Out of things I'll lead shadows,
that will stiffen like a cat, fur sparkling they'll furl everything
into storms' color, little leaves' hearts,
the rains' gray plaits
Only take out of these [sic!] my eyes
the painful glass mirror – image of days
He was bleeding out out out – amazing, how the mind can focus on one thing, given enough motivation – blood was flowing through his fingers – gut wound, damn, even the enchanted healing will take a moment – and over his vision, but that was just a scratch, and from his mouth, but that was just tongue and lips. Red, strong, copper taste and this damn fresh, sharp, freezing cologne (citrus-wood-plants, not fougere; why do I know what that damn ‘fougere’ means?), blue-and-white: he will always associate it with—
Betrayal. He had been fooled. Predictably fooled, fooled once again. He should have known better, and in fact he had known better, but there were monsters and the people would have died if he hadn’t and he hated people dying and he had damn good reasons for that, so he went on his fool’s errand and almost got himself killed. For the people. For the orphans. Damn this bastard who made it nothing more than a running joke.
This time the punch-line was a little different: there’d been some juicy, dirty company files as well. And some scientists. And ex-SOLDIERs, now just mercenaries, and a handful of thugs, and, last but not least, a few bosses of the criminal world, who could have – but now never would – become an important power in Edge. Oh, and the monsters had obviously been mutated by mako. And public opinion would be deeply concerned about the ties between all that and some S-class company. And the election was coming. A certain company’s president could be losing sleep over that.
Yet there’d been monsters in a few little villages nearby. So what was a delivery boy to do?
Rustle of clothing. Cologne. Blue-and-white. Rufus shouldn’t even be there, not on the front line – unless the data was too important to trust to the Turks. Even to the Turks. Obviously, the mess had been too big for them to handle. So they called in—
Shinra is ruining his suit, there’s blood everywhere…
“Would you like some materia, Cloud? If you’re not feeling strong enough, I can cast Cure as well as any—”
“Go to hell, Rufus… Please.” Oh, mymymy, what a polite boy I am, how well-groomed, my mother will be proud, very proud, she did a good job – and yet she’s dead and—
“I apologise. I misspoke when I phrased it as a question.” Shinra was smug, as always; so nauseatingly smug. Of course, the fact that Cloud’s vision had blurred wasn’t helping either.
Rufus could say what he liked; Cloud was too weak to protest. His damned company were the ones who had made that "makoed" dragon (damn, so much mako in its veins that it literally faded away, like fire, when he finally managed to kill it; how painful must the poor creature's life have been?) and the fight with it, plus the bunch of mutated animals and mob bosses’ bodyguards, all at once… It had been a tough one.
He should stop fighting the sleepiness: it wasn’t death, it was a healing coma – but he couldn’t stand knowing he would be unconscious near the Turks and Rufus (not any more, not any more, no more lies, no more weakness, no more emotional blackmailing, it was a promise).
“Cloud -” There was a palm on his cheek, patting lightly. He hated it. “Cloud, focus on me.” He thought, absently, that he should laugh, because he had his damn injuries, his damn bowel to focus on and all that “really-Rufus-why-are-you-always-such-an-egocentric-bastard” stuff.
Shinra would say, of course, “I’m not the bastard here, Cloud, with all due respect”. And Strife wouldn’t reply, because he was, in fact, the one that didn’t know his father’s name. Not that he wanted to know, it was more like a silly, childish dream, or a fear, or—
Indulgent, pitying clack of the tongue. Rufus held a small, transparent flask to his mouth.
“Ah, right. You cannot focus at all. To have allowed yourself to end up in such a state…” Heavy, dramatic sigh. “Drink it. I will cast.”
Cloud still had enough strength to push Shinra’s hand away. The potion hit the ground and broke into pieces; he felt a pang of guilt for wasting away the cure, an expensive one at that. The steps of Turks echoed in the air and Strife idly wondered if they would try to shoot him.
But then Rufus shouted“nothing to worry about, just a tantrum”, obviously irritated – he despised being touched, that much Cloud knew – and the area fell silent again. Eerily so. The dead were watching them impassionedly and all of sudden Cloud felt the very stupid and very typical for him need to provoke the president again, just to hide another urge, deeper, stronger – to apologise.
He suspected that Shinra, unfortunately, knew that much. He acted like he knew, manipulating his guilt with an easy, brilliant mastery.
“You need healing. I would have cast Cure.” The president was very, very still. “I wouldn’t have hurt you. If you don’t trust me now then you’re in delirium. I have no reason to harm you.” Voice as confident as ever. Pulse not; Strife could feel its rapid beat under his fingers and recalled that detached, cold anger had always been the façade that came most naturally to that man. Rufus was upset, maybe afraid even.
Which was quite a sobering thought. Cloud let go of his hand, trying to chase away from his mind the picture of himself now - bloody, with burning eyes, murderous – and make his voice sound resolute:
“I know myself. My organism. It will heal without any aid. Especially yours.” He was feeling better, stronger, more concentrated, the fog in his mind gone; probably the effect of the chemical rush caused by recent anger. “Just give the mako fifteen or twenty minutes and—”
“Materia will deal with it in twenty seconds.” Rufus sounded quite reasonable. Which just proved that he was still missing the point.
“Materia is not some kind of bandage. It’s... they’re Cetra’s memories. People’s souls. The stilled life, literally. The Planet’s energy. You cannot waste it without real need. The battle is over. I’m safe and regenerating. There is no reason.”
“It could even be the soul of my very father – oh, but that would be too wonderful, wouldn’t it? I fail to see how it matters. They’re dead, you’re alive. You’re lying in a pool… no, in a lake of your blood. Practically holding your intestines in with your hand. I would call it a reason.”
“I. Will. Survive.”
“You will suffer. But that’s what you want, right? To suffer, as per usual, instead of letting others help you. To suffer without need or a cause, just to feel more miserable. Is it really so much easier for you? This emotional cowardice?” The president sounded genuinely curious.
“Go to hell.” It was a whisper, a very weak one. Its weakness bothered both Cloud and, seemingly, Rufus.
Shinra’s fingers came back to the side of his face, but their touch was gentler now, almost tender. Which made it even worse. Strife hated touch. It brought back bad memories – not fully enough to really remember them, only the feeling of them. Of being helpless, at somebody’s mercy, in pain, of pleading without the faintest hope of being spared. The touch always made him simultaneously furious, afraid and subdued.
Rufus knew. Maybe from the files, maybe from observation. Maybe the company had tapped not only the “7th Heaven,” but their bedrooms too. Cloud had talked about his problem with Tifa dozens of times. Whatever. The President should at least have the decency to not use this knowledge. Wishful thinking.
“Don’t touch me. Not you.”
Short, sharp burst of laughter.
“It’s all about me, not about Lifestream and your precious Cetra memories, isn’t it? I shall tell the Turks to heal you, then. You did well here, the company and... community really appreciate your help. I may humour you a little.”
Hands were gone and for a second Cloud was thankful. But the scent of cologne lingered, making him unnerved.
“I won’t take anything from you or given by yours order. In the end, it will only hurt me more and you will gain a profit. Call it experience.”
Rufus fell silent. Strife’s gaze turned away from him, to the corpses. Monsters and SOLDIERs mostly. Scientists had thrown themselves on the president’s mercy at the first sign of the loss. And they were brilliant, geniuses, so the corporation forgave them… under rather strict conditions, but forgiven anyway. They will live and nobody will inject mako into their veins and they will never know how it is, to have only that burning brightness in the bloodstream; how painful survival can be. They’ll never know what it is to be that poor dragon and the rest of creatures I killed, what nightmare is such existence.
He should be happy about that, probably. Happy and merciful, some damn kind of saint. He was not.
“That dragon – it cannot die. You saw that, Rufus? Even I have a problem – if not for me, it will never die, it will have to live… And it bled almost only mako, such bright blood – that’s an… indicator, of sorts. When the blood loses almost all its colour and just shines, then you’re in some serious trouble.”
He said it aloud. To keep himself from falling asleep, he tried telling himself. Or to irritate Rufus, who loathed such sentimentality. But Shinra didn’t seem pissed (pity). He just leaned over Cloud with something impossibly close to concern in his eyes (acting, smoke and mirrors, Shinra is all smoke and mirrors).
“Who are you trying to punish?” Rufus asked finally, sounding strangely weary. “Yourself? Or me?”
Strife blinked. The world was still swaying, but that didn’t explain why he didn’t see a connection.
“To punish? For what?”
“For not stopping the experiments earlier. For living, when so many died. For letting the scientists live. For having to kill those monsters. For escaping from Tifa and the children. For helping me. Like I would know what rubbish is haunting you now. There was a tone of genuine irritation in Shinra's voice.
“Don't you dare to mock…”
“You're refusing medical aid, spilling, by the way, your heroic guts over my new, leather shoes, just because you’re feeling bad about the experiments that some degenerate scientists did on a dozen animals. You'd willingly die because of your guilt over that little mess.” His lips curled with a disdain. Another thing Cloud hated: Rufus sending people to battle and then pretending he detest bloodshed. “It's hilarious. It's so hilarious that yes, I think I'll dare.”
Suffering. Endless suffering. Beating, floating, objectification, pain, so long, so hard, so terrible… Other people, begging, sobbing, dying, while all he could do was look. Another ones, those laughing, smiling, patting your head while torturing you in the name of – of what? science? father's revenge? Hojo's pride? – always cool, always indifferent… And that was hilarious. That was hilarious to a man who had decided to subject hundreds of sentient beings to such tortures – women, men, children; for gods sake, Cloud still remembered some children and there was always Shelke, and – and Rufus had sent them all to that hell by just writing his signature. He’d simply signed some papers, he and his father and all the Board of Directors. He’d been probably bored then, writing (again and again and again) his arrogantly aristocratic “R. Shinra", with its long, slim, snake-like “S” and fat “R.”
He had been bored then, and now – now he called it all “hilarious.”
Cold, freezing fury filled Strife's soul. “You know” he hissed in very low, very calm voice, “Those… hilarious experiments of your company have carved me into a weapon—” Shinra loved calling him that, “so excellent, that even now, after all that fighting, I can break your neck and hope that I’ll manage to kill the Turks and the scientists, whom you just so generously forgave. I can kill you all, even while I'm spilling my guts over your shining leather shoes – very nice pair, I'm sure. It’s so hilarious that I think I'll dare.”
He put a hand on Rufus’ neck. Over-dramatic, really, but he was angry and for a moment he wasn’t sure if he want to stop himself at talking. The other man didn’t react at all.
The silence stretched out.
“Do you really wish to?” Shinra started caressing Cloud’s hand, beginning from the palm, along the arm, to the elbow. Lazy, soft move. Almost imperceptible, yet Cloud’s muscles tensed immediately. “I daresay I doubt it.”
“Shh.” It was strange sound, suspended between a whisper and hiss, the consolation and impatience. “Relax. You can kill me, as you yourself said. What is there to be afraid of?”
“Your tongue,” spat Cloud, “And your schemes, and your ruthlessness and your cruelty.” Yet he took his hand away.
Rufus seemed genuinely surprised for a moment. Then he covered Strife’s palm – the one lying over the wound – with his. Cloud sucked in his breath, a little to shocked and too worn to resist properly. The bleeding was slowing, but hadn’t yet stopped, and soon the bright, lightly glittering blood started seeping through the president’s fingers, dyeing them.
“Cruelty. Damn, Cloud, you… Why must everything always be about the past with you?” Rufus didn’t even look at Strife’s face. He focused on the wound, hypnotised almost, as if the touch finally made it real for him. Cloud knew his own erratic pulse was now literally drumming under Shinra’s hand, which was intimate in all the creepy, terrible ways possible. Tapping my blood pressure, now? Can’t I even bleed out in privacy?
“It’s over. You ended it. The suffering of that animal, your own suffering, the Geostigma… Whatever it’d been, you ended it. You’ve put the wrong to right.” The tone of president’s voice was condescending, as though he were reasoning with a child. “There’s no need to punish yourself. Me, well, that’s another matter – but not, definitely not, by hurting yourself. There are better ways. Breaking my neck included.”
Something incredibly ridiculous was suggested in the last couple of sentences.
“How stupid does one need to be to try to hurt you by harming yourself? You don’t care about anything but your own survival. Only yours.”
“You are free to think what you want.” Rufus seemed almost offended. “But could you, please, be as kind as to consider taking into account the possibilities opened by the plain fact that I, being interested in my survival only, am sitting by your side, which is completely useless, because you’re refusing the Cure. So, you think I’m wasting my time on some meaningless discussions instead of looking for documents, questioning prisoners, talking to the press et, damn important, cetera. You’re thinking I’m doing that because I don’t care. Fine. I’m so sure you ruled out any other options via deep, thoughtful, rational analysis”
“Via precedence. Experience. History is a teacher of the living. And I’ve never asked you to play my nurse. Leave. Go, do your job.” Cloud was long past the point of believing Shinra in any circumstances, even when the other man succeeded in making him feel like a prejudiced, oversensitive, hysterical, unstable bastard.
Rufus smiled triumphantly. Strife tensed.
“See? That’s your dogma. That I couldn’t sit with you simply because I want to. Choose to.”
“You’d gain nothing, then,” laughed Cloud. Rufus waved a free hand.
“Yes, that’s exactly it. This unprovable dogma of yours. My profit. So, let me show you the situation in the light of the other metaphysical concept.” He leaned over, coming suffocatingly close, his lips only a mere inch away from Cloud’s cheek. “This cold, scheming, manipulating, ruthless and cruel man, which I am, is capable of, just theoretically, caring about someone. Feeling affection towards someone. Choosing someone over crucial affairs. Wanting to stay with someone. Even if it means that he has to sacrifice his favourite pair of shoes.”
Strife sucked in breath, suddenly finding himself at a loss for not only words but conviction. Shinra, seeing his confusion, actually smiled and then, just like that, kissed him. On the forehead, almost fatherly.
Cloud went totally still. He was feeling paralysed and – and betrayed, this time for real. He had always – always after Nibelheim – reacted very, very poorly to... that kind of affection. Panic. Limpness. Nausea.
It was probably the effect of something done to him in the labs; he wasn’t sure, he didn’t consciously remember. He was trying to resolve that problem. With Tifa. With his friends. Not with damn Shinra, who could have just one source of such information: scientists’ files. Files which should be destroyed and even if he suspected them being not – the President still didn’t have to use them. Had no right to.
“Tifa—” Cloud managed to utter by unconsciously clenched teeth.
Rufus’ mouth came to his eyelids, soft and tender, and wet, and whispering: “You love her. You hate me. I know.” There were a pause, and then Shinra continued, between the quick, light kisses, shhh‘s and muffled, calming sounds:
“That’s why you’re running from her, right? You’re afraid of hurting her, you do not understand the concept of love, not any more, just hurt and betrayal and guilt.” His lips were moving towards Cloud’s and the man was literally frozen, sick of some forgotten memories. “And I don’t matter. You may hurt me, hate me, I may betray you, it’s all right, that you understand and that’s of no importance nor consequence. If you have any love for me, be my enemy.”
Rufus’ breath tickled Strife’s mouth and there was a flicker of the purest panic in mako-eyes, which stopped Shinra in the middle of the move. After a second of hesitation, he whispered, very quietly, lifting his head up and averting his face, eyes still dark with desire: “But I’m tired of playing as your past dictates me. Cure.”
Simultaneously he locked their fingers tightly together, keeping Cloud’s hand away from the rapidly healing wound. The shock of sudden magic – Lifestream immediately rushing to your soul, veins, nerves – would be difficult to endure even for the beings not bathed in Jenova or S-cells. Healing spells are painful ones. Casting them without warning was risky – the instinctive reaction would be, in most cases, checking, touching the source of pain. With the tissues closing so quickly, further injuries and infections could result, because Cure healed and regenerated everything – pathogens including.
Strife closed his eyes, instinctively, but the brightness of materia followed him under the eyelids: circles, spots, chaotic lines, glittering and shining and worsening his nausea. There was pain too, painting his vision with blue-and-white. He smelled the cologne; Rufus was massaging his temples lightly.
It was over in less than a minute. He wasn’t fully cured – Rufus’ casting skills were mediocre at best – but he definitely felt better. Physically. His mind was still spinning and the nauseating urge to be a good boy, the fear of disobedience, didn’t disappear either.
“I. Will. Kill. You,” he swore nonetheless.
Rufus merely smiled.
“Don’t you see? I gave you a reason to be a very good boyfriend – good man – for your beloved Tifa, Stife. Don’t be such ungrateful bastard, please." Shinra chuckled “Though, honestly, I wouldn’t mind if you did. Attraction to power, such a dangerous thing.”
His blood was on Rufus’ lips. It probably ought to make him furious, but he was just – somehow empty and somehow lively. Adrenaline rush, effort of materia-healing and, after all, quite a bit of potentially emotional exhausting activities, he guessed.
“You’re just trying to justify your…” There was a name for it, Strife knew. But he didn’t feel like using it, admitting weakness.
“Abuse?” hinted Rufus. “Oh, no, I’m not. It wasn’t fair, I can freely admit. But I pushed you enough. You said her name, you chose what’s important to you.” He shrugged. “The thing is, you like pretending you’ve been betrayed, so you can avoid responsibilities and choices, so you may be welcome anywhere and belong nowhere. You need to be pushed into a corner to act at all. Sephiroth, Hojo, Deepground, me. We just play that role. There’s the suffering which you treat like rightful punishment and your fear of your own power, too—”
“Stop that,” barked Cloud. Shinra’s orations were something he had heard before, something he could dodge relatively easily. “You’re just... casting your sick, twisted way of thinking onto me.”
Shinra smiled innocently, running a hand through Strife’s hair.
“Am I, really? I’m not the one saying you did something wrong. You just protect your freedom. A little obsessively, but it’s understandable. So, everything is all right – you’re seeking freedom, using some twisted defence mechanisms and denial to obtain it.” The President’s mouth curved ironically. “Except it’s not, because you love that family of yours. Tifa, the orphans, the bar. Yet you’re driven by urges, desires and emotions quite… incompatible with love.”
“Are you playing therapist, now?”
“Oh, no, never. A therapist wouldn’t dare to say things so bluntly. I’m just proving that I care about you… if only a little and in a rather twisted way. So the thought crossed my mind – why not to strike a deal?”
“A deal,” repeated Cloud, barely holding back a laughter.
“You may call it gift. For you and Tifa, and your sweet vision of family, which is a lie in itself and, therefore, needs a lie to be maintained.”
“It’s not a lie,” protested Stife; too weakly.
“A dream, then. To maintain a dream one has to play a role, constantly. No one can do that for their whole life – so, people reach for their emotions, desires and memories to create a normal, real family founded on a realistic vision of love. But, unfortunately, you don’t have anything to reach for. Maybe you’ll learn one day, maybe you’ll accumulate enough good moments – but for now you can only support the dream via lies, a constant stream of lies and denial. It must be difficult – and so you snap, regularly, from what I hear. You escape. You fight. You feel guilty. You return. Betrayal, hurt, guilt. Such a vicious circle. But I’m a vicious man, so I didn't try to break it – I just gave you… a motivation to play your role. Strong enough to suffice, I promise“.
Strife’s eye widened.
“What sick, wicked, stupid concept you’re trying to—”
Rufus cut into his speech, stating with a triumphant smile: “You’ll feel guilty for a while. Without reason, but it doesn't matter: you will feel guilty and you will try very hard to recompense Tifa the last few minutes. It will work… for now. You’ll have to learn dealing with that family and love thing differently at some point – but until then, you’re always welcome in my office.”
He got up, forcing Strife, still holding his hand, to do the same. Cloud’s wounds and muscles, not completely healed, ached a little.
“I will never willingly come to you. Never ever, not any more – I just – won’t,” he announced through clenched teeth.
Shinra laughed carelessly, waving a hand.
“So be it. I will survive.”
But there was some plastic-like tone in his voice and Strife smelled a lie. He recalled his panic and Rufus’ hesitation and for a second felt something strangely close to gratitude. So he added, equally dismissively, like it didn't matter at all:
“I would never – and never again will I – go to you for such – motivation, reasons. Other things… well, that’s entirely different matter.” His eyes narrowed as his mouth was uttering, to his great surprise, teasingly (oh, and that tone was a lie, a denial, an escape, sure, but he didn't feel like analysing it): “However, I’m going to be much better prepared.”