One Man Army
The jeep squelched to a muddy stop in the middle of the encampment, the deluge of rain making no difference in the thick frosting of mud over the vehicle. Zax supposed it made for better camouflage than the army's paint job.
"Center tent." The aide reached into the back seat to pass him his rucksack. "Just go on in, no sense hanging out in the rain."
Zax opened the jeep door, and scowled up at the sky. "When's this supposed to clear up?"
The aide snorted. "Sometime in June, I guess." He shifted gears, and the engine grumbled protest. "Hop out, now. If I don't turn this thing around it'll be mired for a week."
Zax obligingly clambered onto the track, noting with a bit of dismay that his boots sank up to the ankles in grey mud. He'd wanted to look good, or at least like officer material. The jeep ground backwards, spattering mud in a broad arc across his pants.
So much for that.
Zax shifted his rucksack on his shoulder and squidged his way across the camp, heading for the flagpole in front of a slightly larger tent. The flag hung limp in the rain, ShinRa emblem lost in soggy red folds. Zax's stomach did a funny little shiver, and for a wild second he considered making a break for it. But reason returned, and in the hopes of dry clothes in the near future, he pushed the flap back and stepped inside.
Zax had seen Sephiroth before, when he was first admitted to SOLDIER training. Only once, though, and at a distance, when the General came in to Midgar for some military business. He'd been in dress uniform, black and crisp and precise, every button shining like a star in the dark, his hair like a snowdrift, eyes cold.
The man in the middle of the tent was, if possible, even muddier than Zax was. His hair was a dull sort of silver in the watery canvas light, flipped back into a hasty ponytail. He wore the black pants, belt, and high boots of his rank, but the suspenders crossed bare over his chest. In the corner a black coat hung, dripping rainwater; through a small square of mosquito netting Zax could see a standard-issue cot, the General's shoulder plates tossed carelessly on it.
General Sephiroth himself was standing in the center of the tent, leaning over his desk, writing busily on a piece of paper.
Zax coughed. "Sir?"
"Just a second." Sephiroth didn't even look up, intent on his missive. He had finished writing, read the message twice, and was adding a postscript before he spoke to Zax again, still without lifting his head. "You're the new recruit, right? Darklighter, third class?"
Zax dug in his back pocket for his papers. "Yes, sir. Headquarters just sent me in--"
"You're replacing Ipsen." Sephiroth said, copying some numbers from his message to the top of a battered legal pad, swirling the pen twice when the ink quit on him. "He took a land mine. You have had guerilla training, haven't you?"
"Yes, Sir." Zax held out his transfer notice, feeling awkward. He'd known Ipsen in basic, and the helicopter that brought him in has just been taking Ipsen out, unconsious and moaning, more bandage than skin. Under the blanket, the shape of his leg had been painfully wrong.
"Good. I need somebody not fool enough to step on mines. I've lost four now that way, and in plain sight. As if the fever wasn't getting enough..." He stopped writing suddenly, and looked up at Zax. Zax, who had been hoping all this time Sephiroth would do just that, suddenly wished he hadn't. His eyes were not quite human, gleaming with more than mako, slit down the middle like an animal's. "...You're young."
From anyone else Zax would have bristled at that; he'd done his training the same as everyone else, he'd just been good at it. For Sephiroth, though, there was just the truth. "Sixteen, sir." Zax felt, at most, all of twelve.
Those strange eyes narrowed, apprasingly. "You ever see a man die, Darklighter?"
The paper in Zax's outstretched hand trembled slightly. "No, sir."
"Hm." Sephiroth's eyes swept downward, to the transfer notice. "You can put that away."
Zax blinked. His transfer was supposed to be signed, for his records. "Sir, don't you need to--"
"That was a order, Soldier." His voice was not hard, if anything else, it was the gentlest he had yet spoken. Zax felt a small thrill of terror go from his spine to his toes, and he hastily stuffed the papers back in his pocket.
"I don't doubt you're who you say you are, Zax." Sephiroth's lips tightened in something too grim to be a smile. "Only a madman would come out here without orders." He brushed by him to the tent flap, pushing it open and pointing. "SOLDIER class have their own tents. There, to the left. Tomorrow we move into the jungle, for the city. There will be a mission briefing tonight, at twenty-hundred. Don't be late."
The tent flap went down and Zax, without being aware of it, was on the other side. The rain thumped on his rucksack as he stared at the General's tent for a long moment. He finally came to himself when a stream of water detoured from the top of the tent to land squarely on his head. Shaking it out of his ears, he began to make his way to his barracks. He could see Sephiroth's point. Wutai was bad enough in the rainy season, jungle full of booby traps, hills full of guerillas, not to mention the snakes and bugs and monsters and various toxic plants. He was right, only a madman would come here without orders.
Zax found the tent with his name on it, rain smudged paper pinned to the flap, and set his rucksack down in the middle of the floor.
Scuttlebutt at HQ was that Sephiroth had volunteered.