Gift fic for C, based on her idea.

Hope you like it, C!

Author's Note - PLEASE READ WARNING.

Warning: this story is AU and contains soft Vore (in this case a human character being swallowed (alive) by a (kind of) non-human character). It does not contain anything gory, but there is quite detailed description. If the idea upsets you then please DON'T READ IT!

Self-Absorbed

Rufus Shinra, twenty-one, Vice President of the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, and, thereby, the second most powerful man in the world, lay on his side on the concrete floor of an unlit cell and wondered whether or not they were going to kill him. The concrete was cold, rough and unpleasantly damp under his cheek and especially against the bare skin of his left arm. At least they'd left him his suit pants. They'd taken everything else – his other clothing, his shoes and socks, the gold signet ring his father had given him when he became Vice President (the one he was never quite sure why he wore) - even his belt. Sleep was all but impossible; the floor was too hard, his cuffed wrists were sore, and he couldn't stop asking himself questions. Had he been hopelessly naïve? How long had the Turks been onto him? Would his father step in to save his only surviving son, or would he order his execution? Both scenarios were possible – Rufus really couldn't be sure which way it would go.

If it was left to the Turks, Rufus was under no illusions about the outcome – Tseng and Reno would rip him to pieces. When Rufus had ordered Fuhito to kill the Turks he had seen Tseng's face, and understood that much. His certainty had been reinforced by the vicious power of Reno's grip as the Turk had grabbed hold of him and shoved him out of the Corel reactor building to safety. Rufus' right arm bore a clear pattern of blue bruises – the imprints of Reno's fingers – but it was the memory of Tseng's expression that would leave the permanent impression. The Turk Second – now the unofficial Director, following Veld's departure - had looked at Rufus in that moment with fury, contempt, disappointment and newly engendered hatred – but not surprise. Was that because Tseng had already known that he was Avalanche's informant? Or had he always believed Rufus to be the kind of person capable of such treachery?

But it was never supposed to go this far, Rufus thought bitterly. It was supposed to end with the old man's death. If only he'd been assassinated in Rocket Town as I planned, none of this would have been necessary! But Veld never left my side that day – and the Turks were everywhere – preventing everything. Veld - Tseng – why did you have to be so damned good at your jobs?

Once his father was out of the way, Rufus had planned to cut his ties with Avalanche and hand them over to the Turks. It would have been our victory, he thought. Mine, Veld's - and yours, Tseng. What a start to my Presidency that would have been – Avalanche vanquished in the first month – instant peace and prosperity – the Turks as the heroes of the hour! Heidegger would have been furious. All my father's old yes-men and hangers-on, realising that their power was slipping away. But the Turks had to go and ruin everything, didn't they? They left me with no choice but to get rid of them. It was a matter of survival – who should appreciate that better than the Turks? What else was I supposed to do?

And now there were no more choices – only this night to get through and then, in the morning, life or death.

(())

When the cell door opened Rufus forced himself to sit up, blinking in the sudden bright makolight from the corridor. Tseng stood framed in the doorway – an elegant silhouette - Reno and Rude behind him. Was this a firing squad? Had his father decided to allow the Shinra name to die with him, rather than passing on all he had built to a son who had exhibited such murderous ingratitude?

"Stand up," Tseng ordered. Rufus obeyed, his pale face still defiant, showing no fear.

Reno flicked a switch somewhere on the wall outside the cell, and harsh white light illuminated Rufus' prison. Tseng regarded him dispassionately. Rude was as impossible to read as always – his eyes hidden behind dark glass – but Reno's edgy, suppressed excitement was tangible and worrying. The red Turk kept his expression neutral, but his eyes glittered, and Rufus thought he saw death there.

"Follow me," Tseng said. Rufus tossed back his blond hair, straightened his shoulders, and asked, "Can I have my shoes back?"

"You won't need them," Tseng replied. Rufus made no comment – did not allow his face to show the consternation he felt - but he couldn't control the sudden, fearful quickening of his heartbeat, as Tseng added, "We're only going on a short helicopter ride."

(())

Rufus stepped down from the helicopter, his bare feet touching soft grass. Looking around him in the soft dawn light, he saw an open forest clearing – a wide expanse of flat grass where they had landed, surrounded by a variety of trees. Before him, he saw the helicopter, Tseng and himself, reflected in a small, still lake. "Where is this?" Rufus asked.

"It's not far east of Midgar. It's a place we sometimes make use of."

Reno and Rude, having finished their post-flight checks, exited the helicopter, and joined Tseng. Rufus made himself look them in the eye – Turks he had known since he was a child. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked.

"You meant to kill us all," Tseng told Rufus, his voice low and flat – almost emotionless. "You must have known you would be punished for that."

"Originally, I never intended to kill any of you," Rufus told him. "But you kept on saving my father. What could I do?"

"Even now, you lack the grace to apologise," Tseng said.

Rufus looked from Reno to Rude to Tseng. "Why should I apologise?" He asked. "I'm not sorry."

Tseng shook his head. "I believe you. But perhaps you will be, soon." Rufus found himself staring at Tseng's eyes – matt black, unblinking, reflecting nothing. Rufus felt the stirring of real fear then – he had never been a coward – thought he could face a bullet without shaming himself – but Tseng's words promised something worse than a quick death. Reno smiled, his narrowed eyes hawk-keen, and fixed on Rufus. Rude was motionless, but his posture had the coiled tension of a snake about to strike.

Rufus forced himself to speak. He hated the tremor in his voice as he asked, "W – What are you going to do?"

"There's a great deal you don't know about your father's company," Tseng said. "About us – and what we are. You know, by now, some of SOLDIER's secrets, but you don't know ours. Only your father knows what we are – and so did the scientist who made us. He, unfortunately, is now deceased."

"Made you?" Rufus asked, surprised to find that, even now, at the point of death, he was still curious. "What do you mean? The Turks aren't like SOLDIER – you aren't enhanced! You're just human!"

Reno laughed, and even Rude smiled. Tseng only said, "Rufus – you are still so young – and so ignorant – it's almost a shame…"

"Gaia!" Rufus swore, his nerve beginning to fail him, "Tell me what you mean. Or get this over with!"

"Most of the Turks are ordinary humans," Tseng explained. "But four of us were chosen to undergo a certain – procedure. Veld, Reno, Rude and myself, agreed to allow ourselves to become… I suppose you could call us hybrids. We were implanted with kind of summon materia that binds us to the form of the summoned creature, while allowing us to retain full consciousness and control. This materia is extremely rare – to date, only the four we possess have ever been found. When Veld chose to leave us, he gave his materia to me. I will guard it until a new fourth candidate is deemed suitable."

"But – I don't understand what you mean," Rufus said. "You – you become some kind of summon?"

Reno tilted his head to one side, and gave Tseng a quick, hard smile. "VP doesn't get it, Boss," he said. "This is taking too long. Let me show him, huh?" At his side, Rude nodded silent agreement.

"All right, Reno. And Rude. But then, leave us alone. This is my department now – It's my job to deal with Rufus."

Reno gave a sudden, exuberant yell and leapt into the air as though he were about to jump-kick Rufus between the eyes. Automatically Rufus threw up his arms to protect his face from Reno's attack – but contact never came. Slowly Rufus lowered his hands, and shouted aloud in shock and utter disbelief at the sight of the huge, vermillion, flame-winged dragon that hovered in the air above him. The dragon beat its fiery wings and threw back its narrow, avian head, shooting flame high into the air. Then it flew – twisting and spinning joyously in flight, the long coils of its body and tail in constant motion, trailing sparks that looked sometimes like falling scales, sometimes like feathers. For all the astonished horror he felt at the realisation that this impossible, terrible creature, was in someway Reno, Rufus couldn't help but experience a thrill at the beauty of the beast.

The dragon gave an impatient movement of its head, and Rufus could almost hear Reno's voice in his mind saying, "C'mon, partner – what's keeping you?" Rufus felt the ground tremble under his feet, something huge whooshed over his head, and then there was a second dragon in the sky – this one even larger – its shining scales a deep azure colour. Rude, in his dragon form, reminded Rufus of the pictures he had seen as a child of dragons from Wutain legends. He flew without wings, graceful, but solid, the movement of muscle and sinew clearly visible as the body flexed and turned in the air. The two dragons chased each other around the sky in the golden light of dawn, the bird-like creature that was Reno weaving rapid, looping patterns around Rude's slower twists and coils. Rufus was reminded of the trail of visible light left by a child whirling a sparkler. He watched, forgetting his fear, until Dragon Reno made a wide loop in the sky, and Dragon Rude flew through the centre of it. Reno's entire body turned in the air, exactly like a pilot performing a victory roll, and Rufus understood that the dragon really was Reno, with all his speed and his delight in flying unchanged - his mind and his consciousness intact – just as Tseng had said. The red and the blue dragons flew west, towards distant Midgar. Rufus watched them until they looked no bigger than sparrows against the clear blue sky, then he turned back to Tseng, and his fear returned full-force.

"W-What about you?" he made himself ask. "Are you the same? What are you going to do to me?"

"None of us is exactly the same," Tseng replied. "And I'm going to do to you what you have deserved of me. I'm going to make you disappear." Tseng stepped forwards, took a key from his jacket pocket, and unlocked Rufus' handcuffs. Rufus watched him warily. "Why are you releasing me?"

"Metal is difficult to digest," Tseng stated, his voice completely matter-of-fact. "It's why I took your belt and your ring, earlier."

Rufus stared at him, his mind refusing to accept what Tseng was telling him. "You can't be serious!" he managed. "This is a joke, right? This is sick – if I have to die, shoot me!"

"Why waste good food by doing that?" Tseng asked.

Rufus watched, horrified, as Tseng's whole body appeared to shimmer and ripple like a broken reflection on moving water. When the image reformed, gradually stilling, what stood before Rufus – or, rather, what loomed over Rufus – was a huge serpentine dragon. Like Rude's dragon form, Tseng was wingless, and bore the crest, fins and barbels of a Wutain dragon, something akin to Leviathan, a projection of which Rufus had once seen summoned in Hojo's training lab. His body was coiled like a snake's, and his head had a python's blunt lozenge shape. The gleaming scales that covered his entire body were silver and black; a pattern of silver diamonds on the underside and pure obsidian along his back. His head was sliver with black markings, and his eyes were as dark and intelligent as the human Tseng's. In some strange fashion, the dragon resembled Tseng closely – just as Rude and Reno's dragon forms had resembled them.

Before Rufus could think about running, Tseng's sleek coils tightened around him, pinning his arms to his sides. Rufus struggled, but he had no chance at all against the strength of the snake-dragon that had been Tseng.

"Don't fight," Tseng's voice said, in Rufus' mind. The dragon's mouth never moved, but the black eyes watched him with Tseng's intense, focussed gaze. "If you struggle, the coils will tighten, and you'll find it hard to breathe."

"Please," Rufus heard himself saying, although he'd promised himself in the cell that he would never deign to beg for his life, "Please don't do this – not like this! It's horrible – it's not natural!"

"It's the most natural thing there is," Tseng's voice murmured. The colubrine head lowered until the Tseng dragon was looking straight into Rufus' eyes. A forked tongue flicked at Rufus' cheek, and he wrenched his head away, shuddering. "Don't!" he cried. "Can't you please just shoot me?"

"This is the way things are," Tseng said. "Can't you see that? You believed you had to order Fuhito to kill us to ensure your own survival. Having failed, I must kill you to ensure our survival. You're privileged that we've allowed you to see what we really are. No one alive knows of it except your father – and even he has never seen it."

"I know I was wrong," Rufus whispered, his throat dry. "Please – don't. I'm Rufus Shinra – you can't eat me!"

The dragon's mouth opened slightly revealing rows of small, pointed, viciously sharp teeth.

"It's eat or be eaten," Tseng said. "Survival of the fittest. Your failure makes you prey, nothing more. You should have suspected that Fuhito might betray you. You should have planned for that eventuality."

"I'm still my father's son!"

"Not good enough. The person worthy of leading Shin-Ra can't expect to be saved because of who his father is. He has to be worth saving for his own sake. Now – be silent, Rufus. It's time."

Rufus twisted desperately, but Tseng's coils only tightened, constricting his chest painfully. "B – but you – used to – look after me when I was a child!" Rufus panted. "Doesn't that – doesn't it mean anything?"

Dragon Tseng made a low sound that could have been a growl, or deep laughter. "As much as it meant to you, prey, when you told Fuhito to kill us. Please tell me you're not stupid enough to expect mercy – from me?"

Rufus finally began to understand that nothing he could do or say would make any difference. It wasn't that Tseng didn't comprehend the reasons for his betrayal - death was simply the consequence of his failure. For the first time in his life Rufus understood what despair was, and realised the extent of his folly and ingratitude. Of course no one was going to save him – that was what the Turks did – and he had betrayed them, carelessly, thoughtlessly. He had been stupid when he thought he was being so clever – that was the crime Tseng would never forgive.

"Are these my father's orders?" Rufus asked. The black and silver head of the dragon gave a slight, assenting nod. "We obey the President," Dragon Tseng said. "We had all hoped that, in time, you would become a leader we could follow willingly – but you have proved yourself unworthy of your father's legacy."

"I'll change!" Rufus promised, desperate, but also, finally, sincere. "I miscalculated. I was wrong. I – I'll do better!"

"Too late for that, profligate child," Tseng said. You had everything in your grasp, and you let it go. But you will, at least, make a satisfactory meal. Nothing is ever really wasted."

Rufus could think of nothing to say that wouldn't sound pathetic or childish: I don't want to die! Give me a second chance! Save me, Tseng! You always save me! He knew, already, what Tseng would reply: Who does? - We're the Turks - no one gets second chances. - Not this time. Not any more.

But Rufus was no longer a child, and he would die with whatever tatters of dignity he could salvage from this nightmare ending. Rufus Shinra – so the legends said – never bled, never cried. Well – when those terrible razor teeth pierced his skin – then he would bleed. At least no one but Tseng would ever know it. But he wouldn't cry. He wouldn't. His resolve was swiftly shaken, though, when the coils of Tseng's smooth-scaled, muscular tail tightened around his hips for a moment. He felt a strange, squeezing, rippling sensation, and realised that his pants and underwear had been efficiently removed, leaving him naked and utterly vulnerable. He felt tears then, starting at the backs of his eyes, but he blinked them away, furious with himself. He had brought this fate on himself through his own ambition and impatience – his thoughtlessness towards those who could have given him loyalty. It was nobody's fault but his own, and he would face the consequences of his actions as bravely as he could. He was not prey – not merely food – whatever the monster who had been Tseng might choose to claim. He was still Rufus Shinra. He would die Rufus Shinra.

Dragon Tseng reared above him, towering over the terrified Rufus by a good two metres – and that was with most of his serpentine body coiled on the ground, the loops of his glistening tail still holding Rufus tightly. Rufus found himself unable to look away as Tseng's jaws stretched wide, revealing double rows of tiny, needle-sharp teeth running lengthways along fleshy ridges on the upper surface of his palate. Two long fangs unfolded from where they had been lying flat against the roof of that gaping mouth, curved like scimitars. Rufus shuddered and made himself ask, "How are you going to kill me? Venom?"

The dragon's mouth snapped shut, but Tseng's voice spoke in his mind again, incongruously matter-of-fact. "I told you, I'm going to eat you."

"B- But you're going to kill me first!"

Tseng sounded exasperated more than anything, as though Rufus were a promising student who had turned out to be disappointingly stupid. "Of course not," he replied. "We swallow our prey whole, and alive."

Rufus' control broke then. This morning he had been prepared for a bullet in the head. When he'd seen the dragons that were Reno and Rude, he'd begun to fear death by Reno's fire, or being crushed in Rude's muscular coils. Then – after the awful realisation of what Tseng intended to do to him – he'd thought it would be poison, or claws and teeth. Not this. This was the stuff of his earliest nightmares – the monster under the bed coming to devour him – the wolf pursuing him through night-dark forests, breath hot on the back of his neck, closer and closer until –

"No!" he cried, and he no longer cared that his voice broke on the word. "No – please, don't! Kill me first Tseng – please!"

Tseng's voice in his head was as cold as the blood of the creature he had become, and entirely without pity. "I am what Shin-Ra made me," he said, "and I will act according to my nature."

Then Rufus felt himself being lifted high into the air, still held in the loops of that supernaturally strong tail. He struggled and shouted, but it had no effect at all. Rufus was granted a last glimpse of the world he was about to leave; the vivid green of the grass, the dappled sunlight filtering through the trembling leaves of the trees, the clear, clean water of the pool, the dazzling blue of the sky. Then the dragon's mouth opened and the purplish forked tongue flickered towards him like a second serpent – almost as long as he was tall. Rufus flinched away as the wet tongue pressed against the skin of his chest and the side of his face, his whole being recoiling from the idea of what was about to happen to him. He felt the coils of the tail pushing him forward and then the gradual releasing his lower half, as he was pulled and shoved simultaneously into the dragon's mouth, head first. The tiny teeth in the roof of the creature's maw grazed the skin of his back – twin lines of needling pain – but the dragon was not biting down – the teeth were only holding him in place; preventing him from slipping backwards as the monster's tongue and the muscles of its throat began to work to swallow him entirely. For a horrible moment Rufus could see everything – the pulsating, wet, red tunnel of the dragon's throat descending sharply into darkness: the mouth of his personal Hell. He knew he was guilty – he accepted that much – but had he really deserved this? Did anyone deserve this?

Through his horror and panic and disgust, Rufus was aware of a cool breeze playing over his bare feet – the only part of him still outside the dragon – still in that normal world where this could not be happening – not to him – not to Shinra's only heir…

And then the Dragon who was Tseng closed his jaws, and there was nothing left but complete darkness and despair.

"Let it be quick!" Rufus prayed to any deity that might exist. "Let it be over!"

Rufus was unable to struggle. His arms were pinioned by the soft, strong walls of the dragon's throat. His skin was slick with the monster's saliva, but there was not enough liquid to drown in. Every inch of his body was squeezed and pressed by the rhythmic contractions of peristalsis as he was carried slowly deeper into the monster's gullet, but his shoulders braced the muscular walls enough to allow his head some freedom of movement. It seemed he was not going to suffocate.

The terror of it was his consciousness of the process – his dawning understanding that there would be no swift oblivion. Rufus felt like an atheist waking, after a peaceful death, to the realisation that Hell did exist – and he was in it.

Rufus found that his brain would not shut down – that even this horror refused to overwhelm him. Madness would be a different kind of release, but his mind remained stubbornly his own – there was no escape of any kind: physical or mental.

Now that the stinging grazes inflicted by the dragon's teeth had ceased to hurt so much, soothed, actually, by the cool wetness that bathed his whole body, this slow descent was not, in itself, painful. The muscles of the dragon's oesophagus pressed against his body in rippling undulations, massaging him everywhere at once in a way that, in some other place, some other context, might even have been pleasurable. But, although Rufus knew little about biology - and nothing about the physiology of dragons - he knew enough to be terrified of what would happen when he reached the creature's stomach. What if there was still enough air inside to keep him alive and conscious? Would he burn to death in acids? Would it be a slow process of being gradually digested alive?

"Please," he thought again, "Just let it be over!"

Rufus had been stripped of everything, he realised: his clothes, his position, his pride – even the ability to end his own life. He was nothing – not even a separate being any longer – only a dragon's meal, waiting to be absorbed into the creature that had swallowed him completely. So why could he still think? Why wasn't he dead?

With a sudden, headlong slide, a gush of fluids, and the unexpected release of the muscles enveloping him, Rufus slithered forwards and down. He found himself in a slightly less constricted space, half lying, half sitting in a shallow pool of something wet. He found that there was room to move a little, if he struggled. Tentatively he put out a hand. He was still surrounded by fleshy walls – but these were firmer – rubbery in texture – and warmer than the dragon's gullet had been. The liquid he was sitting in did not burn his naked skin – not yet at least. It seemed that his journey was over: this weird, close chamber must be the dragon's stomach.

And – Oh Gaia! – he was still alive.

(())

Rufus had no idea how much time had passed, trapped inside Dragon-Tseng's stomach. His mind had drifted, lying there, cocooned and unable to act, listening to the strange grumbling and gurgling sounds of the dragon's belly, and the constant, low, thudding beat of its huge heart. The air was still breathable it seemed, but Rufus' thoughts were becoming disjointed. The ominous pool of liquid in which he lay seemed to have grown a little deeper, although there was still no pain – or perhaps – the faintest suggestion of a heat – the intimation of an itch that was not yet quite present.

Perhaps this was all only a dream? Surely it was too bizarre to be real? Perhaps everything he thought of as his life was only a dream - he was an unborn child, safely curled inside his mother's womb, and the nightmare of the dragon was nothing but a fear of being born. Or maybe this was a memory of that time? A time beyond remembering, where there had been no world – no Shin-Ra – nothing expected of him – only protection and warmth and everything provided without struggle.

Maybe he was sleeping in the arms of a lover – or someone who loved him as a son – as his mother had never had a chance to – as his father never had. Perhaps that person was Tseng, holding him, keeping him safe? Oddly enough, he thought he would like that.

Or had they had shot him after all? Even that was a more comforting idea that this. Yes - believe that Tseng – calm, efficient, deadly, human Tseng – had merely raised that black pistol and put a bullet between his eyes, as he deserved. But something had gone wrong – Tseng's usually perfect aim had been off, just a fraction, and he had lived. He was in a hospital in Midgar now – trapped in a deep coma – and this was only a nightmare produced by his damaged brain…

Or – Gaia – had they given him to Hojo? Was he floating, now, in one of those hideous tanks in the labs? Was the monster he was dreaming a projection of the slow transformation that was actually happening to him?

Shin-Ra makes monsters, he thought. It made me – and I am a monster – would-be patricide – monster of ingratitude, disregarding all the Turks have done for me. I was so, entirely, selfish–

But soon there would be no more self.

No! The sudden sensation of an unpleasantly sharp itching brought him back to full consciousness. It was real – he was trapped in the dragon's stomach, and the acid juices were beginning their gruesome, necessary work. Rufus struggled with all his strength, and succeeded in moving himself into a kneeling position, so that just his shins and feet were still covered by the fatal liquid. But there was definitely more of it than there had been. The itch had become a sting now – and it was only going to get worse. This was going to be his death then – a horribly drawn out and painful dissolution.

There was no one to see or hear him now – no one to be brave for – no one to fight. Alone in the terrifying darkness, Rufus felt tears gathering at last, and let them fall. It was such a tremendous, instant relief that he gave himself up to his grief utterly - beyond shame – even beyond fear. He understood, finally, that he was really going to die – he had deserved it – he accepted that – and yet, even now, he still so much longed to live! Rufus sobbed for the waste of it all – for his own childish willingness to cast his inheritance aside as though it had been a valueless toy. He wept for everything he had lost and for all that could have been. The vanished world – only meters away – sunlight, cool water in that lonely forest clearing. All the places he had loved as a boy – the beaches of Costa del Sol and the snowy slopes of Icicle Inn – Midgar – moody, crowded Midgar – his father's city – his city. He had never thought of it as his – his home – his destiny – until now, when it was all too late.

Rufus wept for the people he had loved without knowing it – for stern, serious Veld who had been his bodyguard from the day he had taken his first steps until his last day at school – for quiet, stoical Rude – a solid, reassuring presence, and mercurial Reno who could infuriate him or make him laugh by turns, but who was always active, always interesting.

For Tseng – who had guided him since he was a child – who had protected him – and who had become his executioner, because Rufus had given him no other choice.

"I'm sorry!" Rufus sobbed aloud. "I didn't understand."

The voice of the dragon – Tseng's voice – asked quietly, "And do you understand, now?"

"Tseng!" cried Rufus. "Yes. Forgive me. Tell the others I was sorry – not just that I betrayed them – but that I did it without thinking what it would mean. Tell them I… I wasn't a coward, in the end."

"Tell them yourself," Tseng said.

Rufus found himself thrown upwards in a violent contraction of muscle, squeezed and pushed rapidly through the dark confines of the dragon's oesophagus until he was jettisoned, untouched by teeth this time, and propelled headfirst into the cold, deep water of the forest pool.

Rufus broke the surface, shaking clean water from his hair, and swam for the shore, breathing in shuddering lungfuls of fresh air, blinking in the bright sunlight.

As his dazzled vision cleared and he reached the water's edge, Rufus saw Tseng – human Tseng – immaculate as ever in his dark blue suit and tie, holding out his hand to help him from the pool.

Tseng took off his jacket, draped it over Rufus' shoulders, and said, "Your clothes are in the helicopter." Rufus looked at him, wondering. "Am I forgiven?" he asked.

"You've been punished," was all Tseng said. "It's done with, now."

"I thought my father wanted me dead?"

"We all wanted you dead, for a while," Tseng said. "But his orders were to deal with you. I felt free to interpret that as I saw fit."

"Do you think the others will allow me back?" Rufus asked.

"Yes," said Tseng. "I think they will."

Rufus stumbled a little, and Tseng put an arm around him, lending him strength - as much as was needed. The grazes left by the dragon's teeth on Rufus' back were still sore, and his shins were red and stinging, but otherwise he felt oddly well.

"I'll start again," he told Tseng, as they made their way to the helicopter. "I'll learn to be the leader Shin-Ra needs – the President Shin-Ra deserves. If – you'll help me?"

"The Turks will support you," Tseng said. "As you will support us, now, I believe."

Rufus nodded. "Yes. I thought – I used to think – that I could do it all alone."

In the helicopter, Rufus changed into the clean suit Tseng had brought. He joined the new leader of the Turks in the cockpit, sliding into the co-pilot's seat. "I wanted to ask," Rufus said, as Tseng ran through his pre-flight checks, "about the other materia. The one Veld gave up."

"The White Tiger?" Tseng asked. "I don't think that's for you. It balances the Azure Dragon – Rude - just as my Black Serpent balances Reno's Vermillion Bird. It's meant for another Turk, I think, whoever he – or she – turns out to be." He hesitated, and then smiled. "There is another," he said, "At least, in Wutain legend. The Yellow Dragon – the power at the centre. I think that would be your materia – if it could be found."

"When I'm President, we'll find it!" Rufus exclaimed. "Now I've seen what it is to be a dragon… My father believes in the Promised Land. Perhaps the Yellow Dragon materia is my Promised Land?"

Tseng only nodded. "Perhaps," he said.

Rufus looked at him, then smiled. "I'm trying to run before I can walk again, aren't I? Let's go back home to Midgar. I think – I know - I've still got a lot to learn."

Tseng glanced at the Vice President. The young man's eyes were bright. It seemed as if he'd already forgotten about his ordeal, and yet Tseng knew that he had not, and never would. But that was over. As the helicopter lifted into the air and turned its nose towards Midgar, Rufus' blue eyes were gazing straight into the future.

High above the whirring blades and shiny black carapace of the Shin-Ra helicopter, two dragons – one azure, one vermillion - flew free. They rolled and twisted in the air, forming themselves into intricate patterns, scintillating blue and red scales catching the light, jewel-bright, and flashing, like celebratory fireworks, across the sky.

End

AN: The dragons are based on the four (or five, if you count the Yellow Dragon) symbols of Chinese mythology. They are Azure Dragon - Rude; Vermillion Bird - Reno; Black Serpent - Tseng. The White Tiger is future Elena. The Yellow Dragon of the Centre, is, naturally, Rufus.