Bloodlines: Chapter 1
A viral infection that can incubate for years
Caused by affection fallen deep into arrears
No medication to procure
Makes me pure, there's no cure, I am sure
--bare naked ladies
"...so you see why I need your assistance, Mr. Wallace."
Barret frowned suspiciously at Rufus. "Not sure I trust you guys, no matter what Cloud says."
Rufus steepled his fingers on his desk, eyeing Barret levelly. "I realize you have sufficient reason for doubting me, as do the citizens of North Corel. I am not expecting an immediate answer. Take some time to think it over and discuss the idea with your friends." Rufus stood up and circled his desk. "The system of checks and balances our two groups have established should prevent any problems. Avalanche and Shinra are the closest thing to a planetary government we have, Mr. Wallace. Your group can, at any time, call a halt to the project if it interferes with your ecological and work standards. I'm sure Reeve would be delighted to show any of you the plans for the hydroelectric plant; he's terribly proud of it." Rufus folded his arms, looking thoughtful. "Look, Barret. Dio has hired us to provide electrical power to the Gold Saucer area, and that includes Corel. North Corel needs economic stimulation badly, and I need workers. I would rather not bring them in from somewhere else. Once the plant is completed it will still need maintenance, administration. Ideally, Corel could build and run the thing. I've got too much to do and too few people on my hands. You are the ideal liaison."
Barret stood up, slowly. "Last time I convinced them to trust you, my hometown was burned to the ground."
Some flicker of emotion moved across Rufus's face, and he nodded. "I understand what you're saying. But please be aware that Heidigger, Scarlet, and... my father," his eyes narrowed, slightly, "are no longer part of this operation."
In other words, Barret thought, they're dead. For the Shinra, that's the same thing as fired. "Still cool as a cucumber, ain't ya?" Barret scratched his chin with his non-gun hand, and squinted down at Rufus, sizing him up. "What happened to the guy who said he'd control the world through fear?"
Rufus's lip twitched. "Hadn't you heard?" he asked, dryly. "He was killed when Diamond weapon blew his office to hell."
Barret chuckled. He had to admit, there was something about Rufus that was not what he remembered of the man on the Shinra rooftop. "All right. I'll see what the others think about it, and I'll ask around Corel. If it seems best, maybe."
Rufus smiled. "Thanks for coming up. Reno will show you out, just let us know when you've decided."
The red-haired Turk, quiet as he was, still had a presence as subtle as a machine gun at a formal ball. He pushed himself up from the doorway, and nodded at Barret. Barret stiffened a bit, but gestured for Reno to lead the way.
When the door closed, Rufus sank back in his chair and sighed, rubbing his temples. "Gods, I don't suppose you could dig my father up and kill him again for me, could you?"
Tseng, who had been silent and invisible in an alcove behind Rufus's chair, emerged into the afternoon light. "I'm afraid not. Although he does still seem to be able to cause you problems."
"Idiots. All of them. Fear I can do. Awe. Respect. That might get you somewhere. Open terrorism, no. Burning Corel to the ground, dropping plates on half the city, my god, what a Moron." Rufus rummaged in his desk drawer, opened a bottle, tossed three painkillers into his hand, and downed them with the glass of water Tseng offered him. "Thanks."
"I'm sure he had no idea it would cause you difficulty." Tseng sat down in the chair Barret had just abandoned. "Or he would have burned Corel sooner, and for less reason."
Rufus ran his hands through his hair, staring at the papers on his desk. "If he can't convince them we're screwed. We need this project desperately. Dio is the only person on the planet with enough money to give us sufficient working capital. The location is ideal, everything, if we can just get them to trust us."
Tseng stood up and crossed behind Rufus's desk, putting his hands on Rufus's shoulders. "I've never seen you work so hard."
Rufus sighed, letting Tseng's fingers dig the tension out of his back. "You were dead, the last time. I didn't sleep for two weeks straight."
"You sure you're up to this? " Tseng let concern creep into his voice, hands going still.
"We can't afford to wait, Tseng. I didn't make it this far by missing opportunity."
"I haven't forgotten, you know," Barret growled, eyeing the lanky Turk. "Sector seven. That was you. Who knows what Biggs'n them would say."
Reno stopped on the landing, looking up at Barret. "Look, I was just doing my job. It's all said and done, anyway."
"I ain't so sure," Barret retorted.
Reno's too green eyes narrowed dangerously. "I wasn't the one breaking the law," he said, and kept walking.
Barret scowled, but had no answer to that. "Rufus --is he like his old man?"
Reno shrugged. "We wouldn't be here if he was."
"Hmph." Barret tromped down the stairs, elbowing Reno out of the way. "Don't know how Cloud trusts any of you, secretive bastards. Wouldn't be surprised if you'd dug up Sephiroth to -ooph!"
"Nah, I didn't mean to-" Barret got a good look at who he'd bumped into on the stairs. Tall, damn tall, with a southern-climes tan and short pale hair like snow, bangs dangling over mirrored sunglasses. "Hey, you-"
"You should watch your step, on these stairs," the stranger said, and walked past him, nodding at Reno who gestured to Rufus's office.
"He's in, just go ahead."
"Thank you, Reno."
Reno shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled down the stairs past Barret, whistling. He turned when he got to the bottom floor and saw Barret, still staring at Rufus's closed door. "Hey, you comin'?"
Barret pointed with his gun arm. "Who the hell wazzat?"
Reno blinked innocence. "Who was who? Oh, him. That's just Frost. One of our new scouts. Runs a bar in Costa Del Sol. Why, you know him?"
Barret flushed, looking furious. "You think I hang out in bars like you? I'm respectable, dammit! Now get me outta this spook house." He fumed right past Reno to the door and Reno, feeling smug, winked at himself in the foyer mirror before following.
"Can I talk to you, for a second?"
Tseng frowned disapprovingly, and Reno added a belated, "Sir."
Rufus sighed, shoving papers aside. "It's all right, Tseng. We share a bathroom, there's not much formality left. What's on your mind, Reno?"
Reno came into the room the rest of the way and shut the door behind him. "Are we still needing people?"
Rufus smoothed back his hair, but he still looked ruffled. "Always. Trying to start up a corporation with two strings and an elastic band, this is madness."
"I know some people who'd be good." Reno actually looked pensive, leaning on the back of the guest chair. "If you're interested."
Rufus's eyes twitched upward to Reno, his hands going still. "Ones who'd work for free?"
Reno shrugged. "I think they'd settle for one of the empty houses in town, few gil an hour."
Rufus blinked. "Your family. Meteor, I never asked-"
Reno waved a hand. "Nah, nah, they're fine. But my brothers are out of work, my sisters have all got pretty faces, and I don't want them resorting to anything...you know, stupid."
Tseng and Rufus were both thoughtfully quiet, aware of Reno's occupation prior to Turk.
"What are they good at?" Rufus asked. "I can't hire your entire family-"
Reno shook his head. "Most of the girls are all too young for work, but they'd do running stuff for us free of charge, probably." Reno paused. "I just want them out of what's left of Midgar, Rufus. And like I said, they won't ask for much more than a place to stay."
Rufus sighed. "Well, they can have one of the empty houses in town. How many brothers have you got, anyway?"
"Three," Reno said, and couldn't stop grinning. "You mean it, I can bring them?"
"Rude was heading to Kalm to take Barret back." Tseng said, smiling faintly. "You can catch a ride with him, if you're not too late."
Both of them were treated to the rare sight of Reno looking completely and utterly grateful. "Rufus, Tseng, I-"
"Get going, Reno." Rufus said.
Reno got, ponytail flying. "Yo! Rude! Wait up!"
"A whole quintet of Renos, Rufus. You sure you can handle that?"
Rufus grinned. "If they'd work for cheap, Tseng, I'd hire gargoyles."
Tseng quirked an eyebrow. "Gargoyles talk less."
At six-thirty the next morning, Gargoyles were the furthest thing from Rufus's mind. What was on his mind was the god awful noise coming from outside his window, like someone was trying to stuff a chocobo through an expresso machine.
"What in the name of the Ancients is THAT?" Rufus lifted his head from Tseng's arm, blinking in the early morning greyness of their room. "And can you shoot it for me?"
"I'll find out," Tseng said, making to get up. It was hard, since Rufus was wrapped bodily around him and showed no signs of moving.
"Don't you dare," Rufus said, as sulky sleepy as he'd ever been when he was a spoiled brat. "I'm not letting you go when you feel this good. You're a Turk, aren't you? Can't you shoot them from here?"
Tseng chuckled, and Rufus made a noise in his throat and shoved his head firmly into his bodyguard's armpit, arms wrapped around him. "Nope nope Nope," he said, muffled under the blankets, and Tseng's chuckle became a full fledged laugh.
"Rufus, you sound like a little boy."
"Mmm-mm," Rufus said, burrowing deeper. "You block the sound."
Tseng had given up and pulled the blankets back around them when the awful racket from outside stopped with deafening silence. Rufus had barely pulled his head up when another noise began, the smooth, drowsy hum of a helicopter. Dim over the muted roaring were a few whoops of victory.
Rufus furrowed gold brows. "That's not our regular chopper, is it?"
Tseng slithered out of his grasp, and this time Rufus let him go, the tall Turk pulling back the heavy brocade curtain to look out into their backyard. "Better get dressed, I think." Tseng let the curtain fall. "This has to be seen to be believed."
"What in nine hells is going on out here?" Elena had beaten Rufus and Tseng to the backyard, and was dressed hastily in jeans and a shirt that looked suspiciously like one of Reeve's.
"My question exactly, Elena." Rufus's blue eyes slid speculatively over the helicopter, silent now, with the hood up and someone's backside poking up out of it.
"Okay, Diego, what's the gage say now?"
"Seven point three, and Phoenix, we've got company."
The backside in the helicopter's innards reversed itself, and a pair of green eyes blinked innocently at the trio of sleep-deprived Shinra. "Aah! Good Morning!"
Rufus's first thought was that Reno must have contracted some form of insanity, to be up this early and hard at work. But the redheaded young man with Reno's easy grin was thicker of build than the lanky Turk, and his face was younger and marked only by smear of motor grease. "Excuse me for not being fond of strangers on my property, but who are you?"
The young man stuck out his hand, and then sheepishly wiped his fingers on his jeans. "Phoenix Montague. Reno's brother? He said you guys had a chopper that wasn't working." Phoenix jerked his thumb back at the helicopter. "This is a model 4RX-5, right? Great machine. Looks like you used it for a salad shooter, though. What happened?"
"It was hit by my Lover's Day Curse." Elena folded her arms. "It hasn't worked since."
Phoenix grinned, and yelled over his shoulder. "Oi! Diego! Punch it!"
The helicopter obligingly roared to life, without the tubercular wheezing of the other Shinra craft. Rufus raised his eyebrows. "You repaired it?"
Phoenix shrugged. "You gave us a place to live," he said, as if the payment and price was as simple as that.
"Can you fly these?" Rufus asked, as the helicopter powered down with a demure hum, blades swishing lazily through the air.
"Damn straight I can." Phoenix shoved his hands in his pockets. "Used to charter flights for Don Corneo before his fortunate demise." Phoenix's rather malicious grin left no doubt that he was Reno's sibling. "and while I cleaned out his digs for valuables, it did put me rather out in terms of a job."
"I can fix that." Rufus said, nodding once. "We can always use an extra pilot. I'm due in Corel this afternoon, would you be available?"
Phoenix blinked, then smiled broadly. "No problem. It's been kinda tight since Meteor."
"It certainly put the Honey Bee under." Diego emerged from the chopper's cockpit. "Good to see you doing all right, sir." He nodded to Tseng.
Tseng lowered his eyebrows. "Have we met?"
Diego was Phoenix's mirror image, only with spikier bangs, more piercings, and a haphazard ponytail reminiscent of his eldest brother. "I used to work as the bouncer at the 'Bee in Wall Market. You came in to interview the girls sometimes, to see if they had any info for you." Diego's eyes narrowed in a smile. "They always said you were really nice to 'em, that they'd try and find out stuff just to tell you."
Tseng nodded, satisfied now that he could place Diego's features. "Ah, yes. They were always quite useful. You never mentioned being Reno's brother."
Diego shrugged. "Didn't want to seem like I was namedropping, sir."
"I'm going back to bed," Elena grumbled, stalking between Rufus and Tseng, towards the back door.
"Right." Rufus nodded once. "I'll have Rude down to show you how to log in the fuel usage before you tank up. Tseng and I will be ready in two hours, Phoenix. We'll see about taking you on regularly after that." He turned to go back to the mansion but paused, interrupting Phoenix and Diego's gleeful moment of celebration. "Oh, and just so you know? Start up helicopters before dawn again, and I'll blow your head off."
Phoenix got the impression that Rufus wasn't kidding. "Yes, sir."
"Well, at least they aren't plotting revolution yet." Rufus ran his fingers through his hair. "The system of free government seems to be working-for now."
"I haven't heard anything about Wutai, It's probable that they'll go back to their pre-war system of government." Frost sat in the chair opposite Rufus's desk with the air of one more comfortable standing at a camp table and reviewing enemy movements. Or maybe that was just Rufus's impression of him, from the first time he'd seen the man.
"My men are being decimated by land mines, I've lost three to quicksand and half of company B is down with some sort of fever. They aren't prepared for this kind of warfare, it's not in their training."
"What do you suggest, then?"
"Give me a small force of SOLDIER. I'll lead them right into the capital. We'll have the city in a week."
A snort, as of disbelief. "Can it be done?"
He had smiled, slowly. "It can by me, sir."
Rufus had learned much about the world through keyholes, in those days. "Well, you would know, wouldn't you?"
Frost shrugged. "I haven't been there in years. They may become a threat, eventually. At the moment they haven't the technology to be a concern."
Rufus sighed. "I should get that Avalanche girl in about it... Kisagari? Should keep us from having our throats slit in the night."
"Cloud says she's only barely trustworthy, but she's not an outright traitor. I'll have him speak to her." Frost tilted his head, sunglasses reflecting the clock above Rufus's head. "He's late."
There was a commotion outside the broad glass window of Rufus's office, voices and chocobos vying for who could talk the loudest. Rufus sighed at his contract for the Corel dam. "That'll be him now."
Three minutes later Cloud burst into Rufus's office unannounced, still dusty from the road and with his saddlebags slung over one shoulder, spurs clanging on the parquet floor.
"Cloud's here," Reno said, strolling in after him.
"Thank you, Reno," Rufus said. "I figured that out."
Frost stood up, his head lowered so that a sliver of green iris showed above his sunglasses as Cloud gulped down the water Reno poured him from the cooler in the corner. "Something is wrong." Frost did not make it a question.
Cloud nodded, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving a clean wet smear on his dusty face. "Corel. We've got major problems." He raked his fingers though his hair, pushing it out of mako-blue eyes that stood out in sharp contrast to his tan skin.
"Hells," Rufus muttered. "Is there something wrong with the preparations?"
The look Cloud shot Rufus seemed to say that he thought the president of ShinRa might need to get his priorities in order, but he only shook his head. "Not the hydroelectric plans. They're sick."
Rufus arched an eyebrow. "Sick? They seemed to be fine when I was there week before last."
Cloud pulled the saddlebag off his shoulder, groaning. He'd obviously been riding hard, and for a long time. "Just started a few days ago. Didn't seem like anything serious. Lightheaded, fainting spells, things like that."
Frost tilted his chair towards Cloud, and he sank into it gratefully. "Overnight it turned into dangerously high fevers, delirium, respatory problems. Nothing works, cures are useless, and we've tried every kind of standard drug available. I drug the doctor up from Mideel but he's baffled, he's afraid it'll turn tubercular and they'll be drowning in their beds. We've got them on oxygen for now, but our equipment is antique and--"
Frost lowered pale eyebrows. "How many cases?"
Cloud sighed. "Right now, twenty-six. All in that area, but if it spreads..." Cloud gestured uselessly. "I thought that S- I thought Frost could -"
Rufus glanced up at the tall agent. "You are the closest thing to a biologist we have, Frost. A plauge is the last thing we need."
"Understood." Frost pushed his sunglasses up, veiling his eyes. "I'll need blood samples." Frost said, his fingers tightening on the back of Cloud's chair. "Cloud, were you able to-"
"Here." Cloud lifted his saddlebags. "Vincent took them." He frowned at Reno. "Makes me wonder exactly what all you train your Turks at." He passed a wrapped package to Frost. "We packed them in with some ice materia."
Frost nodded, "That was intelligent of you. Rufus, if I may use the basement laboratory of the mansion?"
Rufus looked surprised. "You?"
Frost almost, maybe, smiled. "My facilities in Costa Del Sol won't do; and I am not a sentimental man, Rufus."
Rufus narrowed his eyes. "No, you wouldn't be. Of course, use whatever you need."
"I should go ask Shera for some equipment and set up here." He paused, thinking. "I could use an assistant, if you have anyone to spare."
Cloud started to stand. "I can-"
Frost put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down, gently. "Even if you weren't spent, Strife, you need to get back to Corel, to keep us informed. Besides, I need someone who knows one end of a test tube from the other."
From the water cooler, Reno cleared his throat and shrugged. "I know somebody who does."
Angelo hated being late. It wasn't as though he hadn't tried to impress upon his older siblings his desire to maintain a certain professional attitude to the ShinRa, and meeting his new research partner when he was panting for breath with his shirt sticking to his back and his ponytail coming undone was hardly the first impression Angelo wanted to make. This Frost was ShinRa's best scientist, and Angelo should kiss Reno's feet for giving him a chance. Not that Angelo wasn't grateful, it would have just been a bit better if Reno had said something other than "He's leaving in two minutes, move it, kiddo."
The chocobo brought him up short. Angelo was a city boy in the truest sense of the word; he was twelve before he ever saw the sky, and it was only a handful of months ago that he'd first seen it as it should be: blue, not choked with green mako-haze or hidden behind a steel plate. But he had seen chocobos, on TV or in the occasional petting zoo, their dirty yellow feathers drooping. He'd never seen a bird like this.
Black. Glossy black feathers like a raven's iridescent wing, rustling as he preened one outstretched wing. He eyed Angelo with a glittering, clear blue eye as he groomed himself, unblinking and suspicious.
"Hello," Angelo tried, not sure what to say to an unfriendly chocobo. He didn't remember them having such sharp-looking talons on their clawed feet.
The bird gave a snort, running his ebony beak through gleaming feathers. It must be one of the ShinRa birds, Angelo thought. He'd seen the standard yellow ones, and even a flash of gold flank as Cassie, sitting in the window of their new house, gave a delighted shout as Cloud rushed by on his way to the mansion. He wondered, reaching out a hand to the bird who deigned to let him pat its head, who this sable chocobo belonged to.
"I'm impressed," someone said, from the other side of the gate-post. "He's got an ill temper, that one."
Angelo yanked back his hand as if the chocobo was the proverbial cookie-jar, and looked up at the speaker. And up. Angelo hated being short even more than he hated being late.
"Erm," Angelo said, brilliantly.
"His name is Dante." The stranger held out one long gloved hand and the chocobo made a soft pleased 'kweh', nuzzling against him. "Are you one of Reno's brothers?"
Angelo struggled not to scowl. It was perpetually aggravating to be designated by one's older sibling. "I'm Angelo," he said, and remembered his mission. "Are you with ShinRa? Do you know a man named Frost?"
His mouth twitched. "Are you looking for him?"
Angelo nodded. "Reno said he needed me for a research partner, but he only just told me three seconds ago, gods I don't know why Reno has a job and I don't, irresponsible..."
"Do you know how to ride chocobos?" the stranger interrupted, loosening Dante's reins from the gate-post.
Angelo looked doubtfully at the chocobo, who eyed him just as doubtfully back. "Er, no. I've never been on one."
"It's simple enough." He waved to someone across the yard and a moment later, to Angelo's astonishment, Jess Montague jogged over, leading a chocobo of a pale blue color that Angelo had only seen before in cotton candy. He boggled at the oldest of his sisters, and the bird.
"Is this the one you wanted, Frost-san?" Jess scratched the bird under its chin, as it warked and jostled a bit at the prospect of getting out.
"Frost?" Angelo echoed, looking back at the tall man, with his striking white hair and the sleek mirrored sunglasses. He really should have guessed. It was likely to be an alias, it was too accurate for a given name. Code or no, Angelo could not fathom what other name would suit the soft-spoken agent.
"It's simple enough." Frost said, handing Angelo the reins. "The hardest part is getting on. Tuck your knees under their wings and rock forward as they run; it's really quite instinctive." Frost swung onto Dante and Angelo didn't have enough eyes to see where he put his knees and his hands and how he didn't fall back off. "The sooner you learn, the better. We're likely to be on them a lot."
"C'mon, Ang'lo." Jess winked at him. "I'll give you a boost."
Angelo glared at his sister. "What are you doing here?"
She shrugged. "I'm taking care of the birds for Rufus-sama. Little critters seem to like me." As if in agreement, the blue ruffled his beak through Jess's cropped red hair. "Now get up, don't keep Frost-san waiting."
It would seem, Angelo mused as he finally got into the saddle, cheeks burning, that Frost was either dead polite or used to idiots, because he courteously turned the other way as Angelo clambered ungracefully onto the bird that kept trying to wiggle out from under him. He clutched the reins and tried not too look like he was holding on for dear life, muttering a grateful prayer to the planet that Phoenix and Diego hadn't been here to see that. They'd give him hell over it for weeks. The black chocobo Dante danced in a little anxious circle, making an eager noise in his throat, and Frost nodded at Angelo. "Rocket town has some supplies we need for the lab. Shera is a rocket scientist, not a biologist, but she does have some useful equipment. I'm likely to send you there from time to time, so try and remember the way."
Angelo nodded. He could do this. It was what he was good at. "Yes, Sir."
Frost nodded once, and Dante burst down the street in a flurry of black feathers and powerful clawed feet. Jess gave Angelo's blue a good swat and it shot after the other bird, in much more of a haphazard fashion. Angelo was too busy trying to stay on to remember that he really had no idea what Frost needed a research partner for.