"Trial by Fire"

They pulled him from the rubble as he was burning, and their hands were fire, too. He screamed as they tugged at his arms and the blackened skin sloughed from his muscle, screamed until he could feel the taut threads of his throat snapping beneath the pressure, the blood bubbling up like sweet spring water.

"Hang in there, boss."

And then there was nothing.

But then, miracle! there wasn't nothing, warm around him, emerald when he opened his eyes, and he wasn't displeased by the sweet sensation of the afterlife. All he had to complain of was the ache in his ears and the crushing agony when he tried to swallow, but that was fine, because no longer would he have to listen and no longer would he devour, voracious as the starving wolf, as before. Ears and throat, these were obsolete, now. So he closed his eyes again and enjoyed the warmth of his mother about him.

They birthed him, eventually, pulled him from his warmth even though he shrank from their hands. But their touch was insistent, and they pulled from him the tube that had done the breathing for him, cleaned out his ears and nose and mouth, clothed him.

"You're alive," they all sang in canon, and he would have recognized their voices as full of marvel if he could recognize anything, but the world was blurry and the colors ran.

Thirst came back to him, first of all, insistent ("because it's summer," they said explained to him later, "you've been out a year now," but it wasn't till summer was gone he understood what they meant). Then came hunger, gnawing little thing that burrowed in his stomach. Elena fed him too much - it was their collective action, it was their unspoken consensus, but she, woman, was the one delegated to mother him - marveling, as she did, at the thinness of his arms.

He began to speak again, though his voice was low and hoarse and soft. Slowly it regained its strength, the power it once held - slowly the scepter of command was returned to him. His hair grew back in, a few shades lighter than it was before -

"Pity, too," Elena said, combing it through with gentle hands. "I always liked it redder."

His first steps were hesitant. Sometimes it felt like his soft bones would crumple under the weight of even his emaciated form. Rude was always there supporting him, though in the early days Renowas as well, which made him smile because Reno's hands were gentle in spite of everything.

"Mr. President," they called him, or more often "boss" (because, as he heard them ruefully saying, nothing left to be president of). They treated him with condescension at first. Less so, when his voice began to return to him.

Tseng showed up after a time, looking a bit haggard, perhaps. He had until recently been on the mend, as well, because of the wound inflicted upon him during a mission performed for Shinra. The wound had caused massive internal hemorrhaging and a pneumothorax. His treatment had cost slightly over one and a half million gil, and before the President (as there was no one else for Tseng) had approved the treatment Heidegger had drawn up a chart comparing the cost to train a new Turk compared to the cost of the treatment multiplied by the likelihood that the treatment would succeed. The President had been at once irritated and thankful for the man's coldbloodedness, and when Heidegger left the President had hummed strains of late baroque opera.

"What's my name?" the President asked Tseng when it was just the two of them. Tseng hardly missed a scrape of knife against cutting board.

"You're Rufus Shinra," Tseng said. Rufus tried the name on like a coat, decided it fit him well.

He asked them to help him wash himself more often, because he started to smell like sweet-dark earth. It wasn't until he'd moved from three to four baths per day that he realized that sweet-dark earth wasn't the smell of unwashed bodies, it was the smell of dead ones, but he didn't know that something was wrong until one day Elena brushed up against his arm and stinging pain shot up to his neck, made the world tremble around him, and he hissed at her not to touch him. She jumped away. He tried on this new power, too, liked it less (but liked it still).

That day when he snapped at her was the day she stopped mothering him. That was also the day that everything he'd done came back to him.

That night he took a sheet, wrapped himself up like a monk to the cloister and retreated to his wheelchair. They asked him to continue to walk, but he refused in the President's way and they didn't ask again, though they talked of it amongst themselves. Reno thought he was tired; Elena thought he just wanted to hide his disease; Tseng believed him a penitent, making absolutions the old-fashioned way; and Rude by his silence thought nothing at all.

He decided they were all wrong, though if they pressed him he wouldn't be able to say how.

He took to dressing himself after the first time he'd caught their expressions as they lifted the sheet. The nose adjusted day-in-day-out, but to one accustomed to the freshness of the light and the world his rotting body would be a shock. He washed himself, too, and lifted himself into bed. Found a new coat or an old one, tried it on. It fit him very well.

He asked Tseng what they had left, what they had lost. The answer would have made him wince if he weren't who he was but he was who he was so he nodded.

So he wrapped his neck in bandages and hid his face beneath a makeshift cowl, went out with the penitents. Withdrew everything there was left over from the expense of saving his life. His Turks had wanted to put that money into buying him the best treatment they could; and they did, and that best treatment turned out to be a heavy morphine drip. So he looked at them, all superiority, and used the money to buy a helicopter, buy a slice of monastery up in Healin, buy a memory to hang in the main foyer. He used the money to buy information.

"Sephiroth?" Reno asked skeptically, dressed now as he once was, fine suit made deliberately not fine. "Why do you want to know about him?"

Rufus smiled because Reno couldn't see, then tilted his face up so that he could. "Divine inspiration," he answered, and laughed deep in his throat, then coughed until he felt his chest would split. The fluid he brought up smelled of sweetness when he spat it into the towel Reno had brought, and he knew he was rotting on the inside now too.

"Penitence," he said. "When you're as close to death as I am, you don't want anything on your conscience."

Later, though, he changed his answer. He said to Reno that this, this was the way to their past glory. He liked the contradiction, both because it was a comfort to Reno and it confused him. In the President's experience, people off-balance were much easier to work with.
But then he showed up, Kadaj, the man - the boy with the feral smile and cat-slit eyes, walking right in when his four Turks were out, sitting beside Rufus, running his hand up Rufus's rotting skin in such a way that he had to bite his lip to distract himself from the feeling, from the world's tremble. And Kadaj just looked over, his pale eyes dead, and said, "You know where she is."


"Mother," Kadaj whispered, and Rufus knew from the answering prickle in his skin who his mother was, though he couldn't say why or how.

"I don't know," Rufus said, and liked the way he said it, strong and honest. But Kadaj had simply stood, reached into his breast with a smirk that made Rufus's hands clench and his breath catch and his head draw back. But all that the man had pulled out was a card with a number. He slid it under Rufus's free hand.

Reno and Rude had burst in then, cried out "Boss!" with their weapons ready. Kadaj had laughed.

"No need to worry," he said. "I was just leaving...boss."

When he went, Rufus knew that this man would weigh heavy on his conscience, too. He sent his Turks to the Northern Crater regardless.

The day after they lost Tseng and Elena, Rufus called Kadaj. Told him to look for Cloud Strife. He said to them that Cloud Strife, who would be passing through the Midgar Valley from about twelve noon 'til one and rode on a custom-built motorcycle, heavy-built and blond, might have it.

Kadaj had said he knew very well who Cloud Strife was, and Kadaj hadn't believed him, but Kadaj went anyway. Rufus was glad of the momentary reprieve.

He held Jenova near to his heart, encircled it with a rotting arm that prickled at the contact. He played what-if games with her, what-if he were as they and she was his mother. What-if she weren't the monstrosity she was, just a cursed woman. What-if this were a counterattack rather than yet another delaying tactic. It was an entertaining game.

Precautions, surrounding himself with his Turks, did nothing. Kadaj came again, came angry. Called him a liar, though not in so many words, and moved his threats from just Rufus to everyone around Rufus, and for the first time, Kadaj was terrifying. He was wrath, he was vengeance - he was Sephiroth, come again. Rufus, despite all the dead man's bravery he had cultivated, was afraid before him.

And what could he do, before this terror?

He was Rufus Shinra. He could lie, manipulate, and scheme.

What if this is what will do it? he asked the wretched woman wrapped in his arms once Kadaj had gone. What if we have a chance of winning? And he smiled, basked in improbabilities.

He'd rarely dreamt when he was younger. Maybe he'd been too exhausted, then, when things always seemed to whirl by, a confusion of necessities and tasks. Now he had the liberty. And he was glad of it: earthbound as he was, now, more than earthbound - immobile, now, only his mind was free. And, at night, in sleep, in dreams, it threw itself upward, launched him into flight. He was glad of it, because he forgot, in those moments, the pendulous weight of his death.
But he'd never been much of a player of chess. He had the mind for it, the stomach, but not the patience. Every game, he'd set countless traps, but he'd forget about them every time, set them aside and move onto something more interesting, something that would be a surer path to victory.

He'd thought that this would be a liability, and often it was. He'd forgotten, when he sent his Turks to the North, about the confounding variables - about the player on the other side of the board and the traps she could lay. It was his failing, and his alone, that got Tseng and Elena captured or worse.

But on the other hand, when Cloud Strife walked out, he'd already moved on to five different traps in his head. All it took was a suggestion or two, a mention of the children of Geostigma, for Kadaj to do just what Rufus wanted him to do. And then the confrontation between Strife and Kadaj came that much quicker.

Not much of a player. Still a player, though.

The night he'd told Tseng of his disease, Tseng had sat with him silently for nearly half an hour. When he'd spoken, his voice had been quiet. He'd been thoughtful.

"You came to us from the fires, reborn," he'd said, then paused long enough that Rufus had said, ironically, Like a phoenix.

And Tseng had considered that unironically, but then had shaken his head.

"No. You came to us like a spear. Beneath the charcoal scarring was wood like steel." He'd tilted his head to the side. "You're sharp, sir, deadly, and you would do well to remember that."

Some minutes later, Rufus had said, succumbing a moment to self-pity, "I should like to be a phoenix, though. A spear only gets one life."

"Makes it count, though," Tseng had said.

"Makes it count," Rufus had agreed.

Let him then be the spear; let him pierce to the heart. Let him bury himself in warmth, in heat, even as the pain consumes him. Let him live to die.

But give him once the phoenix's flight.

I'm dying, he thinks on the day Kadaj comes for him. And he knows from past experience that he's supposed to be afraid when he thinks that, but somehow today it's liberating. He's done with fear. He's washed his hands of it. Now, there's only the knowledge that he's going to die, and nothing he can do now can stop it, can even slow it.

And as for Strife, and as for those brothers? He's done what he can. He's done the best he could, and he didn't have to do the best he could so he feels satisfied. And if it doesn't work out, he won't be around to see that. He'll be sleeping. He'll be at peace.

I'm dying.

He's liberated.

So he sends the Turks away and welcomes Kadaj with a smile he can't see. He tightens his arm about the enemy on his lap and laughs a silent laugh at the irony. Today will be about his enjoyment, he decides. He speaks to Kadaj, toys with him, asks to sit a little closer to the edge so that he can take in the air.

And when the time comes, he revels in the boy's shock. He stands. He loves the feel of the wind on his face.

Maybe, he'd thought the night before, he should have been kinder. Who was he, to hurt others?

Then he decided hell with them. To every man is given the strength to pursue his own happiness.

A few words, a few satisfying words, and now there's a reaction from Kadaj. Now there's rage. And he thinks to himself how satisfying it'd be to watch Kadaj, who killed Tseng and Elena - to watch him see his mother die.

Empty pleasures. Pleasures nonetheless. Last few moments.

Not the first time he's died like this, overlooking Midgar. God he loves this city. So fucking tragic.

He straightens his back. He breathes.

When he'd been younger, he'd gone through a period of self-doubt. Who am I, he'd wondered, and hadn't been able to give an answer; all he could say was that he was Rufus Shinra, and he had no idea what that meant.

Well, he has an answer now. He lives in clarity.

He unfurls his arms. He has the focus of a spear and the joy of a phoenix.

And Rufus Shinra bends his knees and casts himself off, looses himself from his earthly weight. He flies.