Bloodlines: Chapter 2
"I would have thought you'd be asleep by now."
Rufus glanced up from the laptop balanced on his knees, and shook his head. He sat cross-legged on the bed, his two lean, sharp-faced bloodhounds sprawled happily on their master's feet.
The dogs were something of a rare breed, like Rufus's late Dark Nation. Rude had found them in a litter on a supply run in Mideel, and remembering the fifty-pound bred killer (that answered to Natti and had a passion for cheese-puffs from the lounge vending machines), brought them back to Rufus. Rufus had to admit he had missed the company of canines, especially big, intelligent, protective ones. It was not unlike having two extra Turks in the house. They were both black, and had registered names of Fallen Metropolis and Demons Be Gone, but they answered regularly to Metro and Demon, respectively. They were still slightly puppies, not grown all the way into their feet, and Elena said that Metro was fine as a name for a dog but Demon was a bit much, as he mostly laid around and hoped for bits of discarded chocolate frosted doughnuts. With sprinkles. He wouldn't eat them without.
"I'm just working on a few things," Rufus nodded at the program he was running, and reached down to scratch Metro's belly. "These sheets aren't going to spread themselves, you know."
Tseng shook out his shower-wet hair, and draped the towel over the end of the wrought-iron bed. "The only sheets you should be spreading are the bedsheets, Rufus. You look exhausted."
Rufus tapped at the keyboard. "Nothing of the sort." He smoothed back his hair, and became intent on the screen, as if that would mask the shadows around his eyes. "I have to get this done before I go up to Corel in the morning."
Tseng frowned. "I would rather it be one of us, Rufus. You needn't go."
"They won't trust a messenger, Tseng." Rufus typed one-handed, the other occupied with Demon's ears. "We've only just gotten them to listen to us, I have to go myself. It's the only way they'll trust us."
"I don't want you exposed to that virus," Tseng said. Even in his bathrobe, he gave the impression of a suit, something about the precisely tied sash or the way the left side overlapped the right at the exact middle of his chest.
"Cloud and Frost have both made trips in, and show no signs of falling ill. I will only be there a few hours at most, and I promise not to drink anything. I'll be fine." Rufus looked up, to see that Tseng was still scowling. "I'll take every precaution," Rufus said, and his tone had less of the President in it, and more of the lover. "Really. Don't worry."
"I give you no promises on that," Tseng said, but he sat down, and deigned to pet Metro's sleek head. "I'd be happier if Phoenix kept the both of you grounded tomorrow, but I know better than to try to convince you." He reached out, and gently pried the laptop from Rufus's hands. "But for now, you rest."
Rufus must have been tired, not to put up a fight, and to let Tseng pull back the coverlet. "You've gotten worse, lately," Rufus chided, tangling his fingers in Tseng's damp hair.
"Worse?" Tseng inquired, leaning over him.
"Fussing over me," Rufus smiled. "Like I was a prized possession."
Tseng brushed his lips over Rufus's forehead. "You are my only treasure, Rufus."
The dogs, knowing their master well enough and sensing that a voluntary retreat would be better than an ordered one, quietly hopped down from the bed, tags jangling, and curled up on the braided rug on the floor.
"...have isolated the main viral structure but we're not sure of the antibody, yet." Frost stood almost unnaturally still, never shifting his weight, barely even moving his head as he gave his report. It gave Angelo the creeps. "My assistant," Frost continued, and Angelo jumped, realizing he was being discussed, "thinks there may be a way to prepare a vaccine from a survivor, but we need both a weaker strain of the virus and, to put it bluntly, a survivor. No one has died yet, but they aren't getting any better, either. they haven't produced sufficient antibodies to use as a basis for a replicant vaccine."
Rufus shook himself, blinking. "I'm sorry, Frost, what was that?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Angelo saw Tseng shoot Rufus a concerned look, but Rufus sat calmly at his desk, cool and unruffled as ever.
"The virus is mutating at a--" Frost began again, after the slightest pause, smooth as a recording being replayed.
Rufus raised a hand. "No, no, that's all right, Frost. You needn't go through the whole thing again. Science was never my best subject. I leave it in your hands." Rufus stood up, his chair rolling smoothly back. "Angelo, anything either of you need, ask Tseng. We'll do our best to procure supplies. If Cloud brings word of anyone recovering from the virus, I'll have someone fly you... down to..." Rufus swayed on the spot, and put a hand to his forehead. "Your pardon, gentlemen. I didn't get back until late last night."
"Understood." Frost said, but Tseng's expression had grown darker, and he had moved away from the window to be closer to Rufus. Rufus shook his head slightly, and made a small impatient gesture with one hand, but Tseng did not retreat.
"Cloud has gold chocobos available at the mansion, should you need to be somewhere faster than the chopper. Is the lab suiting your purposes?"
"It's wonderful," Angelo said, before he could catch himself, and colored a bit when everyone else turned to look at him. "That is, ah, I'm glad of it."
Rufus smiled at him wanly. He must have slept badly or stayed up late, Angelo figured, since Phoenix had come back well before midnight, and slept the night through. "Glad to hear you're settling in, Angelo. We have need of a good biologist, if Frost is willing to train you once this crisis is over."
Angelo hoped he wasn't grinning stupidly, but he had the distinct impression he might be. "I would like that very much, sir."
"Right then." Rufus nodded at them. "I'm sure you have much to do. Let me know immediately if you have any breakthroughs, and I expect regular updates on your progress."
Frost tilted his head. "Sir."
Angelo had already turned to open the door, and so did not see Rufus as his knees buckled, only hearing the muffled thump as his body hit the thick carpet.
"Rufus!" Tseng was by Rufus's side in a second, and lifted the President's limp body. Frost was almost as fast, kneeling down and checking Rufus's pulse. Tseng glanced up at Angelo, who had frozen in shock, wondering if Rufus was prone to fainting spells. From the look on Tseng's face, he guessed he wasn't. "Get Rude," Tseng said. "Now."
It took Angelo a second to realize that Tseng was speaking to him directly. He never had, before. He risked a glance at Frost, who gave him a quick nod of encouragement, two tanned fingers going pale on Rufus's wrist. Angelo, suddenly afraid, pelted down the stairs to do as he was told.
"Is he all right?" Angelo asked, an hour later, when Frost appeared in the doorway of the basement lab, looking grim behind his ever-present sunglasses. Angelo had been doing busy work, cleaning test tubes and straightening papers, not wanting to linger outside Rufus's shut door, and get in the way. Reno had been there, pale under his scars, and hadn't even seemed to see his youngest brother.
"It is in its early stages," Frost said, grimly. "But the symptoms are unmistakable."
"The Corel virus." Angelo sat down heavily in his chair. "Oh, god." He had known, of course, and so had everyone else, but still. "Reno said he'd been working himself to death, it must have made it easier for him to catch it."
"There is more," Frost said. He was not the kind of man to spare bad news, even at a time like this. "There have been four registered cases in Junon, and two in Kalm. Zax tells me that Costa del Sol has no symptoms, but I cannot expect them to hold out for long."
Angelo blinked. "Rufus was obviously exposed in Corel, but how did it spread to Junon and Kalm so fast? That's halfway across the globe. Surely not through human carriers?"
"No." Frost was silent for such a long moment that Angelo almost thought he would say no more, but when he spoke again, it was as if he had pronounced doom on the world. "It was carried in the lifestream."
"The Jenova virus?" Tseng repeated, looking up from the printout Frost had given him.
"The structural pattern of the virus is unmistakable, as is the transmission through the lifestream. Even the symptoms: fever, delirium, slow deterioration of healthy tissue on a cell to cell basis, all indicate her basic replicant instinct. The cells are not dying, they are being replaced, like a cancer."
"How is that possible? Strife, did you and your companions not destroy all the collections of Jenova cells?"
Cloud opened his mouth, but Vincent spoke over him. "We destroyed the conscious collective of Jenova, but some of her cells still remain on the planet."
"Currently in the world there are only three people who have any living Jenova cells in their bodies. Zax Darklighter was a successful clone, if an incomplete one, and Vincent Valentine had the cells introduced into his body by Dr. Hojo. And then, lastly," Frost reached up, removed his sunglasses, and green cat-slit eyes narrowed at Tseng. "There is me."
"Only three?" Tseng's eyes were sharp, despite the dark circles under them. "I understood that Lucretia was still living, after a fashion, due to the Jenova cells in her body."
"Lucretia is dead," Vincent replied, with grim certainty. "I will vouch for that myself." The mansion itself seemed to soak up Vincent's words, turning them over carefully, before exhaling them out again in a quiet sigh.
Cloud looked at the former Turk a long moment. "I never asked," he said, "Where you went during that last week before meteor."
"I did only what I was asked to do." Vincent held Cloud's eyes with his own for a long moment, and it was Cloud who at last turned away.
"Jenova first destroyed the Ancients with a virus," Cloud said to Tseng and Frost. "We found out that much from Ilfalna's reports to Dr. Gast. The virus is Jenova's first, simplest attack."
"As the cells grow in others," Frost said, "Her strength and her consciousness grows again. Before, with the small amount of her remaining influence separated only into the three of us, she slept, and we could each control the percentage of her power within our bodies."
"To a degree," Vincent demurred. Tseng's gaze lingered on him, even though when he spoke, it was to Frost.
"I trust there is a reason we were not told of this?"
"Simply enough, we were unaware of the danger," Frost explained. "We knew that a handful of Jenova cells remained, but even with the considerable amount in me, once our natural lifespans are through--" Vincent made a vague noise in the collar of his cloak "--the cells would not be able to survive. They haven't the strength to regenerate in our bodies, not without Jenova herself to direct them. We have discussed this, the three of us and Cloud, and saw no other option but to let it die out."
Tseng was thoughtful. "Then they would die with you, and Jenova would truly be gone from the planet. But the virus replicates her cells?"
"In the host's body, yes." Frost continued, "If she were to regain herself, to build up on a cellular level over thousands through this virus, then any one of us could become her, at any time. She can control minds as easily as we train animals, if not more easily. It is a simple as a nervous response, to her." Frost for the first time let emotion into his voice, just a darkening, as though with sorrow. "I know all too well."
"Then we have no choice," Vincent said, quietly. "The three of us must be destroyed."
Cloud made a noise of protest. "We've been through this! You can't kill yourselves just to destroy her! There has to be another way! Whatever you need me to do, I'll do it. You can't just ask us to kill you! Vincent!" The older man turned away, and Cloud sought support elsewhere. "Sephiroth--"
"I agree," Frost said, before Cloud could continue. "But I agree with you, Strife, that it is too late to simply destroy what remains of Jenova, so you can stop swearing to do what you are unable to. The seed has spread, it germinates, and killing the root will not solve anything now."
"So what do you suggest?" Tseng asked, seemingly calm, but his hands were gripped too tightly around one another.
"We are immune to the virus," Sephiroth said, "because we are carriers. But to use our blood would only make the virus thrive. What we require is one in whom Jenova cells were introduced, but whose immune system was too strong, and produced antibodies to fight them." He turned to Cloud. "You, Strife."
Cloud stared. "But I wasn't suitable as a host. Hojo said--"
"You were unsuitable as a host because your body reacted violently to the cells, as a natural defense. Most failed clones simply died from the process and mako exposure."
"When you were carried out of Nibelheim by Zax," Vincent said, "You were ill with the fever and delirium of the Jenova virus. And yet you lived. You are the cure."
"Is it so simple?" Tseng asked. "Can you produce a vaccine from Cloud?"
"Not directly," Frost said, and slipped his shades back on. "There is a chance that he might have a few active cells, and the mako in his blood would make it hard for a non-mako enhanced person to accept a transfusion. My assistant has a theory that we can produce a weakened strain of the virus with Cloud's antibodies, separate the mako influenced elements to make it compatible, and introduce it as a milder strain in an uninfected, non mako-enhanced person. We can develop a vaccine from the antibodies of the survivor of the lesser strain."
Cloud shut his mouth, audibly. "I just thought I was a failure," he muttered, mostly to himself.
"This weaker strain," Tseng said. "You need an uninfected person to introduce it to? It cannot be administered directly to the victims?"
"I'm sorry," Frost said, as if reading Tseng's thoughts. "Rufus is too weak to accept it."
"I was thinking of myself," Tseng stood. "I could carry it."
"You are needed here," Vincent said. "It would not do for you to fall ill. Besides, you too are probably immune to the virus."
"How so?" Tseng demanded. "I don't see why--"
"Because of your assistance, some months ago, when I came to inquire about the records left in the mansion. You are both aware," Vincent turned to Frost and Cloud, "that my blood cells, tainted as they are, are weak. If I do not supplement them with new ones on a frequent basis, I sink into the same kind of sleep I was in for so long, in this very house. Tseng was kind enough to offer me his help when I had need of it, here."
"I was unaware of this," Frost said, frowning.
Quietly, Cloud said, "I usually do it."
"I am sorry, Tseng," Vincent lowered his head. "But you already carried my blood, and I did not think a small amount of my taint would harm you. I did not foresee this. I know you would prefer to be the one to save Rufus."
"I would not change my fate," Tseng said softly, his dark eyes on Vincent's red ones. "Father."
The brief silence that followed was broken by Cloud, who after looking from the Turk to Vincent and back again, grumbled that nobody told him anything.
"At any rate," Frost continued, "Angelo needs to prepare a serum from Cloud."
"I trust you did not tell him who you were, General?" Tseng smiled wryly at Frost, who solemnly shook his head.
"No. I told him I was a former clone, much like Mr. Darklighter, and that was how I came by the strain."
"One more thing." Tseng looked down at his folded hands. "You said the Jenova cells replace the natural ones. So then, the victim would not die, only be transformed into a host?"
"Your logic is sound, with one exception. Hojo used an artificial form of the virus, from me, to create the clones. So yes, by that token, the victims would survive. However, survival is a loose term. Their bodies would be mutated, but functional. However," there might, almost, have been compassion in Frost's tone, "their minds would be gone. They would exist only to serve Jenova's will." Frost's inhuman eyes flashed green towards Cloud, briefly. "Their previous identity would be erased, and they would kill anyone, friend or foe, at Jenova's command. Besides, only one in ten survived the transformation process. The rest--"
"The creatures in the Nibelheim reactor," Cloud said.
"Poor bastards," Vincent muttered.
Tseng had closed his eyes. "Very well," he said, after a moment. "Have Angelo make the serum. Who would be best for the weaker virus?"
Frost was thoughtful. "If we are to introduce it to Rufus, a blood relative would be best."
Cloud snorted. "Has he got any blood relatives left?"
Tseng reached over and pressed a small button on Rufus's desk. "I know just the person."
"Are you sure? This--" Angelo lifted the syringe in his hand as if he were an artist surveying an unsatisfactory sketch, "--is mostly hypothesis and hope. I haven't even got a graduate degree."
"You have Frost's respect." Tseng managed a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes. "That's better than a graduate degree."
"Well, it's settled then." Elena nodded. "What do you need me to do, Angelo? You need my arm?"
"Well, yes, sir. Ma'am. Elena." Angelo stumbled over the titles, and plunged ahead. "You're related to Rufus-sama?"
Elena nodded, unzipping her jacket. "I'm his half sister. His father was rather active as a young man. It's not entirely a secret, but I guess most people don't know."
Cloud, who was on his way out and nursing his own arm, pulled a face. "What is it with you people?" He shook his head, and didn't wait for an answer. "Have Tseng call me if you need anything, Angelo."
"Elena," Tseng began, "If this fails, there is no cure. I would have preferred to keep you out of danger. It is your choice."
Angelo could have been wrong, but he thought sure he saw Elena blush, and fight not to smile. "Well," she said, not as steady as before, "We all do what we can do best for Rufus, sir. And this is what I can do best." She held out her bared arm to Angelo, and her fingers were trembling, just slightly. "Shoot me up, kid."
"Ms. Elena, I don't know that--"
She flashed him a wink. "It's okay, Angelo. Really."
Angelo swallowed hard, and ran the alcohol-dampened cotton ball over the inside of Elena's arm. "I'm glad you think so, lady, because I'm scared to death."
"You did WHAT?" Reeve looked distinctly ruffled, hair trailing in his eyes, his jacket in slung over one arm, tie undone. Elena, cool and a smooth as her satin counterpane, blinked innocence at him with brown eyes.
"You're back early," she said, pleasantly. "Did you cut your hair? I never knew it was curly."
"I realize," Reeve said, ignoring the comment, "That everyone in this mansion and possibly this town is certifiable, but I had hoped that you at least were not completely off the deep end."
"Don't have moogles, Reeve." Elena put her hands on her hips. "It had to be done. Besides, it's a milder strain, I'll be up and about in less than a week." She smoothed her blankets. "I'm not even sick yet, but Rude insisted I stay put."
Reeve ran a hand through his hair. He had cut it, but only because Junon was the only place on the planet with a decent barber shop, and he had been feeling rather weedy lately. "I know, I know. Tseng told me about the vaccine theory." He shook his head. "But I leave for three days and you decide to voluntarily inject a lethal, incurable virus into your bloodstream?"
"Lethal?" Elena tilted her head. "Nobody's died yet."
Reeve balled up his suit jacket and flung it at a chair. "That's why I came back early," Reeve's scowl faltered, replaced by worry. "Tseng didn't want to risk me staying in Junon. Three people died last night. We've got our first victims."
Soon the number became seven, then fifteen. For the second time in less than a decade, the light in the basement of the ShinRa mansion did not go out for days. Elena gave in soon enough to the microbes in her bloodstream, but her fever seemed milder, her breathing not quite so labored as Rufus's.
And Rufus was enough to make any hopes seem fragile things indeed. Tseng was unruffled, as always, but the lines around his eyes seemed a bit more pronounced, the hush on the third-story landing outside their room was broken only by the sounds of Rufus's shallow breathing. The dogs, banished from the room, lay on their bellies outside the door, and would not be budged with any food or pleading. Angelo, whose frayed nerves had brought out both his no-nonsense streak and his temper, finally had to order Tseng to get six hours of uninterrupted sleep at the inn, or, Turk or no, he was going to personally bean Tseng on the head with a frying pan.
"We can't afford for you to get sick!" he had said, tenor voice carrying clearly in the hall. "Nobody is big enough to carry you to bed!"
From their spot on the landing, Reno told Reeve, in an attempt to cheer him up, that Frost seemed to have a good effect on his youngest brother. "Guess all of us got a streak of asshole somewhere, right?"
Reeve griped the balcony intently. "You know him. You think this'll work?"
Reno's smile seemed a bit weak, faltering. "It's got to," he said, as Angelo shook his head and stomped back up the steps to the lab, "Phoenix came down with it last night. Diego's a mess. We haven't told Angelo, yet. He's got enough riding on him."
Distantly, the door to the basement slammed. Reeve shook his head. "I hope Elena gets better soon." He scratched at a beard in need of trimming. "Because if she doesn't, I don't know what the hell we're going to do."
"Easy enough," Reno said, and there was no humor in his voice. "We're all gonna die."
Four days later it was a pale and shadow-eyed group around the island in the kitchen, coffee cradled forgotten in four pairs of hands.
The death toll was sixty-four, established cases totaling a hundred and thirty-one, with victims in every settlement, every corner of the globe. Frost had ordered patients to be sedated, supposedly for their comfort, but really to slow down the rising wave of Jenova's influence. Frost, looking drawn, had given Angelo one of the spare handguns, loaded it, shown him how to take the safety off, and told him to keep it on him at all times. When Angelo had asked why, Frost had told him that in the event of any strange behavior on the part of his lab supervisor, he was to empty the clip into Frost's chest first, and ask questions later.
He was wearing the shoulder holster now; they all were, even at the kitchen table. Tseng had ordered no one to go around without weapons, and carried one himself, into Rufus's room. When Reno had seen him doing it, he had wondered aloud to Rude if Tseng was packing heat to shoot Rufus, or to shoot himself. Rude's answer was succinct enough.
They'd all begun to forget what life had been like before, not even two weeks ago. At least, the ones with time on their hands enough to wonder. Angelo was too busy writing frantically on a report, a cup of coffee and some toast at his elbow, untouched, next to the mug of tea steeping for Frost, who had barely come above stairs in the past week. Angelo's hair needed a washing and he was muttering to himself as he wrote, incomprehensible patterns of numbers and figures and charts spilling out from his fingers. Reeve stared blankly at nothing, having slept only in snatches on the chair in his room, reading a book whose title he couldn't remember, listening to the rasp of Elena's breath. She had been sleeping soundly when a very subdued Reno knocked on the door, and asked if he'd like some coffee.
Reno simply held his coffee mug in both hands, watching the surface as if scrying for answers. Rude had brewed him a pot of his favorite, which Reno had uncharacteristically shared around without protest, but hadn't touched his own. Phoenix had only gotten worse, and Diego was fraying under pressure. That being bad enough, Angelo had found out about his brother's illness, and found out badly. Diego had had him by the shirtfront demanding to know why Phoenix had gotten sick and he hadn't.
"What the hell kind of virus is this, anyway? I should be sick! It should be me, dammit!"
Angelo, with remarkable calm, had steered Diego into the kitchen and brewed him a very strong mug of something that had Diego sleeping on the foyer couch for the better part of a day, probably the first rest he'd gotten in a week.
Rude looked around at the other three and sighed. Tseng, at least, wasn't down, so maybe he was actually asleep, not sitting by Rufus's bed, counting his breaths. Rude snorted. Yeah, right. None of them had been in to see Rufus; Tseng didn't want to risk contact. It was easy enough to guess, from the tilt of their boss's shoulders, that the president was failing fast. He topped off cups that didn't need it, and nudged Angelo's toast towards a hand that had been groping for a pen, but finding toast instead, put it to a mouth that chewed automatically.
Reno said, very quietly, "I wish I was drunk."
In the doorway, someone coughed. "What are the chances of me getting a cup of that coffee?"
Everyone looked at Elena as if trying to remember who she was, then the room exploded with Reeve, Reno, and Angelo all talking at once. Elena waved them down, wincing. She looked thin in Reeve's bathrobe, and she was holding onto the doorframe, but her eyes were clear. "All right! All right! Yes, Reeve, I will go back to bed. Yes, Angelo, I can handle losing a little blood for Rufus. No Reno, I'm not up to a celebratory nookie, but it's good to see you smiling. You look like hell. Now can I have a cup of coffee here or does someone have to get shot?"
As one, everyone in the room offered her their undrunk mugs.
"Do you believe in god?" Ten vials, looking pitifully small and fragile on the clutter of the worktable. Angelo slid the last one into the slot remaining.
"That depends," Frost said, after a moment to consider, "on what you would call god."
Angelo spun the centrifuge once on its axis, with his finger. "Someone to listen to prayers."
"I have never thought prayer a futile activity," Frost said. "But it is not one I ever recall engaging in, personally."
"Maybe I'm just being stupid," Angelo said wearily, leaning back in his chair, "to think that some all powerful benevolent being would give a damn about us."
Frost lifted his head, as though listening. "I don't see why not, Mr. Montague. I wouldn't presume to be the definitive voice on the subject." He paused. "Have you brought flowers down here?"
Angelo blinked at his lab partner. "No, why?"
Frost turned his head again, inhaling. "Curious." He shook himself, and handed Angelo the globe of mimic materia he had been waiting on, and a set of empty vials. "At any rate, we've done all we can. Prayer, Mr. Montague, is all we have left to us."
Angelo pushed up his glasses, and pressed the button on the centrifuge. "Well, then, here goes nothing."
"None of them have seen him, have they?" Frost leaned over the still form on the bed, flickering a pen light across irises that should have been pale blue, but were now shot with crimson, the pupil flattening into a narrow slit. It didn't much rattle Frost, as long as they still dilated properly.
"No." Tseng said. "Other cases that have progressed to this degree have been isolated. We wouldn't want to start a panic."
"It is still in the early stages," Frost said, and felt for the vein in Rufus's inner elbow. "No external symptoms, beyond the eyes. If this works, he should revert to normal within a few days."
Rufus moaned softly, but the sedatives he'd been given were more than enough to keep him down. Frost finished with the hypodermic, and laid the empty syringe down on the tray. "Now all we can do is wait."
"And if it doesn't work?" Tseng asked.
Frost lifted his shoulder. "Then we will also know within a few days. The sedatives will not be enough to hold him down once the virus takes over fully."
There was the distinct sound of the safety being released on a small, one-handed pistol. "I am prepared for that contingency, Frost."
Frost eyed him levelly. "Of course." He straightened, and tucked Rufus's arm back under the sheets. "Watch him carefully. I'm leaving now to administer the serum in Corel, and Cloud and Zax and Vincent are already on their way to other areas. Radio me if he worsens, or if the fever breaks. Angelo is seeing to inoculations in town, be sure all of your people get one."
"I'm grateful, Sephiroth." Tseng bowed. "We owe you much."
Frost stilled, his hand on the door. "You might want to delay your gratitude, Tseng. First make sure it works. You know my radio frequency."
The door closed softly behind him. Tseng sat down on the bed, and brushed back gold hair that seemed to have paled. His hand lingered on the side of Rufus's face.
The brass handle of the door was warm to Rufus's cold hand, as he shivered on the snow-dusted sidewalk outside La Vitesse. The bell jangled pleasantly as he entered, and somewhere in the small of his back a few knots of tension subsided, unraveling. The girl who took his coat was one he didn't recognize, but gods, it had been so long since he'd had a second to come down here it was no wonder that the staff had rotated a bit.
Rebekkah was at the counter, her dark hair pulled back into a twist. Rufus smiled at her as she waved him to his favorite booth, and he wondered if it was maybe the lamplight that made her look so young. Her beauty lingered in her face and in her younger days she must have been astonishing, side by side with Turks who had names like Rodriguez and LaVine, Everett and Valentine.
He nodded here and there to people he knew, and it must have been a long time indeed since he'd been here, as he could swear it had been years since he'd seen them last. Tseng must be late, he thought, looking at his watch as he sat down in his booth. Well, no wonder, they'd all been so busy lately. So worn thin with work, and this place was really amazing, Rufus mused, as he accepted a latte with just the right amount of foam, because he couldn't clearly remember what it was he'd been working on, or when he decided to give it up and just come down. Not that it mattered. He sunk back into the plush velvet booth, wrapping his fingers around the smooth porcelain cup of coffee, and feeling like he could breathe for the first time in weeks.
Someone was at the piano but it wasn't Rude, although he wore a Turk suit and played with a kind of lazy grace Rufus had come to associate with the tall shaved Turk. Rufus frowned. Maybe he was a new recruit. Hadn't Tseng sent him a memo about that? He'd ask his secretary, she'd know, but what with the haze of paperwork on the desk he wouldn't be surprised if the entire company had gone bankrupt and no one had told him because of one mislaid memorandum.
Someone was singing and Rufus, cup halfway to his mouth, stopped before taking his first sip. It was familiar, that voice, not quite smooth and polished enough for the Loveless musical but then he'd never been fond of the interminable thing. Someone was leaning on the piano-playing Turk's shoulder, a sparkle of white spangled evening gown. It was her low smoky voice that matched the bar.
Rufus found himself suddenly wondering what was keeping Tseng so long.
The vocalist finished to a smattering of polite applause, but she was more interested in the compliments of her accompanist, as he leaned in to murmur something in her ear. She laughed, and it was the laugh that gave it away, even before she stood and her petite shape glittered against the black lacquered piano like a diamond set in onyx, the fall of her gold hair thick and rich and all the colors of Rufus's own.
She made a little gasp of surprise, turning away from the Turk and her blue eyes lit up with delight as she saw her son. "Darling! What in the world are you doing here?" Easy as fog rolling off a hillside she swept down the three steps to where he stood by his booth, and clasped both his hands in her satin-gloved own. "Let me see you!" His height had easily overtaken hers since last he'd seen her; she held on to his hands and stepped back to look at him. It made Rufus feel, as he had always felt around his mother, like they were both dancing. "So grown up! You look marvelous." Her fingers ruffled his hair. "So handsome!"
Rufus had meant to ask his mother what she was doing here, but then he realized that of course his mother should be here, and instead he murmured how lovely she looked, how very long it had been since he'd seen her dressed up and laughing. She blushed like a girl and tapped a finger on his chest, warning him to watch that charm around the ladies, or it would get him into no end of trouble.
"I don't suppose you remember Raife, do you sweetheart?" she caught Rufus's arm and led him over to the piano, where the Turk was standing and straightening his ponytail. "He was my bodyguard when you were little, do you remember? Oh, but he often wasn't around when you were, I suppose you don't recall...?" She seemed disappointed, as though she very much wished Rufus could remember him.
"It's all right, Eleanor." Raife clasped Rufus's free hand in his own, familiarly. "Good too meet you, Rufus. Hear you've done wonderfully in your dad's place." The Turk had a firm handshake, and an easy smile that reminded Rufus of Reno.
Shouldn't Reno be here too? Damn them, they were both late. He'd wanted them to meet his mother.
"Thank you." Rufus hesitated. "You do look familiar... I think Rude might have mentioned--"
"Rude!" Raife brightened. "Man, I've missed that punk. How's he doing these days?"
"Fine..." Rufus said, distantly, trying to connect Rude and Raife. Raife? Raife, of course. Raife was the Turk that had been killed before Reno took his place. Had been killed... killed. Before Reno, a week before Rufus's mother...
Rufus turned around, his eyes flashing around the bar, at all the faces he hadn't seen for so long. Rebekkah-- Rebekkah had refused to leave La Vitesse when Meteor had fallen, and the bar itself, piano and gardens and velvet-cushioned booths was all-- was all--
"Where's Tseng?" he managed, and almost violently wrenched his hand from his mother's. "Why isn't he here?"
"Darling, really. You have to wait, I'm sure he won't be long." Eleanor put a hand on her son's shoulder, squeezing gently, but his eyes were still on the door. "Sweetheart, you look so tired."
Rufus was still staring at the door, and did not see Raife bend down to murmur something in Eleanor's ear. "Yes," she sighed, sadly. "Yes, of course you're right. Rufus, Rufus, love, listen to me, now." She reached out to touch his hair, and Rufus tore his gaze from the door to look at her. Her eyes were too bright, going liquid, and it was only with effort that she continued. "Oh, Rufus, I would love to keep you here, really, really I would." She slid her hand down his sleeve and twined his fingers with her own. "I've missed you so much, not seeing you grow up, not getting to talk to you. But darling I really don't think you ought to be here now, really I don't." She smiled, and the tears shook themselves free of her heavy gold eyelashes, and Rufus didn't know he was crying too until she pulled a handkerchief from her dress and wiped his face with it.
"There, now. Don't cry, it'll be all right." She looked at him as if to engrave him on her eyes, her face fierce and proud and dazzling. "Go on, now, Rufus. The door, right there. It'll let you out, back to him." She stepped away, her fingers sliding from Rufus's, and Raife's hands curled protectively around her shoulders. Eleanor's smile was wise, and her eyes shone. "I know what it's like to love a Turk."
Rufus reached out, just one more second, just to hold her a little bit longer, to tell her so much, he missed her, he loved her, he forgave her, he understood, but the door swung wide and La Vitesse whirled away in a spiral of green and black. His own voice woke him, rough with sickness and days of disuse. Arms were tight around him, no doubt he had lunged up into them, sobbing for his mother. And he really didn't care, burying his face in Tseng's oddly unkempt hair and weeping.
"Sir, I'm really not sure you're up to this."
"The world doesn't wait, Mr. Montague." Rufus rifled the papers on his desk, and frowned at an empty coffee cup. "Your brother's up and about, isn't he?"
Angelo fidgeted. "He's a quick healer, sir."
Rufus tightened his lips. "Hmm." He let Angelo squirm a long moment while he read the report on his desk. "Tell me, Angelo, did Tseng put you up to fussing over me? Or perhaps Rude?"
Angelo went pale. "Actually, ah, it was Reno."
Rufus blinked, mild surprise in his blue eyes. "Really? How astonishing. Well then, this all seems to be in order. Frost tells me you've had a good four day sleep, so I'll expect you on the job bright and early tomorrow."
"On the job?" Angelo honestly expected to go back home, now that the crisis was averted. They'd gotten the last reports of recoveries just yesterday morning. "Sir?"
"Of course." Rufus smiled faintly. "If we're going to be manufacturing supplies of the vaccine, then we'd better have a biologist on hand, shouldn't we?"
"But we've already inoculated the whole planet--"
"I believe," Rufus said, staring thoughtfully at the report, "that the birth rate is up these days. And those little darlings need vaccinations just like everybody else. And being that it is not a time of mass crisis, I don't feel quite so bad about charging for them. I'm not a philanthropist. Got to pay for costs, wouldn't you agree?"
Angelo nodded slowly. "Yes... yes, I suppose so."
Rufus stood up. "Really, Angelo, loosen up. We don't pitch people out of windows."
Angelo sighed relief. "No, no of course you don't, sir."
"...Anymore," Rufus demurred. Angelo went the color of oatmeal, and Rufus laughed. "Oh, relax, Angelo. I'm joking. Frost has a report for you as well, he should be sending them fairly regularly from Costa del Sol. Is there anything you need for your lab?"
Angelo's breath caught audibly. "My-- my lab?"
"Of course." Rufus lifted his eyebrows. "Frost has facilities in Costa del Sol, of course, and so yours will be here. Is the basement inadequate? I am aware that Elena finds it rather uncomfortable, but if it would be suitable for you to do your work in, I would like it to be well-equipped. Write up anything you need, and I'll have Rude take it to Frost with the mail, this afternoon." He paused. "And I'd like you to talk to Reeve. He has ideas about a gold-chocobo courier service for civilian use. I'm sure with the two of you and your problem solving skills, you can work the kinks out?"
Angelo simply gaped. "I-- sir--"
Rufus waved at him. "Thank me later, Angelo. I work people to death, trust me. Go on, now. I know you're dying to spread the news. I believe Reno was down in the kitchen, working on lunch."
Angelo had enough presence of mind to bow, and in the process of leaving nearly trampled Tseng, who had just come in. "Sorry sir, didn't see you-- Reno! Renooo!"
Tseng watched him go, as Rufus was too busy scowling at his laptop. "That wasn't very nice, about the windows."
Rufus shrugged, scribbling out a memo to Reeve about structural reinforcements on the west side of the Corel dam. "Really, he deserved it for taking me seriously. Like we'd toss people out of windows." He folded the note, and the grin was one that not many people saw. "Not near enough stories, here."
Tseng smiled. "It's good to see you feeling better, Rufus."
"Better?" Rufus made a face. "Nothing of the sort. What have you been doing to my files? I haven't been able to find a thing all morning. And you've adjusted my chair, I feel like a little kid with my feet dangling. And when was the last time this place got a dust run?"
Tseng walked across the rug and put his hands flat on Rufus's desk. "Rufus-sama?"
Rufus looked perfectly innocent. "Yes, Tseng?"
"Shut up." And leaning down, Tseng made sure that Rufus did just that.