Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, favourited and stuck with the story so far.
On we go, at last.
Reno wasn't pleased to be back in the cold steel and concrete hallway outside Sacha Domino's apartment. He balanced on the balls of his feet, Rufus' carefully wrapped package under his arm, waiting for Sacha to answer the door. He knew Sacha was alone – he'd hung around outside for nearly two hours, shivering in the cold morning air, until Theo Levin had left the building. Theo had headed off along the road in the direction of the Opera House, where, according to Reno's intel, he was currently employed as the pianist for a new operatic production of Loveless. Reno rolled his eyes. As though the play hadn't been bad enough! At least Rufus had been scathing about the whole enterprise, so it was unlikely that Reno was going to be dragged along to that particular performance. Thank Gaia for small mercies. Theo had been walking briskly, hands in the pockets of his worn black coat, taking long strides, whistling. Reno guessed that meant Sacha was following Rufus' instructions, which was just as well. As far as he knew Tseng had accepted his word that Sacha wasn't a threat in need of elimination – but the final call lay with Veld.
Impatient, Reno rang the doorbell again, the sleeve of his grey hoodie pulled over his hand so as not to leave prints. No need for that really – but such precautions had become automatic over the years. Reno pulled the hood forwards, making sure it covered his hair. His tattoos were concealed, and in his threadbare jeans and old trainers, he was pretty sure he'd be unrecognisable on the security cameras. He was a little startled when Sacha, hair still wet from the shower, opened the door, took one look at him and said, "Oh. It's you. You'd better come in."
Reno closed the door behind him, and pushed back his hood. "Surprised you recognised me."
Sacha didn't reply to that, but his mouth twisted into a bitter smile for a moment, before he asked, "What do you want?"
"Rufus sent me to give you this." Reno held out the flat package. Sacha made no move to take it, regarding it warily as if he thought it might explode.
"What is it?"
"Music. He told me to tell you that he hopes you'll play it sometime." Reno hesitated before adding, "With Theo." Watching that go home, Reno felt like he did during a hit. Sacha had that frozen look on his face – the look a mark got when he realised that Reno wasn't kidding – this was the end.
Wordlessly Sacha took the package and ripped it open, letting the brown paper wrapping fall to the floor of the otherwise spotless apartment. Reno watched as Sacha read through the first page of music, wondering at the way some people could look at written notes and transform them into music in their heads. Yet another thing Rufus probably expected everyone to know. But no – mustn't think like that. Don't antagonise Rufus, and don't let his attitude affect your work, Tseng had said, and Reno was determined to try.
Sacha was still reading, taking each sheet of music from the pile as he finished it, and sliding it underneath the stack, keeping the order. "Oh," said Sacha softly, to himself, "He used it like that! I would never have thought –" He continued to read, and Reno let him, oddly reluctant to interrupt. All the wariness and doubt had vanished from Sacha's face; he was somewhere else – entirely absorbed. The expression was familiar to Reno – it was the one he'd seen twice before, once in Costa del Sol and once during Sacha's concert – both times when Rufus was watching Sacha play. There was that same mix of total focus, wonder, and a faint edge of envy – a kind of longing. For some reason Reno found himself thinking of Iselheim and Cid Highwind. Have to get back there, he thought, remembering Cid's offer to teach him to fly that turboprop. There hadn't been time, since. One day, Reno promised himself.
At last Sacha looked up. "He wrote this? He wrote all this – since he was here?"
"Yeah. Lex said it took him all afternoon yesterday."
"He wrote this in one afternoon!" Sacha shook his head. "Have you heard this?"
"Me? No. I think he played it to Lex. You know – on the piano."
"He has a piano? Here?"
"Yeah. Got it yesterday."
"Oh – that's good! He's not – I mean, do you think he'll carry on, now – now that he's started playing again?"
"I don't know. But look – you remember what I said? You two can't see each other – you do get that, right?"
"Yes – but if he comes back to music – there's Lazard, for the company –"
Reno shook his head, the movement sharp, definite. "No. Not gonna happen. Rufus is going to be president of Shin-Ra. Get it into your head – save yourself the grief. Why d'you think he wrote you that, huh?" Reno gestured to the manuscript in Sasha's hands, finger pointing like a gun.
"What do you mean?"
Reno looked at him. Shit, Rufus, he thought, next time you want me to destroy someone, just tell me to fucking shoot them. He'd worked for Shin-Ra - for a Shinra – long enough to recognise a payoff when he saw one, but he had no idea how to tell Sacha that.
Before he could say anything, Sacha was talking, looking at Reno with something suspiciously like pity.
"I see what you're thinking – but you're wrong. You think this is a – some kind of goodbye –
- One word for it, Reno thought.
- "But it's not like that. I do get it. I'm not stupid. I see what this looks like to you: some kind of teenaged infatuation. But you don't know… you don't know everything. I know Rufus doesn't love me."
That did surprise Reno. "I'm not sayin' that," he began, "Only that you two can't see –"
"He doesn't," Sacha said firmly, cutting Reno off. "Maybe he thinks he does, but –" Sacha gave Reno a strange look then – his mouth half smiling, but pain obvious in his eyes. "But what he does love is music. I've been thinking about it a lot. I considered what would happen if I told Theo –"
"Tell me you didn't. Shit – are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"It's okay, I didn't. Of course I didn't – I don't want to put him in danger, like you said. But I had to think it all through." He held the music towards Reno. "You see this as Rufus easing his conscience – telling me it's over. But you don't understand. This is – more important than anything physical. This is – this is the best of Rufus. This is what he can be. I can't influence him directly any more if I can't see him – but you can."
"Me? He won't listen to me – even if I knew what the hell you were talking about."
"I think you do know. And he will listen. He – looks up to you."
Reno scoffed. "You got that wrong!"
Sacha shook his head. "No. He'll listen to you. Please, Reno, promise me you won't let him give up music again. I know he'll have to fit it round all the other stuff he has to do – learning the business or whatever – but he can't give it up."
"You're the one who don't get it," Reno said. "I don't have that kind of influence over him. Believe me, he's not gonna do anything on my say-so. I'm a Turk – his bodyguard. That's as far as it goes. Look – Sacha – I'm sorry about all this shit Rufus landed you and Theo in, but you have to forget about it, and get on with your lives."
"Yes, I know. But Rufus can't give up music. It's all I want for him. I can give him up, if I know he has that, you see? Promise you'll try."
Reno was getting antsy. Shit, these musical types were so intense! A promise to try – which in Reno's book pretty much equalled no promise at all – was a small price to pay to have this lousy assignment over with. "Okay, okay," he said. "Whatever. I'll try. Any message for him, before I go?"
"Yes. Tell him to keep playing – to keep composing. Whatever else he does. Tell him –"
"Tell him this is great. Not great as in really good – great as in 'great art' – seriously. It has to be performed – people have to hear it. I'll work on it – get a performance together. Ask him if he wants it anonymous, or under a pseudonym, or in his own name. I'd prefer the latter, but I understand there might be problems with that."
"You think?" Reno asked, automatically sarcastic. Then he considered what Sacha had said. "You really believe it's that good – the stuff he wrote? Not just because of – you know – you and him?"
There was a mixture of sorrow and pride in Sacha's voice as he replied, "I don't know what he'll be like as president of Shin-Ra, but as a musician he has real genius. I wish he had someone there – at Shin-Ra – who understood that; who valued it."
"Yeah," said Reno, thoughtful. "Guess it does kinda suck for him, sometimes. Reckon that's why he gets so pissed when I don't get it – all that classical stuff."
"It does kind of suck," Sacha agreed.
"You get him, don't you?" Reno said. "I don't know if anyone else does."
"Well, you could try harder," Sacha told him. His tone was light: his expression serious.
"Yeah. You're – not the first person to tell me that," Reno replied, thinking of Tseng. "I gotta go. I'll tell him what you said."
He turned to leave. Behind him Sacha said quietly, "Look after him."
Reno only nodded, not looking back.
Over the next few weeks Rufus began to realise that contacting Mallory Hyde was not going to be easy. His successes with hacking the security systems had made him overconfident; he'd believed at first that diligent searching of the WN would be sure to yield some leads the Turks had missed, but so far he'd found nothing at all. The only other plan he could think of was to make himself a deliberate target. It would be very dangerous – but if he could lure one of Hyde's operatives into another assassination attempt and the Turks captured him or her, then Rufus was fairly sure he would be able to find an opportunity to sneak into the detention cell unobserved. He had no doubt that he'd be able to get some sort of contact set up in that case – the offer he had in mind would surely be irresistible to any anti-Shin-Ra group. All he needed was a contact number – a location – a name. Something.
That goal in mind, Rufus had started attending concerts at the Junon Symphony Hall and the recently built Genesis Opera House, on an almost weekly basis. He established patterns as subtly as he could, usually, but not always, alternating between the two sites, and frequently, but not exclusively, patronising performances of orchestral music. Lex had tried in vain to persuade Rufus to make these visits secret, as his trip to watch Sacha play had been. Rufus had been eloquent in his rejection of that idea.
"I only went to see Sacha like that because I'd argued with him at school, and I didn't want to get involved in all that again. It's not as though I was afraid of terrorists. I want to support music while I'm in Junon – it's something I believe in. I want people to see me. A future president ought to have a positive public profile. Anyway, it's time I started meeting people here – making contacts."
Lex hadn't pointed out that when mixing with his father's friends had been suggested to Rufus at the start of his stay in Junon, he been contemptuous in his dismissal of the idea. Instead he'd sighed and said, "All right. If Veld clears it. But security's going to have to be watertight. We'll try it once, to start off with."
Rufus had picked his first performance very carefully – an opera he knew his father liked, on a day Genesis himself was attending. With both Rufus and the famous Soldier First Class in attendance, security had been extreme; Genesis had arrived with what seemed like half of Public Safety Maintenance, although the chances of an assassin being able to inflict any real damage on a First before being apprehended had seemed minimal to Rufus. To gain his father's approval, thereby increasing the pressure on Veld to allow these excursions to continue, Rufus had invited the daughter of a local dignitary to accompany him. As expected, her picture had appeared all over the press the next morning, and "The Planet's Most Eligible Bachelor" had been considered as good as married immediately. Rufus had been pleased – if every performance he attended garnered this much media attention, Mallory Hyde would hardly be able to avoid noticing that his enemy's son was making regular public appearances.
After nine events in three months, however, an anxious Rude raised the subject at a morning briefing, held, as usual, on the landing outside Rufus' rooms, while he was inside showering and getting dressed. "I think Rufus is putting himself at risk, going to all these concerts," he announced, without preamble. "We still have no new leads on Hyde."
Reno looked at Rude, thoughtfully. They'd been working together for a long time now, and he knew that Rude was neither over-cautious nor alarmist. To tell the truth, Reno had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with each performance Rufus attended: only his promise to Sacha to encourage Rufus to continue with music had prevented him from speaking out already. "Yeah," he agreed. "It's getting too predictable. I don't like it either. He should lay off for a while – be more selective."
"Reno – I know that accompanying Rufus to these performances isn't exactly your idea of a good night out," Lex began. Reno turned on him, stung. "What? You think that's why I'm worried? C'mon Lex – you know it's a risk. An' it's a growing risk. Hyde could be anywhere – we have fuck all to go on. I'm with Rude – Rufus should quit for a while."
"All right," Lex conceded. "I'll talk to him. Rude – you need to be back on duty at midday. Reno – you start at six."
Rude's, "Yes, Sir," and Reno's, " 'Kay, yo!" made Lex smile, as they walked away along the corridor. Funny how two such different characters could make one of the most effective teams Lex had seen in a long time, only rivalled by Freya and Kit, who had been working together successfully for nearly seven years.
Lex knocked, waiting for Rufus' quiet, "Come in," before he opened the door. The boy was already seated at his desk. The laptop was on, but the screen showed only a view of Midgar with the Shin-Ra logo superimposed – the factory wallpaper setting. Dark Nation, curled on the floor beside Rufus' chair, raised her head and looked at Lex, which was more than Rufus did.
"Good morning, Rufus," Lex began. "We need to discuss the concert you're scheduled to attend next week."
Rufus turned to face Lex. "All right. As long as you're not going to tell me I can't go."
"No. This one's non-negotiable. Sacha and Theo are playing the piece I wrote. You don't have to worry – no one knows I wrote it, as we agreed. It's anonymous."
"That's not the point. We're all concerned that you're putting yourself at risk. Your appearance at these events is becoming too predictable."
There was a barely concealed note of irritation in Rufus' tone as he replied, "Well – nothing's happened yet, has it?"
"No. But you've already attended one concert in public where Sacha was playing – and a whole recital by Theo. Anyone watching your movements would be able to predict your interest this time."
"Sacha played one piece in that concert, and there was hardly any press presence at Theo's recital – he's just not that well-known, yet." Rufus waved an imperious hand. "Anyway, there's no point in discussing it. I'm going, and that's that. We can talk about future performances afterwards. This is the first time anything I've written has been performed in public – you can't honestly expect me to miss it!"
"I don't think it's a good idea," Lex said. "We can contact Sacha – ask him to rearrange –"
"No," interrupted Rufus. "It's an entire concert. My sonata is just a part of it, at the end of the first half. Sacha had a programme sent over from the academy. They've been rehearsing for weeks – I can't ask them to reschedule on my account. After this one, I'll stop for a while."
"It's making you vulnerable to attacks," Lex said.
"There's no reason I should be especially vulnerable this time," Rufus replied, growing angry. "Sacha and Theo are only playing that piece, and there's no one really famous performing. Honestly, it's not a major event. If anyone knew I'd composed that sonata I suppose there would be press everywhere – but as it is, people will assume it was written by a student at the academy – maybe Sacha himself. The way I see it, this will be about the safest performance I've been to yet. That first one with Genesis, and the Gaia Symphony last month – those were seriously high profile." Rufus hesitated. "Anyway, I want –" He stopped abruptly.
Lex looked at him. He still wasn't sure whether Rufus had inferred anything from his warning, more than three months ago, when they'd discussed Lucia and Rufus had played him the composition - but since then the boy had treated him with a polite distance. It was rare for Rufus to express a strong desire to do anything, except for these visits to musical performances. "Go on," Lex prompted, gently.
Rufus coloured, and when he ran his hand through his hair, Lex was already waiting for the familiar gesture. "I – I want to see how the audience takes it," Rufus said. "It's the only thing I've ever done that's just mine. If they like it, I'll know it's because there's some – some value in it, that's not to do with my name, or who my father is." He gave a little, doubtful smile, and Lex suddenly realised that Rufus was genuinely uncertain of his talent. "If they don't like it – well, then at least it will be a real response from people who wouldn't dare to criticise a Shinra." Rufus made no further appeal – would never deign to ask directly – which was a part of why Lex found it impossible to refuse him.
"All right," Lex agreed. "But this has to be the last one, for now. After this, as you say, we'll rethink your public appearances."
Rufus didn't smile, only inclining his head with that natural grace he'd inherited from his mother. "Thank you, Lex," he said, sincerely, which was as much gratitude as Lex had ever received from any Shinra, and as much as he had ever hoped for.
"Thought we'd agreed this wasn't happenin'," Reno said, when Lex outlined security plans for the concert at the next day's briefing. The three Turks were seated around a small table in the secure meetings room. Lex squared his shoulders, prepared for Reno's challenge and Rude's obvious disapproval. "Yes," he agreed. "But after discussion with Rufus I've decided to allow this last appearance, given the relatively low public profile of the event, and the fact that Sacha and Theo are playing the piece Rufus wrote."
Rude shook his head. "I don't like it. The fact that Sacha was at school with Rufus is public knowledge. If Hyde's still interested in Rufus as a target, he'll know that."
"Yeah," said Reno, slowly. "Although – guess it means a lot to the kid that they're playin' his stuff, right?"
Lex looked at Reno, surprised. "Yes," he said, grateful for the unexpected support. "I think it means more to him than he'd ever admit."
"It's too much of a risk," Rude said. Reno glanced at him, torn. He trusted Rude's judgement completely, and his partner's concerns chimed with his own gut instincts – but since his conversation with Sacha, Reno had been making an effort to take more of an interest in Rufus' music. Not that the kid seemed to appreciate it. Ever since Reno's return from Midgar, Rufus had been coldly polite, but, reflecting on Tseng's words and his own behaviour, Reno reckoned he probably deserved that. Unused to analysing his own motives, Reno stayed silent, as Lex made the final decision. "We'll tighten up security. Rufus will be armed. We'll have members of PSM at every exit. I'm making this call – I'll take any consequences. After this, we'll discuss whether Rufus should make any more public appearances of this kind at all."
An hour later, after they'd put in place every detail of the security plan, Lex left to relieve the guard who'd been on duty outside Rufus' rooms. Rude tidied away files from the table, not looking at Reno as he asked, "So – you're okay with this?"
Reno shook his head. "I'm – not sure. It feels dangerous, but, like Lex said, it'll be the last time…"
"It feels dangerous?" Rude echoed. "Listen to yourself. This is a bad idea. You know it is."
"Maybe. But it's happening now. We just gotta – stay alert. Hope nothin' happens."
"Hope?" Rude gave an incredulous snort, and Reno realised that his partner was really angry. He said nothing more on the subject, however, and Reno kept quiet, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling in his gut caused by Rude's uncharacteristic vehemence.
Rufus sat through the first hour of the concert feeling unusually nervous; much more so than he'd used to feel at school before performing music. He had no doubt about his technical ability as a pianist – it was one thing he was certain he could do well – but hearing his composition performed by others was an entirely different proposition. Lex sat beside him in the box, listening to the musicians with inexpert but genuine appreciation.
Rufus had deliberated with himself about asking for Reno to be his bodyguard for this concert, but there had been no obvious justification for it, especially in light of the Turks' concerns about security. Lex was the senior Turk. Rufus was sure that, if he'd made enough fuss, he would have been allowed Reno, but in the end he'd decided against it. Ever since Lex had unconsciously let slip the truth about his mother's death, Rufus had wavered between doing his utmost to avoid Reno on the basis that it was probable Reno did know about the Turks' role in that crime, and wanting him near – giving him the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes Rufus managed to persuade himself that only those Turks who had been personally involved in the operation would have known about it, in which case Reno was innocent – if the idea of an innocent Turk wasn't laughably oxymoronic. Rufus still wasn't sure which scenario he actually believed – only which one he longed to be true.
Besides, Rufus had told himself, watching Reno's reaction to the performance could be nothing but a disappointment. At best he would be indifferent – at worst he would try – he seemed to have been trying harder recently – and his baffled incomprehension would be worse than any amount of scorn. Rufus remembered Reno's reaction to the excellent performance of the Gaia Symphony they'd watched the last time he'd been on guard duty – his chirpy, "Yeah – it was – good!" an unconvincing contrast with the way he'd surreptitiously yawned all the way through.
Rufus' eyes flicked up to the top-most box on the opposite side of the Junon Symphony Hall. Its blue velvet curtains were closed, concealing Reno, who had a sniper rifle trained on Rufus' box, watching through a telescopic sight.
Rude was seated at the end of a row at the back of the stalls, near the exits. Every exit in the building was guarded by a blue-uniformed member of Public Safety Maintenance. Rufus' own handgun was concealed beneath his white jacket. He'd started wearing white to these appearances precisely because it made him visible. The popular press had started calling it his 'trademark white', and Rufus had no objection to raising his public profile, particularly after Reno had handed him a pile of magazines with titles like Look Now! and What's Hot – and pointed out Lazard's insidious, smiling presence on their garish, glossy pages.
Rufus shifted, uncomfortable in the heavy bulletproof vest Lex had insisted he wear. The senior Turk had also made him equip his gun with a barrier materia, and had handed him a Phoenix Down feather "just in case". All these precautions seemed unnecessary to Rufus. He hadn't been lying to Lex when he'd called this concert low profile, consisting mainly of students from the JMA and local performers. It was looking increasingly likely that he was going to have to think of some other way of contacting Mallory Hyde, or, failing that, some way of moving against his father himself.
As he listened to a competent young violinist who, he suddenly recognised, was the girl he'd met at the academy – Laura? No, Leah – Rufus contemplated asking Lex to help him. Would it be possible to persuade Lex to move against the President? It seemed clear that Lex had loved Rufus' mother, but he'd also almost certainly been involved in her death – or, at the very least, the plot to kill her lover. Had he known they were going to kill Lucia as well? Had it never occurred to him to warn her – to try to prevent it? Rufus glanced at Lex, wondering. He wasn't sure whether or not Lex realised that he'd given away the Turks' secret – he thought most likely not. Did Lex feel any guilt over Lucia's death? Could that be used to convince him to act against Julius Shinra? Overall, Rufus felt it was unlikely. Lex was a Turk – had remained a Turk in spite of all that had been done. No – if Rufus even hinted at rebellious thoughts, Lex would probably report straight to Veld.
Sometimes Rufus entertained satisfyingly violent fantasies of marching into his father's office and blowing his head off with a shotgun. But the result of that would be his own death at the hands of security or the Turks, and Lazard would step calmly into father's place, with a sorrowful shake of his head at the thought of his poor half-brother's tragic instability. The image of Lazard sitting in his father's chair behind that absurdly proportioned desk, smiling his polite, reasonable smile made Rufus feel sick.
No – Rufus needed an outside agency, which would strike against the targets he chose, while he built his power inside the company, waiting for the right moment to take over. He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining Midgar at night, viewed from above, as it looked when approaching the top of the Shin-Ra tower by helicopter – each of the reactors exploding into volcanic fire one after another, as his father watched helplessly from the eyrie of his office while the source of his power burned around him… And then? Then it would be Rufus' turn.
Leah finished playing and the audience applauded warmly. Rufus, joining in, felt a surge of nervous excitement as Sacha and Theo took their places on the stage.
The waitress who brought the interval drinks was a pretty brunette who smiled shyly at Rufus as she pushed open the door of the box, balancing a tray of glasses and an open bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket. She was accompanied by a member of Shin-Ra security, who took up his position at the back of the box, unobtrusive and silent. Still uncharacteristically flustered by the strength of the audience's reaction to his composition, Rufus watched the girl pouring the drinks, then took two crystal flutes and handed one to Lex. "I know you don't, on duty," Rufus said, with the most open smile Lex had seen from him in months, "But just this once? I feel like celebrating."
Lex returned Rufus' smile, unable to hide his pride in the boy's achievement. He raised his glass to Rufus, about to congratulate him, when, to Rufus' left, the waitress gave a startled cry. She had set down her tray on a small table at the back of the box, but as she'd picked up the bottle, ready to refill the glasses when needed, it appeared to have slipped from her grip. The heavy bottle thudded dully on the thick carpet and rolled a little way, spilling a thin trail of liquid and froth.
The girl was already on her knees, righting the bottle, staring up at Rufus with a stricken expression. "I'm so sorry, Sir. It just slipped out of my hands. I –"
"Oh – don't worry about it," Rufus said, kneeling to pick up the bottle, "Accidents –"
It took him a moment to register that the object in her hand was a gun, inches from his face, and to realise that, in their current position, they would both be out of Reno's line of sight.
"Nobody move," the girl said, softly, "Or I'll shoot him in the face." Behind Rufus, Lex froze.
"Do exactly what I say, and no one needs to die," the girl said, her voice calm. "This is a kidnapping, not an assassination. Turk – keep silent. Mr. Shinra – stay down, remove your weapons, and put them on the floor in front of you." Rufus obeyed, his mind and his heart racing. He found that his principal emotion was not fear, but anger. How had this girl managed to get a gun past his security? Was Mallory Hyde behind this, or a different group entirely? This was not what he'd planned for - the Turks were supposed to catch these people! Still – no need to panic. It was a long way to the exit. Surely Lex or the security guard would regain control of the situation before this girl could get him out of the building?
The girl used her free hand to slide Rufus' gun across the carpet in the direction of the guard.
Oh – of course. The guard was in on it, too.
"That's your only weapon?" the girl asked. She kept her voice very low, no doubt assuming, correctly, that Lex was in constant contact with other members of Shin-Ra security.
"All right. Now – you're going to get up, go to the table and pour another drink, take your seat, and ask me to join you. Then we're all going to relax until the lights go down for the second half, which is when we move. If anyone tries anything, my colleague will detonate the grenade in his right hand –" Rufus and Lex looked across at the security guard, who opened his hand just enough to reveal the top of a device that certainly looked as though it might be a grenade of some kind; it was impossible to be sure. "While that wouldn't be our preferred outcome," the girl continued, "It would still achieve some of our aims. Be assured that we are prepared to die for our cause, if necessary. Now – Mr. Shinra, if you please…"
Rufus followed her instructions, glad that his voice was steady as he stood up, moved to the table, and asked, "Would you care to join me?"
The girl slipped her gun back into the pocket of her apron before she got to her feet. She smoothed down her skirt, looking convincingly embarrassed. "Oh I –"
"Please," said Rufus, surprised at how calm he felt, "I insist."
Rufus handed her the glass of champagne he'd just poured and looked out across the auditorium, wondering whether there was any way of alerting Reno or Rude, but the girl was watching him closely. Rufus assumed that the girl had been telling the truth about the plan being to kidnap him – if they'd wanted him dead she'd already had the opportunity to shoot him point blank. The only option was to continue to follow her instructions, for now.
Reno felt his pulse slowing as he watched Rufus pass the waitress a glass of champagne. He'd been worried for a moment there – when the girl had dropped the bottle and Rufus had vanished from view to retrieve it – but everything seemed fine. Lex was watching the proceedings unmoved, and if Rufus' smile looked a little fake, that wasn't surprising. A waitress was hardly likely to impress the President, so Reno assumed that Rufus had asked her to join him on a whim, as part of his strategy to convince the world that he was straight. If that was the kid's plan, it would help if Rufus at least tried to seem interested though! He was looking at her less like a potential conquest and more like someone he was trying to intimidate in a board meeting. Reno's grin became a grimace as the orchestra began tuning up for the second half. Rufus' stuff had been all right compared to the rest – the audience seemed to have appreciated it anyway. But surely that was enough for one day?
Through the telescopic sight, Reno's sharp eyes scanned the box again, but nothing seemed untoward. The girl was certainly pretty – shame it was wasted on the kid, really. Maybe being forced to attend all these classical gigs might have some compensations after all? Reno wondered when the girl got off work. There was something about her that reminded him of Jesse – not her face – but her serious expression – all that long brown hair… Although, thinking about it, that was strange. All the staff he remembered seeing at these events – ushers, bar staff, box office staff – always had their hair tied back. But maybe it was different for the President's son? Or maybe not. Reno spoke softly into the microphone attached to his headset. "Boss? Everything okay?"
Lex looked directly towards Reno's hiding place and shook his head minutely. At that moment the houselights went down, and for a second Reno could make out nothing but shadows in the box opposite him – shadows that were moving rapidly. Reno saw a flash of light as the door at the back of the box opened – and then the box was empty.
"Shit – Rude – we have a situation!" Reno said, keeping his voice low, grabbing the rifle, stand and all. "They've all left the box – I think it's the waitress. Get to the second – no – third exit at the back – I'll go round by the street – it's quicker from here."
"I'm on it," Rude replied. "Reno – contact security. No one leaves the building except you."
Reno ran for the stairs, issuing urgent instructions into his headset as he went. The guard at the first exit Reno reached pushed open the door, recognising the Turk. "No one else in or out," Reno told him, dashing out into an alleyway that ran all the way along the east side of the building. The alley was empty. Reno looked left and right, trying to decide. Okay – assume they want him alive – or it's already too late… Reno pushed away that thought and the nauseous feeling that accompanied it. So – kidnapping. They'll have a car. To the left was the main entrance on one of the busiest streets in Junon – they'd be crazy to try to take Rufus out that way. There were a dozen side streets behind the concert hall where they could be waiting. Find the car – find Rufus. Reno turned right, and ran, heading for the back of the building.
As soon as they were in the corridor, the man dressed as a Shin-Ra security guard took Lex's gun and held it to the back of his head. The girl grabbed Rufus' arm, pulling her own gun from the pocket of her apron, and jamming it under his right ear.
"Walk," she said, nudging him with the gun. Rufus did as she told him, surprised when they passed two flights of stairs, before taking the third – a narrow set of concrete steps descending into shadows. When they reached the bottom of the steps a guard moved forwards, about to challenge them. The girl removed the gun from Rufus' neck and shot the guard neatly through the centre of his forehead. Rufus gasped, stumbling as the girl pushed him past the obstacle of the guard's body. He couldn't help staring at the crumpled form as the girl pushed open the fire escape; he'd never seen a dead person before – never seen someone die. It wasn't like in films – no shouting – hardly any blood – just – alive, then dead – like flicking a switch.
"You – killed him!" Rufus exclaimed, unable to help himself.
The girl didn't reply, staring at the empty road at the end of the narrow alley.
"Where's the car?" she cried, pushing Rufus along the alley, away from the door. Looking back, Rufus' saw the fake security guard give Lex a hard shove into the alley, before turning to slam the heavy fire door closed.
The girl called back to the guard, "They're not here! We'll have to go on foot." As she spoke the staccato crack of rifle fire echoed off the high walls of the surrounding buildings followed the percussive pop of a smaller weapon. The girl let go of Rufus, aiming the gun straight at Lex.
"No!" Rufus cried, acting instinctively, grabbing her arm. They both felt the kick as the gun went off – heard the flattened bang of the suppressed weapon – saw the guard slump back against the door. Panicking for the first time the girl lashed out at Rufus, punching him hard in the face with her free hand. He staggered, but remembered his combat training. Managing to keep hold of the arm that held the gun, Rufus twisted it with all his strength forcing the girl off balance, but instead of resisting she rolled with his throw, the momentum breaking her free of his grip. The gun was still in her hand.
"For Avalanche!" she cried, aiming at Rufus' head. Rufus heard a shot – then another. The girl fell forward, Lex's bullet in her back. Dazed, Rufus saw a Shin-Ra guard running towards him along the alley. He looked back towards Lex who was staring at him, looking shocked. Looking –
No. Rufus wiped blood out of his eyes – whose he wasn't sure – and ran towards Lex, but before he got there someone knocked him to the ground, and he felt a gun against the back of his head.
"Oh dear," said a calm, male voice. "Things haven't exactly gone to plan, have they?"
"Mallory Hyde?" Rufus asked.
"I used to go by that name, yes. My real name's Fuhito. You're proving expensive to kill, Rufus Shinra."
"I – I thought this was a kidnapping?"
"That was the intention. However, since one of your Turks disabled our car before I shot him – I'm afraid this is now an assassination."
"Wait! Don't. I mean – there's something –" Rufus' mind wouldn't function. Which Turk? Is Lex -? I had a plan – I was supposed – this wasn't supposed –
"I'll fund your cause!" Rufus heard himself saying, clear over the churning chaos in his head. "I can give you all the information you need to hit Shin-Ra where it hurts."
"What? Why would you do that?"
"Because I want my father dead as much as you do." Rufus turned to look at Hyde – Fuhito - but the man's face was completely hidden by the helmet of his Shin-Ra Department of Public Safety uniform.
"My own reasons. What do you have to lose? If I'm telling the truth you get financial backing and inside information – if I'm not, you can always kill me on another occasion."
Fuhito raised the visor of his helmet, and gave Rufus a penetrating look. He was younger than he'd appeared in the photograph they'd found in Iselheim. His dark eyes had an uncanny intensity.
"Security will be here any minute," Rufus pushed. "There's a piece of paper in the breast pocket of my jacket. A phone number – a direct link to a clean phone. Think about it. Contact me. Don't leave messages – wait until I reply. I'll use the code name 'heir apparent'."
"You had this planned?"
Not like this! Which Turk?
"Yes," Rufus said, forcing himself to sound calm. "I expected something of this kind."
Fuhito gave a strange, breathless laugh that reminded Rufus of Hojo. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against Rufus' jaw, and reached into his jacket for the phone number. Thrusting the folded paper into his own pocket, he stepped back, keeping the gun trained on Rufus.
"You're not what I expected," Fuhito said. "I'll think about your offer." He surveyed the carnage in the alley and his mouth quirked oddly in a kind of bitter amusement. "Humanity!" he scoffed. "What a waste of resources!"
Rufus said nothing.
Fuhito flipped down the visor, and walked away. "Enjoy the rest of the concert!" he called.
Rufus found that he was shaking. He got to his feet, stumbled back down the alley until he reached the door, where Lex lay motionless, blue eyes still fixed on the place where his final target had been standing.
"Lex? Lex. I'm sorry. I didn't think – Don't be dead!"
At the end of the alley someone was shouting, "Over here!" Was that Fuhito? Cunning – to call the others, blend in with other Public Safety officers, then slip away unnoticed. But – which Turk? Even if it was him – even if he'd been shot – they'd get to him in time wouldn't they? There was always - Oh – wait – "Wait!" said Rufus aloud to Lex's body. "There's – I've got –" He pulled the golden feather Lex had given him that morning from the same pocket in which he'd kept the phone number, and laid it on Lex's chest. Nothing happened.
"Come on!" Rufus shouted, shaking the feather, pressing it against Lex' body – crushing it. "Work!" As he did so, he felt something under his hand – a very slight change in the texture of Lex's jacket. Something there… The same part of Rufus' mind that had managed to speak rationally to Fuhito directed his actions, and he remembered the photograph. Before he had time to consider what he was doing, Rufus took the picture from the inside pocket of Lex's jacket and slipped it into his own. As he did so, he noticed the small, bloody hole at the base of Lex's throat where Fuhito's bullet had entered. Although he had no real hope of it working, Rufus laid the phoenix feather over the wound.
Then there were people everywhere, and Rude's voice – Rude - saying gently, "Rufus – it's too late. Phoenix Down doesn't work like that."
Rufus looked up at him, wild-eyed, and his voice was anguished as he cried, "Rude! Does that mean – is he dead?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so. Rufus – we need to get you back to the Shin-Ra offices. He lowered his chin, speaking into the microphone of his headset. "Reno? Rufus is all right. Yes – it was the fifth exit. Get them to bring the car round."
"Reno?" echoed Rufus stupidly, weak with relief. He shut his mouth abruptly, realising how much he'd almost given away, replaying Rude's words in his mind.
"You're in shock," Rude told him. "Stay where you are. They're bringing the car. You're safe now."
Rufus nodded, suddenly aware of how short of breath he was. His mouth was horribly dry. He couldn't swallow.
Rude's hand was warm on his shoulder. "Deep breaths," Rude said.
Rufus nodded, trying to inhale slowly. "I'm all right," he said. "But – Lex –"
"I know. Here's the car."
Rufus looked up – saw the long, black limousine at the end of the alley, and someone running towards them carrying a rifle. Reno. Rufus got to his feet and took a step towards him before he checked himself, astonished at the force of his yearning to touch – the violent intensity of his emotions at seeing Reno alive and apparently unharmed. Sacha was right, Rufus thought. I do love him! But – I can't.
Reno stopped in front of him, looking oddly relaxed. "Okay kid?" he asked with incongruous cheer.
Rufus could think of nothing to say, but words were unnecessary in any case, as Reno looked past him, his smile fading as he took in Rude's expression, Lex…
"Shit no!" Reno moved towards Lex's body, but Rude shook his head. "Get Rufus back to HQ. I'll deal with things here."
"Yeah – sure – uh – right. Right." Rufus couldn't remember ever having seen Reno so thrown by anything. Reno turned back to him, his face grim. "C'mon kid. Are you injured?"
"No – no. I'm – fine."
"All right. Good. Let's go."
Inside the car Rufus felt a weird sense of disconnection as he watched the narrow alley disappear behind them. "What – what time is it?" he asked.
Reno didn't seem to find the question strange. He checked his watch and replied, "Nine fifty seven."
The whole incident had taken not much more than ten minutes. Inside the building the concert would be continuing, none of the audience aware of anything amiss.
"Sacha –" Rufus began. Reno misread his concern. "Don't worry. No reason he should have been a target. I'm sure he's fine." Reno leaned back in the seat for a moment, his hand over his eyes, before turning back to Rufus. "What the hell happened?" he asked.
Rufus experienced a moment of near panic as he realised he had no way to account for Lex's death without mentioning Fuhito. Then he saw that he didn't have to try to explain. "I – I'm not sure," he said. "It was so quick. The girl – the waitress – she had a gun – and the security guard said he had a grenade. The waitress – she just shot the guard on the door – in the head. They got us outside, but their car wasn't there. She – she tried to shoot Lex, and I grabbed her arm, and she killed the other one – the one pretending to be a guard - by mistake, then she was going to shoot me and there were two shots. Lex killed her. I think there was someone else – at the end of the alley – I couldn't see. And Lex was dead. I tried the Phoenix Down but –"
"No," said Reno, "It was too late. If he died instantly, magic of any kind would be useless. You did all you could. If I hadn't stopped the car – Shit! I must've run right past you. Must've been seconds before they opened the fire door. I just assumed they'd take you out by the nearest exit – right behind the box."
"That's what they wanted you to assume, I suppose."
"What a fucking mess! Lex – what a fucking stupid waste. This is my fault."
Rufus shook his head. "No – mine. I was so determined to go to this concert. Lex didn't want me to, but I talked him into it."
"I went along with it, when I knew it was dangerous," Reno said. "Rude was right – he was against this from the start. You're not to blame. We're the ones responsible for security."
"I feel responsible," Rufus said.
"Don't. This is our job." Reno sighed. "Poor Lex, though. Bullet must've missed the vest. I was lucky – that's the only difference."
Rufus felt suddenly dizzy. "Why? What happened?" he asked, trying to block out the thoughts that flooded his mind – if I'd decided to ask Reno to stay with me it could have been Lex here, and Reno lying in that alley – so easily could have been –
"I thought they'd take you out by the third exit," Reno was saying. "I ran around the building – right past where you actually were – and there was a car approaching – just approaching the third exit - on the road that was meant to be closed for security. I had the rifle – I shot out the front two tires – but the car kept coming. Someone shot me from the window – off side, back. Vest took the impact, but it knocked me on my six - winded me. The car stopped – someone got out and ran, shooting back at me – missed. Car took off again – skidding like crazy, turned right, down a side road. I followed – thought you might already be in it, or the driver would've run, too. Finally caught up with it – driver was dead. Must've taken something. No one else in the car. I ran back fast as I could – but I was still on the way when Rude called, an' it was all over. Wasted too long chasing the wrong guy. Shit!"
"You had to make a call," Rufus said. "On the information you had, it was the right one."
"Yeah – only it was the wrong one."
"You couldn't have known."
Reno's expression was bleak. He stared down at his hands. "My job to know. The guy who ran from the car – he must have been the one at the end of the alley you were in. The one who shot Lex."
"It could have been someone else. We don't know how many –"
"Forensics will be able to match the bullet to the one in my vest. This is –" Reno spread his hands helplessly – let them fall back into his lap.
Rufus could think of nothing to say.
They were approaching the Shin-Ra offices when Reno said, "He saved my mom's life once. Years ago. Him and Veld. It was the first time I ever saw a Turk."
Rufus heard himself replying, "He was a good man," but his first impulse - the bitter, unworthy thought that crossed his mind before he could cut it off – was: he saved your mom's life? But he didn't save mine.
The thought shocked Rufus – the fact that he could think it, when he was at least partly responsible for Lex's death. What's wrong with me? Rufus wondered. I don't – feel things properly. I want – For an instant Rufus had a vision of himself abandoned to his wants – flinging himself, sobbing, into Reno's arms – confessing everything – his knowledge of his father's crimes – his contact with Fuhito – his stupid, hopeless love –
He had to stop himself from laughing aloud. Be sensible, Rufus told himself. You can't be afraid of thoughts. Looked at in the right light, things have worked out well tonight. Lex was the only one who had any reason to suspect that I know about what my father did. I've made contact with Fuhito. Lex would be glad that I have a way to avenge my mother. The audience loved –
But that thought, Rufus did manage to push away. Music was separate – beyond the actions circumstances had conspired to force him to take. The concert already felt very distant, as though it was an event remembered from long ago, some time during his childhood. He would not allow himself to connect it with anything else that had happened tonight. Would not allow it.
Rufus stroked Dark Nation's soft head, sitting on his bed in the dark and staring through the window into the night. Outside the room he could see nothing but the bright, white arc of the illuminated harbour and the distant red and green navigation lights of a ship heading out over the ocean. He'd turned on the phone Sacha had given him, although he didn't expect Fuhito to contact him immediately. Rufus ran his fingers through hair still damp from the shower he'd taken to wash the blood from his face and hands. His nose was swollen where the girl had hit him, and he was going to have an impressive black eye, so Reno had said, but nothing was broken.
Once Reno had checked Rufus' injuries and made him drink a potion, he had gone to the office to call Veld. Technically, Rufus supposed, that was Rude's job, as the senior surviving Turk in Junon at present, but Reno had insisted. Rude would be somewhere in the labs in the basement, where all the bodies had been brought: the guard who had been shot inside the concert hall, the waitress and her colleague in the Shin-Ra uniform, the driver of the car and Lex.
Avalanche, Rufus thought, remembering the girl's words as she'd tried to shoot him – before Lex's final bullet saved his life. The name was an apt one. He remembered the official fates of Alice Mortimer and Simon Payton – smothered beneath the snow at Icicle Inn. Was that what had given Fuhito the idea for the name? Well – Rufus had his own uses for Avalanche now. His father would be swept away by Rufus' vengeance. What else he would choose to bury, and what to save, he hadn't decided yet.
At some point Rufus must have fallen asleep. He woke to darkness and the sound of music – his own music – someone quietly humming part of the slow movement of his sonata, outside the door. Opening the door softly, Rufus was surprised to see that it was Reno on guard duty.
"Rufus? Is something wrong?" Reno looked exhausted. He clearly hadn't had time to change; there was a neat hole in his shirt where Fuhito's bullet had passed through into the vest beneath.
"I heard –"
"Sorry. Got this tune stuck in my head – don't know why. Kinda – nice. I'll stop."
"No – it's fine. I'll – just – go back to bed."
"Night. Try an' get some sleep."
Rufus lay staring into the darkness, Dark Nation a heavy, comforting presence, slumped across his feet at the end of the bed. After a while Reno started humming again. Rufus almost smiled, until he remembered Lex, and the photograph that now lay at the back of the same drawer in which he had hidden the phone. He closed his eyes. No point dwelling on what had happened – it was done. There would be an investigation of course – reports, forensics, details, questions and recriminations. None of it would make any difference, as long as Fuhito took the bait and called. Rufus would give him all the information he needed to avoid detection – and all the money he needed to strike at Shin-Ra. Now there was nothing to do but wait.
Thanks for reading. I'll try not to make the wait too long.