Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (COIverse)
Pairing/Characters: Sephiroth, Zack
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: A pensive Sephiroth, and an interesting insight into the SOLDIER culture in COI.
Sephiroth gazed thoughtfully at the tall, brown-haired SOLDIER, First Class, standing in front of his desk.
"I've been informed that a member of the mission team is dead, Lieutenant Dorian."
"Yes, sir." Dorian's reply was crisp, but steady. Then again, Sephiroth hadn't expected the man to display any overt signs of anxiety or nervousness.
He glanced down at the report in his hands. "Lieutenant Vassar, SOLDIER, Second Class, in line for promotion to First Class."
"With the vigorous personal recommendation of General Harrington, his uncle," Zack murmured.
Sephiroth flicked a quick look at his second-in-command, who was leaning against the office wall with his habitual lazy grace.
"I see." And indeed, he did. "Lieutenant, please describe the details surrounding Vassar's unfortunate demise."
"We were sent to exterminate a pack of venosaurs who were attacking some fungus farms west of the Grasslands."
"The top brass certainly do like their mushrooms," Zack added brightly.
Dorian glanced over at Zack, but managed to hide any obvious signs of agreement or amusement.
Sephiroth glared at his SiC and Zack subsided, quite unabashed, at least for the moment.
"The monsters split up and we each went after a group. When Vassar failed to report in, we went to look for him," Dorian continued blandly.
"And what did you find?"
"It appears that he somehow fell into an extremely large nest of mutated carnivorous beetles, sir. By the time we located his body, there wasn't much left. Unfortunately, we had to fire the nest pretty thoroughly in order to recover the body."
The written report had duly noted that all that was left of Lieutenant Vassar was a few handfuls of heavily charred bones. How remarkably convenient.
Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, then said, "And would you care to speculate on a plausible explanation for Vassar's fall into this beetle nest, Lieutenant?"
Dorian shrugged. "Well, guys who are up for promotion tend to push themselves. Especially if they know they're borderline."
"And people who push themselves too hard tend to miss things and make careless mistakes. Is that what you're saying?"
"Yes, sir," Dorian replied, his voice mild. "The nest was pretty well hidden. Vassar probably didn't see it until it was too late."
Sephiroth glanced over at Zack, who had a grin on his face that could easily be interpreted as rueful sympathy for a fellow subordinate being grilled by their intimidating commander.
But Sephiroth knew better.
"Zack, do you have anything to add?"
When glowing violet-grey eyes blinked innocently at him, Sephiroth forced himself to suppress a snort. If he'd had any doubts about what was really going on, they were now gone.
"Nope. I wasn't there. But I do agree with Dorian that guys bucking for promotion can get a bit careless. Sad, but it happens," Zack answered with a nonchalant shrug.
"So the only logical conclusion from the reported facts is that Lieutenant Vassar was probably over-intent on pursuing his assigned quarry, which led to an unfortunate encounter with a nest of ravenous flesh-eating beetles. That encounter resulted in his death." He gave both Zack and Dorian a long steady look. "And there's absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise."
"That is correct, sir," Dorian said.
"Very well. Lieutenant, you're dismissed."
Dorian saluted crisply and left the office. Once they were alone, Sephiroth stared at Zack, who smiled amiably back.
"Carnivorous mutated beetles?" he said, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
"Oh yeah. Dorian even brought back a few specimens. To help warn people, you know. Nasty little buggers. I'm sure Heidegger and General Harrington will have no problem believing that several hundred of them could rip even a SOLDIER, Second Class, to shreds."
"Especially if that SOLDIER was somehow distracted or incapacitated at a critical moment," Sephiroth said drily.
He didn't doubt that Vassar was thoroughly incapacitated by the time the beetles got to him. Actually, Sephiroth was prepared to bet gil that the man had been already dead at that point. Taking out Vassar would've been easy for an experienced First Class like Dorian. All it required was a properly timed blitz attack, probably resulting in a broken neck, followed by tossing the body onto the nest. Not that there was any physical proof, between the beetles and a few high level fire spells, of that happening.
Again, how remarkably tidy.
"So Vassar was one of Heidegger's proteges?"
"Not really. But I'm sure Heidegger wouldn't mind pulling a few strings for a guy if it resulted in a First Class owing him some big favors." Still smiling, Zack ambled over to his desk, and propped a hip on it.
"But with Vassar's tragic and untimely death, the matter of favors owed, and to whom, is basically moot, is it?"
"Yup. I guess so," Zack replied with another shrug.
"You don't sound particularly upset or surprised that this happened."
"I'm not. If you make bad choices, you'd better be prepared for the consequences."
Translation -- Vassar was willing to play spy for Heidegger in exchange for a promotion to First Class. Zack had found out and made sure Dorian knew.
End result? One conveniently dead SOLDIER, Second Class.
He was certain that Dorian had acted on his own initiative, without any explicit prompting from Zack. Zack didn't ask others to do his dirty work -- he simply led by example. The exact same thing probably would've happened with any of the First Class SOLDIERs. It was simply Dorian's luck that he ended up with the first shot at the target. And being a First Class, Dorian had efficiently eliminated that target.
Sephiroth wondered if Heidegger or anyone else in the Shinra upper management had the slightest clue about what was happening among their elite SOLDIERs, especially the Firsts.
No, of course not.
It had taken him over a year to spot the pattern, and he had the advantage of being probably the only person on the Planet who could tell with a high level of certainty if a SOLDIER was lying or being deliberately evasive.
Very few people seemed to grasp the full implications of a SOLDIER's neuro-muscular enhancements, especially those present in First Class SOLDIERs like Zack and Dorian. Not only was a SOLDIER stronger and faster than ordinary humans, he had significantly enhanced senses and much finer body control. In other words, it was nearly impossible for non-enhanced humans to determine if a SOLDIER was telling the truth or not, with or without the use of lie detector tests and/or drugs.
Everything Dorian had told him was factually accurate, but Sephiroth could sense the subtle 'holes' in the story. There were things left unspoken, questions neatly sidestepped, and it wasn't the first time something like that had occurred with respect to a SOLDIER's death. Zack, for example, was a master at talking a lot and saying absolutely nothing.
Basically, the unspoken rule was that no one deemed unreliable or a threat was permitted to become a SOLDIER, especially not a SOLDIER, First Class. The psychological evaluations and military assessments were usually enough to screen out most of the people unfit for acceptance or promotion. However, there were always certain individuals who managed to slip through, thanks to nepotism, bribery, or other factors not covered by medical tests or skill evaluations. When that happened, the SOLDIERs took matters into their own hands to ensure that those individuals didn't get accepted or promoted. And if a training 'accident' or a fatality in the field was required, then so be it.
As for who decided who didn't belong in SOLDIER, the lower class SOLDIERs naturally took their clues from the SOLDIERs, First Class. And in turn, the First Classes naturally took their lead from Zack.
To Sephiroth, the practice made perfectly logical sense. It was better to eliminate potential weak links before they gained the strength of a SOLDIER or before a SOLDIER grew even stronger. As long as the SOLDIERs were careful and discrete in their activities, Sephiroth had no objections.
However, the realization that Zack was actively involved in several of these deaths -had- been a surprise, and perhaps even a bit of shock, because at first it seemed so unlike the Zack he knew to turn on a fellow soldier.
(But I was wrong. It's perfectly consistent with Zack's character.)
Zack didn't like hurting or killing people, but if it took cold-blooded murder to neutralize a threat, then cold-blooded murder it was. Zack was prepared to do whatever he deemed necessary to protect his own, a trait that he had amply displayed in Wutai.
He could understand why Zack would feel protective of his fellow SOLDIERs, especially the First Classes. They were his comrades and peers. No wonder, then, that Zack's allegiance should belong to them, his fellow predators, rather than Shinra, with its petty executives and bureaucrats.
Sephiroth would have been content with simply being part of Zack's pack. But for some unfathomable reason, Zack had chosen to consider Sephiroth not merely one of his own, but his first and foremost.
Try as he might, he couldn't understand why Zack had chosen to offer him, of all people on the Planet, such unconditional loyalty, friendship, and trust. It simply didn't make -sense-. He had certainly done nothing to deserve such consideration. And Sephiroth was all too aware that everything about him positively reeked of 'otherness' and danger.
Insanity on Zack's part seemed to be the only rational explanation. It was that, or maybe Zack just liked living dangerously.
But as Gast had once told him, one didn't need to fully understand a phenomena to appreciate it. Regardless of Zack's reasons for choosing him, Sephiroth was grateful... no, 'grateful' was a totally inadequate word for it....
A light flick across the bridge of his nose jerked Sephiroth's thoughts back to the present. He glared balefully at Zack, who grinned and made no attempt to conceal the chocobo feather in his hand. He didn't even bother trying to figure out why Zack would be carrying a chocobo feather around. Sometimes, the things Zack did made perfect sense, but other times....
"Zack, what do you think you're doing?" he said in exasperation.
He watched as his SiC dexterously twirled the long chocobo feather between his fingers in a perfect imitation of one of the standard sword drills, complete with guard positions, strikes, and slashes. And just with the sword drill, it ended with the tip of the long feather just brushing the underside of Sephiroth's chin.
"Gotcha!" Zack said with a chuckle, then cocked his head slightly. "You know, if this had been a knife, I could've nailed you a good one right between the eyes that first time." The feather moved upward to tap Sephiroth lightly on the nose.
"Congratulations on a unique accomplishment. Would you like a commendation for it?"
While his tone was sarcastic, he meant what he said... well, at least the first part. It -was- a unique accomplishment, and Zack was the only one capable of doing it. Not because Zack was the best of the SOLDIERs, but simply because he was Zack. With anyone else, Sephiroth would have never permitted himself to become so distracted as to allow himself to be tagged like that, even with a harmless bird feather.
"Nah. Even though the pay bonus would be nice," Zack said wistfully.
Jerking his head back from another playful swipe of the feather, Sephiroth growled, "Zack... go away and find something constructive to do." He rattled the sheaf of reports threateningly. "Unless you -want- to help me process these papers and deliver them personally to Heidegger?"
"You know, I'd love to, but I just remembered that I promised to take a look at the new group of SOLDIER candidates," Zack chattered quickly, sliding off the desk and hastily heading for the office door.
But just before he turned the doorknob, Zack stopped and casually added, "Heidegger wasn't the only guy Vassar was brown-nosing. Rumor has it that he wanted this promotion so badly, he was even willing to suck up to somebody high up in the Science Department." And with a jaunty salute with the chocobo feather, Zack disappeared out the door.
Translation - Vassar was willing to play spy for -Hojo-, which meant the ambitious Lieutenant had been a dead man walking as soon as Zack had found out.
Protective instincts, indeed.
"Thank you, Zack."
Alone in his office, Sephiroth finished carefully examining Dorian's mission report, making sure that there were nothing in it that might raise questions or trigger suspicions. Dorian, however, had done an excellent job of covering all the bases. Finally, he signed off on the report, then slipped it into an envelope for forwarding to Heidegger and any other interested parties.