|madamhydra (madamhydra) wrote in roads_diverged,|
@ 2007-11-23 00:55:00
|Entry tags:||final fantasy vii, madamhydra:rufus/turks, theme 01: crossover|
[Final Fantasy VII] "Synchronicity" 1/? - Rufus - Theme #1 Crossover
Title: Synchronicity 1/?
Fandom: FF7 x F.E.A.R.
Warning: violence, cannibalism
Theme: Meta - #1 - Crossover
Summary: "It is the way of men to make monsters. And it is the nature of monsters to destroy their makers."
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix. F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) and all related expansions belong to Monolith Productions, Timegate Studios, and Sierra Entertainment.
A/N #1: This crossover takes place shortly after the events of Advent Children.
A/N #2: For more information about the plot and characters of F.E.A.R., check out the F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) entry on Wikipedia.
-- kikotei for betaing.
-- Ladytanaka for the game scripts for F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. Extraction Point
So many thanks, guys! ^_^
synchronicity - (noun) the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (e.g., similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality
The phone rang in the darkened office, and the woman sitting at the desk answered it.
"Scarlet, what the fuck are you up to?" the deep male voice demanded in blunt, no-nonsense tones.
The blond woman leaned back in her chair and replied, "How nice to hear from you again, Harlan. Or would you prefer that I call you 'Dr. Wade'?"
"Cut the polite bullshit. I know you've been sending mercenaries to snoop around the deep levels of Junon. President Shinra placed that area strictly off-limits and sealed it off for damn good reasons!"
"I know," she purred back. "And whenever I asked him about it, he told me that it was none of my business. Now he's dead, Shinra Corporation is defunct, and no one is in any real position to object to little speculative exploration on my part."
"Reeve might have a thing or two to say about that," he retorted.
"Perhaps, but that would require you telling him the truth about the facility and the mysterious 'vault' it contains. And I'm guessing that you're not prepared to do that. Otherwise, you wouldn't have bothered calling me at all."
The cold angry silence from her caller was answer enough.
"My, my. It really must be quite the dirty secret. So unless you're willing to tell me exactly what's down there and to give me a good reason -- and by that I mean 'profitable' -- to stop my team, you can go screw yourself, Harlan."
"What's down there is something greedy fuckwits like you shouldn't mess around with. Damn it, Scarlet! Listen to some expert advice for a change! Tamper with the Vault and you could very well unleash something that makes dealing with Hojo's Jenova-tainted freaks feel like a walk in the park!"
"Ooooo, sounds exciting," she murmured in a bored voice, examining her long red nails. "Far from deterring me, now I'm even more curious to see what's down there."
"Fine, then you'd better get the lube ready and brace yourself for the assfuck of the century, bitch. 'Cause it's coming. You can mark my words on that."
He wanted to. He really did.
"Breathe, damn it!"
He really wanted the angry, almost desperate male voice hovering overhead to shut up. He was -trying- his best, but the fluid in his lungs and the terrible force rhythmically pressing down on his chest made it impossible. He wished the man would stop yelling and do something constructive for a change.
"C'mon, make her push!"
What an idiot. Not only was the man incompetent, but the moron couldn't even recognized the gender of his patient properly. He was clearly male, thank you.
One final agonizingly long compression and the suffocating pressure was gone. Which was great, only now he was cold, wet, and when he finally managed to open his eye, things were way too bright.
A hard rubbery tube slipped into his mouth and sucked away fluid. Finally, someone had the right idea. He spit up some more liquid, gasped weakly for air, and hoped that someone would do something about those damn hospital lamps hanging overhead.
"Nooo!!! Where are you taking him!?" The high-pitched shriek was definitely female and definitely hysterical.
But even as he wondered what the hell was going on, a mustached middle-aged man with dark hair and thick rimmed glasses loomed over him, thankfully blotting out the glare from the odd triangular light fixture. Dressed in a white labcoat, the man -- doctor? -- looked down on him, the expression on his craggy face an unsettling combination of paternalistic and proprietary pride, before he spoke in a deep, gruff, confident voice.
"You will be a god among men."
Rufus Shinra awoke with a start, staring up at the ceiling of his darkened bedroom. The half-dream, half-nightmare has started out with the familiar aftermath of the Diamond WEAPON's attack on Shinra Tower, with emergency personnel struggling to keep him alive. But then the dream had gone rather... strange.
It wasn't the first time. Over the last two weeks, no matter how mundanely they started, his dreams always ended up involving creepy medical corridors, bright hospital lights, strangers in labcoats that he -almost- recognized, and a young woman's frantic screaming.
However, the very last bit about the 'god among men' was new. Rufus accepted the fact that he was proud, self-confident, and perhaps even arrogant. He also accepted the fact that he usually had perfectly valid reasons for feeling that way.
But on the other hand, he wasn't delusional about his talents and capabilities. So where the hell was this 'god among men' nonsense come from?
There was no question that in his later years, Rufus's own father had harbored some rather bizarre and overblown power fantasies, although the former President had certainly done his best to keep them a secret. No, those fantasies were played out in strict privacy, behind locked doors with people well paid to keep their mouths shut.
The idea that he might be headed down a similar path was distasteful, to say the least, and Rufus fervently hoped that the tendency toward this particular brand of megalomania wasn't a genetic trait.
He glanced toward the curtained window and saw the faintest tinge of morning light. Resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be able to return to sleep, Rufus rose and headed to the bathroom.
Several minutes later, he arrived in the kitchen, fully dressed in his usual white. Despite the early hour, many of the Turks were already up. For once, Elena and her older sister Tasha were eating breakfast in reasonably amiable fashion instead of behaving like a pair of territorial house cats. Tseng was probably busily working in one of the offices, while Rude was probably out for his usual morning jog through the woods.
However, as usual, Reno was conspicuously absent.
Rufus had just helped himself to coffee and a muffin when his cell phone rang. Frowning, he checked the caller's number, but didn't recognize it. Even after the recent incidents involving the Sephiroth Remnants and Bahamut Sin, few people knew that Rufus Shinra was still alive. Even fewer of them knew how to contact him directly. So instead of answering, he allowed the call go to voicemail, then checked it.
"Mr. Shinra? This is Chuck... I mean, Dr. Charles Habegger. You probably haven't heard of me before, but I was a senior researcher for Shinra's Scientific Division. It's very VERY important that I talk to you immediately. I can't go into details about it over the phone, but there are some highly secret Shinra research projects that you really need to know about. The projects and their facilities were shut down by your father years ago, but I've recently learned that certain parties are now taking a dangerous interest in them. If those people start messing with those projects, the consequences could be catastrophic. Look, I know I should probably talk to someone in the WRO, but I thought you should hear about it first because...."
The speaker hesitated, then blurted in a rush, "...well, because you're personally and intimately involved in these projects. Please call me back ASAP so we can set up a meeting. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you're going to have to come to me, because there are certain... things... that I need to show you in person. I know that this all sounds more than a little crazy, but you've GOT to believe me! The things that we did back then.... Just call me back. Please!"
As the message ended, Rufus turned to Elena and said, "Check and see you if you can find any information on a Dr. Charles Habegger. He claims to be a researcher in the Scientific Division."
Elena blinked, murmured, "Yes, sir," then immediately put down her fork and left the room.
Tasha watched her sister go, then eyed him thoughtfully. Rufus was certain that she hadn't missed his reaction, however tiny, to the latter half of Habegger's call. But being the consummate professional she was, Tasha said nothing.
Even ignoring his recent dreams, Rufus felt strangely certain that Habegger's call was genuine, at least to some degree. That didn't prevent it from being some sort of a trap, of course, but something was definitely going on and he needed to know about it.
Someone else had been struggling with intense nightmares involving sinister laboratory corridors, blinding medical lights, labcoat-wearing figures with cold cruel hands, and neverending screams of anguish. On the other hand, unlike Rufus Shinra, this person was used to dreaming about such nightmarish scenes.
They had been his inescapable reality for years.
But while the sense of pain and terror, of anguish and loss, were familiar, the exact details were subtly changing.
There was a presence in these dreams. Again, that was nothing new, but this time, it wasn't the familiar silvery cold and ice-green cruelty male presence from before.
The new presence was all seething black hatred and blood-red rage. And where the silver-and-green dripped icy malice and sadistic enjoyment, the black-and-red suffered and hungered.
It was also female.
But gender made no difference. Whenever the black-and-red touched him, something in him hated and raged, suffered and hungered, too.
The dreams came more often, became more intense. And when he realized what was happening, it was too late to stop her because he could no longer tell where he ended and she began....
Now the sibilant whisper of her voice filled his ears as he knelt and waited on the cold floor of a sparsely furnished room.
She was coming for him.
[ Kill them. ]
The door in front of him slowly swung open.
[ Kill them all. ]
His pain/her pain. His hate/her hate.
Body arching, he screamed as two merged into one.
Even as Rufus brooded over the unsettling timing of Habegger's phone call, Elena returned.
"It checks out. Dr. Charles Habegger, senior researcher, worked in Shinra's Scientific Division for nearly thirty years."
"Speciality?" he asked, tapping a finger on the rim of his coffee mug.
"Human genetics and physiology. He started out doing work on microgravity-related health problems, then moved into various other projects."
"What other projects?"
Elena frowned at the printout in her hand. "According to his personnel file, a string of perfectly ordinary-looking, small-scale research projects relating to employee health."
"But you don't think so."
"No, I don't. Something's definitely not right here. The payscale is definitely off-kilter, for one thing. The projects listed on here are the sorts of things you dump on brand new researchers -- scientific drudge work like the effects of greens on bowel movements or genetically transmitted acne. So why waste a highly experienced research on them? There's no indication that he's horribly incompetent, no indication that he was on someone's personal shitlist. Regular pay increases, plenty of bonuses... it just doesn't add up."
Tseng spoke up from a doorway, already immaculately dressed in his usual dark suit. "I've seen that pattern before. The very fact that his work history is falsified, however poorly, implies that he was involved in a highly secretive research area. My guess, given his scientific background, would be some sort of human-based weapons project."
"You mean like SOLDIER?" Elena asked curiously.
"Yes, but obviously much more secret. Something known only to a few select high level individuals. Why else take the trouble?" Tasha said, coolly eying her younger sibling.
Elena bristled slightly, always overly sensitive to any hint of censure or insinuation of inadequacy from her older sister.
"I'm not aware of anything that fits that description." Rufus then shrugged and added, "With all the chaos surrounding my father's death and the entire Sephiroth/Meteor incident, there simply wasn't enough time for a complete briefing on all Shinra's active projects, much less the inactive ones." He added, almost as an afterthought, "Although, in this case, I'm not sure the omission was entirely inadvertent."
"So what's with the sudden interest in this Habegger guy?" a sleepy and shirtless Reno muttered as he strolled in from another doorway.
Rufus said, "I received a rather urgent message from Habegger, informing me that certain people were showing a dangerous interest in several research projects that my father shut down years ago, and warning about the potentially catastrophic consequences of their reckless tampering."
"Okay, but why bug you about it?" Reno said, padding barefoot toward the counter in pursuit of vital coffee. "I mean, if he's so concerned about the possible danger, why not talk to Reeve and his do-good buddies at the WRO? I'm sure they'd just jump at the chance to do something about it."
"Perhaps this is simply a crude extortion attempt," Tasha added. "Something on the lines of 'pay me or I'll tell everyone about your father's dirty secrets'."
Rufus remained silent for a moment, wondering how much, if anything, he should say. He probably didn't -need- to give any explanations at all. But he'd already made his decision to meet Habegger, and a little background information would make the Turks more agreeable to the obvious risks of that decision.
"Habegger contacted me first because I am -- and I quote -- 'personally and intimately involved in these projects'."
Turks were not certainly not stupid, and he could seem them working out the ugly implications even as he watched.
Characteristically, it was Reno that spoke first and the most candidly.
"I -really- don't like the sound of that, boss."
Rufus uttered a soft, unamused snort. "Believe me, you're not the only one. Given the fact that I have never personally authorized, much less performed, any sort of scientific research remotely involving human genetics or physiology, that basically leaves only one other plausible option as to my 'intimate' involvement."
"That of experimental subject," Tseng finished neutrally.
Rufus nodded, then continued, "Habegger wants to set up a face-to-face meeting at a location of his choice so we can discuss these projects. And perhaps more importantly, show me physical evidence to support his claims."
"Are you buying his story? I mean, it IS pretty wild and whacked out. Not the crap about secret projects and possible disasters waiting to happen. After all the shit with Jenova, that's just about par for the course. I'm talking about the stuff about YOU," Reno said, looking pointedly at Rufus.
"I have reason to believe that certain aspects of his story might be true." Rufus did not elaborate further, nor did he say anything about his recent dreams. Instead, he merely added, "The man's not merely worried. He's terrified."
"So you intend to agree to Habegger's request," Tseng said.
"Yes," Rufus confirmed, placing the call even as he spoke.
"Dr. Habegger. This is Rufus Shinra."
"Thank god you got back to me so quickly!"
"You wanted to set up a meeting. Where and when?"
"There's a small abandoned industrial complex a few miles south of Kalme. I'll be waiting there, on the second floor of the admin building. And as for when to meet, as soon as you can possibly manage. Now that Harlan Wade's gone and confronted Scarlet, there's no telling how much time we have before she...."
"Scarlet? She's alive?" Rufus demanded in a sharp voice.
"Yes, yes! She's the interested party I warned you about! Somehow she learned about these projects and now she's sending in teams to snoop around. But she doesn't have a clue what she's dealing with here! If she somehow manages to reopen the Vault, god only knows what will happen!" Habegger stopped, took a few deep breaths to calm himself before continuing. "Look, just come as soon as you can!" And with that, the call abruptly ended.
Looking at the Turks, Rufus smiled coldly. "It seems that Scarlet's the one causing the trouble. Typical." Turning to Tseng, he said, "Tell Rude to get the helicopter ready. We're leaving right now."
Reno gulped down the last of his coffee and went to finish dressing.
Elena caught up with Reno as he reached his room. Once inside, she carefully closed the door and said, "Reno, I know that Rufus is a very level-headed person. But does it strike you that he's is taking all this just a little too calmly?"
"So you noticed, too," the redhead muttered as he pawed through a large pile of recently laundered clothes. "Oh, he knows something, but he's not talking. Which is totally and typically Rufus."
"Do you think that it could be true, that he might've been a subject in one of Shinra's research projects?" she asked.
He glanced at her. "Would it make a difference to you if he was?"
"Of course not!" she said, stiffening angrily.
"Then yeah, I suppose it's possible. Actually, it could explain a lot."
"Like his IQ and his scary memory, for starters," Reno said, now rummaging in his closet for a jacket.
Elena frowned. "His IQ? I know it's quite high, but...."
"He cheated," Reno said bluntly.
"He what?" she exclaimed.
"The IQ tests. He cheated."
"You mean he cheated to get a higher score?"
"No, he cheated to get a lower score."
"But why would he...?"
"Because of his paranoid asshole of a father, duh." Reno gave her an exasperated look.
"Oh. Right. Got it."
"The same thing for his memory," he said, grabbing his favorite rod weapon and heading for the door.
"Let me guess, much better than average," Elena said as they quickly headed down the hallway.
"If his memory isn't photographic, it's pretty damn close. I only found out by chance. By the way, don't ever play those sorts of games with Rufus for dares, especially when he's drunk. Not unless you like the idea of playing harem slave for a week."
"I'll keep that in mind if I ever get the chance," she said with a wry grin.
Just before he opened the door leading to the helipad and the waiting chopper, Reno paused, then gave her an oddly serious look.
"Two more points to consider. One, Rufus managed to survive Diamond WEAPON's attack. No one else on those top three floors did. Two, he had one hell of a case of Geostigma, one that should've made him drop dead twice over. He didn't."
In the helicopter, Rufus studied the picture of Charles Habegger and couldn't decide whether he felt relieved or disappointed that the clean-shaven balding man looked nothing like the domineering doctor in his most recent dream. But even though Habegger was a complete stranger to him, there was still a nagging sense of familiarity....
[ "Breathe!" ]
[ "C'mon, make her push!" ]
Two hours later, they were hovering over the industrial compound that Habegger mentioned. Tseng surveyed the area with his usual caution, but saw nothing immediately suspicious. Upon landing in the large open courtyard and shutting down the helicopter's engines, an oppressive silence seemed to settle over the area. No birds or insects could be seen or heard, and the only hint of life was the few scraggly tufts of limp, half-dead grass sprouting out of the cracked concrete slab.
"Reno and Rude, with us. Elena, you stay with the helicopter," Tseng said, his dark eyes continuing to scan the apparently deserted buildings that edged the courtyard.
The only hint of a human presence was a battered truck parked next to a squat, two story building clearly marked 'Administration'.
Reno put his hand on the truck's hood and said, "Still warm, but not by much." He glanced up at the building. "If it's Habegger's, he's been waiting here for a while."
The first floor of the admin building had looked like any other abandoned industrial office space. Bags of garbage and the battered remains of office furniture littered the rooms. Some of the doors were boarded shut, and in some instances, even barricaded with shelves or furnishings, apparently in a futile effort to keep out intruders. Even so, in various spots, the walls were marred with spray paint graffiti.
They moved through the first part of the build at a steady pace, with Reno and Rude scouting ahead. For this meeting, they were all wearing comlinks, even Rufus. Over the radio, he heard Reno report, "This floor's clear. Looks like there were some squatters here, but that was a while ago. No sign that anyone's been here for months."
Rufus frowned as he heard a brief crackle of static through his earpiece. Even before it ended, he heard Elena's voice on the radio.
"Report," Tseng snapped.
"Sorry, Tseng. I thought I saw someone or something moving past a window upstairs."
"Is it Habegger?"
"I'm not sure. I'm not even certain if I really saw anything or not. It was just a flicker."
"All right. Let us know if you see any trace of activity. Reno, Rude, meet us back at the lobby doors."
Reno arrived just as Rude was shoving aside the large desk blocking the double doors to the building's main reception area. Once the way was clear, Rufus waited with Tseng as Reno and Rude pushed the doors open and smoothly moved into the lobby to check it out.
Even as the two Turks entered the area, a brief blinding flash momentarily obscured Rufus's vision. A soft child-like voice whispered something he couldn't quite make out. When his vision cleared, Rufus still saw Reno and Rude advancing, only now they were moving in slow motion, as if they were suddenly wading through some thick and viscous fluid.
It wasn't only the Turks who were affected, but their surroundings as well. The swinging of the doors, the roll of a dislodged paint can... time itself seemed to have abruptly slowed to a near-crawl for everyone and everything....
....except for Rufus.
But before Rufus could react to the strangeness of the situation, Reno and Rude simply disintegrated right before his eyes, leaving behind nothing more than two clumps of slowly falling black ash.
He immediately whirled toward Tseng, standing directly behind him, only to see the leader of the Turks also disintegrate into a flurry of those same dark flakes of ash.
The world around him returned to normal speed with almost an audible snap. Even as he pulled out his shot pistol, Rufus barked out, "Elena!" over the comlink.
He got no response, not even static. Rufus pulled out his cell phone and got the same result -- absolutely nothing.
He pondered his next move. Should he keep searching or evacuate the area? Even as he contemplated his options, Rufus caught a glimpse of someone slowly walking past a partially boarded up doorway. He swiftly and silently moved to the opening and pulled away the bottommost board, which gave him just enough room to crouch and slip through.
Despite his quick reaction, the long corridor beyond the doorway was completely empty. To his left was a dead end. The only visible exit was the partially open door at the end of the hallway to his right. Rufus rose to his feet and headed for the door, the only direction the mysterious figure could have gone.
Rufus had barely taken two steps when the light bulb at the far end shattered. But even in the flickering dimness, he clearly saw several white ceramic tiles fly off the walls and fall to the floor, seemingly of their own accord.
Unsettling as those events were, it was the vision that froze him in his tracks.
~ ~ ~
....a balding, middle-aged man, his head lolling backward... a bloody mutilated face partially stripped of flesh, leaving the bones of the jaw and cheeks exposed....
~ ~ ~
The gory vision vanished, leaving Rufus tense and breathing hard in the middle of an empty hallway.
Great. Now he was starting to see things while wide awake. But despite the brevity of his vision, he recognized the man as Habegger, the person he had come to see. But if there was any truth in the vision he just saw, Habegger was no longer in any condition to answer his or anyone else's questions.
There was yet another soft crackle of static in his earpiece, and the partially open door at the end of the hallway slammed shut with a violent bang.
Rufus stared hard at it. Gun at the ready, he warily approached and reached for the doorknob. He was annoyed, but unsurprised to find that it was solidly locked. Actually, it was more than merely locked -- the door felt eerily immovable. Even as he tried the doorknob again, he sensed a presence behind him and whirled around, shot pistol aimed and ready.
The first thing he noticed was that the partially boarded up doorway through which he had entered was gone without a trace. The second thing was the young girl in a blood red dress standing at the far end of the now doorless corridor, her long black hair streaming over and obscuring much of her pale face.
[ "I know who you are." ]
Rufus didn't know whether he had actually heard the soft girlish voice, or whether it was all in his head. But when she began walk toward him, Rufus instinctively retreated before that slow, inexorable advance. Or at least he tried to. Trapped at the end of the hallway, there was nowhere for him to go.
He leaned back, his back pressing hard against the door behind him. Then, just as suddenly as it had slammed shut, the door sprang open, sending him staggering back into the next room.
As he struggled to regain his balance, Rufus briefly lost sight of the mysterious girl in red. When he looked back down the still exitless hallway, she was gone.
With no other way out and rather reluctant to brave the eerie hallway again, Rufus had no choice but to continue forward, his nerves increasingly on edge as he made his way through several dimly lit interior rooms. Finally, he saw a glimmer of light. He paused to listen, but upon hearing nothing suspicious, he quickly rounded the corner, his gun ready.
Rufus found himself confronting the corpse of Dr. Charles 'Chuck' Habegger, slumped in a bare wooden chair. The floor around the chair was heavily splattered in blood. The body was brightly illuminated by a single bare industrial lamp and looked exactly as it had in his vision.
Whatever the actual cause of death, Habegger had not died easily. It was impossible to tell from the face, but marks on other parts of the body indicated that Habegger had been severely and mercilessly interrogated. Rufus quickly glanced around the room, but aside from the body, there was nothing else of interest. If Habegger had brought any documents or evidence with him, they were gone, presumably taken by the persons who had first questioned, then killed him.
Then, with a sudden jolt, Rufus realized that murder and even outright torture could not fully explain the damage to the body and the amount of the missing flesh.
Habegger had been partially -eaten-.
Rufus was no coward, but he wasn't a fool, either. He had no desire to play hide-and-seek with one or more psychotic cannibals, especially in the dark. With only a few more hours of daylight left before nightfall, he needed to get away from the compound and he needed to do it -now-.
There was another doorway in the room containing Habegger's body, one that led to a narrow staircase. At the top of the stairs was a door, and through the narrow crack between door and jamb, he could see a slightly overcast sky.
However, Rufus's relief was almost immediately replaced by tense apprehension as once again, he caught a glimpse of someone moving past the door on the other side. It was all too likely that there was an ambush -- mundane or otherwise -- waiting for him on the other side of that door. But on the other hand, it was the only way out of this place. Rufus silently mounted the stairs, waited a moment, then slammed the door open, ready to both dodge and attack.
Once again, there was no sign of anyone. Rufus found himself standing alone on the building's roof, on the side facing away from the courtyard and the Turks' helicopter.
Rufus moved purposefully across the rooftop, continuously scanning the area both for Habegger's killers and for a way back down to the courtyard. He cautiously threaded his way past a row of towering air conditioning units, only to see a familiar black-clothed, blond-haired figure step out from behind the last AC unit in a blur, swinging a very large sword at his head.
Rufus didn't have the time to dodge or to finish the expletive before everything went swiftly and painfully black.
He gradually become aware that he was flat on his back and was vaguely amazed that he was still alive, considering what hit him. True, his attacker had turned his sword at the very last instant so as to strike with the flat, not the edge, of his blade. Whatever his motives for attacking Rufus without warning, he seemed interested in keeping Rufus alive... at least for the moment.
He felt something warm and wet slowly trickling through his hair, and knew that he was bleeding. With his head throbbing fit to burst and an odd ringing in his ears, he guessed that he probably also had a mild to moderate concussion. Rufus finally managed to pry open his eyelids. His vision was a bit blurry, but he could make out two rather bizarre-looking individuals standing off to the side.
The first individual was pale all over, his long hair spiky and white. Shirtless, the pale stranger wore only boots, pants, and what looked like an odd multi-tailed sash around his waist. When he turned slightly, Rufus could see that he carried two very long katanas with odd, pistol-like grips crossed across his back.
Dressed all in bodyhugging black, and with eerily skeletal black metallic wings, the second individual was as dark as the first was light. Straps encircled his head in various places, forming a mask over most of his face and even covered his mouth, almost like a gag. This stranger carried no visible weapons, but the streamers of seemingly animate darkness coiling around him made it clear that he was no less dangerous than the first.
The pair, light and dark, silently stared at him, then each stepped aside in opposite directions, clearing the way for the blond third man, whom Rufus had no problem recognizing.
Cloud Strife walked forward, the pair of strangers following a few steps behind him almost like an escort or honor guard.
No, -exactly- like an escort or honor guard. There was no mistaking who was in charge here.
Cloud crouched down beside Rufus and spoke in a calm, conversational tone.
"The dead man's name was Charles Habegger. I remember him," Cloud paused for an instant, then with a faint note of curiosity in his voice, he continued, "But are the memories mine? Or hers?" He shrugged, then leaned a little closer to give added emphasis to his next words.
"It makes no difference. He deserved to die. They all deserve to die."
Rufus stared blankly at Cloud. It wasn't the conspicuous bloodstains on Cloud's clothes, arms, or even his bare hands that disturbed him. The smears of fresh blood around Cloud's mouth were an entirely different matter, however. Rufus now knew with grim sickening certainty just who had been responsible for devouring parts of Charles Habegger.
"You've seen her, haven't you? She is the Original. I was made from her. And I was born from her. We are separate, but we are one."
[ "Don't let them hurt me." ]
"She is a prisoner, floating in darkness. Like the unborn in the womb. Soon I will find her. And I will set her free."
"Why do I have the feeling you're NOT talking about Jenova?" Rufus said in a husky voice.
Cloud smiled, apparently pleased by Rufus's observation but at the same time amused.
"You still don't know you are, do you? What you are. Why you're here."
[ "You will be a god among men." ]
"You and I were born of the same mother." Cloud cocked his head slightly. "You must have sensed it. She cannot see into your mind, but perhaps you can see into hers. A life of waking from one nightmare, only to find herself deep in another."
~ ~ ~
A newborn wailed.
He was back in the hospital room with the cold, the wet, and the glaring lights.
Once again, the mustached doctor loomed over him.
"Give me back my baby!" The young female voice was hoarse from exhaustion and shrill with panic.
"You will be a god among men," the doctor announced, eyeing him with obvious approval before looking up across the room.
"Take her back to the Vault." The doctor's command was cold, his nod dismissive.
The unseen young woman uttered yet another heart-wrenching scream.
His view shifted as his head... no, as HE was being lifted and held in someone's arms. Now he could finally see the source of the distraught screams.
The dark-haired female struggling to sit up was barely a teenager. And even though she was halfway across the room, even as the doctors and nurses converged on her and held her down, she stretched out her arms, reaching desperately toward him... for him.
As his awareness faded, he could still hear the faint, grief-stricken whisper of her voice.
"....my baby... give him back to me...."
~ ~ ~
Rufus blinked as reality -- such as it was -- reasserted itself, even as Cloud's bloodstained lips curved upward in a cold, savage grin.
"They tried to bury their sins, but instead planted the seeds of their doom."
The stabbing pain in Rufus's head intensified sharply and things began to blur, but he fought to stay conscious. He couldn't pass out now. Important things were being said, things he had to know.
"But she would not be forgotten." Cloud reached out, his hand resting lightly on Rufus's shoulder. "WE will make them remember."
The silence that followed was broken by the dark stranger.
"Commander, the Tsviets are assembled. Deep Ground awaits your orders."
Cloud glanced over toward the pair.
The dark one bowed slightly.
The pale one gave a barely perceptible nod.
"So it begins."
The two men proclaimed, "Hail Strife!" then vanished in blurs of light and dark.
Cloud looked back at Rufus, then uttered a soft, vicious laugh.
"They will die. All of them."
As his vision darkened and faded to black, Cloud's final words etched themselves indelibly into Rufus's memory.
"A war is coming. I've seen in my dreams. Fires sweeping over the Planet. Bodies in the streets. Cities turned to dust. Retaliation."
"Reno, Rude, have you found anything?"
Barely conscious, Rufus grimaced as Tseng's voice rang with unusual sharpness in his ear over the comlink, which apparently was working again.
"No sign of him," Rude radioed back.
Reno added, "How the hell did the boss disappear without a fucking trace!? Damn it, we were all less than ten feet away, not to mention damn well surrounding him!"
"At the moment, I'm more interested in where Rufus is at this moment. We'll deal with the 'how' later," Tseng retorted.
Up on the roof, Rufus abruptly sat up, and immediately regretted it as he nearly passed out again. It took him a moment or two before his head cleared enough to think properly.
He has seen Tseng, Reno, and Rude crumble into dust right before his eyes. And now they were back, acting like nothing had happened....
With an odd sort of chill, Rufus realized that perhaps nothing -had- happened to them. Could he have imagined everything? What if all the uncanny phenomena he had so recently experienced -- the constantly vanishing people, the doors, the strange girl in red, the whole bizarre conversation with Cloud -- what if all of it had been nothing more than some sort of extended waking dream?
And if that was true, what did it say about his state of sanity?
While he pondered this unpleasant question, Rufus continued to eavesdrop shamelessly on the Turks' conversation.
"Aw, fucking hell!" Reno exclaimed over the comlink.
"What's going on?" Tseng responded.
"We just found Habegger, or rather what's left of him."
"He's dead, then?"
"Yeah, within the last hour, I'd guess. And he's a mess."
"Go on," Tseng said impatiently.
"Not only was he worked over pretty good, someone -- or something -- has been snacking on him. The guy's missing about half his face," Reno reported.
Well, at least THAT part turned out to be real, which was somewhat of a relief. Although now that his only source of information was dead, Rufus was left with far too many unanswered questions.
"Any sign of who's responsible?" Tseng radioed back.
"Nope. Nary a trace."
"Where are you?"
"On the second floor, on the east side of the building."
"I'll be right there. Elena?"
"Nothing, Tseng. I've visually searched the entire compound area from the chopper. There's no sign of Rufus and there is no sign that anyone's left the compound by air or on the ground. I'm starting another sweep."
Over the comlink, Reno interrupted to say, "Look, if we can't find any sign of Rufus above ground, maybe we should try looking underground. This place probably has a basement, sewers, that sort of shit."
"Hold it!" Elena's voice rose sharply with excitement. "I see him! He's at the south end of the building, on the roof!"
"No need to yell, Elena. I can hear you just fine," Rufus said, pleased that at least his voice sounded reasonably normal and calm.
A brief ringing silence from the Turks, then Tseng said tersely, "We'll be right there."
As he sat on the roof and waited for Tseng and the others to arrive, Rufus gingerly explored his scalp. As he expected, his fingers came away wet with blood. He wasn't sure whether it was directly Cloud's fault or whether it had occurred when he fell, but it really didn't matter. His head hurt, both inside and out, and Rufus couldn't decide whether he wanted his recent experience to be real or delusion.
If it was a delusion, then that would be rather unfortunate for him, of course. Losing one's grip on reality was a singularly unpleasant prospect. But at least with that scenerio, Cloud would be his usual sane, if broody, self and the Planet would be reasonably safe.
On the other hand, if he wasn't imagining things and Cloud had somehow become a cannibalistic madman hellbent on a mission of revenge and destruction -- not to mention capable of commanding what Rufus suspected was his own private army of metahuman fanatics -- then everyone on the Planet had a very serious problem.
Compared to that, Sephiroth was arguably less of a danger. At least Sephiroth didn't have the private army at his beck and call.
He glanced up to see Reno and the rest of the Turks running toward him.
"What the fuck happened?" the red-headed Turk demanded, crouching down beside him. "Hell, you're bleeding!"
"It's just a minor head wound. As usual, it looks worse than it is," Rufus said, dismissively.
"Aside from that, are you injured?" Tseng said.
"I think I've got a moderate concussion, but other than that, nothing else seems to be wrong." Physically wrong, that is. Anticipating Tseng's next question, Rufus continued, "As for how I ended up here on the roof, that's rather complicated."
Reno eyed Rufus skeptically. "No shit! One moment, you're with us. The next moment, you're gone. We can't find hide or hair of you, and then bam, you're lying up here with a bloody scalp and a concussion!"
"Well, that's what occurred from your prospective, Reno. What happened on my end was considerably more involved. And to be honest, more than a little unsettling."
Before Reno could push for more details, Tasha, who had remained back at Healin Lodge, radioed in.
"Sir, I've uncovered important information about Habegger, Harlan Wade, and the projects they worked on. The details are still rather sketchy, but the names of the three main projects are Origin, Perseus, and Deep Ground. They were intended to operate together, but for some unknown reason, Origin was terminated, followed shortly by the shutdown of Perseus. As far as I can determine, Deep Ground remained operational right up until the Meteor incident and was designed to produce a secret army of highly trained, heavily enhanced supersoldiers."
When she hesitated, Rufus sighed and said, "I'm bruised and I'm bleeding. Don't leave me in suspense, Tasha. Go on."
"Sorry, Sir. Projects Origin and Perseus were directed toward genetically engineering extremely powerful psychics -- specifically, the creation of a telepathic commander capable of mentally controlling the army of supersoldiers produced by Deep Ground."
Rufus exhaled slowly.
"Sir, there's one more thing you need to know. I just received a very urgent message from Reeve. Apparently, Cloud Strife has gone missing."
Rufus laughed. He couldn't help it. Fortunately, he managed to stop himself before someone tried to slap him back to his senses. He knew that Reno would do it, too.
"So much for my hope that seeing him was just a hallucination created by a delusional mind," he said ruefully.
"Uh, Rufus? I know that it's probably one hell of a shock to find out that you could be part of some kooky genetic research project. But try not to flip out on us, okay?" Reno said, now looking genuinely worried.
Rufus grinned tightly. "You mean like Sephiroth did?"
As Reno and Rude exchanged confused and increasingly uneasy looks, Tseng hastily said, "You said something about 'seeing him'. Were you referring to Cloud?"
Rufus nodded once, still mindful of the throbbing pain in his head.
"You saw Cloud. Here? Just now?" Reno repeated, as if he wanted to be absolutely sure of his facts.
Rufus nodded again.
"And what happened?"
"We had an... interesting... conversation, to put it mildly."
With the customary reckless daring and lack of tact that so often amused Rufus, Reno dived right in and bluntly asked, "So what the hell did you talk about?"
As he gingerly rose to his feet, Rufus replied in his most nonchalant manner.
"Nothing all that very important. Something about being brothers, looking for our biological mother...."
He began fastidiously dusting the grit off his once white pants.
"Oh, and he mentioned something about destroying the world and even invited me to join him for the ride."