|The Assassination Game
Author: Guede Mazaka
“That was messy,” Zack observes. It’s not an accurate one, because they are too many stories up for him to be able to actually see what had happened to the infiltrator he’s just chased off the roof. He’s extrapolating.
Tseng has long since accustomed himself to the straightforward idiocy of the soldiers, but nevertheless he finds himself gritting his teeth. “One less chance we have to find out what Gainsborough is doing now. It’s a pity that we don’t seem to have any reliable sources in that House.”
To his credit, Zack neither flinches nor grows defensive. His eyes cool and he turns and walks away, calling in his people. He and Tseng both know that he’s responsible for the lack of inside information. His ridiculous, disloyal attachment to Gainsborough’s daughter has ensured that no effective Shinra spy has been planted in that House for the past five years. And those that were placed in there prior to that either have been rooted out or have had to suddenly withdraw.
He’s fortunate that Gainsborough’s efforts, covert and overt, have all been equally ineffective, or else Tseng would have fried every implant in his body by now.
Shinra is fortunate, Tseng corrects himself. Zack is the only effective street general they have at the moment; Sephiroth is rumored to be recovering but hasn’t put in a public appearance since the old Head’s assassination, and Cloud is a rising star, but is still too young and inexperienced to take on everything. If Zack was removed, then Shinra would be in a difficult position.
“Cocky bastard. That swagger of his just makes you want to reach out and—” Reno demonstrates with his electro-rod “—doesn’t it?”
He’s lying, as Zack isn’t even remotely swaggering. “Did you find anything?” Tseng asks. He pulls up a screen in the left half of his vision and checks the schedule: Rufus is due to arrive in this area in another fifteen minutes. “Is there any indication that he had accomplices?”
“Nothing. Place that dirty…I figure he was a loner, one of those guys who got a few too many jolts off a shock-station. You know?” Reno, on the other hand, is distinctly swaggering as he strolls to the edge of the roof. He puts down his cane and leans on it as he peers nonchalantly down well over one hundred stories. “The soldier-boys get done sweeping the building so Rude can get to it?”
“Rude finished and left two minutes ago.” Tseng closes the schedule and enters what little data they have on this assassin, then initiates a search through all recent attempts on Rufus’ life. He’s looking for a pattern.
The other man steps back from the edge and grins sheepishly, mussing his hair. It’s charming in a lazy, roguish way. It and Reno’s slight build combine to make him very effective at getting people to underestimate him. His air of perpetual confidence is also very effective, but at giving people the impression that he’s better than he actually is. “Eh, well. That son of a bitch. He could’ve stopped to say bye.”
“He has work to do with Elena.” It’s interrogation work, and for that Reno is more suitable, but Reno’s been requested elsewhere. And speaking of that, Tseng has to turn around and slap at his wrist implants to turn off his surveillance blockers before the approaching hover-car’s wards shorts them out.
He walks backward to make room, while Reno scrambles with an artless, frantic elegance. They both arrive at the top of the stairs that led down into the building just as the car sets down. Rufus is early.
“Tseng,” Rufus absently says. He’s not off the car for two seconds before he’s trying to walk past Tseng to the stairs. Zack barely nods at him, but Rufus seems not to even notice and barely nods back out of preoccupation, and not out of pique.
“Sir, we only just—” Tseng begins.
Reno’s already slipped up beside Rufus. The only time Reno ever obeys the rule of a discreet two feet is when he’s around the new Head, and even then he slouches and sways his way nearer.
“Building’s swept?” The pause Rufus allows for an answer can only accommodate a nod, for which he pivots to glance. His right foot is about to go down the first step, but something odd happens, as if someone had corrupted the film with white noise.
The soldiers are at the other side of the roof, and once they’d seen that the Head had no interest in them, they’d turned back to their business. No one else notices how Reno carefully, surreptitiously gives Rufus’ elbow a sharp upward push to correct for the muscle spasm. Reno even makes the effort of looking away from Rufus and cracking a rude joke to whichever analyst has just showed up at the bottom of the stairs.
“Then I’ll not keep you from finishing up the investigation. Godo’s representative has already been notified that we’re moving the meeting place to two floors up, so that should prevent any accidental overlap.” By the time Rufus finishes, he’s halfway down the stairs and Reno is ambling calmly behind him. He speaks in a way that promises finely-directed violence to any failure to carry it out.
He speaks in a way that leaves only one possible reply, unless Tseng decides to unlock his jaw and with it, years of hard work and dedication. “Yes, sir.”
There’s a pattern here, but it isn’t the one Tseng was hoping to find.
* * *
Aeris is in pink again—a pale shade of it that floats easy on the eyes and doesn’t try any tricks with holograms or de-opaqueing or wavelengths outside of the visible-light range. It makes her look like an oasis in the schizophrenic jitter of the club.
She’s near the back, chatting with a tall, pale guy that hunches over like he’s got something clawing at him from the inside. For a moment Zack’s reminded of when the daimon worm hit Sam…Winchester?...but by the time the strobes have flicked back to blue, he’s made himself forget all about that. He’s got to walk even more carefully nowadays. Before, an uneasy truce between the three biggest Houses allowed for some mixing, but lately things have been getting too hostile.
The nice thing about clubs is that everyone is so paralytically wired and chemmed up that they wouldn’t be able to remember him if somebody hooked them up to a server and hacked their memory. The lousy thing about them is that everyone’s so out of it that Zack invariably ends up losing something in the fight to get through to where he wants to go. He keeps his weapons tucked close and tries to make it through as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, by the time he’s there, the other man’s gone and Aeris is turning to face him, tipping up a smile like a daisy. Even the lurid reds glimmering at epileptic speed over them can’t dim it. “You made it.”
“Yeah, but this’ll be the last time for a while, I think. Your father’s making Rufus very, very paranoid. And Shinra paranoia tends to be—”
“—physical?” Aeris laughs, but there’s sadness in it. No cynicism, because that’s just not her style. Now, how she manages to stay that way in this world was a question really worth billions of wulongs in research money…except to find that out, they’d have to break her open, and Zack loves her as she is, in one piece.
She stops laughing and comes closer, her head tilting as she smiles again. On anyone else, it’d be coy, but on her it’s regretful. Her hand drops lightly on his arm and they slip out one of the side-doors.
“So who was the guy?” Zack says, once he’s convinced himself that no one’s tracked them out of the club.
“Thomas. He’s run into Jenova.” She drops the word into the street as if she’s just tossed a flower into the air.
Then again, that word belongs in the bubbly, revolting scum that coats the ground roads here like few others do. “What?”
“Not so loud, Zack.” Aeris leads them down a side-street. She glides more than she walks, seeming to float over all the dirt and filth, and yet she doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. She fits there too, in a way. “He’s a freelance hacker, and he stumbled over her in a decommissioned plant. She had control of him for a while, but he got free and he’s looking for sanctuary.”
It takes a while for Zack to decide on how to answer. “Your dad’s taking him in?”
“My father doesn’t believe in Jenova,” Aeris quietly says. They turn the corner and walk through a chipped, ruined stone doorway. It’s a sight to be noticed; stone is hardly a common building material now.
And yet there are some ancient, ancient places that still have managed to evade the destruction of progress. If Smecker was here, Zack thinks as he peers up at the lofty roof, he’d be having a field day. Or maybe he’d be kneeling amid the rock shards and debris, having one of his melancholy fits over the waste. He can go odd ways sometimes, and lately his moods have been swinging so much that Zack’s beginning to wonder if Smecker’s taking brain hits off Sephiroth.
“He thinks it’s just an excuse Shinra made up to break truce and start fighting again. I can’t argue with him anymore—he just looks at me and says I’ve too much of my mother in me.” The place echoes Aeris, adding a weird, sad groan to her words. She walks them through the reverberations till they’ve slid into a tiny nook near the back.
Someone’s sheeted over the rock here with poly-coatings and made an attempt at cleaning it up. Zack runs his fingers over the slick, clean wall, then scrapes with his palm to get a sample for analysis. Harmless stuff, cheap but durable. “I thought he loved your mother.”
“He does, but she hated violence. I do too, and he used to…but things have changed, he says.” She leans her head against the wall, then turns so Zack’s arms frame her pale face. Her hands rest briefly on his hips, then wrap around the back of his neck. “He says I need to marry soon.”
“You could—” Zack starts, leaning down.
She’s shaking her head even as she rises to meet up. “No. My House is where I belong.” She kisses gently, lingeringly, wistfully. “Even if it’s starting to turn into something that isn’t my House.”
* * *
Things have changed a good deal since the last time Vincent had ventured into society. In his day as a Turk, the Gainsboroughs had been among the more compassionate and mild-mannered of the Houses, but they had been aristocratically-minded to their very core. They made a point of cherishing as much naturalness as possible—at least in their highest echelons, who could afford to surround themselves with the heavily-implanted guards required if one forewent those themselves. The Head then is still the Head now, and Vincent doesn’t doubt that he’d be fiercely opposed to his only child dallying with a top product of Shinra’s bio-mod research division.
But that hardly concerns Vincent amid all his other worries. He leaves the couple be and moves on in search of his real target: the man Aeris had been speaking with earlier. The one who’d tangled with Jenova and somehow—like Vincent—managed to free himself. Gainsborough’s an idiot for thinking that Jenova is merely a nightmare. She is real and she is very interested in coming out of her long hibernation.
Vincent had wanted only to correct his past mistakes and then disappear somewhere, possibly find a way to bypass the Methuselah loops he has located within himself. He still does, he thinks, but things have become so complicated. So many more pieces were broken than he had expected, and he is beginning to fear that he may have to put off his rest indefinitely.
Jenova cannot be allowed to roam free. She would be a catastrophe beyond mere House rivalries—that nonsense, Rufus Shinra can see to.
He is, it appears. By the time Vincent has backtracked to the club, the man is long gone and in his place are dozens of sly shadows flitting over roof-tops and sliding down walls, hard-pressing their camouflage generators to keep up. It’s a useless task, at any rate; Vincent needs only a thought for his vision to shift and then they stand out so clearly he need not look directly at them. The glow about them and his peripheral vision will do. He takes one gun out of its holster, and then another as he continues walking down the street.
The Kisaragi descend en masse, their cries shattering the air. And by the time Vincent has traveled the length of the alley, their cries have completely died out.
He glances over his shoulder and catches a silhouette hastily retreating into a building. Vincent jerks up his right hand and aims his gun long enough for his point to be made. Then he turns, and resumes tracking the hacker.
But by then too much time has passed for someone who’s already managed to evade Jenova. Nursing a slow, frustrated fury, Vincent directs his feet back to Shinra Tower for the night.
Sephiroth will be waiting, and with him will be all the jagged fragments that continually snag and catch Vincent, holding him back. Sometimes Vincent fears he may be beginning to depend on that.
* * *
He’d seen Elena, Tseng notes. No less could be expected from Valentine, a man who was famed even among the Turks, who counted the exceptional as commonplace. But he hadn’t shot her.
And neither of them had managed to pin down that hacker Smecker wanted, which giaves Tseng some consolation. He lightly makes his way down from his perch and joins Elena.
“He saw me. I’m so sorry, sir. I know you wanted to keep our—” she babbles.
“He would have noticed eventually. I was merely hoping to delay the moment as long as possible.” It could have been a little longer, which is why Tseng does let a trace of reprimand into his voice. But there’s no point in wasting time here, which is why he cuts off her next flood of apologies with a sharp motion of his hand. “I’ll be taking it from here. Go home and rest up, Elena. You and Reno will be taking—”
An alert pops up just as Elena makes a valiant effort at not looking sympathetically outraged. “Oh, sir. Reno called in and said Rufus wants him for tomorrow. He says he can’t.”
“I see,” Tseng tightly says. What he can see is that Reno’s message was sent nearly two hours ago, while the notice from Rufus has just arrived. But it is from Rufus, and Tseng is a Turk, and so he merely nods. “Tomorrow doesn’t call for much stealth, so you can request a soldier detail if you think it necessary.”
She had been about to add more, probably about Reno’s insufferable non-professionalism, but Elena admirably restrains herself. She nods back so her hair sweeps a golden veil over her face. “Sir.”
Gold. Once upon a time, there had been another woman with hair like that. But she’d been much, much paler, with a frailness that Elena’s exuberance would have fractured on contact, and an elegance too fine for this world. She had liked to stand by the windows on the highest floors, where the dirt and smog could not reach, and let the sun fall on her face.
You’ll watch my son, won’t you? You’re a dearer boy than I’d ever thought my husband would let guard me, and I think you…take care of him.
Reno would have been about nine then, filthy and scrapping among the other alley children in Sector Six. And Tseng had looked on the little face tucked in her arms, and sworn. He hadn’t kept the promise well, though, and that knowledge always ate like acid through any resentment.
* * *
“Is it possible that this man might be responsible for Jenova’s resurgence?” Rufus asks.
He’s face-down on a long, well-padded bench, stripped to the waist so the doctors can probe at his muscles. A long, scabbed line still marks out his spine, while more such old wounds dot his body till he looks like he’s from the days when disease was still an equal-opportunity leveler. Once in a while he clenches his hands and hisses, and then the whole room gets tense. Reno broke out his weapons just as the doctors came in and is making a fucking racket cleaning them.
“Maybe. But then, maybe it’s the weather, too. Maybe it was some fucked-up timer Hojo worked into Sephiroth,” Paul says. He’ll admit that the view is nice—way nicer than with Rufus’ father, but even if he weren’t so goddamn restless and wanting to get to the real work, he’d still not be all that interested. Kadaj’s been very attentive lately.
That makes Paul even more nervous, since Kadaj might be a nutcase, but he’s a nutcase with damn good instincts. And he’s…Paul hates messing with the kid, and not just because it makes him feel like fucking Hojo resurrected, but after Vincent finally gave him a decent explanation, he went and tinkered with a few of Kadaj’s implants while the other man was sleeping. Now he gets a constant readout of Kadaj’s biochem and network signals scrolling down the side of his vision, and his stomach’s a mess from clenching against the time when a Jenova pattern starts showing up in them. Because damn it all, Kadaj’s more biologically similar to Sephiroth than twins are to each other. It goes beyond genetics in some places.
“What kind of answer is that?” Reno puts in. He’s flipping part of his stick around, letting it thwap hard against his palm.
The doctors get twitchy again. One of them jabs Rufus with a probe too hard and triggers a minor spasm in his deltoid. Poor bastard all but drops to his knees and genuflects right there in apology.
“Shut up.” Something Paul does like about Rufus is the efficiency of his directness. “So you don’t know?”
That’s to Paul. “So I think, and I’ve been telling you since day one, that Jenova isn’t some fucking viral program somebody set up and then left behind that got triggered by accident. She’s got a mind and a will—she’s basically a brain in silica, all right? And who the hell knows why people really do what they do? Half the time it’s just that their lover wasn’t putting out that morning.”
“Fine. Fine.” Rufus sounds snippy and halfway to calling Reno down on Paul, but he also sounds tired. He looks tired; he’s not got implants in him any more to make him look fresh and spiffy no matter what the circumstances, and in a world of plastic-sheen people, the circles under his eyes might as well be painted in blood-red. “Though I have to wonder what’s the point of psychology, in that case?”
Paul has to grin a little there. He can see Reno scowling from the corner of his eye, and takes a moment to flip off the over-anxious mutt. Of course Reno wouldn’t get it. “Well, it can tell me when people are avoiding the question. I think Vincent’s looking for the guy too. And this might shock you, but I’m not all that thrilled about that, either.”
“It doesn’t, actually. Valentine’s methods are extreme and you can’t always depend on the resiliency of the human mind,” Rufus mutters. He flicks a glance at Reno that’s accidentally meaningful. Thankfully, nobody else but Paul notices. “I can’t control Valentine, obviously. As for Tseng…”
“We’re finished, sir,” one of the doctors timidly interrupts.
Rufus glances at him, then waves them all out. He nods to Reno, who gets up and strolls after. They aren’t going to die—good physicians in this field are too damn scarce—but they’re going to be suffering short-term memory loss for a few days, as well as permanently having a hole where these past few hours have been. Paul just hopes Reno remembers to get the whole damn diagnosis and prescription before he gets biochem-happy on the poor bastards.
“As for Tseng.” Then Rufus stops. After a moment, he pushes himself up and starts pulling on his clothes. “It’s what he was trained for.”
“Yeah, but bullshit. Why the hell don’t you want him here?” Paul snaps.
For a moment, Paul thinks that Rufus just might try to kill him. It’s a good thing Rufus’ self-control has gotten so much better now, because Paul might spend most of his time getting in people’s heads now, but he was trained as a Turk, too. And he never really picked up the blind-loyalty shit everyone else did.
It’s interesting, actually, that Rufus has such a bad reaction to the idea. From all the half-hints Paul’s gathered, Vincent went further than he should have when he was disabling Rufus’ implants, but Rufus seems to have figured out how to deal with that and still ally himself with the man. But Tseng? It’s been a stonewall ever since Rufus detoxed. A one-way stonewall, no less: Tseng’s hopeless attachment to Rufus is getting so obvious it’s embarrassing.
“He was always watching,” Rufus finally says. His fingers twitch as he pulls on his coat and he stops to press them flat against his shoulder, trying to will down the oncoming spasm. He mostly succeeds. “It might have been for my mother’s sake in the beginning, but he ended up doing it for my father. And I remember—not a good deal, but I remember some people tried to treat me as a human despite the drugs. I was a thing he watched, and I don’t think that’s changed.”
People are so blind it’s amazing such things as the Brandenburg concertos were ever created. Paul fiddles with his handheld till the headache subsides. “You really don’t need internal enemies. Well, more than you’ve got.”
“I don’t need to be a whore anymore, either.” The viciousness of Rufus’ tone is startling, but his abrupt return to calm is even more so. He even looks amused. “I can’t believe you aren’t dead yet, with the things you manage to get people to say.”
“Well, I’m not idiotic enough to go repeating them. So the hacker?” Paul says.
Rufus shrugs. “We’ve just been discussing how blindly Tseng approaches his duties and how little he actually thinks of me. I can’t order him to stop—he’ll see that as a failure and keep trying anyway. But I suppose I can give him a few more tasks closer to home. You’re responsible for finding your own tracker.”
“That was all I was ever asking for. See you later, Rufus,” Paul drawls. He turns and walks out just as Reno’s returning. He looks at the fresh flecks of red on Reno’s hands and the other man grins like a jackal.
Though when Paul glances through the closing doorway, Reno’s all seriousness as he bends over Rufus, long fingers lightly grazing Rufus’ knees. People. No wonder the natural state of man is at another man’s throat, one way or the other.
* * *
Reno’s pulling night duty on Rufus again, and in order to stop his mind from filling that statement with maddening, inciting images, Tseng is headed to one of the server rooms. He’s been looking over the thin file on Thomas Anderson for the hundredth time and thinks—hopes—he might have found another pattern to search for in the networks, based on the man’s previous work. Instead he accidentally catches Vincent Valentine and Paul Smecker in vociferous debate.
Neither of them seem to notice his entry or his half-withdrawal, so Tseng lingers by the door. Smecker’s always been a strange one, a man with a sense of humor that leaves Tseng uneasily glancing over his shoulder. And Valentine…Tseng remembers dimly. Rufus’ mother had called him handsome once, within earshot of her husband, and the result had not been pretty.
She’d considered him no worse and no better, Tseng supposes. She hadn’t mentioned him specifically as a man to be wary of, at the least.
“…only way,” Valentine said. “Believe me when I say I’ve tried all other possible methods.”
“I do, but you know something, Vinny? I’m not so sure you always know what you’re fucking doing when you’re doing it. Kadaj’s not Sephiroth. Or Rufus, for that matter. Hojo never fully implemented all his planned mods and implants.” Smecker sounds like a man on the verge of exploding. He’s pacing. He can be remarkably controlled and ill-disciplined at the same time. “And I happen to like Kadaj at his current level of sanity, so I’m not about to watch you mince him up just because somebody broke you into a bunch of pieces and you never got everything put back together right.”
Valentine sighs. “This hacker. This is why you’re interested? He might present an alternative way of gaining immunity from Jenova?”
“I’m interested in him for a lot of different reasons, Vincent. You are, too. You better fucking watch it—the last thing we need is Sephiroth in another jealous rage,” Smecker snarls. He aims his words with precision, despite all the violence in them.
That, Tseng can tell from the bite in Valentine’s reply. “He’s not a child.”
“He is when it comes to you. Emotions never were in Hojo’s game plan, and you were always lousy at them, so watch it.” Then Smecker’s feet come thudding towards the door, and Tseng is hard-pressed to move into the hall in time.
The other man storms out, while inside the server room, there is no noise but the soft whirr of the computers. Tseng waits and waits, but hears no movement. Eventually he decides he’d better try another room and silently turns on his heel.
“Tseng,” Valentine suddenly says.
The thud of blood in Tseng’s ears is very loud. He splays his fingers, ready to summon out his sword if need be—even if it’s hopeless. At least he would have tried this time, and not allowed the man to get through to Rufus a second time.
“I don’t mind killing people, but don’t make a habit of employing me for that.” Valentine passes Tseng like a bloody ghost from earlier times, his coat swirling around him. He doesn’t bother looking at Tseng.
He does whatever he wants. His kind should be a rarity, but now so many of them seem to be around and they hardly seem to suffer for it. It shouldn’t be so, Tseng thinks. Because if it is, then all his past failures were not truthfully failures but errors. Deliberate, clear-sighted choices not to make the effort when effort was needed, and that would be even worse.
* * *
Cloud never really understood why he was selected for the bio-mod program. He did all right in basic training, but wasn’t by any means the top scorer, and three years on the street had seen him getting progressively more comfortable with the idea of staying mid-level. It’d hurt his pride at first—his pride, his hunger to get over being the poor kid in his neighborhood—but then he’d gotten closer and closer looks at what it took to be at the top. And he thinks no, that’s not him.
But he’s up here anyway and he’s doing the best he can in the middle of a madhouse. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep making our date,” he says, pressing his palms against his temples. His head’s been pounding almost nonstop for weeks now. He’d go in to see the doc, get his implants adjusted—if he ever had the time to. “We’re up to two, three minor skirmishes a day and the number of server attacks is up, too. Nothing’s failed yet, but—”
“I know. I did an open bar for some of the core programmers yesterday and it’s incredible. All their cosmetic work and they all look worse than Smecker.” Tifa laughs. She keeps it short, and her hand on Cloud’s squeezes too hard.
“I wish Zack would stop going off.” Cloud shuts one eye and grimly pulls up a screen of news reports. Lots of minor stuff, but nothing requiring his presence. Yet. He glances up with his open eye, then winces. “No, don’t tell me.”
A sarcastic smile graces Tifa’s face. She flips around a towel with her free hand. “You should know, though. Why he keeps going off. It’s going to be a problem for real soon.”
“I do know. I know—it’s just easier to work if I pretend that I don’t till someone tells me, and I don’t want anyone to tell me because then I’d have to do something about it. And I like Zack. I need his help. They won’t tell me what’s happened to Sephiroth so he’s the only other one left,” Cloud mutters. There’s a ringing in his ear that’s driving him nuts. He really needs to stop in at a med-station, at least; his implants clearly aren’t working right. The ringing’s beginning to sound a lot like someone’s voice.
“It’s only delaying the inevitable. You should—” Tifa frowns, and lifts up Cloud’s chin the way his mother used to. “Your pupils are huge. Are you coming down from something?”
Cloud shakes his head. A little too hard, so he has to reach for her hand and pat it afterward. She’s wary, but she relaxes after a moment. “No, I’m just…tired. Hearing things. Jenova—”
“What?” Tifa says sharply. She grabs for him again: this time, his shoulder. “Where did you hear that name?”
“I don’t know. It’s just…all around.” A stabbing pain lances through Cloud’s skull, squirming just behind his eyeballs. He winces, then lays his head down on the table. “So have you heard from that guy yet? The exorcist?”
Fingers move slowly, comfortingly through his hair. Tifa’s good at that. She’s always been good at that, been like a sister to Cloud. It used to be he found that frustrating, and sometimes even thought of taking up Zack’s repeated offers just to have somebody, but lately Cloud’s thankful for it. It’s soothing. “Dean? He’s called, but I don’t know if I should call back. I don’t know if it’s okay.” She exhales. “Especially since even the street-level’s talking about Jenova now. Great.”
That last comment of hers didn’t sound like she’d really meant for Cloud to hear it. With her job, she ends up knowing far more about the inner workings of Shinra than Cloud does, and frankly, Cloud’s fine with that most of the time. She’ll tell him when he needs to know, what he needs to know.
The comment’s wrong, too—she’s assuming he meant he heard it via rumor. But he doesn’t know where he heard it, and he’s tired, and he doesn’t correct her. They’ve got too many worries on their shoulders to be laying those on each other as well.
“Maybe you should’ve gone with him,” Cloud finally says. “I have a bad feeling about all of this.”
“Yeah, I know.” Strands of Tifa’s hair tickle the table as she hunches over him. Her fingers stroke his brow, as if he’s got a fever. “But you aren’t going, so I’m not. Deal.”
Cloud opens his mouth to argue and Tifa makes some stubborn nonsensical noise. He closes his mouth and sighs. Then he smiles wryly, sourly, and pats her wrist. “I wish you wouldn’t say that. You shouldn’t get caught in this.”
“Well, that’s my choice, isn’t it?” Tifa mutters. She continues in a less strident tone, going to almost playful. “Besides, what would you do without me? We all need somebody at a time like this. It’s not good to be on your own.”
“But sometimes you have to do things alone anyway,” Cloud replies. He turns his head to look up at her, and for a while they glower stubbornly at each other. She’s good for him, but she has to understand that she can’t be everywhere, can’t always sit him down and talk him through something. Sometimes he’s out alone on the street with nothing but his duties and the little ugly demons whispering in his ear, and when he feels like listening then it comes down to him to remember he shouldn’t.
Sometimes he’s in the networks, and then the wash of information through him is so intense that he only feels human by the thinnest thread. But she’d never understand that. Her with her warmth and effortless grace, and her always-open hand. All that can be done is to reach up and take it now, while he can.
Tifa looks at his fingers wrapped around her own, her brow furrowing. She purses her lips a few times, but can’t manage to word her thoughts the way she wants to. It visibly frustrates her, and in the end she just clenches at his hand till her knuckles are white. “Cloud, you know that I—”
Someone walks in: Tseng. Tseng, at this hour?
“Damn it,” Tifa says.
Cloud’s already letting her fingers slide out from his own as he stands. He misses her. His head pounds, and the murmur in it grows ever clearer.
* * *
“Strife,” Tseng mutters, nodding. The other man continues to stand and Tseng has to slow long enough to wave him down. “I was in the area and needed to jack into the system. I’m sorry to have interrupted.”
Cloud finally sits. He looks drawn and pale, and his eyes have the glazed look of a man who’s spent too long hooked into too much. Any longer and he might find himself in the grips of massive implant shock failure, but Lockhart seems to be doing an able enough job of fussing over him, so Tseng leaves them to it.
He had, in the end, carried through with his plan of rechecking daily network activities, and while he’d been doing that, an anomaly had showed up at the server here. But a quick check reveals it to have merely been a commonplace glitch in the coding; Tseng flags it for the programmers and has dejectedly begun the process of unhooking himself from the system when something—seizes—
--he throws up his firewalls, his own malicious code, everything, but it simply blasts right through. And it keeps going so a second later he is slumped against the wall, vision fading out and then back in to show him exaggerated, distorted images of Cloud and Tifa standing over him and yelling. But that doesn’t—Tseng shoves one of them away and scrambles up the jack-station’s slick covering, forcing himself back into the system. Fast, because it’d kept going and he knows where it’s headed.
He dives through endless streams that are all sparks and tingles and nothing he can see because he’s not bothering to generate any sort of interface to make artificial sense of the network. Perimeter wards are brutal shocks that he only has time to rip through with equal violence, and then he’s at the firewalls to Rufus’ private chambers and so is it slamming through it’s going to tear tear his mind exploding—
--“Cloud! Cloud! Goddamn it!” Tifa roughly jerks Cloud’s body up against the wall and pins him in place. Her eyes go blue as she messages for help.
Cloud’s eyes are green, and wide and unseeing. His body is slack except for the hand he has clenched around the jack he’d shoved into his temple.
Tseng’s on the floor, shaking uncontrollably, and his thoughts are scattered and he smells burnt flesh. He’s in pain—his hand flies up and he sees charred black rings around the implants in it. He’s in pain and he wasn’t finished and oh, no, not again. He forces himself up. Up. His hand smacks the wall and jitters against it; he makes it crawl till he can get to the manual control panel. His jack is still in his temple socket and if he can just—
--back in. Cloud’s there, just a nebulous feeling to the side. It’s there as well, and Tseng can feel the system trying to fight back all around him. He’d bought enough time for it to mount a response. But it doesn’t recognize him and it’s fighting him instead, and that thing is still trying to pry its way inside. Aiming for the…the security controls? The lasers, the explosives, the stunners and no. No.
This will kill him. But better him. Better to get it right once than to live a lifetime of wrongs.
It’s such a clear thought that as Tseng mounts his last he a l afsi sog
* * *
“Don’t do that yet. I’m still trying to get him mobile,” someone says. Low, raspy but not unmelodic voice.
“I used to do that when they put me on the table. They always said they were making me tap-dance,” someone else says. High, singing voice with a bubble of laughter through it that contrasts oddly with their words. But Tseng knows this one.
He knows the third voice too—unmistakable in its sarcastic drawl. “Jesus Christ, Kadaj. Remind me to kill a couple more researchers the next time I hit the labs.”
“Okay.” Sight is coming back now. A silver shimmer resolves into Kadaj’s bangs, and a whiter slash into his grinning mouth. “Hi, Tseng.”
“Rufus,” Tseng mumbles. Slurs, and he tries to roll over as well but his body violently protests.
Smecker’s face swims into view. The other man kneels down and cradles Tseng’s head with surprising gentleness before he turns it. They are on a building across from Tifa’s bar, which is a scene of near-chaos as soldiers dart in and out, white-coats shout to each other…someone in a blue suit is moving through the crowd that’d gathered.
A flash of gold catches Tseng’s eye, but when he squints he sees that it’s only Cloud. Strife is holding a bandage to his head, but otherwise seems relatively unhurt; he appears to be giving orders while a shaken-looking Tifa hangs onto his shoulder.
“Rufus is fine. Fucking pissed that somebody’d go for him in his bedroom, but he’s fine. So’s Cloud. Apparently,” Smecker says. He chews on his lip. “We’re going to have to get him to containment and do a brain analysis.”
“No good. Try that and he’ll kill you.” The first voice finally gains a face: a man, tall and thin and pale with a shock of black hair. At one point in his life he’d been heavily implanted, in patterns that suggest a programmer, but now only scars are left, save for one temple jack. “She’s got in him. Trust me, I can tell. You’ve just got to wait and hope you can figure out what she’s programmed him to do before he does it.”
Kadaj abruptly turns and presses his face into Smecker’s arm, muttering something so fast that only Smecker probably has any idea what it is. The stranger glances at Kadaj, then at Smecker.
“He’s the one I was telling you about—the one that needs to have any Jenova pathways shut off. He’s also the one that found you. I got hold of your Smith AI, let them chat some to get an idea of your mind, and then turned Kadaj loose,” Smecker says. Casually, but his stance had subtly changed. He’ll kill the man if he doesn’t agree. “Those are my conditions.”
The man’s eyebrows go up, but he actually looks quite relieved. “I can do that. What about this guy? He needs to get stabilized soon.”
“Smecker—damn it—” It doesn’t matter, it’s fine. Rufus is alive and Tseng should have died anyway. That would have been proper, and that would have freed Tseng from any further debate about roles and responsibilities. But Tseng’s body will not obey him, and he can only watch as his fate’s decided.
“He actually did better than I ever figured. Who would’ve guessed—Mr. Ramrod’s awesome at improvisational coding,” Smecker murmurs, staring down at Tseng. He tousles Kadaj’s hair. “He did destroy the attacking worm. Yeah, throw him in, too. But don’t send him back till you hear from me again. Down there they think he fried, and I’m not so sure that saying differently’s a good idea right now.”
“Gotcha. Time for you to sleep,” the man tells Tseng. He cocks his head, then smiles in an absently reassuring way. “Trust me, you really want to sleep through this.”
Yes. But don’t wake—