|天の龍 ~ 「俺の運が変われると思う…」 (kiraya) wrote in drops_n_ripples,|
@ 2011-12-12 20:42:00
|Entry tags:||butterfly effect|
Butterfly Effect: Chapter 49
Authors: Bard Linn and Kiraya
Pairings: Zack x Sephiroth, Reeve x Aeris, assorted past pairings
Rating (Overall): PG-13
Summary: “I believe this will be of benefit to all of us.”
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all associated characters and symbols are the exclusive property of Square Enix and its associates. We’re just borrowing them for a while.
Yuffie waited to speak to Rufus until just before they arrived in Wutai. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him, exactly… though she didn’t, of course. I can predict how he’ll react pretty well, but he won’t follow my lead. And I think I can make this a less arduous thing for all of us. She tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey — I think it would be a good idea if you let me be your spokesperson.”
Rufus raised an eyebrow. “And why would that be?”
“This is pretty formal stuff, and you don’t know the proper forms,” she pointed out. “Plus, if you let me translate for you, it’ll give you an advantage in them not knowing you understand our language.” Rufus was good enough that he should be able to pick up at least the gist of what was being said.
“And you have a plan,” he noted.
“I might have thought of something,” Yuffie admitted. She’d figured the Turk would’ve sold her out, really, but she’d taken the fact that his boss hadn’t stepped in and stopped things as unspoken permission to continue.
“Not only has Tseng been making trips to the Western Continent for you, but you’ve been reading every book we have on Wutaian law and history.”
Did anything happen in his building without him knowing about it? It was so irritating — and the sort of thing that a girl couldn’t resist challenging. Purely to keep him on his toes, of course. “I would never have expected your mayor to know so much about your library,” she deflected. Yuffie knew that ShinRa ran Midgar, but she hadn’t realized just how literal that was. Did the mayor even have an office anymore?
“I believe Mr. Domino considered a career in librarianship before he entered into politics,” Rufus commented. “In any case, we’ll play things your way for now.”
Only as long as her way served him well, of course — she would have expected nothing less. “Got it.” As the Highwind shuddered to a stop, Yuffie firmly told her stomach to behave — though this time she honestly wasn’t sure if motion sickness or nerves were the culprit — and joined the procession from the airship. There appeared to be a sizable welcoming committee for them: at least two of her father’s advisors, several servants, and of course the inevitable guards.
Two of the servants, dressed in the uniform of Yuffie’s father’s household, approached her, bowing. “Milady, we are glad to see that you have returned. Please follow us. We have prepared your rooms for you.”
Come with us, get out of the spotlight, and hide in the back while your father takes care of this. Nice try, Dad, but I think I’ll pass. Yuffie gave a slight bow in greeting, and addressed them in Wutaian as they had her. “It is good to be home. However, I have been working with Lord Shinra on the peace settlement.” She ignored the skeptical looks the advisers exchanged at that form of address, and continued, “It is necessary for me to attend the meeting as his translator to present his proposal to the clan heads. Please inform Lord Godo that I will be attending.”
The servants looked dubious. “Surely you will not be meeting the elders in… such attire, milady.”
“Certainly not,” Yuffie replied. Joy. Makeup and fancy clothes, here I come. Still, maybe if she were lucky she’d get a few minutes in the hot springs. Nothing outside the islands could really compare. “Please prepare my formal kimono.”
“At once, milady.”
Yuffie managed to catch Rufus’s eye as she followed the servants back to her father’s house, and tried to convey the fact she’d be back shortly. If Godo followed tradition, Rufus should be shown to quarters and allowed to rest before the negotiations, which would begin after the evening meal and last long into the night. She only hoped her father would be as stubborn and prideful as he always was. Leviathan, help me pull this off!
Rufus had eaten sparingly of the meal that their hosts had provided. He had considered wearing one of the traditional Wutaian outfits made available to him, but discarded the idea; he wouldn’t be comfortable, and he would need all his focus this evening.
Privately he wondered what Yuffie Kisaragi was planning. Her cleverness meant he’d have to watch her carefully. She’d drive a hard bargain to get the best she could for her people, but she still had a pragmatic view of things.
A knock on the door interrupted Rufus’s thoughts. Tseng opened it to reveal a servant, who bowed a bit. “Shinra, sir, the Council of Clans will hear you now.”
“Thank you.” Rufus studied the man. His Midgaran wasn’t very good; best keep things simple. “Will Lady Kisaragi join us? She said she would translate for me.”
The servant hesitated. “Tonight milady has retired—”
“I’m right here.” Yuffie stepped down the hall, carefully. Rufus looked her over, surprised to see her in the elaborate local formalwear and appropriate makeup. It was quite a change from the young woman who had favored tiny shorts and close-fitting shirts. “Lord Shinra, if you would come with me?” She turned to the servant. “Thank you for your assistance. You may leave us now.”
The man did so, with obvious reluctance. Rufus wagered he was supposed to keep Yuffie from intervening. “That’s a different look for you,” he murmured.
Yuffie made a face. “I can barely move in it.” Turning, she gestured down the hall. “Let’s go. We don’t want them to start without us.”
The pair walked sedately down the hall. Yuffie did a credible job of ignoring Cissnei and Tseng, though the two Turks were obviously present, and at the door to the meeting chamber nodded to the guards, who stared at her in open amazement. There was a bit of an awkward pause before one realized he should probably open it for them. Yuffie sailed inside, perfectly poised, and Rufus followed her, keeping his own head high. The clan heads were already kneeling on cushions at a long table close to the floor. Rufus suppressed a sigh; his feet would go numb before long, sitting like that, but he did his best to copy Yuffie as she gracefully took her place.
The Lady Kisaragi bowed slightly. “If it pleaseth the august Council, Lord Shinra has given this one the honor of interpretation for this gathering. He offers his greetings and extends his warmest regards.”
Several of the gathered lords snorted derisively at that, and one asked, “Why does the interpreter call the supplicant ‘Lord’?” The way he spat the title it was more epithet than honorific. “The pale demon that serves him is no more a child of Leviathan than he.”
To his credit, Rufus showed no reaction to the insults despite his knowledge of Wutaian. Maybe it’s all the old-timey mumbo-jumbo. Yuffie allowed herself an expression of mild surprise. “With respect, your Lordship, Lord Shinra can claim direct descent from the clan with which he shares his name. Though the Shinra were cast out from the lands beloved by Leviathan, their blood standing cannot by mortal law be revoked.”
There were sneers and scoffing as several of the clan heads spoke up at once.
“I refuse to believe it!”
“Isolated long past the living memory of the living from the land beloved by Leviathan, how can they still claim to be his children?”
“The supplicant bears all aspects of a man of the East! What farce is this?”
Yuffie raised her voice. “If it pleaseth the august Council,” she said, “this one has heard the testimony firsthand from the men of the Shinra clan, who still honor the ways of our people. This one can vouch for the truth of the ancestry of Lord Shinra as well.” She looked around at the disgruntled lords. For his part, Rufus, who was able to follow along the Wutaian dialogue somewhat before Yuffie translated the finer points, wondered why exactly they were upset — and what, exactly, Ms. Kisaragi was getting at here. His Wutaian blood was so distant it wasn’t as if he had a real claim to anything in this country. Yuffie continued, “Noble courtesy should not be ignored because of disagreements of the past.”
“‘Disagreements of the past’? The clan was cast out of the lands beloved by Leviathan!”
“With respect, your Lordship, none but the scholars remember why.”
Godo raised his hand and summoned a servant. “Retrieve the books of Law and the Histories. We must review the terms of the exile and the laws pertaining to them.”
Rufus leaned over, lips barely moving as he murmured in Midgaran, “Why the elaborate setup?”
“If you have status as a clan head, the rules change,” Yuffie replied just as quietly in the same language. “This may take a while.”
Scholars were summoned, and the books examined. Rufus kept his face impassive through the heated discussion that ensued, though he couldn’t understand more than patches of it; his translator sat silent, her expression serene as she waited. Finally, the conversation died and it was confirmed: the title of lord could not be removed from a clan head as long as a clan existed.
“If this one may, a point,” one of the scholars interjected, folding his hands in front of him as he regarded Rufus steadily. “Bearing the name of the clan does not grant the position of clan head — the supplicant may well be the heir of a farmer’s son.”
Yuffie cleared her throat and produced a thick sheaf of papers from the sleeve of her voluminous robes. “If it pleaseth the august Council, this one humbly presents the genealogy of which this one previously spoke.”
The papers were surrendered to the assembly, and another debate began over the genealogy Godo’s daughter had painstakingly constructed over the past several weeks. Rufus suppressed a sigh, and hoped that the numbness in his legs wouldn’t lead to him making a fool of himself when he finally rose at the proceedings’ conclusion.
“If this one may, a point,” the same old man said, as the council reluctantly declared the genealogy legitimate. “The supplicant’s lineage is so far removed from the clan that his appearance is purely that of an outsider. Furthermore, this is all predicated on the assumption that no others of the bloodline remain, and that the leadership role has not been passed to another branch of the clan. Can we truly consider this claim legitimate?”
A very good question. Glancing at his companion, Rufus saw her perfect posture had gone a little tense. “With the utmost respect, this one assures the Council that all collateral lines have been fully traced.”
“Of course,” agreed the old man. “One would expect nothing less. The recent demise of the remaining dozen-odd adults of the line, however, is… remarkably convenient.”
“They assaulted the supplicant among his holdings,” Yuffie pointed out. “The law dictates that by their failure their lives are forfeit to him as blood-kin.” This was news to Rufus, but did explain why some of them had resisted capture to the point of suiciding first.
“But what of Lian, the former head’s daughter? She may be a mere two years, but I cannot imagine her clan elders did not appoint a regent upon learning of her father’s death… in which case the status assumed by the supplicant is one to which he has no right.”
Yuffie produced another sheaf of paper, this one significantly smaller. “If it pleaseth the august Council, this one humbly presents Shinra clan’s records of regency for Lian Shinra.”
Yet another debate began, and this time the voices were definitely angry. It seemed Yuffie had had somehow managed to convince the remaining elders of the Shinra to name Rufus the young child’s regent. “As if running a corporation isn’t enough work, this too?” he murmured.
“It’s basically just authorizing you to speak on the clan’s behalf,” she whispered back. “They wouldn’t take too kindly to you really stepping in and taking charge, for obvious reasons, but I convinced them to go for this as a temporary measure.”
“I see. I can’t imagine they’re too happy about that.”
“Oh, of course not,” she assured him, watching the debate closely as she spoke, “but the situation’s not a complete mess. Yeah, some of them are arguing that they should reject the document as a forgery, or possibly as dishonestly obtained through force or political pressure, but others hold the position that at least briefly and temporarily recognizing our oppressor — their words, not mine — as an equal might be something we can use to our advantage.”
The cacophony of voices finally faded, and both returned their full attention to the proceedings as Godo spoke in accented Midgaran, his words clipped. “As head of this august Council, I apologize for any… discourtesy we may have inadvertently offered, cousin.” He gave a short bow.
Rufus returned the gesture, a bit deeper. “There is much we both need to learn. Milord’s esteemed daughter has taught me some of the history and ways of our people, but I have far to go.”
Yuffie recaptured the floor with a subtle shift of her posture. “If it pleaseth the august Council to return to the matter at hand,” she spoke, once more in Wutaian, “Lord Shinra offers his greetings and commends the august Council on the improvement of its governship of the land beloved by Leviathan. As the clans have ceased resistance to the flow of time and embraced the outside world for the sake of their people, he now relinquishes his claim on the holdings of the clans, in accordance with the laws of old. Lord Shinra thus requests an alliance with the Kisaragi clan to formalize the resolution of the conflict.” The words were sour in her mouth — though she was glad for the lessening of Wutai’s isolation from the outside world, even if filtered through ShinRa’s closely controlling regulatory web, it made Yuffie uncomfortable to put such a condescending spin on an offer of freedom. It was what the clan heads would expect from ShinRa, though; too soft an approach would have been seen as a sign of weakness and that might’ve led to another war, and that was the last thing any of them wanted.
“…The interpreter means to say that Lord Shinra raised his hand against this Council as a…” A lord on the far side of the room — Yuffie had forgotten his name — seemed to struggle with his words “…condemnation of our ability to rule our own people?!”
“If it pleaseth the august Council, this one humbly offers a reminder of the laws of old,” Yuffie continued. “One clan may make war upon another if they believe that the clan treats its people unjustly. If victorious, the challenging clan shall hold dominion over the other until such time as they feel the defeated clan’s leaders will do right by their people. And the Histories decree that if the Lord of the Waters does not manifest, then they are right in their conquest.” She hoped she had that down correctly — for this plan to succeed it was imperative she had it near perfect, because the Council was going to have a fit.
The law, of course, dated back to when the clans of Wutai had warred with each other for land and people. It had been put into place by one of the strongest warrior clans, a clan that discovered the original materia to summon Leviathan. Gifted in magic and martial arts, they had eventually united Wutai for the first time. The family had died out, and leadership of the Council of clan lords had shifted twice, becoming a little less authoritarian each time, before coming to the Kisaragi line.
“If this one may, a point: The law of which the interpreter speaks is outdated,” one of the scholars argued. “The august Council under Lord Dailong struck it down two centuries ago.”
“This one reminds the esteemed scholar that Lord Shinra is an exile,” Yuffie said, her voice even. “The Shinra clan left the land beloved by Leviathan before the Ishiken united the clans. The Shinra honor the old laws, but as they have been isolated from us they do not recognize their revision by the august Council.”
“The interpreter speaks with reason — the Shinra were cast out before the law was struck down,” another scholar agreed, reluctantly. “Lord Shinra’s claim is… not without legitimacy.”
Yuffie could predict what would happen next. The stifled sigh, the tightening of muscles in her father’s jaw as he strove not to grind his teeth in frustration… how often she’d incited them before. “What… end to resistance has Shinra observed that allows for this… magnanimous gesture?” He practically spat out the words, and Yuffie was silently impressed with herself; she didn’t think she’d ever seen the old man so pissed.
Rufus Shinra had been following where Yuffie was headed well enough enough that his response played right along. “Before the war, you shunned nearly all contact with outsiders, and so your people and culture grew stagnant. Many helpful things taken for granted in the East were unheard of here. Now, though it has taken many years, Wutai has opened its doors and shown its willingness to engage with the outside world.”
The translation of Rufus’s words stirred quite a bit of angry and resentful muttering on the other side of the room; Yuffie could hardly blame them. “And so now Shinra deigns to offer us an alliance?” demanded one lord, eyes narrowed, lip curled in disgust.
Rufus nodded, apparently completely unperturbed. “As I said earlier, we have much we could learn from each other — in peace.” He looked around the room. “I would hate to fight another war. We lost many lives in the last one.”
Yuffie ground her teeth, resisting the urge to punch him in the face. Rufus was playing his role splendidly — too much so, nearly, opening up old wounds that had had years to fester. Yes, ShinRa had lost many lives… but Wutai had lost even more. With the deaths of some of their greatest warriors and healers, there were many talented young people who hadn’t gotten the training they should have. But... he wants to remind them of that. Since the war, ShinRa had continued to grow in power, much more rapidly than the downtrodden Wutaians. If hostilities were to resume now…
It appeared her father was coming to the same conclusion. “A peace between our people would be beneficial to all… but traditionally such an alliance requires a marriage between clans.” Rufus opened his mouth to speak as Yuffie translated this, but Godo overrode them both. “As head of my clan and of the august Council, I cannot offer such a thing now, even if Lord Shinra were willing. I must first speak to the prospective brides, for I refuse to give over one of our people in marriage if she is opposed to the idea.”
“…I understand. In that case, shall we consider this the conclusion of our business?”
“For this evening, yes. The august Council is pleased to offer you our hospitality and requests that you rest such time that we may continue our negotiations. Is tomorrow evening acceptable?”
Rufus nodded. “It is.”
“Then Lord Shinra and I shall meet here again tomorrow to discuss the marriage alliance between our houses, and the august Council shall reconvene the morning thereafter to review his propsal.” As the customary closing procedures were made Godo rose, bowing shallowly, and everyone else followed his lead. Yuffie was happy to see she could still manage to get to her feet without falling over, despite the pins and needles in her legs. Rufus wasn’t so lucky, she noted, hiding a smirk; he seemed a bit unsteady. As her father strode out, his bodyguards closely at hand, Yuffie bowed a bit to Rufus and the remaining lords before leaving herself. It was past midnight, and she was more than ready for bed.
The summons didn’t really come as a surprise; the invitation to breakfast, however, did. Yuffie bowed to her father as she entered the room, then took her place. She picked up her chopsticks and surveyed the food spread before her with no small pleasure. While she had adapted to Eastern cooking — pancakes were a favorite — it was comforting to wake up to the sort of breakfast she’d grown up with.
Godo gestured for his daughter to begin; they ate in silence for a few minutes before he cleared his throat. “This has been your doing, hasn’t it.”
“In part,” she admitted, sipping her tea. “Shinra doesn’t want to deal with us anymore. We’re a drain on his purse. But he can’t just let us go because a) it’ll make him look weak, and b) we’ll be all over him trying to get reparations for it.”
“And did you not think that perhaps reparations are due to our people?” Godo was clearly angry. “As if we have not suffered enough, to be talked down to in that arrogant way…” He scowled. “Have you been away from home so long that they’ve ensnared you with their propaganda?”
“No!” Yuffie snapped, but paused for a moment. She had to stay calm; coming home after more than ten years on the road to engage in stupid shouting matches with her father just like she had as a child wouldn’t help here. “No, it’s not like that at all. I wanted to come up with something that could be over and done with quickly, that wouldn’t devolve into month after month of interminable haggling over reparations and which clans suffered more and who deserved what share of the spoils. I know it’s a blow to your pride — all Wutai’s pride, really — and that makes it hard to swallow, but if we just rejected the deal on principle we’d only stay stuck under ShinRa’s thumb, which’d be way worse in the long run. Because let’s face it: with their resources there’s really no way we could throw them out and keep ‘em out, forget exacting revenge like a lot of people want to. Not in a million years.” She gestured with her chopsticks. “You know that, Dad. You have to, after seeing them in action.”
Her father regarded her steadily for a long moment. “…You’ve really grown up, haven’t you.” There was something almost wistful in his voice. “You do make good points, but still, invoking an ancient technicality that backhandedly insults us? The people won’t take that well.”
“Then don’t tell them about it.“ Yuffie ate some of her rice before continuing, “Make it out to be something else entirely. The Council can grumble all they want about him abusing outdated laws and insulting our culture, but all anyone else is gonna know is how you decide to spin it.”
“Perhaps,” Godo allowed. “Did you have a bride in mind as well?”
She hadn’t, not before her father had brought it up the previous evening, but the answer had been obvious. “Please,” she said in a light tone. “We all know I’m the only one who wouldn’t try to slit his throat on the wedding night. And anyway… you and I both know I’m not really fit to follow in your footsteps. I’ve been away too long.”
She might have imagined the hint of sadness in his eyes as he said, “You impressed the Council last night. They were surprised by your maturity.”
Yuffie tried to take the compliment for what it was and ignore the insult. “Well, you know me. Short stints are okay, but if I had to wade in that formality all the time I’d go crazy anyway.” From what she’d seen, ShinRa would focus much more on its president than his family, so the constant formality that would’ve awaited her as ruler of Wutai was something she’d be able to avoid. Most of the time. Probably. ...Well, they seemed a lot more casual about their politicking, at least. “Anyway, I’m sure there are other people who’d be better suited for it — I’ve heard cousin Jinshirou has been learning a lot of the leadership stuff since I left.”
“This is true.” Godo allowed himself the tiniest of smiles before his expression turned serious. “What about your bride price, then? I should hold out for something substantial, considering your rank.”
“Well, there is a pretty big chest of materia that I’ve acquired over the years on Shinra’s airship. A lot of it’s not especially powerful, but even most of the weak ones are matured to at least the second level.” Seeing her father’s approving look, she fought a blush. “It was the least I could do.”
“And certainly, with Shinra having… ‘relinquished’ his hold on our lands, the ban on materia will no longer exist.”
“I’m sure.” Yuffie grinned. “Do you want me at the meeting?”
He shook his head. “No, this should be between the clan heads. The Council will be busy trying to figure out how to ‘spin’ the latest developments, as you put it.” Godo’s smile faded. “You’ll be living in Midgar, I’m assuming?”
“Obviously, if I’m gonna be married to the guy! I’ve already been there a few months now, and it’s not so bad — a lot busier than here, which’ll help keep me from going crazy.” Although she had to admit, privately, she would miss it at least a little. As a child she had often dreamed about returning to Wutai, winning its freedom, and returning it to its former glory. Age and experience, however, had merely confirmed what she’d suspected all along: she was happier without having to observe the ancient and intricate strictures she’d learned in her childhood. She had spent most of her adolescence on the road, doing what needed to be done to make ends meet… learning to fight monsters, pick her battles (never with ShinRa, at least not when SOLDIERS were involved), and use deceit and flattery to get what she wanted. It was an odd skill set, but from what she’d observed in Midgar she’d be able to make better use of it there. “Besides,” she continued, “it isn’t like I’ll never visit again.”
“Very well. I will speak to your intended, then, and we’ll draw up the contract. You will, however, stay here until the wedding.”
Yuffie rolled her eyes. “Dad, if you think I’m letting Rufus Shinra organize a Wutaian wedding, you’re crazy… but I’d like to stay for at least a little while.”
“You’re more than welcome to, my dear.” Godo picked up his chopsticks again. Yuffie finished off the rest of her meal quickly, used to eating on the go, and excused herself. She wanted to see if after all this time she’d be able to complete that obstacle course in the training compound.
Rufus settled into the kneeling position as carefully as he could across from Lord Godo, and bowed. “Good evening.” He had decided that he would speak Wutaian for the meeting, even if he didn’t have quite as much practice with the highly formal mode of speech that was apparently expected in such situations as this; it would make his host more comfortable and he could use his ignorance to ensure everything would be laid out clearly. When it came to negotiating, one needed to take any advantage one could get.
“Good evening,” Godo responded. “I was under the impression that you did not speak our language.”
“My skills are far from mastery.” Rufus carefully worked out his next sentence before he spoke it; he didn’t want to make the type of mistakes Yuffie had mocked. “I do not much have the… knowledge of the formal courtesies.”
“I see.” Godo fixed his visitor with an appraising look. Rufus did his best to look more or less harmless; it wasn’t something that came easily to him, but it would help to influence this man to underestimate him. “In that case, the polite speech will do.” As a servant poured tea, he continued, “I am surprised by your fluency. I have not commonly observed it among Easterners.”
“Your daughter has taught me a great deal.” With barbs of embarrassment, Rufus added silently. “She is quite an exceptional woman. I have not met her equal.”
“You flatter her.” Godo was surprisingly blunt. “I suppose you do not find it surprising that she has consented to be the alliance bride.”
“It was my hope she might consider it.” The truth was Rufus had only come to that conclusion last night. When he headed back to Midgar he was going to have to do some serious reading concerning Wutaian customs. He had the bad feeling that Yuffie had thrown him into the dragon’s den just to see how he fared. “If she is willing, may we begin negotiations?”
The pair went back and forth for some time, Rufus careful to ask for elaboration on anything Godo tried to gloss over. Rufus had no trouble agreeing to the release of that chest of materia in addition to the concessions he’d expected to give; to him it was merely a drop in the bucket. Plans for ShinRa’s withdrawal as well as the gradual restoration of former socioeconomic structures in Wutai were discussed, carefully noted by a scribe to be polished up before the final treaty was ratified. In the end it was nearly eleven when both pronounced themselves satisfied, and Rufus was able to return to his quarters, the Turk who’d accompanied him at his side.
“Fruitful returns?” Tseng asked as he entered the room. A careful motion indicated that they were being watched — not that Rufus had expected any less of his hosts.
“Very much so. I believe this will be of benefit to all of us.” Rufus took a sip of the water Tseng handed him. “You have news?”
“We received a communication from General Sephiroth. Hojo has been killed. Palmer was also discovered, although not in any state to be useful—” meaning that Hojo, the drugs, or both had probably turned him in a vegetable or worse “—so they took appropriate steps. Strife has been… recovered. There was a sizable amount of information at the lab, and they are requesting support to make sure it makes it back to Midgar intact.”
Rufus “hmm”ed, settling back in his seat. “I expect we’ll be done here soon — we’ll take the Highwind and pick them up on the way back.”
Tseng raised an eyebrow. “Why the sudden personal interest?”
“Sephiroth and Sinclair are important SOLDIER personnel with extensive experience; if they think they need the support, they probably do. Furthermore, I wish to inquire about Strife’s plans as well, and perhaps I’ll be able to buy Ms. Gainsborough a wedding present.” That engagement had all the company gossips talking. Rufus, one of the few who knew of Aeris’s true parentage, was hoping for children to follow in her footsteps soon. If their mother had managed to change the environment in and around Midgar so much in so little time, how much more would they be able to do with several Ancients working in concert?
Tseng looked thoughtful. “I wish to discuss something with Ms. Lockhart myself. Perhaps this would be a good time — with your permission, of course.”
“Oh? Do tell…”
The SOLDIERs had expected the transportation support they’d requested to arrive quickly; what they hadn’t expected was the company’s flagship bearing the President and a cadre of Turks who immediately went to work upon the machinery in the laboratory. Tseng thanked them politely for their help in such a way that made it clear they were no longer needed here, so Sephiroth had gone to report to the President and the others were left at loose ends.
“I’m fine, really! I just needed a bit of sleep. Stop hovering!” Cloud looked about ready to punch Zack, Tifa thought with amusement — not that he hadn’t given them all heart failure when he’d fainted. Aeris had sworn he would be fine, once she’d bandaged his hands and put some burn salve on them, but that hadn’t made anyone feel better. Zack had nearly snatched him out of Aeris’s lap when their groups had finally reunited. Tifa had managed to stop him with an explanation that Aeris was in the middle of healing ‘soul damage’ Cloud had taken during the fight with Jenova.
“Maybe you should go sit down again, then—”
“For Shiva’s sake, Zack! I’m not a baby. I know how to handle myself.” Cloud glared. “This is nothing compared to some of the stuff Hojo put me through; I’m just doing katas, for crying out loud. Seph should be back soon; why don’t you go with him and make sure the Turks don’t need any extra help with those files?”
“We don’t, but thanks anyway.” A red-haired Turk who looked vaguely familiar to Tifa — she must have seen her at the Dragon — winked as she approached. “Besides, files aren’t always Zack’s strong suit.”
“I keep things straight for Seph all the time,” Zack objected. “Honestly, mess up one report for a girl and she’ll hold it against you forever.” He grinned despite his words. “Haven’t seen you in a while, Cissnei.”
“I’ve been busy — and I didn’t want to have to rewrite my reports four times.” She turned to Tifa. “Come with me, please.”
Tifa couldn’t help tensing at that. People who went off alone with Turks rarely were heard from again. Of course, most weren’t given the chance to walk into their deaths voluntarily… so maybe they didn’t want to kill her. Cloud, apparently picking up on her concerns, gave her a brilliant smile. “I’m sure you’ll be back before it’s time to go, right?” The veiled threat in his words seemed obvious to Tifa as he looked at the Turk.
Cissnei was unfazed. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour at most,” she agreed. “I think the President wanted to speak with you in a bit, too, Strife.”
“Of course,” Cloud murmured. “We’ll be right here when you get back, Teef.” Zack nodded in agreement.
Knowing both of them were backing her up gave Tifa the courage she needed to follow Cissnei aboard the Highwind. She checked her materia before she entered the room the Turk indicated. Just because she had backup didn’t mean she should go in unprepared.
“Ah, Ms. Lockhart — excellent.” President Shinra gestured for her to take a seat. This looked like a conference room; Tifa wondered what the crew used it for when they weren’t entertaining their boss. “We’d like to discuss your employment status.”
Another Turk stood at Shinra’s right hand. “My name is Tseng, and I am the head of the Department of Administrative Research.”
“The Turks, you mean.” Maybe it would be wiser to be crafty and underhanded here, but it just wasn’t her style.
“Indeed.” Tseng allowed himself a smile. “You’ve done good work as part of our intelligence network for some time, and so we would like to offer you a proper place in our organization.”
“No thanks,” Tifa said bluntly. “I don’t do assassinations.”
“A wise woman would at least listen to the conditions of the job before turning it down.” Shinra folded his hands and looked at her. “You’ve been replaced at your last job due to your long absence… which I’m afraid leaves you without employment upon your return to Midgar.”
Tifa figured that had been the case, but was still a bit disappointed to hear it. She shrugged. “I can always teach martial arts — I have my mastery, after all. Or I can open a bar of my own.”
“Both respectable occupations,” Rufus agreed. “But what about Ms. Gainsborough?”
Tifa froze, her eyes narrowing. Surely they wouldn’t threaten Aeris; she was far too important to the MMG Project — and its head — and if she was the last Ancient or Cetra or whatever (she was pretty sure Cloud didn’t count), she couldn’t exactly be replaced. “What do you mean?” she finally asked.
“Ms. Gainsborough is very important to ShinRa Company; that makes her a target. You could be her bodyguard.”
“You have plenty of Turks who could do that, or regular infantry, or specialists — even Nanaki would volunteer.”
“Of course… but none know her abilities as well as you do. You have trained with her and know what she is capable of, and that alone makes you a better candidate than anyone else we have on staff at the moment,” Tseng pointed out. “And you certainly would be able to teach as well, if you wished. A woman of your skill would be a welcome addition to our organization, for the training of both our regular and special forces — Turks and even some of the SOLDIERs could certainly benefit from your experience.”
“The job isn’t without other perks as well,” Shinra added. “We pay very well, including vacation time and coverage of travel expenses, and we offer a comprehensive medical plan and access to an armory that’s second to none.”
Tifa’s heart sank. She did worry about Aeris, of course; the MMG Project was the favorite child of the company right now, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Aeris was a fundamental part of that. She’d be in danger of interdepartmental politics gone bad for the rest of her life. And yes, Aeris could take care of herself, but what about once she was pregnant? She was already talking about children. Even if she retained the ability to cast spells while with child (and not every woman did), she would be slowed down, especially in the later trimesters. Could Tifa depend on others to keep her safe? Cloud, she knew, would go through fire and flood for Aeris. Not only that, but though neither of them had spoken of it, Tifa had seen the matching scars on their hands, and guessed that whatever ritual Aeris had used while they’d been fighting Jenova, it was as good as a blood-oath — which, by Tifa’s own oaths with him, made Aeris her own oath-sib as well. No child of Nibelheim would ever turn their back on their oath family; they would die first.
There was the other angle to consider as well. Rufus clearly wanted her to work for him; he wouldn’t have bothered to mention the benefits otherwise. ShinRa, as Cloud had often pointed out, almost always got what it wanted. And if something escaped its grasp, it rarely was around long enough for someone else to snap it up…
Take the job or die, then. Tifa sighed. Well, she wouldn’t do anyone any good dead.
“…I want it in my contract that I don’t do assassinations,” she said firmly. “If you give me that… I’ll gladly be Aeris’s bodyguard and teach.” Tifa made a mental note to track down Vincent and get as much of a head start on knowing Turk protocol as she could. The less that she had to learn, the less ammo they’d have to use against her later.
“Very well. Sign here.” Shinra pulled out a packet of papers, making an addendum in several places. Tifa read it, noting the clause he’d written in about ‘discreet executions’ and made sure there weren’t any more surprises in there, though some of the legalese made her head spin. When she was as sure of the contract as she could be, Tifa took the pen Shinra offered and signed her name. Her new employer smiled. “Welcome to ShinRa.”
The day after Rufus left, Yuffie was up with the dawn. She exercised vigorously before taking a long soak in the hot springs. Since there was nothing pressing that required her attention — her father was still working with the rest of the Council on the official announcement of the treaty’s ratification — she decided to head down into town.
The yukata felt strange after wearing Eastern clothes for so long, but even so it was quite comfortable. Regrettably, most of her own clothing was back in Midgar; she hadn’t really intended to stay in Wutai after the negotiations were concluded…
She shook her head. I need to stop brooding. Maybe I’ll head over to Yuan’s place.
Yuffie was dismayed, however, to see the people of her hometown stopping their daily activities to watch her. As she passed, they bowed low. Never before had see been given such treatment. When she was young, she had run through the town and earned amused smiles; on the rare occasions since leaving home that she’d snuck back, there had been times they hadn’t even recognized her. What was going on?
Trying to ignore it, Yuffie stepped into her restaurant of choice, seating herself at the counter and placing an order for guotie, happily digging in to the hot food when it arrived. There were Wutaian restaurants the world over — many of them Eastern-owned establishments which tried but failed to capture those unique Wutaian flavors — but nothing beat Yuan’s dumplings.
Once she had eaten more than her fill, she dug around in her pockets and came up with some gil. Rightly she should pay in yen, but all of the restaurants took gil as well, since the place had basically turned into a tourist town after the ShinRa takeover. She would have to make sure she had some yen on her for future trips. “Excellent as always, Yuan,” she complimented as she went up to pay her bill. “I’ve missed your dumplings.” She handed over the gil.
Yuan placed his hand over hers, closing her fingers around the money. “Those are on the house, milady.”
Yuffie was incensed. The Kisaragi weren’t some foppish Easterners expecting handouts from their underlings! “Yuan—”
“It’s a gift. A small thing to do after you’ve bought us back our freedom.” Yuan withdrew his hand. “We all know who’s responsible for it, milady.”
The honorific, used twice in the space of three minutes, felt strange. Yuan had known her since they were children; they’d grown up together and played around the gardens before he had followed his parents into the cooking business and Yuffie had left the country. “Yuan…”
His daughter, Mai, poked her head out from behind her father. Looking up at him for permission, she stepped forward with a bunch of flowers in her hand. “Thank you for marrying so we could be free, Lady Yuffie.”
“Mai…” She had no choice but to accept the offering or make the little girl cry. She looked at Yuan, but her friend had his stubborn face on, so she sighed. “…Just this once, all right? And no ‘milady’ stuff — we’ve known each other forever!”
He just smiled and nodded, in that infuriating ‘yes, whatever you say’ sort of way she seemed to be seeing everywhere lately, and so Yuffie rolled her eyes and left to get some fresh air…
…Only to find herself the recipient of several other gifts on her wanderings. They were usually simple things from children, like a flower or a particularly smooth stone; most of the adults seemed not to be buying into such things, though one presented Yuffie with a beautiful hair comb made of ivory and mythril. Feeling overwhelmed, she retreated to the temple of Leviathan, and placed the gifts in the offering basket. “You’ll appreciate these more than I would, I think,” she told the great statue staring down at her in what she supposed was a benevolent fashion. “I’m no savior — I don’t know why they’re doing this.”
“You should keep the comb, at least, and a flower or two. They’ll feel slighted if you give them all to the Lord of Waters, even if a sacrifice is proper.” The head priest stepped into the light from behind the statue. “Greetings, daughter.”
“Greetings, wise one.” Yuffie bowed. All priests were worthy of a bit of respect. “I just… don’t feel I deserve any of this.”
“Oh? Sit with me. I think you have much on your mind.” The old man took a seat on one of the benches, and Yuffie joined him.
“They think I sacrificed so much for our freedom, but I hardly did anything except talk fast through some shaky arguments. I haven’t even been here — and I’m glad I’m not going to stay! I like the rest of the world.” Yuffie sighed. “They’re treating me like I’m god-touched, but it’s all cleverness and luck and thinking like an a— a jerk.”
“And skill as well,” the priest added. “And perhaps you may not have sacrificed what they think, but still, you’ll be wandering less. You’ll have obligations, even if they’re different from those you have now.” He looked amused.
Yuffie blushed a bit, realizing he must have heard of her real whereabouts the past decade or so, rather than buying into the story of her being off in some distant town learning the art of ruling. “I suppose…”
“Accept the gifts. Take those you can with you to Midgar and wear them proudly. Word will come back that the daughter of the head of the Council of Lords is strong and proud of her heritage; it will do the people good. Many may even seek to emulate you.” The priest rose. “Wait here a moment.” He vanished into the back of the temple and returned, carrying a small red orb.
Yuffie stared at it in shock. “I thought Wutai didn’t have any materia anymore!”
“In the days before the war, many would offer the materia born from those that were mastered to the temple. We have kept them safe,” the priest explained. “ShinRa was unaware of the practice. Our stores are not what they once were, but we have enough to start training the materia masters of the next generation, now that we may do so openly.” He looked at Yuffie. “You’ve grown into your power well. I had hoped to train you as a child, but you left before I had the opportunity.”
“You’re… a materia master?” Like those who followed the path of the martial arts, materia workers endlessly trained to improve their craft. It was a difficult road, and to achieve mastery was considered a great honor.
The priest smiled mysteriously. “We did not all die in the war — and the same is true of our martial arts masters, as I’m sure you already know. We have had to hide, and teach in secret, but Wutai is not dead. It hasn’t just been a tourist attraction, though that is what we like to make ShinRa think.” His face grew serious. “We’re stronger than you may realize, though it would have taken some time before we would’ve been able to force ShinRa from our shores. And now, with your marriage, we will be freed from their oppression without bloodshed.” The old man smiled again, the crows’-feet at the corners of his eyes more pronounced with the movement. “As such, this seems like a particularly appropriate engagement gift.” He took Yuffie’s hand and placed the summon materia in it. “Now you will always have a piece of Wutai with you.”
That sense of the inexorable tides and the roar of rushing water… She stared at the materia in shock. “…Leviathan! I can’t accept this. It belongs here—”
“It has a sibling in this temple, and your father holds its mastered parent, though he’s kept it well hidden. You have the power to nurture its spirit to mastery yourself — although we’d appreciate it if you returned its offspring here.” The priest’s eyes grew distant. “It’s been a long time since the Lord of Waters has been able to walk among his people. The constant draining of the Planet’s blood has weakened Him and all the other gods, or driven them into hiding in the few corners of the world that remain untouched. Even here, where no reactors were ever built, the land is tired.” He looked at Yuffie. “Things are changing in Midgar. That is the place that will determine the direction of the world. Go and influence things. Make sure to keep the Planet and the gods in your mind, and you will lead to us all to a better place. I cannot think of a higher destiny that that.”
Yuffie bowed low. There was a ring of something more in the priest’s words, and the materia felt oddly warm in her hands. Was Leviathan speaking through His representative? Maybe. Whether He was or wasn’t, though, keeping an eye on Rufus and making sure he continued to think of the Planet’s welfare was a good idea. And with Leviathan in her hands, she had just the thing for a bit of extra leverage, if she needed it.