Disclaimer: This fic is based on the Canon Novella On The Way To A Smile: The Case of Shinra, full credit to Kazushige Nojima.
Love is stronger than death even though it can't stop death from happening, but no matter how hard death tries it can't separate people from love. It can't take away our memories either. In the end, life is stronger than death - Unknown
The Temple of the Ancients loomed above the dense foliage of the surrounding jungle. The ruins sat in a lush valley, nestled among green mountains. While most of the world lay in the depths of winter, here at the southern tip of the East most continent there was no December chill, only sticky heat that hung in air along with the thick mists that shrouded the vine choked ruins. The howl of wind replaced by the calls of tropical birds. Life thrived abundantly in this place.
Within the walls of the ruins, a man lay on dying. He leaned against the temple's wall, hand clutched to the side, but still more blood gushed out, pulsing with every heartbeat. A crimson pool formed around his body, mingling with dust of the ancient stones.
As he slowly bleed out, the man wondered how many had already died by Sephiroth's blade and how many more would perish in the days to come. Sephiroth, a SOLDIER without match; he was once Shin-ra Company's greatest weapon, but now he was a nightmare from which there was no escape.
A mission had brought Tseng to this place. For a long time assignments and orders were the only forces driving his life, as though Tseng had no will of his own. Perhaps it was the truth. He was a member of an organization which was meant to put orders above all else. In truth, he was far more than a mere member. Tseng was the leader of the Shin-ra Company's Department of Administrative Research, or as they were more commonly referred to as, the "Turks".
He'd been sent to obtain an ancient stone known as the "Black Materia". All Materia held power, but some were far more powerful than others. There were even Materia powerful enough to destroy the world itself. That, Tseng feared, was exactly what Sephiroth intended.
Tseng had hoped to retrieve the Black Materia and be gone before Sephiroth ever knew the Turks had been there, but things rarely worked out as well as he hoped. He was lucky Sephiroth hadn't killed him instantly, but by some miracle the sword seemed to have missed anything vital.
All the same, Tseng knew he was bleeding out and there was nothing to be done about it. His eyes were heavy. All he wanted was to let sleep take him, and he knew that if he did he would not wake again.
Tseng was prepared to accept death.
That's when she appeared; Aerith and her friends. Her friends, his enemies; either way it was all the same. Tseng supposed he was her enemy too. Because Shin-ra was her enemy that was all he could ever be to Aerith.
Yet, Aerith meant so much to him. She was the one person he'd ever thought of as his. No, that wasn't true.
There were two people Tseng had always considered his. His relationship to each of them was similar in function. Each began as an assignment when they were only children. In fact, he met Rufus and Aerith around the same time, but it was Rufus who had been his first official mission as a Turk.
He'd met Rufus Shinra when the boy was only three years old. Tseng was ten years old, technically too young to be assigned to anything, but playing babysitter to a sheltered child was hardly high risk. It was also Veld's intention that Rufus grow up with Tseng in his life, at first as a companion and later as a bodyguard. Veld wanted the Turk assigned to Rufus to be a constant in the boy's life. The life expectancy for a Turk isn't the longest, so it was best to give someone Rufus young. For this purpose Veld had chosen a boy who would one day become a Turk. This ensured the chosen Turk would have years before he'd face life-threatening missions.
Perhaps there was more to the choice than that. Tseng had always been Veld's protégé and perhaps even then Veld saw something in Tseng and intended to groom a successor. Perhaps his intention was for the future of the Turks and the future of Shin-ra to be bound together by lifelong trust and familiarity. If that was the case then being given Rufus Shinra was even more of an honor. It meant that not only did Veld entrust him to eventually be the one to guard the President's son, but to one day become the leader of the Turks themselves.
Long ago in less enlightened times when slavery was still practiced, there had been a custom of raising a slave alongside the Master's children. The slave was to learn loyalty through familiarity and love. This slave would be a watchdog to the children; loyal, fiercely protective, and always there. This is what Tseng was meant to be for Rufus Shinra.
Tseng had met the President for the first time the day he met Rufus. Veld had advised President Shinra that having a Turk assigned to Rufus one day would be a good security measure and the President had agreed to meet the Turk Veld had in mind. The director introduced Tseng as the one he'd chosen to assign to Rufus.
Tseng held out to hand to shake hands with the President, but he hadn't taken it.
"Tseng, eh?" asked the President. "You're Wutaian?"
Tseng put his hand down, pushing down the pang of embarrassment. "I was born and raised in Midgar, sir," said Tseng.
"His mother was an old friend," said Veld. "Tseng has been under my care for years, there's no Turk I'd recommend more highly for this assignment."
"Well, he's a bit young, but then so is Rufus. Children guarding children is it?" asked the President.
"Tseng won't actually be on this assignment for quite some time. Think of him as Rufus's future personal bodyguard," said Veld. "For now, all that matters is to give Rufus someone he can trust, because there may come a time when he will have to trust Tseng with his life."
"Yes, yes, I suppose you're right," he said. "All right, come along, then. I'll let you meet the whelp."
He'd followed alongside Veld as the President led the way to his lavish penthouse. Once inside the President called for his son.
The boy came bounding out. Duck fluff blonde hair, big blue eyes and a child's carefree grin.
"Daddy!" he cried. Arms extended upwards in the universal sign of a child asking to be picked up.
The President looked down at his son with a mixture of disinterest and annoyance. "Rufus! How many times have I told you not to run in the house?" he barked. The President crossed his arms. "I'll have to have a word with that nanny of yours. See to it she gives you proper discipline."
"Sorry," said Rufus. Wide blue eyes now rimmed with tears he tried to wipe away before anyone could see. Luckily, his father wasn't paying him any attention at the moment but was instead looking at Tseng.
"Rufus, I want you to meet Tseng," said the President. "One day it'll be his job to look after you."
At that moment Tseng had to fight the urge to pick up the boy and comfort him. As he looked down at Rufus he couldn't help but feel sorry for the young prince. Tseng had met Veld's family. He'd seen the way Veld's daughter Felicia, who was about the same age as Rufus, would run to Veld. Veld would scoop her up in his arms and hold her like he would never let go. Tseng didn't know much about children, but he knew enough to know that what Rufus most needed was a hug. He also knew, even then, that it was not his place to comfort the boy.
All he could do was his duty. At that moment he swore that he would protect Rufus Shinra, even if it meant giving his own life. He didn't know what that meant at the time, not really, but never the less Tseng swore himself to his task. It was the first mission he would be given as a Turk, and Tseng knew even then that it would be a lifelong assignment.
The same year he met Aerith; at the time she was just an infant in her mother's arms. Tseng hadn't understood Veld's intentions at the time. Why had Veld brought him here? Why introduce him to this woman, Ifalna? What did she have to do with anything?
Ifalna had looked at him for a long moment. To Tseng it felt as if the woman had looked through him and seen every inch of his being. Like she knew him better than he knew himself, and had seen his whole life before he'd lived it. He didn't want to meet her eyes anymore. He wanted to back away, but couldn't bring himself to move. So he'd looked anywhere else. His eyes landed on the baby in her arms.
"Do you want to hold her?" asked Ifalna. Her voice was so sweet that Tseng wondered how this woman had unnerved him.
All the same, he shook his head no. Tseng didn't want to hold the baby. Indeed, what Tseng wanted most was to flee the room.
"I couldn't," said Tseng.
"Go on," said Veld.
Tseng had no idea why Veld was encouraging him to hold the baby, but if Veld wanted him to hold the baby, he'd do as he was told.
Ifalna smiled at Tseng, and moved to pass him the baby. She showed him how to hold her. "Support her head," she said, "like that, there you go."
Then the baby opened her eyes and looked up at him. Looked into him as much as her mother had.
"This is Aerith," said Ifalna.
The baby's arms flailed upwards as though she were reaching out for him. Tseng gave her his hand and the tiny fist closed around his finger.
Aerith was his second assignment.
"She's a very special girl, I want you to watch over her, Tseng," Veld had said. "That child may be the most important thing in the world, not just for Shin-ra, but for all of us." So Tseng watched her from a distance. Hojo would not allow much access to the child, and it wasn't until years later that they finally spoke.
In many ways Rufus and Aerith were similar assignments, each a child born to a greater destiny and each a prisoner in their own way. Aerith, while actually a prisoner, seemed better off than Rufus. Aerith had her mother and seemed happy. Meanwhile, Rufu's father ignored the boy, except when he was scolding him. His mother seemed loving enough, but most of Rufus's life was spent in the care of nannies or off at boarding schools designed to build character.
Rufus once confided in Tseng that he hated the places, but of course, Rufus didn't dare say a word of protest. He seemed to take these things as a challenge set out by his father. There was one thing Tseng could say for President Shinra's parenting methods: it encouraged Rufus to rise to any challenge without complaint, a quality that would serve him well.
So it was this task Tseng was bound to, protecting two prisoners who he had no hope of rescuing. After Ifalna and Aerith's escape and Ifalna's resulting death, Tseng realized how complicated his situation truly was. He was not the sort of man to quote Loveless or compare his life to some epic tragedy, but he knew the future would prove difficult. Aerith was his to watch over and protect, but there would come a day Shin-ra would order him to bring her back and he would follow orders without question because he was a Turk.
He wondered again then why Veld had pushed for him to get to know Aerith, to care for her. Perhaps, as with Rufus, he hoped the Cetra would come to trust him. Perhaps Veld knew one day Aerith would run away and hoped that eventually Aerith would return to Shin-ra with Tseng on her own accord. Then again, maybe Veld simply knew Tseng had a strong emotional side, perhaps he thought Tseng had more heart than a Turk should rightly have and thought to use this weakness as a tool. Tseng cared, and so Veld made it so he cared for his charges, for Rufus and for Aerith. Tseng was a good watchdog, because his loyalty was born of love.
Still, at the end of the day Rufus and Aerith were assignments and Tseng was a Turk.
Tseng had always known the time would come when Shin-ra ordered them to bring Aerith in, and he would be forced to carry out that mission. Tseng had hoped that things would be easier with Rufus because they were on the same side. Tseng was a servant of Shin-ra and Rufus was heir apparent. Unfortunately, things are never so simple.
Tseng supposed Rufus's betrayal shouldn't have been so surprising. Rufus Shinra was the man his father had raised him to be. In his way, Rufus was still a little boy desperate for his father's attention and approval. Somewhere along the line he decided that the only way to get either was to destroy his father, to defeat his father and prove himself a worthy successor. Somewhere along the line Rufus had given up on the idea that he could earn his father's love and praise and settled for the next best thing. Although Rufus might have other reasons of his own, the President had made many enemies over the years. It wasn't a stretch to believe he could make an enemy out of his own son. This was especially true given the fate of Rufus's late mother.
Killing Tseng along with the rest of the Turks hadn't mattered to Rufus at the time. To him collateral damage mattered as little as the loss of pawns in a game of chess. Rufus was on the verge of adulthood then, but in many ways he had been such a child, so very immature.
Still Tseng hadn't given up on him, even then. After Rufus was captured, the President had ordered the Turks to keep Rufus confined indefinitely.
Tseng wondered at the time why the President had spared Rufus. The man was many things, but merciful was certainly not one of them. At the time there was a part of Tseng that wanted nothing more than to kill Rufus for what he'd done, even as there was a part of Tseng that still loved him. Love was a dangerous sort of emotion, like the wax coated fuse on an explosive that stays lit even as you try to snuff it out.
Perhaps the President had spared Rufus because he realized the worst punishment he could give the boy was to simply ignore him.
When Tseng had informed him of the President's decision Rufus had responded by asking, "So I take it my father isn't going to order my death then?"
Rufus Shinra was, for the most part, impossible to read, but Tseng wondered if he was disappointed on some level. If Rufus had been prepared to take the bullet. Tseng could picture Rufus facing him as he drew his gun. Tseng would have ordered him to turn around, and Rufus would have told him he preferred to face his execution and that he wasn't afraid. Rufus would have met his gaze unflinching as he faced the loaded gun. Tseng wasn't sure if he would have been able to carry out that execution. Tseng was furious; he could have easily beaten Rufus within an inch of his life, but kill him? No, Rufus was his and had always been his, or rather Tseng was Rufus's. Tseng was his protector, his mentor, and his constant.
It was fortunate for Tseng that the President's orders had been no more severe than keeping Rufus confined. He had known there were going to be difficult choices ahead and one less order he was loath to carry out was all the better. Rufus was punished, of course; Tseng was furious and Rufus needed to learn the meaning of consequence. However, Tseng also meant for him to learn that Tseng was still on his side, even if Rufus had yet to earn forgiveness. The Turks would be his one-day, and Tseng hoped Rufus would come to value that fact, and value them. They would be his Turks and he would be their President.
Perhaps it was as Veld had intended all along. He wanted Tseng to bond to Rufus and Rufus to bond to Tseng so that in turn the whole of the Turks could be bound to the one they served. The plan seemed to have gone well when Rufus was younger. Rufus had taken to Reno, and it seemed that if Rufus had had a say in what he did with his life he might have wanted to be a Turk. However, they had lost Rufus along the way, but now his confinement would prove an opportunity to set things right.
The Turks would offer Rufus what he always wanted, acceptance, approval, and (in the strange way the department functioned as one) a family. Rufus would have to earn forgiveness, and because of Rufus's action they had nearly lost one of their own which would make things difficult. However, Tseng had kept faith that things might yet go well with this assignment.
In the end, Tseng's faith had been rewarded. Rufus had saved them all. They say a life you save is a life you own, and for what Rufus had done he'd more than atoned; he'd won the Turk's loyalty for life. There was a time when it seemed all was lost, but somehow everything turned out all right in the end.
With Aerith, Tseng had always known he would not be so lucky. It had never been easy with Aerith.
The first time she spoke to him she had been to thank him. Her words had caught him utterly off guard. She was still a child then, but had been living a new life free from Shin-ra's clutches for years. Tseng had watched her. Tseng would be the one to bring her back one-day, and she had no idea. The first thing she ever said to him was "Thank you for your hard work, as always."
When Tseng made no reply Aerith had continued. "You're protecting me, aren't you?" She was so innocent. At times, Tseng felt unworthy to be anywhere near Aerith. Tseng was a killer. Even back then he'd taken lives and done his share of dirty deeds in Shin-ra's name, and Aerith didn't deserve to have him darkening her door. Aerith was majesty and light, in her eyes Tseng saw not his own reflection, but all the good things left in the world.
You're the one protecting me, aren't you?
Tseng had told her the truth, he wouldn't let her mistake him for a hero. He was from Shin-ra. Aerith's features had grown cold then. "I hate Shin-ra," she'd said before running off. At the time he thought it was right for her to run, because to her Shin-ra was the enemy, and so was he.
It was all he could ever be to her, and he had kept that in mind when the time came to take her away. He had acted like the monster she'd expect an agent of Shin-ra to be. If he could do nothing else for Aerith, he could at least meet her expectations. Things didn't have to be as complicated for Aerith as they were for him. She would never have to question how he could do such a thing. He would be evil because what more would she expect from an agent of Shin-ra.
Reno had asked why he'd been so cruel: why the pretense? Reno knew Tseng didn't enjoy the assignment, but there was no choice. His department had narrowly escaped elimination for their earlier transgressions; the Turk's loyalty, his loyalty, could not be called into question again. It was Rufus who had defended the Turk's and convinced the President to spare them, to trust them. If the trust proved misguided it was Rufus who would pay.
Tseng might have been willing to forfeit his life for Aerith, but his life wasn't his to give. His life belonged to Rufus; he could not betray Shin-ra and throw his life away after all Rufus had done.
Tseng told Reno that it wasn't pretense at all, but he doubted his subordinate understood his explanations. Still, Tseng believed it was far worse to be hurt by someone who claimed to love you, than hurt by someone you knew to be heartless. Tseng was a Shin-ra employee, and he wouldn't let Aerith forget that fact.
Even now as he lay dying, his last chance to say all the things that had been left unsaid, he did not let himself speak those words. No apologies. Aerith was his, and he loved her, but could never belong to Aerith the way he belonged to Rufus. Despite the similarity in assignments and in the love he felt for the two people he'd been charged to look after, this was the key difference.
Besides, what good was saying anything now? She shouldn't have to mourn; Tseng had not earned that from her. So even now, he said what she would have expected him to say.
"Damn…letting Aerith go was the start… of my… bad luck," Tseng said. He could barely speak; the pain was too great. They were harsh words, but he got the response he wanted, an equally harsh reply. Aerith stepped up, put her hands on her hips and chastised him.
It was exactly what he expected her to say. What he wanted her to say. All the same, he'd be of as much help as he could. Ignoring the pain, Tseng forced himself to his feet and made his way to Cloud.
"The keystone," he paused to grimace in pain, "place it…on...the altar." It was so difficult to stand and talk, but he had to do this. Give them the key, show them how to gain access to temple. They could figure out the rest from there. Even if they were his enemies, they faced an even greater foe.
They'd been wrong about Sephiroth, it was never the Promised Land the he was after. Sephiroth wanted to destroy the world, and all he needed was that Materia. They could not let him have it. So Tseng told them how to access the inner sanctum, and he saw tears in Aerith's eyes.
She would not help him. She would leave him here to die. Yet, all the same she still had tears to shed for him.
Cloud looked at Aerith. "You're crying?" he asked. The soldier wanted to comfort her, that much Tseng could tell. He was glad that at least someone remained who could look after her; someone who wouldn't fail her.
"Tseng's with our enemy, the Turks, but I've known him since we were little," said Aerith. She let out a sigh then continued. "There's not a lot of people I can say that about. In fact there are probably only a handful of people in world who really know me."
Even after everything Tseng had done; all the reasons he did not deserve her pity, she still had tears for him as he was now.
Once she was gone, Tseng sighed, he felt so tired. At least now he could rest. He'd done all he could for her, for his Turks, and Shin-ra. All that was left now was to wait for death to take him. Tseng thought of Rufus, and hoped the he would be all right without him. Rufus knew the risk they faced, and Tseng had given all he could give for him.
This Fic will draw from other fics I've written, because I'd like to incorporate some of the things I developed for one shots into a longer fic.
Additionally, this fic takes place in the same continuity as my fanfics "Orphans" and "Pedigree", but reading those isn't strictly necessary for understanding this.
As with the novella on which this was based knowledge of the original game and Before Crisis may make things easier to understand, but I will endeavor to make this a fic anyone can read, even without extensive background knowledge. For more on BC check out Gun Shot Romance, Youtube, or LicoriceAllSorts' fic "Death is Part of the Process".
This fic is dedicated to Licoriceallsorts, you're an inspiration. With special thanks to Midnight and Twin Kats.