the table 'Angel' had vacated. Zack good naturedly flipped them all off, prompting a round of slightly inebriated laughter. "Can't a man have a nice quiet date without his petty officers giving him ten kinds of crap?""Absolutely not, sir. Against regulations," one of the younger SOLDIERs piped up, grinning at the sour look his superior gave him. Angel sighed melodramatically, looking put upon. "Well if you're going to be that way….""Drinks on me tomorrow night," Zack promised. The others broke out into a cheer and Angel flounced back their way, satisfied. "And bring your girl!""Like hell I want her associating with the riffraff, you drunken excuses for government weapons." He ignored their jeers and glanced apologetically at Rosalind, a little embarrassed. "There's quieter tables in the back, if you don't mind not having a window seat. Otherwise this lot will be pestering us all night until they get thrown out."
Well, that was a surprise. She hadn't expected Zack to have a car, let alone one of his own. Perhaps it was General Sephiroth's?The place he had in mind took her by surprise too. She'd been thinking of something along the lines of a hole in the wall that nevertheless served good food -- there were a lot of them in the Slums, if you just knew where to look. At the very least, she'd been expecting... oh, some kind of place that served that fake stuff that people called Wutai food, that Wutainese would poke at with a look of vague suspicion and say that they didn't do it this way at home. Which, translated, meant: What crap.SOLDIERs would be SOLDIERs, she reflected ruefully. Although the one Zack called Angel was rakishly good looking in his own way, if just a tad too flouncy for her taste. And evidently the type who couldn't hold his liquor. What someone like that was doing in SOLDIER... well..."A table at the back will be fine," she replied. After all, she wanted to talk, not to just to eat and get sloshed. In fact, she didn't want to get sloshed. Not after seeing the effects of all that spiked punch tonight. The place served chopsticks by default. This was a good sign. She was no connoisseur in Wutai food, but her father had brought her to Wutai once, long before the dreadful war and real Wutai fod, once sampled, was never forgotten."I see this place is a well known SOLDIER secret," she said, smiling slightly.
"Getting to be a little too well known for my taste," he grumbled. It had originally been one of his favorite haunts for its distinct lack of official personnel, Zack was all for hanging out with his boys (often dragging one less than enthusiastic superior or low level trooper along for the ride), but there were times when one just needed to go somewhere and not be stared at or drunkenly propositioned or otherwise known on sight. Anonymity was one of Cloud's personal demons but shared anonymity, he and Zack both, just two guys out and about for the evening, removed the stammer from the blond's voice and put a glow back in his adopted too-wary-all-the-time expression.There wasn't any such thing as anonymity for Seph. Impossible, unless the man wanted to go out hooded and wearing sunglasses which they had, in fact, resorted to before. But the less populated restuarants, when one could find them, had more or less the same effect. Fewer people to point and whisper behind their hands. Fewer people to drop things in their nervousness and address them both like royalty. Zack had his list now, of places where the help could be trusted not to act like awe-struck fools. Seph appreciated the effort, he thought, even if the man never said anything. Saying something about it would have rendered the entire point moot.He held out Rosalind's chair for her, fumbling a little as his conscience suddenly reminded him (with Aeris and Cloud's combined voices, godhelphim) that holding out her chair was what he ought to be doing instead of daydreaming. Settling in himself after, he didn't bother to look at the menu but propped his chin on his hands and gave her his best expression of innocence and his best back country drawl. "Now miss Rosalind, I'll have you know I'm not used to such forwardness in a lady, declaring your undying love for me so soon after meeting, but I do believe that fate brings people together without warning or cause so I'll have to make it my business to get to know you better as best I can." Beam. "How do you like the Turks so far?"
"Rosalind will do," she replied. "And any declarations of undying love were on your part, remember?" She put a small smile to soften the words. "You don't have to resort the cheesy cliches."Shaking out the napkin, she deposited it on her lap as she did a cursory scans of the surroundings. There were the windows, of course, and kitchen was a viable escape route..."Truth to be told, I can't really comment. We -- the new Turks, that is -- haven't been dispatched on any formal missions as yet." Some insignificant tasks, generally to familiarize themselves with Shinra and how it operated more than to test or hone their abilities. Rumor had it that things would start brewing after the holiday season, though."Actually, I wanted to ask you... how did you know I was from the Academy? Turk dossiers aren't exactly available for public viewing." And I highly doubt you make it standard practice to check up on every new Turk and memorize their vital statistics.
"Just Rosalind it is, then. And I'm only Zack-san to...uh, people who call me Zack-san." At the moment he couldn't think of any offhand. The girl's smile really was breathtaking when one wasn't expecting it.He feigned a wounded look at her comment about cheesy cliches but gave it up without a fight. "But cheesy cliches," he reminded, "only become cliches when they've got truth behind them." An untrustworthy grin. "I resort to nothing. It was fate that brought us together. Well, that and luck, at least on my part."Speaking of luck, he wondered how it was going back at corporate headquarters. Surely some progress had to have been made by now. Oh well. At the very least, he'd gotten a date with a pretty girl before Sephiroth caught up with him again and beat him bloody for petty scheming and inconveniencing others.That the Turks hadn't been sent out on anything serious yet didn't surprise him. Most of them were still wild cards, untried and untested and unused to each other. Better to give them time to gel before throwing them out to the sharks. At least, that's what Zack would have done, had he been in charge of their training. For all he knew Veld was using a Magic Eight Ball to decide whether or not the rookies yet needed to go out and kill people for fun and profit like good government dogs. And as for her question... "It's nothing special," he admitted, thanking the pretty waitress with a nod as she brought them tea and sake, unasked. She knew Zack. "One of the secretaries asked me to run a military file up to Veld on a whim. I may have been entranced by the picture of the gorgeous young woman inside," he winked, "and decided to do a little unauthorized snooping to find out who this mysterious goddess could possibly be and why on earth she was going to work for an old battle-axe like Veld."
She blinked. Was that how classified information was handled in Shinra? Take everything you learnt from the Academy, Rosalind-san, and throw it out of the window...And as for the rest... "There were plenty of people at the academy spouting all kinds of cliched rubbish," she said softly, turning her attention to the menu. "One soon learns that it inevitably means that they want something from you. Especially when they go overboard with it." She flicked past the appetizers, and glanced up, her expression gone suddenly serious. "What do you want from me, Zack-san?"Nothing, she hoped. Nothing, because Zack-san looked like a nice person, someone you could trust. She had met plenty of rogues affecting the same attitude as him, and most of them had turned out to be sleazy, arrogant trash more intent on getting into your pants than passing their courses. And stealing your notes or copying your papers when they ran into the risk of failing those courses. Fortunately, no one could cheat on the practical exams.Except that they had turned that into an excuse as well. "Give us shooting lessons, Rosie," they'd drawl, cornering her in a corridor somewhere between classes. The B-grade movie thing to do would have been to pick a fight, but they too were Academy graduates, all trained to kill a man with their bare hands. It was around that time that she had decided that she wanted a job that let you use your brains more than your brawn.Sometimes, it had been esaier to play along, to pretend that you really were as entranced with their charms as they thought you were, until they got tired of it. She'd given them shooting lessons for real, played on their inate, competitive, male instincts, until they were mad enough at being beaten by a woman that they forgot why they were chasing her in the first place. But all of that was over. Gone. She was a Turk now, and she wasn't going to play the game any longer. If Zack turned out to be one of those, she was turning around and leaving.Even if the food smelt really good. And she was honestly, honestly starving at this point. As her stomach took the liberty of reminding her with a stark growl.
He kept the sigh purely mental and his smile in place. Of course she was going to be suspicious. She had every reason to be, an inexperienced recruit finding herself the recipient of so much attention from SOLDIER’s resident skirt-chasing screwball. Zack was well aware of his own reputation. Half the gossips in Shinra wouldn’t be left bereft of anything to talk about if they didn’t have the stories of his exploits, some which were actually true. Given what she’d said about the academy and what Zack definitely remembered happening to the few girls that made it, it was more than likely that she’d been bracing herself for just this kind of insincerity (whether it was or not) within Shinra since her graduation, and not looking to appreciate it in any form from anyone.Bah. Stiff-necked Turks and their professionalism.“You’re taking all the fun out of this, you know,” he accused, his expression wounded. “Can’t we pretend that it really was a case of destined attraction? The reality is going to sound so very un-romantic, and I have got a certain reputation to uphold. I’d never get a date again if word got around that I’d treated a pretty girl like yourself to boring political commentary rather than compliments over dinner.”It really was unfair. Most of the girls he went out with didn’t want anything except compliments over dinner, even when he did happen to be trying to steer the conversation towards more serious subjects. Secretaries tended to be a fairly vapid lot the further up on the food chain one went. He sometimes wondered if they weren’t hired specifically for it, because in all honesty it would have to take a truly empty headed skirt to want to stay employed with Shinra after a few days working under someone like Palmer or Scarlet.Or maybe he was just getting lazy. After all Aeris had called him on his bullshit before. So had the dancer from the Triple K whose real name he still didn’t know, the girl with wings inked on her back. And the various military personnel. Maybe he was a little too used to handling the bubblebrains that he was missing his cues with the intelligent, potential ally types.If a potential ally the girl was, he reminded himself grimly.“Alright. You’re a Turk, so I guess you’re entitled to ask that kind of question and receive an honest answer.” He poured sake for himself and, smiling only a little bit like a bastard, for her as well. Give and take, m’dear.“The reason your file caught my eye that day was not precisely for your looks, although I will admit a certain fascination on that count. I actually recognized your name from a report that came up a month or so ago, the standard review for candidates in the academy being considered for SOLDIER. Seph is supposed to go over them periodically as some kind of nod to the whole ‘handpicked by the General for specialized training’ crap, so we don’t have to tell parents that their kids have been selected for painful genetic experimentation and enhancement just cos they have the correct lack of allergies to withstand the chemicals that are gonna get pumped through their systems all day long.” He grimaced and drained his glass. “So anyway, I usually end up being the one doing the reviewing. It’s nice to get a look at the people about to join up, actually, even if most of them will wash out during the first week. Lets us…you know, nudge a few in the right direction. Make sure the right type of person gets where he/she is really going to be needed. So imagine my surprise when I see one of the SOLDIER candidate profiles I spent several days cackling over because of the best damn marks I’d seen out of the academy for a long time showing up on an identical handpick review for the Turks.”
A glance around proved that they were indeed, quite alone, save for the help, who Zack more or less trusted to not eavesdrop on account that they all spoke Wutainese and only the youngest understood more than rudimentary Midgardian. Still, he lowered his voice slightly. “Now I’ve got a bit of a story to tell you. See, once upon a time in a far away land called Wutai, there was a great sodding war and a bunch of people that fought in it and another bunch of people that stayed safe at home here and tried to pretend they were in charge of running said war. Long story short, they weren’t. Frontline commanders own the war and they own the soldiers. That’s how it’s always been.”“The people that stayed home and pretended they were in charge decided that they didn’t particularly like not truly being in charge. They also decided that certain frontline commanders were getting too uppity and independent, and took what they felt were subtle steps to limit his influence.” If Rosalind didn’t know who Zack was referring to..well, no, there probably wasn’t any way she couldn’t know who Zack was referring to. “Their favorite tactic was to transfer his officers away, hoping that decreasing his loyal little band of followers would bring him back to heel like a good dog. Course all this really did was spread out the people who were loyal throughout the military, but it did cause certain problems when suddenly, the soldiers serving directly under him were all administration spies and not very focused on actually fighting a war. Most of them ended up dying from their own carelessness, too worried about subversion and reporting secretly back to their superiors to think about the guerillas that walked out of the jungle and cut their throats. Then it got personal. Obviously the folks back in Midgar didn’t want to hear that their tale carriers had been erased through their own idiocy. They immediately jumped to the conclusion that there was a Plot Against Them. So it became a ridiculous back and forth thing, a paper war, with Midgar ordering everyone they thought had suspicious loyalties away from the front, even though the General had put those people up with him because they were competent and needed in the posts he had given them, so the transfer orders would get lost or creatively misinterpreted or accidentally destroyed by firebombs or even simply countermanded by people of higher ranking. It more or less evened out when the President finally bowed to expediency and told everyone to back the hell off so they could finish the damn war and have done with it. But then, after the surrender treaty had been officially signed, probably right around the tail end of the Occupation, the General got fed up with the paper war constantly depriving him of decent personnel and ..took steps. The Mt. Gagazet fishing trip incident happened.” He paused here. That whole mess wasn’t common knowledge, given how embarrassing the details were to Shinra brass even now, but he supposed there was no real harm in sharing if she wanted to hear the whole story. He wouldn’t volunteer. If she wanted to know, she was more than welcome to ask. “Anyway, after that things quieted down. The President was quick to come down hard on anyone who even remotely appeared to be starting up the old rivalries. So it just took me by surprise that a name that had been in a batch of SOLDIER candidates that I happened to have very high hopes for, would show up on a list of Turk recruits. It just seems a little suspicious, you see, that Veld would pick up this vendetta of meddling in SOLDIER business or even appear to pick it up when he’d been one of the few who’d denounced and stayed out of it in the first place.”He leaned forward. “So I have a question for you, Rosalind. Just what is it that Veld or Tseng told you about your new job, and why you specifically were needed to take the position? What’s Veld pulling talent from our pool for?”
"The Mt Gagazet fishing trip?" Rosalind asked, since it was obvious by the way Zack said it (capital letters all slipping neatly into place), that it was obviously Something Important, and yet it was something that no one seemed to know about. Like the Great Chocobo incident. "That's a GREAT Chocobo!" Chocobo Billy said.She shrugged off the next question. "I wasn't aware that SOLDIER wanted to recruit me, actually. Veld-san asked first, and besides... I don't think I would have made a great SOLDIER. Gun skills aside, I lack the physical strength necessary to enter the programme." And way too much intelligence, some say. Fascinating, the way politics got into everything. She'd hoped to avoid that nonsense when she was young, but even the Academy had been rife with it. Which courses you took to catch the eye of which instructor to guarantee a faster posting out into the field and better chance at promotion......But even that had been paltry compared to what Zack was telling her. And she was curious as to why Zack was telling her all of this. Surely it was all very confidential, and all kept under wraps for very good reasons......Or was Zack perhaps trying to warn her about something? SOLDIER and the Turks didn't mix, which she'd always thought was a pity. A little cooperation could go a long way. And maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with a certain General storming out of the ballroom earlier that evening. Some sort of internal politics, no doubt. Perhaps even the same old problem coming to light again. Because if anyone had done that to her in the field, she would have a bone to pick with whoever it was. She rather hoped that there wasn't some massive conspiracy to take down Shinra from the inside going on. She hadn't even received her first paycheck yet.
Well, that answered that. Dead end. He spared a moment to wonder if she was lying, but it really was far more likely that no one had told her anything. Veld was a cagey old bastard after all and doubtless not in the habit of chattering away to his brand new subordinates about any grand schemes for the future of the company he might have planned out. Zack wondered if he might have had more luck asking Tseng to dinner, except for the fact that Tseng currently hated his guts. Oh well. At this point he’d would settle for what he’d gotten so far, which was Rosalind’s status of not-really-involved-so-far-non-threat. He could deal with that.“Of course SOLDIER wanted you,” he said absently. “Physical strength is something the enhancements can give no matter what your natural abilities were in the first place. It’s the rest of the package that we were interested in. A word from Seph or myself would have secured you a place.”As to why Zack was telling her all this, simple. It was useful to know. None of it was really confidential information, anyone could take a look at the Wutai records to find the paper war laid out in all of its lunatic glory, it was just …embarrassing. People didn’t talk about embarrassing things. And it was hardly a secret that Sephiroth’s sometimes violent independence disconcerted the rest of Shinra, and it was hardly a secret that there wasn’t a whole lot any of them could do about it. The President in particular had always seemed completely confident that Sephiroth would never push that line further than could be justified by the results. Zack had his suspicions about the reason for that confidence. Suspicions about things that Seph refused to discuss, things involving a smirking psychotic named Hojo, but he certainly wasn’t going to bring that up. He did wince when she took the bait and asked about Gagazet. His own fault, he had tossed it out there. “Well. Uh. Gagazet. Right.” He fidgeted uncomfortably. “Seph got fed up with the whole stealing his people thing. Because. Um.” Might as well get it over with, no doubt his impression of embarrassed schoolboy was marvelous entertainment for the fascinated Turk. “They arrested me, you see. Court martial for falsifying orders during the war, since half of those transfers came through to me and they were all bullshit and if I hadn’t overridden them we’d have lost ..I don’t know how many more lives in Wutai. So they showed up with paperwork and handcuffs while I was out on assignment, and I got to spend a nice couple of days in a military prison at Junon while the boys in charge pranced around and gloated about how this was going to jumpstart their careers.”
“Then word got back that the General had, upon receiving his invitation to the proceedings, up and disappeared. No one knew what had happened or where he’d gone.” Zack couldn’t help the stupid grin. “He used to pull that all the time in Wutai. Pissed off the brass like nothing else, he’d just walk into the jungle with some men and vanish for weeks on end, usually when Midgar Command had been getting a little too pushy. Worse, he’d take half a regiment with him and they’d all just be gone. Then he’d show up four weeks later on the other side of the country with two or three or eight more cities taken. The right people could always find him if needed, of course, but Midgar Command just went nuts.”“So naturally, they postponed my trial and started a manhunt, because I was small fry compared to Seph. Predictably the search turned up squat. For all they knew he’d walked out for good. About a week and a half went by and I was starting to get kinda sick of the cell, so I uh, kinda broke out and went for a walk. Listened to a few rumors in town.”“The President was waiting for me when I got caught....I mean, when I was escorted back. Said he’d had enough bullshit and I was free to go. He was more worried about the General, see. Every day Sephiroth stayed gone was costing him thousands of gil, he said, because of Mount Gagazet.”“You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s way out in the boonies, infested with monsters. Supposed to be haunted, too. Anyway, there was supposed to be a reactor built there, because monsters usually means mako, but the crews had taken awful casualties from all the crawlies and were too terrified to finish. They wanted military security. They wanted Seph himself, actually, and swore construction wasn’t going to go any further until he showed up. The President was besides himself trying to deliver the goods so he could get his precious reactor finished on schedule.”“So I got turned loose, all charges cleared, and I hopped a chocobo and headed out to the wild. Seph being gone was all hush hush, so there wasn’t any scuttlebutt in the villages, but there was talk of monster frenzies in various places that were leaving corpses left and right in these really remote areas. Might as well have been a neon sign. Shinra rarely granted us the opportunity to go bug hunting in places that weren’t essential, but Seph always paid attention to the complaints being brought, in and the bastard was using his impromptu vacation to work on his To Do list.”“I caught up to him….I don’t even remember where. Some mountain lake that didn’t have a name, but I think we eventually ended up naming it after my chocobo after we’d been there two weeks. When I rode up on him he was standing on the shore fishing. Can you believe it? And then he turns around and asks what the hell took me so long, he’d already used up half of his planned leave.”He laced his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling innocently. “And you know, for some strange reason, after we got back and the reactor project was underway? No one said a word about any of it. Never brought up my court martial or Seph taking off or anything at all.” He winked. "Weird collective amnesia, huh?"
As stories went, this was a great one. Perhaps it was even true, but either way, Zack was an excellent narrator. "Fishing? And not clearing the area of monsters?" Rosalind couldn't help but ask. It seemed so... strange. But apt. After all, Sephiroth with his curious eyes and his aloof mannerisms... was not unlike a cat. But Mount Gagazet? She certainly hadn't heard of that one, and there wasn't any such reactor, so... Still, it was shaping up to be a very entertaining evening. She indicated the menu. "Shall we order? Is there anything you recommend?"Vaguely, she wondered if she should have been flattered by the attention from SOLDIER. But what's past was past, and thus far, at least, she hadn't seen any reason to regret her choice. Even if Turks got killed faster than the average SOLDIER, especially now that there wasn't a war on.
He snorted. "Considering that most of what passed for fish in that lake were the size of chocobos and thought that swimmers made great lunches, I'd say he was taking care of both at the same time. He sort of took it personally that one of them ate his left leg. We got it back, though, and he had to have it surgically re-attached, you can still see the scar on his thigh."All of this delivered with an absolutely straight face, a leftover and very useful remnant of his time spent sergeanting. Zack's buddies had commented more than once that if he didn't go out of his way to get completely sloshed while playing poker, he might have made himself millions with his natural ability to say anything like it was god's honest truth.Whether or not there really was a court martial order and a mako reactor on Mount Gagazet, well...she could decide that for herself.Broad grin at the mention of recommendations. "Weeeeeeell. I suppose that depends. Being an unspeakably brave military type myself, I'm partial to the spicier varieties of everything, if you know what I mean." Unsubtle hint there, wink wink nudge nudge. He'd fulfilled his Serious quota. "But they do have good noodles, according to Cloud."
Could his flirting get any more obvious? If she'd been the writing sort, Rosalind would have taken notes and written a book on what not to do when trying to get the attention of the opposite sex."And the General doesn't even have the slightest limp? They must have had some good surgeons up there." She flipped through the menu, finally settling on something that looked, by the badly taken photos, to have chicken in it. She liked spicy food, but she'd also learnt enough from early days of experimentation to realize that what foreigners like her called 'spicy', the Wutai people generally called 'bland'. And it only got worse from there.It was a wonderful thing in winter, though. "Who's Cloud?" she asked, flailing a little in the depth of social niceities now that the business of the day seemed to have been cleared out of the way. Social niceties had never, ever been her strong point. She rather preferred to let the uniform do the talking, or, if necessary, a Shinra 45mm semi-automatic pistol with dual materia slots.
"Oh, you know Shinra. Only the best for their precious war weapon." Yeah. Like fear, isolation, hatred, suspicion, subversion, forced obediance...Claws in, he told himself firmly."Cloud? Buddy of mine from the troopers. You'll probably see him around HQ sometime, you can't miss hair like his....this is one of his favorite places." He glanced around fondly. "I'll have to bring him back for his birthday. He's got no family here, so I'm kind of his self-appointed nii-san in the big city.""What about you? Any siblings?" Ignoring of course, the fact that he'd seen her file, as he'd rather hear her talk. Talking was conducive to loosening up, geez.