This story was written as part of the 2010 Secret Santa exchange at the Genesis Awards, and is a giftfic to the wonderful Pen Against Sword, who loves Yuffie and is learning to love Tseng. There's almost no Tseng in this story, though: it's a two-hander featuring a bald man who doesn't talk much and a young girl who doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut. It was inspired by Pen Against Sword's delicious and very funny Rude/Yuffie romance "The Strong, Silent Type," which you can find here at fanfiction dot net on her page. [for some reason, the link keeps breaking]
I hope you enjoy both Pen's fic and my own offering. Happy 2011!
Summary: Yuffie wouldn't have made the grade as a Turk, but maybe that's no bad thing.
Rude breaks necks neatly. It's how he was trained. He's been perfecting his art for nearly twenty years, and though he isn't allowed to practice it as often as he used to in this brave new world that Reeve and Rufus are making between them, he's proud that he hasn't lost his touch. It's like riding a bicycle; like playing the piano. The hands don't forget. When he gets it right, like he did just now, death comes quick and painless. Nine times out of ten they never know what hit them, which is the way Rude prefers it. He likes to keep things clean.
It's what he's good at, but it's not what he most enjoys.
This particular assignment was done as a favour for Reeve Tuesti, carried out at President Rufus' behest. The W.R.O. Commissioner, notable quick-change artist and long-distance ventriloquist, may have swapped one costume for another – out of the corporate three-piece pin-stripe, into the sage's blue velvet robe, ta-da! – but Reeve was Head of Urban Development for almost as long as Rude's been a Turk, and the Shinra mentality dies hard. When a man's spent his entire lifetime playing the double game, he doesn't stop just because he's made a few nice, new young friends. Reeve's good at smiling for the cameras, admittedly; his silky beard softens his expanse of white teeth, and he carefully cultivates that air of loveable eccentricity that his baby-faced, red-capped volunteers find so endearing. All Rude knows, though, is that he'd think twice before he'd sit down at a poker table with the man.
He has no idea what this target's offense was, what threat he posed; he does not know why Reeve needed him removed. He didn't ask. That's not his job. To ask would be to imply that he's questioning his orders; that some judgment on his part is called for. He sets off in the direction of the car, parked round the corner, using his teeth to pull off his gloves. He's just peeled the left hand free when his phone rings.
Tseng's on the line. "The limousine has broken down again," he says, sounding royally pissed off.
In the old days they had fleets of limos at their disposal, row after row of them lined up in the yard, mako powered, black and glossy, shining in the sun.
"It only came back from the shop yesterday," Tseng grumbles. "Bloody idiot calls himself a mechanic..."
In the old days they'd have sorted the wrongdoer out all right; they'd have gone straight round to his garage and taken off his right thumb and pinkie finger, and then see whether he still felt like screwing around with people's engines. And try as he might – because Rufus demands that they try – Rude for the life of him can't see what was so wrong with that approach. A fool who doesn't know his big end from his crank pin has no business going within a million miles of anybody's motor. Incompetence costs lives.
In the old days, their cars never broke down.
"Elena's stuck on the highway," Tseng tells him. "You'll have to collect our V.I.P. Have you taken care of that other matter?"
"Good. How far are you from W.R.O. Headquarters?"
"Twenty minutes. Road's bad."
"It'll have to do. I'll let them know you're coming." Tseng hangs up.
Rounding the corner, Rude's car comes into sight. He sees at once that both the wing mirrors have been stolen, and sighs. Now he'll have to return to Edge tomorrow, make a trip down the spare parts bazaar in Gully Lane to buy them back. What a pain in the arse.
In the old days, when it wasn't Gully Lane but Wall Market, all he and Reno had to do was show their faces and those stolen parts would materalise out of thin air like magic, pressed into their hands by some nervous eager kid saying Hey, mister, I think you dropped this.
Rufus wants his dogs to learn new tricks (while not completely forgetting the old ones); he keeps saying their traditional ways of doing things are out of step with the new world order he's determined to establish – but what Rude thinks, secretly, is that this low-profile, softly-softly approach the young President is so keen on sometimes amounts to nothing more than encouraging crime.
Still, he's the boss.
Rude turns the key in the ignition. The oil-converted engine coughs and shudders and finally starts. Greasy black smoke farts from the exhaust pipe as he pulls away.
Twenty minutes later precisely, he's not surprised to see the V.I.P. he's been sent to collect pacing up and down outside the W.R.O. entrance, looking for her ride. Not that he knows her particularly well; he could count on his fingers the number of times they've met, but most of those times she was trying to kill him and you learn to read people fast under those conditions. She's impatient. Impulsive. She's barely out of her teens, which automatically makes her a narcissistic loudmouth. And what the hell is she wearing? Rainbow high-tops, stripey thigh socks, cut-off jean shorts that barely cover her butt-cheeks, a zippered tank top, heavy studded leather belt, fingerless gloves… And to top it all off, a wooly, wobbly yellow hat knitted in the shape of a chocobo's head. With a beak. And eyes.
No fairy-tale princess, this minx. Talk about rebelling against your upbringing. Tseng's going to quietly do his nut when he sees her. Did she forget she's going to dinner with the President? From a distance she looks like some kid who just raided the dressing-up box – except she's not a kid any more, and the sight of those slender athlete's legs in those short, short shorts makes Rude feel like he's suddenly turned into a dirty old man. He's not sure whether this effect is totally calculated on her part, or completely innocent.
Still, today she's not supposed to be a ninja, or a thief, or a terrorist. Today the heir to the throne of Wutai is Rufus' guest, and Rude fully intends to show her all due courtesy: pull up the car, get out, open the door for her, help her into the back seat, tuck the travel blanket neatly around her. But Yuffie doesn't give him the chance. Before he's come to a complete stop she's already yanking the passenger door open, and jumps in beside him. She needs a moment or two to organize her tangled limbs. Then she pulls off her chocobo hat and turns to him, puffing the bangs from her eyes as she says, "Hey, you're whathisname. Cool, I get the silent flunkey. I was afraid it would be the blond bimbo. By the way, Turkey, didja know that your wing mirrors are missing? What happened? Did some punk nick them while your back was turned, huh? Gawd, I don't know what the world's coming to."
"Seatbelt," Rude reminds her.
"Yeah, yeah, just wait a minute, keep your hair on, nyuk nyuk…." She's burrowing around in her pockets as she says this. Rude wonders what she's looking for. What could possibly be hidden in those skin-tight shorts? No, wait, that's not a line of thinking he wants to pursue –
She produces a white plastic bag, the heavy duty sort, and waves it triumphantly. "I might barf," she explains. "I get motion sickness. Car sick, plane sick, sea-sick, chocobo sick, you name it. I mean, I might not barf. But I probably will. So don't be surprised. Hearing people barf doesn't make you barf, does it?" she asks almost anxiously.
"That's good. Because I wouldn't, you know, want you to crash this car while I'm in it. The world can't afford to lose its one and only Yuffie just yet. So drive carefully, OK?" She clicks her seatbelt into place.
He pulls away from the curb. The roads in this part of town, between the W.R.O. and the highway, have been freshly paved, though there's less traffic than in the old days in Midgar. The price of gas is still high, and the fine for driving with black market mako is designed to hurt.
She asks, "How long will it take us to get to Healen?"
"Depends. If the road's clear, forty minutes." He means if there's no monsters.
Yuffie busies herself checking out the glove compartment. "Let's see what we have here, shall we? Bottle of water – mileage log – packet of Bahamut filters; only two left… Ooo, red flashlight. Shiny – " She switches it on without looking where it's aiming, and the beam hits Rude full in the face. His sunglasses protect his eyes from the shock, but all the same he deliberately swerves, just for a second, into the oncoming lane –
"Whoa!" cried Yuffie, throwing up her hands.
Rude brings the car back into line, and says, "Be careful, huh?"
"What are you looking at me for? Geez, you're the one who nearly gave me a heart attack. Just keep your eye on the road, baldy. Oh, hey, what's this? An old Shinra fountain pen! Is this real gold? Hey, this is like practically an antique. Bet it'll be worth a mint one day. Can I have it?"
"No," he says.
"Aw, come on. I really like it. And don't you think Rufus would want his honoured guest to have her heart's desire? He's probably got a warehouse full of them somewhere, anyway." She palms the pen as she says this, and when Rude glances again from the corner of his eye, it's vanished, God knows where.
She continues to rummage through the glove compartment, emptying its contents around her feet, and then shuts it with a sigh. "No materia. Oh, well. Must be a drag for you guys, though. You used to love blowing stuff up, didn't you?"
"Still got semtex," Rude reminds her. "That's oil-based."
Unselfconsciously Yuffie rubs a fist under her nose, looking thoughtful in a calculating kind of way. Then she sniffs, and says, "So, you do know why Rufus wants to see me, right?"
Rude makes no comment, and keeps his fixed eye on the road.
"Because," she goes on, "I gotta be straight with you. It wasn't my idea to come. Reeve talked me into it. And honestly, you guys are wasting your time. Wutai's never done business with Shinra and I've got no plans for that to change any time soon. So I'm warning you, if ole Blue-eyes is thinking he can schmooze his way round Yuffie Kisaragi, he'll soon learn he's got another think coming. I wasn't born yesterday, you know."
No, it was the day before yesterday, thinks Rude, trying not to be distracted from the road ahead by the flashes of smooth young thigh reflected in the mirror of his sunglasses.
"If anyone's going to drill for oil in our waters – and that's a big if – it'll be somebody I know we can trust, like Barret."
Rude shrugs. It's her call: it's her country. And it all comes down to the same thing in the end; Rufus owns a fifty-eight per cent share of Wallace's company anyway. Wallace, of course, has no clue that twelve of his fifteen investors are, in fact, one and the same anonymous person. Tseng's meticulous that way.
This oil business is just an excuse. The truth is, Rufus wants to meet Yuffie. He's heard so much about her from Reeve that his curiosity has been piqued, and he's been talking for a while now about having her down to Healen for dinner. As for why he should have chosen this moment to finally indulge his curiosity – well, the truth about that, most likely, is that Tseng did something major to piss Rufus off and his punishment now is to be forced to endure an evening on duty, watching as the world's most eligible bachelor indulges in light flirtation with this very young, rather attractive, skimpily dressed, and potentially marriageable Wutaian heiress.
"So, anyway," Yuffie breaks into his thoughts, "I just wanted to clear the air about that. I think it's best to be upfront about things right from the start. Sets the tone for the whole relationship, if you know what I mean. I'm a very open kind of person like that. And very loyal to my friends."
The way she leans on the word seems to call for some sort of response. The best Rude can come up with is, "Uh-huh?"
"I think loyalty is very important. Don't you?"
He grunts, non-committal.
"I mean, everybody says that loyalty is everything to you Turks."
"In fact," she continues, "You could say it defines who you are."
"In fact," Yuffie stresses, "It's probably just about your one redeeming feature."
"Thank you." Rude's voice is deep, and deeper still is the faint rumble of laughter – too faint for Yuffie to pick up on, because she is a creature of loud noises and sudden movements and sweeping expansive gestures, and such subtleties are lost on her.
"You're welcome. So… Anyway, maybe you can explain to me about something I've been wondering. Just suppose, right, for the sake of argument, that there was some person who was a Turk, and this person used to be in love with some other person who wasn't a Turk, but she left him for someone else, and then she kind of died – "
"Kind of?" He can't hide his skepticism, or his amusement. He's also, despite himself, becoming interested in where this line of questioning is heading.
Yuffie is miffed by his smile. Maybe she finds it patronising. "Fine, scratch that," she scowls. "She's just dead, OK? Totally and completely dead. But only after breaking his heart first. And then let's say this awesome new girl comes into his life, and they like all the same kind of stuff, and having adventures, and she's really good for him and gets him to laugh for the first time in, like, ages. And she makes it really, really obvious how much she likes him. Do you think this Turk person would be afraid of admitting to themselves that they like this girl back because it would feel like betraying their loyalty to the woman who dumped them?"
Rude finds himself stumped for an answer. Who is she talking about? Not -Tseng? There's no way she could know about Tseng and that Gainsborough chick… Unless Elena spilled the beans to her way back that day when they were both hanging off Da Chao. It would be just like Elena to blurt out sensitive information… But why would Yuffie raise it now, so many years later? She and Elena are hardly what you'd call friends. And she hates Tseng; it's a well known fact throughout NeoShinra and the W.R.O. that the Single White Rose of Wutai loathes her kingdom's Great Traitor with a passion older and much deeper than her ties to AVALANCHE.
And anyway, this 'awesome new girl' she's referring to is obviously herself. Could she be talking about one of the Others? The Turks from the old days, his comrades who jumped ship just before the Jenova shit hit the fan and have slowly been trickling back to work ever since Meteorfall? No, that's not possible either. If the heir to the throne of Wutai was getting cozy with a Turk, even an ex-Turk, the Chief would know about it. Retired though he claims to be, and living in comfortable obscurity in Junon, Verdot still hears everything that's going on. And what Verdot knows, Tseng knows.
Yuffie is waiting for her answer.
"I guess it depends," he says at last.
"Oh, gawd, here we go again. Depends on what, pray tell? Or is that some kind of state secret?"
"Depends on the guy."
Yuffie snorts. "Geez, I can see why that was classified information. Wow. Amazing. Better not let that get out to the general public. So, anyway, Rude – seriously, is that really your name? Rude?"
There's just something about this kid that makes him smile. "Last time I looked."
"Not Rudy? Rudolph? Rudyard?"
He shakes his head.
"Rudinski Rastapopoulos? Rudeosaurus?"
"You poor thing. What was your mother thinking?"
He's not offended – she's too child-like, and in a funny, angular kind of a way too charming, for her teasing to carry any sting. All the same, when he spots an opening he sees no reason not to give her a taste of her own medicine. "What kind of princess," he asks her, "Is called Yuffie?"
"Durr hurr. That's my ninja name, loser. And don't even think about asking me what my real name is. I hate seeing grown men beg. You don't mind if I turn on the radio, do you?"
She's already got her fingers on the dial. The car fills with soft music. Yuffie pulls a face like she's bitten into a lemon. "Oh my gawd, old timer, is that what you rock to? No offense, but this is more, like, music to rock in your chair to." She spins through the frequencies until she finds something acceptable, frothy and poppy with an upbeat tempo. Settling herself deeper into the passenger seat, she puts her feet on the dashboard. At first she hums along to song, singing snatches of chorus here and there, hopelessly out of tune, and jiggles her toes in time to the rhythm, but gradually, as the car smoothly eats up the miles, she falls silent. Rude glances across at her. She's sitting very still, as if concentrating hard on some deep thought. Her arms are tightly folded across her waist. The skin around her lips is greenish-white.
"You OK?" he asks.
"No," she says, "Pull over, quick." While the wheels are still moving she throws open the door and coughs her guts up onto the side of the road. Rude makes a move to get out, but she stops him with a flap of her hand. "Water," she wheezes. He takes the bottle that's been rolling round beneath her seat, unscrews the top, hands it to her. She drinks deeply, spits into the dirt, then leans back in her seat, breathing in short gasps.
"Here," he says, offering her the freshly-laundered handkerchief from his top pocket.
She grins weakly. "Chivalrous type, huh?" Accepting the handkerchief, she wipes her mouth.
"You OK now?" he asks.
"Yeah. I'll be fine. Let's keep going. This is no place to hang around in."
He starts the car, and they set off again down the road. The badlands are as barren as ever, blisteringly hot, but they're not far now from the cool green hills where Healen Lodge awaits. "Another fifteen minutes," he tells her.
"Can't be soon enough for me," she replies. "I'm always starving after I hurl. I hope your boss has got some decent grub in. Omigod!" she exclaims as though struck by a ghastly thought, "Rufus isn't vegetarian, is he? Please tell me he isn't. The last thing I feel like eating today is a nut roast. Gross. Double gross with mushroom gravy. Urk! Gag!"
Rude chuckles deep in his chest. "Rufus, vegetarian?"
"Well… he is kind of bloodless, you've got to admit. And he always looks so clean. Like even his crap would smell of roses. And he's been through all those near-death experiences, and that does strange things to people. You know. Makes them more deep and spiritual and brooding and stuff. Survivor guilt."
"Rufus?" This time Rude laughs out loud.
Yuffie looks confused, almost hurt, as if she suspects him of laughing at her. Belatedly he realizes she was being serious.
"No nut roasts," he promises.
"Thank God! It's like practically everybody's turning vegetarian these days. Barret's a vegetarian now," she tells him. "Marlene made him."
Rude pictures his old adversary pretending, for the child's sake, to smack his lips over a plate of wholewheat pasta with lentils, then sneaking out once she's gone to bed to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a burger on the sly.
"And Vinnie," she adds. "When he eats at all."
The way she pronounces that name gives Rude pause. He doesn't recognize it, but there's a relish in the way she rolls it round her tongue, a slight breathlessness once it's left her lips, which betray how much it means to her – like she's been carefully building this whole conversation up right from the beginning for the sole purpose of speaking it, of hearing herself say it. And from the expectant way she's looking at him, she seems to think it ought to mean something to him, too. But it doesn't. He can't put a face to the name.
He knows a Vincent. Dead white skin. Red eyes. Matted hair. The ghost Turk. Is that who she means? "Valentine?" he says doubtfully.
Elena said the remnants' hands were warmer. Yet she and Tseng owe him their lives.
"Yeah, that's the one." Yuffie's leaning her head back against the seat, eyes half-closed, like it's no big deal; she's just making conversation. "Your old buddy-bud, your old pal. So do you – do you guys see much of him, these days?"
Rude remembers the smell of earth and iron that hung around him, the cloak that moved as if it had a life of its own, like the wings that still haunt their waking dreams.
So that's the way wind blows, is it? Interesting – though, when he considers the girl beside him, so bright and warm and fresh and alive, he wonders what the attraction could be. Valentine's a dead man who happens to still be breathing. Reno said once that Valentine is the Turks' collective nightmare; he's what they were all, at some point in their careers, afraid Shinra would turn them into. Except that with Valentine, the inner demons aren't metaphorical.
"I think the Chief sees him sometimes," Rude tells her.
"The - Chief?"
A look of dismay passes over her face as she says the word, and he realizes she thinks he means Tseng. In her mind, as Tseng has carefully explained to his subordinates on more than one occasion, the Director of the Turks is a non-person, his name a name never to be spoken; he does not exist, and cannot be acknowledged.
They are not, Tseng has ordered them firmly, to take umbrage at this.
Wutaians, sighs Rude to himself. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never understand them.
But at least he can put Yuffie straight on this one. "Chief Verdot," he clarifies.
"Verdot? Who's he when he's at home?"
"Our Director before Tseng."
Yuffie stiffens a little, as though Rude just used a dirty word. Then she guffaws with too much bluster and says, "Gawd, when was that, baldy, in the dark ages?"
"Before Sephiroth was born."
All of a sudden the air in the car seems to grow a little bit colder.
"They were partners," Rude adds. "Valentine and the Chief. When they were young."
Yuffie looks blank, but he can guess that behind those eyes she's furiously doing the math in her head like she's probably done a thousand times before, hoping every time that she'll arrive at a different, more promising number.
"The Chief retired a couple of years ago," he concludes, wanting to be sure she's got the picture. "He's sixty-five years old."
She turns away to look out the window. Like she's already bored by this topic of conversation.
You know what, girl? thinks Rude. I wasn't born yesterday, either.
Ever since she got into the car she's been pumping him clumsily for information, and got nothing – and now she's given her secret away and she doesn't seem to realize. For a moment he feels like taking her by the shoulder and shaking her. Wise up! Don't you understand what you got yourself into when you agreed to this dinner with Rufus?
For a sneaking, lying, know-all thief of a ninja, Yuffie Kisaragi would fail miserably as a Turk.
Rude can't suppress a twinge of sympathy. He hasn't forgotten what it's like, how much it hurts, to love stupidly, or how hard it is to kick the habit. Reno used to enjoy taking the piss about his thing for AVALANCHE chicks, but really there's only been the two, and that was kind of coincidental. OK, maybe not with Chelsy – she'd been ordered to target him – but he didn't fall for Tifa because she was his enemy, and even now he's well over her he still reckons she was, in her prime, one of the finest women ever to walk this planet. That was in the old days, of course. Ever since she decided to bury herself alive under a mountain of domesticity she's been, quite frankly, a disappointment to him. He would have thought she had too much fire in her belly to let her light be dimmed by any man, let alone someone as far up his own arse as Cloud Strife.
All the same, Rude can't help wondering now and then how everything might have been different if only he'd got to her before AVALANCHE did. The very first time he'd laid eyes on her, that angry intelligent face and that fighter's body, he'd said to himself, I gotta tell Tseng about this chick. Of course, knowing Tifa's history she'd have probably rejected out of hand any attempt the Turks made to scout her, and kicked Tseng in the balls for good measure, and then they'd have had to sort her out, which would certainly not have gone well. But Rude hadn't known any of that back then. So why had he never, in the many discussions about recruitment they used to have, once raised her name?
Yuffie's voice returns him to the present. He take his eyes from the road for a moment to look at her, really size her up, skinny flat-chested kid with a boy's hair cut and those cute Wutaian eyes, and amazing legs… Yeah, she might just be to Rufus' taste. Whether the President will be to hers, though -
"Rude? I'm talking to you!"
"I heard you."
"Hey, Rude, remember the Gelnika?"
His handkerchief is still scrunched in her hand. A little hand; a child's hand. Her shuriken was bigger than she was.
"Yeah," he smiles.
"Sure you do," she laughs. "Nobody could forget having their asses handed to them on a plate the way we did yours. What was up with you that day? You guys were total walkovers. I didn't even get a chance to use my new weapon before you bailed on us."
"Sorry about that," he rasps.
Yuffie's folded her arms, and gives him an old-fashioned look. "Sure you are. Listen, mister, I had my eye on you the whole time, and I know for a fact you were pulling your punches. It's useless to deny it. You never laid a glove on Tifa, not once in all the times we fought, and the one time you landed a punch on me it felt more like a little kitty-paw tapping my cheek. I don't believe you were trying. I mean, sure, Teef's the best, but you're no slouch either. Just look at you. That's six foot three of solid muscle right there. And I saw you throw that knife at his grossness on Da Chao, remember? You know how to fight. So what's the dealio, Rudio? Do you, like, have it written in your Turk code of honour that you don't hit girls?"
"It's not that," he replies. "It's just that my mum brought me up right."
His unexpected answer delights her. "After she hatched you out of your little turkey egg, you mean," Yuffie snickers, and gives him a look of appreciation that makes him feel warm all over.
I like this kid, he realizes.
The sun has begun to set. They're among the hills now, and the light feels darker than the hour should allow. The road has become steep; rocks climb on either side. Yuffie rolls down her window, takes a deep breath. The damp evening air is sweet with the scent of the rosemary bushes and clumps of thyme that cover the hillsides. Birds, never heard in Midgar or in Edge, are singing.
"It's nice here," she sighs.
Nice is not the word Rude would have chosen.
At the top of this road there's a house on stilts, and at the top of its stairs there's a door, and inside that door waits a boy, not much older than she is, who sees more with his one good eye than most people do with two; who's stubborn, and brilliant, and surprisingly quick to laugh, and who has no qualms about using his guests for his own purposes. And it isn't that Rude has a problem with that, exactly. In the first place, he knows which side his bread is buttered on; in the second place, if she didn't want to play their game then she should have stayed out of their sandbox. And in the third place, Rufus was, is, will always be, the man in charge. It's just that Rude thinks maybe, this time, for the first time ever, he wouldn't bet on their golden chocobo to win. Going by what Yuffie let slip just now, she's armed against the web the men upstairs are trying to weave around her in ways they never stopped to consider.
She's hanging her head out the window, eyelids fluttering half-shut, the tip of her tongue protruding between her teeth, tasting the gathering dusk. She doesn't look round. "Mmm?"
"Word of advice. Valentine's a touchy topic. I wouldn't mention it."
Because barrier can't be dispelled if no one knows it's there.
He'll have to tell Tseng, of course. Eventually. But he thinks he'll hold off for a bit. See what happens first. Give her a fighting chance.
There's not much Rude enjoys more than a really good display of fireworks.
"Hey," he says.
"Don't you ever shut up?" she laughs.
It's true that his throat is starting to feel a little rough. He's not used to so much talking. But he's nearly done. He just has one more thing to say.
"Listen. Got some old warehouses coming down day after tomorrow, in Sector Four. Demolition job. Want to help?"
That gets her attention. She sits up, looks him full in the face, eyes shining. "Would I! How did you know it's always been my dream to blow up something really enormous? That would be totally awesome, Rude. Thank you."
He smiles, slowly. Then the hairpin bends claim his full attention, and they don't talk any more.
Thanks for reading!