AU note: Sorry folks, this latest chapter has been sitting in my hard-drive for the past 3 weeks. I kept digging it up, looking it over, rearranging a sentence or two, then stuffing it back and scurrying off again. In the end I realised I couldn't keep it buried over the entire winter so I went ahead and published it.
This chapter has a letter in it. Some of you lovely people have described this story as 'Austen-esque' (a wonderful compliment if ever there was one!). All good Austen books have a letter in the plot-line, 'Persuasion' had one, 'Pride & Prejudice', 'Sense & Sensibility'. I felt it only fitting that I include one in my story...
He was reclining in a chair when she entered, the same chair that Tseng had left him in earlier that afternoon. He did not look up immediately but sat with his head resting against one arm, looking with thoughtful eyes out onto the now dark skies of Junon. He looked tired.
Elena hesitated as behind her the door clicked back into place, shutting her in with him. Her own dogged determination and inner shame had carried her this far, through the entrance to his room. But now, standing there facing him, her courage suddenly failed her and she was left wondering if this really was the right decision...
Noting the distinct lack of sound in the room Rufus lifted his brow and turned to look in the direction of the door. Seeing who was standing there shock swept across his countenance and he rose, too quickly, from his chair. For a few seconds neither of them spoke, just looked at each other, then with a strained effort Rufus found his voice.
It was all that he could muster at that moment. Yes he had been thinking, preparing for this meeting all day, turning over the various scenarios again and again in his head. But all these imaginary events had been planned for on his terms, at his initiative. To look up and find that she had pre-empted him, standing so unexpectedly before him, left him floundering in a state of confusion.
Again he hesitated. For one to whom words came so easy Rufus suddenly found himself struggling over what to say. Unease and anticipation washed over him in equal measure. Why was she here so late at night, long past the hours of normal business practice? To ask her what she wanted seemed too sharp and callous, given what the two of them had been through together only the day before. Part of him longed to ask her how she was, but even now he found himself too proud to form the question on his lips. Instead he could only look at her, taking in what signs he could from her appearance.
She looked pale and exhausted, dark circles lining her eyes. She was nervous too, her hands clasping some piece of paper tightly, the edges already starting to crumple under her fingers. She was having trouble looking at him directly and when she did glance at him it was with wary frightened eyes. She was scared to be in front of him right now; well that was not unusual, most people were still scared to be in front of the Shin-Ra President. But the fact that she was nervous to be with him here, together... It had not escaped Rufus' notice that they were alone in this apartment. Of course they had been alone together before but not like this, not insulated from the rest of the outside world, away from the attentions and knowledge of others. The thought formed a crackle of excitement just under his ribcage, running across his skin making him almost shiver involuntarily.
If he was to attempt this his first task would be to calm her.
With some effort he moulded his expression into a relaxed smile, acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to be in his room unannounced in the middle of the night.
"Well," he sighed turning away from her to step further into the room, "here we are again, same old suite in Junon. Just like old times." Silence filled the air behind him and he frowned disconcertedly.
"Do you think Gibbs will be pleased to see us?" He half-chuckled, trying to mask his own fluttering nervousness. In sudden need of an occupation he stepped towards a small table lined with glass tumblers and an expensive-looking bottle or warm amber liquid and commenced to pour two drinks. Turning around he made his way towards her, glasses in hand. As he approached he studied her almost desperately, willing her to lift her head in order to catch some glimpse of the expression on her face, some inclination of what was going through her mind. He still did not know why she was there and her silence was driving him to distraction. Elena however just continued to stand resolutely in front of him, now gripping her elbow with the opposite hand in the same defensive, nervous gesture she had made when standing in his office, handing him her first report into the West Continent oil fields all that time ago.
"A little late to be up don't you think?" He enquired softly when he was in front of her, inclining his head towards her in a gesture that could be taken as both conspiratorial and amused.
"I'm sorry sir," Elena spoke out suddenly, ducking her head, "I-I should go."
"No wait!" Rufus said sharply, realising his mistake. Elena faltered on the spot, evidently unsure of what to do.
"Stay for a drink," he said, extending one of the tumblers of liquor towards her, "It's been too long since we last shared a drink together."
"No sir, thank you sir." Elena replied with a small shake of her head.
He glanced down at the refused drink before turning back to the table to set it down. "At least sit down." He said with a slightly frustrated note to his voice. Why was she making this so difficult? Again there was nothing, just the rustle of her jacket as she fidgeted on the spot. Biting back his annoyance Rufus took a sip from his own glass before setting it too on the countertop. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he gazed sullenly at her, wrestling with his features to bring them back into a serious countenance.
"So we are back to 'sir' once more," he murmured bitterly, not moving from his spot a few paces from the Turk. Elena glanced up, confusion flickering across her face.
"You called me 'Rufus' last night." Her reaction was instantaneous; eyes widening she blushed violently before turning her face away in embarrassment. Buoyed by this sudden show of emotion he pressed on, his pulse beating faster now. She remembered, it had meant something to her! The words, the embrace, everything!
"Elena," he continued almost breathlessly, taking a step forward, "Elena, what happened on the rooftop-"
"Please don't!" Elena winced, shaking her head sharply from side to side. Stung by the anguish this memory was clearly causing her Rufus stopped short, his lips parted in confusion.
"I-I know I screwed up!" She continued, her voice sounding close to tears, "It was my fault I-"
"No," Rufus interrupted hoarsely, "No, it was my fault. You weren't to blame, I took advantage-"
She wasn't listening however, but just stood and shook her head in distress. It did not occur to either of them that they were each referring to a different event. Mind filling rapidly with despair Rufus fought to muster the resolve to speak, to explain himself. Just as he was about to open his mouth however Elena also appeared to make her mind up about something. Taking a deep breath she finally raised her head to look at Rufus. Though her face was pale and expressionless her eyes were filled with such emotion that it caught the breath in his throat. Fear, pain, anxiety, they all seemed to jostle for prominence in her wide, glistening eyes. He could only look back dumbfounded.
"Sir", for all the feeling conveyed in her gaze this was the only word she gave voice to, the address coming out in a breathless whisper. With a slightly trembling arm she offered up the paper that had been held so tightly in her grasp. From his position a few feet away Rufus looked down at her hand uncomprehendingly. A report? No, he dismissed, it was too thin and folded in two. A letter then. She had written him a letter? But what for? What on Gaia could she have to say to him that she couldn't tell him to his face?
Pushing back his confusion Rufus attempted to display a light, relaxed air as he stepped towards her, closing the distance between them. His quickening heartbeat however spoke of the falseness of this calm exterior. Raising his hand to accept the letter he smiled softly at the blonde woman in front of him, "What's this?" he purred.
"My letter of resignation."
Rufus pulled back his hand sharply, his fingers flinching away from the piece of paper as if it might burn them. His smile faltered for the briefest of moments before quickly recomposing itself. Aware of the sharpness of his reaction he attempted to make light of it, continuing the movement of his hand up and towards his face so that the fingers came to rest against his mouth in a contemplative gesture. His smile tightening Rufus exhaled lightly through his nose before turning away, fingers tapping against his lips. Elena watched helplessly as he stepped stiffly away from her, she couldn't make out his full expression from that angle but his eyes appeared to be shifting and darting across the ground in front of him, as if searching for something.
Seconds ticked by. After an excruciating silence he finally spoke, not raising his head to look at her but keeping it bowed, his hand still pressed up to his mouth.
"You have been under some stress lately Elena, I understand that." His words were low and guarded, spoken with careful measure. "You may take a leave of absence to recuperate."
Elena dropped her head and shook it sadly, "No sir" she whispered.
"I will expect you back at your desk within a week mind." He continued, voice speeding up as he ignored her protest, "We cannot afford to lose too many man hours."
"No sir," she tried again imploringly, "you don't understand-"
"No!" The sharp vehemence with which the word was spoken had the same effect as a slap across Elena's face, making her wince visibly.
A horrid, sickening silence filled the room. Rufus appeared as if the sudden outburst had shocked him just as much as her; spinning away from Elena he ran a trembling hand through his hair, bunching his fingers into a fist around the short hairs at the nape of his neck.
After a few moments he seemed to claw back some composure, taking in a long shuddering breath and allowing the muscles of his face to relax somewhat. Slowly he turned his head and then his body to face her. Elena had been watching the entire scene with wide surprised eyes, her lips parted in shock. Yet even in the midst of her distress part of her wanted to run up and comfort the President, to soothe away whatever emotions were causing him such anguish. But as he turned to look at her all such inclinations vanished quickly from Elena's head. He appeared calm, unnervingly calm, raising himself up to his full height, chin lifted in an arrogant stance, breath low and even. Not a tremble, nor a hint of the emotions that had threatened to engulf him moments earlier.
"Why are you doing this?" He posed the question in a low hoarse whisper, then after a moment's silence, "Is it because of me?"
Lost for words Elena could only raise a shaking hand, offering up the same letter by way of explanation.
It was like waving a red rag at a bull. Rufus' short-lived calm shattered and he launched himself forward, covering the short distance between them faster than Elena had time to respond in. Anger gave him speed in spite of his injuries while her own despair hampered her movements. She only managed to half-turn away before he was reaching out, grasping her arm and wrenching her back around to face him.
"I do not want to hear it from that, I want to hear it from you!" He barked, his grip on her arm tightening painfully.
"Sir!" Elena cried panicked, her other hand reaching out to try to free herself, "Please sir, you're hurting me."
"Tell me!" He demanded, not relaxing his grip for a second.
"Let me go sir!"
He snatched up her free wrist, pulling her up level with him, so close that she couldn't focus on his features. Elena tugged uselessly, her Turk training could have helped her escape his grip if she so chose, but she lacked both the strength and the will to properly try. Giving up she turned her face away from his, tears threatening to fall down her cheeks at any minute.
"I can't move on!" she sobbed between shuddering breaths, "Not- not from what happened at the Crater. It's impeding my work. With- with you on the rooftop I... We nearly...I can't."
"Try harder!" Rufus said through gritted teeth.
"I can't!" Elena said, shaking her head.
"You're a Turk aren't you?"
"No..." Elena gasped, screwing up her eyes, "I don't have what it takes, I never did. Even before! I was no good as a Turk!"
The blood roared in Rufus' ears. Several thoughts flickered across his mind in rapid succession, many of them dark. He wanted to hit her, raise his arm and strike her bowed face with the back of his hand. He had always despised self-pity and to see it in her of all people filled him with an inexplicable rage.
Without a word he shoved her away from him, causing Elena to stumble in surprise. Disbelief and shock still wavered prominently in his mind. He didn't understand why she was doing this, why she was doing this to him. Like a wounded animal however his first instinct was to lash out. He wasn't going to strike her but he was still going to hurt her, and anyone who might try to defend her, she was not suffering nearly as much as he wished right now, not after this...because he knew it was over, even through the fog of anger he knew that it had finished before it had even begun.
Looking down at her contemptuously he held her trapped under his gaze for a few more seconds before deigning to speak.
"Why join at all then?" His voice came out low and calm, almost a whisper, though laced with a conspicuous malice. Elena gulped in air, not knowing how to answer, not that he expected her to answer of course.
"What did you think this was anyway?" he asked, his head tilting to the side, "What did you imagine being a Turk would entail?" He took a step towards her, causing Elena to fight the urge to shrink away from him.
"A cool uniform?" he asked with a mocking twitch of the lips, "A way to go one up on big sis'? To get daddy to notice you? To prove yourself?" He paused and sneersed at her disdainfully, "Why you're no better than that spoilt brat Gabriella, running away the moment you can't have your way!"
Elena couldn't take much more of this. He was so close now, practically towering over her, cold bullying eyes bearing down on her unrelentingly. She turned her head away, eyes cast to the ground, to anywhere but him. Ashamedly she felt the tremor in her hands and shoulders as her emotions started to take over completely.
Rufus stopped, looking down at the young Turk. He knew he was burning his bridges, destroying any chance of what might have been. But he found he could not stop, anger and despair fuelling each other in a devastating cycle.
"I'm sorry to inform you, being a Turk isn't like getting just another job. It's not something you get to give up when you're bored, or when it all gets a little too real for you." The hostility in his voice was growing in intensity, distorting his calm conspiratorial tone to an angry hiss.
"It's not a contract you can end with something as flimsy as this." Elena felt a sharp tug on the letter that she still held loosely by her side. Without fighting she released her grip on the paper, relinquishing it to Rufus.
Paper in hand Rufus spun sharply away from her, taking Elena by surprise. Walking a few steps with his back to her he lowered his head, inspecting the letter without actually opening it.
"I do not accept your resignation for the simple reason that it is not yours to give." He stated in a low even tone, his words accompanied by the sound of paper ripping under the pressure of long delicate fingers. Elena watched as the fragments of the words she had spent so long devising fluttered unread to the floor.
"There are only two ways you ever get to stop being a Turk." Rufus explained, turning slowly to face her once again, arms folded neatly behind his back, his composure now completely intact. "The first is by the express permission of the President, regarding which I think I have made myself clear. The second is the route taken by each of your predecessors before you."
It was the black-and-white nature by which he said these words that finally tipped it for Elena. Why was he being so cruel? Heart racing she felt the warm trickle of a tear roll down her cheek.
"Hmmph," a snort, a short satisfied sound made more through the nose than the mouth. Elena's eyes snapped open wide, without looking she could picture the sardonic smirk undoubtedly accompanying that noise. The callousness of it was enough to shatter her paralysis. Twisting away she made a bolt for the door, tears freely streaming down her face.
"Elena!" She'd nearly made it to the exit when his voice sounded behind her, a cool authoritative snap to it. Despite herself Elena froze, hand clasping the door handle, head hunched low between her shoulders.
"You will report with the rest of the Turks at 0800 hours tomorrow. That is an order." Elena stood stock still for a breath before opening the door and letting it swing shut behind her, the heavy sound reverberating across the empty corridor.
AU note: I know I mentioned Jane Austen at the start but I have to admit this chapter was pure 'Jane Eyre' again in its channelling. The 'I must leave you, Mr. Rochester' scene. While my favourite screen Rochester is probably Toby Stephens, I think this scene was done best by the fantastically passionate moustached Ciaran Hinds in the 1997 version. He was certainly who I was thinking of when I imagined a rage-filled Rufus in this chapter (clips from all these versions and more can be found in that most wonderful of resources YouTube btw). As always reviews are most welcome, consider them my pay check!