by Tenshi

It had happened. He had known it would, eventually, but not so soon, and not like this. An assassin's bullet, perhaps at some public function, or maybe a bomb in the elevator. Yes, that he had expected. Gods knew the terrorists they dealt with had precious little regard for innocent human life, and Tseng would not have put it past them to take off the whole upper floor of the ShinRa building for the sake of one man's death. The reactor bombing had been proof enough of that. But Tseng had delicately removed Rufus from harm's way months before: private schooling in Junon, long months at the villa in Costa del Sol, whatever it took to keep Rufus from ground zero.

But even now, he wasn't the type of man to be smug about being right.

Rufus was quiet in the back of the helicopter, curled up in his seat, his pale eyes on the receding lights of Midgar. It was his city now, and Tseng wondered if that was what Rufus was thinking. Or perhaps he was remembering six feet of sharpened adamantine shoved into the stainless steel top of his father's desk; Jack ShinRa's body laying there, pinned between hilt and computer console like some elaborate moth on a card, blood dampening the expensive hand-knotted Wutai carpet. Rufus closed his eyes and pressed his cheek to the cold window, weariness flickering over his face.

There would be no time to rest.

"Bastard," Rude murmured, his hands steady on the helicopter's steering stick, instrument lights reflected in his sunglasses. Tseng wasn't sure if Rude was referring to the former president, the assassin, or quite possibly Tseng himself. Rude wasn't the sort to pussyfoot around when he had something to say. The two of them went back a long way and superior or no, if Rude wanted to call Tseng a bastard, it would not be the first time. And he wouldn't be wrong, either. "He should have expected it, after dropping the plate like that."

There was accusation there, Tseng knew, though neither one of them would have disobeyed a similar order. Maybe Rude could even it out as an eye for an eye after the reactor explosions, but there was a grim memory hanging in the set of Rude's mouth and Reno in the infirmary with six broken ribs. Tseng reconsidered. It was not twenty years ago and they were not the boys they had been, freshly scrubbed and sure they were doing the Right Thing.

"The plate had little to do with this." Tseng sat back in the copilot's seat, fingers loosening a tie that had grown increasingly uncomfortable throughout the endless night. "It would have happened anyway."

Rude's eyes flicked to the side, behind his shades. "Those terrorists are no more capable of causing that mess than they are of sprouting feathers and coming after us. That sword... You're thinking of him, aren't you?" Rude eased the speed up a little, as though in anticipation of pursuit.

Tseng's fingertips traced patterns on the window, around Rufus's sleeping reflection. "Did you ever meet him, before?"

"Yeah," Rude said, as Midgar dissolved into a green glow on the horizon. "Cold bastard. Proud." He paused. "But polite, like. Followed the rules, always said hello to the coffee girls in the elevator. Used to make their day." Tseng raised an eyebrow, and Rude added, "I was still security detail those days. They'd come and tell me about it, you know."

"Sephiroth is dead," Tseng said, sounding like he wanted to believe it, not like he did. "I classified the file on him myself." Rude was silent, and Tseng recognized the pitch of it. "You disagree?"

Rude shrugged. "You and me both know exactly what he was. Some things you can't kill just by running them through, or sealing them up in materia." He looked at Tseng directly for the first time since they had left the ShinRa building. "I know one thing for sure, and that's how you feel about him." He tilted his head in the direction of the new president, asleep in his seat. "You already suspected something, or you wouldn't have sent me to get him after the plate fell."

"I hadn't planned for Sephiroth." Tseng frowned. "I thought Rufus might be kidnapped for a ransom, in exchange for shutting down the reactors." He shook his head. "This is bigger."

"I don't like it," Rude said, his hands tensing on the throttle. "What are your plans?"

"They aren't mine. Rufus thinks Sephiroth is after the Promised Land. We have to get there first."

Rude's answer to that was the sound of extra fuel being applied to the engines. "He'll try to stop us. That wasn't the work of a sane man."

Tseng might have shuddered, somewhere inside, not looking back to assure himself that Rufus was there, safe and alive. It wasn't the mass carnage on the top three levels of the ShinRa building so much as the methodical simplicity of it all, the efficiency of the killer and the trail of blood in his wake. Sephiroth had not doubled back; he had not hesitated, killing only those who were in his way. Rude was right. It was not the work of a sane man, but the work of one well-trained, concise and deadly. The back of Tseng's neck prickled. Even with his own hard-won rationality it was hard not to look over his shoulder. Childish, he knew, expecting Sephiroth to descend on wings as black and wide as the night sky, to bring down his blade and strike them to the ground.

In Wutai during the war they had had a name for him, the silver-haired general whose sword dripped with the nation's blood. Shishiroten: the white angel of death. By comparison a mere ShinRa issue Quicksilver seemed slim armament indeed; the press of Tseng's holster against his ribcage was precious little comfort.

"How soon before we arrive?"

Rude made a surprised noise in the back of his throat. "Never thought I'd see you scared, Tseng. But then," he added, "it's not really you that you're scared for, is it?"

"My first duty has always been to Rufus." Tseng paused, for emphasis. "As is yours, I recall."

"I don't need reminding of my duty, Tseng." Rude shrugged. "And don't worry. Sephiroth has a head start on us. We aren't the pursued, were the pursuers."

Tseng's smile was wry. "It's a brave hare that runs after a fox."

Rude snorted. "Or a fucking stupid one."

"It's the best way to find its lair." Rufus's fingers rested lightly on the back of Tseng's seat as he pulled himself forward. There was no trace of sleep on him now, his eyes cold on paling line of horizon. "Or its prey."

"Then we had best stay downwind," Tseng murmured. "Lest we become the prey ourselves."

Rufus arched an eyebrow. "Then I trust you'll make yourself a most unpleasant dish, Tseng. I can't afford to lose either of you."

Rude coughed in apology, something he never bothered with when talking to Tseng. "Not to interrupt your metaphor, sir. We'll be in Kalm in a few. Better reload if you haven't already."

Rufus drew his gun across his lap, discarding spent casings as if he'd been planning to do so all along. "Spare no expense in your search, Tseng. I'll do what I can to keep the board from interfering with you. And bring in a recruit to take up Reno's slack-- Ms. LeBeau I think is in Nibelheim. I don't want my hares too thin on the ground." The shotgun clicked shut in his hands, new shells in the chambers. Rufus smiled as the sun came up, pouring light over the valley below and splashing his flawless white suit with crimson. "Tally ho."


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