Chapter 1: The Devil's New Game
The story about me is that I was bullied as a kid, rejected by the Soldier program, and fought Shin Ra out of honor and for the good of the world. The truth is, I was always a good liar. I can't tell you why it is I started fights and played myself off as the victim when I was growing up, nor could I say in any specific terms why I got such a kick out of disrupting Shin Ra military operations in any way I could while I was in the army. If I'd behaved myself better, I probably would have been accepted into Soldier within my first year – I'm not exactly a clumsy fighter, and it's not like I used to be. I've always been on the small side, but if you think that's not an asset in a fight, ask yourself how Bahamut summons got captured in the first place or lock yourself in a room with a mosquito.
If you had to describe me, the only thing you'd need to say would be 'power-hungry.' Anyone that starts out poor and grows up poorer gets that way, and never really changes. Ask any slum kid what they want: they want everything, because they don't have anything. The underprivileged are insatiable, and in my humble opinion, so is everyone else... It's just that most people are too lazy or not self-aware enough to act on those hungry impulses.
I left one group out, I guess. There are those that stop themselves (subconsciously, a lot of the time) from trying to take too much because they believe it's not moral. People like Tifa. ...Which is something I never understood about her, because she's the kind of apocalyptic gorgeous that means she could probably get anyone to do anything if she smiled just right.
Reeve may also fall into this category, but I don't know him well enough to say for sure.
Everyone that was in Avalanche tends to make social calls on each other, except for him. Then again, he's had his hands full with the WRO, which has been steadily collapsing since its inception. I have to wonder how much of that was Rufus' original plan, since he's been the one singlehandedly funding the organization.
Speak of the devil. Rufus Shinra is leaning against my room's doorjamb in a tailored charcoal gray suit that looks like it cost more than the building (he doesn't wear white anymore, who the hell knows why or cares).
“Careful,” I say from where I'm sprawled on my bed, “paint's wet.” Tifa's been remodeling, getting ready to sell the bar.
“Thank you,” Rufus steps away from the door frame, inspecting his suit for spots. When I start to sit up, he waves a hand as if to stop me. “No need to stand. This is just a social call.” How ironic. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd check up on you, see how business is...”
I don't bother not laughing out loud at that. “Business? You mean how I put up a grand total of two handwritten fliers listing a courier service at a number that belonged to a phone I probably wouldn't answer even if I hadn't lost it? That business?”
Rufus offers an elegant shrug. “I wouldn't know. I figured, maybe you'd found out how to charge people for moping near them.”
“It's how I pay Tifa rent.”
I'm getting sick of breathing expensive cologne, so I stand and walk into the bathroom where I take seven little rocks out of a planter on the windowsill. I walk back into the bedroom and hand them to Rufus. “You can have these.”
He looks up from what I've placed in his hand and gives me a big, toothy, Prince of Darkness smile. “Seven stones to chase away the devil. Adorable.” He slips them into his pocket and then checks his watch. “I've got to run. Thanks for the conversation.”
A while after he's down the stairs, I hear the whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades arrive, die down for a moment, then pick up again and disappear into the distance.
My room feels small and choking after that pleasant little encounter, so I walk downstairs. Tifa looks thrilled with something, and considering it's nine in the morning and no one would have been here to inspire that besides Rufus, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Cloud,” she says, holding something my mind doesn't want to recognize as a check, “this is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.” Looking at her, you would think she'd just seen the face of god. She can barely speak. “Rufus bought the bar. He paid twice what I thought we'd be able to get for it!” She holds the check out so I can see it and I recoil like it's on fire. She doesn't even react. “Not only that... Well, we talked for a while, and he said he'd seen something – a really nice place, with land and a good-size house – out where Barrett's been working. Marlene could live near her father again! I looked it up.” She moves so I can see the real estate listing on the screen of her laptop, where it's sitting on the bar. “With the money I just made, I could more than afford it. Oh, god, I can't believe this is happening!”
Oh, shit. I can't believe this is happening. If the world was a chess board, Tifa would be the piece getting tempted away from me by the other side. As per usual I'm not sure what Rufus is up to, but I get the feeling that he's about to stage a coup and the prequel to the main act is scattering his potential opposers far and wide. And just a year ago, Tifa wouldn't have taken Rufus Shinra's advice for all the money in the world.
“That's great, Tifa,” I mumble, heading towards the coffee pot.
“Isn't it? I can't wait to tell Marlene... Oh, one more thing.” She shakes her head. “I was so excited I almost forgot – Rufus left this for you.”
She hands me an envelope. I really don't want to open it, but half of me can't stand not knowing what the bastard's up to.
“Well?” Tifa asks as I read what was inside it.
“It's an invitation to some corporate conference.”
She tilts her head. “That's weird. Why wouldn't he just give it to you while he was upstairs?”
Because after getting a feel for the situation, he realized I would have loved to say no to him so he bribed you and left you to the task of pestering me to attend, I don't say. Two birds with one massive check. Nice play, Rufus. “I guess he must have forgotten.” I really should have killed Rufus back in Healin.
I mainline some coffee and head back upstairs, throw on my clothes, and grab my keys. “I'm gonna go see Reeve,” I call over my shoulder as I leave the bar.
“Tell him I said hello!” Tifa shouts after me.
The way WRO headquarters looks is basically how I picture hell. I distract myself from this sad fact by aggravating the building security. “Get a suit,” I toss at Vincent.
“Get a phone.” He doesn't even look up from scrolling through the menus of his – a pocket-sized supercomputer Marlene convinced him he needed.
“I have a phone.”
Now he looks up. “I don't think having one at the bottom of a lake counts.”
I decide to drop it. “I need to see Reeve.”
Vincent slips his phone into the pocket of his sci-fi leather bodysuit and flips his cape as he turns towards the elevators, motioning for me to walk with him. “Cloud. I know you're a celebrity, but if you want a meeting with the head of a global organization, you need to make an appointment.” His tone of voice suggests he's trying to explain something to a mildly retarded baby chocobo.
“How could I make an appointment when I don't have a phone?” Vincent smirks quietly as we step into the elevator and readopts his typical mute demeanor. I reach for the button for the top floor, and he rolls his eyes and swats my hand out of the way. “It's important,” I lie. More, I have the feeling it might be important, but I'm also only half sure of what I'm even here to talk about.
Vincent pushes the button for the second basement level. “We'll talk about it somewhere secure, and after that I can either pass the information along to Reeve or you can wait until he's available.”
I really don't enjoy Vincent in Turk-mode, even if it's helpful Turk-mode.
The WRO basement makes Vincent's getup look less out of place. Everything is gunmetal gray steel except the unnaturally white floor, and it's all softly illuminated by bluish-green lights that run in the vertices where the walls meet the floor and ceiling. “Bioluminescent bacteria,” Vincent says.
“You were staring at the lights. They're bacteria colonies.”
“That's disgusting. What if one breaks?”
“Then the bacteria die. They're very fragile. Too much oxygen kills them.”
“And what if it doesn't? What if some survive and then you've got a resistant strain to deal with?”
“Then lab techs hunt the glowing spots with spray bottles of alcohol. Stop watching the Discovery channel and try your brain out, Cloud.”
Was Vincent always this snippy? I can only recall him speaking to me on a few occasions for as long as we've known each other, so I can't really say. We turn off into another corridor, pass some frosted sliding glass doors, and branch off again to a hallway that looks less like a spaceship and more like an office. Well, a little.
The door we enter says “Assistant to the Special Defense Secretariat, Vincent Valentine.” There's a real light on the ceiling, thank god.
“You're an assistant?” I spit out before I can stop myself.
“You're a bike courier,” Vincent tosses back.
Touche, asshole. “Sure.” I take a second to look around his office. “Damn, imagine where your career would be if you hadn't gotten killed.”
“Imagine where your career would be if you had a phone. What was your take this week? Did you break your ten gil record?”
I don't get a chance to answer because someone comes out of a door separating this office from the adjoining one and cuts me off. “It would be smart to consider changing tack, Mr. Strife. Valentine will never get sick of playing with your inferiority complex.”
“Speaking from experience?”
Whoever he is, he doesn't rise to the occasion. Instead he drops a file on Vincent's desk and smiles at me like he knew I would say that. I recognize that expression from somewhere... It takes a second to hit me, but when it does, it feels like a punch to the stomach. Either he picked that smirk up from Rufus or Rufus picked it up from him.
Apparently introductions aren't this guy's thing. He gives Vincent a tiny nod, turns on his heel, and leaves. He walks like he's about to call in an air strike or buy a country. “Was he a Turk?” I ask Vincent.
“You could say he was The Turk. Veld Verdot. He invented the department.”
“He's supposed to be dead.”
“So am I,” Vincent shrugs. “So, what are we here to talk about?”
That Vincent just let go of a fun fact about how Administrative Research used to run without so much as blinking was completely unexpected. If we were in some trench-coat-and-fedora detective novel, he'd lean forward, steeple his fingers, and say, Information for information, Strife. You'd better have something good for me. “Rufus is up to something.”
Vincent gives a very put-upon sigh and leans back in his chair. “What else, Cloud? Did the sun rise this morning? Very suspicious. I'll get right on that.”
“Could you cut the bullshit, please?” I'm tempted to throw another barb back at him, but I get the feeling if I don't get to relevant information soon I'll lose my chance to talk to anyone about this.
Vincent reaches for a coffee cup sitting on his desk, pausing to finish it in one long swallow. “Alright. What's bothering you?”
I try to collect my thoughts so I can relay a coherent story, but it's not happening for me. “I just get the feeling that he's about to unveil something big. He came by the bar this morning.”
“He called it 'a social call.' He dropped this off.” I hand Vincent the invitation Rufus left for me.
Vincent looks over it, then hands it back. “Anything else?”
“He bought the bar. Business has been going downhill for a long time, and Tifa's been getting ready to list the place for sale. I'm not sure how Rufus heard about it.”
“It might have something to do with the fact that Tifa's a bartender and talks to her patrons about these things.”
“Okay, there's that, but I didn't think Rufus kept that close of an eye on us.”
“Rufus keeps an eye on you in the same way that Wutai keeps an eye on him. In the same way that I keep an eye on this–” he tilts his head towards the door, to the area we walked in through, “–science department.”
“So that's why we're in the basement.”
“Yes. But back to your story...”
“Right. After he said a pleasant little hello to me, he wrote Tifa a check for more than twice what the bar is worth and suggested a new house for her, out near the oil field that Barrett's been working. With what Rufus paid her, she could afford the place and have a money left over to get on her feet again.”
“That may be just a show of good faith, but I can understand not giving Rufus the benefit of the doubt. You think he was trying to move her out of the way for something?”
Vincent glances at his desk then back to me. “He wouldn't need to. He could have let the economy handle that – Tifa was going to leave as it was.”
“Maybe not skip town.”
“Did she say that to you?”
“And it's entirely possible she would have said the opposite to Rufus' contact that's been keeping an eye on her. But, that alone could be over complicating things. Maybe she and Rufus keep in touch.”
I have to scoff at that. “There's no way. Tifa hates Rufus.”
“No, I think not. She let him into her home. She let him hand her a substantial pile of money. Tifa's a very proud person; I don't think she would have made any deals with someone she considered an enemy.”
I shake my head. “It just feels too much like Rufus was tying off a loose end. If he needed Tifa out of the immediate picture, sure, he could have waited a few months and let that happen on its own, but maybe he needed it to happen faster?”
The door that joins Vincent and his boss's offices opens again, and Veld crosses his arms and leans against the door frame. “The situation is striking me this way:” he begins. “Rufus checked up on you, made sure you had no income and that Tifa was letting you live with her for free, then made sure Tifa would leave you on your own quickly. Very soon, you'll find yourself looking for a job. Expect him to offer you one.” The door shuts.
“Thank you, Veld,” Vincent says quietly and with enough acid to melt through tank armor.
“...Are all Turks jackasses?”
“You know, there's no guarantee I won't just move with Tifa,” I say to Vincent in the elevator on our way back up to the lobby.
“You don't really want to do that,” Vincent says.
“No. I never liked living in the middle of nowhere, and the house that Tifa's buying is definitely in the middle of nowhere.”
“That's not why you don't want to do that,” Vincent shakes his head reprovingly. “You want to keep tabs on Shin Ra, and the WRO because it's funded by Shin Ra. You may not do a good job of it, but you definitely want to.” I give him a look like he's being ridiculous and he gives it right back. “Whatever job offer Shin Ra gives you, it will be the best chance you ever get.”
“Or it'll be an easy way for Rufus to make sure I know exactly what he wants me to.”
“I'm about ready to start drawing you diagrams, Cloud,” Vincent lets a little of Chaos' growl into his voice, “Right now, the only things you know about Shin Ra are the rumors you hear or what they release to the media. You couldn't be any more in the dark unless you were actively trying to be.”
I'm sick of arguing for the time being, so I let it go. “Let's backtrack for a second. Just because your boss says Rufus is about to offer me a job, that's exactly what's going to happen?”
“Would you like to bet on it?”
“No, not really.” We're silent as the elevator doors slide open. Vincent leads the way out of the building and leans against the wall next to the entrance, lighting a cigarette and then lighting one for me.
Whatever he smokes, it tastes like a chemical fire in a strip club that used to be a candy store. With all the mako and Jenova cells in my system, I haven't felt the effect of nicotine since I was fifteen. Whatever's in this cigarette hits me like a truck. “Damn.” My vision swims nearly enough to make me loose my balance. “What is this?”
“The only cigarette available in Deepground,” Vincent smirks.
“Did Shelke give them to you?”
“No, I found them myself back when the WRO first hired me.”
“Are there more?”
“Not many. I save them for special occasions,” he twitches one shoulder in his customary almost-shrug.
Vincent raises his cigarette like he's making a toast. “To your new job.”
I roll my eyes and take another drag. “And why are you so happy about it?”
“Because you're my new informant,” he says, casual as you please. “Go home and help Tifa pack, Cloud. Oh, and you didn't talk to me today. You tried to see Reeve, but his secretary sent you away.”
“I guess you'll be in touch.” I try not to sound too pissed off.
Vincent finishes off his cigarette and gives an austere nod before heading back inside. Fan-fucking-tastic.
Chapter 2: Celebrity Terrorist
I take the long way back to the bar. I don't think of it as home... not really. But I also don't want to see it in boxes. When I do get there, it's dark and quiet and the front door's locked. I let myself in and make my way upstairs. Tifa's on the phone in her room, and normally I try not to hear things that I don't really need to deal with, but what the hell? It's a special occasion, after all.
“That's right. Right. And you can have the inspection done by tomorrow afternoon? Great! Okay, thank you so much. Yes, this number's best, and I gave you my cell number too, right? Good. Uh-huh, bye.”
She gives a happy sigh.
“Hi, this is Tifa Lockhart again – yes, I'm sending someone to take a look tomorrow. Let me put you in touch with them.” She rattles off a phone number and some more niceties. “Depending on the feedback I get tomorrow, I'll make an offer. Of course. I'll talk to you soon. Goodbye.”
She must have heard me come in, because she comes straight to my room after she hangs up. She looks happier than I've seen her in... Well. A long time, probably. “You're back,” she says, inviting herself in and sitting on the edge of the bed across from where I'm leaning on the windowsill. “Did you talk to Reeve?”
“He couldn't see me,” I shrug. “I waited a while and gave up.” I'm such a good mole. If there are more of those death cigarettes in store for me, it will be so worth it.
“That's not like Reeve,” Tifa tilts her head.
I shrug. “Well, I mean, I guess I could have called ahead.”
“What was he doing?”
“I don't know, Tif, I didn't ask.” There's a beat of silence. “Not open tonight?” I tilt my head towards the stairs down to the bar.
“It's not like we were turning much of a profit, and, well, now that I don't need it...” She quirks the side of her mouth up shyly in a way that would be so charming if it didn't herald the destruction of my entire way of life.
“Hm.” We lapse into silence for a while, which is normal for us. Well, it would be, if Tifa got up and left at this point like she usually does.
“I was on the phone with one of Barrett's friends. A contractor. He offered to do a house inspection for me...”
“You're having the house looked at and making an offer without seeing it for yourself?”
Tifa nods in that resolute way that means calamities and demigods won't change her mind. “I can't afford to make a trip down just to look,” she says.
“Not even with Rufus throwing money at you?” That makes her angry. Whoops.
“Look, Cloud, I know you're upset about it, okay?”
“You know why I'm upset about it.”
“Yes, I do, and it's childish.”
“You're right, not trusting the guy who nearly destroyed the planet is so immature.”
“I'm not doing this,” Tifa crosses her arms and stands. “Have your tantrum.”
She closes my door behind her. I guess I should get a jump on packing.
Packing takes roughly an hour. There's not much of a view from the window, so I occupy myself staring at the ceiling instead. I take Rufus' invitation out of my pocket and flip it around in my fingers, staring at the type without registering what it says. Until my eyes pass over the date and I realize it's tomorrow. And I realize it's in Junon. If I left right now, I'd make it just in time. I don't want to go scurrying off on Rufus' whims, but the bar's been getting steadily less hospitable since I cracked my eyes open this morning, and it would be the perfect excuse to disappear.
What actually tips me in favor of going is the Deepground cigarettes. This morning was the one time I've talked to Vincent in the last year, and in the span of the conversation he created a nice big weakness to exploit. Not only that, but I'm seriously hoping further exploitation is in my near future. Damn he's a good Turk. Which just goes to show, leave Turks the hell alone.
With my stuff conveniently already packed I'm just about ready to leave, but I pause to say goodbye. “Tif,” I say quietly to the back of her head from outside her bedroom door (she doesn't turn around), “I'm heading to Junon for that conference Rufus invited me to.”
Now her head whips around and she eyes me in a concerned mother way. “Really.”
I shrug. “You seem to have some faith in the guy.” That's not why I'm going, but why not smooth things over?
Her expression softens. “Okay. When will you be back?”
“I'm not sure,” I say. “Depends why Rufus wants me there, I guess.” And why not see if she's overheard anything useful while I'm at it.
Tifa tilts her head back and forth like she's wondering whether or not she should tell me something. “I think it might have to do with accountability.”
When Tifa starts out not making sense, she usually has a good point to present. I listen patiently.
“He needs people to trust his company again. By inviting you into his dealings, well... Seeing the leader of Avalanche involved with Shin Ra would make a lot of people reconsider their opinion of it.”
“You must have reconsidered your opinion of it.” Sometimes I can't stop myself. Tifa sighs so hard her shoulders heave. “Look, I'm just saying... Imagine if Rufus had offered you money and told you where to live a year ago. You'd have thrown him out on his ass.”
She shakes her head. “Cloud, he's not evil incarnate, alright? And he's not the one that nearly destroyed the planet. The things that did were in the works twenty years before he was born. And yes, he didn't stop the use of mako, but that got popular in the first place because the alternative was oil and mako looked like a cleaner energy source. Now, Barrett's a partner in a new oil syndicate and I'm less sure what to think about that than Rufus Shinra.”
“Selling mako isn't the only thing he did.”
“That's true. And I'm sure he's done worse things even than the ones we know about, but he's not the same person he used to be.”
“How can you say that? You didn't know him back then, you don't know him now.”
Tifa stands at this point, once again full of righteous indignation. “But I have to believe it. I have to believe that people aren't beyond redemption. Otherwise, everything we did was pointless. Otherwise, Sephiroth had the right idea and we should have just let the world go!”
She sounds like a fucking PR campaign. “You can't just believe everything will get better-”
“You're not even listening to me.” She crosses her arms. “You should get going, Cloud.”
So much for smoothing things over.
It's a long ride from Kalm to Junon, and once upon a time it would have given me awful motion sickness (my initial trip from Nibelheim to Midgar was hell, let me tell you) but that's one thing, at least, my colorful array of modifications fixed.
Another thing they're good for is letting you know when you're about to get shot, even if there's a silencer involved. I react just enough that the bullet grazes my arm rather than hitting wherever it had been intended for. I haven't actually been shot too many times in my life – nonetheless, each time it gets less fun. There's not much to do but head for the treeline off the side of the road and hope whoever's shooting at me is a quitter.
I'm not that lucky. I hear an engine start and not long after spot headlights drawing up behind me, probably aiming to cut me off before I can make it into the woods. They fire off some more shots, and I'm forced to choose between (probably) taking a few more hits or weaving around thus losing the ground between me and my attackers.
Considering any of that turns out to be pointless as the next shot hits me dead center. I crumple forwards, gasping but unable to draw in enough breath, and try vainly not to lose control of my bike. It surprises the hell out of me when I hear a shot that's not silenced ring out from ahead of me in the woods. Behind me, glass shatters and I take a quick glance over my shoulder. The car swerves and slows, then whips around and heads the other direction. It seems like a novel time to collapse off the side of my bike and lay on the ground screaming. I've never been in so much pain in my life.
Someone rolls me onto my back and slips a hand under my head. I choke just a little as they pour an elixir down my throat, then another, then another. The pain is just starting to ebb and I'm hauled onto the back of my motorcycle. My arms are pulled around my rescuer's waist and held there by something sharp and metal as we speed away.
I can't tell how much time passes, but it seems like I spend a couple years trying to stay awake with my head lolling on someone's back. It takes me a long time to place who it is. I never really realized how whipcord-thin Vincent is before. If I live, I'll have to make sure he eats better.
I must have passed out. I come to with nausea rolling in my stomach and a blinding headache; the all-too-familiar set of symptoms that tend to follow a heavy cure. I wasn't thinking clearly enough back when I was getting shot at to realize it, but bullets shouldn't have been that debilitating for me.
It takes a hell of a lot of effort to crack my eyes open. I'm lying in a lovely pile of dried leaves and moss, which could have been someone's idea of hospitality or they could have just been there and not been worth moving. Above me I can see stars through the darkened canopy. Not far away Vincent is sitting on the ground with his back against a tree, for all appearances dead. He may be, but it doesn't really matter – he usually snaps back in a day or two.
“Vin,” I say, not really expecting a response because dead or not he's an amazingly heavy sleeper. He doesn't move. Louder, “VINCENT.” That worked. He raises his head, looks a little pissed at being woken (using cure materia always takes a lot out of him), then seems to remember that I'm the one that got shot and has mercy on my soul. Instead of snide comments or bodily harm he peels my shirt back to get a look at my wounds.
“Can you walk?” he asks.
I have no idea. “Sure.”
“Then get up. We need to move.”
“...Are there more of them?”
“We don't know that there aren't. Up, Strife.” He hauls me to my feet as he stands. As soon as he lets go of me, I crumple right back down.
“I take it back. No walking,” I choke out when I'm done trying not to vomit from the pain. “What the hell did they shoot me with?”
Vincent shakes his head lightly. “Whatever it was... The entry wound makes it look small caliber, but the exit wound's one of the strangest messes I've ever seen-”
“Please don't tell me about it.”
Vincent falls silent and slings me over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. “If this starts to hurt too bad, try to pass out rather than scream.”
“Your bedside manner is stunning, doctor Valentine.”
He ignores that. “Who knew you were headed to Junon?”
“Besides you and your boss, and Rufus and whoever he told, Tifa.”
“And did Tifa tell anyone?”
“I don't know.” Something else strikes me, then. “Why were you following me?”
“I wasn't. You just happened to get attacked close to something else I was on my way to take care of.”
“Just a stroke of luck?” I ask skeptically.
“Not for me. You're setting back my schedule.”
“I'm so fucking sorry.”
“I suppose I could forgive a rookie mistake,” Vincent smirks.
“Thanks, jackass. Shouldn't we be quieter, with people potentially looking for us?”
“Sense materia,” he looks at me out of the corner of his eye. “If anyone was close I'd know.”
“Wait.” Vincent raises his eyebrows and doesn't wait. “Vincent, where's my bike?”
He gives an 'oh, that' shrug (which hurts). “Ditched it. Too easy to track.” I have several miniature heart attacks while I think about the best way to inflict emotional damage on him, since I know I can't do much physical damage in this condition. “Relax,” he says with a sigh, “it's safe. You can get it back later.”
“I hate you, Vincent.”
“You're welcome, by the way. For saving your life. Again.”
We – well, Vincent – walks for about a half hour in silence before something else starts bothering me. “How'd you get here? I mean, you said you were on business.”
Considering how painful this mode of transportation is for me right now, I get justifiably enraged. “Then why aren't we in a helicopter?”
“I left it in town.”
Town as it turns out isn't much more than a roadside diner with, thanks to Vincent, a WRO helicopter behind it. “Stealthy,” I toss at him.
“Thank you,” he says blithely.
I would normally protest being carried into a dingy eating establishment on the shoulders of another man, but I'm not really in a position to complain.
Before the lone waitress has a chance to appear reasonably shocked, Vincent marches straight past her to a booth in the back and says over his shoulder, “Coffee for both of us, and whatever else the cook likes. But no pork.”
He sets me down. “And some water, please, miss,” I call after the hastily retreating waitress as charmingly as I possibly can. Then I look down and realize we're both covered in blood. As far as charm goes, we're fucked.
“Again, very stealthy,” I say to Vincent. “Isn't it about time we skipped town rather than getting dinner?”
His eyebrows draw together like they belong to some suave wiseguy, not an old hired gun. “I'm not flying in this condition. And the days when anyone would believe her,” he means the waitress, “were she to mention us to anyone, are over. It's a new world, remember?”
I shake my head. The state of the world isn't something I want to talk about, even if all Vincent meant was that celebrity terrorists aren't supposed to limp into restaurants covered in blood anymore. “Why no pork?” I try changing the subject, as the waitress sets down our coffee.
Vincent waits until she's gone back to the kitchen to answer. “It's too similar to human.” I choke on the coffee. “Breathe,” he admonishes.
“Chaos?” I ask, just to be sure that Vincent himself hasn't been harboring cannibalistic tendencies.
He nods. “And the others.”
I'm sure I'm gaping like a dying fish. “And everyone at the WRO is alright working with someone who, in certain combat situations, might eat them?”
Rather than being upset by my admittedly stupid question, Vincent seems to be enjoying how far off he's thrown me. “There's actually a clause in my contract stating that I can't eat anyone without their explicit consent.” He sips his coffee. “Veld was very clear on that.”
Vincent's recent decision to regard me as confidant is still mystifies me, but I'm starting to think the reality of the situation is that he might have been this open before if he'd deemed me conversation-worthy. What the hell, I may as well bring it up. “I can't believe you're actually willing to talk about that.”
“About eating people?”
Fucking what the fuck, I want to scream (and run away), but the Chaos survival tips I've received in my time say not to make loud noises or sudden movements. Actually, they say to give it bacon and tell it you'll be in the hangar, but Cid isn't here to impose that rule. “About all those things, yeah,” I feign complete non-terror.
“I'm willing to talk about it,” he dips his head.
Purely because I'm convinced he's not serious but want to make sure, I say, “Then tell me the whole story.”
“Stay away from major arteries. A mouthful of blood will instinctively scare you whether or not you logically know it's not your own--”
“JESUS AND JENOVA ON THE HIGHWAY, VINCENT! That's not what I meant! I don't want to talk about eating people!” He's laughing. It's just sort of a quiet smirk and twitch, but Vincent Valentine is laughing and that's not something I thought I'd see in my lifetime.
“Oh. My mistake,” he says without a shade of guilt. Actually he says it with unabashed mirth.
“What-fucking-ever, Chuckles.” In the next minute I go from talking about eating people to considering the possibility of repressed homosexuality, because Vincent breaks into a genuine smile (another thing I thought I wouldn't live to see) and my mind blanks except for the thought that he's damn handsome. Altogether, not the most stomach-settling train of thought, so I'm perfectly justified in what I do next: retch violently, everywhere, including into my bullet wounds. Then I black out.
Chapter 3: Enough Blame for Both of Us
I wake up still a mess, but mercifully with a few clean bandages. I'm on a hotel room bed with a note beside it. It reads, “Get to work. –Chuckles”. Next to it is a Deepground cigarette, which is on top of a conference schedule that has highlighting and notes in shorthand on it. Vincent has stylized, flowing handwriting which weirds me out until I think about the fact that everyone that's as old as he is and doesn't have arthritis probably has that handwriting.
I check the clock sitting on the bedside table – still early. What do you know, helicopters are handy when you've been shot but still need to be on time. I almost wonder how Vincent handled the situation at the diner, but a small, nagging part of my mind insists he probably slipped out while no one was looking and left the mess for someone less fortunate.
I take a quick shower and a look at the raw patches left from my bullet wounds. Judging by the rate they've healed, Vincent probably had the good grace to administer another cure before he left me. I wish he'd left me a change of clothes, because the shirt I was wearing didn't survive too well. I'm not sure if this is something people do, normally, but I call down to the front desk on the off chance that it is: “Hi, um, I know this is a strange request, but my luggage is missing and I could use a change of clothes...” That's close enough to the truth.
“Certainly, sir. What would you like sent up?” A chipper voice returns.
What the hell kind of hotel am I staying in? “Something functional,” I say while inspecting the room. The letterhead arranged neatly on the desk is emblazoned with a logo that reads L'Hotel Regina. Why would Vincent have picked somewhere like this? ...Actually, once I ask myself that question, it makes perfect sense. No one would look for me in a hotel I can't possibly afford (I'll worry about the second half of that sentence when it becomes an issue). Maybe I should be dressing a little less predictably as well. “Actually, something professional would be good.” I rattle off a guess at sizes and say goodbye to the scarily cheerful attendant.
Ten minutes later I'm delivered what looked like a very generic pair of slacks and a white dress shirt, before I put them on. I glare at my reflection in the bathroom's mirror. Somehow my outfit manages to more or less say, 'I am a rich bastard. Mug me.' Not that I'm worried – but I do wish I had a sword with me to completely ruin the image.
The conference, according to the schedule Vincent left me, will be nothing but a series of speeches by various CEO's. I expected something small, but when I arrive, there are huge droves of people gathered and the facility housing the event looks like it could seat a couple thousand. Curious, I ask one of the ushers directing foot traffic through the auditorium how many people are actually coming to this thing. “There should be around three thousand in attendance,” she says, “not counting media.” I don't want to look like I have no idea what's going on, so I nod and find a seat rather than saying, “and what are we all here for, exactly?”
Someone finally steps onto the stage at the front of the massive space. The crowd quiets down fairly fast after his initial “Good morning.” The speaker, who I'm guessing is some sort of conference coordinator, waits a beat. “The WRO in conjunction with Terhaar Communications and Shin Ra Industries thanks you for your attendance. Everyone here has been essential to re-establishing order in the global marketplace and leading our world towards a more secure future. We are the spearhead of the effort to stabilize the state of the economy, and the knowledge gained and connections established today will afford all of us the means to make our society more advanced, and more united than ever before. Welcome,” he smiles warmly, “to the first annual World Commerce Summit.” There's burst of polite applause. “Our first speaker will be Head of the WRO Trade Commission, Alexander Root.”
I can follow what most of the speakers say on a surface level, but when they get into economics or political policy, things begin to go over my head. The notes Vincent added to my schedule explaining who most of them are help, but when it comes down to technical details – well, I'm a soldier in a room full of businessmen. Monsters I can slay and I could write books on materia, but don't ask me how commodity pricing works.
The break for lunch rolls around after roughly ten years, by my estimate. It's only an hour so most everyone takes advantage of the provided catering in the adjoining rooms rather than leaving to eat somewhere else.
“Mr. Strife?” a woman in a pencil skirt and impossible-looking stilettos strides up to me as I'm grabbing my third cup of coffee. “Monique Gault,” she introduces herself when we shake hands. “I'm Mr. Shinra's assistant. We're glad you could make it.”
I nod, not really sure what to say.
“Mr. Shinra would like to extend a dinner invitation–”
She curls one corner of her mouth upwards in a sharp half-smile, and goes on like I didn't interrupt. “And insists on covering your trip's expenses.”
“Not necessary.” I almost walk away, but that would feel like running, so I stare her down.
“Of course not. However, the offer stands. I also received a call from your associate Miss Lockhart. She was hoping I'd be able to find you and pass along a message.”
“Tifa called? She called you?”
“She did, Mr. Strife. She said her new property is in escrow.”
“What would that be in English?”
“It means money is in the process of changing hands. Meaning, a deal was reached and a transaction will be completed after the escrow period.”
“So she went ahead and bought the house.”
“Close enough,” Monique says.
“I wasn't asking. Look,” I sigh, “Tell her I said congratulations.”
“It would be smarter to tell her that yourself, since I assume she'd appreciate hearing it directly from you. Will that be all?”
I guess I shouldn't have told her to do anything. It seems to have pissed her off. “Yes, Miss Gault, that will be all.” My sarcasm doesn't even phase her. As much as I don't want to admit it to myself, it's pretty refreshing – when compared to Tifa's constant psychiatric analysis. Which is not to say that she doesn't mean well, or hasn't forced me out of some of my mind's darker corners. I owe her. I do. But damn if I don't feel a little betrayed, with things looking like she's going to skip town without so much as a goodbye. ...Not that I've never done that before, so I can't say I blame her. But I also can't say I'm not angry at her, somewhere in the back of my mind. Whatever we were, some sort of family or the leftovers of Avalanche, it's done with.
There's nothing like the second half of a business conference to numb yourself to thought and emotion alike, I discover. Two presentations in, I'm feeling much better. More detached, at least. The third – and second to last presentation of the conference, though, I'm really not looking forward to. You guessed it, that's when Rufus is scheduled to speak.
Rather than dragging the afternoon seems to go faster than the morning, and before I'd like to be, I'm watching a familiar old enemy take the stage to the tune of the most apprehensive silence I've ever sat through. Part of me hopes this speech will be as much of a disaster as his inauguration was. As it turns out, I'm disappointed.
This bastard is smooth. Instead of shying away from the economy and the huge amount of people that would like to see him held financially responsible for any and all losses and damages suffered in connection to Sephiroth, Jenova, or Shin Ra, he starts straight in with reviewing everything he's been asked to front the cash for and explaining why he's not going to. “Economic stimulus such as this is ineffective,” he says, “which is exemplified by the last market crash of ten years ago.” Now everyone is reminded how bad the economy got near the end of Rufus' father's presidency. He actually states, in exact amounts, the money that Shin Ra doled out back in the day and calls it a 'band-aid solution,' which the pundits are going to love. Then he starts outlining his proposed plan to turn the economy around, and everyone gets to remember why they used to love their handsome young president (after they got done hating him for promising to rule the world through fear): he took the worst economy the world had ever seen and turned it into the best economy the world's ever seen.
Rufus ties off his speech by calling on adversaries and allies alike to take part in a series of open forums to discuss his proposals. The room is silent for a few moments. Then it's in an uproar. The people that aren't taking part in the mad applause are shouting questions. Some people are doing both. I'm part of the small group of people who aren't doing anything but glancing around suspiciously. At least I'm not alone.
“Please, please,” the conference coordinator steps up to the podium and has the balls to cut Rufus off mid-sentence, “Mr. Shinra cannot take your questions right now.” Rufus raises an eyebrow, but lets the man speak. “We have to move our schedule along,” the coordinator all but whines. “Thank you again, Mr. Shinra.” Rufus nods to the crowd and takes his seat. The press quiets down pretty fast, but I guess since the next speech is the last one of the conference they want to get as much coverage as they can of whatever the grand finale will be. “Our next speaker will be Avalanche leader, Cloud Strife.”
And just like that, three thousand people are dead silent. What? I take out my schedule and look at it. The name printed after Rufus' speech is definitely not mine. I look again, then around at all the people that are also checking their conference schedules. Slowly they shrug off what I assume they're assuming is a misprint, and the heads around me turn towards me. Then those around them turn to stare at me too, and soon everyone realizes exactly where I'm sitting and they stare as well. I look up at the screen behind the podium – they've even got a camera on me. Shit.
“I wasn't planning on speaking,” I say, but thanks to my lack of microphone the only people that hear are those directly around me and they think it's a joke. A few of them laugh jovially as people move out of the way to let me get to the aisle.
Stepping to the side of the podium and motioning towards it, the coordinator says, “Thank you Mr. Strife, you have the floor.”
What can I do? Refusing to speak at this point would probably pull in public interest faster than anything I could possibly say. I make my way to the stage.
“I want all of you to remember who you're dealing with.” Hey, this is easier than I thought it would be. “I want you to remember living with Shin Ra's military, SOLDIER, and Administrative Research as a constant threat.”
But that's all the material I have. After a few seconds of silence, a reporter stands and speaks up. “Mr. Strife, what's your response to Shin Ra's Department of Administrative Research's recent dissolution?”
“I would have to say I approve.” The crowd laughs.
“Do you see this as a show of good faith from Shin Ra?” another reporter chimes in.
“It's a little early to say.”
The media gets friendly faster than I thought it would. “Mr. Strife, it's been a long time since Meteor threatened us. Do you think Shin Ra has changed since that era?”
Okay, this has to stop. “I'm not saying anyone is incapable of change,” I say, and hold up a hand to quiet the news teams. “Yes, I'm telling all of you to be cautious; yes it's your responsibility never to forget. But I have to believe that people can improve. That things are better than they were, and that they'll keep getting better. Otherwise... All our work was pointless.” They're rapt. Thanks, Tifa. “Otherwise, Sephiroth had the right idea, and we should have just let the world go.”
I'm not sure where the applause starts, but Rufus is the first person to turn it into a standing ovation. My stomach drops into my shoes and I get offstage as fast as I can, fully aware that I didn't exactly give an anti-Shin Ra rallying call. But it doesn't matter. Right now the only thing I want is to get out of the room.
This turns out to be really difficult, as all three-thousand members of the audience want to shake my hand. Like magic Monique appears at my side and starts cutting a path through the crowd. “I don't think I can afford your time,” I toss at her once we make it out of the auditorium, hoping it'll come across as leave me the hell alone.
“You're here as our guest, Mr. Strife. Don't be ridiculous.” I'm not sure if the pause and the look she gives me are to put emphasis on how ridiculous I'm being, or if she's actually waiting for me to counter her point so she has an excuse to walk away. “I took the liberty of sending our billing information to your hotel.”
“I told you that wasn't necessary.”
“Mr. Shinra insists. He's grateful to you for making the trip.”
I cross my arms. “How did you find out where I was staying?”
“We saw you leaving there this morning, on our way here.” She pauses to look over at the auditorium doors, where more people are exiting now. “Mr. Shinra would like you to know that he's staying at the Metropole, and would appreciate the chance to speak with you before you depart, if you find the time.” She nods by way of goodbye, and starts wading back through the crowd.
I head back to my hotel. After I'm there about half an hour, the phone rings. “Yeah,” I answer, figuring the caller would either have to be Vincent, the front desk, or Monique again.
“Anything worth reporting, Strife?”
It's Vincent. “The WRO was involved with this thing? You didn't act like you knew about it.” Forgive me but after the day I've had I'm feeling a little standoffish.
He sighs through the line. “The WRO wasn't very involved. It's not my department, but I'm guessing someone wanted to throw our logo on the affair to allay public suspicion. Oh, and please just call Tifa back so she stops bothering me.”
“She's been calling all day asking if I've been able to get in touch with you.”
Okay, so I guess she wasn't planning on leaving without saying goodbye. That's equal parts relief and reminder that I'm not good at figuring out how people work, even people I've lived with for years.
“...So?” Vincent says after a pause.
I scrub a hand over my face. Wake up, Cloud. “Rufus invited me to dinner by way of his assistant, and picked up the tab for my room.”
“That could be a bad thing.”
“Dinner, or that he's covering my expenses?”
“Expenses. Those are easy to trace unless you're careful, and if someone's keeping an eye out for you it could let them know where you are. We did establish that Rufus was one of the only people that knew you were coming, and it's safe to assume whoever tried to kill you is aware of your connection.”
“I don't get the feeling Rufus is interested in killing me.”
“No, and Rufus is a businessman – if he's guessing that the cost will be more than the benefit, he won't do something. It's the same reason he leaves Veld alone. You'd take too much to kill. Likely, there's a leak within Shin Ra.”
“Or within the WRO.”
“That's harder to believe, considering the only people within the WRO that knew you'd be making a trip to Junon were myself and Veld.”
“Are you sure there's only one reason Rufus doesn't give Veld trouble?”
I can almost hear Vincent smirk. “I'll ask him, if it will make you feel better, but yes – I'm sure. They don't trade favors.”
“Look...” I lean against the edge of the room's desk. “Am I the only person working for you that's involved with Rufus?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It's better for you if you don't know. You're deep cover right now, Cloud – don't think of yourself as working for me. You work for Shin Ra.” Before I can correct Vincent on the issue of where I don't and will never fucking work, he cuts me off. “I'm having a phone sent to you. Treat it as your personal cell, but it's also your only direct line to me and Veld. Only contact Veld if there's no way you can contact me, and never contact either of us through another means. It's the only communications channel you can consider secure. Clear?”
“Strife, you have already involved yourself in this, and now there are some that want you dead. It will be simpler for you if you don't argue with me.”
“I don't like feeling like a marionette, Vincent. I think it would be simpler if I dropped this entire charade and disappeared for a while.”
“You're not anyone's puppet here. Trust that I've been in your situation many times before and I do know how it feels. Regardless of that, though, the truth of the matter is that I am as in the dark as you are and we're both playing things by ear.” When I don't say anything, he keeps going. “If I were you I wouldn't stay where you are.”
“Then where are you sending that phone?”
“It will get to you. Goodbye.”
Well, that was creepy. ...Weird, this is the first time I've actually thought of Vincent as 'creepy.' I almost feel bad.
At this point there are things I want to question Rufus about, and I stare out over Junon harbor for a long time weighing that against how much I'd rather avoid him altogether. In the end, action wins out over inaction, even though it's only because I'm feeling restless.
“Welcome to the Metropole, Mr. Strife,” a front desk attendant greets me as I walk in. I hate being famous. “What can I do for you?”
“I'm here to see Rufus Shinra. He's expecting me.”
“Certainly Sir, I'll just let him know you're coming.” She makes a quick phone call, then gives me a room number and directs me toward a bank of elevators.
When I knock on the door, it's answered by a small, old man with a measuring tape hung over his shoulders. A tailor. Rufus is standing near a desk large enough to seat four wearing a suit with chalk marks on it.
Seeing him not flanked by a team of assassins is still strange, though the Turks were disbanded a while ago. This is one of the things that won him back some popularity, which he didn't deserve, because everything he said about it was a lie: he called the Turks outdated and heavy-handed, and 'a crude instrument of coercion.' First, I know how close they were to him, and that's definitely not his opinion of them. Also, none of the Turks killed him over the entire ordeal, which could mean a couple things. Either he gave them the best compensation package ever conceived, or they're still working for him. I'm leaning towards option B.
“That will be all for now, thank you,” he says to the tailor, who helps him out of the half-finished suit and leaves. And suddenly I'm alone with Rufus Shinra sans pants. Wouldn't have pegged him for a boxers guy. He's still wearing a black dress shirt, and he picks up a pair of slacks that were folded on the edge of the desk. As he pulls them on, he makes the tiniest movement with his shoulders – a flinch, like he's in pain. I look away before he turns around.
“Please, come in,” he says, seating himself at the desk.
“I might not stay long,” I shrug, and wait by the door. “What did you want to see me for? Another social call?”
Rufus smiles. “Business, this time, Strife.”
“Speaking of that, how is Shin Ra?”
“Rebuilding has been a tedious affair. There is still a market for electricity, of course, though as I'm sure you can guess the climate is different than it used to be.”
“If that's your way of saying no one's willing to buy mako anymore,” I shrug.
“You'd be shocked at the number of people that are.” I don't say anything to that. “And what about you, Strife, how have you been since I last saw you? Killed anything interesting lately?”
Predictably, he gets straight to playing games. I decide to join him. “Not at all. You?”
“No, sadly, my job is not as exciting as it used to be.”
“Don't take this the wrong way, but who fucking cares?” What can I say, diplomacy isn't my strong suit.
“Oh, no offense taken. We're both struggling somewhat to reinvent the way we work, I know. Of course, that, in fact, is the most difficult issue you and I are facing. What happens when the things you're good at are no good to anyone anymore?”
“Actually that's just you. I wouldn't call myself that obsolete.”
“What would you call lying around the Seventh Heaven staring at the ceiling, for lack of other demands on your time?” I don't reply. “I'd like you to work for me.”
“I know you would. Otherwise there'd have been no reason for you to give Tifa the means to leave me high and dry.”
He doesn't look surprised, just raises an eyebrow and continues on, smooth as silk. “Forgive me, Mr. Strife, but you didn't come up with that on your own...”
Oh, shit. How would Zack talk himself out of this? “You don't think I could have extrapolated something like that, yet you want me to work for you?” Alright, that's definitely not what Zack would have said.
Rufus chuckles. “Full of surprises, Mr. Strife. But you haven't heard my offer yet.”
“I'm not interested in your offer, Rufus. I have one of my own.”
He seems absolutely delighted. Crazy asshole. “Very well. What are your terms?”
“First, I want you to answer some questions for me. And if I do decide to work with you, I'll be your personal bodyguard, nothing less – I want access to every piece of information you have access to, a security clearance identical to yours, and as much authority as you have.”
“Many people have worked their entire lives for those things, Strife, and are more deserving – more qualified and more trustworthy than you are.”
“Tseng and Reno. They were more qualified than I am. What happened to them?”
“Rude and Elena were actually more qualified than Tseng and Reno for those particular things, if you'd care to know. And Strife – I haven't accepted your offer yet. We're not to the part where you get started with your questions.”
“If you don't want me to leave right now, we are.”
“Then you had best be going. Unless you're willing to take a position as my personal bodyguard, with the same security clearance and level of authority that Tseng had.”
I cross the room and take a seat across from him.
“Is that a yes, Mr. Strife?”
“Good. Now if you don't mind, I'll start with a question of my own.”
“Why not?” I try not to sound too put-upon.
“What in god's name are you wearing?”
“...That's what you wanted to ask?”
“Strife, you look like a lost waiter. As a part of my organization, what you do reflects upon me. Clean up your appearance. I didn't put up with this from Reno and I certainly won't put up with it from you.”
“Reno wasn't exactly clean-cut.”
“He also didn't wear 90-gil Banana Republic chinos.”
I can't not laugh at that. “Are you sure you're not a girl?”
“If I were, I'm sure I'd be even less impressed.” He stands and pours himself a glass of wine from a bottle that's sitting in ice on a side table. “Something to drink?” he offers.
“Yeah. I think I'll need it. For the record, I've never had a girl complain that my pants weren't expensive enough.”
“Then are you satisfied that I'm not one?”
He hands me a glass of wine and sits back down. “Well, I'm afraid I'll have to leave you in the dark on that matter, for the sake of professionalism.”
“Don't apologize. Seeing you once without pants was enough.”
“It's good to know you're making the effort to start taking me at my word.”
“On this issue, at least.”
“Oh please, Strife, I knew I'd have to start small with you.” He's worse than Vincent is. “To your question, then: do you know anything about Veld Verdot?”
“Yes,” I say, and sniff at the wine.
“Not your taste?” he asks. I shrug. He brushes it off and goes on. “He used to run Administrative Research, and when he did, it was a much larger department. When he left the company, most of the Turks left as well.”
“When he was killed, you mean.” I figure I may as well act like I don't indirectly work for the man in question.
“He wasn't. He's alive. And most of the Turks that were under his command still are, the difference being that they're all acting independently now. At this point, those that remained at Shin Ra have taken on a similar role.”
“And the ones that stayed with you – were they actually Veld's, too?”
Something flickers across Rufus' impassive facade, barely there and then hidden again. “Some of them. With some, it was difficult to tell.”
I lean back and stare at him for a beat. “Why are you willing to tell me these things? Why level with me?”
“Didn't I tell you I'd never lie to a comrade?” Rufus smiles, toying with me of course.
“That was a lie, if I remember right.”
“We weren't comrades back then. If I'd known I could have trusted you, I would have told you the truth.”
Maybe he would have. I'm not sure I really buy that. “So your Turks are still working for you, just not as closely as they used to.”
“Yes. They report to me when they can, but those occasions are rare.”
“Is that why you're hiring me?”
“No.” Rufus finishes off his glass of wine and doesn't bother getting another. “There are enough people that would still like to see me killed, sure enough, but you are not the best bodyguard one could have. You are the best advertising I could have. Truthfully, though, that's not really why you're here.” He sighs. “I told you once that Shin Ra owes the world a great debt; one I intend to repay.”
“I thought that's what funding the WRO was for.”
“No,” Rufus smiles, “that was part of it, but it was also partially to pave the way for Shin Ra to get back on its feet. Mostly a self-serving venture.”
“And when it fails, you'll be there to pick up the slack, but for a price.”
He spreads his hands. “This is a business, Cloud. Everything we do is for a price.”
“So how will repaying your debt work, if it has to be for a price?”
“Miss Lockhart was the start of things, actually. Thanks to my company she lost her home and her family. She now has both back – not the originals, that would be impossible of course – but something close. Perhaps, something better. A handful of people is not the entire world, though, and that's where the business side of things comes in – I can't make amends without means, Strife.”
I scoff. “You can't honestly expect to go down an itemized list of things people lost because of Shin Ra and hand everything back.”
“I don't expect to do that. Where it's possible, though, I will.”
“Where it serves you, you mean.”
“So it disgusts you that I do what serves me? Get in line.”
“I am. I'm sort of the head of the line.”
“No, you crossed over about ten minutes ago, Turk.” Well, that hits me like a train. “And you, Strife, you owe the world as much as I do. Tell me, was it me or you that gave Sephiroth the means to summon Meteor?”
“Was it my company or yours that ran the experiments that gave Jenova enough control over me to make that happen?”
“And who was it that asked for them, Cloud? Who begged? SOLDIER was your dream.”
“It became a nightmare,” I spit. I didn't want what happened. I'd do anything to undo it.
“It always was one. I spent most of my life fighting to have the program dismantled.”
“Looks like you failed.”
“Yes. I did.” Rufus pauses. “Failures, both of us... Because effort means nothing without success. This is not a legend, Cloud, there is no hero to this saga. Not a single one of us came out victorious.”
“I didn't fail, Rufus. I killed Sephiroth. I was the only one that could have.”
“Because of which experiments?” He narrows his eyes. “You killed Sephiroth after he'd dealt the worst blow he was capable of. Even then, he continued to wreak havoc on this world. In the end it was what remained of the Cetra that scrubbed his presence from the lifestream.”
“I gave everything up to stop him!” I all but shout back.
“Just as I did!”
“You're a liar, Rufus. You've gone too far.” I'm standing and moving towards him without knowing what I really intend to do, when something metal is suddenly at my throat.
“Same deal as usual, Strife. Touch 'im an I'll kill ya,” Reno says into my ear, tapping the end of his EMR right over my heart.
I force myself to relax, and he lets me go with a none-too-subtle shove towards the door. Just as I'm about to shut it behind me, Rufus speaks again.
“Think about what I said, Strife... And know that there are others that have done the same.”
I spin on my heel. “What does that mean?”
“If you don't already know, I have no doubt you soon will.”
“Mr. Strife,” the girl that greeted me calls from the front desk as I'm passing it on my way out. “A package arrived for you.”
I open the envelope she gives me once I'm outside. A phone. Well, perfect timing, I need to talk to Vincent anyway.
“Yes, Strife?” he answers on the first ring.
“Rufus knows about the people that attacked me.”
“Did he say that directly?”
“More or less. I mean – no.” God, I need to get a hold of myself. “He said, in a very roundabout way, that I was as much to blame as he was for Sephiroth and Meteor, and that there are other people that see things that way.”
“Did he say anything that made it seem like he'd been attacked as well?”
I round a corner, pushing past people. The streets here are as busy as they were in Midgar before it was destroyed. “He did say there are people that would like to see him killed. And it seemed like he was hurt.”
“It sounds like there's a lot more going on than we were aware of. We'll rendezvous at the Seventh Heaven tomorrow. Travel safely.”
Chapter 4: Chasing Calamities
For the purposes of this story, Healin is located near the Chocobo Farm, as this seems to be accepted in fandom. I don't believe Healin's location has been shown on an official map or officially disclosed in another way. If it has, please correct me.
The train is the best option for me to get back to Kalm, being that I don't have my bike and I don't want to be traveling alone. At least, not until I'm sure what I'm up against or what they're really after. The trip is interminable and mind-numbing.
When I arrive at the train station, it's early. Four, maybe five in the morning – the sun hasn't risen yet. I should have called Tifa yesterday and if I'd been thinking straight, I probably would have remembered. I dial the bar.
She doesn't answer, so I leave a short message saying I'll be home soon, and start walking. She couldn't have already left, could she? She'd need to pack everything, make shipping arrangements... And what would she do with everything from the bar itself? Sell it? Or take it with her and open a new one when she gets there?
I'm wondering why I feel so incredulous over this train of thought, before it hits me that it's because I can't believe I care. I also sort of can't believe I can't believe it, and wonder, not for the first time, what the hell is wrong with me. Of course I should care about... About all this. It feels like the end of a chapter, a long chapter that I thought I'd be happy to kiss goodbye. Somehow I managed to get too settled in while, the entire time, dreaming of leaving. Though, I don't know exactly what it is I'm leaving or where I had wanted to go.
About three blocks from the train station I'm sure someone's following me – and not doing it very well. The heavy footfalls say he's male, and there's a scuffing sound, like he's dragging one foot. Not to sound full of myself, but you don't do something that would potentially make someone as modified as I am mad at you if you're injured or crippled. That is, unless you're stupid, desperate, or you have some sort of trump card. Or unless you're Rufus Shinra.
Desperate might be the most likely candidate to fit the bill, with the way the world runs lately. It's old-frontier lawlessness swimming in societal superstructure. Imagine a very advanced, very large population living under a strict and powerful government – and suddenly, that government is gone. The power vacuum is huge and there are a million people scrambling to fill it, with no one to police them. That's this world. We're in a feudal state and those that can't fend for themselves are paying a huge price for it.
Of course, the WRO does what it can, but it's no seven-nation army. It spent itself almost entirely in the fight against Deepground, had no time to regroup, and now it's a skeleton pretending at muscle. It doesn't matter that it has the world's richest man to back it – money doesn't mean as much as it used to. The most effective weapon you can wield, nowadays, is fear.
The worst part of this is that most people miss Shin Ra. What they remember about it even more vividly than the destruction it brought was the security it offered, before all that. That's what I can't grasp. How could anyone forget? Equally as strange as this, Rufus, poised for a comeback, seems to be biding his time. It's like he knows something is about to happen, and he's not sharing that information, which means it's valuable. How is it that Rufus is always the one I need to see for answers? Someone else
know something. Reeve crosses my mind, but in reality he's not a likely candidate. Veld might have caught wind of what's going on. I make up my mind to talk to him as soon as I can manage.
I turn off from the way I'd been walking – I don't want to lead whoever's following me back to the bar. Actually, I'd like to confront him, but every time I turn around the street is empty. Having circled almost completely back to the train station, I catch sight of him in the reflection from the windows of a darkened shop.
For a second I think it's Reno, but that's only because of his horrible posture. This guy has the same slouch. He's half-lit under a streetlight, and he must realize I've seen him, because he stops and stands there like he's not sure what to do. It's not a fighter's response, that's for sure. By the time I turn around he's moved back into the dark and disappeared.
The only impression I have of the situation is that something is very wrong. The primordial part of my brain is screaming at me to run or fight, but there's no apparent danger, from what I can tell. I take off towards the bar moving as fast as I can. Tifa can take care of herself, but just in case, I need to make sure she's alright.
My heart stops in my chest when the bar comes into view – there is someone inside. I can see their shadow through the window. It's definitely not Tifa or Vincent, and it's definitely outfitted for a fight. I'm about to make as much noise as I can, scream for Tifa to wake up and let this person know they've been caught, when an arm shoots out from an alley as I pass and drags me in. The only person I know strong enough to hold me down with the finesse to do it quietly is Vincent. He holds a finger to his lips. Tifa is standing beside him in her pajamas, cold and pissed but safe.
“The kids,” I whisper.
Tifa nods. “They both stayed over at a friend's house last night. I already called. They're fine.”
Vincent peers out from the alley, stone still as only a sniper can be, and levels his gun at the shadow in the bar. Knowing him, he won't shoot to kill – he'll want someone to interrogate. His finger starts to tighten on the trigger just as the intruder takes something very small from its pocket, twists one end of it off, and moves like it's about to attach it to something on the bar. Out of the corner of my vision I see Vincent's eyes widen. He adjusts his aim the tiniest fraction and takes the shot – the figure's head snaps back, and it crumples down out of our line of sight.
We spend several long minutes watching for any more movement. When nothing presents itself we head towards to bar, sticking to the shadows. “Clear,” Vincent says when he's satisfied there are no other threats, and we go inside.
The place is a mess. Everything's torn up and rifled through, not a single piece left in its original place. In the stranger's hand is a detonator with a timer that's already counted down to zero, and a little burn mark from when it went off. The explosives on the bar would have leveled it if she – our unnamed guest – had time to finish up her job and get out.
It's tough to make out her face since half of it is blown off and the other half is a shattered mess of blood and bone. Oddly one of her eyes is perfectly intact, wide open, and utterly free of the evidence of mako or other modification. It's brown. Average. Very human. “Recognize her?” Vincent asks.
Tifa and I shake our heads.
“Stay here. I'll sweep our perimeter.”
“Stay here?” I ask. He doesn't stick around to explain himself, though.
“In case someone comes back to clear away the evidence,” Tifa says after a moment, her voice shaking with anger, and nods towards the corpse. We stand on either side of it, keeping watch until Vincent returns.
“There are no others,” he announces, “for the moment.”
Tifa goes upstairs, presumably to get dressed. I go to my old room to do the same thing. My previously packed belongings are strewn over the floor, but nothing's missing – not even materia. What could the dead girl downstairs have been looking for, then?
It's comforting to be in my usual clothing again, even with my weapons still missing with my bike. Tifa looks more in control of herself too – still angry, but not vulnerable.
“Cloud,” Vincent says, “on your way here, did you see anything out of place?”
“Yeah. A man followed me from the train station.”
He looks up from his inspection of the corpse. “Anything distinguishing about him?”
“Nothing. Just like her, no insignia, not in a uniform, unmodified as far as I could tell.” I take a breath. “My guess is they were working together. He was loud, obvious; got me to waste a good twenty minutes circling.”
“He was buying his partner time,” Vincent nods, standing, having looked through her pockets and discovered nothing stolen from us. She didn't find what she was looking for, then. “Very professional.”
“Very Turk-like,” Tifa says as she crosses her arms and leans against the bar.
“Yes,” Vincent agrees. “Very.”
“Did she wake you up?” I ask Tifa, motioning at the corpse.
“No. Vincent called me and told me to get outside, and I climbed out my window.”
Vincent turns away from the mess on the floor and starts inspecting the wreckage that fills out the rest of the room. “I saw the girl as she was breaking in,” he explains. “It was lucky.”
“Depends on your definition of lucky.”
“One can only do so much,” Vincent replies.
Tifa shoots me a look. “That's not what he meant,” she says. It rolls straight off Vincent's back.
I can't stand to stay idle a moment longer. “I'm calling Rufus. He knew something was up.”
Vincent eyes me for a second, then lets go of whatever he was thinking of saying and shrugs one shoulder. “If you think he has information.”
I don't actually know Rufus' number, but Tifa does. I don't bother with 'hello.' “You knew something was going on. You
about this, Rufus, and you didn't say anything!”
“This is Monique, actually. I gather you'd like to speak to Mr. Shinra. I'll make him aware of your request. Please hold, Mr. Strife.”
Vincent grabs the phone before I can slam it down. “Negative, a priority three incident has taken place. We must communicate with the President immediately.”
“Rufus Shinra,” I hear him answer after the line clicks through without any warning from Monique. Vincent hands the phone back to me.
“I have reports that a high-value asset has been compromised,” Rufus says.
“They came after Tifa, you bastard, and you could have warned me!”
“Slow down, Strife. Who came after Miss Lockhart?”
I take a gulping breath. “We don't know. But you do.”
Rufus doesn't even pause. “You're a military man. You know that an enemy of an enemy is an ally. Decide whose side you're on, and then I'll let you know if I can help you.”
“I'm sure as fuck not on their side.”
“The ones that attacked your friend, you mean. As it happens, I'm not on their side either. But to the allegations that I was aware Miss Lockhart was in danger – I was not. Are you currently secure?”
I would have said yes, but Vincent gives a sharp shake of the head. “No.”
“I'm having you collected. What's your location?” After I tell him where we are, he asks, “And can you hold your position?”
“Looks like it.” I didn't exactly call to get a ride, though. “I want answers, Rufus –”
“As do I, Strife. Like I explained yesterday – though you may have missed my point – our standing is remarkably similar.”
“So you don't know anything about what's going on.”
“What I do know, I'll share with you soon. You'll have to be satisfied with that for now.”
“I'm not. If you want my help you have to level with me. Otherwise I'm headed to the WRO and I'll have to take a rain check on that job offer.” I shouldn't have let things get to this point, having ignored the world and hoped it would ignore me for so long. It feels the same way waking up in Nibelheim after five years suspended in mako did. Something is wrong, that much I know, and there are people I should trust, people I should let lie, and people I should fight against – I just can't tell who's who. I need to sort that out, but everyone else has already taken sides and I just don't have the time.
“My offer is to speak with you today, face to face, whether you get to me on your own or I send someone for you.”
“Cloud,” Vincent says lowly, being able to overhear Rufus' side of the conversation, “if Veld or the WRO has any information, I will tell you. You handle Shin Ra.”
I sigh. “Fine.”
“Watch for a helicopter, then.” The line goes dead.
I take another deep, agitated breath and look around at the wreckage. “He's sending a helicopter to pick me up.”
Tifa uncrosses her arms, where she's leaning against the bar. “Do you think we can trust him, Cloud?”
“You're asking me that now?”
She looks uncertain. “I just... I thought things were finally different.” She gestures to the room, smiling just slightly like she's going to make a joke. “I wasn't expecting this.” Tifa can take anything in stride if you give her time to process.
Vincent is silent, observing.
“I think we can trust Rufus to safeguard the things he thinks he can use.”
“What do you mean?”
“Then he did offer you a job?” Vincent asks, ignoring Tifa's question.
“Yes, he did.”
“Be his asset for now, Strife.” He tilts his head slightly, like he's trying to make out a faint sound. After a couple moments, I can hear it too – a helicopter, headed this way. “I'll investigate more thoroughly once you're gone. I need to contact the WRO and escort this body to the lab. It would be helpful if we could identify her.”
Something else strikes me. “What about Marlene and Denzel?”
“I don't like it,” Tifa says, “but it's probably safest if they can stay out of the way of all this –”
“It would be safest if you and they accompanied me to headquarters,” Vincent cuts her off.
A helicopter with a Shin Ra logo is touching down in the street. The engine doesn't power down. “I think that's my cue to leave. Have you two got this?” Vincent and Tifa offer me twin nods, and I jog outside.
Tseng is piloting – he's alone. After I have a headset on, he asks if I'm hurt.
“I'm fine,” I say.
“There was no confrontation?”
I stare at his profile, looking for any sign that he knows more than he's letting on. “We managed to stay hidden. Took down one of them.”
“How many were there, then? And did you find out their objective?”
“There were two of them, one that drew me away from the bar and another that was looking for something there.”
Tseng glances over at me. “Looking for what?”
I sigh. “We weren't sure.” It's not sitting well with me, how close Tseng must have been to get to us so fast. “Why were you in the area?”
“We may be able to discuss that later,” he replies, infuriatingly calm. Changing the subject, he goes on, “I'm taking you to Shin Ra Tower. The President will debrief you.”
Seems like this is his way of saying I'll have to hand over everything I know before I get any information in return. I guess I expected that. It doesn't mean I appreciate it.
Shin Ra's Junon building just plain wasn't good enough for Rufus, I guess, because he had the new tower built on the continent's other coast in a previously-modest city called Eastporte. He'd been using Healin as a base for a couple years already, so it does make some sense that he'd want to stay in that area. True to history, where Shin Ra went, industry followed. It could just have something to do with the fact that even prior to the their relocation there it was the busiest port in the world.
The new Shin Ra tower is a stark, monochromatic black pillar that dominates the city's skyline like some sort of monument to how unfortunately not-decimated the company is. At least it doesn't look like the old Shin Ra tower, which put one in mind of a Dyson vacuum. The flight here was so long I'm almost excited to arrive.
Tseng leads me down to the eighty-fifth floor (obviously they were trying to make a point with this building – it's ninety stories tall, versus the old tower's seventy) where there's a common lounge area. It's huge and completely deserted. I don't think I've seen a color in the building so far. “Make yourself at home. Someone will be with you shortly,” the Turk says, and leaves me.
The first thing I do after he's gone is try the door across the room from the one we came in. Predictably it's locked, but there's no keycard reader or keyhole. “So good to see you trying to breach my building's security again. Like old times,” Rufus says from behind me, having entered the way Tseng and I did. “Shall I show you how it works?” he asks, then steps in front of me and opens the door with no resistance. He shuts it again. When I try it, same deal, it's locked.
“It only opens if your pants cost more than ninety gil.”
Rufus nods, moving towards a pair of sofas in the center of the room. “Of course. You always catch on quick, Strife.”
“I do my best.” I take a moment to enjoy how unamused he is. “It's actually new biometrics, right? I've read about them. There are sensors throughout the building that let a central computer keep track of anyone within's weight, height, body temperature...”
“Yes. But really, it's old technology, just much more extensively employed than in the past.”
“So the building knows who we are,” I say. “What happens when there's a malfunction?”
Rufus does this little facial shrug as he takes a seat. “I imagine it locks us in and starves us, or something equally gruesome. But, last I checked, you can shoot the lock off a door whether or not the building involved can register that it's happening.”
I step around the coffee table and sit across from him. “I'll keep that in mind.”
“I'm sure.” He pauses. “Did you have a chance to think on our conversation yesterday?” I'm spitting mad as soon as he gets the sentence out, but he keeps talking before I can say anything. “I only mean the part where you agreed to work for me, then stormed off before you could receive your duties.”
“I like you more and more, Rufus,” I say, sharp and angry.
Rufus leans forward and looks me in the eye. “Do you think I brought you here to insult you? We are a breath away from a world war. You think you've seen chaos because you chased Sephiroth across the planet and lived through Meteor; you think you've seen horrors because you've been experimented on. Trust me, you have no idea what real horror looks like or the terrible things this company did to gain power. Power we lost. Power a hundred contenders, more vicious and ruthless than you can grasp, now seek to gain. You'll be at my side until this is resolved, because in this matter, I'm as much your bodyguard as you are mine.”
It's moments like these I can understand how one tenacious cripple picked the ruins of Shin Ra up from a hospital bed and turned it back into a functioning company. “And what do you mean by 'resolved'?”
He sits back and relaxes like nothing happened. “New government instated. Order returned.”
“I hope you don't mean a Shin Ra-run government.”
Rufus smiles. “I don't imagine you'd let that happen, Strife.” He lets that hang there a moment, and I can't tell whether it's a challenge or not. “Now, to the issue at hand... I wasn't expecting you to come alone. I expect Miss Lockhart can take care or herself, but weren't there children living with you? Where are they?”
“You honestly think you're the first person someone thinks of when they need a babysitter?”
“They're safe, then?”
“Rufus, this save-the-children charade didn't work last time and I'm not buying it now, either. Yeah, they're safe. That's all you need to know.”
He nods, utterly the diplomat. If I didn't already know who – what he is, he'd probably be charming me out of my mind.
“The conflict I suspect is coming will not leave anyone safe. If there is anyone you'd like to protect you should take them here.”
“I think we're a couple thousand clicks off-topic.”
“What, then, would you like to address?” He holds one of his hands palm-up, like he has no idea what to say. “I don't know who attacked Miss Lockhart, Strife. I may be able to venture a guess, but the fact is, I could name a very extensive list of people that would like to make a warning out of a former Avalanche member.”
“Start by telling my why Tseng was so close by when they tried to do that.”
“You're asking me to compromise an agent in the field.”
“And here I thought we were gonna be working together.”
Rufus runs a hand through his hair and gives a humorless laugh. “I'm not sure you see the necessity yet.”
He's right, I don't. Maybe there's value to his doomsday prophecies but I don't think we're each other's life support. I don't think giving him a run down of what happened this morning will cost me anything valuable, though. When I finish telling him what happened he's frowning.
“She came prepared to destroy your home, but wanted to make sure she didn't miss some objective before she did. Do you have any guesses as to what she was looking for?”
“None,” I say.
“Really.” He's not buying it. “Then what assets do you hold which someone else might like to posses?”
“I think it's more like what do people think I have that I didn't hold on to.”
Rufus glances at his watch and stands. “I need you to think on that for me and tell me when you have an answer. Meanwhile, retrieve whatever information the WRO has gathered and contact me afterward.”
“You still haven't given me what I came for.”
“You came for some illusory piece of information to make all the events of the last few days fall into place for you, as far as I can tell. I wish I held such a card. The best I can do is to give you the resources to pursue that information on your own. I'm out of time to discuss the matter further.”
I follow him to the elevator. “Hard at work rebuilding?”
“As much as I'd like to say yes, who would I be kidding? The world hasn't changed. As usual, I'm running crisis control and you're chasing calamities.”
I really hate him for saying that. I hate him for being right, and I hate that resources are actually the best and most necessary thing I could be given at the moment. The elevator doors open on the top floor. “I need –”
“Transportation, an expense account, outfitting – no, you don't, they've already been provided and Monique will give you details.”
At her name, Monique stands and picks a folder up off her desk. Rufus strides away through a pair of double doors, which I'm guessing go to his office. “Joining the team, Mr. Strife?” Monique asks after the doors have closed.
“It looks like I am.”
“Congratulations and welcome to Shin Ra Industries, formerly the Shin Ra Electric Power Company.”
She's just messing with me, but I'm still not sure what to say. “Uh –”
She steps past me and selects a floor on the elevator's touchscreen. “I know I speak on behalf of everyone here at Shin Ra when I say dressing like you live at Hot Topic is not acceptable, on duty or off. We look forward to working with such an esteemed former vigilante, terrorist, and human test subject whose hair cut was obviously either cheap or free. Let me also take this opportunity to remind you, unofficially, that the fastest way to the top is killing and greed.” The elevator arrives. “I'm just kidding. But the killing happens, and the greed helps – and you're legally agreeing to silence on those matters by affiliating yourself with this company.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
She shakes her head. “You're absolutely no fun, Strife.”
I don't know what to say. Monique is viciously pretty, and also the worst conversation I've had in my life. Sure, I talk like she does with Vincent and Rufus, but I've never taken so much ribbing at the hands of a girl. “I guess you'd have to be a world-class smartass to take working for someone like Rufus.”
“You have to pass nationals, at least.” As we step off on the thirtieth floor, she drops the attitude and smiles at me. Yep. Ballistically pretty. If only her personality matched. “Relax, Strife. Rufus isn't a dragon, he just plays one in the board room.”
“And what about you?”
“I'm evil. Watch your back.”
She's either flirting with me or throwing me off my game before she tries to kill me. Could she hide weapons in that dress?
“Where are we going?”
“I hope that means weapons, not a new suit.”
“Well, unless you think you'd look good in my outfit, you'll have to deal with the suit.” To my disgusted expression, she says, “You're an advertising campaign, Cloud, people have to be able to tell who you work for. Oh, I should ask – will you need a flight clearance?”
“I mean, are you a pilot?”
“That will save us some time, at least, but get cleared to fly when you can. Until then you can charter whatever transportation you wish. Your expense account will cover it.”
“Will my expense account cover a new bike, until I can get my old one back?”
She glances up and down at me. “You think you can keep dust off your suit riding a bike? Be my guest, but I wouldn't do it.” We enter what must be outfitting and Monique hands a piece of paper from her folder to an attendant at the front desk. “You have your orders, then?”
“Yeah?” I scrub a hand over the back of my neck, not really sure where I'm supposed to be going from here.
“Let them know what you need,” she nods to the attendants. “I should tell you that weapons must be concealable. No half-ton swords, I'm afraid, unless they pack down to fit in a shoulder holster.”
“Damn, you're a charmer,” I say tonelessly.
“Goodbye, Mr. Strife.”
Outfitting takes me two hours. The first thing they do is take measurements for a uniform. I used to prefer fighting with knives, before I was modified, so I ask for two about the length of my forearm and a bracer. I'm asked what materia I'd like and my request for a mastered curaga isn't even met with a raised eyebrow. From there it's biometric measurements to introduce me to the building. Once that's done I'm given another phone, which I'm told I'll receive my orders and report in on, an expense card, keys to a company car and an apartment – apparently, I'm a live-in bodyguard, though I don't live in the same apartment as Rufus (thank god). One of the many nameless office workers takes me on a tour of the building, and by the time I'm back, a suit that must have already been made has been tailored to fit. There's a knife up each sleeve, thanks to two cleverly incorporated magnetic sheaths. Along with the bracer I asked for I'm given a holster and a handgun, and told to learn to use it.
So there you have it: from mortal enemy to demanding control over my actions up to and including what I wear and where I live in about two hours. No one does dictatorship faster than Rufus Shinra. The only thing that's keeping me from marching into his office and putting him back in a wheelchair is the comforting knowledge that I'm a double agent.
Orders start coming through on my phone just after I've figured out how to use it to schedule a flight to the WRO and head to the helipad. It's just like getting a text. The first one says, Mission objectives: Identity control and intel in WRO posession; Priority level: 4; Force clearance: none; Details: Destroy personal belongings and records or move them into a secure location. Obtain WRO intel on intruder to Avalanche base.
I hit the 'accept' button. Then another comes through. Mission objective: Put on your damn uniform; Priority level: 6; Force clearance: 10; Details: But don't do it on the roof, you heathen.
Three days worth of tension finally escapes in my reply: Fuck you, Mr. President. Very mature, I know. Sometimes I'm still mentally fifteen. I shouldn't have done it, but I think Rufus does need me and I'm gonna take advantage of that.
I get a reply that reads, Ha fucking ha. Your orders don't actually come directly from the President. I know that's gotta be disappointing for you since you love him so much. This is actually your second favorite hellion.
Reno? I send back.
Yours truly, rookie.
It keeps on getting better. I'm already in uniform, I reply.
No you're not. We're watching you, agent Strife.
I key in Creeper, hit send, and turn my phone off. It powers right back on with a message waiting that says, Keep your phone on unless otherwise ordered.
Huh. Surprise, but what do I care. The pilot waves me over. I guess it's time to go.
Chapter 5: Dead Ends
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I'm sitting on the floor of the church in Sector Five, staring at the flowers. Aeris is lying on her stomach next to me reading a book. “Things have been... happening,” I say. Then I sigh. “I went to work for Shin Ra.”
“I know. I'm dead, dear, not blind and deaf.” She turns the page and keeps reading.
“I know you're dead, but I still feel guilty.”
She shuts her book, rolls over, smiles at me and says, “You can be such an idiot sometimes.” She hits me in the arm with the book. “That's why I love you.”
“You're okay with this?”
“Yeah, I'm okay with the fact that you're an idiot. You're not half as dumb as Zack can be.”
“No, I mean, you're okay with me going back to Shin Ra?”
Aeris yawns and stretches, putting her arms behind her head. “Of course I'm okay with it. You're alive and I'm dead.”
“Thanks...” I lay down next to her. “Am I really talking to you?”
“Maybe I am. You know, I thought I saw someone dead, when I was a kid.”
“Like a ghost?”
“I thought it was an angel.”
Aeris props herself up on one arm and stares down at me. “What did it look like?”
“It was sort of... Not rotted, but all black. With bright green eyes.”
“Dead, or some failed experiment?” I have no idea how she can joke about that.
“No, I was sure it was dead.”
“Morbid kid.” She taps the end of my nose with one finger and lays back down. “Imagine the things your poor mother had to deal with.”
“My mother was worse than me by a lot. She swore she saw ghosts everywhere. Looked for them like the other mothers in Nibelheim looked for a good sale on a goat.”
She laughs out loud at that. “You're such a hick.”
I turn my head and look at her. “I miss you so fucking much, Aeris.”
“Cloud!” I snap awake. Vincent is leaning over me, pinning me down to a hospital bed. There's a disgruntled-looking doctor next to him, cradling her wrist. Oh Gaia, did I hurt her? Vincent looks at me for another few seconds, decides I must have gotten a hold of myself, and lets me go.
“That's the last time I treat a Soldier,” the doctor says. She walks over to a lab bench, picks up a screw driver, and starts fixing her wrist. What? I think, before I realize one of her arms is mechanical.
Vincent picks up a syringe she must have set down and holds it so I can see it. “It's a vitamin cocktail, Strife. I'm going to give it to you, alright?”
I nod, and he injects it into my bicep. “Shit,” I gasp before I can stop myself. “It hurts.”
The doctor glances over her shoulder at me then turns around, rotating her artificial wrist. “It shouldn't,” she says, eyeing Vincent like he must have done it wrong. Vincent shrugs one shoulder.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You were unconscious when you got here,” the doctor explains. Her ID card, hanging from the lapel of her lab coat, introduces her as Shalua Rui. She crosses her arms, staring hard at me. “You're incredibly sick, Strife.”
“Yeah, I feel that way.” Panic is crawling in from the corners of my mind. I've been sick exactly one time since I was modified. It couldn't be the stigma coming back, could it?
“We're running tests, though we're not sure what's causing it.”
“Causing what? What's happening to me?”
She shakes her head. “Imbalances all over your body.” She starts listing things off, but I hold up a hand and stop her.
“Imagine I've never been to medical school and try explaining that again.”
“Unless you're pregnant, have cancer, and have been living off nothing but sugar and battery acid, I can't explain your symptoms. Your body seems to be getting ready to...” She holds one hand up, lecturing, and shrugs. It's a very frustrated gesture on her. I don't think she's used to not being able to explain things. “Make something, or make itself into something. And it's going to use itself as fuel. The good news is, it's not attacking itself as with Geostigma.”
I sigh with relief. “That is good news.”
“There's more where it came from,” she says. “It's progressing fairly slow, for now.”
I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. “In that case, I'd like some more sugar and battery acid. Is there coffee anywhere around here?”
“No coffee, Strife, no refined sugar either. You need to be very careful. Consider yourself a late-stage cancer patient.”
“It couldn't be those cigarettes, could it?” I say more to Vincent than to the doctor.
“The Deepground cigarettes?” she says. “No, I ran every test imaginable when I couldn't convince Vincent to put them down. They'd do a number on an unmodified person, but not this – and they should barely have any effect on you.”
“What about a parasite?” Vincent asks.
The doctor grins. “See, who says you have a learning disability?”
Are they friends? Does Vincent do that? Does he have a learning disability? “Yeah, who says that?” I ask. They ignore me.
“That's another possibility, but not any parasite I know of could manage it. I'm looking into it further. I hear you're deep cover at Shin Ra right now, Cloud?” I nod. “As long as you can keep working, keep working. Keep up a normal routine; anything to convince your body that it still has a job.”
I tilt my head. “You don't buy into homeopathy, do you?”
“No,” she says, “but carrying Jenova's cells has been correlated with some very interesting psychosomatic complications. If you notice yourself harboring uncharacteristic thought processes or taking actions you can't explain, or if you start experiencing memory loss, tell me immediately.”
That's part of the standard run down newly modified Soldiers get. Not that I should know. I think Zack may have told me, once upon a time. “Okay.” I stand up. I feel like I mainlined ten or so donuts, ran a marathon, and then donated blood.
“I'm going to work on a drug cocktail for you. I'll let you know when I've got news.”
“We should go have a talk with Veld,” Vincent says.
As we walk, I say, “Whatever I'm sick with – it's probably the reason I got shot down so easy the other day.”
Vincent nods. “It might be, but I'm not convinced. Have you eaten or drank anything Rufus gave you?”
“I don't think Rufus would use anything as low-profile as poison or a virus. He's a bigger dick than that. He could shove you off the roof of Shin Ra Tower, but he'd rather convince you to jump off yourself, you know? More fun for him to watch that way.”
That makes Vincent quirk a corner of his mouth up very subtly. “Maybe, but answer my question.”
“No, I haven't eaten or drank anything that came from Shin Ra. He offered me a glass of wine at one point but I didn't touch it.”
When we get to Veld's office, Vincent walks straight in and sits down without even knocking. They must be pretty familiar. “Strife,” Veld greets. “How do you feel?”
“Not great, not awful.”
“I see. So, Shin Ra's hired you.”
“Yep. I'm a bodyguard.”
Veld smirks. “Don't be ridiculous, Rufus wouldn't trust you. You're an errand boy.”
“It says 'bodyguard' on my ID badge, but considering the first thing he did was send me off on an errand – yeah, that fits the bill. And I'm advertising.”
“It's a step up from bike courier,” Vincent says.
“Since you seem to be the man with all the answers,” I say to Veld, ignoring Vincent, “any guesses what Rufus is busy tricking me into, or cheating me out of?”
He chuckles. “Nothing. He's buying something from you; at least he'll see it that way. He doesn't trick or cheat people. That would be an admission of weakness. He loves holding a monopoly – it means people have to come to him already willing to give something up. You went to him for information. Did you get any?”
I get the feeling Veld thinks too much. “Not much. He said something bad is going to happen. That's about all.”
Veld sighs and he and Vincent share a glance, which is probably Turk for damn rookies. “I take it back, then, he must have tricked you into working for him.”
“He offered me resources,” I say, resisting the strong urge to roll my eyes. Veld might be thinking, 'is that all?' but at least he doesn't say it. “Since I couldn't get information from Rufus, I was hoping you'd have some for me.”
“I have an interesting dead end for you.”
Veld smiles at that. It's like you'd expect from him: sharp and calculated, but not mocking. “We managed to ID the corpse you sent in. She was WRO infantry.”
“What?” I say and swing my head around to look at Vincent, who's been swearing this entire time that the WRO couldn't be the ones giving us problems.
Veld pulls something up on his computer and pushes it around to face me. It's the WRO's file on the dead girl, but it's empty except for a picture and ID number. “If her file would have been deleted entirely, our numbers would have reflected it and someone may have taken the time to investigate, being that she's military and we're technically in peace time. So instead, any useful information was wiped from our record leaving behind a meaningless number and picture.”
“Would she still have building access with just that intact?”
“Yes,” Veld says, deadpan. “Security's records show that she was in and out for weeks after her file was altered.”
“Have you checked for any other altered files?”
“Yes.” He sighs.
I wait a beat, but he's silent. “How many?” I ask.
“All of them.”
I wish I had someone to share a glance with right now. It just seems appropriate. “I'm no expert, but that sounds a little like an inside job.”
Veld leans forwards and rests his elbows on his desk. “This organization is very close to total meltdown. And when it finally dissolves – as I'm sure it will –”
“War, chaos, horror. I know. I've heard this speech already.”
Vincent eyes me. “With the part about a total meltdown?”
“No, Rufus left that part out in his version.” Veld looks like he wants to scold us for getting off track. “Sorry, Chief,” I say. If there's one thing being a military grunt completely inoculates you to, it's angry superiors. “What's our plan?”
“If we were having this conversation twenty years ago, I'd say we should regroup to Midgar and wait until we have a lead, but we don't have that luxury.”
“How small is your department, really?” I know I'm completely off topic again, but it's just finally striking me that it can't possibly be only Veld and Vincent. Veld isn't giving anything away, though, so I go on. “Look, it doesn't matter to me, but regrouping might not be a bad idea if what you and Rufus have both told me about the end being nigh is true.”
Veld must be pretty old, but he doesn't give that impression – except for when he leans back and rubs his temples, letting his exhaustion show, like he's doing now. “Things aren't to that point yet. We may still be able to avert this.”
“How? To me, it looks like we need to let people duke it out and decide who's in charge the hard way.”
“Really. Let infrastructure destroy itself, let shipping and transportation stop, let hospitals turn into barracks. You have no idea how far people are willing to go, Strife.”
“No, I think I do. I've read more military history than you have, I guarantee it, and I think we're already past the tipping point. The only thing that's gonna get everyone to sit down, shut up and go back to business is if one person proves that they're holding bigger guns than everyone else. A while back, that was Soldier, of course. Soldier doesn't exist anymore.”
Vincent's mind wanders back into the room and he speaks up. “But Soldiers themselves do. Doubtless most of them have become mercenaries or gone into hiding, being as the world isn't a hospitable place for them since Sephiroth. If we could gather them –”
“You can't,” I say, “unless the pissing contest between Soldiers and Turks has been resolved, somehow?” I get a blank stare from Veld, and take it as a 'no.' “I might be able to get a couple peoples' attention, but if I need to be trying to get on Rufus' good side there's no way I can throw together a Soldier militia without him knowing. Probably, there's no way I can do it without him taking over the entire operation.”
“Which might not be a bad thing,” Veld says. “Rufus can be brilliantly persuasive. He could lead them. Stabilize things long enough for an effective government to form.”
“But what would stop him from becoming the government again if he were in that position?” I ask.
“I will,” Veld says.
“I'd really like to trust you on that, but last time you tangled with Shin Ra, you didn't even get a graceful exit from the company out of the deal.”
“You are not familiar with my history, Strife.”
“Then start talking about it or about how you're gonna do things differently this time, otherwise we're scrapping this plan.”
“Shin Ra destroyed my family. Rufus used my daughter to form Avalanche and discarded her afterward, offering no warning about the many people the group had inadvertently angered and no protection from them. They killed her.” He pauses. “I have done nothing but plan for Shin Ra's destruction since that moment.”
“So when the time comes, you pull the plug and that's it?” I ask, shaking my head. “Whatever you say. But I watched the end of the world come and go, and now I'm watching Shin Ra rebuild like it was a bump in the stock market. It won't go down easily.”
“Do you think they could handle such a catastrophe a second time?”
“What, do you have Sephiroth in a desk drawer or something?” Veld just gives me his deadpan stare again.
“Cloud,” Vincent says, “do you have a better plan?”
“Than Sephiroth in a desk drawer? Hell no, I don't. Break him out, let's beat the world back into shape.” No one laughs. Tough crowd. “This is a bad idea,” I say.
“But it's better than all-out war,” Vincent says.
I shrug. “It's tough to know that for sure. All the rumors we hear might be nothing but people talking.”
Veld crosses his arms. “We can't bet on that.”
“But we can bet on you?”
“I certainly would.”
I let it go. I'm sick of arguing. “Did you take any records from Shin Ra when you left? Any sort of starting point for me to go looking for lost Soldiers?”
“When I left, I wasn't concerned with Soldier and I didn't have time to take much. If I were you I'd get your boss on board and ask him to help you track them down. He's supposed to be the one doling out resources, after all.” Veld stands, checking his watch. “I have a meeting.”
I follow Vincent out into the hall. “Are Tifa and the kids staying here?”
“For now,” he says.
“I'm gonna go back to the bar and clean up. I think Tifa would want to come along.”
He nods. “You can leave Marlene and Denzel here.”
“Is there someone to watch them?”
“Cait Sith does alright. Truly.”
“I don't think I can process that. You let a talking cat robot take care of children?”
“Not me.” We come to the elevators and wait. “It was Tifa's idea.”
“Has she been busy or something?”
“Ask her yourself.” When we step into the elevator, I punch the button for the lobby and Vincent raises an eyebrow. “I could use a cigarette,” I say. “I feel awful.”
“What happened to being a late-stage cancer patient?”
“I'd rather try to convince my body that everything is normal,” I say as we walk outside. Vincent shrugs. Sometimes, it's hard to tell if he gives a damn about you or not, even if he has taken bullets for you and saved your life a few times. People might think the same thing about me, though. I guess the two of us just aren't great at the whole human interaction thing.
I take a long drag off the cigarette Vincent gives me and stare at the darkening sky. It still makes me feel oddly empty, knowing that there was a time I went for five years without seeing it. As a kid, staring at the sky was the only thing that made me feel like I wasn't so trapped in that tiny village. “I feel like I've been asleep for days,” I sigh.
“Three days,” Vincent confirms.
“What? When were you going to tell me that?”
“When you asked.”
I laugh helplessly. “Someday I will learn to communicate with Turks.”
“Better make it soon, if that was your uniform that got unloaded from the helicopter you came here in.”
I nod. “Bet the uniforms were different when you had one.”
“They were awful,” he says with a hint of humor. “It was this ridiculous navy blue number with a huge zipper rather than buttons. And the pants belled slightly.”
“Wow, that's weirder than a leather bodysuit, Batman.”
“It was. I'm glad they've redone them.” He breathes out a stream of smoke. “I'm also glad Rufus let go of that white five-piece he used to wear.”
Chuckling, I tap the ash off my cigarette. “I'd think you'd be entertained.”
“Not at all.”
“Wonder why he started wearing that thing in the first place. Maybe he really loves Motown?”
If Vincent was more expressive he'd be grinning, I can tell. “No, it's more that he really hates doctors. Three guesses why.”
“No thanks, I don't want to feel any camaraderie towards him.” Vincent twitches one shoulder. “So if he's iatrophobic, why wear something that looks so much like a lab coat?”
“To beat it out of himself. And to take advantage of the same fear in others.”
“Do you and Veld both do this? Try to boil people down to their motivations all the time?”
Vincent finishes off his cigarette and grinds it out under his heel. “Just Veld. He's got folders an inch thick on everyone he's ever done business with.”
“Has he got one on you?”
“Yes. And on you. Would you like to see it?”
“No, I don't want to know what's in there.” I take one last puff off my cigarette and toss it on the ground.
“Feel better?” Vincent asks.
He takes me to the military compound where Tifa and the kids have been given temporary living quarters, and goes back to his office. No sooner am I in the door than Marlene and Denzel have pounced on me for a hug. “God, it's good to see you guys.” I ruffle their hair when they let go. Marlene puts up with it, but Denzel shakes his head and swats my hand away. “Aw, what? Too old for me now?” He doesn't answer, just laughs and drags me by the hand over to the room's desk where there's a soldering iron and... Something. Something that looks like it's being built out of computer guts. Tifa watches all this smiling silently.
“Reeve's teaching me to build robots,” Denzel explains, pulling more of his work out of the desk's drawers.
“Robots? Why do you wanna build those?”
He shrugs. “Because they're awesome. I fixed a security robot yesterday. You know, one of the ones that'll electrocute you?”
Oh god, I hate those ones. “If I chopped it in half could you still fix it?”
The kid grins. “You bet I could. Go ahead, break one!”
“I think that would make uncle Reeve mad,” Marlene says.
I bend down and look her. “And what about you, princess? What have you been up to?”
Denzel sighs dramatically. “All she does is read and talk to the officers.”
“She does?” My head whips around to look at Denzel, then back to Marlene. “You do? About what?” She's pulling some sort of shy little girl routine, smiling and ducking her head like she built a bomb and isn't sure if I'll be proud of her or not. “Oh come on, tell me. Or I'll break a security robot and uncle Reeve'll get mad.”
“You're trouble,” Marlene giggles.
Okay, that does it. I pick her up and toss her in the air, then hold her upside down under one arm while I catch Denzel in the other. “Trouble first class!” They scream and giggle harder when I spin them around. “What have you been doing? I won't stop until you talk!” Tifa's laughing at the display too, at this point. Marlene kicks and struggles and pelts me with her tiny fairy fists. “Urgh, no, you got me,” I groan and fake crumpling over in injury. “Help me Tifa, I can't take them...”
I roll onto my back and go limp. “We win!” Denzel cheers. After I don't move for a minute, they sit on me. I love these kids.
I crack open an eye. “Will you tell me now?” It's not happening.
Tifa walks over and sits on the floor next to us. “Our little princes is a complete military nut. You should see her drill the regulars.”
My jaw hangs open. “Really?” I'm so proud of her it just might do permanent damage to my health. “That's great, both of you. High fives, come on.” I loop an arm around each of them and sit up. “So, who wants to go help me clean something?” Like that, they're fighting for all they're worth to get away. “Did I hear both of you say yes? Great! Tifa, are you in?”
“Nooooooooo!” Marlene and Denzel both scream.
I let them go and they both climb on top of the bunk bed in the corner. “But aren't we on a team?” I pout.
They look at each other, considering what to say carefully. “We're both taking a day off from the team,” Denzel says.
I mock wiping my eyes. “I guess Tifa and I will take care of it on our own. Say hi to uncle Reeve for me.”
Suddenly they hop down from the bunk and I'm a jungle gym again. “You'll come back afterward, right?” Denzel asks, resting his chin on my head where he's looped his arms around my neck from behind me. Marlene's hugging one of my arms. It breaks my heart every time they do this, I swear.
“I'll do my best. Really I will. But there's a lot I have to take care of right now.”
“We know,” Marlene nods. “All the soldiers talk about it. There's gonna be a war.”
“There might not be,” I say. “I'm trying to make sure it doesn't come to that.” They let me go and I stand up. “Tifa and I are gonna go have a talk, okay? I'll come back and say goodbye before we go.”
“Going to clean something up?” She asks when we're outside the door. We stroll towards the main building, where I walked here from.
“Yeah. You haven't been back to the bar, have you?”
“Oh, that,” she says, shaking her head. “I just sort of put it out of mind. I guess we should go do something about it.”
I nod. “At least you sold the place before it really went downhill, right?”
Tifa smiles, then sobers. “Where have you been, Cloud? What's going on?”
“I'm not gonna explain it to you just yet, because when I do, you'll disown me.”
“Yeah, pretty sure. If you want, ask Vincent. It's at least partially his fault.”
“Just don't get killed.”
“What does that mean?”
“Look...” I cross my arms and lean on a railing, looking down at the silent lobby below us. Most of the workers have gone home for the day. “Do you trust Rufus, Tifa?”
“I'm not sure.”
“He offered to let you and the kids live in Shin Ra Tower until everything quiets down again.”
“There's a place to live in Shin Ra Tower?”
I half-smile. “Yeah, there are apartments for the Turks and the President.”
“That's so weird.”
“It is, isn't it?” She leans against the railing next to me and I loop an arm over her shoulders. If the rare affectionate gesture startles her, she doesn't show it. “I'm sorry, Tif.” I gesture vaguely with my other hand. “For... all of this bullshit.”
“Shut up, Cloud. Stop apologizing. Not a single thing that's happened has been your fault.” She turns to look at me. “Are things really gonna get that bad? That we need to stay somewhere guarded?”
“One thing at a time. Let's get some rest, and we can leave for Kalm in the morning.”
“We need to leave tonight. I'm really sorry. I've been here too long already.”
She looks like she wants to ask questions, and I'm obscenely grateful when she doesn't. “Okay. I'll pack.”
“I need to make some calls and check in with Vincent, then I'll come get you, okay?”
When she's down the hallway and out of earshot, I dial the number pre-programmed into the phone I got from Shin Ra for Rufus' office. Predictably, Monique answers. It's late, and Eastporte is five hours ahead of this time zone, but I guess she's still working.
“Strife. We thought something had happened to you.”
“I need to pitch an idea to Rufus.”
“I'll let him know you want to talk.”
I don't have to hold for long. “So you're alive,” Rufus greets. “I'd heard you were unconscious when you got to the WRO. Are you alright?”
“Good enough for now. I'll let you know if that changes.”
“Do,” he says. “So, your report, then?”
Oh, right, that. I have to remind myself I signed up for this, then grit my teeth and act like I wanted to. “Sir, the details I have on the matter you sent me to investigate are incomplete at best. I'd like to talk about something else.”
“Then by all means. It's not like you work for me, or anything.”
I grit my teeth harder. “Point taken.” For a second I wonder how much I should say, then decide that if Veld thinks he can take care of Rufus I shouldn't have to worry about it at all. “The girl who broke into the Seventh Heaven was WRO infantry. Her file was wiped weeks before she paid us a visit, and security's logs show her staying on active duty for a while after the data was altered.”
“Were any other files wiped?”
“That's the good part. All of them were. According to security the WRO is close to a complete meltdown.”
“Yes, I would imagine it is. Unfortunate. Anything else?”
“That's all I have for now.”
“To the other topic you wanted to bring up, then.”
“When the WRO fails –”
“Are you sure it will?”
“Aren't you?” Rufus is silent. I go on. “There won't be anything keeping anyone that wants to try to take over countries or the world from doing just that. Unless someone is still holding bigger guns than anyone else.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Do you have records of where the remaining Soldiers are?”
“Stop, Strife. Not another word.” There's a heavy pause. “I will not gather military power to myself. Doing so would destroy everything I've worked for in recent years. All the trust I've gained and every bit of credibility I've established would be lost.”
“The matter is already decided. I don't doubt that there is a conflict coming. You should not doubt that I can and will handle it by my own methods.”
“You hired me to protect you. You've got to let me do that.”
“I didn't hire you to amass an army and resurrect the Shin Ra of old. I am not my father, and this is not his company. His mistakes will not be repeated.”
The thought of bringing back Shin Ra as it used to be hits me like a bucket of cold water. At least I know I struck a nerve with Rufus, and can use it if I have to. “No, you're not your father, Sir. You could handle a fighting force different than he did.”
“And you aren't a businessman or a politician. You don't know what you're talking about or what you're suggesting I sacrifice for a show of brute strength that may, in fact, have the opposite effect than convincing those willing to fight to lay down their arms. It may be viewed as a challenge and tip the situation toward violence, did you consider that?”
“Sir, at least think about it.”
“No. To your duties, Strife. Time is short.” He hangs up.
That went well. I'm done negotiating for the day. I'll tell Vincent or Veld that he didn't like our idea when they get in contact with me next.
“You ready to go?” I ask, opening the door to Tifa and the kids' room.
“Yeah,” Tifa says, her back to me, zipping a bag shut. “I asked Reeve if we could borrow a truck.”
“Mhmm, we're good to go.” She puts her hands on her hips and stares at Marlene and Denzel. “Are you two gonna be good?”
They nod solemnly. I can't take it, so I scoop them up and hug them as hard as I dare, which isn't very hard, since crushing a kid would sort of ruin my night. “Don't be good. Have fun. Build robots and take over the whole army. I love you guys.” They both burst into tears and try to warble out goodbyes. Tifa comes around behind them and sandwiches them between us in a group hug, which makes them cry harder.
“I called down to the mess hall and told them you could have ice cream,” she says, and magically, the crying gives way to sniffles. Tifa winks at me.
I kiss both their foreheads and set them down. “We shouldn't be gone long. Hold down the fort for us, okay?” I smile and give them a salute before I shut the door behind me.
No need to wonder if this story is actually taking place before Dirge due to Shalua's presence, it's definitely afterward. If I remember right, she was in a coma by the end of the game. This story just assumes she came out of it.
Also let me be totally un-classy by outright asking you to review. Feedback is great. Please do share your thoughts.
Chapter 6: Cue Apocalypse
Please don't skip the notes! These are the Important Kind. Specifically, the kind where I beg to be pardoned for the awful things I've done. Ehem. Okay, here we go:
I am a horrible person. Just accept that before we move on, because I don't want to give away what I'm about to do, but I don't want it to hit you like a ton of bricks either. If you thought the last chapter was sweet and wonderful and hope you're gonna see more things like that in my writing, do not read this chapter. It will make you want to kill me. Why am I worried about this, you ask? Well I don't know, maybe you have a knife. And you might say, 'So what? You're a hundred miles away.' Right. How do I know your knife isn't 101 miles long? You do belong to a fandom full of huge bladed weapons. I wouldn't put it past you.
So, let's avoid bodily harm. Thank you. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.
Tifa lets me know I look like I'm about to pass out, and offers to drive. I do feel like I'm about to pass out, though I'm trying not to worry about it too much. I want to tell myself it's just a cold and I'll get over it. There is, of course, the curaga in my bracer that I haven't tried out yet, but if you're modified and sick you can never be sure how all the fun chemical components of your system are going to react with things. I tried using a cure materia when I had Geostigma. It nearly killed me.
When we get to Kalm, it's early morning, and it feels like deja vu. I stare at the train station as we pass and wait for the same feeling of dread I had last time I was here, but it doesn't come. Maybe that's a good sign.
The bar is dark and quiet, and surprisingly cold. I shock myself by not wanting to go inside. Wasn't this home? If it was, it's not anymore. It feels like a mausoleum.
Most places, if they'd sat empty, would have been raided clean but Tifa's got a reputation as quite the enforcer so the bar hasn't been touched. I guess most people know that I live here too, though honestly, I think your average low life is more afraid of Tifa than they are afraid of me.
“Where do we start?” I ask.
“Coffee,” Tifa says, going through the deeply-ingrained motions of brewing a pot. “Are you going to live with me and the kids? I mean...”
Tifa doesn't know what I've been up to, but she's trying to piece it together, and she's on the right track. “I'll be there as often as I can, wherever you decide to go.”
“God damn it Cloud, just tell me what's going on,” she whirls on me, eyes bright and angry.
I know I look shit scared because I am. I don't deal well with precarious emotional situations. I'd rather fight some clawed abomination with my hands tied behind my back. “I'm working for Vincent right now. And for Shin Ra.” Oh god, why did I say that?
“For Shin Ra. Why?”
“Because as much as I hate it, we need them. Everyone, I mean.” I don't know how to explain. I should, but I can't get the words out. I'm stressed enough by Tifa both being angry at me and demanding answers that I don't register what the buzzing in the back of my head is until I hear something moving by the back door, the way we'd come in.
Primordial warning blaring in my mind, I push her behind me with one arm and turn towards the hall that leads towards the bar. There's a shuffling, scuffing sound, then a dull clunk like someone ran into something. Eventually, the person responsible staggers into view. I sigh, relieved, and almost laugh at myself – it's just some kid. He's scarecrow skinny and dead-eyed, probably drugged out of his mind. Just the kind of thing that would lead one to wander in to an unfamiliar place at five or six in the morning and then wonder how they got there. He shambles up to a bar stool and sits down.
This kid smells awful. We may as well be back in a Midgar slum; he's just the sort of addict that would fit in there. His skin is gaunt, his hands are gnarled as crow's feet, and his eyes are black and sunken. What the hell is he on?
“Hey!” Tifa says, pushing past me and stepping around the bar so it's between her and the kid. “I'm talking to you!”
He doesn't look up at either exclamation. I edge around behind him, ready to drag him out by his shoulders if he tries anything.
“We're closed! You've gotta get out.”
That got through. Slowly he raises his head and stands, looking at Tifa like he's trying to remember how to do something. And then, he lunges at her, arms outstretched and upper body thrown over the bar. Sometimes junkies will do crazy things like that, so I was ready for it. I take him by the shoulders and haul him backwards.
Most people, when they get caught by someone stronger than themselves, try to get away. Not this guy. He spins towards me, grabs handfuls of my shirt like he wants to pull me towards himself and opens his mouth. It makes the stench coming off him ten times worse. I get a hand around his neck and hold him there, just staring – the entire inside of his mouth is completely black. His tongue's bitten nearly in two, hanging between his snapping jaws.
I twist around and throw him. He sails the length of the room, hits the wall, and leaves a pretty nice dent. It's good to know I can still do unreasonable amounts of harm to my fellow man. With this cold I've got, I was worried I'd get too weak for it.
“Whoah,” Tifa says, still standing in the same place. “What the hell was that?” Some sort of black gunk is caked onto my hand where I touched him. I go around the bar and start washing it off. Tifa is still staring at the guy on the floor, who probably won't be getting back up. In this case, I think I did him a favor.
I shake my head, having no idea what to say. I also can't explain the sense of panic that's still swimming through my veins in a merry circuit, wreaking havoc on my ability to reason. When I look up at Tifa, I get the sense that she's just as freaked out. “Cloud?” She says, and it's so unlike her to be this unsure that it scares me more. Whatever my instincts know that I don't, I'd really appreciate being let in on the secret. “I think we should leave,” she says, voice shaking, eyes trained on the dead junkie. I look over at him to figure out why she's still staring.
It's because he's standing up. My stomach does a little twirl – maybe I've actually gotten as weak as I've been feeling – before I really look at him and read the wrongness in his stance. From the navel down he seems basically fine, but the top of him is on at a funny angle. His back would have to be broken for that. He starts shuffling toward us again, and if a broken back hurts, he's not showing it.
This time I let instinct take over and go for a bar stool, gripping it by the seat. I take a step towards the shambler and swing it as hard as I can, catching him on the upstroke, then bring it back down and hear a wet pop when it connects with the top of his head. I drop the stool. It takes me a second to decide to do it, but I step onto his skinny chest, put the heel of my boot on the side of his chin that's turned towards the ceiling, and force it down hard. Just to make sure his neck really did break, I use my toe to turn his head the other way and repeat the process on the other side.
Turns out I shouldn't have done it. His entire cheek slides off in a slimy, soft mess. “Oh shit... Gross.” Tifa laughs at me, and I can't help smiling while I scrub the sole of my boot over the floor, trying to get the gunk off. “Well,” I say, and look at her – and the words die in my throat.
They're behind her. They came in through the back door, like the one I just killed did, and they look just like him. Tifa reads the look on my face correctly and turns around ready to confront what snuck up on her, just as one dives for her – mouth open.
She screams, whether from fear or pain or the fact that getting bitten is really fucking creepy, I'm not sure. The sound is like a starting gun. It sends the rest of them – and there are a lot, twenty, maybe thirty – into a frenzy. They surge at us, trying to claw past each other, some of them going down under the tide of bodies.
We can't leave through the front, and we both know it because we're both pretty good tacticians. Our only means of transportation is behind them. We have to get through them.
Tifa's already working on that, punching and kicking her way forwards. The problem is that when one gets knocked aside, another takes its place right away, and the ones that should be backing off, too wounded to continue, aren't. Normal people would call it quits just from the pain of being hit as hard as Tifa does. These people don't even react.
I wish I'd armed myself with anything I'd been given at Shin Ra besides the bracer I'm wearing, which I wish I'd equipped with something more than a curaga. I have materia upstairs, but I don't think I should take the time to get to them. It's finally dawning on me, what instinct has been trying to say: run.
Tifa's bleeding pretty bad. She's also tiring out. I take one of her arms and pull her back from the crowd, kick one of the dead-eyed freaks in the ribs so it stumbles, then haul it into a two-armed grip and toss it at the rest of them to see if I can knock them down. It works better than anything we've tried. When they get knocked over, it seems to confuse them, and it takes them a moment to get back up.
It's still like trying to herd termites, though, and even though I'm dealing with the bulk of them, one by one they're slipping around us to close in from behind. It's not smart, but we're desperate: the staircase is closer than the back door, so we shoulder through a couple of them and make a break up it. They run after us.
We get into my room and lock the door, then push my dresser in front of it. I wish we had something heavier but it'll have to do. Instantly I'm aware that the room should feel warmer and more still than it does, and my brain connects the dots to conclude that the window is open just as Tifa pulls the curtain back from it, probably alarmed because I never close the curtain. It's been broken, and all my materia is gone. I was wrong – it's not that the bar's been left alone, it's just that so far, only the valuables have been taken.
We can hear the crowd outside the door. The floor creaks every few seconds, like they're shifting around, and though they don't seem to have figured out how the door works yet (no one's tried the handle), I'm sure they will. And I'm sure they'll try to get through it. It's not a heavy door and the lock is a cheap thumb-turn number, more formality than actual security. We don't have long.
I'm about to suggest we climb out the window when Tifa grimaces and stumbles forwards. Not quite able to stop the motion, she goes to one knee, then onto her hands. Vomit splashes out of her mouth. “Oh Gaia, Tif...” I trail off and kneel down next to her, focusing my energy into the curaga so I can help her out – but even though her bite wound closes, it doesn't seem to do anything for her. I try it again, then a third time. Nothing. When I set a hand on her shoulder, she shoves me away.
“Don't touch me!” she screams. She looks fevered.
“Tifa,” I try, but she cuts me off.
“Stay the hell away!”
She's delirious. The commotion in the hall is getting louder, and the wood of the door frame is starting to groan like they're pressing against it. I'm out of options. I hit Tifa over the back of the head hard enough that she's knocked out, kick the rest of the glass out of the window, pick her up, and jump through it.
We were only two stories up, but I can't roll with the landing since I'm holding onto someone. If I wasn't modified I'd probably have broken some bones.
I stagger after I hit the ground, but force my numb legs to work, taking off down the street. If only we'd been in a room with a window that faced the alley, where we'd parked the truck. I don't know where I'm going, and I don't check to see if anyone's following. I take a couple random turns in case anyone is following us, hoping that it'll shake them off our trail. I'm fast enough that it probably will.
I should be able to go a long way before I'm out of breath, but whatever I'm sick with begs to differ. I pick a door and throw my weight into it a couple times before it pops open. It was someone's home at some point, but it looks like they haven't been here in a while. Deserted places aren't too uncommon these days, with the upset society seems to be experiencing no matter where you go. Whoever lived here, it looks like they cleared out a long time ago.
Dust escapes the sofa I lay Tifa down onto. I shut the door and start piling furniture in front of it, since I ruined the lock to get in here. It's lucky that it opens inwards, otherwise there wouldn't be much hope in keeping it closed. Then I turn around and wonder what to do next.
A quick search of the place reveals that there are no other exits to worry about. It's a tiny, shitty apartment. There's only one window, in the bathroom, and it's not big enough to fit a person through. In this situation – that is a really, really good thing. ...Unless the front door gets breached. In that case it's about the worst news possible.
No one at the WRO answers when I try calling, so I try Shin Ra next. “Yes, Mr. Strife?” Monique answers.
“I need emergency transport,” I say.
“There's an entry in your phone's address book labeled CP – this stands for closest proximity, and will connect you with whichever Turk is nearest you. If that doesn't help you, call me back.”
I hang up and do as she says. “Yo,” someone greets on the other end of the line.
Shit. It's Reno. “This is Cloud. Tifa and I were attacked and she's hurt. We got separated from our transport and we need to get to a hospital fast,” I explain.
“What are you, in hostile territory or something?”
“Yes! Look, I'll give you details when we have time for it, okay?”
“Where are you?” Reno asks, suddenly all business. I didn't know that was in his repertoire.
“Okay. I can be there inside of an hour, but not by much. You're gonna have to hold out on your own for a while.” He talks me through how to use my phone to send my exact location to him, then hangs up. There's nothing to do but wait.
After about ten minutes of absolute silence and no movement I can see from the door's peep hole, I start to feel silly. I don't know how many of the things that attacked us there are but for now it doesn't seem like there are any more. Still, it's weird – I should have seen traffic on the street by now, or heard other people through the building's walls. But there's no one here.
If something had happened that caused everyone to flee – something like the people that attacked Tifa and I – wouldn't we have heard about it? Wouldn't someone have reported... But that's just it. There are no authorities to talk to anymore, no police to call, no government or military to step in. And with the WRO in disarray, even if there were reports of something wrong in Kalm, maybe no one did anything about it.
That still doesn't add up, though. Communications are certainly running fine. News teams are as hungry and prevalent as they ever were – I saw proof of that just the other day. The only thing that seems possible is that someone, or maybe a team of people, stepped in and did a lot of work to keep this quiet, whatever's going on.
Tifa stirs slightly on the sofa, moaning. She looks horrible. What's worse is that I think she probably caught her sickness from me. It makes sense – just like with me, a wound that shouldn't have slowed her down did a huge amount of damage. Just like with me, shortly after, she got worse. Except she's progressing way faster than I did and it's having more of an effect on her because she's not modified.
Oh god. I killed her. It's my fault.
My blood turns leaden and I can't move, I can't stand. I sink to the floor and I'm not sure how long I stay there.
Eventually I hear helicopter blades. Stiffly I stand up and start clearing the barricade away from the door. When I pick Tifa up to take her outside she feels wrong, too heavy and too cold, but I can't process. I walk towards the helicopter.
Reno looks at the pair of us and his eyes go wide. He tears off his head set and powers down the engine, then gets out. “Is she sick, Strife?”
I look down at her ashen face, uncomprehending.
“Okay,” Reno says quietly. “Cloud. Why's she all bloody?”
“She got bitten.” I know that makes no sense, so I laugh helplessly.
Reno reaches into his jacket and takes out a gun. I don't understand what he's doing. I feel drugged and dizzy, and can't seem to connect thoughts. “I'm going to take her pulse, okay, Cloud?”
I stare at him as he edges up to us very carefully, and sets his fingers lightly on Tifa's neck. He steps back. Out of the corners of my vision, I see people gathering at the ends of the street. They move like the ones that came into the bar, lurching and stumbling.
“Put Tifa in the back of the helicopter, then get in, alright?”
I do as I'm told. As soon as I strap in and put a headset on, Reno raises the hand he's holding his gun in to draw my attention to it – and snaps his EMR out with his other hand to trap me in a pyramid. I'm stunned into silence and helpless to do anything as he shoves Tifa out of the helicopter, then gets in and takes off.
“She was dead, Cloud,” Reno says.
I can't find my voice. I want to scream at him, I want to tell him I'm going to kill him. Anything to drown out the litany in my head: I killed her. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her.
“No, you didn't.”
Was I speaking out loud? I must have been.
“How could you have killed her?”
“I'm sick,” I choke out.
“Doesn't mean you killed her.”
I can't tell if I'm laughing or sobbing. I nearly tell Reno that I have to get to the WRO to get the kids a hundred times, but every time I'm about to, I wonder what I'm going to tell them – how I'm going to explain – and stay silent. I can't face them.
By the time we touch down at Shin Ra headquarters, I'm in even worse of a daze. I can't remember anything. Reno asks me over and over to tell him what happened and where we just came from, but I can't. When he's satisfied that I really don't know, he shoots the pyramid he trapped me in to break it and takes me inside.
“Get some sleep, rookie,” he instructs as he ushers me into my apartment, shutting the door behind me.
Mechanically, I take a shower and change into clean clothes (someone bothered to stock the apartment with basic necessities), all the while only half-aware of what I'm doing. I drag myself to bed and drift off thinking of absolutely nothing.
When I wake up, I'm horribly aware of everything I'd been briefly repressing. I feel incredibly powerless, incredibly useless, and incredibly numb. I can't even grasp why I'd been angry at Reno when he left Tifa behind. She was dead. She is dead. “Tifa is dead,” I say out loud, to myself.
I drag myself up to sitting and stare out the huge windows in my bedroom, over the port below. The sun is setting. My phone rings and I reach for it, on autopilot. “Hello?”
“Strife?” It's Vincent. “You called earlier.”
I don't say anything.
“Hello?” Vincent says. “Strife? Can you hear me?”
“I can't talk right now,” I say in a voice I don't recognize.
“You sound... strange, Cloud. What happened?”
I breath in and out, focusing on the sound of it. “I'll tell you about it later,” I lie. I might never talk to him about it. How could I? What would I say?
“Did something happen? Are you hurt?” I don't respond. After ten seconds of silence he says, “I can't get in touch with Tifa.”
At her name I snap. I drop the phone, grip the edge of the mattress, and try to breathe around the knot in my throat. I lay back down and press the heels of my hands to my eyes, willing myself to go back to sleep. But sleep never comes, despite how drained I feel. I need a distraction.
It arrives in the form of a Turk with a bottle of whiskey. Reno doesn't knock and I'm not sure how he got in, but I don't care one way or the other. “Strife,” he says from my bedroom doorway, “come out here.”
“Didn't I kill you?” I ask as I walk out of the bedroom.
“No, but it's okay, I get that a lot.”
The whiskey's sitting on the table and Reno's in my kitchen, getting glasses. I know enough about liquor to know that bottle would have been really, really expensive. “Where'd you get that?” I say, pointing to the bottle when Reno comes out of the kitchen and sits down.
“Bribery is a beautiful thing,” he shrugs, and pours for both of us.
“...Why are you here?”
“Because I fuckin' know what it's like.” I don't have to ask what he means. “Now,” Reno holds up one finger, balancing his glass on the other three with his thumb wrapped around the side, “I know you're too modified for most chemicals to do anything to you. But you can still get drunk if you try hard enough. So, try.”
I drain my glass.
“Jesus fuck. Try slower. Save some for me, alright?”
I almost smile. I don't feel better, not by any stretch – my closest friend is dead, and I'm in my arch enemy's building drinking with one of his henchmen, so how could I? But at at least I'm not thinking quite so hard now. If I can keep putting things in my brain's way so it doesn't have time to catch up with me, I can keep functioning. I think. “What happens when we run out?” I ask, pouring another glass.
Reno lights a cigarette. “We raid Rufus' stash.”
“Not much,” Reno says. “Maybe you didn't notice, but he's sort of a tight ass. Thing is, he gets bribed –” he raises his eyebrows here “– a lot more often than I do.”
“That's gotta be horrible for you.”
“It sucks, man.”
I drain another glass.
“Okay, you know what? Next time we start with something cheaper.”
“Or whatever,” Reno says, which doesn't necessarily make sense but means just that – whatever. It's nice to he still doesn't give a flying fuck. Something in the world is right, at least.
Reno's halfway through his glass before he says anything else. “So you said something that caught my attention earlier. Said you were sick.”
I nod, and Reno looks at me like he wants more of an answer. “I'm not sure what it is. But a doctor at the WRO told me the effects are basically the same as if I'd been eating nothing but sugar and battery acid, had cancer, and got pregnant.”
“Congratulations. Name it after me?”
“So when are you due?”
“Probably right around the time everyone I know has caught this from me and died.”
“Well thanks for the warning.”
Reno sets down his glass and laughs. “You're suck a fuckhead, Strife. If someone's supposed to catch some sort of death disease from you and die within twelve hours, how come that didn't happen to anyone else you've been around in the last couple days?” I stare at the table. “It's a different virus.”
“What she got sick with. You said she got bitten, right? By one of those...” He waves his hand and makes a face. “By the infected. In Kalm?”
“Yeah...” I set down my glass too. “But infected with what? What happened to Kalm? It's been one week since I was living there, and everything was normal.”
He sighs. “It didn't just happen in Kalm.” Reno tops up his glass and takes another sip. “Where do you think we've been, hm? Me and the rest of the Turks?” He doesn't give me a chance to say anything. “This virus has been popping up all over the world, and we've been busier than shit putting it down. But things are getting out of hand.”
Maybe I shouldn't have tried to put anything in the way of my mind catching up. “But Tifa,” I start, and can't quite finish.
“Yeah?” Reno says, waiting on the rest of the sentence.
“How could she have died when the rest of the infected are still walking around?”
He sighs. “It's not really a virus. It acts like one, sure, but it's more like a parasite.” Reno looks like he's deciding whether or not I can handle what he wants to tell me. “Those things in Kalm weren't alive.”
“Bullshit they weren't alive. What the hell are you talking about?”
“Did you get in a fight with any of them?” I nod. “And what happened? No, let me guess. They were crazy, delirious, tried to scratch and bite, smelled awful, didn't react to pain... All that accurate? Did you manage to kill any of them?”
I shake my head one way and stop there, eyes unfocused, trying to put this all together. I feel like I've had a bottle broken over my head and all the shards of glass are still raining down around my face.
“You couldn't,” Reno goes on, “because they were already dead. I know that sounds impossible.”
“Those things can't be reanimated.” I lean forward and rest my elbows on the table, and my head in my hands, staring at the smooth surface. So you get infected, you die, and you come back because of a parasite animating the body. No matter how many times I let that thought run through my mind, it won't settle. I can't believe it. It's impossible, right?
“Well shit, then they must be dead but running around attacking people another way.”
I'd really like to throttle Reno for his untimely sarcasm, but I'm just not finding it in me. “How many places has this happened?”
Reno shrugs, looks up at the ceiling, then back to me. “Little villages all over. Kalm's the first major city it got to.”
“Does anyone know about this? How can –”
“No one knows about it.” I stare at him. “People would panic, and that would make things worse. If everyone starts running from city to city rather than staying put like most people do and another outbreak happens, imagine how fast it would spread. We'd never be able to stop it.”
I make a vague gesture. “Where does it come from? I mean, what causes these outbreaks?”
“We don't know.”
We stare at each other across the table. “So what happens to Kalm?”
“That's a tough question,” Reno says. “If it needs to stay quiet – and it does – just bombing the place is out.” He takes a deep, frustrated breath. “It's not that no one knows what happened, it's just that mostly no one knows all the details. There were survivors, people that fled Kalm, obviously, and rumors got started about that. So if we take a major action, quarantine the city or something like that, all the rumors have more solid backing and we're looking at the possibility of mass panic that way, too. But I think that's how it'll go. It'll get quarantined and someone will sell a cover story about the outbreak of some deadly virus completely different than the one that actually wiped most of the town out. I don't know, something old school. Tuberculosis. How about that?”
“Why isn't it quarantined already?” I'm shouting. If someone had done something sooner, Tifa would be alive. “What the fuck is the hold up?”
“You see an army anywhere around here, Strife? We can't do it. And the WRO's head is too far up its ass with the turf war between Root and Veld to even notice the problem.”
That's new. “What?”
Reno looks a little surprised. “You didn't know about that? Alexander Root?”
“No, I don't know anything about that,” I spit. “Who's he?”
He nods like he should have expected this from me. “Anderson Root's son.”
“Look, I don't know him, I don't know his history and I don't know his dad. Give me more than that.”
“Anderson Root invented Administrative Research. The popular story is that Veld did, but the truth is that he was just less of a sneaky shit about the work he did back then.”
“So why is his son working for the WRO and not Shin Ra?”
“It's a long story, Strife.”
“And I'm so fucking sick of playing catch up, I'm willing to listen to the whole thing.”
“Do you not get that no one trusts you? You're a loose cannon. You have no real affiliation.”
I try to get a handle on myself so I can actually negotiate out some answers this time. “Well I'm asking for one. I just lost my best and oldest friend because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't understand my position before, but I sure as fuck understand it now, okay?”
“Your position? What do you mean by that?”
I shake my head. “I mean, I thought I understood the state the world is in, and could handle it on my own, before. But I don't, and I can't. And I thought I could trust the WRO to function, and to do it honestly, but I don't think it can do that anymore.”
“You think you can trust Shin Ra?” I'm about to answer, but he holds up a hand. “Look, Rufus will sweet talk you but I won't. The question isn't can you, it's 'do you have to?' And that depends on what you want. So you tell me.”
When I don't answer him for a long time, he nods and stands up. “Okay. Think about it. I'll be around for a day or two, so when you've got an answer, come find me.”
“I'm not sure I'll be around for a day or two.”
“Yeah you will. I took you off active duty, rookie, being that you had a rough day.”
He shuts the door after himself as he leaves.
Chapter 7: A Little Camaraderie Never Hurt Anyone... Else
This chapter is dedicated to Licoriceallsorts and Ne_Si_Quis, who leave wonderfully encouraging reviews. Thanks guys, you're the best!
Also, um, I apologize if you encounter something weird like forty question marks somewhere in the story. The formatting has been eating itself lately. If you find another one of these errors please let me know and I'll fix it right away.
Having woken up around noon, I try to muster the will to get out of bed and do something. I can't tell if it's because I'm sick or because of what happened yesterday that my stomach is in a horrible knot. It feels like it's about to explode and blow me straight out my bedroom's carbon-reinforced windows. Kalm is the last thing I want to think on, but it's like anything horrifying – despite myself, I can't get my mind off it, or what Reno said about it. If it is starting to get out of hand, are more cities going to go the way Kalm did? How fast could that happen? I'd like to ask Rufus what he knows about it, but I'm starting to realize that he's fantastic at talking his way out of giving up information. Reno is a better bet.
As it turns out, though, it's way harder to get in touch with him. Frustrated, I decide to give it some time and distract myself with something menial like buying groceries. I'm nearly out of the building before I get a phone call. It's Rufus, and I don't feel like talking to him. I stare out of the lobby doors, then look at my phone, then repeat the process. Finally I answer. “See me in my office,” he says, and my military training forces a bitter 'yes sir' out of my mouth before I can stop it.
When I enter his office Rufus is standing behind his desk, arms crossed, staring at something on his computer screen. He waves me over without looking up. “Remember what I asked you to think on, when you first got here?”
I watch the image on the monitor for a couple seconds. It looks like the feed from a security camera in a warehouse someone set up a temporary lab in – what kind of lab I'm not sure, but it doesn't look equipped for test subjects. “Yeah, I remember. But I've got no answers for you. I have no idea what a WRO soldier would want to break into the Seventh Heaven for.”
“I think I do,” he says, and points to something on the screen. One of the lab workers is pipetting a clear solution into microcentrifuge tubes.
I raise my eyebrows at Rufus, then look back at the screen. “Looks like water.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know what he was getting at. “The water from Aeris' church?” I ask.
Rufus nods. “I believe so, but that's just conjecture. I was hoping you'd have the answer for me.”
“Sorry to disappoint. Maybe you can answer a question for me, though. Why not just get what they were after in Midgar, rather than breaking into the bar?”
“You're asking me if the infection has made its way there?”
I shake my head. “No games this time, huh?”
“You already know about it,” he says, entirely inexpressive, still watching the feed on his computer.
“You should have told me sooner.” My voice shakes. And here I'd thought I was finally managing to hold myself together.
“I'm sorry about Miss Lockhart –”
He stops speaking when I grab him by the lapels and force him backwards a step. “You're fucking sorry? You sent me to that goddamn city. You knew the infection was there and you ordered us into that mess!”
“First,” Rufus says very coldly, staring me down, “you were ordered to Kalm. It was your own decision to take Miss Lockhart along. Second, you carried out your orders four days after receiving them and had you done so sooner, you likely wouldn't have crossed paths with the infected. Finally: she is dead because you failed to protect her, not because I did.” I know what he's saying is bullshit, and he knows it, but I still believe it. “Let go of me, Strife.”
What would happen if I killed him? Who would kill me? Could anyone, or would anyone care enough to try?
“Strange, also, that you seem to think I have any knowledge of when and where this disease will strike,” he goes on. “I didn't know about the outbreak in Kalm.”
“Reno seemed to know.” I let him go. He doesn't straighten his suit, though I have no doubt that the wrinkles I left are driving him crazy. When I take one of the chairs on the other side of his desk to hide that I'm shaking – with anger, maybe with grief, I don't want to try to sort it out – he sits down too. It was probably a bad move on my part, because there's almost definitely a shotgun under that desk.
“Reno is the primary field agent in charge of operations to keep the disease contained. He would know, and in most cases, he knows first.”
“You don't keep track of things?”
“You have a lot of faith in me,” Rufus says with a shade of humor. “What do you think I do for a living, Strife?”
Torture the souls of the damned, I don't say.
“I'm a manager. I oversee projects, negotiate contracts, and distribute funds. That's it – and it doesn't seem like much, does it? But most days I'm scheduled down to the minute. As flippant as this will sound, I don't have time to worry about an epidemic.”
“Before, you said you were 'running crisis control.'”
“Ah. By that I meant that I was paying someone else to.”
If I was in a better mood I'd laugh. “You're a goddamn piece of work.”
Rufus rests his elbows on the armrests of his chair and laces his fingers together on top of his desk. “Work is what I'm here for.”
I narrow my eyes at him, then look away, out the office windows. “Sounds like you've got a hell of a life.”
“Well. To each their own. Now, I hear Reno's taken you off active duty, and normally I'd humor him, but I'm afraid I can't spare the staffing. And if I know you, Strife – who am I kidding? I don't, but I'm willing to gamble on what information I have – you need to be kept busy. It makes things easier for you. Am I right?”
“Sure.” I say it like whatever, because that's what I mean. “Rufus,” I lean forward and tap the top of his computer monitor with one finger, “where's that feed coming from?”
“For fear of you marching in and ruining a very carefully constructed surveillance op, I'm not going to tell you.” He takes a breath and goes straight back to where he was before I interrupted. “I'm putting you in charge of the WRO.”
“Did Reeve die?”
“It wouldn't matter if he did. He's a figurehead; you must have known that. But, that's not what I meant. I'm putting you in charge of the provisions we devote to the WRO. More specifically I'm giving you the authority to decide when those provisions cease to be supplied.”
“We need the WRO more than ever.”
“And yet,” he spreads his hands, “it's not helping us out. I'd say it's time to pull the plug, but I want a more thorough assessment beforehand, which will be up to you.”
“What besides money are you supplying them with?”
I tilt my head. “Is it in short supply, or something?”
“Would you like to know?” He seems inexplicably pleased. “Come here. Have a look.”
He's pulled up a report on his computer screen with a lot of very large numbers, and a lot of line graphs. The biggest number is at the bottom of the page. It takes me a moment to make sense of the form I'm looking at since it's full of financial terms, none of which I'm going to pretend I understand. “Holy shit. Is that what you owe?”
Why does he look like he's enjoying himself? “Mm. Yes.”
The number is nearly a trillion. It's making me feel literally, physically sick. ...Oh, that's why he's enjoying himself. “What was Shin Ra worth, before?”
“Given the nature of the industry we primarily operated in, that question is impossible to answer.”
“Market fluctuations. Currency value and commodity prices are both very fluid. The economy of the electric power industry is not a simple one.”
I have no idea why I'm angry at him. I should be laughing my ass off right now, overjoyed. “How could you let this happen?”
Rufus doesn't bother to stand, though I'm towering over him. “You have to spend money to make money, Strife.”
“That's not an investment,” I point at his computer screen, “that's the fucking hugest financial grave in the history of man.”
“We'll see, won't we?”
“What are you planning?”
“The theory behind it probably will not make sense if you're not a businessman. But, stick around long enough and you may get to see its realization.”
I shake my head. “I don't think you can pull this off. Whatever you're planning.”
“Like I said, we'll see. Worry about your own job.”
Walking back around his desk, I take a seat. “I'm never gonna be this frank with you again: you're sick. Something's wrong with you. From what I know, your whole life you've done nothing but play chicken with anything that would indulge you. Now you're seeing how thoroughly you can bankrupt your company?”
“I had no idea you cared.”
“You're such an asshole.”
“My god,” he's laughing slightly. “I wouldn't have thought you capable of causing it, but I'm utterly dumbfounded. Really. I don't know what to say to you.”
I'm amazed it took me this long to realize how self destructive Rufus is. “Is this your fucked-up attempt at atonement?”
“Then what the hell is your problem?”
“Ask me when you have the authority to ask.” He makes this prissy rich man hand flipping gesture at me. “Take the rest of the day off. Walk around the city, get some fresh air, pull yourself together. Then, get to work. I want your preliminary report by tomorrow evening, understood?” I nod, stare at him for another moment, then leave.
Maybe I should try taking his advice, but I'm starting to feel genuinely awful – so even though the last thing I want to do is see a doctor, I call ahead to let Shalua know I'm coming and schedule myself a flight to the WRO.
When I get there, Vincent asks, “Are you going to tell me what's going on? Or, should I run through what I've pieced together, and let you correct me where I'm wrong?”
“You're probably right.” I brush past him, and head towards the science department. He doesn't follow me. I wonder how much he has pieced together, but considering he mentioned that he couldn't get in touch with Tifa and she didn't come back with me, I'm sure he knows the basics.
“Any news, Doc?” I ask when I find Shalua.
She doesn't look up from her work. “Bad news, I'm afraid. Take a seat.”
“Too much to handle?”
I lose track of time staring at the piles of paper on the desk I'm resting one elbow on, as Kalm burns itself further into the back of my mind. My eyes pass over a hundred terms I don't know. They probably all have something to do with what's going on in my body right now, which is a little bit ironic if you think about it. Antiglobulin. Coronavirus. Glycosylation.
“Good reading?” Shalua asks, having been staring at me for I have no idea how long.
I glance at a few names in some of the open journals. “Any of these yours?”
“No, I'm not published.”
“Because the only interesting work I do is Shin Ra company confidential. If a journal were to carry anything to do with Jenova, mako, or anything else Shin Ra worked with they'd be ass deep in legal trouble.” She shrugs out of her lab coat and tosses it on the desk, dragging another chair over and dropping into it like she hasn't slept in days. “When Shin Ra had a functioning science department, that wasn't a big deal. But now there's no research being done on the things they did because there's no funding for it, because no one with pockets deep enough to support the research is willing to do it if it won't be publishable and profitable.”
“But there's not even a judicial system anymore.”
“People are still shit scared of Shin Ra,” She yawns.
Sighing, I say, “People like you?”
“Did you miss the part about funding? I do have to make budget reports, and if they include things the bureaucrats don't like, I'm out of a job and I'm in headlines as the corrupt doctor that continued Hojo's ghastly work. A lot of people would kill someone like that, if given the chance. So I do what I can – but that's not much. Only things I can cover up with other expenses.”
“Bureaucrats. I thought Reeve kept his thumb on those.”
“Sure. Middle-aged city planners have always run the corporatocracy.”
I laugh helplessly. “God, you're a ray of sunshine. Why the fuck does nothing work right?”
“Probably because a middle-aged city planner is trying to run the corporatocracy.” She picks up a file and hands it to me. “These are your lab results.”
“Care to translate?” I ask, flipping through the pages.
“You have an inordinately huge amount of Jenova cells in your system.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“No – I mean, a huge amount even for a Soldier First. Enough to kill you.”
I should say something to that, but I can't find the words.
“Any idea where they came from?” she asks, and I stare mutely. “The only documented case of a similar condition is that of a test subject Shin Ra's records refer to as 'Child A.' But the records are incomplete. All we know was that it was a male child with a sickness like yours.”
“...How'd he get sick?”
“He was given an undiluted dose of Jenova's cells. Are you familiar with what goes into Soldier treatments?” She doesn't wait for an answer this time. “Jenova, of course. Usually monoclonal cells of whichever strain is considered superior at the time. Mako, so Jenova's cells will use that rather than the body's own resources to replicate themselves. Lastly: a virus, one that kills off Jenova's cells, so they never get to the point of colonizing the body entirely. It all has to be kept in very careful balance, or the host will die.”
“How do you have access to Shin Ra's records?”
Shalua throws her hands up and rolls her eyes. “I think you're latching on to the wrong bit of information here.”
“Well the unbalanced, volatile superweapon disagrees.”
“With how guilty you looked after you broke my hand, I don't think I need to worry. Nonetheless,” she shrugs one shoulder, “come on, Cloud. Where'd everyone that works here come from?”
“You're ex-Shin Ra?”
“Yet you still have access to their information.”
“No, I still have the copies I kept of the information I used back when I worked there.” She holds up a hand to shut me up and says very pointedly, “We should discuss your treatment options.”
“We just get the cocktail back in balance, right?”
“If only it were that easy. If we add more mako to your system, the Jenova cells just replicate faster and we create a vicious cycle. We can't do anything with the virus portion of the cocktail because your system's already too fragile. That, and I have no information on the virus and no access to it.”
“You can't just take some from a blood sample or something?”
“I don't think so,” she shakes her head. “Most things regarding the manufacture and maintenance of Soldiers were kept under tight wraps, you know that much. Anything regarding this virus was even more secretive. What I do know is that after a short period inside a host's body, it mutates to the degree that it can't survive outside the conditions in that particular body – which is why you don't pass the virus along. The reason I can't retrieve any from a sample that's already acclimated to someone's system is that once it dies, it breaks down very quickly. Not even genetic material is salvageable. The longest strand I've been able to get from the samples I already took is under a hundred base pairs. If I had unlimited resources and time, I could work with those fragments, but I don't.”
“So what are my options?”
“The best one is to cycle Jenova out of your system completely. The catch is, the procedure has never succeeded though the theory behind it seems sound, and for the amount you're carrying it would take two years at the fastest. To make sure you didn't die before then you'd have to be in a controlled environment at all times.”
“I'm not spending two years in a lab.”
“I didn't think so. The other option will only buy you time to find another treatment.” She reaches around me to a desk drawer and pulls out a bottle. “This is a chemical toxic to Jenova. Toxic to humans, as well, but it's exponentially less harmful in that case. Sadly the side effects are hell, so there are a couple drugs in here to help you cope with them. Take as much as you can manage but not more than a tablespoon every twelve hours.” She stares at me for a beat. “And start small, Strife. Your first dose should be a milliliter. Doubling that every other day will be plenty.”
“That bottle is all you get. At a stretch it'll last you a few months, and if you continue to take it after that – just trust me that you don't want to find out.”
“So, why were you at Shin Ra?”
She swivels back and forth in her chair a little, staring at me like I have some grotesque deformity. “You really have a one track mind. Look, I'm gonna tell you the same thing I told Veld – I was there trying to track down my little sister, and it didn't work out, so I left. That's it. I don't care about that company. Anything else you'd like to know?”
I hold up the bottle she gave me. “How do I take this?”
“Just drink it. It tastes awful, though.”
“I'll throw it in some coffee,” I say as I head for the door. “Thanks.”
“Check in if you have a problem,” Shalua says, going back to her work.
Vincent's good at knowing when to stay quiet. I pass him on my way out, but he may as well be a ghost.
Next, to get to what I should have started with – I have to take care of Marlene and Denzel; find somewhere for them to live with someone who can take care of them. I force myself not to think on what I'm going to say, because if I try to tackle the problem before I get to their room, I know I'll end up turning back.
But when I do get there, the room is empty. A quick walk through doesn't give me any clues to why that is. At a loss, I go into the corridor and look to my left and right, wondering if they've just changed rooms or gone to the mess hall. “Hey,” a regular on his way by says, “you lookin' for those kids that were staying here?”
“Yeah. Any idea why they're gone?”
“Real big fella named Barret came and picked 'em up yesterday. I only know 'cause Marlene came to say goodbye to us at mess. Are you Cloud?”
“Yeah, she talked about you. Listen, I don't know what happened, but the guy that came to get 'em seemed real upset.”
“Do you know anything about where he was going?”
“Not at all,” the soldier says, raising his hands in a gesture strikingly reminiscent of Zack. He tilts his head, and makes a face like he's got horrible news he's not quite sure how to tell me. “Look, you're military, right?”
“What gave me away?”
He chuckles. “How you walk around corners. It's a little sloppy, but you still look like you're marching. Anyway...” He shoves his hands in his pockets and smiles. “Don't take it wrong, but you look like you got your bell rung pretty good. You okay?”
We start to walk down the hallway, though I'm not really sure where we're going. “No. Fuck no, I'm not okay.”
“How about some godawful coffee and worse conversation to take your mind off it?”
“Sounds good. Not to be creepy as hell, but you talk exactly like my dead friend Zack.”
“That what you're messed up over? Your friend?”
“No, a different friend, this time.”
“Shit. I'm sorry.”
I don't know what I should say, so I just nod. “It happens.”
“Yep. Sadly, yep.” After a moment he holds out his hand to shake. “I'm Braylan.”
“How long have you been with the WRO?”
“Two years, not a single damn promotion. Hoorah.”
I can't not laugh. “Hoorah,” I agree.
“I know it's just 'cause of the money, but damn. At least give me the rank I deserve.”
“I know how that feels.”
“Every single soldier in this army knows how it feels. And a lot of people are talking about deserting, these days.”
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure, whatever. I'm gonna tell my whole regiment, but sure.”
I grin. “As long as you make up a good story about hearing this from someone besides me.”
“I can do that.”
We get to the mess hall and grab styrofoam cups of piping hot sludge. Military coffee is about the same no matter where you get it. “I know you've already gotten the sense that something disaster is about to happen, but it probably won't be the one you're expecting. I think you might get ordered into some rough situations if you stay here. Deserting might not be a bad plan.”
“Okay, now you have to tell me more.”
“There's a virus –”
“Oh. Yeah.” We sit down across from each other at the end of one of the long tables. “I already know about that.”
“I'm just messing with you. I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“I really hope you don't get killed, Braylan.”
“Hey,” he grins, “what do you know? I was sort of hoping the same thing.”
I sip my coffee, feeling shockingly okay for once. Maybe I missed the army more than I knew. “I'm not clear on any details about it, but I do know that if it starts to spread, the WRO will probably try to handle it. If you get near it, you'll probably catch it, and it'll kill you.”
“Sounds like you've seen this up close.”
I decide to borrow Reno's story. “Little villages all over, but it's starting to hit major cities. You won't have heard about it.”
“Someone's keeping it quiet?” He raises an eyebrow. “Why?”
“To keep people from panicking.”
“It's that bad?”
“Worse. Just get somewhere defensible. Leave as soon as you can.” You'd think a military compound would have to be the first place you'd pick if you needed to hole up, but one look at this one's layout makes it obvious no one with tactical knowledge had a hand in designing it.
“Motherfucker. I was starting to like it here.”
“Isn't that how it goes.”
“Every damn time, man.” Braylan tips his cup back and finishes up his coffee.
“Can I ask you something?” He nods, cup still raised, covering half his face. “Who's really in charge here?”
“That,” he points one finger at me, “is the question of the year. The Commissioner doesn't seem to do anything but make speeches, and there's an assload of bureaucrats pretending at power...” He sighs and shrugs. “I'd almost tell you it's the head of the Trade Commission – Root – but it never seems like he's really got a handle on things. There must be someone else behind the scenes. Not to mention, there's whoever's funding us.”
So it's exactly like Reno said. The WRO is being torn apart over a turf war between Root and Veld. “Alexander Root? What's his story?"
“I know his father was in the army, a long, long time ago before there was a Shin Ra army.”
“How do you know that?”
“From my mom, actually. She was an army nurse. She knew him towards the end of his career.”
“Was your dad a soldier?”
Braylan laughs. “Nope. He was a securities arbitration attorney.”
“What the hell is that?”
“He basically sued a lot of people for investment fraud.”
We both get up to get more coffee. The mess hall's pretty deserted, and there's not really much food around. If there was, I'd eat something. I'm starving. When we sit back down, I ask, “Do you know much about finance?”
“I picked up a few things along the way. Why, got another question for me?”
“Yeah.” I wonder how to phrase it, though. “Say someone owed an astronomical amount of money. Almost a trillion gil. Is there any way that could get paid back?”
“Are you joking?” I shake my head. “No. Not that I know of, not unless a bunch of people owed that someone enough money to cover that debt.”
“Then how would you handle it?”
“If it were me? I'd disappear and change my name. No way you can fix a problem with a price tag that big.” He rests his chin in one hand. “Although, people might be willing to forgive debt for favors. They'd have to be really damn good favors, granted.”
“Favors like a guaranteed spot in a new government,” I muse out loud.
“Yeah... like that.” Braylan eyes me. “Who do you work for, Cloud?”
Now he's suspicious, and I've probably let too much on. “I'm just a bike courier.” As I stand, I say, “And I'm late to pick something up. Gotta go. Thanks for taking the time, Braylan.”
“Not at all. Take care.”
As soon as I start to walk away, something sharp strikes me in the arm and my legs give out. Some sort of tranquilizer, probably. “Sorry, Cloud,” Bralyan says. “Sounds like you know some interesting things for a bike courier. Things I bet my boss would like to hear about.”
“Good luck carrying me, asshole,” I slur, cheek against the concrete floor. I expect to black out, but it doesn't happen.
“I think luck's on my side today.” I can't hear what he's doing, but there's banging around from the direction of the kitchen. “I'm the worst shot I've ever seen. Can't believe I hit you.”
“What did you give me?”
He wheels a metal cart up to me, and starts struggling to drag me onto it (because of my modifications I have higher bone and muscle density than the average person – I'm pretty heavy). “Now that would be telling, wouldn't it? Just relax. It'll kick in a little more fully in a minute or two.”
And it does kick in. I feel better than I've felt since the start of this fiasco. That and I can't move, but whatever. “Your boss?” I manage to form the words, but I sound like I have a serious speech impediment.
“Yep. We're gonna go see him right now. Sit tight.”