Breaking Clay
ShinRa father-son bonding at its finest. Pregame. POV Rufus.

(She's not your favorite, but she's your first, and the first one you send out to get modded. You're too stupid to realize what you're asking for, and the gunsmiths at the shop are too frightened of you to protest, so you get her back with half her barrel and the none of her sights. You take her out to the range, but know better than to try getting into a lineup with her, so instead -- shame-faced and attempting to hide it -- you take her over to the pattern board, but the kick's all wrong and you can't even hold her the same way anymore. You try to like her, you really do, but just looking at her nauseates you. Eventually, you shove her back into her padded carry bag, zip the whole thing shut, and wedge her into a spare closet to rust.

She is your first, and like all good firsts, you ruin her completely.)

In true ShinRa fashion, you celebrate your thirteenth birthday in style when it comes. Other wealthy families advertise with excess. Expensive electronic toys, highly paid entertainers, mountains of gourmet delicacies rotting and going to waste. It's all grandstanding. Spend money wastefully to show how much you have, provide comfort to investors who need coddling, and stuff greedy mouths that hope for castoffs. Birthdays are useful. With them, families can demonstrate how they can afford for a child to remain childish forever.

Your father doesn't shirk. What he gets for you, however -- what he celebrates for a week -- are business connections. His gifts are social networking dinners, phone numbers, and an escalation of your training. He packages lunches with senior executives and city administrators. You attend all the dinners while dressed in impeccable tailoring: fresh suits for fresh meals, in identical restaurants where the visitors are drunk and mumbling and trying to bring about the next financial merger between the entree and dessert.

It's important to remain alert for each one. Your father -- as he likes to remind you -- is a self-made man. He built the ShinRa Electric Power Company from the ground up, relentlessly mutating a middleweight weapons bloodline into a corporation that dictates the value and weight of the daily stocks. Midgar is sculpted from the shape of his ambitions. He builds you too, fitting you into a mold that you're smart enough not to break merely for the sake of rebellion. You plan to shatter everyone's expectations, but on your own timetable; you want to win.

You want very badly to win.

You passed thirteen two months ago; you're counting your way to fourteen.

Rufus ShinRa. You are educated; you are brilliant. You won't be taught the sciences that basic college graduates have, but you're expected to pick a familiarity up along the way; you'll never have as much generalized knowledge as other people your age, like how to slum your way through the subway or the best technique for downing six beers in a row. But you're specialized, and that suits you. You'll hire them all anyway in the years to come, fresh-faced and ready to be crushed under the florescent scrutiny of the labs. Owning the people who know things, after all, is an adequate substitute for not knowing them yourself.

At thirteen and fifty-seven days, you know a lot of things, all branded on your nerves and bones and each drop of your blood. ShinRa blood. The word belongs to you, and it is you, like a trademark stamp on the strands of your DNA, printing the company motto on the backs of your eyelids so you can memorize it while you sleep. ShinRa.

Your father gives you lessons, so that you remember what that name means. One day, you'll be prepared well enough to show him just how much you have learned.

Until then, you're forced to pay attendance to his particular social foibles, which usually involve his business partners getting drunk and their escorts making bored, aging eyes in your direction.

Even before you began your official schooling in business, your father liked to test how quickly you could adapt to mixed company. He exposes you to a wide variety. Some of his business partners -- the ones more inclined to upholding their ends of a deal -- also have the regrettable tendency to not want conversation to become too blunt around a person of your age. Others dismiss you off the bat, and waste time trying to make you the target of their jokes, assuming -- wrongly -- that you've never heard of concepts like euphemisms before. Or whores.

But the worst, you decide early on, are the ones who like to think of themselves as having a sportsman's flair. Your father visits with them on occasional weekends. Every autumn, they assemble together in brotherhood. They take down wild chocobos and send the greasy meat to be cleaned and disposed of by their subordinates, who bow and give thanks for the generosity.

Most of your father's partners are antiques, remnants from the days when coal and steam were more than footnotes in the history of progress. They have their own tiny businesses and cling to the SEPC, hoping to feed themselves on scraps of contracts that your father chooses to dole forth. They comprise the old boy's club before old became unfashionable: outmodeled, outscaled, outdone.

It's early in your thirteenth year that your father finally ups the ante, and forces you to deal with them. First Quarter's not your favorite segment of the fiscal year; it's not your father's either, but your reasons are different from his. Q1 means that budgets for the year are tentatively stretching out, testing the waters after winter conservation. If there's any opportunity to sow the seeds for potential developments later, you need to take advantage of it now.

You could be spending your time unhappily spreading out the portfolios and eyeing each one. You should be projecting the investment cycle.

Instead, you're wasting your afternoon huddled in an oversized mesh jacket and watching the scenery roll by the car windows. The old boy's club is out in force this weekend, gathered together to brag about their gun sizes. Your father's making you attend.

"The son of a weapons company should at least know how to handle a shotgun." Seated on the opposite side of the paired back seats, your father grips his travel coffee in his thick fingers. "I tolerated your squeamishness because I assumed you would grow out of it eventually, but your reluctance is getting annoying, Rufus. It's time you got over it."

You tug uncomfortably on the seams of your jacket. What you'd told him last year -- and the year before that, and the year before that -- was that the only interest you have in firearms involves their price tags. You grew up on a regime of assault rifles and catalogs, the guts of them spread out across a table while your father encouraged people to kill one another and pay him for the privilege. Being good with a gun yourself holds no particular appeal. From the very beginning, you never wanted to be the son of your father -- son to a former weapon's dealer, who everyone could expect would be easily seduced by polished metal and explosions. Some idiot child who would never rise above wanting a grenade to fondle instead of an earnings portfolio. You wanted the slacks; you wanted the business and now that it's here, you have no intention of squandering the opportunity.

There's not much time left for you to improve on your skills. Your father expects you to take the vice-presidency at sixteen. Everyone knows it. That means you'll have to seize it at fifteen, ahead of time to prevent the current VP from leaving behind a legacy of disaster for you to clean up once he realizes your old man's not kidding. It's ShinRa business.

ShinRa. The name means something now. It didn't before; it used to conjure up mornings of your father's pipe smoke in the living room, and now it means pressed crisp suits and corporate accounts. Even though your family name has its own legacy in the world of stocks and trading options, you and your father are new rich. That your family has held power is unquestioned. But thirty years and more, and you're still considered first generation to some who turn up their noses and say you stink of guns.

ShinRa is old money, but its business circles were once much different than the society it pits itself against now. Your father may think big, but it's not big enough for you. Not yet.

Playing around with fake targets won't get you anything you want.

An hour and a half after being shoved in the car and driven to the outskirts of Midgar, your destination finally comes into view. The car noses up through stubby grass that hasn't yet been polluted by the city. In the distance, the plains stretch out. The chauffeur parks; you stumble out of the car, half-sick from being in confinement with your father for that long.

The sign for the Centerpoint Gun Club is hammered beside the front gate. The clubhouse that lounges in the center of the grounds is built from gleaming wood and brass and screen doors -- more like a hunting lodge, if hunting lodges came with bodyguards. Outside, businessmen flock together, dressed in jeans and camo vests and hearty, bullshit chuckles. They look different out of their suits -- more fake somehow, dressing up to pretend to be human beings. Centerpoint's one of the nicer shooting ranges, apparently: there are tactful attendants hovering beside each group, marking down scores and triggering hand pulls at the stations. Those pesky accidents that ShinRa's so fond of don't look prone to happening here.


There's already a section of the field waiting for you. The lawn is trimmed; microphones sit cocked towards the end of five sidewalks fanned out in front of a squat green hut. Your father picks the gun for you. He puts it in your hands. Everyone's watching.

The cold shuck of the round being chambered is louder than you expect. Louder, and quieter as well, isolated by the earplugs. The gun sits innocently in your hands after swallowing the ammunition, the only indication of its status being the closed shutter of the action.

Awkward, you try not to point the thing at anyone as you shift your hand up to press in the safety. The mechanism clicks. The button on the other side of the stock pops out, red line quietly warning of danger. You've seen a shotgun loaded a thousand times before, ten thousand; you've rolled ammunition in your hands like harmless toys, but you always considered the actual act as beneath you. The world feels muffled as you lift the gun to your shoulder. With the tinted glasses in place, the sides of your vision go dim. You're floating through a narrow sliver of time.

You take a breath. Your voice is confident. "Pull."

A neon orange disc sails out from the hut. you jerk the gun to the side and squeeze the trigger when the sights look as if they line up. Recoil hits you in a soft punch. Less smoke seeps out of the muzzle than in the movies. By the time you lower the gun and recover your wits, it's as if you never fired at all.

The intact disc hits the ground and crumples silently, buried in the grass.

No one says anything that you can make out through the earplugs. They don't need to. It's still humiliating.

(Your first shot in public, and you fail.)

Your father takes the gun from you as you walk back down the yardage path. He racks it next to the others, the message clear: you're not good enough to be allowed to keep your hands on it, the oils of your fingers tainting the stock.

As the two of you retreat to the clubhouse, your father waits until you're out of earshot from the other businessmen before he speaks. "The president of Netech Steel couldn't make it this year, but he said he'll attend the next. He's the type who puts a lot of value on younger talent. I don't think I need to say how important it is that you make a good impression on him." Your father's lip curls as he looks you over, and a fresh tide of loathing rises inside your gut in response. "You won't be allowed any private tutors. I'm not making special exceptions to hide your ineptitude. Afterwards -- if you behave adequately -- you'll be coming with me to meet Godo Kisaragi in Wutai. Make sure not to injure yourself during the shoot."

You shove your hands deep into your pockets, momentarily grateful for the slouching that jeans allow. They're sloppy clothes, but they hide bitterness better than slacks. "Hoping I finally meet that daughter of his? Somehow, I don't think it'll be love at first sight, old man, even if it would be useful to have Wutai's heir on my sleeve. Also, I think she's five."

"You have to think ahead, Rufus." The patronizing edge on your father's voice is nauseating. "Haven't I taught you anything yet?"

Anger floods your chest. Your breathing feels tight. "Sleep with her yourself then, if you're that interested. Then we can take pictures for the news stands."

You say it with scorn, but you understand what your father intends. The certainty is hot and fierce inside you, as explicit as the letters of your family's name: that your father is doing this out of the value of humiliation, because pride is the cornerstone of progress, and public embarrassment helps to keep a taste for it sharp. Shame is the stick. Profit margins are the reward. The lesson here is that you're the only one who can force yourself to improve, just as you're the only one who will believe in yourself when all the chips are down and contracts are being shredded at the end of the table, when deals are falling through and the investors are pulling out. If you can't find the self-discipline for something this incidental, you'll never have it for the big jobs.

The bruise develops on your arm before you're even home. You're not sure what you did incorrectly, but you're certain the welt's showing up in the wrong spot: rooted on the muscle of your bicep instead of somewhere on your shoulder. It mottles and spreads and swells. You poke at it curiously before covering it up with a dark shirt and plain vest.

You flip open your calender and number off the weeks. One year until Netech. One year until you're tested.

You know your father expects you to meet his standards in this. You just don't know how to meet your own.

Rules are set out before you even have a chance to escape them. No official teachers. No official lessons. You're allowed to practice at Centerpoint whenever you want, but only Centerpoint; the reason, obstinately, is because it's hard enough to establish security anywhere else, and Centerpoint's used to the presence of the Turks.

The fact that you're giving in to the task -- that you're obeying your father -- is something you're not sure if he's counting on or not. Your old man may be an idiot, but he's dangerously canny. He might expect you to resist, to go elsewhere, to find a tutor on the sly.

You respond to the opening gambit by setting aside half a day each week. After you wrap up the paperwork in the morning, you let your chauffeur drive you out to the country; your bodyguards can find their own way there. Unlike your old man, you have no reason to please your watchdogs. Being around so many firearms could make them go into fits. Hopefully.

You dive into basic research whenever you can on the subject, without making it too obvious. The first resource is the family library. There are remnants of business stored in Nibelheim -- the business that ShinRa was back when it had an underpaid marketing team, and the only localization it cared about was translating guides to teach people not to blow their own hands off. It's not hard to have some of the books sent up.

The opening lesson listed in the first dog-eared manual you pick up is that sighting with the correct eye is important -- which is so obvious you scoff at it when you scan the diagram. With confidence, you lift your hands, form a triangle with your fingers and aim at objects in the distance.

Again and again: you find your vision jumping whenever you close your left eye. Not your right.

Technically -- you read -- this implies that you should swap the gun, mount it on the side of your dominant eye, but you're already resisting that idea. Your father shoots on the right. You can beat him on those terms. And if no one knows about your vision at a glance, that's fine too; you are fighting against a handicap, you are playing by your rules and your standards and to hell with all the rest.

Besides. It's unimportant which side you set your gun on. You have the same problems when you brace the shotgun against your left shoulder. Two sights float on the end of the barrel, regardless of if you focus on them, or past them in the distance. They dance and waver and neither one shows up stronger than the other. When you hold the gun steady, you think you can remember which one corresponds to your right eye -- but when everything's in motion, when the clay is thrown, you see two targets as well. Trying to use them as guides disorients you so badly that your shots come out at random. Opening both eyes dizzies you; everything ends up doubled.

Two sights, two targets, and one body that refuses to obey simple standards for behavior.

You give in. You close one eye.

To hell with the rest.

Lacking both eyes for full overlap of vision means you have to pay even closer attention to the swing of your gun. The manuals spout endless recommendations. Aim with a rifle, but point with a shotgun. Lean into your stance. Keep your elbow high; let the pocket of your shoulder become the cradle for the gun. Cheek on the stock. Knees loose. You skim the rest of the basics, getting more and more frustrated as you go. It's the simplest of physical activities (point and shoot, point and shoot, point and goddamned shoot) but you can't toy with mastering it the same effortless way that you have with everything else you've been born for. In theory it's an intellectual challenge. In practice, it defies you.

The bruise on your arm moves steadily inwards, until it's drawing a thin rectangle in mottled connect-the-dots against your collarbone. You correct. You overcorrect. The bruise wanders, establishes itself against the meat of your shoulder where it begins to settle down, less and less painful each week.

At the end of each practice round -- twenty-five shots, most of them misses -- you're left to count up your failures and your hits. Casings slide onto your fingers like cold, plastic sheaths, jamming on your knuckles when you turn them over experimentally in your palms. They leave your skin limned with the chemical tang of gunpowder. Shreds of broken pigeons litter the field in wildflower pink and orange, artificial flowers dusting the grass.

This is a world which has different values than the rank and file of SOLDIER, or the trappings of the Tower's sullen-faced salary workers. The vocabulary is different -- crass, vague, mixed with bluff and bluster. The standards are different. Racking, mounting, houses, pigeons. Clays. Breaks. Words that should be familiar aren't. Trap is not skeet; a round of skeet is not a round of sporting clays. These classifications were never ones you cared about before, mere venues to forge better business ties through recreation. The experts at this sport aren't ones you thought you'd have to impress.

And you have inherited disadvantages in your court already. People are all too quick to think they can predict you based upon your family's pocketbook. They don't know better. Taking money for granted gives the established rich a naiveness to their cruelty, but being new rich has a viciousness to it that you can't find in people who've never had to risk. It's why SOLDIER recruits from those with dreams: why SOLDIER recruits from the disadvantaged. It gives them an edge.

Your father taught you early on to hate anyone wealthier than you and to scorn the poor. Standing on the firing line, you loathe them all -- the people who think they can fit you into a mold of either one, rags-to-riches fluke or spoiled daddy's boy brat.

But that means you're alone. You're not banned from bringing friends with you to the range. You don't. To start with, friends have no place in the Midgar business world. You have sycophants, you have rivals, you have potential business contacts whom you are on friendly terms with -- but you have no friends. These people are not your peers.

Another lesson from your father, that.

The other teenagers your age will pretend to be your closest confidantes as long as your family has money, and you're confident enough of the SEPC finances to estimate that you'll get tired of their chatter before they think about leaving you first. But while you could retreat into their support, letting the sounds of their mindless bleating soothe your nerves as they tell you how stupid a sport this is, how unsophisticated, how lame -- how pointless, in other words, it would be to play along and try to improve yourself -- you know that there will be no satisfaction there. You don't feel like humiliating yourself in front of even more people, and you wouldn't respect their opinion of this situation any more than you do your old man's.

You invite no one. You take comfort in nothing but yourself.

It's cold at the gun club. You try putting on gloves, but then you can't feel the forestock, can't tell if you're holding it correctly or if your arm's too far out, so you resort to SOLDIER tactics and cut the fingers off the new 5000 gil leather.

You keep your ears alert, listening for any tips that make sense. The shooters at the gun club have nothing better to do than give opinionated, overblown advice, particularly to the ShinRa boy; predictably, most of them try for flattery, along with clumsy attempts to slip their business cards in your pocket. You shake them out of your shell bag at the end of the day, along with the rest of the trash.

A few, you retrieve and keep -- for later.

Some of the advice is useful. You remember the bragging, and the emphasis on direct correlation of pricier guns to results -- but you also remember the story that floated around one afternoon, about some bucktoothed kid from Kalm who beat out everyone with their 20,000 gil guns, round after round, even handicapped so far back that he wasn't even standing on the concrete anymore, but was firing from the gravel in the parking lot. He beat them with sheer skill against all of the expensive crutches their money could buy, and then went home, able to laugh at them forever.

That's the standard that you'll measure yourself against, you decide. You'll laugh the same way too.

You already know you'll never reach that level, though. The Kalm hick managed to be that good because it was probably all he ever did each day, going out and shooting sick chocobos in the head for dinner or scaring off coyotes from the back door. You are Rufus ShinRa. You have other things to do.

First things first. Frustrated after only a month, you return to basic principles. You find someone else to do a full clean of the gun. You may want to improve at marksmanship, but you don't need to know how to strip a shotgun down to pieces and reassemble it in the dark. You're not a Turk.

You pay off one of the supply officers in SOLDIER to do the job instead, fully confident that your request will go on record -- meaning that if he wants to sabotage your gun, his name and prints will already be on file. As a result, he'll almost certainly protect your equipment with his life. The blame will go on his head if he's neglectful. Your father is watching.

The gun comes back to you clean, but it doesn't improve your score overnight. When you follow the advice of the rangemaster and try to keep your face against the stock, you wake up the next day with the discoloration of a bruise on your cheek. Your father doesn't say anything openly, but he smirks, and everyone at the Tower looks away from you before they can comment. The only one who doesn't is your father's administrative assistant, who takes you back into one of the unused conference rooms and silently opens her makeup kit, stocked with an armory of flesh-colored powders.

You debate the value of letting the rumor mill churn, and then submit to her care.

At first you think you've been mislead by the rangemaster on purpose, that it's all one big joke at your expense. You're ready to have him arrested, his business stripped away from him under whatever pretense you can think of, but Verdot says something during a chance elevator ride the next day.

"Keep your face on the stock, but brace the gun lower against your shoulder," is all the Turk advises. "The impact goes back properly that way. Not sideways. Not up. Hold it like a lover."

A hundred snide remarks are in your throat as the elevator doors slide open, but you can't settle on one of them before Verdot gets off.

Just to spite him, you follow his suggestion.

The bruise fades away clean.

By the end of spring, you've developed gun callouses in two places on your right hand: at the junction of your middle finger and your palm, and just underneath the little finger where it meets the joint. The belt of your cartridge bag finds a home along your hipbones, leaving sweaty spots underneath the jeans that you're starting to tolerate.

You're on your second gun come summer, the first one regulated to the ignominy of your closet. It fights you from the start. You don't know what's different about it; the stock should be the same length, and you swear each time that the plane of it is leveled exactly as it should be, with the sighting beads driving a flat line into your pupil -- but it impacts your hand differently, and it leaves deeper marks.

(The first round you shoot with it, you go from a reliable fifteen out of twenty-five all the way down to three. You're on the line with four strangers on either side of you, all watching your failure. They don't sneer at you directly, but you see them eyeing you each time you move from station to station, hearing the attendee calling out zero after hopeless zero.)

Your second gun is sticky when you chamber rounds, even after it's been cleaned a few times. It leaves you three welts almost immediately, tiny horizontal white ridges like swollen paper cuts decorating the curve of your palm where the stock bucked against your hand.

(You break three the first round. You break four the second.)

The blisters disappear the next day, but the roughness remains, lurking like an invisible lifeline that revives itself the next time you shoot. They fade into callouses. You can feel them whenever you run a thumb over your palm, subtle abrasions that change your hands from a paper-pusher's into something new. The bruise on your shoulder transforms from a blemish into a square outline, and then to only the faintest suggestion of impact; either you're holding it better, or your muscles have just given up on responding to any abuse, like a spouse learning to hide being battered.

You've stopped asking for tips. By now, they're being volunteered to you automatically, or you get them from watching instead. Some shooters start with their sights pointed high, sinking down like feathers drowning in a pond. Others don't even mount their guns at all until the bird is thrown. Everyone's calls are different: exaggerated drawls, sharp barks, some languid and some impatient. A few, you recognize even when they're several trap houses down, their shouts of Pull spearing the air in measured time.

Your own call varies. You're not good enough to know how smug you want to sound yet. Sometimes when the mics are stubborn and you have to yell more than once, your voice gets tight and threatens to split. Your gun wavers in readiness whenever it's your turn. Five spots around the trap house in preparation, one sweet spot for each station that allows for maximum swing. You're learning.

Distractions are supposed to be lethal to your score. You haven't yet picked up the knack of tuning them out. With the advent of summer, the hunters bring their dogs down, familiarizing the beasts with the sights and sounds of gunpowder. You shoot while the dogs whine. You shoot as the winds pick up and threaten afternoon storms. The feeling of country rain coming down isn't like the city at all; it smells different somehow, cleaner, pelting the grass as your lenses fog and you struggle to aim. Between rounds, the other shooters rip the cardboard lids off their shell boxes and hang them over the muzzles of their guns like sullen hats to protect the barrels from the damp. Water beads on the waxed paper. You blink, wipe sodden bangs away from your eyes. You shoot.

At the end of each practice day, you're surprisingly exhausted. The gun doesn't feel that heavy when you're lugging it around, but it wears you out, until you're relaxed and limp by the time evening comes. Too, there's an accomplishment in the sport that you're starting to value. It comes when you pair exhalation to pulling the trigger, a silent marriage of planning and action. As the pulse of your breath in held within your lungs, you call the pull in the split-second before the need for oxygen becomes bothersome. When you lower your gun, you see the fragments of your victory scatter silently over the grass. There's no need to cheer after a successful hit -- doing so is disruptive, poor form. The satisfaction alone is all that you're given as a shooter, and all that you need to take.

The optimal technique for you remains a mystery. But one thing that's clear is that you're running out of time. The weather won't be good enough to practice come winter, and portfolio reviews will take up all your time anyway. That means you only have four months to achieve mastery, with a brief refresher at the start of the year if you're lucky. Two boxes of ammo per set makes for fifty possible shots. Your father, when he came out earlier this year, broke forty-seven.

Try as you can, you're not making forty. You're not even making thirty-six.

You're torn between choke tubes and not. Shooting full choke, you've been told, is a handicap for trap, but the process of overcoming it would train real skill. Modifying the barrel would let you swap in an improved cylinder for skeet, but you can't tell if broadening out would help you or not. Everyone tells you something different. Like investments, everyone's an expert.

You will beat your old man somehow, but you know that he won't accept a victory unless it's performed within his standards. Frustration keeps you trapped in circles. You want to beat him by your own rules, want to break out of the mold and shatter every expectation he has of you, to win it all and more. You don't care enough about that old, fat bastard to earn his approval; you just want to annihilate his false sense of superiority.

You could go around his rules. You could ask a Turk for advice; they'd know to be quiet about it in public. But your driver won't take you to any other ranges, citing orders from up high, and you have enough other irons simmering in the fire that you don't need your father finding out about something else while he's searching for your scorecards.

And besides, all the Turks are spies for your father anyway.

Verdot's the worst of them all. He starts showing up on his own accord in the middle of summer, leaning on the wooden fences and ignoring other people's efforts to draw him into conversation. He watches your score steadily decline as you can't ignore the sensation of his eyes on your back, until finally you rack your gun with a scowl and give up for the day.

He drops the end of his cigarette onto the concrete, grinds the ash with a heel. "Stop pretending they're your father, and you'll get better. A calmer attitude could help."

"I am calm," you bite out, and fling a handful of spent casings into the discard bin, where they rattle around like a drumroll.

Verdot's undeterred. "You can act calm, and not be calm. Breathing isn't just a psychological trick that happens to get more oxygen to your eyes. It's a metronome." He tilts a finger at your chest. "You're not calm in your lungs. You should remember that, Rufus. There's no problem that steady breathing can't solve."

You add his dithering to the other million pounds of contradictory advice as you zip up the gunsleeve and stalk away. By now, the information you're getting is completely dissonant. Widen your stance; bring your feet in closer. One of the older shooters tried to tell you that your gun's not fitted for you -- that you should purchase a youth model. Another one told you it was fine. You're lucky that you're maturing well. It'd be even harder for ShinRa's business partners to take you seriously if you had a kid's roundness to your jaw, or rich fields of acne to offer them.

Verdot doesn't tell you if the gun's right for you or not. You keep waiting, keep expecting to receive his unwanted opinion, but the Turk only smokes at the rail and keeps score of your exhalations.

In the fall, the Midgar League shooters trickle in, trading gossip about the Zoloms. You wish you could show them up as they cast speculative glances in your direction and then at your gun, but by now you're comfortable enough with the disparity of skill that you refuse to pressure yourself against them. They're easy to pick out of a line from the more casual players. Their stances don't fidget. The women are whip-quick and utterly confident with their weapons, taking position with their elbows up past their ears. The open actions of their guns yawn like the mouths of bored escort girls around a dinner table, each one unique, and each one dangerous.

"Still closing that eye," Verdot observes as you sight down your gun experimentally in mimicry of one shooter. He's back at the rail, smoking carefully. Ash builds itself frantically on the end of his cigarette. "You'll never break fifty like that."

"I don't need to." Your arms are long, but you've adapted to your second gun well enough by now that you don't notice. You and it have made a tentative peace so far; it's only sticky after it rains. "That's what the hired help's for."

"That may be. But can you tolerate being beaten?"

You lower your gun in time to watch Verdot reach for another cigarette. "You think I'm not improving?"

"Only as much as you can, under the circumstances. Your father's trained you well."

Flame dances in Verdot's hands. You stare at his lighter, and then at his face. "What do you mean?"

The Turk takes his time before explaining, drawing in a slow breath of nicotine, turning his face to the side to exhale it out. "It's your follow-through. Every time you pull the trigger, you stop moving the gun. It's because you've been told not to jerk a gun around when you're firing it, except that you need to do entirely the opposite with this type of practice, and continue to turn the barrel. As I said." He flicks the end of his cigarette. "Your father did a good job."

The observation twists your throat.

You always knew that your father had his fair share of influence over your upbringing, but you never expected this. You've never fired a gun before. Even so, your mind learned well; your own unconscious instincts obey your father rather than yourself. Verdot might be wrong -- it might be that you're not so ignorant that you wave a loaded gun indiscriminately, rather than your father invading your subconscious. Either way, it's intolerable.

As the weather grows colder, and mounting the gun gets harder with the extra layers of clothing you keep having to add each week, you keep fighting that question. Your father's influence: your father's legacy. ShinRa.

You're on your third gun by the time that spring comes in and advances you with it. Fourteen years old, counting your way up. You have spare choke tubes in your jacket and a gil coin to take them out with; you have earplugs rolling around the bottom of your attache case and yellow-tinted glasses in your desk. You are a weapon dealer's son after all -- paperwork in one hand and shells in the other. You resemble your father, when he was your age. You fit the mold.

You've had some successes over the months, some fruitions of plans that will help your ambitions along. There have been strategies shared, documents you've made sure to read up on. You've had certain conversations with discreet individuals.

(Your shooting's improved too.)

Your third gun is wood stock, with a minimum of engraving; just an ivory inset diamond showing the maker's mark along the grip. Semi-automatic. Twelve-gauge: a common choice, sloppier than the twenty, but you prefer the kick of it anyway. This gun's not ported and the rib isn't ventilated, though you went ahead with the choke tubes. It's single barreled; the over-and-unders are jerky for you to break open and snap shut, mostly because of their weight and length compared to your arms. All the self-proclaimed serious shooters take the over-and-unders, but that makes your choice different from the others; just like any misses could be blamed on that eye that you keep closing.

Your father gives your gun a careful scrutiny when you bring it out and rack it with the others. He snorts into his mustache but takes up the hand switch himself as you and the president of Netech Steel march out along the yard marks. The Netech president is easy to take the measure of; he grins and claps a meaty hand on your shoulder before selecting his position, you on the third station and him on the second.

Only after you're done does he say anything. You let him rack his gun first. You shake hands politely, promise to stop by and visit his shipping yards in the future, and that you'd love to go shooting again with him sometime. You'll visit. Yes, you do well for a boy your age, thanks for noticing; you have your father to thank for that.

"Lost by one," your father tells you, as Netech Steel gets distracted by someone else's over-under and drifts away. "Couldn't you at least have bought a better gun?"

Forty-four points. It's a victory. You won't let your father make it anything less. You spent a year training for this, enduring old men who rated you by your target score instead of your wallet. You played the part of the casual teenager, studying business on numerous levels in order to fit into the game: boardroom, social, target marks. You've done your job. You know you've done it well.

You breathe at your own pace.

Back at the clubhouse, Verdot's camped out by the coffee machine. Your old man's already moved on; the conversation on the field's revolving around custom stocks and ventilated ribs. Verdot's cradling a cigarette and a cup.

He gives you a long, scrutinizing stare. "You missed that last shot on purpose."

You rest your gunsleeve on the nearest table. Outside, the next round is already in session, sharp cracks rolling off like firecracker strings. With two spare cartridges tucked in your vest and powder dust on your left hand, you are the very model of a perfect, obedient scion to the SEPC.

Netech's PHS number is folded in your pocket.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Verdot," you say. "I hit all the targets that I wanted."