I'd seen the pictures, but the reality was a bit different. For a start, the pictures didn't actually convey that this lanky fifteen-year-old kid had a presence about him. Newspaper photos also don't convey the sheer brightness of mako eyes, although that's more a limitation of the whole black and white printing process. The other thing they didn't show was how damn resilient Shinra's latest general was. After all, that's a long fall, and he landed on his back.
"Hey, don't move," I tell him as he starts to twitch. It doesn't matter how damn good he is, a fifty metre fall damn well hurts, and I don't know whether he's managed to keep all his vertebrae intact. "Just lie still for a bit, okay?"
"Where am I?" The question is alert enough. His voice is deep, too - must've broken early and strong. Nice tone to it, no recognisable accent.
"Well, when the planners get through with constructing that metal verandah of theirs, it's gonna be Midgar sector one. But for now it's the Vargner family estate, and you're lucky to be alive," I tell him. "Can you feel your arms and legs?"
"I think so." He sounds a bit dazed. Then again, I'm not surprised. "Who are you?"
"Hey, let's get things in their proper order, yeah? Who're you, first up. And don't move, I told you." He's trying to move his hands and feet, so it looks like everything's just fine.
"Sephiroth," he tells me, and yeah, I was sort of expecting that response.
"I'm called Steele. Can you open your eyes?" He blinks, and looks up at me. Wow. very strong glow there - I mean, mine are sometimes bad enough when I'm roused, but his are about five times brighter and all he's doing is lying there. "How many fingers am I holding up."
"Three," he says. Correct response. "May I sit up now?"
I frown for a moment. "Well, give it a try," I decide, "but if anything hurts, or you feel dizzy, lie back down again. You fell a fair old way."
"I know." He starts to sit up, but stops and clutches at his head.
"Headache?" I ask him.
He starts to nod, winces. "Yes," he says instead.
I crouch down near him. "You're lucky I'm the one who found you," I say. "I think I still have a few tabs of whichever mix they gave me the last time I cracked a bone in my rooms. They might work on you; somehow I doubt a couple of standard headache pills are going to cut it."
That makes him look at me, and he spots my eyes. His widen. His pupils are different - slit, like a cat or a snake, rather than round - and he seems surprised to find someone else with glowing eyes in the world. "Who are you?" he asks me again.
"Told you, my name's Steele." I offer him a hand. "You can lean on me for a bit, if you like."
He looks as though he's going to refuse the assistance, but changes his mind when the dizziness gets to him. Kid's tall - must be nigh on six feet, but he doesn't weigh much for all that. All skin and whipcord. I suspect he's just been through a growth spurt, and needs to put on the muscle to fill out a bit. My luck's in, really, since if he'd waited another six months to fall off the top, he'd've wound up being too heavy for me to lift unless I was at panic stations.
Between the two of us, we make our staggering way toward my rooms. Old Mistress Vargner, last of the direct line, had hired me as a bodyguard to keep certain aggressive land speculators away from her estate. She'd died about a week ago, and the rest of the family were still busy trying to decide what to do with me. In the meantime, I occupied my former rooms, and kept the vultures from the doorstep. Speaking of which...
"Hey, Steele! You still hangin' around here?"
Oh great. I turn my head to look at which of the Corneo family pets is yapping at my heels this time.
"Mitchell," I say to the man at the head of the bunch of thugs, "you know what I'm gonna say. Old lady Vargner isn't even cold in her grave, and you're trying to get me to sign the place over to your boss?"
"What the Don wants, the Don gets," Mitchell says. "Don't look like you can do much about it."
"Yeah, well that's as maybe," I tell him. "Until the Vargner family lawyers get done with the paperwork, though, you're still trespassing."
"So whatcha gonna do about it?" one of Mitchell's bully-boys says. "Looks like you got your hands full."
I look up at the kid I'm supporting. "Do you mind waiting for a sec?" I ask him. "Just got to put out the trash, you know how it is."
He looks puzzled, but consents to me putting him down out of the way. No comments about "let me help you" or "six on one is bad odds" or anything like that. It's almost refreshing, given most guys would be busy trying to be chivalrous and just getting in the way. That headache must be hurting more than he expected.
Mitchell's boys don't wait for me to turn back around, but then again, I wasn't expecting them to. The moment I've lowered the kid to the ground, I'm starting to pull myself into fast forward, dodging their blows. There's a rhythm to most fights, and being able to move twice as fast as normal helps in the process of dancing through that rhythm. I may not be stronger than average, but I've found momentum and speed give a good illusion of strength, and a punch delivered at twice normal speed comes across as coming from someone who's twice as strong.
It doesn't take long before Mitchell's lads are all groaning, and I'm facing Mitchell over the bodies.
"Told you, Mitchell. You're trespassing. Leave now, and I'll not mention it to the Vargner lawyers." If he's not a fool, Mitchell will take my offer. If I mention to the Vargner family lawyers how many men Corneo's been sending to try and set up shop in the Vargner household and make claim by eminent domain, they'll have something serious to say in the courts back in Junon.
Mitchell's a fool, though. More of a fool than I thought, since he's got a knife at the throat of my guest, and is trying to threaten me.
"Nah, Steele. Here's how I see things playin' out: you're gonna leave, and not come back, or I'll be killin' the Shinra's new star and pinning the blame on you, and we'll see how the lawyers like that one."
I'm hardly surprised when Mitchell's knife wrist is crushed like a matchstick. I've seen what happens as a result of a single round of mako treatments, and according to the rumours, this Sephiroth has been undergoing them for most of his life. I'm also not surprised the kid's capable of moving faster than I am, and he doesn't appear to be pushing things either. The dull crunch from Mitchell's head being twisted around further than the spinal cord can handle doesn't startle me either.
The way the kid's throat just heals up as I watch, though, that's a bit unusual even to me.
"You offered painkillers," Sephiroth says to me, as though he hasn't just recovered from having a major artery cut. "My head still aches." He looks at me, and I can see he has questions, but he's not going to ask them in front of the groaners on the ground. I give a small nod, and move over to the idiot who spoke before, who's just starting to move again.
I grab him by the hair, with a boot heel on his groin to make him behave. "Go back to Corneo, and tell him if he wants the Vargner place, he does it by the book, with money. Otherwise, I might get angry. Understood?" I push down slightly with the boot. He attempts to nod frantically, and I can see fear in his eyes. He's trying to move away from the boot, which is a good sign. I let go of him, and watch as he crab-walks backward away from me. "Gate's that way," I tell him, pointing. He nods again, and goes to grab one of his mates.
Once they've all struggled their way out the gate, I lock it behind them, and turn to my guest. "Still need those painkillers?"
"Not really," the kid answers. I nod. "Would you mind answering some questions of mine?" he asks instead. I nod again.
"Thought you might ask that. My rooms are just around the corner here - I'm in the gatehouse." I lead him inside, and gesture for him to sit down. "Would you like some tea?"
"No, I thank you," he tells me, all very correct. He pauses for a moment, as though he's searching for the right words. "You appear to have some extraordinary capabilities," he says, eventually.
The polite phrasing makes me grin a little. "Yeah. Not quite as many as you do," I reply, "but enough to give me an edge."
He looks as me cautiously. "How is it you're not still employed by Shinra?" he asks me. Figures he'd go for the problematic questions first.
"That would be because I'm dead," I tell him. It's the one thing which stops people from Shinra from looking for me - I'm supposed to have died up in the Nibel mountains about sixteen years back, and the disagreeable reality of my survival for a further two years afterwards made searching me out problematic. After all, if Shinra found me, they had a pet scientist who'd be in the shit up to his eyebrows. It's one of the key contracts the Shinra family won't breach - the Turks are inviolate, or far too many corpses get exhumed entirely too publicly for the Shinras to survive as a corporate interest.
According to the corporate record at Shinra Electric Power Company (the division I officially "worked" in) I'd died in a disaster up in the Nibel mountains - the temporary rope bridge which acted as a shortcut across the gap in the Nibel range between the town and the reactor had snapped, and I'd plummeted about fifty metres to my death on the rocks below. What had actually happened was I'd wandered into the lab of one Professor Hojo and seen the eviscerated - and still breathing - corpse of the guy who'd preceded me in the role of bodyguard lying on a dissecting table. That got me dumped into a mako tank, just to see what kinds of effects it would have on female physiology in large doses. I also learned what was awaiting me in hell, because Hojo didn't see the need to waste anaesthetic on his experimental specimens, and as far as he was concerned the best way to deal with any curiosity about internal changes caused by mako therapy was to simply open the specimen up and take a look.
I still have some rather interesting scars, and some very fascinating nightmares to show for it.
The kid looks back at me. "The reports appear to have been somewhat exaggerated," he said, deadpan. "Why are you in Midgar?"
"I go where the work is. The work's mostly in Midgar for someone with my skills and abilities."
Sephiroth cocks his head, like he's trying to figure out what that means. I decide to take mercy on the kid. "I work as a bodyguard at the moment, but I also do investigation work, lost property, missing persons, anything going, really. Don't do windows or babysitting, but pretty much anything else is fine." I shrug. "Keeps me busy, keeps me working, and generally keeps me out of the public's notice, which suits me just fine."
He nods, and seems to understand what I mean.
"My current job is for old Mrs Vargner's family. They wanted someone to protect her from a bunch of Corneo's thugs who'd been menacing her, trying to get her to sign the old estate over to him before she died. Her kids are all over in Junon, but they have a pretty good idea what the property market is going to be like here in Midgar once the building gets finished. They want to keep hold of the estate, and they don't want Corneo snatching it out from under them. Old Mrs Vargner died about a week back, and the will is due to be read tomorrow - the kids are probably arriving up at the hotels today. Once that's done, they'll pay me, and I'll find myself another job to be doing."
"But not for Shinra," Sephiroth commented.
I give a wry smile. "No, not for Shinra. One lifetime for Shinra was enough, thanks. I'd appreciate it if you could keep my existence on the down-low."
He nods at me. "I won't mention you."
I look him over. He seems to have recovered some colour, although he's always going to be pretty pale, by the look of things. Reminds me a bit of an old sniper friend of mine; the one I saw being eviscerated just before my nightmares really began. But either way, he could probably use some fluids - blood loss is never easy to take, even if you do clot and heal pretty fast.
"Sure you don't want some tea? I make it Wutai-style, not like the stewed stuff they serve in Gongaga," I offer.
He tilts his head, considering the notion. "I might try some," he says. "I am a bit thirsty."
I give him a smile, and pour him a cup of tea. It's a light, jasmine-scented brew I get whenever the money is right, imported from Wutai, and very pleasant, in my opinion. I stopped drinking tea Gongaga-style back after Hojo had finished playing around with me - couldn't tolerate the taste any more. Coffee is off the menu, too, because unless I'm able to afford the very best beans, roasted with the greatest of care, I can taste every bit of scorching, or outright burning present in the batch. Sensory enhancements might give me a bit of an edge when it comes to spotting trouble coming after me, but sometimes they're more fuss than they're worth.
He takes a sip, and smiles, startled, I think, at how harsh this blend of tea doesn't taste. "This is good," he says. "I didn't know tea could be like this."
"The secret is in the way the tea is prepared over in Wutai," I say. "The stuff they drink in Gongaga, and the main type of tea available here, is piled in a heap and fermented a while before drying - brings out the tannin, which is the harsh taste you can probably detect. This is picked and dried while the leaves are still green, which means there isn't the same sort of heaviness to the flavour. Plus they mix in dried jasmine flowers in the blend, which gives it a bit of extra fragrance."
He smiles again. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I tell him. "Do you know how to get back to Shinra from here?"
He looks down at the cup. "Not really. I've never been allowed down to the lower reaches."
"What sent you over the edge?" I ask. "If you're okay with telling me, that is."
"I was being asked to deal with a mechanical contrivance which had got somewhat out of hand," he told me. "It knocked me a bit further than I expected."
"Well, I can show you the quickest route to the railway station," I told him. "Are Shinra likely to send anyone looking for you?"
He gives a bit of a smirk at that. "Probably. I'm a very expensive prototype, after all. Just like the machine I was being set up against. I suspect once the two creators have finished yelling at each other, they'll think to send someone to retrieve me." His tone is drier than the sands around Cosmo Canyon. It's a humour I can sympathise with. My own sense of humour started out fairly dry in the Turks. These days, it's pitch black.
"Well, I can't hear a helicopter yet, so if you think you're okay to go, I'll show you how to get to the station from here. I can't actually leave - if I do, Corneo's thugs are likely to be squatting here with guns when I get back, and that would be bad for business." I dug around in the dresser for the map I'd drawn up of the district. "You should be safe enough around here - it's one of the better districts; nobody's likely to attack you on sight. Quite a few of the folks who live here are Shinra employees, so they'll probably be willing to give you directions if you get off-track."
"How recent is this map?" he asked me, looking it over.
"About two months," I told him. "Most of the main paths are still the same, and that's what I'm sending you along. Basically, out the gate here, then down the road to the fifth turning on the left. There's a bodega on the corner there with a picture of a green chocobo in the window. Straight ahead until you reach a t-junction with a bookshop at the head of the T, turn right there. You should be able to see the railway station from there. Costs about twenty gil to get up to the top of the plate." A thought struck me. "How are you off for gil?"
He gave a rueful smile. "Might I borrow some from you? I tend not to carry funds during testing."
"A regrettable oversight," I commented, digging around in my wallet. I pulled out the gil and handed it to him. "If I get any more visitors, I'll send them over to the railway station to find you."
He nodded. "Thank you for your help. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Likewise," I said, shaking the hand he offered. Firm grip, but not too firm. I got the feeling he'd spent a long time with his enhancements, probably almost as long as I had.
I led him out the gate, and locked it behind him, and watched as he set off down the street. A couple of the more optimistic local thugs started to track him, but he turned around and looked at them, and they backed off. They recognised the stronger predator, I suppose. The thin trail of dried blood on his neck from that knife wound might have played a part in things, too.
I watch until he's reached the first turning, then go back to the gatehouse and dig out the number for the Vargner lawyers. After all, I've no obligation to make things easy on Corneo, and the Vargner kids are still paying me to secure their estate.