Masks hide the worst of artless scowls

And show the best of smiles limned in glitter

It's par for the course in the party house

Unseen is the dark between face and paper.

"I didn't do it," Zack said later, sitting rigidly at attention in a cheap white folding chair that felt as though it had been designed expressly for the torture of bottoms. He kept his face still and his hands folded neatly on the table before him, acutely aware of the watching eyes on the other side of the mirrored window, an the questioning eyes of the Turk, sorry, administrative officer, assigned to his case. "I can see it looks bad, yeah. I don't deny that I killed him. But I didn't, you know, kill him."

"Some might question so contradictory a statement, especially in so important a matter," observed the inquisitor, who appeared to be plagued with the same obtuseness and love of torture that most high-ranking officers, in Zack's experience, conspired to share. Zack narrowed his eyes. "I didn't premeditate it," he bit out. "Veheim damn well walked straight into my sword! He was Manipulated! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"I didn't realize that you were so familiar with the symptoms of Manipulation, Mr...Donovan," the inquisitor countered, infuriatingly choosing the moment to jot down something on a sheet of paper already halfway filled. "According to your file, you prefer direct attacks over the use of materia."

Zack resisted the urge to reach over and crumple the paper into a handy ball to bounce off the inquisitor's wide shiny forehead. The remnants of the headache from the Restore spell the night before threatened to come back with a vengeance. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly, seeking refuge in the cool darkness. "I had spent the initial part of the mission staring at Manipuated creatures, sir. I can recognize the symptoms when they appear mere hours later in a human being. It's pretty obvious after you've seen it just once." He sighed. "Look, sir. This is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Most likely some resistance member cast the spell on Veheim to attack any of his own comrades. It's as simple as that."

The inquisitor leaned forward, his eyebrows coming together in a frown that reflected the tight downward curve of his mouth. Under the stark white light his dark, stirring eyes were impenetrable mirrors, without pity or understanding. "Truly? When you stand to benefit so much from Veheim's death?"

Zack did not have to fake his expression of blankness. "In what way?" He shifted uneasily, and the metal legs of the chair squeaked shrilly against the linoleum tiles.

"You needn't be coy, Mr. Donovan," the inquisitor said with the air of a poker player playing a winning hand. "Your...mission is well-known among us in the higher levels." He smiled, or contrived to unbend his mouth from its seemingly permanent frown. "And so far it appears successful enough for you to...what? Gamble your career on a chance to become...the General's aide?"

Zack's mouth dropped open, and he felt a familiar anger work its way up from its near perpetual presence in his gut. He did not bother to hide the anger on his face either. "Is that all I'm supposed to care about? Promotion?"

"You accepted the job," the inquisitor pointed out, in the same pedantic, insistent tone that Zack was starting to hate so much, as though the inquisitor believed that with enough time and the application of that voice he could force Zack to confess. Come to think of it, he wasn't that far wrong.

"It was that or feed the daisies," Zack snapped, leaning forward aggressively, and was gratified to see the inquisitor move back slightly. Less gratifying, though, to see the expression of cool indifference on the man's face. "Getting upped to First Class? It was a nice bonus, I'll give the President that. But..." A shadow fell across his face. "For a long time, it almost wasn't worth it. Besides, a desk job really isn't my thing."

The inquisitor finally removed his frown long enough to flash a brief smile. "Judging from your records, that might be too true, Mr. Donovan." The smile abruptly vanished. "Nonetheless, it is my job to find the truth of the matter, and you must see that the case looks very black against you." He gave a smooth, elegant shrug and picked at the files before him absently. "A lot of men would jump at what you have refused," he murmured, almost too quietly to be heard.

"I am not most men," Zack countered. "That has to count for something, right?"

The inquisitor gazed at him, impassive. "You are an oddity, Donovan. I admit that. But the world always balances out in the end." He stood, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles in his pressed suit, and slid the ubiquitous sunglasses back on, hiding his eyes. "This interview is over. Remember--you're confined in your room for now. We wouldn't want...further trouble."

Zack gave him a politely repressed smile. "More than I'm in already? What a chilling prospect."

The inquisitor smirked at him, and opened the door for him to step into the welcoming embrace of his guards.

Alone in the sanctity of his room--or as alone as he could be with the glassy eyes of the spycams pinning him down like a butterfly to a board--Zack sank onto his bed, allowing himself a moment of weakness. He hadn't been as confident as he had striven hard to be, and now anger, fear and bewilderment were simmering in a potent mix of emotions in his stomach, making his legs feel as steady as a leaf in a breeze. Many times he'd thought they can't do this to me only to laugh at himself in derisive scorn. He was on his own.

He couldn't hold back the lurking suspicion that there was something very wrong here. Sure, the Turks were like all police in that sense, with a permanently skewed perception of everyone else and armed with the belief that everyone, everywhere, were guilty of something. But they weren't just armed thugs who blindly followed orders--they were fairly reasonable and they liked to listen. Turks had their professional pride. If they nabbed the wrong guy, the right guy might be emboldened to try something again. Turks couldn't afford to be wrong.

Only now they seemed to be going all out, convinced from the start that he was the bad guy and trying to force him into confessing. Surely it couldn't be too inconceivable that the rebels possessed Manipulate materia and that Veheim had been hit, or at least hit by a stray friendly spell. Manipulate materia had been abound on the battleground that day. He wouldn't have been the only one; in the aftermath he'd seen medics going around, dispensing counterspells generously. What made them think that he was lying, or at least not worth the benefit of the doubt? Zack knew he'd be punished for killing Veheim anyway, whether he was innocent or guilty, but he was frustrated as hell to think that he'd be going down thought of as a power-monger.

He made a face and put it in his hands, working his brain. He had to think of something, anything--some brilliantly winning argument, some witty retort that would knock them off their smug, complacent axises and knock some sense into their heads. For the first time since he had agreed--ha!--to take on this assignment he felt completely helpless, like an overturned turtle kicking futilely at the air and making no difference whatsoever. He was going to die, and it was all going to be for nothing.

Glumly he noted that his determination to find a way out of this mess had withered mid-thought and was heading off via an extremely deviant tangent to gratuitous self-pity. He forced himself to stand upright, head to the bathroom and splash cold water on his face. Shocked back into a greater semblance of life, he shook himself vigorously, scattering water and shivering. "Shit..." he whispered, looking at his own blank, horribly vulnerable face in the mirror. "Shit..."

He stood there, dripping, letting himself unwind. Breathe in, out, in, out, like how they taught him to relax in SOLDIER, to go with the flow of things and see other than with his eyes. The line of his shoulders sloped down as some of the tension dissipated and his mind cleared. He returned to his bed and flopped down on it, crossing his arms behind his head.

Fact One: Veheim had been Manipulated, possibly to target him specifically.

Fact Two: The spellcaster had to be near to keep the spell up and working. It had been a dark and smoky night, but Zack thought if he strained his memory a little...

Suspicion One: Someone was determined to see him out of the way, and wasn't bothered if death was out of the options.

Suspicion Two: He might have been the one who killed Veheim, but he damn sure wasn't the one who had murdered him.

Somewhere between these thoughts and the knock on the door he drifted off, having found little to none sleep since he'd left the bunk in Junon. He woke with a start, his body taking over and launching him out of bed with the speed he'd ingrained into himself after years of superiors hollering at him at the crack of dawn. He staggered slightly as he hit the floor and his lagging brain finally caught up with dizzying abruptness. Since he was supposed to be a hardened criminal, he decided to skip the decorum portion involved in greeting his visitor and open the door straight away.

The man outside stepped back as the door slid open. Zack didn't blame him. He'd gone to sleep in his clothes and they were wrinkled and disarrayed around a body that was starting to smell. Putting on his most surly expression, Zack nodded at his visitor, leaning casually on one side of the door frame. There was a brief, uncomfortable pause as they stared at each other.

"Akira..." Zack murmured, and he heard disbelief and anger color his voice. "What the hell are you doing here?"

The other man gazed back at him with dead eyes, and Zack had a sudden flashback as he thought of the first time Akira had visited him in his quarters, how he had done his best to make
Zack feel at home. There were no such friendly vibes now. Akira was angry in his prim Akira way, which meant that his lips were tightly compressed until they were white, and that his back was as ramrod straight as it would have been if they had replaced his spine with a steel beam.

"How do you do it?" Akira whispered, and Zack flinched, looking at him in surprise. "How in the world do you do it, you--you--" The other man's mouth worked for a moment, but he didn't need to finish. Zack had seen and heard all that was required. He sighed. "I don't want to trade insults with you. Just leave me alone, okay?" He almost added, Or I might do something both of us will regret, but didn't. Akira had been a friend, or almost a friend.

Akira shook his head and pushed past Zack. He tried a smile that looked about as natural as Scarlett's rack. "Donovan...Zack..." He looked at the floor. "I think we need to talk."

Zack glanced past him at the face of a curious guard which had poked past the door frame. Akira followed his gaze. "You're dismissed," he said, seeming happy to be able to give a command. "All of you. And if I catch any of you loitering around, it's latrine duty. Got that?"

"Yes, sir!" The guard saluted hastily and withdrew.

Akira waited until the sound of footsteps had grown faint, taking the room's only chair. He tap-danced his fingers on the arms of the chair, his gaze abstract. Zack remained standing, waiting for Akira to gather his thoughts. This did not take long.

"I'm here because you are directly under my command," Akira said, finally answering Zack's question. Steepling his fingers together, he looked steadily at Zack with a frankness that the latter found unnerving. "I'm also here as your accuser and the witness who saw you kill Veheim." Zack opened his mouth to voice a retort. Akira held up a hand. "Wait for it, won't you?" he said coldly. "I am thus the logical bearer of this happy news." But he didn't look happy. He looked unhappy, just a little. "The panel decided that there isn't enough evidence, so they're going to try you. Slug it out in the court. My...testimony wasn't strong enough, apparently." His mouth twisted.

"Did you really believe I killed Veheim?" Zack asked quietly. He had to know, even if he hurt himself doing it. He scarcely recognized the cheerful, well-intentioned man he had first known, only the shape of him behind the bitter mask he wore. He felt something twist in his stomach. "Say it. You owe me something, surely."

Akira started to speak, then fell silent, his long fingers twisting together. Two tiny dots of color burned high in his pale cheeks. Looking at him, Zack was struck suddenly by an image of a little boy who hadn't got what he wanted, slumped in his chair with a vicious, frustrated expression. He felt a flash of mingled pity and sadness. Some of it must have shown on his face, for Akira looked away from him, flushing.

Then Akira met his eyes. "Yes. I believe that you caused his death, and nothing will persuade me otherwise." He folded his hands over his lap and watched Zack steadily. Watching for his reaction. Zack nodded. "Okay. But why? It was a pretty dark night...spells flying everywhere...double helpings of noise and confusion. How can you be so sure?"

Akira smiled thinly. "I know what I know." He would not say anything more on the subject. "I'm saving it for judgment you should too, Donovan."

"You're going to be tried in a week, maybe more," Akira continued. "The panel is looking into hiring a lawyer for you--never let it be said that the military isn't fair."

"Just outright liars," Zack said pointedly, his eyes burning holes into the other man. He restrained the urge to reach over and muss up that neat suit a little.

Akira shrugged. "That's one point of view, I guess," he said, and steamrolled over Zack's mutters of personally showing him other points of view, just to be as goddamn fair as he liked. "You should know all this already, but I'm assuming that you haven't touched that handbook of yours since the exam." Briefly, Akira smiled, and Zack almost smiled too, almost allowed himself to forget.

But he couldn't. "Yeah," Zack said. "Mommy always told me to keep my nose clean, stay out of trouble. Never realized, though, that one day one of my friends was gonna set me up and make me in the need-to-know."

Akira's smile vanished like a startled rabbit down its hole. "Believe it or not, Donovan, I am capable of putting all unpleasantries between us aside, for the time being at least. I only wish you were adult enough to be the same."

"Sorry," Zack muttered. The emotion was genuine. Akira might have been up to some nefarious plot to disgrace him, but he was a stickler for the rules--those that couldn't be used as bowling pins in the lane of injustice, anyway. It was time that both of them were adult, he thought, but didn't say it. Whatever friendship had existed between them was irretrievably gone, and had probably not even existed in the first place. Akira was too different now, too resentful, for any of it to be real. There was simply no point trying to bring it back.

Akira accepted the apology graciously. "Don't worry about it, Zack," he said, and his smile was almost kind. "I don't want you dead. I just want you out--out of this army, out of Midgar, even." He paused, as if for effect. "You have no idea what you're doing."

"Enlighten me then, O great one," Zack snapped.

Akira looked at him, his eyes dark hollows in his long face. "And the worst of it," he said quietly, "is that you don't even know." He shook his head. mourning the loss of sanity in this hard, hard world, while Zack wondered just which one out of the two of them was more ignorant. All he knew was that he had had enough.

"Well, I'm sure that you're just longing to make yourself useful," he said flatly. "But I'd appreciate it if you would vacate the premises within the next five minutes. I'm saying this for your benefit, just in case you want to prove yourself more obtuse than you already are."

Akira's smile soured, became deeply unpleasant. "I think I can recognize a threat when I hear one, Donovan. For your own benefit, let me say that it's best if you keep your hands to yourself."

"Why?" Zack asked bitterly. "You're already doing your damnest to screw me over. Maybe I should be thinking that I have nothing to lose."

Akira had risen and wandered over the door while Zack was considering this. Now he turned and adopted that benevolent, kind-preacher smile again, and what was worse than it wasn't entirely false. "The person who says that kind of thing, the person who has maybe lost everything." He nodded and touched his hand to his brow. Good luck, to me and to you.

As soon as he left, Zack threw himself down onto the newly-empty chair and looked at the cracks on the ceiling as though they formed an obscure pattern that would provide him with the answers he needed. None, naturally, was forthcoming. He wasn't surprised, given his shitty luck. "God, what a mess," he said, and put his hand over his eyes.

He sat there for a while more, thinking.

Then he picked himself up and dug up the SOLDIERs' handbook from under his bed. Akira, damn him, had been right. The book was new and shiny with corners sharp enough to slice butter. Zack carried the book back to the chair and turned to the table of content. He was soon immersed in a long list of clauses and precedents and legal terms, and he thought that Akira with his big cream folders and his patient teacher's voice could maybe have explained it a helluva lot better, but thinking about Akira and his stupid insinuations hurt, so he dropped that particular train of thought in a hurry. He read some more.

After some more time, he got up again and made himself coffee.

A Word From the Author: (4/8/08): You know, I actually wrote a much longer Word. Then a glitch with Google Doc wiped out the whole damn thing, my fingers hurt, so I'm just going to sum it up in this: It's been six freakin' months, really sorry, spent too much time on my original story and now I'm going to be spending too much time on my exams. Also I've come to the conclusion that as this story could do with a lot of tune-up, like throwing out all the bloody adjectives (there goes another one! XD) So when I'm done with Alone I'm going to be rewrite the first few chapters. Anyone wants to point out something they have issues with, please do.

Two more things: if you guys would care to direct me to information on court-martials, I would be deeply grateful. I've been doing some research of my own for the next chapter, but with what I currently have I'm doubting my ability to write something coherent and believable.

And the last: The next chapter will be released in December at the earliest. Exams will begin at the end of August, and the next round in November. I won't be doing any writing for a while :( Don't worry, I won't ever forget Alone! It's been too fun.

Thanks to:

IVIaedhros— truthfully, the spamming of magic was because I can't write traditional battles to save my life, but I like your interpretation better :D

Ardwynna Morrigu—Yep, Zack is buried up to his neck, all right. I only hope that I'm not overdoing it.

Viva-taquitos—That's okay, I leave the story alone for months at a time and it starts to recede from memory too. I fully admit this is a story that at least started out with no direction after all, and draws most of its inspiration from the chapter that came before. I did set up a rudimentary outline, and already this chapter is deviating from it.

EbonGale—There's a guy in my class with a PSP and CC and I'm so freakin' jealous. One day I will a PSP if for no more reason that to play CC.
Since you took the time to review, you definitely deserved to be mentioned in the Word. Thanks for reviewing!

ariark—I sure hope you don't regret saying that :D

Flash Roses—11 is my favorite chapter as well. One of the few action scenes hanging around in this story. As for Akira, well, you've just read what happened...

Inarae—In return, thanks for reviewing. They make the world go round--sometimes around the author, but I guess I could do with some ego-inflation ;P

websurffer—I guess I don't need to answer your question, after what you just read...


(It was originally The Flaws We Can't Escape, so let me tell you that my outline is now useless and once again I have no idea where this thing is going. It's like riding some shitty broken-down roller coaster. Let's totter on, shall we?)

(Also, in a completely unrelated note, ever since I started writing my own story I just can't shut up on paper. Sorry-a about that.)


T. Axile