Title: Pleased to Make Your Acquaintance
Summary: Sephiroth learns Zack's secret and gets a little more trouble than he bargained for. Pre-Nibelheim, obviously. Just a character study of sorts. No CC spoilers. Zack x Aerith.
(A/N: World's most stubborn plotbunny. The Word document was created March of last year. Ngyaaah. Thank you to LuckyLadybug for plot help and for continuing to be enthusiastic about this story, even though it took me ages to finish!
I took a lot of artistic license with Junon's layout. XD If we must fit this story into the Crisis Core timeline, then I guess it would take place during the timeskip between chapters six and seven. Don't worry, no Crisis Core spoilers here; just some vague references to it.
I like irony.)
Sephiroth sighed and stood up, looking with distaste at the papers spread all over his desk. He shifted his gaze to the clock on the wall of the small office. Almost three forty-five. Where on earth was Zack? They had that meeting to go to at four...
They – that is, Zack, Sephiroth, and a few other high-ranking members of SOLDIER – were in Junon; for the annual report on the workings of the military base. It was an extraordinarily boring and routine detail that they had learned to put up with as part of being in SOLDIER. As soon as the first boring meeting had ended around noon, Zack had grinned and proclaimed he was going down to the beach. Leave it to Zack to attempt to put a positive spin on things.
"The beach?" Sephiroth repeated, raising an eyebrow.
Zack shrugged. "It isn't Costa Del Sol, but it's better than nothing, right?"
Well, when one put it like that...But the beach at Junon? The sand was rocky, and the air smelled like a pungent mixture of sea-salt and machine oil.
Sephiroth absently rubbed his cramped hand (why did his name have to take so long to write? No wonder Zack finished his paperwork so much faster than Sephiroth. Zack only had a total of eight letters to worry about. Z-A-C-K F-A-I-R.) and sighed again, making up his mind to brave the outside world and find Zack.
It wasn't too hard to find Zack once Sephiroth got out to the beach; his dark outfit and black hair stood out against the bright sand. But as Sephiroth got closer, he saw Zack was with a girl. More specifically, he was lying with a girl.
In recent months, Sephiroth had seen less and less of Zack; not only because Shinra seemed to want to keep them apart, but also because Zack had been spending more and more of his free time hanging around with a young MP whose name escaped Sephiroth; and a girl.
Just about everybody knew Zack had a girlfriend, but nobody had seen anything of her. The SOLDIERs with more active imaginations spread the most ridiculous rumors about Zack and his secret relationship; but Sephiroth and a lot of the other high-ranking officers could care less, as long as Zack still did his job.
...Sephiroth supposed he should leave them alone, but he was curious. The great Sephiroth was curious.
The girl was lying on a beach towel, with Zack resting his head on her stomach. He seemed to be dozing. Her eyes were closed, but she couldn't be asleep because she was running her fingers through Zack's hair. Sephiroth realized he'd seen her before.
In official Shinra records.
And the reason Zack was keeping this girl a secret was suddenly made abundantly clear. Sephiroth would have never guessed that Zack's girlfriend was number three on Shinra's most-wanted list.
As if she sensed he was there, she opened her brilliant green eyes and peered up at Sephiroth. Surely she knew who he was? She lived in the slums, didn't she? But from the way she held his gaze, he could tell she wasn't afraid of him.
"Zack," she said softly, patting his shoulder. "Wake up."
He muttered something unintelligible and sat up, blinking in the bright sunlight. Zack saw Sephiroth and froze in mid-stretch. "...Oh." He scrambled to his feet. "Um, Seph...?"
"Zack." Sephiroth crossed his arms across his chest. "It's almost four; we've got one other meeting today."
"Yeah, um..." Zack rubbed the back of his neck. All three of them knew what was going on here; they were just ignoring the elephant in the room.
The girl broke the silence first. "See you later, Zack," she murmured, squeezing his hand.
"Will you be okay on your own?" he asked, and she just nodded, holding up a fist and smiling. She could take care of herself.
Sephiroth had actually never seen Zack that nervous before. The whole meeting, his friend was drumming his fingers on the polished conference table. This was turning out to be a very unproductive business trip for the both of them, Sephiroth thought dryly.
After that they were all free to do whatever until the next morning. Most of the SOLDIERs made beelines for the many bars in Junon, so Zack and Sephiroth were relatively alone as they walked along the city's streets.
"So, why did you bring her here?" Sephiroth asked, and Zack knew immediately what he was talking about.
"Because she'd never seen the ocean."
"Touching," Sephiroth quipped, but there was no real maliciousness in his voice. At least, he hadn't thought there was...Zack was staring intently at the pavement, and it was slightly disturbing to see him so quiet. Did he really think...?
"Zack. I don't care who she is," Sephiroth sighed. "I'm not going to tell."
Zack looked up at him. "Really? I mean, I really hoped you wouldn't, but..."
Sephiroth raised one shoulder in a sort of half-shrug. "What would I have to gain by telling anyone?"
His companion broke into a relieved grin, which was a much more characteristic look for him. "Nothing, I guess. Besides, we're pals, right, Seph?
Sephiroth grunted noncommittally. The fact that Zack had given him that ridiculous nickname – and Sephiroth didn't seriously object to it – was probably answer enough.
Much more at ease now, Zack folded his arms behind his head. "And, the Sephiroth I know wouldn't hurt a lady."
"I try to avoid it," Sephiroth replied dryly.
"Yeah, if only the rest of the Shinra would do the same." Zack's expression darkened somewhat.
"You think if they caught her, they'd hurt her," Sephiroth half-asked, half-stated.
"They wouldn't sit down with her and have a nice chat about the Promised Land over a cup of tea, that's for sure," Zack scowled.
Sephiroth was about to respond, when two youngish lieutenants came out of a nearby shop and fell into stride behind Zack and Sephiroth.
"Instant promotion, eh?" one said cynically.
"I know, right?" the other replied. "They figure if they catch this one girl they'll have it made."
Zack tensed up. " 'Scuse me, what'd you say about a girl?" he asked, turning to the men.
They eyed the First Class SOLDIERs with some apprehension.
"Er, a bunch of guys are running around looking for this girl...apparently somebody saw some girl on Shinra's most-wanted list here in Junon."
"Man, I didn't even know Shinra had a most-wanted list," the other one remarked.
"Yes, you did," his friend rolled his eyes. "Just the other day we were talking about how Don Corneo is on it, remem-?"
Zack suddenly grabbed his shoulder. "Tell me what's going on. Is there an official search or what?" There was a dark tone in his voice that Sephiroth rarely heard.
Now the lieutenants looked doubly nervous. "N-no, sir. None of the higher-ups have seen her. Right now it's just a rumor."
Zack seemed a little embarrassed at his outburst and quickly let go of the guy's shoulder. "Right. Uh...Carry on."
The lieutenants scurried away. Zack exhaled loudly and looked over at Sephiroth. "Now what?"
"Calm down, for one thing," Sephiroth said firmly. "Getting upset isn't going to help anything."
Zack sighed again. "Yeah...you're right. I just don't know what I'll do...if something happens to her..."
Not that he had any idea what it was like to be in love, but Sephiroth couldn't help but feel sympathetic towards his friend. "Go look for her, Zack. I'll cover for you."
Zack smiled tensely. "Thanks, Seph!" He took off running in a northerly direction.
When looking at Junon on a map or from an aerial view, the cannon seemed to bisect the city into what was unofficially called the 'North District' and the 'South District'. The North District was where one could find the port out of Junon, the "beach", and a conglomerate of run-down shops and houses that were generally viewed as inferior to the ones in the South District.
With Zack in the midst of his search through the North District, Sephiroth realized he now had nothing to do. And so, rather grudgingly, he set off for the South District to search as well.
He attempted to call Zack, to let him know he was searching as well, and after listening to the phone ring for what seemed like forever, a pleasant female voice informed him that Zack's phone was turned off. He must've turned it off when they went into that meeting and forgotten about it.
Junon was a large city, a veritable maze of tall buildings and alleys that was easy to get lost in. Of course, for someone pressed for time and familiar with the city, like Sephiroth, those dingy alleys were a godsend.
He was striding down one when there was a crash a little ways in front of him, as a figure bumped into a pair of trashcans. He assumed it was just some drunk, until he realized the figure was wearing a light-colored sundress.
As soon as she realized she was being watched, she began to run, but for Sephiroth catching up to her was simple. He grabbed her by the wrist.
Immediately she began to put up a fight. "Get OFF of me!" she shouted, twisting her arm in an attempt to get away.
He recognized her voice. This was, indeed, Zack's girl.
"Would you listen-"
"I'm not going with you!" she cried. "Let. Me. GO!" And with her free hand, she punched Sephiroth in the jaw.
Taken aback, he released her and put a gloved hand to his sore jaw.
"Charming," he muttered, rubbing the spot.
Instead of running, the girl was just standing there, looking at him. "You're...the one from the beach. Zack's friend. ...You're Sephiroth, aren't you?"
"Yes." He noted she was wide-eyed and jumpy; definitely not the same as when he saw her at the beach. "You're not hurt, are you?"
She shook her head. "No...where's Zack?"
"He ran off looking for you."
Now Sephiroth was faced with a dilemma. Zack's cell phone was off, so Sephiroth still had no idea where he was. And as for the girl, well, he couldn't justleave her there...
"Come with me," he sighed. "People are out looking for you."
"...You want me to go with you?"
He folded his arms across his chest. "I'm not going to turn you in, if that's what you're afraid of. I wouldn't do that to Zack."
Still she looked hesitant.
"You trust Zack, don't you?" Sephiroth asked.
She nodded vigorously. "With my life."
"Then you can trust me." He held out a gloved hand.
Slowly she reached out and put her hand in his.
Promptly he grabbed her wrist and began steering her out of the alley. "Geez!" she cried indignantly. "You don't have to go that fast!" She was nearly trotting to keep up with his long strides.
"We're not on a leisurely stroll through the city," he grumbled.
She 'humph'ed. "Well, fine. If you're going to make fun of me, you should at least know my name!"
"I don't see why it would really matter if I knew your name or not."
"It's -!" She nearly tripped as they went around a particularly tight corner. "It's Aerith. Aerith Gainsborough."
Sephiroth said nothing, slightly surprised at himself and how easily he'd fallen into bantering with Aerith, a girl he'd barely met. Was she really that much like Zack?
It wasn't long before they reached the destination Sephiroth had in mind; a run-down inn of the North District. As he'd expected, there wasn't a Shinra employee in sight, since most of the businesses in North District were considered beneath a company like Shinra.
The innkeeper stared in shock at the newcomers.
"I need a room for my charge," Sephiroth said sharply, and the innkeeper snapped back to attention. "I should be very disappointed should anyone...inconvenience her. And you do not wish to disappoint me."
"O-of course, sir!" the innkeeper stuttered, handing over a key. "Room 2-B, upstairs, s-second one on your left!"
Sephiroth gave a curt nod and the two began heading upstairs. Suddenly there was a loud ringing that seemed to echo off the dingy hallways; Sephiroth pulled out his cell phone.
"Seph – I've been looking everywhere and there isn't even a sign of her; I'm starting to get really worried, I mean-"
Sephiroth could barely get a word in edgewise. Zack spoke really fast whenever he was agitated.
"Zack. I found her. She's with me."
Sephiroth had to move the phone away from his ear at the sudden outburst. "Great, that's so great-" Zack was saying. "Where are you guys?"
"Grinnell Hotel, in the North District. Room 2-B."
"Alright, meet you there!" Zack said excitedly, not bothering to wait for a response before he hung up.
The room was about as dingy as the rest of the hotel. Aerith sat on one of two old-looking beds; the springs creaked and groaned loudly.
"You should be nicer to people, you know," she said abruptly, looking at Sephiroth.
He leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "I wouldn't really slaughter the innkeeper," he muttered.
"Oh, I know that," Aerith replied. "But that guy doesn't know that. It's just much better to be nice."
"Why is that?"
"Well, it makes sense, doesn't it?" Aerith said. "If you're nice, then people will be nice back, and you both get what you want."
He glanced over at her at this. It seemed a terribly naïve thing to say. "We live in a selfish world, Miss Gainsborough. A world of fear."
"All the more reason to be nice, don't you think?" she countered, meeting his gaze head on.
...Yes, she really was that much like Zack.
"What made you think I wouldn't harm the innkeeper?" Sephiroth asked after a moment, curious.
"Because Zack talks about you a lot." The answer made perfect sense, in a strange way.
"What does he say about me, then?"
She shrugged. "That you're a good person, no matter how you act towards everyone else. I agree with him, I think."
Sephiroth appeared apathetic, but the reality was it was an interesting conversation. This sort of thing wasn't an everyday occurrence. "What if you are both wrong, and what if I really am as closed off and selfish as I seem to be?"
"Well, Zack found his way into your heart, didn't he?"
Sephiroth said nothing, caught slightly off-guard.
"Oh, don't take that the wrong way!" she said quickly. A vague smile came over her face. "I mean, it happened to me, too. It's part of what makes Zack 'Zack'."
"Like the incessant optimism," Sephiroth added with a touch of sarcasm.
"That's the thing I love about him the most," Aerith said, and when Sephiroth looked at her with a raised eyebrow she shifted and stared at the brown carpet, embarrassed. "I mean...it's the quality about him that makes him, well...you know..."
"Do you care about him?"
"Well...yes." She sat up straight and squared her shoulders, looking at Sephiroth almost defiantly. "Why shouldn't I? He...isn't like other boys our age. He really does want to fight for the good of the world, and not just for his own gain."
Sephiroth nodded slowly. He and Zack had held this conversation before; on whether or not it was right to follow Shinra. Nothing made Zack angrier than injustice or human suffering, and there were times when Sephiroth thought that someone like Zack almost doesn't belong in SOLDIER.
"But most people wouldn't know that just by looking at him," Aerith continued. "...The fact that he flirts with just about everything on two legs doesn't help." At this she rolled her eyes a bit, but didn't seem overly upset.
To Sephiroth, love had always seemed like an extravagant waste of time, energy, and...well, money. It seemed to him as though things always ended badly for both parties, regardless of how good their intentions might have been.
But Zack took few things seriously (well, this was not entirely true; there were plenty of things he was serious about, but it was rare for him to show it to just anyone), and love was most definitely one of those things.
Zack's habit of flirting with "just about everything on two legs" (apt description) occasionally drove Sephiroth crazy, because there were so many girls that took his harmless flirting completely the wrong way and ended up practically out for his blood.
Sephiroth glanced sideways at Aerith. Somehow, the idea of this girl out for anyone's blood struck him as highly implausible. "Does it bother you, that habit of his?"
She gave a little half-shrug. "Maybe a little. I know he'd never hurt a girl if he could help it. I think...he's sort of calmed down since we met. But I hope if things don't work out I can still be his friend."
"...He has spoken of you before," Sephiroth said, after a pause. "He respects you a great deal."
She smiled and opened her mouth to speak when there was a sharp knock at the door. "Guys? You in there? It's me!" came Zack's voice from the other side. Aerith quickly crossed the room and opened the door.
"Found you!" Zack yelled gleefully, sweeping her into an enthusiastic hug.
"You were that worried about me?" she laughed good-naturedly, returning the embrace. It was obvious she was relieved to see him as well.
Zack pulled away and kissed her on the forehead. "'Course I was! What happened, anyway?"
Aerith frowned. "I'm not sure. This morning, I was in a shop – you know, the one next to the hotel I'd been staying in – looking for something to take home to Mom, and a SOLDIER in a red uniform..."
"That's Second Class," Zack supplied.
"Right, a Second Class SOLDIER walked in, and he must have seen me and recognized my face..." She shrugged one shoulder.
"Man...that was such a close one."
Aerith nodded emphatically. "Good thing I had help," she said, gesturing gratefully towards Sephiroth, who had been silent the whole time.
Zack looked at Sephiroth, then back to Aerith, and smiled sheepishly. He was a tad embarrassed now, to have gotten so openly affectionate with Sephiroth around. Sephiroth merely nodded at Zack in greeting, an expression of vague amusement on his face.
"Oh, Seph!" Zack exclaimed suddenly. "Orders came in. We're leaving Junon for Midgar first thing tomorrow morning."
So that was why Zack had sounded so panicked when they'd spoken on the phone. Zack had been worried about Aerith being left behind. Sephiroth merely nodded.
"We're taking the 8:30 train," Zack said then, turning back to Aerith. "The train gets there really early, so that all the SOLDIERs get on first, and then everybody else does. If you wait a while, and board one of the cars in the back, we should be okay."
The plans made, Sephiroth decided to head back to base in order to hear the orders for himself. He was halfway through the door when Aerith stopped him.
"Thank you. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't found me," she said softly. "...And I didn't get to apologize for hitting you earlier..."
"Apology accepted, Miss Gainsborough," Sephiroth replied, somewhat dryly, before leaving the room and shutting the door after him.
Back inside he could hear Zack asking, "Wait, you hit him?!"
Sephiroth smiled vaguely before continuing on.
As for Zack and Aerith, they'd suddenly remembered Aerith's overnight bag was still at the other hotel, where she'd been staying until she was chased all over the city. So that night Zack went to the hotel to retrieve the bag, and check Aerith out of the hotel as well. Aerith had thought it was silly to use a fake name, but Zack was glad now that he'd talked her into it. At least Aerith's real name wasn't on the books anywhere.
Before they parted for the night, he suggested to her that she lie low for the next few days. Hopefully there wouldn't be anything to really worry about once they were back in Midgar, but... Zack just prayed Tseng was too busy with other assignments to take notice of the incident. If Tseng learned Aerith had been spotted in Junon, and then noticed Zack had been in Junon...well, Tseng could put two and two together. And boy, would he be annoyed. And Tseng was definitely not someone you wanted to be angry with you.
...Besides, Zack was angry enough with himself over the whole thing. He was mostly silent as he and Sephiroth boarded the train; and once they had entered their compartment Zack seemed unable to sit still.
"What's the matter?" Sephiroth asked from his spot opposite Zack.
Zack shrugged in reply. "Just...kinda mad at myself. Shouldn'tve brought Aerith here at all. I mean...she really almost got caught."
Whatever answer Sephiroth had been expecting, that was not it. "So...something thatalmost happened bothers you this much?"
Zack sighed and made a face at the window. "I know, it sounds really stupid, but..."
Zack continued to stare out the window at the passing scenery. "But...see, one time, I got on the Shinra network and looked up her file, because...well, it kinda bothered me and I wanted to know. It took me ages to find it, because it was filed under the Biochemical Research Department. There were a lot of details about...what they want her for, and what the process would be if they found her." Zack flopped into his seat.
"Seph, if they ever caught Aerith, they'd turn her over to Hojo. And all of the things that he wants to do to her-!" Zack broke off, running his hands through his hair in an agitated manner. "It makes my blood boil just thinking about it."
"...Then don't think about it." But Sephiroth frowned deeply. Having been raised in the labs under Hojo's direction, he knew firsthand what it meant to be one of Hojo's playthings. And it was not a fate he wished on anybody, regardless of whether he knew them or not.
Zack leaned back in his seat. "Normally I don't, but...sometimes it's hard not to. I dunno what I'd do if they ever did take her."
"You'd find a way to help her, of course," Sephiroth supplied. Zack smiled vaguely in reply. They both knew that Zack's loyalties lay with his heart, and not Shinra. After all, Shinra had already given him plenty of reasons to distrust them; the cross-shaped scar on his face was proof enough of that. Sephiroth supposed he himself was the same way.
Zack rubbed the back of his neck and looked sheepish. "...Yeah. Sephiroth...I didn't get to really thank you for yesterday. So...thanks. It means a lot that you would help."
Sephiroth nodded in acknowledgement. It was clear; this girl meant something different to him than the others did.
"You know..." Zack smiled a little. "I think I'm gonna go see if I can find her."
Sephiroth nodded in reply and watched in slight amusement as Zack slowly got up and shuffled out of the compartment. It was not everyday that one saw Zack embarrassed.
...But what exactly was he embarrassed about? Being in love? Or did it have to do with something else?
Once, they'd found themselves talking about love; Zack was hiding in Sephiroth's office from a particularly vengeful girl. That was when Sephiroth confessed that he couldn't see himself ever falling in love, because he didn't think he was capable of love. That sort of self-sacrificial love that often turns wise men into fools, that was something people learn from their mothers, Sephiroth had reasoned. Zack, being one of the few who knew anything of Sephiroth's past, had just nodded somewhat sadly.
Sephiroth didn't really think it was sad, though. Was he really missing out anything? No, he didn't think so. He was just too aware of his own identity to be able to give it up for the sake of another person.
...Was that still entirely true, though? The more he thought about it; the more he was certain – should Zack ever need to go against Shinra, Sephiroth would most likely do it with him.
Aerith's words came back to him. "Well, Zack found his way into your heart, didn't he?"
So, the great Sephiroth did not and probably could not fall in love, but people could get close to him. He smirked to himself, resting his cheek on his fist. Hojo would hate to see how 'weak' he was becoming.
(A/N: I shall forever be creeped out by that part in FF7, when Hojo starts going on about breeding Aerith and Red XIII. Who knows what kind of stuff he'd say in her file that would freak poor Zack out? XD
Anyway, thanks for reading!)