Author: Guede Mazaka
Rufus felt the muscles in his thigh begin to spasm, but he gritted his teeth and remained standing. “This is the result of a Jenova attack.”
“Presumably.” Curiously enough, Sephiroth had forgone his usual precise posture for perching on the edge of the table on which Smecker was lying and pressing at his wrist. His hair was in disarray, some of it falling in tangled loops over his shoulders while the rest pooled down his back, and he had smears on his hands and face. “Kadaj’s under the impression that Smecker went looking for her.”
“I was under the impression that Kadaj was—”
Sephiroth jerked his head up and glowered from behind a slivered veil of silver strands. He clearly was on the defensive and rattled, and dealing with it somewhat better than Rufus would have suspected, given his previous inability to handle strong emotions. “Kadaj’s limited, not stupid. I think what he says is closer to the truth than to imagination. I don’t know if Smecker provoked her or not, but I do know he’s been very interested in how she communicates with others.”
To be honest, going out and poking the beast also sounded exactly like something Smecker would do, Rufus bitterly thought. He was so arrogant and sure of his own superior intelligence that he never would’ve assumed someone else could outthink him. And the end-result was Smecker lying on a gleaming metal panel, vitals barely perceptible even with all the drugs they were pumping into him, and Rufus was down an infuriatingly wildcard but crucial figure of authority.
His leg suddenly spasmed, and nearly hard enough to send him falling to the ground. He threw out his arm and grabbed for a handhold on the wall, then dug the fingers of his other hand into his thigh. The muscles bulged and flexed uncontrollably beneath his nails; Rufus bit down on the inside of his cheek and slowly gouged his fingers down towards his knee. It hurt almost to the point of vision loss, but the pain manually overloaded the nerves there so they simply stopped responding to stimuli. At least for another few minutes. “Did Kadaj say how Smecker was running his little experiments? Or if he got any useful results before he went and got himself put into a coma?”
Sephiroth hadn’t made any attempt to come to Rufus’ aid, which would’ve been truly shocking. He now was digging his nails into his temples, scratching at the pinprick scars where his mods had formerly been. “No. It’d all still be locked in Smecker’s files. What he did commit to hard memory.”
Of course he’d prefer “soft” human memory. And of course—Rufus made himself stop that useless train of thought before he lost control of the rest of his body. Then he grimaced as his handheld alerted him to an incoming message: Reno, relaying on word that clones were attacking in Sector Eleven. He cursed slightly and looked up at the other man.
From where he was, Sephiroth couldn’t have read the message and he shouldn’t have been equipped for intercepting Reno’s message anymore. But nevertheless he looked knowing, an ironic twist to his mouth. “You can’t rely on Smecker any more to tell you if I’m insane or not.”
“The insane tend not to have a sense of humor, so I’ll assume you aren’t,” Rufus acidly replied. That was the crux of the dilemma, though: with Smecker out, the person who was next likely to understand his way of thinking enough to figure out the how of what had happened to Smecker was probably Sephiroth. On the other hand, Rufus still wasn’t sure that Sephiroth could be trusted, or that he wasn’t also still vulnerable to Jenova.
Sephiroth’s expression gradually shaded to strangely sober. He glanced down at his wrist, the bones of which he was manipulating again, with an odd, sour little smile on his face. “Better me than Vincent. He wanted to outright kill Smecker.”
“It’s one way to stop a plague.” Rufus raised an eyebrow. “Why isn’t Smecker dead?”
That smile quirked till it looked almost chagrined. Then Sephiroth turned, flexing his wrist as if he were trying to dislocate something in it…it suddenly occurred to Rufus that that might be serving the same purpose as his gouging at his leg. “Because it would’ve shattered Kadaj for good. Vincent…doesn’t seem to think about what comes after cauterization,” he admitted.
As tempted as Rufus was to see a weakness in that, some old instinct warned him away. Instead he concentrated on whether the odds added up…and in the end he had to think that they did favor Sephiroth. By the narrowest margin possible. “Odd time to be developing familial relations.”
“Odd for you to be commenting on them, considering you must’ve thanked me for killing your father. Pity I was too mad then to remember it,” Sephiroth coolly, pointedly replied. He looked back at Rufus as he pushed the hair out of his face and absently began to bundle it together at the base of his neck. “You and I both have direct experience with Vincent’s methods of intervention. If you don’t give access to Smecker’s data to me, he’ll take it.”
“And how are you planning to keep it from him?” Rufus asked.
He didn’t need to add a cutting observation for Sephiroth to wince. Then the other man produced another one of those bitter smiles that inexplicably unnerved Rufus. “It’s your system, Shinra. Have your techs figure out something—Vincent’s trained as a Turk, not as one of them. No matter how impressive his abilities are now.”
“I’m not worried about my system—”
“He has to talk to me to know what’s in my head. He made sure of that,” Sephiroth said, tapping his temple. His mouth pressed into a thin line made uneven by sarcasm. “And for that he needs to be in the same room as me.”
“I see.” Rufus fought down a grimace. Every instinct he had, everything he’d ever learned from his years under his father’s oppression, argued against this. But that only pertained to his personal safety; he also had to think of the survival of the House. “And how do I know that you’ll share what you find with me?”
Sephiroth lifted and dropped one shoulder. He leaned back on the table, glancing at Smecker’s still form with a strangely pensive expression. “You don’t. You’ll have to take that risk.”
They both startled as the wall monitors beeped. Then Rufus pressed down on his thigh and began to straighten, but Sephiroth had already leaned over to tap at the machines’ panels. Floating datascreens sprouted around him, so thick they layered up to nearly be opaque, but within a matter of seconds he’d dismissed all but one. He studied it for a moment, then let it dissolve as well. He may have been crippled compared to what he once had been, but he was far from nullified, Rufus ironically noted.
“Smecker’s abuse of his brain is catching up to him,” Sephiroth tersely observed. “While I’m busy, Kadaj will need—”
The third time Sephiroth had mentioned his clone’s name. Rufus reflexively raised his eyebrows, but by the time the other man had turned to look at him, he’d controlled himself enough to wipe away that expression. “Reeve is overseeing Kadaj. He’s got enough of a grasp of pharmacology, and Kadaj doesn’t object to him as much as to everyone else. He was friends with Smecker.”
Sephiroth betrayed a flicker of surprise; he obviously hadn’t known, though whether that should be applied to Reeve’s friendship or Reeve’s unoffensiveness wasn’t quite clear. “All right.”
For a moment it seemed as if he would ask why Rufus had suddenly acquiesced, but a rap at the door was quickly followed by Reno striding in without being summoned. He was sliding over to Rufus before he’d even finished scanning the room. “Hey, boss. Sorry to interrupt, but Zack’s screaming about clones breaching Sector Eleven. He wants orders.”
Rufus looked at Sephiroth, arching one brow. “Well, General?”
The slight smile with which Sephiroth favored him acknowledged both the opportunity to exit that Rufus was offering and the tone in which it’d been offered. “Off to do my duty.”
Reno watched Sephiroth go with narrowed eyes and an air of barely-leashed fury, his electro-stick tapping frenetically against the wall. The moment the other man was gone, he spun and had one hand under Rufus’ arm and another injecting a combo anti-spasmodic/painkiller into Rufus’ leg, which by now had locked its muscles into agonizing immovability. “Like he knows what that means.”
Rufus exhaled, tired enough to succumb a little to his humiliation at breaking down in front of Sephiroth. “Like I pay you to think about what it means. You just do.”
The hand beneath Rufus’ arm tightened, then shifted to get a more comfortable grip on him. “Do you want to go to your office, sir? Or—” Reno said, voice modulated to blankly solicitous.
“Office. Don’t call the doctor. I need to sit,” Rufus muttered.
A snappy nod acknowledged the order, and then Reno began easing Rufus towards the door.
* * *
Even after the drugs—usually about half of what Reno would’ve given—had been shot in, it usually took a while for Rufus’ muscles to stop spasming and loosen up enough for him to be mobile. He never liked anybody watching, but with all the shit going down that Reno’d confirmed was real and the shit that he hadn’t confirmed but could still smell, he wasn’t about to leave Rufus alone.
In the end, Reno settled for hanging around just outside the first set of doors. He was just about to knock and see if Rufus was ready to let him back in when fucking Vampy’s red cape billowed in. Along with the rest of him. “Is Rufus in there?” he asked.
“He’s busy,” Reno said. He’d had his arm tucked behind him and now he casually jacked it up so the tip of his electro-stick was fully hidden. He didn’t start letting it throw discharges or anything, but he did start charging up. Valentine might be a bigger heavyweight in the fighting ring than King Blade these days, but that arm of his was metal, and as far as Reno knew, the blood cycling through it still had current-carrying electrolytes in it. “But lemme go in and ask and see where he’s at. Mind telling me what you want him for?”
Valentine stared at him. Reno always asked him whenever he showed up, and then Valentine never told him. And depending on the set-up and whatever passed for a decision-making process in Valentine’s mind, forced his way in to see Rufus after inflicting various degrees of damage.
This time, the other man appeared to favor the stand and glare routine, as if Reno would disappear if he did it long enough. Reno stepped sideways, then let himself fall back against the doors. He held his stick clear but let his elbows bang back as a hopeful warning to Rufus. “Man, I’m just the doorman. This is my job. The least you could do is be polite.”
Wonder of wonders, the man actually replied. “I asked if he was in.”
Reno searched Valentine’s expression for any sign of flippancy or even just sarcasm, but instead found only intense seriousness.
Then Valentine stepped forward and Reno stopped staring at the guy’s face and started thinking about voltages. He thumbed on the electro-stick and swung it around to the front at the same time so that when its tip came to a rest on Valentine’s shoulder, it was already throwing tiny discharges. “Hey. Look, man, Rufus is the Head of the House. You don’t just get to waltz in and see him.”
This time, Reno had pulled out the stick when Valentine was still more than its length away instead of right in his face. He wasn’t a slacker when it came to Turk work, but he wasn’t suicidal either. Dead him couldn’t do a damn thing.
Valentine put up his claw and pinched the end of the electro-stick between fore…claw?...and thumbclaw; needle-fine, crackling white bracelets of electricity instantly leaped up around his arm up to the elbow. The electro-stick instantly registered a huge power-drain, as if the bastard were literally sucking out the energy. “Reno. I’m going to talk to Rufus. Stand aside.”
“Not till you say why.” To be honest, not till Reno knew Rufus was ready to deal with the mutant asshole. He jerked the electro-stick free before it shorted out, then switched it down till it was nearly neutral. But kept the electric charge building up in his hand- and wrist-mods. “Fuck, man, why can’t you just give me a reason? You know, doesn’t have to be detailed, just something I can take to the boss—”
Valentine blurred. Reno cursed and instinctively swung left, letting go of the charge build-up at the same time. He threw his body back against the seam between the doors as the electricity burst out in a ball from the cane-tip—it arced a few inches in that shape before suddenly exploding into a cracking, wildly-shifting net as it hit something.
The next thing Reno knew, a vise had smashed around his neck and something else had slammed into his breastbone so all the air was driven from his lungs. He gasped in reflex and his nose was instantly filled with the smell of burnt cloth, so at least he’d hit the bastard. Not that any of that reeking air managed to get down his windpipe.
“I—” Valentine started. Then he glanced down to where the electro-stick was jammed up against one side of his claw, and Reno’s mod-studded hand was clamped to the other. Nothing was sparking, but he had to be feeling the charge building between the electrodes that were the stick and Reno’s hand. Fucking metal arm: no matter what alloy it was, it still had to have charge buffers inside to make it work. And eventually they’d overload.
Might fry Reno’s hand first, though. He could already feel the silica ‘plants distorting under the temperature rise, and it fucking well hurt. Well, he was trained to take it. “You—fucking shit. You—were—Turk. Doesn’t—mean—”
Valentine twitched. The muscle in his cheek flexed. So did his hand. He suddenly, and so smoothly that it took gravity’s abrupt pull to bring it to Reno’s attention, jacked Reno up the doors six inches. “Blind loyalty inevitably leads to blind death.”
“Could—least—credit them—training your ass,” Reno gasped. His feet weren’t touching the foot now, and his vision was dying in patchy flares of bright color. But he stubbornly held onto Vincent’s arm, pumping more electric charge into the damn thing, and finally he felt the finger-joints shift on his neck. Shift looser. “Probably—helped—survival.”
The red rings around Valentine’s gun-barrel pupils suddenly flared bloodily red. His mouth actually opened, like he was going to respond.
Reno didn’t bet on it. With a last heave of effort, he yanked up his feet and braced them against Valentine’s knees, switching his electro-stick off for a fraction of a second. Then he slammed the charge back up, and Valentine’s open mouth widened into a pained snarl. That fucking claw vibrated, and Reno could almost hear the whining crescendo of overloaded circuits. Another moment and they’d fail, short out—
Valentine flung him across the room. All the way across. Reno’s arm hit the wall and snapped as easily as Rude could a silicon chip held between his forefinger and thumb. Then he fell, and it’d all happened so fast that he made it to the floor, was starting to roll back to his feet when the pain in his arm finally caught up with him. He had enough time to start a curse-word before suddenly Valentine was there again, flesh-and-blood hand smashing into the side of Reno’s head.
Falling on the broken arm more or less ensured that Reno crumpled on his face. He might’ve put a hairline fracture in his jaw around the chin area by doing that, but he didn’t really have the time—he threw himself to the side and twisted over just in time to see Valentine’s gun swing into position, precisely aimed at Reno’s forehead. He wouldn’t get a chance while it was cocked, he knew; Turks disarmed any safeties—most of them tended just to hack those out right away—on their weapons as they drew them. They didn’t waste time.
The gun-barrel hung over Reno’s head for a long, still moment. Then it…didn’t move. Valentine wasn’t stupid enough to turn his back on Reno. “Shinra. I need to speak to you.”
“Then you can do it without threatening my staff,” Rufus snapped. He sounded pissed off. Hard to tell whether any of his voice’s shaking was also due to the aftermath of his muscle attack. “Leave him and come in my office, if you’re in such a hurry.”
After about ten seconds, the gun disappeared into the folds of Valentine’s coat. He silently turned, and at that point Reno’s mods completely overloaded and the health-guard fail-safe knocked him out with a straight dose of sedative to the spine. All he felt was something like a hard wrench in his back and then…
…he woke up maybe ten minutes later, after enough nerve-blocks had kicked in so that his brain wasn’t overloaded with stimuli. His back ached like somebody had dropped a weight on it and his throat was so swollen he had some problems breathing, and his hand, his arm—Reno tried to move all that once. Then, once his vision had come back, he gingerly sat up while trying to keep it as still as possible. He slid himself up the wall, cradling his arm, and slowly hauled himself out of the room.
His mods had gone into energy-conservation mode, so he needed to use a wall-jack to send out a warning to Rude and Elena. Then he slumped down on the floor; the jack cable wasn’t quite long enough to let him do that, but instead of reaching up to take it out, he did it the fast nasty way with a quick jerk of the head. Then Reno looked over his hand.
At least base-level operation meant his smell-enhancers weren’t working, so he didn’t know what kind of stench those crispy burned spots were throwing off. He turned his hand slightly and a few small blackened flakes drifted off, making Reno swallow hard to keep in his disgust. Beneath the char was…well, it was ugly. Raw and red—cauterized so there was almost no bleeding, but that was from melted silica and plastic. When they excised that stuff, it was going to hurt like a bitch. Speaking of…Reno belatedly remembered he’d left his stick in the room. He wasn’t going to make it back in to get that, so in the end he just jammed his tie in his mouth to keep his teeth from taking off his tongue. Then he wrapped his hand around the break in his arm, with his knee beneath for support, and set the bone.
Coming out of this protective faint, Reno dazedly thought that when he got a moment, he needed to change the threshold settings for that. There had to be a way to shield from mod overload without knocking him out over so little.
The doors opened. Reno tensed up, expecting Valentine to come swooping out, but instead found himself blinking at a pale, shaking Rufus. “Shit, sir. Do you have another one coming on?”
“Another…” Rufus frowned; his trembling suddenly stopped. Then he shook his head as he came over. And gave Reno another shock by dropping down on a knee right beside Reno. “No, I’m fine. The repressors should keep me functional for the rest of the day. Reno, what the hell were you doing?”
Something long and white dropped down by Rufus as he peered at Reno’s hand: the electro-stick. Reno couldn’t help but grin. “Thanks, boss. I wouldn’t want to lose that—Heidegger only ever made one. Only good thing I ever got from him.”
Lips compressed into a thin, bloodless line, Rufus ignored him and sent somebody a message on his handheld. “You’ll be in the sick ward for at least a day, you realize. I can’t stop working merely because of your headstrong stupidity.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to fucking let Valentine waltz in and see you twitching on your desk with your pants off. Might give him a flashback or something,” Reno snapped. He was grimacing before he’d even finished talking, but his fucking mouth—he ducked his head and concentrated on holding his arm-bones in place. “Shit. Sorry, sir.”
For some reason, all Rufus did was exhale, and he didn’t even sound that annoyed. When Reno chanced a look at him, the other man was staring hard at Reno’s hand as if—then he jerked his head away, glancing up towards a couple docs rushing towards them. “Rude and Elena are to stay on their current duties. Valentine is their titular leader, I hope you remember.”
“But if I’m with the fucking medicos—” Reno started, suddenly realizing.
“I do know something about defending myself in a physical situation,” Rufus acidly replied, standing up. “I’m going to get my shotgun. Reno. Stay in the ward till the doctors okay you. That’s an order.”
But he didn’t look happy about it, and Reno sure as hell wasn’t happy about it, and—shit. Fucking Valentine. That fucking cocksucker. If he’d just managed to have a fucking chat like a normal person…
“Watch it.” If anything, Rufus’ tone had gotten sharper, but when Reno checked this time, the other man was eyeing a shivering doc as if he were ideal fodder for Scarlet’s next ballistics test. The doc froze with his hands on Reno’s arm and wrist. “I want him fit, not just healed. Don’t think you can take this as an excuse for pettiness.”
With that, Rufus turned on his heel and walked back into his office. The docs had already been terrified of him—he showed a hell of a better personal grasp of medicine than his father had ever done, and was prone to catching them saying stupid things—and hadn’t really needed the extra kick. But for all their solicitousness, Reno still would rather have been watching Rufus’ back.
* * *
“Holy…” Neo took a step back from the door, then half-turned. Tseng had already appeared behind his left shoulder, staring expressionlessly out at Sephiroth. “Back already. I wasn’t that happy to see you before and I can’t say that my opinion’s changed.”
Sephiroth held firmly onto his temper. “I left Kadaj at Shinra Tower. He’s keeping watch on Smecker.”
Tseng blinked, then tapped Neo on the arm, which apparently was the signal to let Sephiroth in. And he was the one who stayed around to see what Sephiroth wanted when Neo moved back, and kept moving back till he was out of the room. “Where’s Valentine?”
“Hopefully nowhere near here,” Sephiroth replied. He came in, then stood aside as Tseng shut the door.
The other man stayed well clear of Sephiroth, mostly looking at the…Sephiroth grimaced and rubbed at the stains on his hands and coat. “Clones.”
“Yeah, heard about those.” Neo came back in, walking on a wary tilt that twisted his shadow on the wall into a thin black line. He was carrying a small case, which he flipped up so he could display its contents to Sephiroth: a handheld with one jack attached to it, several mod-extraction tools, a odd selection of jacks that weren’t attached to anything and instead ended in a large rounded tip of…some silica alloy, slightly translucent. “Plugs,” Neo said, looking up at Sephiroth. He picked out one and tossed it. “For blocking input when you’re taking out the comm implants. This is what I used on your…is he really your brother?”
Sephiroth caught the plug and turned it between his fingers, noting how he could detect the shadow of an embedded chip within the top. “Kadaj? Consider him so. What did you do to him? I’m surprised Smecker—”
“Smecker blackmailed me into it, okay?” Then Neo rolled his eyes. He scooted back and took up a perch on the edge of a table crowded with disassembled servers and other machines. “Anyway, that’s not what’s going to be interesting for you. You want to know what I did—I disabled the components within Kadaj that would’ve allowed Jenova to jack him.”
That—Sephiroth looked sharply at him. “I presume he wasn’t the first.”
“No, that was me. Then Kadaj and Tseng here.” A slight, challenging smile quirked Neo’s lips. “Smecker didn’t ask for himself. I always thought that was weird, and then you all showed up here.”
Kadaj—Kadaj had said something about this, Sephiroth suddenly remembered. It’d sounded like nonsense then, but…and what else did Kadaj know? He needed to sit down and learn that sometime soon. “Neo—”
“Thomas,” the other man corrected in a sharp tone. Then he cocked his head. “Where’d you hear that name?”
“Smecker’s files.” Via Kadaj, and it was a pity Kadaj hadn’t been able to help Sephiroth break into the ones regarding Jenova as well. Otherwise Sephiroth wouldn’t have to put his faith both in Rufus Shinra’s ability to keep a deal and in his ability to out-think Vincent. “I have a skeleton background for you. Kisaragi programmer. Quite good till you disappeared and one of their largest servers was irretrievably corrupted on the same day. I understand they had to physically detach it from the system and detonate it to isolate the problem.”
Thomas looked startled at first, but then he snorted, eyes turning to sarcastic amusement. He picked at the case of surgical tools, his fingers warily edging around the sharp blades and tips. “I overheard a conversation between Smecker and your brother…it sounded like you’d gotten immunity from Jenova as well.”
“That was Vincent’s doing. I…” Sephiroth bit down on the side of his mouth and forced out the admission “…have no idea how. And you’ve figured out how to do the same thing—”
“Not the same way, I think. I’d have to look at you closer to be sure, but you don’t—what I figured out isn’t a perfect solution. I was going crazy and couldn’t do much more than hack at myself till it stopped,” Thomas said, mouth twisting. He didn’t look Sephiroth in the eye, and his hands absently drifted together so the one rubbed at the other’s wrist. “You’ve got less scars that I can see.”
Eleven minutes had already passed, and if Sephiroth remained much longer, his absence would be noticed. “Does Vincent know about this?”
“I don’t think so.” It was Tseng who answered, and that fact seemed to startle Thomas as much as it did Sephiroth. Though after the first moment, Thomas shrugged and was apparently happy to defer the explanation to the other man. “He knew I was alive, and he ran into Thomas through me. The obvious assumption would be that I’ve cultivated Thomas as outside help, since I can no longer draw on Shinra’s resources.”
Sephiroth regarded him for a few moments, then decided that it didn’t really matter. Tseng might be right, but if he weren’t, Sephiroth would still have to go forward and hope that he could work faster than Vincent did. “So Kadaj came to you when Smecker was attacked because he knew you’d beaten Jenova before.”
“I wouldn’t call it beating her. All I can do is kick her out of somebody; I can’t track her down and take out her source.” Thomas grimaced, shaking his head. “Can’t always take her out, either. If that’s why you’re here this time. I don’t think I can salvage Smecker.”
“Why not?” Sephiroth asked.
Thomas drew in a slow breath. His eyes flicked between Sephiroth and Tseng, who was pretending to work on a half-assembled gun in the corner, and then he turned around to grab something behind his back. “There are a lot of reasons, but the main one…it’d be easier if I showed you. Hang on, I need to set this up.”
Sephiroth did some calculating, then gritted his teeth and nodded. While Thomas worked, Sephiroth sent off a message to Zack saying that he’d spotted something suspicious in the area and was tracking it down. He’d have to waste even more time later finding that ‘something suspicious’ to bring back as proof, but he didn’t want to leave without answers to at least some of his questions.
* * *
Elena was surprised to find Reeve in the hall. He looked strange, and it took her several moments to realize that that was because he didn’t have any jacks plugged into him. The uninterrupted lines of his face were unexpectedly lean, and he was actually quite tall and well-built. He seemed frailer when behind his desk, amid a nest of snarling cables.
“I had a message from Rufus,” he said, coming forward. He stopped well short of her, his hands hooked rigidly over his trouser-pockets. “He said that he’d like me to look after Kadaj.”
“Kadaj,” Elena repeated uncomprehendingly.
Reeve pursed his lips and awkwardly moved his shoulder before glancing towards the door. “He’s been in there non-stop since…Smecker was brought in. I’ve actually already been stopping in on the hour to check him and make sure he eats and tends to his, ah, bodily needs.”
“Oh.” Elena hadn’t considered Kadaj at all, though she supposed that Kadaj’s deep connection to Smecker would logically lead to an overreaction to Smecker’s coma. She was surprised to hear that in Kadaj, that hadn’t manifested in violence, which was Kadaj’s usual response. “Can’t you sedate him?”
“It wouldn’t be a good idea. For one, he’s frighteningly good at detecting when you’re about to inject him, and his reflexes are still fine,” Reeve slowly said. He took a sideways step and pressed his hand to the door, his eyes lighting up in a dark blue shade. Either listening through the door, or…the blood circulation around his ears and the back of his head in the occipital lobe had increased, so he was also reading echo-pulses to see where Kadaj was in the room. “Sephiroth keeps coming by to talk to him, too.”
Blinking, Elena rapidly searched her memory for previous interactions between those two. “Kadaj allows that?”
“Kadaj…” Reeve sighed and shrugged. “He’s an interesting person. But anyway, what did you want with him? If I can help at all, I’d like to…I’m not half as good with him as Paul was, but I could tell you roughly what to avoid around him.”
“I…it’s not so much Kadaj,” Elena finally said. She did a thorough scan of their surroundings for anyone. And considered varying degrees of disclosure before continuing. “Rufus is concerned. He believes Valentine played a role in Smecker’s…in what happened to him, and he wants Smecker protected.”
Reeve blinked, then nodded. “That was why Rude was here. He received orders just as I arrived and I told him I’d wait for him, which is why he isn’t here now.” He returned Elena’s startled look with a wry smile. “No, I’m not known for my physicality, but I did design the security system for this room. Forgive me if this gives offense, but I think it has as good a chance as anyone at keeping Valentine at bay.”
Ingrained habit nearly made Elena bristle, but then she thought about the situation as a whole and decided not to waste the effort. She eased up beside Reeve and pulled up her right sleeve, then jacked herself into the secure-entry panel.
She didn’t have time to really test out the system, but a quick glance seemed to show a solid enough foundation. It was the same one used for isolating Sephiroth—Valentine had been allowed access there, but Elena wasn’t entirely sure that that had been more than a politesse.
“Smecker’s fine. We managed to scrape up enough traces of Valentine’s DNA to block him from here, and if he tries to get in, we should have at least a thirty-minute window before he forces the breach,” Reeve quietly said, guessing Elena’s thoughts. He pulled his hand off the door and flexed it a few times, the silver mods set into his knuckles gleaming. “But that’s if nothing disturbs the system from the inside. I never…I don’t know what Kadaj might do if it comes to that, so I couldn’t program for it.”
“Where did you get Valentine’s DNA?” Frowning, Elena exited herself from the security system and smoothed her sleeve back down.
“Kadaj.” Reeve’s mouth pulled oddly tight. “I think he got them from Sephiroth. I’m not sure if he asked, or just took the opportunity when it came up…anyway—”
Elena and he both stiffened as a deafening, metallic slam came from inside the room. It reverberated down the hall, setting off a few motion sensors—Elena jacked back into the system and shut those off. Then she exited again, pressing her lips tightly together as she thought. Valentine was certainly not going to stop at the door, and frankly, she thought their best chance was to keep him distracted from even coming near it.
“Can you…talk to Kadaj?” she asked. Reeve gave her a curious look and she attempted to clarify without raising his suspicions further. “Is he responsive? Can we try to…well, discuss things with him?”
“What did you have in mind?” He shrugged and absently scratched around the tiny implants set in a half-circle around his eye. “I know he listens, and sometimes he’ll answer, but it’s…”
“…unpredictable,” Elena guessed. She rubbed her finger over her mouth, thinking that showing a little unease herself might help. Besides, she was uneasy. “Rufus-sama says it’s best to keep Valentine busy—he doesn’t want to offend the man, though he also doesn’t want him near Smecker. So I thought maybe Kadaj could help with that.”
The blue of Reeve’s eyes faded into a shockingly plain brown as he considered the idea. “Wouldn’t it be better in that case if Sephiroth—”
“Sephiroth’s busy.” Elena glanced down at her feet, then timidly flicked her eyes back up. “We don’t know where his loyalties are, anyway.”
“True,” Reeve allowed. He looked at the door with a pensive expression on his face. Then he jerked a little and put his hand up to his shoulder, where a tiny black furry thing had just emerged. It pulled itself further up onto his shoulder, butting its head against his ear, before settling down to bathe the finger he’d curled around its neck with a small pink tongue. He ducked his head and seemed rather embarrassed, but didn’t stuff it away. “Cait Sith, Elena.”
The kitten raised its head and peered at Elena with an oddly intelligent expression. Its eyes briefly glowed green.
“He’s a cyborg I’ve been working on in my spare time. I brought him to see if he’d get a response from Kadaj,” Reeve explained. He peeled the kitten, who let out a protesting miaow, off his shoulder and cradled it in his arm as he pressed his other hand against the security reader. “Cait’s pretty durable and quick, so I figured he could hold his own. As for…well, we can try. I can’t say it won’t work till we do, but I have to warn you, Kadaj’s very…less than happy right now.”
At least he knew where Smecker was, Elena thought, and surprised herself with the intensity of her bitterness. Then she pushed that away—Smecker couldn’t see for himself now, and Tseng could—and smiled brightly at Reeve. “We can definitely try, Reeve-san. Thanks.”
* * *
Sephiroth started to interrupt Thomas, but was distracted by a slight tingle in the back of his head. He frowned and immediately attempted to track that back to a cause, but…nothing. For all he knew, one of the few mods he had left was misfiring.
“Are you even listening to me?” Thomas snapped.
“I am. I am also attempting to make sure Vincent doesn’t find me while I’m here,” Sephiroth snapped back. He went so far as to run his fingers restlessly through his forelocks, shoving them behind his ear, before he noticed the lapse in composure and irritably made himself stop. He’d been gone for too long. Even if Vincent wasn’t working his way here, he at least would have noticed the absence, and would be questioning Sephiroth about it later. “Hurry up. I understand everything you’ve said, so the extra explanations aren’t necessary.”
Thomas’ eyebrows arched. Then he shrugged and twisted his wrist; the datascreen to his left tilted up so Sephiroth could see it better. “So Jenova can invade a person in these different ways—”
“The initial infection is always through the network connection. The secondary spread pattern is what varies.” Sephiroth glanced across the room and was surprised and further aggravated to find Tseng openly watching him, one hand on a katana hilt. “You’re saying you can excise her when she’s limited her invasion to mods, but not when she’s…somehow written herself into the organic matter.”
“More or less.” It looked like Thomas was having difficulty keeping his own temper intact. He’d do well to try harder, since it seemed like his fighting skills were less than adequate, and Sephiroth knew he would have had to have deteriorated a great deal more for Tseng to overcome him. “I could do myself, because she never really got out of my mods. Tseng was easier, actually, because she’d withdrawn completely by the time I saw her, and just left some sentinels behind in his system. But she’d gotten into his body some, and I couldn’t do anything about the nerve damage.”
Rufus’ muscle spasms, Sephiroth recalled. Shinra had been hiding them well—that had been the first time Sephiroth had caught him having one, though the traces of the aftermath had occasionally shown up…now that Sephiroth thought about it. But from the way he’d acted, he’d had them for a while. It would’ve been post-his father’s death, since the old Head had thought it funnier not to cripple Rufus permanently. To keep the hope of recovery alive.
“Kadaj doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Neither do I,” Sephiroth said. Half-truth.
“Yeah, well…Kadaj hadn’t actually been jacked by her yet. He kind of was in the ideal situation for cutting her out.” Thomas flexed his fingers and collapsed all but one of the datascreens. “And you…I didn’t do you. I don’t know how you were done.”
If he was hoping that Sephiroth would tell him, he’d be waiting for a while. Sephiroth concentrated on the lone remaining datascreen, which showed a full-body image of Kadaj. It rotated a hundred and eighty degrees, its distinguishing features melting away into a net of thin green lines. Clusters of bright red dots gathered at its temples and wrists, and single or paired dots were scattered over the rest of the body.
“He didn’t have very many mods anyway, so I think that might’ve had something to do with it as well. Your body really develops a serious dependence on them, to the point where it starts surrendering important neural and other physical processes over to them, so when you take them out, sometimes you can’t adapt fast enough.” After a pause, Thomas snorted at his words. “Well, more like relearn to do what you were born knowing. Humans get ahead of themselves sometimes, with their inventions.”
Sephiroth didn’t reply to that observation, and Thomas didn’t make any more. When Sephiroth tapped on the datascreen, it became clear that that was because Thomas didn’t have any more observations to make.
“Part of the reason you and Kadaj were created was to eliminate that problem,” Tseng said. And not simply as a reminder that he was also in the room; he came over via a wide circle that ended with him standing behind Thomas again. “Hojo said he was coming up with new ways to incorporate cyborg technologies into bodies without having to worry about flesh-silicon interfaces.”
“I was not created by that man. I was altered,” Sephiroth muttered. He ignored whatever look Tseng was giving him now and flipped through Thomas’ collected data faster, memorizing at the highest speed his mind could handle. Direct download wasn’t merely a question of disabled mods; if Vincent could only question him, there was always the chance that the other man would ask the wrong question. “We…are examples of some new genetic-manipulation techniques. I’m not entirely sure what all of them were. Hojo was not the best note-taker, and Vincent managed to completely destroy his head when he killed him, so there wasn’t a chance of recovering his memories.”
Thomas glanced at Tseng, but he merely lifted his chin towards Sephiroth. A nice little byplay, and a reminder that for all his flaws, Tseng had spent his entire life with Shinra. That kind of upbringing would give him an instinctive knowledge of the House that few others could match.
“You can’t…I don’t believe you can entirely sever our connection with Jenova because of that. She’s network-based; she needs an open line that’s physically attached in order to jump into us. But we—I can still hear echoes of her. I’ve got a fairly good sense of where Kadaj is that has nothing to do with mechanical or electromagnetic tracking.” Sephiroth reached the end of the data-file. After looking over the last line, he stepped back and let Thomas shut it down. “If I can, then Kadaj can. He probably gave Smecker some garbled idea of this, and then Smecker ran with it. I need to know how and what, and why.”
“Before Valentine does.” Tseng looked steadily back at Sephiroth. “You’re disagreeing with him here.”
The muscles in Sephiroth’s jaw briefly tightened. When they loosened, it was entirely due to his willpower. “I think I liked you better when you were trailing around after the Shinra boy. Yes, I’m disagreeing with him. Vincent, for some reason he hasn’t told me, seems to believe that a strict kill-policy is the best way to curb the disease. I would prefer to have something left when the war is won.”
“He did you. Did he say why?” Thomas said. He half-grinned, made a feeble attempt to hide his grim amusement, and then gave it up to chuckle at Sephiroth’s face. “Smecker made it real clear he wanted Kadaj done to eliminate that danger to him for good. I bet Valentine didn’t say the same, did he?”
That thought had been occurring to Sephiroth with increasing frequency, and neither Vincent’s sudden absence—previously he’d dropped in at least once a day—nor that repetition made it sound any pleasanter coming from the other man’s mouth.
“There is enough going on to threaten your life,” he said acidly, turning to go. “I suggest you don’t seek to add to it. You should have enough on Kadaj to start trying to see what Smecker see, so work on it. I’ll be back later with whatever I can salvage from Smecker’s files.”
* * *
Thomas cursed and wiped at the blood dripping from Tseng’s nose, then pressed the rag back into the nostrils. “Goddamn it, you looked fine. If you’d let me know, I would’ve gotten Sephiroth what he wanted and him out a lot faster—”
The initial fit over and Sephiroth gone, Tseng could finally begin to relax. He pushed out his foot and it ran into something, which he slid out of the way. Then he stretched out his legs all the way and slid down till he could rest the back of his head on the top of the chair-back. “I could still hold it in.”
“Yeah, and when you do that, it makes it worse when the fit finally does happen.” That was followed closely by an exasperated exhale, as if Thomas himself didn’t believe in the power of his words. He sighed and put up one arm on the table, bending it to press his fist against his forehead. “You shouldn’t be able to do that, you know. Not with the mods you’ve got left. This Hojo mess with you, too? I’m no scientist, and you and me and those psychos aren’t enough test cases for me to really know what I’m talking about.”
Tseng rolled his eyes to the extreme left so he could just glimpse a blurry sense of Thomas. “Not with that. Not as far as I know. Thomas…Shinra’s been around for a very long time. Much longer than Hojo, or than any one lifetime. And since the beginning, they’ve—intervened—in the course of people’s lives.”
“You make them almost sound identical,” Thomas finally said, voice thick with irony. He shook his head. “Shinra, Jenova. Old, and interfering, and…the names are sort of similar, too. It’s a wonder that anyone thinks they’ve got a hope of figuring it out.”
“You’ll do it,” Tseng murmured. He closed his eyes, then opened them to find Thomas hovering directly over him. “What you have to—want to of it. Shinra’s old, but the root was human. They weren’t so different even back then. Smecker—”
Thomas leaned down and covered Tseng’s mouth with his own, his fingers fluttering slightly, loosening on the rag and pulling it out of Tseng’s nose so he could breathe. Blood trickled out after the rag and around the seal of their lips, tingeing the kiss; Tseng awkwardly wormed his arm up around the other man and wrapped it over Thomas’ shoulders as he tentatively pushed his tongue into Thomas’ mouth. He took blood with him, but the salt turned sweet on Thomas’ tongue.
“Smecker,” Thomas repeated, lifting his head. “Well, we’ll see if he—and you—are right about that, I guess. He is in a coma.”
Tseng tightened his grip and stared up. “I won’t let that happen to you.”
* * *
Reno cursed and slapped at the probing hand, then tried to turn to face the other way. “Fuck off. You already took more samples from me than you know what to do with, so now I know you’re just dicking around.”
Soft chuckle, which definitely didn’t belong to a doc. Even if Reno hadn’t recognized it, he would’ve known that from the tone: docs never were really amused when they laughed. Scared or hating or angry, yeah, but not amused.
“I don’t know about them, but I don’t believe I’ve had a sample yet today,” Rufus said.
“Ah, shit—” Reno jerked his arm down to push off it, only to get tangled up in the sling and tweak something that hurt. He swore and clawed at the mattress with his other hand, scooting himself up as Rufus climbed--climbed!—onto it. “Sorry, sir. Didn’t know it was—sir? Oh, fuck, Rufus.
Rufus’ hand stayed down the tissue-paper pants the medics had given Reno. His other hand plucked at its drawstring knot, his shoulders suddenly hunched and tense. He didn’t look up so all Reno saw was the top of his blond head and his pale hands with their slender fingers picking at Reno’s groin. It was like one of Reno’s best tossing-off fantasies flipped through the looking-glass.
“Reno,” Rufus said. He took an audible breath. “Shut up.”
Reno blinked. While he was doing that, Rufus hooked his pants down far enough to let his dick spring up, already half-hard. Par for the course whenever Rufus was doing anything to suggest even a little that all those years under Daddy’s syringes hadn’t completely mutated him into a walking block of ice—and honestly, sometimes even when he wasn’t—but it was kind of embarrassing—Rufus didn’t seem to care. He ignored Reno’s half-stammered apology and bent down and Reno’s cock slipped past the squeezing satin-soft rim of his lips and into his hot mouth till the tip bumped something soft and flexing. Son of a motherfucker.
This was—anybody could walk in and see. Swearing, Reno grabbed at the edge of the bed, meaning to hit the security or at least look at it, but Rufus swallowed, his whole mouth and throat closing snug around Reno’s dick, and Reno bucked instead. And Rufus let him. Didn’t use the grip on Reno’s thighs to shove him back, didn’t stop and pull off to rip Reno a new asshole, didn’t do anything except widen his mouth somehow and take it. His lips grazed Reno’s balls; Reno felt a stutter start around his cock’s tip, but before he’d done more than gasp, Rufus had made himself swallow past it. Reno swore, summoned up all his will-power, and all he could do was avoid grabbing at Rufus’ hair as he fell back.
Rufus moved up, his ass rising higher than his head as he worked Reno’s cock like the most expensive whores in town. Tight in the middle, teasing touches at the tip, tongue all over the place and good at it. He—his throat muscles were flexing in sections, one not always squeezing when the other did, and just the—Reno’s mind was totally blown, and he thought he’d gotten too worldly for that ages ago. “Rufus.”
And when those muscles did work together, they were relentless and merciless and just the best goddamn grip Reno had ever gotten from anything. Ass, hand, mouth…nothing compared to Rufus’ head bobbing over his cock. And—and--Rufus sucking his cock. It was kind of juvenile, even for Reno, and stupid-sounding and all that but the image of it, Rufus bent over and doing this without any drugs, any coercion at all and…and…mind blown. Completely. The body following it to the same fate was pretty anticlimactic, though it felt like nothing else.
While Reno was, sweating and heaving and panting, trying to make himself function again, Rufus carefully got out from between Reno’s legs and moved to the side of the bed, where he could get some water. He had a drink before he started wiping at his mouth and chin. “That felt familiar.”
Reno’s brain suddenly came together with a horrible snap, just in time for him to realize he would rather it hadn’t. He pushed himself up with his good hand, looking at the spit still clinging to his cock-head. “Well, it…I’m sorry about that, sir. Your dad was in a weird mood, and I’d annoyed him earlier. I, um, I tried not to split your lips. He wouldn’t leave, though…said he wanted to see it all so he knew it’d been done.”
Rufus stiffened, hand going still on his mouth. Then he slowly pulled his hand down and stuck it out for the sanitizing beam to hit it. “I probably wasn’t as good just now as I was back then. I’m out of practice,” he said.
Half his voice was a razor, edge towards him. The other half…Reno didn’t know, but he winced at the whole thing anyway. “Sir. Um. I’m sorry about whatever else it was that I did, too. This morning—”
“Reno, shut up,” Rufus sighed. He pulled his hand back into his lap and looked at his fingers, watching them interlace and unlace. His eyes rose for a moment to nail Reno with one of those cold looks that said he was the god of the House and defiance was futile. Then he started to turn away. “Just heal, damn it.”
Reno hesitated almost too long, which he blamed on the painkillers they’d given him. Then he grabbed Rufus’ arm and dragged the other man back; he switched his grip from arm to shoulder just as Rufus started to shove. Then to hair, and held Rufus by that while he gave the other man a good, hard kiss.
At first Rufus’ lips wouldn’t stop moving and trying to talk. Then when they did stop, they did it so suddenly that Reno nearly jumped when his tongue popped into Rufus’ mouth. But he recovered quicker this time, and took advantage of the opening without feeling guilty at all.
And he wasn’t surprised when a moment later, Rufus wrenched him off and slid off the mattress before Reno could even inhale. “Don’t do that again,” Rufus snapped.
Reno inhaled. Saved himself from asphyxiation. Then he answered. “Whatever you say, sir.”
Rufus shot him an annoyed look, and then for some reason let Reno see as it slowly changed to something almost regretful. “Valentine’s never going to wait for you to catch up, so get out of that bed as soon as you can.”
“Yes, sir,” Reno said. Quietly, to Rufus’ back.
* * *
Something glimmered by Smecker’s body, which was lying on a floating panel at the far end of the room, crisscrossed by lasers and hooked into so many wires that it was difficult at first to make out at which end his head was. Then it slowly twisted about till two green eyes glowed out at the room.
Reeve grimaced, then apologized as a protesting ‘meow’ revealed he’d tightened his grip on Cait Sith as well. “I don’t think he’s in a good mood.”
So thin…that was Elena’s irrelevant, but striking first impression. She’d always thought Kadaj slightly bigger than he really was due to the personality, but he’d apparently been lying down next to Smecker and ended up completely hidden by the other man’s body. And Smecker wasn’t that large.
“Kadaj, can I talk to you?” Elena cautiously asked. She kept her voice soft, but pitched it to carry.
No movement. Reeve slowly, without any quick or hidden movements, crouched down and let Cait Sith onto the floor. The little kitten looked curiously about before strolling forward a few inches to examine a metal stud in the floor. It gazed at it with oddly intense concentration, then carefully tilted its head to let a whisker graze over it. A laser column immediately sprang up and the kitten leaped back, skittering behind Reeve’s leg. A slight trace of burnt fur filled the air.
“Good. That’s working,” Reeve muttered. He seemed to be taking refuge from his nerves in his side-projects.
Kadaj’s eyes were following the cat, Elena noted. She moved her foot a little and they snapped to her, burning and wary. She lifted her hands palms-first. “Kadaj, I want to talk about Vincent Valentine.”
“Ah, I wouldn’t—” Reeve started.
But Kadaj was already shrieking, turned into a wild thing as he nimbly leaped off the panel, somehow making it through all the lasers untouched. “I hate him! I hate him!”
He set off more lasers, and some of them reached back towards Elena and Reeve so they were forced to hastily retreat with singed clothing. The kitten, Elena absently noticed, ran back with them without being prompted. But it didn’t seem to—she dropped down and scooped it up just before a heat-shield sprang up where it’d been, separating off their sliver of the room.
“Need to work on that,” Reeve muttered. He kept his eyes on Kadaj, who was still screaming.
“He’s still out there!” Elena said. When it didn’t seem like Kadaj had heard her, she repeated it in a near-yell. “Kadaj! Valentine is still trying to ruin things! We think—we think he might try to get at Smecker, and we—”
The sudden cessation of shouting was deafening in its quiet. Kadaj tumbled into a menacing coil right by the heat-shield, his face and body rippling around the edges. “You can’t protect him,” he said scornfully. “Even big brother has problems with Valentine, and he can take you down if he wanted to.”
Elena and Reeve exchanged a glance. Then Elena took a deep breath and tried to hang onto her temper. “No, we can’t. And you can’t either.”
“Elena!” Reeve hissed.
Kadaj’s eyes widened shockingly. Then his mouth opened wide in an ear-splitting, raw scream of rage. He sprang forward—and then dropped back, never coming close to burning himself though Elena and Reeve both flung themselves backwards. His face suddenly crumpled and he fell into a little heap, moaning. At first Elena thought maybe Kadaj had set off some kind of stunner, but then…Cait Sith padded up to the heat shield and Kadaj lifted his head to look. His eyes were wet. “No, I can’t. I’m not good enough, I can’t help him, I can’t I can’t, oh, I can’t even kill mother.”
That made no sense, and Elena accordingly ignored it. “Kadaj, listen. No, you can. Listen. We can’t beat Valentine head-on. But he doesn’t know everything yet. He’s out looking for something, and as long as he’s out there, he’s not here trying to get in. Do you understand? He can’t be two places at once. But we can’t keep him out by ourselves. We…can you do that?”
For the longest time, Kadaj simply stared at her, and Elena thought perhaps something had fractured too deeply in his mind and he just couldn’t understand. But then—his hand flashed—and suddenly the heat-shield was gone, the lasers were only around the floating panel again, and Kadaj was sitting cross-legged before her, playing with Cait Sith in his lap.
“You’re going to help?” he whispered.
Elena bent so she could catch his eye. “I’ll try.”
Cait Sith wriggled out of his hands and leaped onto her shoulder; the little cat was surprisingly heavy. She started to lift her hand, but stopped when Kadaj suddenly got up.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go find him, sister.”