|madamhydra (madamhydra) wrote in roads_diverged,|
@ 2008-05-04 00:41:00
|Entry tags:||final fantasy vii, madamhydra:rufus/turks, theme 09: pirates|
[Final Fantasy VII] "Chiaroscuro" 1/? - Rufus - Theme #9 Pirates
Here's my second (very late) installment, inspired by my favorite character from FFXII -- Balthier, naturally! ^_^
Title: Chiaroscuro 1/?
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 x KH(2) crossover
Pairing/Characters: Rufus, Turks, KH-versions of Cloud, Aerith, Sephiroth, and other FF7 characters
Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy VII, and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: Rufus and Turk pay a visit to Radiant Garden and meet some old friends.
"Now look here! What we've got here is a misunderstanding, a failure to communicate...!"
The man speaking over the spaceship's com was trying very hard to be both jovial and placating. He was also failing miserably.
"What misunderstanding? I issued a simple, straightforward warning. Unfortunately, you chose to ignore it," the blond man on the bridge responded in a deceptively conversational tone.
"C'mon! Okay, I made a stupid mistake. But there's no real harm done, right? Surely we can work out some sort of deal. Let's not be unreasonable about this...!"
"You were warned of the consequences. The window for negotiation is closed."
A slight flick of the blond's finger terminated the discussion from his end. Ignoring the panicked chatter of the other captain over the com, he glanced toward his right.
"Reno, I want that shipment intact. That's our main priority."
The lanky redhead at one of the weapon stations grinned and uttered a laconic, "You want it, you got it, boss." The bald dark-skinned man at the other weapon station adjusted his visor and gave his captain a brief silent nod of acknowledgment.
Satisfied, Rufus Shinra, captain of the Midgar, smiled coldly.
"Then what are you waiting for? Fire at will."
As soon as the Midgar settled in her designated slot at the Radiant Garden's spaceport, the two mechanics scurried out into the landing bay. Even as they reached the ship, a rear cargo hatchway opened and Reno sauntered out to meet them, dressed in the matching blue-black cropped leather jacket and pants that seemed to serve as the uniform for the Midgar's crew. And as usual with Reno, the underlying white shirt was provocatively rumpled and half-unbuttoned.
"Yo, guys," he drawled, with a crooked grin.
"Reno, what happened!" one of the mechanics squeaked, his dark eyes going wide as he surveyed the battle damage to the ship.
The redhead glanced at the scorch marks along the ship's hull, then with a casual shrug responded, "Hazards of the lifestyle, Chip."
The black-nosed chipmunk huffed and scurried off to survey the damage.
"Glad you made it back okay," the remaining chipmunk said with his usual gape-toothed grin.
"As if there was any doubt, Dale. By the way, let Cid know that we've got some goodies he might find useful," Reno said, jerking a thumb back toward the interior of the Midgar.
"That's great! With everything that's been happening recently, half the automated defense systems in town seem to be offline. I'll tell him right away!" Dale said excitedly as he bounded off toward the offices on all fours, white furry rump flashing.
"Well, there's good news and bad news," Chip called down from his vantage point on one of the catwalks. "Most of it looks repairable with the parts we've got in stock. But fixing those Ultima and Meteor units are going to take some time. They're really persnickety. The high-end weapon pods always are. And both engines really need to be tuned AND re-synced."
"So what are we looking at here?"
Chip's brow wrinkled as he mentally juggled work schedules and the supply of parts. Finally, he said, "Several days, at least. One day, if we really rush it and concentrate on the bare essentials. But to make sure we get things done right, two days, minimum."
"Then do it right," a cool, decisive male voice from the cargo hatch.
Reno turned to see his captain exiting the Midgar and step out onto the landing area like he bloody well owned it. It was a distinct possibility, because if the rumors were true, Rufus -- or rather the Shinra family -- had once owned the spaceport, along with a hefty percentage of the businesses around Radiant Garden. But as with so many things, that was all in the past.
Past family glories or not, with his pale gold hair and elegant, refined looks, there was no denying that the captain of the Midgar was good-looking and knew it. He wore much the same general outfit as his crew -- leather pants, short spacer's jacket, and ankle boots -- but with the added touch of a finely brocaded vest to dress it up. But the big difference between captain and crew was the color of their outfits. Rufus wore stark white, as compared to the much more functional blue-black that the rest of the crew wore.
Aside from the distinctive "please shoot me" way it stood out -- typically not a good thing in their line of work -- white was hardly the most practical outfit for a working spaceship. It was true that being in charge had its privileges when it came to maintenance and other types of grungy work. And it was also true that the captain had a positive gift for keeping himself surprisingly unsmudged. However, wearing white wasn't just a matter of status for Rufus. Of that, Reno was certain. His captain had his own deep, private reasons for the color choice. Unfortunately, if his captain considered something private, it had an annoying tendency to stay damn private.
Other people often assumed that Rufus's good looks and fancy clothes equated to weakness, a big mistake and frequently a fatal one. Yeah, his captain might look as pretty and fastidious as a pampered pet cat, but Rufus was as cunning and ruthless as they came. And if getting down and dirty was necessary to get what he wanted, then down and dirty it was and to hell with the wardrobe.
Reno watched with amusement as Chip did a double take at Rufus's unexpected appearance. Although the chipmunks did regular business with the Midgar and its crew, they usually dealt with either Tseng or Reno, and rarely saw its captain in person.
"If we're in for a few days for repairs, I want to take the opportunity to make some upgrades." Rufus smiled slightly. "We recently acquired some new weapon and shield units."
"Ummm... sure, not a problem. It should be pretty simple -- the Midgar's certainly got the capacity for it. We'll get right on it, as soon as the cargo hold's emptied," Chip said, recovering from his surprise.
"It won't be long. Elena and Rude are prepping the cargo," Reno replied. And when Rufus glanced at him, Reno continued, "Cid knows that we're here. Or he will, soon enough."
Rufus gave the small mechanic a brief nod, then the two men headed for the exit to the landing bay, Reno falling into step just behind his captain with the ease of long familiarity.
Once Rufus and Reno were gone, Chip turned his attention back to the Midgar. She was a hybrid Gummi ship -- much of her was composed of Gummi blocks, but due to her other non-Gummi components, she was far sleeker-looking than ordinary Gummi-built ships.
On the surface, the Midgar looked innocent enough, with the typical configuration of a fast courier which specialized in handling high value, low volume cargoes that had to be moved quickly... usually with no questions asked.
But while few people knew it, the engines weren't the only things overpowered on the Midgar. Not only could she outrace most ships, she could outshoot them as well. It was a good thing she could, considering the sorts of shady places where the Midgar and its enigmatic captain frequently did business.
And there were rumors that Rufus wasn't above helping himself to another's cargo by guile... or if need by, by force.
Despite their discreet arrival, someone was waiting for them just outside the spaceport.
"I should've expected you to show up eventually."
Rufus immediately recognized the young man leaning against a nearby wall. The diagonal scar running between the eyes, shoulder length brown hair, and black leather clothes were certainly distinctive, but the gunblade slung on the other man's back was the dead giveaway.
"After all these years away, one tends to develop a sudden urge to visit the old hometown," Rufus said, looking faintly amused. He held out his hand and allowed some of the bright shimmering sparkles that gave Radiant Garden its name settle into his palm. "And I must say, it's looking lovely."
"Oh, sure. You just happen to get all homesick for Radiant Garden after we've managed to clear out most of the Heartless." The young man uttered a contemptuous snort, then continued, "So where were you when this place turned into the hellhole called Hollow Bastion and everyone else was struggling and fighting like crazy to survive?" He then shook his head in exasperation. "Why am I even bothering to ask? You're a Shinra and that's what Shinras do, isn't it? They let other people do all the dirty, dangerous work while they sit back and watch from somewhere safe." His gaze flicked over toward Reno, who stood off to the side, lazily observing the conversation.
Rufus shrugged, letting the other man's scorn and not-so-subtle verbal jabs slide right by him. Over the years, he'd had plenty of practice. And he wasn't interested in trying to justify his actions, past or present. There were only four people to whom he owed any explanations, and none of them were present at the moment.
"So, do you object to my presence here?" Rufus said with deceptive mildness.
The other man pushed away from the wall and said, "Nope. As long as you and your crew of Turks don't cause any trouble, feel free to visit. Your money's just as good as anyone else's and the town can use the business, Shinra."
"Call me Rufus."
"Trying to disassociate yourself from the past?" the other retorted acidly.
"Exactly so. You should understand that desire... Leon," Rufus said smoothly. As intended, the brief pause and the subtle emphasis on the name made the other man grimace.
"Fine. Point taken." As he turned to leave, Leon paused and said, "But watch your step, Rufus... and your back."
"With all your bold statements about vanquishing the Heartless, I still need to be worried about my personal safety?" Rufus murmured, raising a faintly mocking eyebrow.
Leon scowled and threw Rufus a disgusted look.
"Look, we've cleared out most of the Castle and the surrounding area, but there's always going to be the occasional incursion of Heartless and other creatures. The town's automated defenses handles most of them, but the system's pretty badly strained. Some are bound to get through, so I hope you're good with that gun of yours." Leon glanced at the weapon holstered at Rufus's side. "You might need it."
"I think I can manage. And as for watching my back?"
"I may not have a problem with your presence in Radiant Garden, but some of the people here aren't so tolerant of past transgressions and betrayals," Leon said with a shrug. With that final warning, he turned and stalked away down a side street.
"Wow, what a rousing welcome," Reno drawled. "Any chances of running into a lynch mob? Not that it's a big deal, but I like to be prepared."
"I very much doubt it. Leon and his cohorts seem to have Radiant Garden -- or at least its human population -- well in hand. Things could gone much worse. I half-expected something involving of tar and feathers. In a way, I'm a little disappointed." Rufus smiled sardonically. "On the other hand, there's something to be said for being able to enjoy a leisurely drink or two in relative peace."
Reno looked up at the glittering sparkles that fell from the sky like an endless fine drizzle.
"So this is how Radiant Garden got its name, huh?"
"That's right." Rufus gazed at the glowing motes in his hand, then abruptly let them spill to the ground where they disappeared without a trace.
"Look, I know that the Shinra name isn't too popular here...."
"That would be a gross understatement, Reno."
"We've been here a few times before in the last year, but this is the first time you've bothered to step out of the space port. So why the sudden urge to go walkie through hostile territory? Don't tell me you're homesick for the light show."
Rufus gave his crewman a faint smile. "Do I look like a person who's prone to wallowing in nostalgia?"
Reno gazed at his captain for a moment, then crammed his hands in his pockets and said, "Look, I don't know the entire story of what went down here, but I've heard a few things. It was your old man, not you, who ran away when thing started to go to hell with the Heartless."
Rufus turned and stared up at the great castle that loomed in the distance.
"Perhaps. But that doesn't change the fact that I wasn't here when I was needed. People suffered. People died. And depending on your point of view, the dead people were the lucky ones. So under the circumstances, a certain level of resentment, even hatred, is quite understandable."
From his vantage point on the terrace, Leon watched Rufus and his escort as they headed down the street. The redhead with the odd tattoo marks under the eyes might look and act like a common street thug, but Leon knew that in Reno's case, appearances were deceptive. There was a dangerous and unpredictable edge in the man, neatly camouflaged by that lazy, nonchalant manner. Reno was no amateur, but a professional, although at exactly what, Leon still wasn't sure.
He certainly wasn't buy the bored 'whatever' act that Reno put on during the chat with Rufus. If something had started between Leon and his captain, there was no doubt that the redhead would be right in his face... or even worse, doing gods-knew-what at his back.
The tavern catered mainly to port traffic of both the space and water variety, which was good because it reduced the chances of an unpleasant encounter with resentful locals. At the moment, the bar area was relatively empty. Rufus and Reno found a secluded booth, ordered glasses of the excellent local beer, and settled down to wait. A few minutes later, even as the waiter was delivering their drinks, a familiar figure appeared scowling in the doorway.
"Gimme the usual," Cid called out to the bartender as he entered and headed for Rufus's table. Without preamble or waiting for an invitation, the older man pulled out a chair and sat down.
Rufus watched in amusement as the waiter plunked down the steaming mug of tea in front of Cid, accompanied by a few friendly insults. Cid retorted with a downright slanderous comment on the quality of the bar's liquor. Once the chuckling waiter was gone, Cid said, "Got your message about the equipment. I'm having some of the guys pick it up right now." He rummaged in his vest and pulled out an envelope, then placed it on the table between them.
Rufus eyed the envelope, then with an elegant flick of a finger, sent it skidding back across the table to Cid.
"Consider it a freebie. The rest of the cargo more than compensates for our trouble."
Cid glanced over at Reno, who grinned slyly, then took another sip from his mug before saying quietly, "You know, without the stuff you've brought in, we wouldn't have been able to keep the defense systems up and running this past year and more."
"I'm glad to contribute in a small way to your victory and the glorious restoration of Radiant Garden," Rufus murmured, sounding bored.
"In a small way? Shit, during that last invasion with both the Heartless AND the Nobodies swarming the place... well, without the automated defenses, this town probably would've been overrun in no time flat!" Cid growled.
"Then I'm pleased you and the others managed to survive the onslaught. There's no profit in a dead customer."
"Damn it, quit trying to play the callous mercenary hardass with me, Rufus! You could demand a bloody fortune for this sort of equipment in other places and we both know it. As it is, the price you're charging us barely covers your operating costs."
"Isn't there an old adage about looking a gift chocobo in the beak?"
"Yeah, yeah. Look, I'm not bitching about that. Believe me, if it'll help protect the Garden and its people, I take whatever help I can get wherever I can get it." Cid scowled at Rufus. "I just can't figure why you insist on keeping your involvement a damn secret."
"I have my reasons. I will say this much -- I have no interest whatsoever in other people's gratitude or in rehabilitating the Shinra family name." Rufus smiled coldly. "Besides, in my line of work, a reputation as a cold-hearted, mercenary bastard is typically an asset."
"Yeah, random acts of altruism tend to really fuck up the badass image," Reno said with a smirk.
Rufus gave the redhead a cool, level stare. Reno obediently subsided into silence, but his sly grin made it clear that he wasn't the least bit intimidated by his captain's displeasure.
Cid snorted, then said, "Look, I don't know why you left Radiant Garden back then, and I don't expect you to tell me. But I know this much -- it wasn't because you were scared for your own neck. You may be a sneaky, devious, ruthless son-of-a-bitch, but you're no coward, Rufus."
When the Midgar's captain continued to look politely bored, Cid uttered a vaguely frustrated sigh and finished off his tea.
"Fine. If that's the way you want to play it, so be it. But I'm glad that you've got Reno here to watch your back. Leon may have given you the okay to be here, but you never know. Some people might get carried away by old grudges and try something stupid." He pushed back his chair and rose to his feet, "And now that I've got the parts, there's a defense system that needs repairing." He picked up the envelope and stuck it back in his vest pocket, then went on his way.
But once outside, Cid did not immediately head to his workshop. Instead, he scowled thoughtfully for a moment or two, then set off in the opposite direction at a brisk walk.
After finishing their drinks in silence, Rufus and Reno left the tavern. The redhead half-expected his captain to return to the Midgar now that their business was done, but Rufus instead chose to head further into the town and closer to the large castle that dominated the Garden's skyline.
As the two of them strolled through the streets, almost but not quite side by side, Reno remained particularly vigilant in view of Leon's and Cid's warnings. However, Reno did not pick up on any overt hostility from the town's inhabitants. Oh, there was no mistaking the occasional looks of scorn or contempt thrown in Rufus's direction and the pointed turning of backs, but no one seemed prepared to take matters further. Well, as long as the inhabitants of the Garden confined themselves to nasty glares, he would follow his captain's lead and ignore them.
To be honest, Reno was nearly bursting with curiosity about this entire visit to Radiant Garden. His captain sure as hell wasn't in town merely to sightsee. Nostalgia and homesickness sounded damn unlikely as well. If Rufus had a specific destination or purpose in mind, he certainly wasn't sharing it with Reno. The captain had an agenda -- he always had an agenda. Add in that hint of grim purposefulness in Rufus's attitude and his body language -- subtle, to be sure, but definitely there -- and it was obvious to Reno that Rufus was not in town for shit and giggles.
It could be that Rufus was playing bait in hopes of luring someone into reckless action or even an outright attack, a tactic the blond had used before. But their leisurely progress through the town didn't have that sort of vibe, either.
In the absence of any more clues, Reno simply kept his mouth shut and settled himself with keeping a watchful eye on his captain's back as they paused on one of the large terraces overlooking the badly damaged castle with all its cranes and scaffolding.
"Rufus, there you are!" The voice was female, breathless, and excited.
Reno whirled with one hand going for his weapon, even as he wondered why the hell he hadn't hear the woman running up behind them. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that his captain, normally as quick and alert as a cat, took his time responding to his name, almost as if he was using those few brief seconds to brace himself to for a tense and potentially unpleasant confrontation.
At first, because the young woman was hunched over and trying to catch her breath, all Reno could see of her was a mass of long curly brown hair, partially done up in a long braid, a pink dress, and a pair of rather utilitarian and workmanlike brown boots.
When she finally straightened, Reno noticed that she was more pretty than glamorously beautiful. But the dazzling, almost incandescently happy smile on her face more than made up for it. Obviously there was at least ONE person in this damn place who seemed glad to see his captain.
Reno saw the grim tension in Rufus shift and relax into a sort of rueful relief as he took a few steps toward her. They stared at each other for a moment, her brilliant smile facing off with Rufus's oddly tentative one.
"I know it's been a while...," Rufus murmured, but his words were cut short as the young woman threw herself at him and engulfed him in a fierce hug.
"Where have you been all this time!?"
"I wasn't sure that you wanted to see me, Aerith."
Without releasing him, she leaned back slightly so she could give him a faintly incredulous stare.
"And why wouldn't I be glad to see you?"
"Considering everything that happened...," Rufus began, but Aerith interrupted him with a firm poke in the chest.
"....none of which was your fault!" She frowned, looking decidedly exasperated. "Is that why you've been avoiding me all this time? Because you felt guilty and responsible?"
"I'll confess to a small degree of cowardice in that regard," an obviously reluctant Rufus admitted with a candor that nearly made Reno's jaw drop.
Just who the hell was this woman and what was she to Rufus, that she could get him to make emotionally intimate admissions like that?
She planted her hands on her hips, leaned forward until she and Rufus were almost nose to nose, then spoke slowly and deliberately, as if instructing a not-so-bright student.
"I do not blame you for what happened with Cloud, Sephiroth, and Zack." As Rufus opened his mouth as if to contradict her, but Aerith ruthlessly overrode him.
"IT. WAS. NOT. YOUR. FAULT. Got that?"
Rufus made a faintly skeptical sound, but nodded.
Aerith straightened and smiled brightly. "Good. Now that I've made MY opinion clear...." She glanced over at Reno who was watching the whole interchange with blatant curiosity. "I'm sorry. In all the excitement, I've completely lost my manners. My name's Aerith. And you are...?"
"Call me Reno."
Rufus added, "He's a crewman on my ship, the Midgar."
Aerith turned back to Rufus and said, "Which reminds me. If Cid hadn't told me you were in town, you would've slipped away from Radiant Garden without a single word to me. Am I right?"
"Cid is an excellent engineer, but he needs to stay the hell out of my personal affairs," Rufus said rather acerbically.
"He was just trying to be helpful. He might be a grouch, but underneath all that bluster, he's a very nice and caring person." She turned back to Reno. "I'm so glad to meet you. It's reassuring to know that Rufus has at least one person he can trust working with him."
Reno normally would have responded with a suitably flippant or sarcastic comment, depending on his mood, but there was something about Aerith's green eyes and her unexpectedly penetrating gaze that seemed to see right through him.
Damn it, she knew. She could fucking read him like a book and she -knew-.
It wasn't merely unnerving, but also pretty damn annoying to know that someone could read him like that, as if he was bloody transparent. Since denial seemed futile, he merely shrugged, then caught Rufus giving him an amused and slightly sympathetic look. Obviously his captain had been on the receiving end of 'that look' on more than one occasion, too.
"I'm fairly certain that Aerith's presence will keep the natives from doing anything too stupid or reckless, so I don't think I need you to play bodyguard any more, Reno."
It was an unmistakable dismissal, but Reno still hesitated. "Tseng will have my ass on a platter if something happens to you, you know."
"Don't worry. I'll watch his back, Reno," Aerith said.
He eyed the young woman, with her friendly smile and her ancient eyes. Yeah, she probably could, at that.
"Okay." Reno gave them a grin that bordered on a playful leer. "I'll find some way to entertain myself while the two of you get... reacquainted."
Rufus raised an eyebrow and said, "Fine, but let's not get too over-enthusiastic? I don't want to get thrown out of Radiant Garden before the Midgar's upgrades are complete."
"I'll be the very soul of decorum, boss," Reno said, raising his right hand as if taking an oath, and was rewarded with a profoundly skeptical look from Rufus.
As Reno sauntered away, he heard Aerith burst into laughter behind him.
Okay, obviously this Aerith was a familiar and intimate friend with Rufus. But just how intimate was the question -- merely platonic, romantic, and/or sexual?
Inquiring minds wanted to know, damn it!
"Let me guess, he's quite the chaos magnet, just like Zack."
Rufus sighed. "If there's trouble, Reno will find it. It's practically inevitable. Although there ARE some differences between them. Reno's darker and has more malice in him." Rufus's tone was matter-of-fact. His statement was not judgmental, but merely a dispassionate observation.
Arm in arm, they moved over to the edge of the terrace. Finally, Aerith quietly asked, "So why did you leave with your father?"
"Run away with him, do you mean?" Rufus sardonically inquired.
Aerith lightly smacked Rufus's hand. "Stop that. There's no need to play the selfish badass with me. You didn't run away and desert us. You left. It's not the same thing."
"First Cid, and now you?" Rufus commented acidly. "Have I become -that- easy to read?"
Aerith cocked her head, then said thoughtfully, "For most people, no, if that's what you're worried about. But for people with the eyes to see, there's so much more to you than just selfish ambition, greed, and ruthlessness. It's your emotional armor, just as cold, deadly efficiency was Sephiroth's."
"Both you and Zack saw right through me and Sephiroth from the very start. Do you have any idea how unnerving that type of uncanny insight is for people like us? And you did the same thing to poor Reno just a few minutes ago. He's probably going to stir up trouble, just to be contrary."
"Oh dear," Aerith said with an expression of mild dismay. Then, after a slight pause, she gently prompted, "Why did you leave, Rufus?"
"You're relentless, you know." But when Aerith refused to be sidetracked and merely gave him a patient smile, Rufus finally answered her question.
"The Heartless were winning. I found out that Father was preparing to make a run for it and leave everyone in Radiant Garden to fend for themselves. Naturally, I objected. And when he told me to shut and get ready to leave, I refused." Rufus shrugged. "So he drugged me and had me loaded onboard his ship like a piece of awkward luggage."
Aerith stared at him with an appalled expression, as Rufus continued.
"By the time I managed to escape my father's clutches, Radiant Garden had been left far behind. It took me a considerable amount of time and effort to get back here, only to find the now infamous Hollow Bastion and everyone gone, either dead, Heartless, or scattered across a myriad of worlds."
"What happened to your father?"
Rufus smiled coldly.
"Sephiroth may be quite insane, but he apparently remembered enough to blame my father for it. He eventually tracked Father down, which was lucky for me, because the commotion caused by his visit gave me a chance to escape. If it hadn't been for Sephiroth, I might have ended up just like Cloud."
Aerith's eyes widened in shock. "You don't mean your father was planning to continue his experiments with the Darkness and use YOU as his new test subject!"
Rufus shrugged. "Why not? I can assure you that he didn't hesitate at all to use Cloud."
"True... but your father never wanted Cloud and never treated him like a son."
"While I was cherished and lovingly raised?" Rufus said, sounding amused.
Aerith frowned. "Perhaps not, but at least your father seemed to -value- you, which is something he never did with Cloud."
"My father valued me because he needed an heir to inherit his little empire. But that all changed when he thought that immortality was within his grasp. You don't need children or heirs if you can live forever."
Her lips thinned in anger. "I never did like your father. And the more I learn about him, the more despicable I find him."
"It's a perfectly natural reaction and I'm the last person to try to defend him. If Father had treated Cloud with even the smallest shred of human compassion, Cloud would not be so emotionally damaged, Sephiroth would not be insane, and Zack would not be dead."
"Did you have a chance to actually speak with Sephiroth?"
"Yes, I did. And for your information, confronting the business end of Masamune was an... interesting... experience, to say the least."
Rufus eyed the lethal length of steel in Sephiroth's hand. Oddly, blood was everywhere -- sprayed, splashed, and splattered all over on the floors, walls, ceilings -- everywhere, except on the blade itself. He had no idea whether it was an inherent property of the blade itself or a result of its master's skill, but Masamune remained pristine and unbloodied. Only once had Masamune permitted itself to be stained with the blood of its victim....
"You are not Cloud."
"The physical resemblance is said to be noticeable," Rufus replied, doing his best to ignore the gleaming tip of Sephiroth's blade just below his chin.
Sephiroth continued to study him with glowing slitted eyes. Finally, he cocked his head slightly and lowered Masamune.
Rufus allowed himself a quiet breath of relief, but knew he wasn't out of danger. A fighter of Sephiroth's skill could draw, strike, and kill in less than a blink of an eye.
Sephiroth stalked closer.
"You are not Cloud, but you are of him. You share his blood." Sephiroth raised a leather-gloved hand and lightly gripped Rufus's chin.
Rufus said nothing, but continued to meet the other's uncanny stare, nor did he try to escape Sephiroth's grip, even though he knew that those fingers curled so lightly around his jaw could easily pulverize bone.
"I know you."
Sephiroth slowly lowered his hand, his fingertips lightly brushing down Rufus's throat and chest until they settled just over his heart.
"I can hear the echoes of pain, guilt, and grief inside you, Rufus. 'Too little, too late', they whisper. You were absent when your loved ones needed you. You escaped nearly unscathed while they suffered."
He remained silent, refusing to waste energy on useless denials.
"Darkness runs deep in you, and much of that your father's doing, both the old and the new," Sephiroth murmured, his fingers still resting over Rufus's heart. Neither of them spared a glance at the crumpled bloody body of the elder Shinra lying nearby. Sephiroth paused, then added quietly, almost fondly, "I am Cloud's Darkness. Shall I also be yours?"
Rufus felt his breath hitch at the tantalizing glimpse of the hero and good friend he once knew, as well as at the memories of decisions made in desperation and their terrible consequences. But Rufus managed to keep his voice steady when he answered.
"I appreciate the offer, but I think I can manage my Darkness on my own."
"And what did he say?" Aerith asked urgently.
Rufus shrugged slightly. "He wasn't exactly all that coherent. He's totally obsessed with Cloud and with the Darkness."
Aerith's expression made it clear that she knew that he wasn't telling her everything, but was willing to let it slide... for the moment.
"And what about Hojo?"
"Gone. I've heard the occasional rumor here and there, but he's staying well hidden. Well enough to elude Sephiroth, which is no small task," Rufus replied.
"So after you escaped, you became a smuggler and even a pirate."
"Those occupations suit both my inclination and my talents," he said unrepentantly, giving her an elegant bow.
She snorted. "You like being a rogue, don't you?"
"It has its advantages." He glanced at her. "Unlike Zack or Cloud, I never aspired to be a hero. For someone like Zack, to whom friends, loyalty, and honor were everything, dreams of heroism was as natural as breathing. On the other hand, Cloud hoped that becoming a hero would make people notice him, especially Father. I tried to warn him that Father would never acknowledge him. Use him, yes, but accept him? Never."
"Cloud's here, in Radiant Garden," Aerith said quietly.
Rufus stiffened slightly, then said, "What does he remember?"
"His memory was badly damaged from your father's experiments with Darkness, and what happened afterward. And what he does remember is badly distorted and misleading. He partially remembers how Zack died. He partially remembers what Sephiroth did. But he doesn't remember the real reasons why." Aerith's expression turned somber. "The two of us are the only ones who know the whole truth, both the good and the bad."
Rufus exhaled harshly.
Aerith said, "Sephiroth seems to remember more, but as you said, he's insane, consumed by Darkness." When she saw Rufus's inquiring look, she added, "No, I haven't had the chance to talk to Sephiroth myself. Cloud doesn't say much about Sephiroth, so most of what I know comes second-hand from Sora...."
"The wielder of the Keyblade."
"I've heard rumors about him," Rufus said, looking thoughtfully.
"I'll have to introduce you to him and his friends Riku and Kairi. I think you'll like them. Sora, especially. He reminds me a lot of Zack."
"Makes friends at the slightest opportunity. Optimistic. Fiercely loyal. Wants to be a hero. En-THU-siastic," she said with a mischievous grin, drawing out the last word.
Rufus winced visibly, dropped his head into his hands, and muttered something under his breath about puppies.
"Anyway, Sora said that Sephiroth claimed to be Cloud's Darkness, and that Sephiroth kept trying to get Cloud to join him in Darkness."
"Well, Sephiroth's technically correct. He -is- Cloud's Darkness," Rufus said, lifting his head. "He took on Cloud's Darkness in order to save Cloud's sanity. Sephiroth would've been able to handle it except...."
"Except there was so much of Cloud in that Darkness, a part of Sephiroth ended up embracing the Darkness instead of rejecting it, and thus allowed Darkness to consume him. Yes, you and I know that." She gave Rufus a meaningful look. "But Cloud doesn't. And with Cloud's true feelings for Sephiroth buried and twisted under the weight of so much confusion, pain, and guilt, I don't think he's ready to hear the truth about what really happened." She sighed. "He may never be ready."
They walked arm-in-arm in somber silence for a few minutes, then Aerith took a deep breath and spoke with a cheerfulness that was only slightly forced.
"So tell me about that crew of yours. The Turks."
Because it was Aerith, Rufus allowed himself a rueful smile. "They each have their unique talents and personalities."
Aerith giggled. "And are you going to introduce me to the rest of them? I'll invite them over for lunch." Before Rufus could say anything, Aerith added, "Cid told me that it's going to take at least a few days to fix your ship, so you're going to have plenty of time available, right?" she said coaxingly.
Rufus sighed, then nodded in resigned acquiescence. As usual, Aerith ended up getting her way.