(Gast POV. Hojo was a difficult teenager.)
Gast had had his eyes on this one since the young man came. Bespectacled, bedraggled, an appalling posture and the eyes of a fugitive - Simon Hojo’s distinctness from his peers was immediately obvious even without knowing what Gast did of the Wutainese’s history. There were many displaced foreigners from the war-torn continent nowadays after all - in Midgar, in Junon, living under a racial stigma and their own personal horrors, and Hojo was just another one of these refugees who had lost everything. But, from a wealthy family came a son with an exceptional educational background, skilled in Midgarian and possessing more advanced knowledge of the sciences than even the average graduate - foundations solid enough to grant him scholarship to Junon University, the best in the world and at the heart of the Golden City of eastern civilisation. Indeed, Hojo had lost everything except the promise of a good future, and in that sense he was luckier than the rest.
All this, Gast did not learn from Hojo. Hojo kept to himself and spoke very little, coaxing more comfort from his textbooks than the people around him. With his exotic features and mismatched clothes, no one could blame the boy for not immediately fitting in, but appearances soon proved only half the problem. He didn’t speak very much, it was true, but his body language did nothing to endear him to his classmates. A quirk of the eyebrow in answer to any social question, meeting those who addressed him with a patronising smirk and cold silence, it was not surprising that, at the end of first semester, he was surrounded by empty chairs in lectures where others were surrounded by friends.
So the professor had his eyes on this one, out of something alike paternal responsibility. Hojo, for all his intelligence and arrogance, was still only an orphan in an alien environment, and needed guidance if he was to put his brilliance to good use. This at least was Gast’s prevading thought as he waited outside the room where an Unsatisfactory Progress Meeting was taking place, sifting through a copy of Hojo’s academic records with pursed lips. The best student in the year level had failed a subject - missed the pass mark by so much that merely taking a supplementary exam was not enough, and inside the room the faculty board was deciding his fate.
"How’d it go?" Gast asked as casually as he could when Hojo exited, the boy’s cheeks patchy pink and white. Hojo looked up with a frown into the older face, and with a bite of impatience muttered something inaudible before brushing past, intending to stride out of sight.
"You’ll lose your scholarship at this rate, you know," Gast said in the same airy tone, remaining exactly where he was, leaning against the wall. A footstep away, Hojo stiffened and turned back with a snarl, his shoulders squared and eyes narrowed with sudden menace.
"I failed Planetary Studies,” he hissed, with an elaborate gesture of an arm as if throwing something inconsequential into the air. “But the whole subject is bullshit. If it wasn’t a prerequisite I wouldn’t be taking the bloody thing. Mythical beasts and Weapons? We might as well as be learning about unicorns and fairies, for Leviathan’s sake! I won’t be force-fed children’s stories of no real scientific basis nor importance to my future course. I won’t retake the subject, and I won’t pass. If they kick me out, then so be it.”
Gast blinked, and bit back a smile. This was the most he’d ever heard Hojo say, and the outburst only reaffirmed his conviction that, genius or not, the sixteen year old was far from wise.
"You’re in the Medicine stream, aren’t you?" The professor pushed away from the wall, and indicated they should walk. His student followed with distracted gaze and a very sour expression. "Planetary Studies is not unimportant in the treatment of human ailments. The body itself is ever a reflection of the Planet - the ebb and flow of Gaia’s Lifestream affects the soul and health of all Her inhabitants. A doctor doesn’t need to know the intricate details of the Planet’s pulse, but a rudimentary understanding is still essential."
"Thank you; I read the subject description," Hojo answered between clenched teeth.
"But you don’t believe the Planet is a lifeform in its own right."
"What I don’t believe," Hojo said, becoming heated again, "is all this lore they try to stuff down my throat as fact. I mean, a bat-winged creature as harbinger of the apocalypse? Monstrosities awakening in times of calamity to ward off threats to Gaia? What utter nonsense! Sure, there’re a few ancient scriptures and some questionable geological evidence, but that hardly makes the field scientifically valid."
"Doctor Valentine would be devastated to hear you say that." Gast chuckled grimly, and sighed. "It’s true that this branch of science is only in its infancy, but it’s still much older than you are, Simon. Besides, as a first-year you’re hardly an expert on what constitutes as scientifically valid.”
Hojo tucked his fists into his pockets and looked away into the garden they were passing, brows knitted and posture more hunched than ever. So much potential, Gast thought, watching the boy mope along in his peripheral vision. So much promise, yet so much misplaced pride.
"The study of Gaia and all its wonders are much too complex to cover in an introduction subject," the mentor said, more gently. "You’ll see soon enough how invaluable it will be to your future career as a scientist, no matter which field you choose. Now, what did the committee decide?"
A pebble met with Hojo’s shoe and went skidding into the lawn.
"They’re giving me a second chance,” the teenager muttered at last, eyes narrowed at a hedge of roses along the path. “I’m to repeat the subject and pass, or else.”
"So what are you going to do?"
"Like I said, I’m not repeating the subject," Hojo growled. "If they terminate my enrolment, there’re other places that’ll appreciate my talents more."
"My dear Simon," Gast raised his voice in astonishment and just a bit of exasperated amusement, "Are you trying to tell me you’re going to drop out of the best university in the world willingly?"
Hojo was silent again, his lower lip protruded in an almost comical pout.
"Not willingly," he grumbled after a while.
Gast sighed through his nose, the wrinkles between his brows deepening. Hojo was twice as sharp as the brightest student he had ever taught, but also ten times as stubborn.
"An open mind is important wherever you go." He patted the boy on the back. "You may think at your age that science is all about proof and evidence, but much of it is faith and imagination as well. If you only believe what is set in front of your eyes, then you’ll only ever follow in the footsteps of others. I expect greater things from you; you know that. The only one holding you back is…you."
Silence. It was time for a different approach.
"So you don’t believe in Chaos, or the Weapons," Gast said, shuffling the papers he still held in his hands. "What about…the Ancients?"
It really wasn’t a fair question, he thought as he watched Hojo’s eyebrows shoot upwards as the young man finally gave him full attention. When Hojo wasn’t buried in a textbook it was inevitably another volume about the Ancients he carried. Historical recounts, picture books of archeological findings, even fiction - the Wutainese may be dedicated to his studies, but the Ancients were his passion. And, where stubborn students were concerned, Gast was not at all above using their passions to his advantage.
"The Ancients are different." Hojo’s voice was oddly strained, as if trying not to betray too much excitement. One hand re-emerged into the sun and started drawing indistinct patterns in the air. "Traces of their presence remain to this day. The trails they walked, the instruments they used… the astonishing powers they had over materia and the Lifestream itself…"
"No fossil record exists to prove the Ancients were ever more than just Homo sapiens,” Gast prodded.
"Their physical bodies returned wholly to the Planet after they died," Hojo’s face was slightly flushed again, seeing the trap he had stepped into.
"A mere legend, along with many of their powers" Gast smiled.
"And in any case, the fossil record is incomplete and unreliable," Hojo huffed. "Sooner or later something will be unearthed to show the link between the Ancients and Modern Man. The theory is solid. It’s just a matter of time."
"So there is hope for you after all," Gast laughed. "If the scientists specialising in this field were all as stubborn as you are about Planetary Studies, then they would’ve given up the search long ago. As it happens, it was faith in the theory that kept them going. And now…their conviction is about to be rewarded."
Hojo’s footsteps lingered as he peered cautiously at the older man. Both hands were out of his pockets now, his back a little straighter.
"What do you mean… rewarded?"
"I’m collecting a small number of students together for a summer project, Simon," Gast said, becoming serious. The papers turned in his hands. "You see…a few weeks ago an excavation team discovered the remains of what could be an Ancient sealed in a cliffside near Icicle Village. A few samples have been taken but tests are as yet inconclusive, and it’ll be a long while before the news is released to the public. But, no matter what the sample proves to be, it’s still a significant discovery. My colleagues and I believe this is a great opportunity for talented students to be introduced into our field.”
He looked pointedly at Hojo, whose eyes were widened behind thick lenses. The boy resembled a loaded spring.
"Normally, a project like this would only be open to postgraduates…" Gast was smiling again. "But I think you’d rather enjoy the experience, don’t you, Simon?"
"Professor, I would love-" Hojo started, and stuttered. "But how was this specimen discovered? What samples were taken; how were they analysed? What’re they using as the benchmark for analysis? Where is the specimen now and how is it being preserved? How complete is it? Why do you suspect it to be an Ancient at all? Sweet Leviathan-"
Gast chuckled as Hojo combed a hand through his long black fringe, overwhelmed.
"I’ll give you what information I have, and you’d be better off answering some questions for yourself when you join me at the end of the year. The specimen is still at Icicle; we’re trying to remove it with as little damage as possible, so Icicle will be the first stop in our trip. Although… There are requirements you must meet before you’ll be allowed to come, of course."
He folded the papers and held them out to his student.
"You scored a hundred percent in every subject except one this semester, but that’s not good enough. Next semester…I expect better from you. Nothing less than what I know you are capable of."
Hojo took the records, still in a dream, before a wide grin settled slowly onto his thin face. It was a smile like Gast had never seen, stretching Hojo’s features and making him look slightly…unsettling.
"Thank you, Professor," Hojo said softly, the smile fixed in place. Though the light in his eyes had dimmed, and his expression was no longer readily interpretable. "I won’t disappoint."
And at the end of second semester, Gast was not at all surprised to discover Simon Hojo had achieved perfect marks in every one of his subjects, including Planetary Studies.