Chapter 35: Asylum

The floor was marble of a beige, warm hue. It matched the natural stone walls that wrapped the room up into a small, cosy lounge-place. A fat, cushy couch that housed more throw pillows than Garry believed was excusable lay sprawled in the middle, facing an armchair across the dainty coffee table. There were rustic paintings hung around the room that added to the charming ambiance intended for relaxation, and the large, wood-framed windows invited in the cheery morning sun.

Anyone else would probably have loved this apartment that belonged to his benefactor’s secretary, Ms. Voltfied.

With that said, Garry was sure it was clear why he wasn’t amongst the people who enjoyed being inside the room. He dropped his backpack next to the couch and parted the pillows for a place to sit, making himself comfortable in a mountain of spilling cushions.

Nicholas – or Dr. Voltfied was late.

Just as he thought so, the door behind him swung open and in came said doctor, striding around the couch to face him. Nicholas looked worse for wear as per usual, with messy hair and dark bags under his eyes. “Evening, la’,” he said with a jerk of his chin, not meeting Garry’s gaze.

Garry frowned but greeted back anyway. “Morning.” He was half-convinced Nicholas purposely messed with him from time to time, but considering that Nicholas’s expressions ranged from scowling disgruntlement to blank lethargy, perhaps not.

The smell of coffee followed the older man as he set down a thermal bottle on the table. Garry watched Nicholas make a line to the filing cabinets at the corner of the room and jiggled a key to retrieve a thick folder bounded with a rubber band.

As a fashion design major, it annoyed Garry to no end that Nicholas always showed up in some slovenly attire. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the man had on right now had been thrown together by picking randomly from a monochrome wardrobe. On more than one occasion, Garry had had to bite back the urge to offer Nicholas a makeover.

It was over two months ago that Garry had begun this routine of meeting Nicholas twice a week – as per Mr. Garland’s order. Tuesdays and Thursdays, timing flexible. The meetings were to be held in Ms. Voltfied’s apartment inside a building owned by the Garland corporation for ‘security reasons,’ and Garry was to, under no circumstances, discuss them with anyone.

Of course, he would never dare, because the reason for these meetings…

“A’ight, let’s begin.” Nicholas settled into the armchair and crossed his legs, pen in hand and white folder splayed on his lap. “You know the drill. Absolute confidence, no judgment, blah blah blah. Now.” Bloodshot eyes that had been glazed over moments before turned sharp and alert. “How are you and Ms. Ib Lowell this week?”

It was routine. The same opening question every session. Still, Garry’s heartrate climbed as he answered, “Fine.”

“Care to elaborate on that?”

‘No’ wasn’t an option, as Garry had learnt very early on. He sank deeper into the pillows, to hide or to seek stability he wasn’t sure, and started picking at the hem of his jacket. “I’m helping a professor with his collection, and it’s been taking up a lot of my time. As for Ib, she’s…not looking forward to the new semester starting.”

Dr. Voltfied waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, the man said, “Not quite what I was looking for, but go on. Why is she not thrilled, do you think?”

Garry shrugged. “You know the way kids are.”

“You’ve made it rather clear you don’t view her as one.”

“…I don’t.”

“So?”

Garry fell silent. He knew the good doctor was latching onto this topic because Garry had let his concern slip. The problem here was how much he should be telling the man because, despite the ‘absolute confidence’ clause, Mr. Garland was still going to be made privy to everything that Dr. Voltfied deemed worth reporting.

Then again, Mr. Garland would probably find out sooner or later anyway, and if Garry was going to be seeing a psychiatrist, might as well vent.

He let go of a sigh. “Because it means less free time.” Fewer chances to be together.

Dr. Voltfied nodded. “Less time to meet. You’re also concerned about this, but I sense not for the same reasons?”

God, he hated being seen through. Garry hunched over and propped his elbows on his knees, wiping his face with a groan. “She’s been…around…a lot.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“…Happy.” His heart thumped steadily. He balled up a sweaty hand inside his hair. “But also nauseous.”

“Garry,” she called. One small hand cupped his jaw while the other brushed his hair, thumb caressing his cheek bone and fingertips touching his ear, all too tenderly. He was compelled to smile with her.

“Every time she smiles at me, I feel…absolved—but I shouldn’t. I’m not. Then I’m left alone, and it just feels completely wrong. Some days, I can’t shake off the thought that she’s putting up a front to put me at ease.”

How she could still stand to be so close to Garry was beyond him. But in the haze of elation he decided it suited him just fine and pulled her closer to his chest, let her hear his heart’s unveiled confession. She still felt too far away.

“There isn’t a minute we spend together that she doesn’t look contented. And…” He snapped his mouth shut.

“And?”

Garry kept his gaze down and made no move to adjust his position, pulse strumming in his ears. ‘And it was sickening that he had the gall to feel dissatisfied’—but he couldn’t tell Dr. Voltfied that. His benefactor would no doubt hear about it.

“Garret, my boy.” Mr. Garland had flopped down next to Garry right on this very couch and draped a friendly arm around Garry’s shoulder. “What happened that night cannot happen again. Have I made myself clear?” The same easy-going smile. Firm, painful grip on his shoulder.

He paled at the memory. He didn’t know how much Mr. Garland already knew, or how much the man could find out. But if he gave the man any reason to believe ‘that night’ might happen again, he knew he would be separated from Ib immediately. “And…I still struggle to reconcile why—how she’s still by my side,” he said.

The doctor made a noise of acknowledgment and clicked his pen to scribble something onto the files. “It’s not unusual to find cases like yours, Garret.”

Garry scoffed, dropping his arms between his legs. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? That I’m just one of many pedophiles in this world?”

A click of the pen. “First of all, no, I’m just telling you a fact.” Dr. Voltfield sat back in his seat. “Second of all, we’ve talked about labelling. You’re not a pedophile, neither are you a hebephile, so please refrain from calling yourself any of those words. It’s detrimental to these sessions, and also does no one any good in general.”

“Third of all, you misunderstand. Pedophiles are plenty, yes. However, I meant there are many cases where the…survivor…”

“Garry?” Soft locks of hair fell down to his face like spools of silk.

The doctor seemed wary, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose to hide inquisitive eyes. Garry saw it anyway. The man was gauging Garry’s expression, and Garry did his best to keep a blank face despite the ugly pinch inside his guts. “…grows attached to the inflictor.”

“Did you have a nightmare, Garry?” She knelt over him on the bed.

“Sympathize with the latter.”

In the bleary darkness, he saw worried red eyes. A hand ran over his sweaty forehead.

“Even protect the latter, come hardship.”

Still out of breath, he searched the slender length of her arm, fingers crossing her shoulder to reach her back, pull her down to him. Let her scent flood his senses. Erase his fears. Ascertain reality’s hold. “It’s not real,” she said into his ear, voice so quiet even in the dead of night. “You told me before, remember?” Her arms slipped behind his neck for a reassuring embrace. “It’ll be okay, Garry.”

“You might have heard of it. Stockholm syndrome.”

Breathless laugh. “Isn’t that reserved for hostage situations?”

The doctor watched Garry for a moment, then tilted his head to the side. “A more appropriate generalisation would be ‘situations where neither fight nor flight is possible.’”

Garry scowled. His heart was too fucking loud. “I am not restraining her.”

“You don’t have to. It’s all about perception, la’. You know how children won’t turn on abusive parents? How people won’t leave abusive spouses to keep up a good public image? In the same way, the little girl has found it impossible to leave you, so she has to find another way to…cope with your presence. It seems to be appeasement for her. Quite a common defence mechanism.”

His head was spinning, and his mouth dry. He just stared back at the doctor as the meaning of the man’s words slowly sank in.

“Still with me there, la’?”

He shook himself awake. “Coping? She has to cope with my existence?”

Dr. Voltfied looked to be assessing something before he began, “Yes, but—”

Garry shot to his feet and stormed for the door. “Garret!” He ignored the man and grabbed the doorknob—and stopped. Where was he thinking of going? His head was full of her. Her kind eyes. Heart-warming smile. Did he want to go to her? To the girl who was secretly terrified of him? For what? To what end?

His heart and thoughts were racing. He was furious. At what or at who, he wasn’t sure. He just felt that this wasn’t right.

Stockholm Syndrome? A common occurrence? What?

Thought you were special, didn’t you?

Garry shook his head and wiped his face. To think it was so common. To think it had a name.

That wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all. Their situation was so much more complicated than that, and summing it all up into two words would be injustice. Simply wrong.

He loved her more than words could describe, and she’d inexplicably chosen to stay with him; there was still no explanation to the gallery that had tied their lives together.

That was how things were supposed to be. Unexplainable. Everything about them was beyond words, beyond reasons.

Wasn’t it?

Good grief, you’re pathetic.

She’s hurting by your side, you selfish prick.

He yanked his hand away from the doorknob as though stung.

What the hell was he doing, trying to get to her? He’d always knew it, hadn’t he? Had suspected that her intimacy with him wasn’t normal. But he’d ignored all doubts and instincts to keep being by her side, deluded himself into thinking their situation was special to justify holding her.

Even though he had no right to. Not anymore. Never did.

Of course, they’d survived that horrible gallery, and no one else would ever understand. It’d made sense at first to be there for her. But then their bonds deepened. His feelings grew.

At which point had staying stopped being for her sake?

Garry wanted to throw up. He doubled down and started to dry heave. His shoulder was seized; he spun around, grabbed the perpetrator by the worn collar and slammed him against the wall.

Dr. Voltfied’s head made an audible collision with the hard surface, and the man grunted. “Bloody—”

“Why is she still coming to me?”

The doctor scowled, rubbing the back of his head. “Like I said—”

Garry tightened his grip. “Why…am I still letting her come to me?” His voice grew weak as he searched the doctor’s cold eyes for some kind of answer. But in reality, he didn’t need it. He already knew: he was a fucking monster.

Dr. Voltfied didn’t say anything, and after seconds that felt like hours, Garry let go. The doctor sighed and proceeded to fixed his clothes. “Sit down, Garret. And calm yourself.” He went back to his seat and sat down. A click. Some scribbling. “She’s not forcing herself to be with you if it’s as you’ve been telling me.”

“…What do you mean?”

“Sit down, la’.” The doctor kept his gaze on the file, writing. When he was done, there was another click before the man looked up at Garry, quirking an expectant eyebrow.

Garry stared back; seconds passed, marked off by the hasty heaves of his breathing. Slowly, he dragged himself back to the couch and curled up amongst the pillows, cradling his head. “She’s not forcing herself to be with me?” The words came out more like a whisper, for his own ears only. It was despicable how he was already trying to make himself feel better. He was a selfish, cowardly little shit.

“You said your meetings were always decided by her?”

As he felt her arms around his waist, he stopped himself from telling her to have some moderation in visiting him.

The sound of the papers being turned disrupted his thoughts. “She clings to you?”

“What are you reading, Garry?” Her chin rested into the crook of his neck and her weight pressed against his back as he bent over his professor’s article.

“She seems comfortable around you?”

He tangled his fingers into her hair, half caressing, half brushing them away from her face. Her soundly sleeping face as she used his thigh as a pillow. So precious. So trusting.

“Well, there you have it.”

“Doesn’t mean she’s fine,” he said through clenched teeth.

“She’s still a child, la’. I assure you, you’d know if she isn’t fine. Coping is a fairly subconscious process. The literature makes a big deal about how the syndrome is abnormal, but more often than not, people who have it also have peace of mind. And sometimes that’s the best anyone can ask for.”

“Bullshit.” But still, he felt better. Wasn’t he just a stellar example of a decent human being?

“If you’re thinking about ‘snapping her out of it,’ consider that it’ll make more of a mess rather than solve anything.”

Garry straightened himself and ran both hands through his hair. “Of course you would say that. You work for Mr. Garland.” The good doctor’s words were bias at best considering Mr. Garland was hell-bent on keeping this under wraps. Providing Garry a psychiatrist wasn’t so much to make him feel better but to keep him stable. So that he wouldn’t go breaking down before he finished his degree.

“I’ll say it regardless of circumstances. You wouldn’t think to push people who’d repressed their memories to remember, would you? The same applies here.”

He gave a bitter laugh. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Dr. Voltfied held Garry’s gaze for a stretch of silence before shaking his head. “No, Garret.” The man took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose before dark eyes returned to Garry. “This?” He tapped the white folder on his lap with the tip of his glasses. “There’s no ‘fixing,’ no ‘making it right.’ Not everything can be solved by straightening things out, so get that idealistic notion out of your head. All you can do now is minimize the damage you’re going to cause down the road.”


When Garry had gotten the chance to calm down after the session and think back on it, that was probably not something a psychiatrist should’ve said to his patient. Perhaps that had been scorn. Or maybe an advice, rolled up in cynicism.

He wasn’t sure if realizing that changed anything, as he’d decided he couldn’t leave things like this. He was going to talk to her, not so much to ‘snap her out of anything,’ but to let her know, at the very least, she had the option of leaving him. Always had and always would.

And just maybe…if she decided to leave, then he wouldn’t have to leave her.

Garry turned to the next page of the novel and shifted for a more comfortable position against the mass of pillow and comforter he had squeezed between himself and the headboard. The hum of the heater perpetuated in the silence of his apartment. It was chilly tonight despite still being early August.

Having to squint to read under the light of night lamp, he wondered if it was his eyes going bad, or he needed to return the lamp and get one that was just a little brighter.

“Garry.” He looked up to see Ib walking past the threshold, tugging at her oversized clothes. She’d pulled on one of his T-shirts after showering, said she liked the way it smelled; he hadn’t protested. “There’s water in the bowl. But you left the eggs out so I put them back into the fridge,” she said as she climbed onto the bed.

“Thanks, sweetie. You’ll definitely like lunch tomorrow.” She shimmied under his arms to settle against him.

“There’s no egg,” she said, as if that fact forecasted her enjoyment of the meal. Ib hid her pout behind small arms that folded over his chest.

He chuckled at her sullen look and dog-eared the page he was reading before setting the book down on the nightstand. “Gotta try new things, Ib. You might like it.” He stroked the back of her head. “You ended up liking macarons, didn’t you?”

“That’s not the same.”

“Come on,” he coaxed and lifted her chin to place a kiss on her temple. “One bite. After that, if you really don’t like the beans, I’ll make your favourite omelette. Deal?” Garry didn’t care that he was spoiling her. He simply wanted to please her however he could with what little time they still have together. Mr. Garland had already decided to move him away from her by the end of the year. He’d had time to process it, and now he was just glad her parents kept having to leave her alone in the house for some business gathering.

Ib appeared reluctant still, and he grinned. “Just remember I’ll be really, really hurt if you don’t like the food even though I’ve put so much of my love in it.”

She seemed to think about it as she leant her face into his hand. Her eyes never left his. Ah, that captivating red. She moved on top of him, slow and careful, climbed his chest and rose to his eye level. Their noses touched and their lips met.

She pulled back, smiled. “I’ll kiss it bett—” was all she managed before he pulled her in for another. His heart almost broke from all the happiness swelling inside him when she deepened the kiss. Eyes slid shut. Slim waist beneath his palm. Pleasant weight on his groin. Her hot, stifled moans were making him heady as he rolled over and pinned her under him.

They parted for breath and he trailed his mouth down her neck. Ducked lower to kiss the hollow of her chest, her stomach—brought her knee up to kiss it, too.

“Garry.”

He froze, heart rampant and skin feverishly hot. Hers, too. He swallowed. “Sorry.” He forced himself to move back up to gather her tiny form into his arms. “Sorry.” He didn’t dare to look at her yet and instead burrowed into her shoulder, feeling that sliver of redemption when she hugged him back, just as wordless.

.

.

“I love you, Ib,” he said after a while, tracing the rim of her ear with a distracted thumb. She was using his lap as a pillow again, fiddling with the last button of his shirt.

“I love you, too, Garry.” It hurt so much to hear her say that.

“I wish we could stay like this.” He brushed her hair back and managed a small smile.

Red eyes glanced up at him. “Can’t we?”

“I don’t know. So I wish.” He let his gaze drift so that he didn’t have to face hers.

Ib got up. “We can.”

“I hope so, honey.” He patted her head and started rearranging the bed. “Let’s sleep. Wouldn’t wanna skip breakfast and jump straight to lunch tomorrow now, would we?”

“I want omelette for breakfast.”

“Mm, we’ll see.”

With the lamp turned off, Garry joined her under the comforter and let her curl up in his arms. He kissed the top of her head, felt her relax against him, and finally closed his eyes.

Tomorrow. He’d talk with her tomorrow. And then, they would see.

 

 

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The Long Prologue

  1. Just another day

It was just another day at the Shin·Ra, Edge HQ. Having just recently settled into the city, the situation inside the company had been quite chaotic as they wrestled with the influx of paperwork resulting from all the…strategic mergers with the more influential corporates in Edge.

The company was finally back on its feet, and, equipped with the knowledge of Shin·Ra’s future plans for development, Elena couldn’t help the excited bounce to her steps as she rushed through the long corridor of their new HQ to deliver the latest status reports to her President.

  1. The new branch

They’d bought a large three-storey building nestled in the busier section of Edge. The stairs were creaky woodworks, and the beige hallways still carried that smell of old paper and ink from the former printing company that had resided in the building.

It was a far cry from the Junon mansion that she was used to, but regardless Elena was happy because Rufus was here. And if Rufus was here then Tseng would be too. While Reno would be far, far away.

  1. Are we…safe?

Despite the work keeping her up late into the nights, Elena must admit that the timing of these takeo—these mergers couldn’t be better. Rufus had made use of the rattled state of Edge’s economy after the Deepground crisis to safely plant Shin·Ra back in Edge without much resistance from the people or WRO.

Their recovery was well back on track, but it still didn’t feel real. After so many setbacks, it was hard to find it in herself to believe that Shin·Ra was finally back on its feet.

  1. Maybe not that far away

“Yo, Pres, what’d you need me for?”

She’d run into Reno on her way to Rufus’s office on the third floor. Literally. Documents strewn and papers aflutter, and all. If you asked her, he’d done it on purpose just to mess with her.

Rufus looked up from his laptop as they placed the documents onto his desk. His countenance was unreadable, but the light twitch in his lower lip before he spoke alerted both Elena and Reno to his displeasure. “Reno, I called for you an hour ago.”

“It took an hour to get here from Healen!” Reno exclaimed.

  1. Boss, are you okay?

“What is this?” Rufus asked when she flopped the stack of folders down on his desk. The blue gaze he directed at her was hard and if she didn’t know any better, she would have thought he was annoyed at her, too. But really it was just the lack of sleep getting to him. Because, see, she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“The Junon paperwork sent over by Sir Veld, sir,” she informed, “They need your signature to proceed.”

“Very well,” Rufus nodded, “You may go, Elena.”

“Um, what about the blueprints you said needed to be copied and delivered to Corel?” Their scientists have recently developed a more efficient method of extracting oil, and they were in the process of negotiating with Barret Wallace for installation of the new equipment.

There was a split moment where she thought she saw surprise in his eyes before it disappeared. “Right,” Rufus muttered under his breath, looking tired.

  1. Just…another day?

“You can find it under F.” Rufus pointed to the row of filing cabinets pushed against the left side of the room.

“Sir,” Elena said and went to the cabinet, keeping a neutral face even though a few questions were popping up in the back of her mind. Standing tiptoed, she reached into the F drawer.

The ex-leader of AVALANCHE wasn’t being very cooperative in working with Shin·Ra, but still it was rare to catch the President off his game. For that matter, why would he call for Reno when Tseng was here?

And then she heard her boss say, “I want you to keep tabs on Tifa Lockhart.”

  1. Unease

“I want you to keep tabs on Tifa Lockhart.”

Both Reno and Elena found themselves staring at their boss in shock. At Rufus’s no-nonsense expression, however, Reno straightened his back and did a quick salute. “Aye aye, boss. ‘nything in particular I should look out for?”

“Just keep an eye on her.”

“Um, well yes, but like, is there a code red?”

Rufus seemed to hesitate, “Anything significant, make notes of her plans, her interactions.”

“…Roger that.”

So vague! Could it be something they weren’t cleared to know? Did Tseng know? Was it another incarnation of AVALANCHE? But Shin·Ra hadn’t done anything hostile…Well, those recent takeovers were kind of hostile, but ultimately that was just standard business. It wasn’t anything that warranted terrorism.

  1. It’s probably nothing

“What was that all about?” Elena asked Reno after they’d walked a corridor away from Rufus’s office. “Are we in disagreement with WRO again?”

“Dunno,” Reno shrugged with hands in his pockets. “Maybe he heard or saw something at the WRO event last week. Rude said Lockhart came to those in Cloud’s stead. Man, that guy’s always turning down free booze, and here I’m wishing Pres would take me just once.

Elena narrowed her eyes. “…I think that’s exactly why Rufus isn’t taking you, Reno.”

“Hater,” Reno made a face but soon snapped back to his usual grin, “Anyways, Pres’ just prolly being overly cautious. I’m off to play spy, honey. Woo! Goodbye paperwork!”

Holding the blueprint in her hands, Elena narrowed her eyes at the redhead’s retreating back in slight disdain as well as envy. Not only did he have an excuse from all the paperwork they were having to deal with, Reno had just been assigned to frequent his second favourite place after the Honey Butterfly Inn. It was practically a paid vacation for him.

  1. When work is play

Reno lounged on the booth seat in the corner of Seventh Heaven, an arm draped over the back of the chair as he tilted his head and let the whiskey slide across his tongue and down his throat. Lockhart had a good punch and her mixes packed a pretty good one, too.

As the buzz started to spread through his system, Reno kept a lazy gaze through the rim of his glass, watching the eye candy of a barkeep wipe down the counter before the customers started coming in.

“Are you sure you’re not supposed to be at work or something, Reno?” she asked.

Oh, you have no idea, sweetheart. “Po-sitive, ma’m. Didn’t know I was so unwelcomed here,” he slurred.

“It’s not that.” Lockhart let the gray towel hung over her shoulder and put a hand on her shapely hip. Man, he missed her old outfit that showed off her midriffs. “But what’ll I do if you get fired and have no money to splurge on my bar?” she grinned, and the alcohol in his system was making her seem extra adorable.

“Pfft, no way. Pres was so impressed with my diligence he gave me days off, yo.”

“Good for you, Mr. Drunk,” she came over to grab his empty glass. “Refill?” she offered with a wink.

Damned witch trying to wring him dry. But ah this is work. He could just bill the Pres later.

Reno smirked. “Get me some of the top shelf stuff.”

  1. Person of interest?

It was out of nowhere and ludicrous. Lockhart, a person of interest? Her name hadn’t come up in the company for a good long while and for good reasons.

Day in day out, she tended the bar, tended her children, talked with Shelke Rui, looked out the window and waited for Cloud Strife to come back from deliveries. Her life, as it unfolded before Reno, was utterly boring. The woman was irrelevant to their endeavors and he didn’t see why the Pres had ordered for surveillance.

If anything, Reno glanced at the little girl helping behind the counter, looking into that former Tsviet member would make more sense.

  1. Inclusion

“Haven’t you been around too much lately?” asked a suspicious Cloud, who didn’t have deliveries and was rearranging the tables and chairs after the busy part of the night had passed.

“Shaddup, I’m a paying customer, busboy,” Reno bristled but kept his tone laidback. He didn’t really like Cloud at the moment, what with the shaky, house-of-card deal between him and Lockhart.

Cloud kept his gaze stubborn and was about to say something when Lockhart tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Cloud. Reno’s family. Now come help me with this table.”

And Lockhart was off to the other side of the bar with Cloud in tow. Didn’t even spare Reno a glance.

But as he stared at her back with his chin on his knuckles, Reno felt a tug at the corner of his mouth. Yep, he’d soon prove to Rufus that the woman’s life was bland beyond anyone’s interest.

  1. Unease (2)

Rufus was not happy.

Their President was not happy at all. That much was clear as Elena meekly collected some folders from the drawers in the President’s office. Tension was thick in the air, choking out all other noise except for the sharp tap of a finger on the desk. Tmp, tmp, tmp, which cut through the silence like hot knife through butter.

It had been a week since Reno had started watching the barkeep of Seventh Heaven, and, as far as Elena was aware, the reports coming back had been…uneventful. Tifa didn’t do much, and Reno’s efforts in tapping the phones had only yielded telemarketers on the landline and less than juicy conversations with Cloud Strife on the cell.

Tifa Lockhart’s life was unbelievably routine.

Maybe that was the problem. Unbelievably routine. Judging from Rufus’s sour mood, he clearly didn’t believe it.

  1. A Turk’s Failure

Elena was helping Tseng sieve through the employee records in Rufus’s office.

She did not envy Reno, who stood before Rufus with back straight as a washboard, void of his usual attitude. His hands were clasped in front of himself, in front of his nether region – the classic pose men subconsciously assumed when they felt threatened.

“Reno,” the President’s voice was light, but it shattered the silence hard enough that Reno, and even Elena who had nothing to do with the scene before her, jumped.

“Yes, sir?”

“I’ve made a mistake with you.”

She could see the colour being drained from Reno’s face.

  1. Dismissal

Reno stepped forward. “No, sir. I can do better. If she’s hiding something—”

A raised hand from Rufus cut him off, and he returned to his deflated posture from before, though in his eyes Elena could still see the cogwheels creaking at full speed. Both Elena and Tseng had stopped what they were doing to tune into the conversation, ready to assist their sworn brother if things turned worse.

“Miss Lockhart doesn’t suspect you.” Rufus’s tone of voice dangled in the space between a statement and a question.

“Not at all, sir! I frequent there and Tifa trusts me. She even defended me when Strife started asking questions. I assure you, I won’t be compromised.”

That was rather impressive, actually. It wasn’t every day that Tifa Lockhart defended anything Shin·Ra related. Rufus, however, looked absolutely unamused.

“Tseng will take over the mission.”

  1. Where loyalty lies

“Sir!” Reno began to protest.

“It’s fine, Reno. You are not being penalized. You’ll return to your post.”

“No, I—” Reno felt a twitch somewhere on his face as his mind scrambled to follow the situation. He had a million things he was about to say, but all of them had gone moot. “Um, what?”

“Rude has been overwhelmed by the work in Healen since you’ve been gone. I shouldn’t have let you leave your post for so long. Tseng will take over the mission.”

“Oh…okay—I mean, yessir.”

Rufus sat back in his chair and brushed a blond lock away from his face. “Was there anything else you wished to say?”

“…No, sir.”

“Then you may leave.”

After Reno had closed the door behind his back and taken a moment to recompose himself, he realized he was already preparing himself to view Lockhart as the enemy. Loved the woman, but if she was gonna go against Shin·Ra, who was doing no wrong right now, mind you, then honest to Minerva, he’d bring her down. Her and any of her friends.

“Fuck…” Scratching his head, he strode for the stairs.

So much for family.

  1. Working under Rufus

No penalty? If Elena were Reno, she would be thanking the Planet’s good graces.

Despite how affable Rufus seemed to be most of the time, he ran a tight ship when it came to his company. Ruthless, perhaps; even tyrannical at some points, but they couldn’t deny that Shin·Ra under his leadership had managed to stay afloat despite the abysmal state of this year’s economy.

When he told you to do something, he expected it done and didn’t take kindly to failures. For Turks, his expectation was even higher.

A lot of pressure, but on the bright side it meant he trusted them that much more compared to the regular paper-pushers.

  1. Unease (3)

Reno’s mission had fallen on Tseng now, and that said something. Tseng was Rufus’s aide and the Turk’s leader as well as pride. A figure like him didn’t get assigned to missions unless it was very important.

Elena suddenly realized that whatever that was going on with Tifa Lockhart must be bigger than she’d originally thought.

  1. Déjà vu?

“So I’ll be keeping an eye on Miss Lockhart?” Tseng confirmed.

“Yes.” Rufus looked like he didn’t want to pursue the subject any further, which didn’t make sense to Elena. She knew Rufus had a tendency to be cryptic, but he’d never been this vague with missions before.

Tseng most likely thought the same as her. He remained silent, dark eyes assessing their President as though deciphering a code. “Is there any particular purpose to this mission?”

“To keep watch on her.”

Tseng nodded. “Not a problem. But is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?”

“Just watch her.”

Elena just stood and watched the exchange with slightly narrowed eyes.

  1. Uncertainty

Tseng was in his own office now, accompanied by Elena. He turned the pages of Reno’s reports that Rufus had given to him for shredding, saying that there was no use keeping them.

Watch for Tifa’s plans and interactions, Elena had supplied when she’d found Tseng mulling over the reports, and he didn’t see a problem with the work Reno had done with that instruction in mind.

However, wasn’t Tifa Lockhart’s life a bit too mundane? Maybe Reno had missed whatever that Rufus was looking for, and if that was the case, their target was being extremely careful.

“Do you think this is anti-Shin·Ra, Tseng?” Elena asked from the corner of the room, where she was feeding the older reports to the shredder. “We were doing so well, too.” He could hear the dejection in her voice.

“We should only speculate based on evidence,” Tseng reminded as he moved around the room, organizing paperwork as well as preparing for his mission, “I think Rufus might not even be sure what exactly he wants to find out.”

Something about this mission felt very strange to Tseng, and Rufus’s vagueness was just a part of it.

  1. Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst

Rufus was going off of a hunch, Elena concluded. And while he had always had good instincts for this kind of things…“I hope he’s wrong this time,” she confessed, turning to look at Tseng.

Tseng glanced up from the cardboard box he was shuffling through and held her gaze for a significant moment. “So do I,” he conceded and went back to his work.

It made her feel better to know she was not alone in thinking so. They’d all been through enough, whether it was Shin·Ra or AVALANCHE. The world didn’t need another conflict.

Well, the mission was in Tseng’s hands now. He would surely clear up this cloud of suspicion, be it for better or worse.

  1. Tseng the overachiever

Elena had a glimpse through the notes Tseng had taken for his report. They detailed not only Tifa’s activities but also her relationships, from close friends to passing customers.

Nothing was too minor. No interaction was overlooked.

All the information Tseng collected was…for lack of better wording, stalker level – sans the obsession, of course…and the professional language made it less creepy…or more depending on how you tilt it (he kept referring to Tifa as ‘the target’).

In any case, at this rate there was no way Tifa could hide anything from Tseng.

  1. Just…why?

It was day two into Tseng’s endeavours to capture the daily life of Tifa Lockhart on paper. A lot of paper.

Elena, who had stood in as Rufus’s temporary aide for the duration of Tseng’s mission, gaped in awe at the thickness of the report being presented before Rufus as Tseng stood impassively, waiting for feedback. From next to Rufus, she glanced at their President’s expression to confirm the same awe, or at least a spark of appreciation in those cold blue eyes, but saw none of the sorts. Just a look of resignation, of all things.

Why? Elena wanted to cry out as Rufus flipped over – flipped, not read, flipped – the report with his lips in a thin line as though holding back a sigh.

“You’re very good at your job, Tseng,” Rufus said, which gave her a small ray of hope. Of course, Tseng was good at his job!

“You’re too kind,” Tseng dipped his head for a fraction of an inch.

Rufus rubbed his thumb over the bridge of his nose as if to ward off a looming headache and set down the report. “I’m taking you off the mission.”

  1. A Turk’s failure (2)

Rufus’s words came as a shock to both Elena and Tseng. Her mouth hung open, and Tseng lost his staid demeanour, if only for a second.

The President hadn’t said it, but he hadn’t needed to. They had heard it loud and clear in his tone: ‘I’ve made a mistake with you.’

  1. Pride

“With all due respect, sir, was the report lacking in any way?” Tseng inquired.

Elena wanted to protest with all her might. Lacking? There was no way that report was lacking.

And it had only been two days! Who terminated a spy after two days!?

“No, not at all,” Rufus said carefully, and Elena simmered down a bit. The President placed his hand on the report, “but I didn’t need you to do this.”

Blood drained from Elena’s face as she swore she saw something break in Tseng’s eyes. She wanted to run over and hold him together lest he started falling apart right then and there.

  1. Isn’t that what spying is?

“You didn’t alert Miss Lockhart at all,” Rufus voiced his question like a statement.

Tseng, who’d recovered quicker than Elena could blink, replied, “Yes, sir. The target is none-the-wiser.”

Rufus made a noise of acknowledgement and seemed to be perusing something, his long fingers rapping out a distracted rhythm on the folder of Tseng’s report.

As the figurative clock ticked on, she caught Tseng’s gaze and they exchanged a look. She quirked an eyebrow to ask if Tseng had any idea why their President was acting like this, to which Tseng slowly closed his eyes in place of a wry headshake.

She stifled a sigh. Tseng knew Rufus best and even he was clueless.

“Elena, you take over.”

She straightened her posture. “Yes, President.”

  1. Wait, what!?

Elena had so many questions, so many grievances she didn’t know where to begin.

Did Rufus just give a mission that Tseng and Reno couldn’t do to her? Rookie Elena?

Was she supposed to outperform her seniors? In what way? How? Did Rufus trust her that much?

  1. Rookie no more

Wait, did Rufus trust her that much? If he said she should do it then he believed she could do it. Then who was she to disobey? Rufus always knew best. The current Shin·Ra was proof of that.

So she accepted the mission with wholehearted motivation. She wasn’t going to fail their President. She would finish this mission and prove the worth of Turks in the company.

The clumsy rookie was a thing of the past, much like the old Shin·Ra tower.

  1. A Turk’s failure (3)

“What are you doing here, Turk?”

The sound of a gun being cocked was chillingly loud in the dark alley behind Seventh Heaven, and Elena found herself staring down the muzzles of Cerberus.

She squeezed her eyes and pressed her lips together to keep her scream of exasperation at bay.

The scent of smoke from her notes, which she’d burnt in haste to erase evidence, mingled with the smell of garbage and some substances she’d rather not name, creating a putrid mixture that made Reno’s alcohol breath smelled like sun-dried linens.

Stupid, stupid, stupid Elena.

  1. How she got here

Three days into her mission, Rufus had seemed decently satisfied with the reports Elena was bringing back. “So the old AVALANCHE party is gathering in Seventh Heaven,” he’d mused, “Pay attention to it, Elena.”

And she’d been right on top of it. Allegedly, the gathering was for a birthday, the little boy’s, Denzel’s. But when extremists were involved, who knew what they were really plotting behind that innocuous façade.

Her logic made sense.

As Elena stood with gloved hands in the air, the boisterous sounds of laughter and people moving around inside Seventh Heaven could be heard drifting through the small, bright window above her head.

It made sense…Right!?

  1. A respected senior

“I asked a question, Turk.” The dark voice belonged to none other than Vincent Valentine, the former Turk who now belonged in WRO’s ranks, and her and Tseng’s saviour, i.e. someone she really, really didn’t wish to get on the bad side of.

“Nothing, senior!” she simpered. “J-just a stroll.” Dammit her voice cracked.

Brooding crimson cape dissolving into darkness and bandana obscuring his visage, Vincent was impassive. His glowing red eyes glanced down at the last bits of Elena’s notes that were still burning a cherry shade, then back to Elena.

Elena averted her gaze. She wanted a hole to crawl into.

  1. Could we be the bad guy…? Again?

“What does Shin·Ra want with us?” asked Vincent, gun still pointed at her head.

Very good question, senior!

What did Rufus want with Tifa Lockhart? From what Elena had managed to observe so far before Vincent showed up, the bartender’s life was just as bland as Reno’s and Tseng’s reports.

She saw no sign of any foul play. If anything, their – the Turks’ – invasion of the woman’s privacy was the foulest thing that had happened during the past week and a half.

  1. Boss??

When Vincent saw that she couldn’t, rather than wouldn’t, give a definite answer, he let her go with a warning. Maybe that was why Rufus was so secretive regarding the details.

“President, I take full responsibility for mission failure,” she said with head bowed so low her back could be used as a makeshift table. “I’ve neglected to take into account Vincent Valentine’s keen senses and prior Turk training. It can be assumed that Tifa Lockhart is now alerted to our supervision of her.”

“It’s fine,” his voice startled her first before the meaning sank in and she perked her head up to a – if she wasn’t mistaken – pleased Rufus.

  1. A Turk’s…success!?

It was by no mean apparent. Rufus had a smiling poker face that lost only to Tseng’s and Rude’s stoic ones.

However, Elena could tell, as one of his closest employees, that this was one of his pleased smiles. It was the ghost of a glint that brightened his eyes, the relaxed tilt of his head, and the way he angled his shoulders that made the air around him easier to breathe in.

“…Sir?” Elena didn’t hide her perplexity.

“It doesn’t matter that she knows. Please continue to keep an eye on Miss Lockhart.”

  1. Late night visitor

The metal doors slid open with a ding, and Rufus got out of the elevator. He slid his key card through the recognition pad to enter his penthouse on the seventeenth floor. As soon as he stepped into the darkness and the door closed behind him, he knew there was something wrong because the usual beeping of his security system wasn’t there to nag him for the disabling code.

He immediately reached for the sawed-off shotgun inside his suit, eyes scanning the living room with the aid of the city lights. Before he could contemplate turning on the lights, however, he’d found the intruder.

A caped figure tucked away in the corner, and a pair of red eyes gleaming in the shadows.

Rufus chuckled under his breath and lowered his hand from the gun’s handle. “Vincent Valentine,” he greeted, hitting the light switch to reveal one of the world’s heroes, standing rather out of place against the white-toned wall.

  1. Roles in a story

“I assume Miss Shelke Rui helped you fry my alarms?” Rufus gestured to the silent numeric keypad to his left, “You know if you’d just knocked I would have happily invited you in. Breaking and entering is terribly unbefitting of a man of your status, don’t you think?”

“And yet you’re never above meddling with people’s lives,” Vincent countered from behind his collar.

Rufus shrugged off his jacket before taking a seat on the couch by the coffee table. “I play the part of the villain quite well if I do say so myself. Would you care for tea?” he offered, pulling a tea set out from underneath the table.

“Why are you watching Tifa?”

What tea that was left inside the pot was stale, so Rufus got up to discard it. “Miss Lockhart? Whatever gave you that idea?”

“A Turk was at Seventh Heaven.”

“You mean yourself?”

Narrowed red eyes. “The girl. Elena.”

“Our Elena? I’m afraid I can’t help you. Elena had been off duty as of late. I don’t know how it is in WRO but Shin·Ra doesn’t keep track of—”

“If you hurt her.” Vincent was suddenly right in front of Rufus as he was about to arrive behind the kitchen counter.

Rufus smirked as the silence consolidated between Vincent and himself. Tifa, Tifa, Tifa, look at all the hearts you’ve captured.

  1. The harmful element

Matching the hard stare from Vincent, Rufus could see in those blood eyes the determination to make truth of the unsaid threat. The sharpshooter was too close for comfort, but he wasn’t about to back away even if it meant regaining his personal space.

“I shall heed your caution, Sir Guard Dog. Though, are you sure you should be worrying about me hurting her?”

Vincent’s expression, if there was any, seemed to be more out of mistrust than anger. Rufus walked around Vincent and dumped the teapot’s content into the sink. “Now,” he opened the cabinet right above the sink and counted through the tea jars inside, “would chamomile tea be okay? I can attest that it helps with relax—”

He turned around to find that he was alone in the living room, and the sliding door to his balcony was open, welcoming a chilly breeze into the penthouse.

Coming and going as he pleased. My, such impolite company, that man.

  1. Meanwhile in Healen…

“Rude! You’re back, yo!” Reno popped up from behind a comically tall wall of folders on his desk.

Rude gave a grunt and closed the door behind himself, hanging up the car key on the hook by the door. So Reno had returned while he was gone. Good. He’d been a bit apprehensive to leave Healen with just the new Turks.

“Partner, you gotta hear this,” Reno walked around the desk to saunter over to Rude, hands waving around as he was probably working himself up to telling some crazy story.

“We might go to war with WRO!”

It was crazy.

  1. Was it not obvious?

“I’ll listen later.” Rude usually didn’t mind humouring Reno, but he’d just returned from Junon and was tired from the drive. They also had some more accounting reports that they needed to straighten out before the next meeting and he needed some rest first.

Glad that he had his sunglasses to hide his bloodshot eyes from Reno, Rude pushed a stack of reports onto Reno. “Take care of this,” he said and headed for the bedrooms.

“No, man, just listen! It’s Tifa Lockhart, yo.” Reno followed him and stood between him and the bedroom door, still holding onto the stack of paperwork. “Pres, told me to keep an eye on her. I thought it was just him being paranoid but then he got super pissed when I got no dirt on her—”

“Rufus is interested in Miss Lockhart,” Rude interrupted.

“And then it was so scary when he— What?” Reno’s shoulder gesticulation balked and he looked up at Rude with eyes as wide as dinner plates.

“He likes her,” Rude repeated. He just wanted to get this conversation out of the way and to his bed.

When it seemed that Reno’s slack jaw wasn’t going to move again anytime soon (or any other body part for that matter), he guided his shell-shocked partner aside and went into the bedroom.

  1. Where were you when we needed you!?

“Junon.” Rude deadpanned over the video call with folded arms.

Elena wasn’t sure if Rude was being snappy when he’d answered the rhetorical question. It didn’t sound like him, but he had just been dragged out of bed by Reno to call them.

Even through a blurry video, she could tell that his sunglasses were doing a poor job of hiding his frown, and everything in the way he had his arms folded said he wasn’t happy about this situation.

  1. Person of interest? (2)

Reno leaned against his desk and sighed to himself as he watched Rude talk to Elena and Tseng on the screen. The talk about the shocking revelation regarding Rufus and Reno’s favorite bartender.

It was still out of nowhere and ludicrous, but as fate would have it, Tifa Lockhart was officially a person of interest. Albeit their boss’s interest alone. Man, that was one fine piece of ass he couldn’t make passes at anymore.

But what was this stupid lightness in his chest? He just had to snicker at how ridiculously relieved he was. Reno could focus on how the Pres never let him have the good stuff, but on the bright side, he still had a bar-slash-second-family to drown his sorrow at. As long as they weren’t going to be enemies, Rufus and Lockhart was something he could get behind, and he guessed he’d be fine with just drinking at the Seventh Heaven.

  1. Pride (2)

“Can you identify when was it that his interest started?” Tseng asked.

Somehow, Elena sensed he was more concerned about how he hadn’t noticed Rufus’s…condition…rather than the condition itself.

  1. To spark Rufus Shinra’s interest

Rude seemed to give it a little bit of thought. “WRO’s party in Nibelheim.”

“Over a year ago?” Elena gasped.

“Old news.”

“It’s only old news to you cuz he takes you to those meetings, yo” Reno came up behind Rude and leant his arm on Rude’s shoulder. “Pres hasn’t made a squeak ‘bout Lockhart elsewhere. Damn, he hid it real good.” He chuckled with a shake of his head. “And why haven’t you told us sooner, Rude? Coulda saved me and Tseng the run-around.”

“Not my place to discuss.”

“I guess…”

“Wasn’t that the night he got back early, soaking wet?” Tseng said with a light frown.

Rude nodded. “Shoulder-thrown into the mansion’s fountain.”

Reno whistled.

  1. Unexpectedly devoted

“Damn, it’s still unbelievable he’d been crushing on Lockhart for over a year.”

“Is it though? He is Rufus. He’s good at hiding his personal aff— Reno, stop playing with that folder! You’ve dropped it five times already!”

“I’m sure it’ll survive a dozen more.”

Elena resisted the urge to just end the call right there. Rude had already excused himself to bed and Tseng had left not too long ago after getting all the information he needed regarding Healen’s and Junon’s statuses. That left her with no one to keep Reno in check.

“Rufus is Rufus, but still,” Reno started to balance the corner of the folder on his fingertip, but soon dropped it again. “That’s some serious fixation right there, yo. He barely sees her except for the nights WRO hosts something, and that’s what?” Reno counted his fingers. “Four incidents in total counting the Nibelheim…hem, touchdown. Goodness, I’d have moved onto the next sweetheart in half the time it took him to get a second encounter.”

Elena made sure Reno saw her look of disdain, but he just waved a hand and continued. “According to Rude, she’s been less than cordial to the Pres, too. I wouldn’t have stuck around for that.”

Reno had a point. Considering the kind of man Rufus Shinra was, it was actually very surprising he’d hold onto unrequited feelings for so long.

  1. We are safe

If there was one thing they all respected Rufus for, it was that he knew how to prioritize.

Keeping that in mind, it made perfect sense that Rufus hadn’t attempted to pursue Tifa Lockhart this whole time because Shin·Ra was still recovering from Deepground. They’d been busy, and Rufus had known better that to start what would promise to be very time-consuming considering the bartender’s distaste for him.

It also made perfect sense to assume that, after narrowly avoiding the depression in Junon and safely establishing Shin·Ra in Edge, Rufus had started to pay attention to Tifa because he’d deemed the company to be in safe enough water to start…romancing?

Elena frowned, a finger to her temple. Was he even trying to romance Tifa?

  1. Wait, so the point of spying is…? (or, Unexpectedly alarming)

To court Tifa Lockhart? That made no sense. In what universe would having other people spy on your love interest be productive to the relationship, no matter how non-existent?

Elena slowed her fingers on the keyboard, looking at the information she was typing out on the computer. Because Rufus had been so vague with the mission, both Tseng and she had used the instruction he’d told Reno as their own. Plans and interactions of Tifa Lockhart.

Wasn’t this just stalking your love interest!?

  1. Boss?? (2)

She couldn’t believe Rufus Shinra would be the type to stalk the person he liked. That didn’t sound like him at all. But then nursing an unrequited love didn’t sound like him either.

Elena had also never seen Rufus court anybody. Women naturally surrounded him, and he didn’t bother pursuing those who didn’t. Could it be that he actually didn’t know the proper procedures of courtship?

She had a sudden flashback to middle school, where a boy would ask his friends to ask the girl he liked if she liked him, and shuddered. Goddess, this was outrageous.

  1. Are you just………shy?

“President, here is the report for yesterday.” Elena handed her fourth report to Rufus, careful to mask her hesitation. After the revelation last night, her mission had become an entirely new kind of dread.

“Thank you, Elena,” Rufus didn’t look up from the laptop, “Please put it over there.”

She paused. Come to think of it, she’d never seen him actually reading a report. By the next time she saw her report again, it would already be a pile of shredded paper.

“Was there anything significant?” And there was that question, too. What did he mean by ‘significant?’

“Aside from the fact that Vincent Valentine caught me (oh, the shame!), sir, there wasn’t much…” Elena trailed off, thoughts racing. Wait. Waitwaitwaitwait. If Rufus was really asking the Turks to stal—hem…‘keep an eye on’ Tifa because he was interested in her rather than trying to find dirt on her, then shouldn’t Elena be giving him information like… “But Tifa Lockhart did seem a lot more energetic than usual, which is a given considering she was surrounded by her friends.”

“I see,” Rufus nodded and returned to his work. “From now on an oral report will suffice. Everything regarding this mission will be off the record.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You may leave.”

  1. Between the lines

Elena wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but Rufus’s reaction was rather…flat. Was that not what he wanted to hear?

“Oh, and Elena?” he called just as she was about to leave through the door.

“Yes, President?”

“You’re doing well. Keep it up.”

Elena would catch herself grinning that whole day, earning strange looks from passers-by and customers around Seventh Heaven.

  1. Resolution

It had become apparent to her that Rufus only wanted updates of Tifa’s life, not an uncovering of a sinister coup. Why he continued on being cryptic about the mission remained unanswered, but Elena supposed that was just Rufus being Rufus.

As for her mission, there was no longer a need to sneak around. To act the part of a Turk on vacation, she shed her uniform and started coming to the bar like any other person would. Although she still thought this was a terrible way to woo Tifa, Elena decided she was going to aid her boss’s rather clumsy attempt for now and perhaps give him some pointers regarding a woman’s heart along the way.

End

.

.

At least, Elena thought it had ended.

She wished it had ended there.

  1. Around the Seventh Heaven

The Seventh Heaven bar was on alert.

As Elena sat in her booth, poking the yellow olive in her martini with a toothpick, she could feel an intense gaze scorching the side of her face. She kept her head down and didn’t dare return it, but out of her peripheral vision, she would catch instances of blue mako eyes steadily watching her as a wolf would a trespasser of its territory.

Cloud Strife was not amused.

.

“Girly,” Cid Highwind took a long drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke out through the corner of his mouth as he trapped Elena in front of the bar together with Barret Wallace. “The fuck does that shitty brat wants with the lass?”

“Ain’t nothin’ good fo’ sure.” Barret crossed his arms, scraping the edge of his massive gun arm against the wall next to her.

Elena could only squeak out an intelligible reply, hands to her chest and head between her shoulders.

.

“I’d like to politely ask that you leave the premise, Miss Elena,” Reeve Tuesti, immaculate in his dark blue vest, had sat down next to her at the counter. “It’s not every day that I get to catch up with my friends, and I don’t appreciate an audience when I do so.”

.

At the end of the first week of the mission, Elena was back at her table in the HQ, typing up a contract for Corel, and she couldn’t help but sigh. It wasn’t just the people she could name, even the faceless customers who whispered among each other were like that.

They really, really didn’t like Shin·Ra there.

  1. What of the target herself?

Tifa lay on her bed with an arm over her eyes. Her heart was heavy, and the familiar feeling of unrest gnawed at places inside her chest that she couldn’t quite pinpoint. For once, the thought of Cloud wasn’t the thing that hurt the most.

This time of year was always gloomy for her, with the death anniversary of her father coming up, but some years the season just hit her harder than others.

It was hitting her pretty hard this year.

She wished Cloud was around to lend a shoulder to cry on, but he was busy delivering a package for Reeve to Corel. It was fine. Cloud was going to be there for the actual day, and that was enough. It was supposed to be.

It’s enough, she told herself, Don’t be selfish, Tifa. We need the money.

But her eyes still prickled behind her arm, and she felt a pout tugging down at the corners of her mouth. Through the noisiness of her mind, she could hear the shuffling of shoes outside her door. The kids were worried about her, but she didn’t want them to see her like this. Thank Gaia Shelke was there.

  1. Tears

As the first drop roll down her temple, dropped past her left ear and disappeared somewhere into her mussed mass of hair, she bit her lower lip.

The second drop was in the other eye, big and fat, pooling near the bridge of her nose before it slipped down across her mouth to wet the crook of her neck.

Tifa turned around and buried her face into her pillow before the third could even form. And she remained still, hoping she could choke away the weakness like that. It was so silly. Her father was gone for nearly a decade now.

But then she remembered her childhood, the warmth of large hands on her head and at her back, comforting her through the death of her mother. His callused fingers gripping her tiny ones, leading her through the mountainous paths, pointing at intimidating terrains to show her their quirks and secrets. The kind smile he taught her to have.

She sniffed. Ugh, so stupid. Those weren’t things to cry about! She was going to look horrible tonight. Should she even open the bar?

“I’d say you’re quite beautiful when you cry.”

Tifa froze at the memory. She slowly sat up and pushed a tangled curtain of hair away from her face. She sniffed again, wiping at the drying streaks on her face, and headed for the bathroom to wash up.

Twisted bastard.

  1. Around the Seventh Heaven (2)

Elena stood across the street from the bar after its closing, looking up at the window on the second floor, which she knew belonged to Tifa Lockhart’s room. The bartender had mostly stayed in the kitchen tonight, and the glimpses Elena did catch of the woman hadn’t looked good.

“Oh, not a face I expected to see around here.” In the darkness of the night, she saw a swaying flame then finally noticed the large red beast that had skulked up next to her. Red XIII had only arrived this evening to visit Tifa. “Have you come as a friend or a foe?”

Elena remained silent as she looked into one reflective golden eye. She knew she wasn’t here as a foe. But could she be considered as a friend?

“I see you like late night strolls, too,” she gently denied having come for Tifa.

“Ah, yes, there aren’t quite as many humans on my path.”

  1. Boundaries

“I see,” Rufus said simply the next morning that Elena reported to him in his office. He made no effort to move from the couch, with legs propped on the white ottoman and fingers knitted over his stomach.

Elena didn’t know if she was just projecting her own thoughts onto his blank slate of an expression, but she dared think he looked worried. Just a little bit.

“There’s no need to watch her today,” he decided. “You can have a day off.”

“Yes, sir.”

  1. Boundaries (2)

Though the President said there was no need, Elena was still worried and decided to drop by the Seventh Heaven anyway. Perhaps it was unprofessional of her, but she was off duty.

“Go back to Shin·Ra, Turk.” Vincent Valentine hadn’t been hostile, but he’d blocked Elena not too far off from the entrance. And she’d listened to him. It was the death anniversary of Tifa’s father and all of her friends had come to pay their respect. There was no place for a Turk there tonight.

Such a morose custom the Nibelheim folks had.

  1. Around the Seventh Heaven (3)

It was unusually hot for an autumn day, and Elena would kill for a tree shade. But tree shades were almost non-existent in Edge (Shin·Ra and WRO were going to get to that soon), and the bar wasn’t going to be open until much later; so she was stuck dallying around in the stuffy shadow of the empty house nearby.

“Miss Elena, here you go!”

Elena wiped the sweat rolling down her cheek and turned to the bright smiling countenance that could have rivalled the afternoon sun currently shining above Edge.

“Thank you so much, Marlene!”

After Marlene Wallace had returned from school, the little girl had offered to bring her a bottle of juice from the fridge. It was a lovely gesture, although Elena actually wished the girl had offered to bring her to the fridge so that she could climb inside and hide there until winter decided to come. But she supposed this was fine too.

Next to the little girl, Denzel Wallace cast her a cautious look from behind his brown bangs but said nothing. The boy, Elena sensed, was still deciding whether to like her or not. Distrustful was one way to put it, smart was another.

“Don’t drink too quickly,” Denzel said suddenly, and something in his manner as he did so reminded her of a watered-down version of Cloud Strife’s aloof attitude. At her surprised look, he added. “It’s not good to drink cold stuff in the heat, Tifa said.”

Elena resisted a giggle and smiled at him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

  1. In Corel

“Hey Tseng, what’s with Shin·Ra’s funny business around Teef’s bar?”

Tseng stared at Yuffie Kisaragi from across the old coffee table in WRO’s Corel HQ.

“Ya can tell me, Tseng,” she grinned, wiggling an eyebrow. The young girl had her legs folded on the worn brown couch and was leaning toward him with eagerness in her eyes. “C’mon, Tseng. Pretty please?”

“There is no business, Miss Kisaragi. What Elena does on her days off doesn’t concern Shin·Ra.”

“C’mon, one Wutain to another?”

“Miss Kisaragi, please, about the oil reservoirs…” he said with waning determination. A half-hour meeting regarding Shin·Ra’s involvement in Corel had been stretched into one hour, and still there was no sign of an end.

“Oh, all right…” Yuffie sat back in her seat, and they continued to discuss, thankfully with no more digression until the contract was signed.

As Tseng got up to leave, Yuffie shuffled close to him, face inches from his, and whispered, “If Rufus is planning something evil and you’re bound by contract, blink once.”

Tseng blinked.

  1. For the love of…

Coming back from North Corel, Tseng found that the heatwave they were experiencing in Edge was still quite heavenly compared to the harsh desert climate. The latter had been especially unkind to him considering the Turks’ uniform, and, as the helicopter took off the landing pad in Corel, a small part of his mind had wondered if they should have the Turks assigned there wear something more accommodating.

However, as comfortable as he was standing in Rufus’s air-conditioned office, Tseng couldn’t help the tiredness mixed in with his voice as he reported, “Also, WRO might try to interfere with the matter concerning Tifa Lockhart now.”

Sitting at his desk, Rufus glanced up from the Corel mine contract.

“What happened?”

Tseng held back a sigh.

  1. Laughter

It wasn’t that the little antic was any clever prank, or even an original one. But someone who would have the gall to mess with Tseng of the Turks, and even drive said Turk to the point of resignation, deserved credits long overdue.

Rufus gave a final chortle and wiped the corner of his eye, shooting Tseng an apologetic look. Not that the Turk needed the apology, standing there with a faint smirk of his own. Rufus wasn’t concerned because there was little the self-righteous WRO could do regarding this matter, but, ah, Yuffie Kisaragi. Such an amusing creature.

How regretful. If the young princess of Wutai wasn’t so closely aligned with WRO he would have recruited her, then put her in Edge indefinitely.

It would be nice if a certain barkeep could laugh more.

  1. The chase

“I must say, Rufus, while you are free to fancy whomever, what exactly are you trying to do?” Tseng’s question had Rufus pausing in the middle of turning a contract page. He’d known the cat was out of the bag with the Turks for a while now, but he hadn’t counted on Tseng to point at it.

“Ah, you know, some harmless fun.”

“Am I to believe you define a possible future of bruising and broken bones as harmless?” Tseng had his arm clasped behind his back, that inquisitive smile on his mouth.

“Parts of a process, Tseng. You make her sound like such a violent woman, but it’s just her way of showing love.”

“You meant hate.”

“Have I said something else?” Rufus smirked and the chuckle Tseng offered in return sounded humourless.

  1. A broken status quo

Whatever feelings Rufus had for Tifa Lockhart, they had survived over a year on crumbs worth of interaction with the bartender. An impressive feat, indeed, but knowing Rufus Shinra, he probably hadn’t been nursing a lonely heart and feeling sorry for himself. Far from it. This was a man who would only ever maintain the status quo if he was satisfied with it.

So the question that should be asked here was why now? Why had he chosen to disturb the status quo?

Elena had assumed it was because Shin·Ra was starting to do well, but Tseng thought that was only a small part of the reason. Something had to have triggered this the last time Rufus had seen Tifa, especially when that meeting had occurred not too long ago at the WRO party and right before this whole chain of events had gone into motion.

Especially when Rufus had returned that night with a bruised cheek he’d refused materia treatment for.

And Tseng worried.

Because, for all his talents and wiles, Rufus also tended to be impulsive.

And Rufus was surely acting on impulse regarding Tifa Lockhart.

  1. Concern of an aide (or, Pride (3))

“I’m glad you are enjoying yourself, Rufus, but might I advise that you don’t play with her heart?”

Tseng could see the casual smile on Rufus’s face slipping into the guarded smirk he often resorted to in order to mask his fluster. Fluster that would very soon turn into annoyance. Ah, there it was.

Though Rufus maintained an open body language, he held Tseng’s gaze in a confrontational manner, challenging Tseng to overstep the line. Tseng knew better than that. He’d said enough. His words had done their job, and now he needed to back off.

“I didn’t know you cared for Miss Lockhart so. Should Elena and I be worried?”

“No, sir,” Tseng tucked his chin closer to his chest. “I simply would like to still have a President to serve after this is over.”

Rufus scoffed, in slightly better humour. “I’m in love, Tseng, not a war.”

But Tseng wasn’t sure Rufus drew a distinction between the two. Regardless, he chose to let the matter rest for now. “So I see.” The President had decided, and as his Turk, Tseng could only oblige.

  1. Around the Seventh Heaven (4)

Shelke Rui was one of the few people that didn’t act hostile to Elena, with the others being Vincent Valentine, the children and, shockingly enough, Tifa Lockhart (though the woman simply ignored her aside from completing her drink orders).

On the second Thursday night, business at the bar was going slow, and Tifa had gone to check up on stocks at the back. That left Elena with Shelke and the odd clusters of customers who occasionally erupted into a hybrid of laughter and heated debates. As Shelke moved around to clean the counter, she asked, “What kind of man is Rufus Shinra that the Turks follow him?”

Elena tore her distracted eyes from a customer she didn’t recognize drinking alone in the corner to meet Shelke’s mako eyes, which were patiently waiting for an answer. She knew Shelke wouldn’t hold it against her if she remained silent, but the larger part of her wanted to answer even though she didn’t quite have an answer ready.

“Well,” Elena took a sip of her bitter cocktail and placed the dainty glass down on the counter, twirling the stem between her fingers. “I can’t say for others, but for me, it’s how he always know…always so sure.”

That was why it had worried her to see him hesitate on this mission.

She respected him. Not dissimilarly to the way she respected Tseng.

  1. Actually, can I take that back?

Friday came, and Elena was reporting to Rufus, who lounged crossed-legged in the armchair in his office when Cloud Strife arrived (more of a barged in manner) as WRO’s messenger. Apparently, WRO had issued a formal request, signed by Reeve Tuesti himself, demanding that Shin·Ra ceased its attempts at prying into WRO’s volunteers’ private life.

Still in his seat and holding the WRO document in one hand, Rufus glanced over it and smirked. An unrestrained, full-blown smirk completed with the short escape of air that indicated a silent but derisive snort.

He was having the time of his life messing with people, wasn’t he?

  1. Animus

It was just the man he wanted to see.

When Cloud Strife had pushed his way in before the escorting Turk could announce their arrival, Rufus had been caught off guard, and by the time he recollected himself it was already late to level the playing field. Cloud and his short stature seemed to tower over Rufus, with only a small coffee table separating them.

Though having to look up was as a disadvantage, the last thing he wanted to do was let his opponent see a hasty attempt to regain equal footing. Besides, spend enough time in a wheelchair and you’d find that, with the right attitude, sitting was a powerful position to assume.

So Rufus didn’t bother getting up, just as Cloud hadn’t bothered with the greeting and simply proceeded to shove a legal document in his face.

  1. Confrontation

“As I keep telling WRO, Shin·Ra has no interest in Miss Lockhart,” Rufus said, not forgetting to concoct a helpless sigh to accompany his words, as he placed the WRO letter down on the coffee table. It hadn’t taken much acting because, as entertaining as this was, he had not intended to get so many people looking into his personal affairs.

“Then tell your Turks to stop bothering Tifa, Rufus.”

“If this is about Elena’s visits to Seventh Heaven, once again, Cloud,” he punctuated his voice with frustration to complete the charade, “I do not control where my employees go on their days off.”

“She’s standing right here,” Cloud gestured with a jerk of his chin. “Doesn’t look very off duty to me.”

“She’s not at this moment, no,” Rufus conceded, “Elena here had just returned from her vacation and is currently requesting more time off. I, too, am at a loss at what to do with this girl.” Out of the corner of his vision, he saw Elena giving him a look.

“Fire her?” Cloud glared at Elena, to which she responded with an exasperated, “Hey!”

The laugh that left his lips didn’t need any artificial effort as he rested his face against his knuckles. “And here I’m the one they call cold-blooded. We could really use someone like you—”

“I’m not here to play games.”

“—in one of the branches. How about coming to work for Shin·Ra—”

“Not interested.”

“—We pay our executives better than WRO—”

“Rufus Shinra!” Cloud folded his arms, a movement that, according to Rufus’s observation, meant the other man was stopping himself from getting physical. Immediately, Elena and another female Turk, who’d escorted Cloud here, inched closer to Rufus’s side. The two women were visibly on edge because, even without the oversized swords, Cloud still posed a very real threat.

“Go have your fun elsewhere.”

“I promise, Cloud, I derive no pleasure from our recent line of conversations.”

“Leave it to Rufus Shinra to smirk in the face of woe.”

“I can’t say I’m ashamed of my resilience.”

“You will stop bothering us.”

“You will understand,” Rufus kept his voice mellow and tapped the letter on the table, “The action of one person does not speak for his or her organization. Shin·Ra has not transgressed in the manner stated in this document.”

“You mean like how Shin·Ra never destroyed Nibelheim?”

He chuckled and sat back in the armchair. “Is that your best accusation, Cloud? Dragging up the past?”

  1. This kind of man…

As the verbal tennis quieted down to a hush, Elena felt lightheaded. Rufus had looked so embittered when he gave that wry chuckle, and his posture as he leant back seemed to exude a sort of tired arrogance, a frustration at the general mistrust for Shin·Ra and himself.

With him looking like that and the sincerity in his voice, it was easy to forget that he was, indefensibly, guilty on all charges. He was lying through his teeth regarding Tifa (although he’d probably say he wasn’t because Shin·Ra truly wasn’t interested in the bartender) and had practically thrown Elena under the bus, twice!

Granted, Cloud, in his irritation and hot-headedness, had argued himself into a corner, but it was terrifying how Rufus had claimed the moral high ground in a conversation where Cloud was in the right.

Elena was working for such a person.

  1. Declaration of intent

With all the poise of a man carrying the weight of the world, the President pushed off the armchair and rose to his feet, straightening out his jacket.

“I will respect WRO’s request as good faith. Please tell Reeve I look forward to our cooperation in Corel. However, do know that I’ve also given Elena the extra vacation time she wanted, and what she does during her time off is entirely up to her.”

Cloud looked like he’d just bitten into something sour, Rufus smirked, and blue gazes clashed silently.

“How very generous.”

“Not at all.” As Elena was busy gauging Cloud’s expression and the hard clench his jaw was set in, Rufus continued on, “You must understand, Cloud, it’s only good business to take care of my employees. And Elena has proven herself indispensable to Shin·Ra.”

There was a delay before she realized what had just been said and stole a glance at the President. It-It was a lie, right?

Cloud waved a dismissive hand and headed for the door. “Stay away from Tifa.” The warning was for everyone in the room, but Elena had more than a feeling it was directed mainly at Rufus.

“Give Miss Lockhart my regards for me,” Rufus said, stopping the swordsman at the threshold, “All right? Elena?” He pronounced her name lazily with his smirk, and she just wanted to run for cover from the glare Cloud set on her the following moment.

  1. Sleepless

Stupid, it’s a lie. Obviously a lie! Stop it! Stop. Thinking. About. It.

Elena rolled onto her back and draped an arm over her forehead, counting the ticking of the clock that was invisible in the darkness. She was tired. But she felt like tossing and turning. She felt like kicking the blanket off the bed and pace around the room at the risk of tripping over the baggy pyjamas trousers she had on. Damn Rufus and the things he said that always walked that fine line between truth and lie.

“Elena,” a strong arm slipped underneath her and pulled her to bare chest, “Rufus wasn’t lying. You are indispensable. Now go to sleep.” His voice was a soft, groggy mutter, rumbling against her hand, and a few stray strands of black hair fell to her cheeks.

“B-but Tseng…”

“Stop thinking about another man in my bed.” He cupped her face with his other hand and placed a quick kiss on her temple. “Sleep.”

And as his breathing evened out, Elena remained still as a statue, face pressed into the crook of his neck by a firm but gentle hand behind her neck, blushing furiously.

Now she really couldn’t sleep.

  1. So here I go again…

By Monday afternoon, Elena took some actual time off to go get coffee and a nice break from her…‘vacation.’

She was sitting at an outdoor table of the coffee shop in a busier section of Edge, enjoying her hot drink and a slice of creamy, creamy cheesecake when her eyes caught a red gaze from across the street.

  1. This is too sudden

“Where is he?” Tifa Lockhart asked with arms crossed and a dark look on her otherwise beautiful face, the fingers drumming on her biceps spoke volumes of her impatience.

Elena just stared up at Tifa, in the middle of tilting the cup of cappuccino against her mouth. Surprised would be an understatement, as this was the first time Elena had been confronted by Tifa herself in the entire length of the mission.

And considering that Tifa was still in a bad mood after having just argued with Cloud about the line at which spending time in a church (Cloud had been very insistent that the debate was about a church and not the church) ceased to be healthy and soothing and crossed over to self-tormenting, Elena knew Tifa was the last person anyone would want to offend right now.

So excuse her if she was a little freaked out. “I-I’m not following you right now, I swear Tifa! Rufus gave me a day off a-and…” she faltered, her own words running through her mind again, “n-not that I’d follow you if it wasn’t my day off. Shin·Ra isn’t interested in you in the slightest!” She was just digging her grave deeper and deeper, wasn’t she?

“You’ve already made that quite clear with my friends, Elena, and no, I don’t believe you, either.”

Guh, the one time she really wasn’t following the target.

“Where is Shinra?”

Elena stared and eventually managed a very intelligent “What?”

“Rufus Shinra. He said to ask a Turk for his whereabouts whenever I liked.” Elena’s eyes went wide at this. “Last time I checked, you’re a Turk.”

When had Rufus said that!?

  1. Good job, Elena

Elena was still chasing after Tifa Lockhart down the streets when she ended the call to HQ, dread bubbling in her stomach as the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place in her mind.

‘Good job!?’ President, there’s a fuming martial artist heading there for your life!

She had, at last, understood the true nature of her mission and wished that she was in Rufus’s office to shake him out of his-his…idiocy.

It wasn’t that Rufus wanted to stalk Tifa for information or some silly updates on her life. He wasn’t a clumsy love-stricken fool. Good Gaia, no. He knew what he was doing. He simply wanted to annoy Tifa (and oh how he’d succeeded!) with the existence of a spy and prompt her to come see him in some twisted form of mind game. Worse yet, this feat depended on the spy failing at discretion.

That was why Reno and Tseng had ‘failed’ the mission.

That was why she’d ‘succeeded.’

And just now she’d finished the mission with flying colours.

So why wasn’t she even a little bit happy?

  1. Common sense

“Don’t you dare stop me, Elena,” Tifa warned dangerously over her shoulder just as Elena caught up with her.

Elena had no intention to. She had a thing called common sense that told her not to engage angry beasts. She just hoped her President also had the same thing.

  1. He doesn’t have it

The HQ, thanks to Elena’s phone call, was prepared.

No security guard stood in their way as Tifa burst in through the front door, kicking open heavy mahogany like it was cheap plastic. Employees clambered to part way as the bartender strutted through the front hall with the deadly grace of a black panther, long dark hair swaying and measured strides that belied her temper.

The door to Rufus’s office was also opened none-too-kindly, doorknob hitting the drywall with a slam so loud that Elena didn’t doubt a crater had just been carved into the plaster.

At the far end of the room, Rude and Reno looked over their shoulders, shock and surprise all over their faces. Behind them was Tseng, who stood next to Rufus.

Their boss himself sat in his chair in all his pretentious glory, paperwork in hand as though he’d been working when he was so rudely interrupted. But, oh Gaia, the smirk on his lips, it sparkled with a rare childish glee that told her he was going to have fun at everyone’s expense, not excluding his own.

Elena had given Rufus too much credit. He wasn’t a middle schooler. This was elementary school, where boys teased the girls they liked.

  1. The end (of the beginning)

“Shinra,” Tifa could have tamed Gongaga wolves with her glare alone.

“Miss Lockhart,” Rufus slowly got to his feet, setting down his ‘work.’ “What have I done to deserve this honour?”

Elena resisted the urge to slap her forehead in response to the amount of smugness that was on Rufus’s face. He looked short of gloating about his victory to a game whose rules were known to him alone.

Rude(who, for some reason, had a white bandage across the bridge of his nose instead of his sunglasses) and Reno seemed utterly confused and hesitated between guarding Rufus and getting out of the way. They had probably just arrived from Healen. Meanwhile, Tseng stood vigilant by Rufus’s side, his entire body language spoke of his nervousness about their dim chance at stopping Tifa should her fuses blow.

“You are not seriously asking me that.” Tifa pushed past Reno and Rude.

Rufus chuckled, brushing his bangs back. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but you did say you haven’t got time for me the last time we part.”

Was that was what this whole mess was about!? Elena felt lightheaded all over again. And the horrifying part was that…this was only the beginning, the first of Rufus’s wooing attempts. If you could call it ‘wooing.’

The Turks in the room met eyes for a brief second, and it was enough for all four to see they were thinking the same thing, with varying degrees of grief.

They were about to get very, very busy.

 

Next Chapter

The Madman’s Memories

October 25th, 0010
-Cloud

Several long, throaty croons echoed in the air, the idyllic noise tapping on his consciousness, rousing him from the darkness of his mind. He cracked his eyes open to the shimmering sunlight stabbing through the vaults of lush foliage that seemed to span out indefinitely around him.

Almost immediately, his training back in his SOLDIER days kicked in, and Cloud snapped up straight, rubbing his face to wipe away the sleep.

In his groggy state, he blindly shuffled out of the sleeping bag, receiving an affectionate nudge from behind from his chocobo that helped him get to his feet.

He mumbled a thank you, patting the bird’s head as it ruffled its golden bed of feathers, but the peck Boko gave him told him she was just asking for breakfast.

His backpack was leant against the trunk next to where his incomplete fusion sword was lying in its scabbard. Half of it was still inside the Fenrir that Shin·Ra now had in custody.

After feeding Boko some of the dried fruits and nuts he’d packed underneath other traveling tools (in case Boko decided to treat herself to a buffet), he made his way to the nearby stream to clean himself up.

He could smell wet mud the closer he got to the sound of running water, his heavy footsteps snapping dry twigs and leaves underneath the sole of his combat boots as he strode through the sparse carpet of grass.

With the cessation of mako mining, the nature around Fort Condor had eventually recovered. It wasn’t too hard to find small woods such as this to borrow as shelter for the night. Still, the area had its barren parts, like bald spots that would never quite heal, and traveling through them reminded him of Edge.

It was only when you’re away from home that you realize how much you miss it.

Cloud took off his gloves and raked his fingers through greasy locks before scooping up some water to clean his face. Then he moved onto his neck and arms. He was filthy, could feel the dirt and grime peeling off of him at the touch of water, and he couldn’t wait until he reached the next town.

Mideel. That was where he was headed. Because that was where he was.

Cloud didn’t know how, but he’d been seeing flashes. Memories, fragmented thoughts, pieces of sensory that weren’t his. And he just knew it was Sephiroth’s.

It puzzled him that Sephiroth had been laying low, that no reports of calamity or mysterious deaths had been cropping up.

But Sephiroth, mad as he was, was still a scrupulous foe. There must be some kind of scheme at play, and Shin-Ra must be behind it.

They were probably waiting for Cloud to lower his guard, and they would probably have succeeded if it wasn’t for that stormy night in Shin·Ra’s headquarters.

The events were still fresh in his mind. He’d snuck into Shin·Ra’s facilities after scaling the rain-beaten walls and taking care not to alert any guards. Deep underground where the rooms consisted of slick steel and intricate machinery, he’d run into him, Sephiroth.

In front of the green glow of what looked like functioning mako reactors was a large but lithe figure Cloud only knew too well. They met eyes for a split second, Jenova’s cells reacting to each other, a belittling chuckle echoing between the steel walls, and then the alarms went off.

Red lights flashed all around Cloud, clashing with the mako glow as his eyes scrambled to follow Sephiroth’s movement.

Sephiroth was fleeing like the coward that he was, and Cloud gave chase, through the multitude of maze-like corridors, hard-soled boots clanging on perforated metal floors, up the stairs and past the thick doors sliding shut. The building was going into lockdown.

Cloud made his way into the vast hallway above ground level, where he was submerged in darkness. A flare of lightning bursting through the large windows showed him a glimpse of flowing platinum hair as it fluttered and disappeared around a corner.

Before Cloud could go after Sephiroth, he heard the frantic march of Shin·Ra guards heading towards him.

Not long after that, the entire mansion had been on his tail.

Cloud dunked his face into the cold stream to calm his nerves. Reliving that night always got his heartrate out of control. At times like these, he just wished he could hear Aerith’s voice.

He could still hear her from time to time, just bits and pieces of her words, her laughter, guiding him, encouraging him.

Why was that the case? Was her power growing weaker? Or was he growing apart from her? Was he moving on too quickly?

He still loved her. So, so much. His heart quivering with joy with every whisper that reached his ear.

She was no illusion of his mind, and he found himself paying attention for hours after she’d gone silent, just for the off chance that he could hear her one more time that day. No word was enough to explain his feelings for her. She deserved them, at least in his opinion, deserved every bit of his love, and no one had the right to ridicule his devotion.

Even if he was only pining after a dead woman.

In any case, he’d heard enough to understand. She told him to find Sephiroth. Stop the maniac. The same old story.

Just how persistent was Sephiroth? Why couldn’t he just remain a memory? How deep was his hatred for Cloud that he couldn’t let Cloud live his life in peace?

He had a peaceful life now, with Tifa and the kids. And he would be damned if he let Sephiroth destroy it like he had in Nibelheim. Never again would he lose his family. Not to Sephiroth and not to Shin·Ra.

Cloud stopped his scrubbing and stared at his hazy reflection in the clear stream. Water had matted his bangs to his cheeks, many tiny droplets rolling down his skin, landing back into the stream with soundless ripples.

His family.

He wondered how Tifa and the kids were doing. They must be worried sick for him, and he felt like he’d failed Tifa. He had promised to stay in contact, but that was impossible now that he was a wanted man.

Cloud whipped his head to the sides to shake off some of the water and got to his feet.

Reeve and their friends would protect them. For now, he just needed to focus. Defeat Sephiroth, end Shin·Ra’s ambition. Get Fenrir back from Shin·Ra.

Then return to his family.


xxx xx, 0009
-Sephiroth

The land he’d woven around himself was empty, a blank canvas carrying the chilliness of snow and ice. It was a place the lifestream couldn’t reach. A place of purity, with only the cold solitude he’d come to embrace, having once laid dormant in the Crater.

Sephiroth paused in his strides and turned to look over his shoulder. Glowing serpentine eyes regarded the pair of lovebirds that had come in uninvited again.

They stood just outside of his reach, the SOLDIER with his rusty weapon, the girl in her pink dress, and the warm flux of lifestream surrounding the both of them.

He remembered.

The familiar mako blue gaze, the broadsword that used to belong to an old, distant friend. Zack, the SOLDIER that reminded him too much of that friend. And then there was the little flower girl whom he’d slain.

Aerith was the name. He’d heard the lifestream whisper it many, many times before. The Cetra. Last daughter of the Ancients. The reason his advent had come to its humiliating end.

“What did you call me?” he asked smiling, but was anything but amused.

He remembered.

Over the course of his life, Sephiroth had been called many things.

Perfection, when Hojo felt like patting himself on the back.

Monster, as he brought the stubborn country of Wutai to their knees.

Hero, during the contemptuously servile portion of his life before he learned of his heritage.

Powerful, as noted by his bitter nemesis.

Insane, following his glorious ascension into godhood.

And in no certain order, distant, rigid, foolish; arrogant and conceited; insubordinate and obdurate; calculating, cold-blooded, ruthless, evil…

The list went on, and while he didn’t necessarily agree to some descriptors, they were nowhere as insulting as—

“A coward,” she dared to repeat, green eyes set in an intrepid glare.

When Sephiroth had walked away, clemency had been far from what he’d intended for these trespassers. The last of Mother’s flesh was gone and his quest for vengeance had once again been set back. There were more important things to do, and he simply couldn’t be bothered to deal with them.

And yet she dared accuse him of cowardice.

Loyal Masamune materialized in his hand at his silent beckon. It was inconsequential, really. What did it matter what the puny Cetra thought?

Yet the more the word played over in his mind, the more galling it sounded to him.

Sephiroth spun around and swung his sword, sending a sickle of condensed energy at them, which Zack easily guided the Cetra to sidestep.

The lifestream was truly a reprehensible place. It was so difficult to vanquish the pests and nuisances here where distance and separation didn’t exist. With only brushes of consciousness sliding off one another, even grazing their seams had proven to be arduous.

Zack pulled the frail flower girl behind himself and unsheathed his own weapon, taking a cautious stance. The killing intent Sephiroth had let loose in abundance carved a snarl onto the SOLDIER’s mouth and worry filled his blue eyes.

He remembered.

Zack was ever the transparent simpleton, and so much like Cloud. How he wanted to destroy the vermin.

However, his quarrel was not with Zack at the moment.

A coward? The accusation was completely unfounded. It was most demeaning. And most impudent. A coward ran and fled to avoid harm unto himself. A coward was pitiful kind whose life reeked of putrid fear; the dishonorable type that Sephiroth scorned.

He who bore Jenova’s will, a lauded General even before he came to learn of his Mother. He who was most worthy of being called a God—was not a coward.

And he realized he had nothing to prove.

Sephiroth reversed his grip on Masamune and lowered it to his side, holding his head high and proud.

“Your attempt at insults is lamentable if not slanderous, Cetra.”

“I merely tell it as it is, Sephiroth,” she said from behind her protector. “You are a coward.”

He was tempted to frown, his smile long vaporized from his lips. The annoyance bubbling inside him overflowed and infected the atmosphere around him, sending long silver locks swaying.

“N-now, Aerith, let’s not antagonize the guy any further,” Zack nudged the girl with an anxious laugh, both hands gripping the Buster Sword tighter.

So the once garrulous puppy had garnered some discretion in the time they hadn’t met.

“I’m not antagonizing anybody,” the flower girl crossed her arms. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Zack groaned. “You’re not wrong, but maybe not say that to his face? What are we gonna do if he sulks and shuts himself in again? It was such a pain breaking in this time.”

Sephiroth had remarked loosely. It appeared some things couldn’t be fixed even in death.

“But Zack, I’ve just about had it with him.”

Oh, she, the constant trespasser, had had it with him.

Sephiroth laughed and hefted his sword, pointing it at the girl who stood just outside of his blade’s length. So close, yet so far. If this were the earthly realm, the Cetra and her puppy would have long perished.

But unfortunately, if they did not will a connection with his soul, any attempt to touch them would be impossible.

“You call me a coward even as you hide behind your guard dog, Cetra. That’s hypocrisy if I’ve ever seen it.”

“I’m not hiding—Zack, let go of me, will you?” she directed a frustrated huff at the SOLDIER before turning back to Sephiroth, “Anyways, I’m not hiding.”

“Prove me wrong then,” he smirked at the dark frown Zack directed at him when the SOLDIER caught on to his intention, “Come closer, Cetra.” Sephiroth lowered Masamune and held out a gloved hand. “Show me you would still demonstrate the same temerity without Fair between us and I’ll listen to what you have to say.”

“No.” Zack immediately protested, but Sephiroth paid the man no heed. This was between him and the Cetra.

“Do we have a deal?” Sephiroth kept a steady smile as he searched her green eyes for any sign of fear that would prove him right.

“Deal,” she declared at her companion’s shock. And admittedly, to Sephiroth’s shock also.

“Aerith, what are you doing!?” Zack held the Cetra back by her arm as she stepped forward.

“It’s okay, Zack,” she turned, dared turn her back to Masamune, and squeezed her lover’s hand. “He won’t hurt me. Or he’ll be the coward he denies to be.” The last part was obviously directed at Sephiroth.

Zack furrowed his brow and threw a quick glance at Sephiroth. “Are we feeling the same thing? No, scratch that, are we seeing the same thing? He’s not even trying to hide it. Aerith, he’s mad. He’s insane and pissed,” the SOLDIER exclaimed with a pointing finger that Sephiroth found highly impolite.

Aerith giggled. “I’ll be okay.”

“You’re so sure.”

“Yes, the Planet says so.” At Zack’s unconvinced look, she smiled and brushed his cheek with her fingers, “Zack, you’re with me. I’m never surer.”

With that, her hand slipped from Zack’s hold and she turned back to Sephiroth.

Sephiroth tightened the grip on his sword in anticipation. The connection was forming between them, her consciousness worming its way through Zack’s protective presence and brushing up to his own.

Despite her bravado, it was apparent the Cetra was still apprehensive in her approach, and he could have sensed her gauging scrutiny of him with his eyes closed.

Not one to be impatient, Sephiroth was surprised that he was entertaining the idea to just ensnare her right now and end her tentative dance around him.

The moment her hand placed onto his, he grabbed, yanking her to him and raised Masamune’s tongue to her neck.

“Aerith!” Zack shouted, about to charge in when she stopped him.

“No, Zack, it’s okay.” She lifted her gaze to Sephiroth, inquisitive green eyes unyielding. “He’s just trying to scare me.”

“And you, dear Cetra, are terrified.” Sephiroth’s smile widened. With her so close, it was impossible for her to hide her shaken state from him.

“So?” she challenged with a tilt of her head, “What matters is that I fulfilled my end of the deal. Are you going to fulfil yours?”

Sephiroth was silent as he observed the girl who had been the bane of him from the very start.

She was a tiny little thing. The current of life swirling around her mimicked wind that carried her chestnut-colored locks aflutter.

Hers was an existence akin to that of the lifestream, rich and endowed with the Planet’s essence, threatening to burn him at such close proximity.

He couldn’t help a scoff. Threatening him? How precious. He would see how long her bravado lasted.

Then it occurred to him that they had actually never been face to face, especially not with such intimacy like this, despite all that had happened. What he knew of her was only through the love-stricken eyes of Cloud Strife.

And he must admit he could see why the poor puppet was so smitten.

He remembered.

It was always her back that he saw in person. All this time she had been running away from him. She was the true coward.

He was going to rip that brave mask from her face.

With one swift movement, he lowered Masamune away from her and could feel Zack’s unease lessen on the side. “Speak.”

Finally! he felt her think and narrowed his eyes, projecting his annoyance right back at her.

The Cetra gazed around, seemingly taking in the barren snow and ice of the realm as she wrung her hands together. “Sephiroth.” Her green eyes returned to him with a flicker of some sort of emotion that looked awfully like pity. “Come with me,” she said before he could reflect more on what her expression had meant. “Return to the lifestream like you were meant to.”

Sephiroth raised a fine brow. He honestly expected something more…debatable. It was hard to imagine the Cetra to want him in the Planet’s veins after everything that had happened, so he figured this foolhardy solution came from the Planet itself.

“So the lifestream still wishes to devour me. It doesn’t know when to give up.”

You don’t know when to give up, Sephiroth,” she countered, “and the lifestream is angry. It’s telling me to leave you alone and return.”

“Oh?” Now this was interesting. Sephiroth gave a belittling laugh, his consciousness circling the Cetra’s like a snake would a mouse. Zack was hovering close, ready for any foul play.

“And here I thought you obeyed the Planet’s will to the letter.”

“The Planet is wise…”

“I concur. It has accepted that it cannot win against me, however belatedly.”

“…but not infallible,” she finished with a frown, displeased at being interrupted. “I don’t believe letting you be is the best course of actions. I can’t rest until I know you can no longer harm the Planet. And you…” her address of him was briary, “deplorable as you are, should still be allowed to find your closure.”

She was serious, and that made this joke so much more amusing.

“Well, Cetra, you know what my answer to that is. If you flee now with your tail between your legs, I will not pursue.”

“Why do you keep doing this, Sephiroth? Are you not tired? Lay your hatred to rest and be with the Planet. You’re still its child.”

“I do not tire. Don’t lump me with those puny beings you try to protect.”

“Don’t you look down on them.” Her palms gathered into fists by her sides. “You are not any better than others, you egomaniac!”

“I am in every way better than them.” He bent down close to her, his long silver strands flowing down to her chest. “My Mother is Jenova, and I will find my closure when I’ve avenged her for all the wrong this Planet has done—”

A flare of scalding temper splashed at him, cutting him off as the girl raised her voice, “And this is exactly why I said you’re a coward. Stop that!”

“Easy, Aerith.” Zack was suddenly right by her side, both blocking and shielding her. “Don’t antagonize, remember?” the SOLDIER muttered through his teeth, more to the Cetra, but with their conscious minds so interwoven, any exchange was for all three to hear.

“Listen to your lover, Cetra.”

“No, Zack. I’ve had it!”

The Cetra’s eyes were set on Sephiroth, her consciousness climbing over Zack’s to get at him. Sephiroth was taken aback by her anger and found himself in a stupor.

“You ask me why you’re a coward, Sephiroth? Well, gosh, where to begin? How about the fact that you condemn humanity to justify your tantrum? How about the fact that you’ve convinced yourself others’ lives are worthless just so you could feel noble cutting them down?”

She was being held back by Zack, but nothing could have stopped her words from reaching Sephiroth as it poured out of her through the lifestream.

“You, Sephiroth, are a coward because you feel glory in defeating those weaker than you, the people who were powerless to defend themselves. You are a coward for using innocent people to do your dirty bidding. Cloud… All those children, all those people… Those poor boys…”

Her voice cracked, and she choked back the fierce emotions burning in her eyes.

“You are a coward because you have closed your eyes and ears to all reasoning in order to protect your fragile ego. And you, dear almighty Sephiroth, are a coward because you can’t even admit that this—all of this suffering and tragedy was solely for your demented and misplaced desire for vengeance!”

By the end of her diatribe, she was heaving, Zack’s arm planted firmly around her, and there was a moment of absolute silence as Sephiroth mentally shook himself.

He looked at her, at her eyes full of scorn and disdain as if he shouldn’t exist.

As if he really were the contemptible coward she spoke of.

“Shi—” Zack uttered a curse, his broadsword meeting Masamune with a deafening clang. The SOLDIER’s face was caught in a grimace as he shouldered the weight of the attack. In contrast, Sephiroth’s expression was calm as a lake, but all mirth in him was equally gone.

Sephiroth pulled back and swung at the Cetra again; this time Zack was better prepared, blocking his blade with ease.

“Zack!”

“I’m okay.”

Zack was fortunate in that this was a battle of pure will, for there were no physical measures in the lifestream. However, just because Sephiroth was without the physical advantages of being Mother’s descendant didn’t mean his will was any less superior.

His ire poured out in tandems. His sour mood distorted the ground, the air, and black anger dyed white snow an ashen gray as lightning ripped across the sky above them.

Then thunder came, roaring, carrying Sephiroth’s icy rage that distracted Zack for a fraction of a second.

With a flick of Sephiroth’s wrist, Zack was pushed from his place by the Cetra’s side.

“Aerith!” Zack leaped at Sephiroth, trying to return but was promptly knocked back, an invisible barrier stood in his way. “Damn it!”

The SOLDIER slashed at the wall of energy with his sword and hammered his fist at it to no avail.

Sephiroth must applaud the Cetra for remaining so still with Masamune pointed at her throat. “Do continue,” he said softly over the indignant crackle in the air.

She was trapped, and there was no rush in slaying her. Though he could feel her soul palpitating with fright, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to see her tremble, see her on her knees begging for forgiveness before he ended her pitiable existence.

“But call me a coward another time with such vapid reasons and I’ll make you regret not returning to the lifestream when you still could.”

Her lips were a thin, angry line.

“Now, you were saying Mother’s revenge on humanity was unsound?” His smirk dared her to challenge him again.

“Aerith! Don’t!”

She did. Ignoring Zack’s words, the girl spat, “Don’t you pull Jenova into this. Your deeds were done for yourself alone! And even now you make them out to be some honorable quest that you’re on. What kind of man are you?”

His serpentine eyes narrowed. “Watch your words, Cetra. My loyalty to Mother will not be questioned.”

“Your threats are empty, Sephiroth. You won’t kill me. If you wanted to, this blade would have already sliced through me.”

She placed her hand onto Masamune’s length and pushed it away from her.

“You know why?” she asked as she slid closer, her eyes daring him to cut her. “Because deep down you know I’m right. That to kill me right now would be to prove my words true, you are indeed a coward. And the mighty Sephiroth would hate that, wouldn’t h—”

Her voice died with a yip from the gloved hand that had seized her throat, holding her up to his eye level, her feet dangling near his knees.

“Let her go, Sephiroth!” Zack’s muffled shout echoed through the barrier as the girl pried at Sephiroth’s hand. Their distress resonated with each other’s into something frantic, almost wild, but all was muted to Sephiroth.

He remembered.

Sephiroth hadn’t felt this much displeasure even with Cloud.

Though he loathed the blond with a passion fueled by Ifrit’s darkest fire, there had still been a sort of glee as they fought; a sort of anticipation for the end where he would watch as the life left the puppet’s crippled body and finally declare his grand triumph.

With the Cetra, he felt no such glee, nor did he foresee any satisfaction waiting for him after slaying her.

“You are correct that I’m unwilling to cut you down,” he whispered close, enjoying her expression as it danced between defiance and terror. “It would be no victory for me to savor, after all.”

A particularly powerful blow drove into the barrier but failed to break through. Zack’s frustrated shout followed.

“But I think I’ve found a solution to my problem.”

As Sephiroth’s lips curled, the flower girl’s face turned into one of pure horror. Yes, fear! Despair!

“No…” she grunted out.

“Let’s see what happens when I destroy your ‘courage,’ Cetra.”

“Aerith!”

It all happened very fast. Zack charged forward at full speed, but his tackle met no resistance as Sephiroth had already brought down the energy wall. The Cetra had long been discarded to the side, screaming, “No! Zack!”

She chased Sephiroth, but Masamune had already been swung, drawing a graceful silver crescent that ate cleanly through Zack’s chest.

Sephiroth could feel it, his opponent’s will being cracked by an overwhelming sense of defeat.

“No! No! Zack!” The Cetra was by her lover’s side, one moment too late, supporting him as he staggered on his feet. “No no no, I can’t lose you a— Zack?” she balked when Zack held up a hand.

Sephiroth couldn’t hide the shock on his face as he witnessed Zack’s will flickering back to life, burning strong when the SOLDIER should have already been reduced to nothing.

“I-I’m fine—” Zack started, but was cut off by the Cetra throwing herself before him. The SOLDIER immediately grabbed her and jumped out of the way just as Masamune came down, narrowly grazing both of them.

Sephiroth recovered his stance and tightened his grip on Masamune.

Something was wrong.

Because there was no touch in the lifestream, cutting down an opponent here was very different from the physical plane. However, Sephiroth had fought the lifestream before. He’d known the feeling of cutting through a soul, along with the anguish wails of a disintegrating life force.

Sephiroth hadn’t noticed before, but it didn’t feel like he’d severed anything when cutting through Zack.

Ignoring the agitation and confusion in the pit of his stomach, he chased them down and attacked Zack again, the SOLDIER pushing the Cetra back and deflecting Masamune with a wide swing of his broadsword.

Good. That clash of weapons, that spark together with the jarring screech of metal against metal. That he knew. It was normal. Now…

He swung left and right, effortlessly pushing Zack back each time their blades rammed against each other.

He could feel it, loved it. The thrill of battle was both a haze and clarity. Movements that were natural as breathing. Moments of split-second decisions where the line between calculation and spontaneity blurred.

Zack proved himself worthy of his title as a SOLDIER First Class, his fighting style bearing resemblance to Angeal’s contemplative swordplay, yet also brimming with the reckless retaliation of Cloud Strife.

It was truly a shame Sephiroth had no patience to prolong this one-sided duel.

The flower girl’s consciousness hovered around them in a desperate attempt, but unable to intervene in the slightest. “Zack! Listen!”

Sensing the opportunity, Sephiroth put all of his strength into a blow that staggered his opponent. Zack audibly growled as he was knocked off balance, and Sephiroth smirked, imbuing Masamune with his destructive will.

He saw Zack’s soul quiver from recognizing imminent death as he proceeded to cut the other man in half.

Or he was supposed to have.

Zack was whole. The soldier’s consciousness was still very much there, only…curled up, for lack of a better description.

Rescinded from Sephiroth. Placed out of his reach.

It didn’t make sense. The connection between their souls was still there, and even if it did get severed, Zack couldn’t have done it quickly enough to get away unscathed.

Sephiroth grew…restless. It was an emotion he’d long forgotten, and one he didn’t like feeling. It was throwing his thoughts into disarray as he tried to make sense of what was happening.

“Zack, are you all right?” The Cetra pushed herself between Sephiroth and Zack, helping her lover back to his feet.

“Completely,” Zack replied, dazed and shaken from the experience.

“So this is what they meant…” she muttered breathlessly.

“What is this?” Sephiroth demanded.

The Cetra turned back to him, her expression was a mixture of shock and pity. Next to her, Zack seemed to be deciphering something from her face.

“Answer me! What is this?” he asked again, a sudden sense of powerlessness overtaking him. “Cetra, what have you done?”

“The lifestream…” She averted her gaze for a moment, wringing her fingers below her chest as her eyes followed something visible only to her.

And then Sephiroth remembered.

He remembered surrendering all of his memories to the lifestream.

He remembered losing ‘himself’ to remain himself.

So why did he remember?

 

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

The Keeper’s Fury

xxx xx, 0009
-Sephiroth

Weak. Crippled. Impotent.

The powerlessness that drugged his body was humiliating, pathetic. So unbearably mortal. If pride were like flesh, he would already be dead. But they wouldn’t be rid of him so easily. They would never be rid of him. He would never be a memory. He was the supremacy. He was going to be their God.

Yet here he was, left licking his wounds like a common street animal. His mind howled for vengeance his aching limbs weren’t capable of.

The waves of life came to lap at him, with whispers, with contempt and anger, and he vaporized them with ardent hot will. Filthy, plebeian existences unbefitting of his majesty.

He buried himself further in the fold of midnight downs and weaved a land of dark blizzard. A desolate realm of frozen streams and silenced souls, free of inferiority. His own dominion where his eyes could close awhile, just a moment, as his ambition brewed.

But blessed solitude ended too soon. They were coming, lively spring intruding dead winter, and summer heat melting away heavy snow.


November 6th, 0010
-Tifa

“Oh. Holy. Leviathan.”

Amidst the rambunctiousness of her bar, Tifa could hear her younger friend’s chirpy voice pronouncing each word with the theatrical value she too often resorted to when she wanted attention. It probably had to do with some random article in this week’s issue of Edgy Style Tifa had given her.

“Uh…Tifa?”

Tifa felt bad for neglecting Yuffie even though the girl had come to visit after hearing the news, but right now she was more interested in finding out where her last bottle of Behemoth’s Punch had gone to. One of her regulars was getting noisy about not having his order and she really didn’t want to start throwing people out when the money had barely begun flowing in.

“Tifa!”

“Yes, Yuffie?” she asked, head still inside the wine cabinet beneath the counter, moving several bottles of Edonis and Firaga to the side. The moldy smell that sat deep within the pores of the cabinet’s pressed wood was beginning to make her feel claustrophobic as she dug further inside. Where had she put it? She remembered having seen the bottle yesterday and making a mental note to restock on it. Had she misplaced it? Or perhaps that had been the day before because she also remembered pouring the vodka for someone’s Sleep Dealer.

“Tifa! Tifa! Tifa!”

“One minute, Yuff!”

“Hey sweetheart! Is my Corel’s Screw ready yet?”

Tifa groaned. She didn’t know anymore. Ever since she came back from WRO’s headquarters, she hadn’t been all that adept at keeping track of things. And she’d found that it didn’t bother her as much as it should. The Corel’s Screw can go screw itself.

When Tifa had gone to see Reeve a few days prior about Cloud, she didn’t know what to feel. And when she returned later that afternoon, she’d had a whole gamut of emotions to feel, none of them remotely positive.

As it turned out, Shin·Ra was looking for Cloud. That was why Cloud had disappeared.

She had felt hurt. Why hadn’t Cloud contacted her? If he needed help, he knew she would gladly give it. Did he think her so useless, think so little of her despite all they’d been through together?

She had been sick with worry because Cloud might not even be able to call for help. It iced her soul with dread that Shin·Ra might already have him. And right now he could be lying on a cold dank floor, at the mercy of whoever held him captive.

And then she had felt guilty. To think that she had been wishing ill on his journey so that he may come back to her a little sooner, when all along she should’ve spent every second of the day praying for his safety. The poor man had been out there all by himself, hunted for some sick purpose.

Ultimately, she had been angry. Still was. She was angry at Reeve for having kept information from her and even daring to say Shin·Ra deserved the benefit of a doubt. She was angry at herself for thinking the worst of Cloud. And, oh, was she angry at Shin·Ra.

It was always Shin·Ra. The name that plagued her life with pain and misery. The name that struck both fear and revulsion into her heart the moment heard.

When Reeve had told her a year ago that Shin-Ra was doing good, Tifa had laughed, laughed so hard until she realized no one was laughing along with her. Not Cid, not Yuffie, and especially not Reeve, whose face had been gloom condensed. Reeve’s distaste for Shin·Ra probably was second only to Tifa’s, but in light of news about Shin·Ra’s charitable endeavors in providing jobs and rebuilding the economy, it had been impossible to even suggest weeding them out.

Still, those monsters couldn’t shake off their scales, now could they? They were finally baring their fangs again. How dare they come after Cloud? If it were up to her, their headquarters would already be up in flames and whatever insidious operation they had been concocting in there would never see the light of day. But alas, the world was still too needy to swat away a helping hand, no matter how bloodstained that hand was, and once again, Tifa was stuck pacing the premise of her home as she waited for Reeve to gather more information on Shin·Ra.

“Tifa!”

“What, Yuffie? What?” Tifa closed the cabinet and climbed back up to her feet, exasperated. Grabbing the wine glass she’d left on the counter and turning to her regular, she began, “I’m sorry, Keith, we’re all out of—”

Yuffie reached over the counter and nabbed her by the cheeks, pivoting her head to the right. She frowned at Yuffie. “I’m a bit busy here, can’t you—” Her voice died in her throat as her eyes followed Yuffie’s frantic pointing at the far corner of the bar.

On the side, her regular gave her a dismissive grunt and asked her for another drink…probably. She hadn’t heard anything past the grunt as numb shock crept through her mind.

Before she’d left WRO, Reeve had advised her to ignore Shin·Ra when they started tapping the pulse around her. She told him that was too much work. She didn’t have any information on Cloud anyway and it would be quicker to just send the goons home with a few broken bones as warning. However, Reeve was adamant she would be doing nothing of the sorts because Shin·Ra could use that as a reason to come to Edge.

And he’d made her promise, so she’d reluctantly nodded.

And because Tifa always kept her promises, she told herself she would only kick the goons out as a barkeep, not because they were Shin·Ra.

It was her bar. Her home. Her territory. There was no way she would let Sh—suspicious individuals come around acting like they owned the place. So she kept tabs on any unfamiliar faces and listened in on her regulars in case they caught anything she hadn’t.

She’d expected a spy, some well-fed lapdog parading around in slovenly clothes trying to pass as one of her people. She’d expected interrogation, a pack of Turks all donned up in tailored suits and pressed shirts, surrounding her and acting all haughty with Shin·Ra’s backing. She’d even expected someone higher up, like Reno, the redhead had at one point been a regular.

What she hadn’t expected was an immaculate, pristine white suit that didn’t just stick out like a sore thumb in the dark corner of her bar, but also mocked everyone and everything in its presence.

Blue eyes and blond hair, but not the blue eyes and blond hair she had been waiting for, no.

Rufus Shinra.

The name that her brain matched to the face might as well have come with some incredibly vile odor because she couldn’t help but scrunch her nose at it.

Tifa quickly fulfilled Keith’s new order and made her way towards Rufus and his black-clad lackeys.

“Teef!” Yuffie stood in her way, apprehensive, arms flailing. Whatever glare that was on her face made the younger girl shrink back. “Uh, I think you should come at this, y’know, peacefully. We don’t know anything for sure yet.”

Yuffie of all people was telling her to calm down. Of course, Yuffie was of the WRO, who was in a partnership with Shin·Ra and afraid to offend.

Partnership! Tifa had kept her silence since it was none of her business, but, for the sake of all things holy, she’d been under the impression Reeve was working to keep Shin·Ra from taking over Junon, not working with them.

Yuffie threw a furtive glance over her shoulder at the corner table, and Tifa did the same, sans the furtiveness. Rufus had his back to the wall, Tseng and Rude sitting across from him. She could feel the tension emanating from the backs of the two Turks, but Rufus was ever so placid. They were talking still, discussing the papers in their hands, and not paying a single look in her direction.

Tifa felt a muscle on her face twitch and resumed her march, but Yuffie held her by the wrist.

“Remember how Reeve said we shouldn’t give them more reasons to be here?” Yuffie said in a singsong tone you’d usually use with misbehaving little children.

Tifa snatched her hand back, partly offended. “A little late for that now,” she muttered darkly. Rufus Shinra was here, and when had the Kraken ever surfaced before its tentacles? Shin·Ra was probably already squeezing the life out of a company or two in Edge.

“Aw no, Teef!”

It took her three steps to get to him. Even when she was this close, even when his Turks sprung from their seats and shielded him from her with wary looks, the infuriating man still didn’t deem her worthy of his attention, eyes lingering on his blasted documents.

The Turks stepped up to her, two heads taller than her, the angle of their shoulders silently warning her of their devotion to guarding Rufus. Tifa wasn’t intimidated. She glowered up at them with fists balled, ready to send them flying to gain access to their master.

The noisiness of the bar died down to murmurs and she could feel all eyes were on them. Tseng’s hand was hovering cautiously near his lapel, while Rude’s was in his pocket, no doubt gripping the handle of his baton.

“It’s okay, Tseng, Rude. Stand down.”

The Turks gave her a once-over, then lowered their hands away from their weapons, stepping aside.

Rufus remained seated as he smiled, nay, smirked at her. It was the same smirk that had been plastered over his face as he’d sentenced her to death with the offhandedness of a man tossing away an uninteresting book.

Setting down the papers, he asked, “How may I help you, Miss Lockhart?”

His voice could have greased an engine for days, and the syllables that formed in her mouth tasted like acid before she spat, “What do you want?”

He quirked a brow before nodding. Tapping his disgustingly manicured fingers on top of the table, he appeared thoughtful as his gaze swept over something to his left.

Before she could wonder about it, he replied, “Some whiskey,” pointing at the shelves behind the counter, eyes glinting with what could only amusement.

She nearly acted upon the urge to bash his blond head in, but considering the assault charge she just knew it would land her, Tifa stayed her hands. “Do not test me, Shinra! We both know you’re here for something else, and you’ll get it over my dead body!”

Her shout came out incredibly loud, and she realized her bar was now dead quiet. She could imagine how she must look to her customers. Nose flared, teeth gritted, and cheeks flushed with the rage she was trying to keep in check.

Tifa Lockhart, bartender of Seventh Heaven, the woman who kept her composure in the face of the most erratic of drunks, had a temper? Who knew? Tifa hadn’t known either. She hadn’t even realized how much she hated this man until this moment. Just where did he get the nerve to think that he was in any way welcomed in her bar? Even without being responsible for Cloud’s disappearance, she would still have thrown him out just for being the arrogant and pretentious bastard that he was.

“I apologize.” It was almost amazing how so few words could contain as much mockery as it did civility. “I’ll tell the truth now. I was eyeing the gin, though, I didn’t realize you were so protective over your liquor stock.”

“Tifa!” Yuffie shouted, but Tifa gave her no heed.

The wood of the table in front of Rufus caved from the clenched fist that was slammed down, crushing the paperwork lying between his hands. Tifa was halfway over the table, short of pouncing Rufus. To her right, Yuffie had her shuriken out, and Rude grunted. A sharp tip of the shuriken was pressing at his exposed neck, preventing him from tackling Tifa. To her left, however, Tseng had already put distance between them, gun pointed at Tifa’s head.

“Miss Lockhart, please step away from the President,” requested the Wutain Turk.

“By the Gods, peeps, everybody needs to chill!

Her sole attention was on Rufus, the cool blue gaze that challenged her red hot one. He hadn’t even flinched. Oh, he fancied himself untouchable, didn’t he?

“Where is Cloud?” she demanded.

There was at best a split moment delay before his features rearranged themselves, pale eyebrows rising away from his eyes to produce a surprised look so genuine that it just had to be fake. “Pardon? Is Cloud not your errant lover, Miss Lockhart? I imagine you’d know the answer to that question better than I,” he paused, leaning in closer. “Or is there a reason that has convinced you otherwise?” He was too close for comfort, his gaze cutting into her. The breath that brushed her cheeks was warm, but it caused goose bumps down the length of her arms like a spray of Northern Crater’s wind.

They were breathing the same air, and as much as the notion nauseated her, Tifa refused to back away now and let Rufus think she was in any way afraid.

It occurred to her that this wasn’t the first time. He’d also hovered like this, though just for a moment, on the balcony of the old Shin·Ra tower, when he’d told AVALANCHE he wanted to rule the world with fear.

And it sickened her that he might just have what it took to make truth of his ambition.

Something. There was something about him that was so disconcerting. Not like Sephiroth. Sephiroth was menacing because he was downright dangerous. Rufus, however, wasn’t threatening in the least, yet his presence instilled a muted anxiety that she was helpless to fend off. Even now she could feel it nag at her from behind, unable to pinpoint where the anxiety was coming from as it seeped into her heart slowly but surely.

Maybe it was the way he was a shade too pale to be healthy. If he were unconscious, she would delightfully think he was a fresh corpse.

Maybe it was his eyes. They didn’t glow from mako, didn’t bear any ominous coloration. Just a normal pair of blue irises, yet somehow they chilled her to the core.

Maybe it was that he dared challenge fighters like her despite being the frail man that he was. He puffed himself up with all those layers but he really wasn’t fooling anyone.

That he dared sit here so self-assuredly with only two Turks protecting him, one of which was being held down by her friend while the other was using a gun inside a cramped space, made her wonder if he had something up his sleeve. She knew he hid that shotgun near his chest. She knew she could deliver him to his equally deplorable maker before the weapon even left his pretty suit, but just maybe…

It was the age-old pen versus sword philosophy. For all the wood and brick she could shatter, the invisible strings Rufus had wrapped around his fingers could be pulled as he pleased to tear down mountains. Worst of all, he would not hesitate to pull them. Before, Tifa probably wouldn’t have been all that concerned about authority and ramifications, but it was different now. Her life was different. Gone was the time when she could just disregard the consequences and follow whatever her heart said. She was a law-abiding citizen now. She had a family. She wasn’t just responsible for herself, but also the two children sleeping above her bar, and a thoughtless action against a figure like Shin·Ra could destroy everything she had and even implicate those she cared about.

Though, the lifestream would dry up before she allowed Rufus the satisfaction of knowing she was, Gaia forbid, scared.

Then she saw it. The slightest shift in his expression, from a cold conniving look to one with an added touch of malicious amusement. That smirk on his face, in his eyes, mocking her, ridiculing her for her cluelessness. Gaia, he knew. Rufus knew where Cloud was.

“You—”

“Miss Lockhart, step away.”

She glared up at Tseng’s impassive manner over her shoulder, muscles tensed, thoughts racing in her head. They knew. They knew. Where was Cloud? What had happened to him? What had they done to him? Consequences be damned. She would kill all of them and get the answer out of Rufus’s dying breaths if she had to—

Tifa was yanked away from Rufus by a slender pair of arms that had locked themselves underneath Tifa’s. “Tifa, come on, girl.” Yuffie was pulling Tifa back with little success, but it was hindering Tifa’s movement enough that she couldn’t obey several impulses that were less than benevolent.

“Let go, Yuffie!” She struggled but knew there was no breaking free without hurting Yuffie. She wasn’t out of her mind enough for that. Not yet anyway. A dislocated shoulder healed—Oh Gaia, what was she thinking? “Let go! Whose side are you on? It’s because of him that Cloud’s missing!” Her eyes returned to the man in white, hating him so much, wishing that mere glares could kill. “If he’s dead then Cloud can come back!”

“Miss Lockhart. This is your last warning.”

“Tseng, you really don’t need to worry. I’m already—holding her back,” cried Yuffie as she wrestled with Tifa. “Ugh, see?”

The way Tseng’s hand clutched his gun betrayed his nervousness, and Rude had taken out his baton in a defensive stance, putting himself between Tifa and Rufus now that Yuffie was no longer keeping him at bay.

In complete contrast with his Turks, there was no turmoil to Rufus’s demeanor. With the unhurried air of someone lounging in his own home, he leant back in his seat and crossed his legs. “Will he, now? Miss Lockhart, I was informed your Cloud left you and your children rather voluntarily.”

“Rufus!” It was Tseng that shouted in admonishment, his finger still taut on the trigger.

Tifa felt Yuffie’s arms tighten around her, anticipating an outburst. Tifa anticipated it, too, and against her better judgment she was ready to indulge it, to pulverize Rufus Shinra and do the Planet a favor—was what she’d like to say; but that was just a bonus. She simply wanted to wipe that conceited smirk from his face.

The outburst never came. All the raging heat that had swirled inside her chest now collected around her eyes and that familiar prickling were growing more apparent. All alarms inside her were blaring. Not now, not in front of all these people. Gaia, not in front of Rufus Shinra.

His words had bitten harder than they should have, and she hated him so much. Him. His stone cold Turks. Yuffie for stopping her when she still had the strength to aggress. Reeve who’d probably sent Yuffie like she couldn’t take care of herself. Cloud for leaving her. And herself for being herself.

“Teef?”

Tifa shook off Yuffie’s slackened hold and turned away, blinking at the blurriness in her vision. Her head was spinning from all the blood that was rushing to it, and she felt like choking on her own rapid breathing.

Rufus Shinra. He walked into her bar and the first words out of his mouth had been lies. She’d expected no less, for he was a filthy, shameless liar.

That was why hearing it from him was so staggering. The truth. The bitter truth that she still wouldn’t have Cloud even if Shin·Ra didn’t exist.

She breathed a shuddering breath, acutely aware of her hot cheeks. She was better than this. Push it down. Lock it up.

“Rufus! Tell him to put away the gun, would ya? He’s scaring people.” Tifa could just hear the akimbo stance from Yuffie’s voice.

That irritating chuckle. “We’re the only ones here Miss Kisaragi.”

“Gee, I wonder whose fault that is! Are you gonna tell him or do I have to use my crazy ninja skills?”

“But of course. Tseng?”

The safety lock clicked.

Tifa glanced around and acknowledged with a defeated sigh that her bar was completely empty save for herself, Yuffie, and the trio of unwanted guests. She wasn’t surprised. The moment Tseng had brought out the gun, she already knew her business had gone to the dogs. Her shoulders slumped, she turned back to Rufus and renewed her glare at him.

“Leave,” she grated with all the anger she could still muster.

“My, are you sure you don’t want to get me the gin? I seem to be your last customer tonight.”

Her jaw was wired shut as she pronounced, “Leave.” She felt Yuffie sidling up to her, hugging her arm as though in case she decided on murdering Rufus. Imagine that. She was perceived as a loose cannon by Yuffie Kisaragi.

“Pardon us, Miss Lockhart,” Tseng said as he and Rude gathered at Rufus’s side. “It is not our intention to jeopardize your business. We will compensate your profit for the night.”

Rufus threw a fleeting frown at Tseng but nodded. “Yes, as my Turk has said, I’m more than happy to do that.”

“I do not want your money. Leave before I make you,” she hissed.

“Hm, all right.” He almost looked disappointed.

“You have no—” She blinked, feeling like she had just lost her balance. “What?”

“Eh?” Yuffie squirmed next to her, most likely as shocked as she was.

“I don’t believe I’ve said anything puzzling, have I? I shall leave for the night as per your request.” Rufus smirked, getting up from the table as Rude tidied up their wrinkled paperwork and put everything into a brown folder. When the Turk was done, Rufus nodded at him. It was a cue for Rude to go on ahead, as the Turk promptly bid her a wordless farewell and left. Then Rufus pulled out his wallet.

“I already told you—”

“Miss Lockhart,” his voice brooked no argument as he set down a thick wad of gil on the table, “I insist.” A smile was playing on his lips. “This should also cover the cost of replacing the table.”

Before she could oppose, Rufus was already out of the door, Tseng closely behind him.

And then there was silence.

“Man, what the heck was that!?” Yuffie had put away her shuriken and started stomping her feet, “The most pointless browbeating, that’s what!”

Tifa just watched the empty doorframe, waiting for…what – she wasn’t quite sure, until the sound of a car engine rumbling to life reached her ears and she finally relaxed her shoulders.

With all the vigor of a sloth, she pulled out a chair to slump onto. The sizzle of adrenaline in her blood was dying down, leaving her drained and lethargic. Tifa could have trained a wild chocobo without greens and still walk away with more energy.

“You don’t think he came just to mess with us, do ya? Is he really that free? And he has the gall to act sooo busy whenever WRO visits!”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Yuffie.” This was about Cloud, right? But it made no sense that the President himself would deign to go gather information in her dingy little bar. With the pay rate Reeve said they’d been offering to attract employees, she doubted it was personnel Shin·Ra was lacking. Was Rufus just that desperate for Cloud?

Whatever that he’d come for, she hoped she hadn’t given it to him.

“Hopefully this is the last I ever see of his mug.” Send her spies, Turks, what-has-he. She’d gladly take them all over Rufus Shinra.

“You know, he said ‘for the night.'”

Tifa looked up at Yuffie, who had a hand on her hip. “…What?”

“Rufus said he would leave for the night.

No.

“Teef, I’m pretty sure he’ll be back.”

 

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Like Father Like Son

.

It probably runs in the family.

Just how much could a child resemble its parent?

He didn’t know about other people, but he could say with certainty that his son was just like him.

Soft-spoken. Intelligent. A cheeky, smug little brat, and, as some would describe, devilishly handsome—just like him.

Rufus would have scoffed and shaken his head, but he couldn’t muster the strength to, and instead just stared listlessly ahead of him, a weary finger fiddling with the unfamiliar trigger of the empty pistol.

Bottom line was, he loved his son, even if he didn’t tell the brat that quite enough.

Or at all.

The brick wall before him was grey in colour, with dark moss tucked in every crack and indent, and graffiti scaling its height. It was grey like the rest of the slums of Edge, and grey like the shade of his life these past fifteen years or so.

Rufus sat alone on the dirty street that was still wet from the downpour, with puddles of what he hoped to be pure water collected in the potholes, reflecting a faded crescent moon drowning in ink.

Head hung, ashen locks falling into his face, he could feel the dampness of the alley seeping into his clothes as he leant against the rough surface of the adjacent wall for support.

This was what the President of Shin·Ra had been reduced to. A fugitive hiding in the slums, hoping that trashcans and a metal staircase would shield him from inevitable doom.

It was so silent around him, save for the sound of critters scurrying across strewn garbage and rubbles, but he’d been with Turks long enough to know silence didn’t necessarily mean absence.

The putrid stench of trash and stagnant mud filled his nostrils, but he hardly cared as long as he was still breathing.

He heaved shallow, laboured breaths, and the pain, oh, the pain was threatening to burn him alive even as the rest of his body mimicked the temperature of a corpse. He felt cold from the chilly autumn wind. From his soaked suit, smeared with black and red, and from the blood loss.

His left hand was laid over his hip, supposedly to press down on the wound, but as had been established he wasn’t the strongest man alive at the moment.

Ha, alive. He’d been a dead man walking for Gaia knew how long now.

He felt so weak, and it hurt. Rufus had been through way worse, but never before had he felt so hopeless and scared and so much like a failure.

It must be because of the person he would be leaving behind. That insolent kid he’d had with the lovely Tifa Lockhart.

Tifa, ah, kind and selfless Tifa. His beautiful wife.

His eyes glazed over as he began to remember and regret.

He’d failed her. Failed their son.

He remembered holding the newborn in his arms, fumbling, standing in that hospital room next to an exhausted Tifa, and swearing, in his heart, to never be like his father. To love and protect their precious Sirius.

But there were things that were never meant to be, and promises that could never be kept.

Like how he’d vowed to protect her and grow old with her on their wedding day, only to lose her to a terrorist attack six years later.

Or how he’d tried to do good, but would always be viewed as the greatest evil that ever graced the Planet.

Granted, his business choices might not have been good ones, but they had been the best considering the wretched times they lived in.

Alas, people still needed someone to blame for their woes and suffering, and, in a world that had branded Shin·Ra as the irredeemable villain, he never stood a chance.

If he was scorned regardless of his deeds, then did the ethics of his choices matter anymore?—was something he’d started thinking, and it wasn’t long before the third incarnation of AVALANCHE came into the picture. And the rest was history.

Rufus supposed that Tifa would still be here with him had he not been the leader of the ever-hated Shin·Ra.

Had he let go of his ambition, let go of his need for control and dominance, if not for their child then at least for Tifa, who’d protected him, had stayed by his side despite knowing very well what kind of man he was and all that he’d done and would do.

If he had, maybe she would still be alive, with him, and their son. And they would be able to end this fucked up tradition of the Shinra family.

But no, he couldn’t let go of his legacy. It was all he knew. All he’d been raised to know.

So he blamed the terrorists, hunted them down. He crushed his enemies and made examples of them so that the world knew exactly what he could do, what he was capable of.

No one touched a Shinra and got away with their lives.

Just like his father had, he controlled the world with fear.

Refroze his heart. Buried himself in work. Be the bloodless, tearless monster that the people envisioned him as.

That left his son in a position much like his own, with a dead mother and an absent father, groomed from a young age solely by tutors and servants.

The kid grew up to be so much like him, maybe he should be proud.

“There you are, old man,” said a soft voice eerily like his own, but only of a time long, long past. It echoed between the two walls of the alley together with the sounds of hard soles crushing loose gravel. “You really made it hard to find you.”

Rufus lifted his head to see his son coming up to him, the black smudge of a Turk shadowing the kid.

Blond hair and blue eyes. Pale skin.

Smart. Eloquent.

Ruthless and ambitious.

A toxic concoction of pride and arrogance, even if he didn’t let it on with his polite attitude and culled demeanour.

Impatient, and hated—loathed his own father.

Rufus might as well have been looking at himself.

“Who would have thought you’d come here, of all places.” The click of the safety lock being removed rung in the empty space, much like it did in his empty heart, and his sawed-off shotgun was pointed straight at him. “Did you want your grave to be here?”

In the filthy back alley behind a rundown, abandoned bar?

Yes. A thousand times yes.

Her grave would have been ideal, but considering they’d never recovered a body, this was the next best thing.

The kid didn’t know, but this was the place. It had been a pretty nice back alley at the time, still filthy, but not quite as disgusting, when she was still running the bar.

This was the very spot where he’d asked her, both of them battered and limp, in the haze of adrenaline and desperation, as they hid from their pursuers, waiting for his Turks or her friends to come rescue them.

It was one of the few instances where he didn’t carefully vet the words that left his mouth, and there were no craft nor wile to his intention. Just a sincere hope she would be with him, be his even if just for a few moments before their lives ended.

Enchanting red eyes. Raven locks matted with blood and sweat. Skin that seemed flawless even with all the bruises blooming across it. A soft, tired yes that had escaped her cut lips, in response to his unceremonious, four-word proposal, and the prospect of dying had never felt so worth it before.

It was right here that he’d confessed. It was right here that she’d made him a happy man. And it was right here that they’d exchanged hastily uttered vows, not knowing if they were going to make it through the night alive.

But their kid didn’t know any of this. He didn’t know because they’d never talked. He never got to know his mother because Rufus refused to talk about her, because talking required remembering and remembering was too hard, too painful.

Because when the stories ended and the memories faded, he would have to open his eyes and return to a reality where she no longer existed.

“What do you think you can do as President?”

Rufus was genuinely curious, though Sirius probably took it as a challenge, for he answered, “Better than you, that’s for sure. You must realize no one in the company supports you.”

Of course. Those who did support him, those who would’ve taken a bullet for him had taken at least one bullet for him.

His most trusted subordinates dwindled over the years. His family rotted away.

Reno was KIA on a mission, while Rude had long been incapacitated in the attack that took Tifa away from him. Tseng bled to death in his arms a few years ago on the way to the hospital, and he had to fire a heartbroken Elena and admit her to an asylum before she killed herself.

When had everything gone so wrong?

Sirius had a smile on his face, so confident, so cold. So much of Rufus and none of Tifa.

Maybe that was the problem. She wasn’t here.

Tifa wasn’t here.

As he kept his son’s gaze, Rufus was at a loss of what to say, but not for lack of words. At death’s door, he realized there were so many things he wanted to say to his son. But would any of them matter at all?

Would saying Believe it or not, I actually love you make a difference? Make up for twenty years of neglect? Or would it just sound like a desperate attempt to win sympathy and live another day?

He even briefly wondered if his own father had thought remotely the same things once upon a time.

Rufus didn’t know, and maybe it was best that his son never knew either.

Sirius could keep thinking Rufus a deplorable bastard who’d sired then abandoned him. Could keep viewing Rufus as the pitch black villain that needed to be taken out, so that he may keep that clear conscience and live out his ambition.

So Rufus kept those ambiguous words to himself and locked them in his heart. Let them die with him.

Sirius had been covered in blood when they first met. Now that they were going to part, Rufus thought it was a nice irony he was the one covered in blood instead.

It was a point of reprieve, he supposed, because it was always a parent’s greatest fear to bury their own child.

He smiled a crooked smile with what strength he still had left, ragged breaths seeping from his lungs.

“Just you try, brat.”

It was the closest form of encouragement he could afford right now, and even if it was going to be taken as spite he wanted to say it.

He could see the disdain thicken in Sirius’s eyes, hear the trigger being pulled.

“Watch me.”

He would.

And with his last thoughts, Rufus hoped.

Hoped that, if the kid was going to be so much like Rufus, then please, at the very least, let him meet someone who can fix his broken soul, too.

The Dreamer’s Plight

November 2nd, 0010
–Reeve

The office was small, grey and mostly empty except for the necessary furniture and a pot of yellowing plants to break the monotone.

Reeve was slouching in his chair in the WRO headquarters, eyeing the reports in his hand with solemn pensiveness. The sun had only reached overhead, but he was already running on evening fuel. He squeezed his eyes together as he ground his temple with a knuckle to delay a looming migraine.

It wasn’t so much a physical exhaustion, but rather a mental one that accumulated through months of restless sleep.

He could never seem to catch a break ever since WRO was founded. They were struggling to find volunteers, hard-pressed for an energy source that didn’t involve mako, and scraping around for an…alternate source of funding. And now, to add to the batch, Cloud was missing, and not because of another one of his I’m-not-coming-home episode like Tifa thought.

The blond was in hiding.

Reeve shifted in his seat, the worn leather squeaking against his clothes, as he thought about his last phone call with Cloud. It had been in the middle of the night that Reeve was roused from his sleep by the beeping of his PHS. Cloud had sounded frantic as his words quickly drained the blood from Reeve’s face. Sephiroth was back, Shin·Ra was helping Sephiroth, and Cloud was now being pursued by Shin·Ra.

With a hasty plea that Reeve looked after Tifa, the call had ended before Reeve could learn anything more.

There had been no further contact from Cloud since that night, the blond most likely having destroyed his PHS to avoid being detected, and Reeve was left in doubt. He felt bad that he was keeping this from Tifa, but all things considered, Sephiroth’s return wasn’t a knowledge he could pass on freely without knowing for sure what was going on. It would actually be irresponsible to tell without looking further into this turn of events.

In the first place, how had Sephiroth come back? Why hadn’t there been any sign of the ex-General? Sephiroth wasn’t one to stay low. Was it possible Shin·Ra was covering up Sephiroth’s track? But Sephiroth despised Shin·Ra, did he not? Reeve couldn’t see the two working together.

The integrity of Cloud’s information was also called to question at this point. Tifa said Cloud was hearing the dead Aerith’s voice before he left. A mental breakdown? Then, how lucid was Cloud when he’d imparted these alarming information? And where was he now?

So many questions, and Reeve was tired of not getting an answer to any of them.

The latest report from the search had yielded nothing. All traces of Cloud had vanished approximately two weeks prior, roughly the same time Tifa had lost contact with him.

So Reeve had lied to Tifa about calling off the search, but Tifa deserved to know.

Just not yet. There were still too many variables, and Reeve was already ashamed enough that he couldn’t help lighten the load for the poor girl. He needed something more conclusive before he went and added to Tifa’s stress.

He just feared it wouldn’t be for much longer, because, according to this report, Cloud had last been seen wandering the streets of Junon.

The muffled beating of a helicopter’s blades reached his ears then, and it didn’t take long before the shadow of a black chopper loomed into view, hovering disturbingly near the glass windows that they vibrated.

Speak of the devil.

As the helicopter started rising away from view, Reeve shook his head at the silhouette he could make out in the cockpit. Sliding the reports into his drawer, he left his office and took the elevator up to the roof.

By the time he and his men arrived at the helipad, the aircraft was already grounded, its rotors still spinning out powerful gusts that tousled the blond hair emerging from the passenger cabin and exposed how loosely fitted the thick layers were on the wearer.

Rufus Shinra descended from the platform, his most trusted Turk not more than a step away from him, all six feet of stone and cold steel.

“Rufus! Tseng!” he greeted, extending his hand to shake Rufus’s ever cold one and nodding at Tseng. “I hope the flight wasn’t too rough with the wind at this time of year?”

“Some turbulence, but my Turk made sure it was uneventful enough.” Despite the calm demeanor and softly-spoken voice that was barely discernible over the noise of the helicopter, his grip was firm like any textbook businessman.

“The same one that nearly shattered my windows?” Reeve joked, though not quite lightheartedly, as they headed back inside.

“Reno could use some more prudence, I agree,” Rufus nodded, but it didn’t feel much like a response to Reeve’s words as Reeve noticed the wire hooked in his ear and stretching down into his collar.

Once they were inside the conference room, Rufus wasted no time to start the meeting, but not before running a hand through his disheveled hair.

One had to admit what Rufus had accomplished at his age was no small feat. Every time Reeve gazed upon the shadow of the old Shin·Ra tower standing its grave that was Midgar, he was inclined to think Shin·Ra would remain a poltergeist of the past, malevolent but forever powerless to touch the world again.

After all, there hadn’t been much movement from Shin·Ra even when its mark of ownership over Edge – the Meteor Monument – was blown asunder, and even when Deepground was discovered and its already nefarious reputation plummeted across the world.

Yet there it was, thriving and expanding in Junon, so silently, so unlike Shin·Ra, that Reeve only noticed when it had once again grown large enough to be a menace. Right this moment, Shin·Ra had already owned most of the corporations in Junon, if not through mergers then by intimidation.

Reeve’s only solace was that, for now, they were working towards the same goal.

Still, things were complicated.

“Commissioner, while I don’t deny WRO’s contribution, I find it unacceptable you want to take control of the city, considering it was Shin·Ra that restored Junon from ruins.”

Reeve held back a sigh and kept his shoulders from slumping. Territorial dispute was what this meeting really was about, and Rufus did not beat around the bush.

“Your worry is unneeded. We have no such intention.” The man hated seeing his authority challenged, while Reeve just wanted to make sure Shin·Ra didn’t gain any more influence. He wanted the power to be in the hands of the people.

“Hm, then might I advise you not to let your men spread their asinine propaganda in my town.” Rufus’s voice was light, an easygoing smile on him, but it was clear he was less than amused.

There had been no identifiable insinuation in his tone, but the demand for recognition of city ownership was vehemently implied. Reeve was under no illusion that Rufus rebuilt Junon merely out of the goodness in his heart—if he even had one. And, by Gaia, promoting democracy was ‘asinine propaganda!’ Reeve sensed it wasn’t merely an insult, but that Rufus truly believed it was a foolish notion.

“Rufus, the WRO only wants to help the people of Junon.” Reeve chose his reply with care.

“So does Shin-Ra.” His smile widened by a fraction of an inch, and while it would have looked amiable on any other man, the smile only looked sinister on Rufus. “We want nothing but the best for Junon.”

He didn’t say ‘people.’ Did he even care about all the lives he had in his palms? Reeve had had high hopes when Rufus had proclaimed to want redemption, but it was soon obvious the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Though the last time Reeve even hinted the thought, Rufus had not been pleased.

“I will see what I can do,” Reeve didn’t disguise his sigh this time. “But keep in mind that despite my position, I hold no more power than the next member. They’re volunteers, Rufus. They are free to express their ideals.”

There was a chuckle that couldn’t be anything other than mocking.

“My, my, I’m amazed WRO can function so well with such a system. That’s certainly admirable. But I’m sure your words hold some weight regardless. We’d greatly appreciate any effort on your part to…revise your current policies in Junon. A gesture of good faith, if you will.” Rufus set an elbow on the table and rested his chin against his thumb. “After all, Shin·Ra has respected your presence in Edge thus far. We only ask for the same from you.”

Reeve felt something inside himself bristle. Rufus saw WRO as no different from Shin·Ra, and that was perhaps the most scathing aspersion that could be cast at Reeve.

WRO was his child, the first step to his dream of a fair world where everyone was treated equally, where people could live their lives in harmony, unencumbered, without war or disease. Most of all, a world where their voices mattered, and no dictatorship reigned over them with cruel, selfish oppression. A world without the likes of Shin·Ra.

Yet since WRO’s founding, there had been Geostigma, then Deepground, and now here he was working with the one power whose name was synonymous with tyranny. He wasn’t getting any closer to his goal, was he?

They were supposed to be of equal standings. WRO helped with Junon’s development, and in turn, Shin·Ra provided all the energy WRO needed at a more than generous price. However, Shin·Ra was secretly funding WRO on the side – and Reeve used the word secret loosely because while Rufus never mentioned his anonymous donation, the man didn’t go out of his way to cover up the money’s track either. And with Rufus holding Edge over Reeve’s head like it was a favor Shin·Ra was doing, WRO was at a severe disadvantage.

It pained Reeve as he brought himself to nod.

“Very well. WRO will refrain from taking a stance or making any official statements regarding Junon’s politics.”

Unofficial ones, however, were fair game. The fleeting crinkle of Rufus’s eyes told Reeve that notion did not escape the younger man.

“I’m glad we could come to an understanding on this matter. Let’s move on to the next topic of this meeting.” Again, wasted no time.

“Yes, you wanted to propose a new project?” Reeve kept the apprehension out of his voice.

As he listened to Rufus, his migraine became a full blown headache. His fear was no longer unwarranted. Rufus intended to clear the ruins of Midgar and was asking WRO to facilitate Shin·Ra’s operation. Just formalities, of course. Reeve knew Shin·Ra had enough resources to clear Midgar ten times over on its own.

What Rufus wanted was WRO’s invitation to be in Edge, no doubt one step in his grand plan to reclaim his lost throne. And with WRO’s name slapped next to Shin·Ra’s, likelihood of sabotage would also decrease, just like in Junon.

They were being thoroughly used to further Rufus’s cause.

“Now that Junon can function on its own, I believe there is no better time to start. Shin·Ra was vastly responsible for the devastation of Midgar. It’s only right that we are the one to clean it up. However, considering our absence in Edge thus far, Shin·Ra might be ill-informed, and we don’t want to step on any toes.”

Reeve maintained a straight face, nodding, but all he wanted to do was scoff.

“Naturally, we don’t expect WRO to be doing charity work for us.” Rufus gestured for Tseng, who promptly place the briefcase he’d been holding before the President. A stapled contract was soon pushed towards Reeve.

“For the duration of the operation, Shin·Ra’s services will be at no charge to you.”

And there it was. The discussion was over, though admittedly there was never one in the first place. The young heir of Shin·Ra was too good at utilizing carrots and sticks.

Reeve knew refusing would hurt WRO’s relations with Shin·Ra as well as leave room for some bad words to spread to the public. On the other hand, if he agreed to this deal, the money they would save on electricity could be used elsewhere, on people still living off the rubbles on the streets, on towns and villages still in ruins. There was no drawback—aside for the fact that Shin·Ra was going to be in Edge.

The meeting ended with them deciding on the starting date and estimated length of the project, as well as establishing what Shin·Ra could and couldn’t do. There were disturbingly few of the latter, although considering the nature of the operation it made sense. Didn’t mean Reeve had to like it.

To add salt to the injury, the pace of the entire meeting was set by Rufus from beginning to finish. And by the end, Reeve felt bruised and weary, like he was a ragdoll that Rufus had dragged around on a string.

“By the way, how is Cloud Strife?” Rufus asked when he stood to leave, and Reeve just knew the question wasn’t as offhanded as the man had made it sound.

“Cloud? He left and hasn’t been around for a while now. Why do you ask?”

“Indeed? I was just wondering about what the hero of Gaia was up to, but he can’t seem to stay still, can he?” Rufus straightened his jacket as they started walking to the elevator. “He is keeping in touch though, I hope?” His eyes when their gazes met were splintered ice, sharp enough to cut, and most likely dissecting Reeve for information.

Ironically, Reeve was thankful he didn’t have any information on Cloud for Rufus to extract.

“He’s not.” Reeve shook his head, the disappointment on his face didn’t need to be forced.

“Hm, not even a single call home? How cold.”

Says the man with ice for blood. “It’s typical of Cloud, I’m afraid.”

“Then, I suppose it’s too much to hope he’ll say hello to us, huh Tseng.”

“I suppose so, President.” The dark Turk spoke for the first time since he’d gotten here, though he made no attempt to match his master’s playful attitude.

“Well, Reeve, I look forward to our cooperation.” When they reached the windy roof, the sky was dark and the chopper was ready for take-off. Rufus’s extended hand was immediately seized, still cold. “It’s always reassuring to have the WRO’s help.”

If only he could say the same for Shin·Ra. Reeve gave a quick laugh. “Seems a storm is forming! Perhaps you’d want to delay your departure?”

“I thank your hospitality, but there is still work unfinished. I have complete trust that my Turks will get me back in one piece.” Rufus paused, eyes drifting, before he smirked, most likely at whatever he was hearing from his earpiece.

“Good day, Commissioner.”

And so, Reeve stood back and watched the two men disappear into the helicopter, and then the black helicopter that disappeared into the rolling grey clouds.

An ominous exit befitting Shin·Ra.

Walking back inside, Reeve pulled out his PHS and dialed a number.

No reply. Growing a little worried, he tried a different number and let go of a breath he didn’t realize he was holding when the other side picked up.

“Hey…I’m sorry, were you sleeping?” he paused to hear her response, as well as collect his wit. He still needed more information, but Shin·Ra was clearly involved in this race. Tifa needed to be warned, though a little cherry-picking was probably in order.

“Can we meet? It’s about Cloud.”

 

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The Fighter’s Melancholy

xxx xx, 0009
–Aerith

She held her love’s hand, feeling the strength in his grip flowing into her. His kind blue eyes gazed at her beneath strong, dark brows, a boyish aplomb in their depths. The lone lock of hair that fell before his face swayed in the gentle wind, and she raised a hand to brush it away, only for it to fall back in place.

“Ready?” he asked with a jerk of his chin.

She nodded, facing in front, head held high. By his side? “Always.”

So together they walked. Through the hill of summer lilies, through the fair sky of spring, through the gentle, melodious ebb and flow of life, and towards the wintery forest in which the fallen angel ensconced himself.


October 31st, 0010
–Tifa

It was coming onto two months since Cloud had left, and two weeks since he’d stop answering his phone. The children were getting antsy about his absence, Denzel especially, and she was running out of reassurances to console both them and herself.

For the first few weeks, he’d picked up the phone, never once letting her calls go into voicemail. That had been her one relief, because it meant he wasn’t pushing her away.

He’d been few of words as usual, though, and the phone calls never really lasted for long. She didn’t dare call him too much, afraid he’d find her annoying and stop answering at all. She did try to find out more about his…quest, but he was evasive and didn’t elaborate much, just that he was headed for the Forgotten Capital, convinced Sephiroth was back and plotting.

The last time they talked, she’d attempted to persuade him to come home. He hadn’t found anything in the Forgotten Capital anyway, and if Sephiroth really was back, she and their friends could help. Of course, always trying to do everything by himself, Cloud had dismissed her suggestion.

The next night when she called his phone again, it’d rung twice before the line was terminated. And now his phone was offline.

Tifa couldn’t help but fear she’d somehow offended him into silence.

He hadn’t sounded mad, but with his voice a permanent moody drawl, who could tell, really? And if he wasn’t ignoring her calls on purpose, if his PHS really was flat, then what had happened to him? Was he hurt? Incapacitated somewhere in a coma? Or, Gaia, dead?

Tifa had contacted all their friends, hoping that they had at least seen him around, but no one knew any better. Barret said he would kick Cloud’s behind if he saw the blond, Yuffie promised to steal all of his materia so he’d have no choice but to return, and Cid swore to have Shera drug Cloud’s tea and drop him off at her door.

They were all trying to cheer her up, and though the lighthearted jokes had pleasantly tugged at her lips at the moment of cracking, in the end she still had no idea where Cloud might be.

Vincent and Nanaki, on the other hand, expressed their sympathy and said they would inform her if Cloud came by. Vincent had also asked if she thought Sephiroth was back. She only gave a wry shake of her head and, realizing Vincent couldn’t see her, said no. Sephiroth and his god complex would have burnt down a town or two already. So no, she didn’t think the monster was back, but…she could.

If the peaceful life was too humdrum for Cloud, and if believing that a great evil was threatening the Planet again could give him a purpose in life, then she’d believe together with him. She’d stand by his side and believe the heck out of it.

She wanted to be out there chasing after him. She’d do it on foot if she must, but she wouldn’t rest until Cloud turned up safe and sound.

But alas she was stuck pacing the premise of her home. Denzel and Marlene needed her. They needed a constant parental figure in their lives, and clearly Cloud wasn’t going to be that figure.

It was times like this that she wished Shelke was still around. The young girl had disappeared ever since Shalua passed away, and Tifa could only tell herself Shelke was okay. Because between the children and the bar, and now Cloud, she couldn’t afford to worry about another person.

“Tifa, truly, we can spare some personnel to keep looking.” Reeve insisted, sitting at the bar swirling his drink thoughtfully.

But Tifa couldn’t let him use any more of WRO’s limited resources. The world had suffered crisis after crisis, and it needed all the help they could give.

She shook her head and kept her gaze strictly on the glass she was polishing. “No, Reeve. I’m sure Cloud just lost his PHS fighting a monster or something. He’s strong. He’ll be okay. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.” She was trying to convince herself, more than anyone, of those facts.

“Look—”

“Refill please!” A customer came up to them with empty beer mugs and crumpled notes of gil, slurring his words a little. His high cheekbones made the drunken blush all the more prominent.

She excused herself for a moment to take the mugs from the man with a smile, thankful for the interruption. In all truth, she was of two minds. The ambiguity of Cloud’s welfare was eating her alive, but the thought that a report might come back with the worst absolute terrified her into idleness.

When she returned, Reeve’s sigh was audible over the noisy bar as he scratched his bearded jaw. “One team,” he bargained. “I’m worried about him, too.”

“He’s a grown man, Reeve.” A grown man that still had an imaginary friend. Okay, so maybe Tifa was bitter. But he’d lied. He’d promised to stay in touch. “Cloud can take care of himself. I just forgot…how he is. He was picking up at first, so I just thought— I guess he found it too much trouble after all, and I overreacted.”

Tifa felt Reeve’s large hand place over her knuckles and realized she was clenching her fists. She didn’t trust herself to look up, knowing his dark eyes would be full of concern. If she saw it, she might just break down and rely on him again.

Reeve was too kind. She couldn’t keep on bothering him like this.

She breathed, gathering her bearings, and withdrew her hand as she met his gaze. “Thanks. I’m okay. You should focus on Junon. And!” she held up a finger to stop Reeve from speaking, “If I find out you’re still looking for Cloud, you’ll be answering to me. Got it?”

He frowned, a sort of pout curving his mouth.

“I don’t hear a ‘yes,’ Tuesti.” She laced her tone with mock indignation, folding her arms in front of her chest.

“All right, all right, I’ll call off the search.” Reeve held up his hands, leaning away from the counter. “I’d like these old bones to be intact for retirement.”

Tifa laughed for the first time in two weeks.

Yes, just like this. She had to keep her spirits up and believe Cloud would come back to her. He always did, eventually, and it was her role to welcome him back with a smile. Tifa loved Cloud, and nothing was going to change that. One day, he too would see her in the same light, but until then, she would wait.

Until then, as long as Cloud was okay, it was all that mattered.


November 2nd, 0010
–Tifa

Cloud may be okay, but she was not.

Tifa sat on the bed in Cloud’s room, leaning against the wall and staring blankly at the fragmented sunlight on the dreary grey paint before her. Her knees were bent, upon which she rested her arm, twiddling her cold fingers in idle silence.

She didn’t care to go through the miscellaneous things Cloud had left behind to look for some sort of hint of his whereabouts. She’d exhausted that option on the night he stopped answering the phone. Cloud didn’t keep that many personal effects, anyway. The man could never quite seem to shrug off his minimalistic tendencies from the days of training for SOLDIER. No surprise, really. He wasn’t exactly adept at letting go.

She didn’t want to look at the scrapbook-ish project he had on the wall at her back, with pictures of the places he’d visited on his deliveries and the little notes expressing his enthusiasm for them. It would only remind her just how much his heart wasn’t here with her, make her feel like the villain sometimes for caging him in this dull, boring life, and wonder if she’d pushed him so hard that he went into psychosis just to get away.

Though, it made no difference that she didn’t scrutinize the pictures today. With one glance, she could point out the newer additions to his collection, and perhaps even name the chronological order to some of them.

Tifa had already memorized the whole thing from all the times she’d stared at it in jealousy.

All these places he’d been to, whereas she couldn’t remember the last time she’d wandered on a chocobo’s back. All these photos of towns and nature she recognized, but never got a chance to enjoy for the quest to save the world hadn’t allowed leeway for sightseeing. All these people caught on camera during their daily routines, but not a single picture of her.

Oh the irony that after losing her biggest rival for Cloud’s heart, she was now envying strangers and locations.

So yes, she had been into Cloud’s room when he was out more times than was healthy.

This little habit of retreating to his room had formed long ago, even before his departure. It was her swift respite for the day, when the kids had been sent off to school with their packed lunches and she was left all alone in the vastness of her house.

When Cloud had just left, she was careful not to disturb anything in the room, only stood around, taking in the way his personality had shaped the room, in case he came back to her. Every day that passed was one less thing she bothered putting back before leaving, and roughly two weeks in she had already displaced just about everything in the room.

So here she perched boldly on his bed, tipping her head back to take a deep breath.

Because all the windows were closed, the air was a little bit stuffy, coming onto stale. She kept his room clean without the aid of cleaning products to preserve his lingering scent for as long as she could. It was sad, creepy even, but she was long past caring.

Cloud’s scent was that of warmth and dirt. Simple and musky, mingling with smells from whatever he’d been doing before she happened to catch a whiff.

Sometimes it was tinged with the sharp jab of oil and grease from working on Fenrir. Sometimes it mimicked her own smell when he ran out of shampoo and forgot to buy more, making her pulse thrum nervously. Sometimes it carried that ephemeral sweetness back from a certain dilapidated church that left her with a heavy heart.

But in this room, his scent was purely his alone. And that scent was waning all too quickly.

She was not okay.

“Cloud, you idiot…” she muttered to the empty space. “Come back already.”

Tifa lay down on the bed and buried her face into his pillow, eyes closed, letting thoughts of Cloud fill her mind.

The seconds and minutes, and maybe even hours ticked past.

The phone down in the bar started ringing, and she stirred but chose to ignore it. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, and usually only telemarketers called her landline. However, after the ringing stopped echoing up the stairwell, it didn’t take long for her PHS to vibrate with a cheery tone that jarred against her disheartening mood.

She cracked her eyes open and peer at the phone, had half a mind to ignore it. too, before she read the name on the screen.

“Oh, hi Reeve…No, I wasn’t. I’m, um—Anyway, what’s up?”

His next words got her bolting up straight, “Can we meet? It’s about Cloud.”

 

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