Author's Notes: This was written for Katrina (icedark-elf) as part of the 2011 DOINK! Final Fantasy Exchange. :) The request was for a Crisis Core fic, with Angeal and Zack, being student and mentor on a mission. It ended up being written in multiple parts, because I absolutely fail at keeping anything short. XD The first part is done, so I present it as the first part of Katrina's gift! The other parts are being written at this minute, and I will upload them as new chapters as soon as they are finished!
Zack's age given here is based upon my own calculations of when he advanced through the ranks, and is as close to canon as I can figure. I have expanded a bit upon the characteristics of monsters from the game in this chapter, because I am a nerd, and because Angeal likes to lecture. For my own silly reasons, I have decided that the names of the birds here are both singular and plural (no 's' added), but all other monsters names here become plural by adding 's'. XD
In addition to the prompt from Katrina, this fic was also inspired by the prompts "Letting go ; Watching the horizon" from 30_losses on LiveJournal, and "The wrong words" from 30_hugs, also on LJ.
First time writing Angeal! Hope you all enjoy. :)
Just a Little Rough Around the Edges
For Katrina / icedark-elf
A DOINK! Final Fantasy Exchange 2011 fic, in multiple parts
Part I: Reckless
Angeal Hewley wasn't entirely sure what originally drew him to the hyperactive boy who had just made Third Class - his confident innocence, energetic cheerfulness, lofty dreams, or just the fact that he was another country boy trying to find his place in the world. When he was happy, he wanted everyone to be happy. And when he was sad, well … it seemed all of ShinRa knew it. Not that they knew who Zack Fair was, of course – just another new face at the bottom of the totem pole – but the sky seemed to darken a little, and the sun seemed to dim, and the weight of the organization grew just a bit more oppressive. It was almost unnoticeable.
But Angeal knew.
So, when Angeal finally announced to the barely-qualified-as-a-Third-Class SOLDIER that he'd chosen him as his student in SOLDIER's mentoring program – and promptly received an armful of ecstatic teenager – he realized that he'd finally found something he'd been missing for a long time. He still couldn't quite put a finger on what exactly it was … but it was there.
And then training began, and he discovered that Zack wasn't the only one who had to re-learn the definition of patience.
"But Angeal! They're right there. We're so close!"
Zack Fair sat crouched in the tall grass with his mentor, peering out through the stalks at a small flock of replicon. The large, predatory birds were slowly making their way through the grass, heads bobbing and wing-claws slightly outstretched, eagerly fingering the air, on a hunt of their own. He watched as one cocked its head toward the ground, eyeing the surface. It had probably caught the sound of something moving in an underground burrow, perhaps one of the mus. Zack felt sorry for the small, furry critter, as the replicon would likely scratch it out when it got too close to the surface, and spear it with its long, deadly beak.
The SOLDIER First didn't reply, leaving Zack fighting not to bounce in impatience. He'd finally taken Zack out on his first real SOLDIER field training – a month-long excursion out into the wilds of the Eastern Continent that was a combination of survival training, combat training, and battle tactics, as well as a continuation of Zack's lessons in swordmanship. It was meant to for Angeal to observe what Zack had learned so far in his first few months as a Third, but also to give the boy a taste of reality that no virtual simulation could provide.
Case in point: monster hunting. As he was trying to demonstrate to his energetic student, killing off monsters wasn't always a simple matter of running around until you stumbled into a group of them waiting to attack head-on. You had to find them first, and it was wise to pick and choose your battles carefully so that you would not be caught in a dangerous position by other monsters in the area, and so you could locate the most advantageous position from which to attack. The simulations were also notorious for overlooking natural monster behavior, which made facing the real thing quite a different challenge – or a perplexing surprise when the creature you were supposed to take out simply ran away!
It was three days into their excursion, and Zack seemed to be doing reasonably well … for someone with almost zero focus. He enthusiastically threw himself into their morning sword routine, and, even if he was still a bit awkward with the weapon, he certainly poured his whole heart into it. The main difficulties only arose when Angeal attempted to elaborate on the finer points of … well, anything that didn't involve physically doing something, especially if it was something Zack thought he already had a good handle on. He would latch onto new concepts with the eagerness of a puppy getting a new toy, only to be distracted a moment later when it was suddenly old and uninteresting. And if he had already "learned" something from previous training and classes, it was practically impossible to get him to pay attention when Angeal attempted to expand upon the topic … unless he threw the boy a treat in the form of something new and different.
Come to think of it, it's not much different from teaching a puppy to sit, he mused, wryly. Once he thinks he has it, he wanders off to do his own thing, and completely misses the point.
Angeal patiently watched his new "Puppy," idly wondering how long he would be able to sit still. Remarkably, the young SOLDIER had kept his eyes glued to the birds, though his fidgeting was steadily growing worse. It was tempting to give him a break and give him the signal to attack – replicon were among the least dangerous of the giant birds and Zack would probably be fine, though they could pose a challenge to the inexperienced. But Angeal was firm in his belief that Zack needed to be able to wait and identify the most ideal moment to strike. Not every battle was won by rushing headlong into it, even for SOLDIERs.
Something beyond their hearing caused the birds to suddenly halt and raise their heads, gazing away across the plains. Apparently, it was all Zack needed to decide to move. He promptly jumped up and bounded forward into the midst of the flock with a yell.
"And there he goes …" Angeal sighed.
Already spring-loaded to act, the replicon pivoted to face the new threat, seamlessly prancing around to surround him. Clearly, they hadn't been caught as off-guard as Zack hoped they would be. He raised his sword, grinning.
"Come and get it!" And without even waiting for that to happen, he lunged forward, brandishing his weapon.
The battle took a little longer than it could have, while Angeal stood back, ready to step in if need be. He took action only to block what would have been a very nasty kick to Zack's back, but let his student finish what he started. He survived with only minor scratches.
"Very good." Angeal nodded in approval, and Zack beamed, even as he panted for breath. "Though your combat skills need work, I didn't see anything too serious to critique you on. Aside from two points. The first is that you neglected to use your materia."
Zack blinked, and his eyes widened. "Materia? Oh, you're totally right! I completely forgot I had it." Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a smooth, green orb. It had been given to him by Angeal a few months ago, when the First became his mentor. Angeal frowned slightly at seeing that it had not even been equipped. "Barrier, right?" Zack had yet to become proficient at identifying materia by touch, so he impulsively slotted and activated the stone on the spot. A pale, semi-transparent, curved surface materialized between him and Angeal.
The First sighed. "Yes, Zack." Taking his own sword, he casually waved it through the Barrier with what seemed like little effort, causing the magic to fail and dissolve around them in a shower of faint sparks. Zack pouted. "You need practice," Angeal added, before sweeping off in the direction they were headed. "Incidentally, you should never activate an unknown materia toward another person."
Zack frowned, considering this point for a moment. It had only been a Barrier, after all. He knew better than to activate something dangerous! Upon glancing up and seeing his mentor's retreating back, Zack hurried to catch up, brushing through the waist-high prairie grass.
"… So, uh … you said there were two points. … What was the second one?"
Angeal glanced down at him from the corner of his eye, but didn't pause. "The second one … is that you attacked too soon. You didn't wait for my signal."
"… But I attacked right when the replicon were distracted! It was the perfect moment!"
"No, it wasn't." Angeal fell silent for a moment, letting the swish of the grass around their legs fill the space between them. "… The replicon weren't distracted. Well, not in the way that you meant for them to be. They may not have been looking in your direction, but that does not mean they were unprepared for a fight. You saw it in their body language – they were tense, alert, ready to spring into action. It didn't matter that the action didn't come from the direction they were looking.
"To truly catch them unawares, they need to become relaxed, complacent. You need to catch them when they are not as alert as they could be, when they have a different mindset. This is true distraction."
"… Oh …" Zack pondered this. "So, like … when they're … sleeping?" he ventured.
"Yes … or eating. Or sunning. Or even hunting, because that is also a different mindset from one looking for predators."
Zack nodded slowly. "Huh. So you were waiting until they found something to eat."
"Or for whatever other opportunity might present itself."
"… But I wanted to get them before they found the mu!"
His mentor chuckled. "It's the way of life, Zack."
"But mus are cute!"
"And replicons aren't?"
"Eh." Zack made a face. "Not really."
Angeal shook his head. "Cuteness is not a factor in whether something deserves to live or die. Nor whether it is dangerous. Mus can be quite the nuisance, especially in groups. They've been known to sink vehicles into the ground, are notorious for destroying crops. Many farmers encourage small populations of replicon or chocobos to keep them in check."
Zack's eyes widened. "Chocobos eat mus? I thought they weren't carnivorous!"
"They aren't." Angeal smirked. "But they can be trained to keep nuisances away."
Zack fell silent for a while, as he thought. They continued onward, heading for the foothills in the distance. A hazy line of mountains scraped the sky beyond them, late summer heat turning them liquid and insubstantial.
They were currently some distance west of the Chocobo Farm, and southeast of Midgar, more than half a continent away. Angeal planned to guide them toward the mountains, then turn north and follow the ridgeline either all the way to the western coast and Junon, or to break off, skirting the Wastelands, and head toward Kalm, depending on how the training went. Though he did have a general outline of what he wanted to teach Zack, it was still very much a matter of playing things by ear, adjusting on the go to what he felt Zack was ready for. He'd only really known the boy a short while, and he was proving to be very proficient in some things … while somewhat less so in others.
There was a short yelp behind him, and he turned, only to find Zack disappearing into the grass. The boy popped upward a bare moment later.
"Mu hole! I'm okay, no worries!"
Angeal sighed. "Focus, Zack." This was going to be a long few weeks.
"Behind you, Zack, look alive!"
Zack whirled on cue, letting his sword swing out to bisect the grashtrike as the insect-like creature leapt at him. He punted another with his boot, then blasted a third with the Fire materia Angeal had given him that morning. It missed. The creature sprung upward to latch onto his sweater. Zack had a good view of the bluish creature's ugly head, with its faced red eyes, waving antennae, and pointed nose, before he shouted and swatted it away, stumbling backward. It waved its sickle-like claws and made to jump again. He quickly stabbed it, then lunged for another about to go after Angeal's unprotected back.
"Your sword is not your only weapon, nor should it be thought of as your primary weapon. In your arsenal, you also have materia, items you may carry with you, and all your surroundings. Make use of them." Angeal stood, arms crossed, and quite unmoved by the flurry of activity going on around him. Zack darted back and forth, working at a frantic pace to take out the nest of giant insects Angeal had found. The man continued his lecture. "Your primary weapon – your most important tool, in all cases – is you. Your body, your mind, your spirit. You wield the sword, you power and control the materia, you move to bring all things acting together in harmony – one effective, cohesive unit, directed toward your goal." Zack stomped on yet another grashtrike. "Your body is a weapon as much as anything else you may use. Don't forget about it. Don't lock yourself into a mindset of only using your sword. Be flexible. Keep your mind active, fluid. Keep thinking, two, three, four steps ahead. In this way, you will never run out of options, even if you have no steel at your disposal."
Zack pivoted, slashing upward and sending one of the creatures into the air, as Angeal's voice continued in the background. Use the sword … use materia … use your body … Zack repeated the instructions in his head, mind buzzing. His breath came hard and fast, as he struggled to not only keep the creatures off of him, but also keep them from hurting Angeal, who seemed completely oblivious to how close they were getting. He's crazy! Didn't he see the one that almost took off his ear? He can't possibly think I can keep them all at bay myself!
His boots pounded across the ground, the action, and the misplaced Fire, beating a decently-sized clearing into the surrounding grass, with Angeal at the center. How many of these dang things are there? There seemed to be no end to them.
Suddenly, one of the grashtrikes latched onto his boot as he was about to take another step, causing him to stumble and take a full dive into the earth. Four more mobbed him, the impacts beating him into the dirt.
Angeal sighed, seeing his student take the fall. Calmly stepping forward, he reached back, effortlessly lifting the Buster Sword from its place on his back. Then he swung it, blunt side forward, and batted the swarming creatures off the young SOLDIER and clear out of the field.
It was over.
Zack groaned, and propped himself up. "I almost had 'em! Why'd you hafta step in?"
Angeal grunted. "Consider it an old man's whim." He reached down, taking hold of Zack's hand, and helped him up. The boy squeaked as his feet almost left the ground. Angeal set a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"Hmph." Zack clearly looked put out, both at the careless show of Angeal's own strength, and at having to be "rescued." He frowned, kicked at the ground, chest still heaving from the exercise. Angeal visually checked him for injuries, noted a few long scratches through the torn fabric across his back, and activated the lowest level of his Restore. A soothing coolness washed over the boy; he couldn't help but relax into it.
The First stepped back and regarded him. "You did well. Don't think otherwise. You kept going far longer than many other Thirds would have."
Zack shrugged, the lingering coolness of the Restore fading and leaving him rather sullen about his performance. It didn't matter much if he still couldn't finish the job. "I messed up. That's the only reason why you had to save me, just admit it."
Angeal chuckled. "Zack, you hardly 'messed up.' You simply took a misstep. That's all."
He scowled. "Yeah, but missteps get people killed! You've said that before!"
"This is training, Zack." Angeal shook his head. "You're allowed to make mistakes. I promise." He examined the boy's face, oddly disturbed to see the disappointment there, though he wasn't sure why. He shook it off. "Cheer up." On impulse, he patted the boy's head. "Mistakes are how you learn."
"Hey," Zack growled and swatted the hand away, though the sparkle had come back to his eyes as he watched his mentor saunter off. He bounced forward to catch up.
They trekked up and along the curve of a hill, the late afternoon sun beating down upon them. Zack rolled his shoulders against the weight of the sword on his back, so soon after the exertion of the fight against the grashtrikes, and wiped his brow. Off in the distance, a pack of guard fangs busily antagonized a small group of elfadunk.
Abruptly, Angeal spoke up.
"Do you know the difference between a replicon and a pachyornis? Or between a pachyornis and a titanis?"
A little taken aback at the question, Zack considered it for a few seconds. "Umm … the color?" He knew they were all giant birds of the same kind, but other than that … "Or the size, maybe?"
Angeal chuckled. "Could you tell them apart? Do you know which you should be safe battling, and which you should avoid?"
The long stretch of silence as Zack fought to come up with a suitable answer told Angeal all he needed to know.
"Replicon, pachyornis, and titanis all belong to the same category of bird, it's true – large, flightless, predatory, and aggressive, to differing degrees. They look very similar, but it is possible to tell them apart – they differ somewhat in color, but mostly in build … this is because they are also very different in terms of strength and speed, making some of them much more dangerous than others. Can you tell me which ones you should avoid?"
Again, Zack hesitated, before shrugging and offering a boastful grin. "I'm not afraid to handle any of 'em! I'll take 'em all on. Besides, I've got my materia to back me up!" He pumped his fist, displaying the arm to which his bracer and Barrier materia were attached.
Angeal grunted, though he was amused. "Wrong answer."
"But, Angeal, they can't be that bad, right? Sure, I can see things maybe gettin' dicey, but a SOLDIER can handle anything!"
"You've got a lot to learn, Zack. Even for a SOLDIER, there are a lot of creatures out there that it is wise to think twice before engaging." Angeal gazed out over the plains. "For example …" He pointed toward the action taking place in the distance; Zack followed his arm. "See those guard fangs? If you look a little to the right – not there, Zack, over there – you'll see the crests of a small flock of titanis through the grass. They're circling the guard fangs – they haven't been noticed yet – and, very shortly, they're going to rush in and attack."
Zack scanned the area. "Uh … wait … okay, yeah, I see 'em!"
"Titanis are very territorial. They don't like other creatures hunting in their territory, even if it is for different game than the birds normally go after. In a moment, the guard fangs are going to get a nasty surprise." Even as they watched, the large birds turned as one, angling in like an arrow, accelerating, and spearing through the heart of the guard fang pack. The canines scattered in surprise. Their indignant barks could be heard on the wind. Angeal continued, "Titanis are among the most powerful of the predatory birds that are found on Gaia. They are so far above the level of the ordinary replicon that other birds – and most other creatures – in the area give them a wide berth. They know who's in charge." He turned to face his student. "Likewise, SOLDIERs must know which monsters to engage, and which to avoid, if possible. You think handling that flock of replicon yesterday on your own was tricky? At your level, one titanis would lay you out flat before you could snap your fingers."
Zack's brow furrowed, not sure he believed Angeal's assessment. "But I can just use my materia!"
Angeal chuckled. "The Fire you failed to hit anything with just now? Or the Barrier that disintegrates if I blow on it?" Zack scowled in response. "Materia have levels, too, Zack, and neither of you are currently strong enough to take down just any monster you come across. The point is that you must learn to understand your limits, as well as be able to correctly identify the creatures you encounter."
They progressed along the hillside, Angeal continuing his lecture. Zack kicked a rock along as he followed, letting Angeal's words drone on in the background. His mentor was going on to describe the differences between the predatory birds in the grasslands and in other regions of the world, and then began listing the characteristics of the spriggan-class of monsters – the bipedal, fat, toad-like creatures crowned with spikes.
Replicon, epiornis, coast runners … pachyornis, dinornis, titanis, diatryma … spriggans, hedgehog pies, red caps, boundfats, gremlins, imps, lesser demons …
Zack's mind began to wander, and he found himself wondering who in the world would name something a "hedgehog pie" or a "boundfat," though "boundfat" was pretty descriptive, as far as Zack was concerned. And were lesser demons really demons? And if they were, were they related in any way to the flying, gargoyle-like demons found in caves? They didn't really look anything alike, but Zack supposed it was possible they could have evolved from the same critter at some point, or maybe they'd been so mutated with Mako that they were completely different now. But could demons even evolve or mutate in the first place? If so …
As Angeal continued on to describe the differences in grashtrikes, Zack spied something a short way down the hill from them. Within a good-sized patch of shortened grass were clusters of long, purple-gray spines – the telltale sign of spriggans hunkered down for a snooze. Speak of the devil … He grinned. Time for some more action!
"Heads up, Angeal! Time to give this materia another whirl!" He bounded off, already charging up his Fire.
Angeal paused mid-lecture, glancing back to see his student run off. Sharp eyes landed on the creatures in the grass. He frowned. They didn't wear the reddish skin of spriggans … no, they were the bright yellow of gremlins, a monster higher in level than even a titanis. Not only that, but they absorbed the energy from Fire – Zack's attacks would just make them more powerful. Angeal sighed and rubbed his forehead, as he felt a headache start to develop. "Zack … didn't you hear anything I just told you?" he queried of the air.
Drawing his sword, he trotted down the hill, supposing he'd better rescue his errant pup.
It was a week into their excursion when everything went south. Angeal had received a call dealing with a recent development regarding one of the chocobo farmers in the nearby foothills. Apparently, the chocobos were being terrorized by some kind of creature, as yet unidentified. Angeal and his student were to head to the area, track down whatever it was, identify it, and kill it, if necessary.
Their search had brought them through the foothills and into the low mountains, which was just as well, since it fit within Angeal's original plan.
What they found did not.
"Zack, get down!"
Angeal firmly grabbed his student around the waist, hauling the boy down with him, then braced his Buster Sword and ducked behind, folding around Zack as a line of searing fire speared toward them and impacted the steel. It curled around the metal, heating it and turning the edges a dull crimson, smoked against the hasty Wall he'd thrown up.
Damn it. It was a dragon.
A litany of curses went through his mind.
As soon as the fire attack let up, Angeal, ignoring the way he could feel Zack's heart thumping through the fabric between them, and the wide-eyed gaze the boy sent his way, gave his student a shove.
"Run, Zack." There was no way the young SOLDIER, barely a Third, could stand up against a dragon.
Zack, having stumbled away at the shove, caught his balance, and spun to face his mentor. "What? No! Angeal …"
"I am not arguing with you," he growled, firmly.
"I'm not going!"
Suddenly furious, Angeal whirled on his student. "You will leave now, or, so help me, I will strip you of your rank and remove you from the mentor program myself!"
There was a brief second where Zack stared at his mentor in stunned disbelief at the unexpected outburst, feeling as if he'd just been punched in the gut. Then, more afraid of him at that moment than the dragon, he turned and ran, dodging through the trees.
Angeal ignored the memory of Zack's hurt expression and faced the dragon just as it darted toward him, snapping jaws larger than his torso. He leapt out of the way, charging up a powerful Thundaga spell and letting it go. Crackling energy lanced toward the monster, hitting it dead on and sparking along its black scales. The dragon shook its head as if the deadly magic had simply tickled, then it narrowed bright, Mako-green eyes and launched another fire attack.
The Lightning had no effect? Angeal swore. He should have realized it sooner – by the color of its scales, the beast was a Dark Dragon – the only type immune to electric attacks!
And the only dragon capable of casting Ultima … Gaia, let this be a young dragon!
Tucking and rolling out of the line of fire, and holding his breath so as not to inhale the noxious fumes of the dragon's breath, he came to his feet near the dragon's hindquarters and swung, slicing deep into the thick muscle of the leg. There was an earsplitting, bellowing shriek, and before Angeal could adjust his sword and drive it between the creature's ribs, the dragon twisted back on him, surprisingly catlike, and he was forced to contend with dagger-like claws.
Resolute, Angeal blocked the attack and pressed forward with the blade. Suddenly inside the dragon's guard, he shifted his grip to whip out the thin, SOLDIER-issue sword, only to spear it deep into the base of the dragon's neck. Jolting back, the dragon gave a strangled scream and thrashed, clumsy talons trying to remove the weapon. Not intending to let himself get crushed by the uncontrolled movements, Angeal darted away with a parting cut to a flailing claw.
That should keep its breath weapon in check.
The dragon raised its head toward the sky, choking, and opened its maw wide in an attempt to produce flame. But it failed, the sword having pierced its fire organ. Black blood trickled from the corner of its mouth as the muscles in its neck constricted painfully. Finally, as Angeal chose that moment to dash forward with the intent to finish it off, it made a rasping sound and cocked its head to the side, a loud, buzzing hum suddenly coming from its mouth.
… What on Gaia …?
A blinding beam of light shot skyward from the beast's jaws, and the dragon arched its back, then swung its head down toward Angeal. The brilliant ray cut through the surrounding trees, sending heavy trunks crashing to the forest floor, and sought a bead on the SOLDIER.
A Laser attack!
Too late to dodge, Angeal renewed his Wall, trusting in the magic to take the brunt of the attack. But, as strong as it was, the laser punched through it in a moment, striking the guard of the Buster. It overheated; Angeal thrust it away, throwing himself in the opposite direction, just as the laser dimmed and faded. Not about to allow the dragon the chance to recharge, he sprinted for it, activating his mastered Ice materia.
With its target advancing, the dragon roared and charged to meet him, claws digging into the earth and flinging sod. Bowing its head to expose its horns, it caught Angeal in the midsection, just as the materia came to life. As icy spears plunged into the dragon's sides, it continued its reckless stampede and drove both of them off level ground to tumble down the steep slope of the forested hill. Trees crashed around them.
The only thing left at the battleground was the abandoned blade of the Buster Sword, and a light layer of frost and floating ice crystals.
Zack was horrified. Stubborn as he was, he hadn't gone far when ordered away, only putting just enough foliage between him and the battle so that he could still catch glimpses of what was going on. The thunderous crashing of the two down the slope had jarred him into action.
Bushes and twigs snagged at him as he raced past; a bare root almost sent him sprawling. But he recovered and pressed ahead just in time to see a brilliant green flash light up the woods. He froze.
What was that! Was that … Ultima? Did Angeal have that materia? He didn't remember his mentor having it, but he had to have had it because dragons couldn't cast Ultima … could they?
"Angeal!" Springing back into action, Zack raced ahead and burst out into the slight opening of the forest where Angeal and the dragon had been fighting. He skidded to a stop at the top of the slope and desperately scanned the darkness below. "Angeal! Answer me!"
There were several tense moments of silence, during which Zack strained his ears for the slightest sound. There was what sounded like the crack of a twig, but when Zack's eager eyes failed to pick out anything coming up from below, his hands curled into fists.
"Angeal! Are you alright? You better answer me, or, like it or not, I'm coming down there after you!" The tightness in his chest caused his voice to crack. Still, there was no answer. He paced along the dropoff, hoping to get a better angle to see down. "Angeal!"
Tense and worried, he finally decided that it was up to him to find his mentor. "Alright, you asked for it!" Reaching back, he drew his sword. "I'm coming after you!"
Just as he was about to leap down the slope, a loud crash behind him made him jump. He whirled, hope rising that it might be Angeal.
A second dragon was barreling down the hillside straight toward him.
When Zack started calling for him, his first instinct was to yell out to the boy to quell his fears. But the realization struck that, although one dragon hunting chocobos could be a random occurrence, since dragons in this area of the world were extremely rare, it could also mean that the creature had deviated from its normal migration patterns in order to establish a nest away from rival dragons.
Which meant that there was likely a second dragon – a mate.
The noise of the battle would likely attract it, and if it hadn't, Zack's calling, very much like the wailing of a lost pup, certainly would.
As he hauled himself away from the body of the dead dragon on top of him and silently made his way back up the slope, he willed Zack to be quiet, to suddenly understand the situation and take cover until Angeal could find him. But Zack didn't, shouting out as if he feared that Angeal was dead.
Zack, you ridiculous Puppy.
He ascended the slope as quickly and stealthily as he could, not wanting to become the target of another dragon himself. One had been bad enough – though he was a First, for a few nerve-wracking moments after he'd been propelled off the cliff, he hadn't known what was going to happen. The dragon had been weakened and critically wounded, but Angeal's last magic attack had backfired on him and pushed it over the edge – it had cast Ultima. Thank Gaia for Barrier and Restore. And thank Gaia it really had been a young dragon.
With any luck there would be only one of them. With any luck, he would make it back before something else was drawn by Zack's shouts and found him. And, with any luck, he and his student could go back to the more mundane, and much safer, aspects of monster hunting.
His luck ran out at the top of the hill, and his heart stopped when he saw the dragon charging toward his student, and the silly boy with his sword out, bracing for the attack as if he had any chance of defeating it.
Zack glared down the charging dragon, heart twisting, and furious that it was going to keep him from looking for Angeal.
A fleeting thought went through his head that maybe now he wouldn't get to look for Angeal, at all, or have the chance to do anything else anymore, but it came and left, and he was taking a step forward, lifting his sword, to begin rushing the dragon himself.
He yelled in defiance.
But the yell was cut short as something struck him hard, snagged him around his middle and knocked the air out of him. He was yanked off his feet, the sword knocked from his grip. His mouth opened in a wordless cry, and his fingers reached futilely for the sword, before he realized he'd been tucked underneath a very strong arm, and they were dashing out of the dragon's path. The dragon screamed in rage even as it barreled past them, gnashing its jaws and fanning wings, but unable to stop in time. Then it was obscured from his view by the appearance of a network of trees and foliage, as whoever had him continued into the woods.
He twisted around, fingers automatically latching onto the dark sweater of the person who carried him, to try to secure himself from the jarring ride. It turned out to be a very familiar sweater …
"A-Angeal! You're alive!" Ecstatic, Zack did his utmost to glomp Angeal right then and there, but had to settle for simply clutching the sweater tighter.
The SOLDIER First just tightened his grip on the boy in response.
Angeal didn't stop his flight until several minutes later at the top of a cliff, when he'd put enough distance between them and the dragon that it would hopefully not attempt to seek them out any time soon. He set Zack back onto his feet.
Zack took a few steps to get his feet back under him, and rubbed his stomach, a bit sore from the uncomfortable position under Angeal's arm. But it was forgotten as soon as he turned to see his mentor. A wide grin split his face.
"Angeal! I'm so glad you're-"
"What on Gaia were you thinking?" Angeal demanded, a scowl darkening his features.
Zack's grin dimmed at the edges. He faltered. "What-"
"I ordered you to get out of there. Do you think I risked my neck to save you, just so you can turn around and get yourself killed?"
"… A-Angeal …"
"I trusted you to do exactly as I told you. No student of mine will ever disobey a direct order."
Zack took a step back. "B-but, Angeal, I was just-"
Angeal advanced on him, radiating fury. "Do you have any idea just how foolish it was of you to come back?" He gestured wildly. "What if that first dragon had killed me and was waiting for you?"
Angeal overrode him. "Not only that, but you deliberately put yourself in harm's way by facing down a charging dragon with no backup. Do you realize how easily that dragon could have killed you? Do you realize that you would be dead right now if I had not been there?"
Zack began to shake slightly, the gravity of his situation finally dawning on him as the adrenaline of the moment faded away. "B-but-"
Angeal gripped him tightly by the back of his collar. Zack flinched, half expecting a blow. "This sort of reckless, irresponsible behavior cannot continue. It will only put yourself and others in danger, and jeopardize the mission. Do not ever disobey an order from me again, do you understand me?" At the lack of an immediate response, Angeal shook the boy, drawing a frightened squeak as Zack shut his eyes. "Do you understand me?"
"Y-yes, s-sir," Zack replied in a small voice.
Angeal nodded in satisfaction and let go, stepping away and abruptly turning his back on his student. His hand slowly fisted. Maybe this event would finally teach Zack to curb his thoughtless impulses. His carelessness had nearly gotten himself killed! It was about time a good scare brought him back down to Earth, before things had a chance to go seriously wrong in the future.
Zack watched as Angeal moved away, too afraid to move from the spot, lest he draw his mentor's wrath a second time. He tried to mouth that he was sorry, but the words wouldn't come out. Angeal was … terrifying. He'd never acted that way before, and Zack had no idea what to make of it. … Angeal must hate him. He'd been so stupid …
The furious words echoed through his mind, acidic in their intensity. And what Angeal had said about the dragon … Once again, he clearly saw the monster tearing through the forest straight toward him, unbelievably huge, and incredibly fast, all teeth and claws and bellowing rage. It had almost … it had almost … His quaking intensified, and he sunk down, pulling up his knees and clutching the fabric tightly.
Angeal sighed, gazing down at the view of the valley beneath them. Now that he'd had a moment to let his anger simmer down, he felt entirely disgusted with the situation and himself. A sick feeling curdled in the pit of his stomach at the thought of how close he'd come to getting Zack killed. He'd been so careless … Maybe he'd rushed into things too quickly. Maybe Zack just wasn't ready for this yet. Perhaps it would simply be a good idea to cancel the training and head back, give Zack a little more experience in the simulations and try again later.
As he mused, the uncharacteristic silence from his companion finally drew his attention. He glanced over at the boy, only to find him sitting on the rock, curled up tightly with arms wrapped around his knees. He took note of the young Third's trembling, the way his jaw was clenched, and how his eyes stared sightlessly through the rock at his feet. Angeal's eyes widened in silent surprise, then softened. His heart twisted.
"Oh, Zack …" He returned to the boy and knelt beside him. Zack hesitantly raised his eyes, then quickly looked away, hugging his knees tighter.
Angeal sighed. "Zack, look at me." The boy's face twisted, and he buried his head in his arms, instead. "Zack …" The First rested a gloved hand on his head. In response, Zack shuddered, his breath hitching. When no other action seemed forthcoming, Angeal continued. "Zack, I … I'm sorry. I'm not angry with you. I was just worried. … Seeing you in front of that dragon … I was afraid I wouldn't get there in time."
There was a long moment before Zack shifted and finally spoke in a quiet voice. "But you w-would! You're a F-First." His voice shook as he tried to hold back a flood of emotions.
Angeal smiled sadly. How was it that this boy could have such faith in him, even upset as he was? He had to remind himself that Zack was only fourteen, too young and impressionable. "Even I cannot do everything," he replied. On impulse, he let his fingers run through Zack's hair. "… Were you afraid?" The question was gentle, promising no judgment.
Zack shook his head. He hadn't been afraid of the dragon then, only now, after the fact. "… Just of you not c-comin' back."
Angeal could only imagine Zack's worry, feeling lost, and compelled to face the dragon on his own. "Don't be. I promise that I will never leave you."
Zack stirred. "… You promise?"
Finally, Zack raised his head, just enough to peer up at Angeal with bright, violet eyes. Angeal read the misery there, the frightened understanding of the dangerous position he'd put himself in. Without needing to be prompted, the First wrapped strong arms gently around him, drawing him close. Zack leaned into the embrace, burying his face in his mentor's chest, and latching onto his sweater.
Angeal rubbed his back soothingly. "You know I would never let anything happen to you, if I could help it, don't you?"
Zack nodded, wordlessly.
Angeal was content to hold him for a few moments, until Zack shifted slightly to talk without his voice ending up quite so muffled.
"Angeal … you're okay, right?"
The First felt fingers tighten their grip on his sweater, and he quirked an eyebrow in slight amusement at the spiky hair under his chin, humming an affirmative. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"'Cause I … I thought I saw something cast Ultima. I was worried it was the dragon."
"It was the dragon."
"What?" Zack jerked back, eyes frantically scanning his mentor in worry. "I thought you said you're okay!"
Angeal couldn't help the small quirk of a smile. "Zack, Ultima isn't a death sentence. Certainly not for Firsts." When the young SOLDIER continued to gaze at him doubtfully, Angeal when on to explain: "I was able to raise a Reflect Wall in time to divert the worst of the magic. It wasn't impenetrable, but that's what a good Restore is for. I promise you, I'm fine."
Zack still wasn't entirely convinced, but if Angeal said he was alright … "How did you kill the dragon, then?"
"The Reflect did much of the work for me. But the thing became vicious and uncontrollable after that, and I was pinned beneath it, without a sword. So I resorted to using the concentrated magic from the Ice materia … and froze its heart."
Zack's eyes widened. He froze … its heart? The boy shuddered. He hadn't even known materia could be used that way. It sounded … horrible.
Angeal watched Zack's face, examining the thoughts displayed there. He wasn't particularly proud of what he'd done himself. There really was no limit to what you could use materia for, and it was possible to be quite … inventive … with its uses. He tried to avoid such attacks if at all possible – they were cruel and usually unnecessary. But sometimes you had to do as circumstances dictated, in order to survive.
"Materia is a wonderful thing. It can decide the fate of battles, it allows us to access extraordinary powers that put us on even footing with the most dangerous creatures in this world, and its use is limited only by your creativity and imagination. But not every use of the magic is honorable. It is up to you to decide for yourself what is right or wrong. In the end, we do as we must."
Zack bit his lip, somewhat troubled by the thought of using materia so callously. Would he ever have to do something like that? He wanted to shake his head, to deny it, but what if he someday ended up in Angeal's position and had no choice? Could he do it? He wasn't entirely sure he could.
They sat together on the cliffs for a short while longer, Angeal content to allow Zack to take comfort in the rare moment of closeness, and the First, for his part, enjoying the rare moment of silence. Somewhere in the forest below them, rang the bellow of a dragon. Zack's freeze went almost unnoticed by Angeal, as he listened to his own thoughts.
Slowly, Angeal pulled back from his student. "Zack … I think it's time we go back."
Zack glanced up at him in confusion. "Back? Where?"
Midgar? "… What for? We still have, like, three weeks left of training! Did something come up?"
"No …" Angeal hedged. "I just think our time would be put to better use training there."
"Huh?" Still confused, Zack cocked his head. "What do you …" Suddenly, he realized where this was going. "No!" He shot to his feet in protest. "You can't mean that! I'm sorry, Angeal, I really am!" His eyes were desperate, pleading. "I'm sorry, I know I messed up, but I'll do better, I'll do everything you say, Angeal, I promise I will, just don't send me back!"
Angeal rose. "Zack, this doesn't have anything to do with your performance. I just don't want to rush you when you're not ready. I think I was too optimistic-"
"What?" Zack looked at him with wounded eyes.
Angeal mentally kicked himself. "Not optimistic … hopeful-"
Zack's expression fell further.
Damn it, he was royally screwing things up. "I expected more of you than I had a right to," he amended. "You're still learning, Zack, and I was unprepared for what we would encounter. This mission was above your level." But that did nothing to comfort Zack, as the young SOLDIER backed away, shaking his head in denial. Angeal tried again. "It's my own fault that-"
"Please, Angeal! I can do it, I know I can!" He couldn't bear the thought that he'd failed to live up to Angeal's expectations, and the First's former words of removing him from the mentor program ran through his mind. "Just give me a chance. I'll listen harder, I'll ask more questions, I'll practice better … I'll practice longer, I'll … I'll … fight better!" Reaching around, he sought to draw out his sword to make the point, only to grasp thin air where the weapon used to be. He froze, then his shoulders slumped, and his hand dropped to his side, fisting helplessly. He turned forlorn eyes onto his mentor. "Please … just don't send me back. I'll do anything."
"Just one more chance. Please."
Angeal gazed at his student, torn by the helpless, pleading expression. How could he say no? It would crush him. Clearly, Zack was more afraid of failure than anything else, and, despite anything Angeal might say to remove that concern, the boy would still take it as a failure on his part if they went back.
Angeal sighed, eyes softening. "Alright."
Zack blinked. "Wha-? Really?"
And just like that, Zack's face lit up. "Angeal, you're the best!" He threw his arms around his mentor, drawing a startled "Oof."
"Hey, now, take it easy." Awkwardly, he patted Zack's head.
"So what're we gonna do? Hunt down more replicons? Or spriggans? I know what a spriggan looks like now, I promise, so I'll be sure to find the right ones-"
"Actually …" Angeal chuckled. "We've still got a dragon to take care of."
Zack's eyes widened, and he drew back to stare at his mentor.
"Hey, don't look at me like that. It's a Green Dragon – it's not as dangerous as the one I killed. I think, together, we should be able to handle it." He angled a stern eye down at his student. "That is, if you do as I say."
"… For real?" The voice was hopeful, his fear already forgotten at the thought of being able to fight side-by-side with his mentor, on a real mission.
Angeal couldn't help the one-sided smile. "For real."
End Part I