Disclaimer: FFVII and all respective characters belong to Square Enix
Updated: 17 October 2012
Special thanks to Muertz for beta-reading!
The sound of the electric engines hummed through the train while the landscapes slid past behind the windows. The rolling hills and open forest around Costa del Sol were already far behind him and had changed into continuously steeper growing mountains with snow covered tops and forests that grew thicker and wilder. The trees became higher, older, and with each passing hour there were more pine trees and less deciduous trees. In the distance and occasionally close by, Reno saw small villages with sturdy, stone houses covered with sometimes grey slate, sometimes red roof tiles, surrounded by green fields and here and there a ploughed field.
It surprised him how smoothly the train ran over the rails after they had left the steam engine behind a couple of stations back at North Corel and had switched over to the electric railway system. Nothing of that constant shaking and rattling like the trains back in Midgar. Not that this train didn't shake every now and then, but it was a world of difference. It was a world of difference anyhow. In Midgar the instruction texts were written in one language, but here four were standard - of which he could only read one. Even the people who had boarded the train over the past few hours he could only understand sporadically now.
It was a strange sensation. Not the part where he couldn't understand the people around him, because he'd experienced that before on missions, but... this wasn't a mission. He was here by himself, without anyone to fall back on and possibly for many years to come. The more the landscape outside changed and the conversations on the train became incomprehensible, the more he felt isolated. His familiar grounds disappeared and became an island that seemed to shrink every hundred meters.
And what for?
His head pressed against the plastic window and through it he felt the cold outside. The wheels squeaked loudly against the rails when the train made a turn and began its climb up against the first true mountain of the Nibel Mountain Range. Reno pulled the collar of Rufus' shirt a little closer against him and turned his head against the soft fabric of his shoulder. The subtle, but unmistakable scent immediately took him back to the dusky bedroom where he'd stood only seven hours ago, now already almost 800 kilometres away.
He breathed in deeply and sighed. Getting up had been an impossible task this morning. Rufus lay close against him, warm and tangible, with his arm slung around Reno's waist in his sleep. His breathing had been deep and slow and it had taken Reno the greatest effort not to copy it and fall asleep again. He'd wanted it so badly, to stay for just a bit. Or forever - strange as that sounded to him now. He loved having Rufus around him, to wake up with him in the morning and fall asleep with him in the evening, but... for forever? The thought had never truly hit him until yesterday, but ever since Rufus had given him that insistent look and sworn to follow him, something had started to gnaw on his mind.
They weren't fooling around anymore. This was becoming serious. If Rufus truly found a way to be together with him again... If he managed to pull that off... Then Reno wouldn't be able to just walk away. Then it wouldn't be as non-committal as it had been.
What does it matter? It's over now. Rufus will never be able to pull it off.
A chilling feeling took possession of him. He wanted Rufus to pull it off. And he didn't.
That look Rufus had had in his eyes... He knew that look.
Memories from early in his youth came bubbling up, but he ruthlessly pushed them down.
It was getting harder and harder, he found. With every new passenger that spoke the same language as his father and with each landscape he recognised from his stories, it became harder not to think of him. And of his mother. The twins...
Agitated, he growled and sat up straight. Diagonally opposite, on the other end of the corridor, a woman suspiciously glanced up from her book. He ignored her and moved his gaze to the ceiling. The air whizzed from behind the punctured ceiling plates from the ventilation system.
Forget it already... You're a Turk. The past doesn't matter anymore.
The uninvited thought continued and reminded him of what Rufus had said yesterday.
I'm an ordinary man again... A man with a history, like everybody else.
I have a history, he sharply reminded himself and thought about Caitlyn's script. Stick to it. I've already lost so much. Don't blow your cover now.
When Tseng stepped into the sitting room, he found Rufus lounging on the sill of the garden doors. The heel of his foot wobbled to and fro on the edge of the wooden floor while he absent-mindedly stared at his toes. The underside of his white socks had turned grey from the dusty dirt in the garden. Out of nowhere, Dark Nation dashed from one end of the pebble path to the other, merrily chasing a big, colourful butterfly, and disappeared from sight again.
Before Tseng realised it, his gaze had swept through the room in search of a tea pot. He found none.
"Are you sorry yet you didn't heed my advice?"
"No." he answered without moving his gaze. "Let her make a fuss. Let her ensure no woman will ever want to sleep with me again. Then no one will wonder why I never take any women home with me."
Suddenly Rufus' phone rang. Reluctant, he fished it from his pocket and glanced at the display. His expression soured, but he brought the device to his ear regardless.
"Hello Father." he said as neutrally as possible and listened. "What is what?" Irritated, he shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't turned on the television yet. What do they say?"
He listened. "She deemed it better to go our different ways, yes." He made a protesting sound. "She has that right and I'm okay with that."
His face froze and for the longest time he remained silent. Then he suddenly rose and took the remote control from the TV cabinet. The screen flickered to live halfway through a news item. His face froze in horror when he read the text on the broad bar on the screen. Tseng picked up on a silent imprecation. Then Rufus' expression slowly shifted to reluctant resignation.
"I wasn't aware of that, no. A press conference? They're just rumours. A childish act of vengeance. Let it die out. A press conference will only make things worse."
Rufus listened. His lips drew into a thin line. "For the company. It'll blow things out of proportion. Believe me, it'll look more like a confirmation than anything else."
"Besides," he continued, "don't you own all the big television networks? Just shut them up. And as for the small, independent networks, well… they're on such terribly unstable frequencies, aren't they? Anything could happen."
His father spoke for a longer time now. Rufus rolled his eyes. "That was just a fling. A one-night-stand. You don't start a relationship with your one-night-stands either, do you?" Again, he listened and then let out a humourless laugh. "Well then, why would you expect something different from then?"
His expression hardened in suppressed anger. He closed his eyes and listened for a long time. When he spoke again, he voice was as calm as he could make it under the circumstances. "And what if I said it doesn't matter how many pretty girls you fling in my direction, that it doesn't matter how many dodgy doctors you send my way, you can't change who and what I am?"
Tseng could now hear the President's voice on the other side of the line.
"Then I have nothing else to say to you." Rufus said, and pushed the disconnect button as moved the phone away from his ear.
He turned to Tseng with a sigh and shot him a wry smile.
"Perhaps we should've gone with the other option instead?" Tseng asked, and quirked a mocking eyebrow.
Rufus turned his head to the garden with a tired look on his face.
The cell phone in Rufus' hand rang again. He glanced at the display and pinched his nose bridge. Then, suddenly, he threw the device into the air as he turned to Tseng again. Surprised, the Director caught it.
"Please tell him I have important matters to attend and I won't be answering anyone's calls for a while."
With a confused frown, Tseng watched his charge exit the room through the garden doors. "Where are you going?"
Surly, Rufus shrugged and continued walking, the pebbles grinding under his feet. Tseng watched him disappear behind a swaying bush of bamboo, glanced at the angrily ringing phone and shot an accusing look up at the sky. First a babysitter, now a secretary, he thought bitterly, it doesn't get much better than this...
Reno stared out of the window and watched how the train decreased speed until it finally came to a complete stop next to a platform. On a small, blue sign stood the name of the village. He thought it was a strange combination of letters. Too many consonants.
The platform emptied and inside the train people searched for still empty seats while the train slowly came back into motion. A man a little further ahead talked loudly over his phone while a woman across from him glared daggers over the edge of her newspaper.
Two young girls sat down on the empty seats opposite Reno, busy chatting. Every now and then he caught a familiar word in the tangle of unintelligible sounds. He stared out of the window and tried to ignore the girls as well as he could, but the cheerful, strange sounds kept drawing his attention. Curious, his ears tried to decipher their conversation.
Suddenly, the tone of their conversation changed. One of them indignantly exclaimed something, although her face remained cheerful, and she expectantly looked at her friend. Through the reflection in the window he could see the other girl frown, curious. The first girl laughed and poured out a flood of words over her.
Reno stiffened when he picked up on a strangely pronounced 'Rufus Shinra', followed by something that sounded a like a degeneration of 'dumped' and 'chick'. She laughed and her friend suppressed a chortle. The girl continued and wildly waved her hands about. The eyes of the other girl widened and she let out a questioning cry of surprise. The last word of her questioning sentence echoed through his head until he couldn't hear anything else.
How...? What in heaven's name had happened in the short time after he'd left Rufus in his bedroom? The tabloids sure work quickly... he thought both impressed as worried. If the news - whatever it was exactly - had already made it here, then no doubt his father had heard it too.
What do they know? he wondered, worried. Do they know about me? Does the President know of me? Frightening thoughts flashed through his mind. His colleagues... Rufus... and himself. What had the President heard? Would there already be people hunting him down?
A pointed cough startled him from his thoughts. He looked up and saw a sturdy woman in a blue uniform standing in the corridor. She gave him a stern look. "Vervoersbewijs alstublieft."
Not understanding, he frowned and felt an irrational fear bubble up despite himself. She wouldn't be...? Cautiously, he glanced about. Opposite, the girls gave him odd looks from the corner of their eyes. His gaze fell upon the small, yellow papers in their hands.
"Oh." He smiled to himself and stuck his hand into his coat. Ticket please.
Idiot... he cursed himself. You paranoid idiot. You should know better than to jump at every moving shadow...
"Leviathan..." Tseng sighed wearily and watched from his balcony as the guards combed the grounds, stressed.
Rufus had gone into the garden a few hours ago and no sign of him had been seen since. The guards in front of the house hadn't seen him go past them, so either he'd snuck by them unseen or he had left the grounds via another route. But the walls around the garden were high and topped with barbed wire, and just behind them grew tall thorn bushes, so it wasn't very likely he'd climbed over them.
You're not making my life any easier, Rufus...
His cell phone rang and with a practiced motion he took the device from his pocket. "Tseng."
"We found a trail." Rude's deep voice rumbled on the other side of the line.
It took him a second to switch over. "Of Avalanche?" he asked, immediately alert, and walked back into his room.
"Hm." Rude confirmed with a hum. "Turns out there are several splinter groups active in the vicinity of Midgar, but one of them is starting to get a clear profile. They're rather fanatic and its leaders have dubious ties with the underworld. We understand that tonight an arms deal has been planned between Avalanche and a party from Wutai." There was a meaningful silence. "The same one that got their hands on Shinra blueprints late last year."
Tseng closed his eyes. Those hadn't been just any blueprints. If they had indeed made copies of the blueprints and those weapons were indeed being illegally produced and sold on the black market… "Do you know where the transfer is planned to take place?"
"The old warehouse in sector two."
"Make sure you get the arms dealers." He brushed a hand through his hair. "This is a matter which must be rooted out thoroughly. Hopefully we can let Avalanche walk into a trap with a little help from SOLDIER." Outside, he heard the men shout to each other. "SOLDIER second class, that is."
There was a short silence on the other side of the line. "SOLDIER, sir?"
Tseng pinched his nose bridge. Third class, second class, first class... it didn't matter. Regardless of how one twisted or turned it, using SOLDIER on this mission was the same as sending an elephant into the china cabinet. He needed Turks. At least six. But he barely had two, despite Elena's good intentions. Even if he could persuade the President to let himself join the mission, he was short on too many people.
"Start with the preparations, scout the surroundings and make a map of the warehouse. I'll arrange for a team of intelligent SOLDIERs. Keep me posted. I'll make sure I'll be in Midgar by tonight. We'll discuss the plan in detail then."
Again, there was a short silence on Rude's end.
"This isn't a matter of half measures." Tseng explained. "These weapons are far too powerful to fall into the hands of terrorists and criminals. It'll be a bloodbath otherwise."
"What are you going to do with Rufus? Don't you still have orders from the President to keep an eye on him?"
Tseng sighed silently. That's a lost cause. "I'll contact him. I'm sure he'll agree this matter is far more important than playing the glorified babysitter."
"Hm." Rude agreed. "Then we'll start with the preparations."
"Keep me posted."
He ended the call and immediately scrolled through the phone's directory to the President's number. As he stared at the string of numbers on the display, he wondered how he could best word the situation. With a bit of luck, he could persuade the man to finally let him recruit new Turks.
It was dusk when the train finally arrived at the station. The doors hissed and rattled when they slid open. Reno tightened his grip on the backpack's straps over his shoulder and stepped onto the platform. The heels of his shoes clicked against the stone and softly echoed through the enormous hall. Slowly and with wide eyes he glanced about. Black cast-iron beams bent from one side of the track over the old, stone station buildings, over all other tracks to the other side and carried a roof of white wood and glass that curved with them. Some pigeons flew through the air with flapping wings and tried to find a safe haven behind the fine net that had been suspended between the arcs. The other passengers quickly stepped past him on both sides and within a minute he was surrounded by a sea of people who streamed towards the exits with a clear goal in mind.
Above his head a broad, illuminated sign rattled as small cards with text swiftly flipped along their axes until the entire sign was white apart from 'Niet instappen' in the top row. Whatever that meant. Beside it sat a clock that indicated with its thick, black hands that it was 18:46. Reno pulled the backpack's straps a little closer against him and breathed in deeply.
I can do this, he said to himself. If my father could handle himself in a mostly unknown language, then I can too.
Reassuring himself, he nodded to himself and followed the last trails of the crowd towards the exit of the station, down the stone stairs.
The wooden steps softly creaked when someone slowly walked up the stairs. Tseng pricked up his ears as he reassembled his just cleaned and oiled weapon and tried to determine from the sound of the footsteps whether it was indeed who he suspected it was. There was a second pair of footsteps on the stairs, very soft and originating from four feet. He clicked the last parts of his pistol back into place and walked away from his desk where his laptop displayed the latest details of tonight's plan.
Rufus looked up slightly startled when he stepped through the doorway and firmly held his gaze. Dark Nation stopped for a moment to stare at him and then slid back to her master's side.
"Where have you been?" Tseng asked.
"In the garden." he answered somewhat distractedly when he let his gaze slip over the pistol and the bulletproof vest under his shirt.
Tseng studied his charge and noticed the yellowish traces of mud on his dress shoes and the hems of his white trousers. Is there another entrance to the tunnels there?
"Rufus..." he started with a gentler voice. "I fear there isn't anything I can do to change your mind, but... please tell me what you're planning. I want to be sure you won't get yourself killed prematurely."
Rufus stopped at the end of the stairs and turned around with his hand on the banisters. There was black earth underneath his shortly trimmed nails, as if he'd buried something with his hands somewhere. "I know what I'm doing, Tseng. Don't worry. Besides, the fewer you know, the better my chances of successfully completing my plan. And surviving."
Tseng got ready to protest, but Rufus shot him an apologetic smile and softly said: "You're an essential part of my plan, but you can only help me by not knowing anything about it."
Silent, they looked at each other for a while. Rufus let his gaze wander and looked from the bulletproof vest to the pistol in his hand. Questioningly and a little disturbed, he looked at Tseng again.
"I have to go soon." Tseng said. "My help is needed in Midgar. Don't do anything stupid while I'm gone, okay?"
"What's going on?" he asked, a trace of worry in his voice.
"Avalanche." he answered with a meaningful look. "We're short on people thanks to you."
With a distant gaze, Rufus looked away. "How many?"
"Four." He stuck his pistol in the holster under his jacket and began to button up his shirt. "We're bringing a team of SOLDIER. Hopefully..." Unbidden, his thoughts wandered off to SOLDIER's involvement with Zack's death. "Hopefully this time they will be able to strictly follow their orders."
With concern still in his eyes, Rufus looked at him again. "When was the last time you went on a mission yourself?"
Tseng huffed, offended, albeit with a smile on his lips. "I'm not out of shape. You worry about more important things. There was a rather stubborn doctor here to see you this afternoon. Sent by your father, to 'cure' you of your sexual orientation. He vaguely reminded me of Hojo. He'll be back tomorrow."
Sneering, he pulled a face. "He can try." Dark Nation agreed with a high pitched growl and curled her nails into the carpet.
"Rufus…" Tseng started and tried to think of something reassuring to say. His phone rang and he reluctantly dug it out from his pocket. Rude's number. "I have to go. The helicopter is waiting for me at the harbour."
"Hmm." He nodded reluctantly. "Try not to get yourself killed, okay?"
Without waiting for Tseng's response, he turned about and headed to his room with Dark Nation on his heels.
With a displeased look, Reno knocked the snow off his boots on the mat lying before his door in the small bed-and-breakfast behind the great market in the old city centre. The long, wooden key chain ticked against the door when he turned the key in the lock. The room behind it was small, filled with old-fashioned furniture and the air was cold and stale. The worn curtains moved slightly on the draft that came in through the chinks in the old window. Through the single glass pane he could see the white, sloped rooftops and grey, small winding streets. Reno stepped inside and tossed his backpack onto the narrow double bed that softly creaked upon the impact.
"Well…" he said to himself with a sour smile, "This is a good start…"