Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 7

The Aeneas Factor

by Stealth_Noodle 0 reviews

When an assassination attempt cuts him off from his company, Rufus must depend upon a bitter, avaricious slum-dweller for his survival.

Category: Final Fantasy 7 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Action/Adventure - Characters: Rufus Shinra, Scarlet - Warnings: [!!] - Published: 2006-05-09 - Updated: 2006-05-09 - 8874 words - Complete

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy 7 belongs to Square-Enix. I'm just playing in their sandbox.
Author's Note: This is an old, old fic of mine, and I wanted to see if I could revise it into acceptability. Not sure if I succeeded, but at least the most glaring plotholes and characterization issues are cleared up.

The first thing that Rufus felt on waking up was pain, which seemed to have been lying in wait through his unconsciousness in order to greet him when he came to. He wondered for a moment why he hurt so badly, until snatches of the past drifted back.

He remembered being alone on the street. He remembered the first blow, the one that had seemed to come from nowhere to smash brutally into his head. Then there had been another, and another, until he had been certain that he would be bludgeoned to death. It came as something of a surprise to Rufus that he was alive now.

He had been stupid. If he hadn't been stupid, he would have taken bodyguards with him. When had he ever gone somewhere without guards? He couldn't even remember now what the emergency had been. It probably had to do with Heidegger. Somehow, everything that went wrong was Heidegger's fault. Or was it Reeve's fault? That seemed right. Rufus waited for more memories to penetrate the cloud of pain. Vaguely he recalled Reeve heading for his office to rail against the conditions in the slums again. So then it was Scarlet's fault. He remembered being too tired to deal with Reeve's moralizing and half-agreeing to her suggestion to slip away from work early. But that had been stupid of him, too.

Turning his mind back to the present, Rufus could deduce that, wherever he was, he wasn't in a hospital. Although he was lying on his back, the surface beneath him was rock-like. His head was throbbing. His muscles seemed dead. Deciding that finding out where he was couldn't possibly make things worse, Rufus half-opened his eyes and forced them to focus.

He found himself in a one-room house, lying on a cheap mattress on the floor. Filth covered the walls and floor, and a few splotches that he at first assumed were dirt scuttled across the cracked ceiling. The mattress accounted for a third of the furnishings, the rest of which were a table with uneven legs and a stove that looked like a space heater turned on its side. A pair of men's combat boots were stuffed into the corner near the heavily-bolted door. Rufus couldn't see any windows, and his head hurt too badly to look around for them.

As he wondered if he had died after all and was becoming acquainted with hell, he heard a noise from the area that he couldn't twist his head to see, and a scrawny creature entered his line of sight. Rufus couldn't tell much about it, except that it was dangerously thin and probably female. When it turned to look at him, he saw from the face that he had guessed the gender correctly, but he was hard-pressed to put the word "woman" to it.

The creature was dressed in a ratty shirt that had probably been fished from a dump, and her pants would have fallen from her body if she hadn't kept them pinched to her waist with a threadbare belt. The shirt was equally disproportioned, draping awkwardly over her arms and chest and gathering in the crevices of her skeletal shoulders. She was barefoot and had calluses covering her feet. With a lupine motion, the creature sat on the floor beside the mattress.

Now that she had lowered herself to his level, Rufus had a better look at her. Her hair was thin, long, and dirty, its hue an unpleasant one between black and brown, something like the color of shadowed mud. It framed a gaunt face, over which her pale skin was stretched like paper. Her nose was large and crooked, her eyes beady, and her entire being so starved that she seemed ready to cave in on herself- but she had a stubborn look to her, as if she would refuse to die just to spite death. She let him look at her for another moment, then rasped, "'Bout time you woke up. Thought you were dead for a while there."

Rufus cringed at the sound of her voice, which was so low and broken that it almost threw her gender into question again. Her teeth were crooked and stained. His eyes, which he had never managed to fully open, chose that moment to close. He hoped that it had all been a nightmare as he passed out again.

When he awoke and felt the hard mattress beneath him, Rufus resigned himself to the idea that it was real. He felt a little better for his rest, and he managed to open his eyes.

The girl was still watching him, her legs folded under her. "Good," she said, seeing his eyelids flicker, "you're gonna stay up this time. I was wonderin' if you were dead after all, and... damn, you have pretty eyes." She pursed her lips. "You're a mess, but not too bad considerin' what happened."

"And what happened?" Rufus asked, making a half-hearted effort to disguise his voice.

The girl snorted. "Well, I was out lookin' for junk to sell- I gotta get money somehow, and there's some stuff where the plate fell- so I'm pickin' through the trash when I hear this godawful racket up there, and I look up and see some idiot getting' the hell knocked outta him by a couple of thugs. So I think, 'This guy must have some gil,' so I climb a little ways up the wire and slam a couple pipes together- makes a noise like a gunshot." She cleared her throat. "Thugs took off. I get up there and find this pitiful, bleedin' guy, looks about half-dead, and I drug him home, thinkin' I'm gonna get some quick money as a reward."

Rufus went through his pockets, sending sparks of pain through his stiff hands. They were empty, as he had expected; he never carried cash with him.

"I already checked," the girl said. "Well, I'm gonna cut you a deal: I'll get you home, and you'll get me some gil. Fair?" When Rufus didn't answer, she snapped, "Look, pretty boy, I know you can afford it-"

Rufus stiffened. "Do you know who am I?"

"How the hell could I?" she shot back. "All I know is you must live up there, and you gotta have a nice bit of gil to do that. Look, I gotta pay my rent here somehow."

Her words were punctuated by a rapping on the door. A man's voice growled something unintelligible, which ended with the "Dido."

"I told you what to do with your job last time," the girl snapped. "Get outta here."

The voice grew louder without gaining clarity, and a fist pounded on the door.

"If you don't lemme alone," she said, her voice rising, "I'm comin' out there and cuttin' off the part of you that does all your thinkin'. Get the hell outta here!" The growling voice made a few angry noises, which faded with the sound of departing footsteps.

"I thought that you needed money?" Rufus said.

The girl made a bitter noise that might have been a laugh. "He wants me to be his whore."

That killed the conversation, which didn't bother Rufus. At length the girl said, "Well, you got my name now, thanks to the pimp. You oughta give me yours."


"Don't lie to me," Dido snapped. "I been honest with you, so you be honest with me. I don't give a shit who you are. You could be a Shinra exec for all I care. I just wanna get your name and address and take you home so I can get my gil." When Rufus didn't answer, she added, a bit less harshly, "Come on, I won't tell nobody. If I was gonna kill you, I'da done it by now."

Rufus didn't believe her. "Where am I now?" he asked.

"Fair enough," Dido said. "I tell you that, you give me your name and tell me where you live." She smirked and said, "Welcome to hell, pretty boy. You're in Wall Market."

Fourteen of Reeve's rantings about the conditions in Wall Market clamored in Rufus's brain, compounding his headache. A girl has two options in Wall Market: to be wealthy or to work as a prostitute... Wall Market is the moral sewer of Midgar, where a girl can't leave her house at night for fear of being raped... Wall Market is a haven for violent crime, not only against the prostitutes, but against anyone who isn't an established street presence... Rufus wished that he had listened more carefully to that particular sermon, as it had just made him dependent upon this girl.

Dido spoke again, quieting the echoes of Reeve's monologues. "I ain't no whore just because I live here," she said. "I make my own way." She pursed her lips, then looked back at Rufus and said, "You give me your name now."

His strength was coming back, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. "Rufus Shinra," he said coolly, "president of Shinra, Inc." He was contented by the awe that sprang into Dido's eyes.

"Damn," she whispered after a long silence. "I got some big money comin'." She paused, then said, "I seen you on the TV at the bar, but you're such a bloody mess your own mother wouldn't know you. Oh, and on behalf of everybody livin' down here," she deadpanned, "I'd like to call you a bastard."

"Accepted," Rufus said flatly, standing up. "I'll pay you ten million gil to see me out of the slums." Dido made a muffled sound. He had no intention of paying her anything, but the gleam of avarice in her eyes told him that she believed he would.

Dido stood and glanced from her skeletal hands to Rufus's healthy ones. "Accepted," she said, shoving her feet into the combat boots. "We're leavin' now." She started for the door, then turned and asked, "Can you walk yet?"

Rufus took a probative step and smoothed his hair back. As he did, he noticed with some annoyance that a large lump had formed on the back of his head. He also noticed the dried blood on his clothing, which accounted for his wooziness. Dido nodded at him and opened the door, saying, "After you, pretty boy."

Her voice irritated him, but he consoled himself with the idea that he would be rid of her as soon as he reached the surface. As she followed him out of the shack, he heard the subtle swish of metal against cloth.

Rufus turned and saw her pulling a long knife from her boot. "What's that for?"

"You gotta ask? Things've really gone to hell since the old don left." She held the blade as if it were an extension of her hand and began to stalk through the wreckage.

Rufus saw that Dido hadn't been precise when she had said that she lived in Wall Market. Her shanty sat in the midst of the garbage in Sector Six, where it blended with the heaps of metal and cardboard. The plate cast a perpetual shadow over everything, turning the world into a nightmare of darkness and filth. She moved ahead of Rufus now, her eyes scanning the area like a predator's.

"Wouldn't you do better with a gun?" Rufus asked.

"Hell, yeah, but I don't own one," Dido said, never turning from her vigil. "Bullets ain't cheap, and this's easier." Her eyes suddenly narrowed, and she turned and dashed into the shadows cast by a tower of junk.

Rufus looked after her, but all that he saw was the glint of her knife in the dark.

"Drop it," Dido rasped. If her knife hadn't scared whomever she was addressing, Rufus thought, her voice would. She sounded like a beast-turned-human that was still learning how to speak without growling.

A feeble sound came from the dark. A moment later a little punk of a boy ran for his life, passing Rufus without even noticing him. Dido emerged from the shadows with a gun.

"This better?" she said, slipping her knife back into her boot in order to hold her new weapon. She looked critically at Rufus and smirked. "You know, you look pretty much like the rest of the scum here. Like a murderer that got into it with your last victim." Her tone turned caustic. "But I guess that ain't your usual style for murderin'."

Rufus didn't grace her with an answer, and she continued to lead him through the heaps of trash. She was always checking over her shoulder, focusing on the places where something could hide in the shadows. At one point she stopped and glared at the space over Rufus's right shoulder. The next thing that he saw was the barrel of the gun pointed almost at his face.

Rufus started as the gun went off, and the bullet skimmed his shoulder. Behind him came an inhuman shriek, followed by a crash. When he turned, he saw a dog lying in a pool of blood, whimpering in feeble rage as its life seeped into the dirt. He stared at for a moment, then examined the area where the bullet had grazed his skin.

Dido stepped in front of him and said, "Just 'cause I don't own a gun don't mean I ain't a good shot. Next time I do that, you hold still unless you want me to blow your goddamn head off."

In the short walk to the entrance of Wall Market, Dido killed two more marauding dogs. "They're starved as I am," she said after shooting the last one. "Most of 'em rabid, too. They'll rip your throat out if you ain't careful." Her voice softened slightly. "Just look at that. You can see every damn one of its ribs."

Neither of them spoke again until they reached Wall Market. Several men sneered at Dido, and two offered Rufus money for her. It baffled Rufus that they would desire such a skeletal creature, but he didn't dwell on the thought as Dido drove them all off with her gun. "Horny bastards," she muttered after chasing one away. Rufus was inclined to agree.

She led him through the alleys, past rows of tacky neon lights and garishly painted houses. Only men wandered the streets; the few women that Rufus saw were behind windows. Every corner hid clusters of shadows and whispered bargains. Rufus had never seen Wall Market, but he'd heard that his father frequented one of the bordellos. /It suited him/, he thought, looking at the faded pornographic posters tacked to every wall. Still, Wall Market was in much better condition than the rest of the slums, a testament to its singular economy.

As Dido made her way to the northern end of Wall Market, the covert activities of the southern section came into the open. Prostitutes of all ages- some grossly overweight, some missing teeth- lined the street, yelling their prices. A few removed articles of clothing as Rufus passed them. One was still a child. Without realizing it, Rufus quickened his pace.

"See why I starve?" Dido said.

Rufus didn't answer. They had come into the wealthiest section of town, where a gaudy house stood at the end of the road. "We turn here," Dido said. "The old don used to live in that place, 'til he ratted to Avalanche. But you know that. Caught him yet?"

"No," Rufus said. "He's not a priority now."

"Well, I hope you get him," Dido said, leading Rufus into an open area. "Sure, things were safer with him here, but the whole goddamn mess was his fault in the first place." She paused and looked up. "This's it."

Pieces of broken metal littered the ground. A massive wall rose in front of them, covered with graffiti, but a thick metal cable hung in front of it. "Climb," Dido said, gesturing at it.

Rufus clutched the cable and began to ascend. His body, already sore from walking, now felt as if it had been through a blender. He barely strugged to the top of the wall before letting himself collapse again.

As he rested, he looked over the divide and saw what remained of Sector Seven. Twisted metal lay in heaps, crushed beneath the fallen plate. The only evidence that life had ever existed there was the occasional bit of building poking through a crack in the plate. Through the ruptures in the metal, Rufus imagined that he glimpsed human bones.

Dido sat beside him a moment later. She had stowed the gun somewhere for easier transport, probably her other boot. "Look," she said nodding at the wreckage. "Lot of people died. But it's how I been able to survive, pickin' up junk to sell. I used to be so goddamn jealous of them." She smiled caustically. "Aw, what the hell? We all die anyway." Getting to her feet, she started to climb a different cable and said, "I'll go first from here on. Ain't a hard climb, but it's kinda confusin' with all the cables."

Rufus climbed after her, but he was still weak, both from blood loss and physical exertion. Dido scurried over the contorted metal like a rat, pausing occasionally to check Rufus's progress. His light-headedness was almost overwhelming, and he was far behind her when he reached a catwalk formed by a narrow pipe. Weakly, he stood and walked toward her position on a platform at the opposite end.

He was almost across when he felt his footing give out. His legs scrambled for a foothold but found none. Flailing his arms, he tried to grab the pipe, only to catch handfuls of air.

Something caught him by the wrist. "Dammit," he heard Dido shout, "grab the pipe! I can't pull you up!" Rufus gripped the pipe with his free hand, and through Dido's efforts and his own, he made it onto the platform.

"Don't scare me like that," Dido snapped. "Shit, I thought I saw my ten million gil goin' over the edge." She paused, then blunted the edge from her voice. "You okay?"

"Fine." Rufus stood and noticed with annoyance that he was still shaking. The taste of dependency rested bitterly on his tongue. He walked to the edge of the platform and said, "Which way now?"

Dido ascended a short cable, and they climbed the rest of the way with no further incidents.

Rufus stepped with relief into the relatively clean and bright air of the world above the plate, noting that he was only a short walk from the Shinra Headquarters. As he turned to see where Dido had gone, he felt a pair of rough hands grab him and pull him out of the street.

"Shh!" he heard her voice hiss. "I hear somethin'. Voices."

Rufus listened and caught what sounded like a converstion between two men:.

"You find him?"

"No. Son of a bitch must've gotten away."

"The hell he did. He was dead before the gun went off."

"You think. What if he wasn't?"

"No way he walked off."

"Then where the hell is the body?"

"They don't have it. That's all that matters."

"So who fired the gun?"

"Does it matter?" A pause. "You can't think he's still alive."

"What if he is? I say we stake out the HQ until we know."

"He's dead."

"We didn't have time to rob him. They find him, this has 'assassination' written all over it."

"Fine. We keep looking for the body. I'll take the streets."

"I'm staking out the building. This time we do it my way and shoot him."

Two sets of footsteps went off in opposite directions.

"Shit," Dido whispered. "It's Rebirth." Before Rufus could ask, she said, "We gotta hide you. You go near that buildin' and they'll blow your brains out before you get to the door. There a hotel or somethin' near here?"

Rufus mentally reviewed the layout of the city. "There's one a few blocks away," he said, "but they won't let us in if we look like this." He didn't add that no decent hotel would let Dido in at all.

"Then make somethin' up," she said. "Say we got mugged. Say whatever you want. You can pay with this." She fished a dirty piece of plastic from her boot and offered it to him.

Narrowing his eyes, Rufus asked, "And what is that?"

"Credit card or somethin'," she replied. "Found it when I was scavengin' the other day. Not like I could use it." She glared at Rufus when he didn't take the card. "It ain't diseased, you know."

Rufus lifted the plastic by the edges, careful not to touch her grimy hand. Embossed on the front was the name "Charles Achates."

Dido's voice was sharp. "Now hurry up and think of some excuse why we look like this. We gotta get you off the street before they start takin' pot shots." She grabbed his wrist in her leathery hand and darted from one shadowed corner to the next, pausing only to hear his directions. When they reached the hotel, Dido glanced furtively up and down the street before pushing Rufus into the lobby.

Rufus immediately felt the eyes of the desk clerk on him. He knew how he looked, covered with bruises and dried blood, with a dirty wretch following him. But he had always been able to lie well.

"Hello," Rufus said, walking up to the desk and feigning a sort of earnest embarrassment- which wasn't difficult under the circumstances. "I, um, don't know quite how to put this," he continued with a nervous laugh, trying to look innocent as he used his jacket to clean the credit card. "It's really kind of stupid, but, well-" he leaned over confidentially to the clerk and dropped his voice- "my wife and I are starting our honeymoon, and our friends set us up as a joke. This is all theater make-up." Rufus smiled and picked some dried blood from his hand, trying not to re-open a wound. "They thought it would be funny for us to get a room like this. I hate to ask, but could we rent one?"

The clerk nodded, muttering something under his breath.

"I'll pay with credit," Rufus said, displaying the card. Once he had a key and directions to his room, he motioned for Dido. She followed him silently until they were well out of earshot of the lobby.

"Damn stupid clerk" she rasped. "Guess you seem high-class even when you're beat up." Dido paused as they walked for a few seconds more, then asked, "So where's the room?"

Rufus checked the number on the back of the key. "Not far. They must not have had many left to give us one so far from the lobby." Dido mumbled something else derogatory about the clerk, which Rufus ignored as he concentrated on reading the passing room numbers.

He stopped short at the end of the hall. "That idiot," he muttered, reading the sign on the door.

"What?" Dido said. "What's it say?"

"Read it yourself."

Dido's voice stiffened. "I can't. Now what the hell does it say?"

"He gave us the Honeymoon Suite," Rufus said.

"Idiot." Dido snorted. "You told him we just got married, remember?" She studied the door, then said, "Well, I ain't gonna ask for a new room. Open it."

Rufus unlocked the door and stepped inside. The suite was fair-sized and equipped with a kitchen area, small refrigerator, telephone, television, bathroom, and coffee pot; however, the focal point was clearly the large bed. A quick glance told Rufus that there were no sofas or mats to use for alternative sleeping arrangements.

Dido seemed to have the same thought at the same moment. "Fight you for the bed?"

"That's hardly necessary," Rufus said. "I'm paying for this. The bed is mine."

"Some other idiot is payin' for this. And I got the weapons."

"I'm paying your salary."

"We can figure it out later," she said. "I'm eatin' right now. You can take it outta my pay if you want, but I ain't eaten since... since I don't know." Her skeletal face turned towards the refrigerator, and her sunken eyes flickered briefly. A few seconds later, Dido had determined the fridge to be empty and was headed for the telephone.

"I'm callin' room service," she explained, picking up the receiver.

Rufus took it from her. "They can't hear you talk. It would give you away." She looked ready to wrestle the phone away from him, so he sighed and said, "I'll call. Look at the menu and-" He caught himself. "Tell me what you want and I'll see if it's on the menu."

"I don't care. Meat. Bread. Whatever they got."

Rufus puzzled over the menu until he had translated that, then called room service. "It should be here soon," he said, hanging up the phone. "Now tell me about Rebirth."

"Surprised you Shinra don't know about 'em already." Dido sat on the floor and took her weapons from her boots, setting them on the night stand. "I've known about 'em for years, but I never thought they'd pull nothin' off. They ain't a big group- bet they got more bosses now than people who actually do shit. Pretty sure the brothers are the only assassins they got." Dido pulled off her boots and stretched her legs. "Buncha idiots think they're gonna pick the big guns off without leaving any evidence. Don't wanna get the Turks after 'em."

Narrowing his eyes slightly, Rufus asked, "So how are you connected to them?"

"This wasn't a setup, jackass," Dido snapped. She got up and sat on the bed. "My mother used to leave me at the hotel where one of her friends worked. I was ten when I started getting' sent there, and I was bored as hell. Then I figured out I could listen through the doors. Most of it wasn't too interestin', but I started noticin' a couple guys talkin' about overthrowin' the Shinra. They were pretty damn fun compared to everybody else, so I listened to 'em whenever I was there. Kept sayin' they'd assassinate the old president. Batshit crazy. But not stupid. They had it all worked out, too. Woulda loved to see their faces the day the old man ate it." She glanced at Rufus and said, "Ain't gonna apologize for that. Your daddy was an asshole."

"He was incompetent, too," Rufus said.

Dido's eyes brightened. "So what'd he do to piss you off?"

"It's not important," Rufus said, trying not to stray far from the subject. "Rebirth?"

"What about your mom?"

Rufus glared at her. "This isn't relevant."

"Hey, I been talkin'. Your turn." When he didn't answer, she added, "You want more on Rebirth or not?"

He shrugged. "The day after my father died was the first time that I'd seen her in years, and she only came to pick up her share of his inheritance."

"You give it to her?"


"You're like me," Dido said. "Had to raise yourself, I mean."

He didn't reply, and silence descended. Dido retrieved her knife from the nightstand and turned it idly in her hands.

"Wanna hear somethin' funny?" she said at length. "My mom was a whore, and her old pimp thought I'd work for him, even though he knows it was me that found her body. People are pretty fucked up."

Then she went back to fidgeting with the knife, and neither of them said anything else until the room service arrived. Out of force of habit, Rufus mentally tallied the cost of the meal as the hotel worker handed it to him and skipped off down the hall.

"'Bout damn time," Dido said, hopping off the bed. After shoveling a few forkfuls of food into her mouth, she looked up at Rufus and said, "If you want anythin', you'd better order more."

He shook his head. She returned to her food with relish, as if she had never eaten anything better. She probably hadn't. Rufus watched her vacantly.

Somewhere in the middle of her meal, she looked up and raised an eyebrow. "I that interestin'?"

"I was thinking," Rufus said. He offered no further explanation, and she didn't press for one.

When she had cleaned every morsel of food from the plate, she walked to the dresser and began hunting through the drawers. Pulling a towel and bathrobe from one, she said, "I'm claimin' the shower first, unless you got a better excuse than me. I ain't had a proper shower since I was twelve."

"Go ahead." Rufus waited until she had disappeared into the bathroom to examine the cabinets in the small kitchen area. His search turned up a mostly empty bottle of aspirin that had probably been left by the last patrons, and he quickly downed four of the tablets. At this point, any medication was welcome.

As he waited for his pain to fade, Rufus examined his hands and speculated that a few of the knife wounds would leave scars. He'd have to see if Hojo could do anything about that. Frowning, he sat on the bed and tried to recall what he had been working on the day that he had been attacked. He was unable to remember any of it.

Dido came out of the bathroom several minutes later. Her robe dwarfed her and only served to make her toothpick limbs look smaller. "Your turn, pretty boy," she rasped, wringing her stringy hair with a towel.

Rufus took a towel and robe from the dresser and made his way into the bathroom. After shutting the door, his first move was to examine the cabinets. He found nothing and wondered how much longer it would be before the aspirin took effect.

He winced as he removed his clothes. Some of the fabric had stuck to his wounds, and tearing it away reopened them. By the time he had gotten out of his clothing, the old blood stains were joined by streaks of fresh red. He positioned himself in front of the mirror over the sink and tried to determine the extent of his injuries.

Now he understood why no one had recognized him. Blood matted his hair, and streams of it had trickled down over his forehead and cheeks. His face itself was still in remarkably good condition, and he guessed that he had instinctively shielded it. The minor scratches on his cheeks would heal cleanly.

His arms had not fared so well. They were more bruised than anything else, but several gashes had left deep marks. Rufus narrowed his eyes. Those would be scars. His chest was the much the same as his face, so he must have fallen to the ground to protect it.

When he twisted around to see his back, he knew what part of him had taken the brunt of the attack. Slashes and deep bruises covered almost every inch of his skin, creating a crisscross pattern of russet and scarlet over a multicolored field. Some of the wounds looked disturbingly deep. Rufus shook his head to clear his thoughts as he started the water in the shower.

The hot water stung his back, and the pressure pummeled his skin. Despite that, he felt better for being clean. He tried to ignore the fresh blood that was washed down the drain.

When Rufus walked back into the hotel room wearing the bathrobe, Dido looked up from her perch on the bed. She had changed into pajamas that were obviously courtesy of the hotel; they fit her no better than her own clothes had. On seeing Rufus, she nodded and said, "Much better. Don't look like you're half-dead now."

Rufus shook his head. "You didn't see my back. You'd think that I was run over by a train."

Dido smirked. "At least you got all that blood outta your hair. Thought you were a brunet."

"Hardly." He brushed his wet bangs out of his face. "Tell me about Rebirth. If they're prowling around the Shinra Headquarters, how can I get inside?"

"A miracle," Dido said flatly. "Your company probably figures you ain't on vacation, so that might help. But we ain't gonna make it to the front door. There a back way in?"

Rufus nodded. "But if we can get in, so can they."

"And they're gonna be waitin' to see who's comin' and goin'," Dido added. "Even if there's only two of 'em, they're pretty good shots- dammit, this could be tough." She paused. "Why don't you just call home?"

He shook his head. "They'd send out a squadron, set up an alert, and lead the assassins straight to me. Heidegger's in charge of that area, and I have little faith in his rescue operations." Sitting on the end of the bed opposite Dido, he added, "I'm not doing anything about it until tomorrow. How long was I unconscious?"

"Lemme think," she said. "Time's fuzzy down there." She pursed her lips. "Think it was a day, day and a half, maybe. Why?"

"My company will be suspecting foul play," Rufus said. "If they're at all intelligent, they will have increased security around the building. That may make it harder for the assassins to be nearby."

Dido nodded. "So we're back to who gets the bed."

"I thought that I already settled this."

"The hell you did."

"We can't both sleep in it," Rufus said.

"Why not?" Dido returned. "It's big enough." She indicated an imaginary line down the middle of the bed. "You got your side, I got mine. No problem, see?" She jerked her head towards a bundle of gray clothing on the dresser. "Room service dropped those off while you were showerin'. Said they didn't figure we'd need 'em, account of this bein' a honeymoon and all, but they didn't see us with no suitcases." She paused. "You really tipped 'em good, eh?"

Rufus picked up the thin pajamas and headed for the bathroom, saying, "I haven't been spending my own money." He changed and went back into the hotel room. Dido had already settled into her side of the bed, her head pressed contentedly into her pillow.

"Much better than the usual," she said. "I could get used to this."

Rufus made no reply as he climbed into his side of the bed. The feel of the mattress underneath him triggered his repressed exhaustion, and he was almost asleep when Dido said, "We're both so damn selfish."

"What brought that on?" Rufus muttered.

"Nothin'," she said. "Just thinkin'. If I could get my money without helpin' you, I'd leave you to die. And if you could get outta this mess without payin' me, you'd leave me poor. We're both thinkin' of ways to cheat each other, I bet." She made one of her odd noises that seemed to qualify as a laugh. "Wonder how we got this way."

Rufus half-shrugged and said, "Survival of the fittest."

"Yeah," Dido said impassively, pulling the blankets around herself. "Too bad. I was just startin' to like you."

"Don't," he said. "The feeling isn't mutual." Neither of them spoke again, and Rufus began a descent into sleep.

But sleep would not receive him. Sheer exhaustion was keeping him awake- or was it something in those pills? Rufus rolled on his side, and when that accomplished nothing, he lay on his back and stared at the spiraling darkness between himself and the ceiling. Beside him, Dido's breathing was regular and shallow, and he wondered how she had managed to fall asleep so quickly. Rufus rolled over again and closed his eyes.

The silence unnerved him. Normally what little sleep he had would come in a luxurious bed in his own private quarters, where he would hear the regular ticking of clocks and the muffled city noises from below. But that was only if he happened to be in Midgar. In Costa del Sol he had the steady waves and the footsteps of late-night strollers. In Junon he had the rush of ocean spray against the cliff face and the lazy motions of the plate-dwellers. The hotel room was silent. No, not entirely- Dido's whispery breath carried through the air, but that was more disturbing than the quiet.

Rufus folded his hands on his chest and tried to focus on his fatigue. Sleep had become a phantom, taunting him when he passed through its insubstantial being. Rufus pulled the blankets over his head and sank into his pillow.

Dido was still breathing in quiet rasps beside him. He opened his eyes and glanced at her. By the dusty, invading light, she looked more skeletal than alive, more humanoid than human. Her wet hair clung to her head like matted fur. She had the look of a creature lying on its back in its coffin, waiting for someone to shut the lid, staring at the heavens and seeing only inaccessible stars.

"They're no closer up here." Rufus wondered why he'd said it aloud and blamed his headache. Closing his eyes, he tried to block out the events of the day with thoughts of his normal life, but every memory was like mist, magnificent and impalpable, indifferent to his touch. At last he emptied his mind and passed into a familiar dreamless sleep.

He awoke long before dawn and was unable to fall asleep again. Blinking, he read the time on the cheap digital clock. Four a.m. Or maybe it was eight after four- one of the bulbs had burnt out. He still wasn't hungry, and he decided that his body was still in too much physical shock to handle digestion. He stretched and looked over at Dido, whose face didn't look peaceful even in slumber. "Slum rat," Rufus said. "Wake up." When she didn't stir, he jostled her arm and said, "Come on, wake-"

In a flash he felt a knife pressed against his throat. Dido's eyes glared fiercely at him; then they dimmed and her face relaxed. "Sorry," she said, pulling her knife back and dropping it onto the night stand. "Reflex."

"Of course," said Rufus dryly. He resisted the urge to run his hand over his neck.

Dido stretched and got out of the bed, looking like a child in her father's pajamas. "We got a plan for breakin' into your buildin', or are we makin' it up as we go?" She looked at him and half-smirked. "You look classy."

Stiffly, Rufus ran a hand through his hair, feeling strands that stuck out in all directions. "Circumstances excuse it," he replied. "There are only two ground-level entrances to the building. Since we have no way of knowing what the situation will be with Rebirth, we can't plan much beyond heading for the less guarded door."

"Sounds good to me." Dido wandered into the bathroom and emerged a moment later in her own clothing. She flopped onto the floor and shoved her feet into her boots, saying, "Don't know what you're gonna wear. Your clothes are shredded."

Rufus went into the bathroom and said over his shoulder, "They'll do. Someone at the company will be able to recognize them." He closed the door and donned his tattered suit. As he turned to look at himself in the mirror, shreds of cloth that were heavy with dry blood hit against his flesh like tapping fingers. He ignored the sensation and tried to flatten his hair.

When he walked back into the hotel room, he found that the weapons had vanished from the night stand. Dido was perched on the bed, staring at her boots. "Ten million gil," she said, a little sourly. "Never tried myself to put a price tag on it."

Rufus wondered if she knew that he had no intention of paying her. To occupy himself, he found the bottle of aspirin and swallowed a few more tablets.

"Not even dawn yet," she said. "Guess that's as good a time as any to break into somethin'. Not to mention we can sneak outta here without bein' seen."

With an indifferent nod, Rufus opened the door of the hotel room. The hallway was dim, almost smoky, beneath flickering overhead lights. No sounds came from the other rooms. Waving his hand, Rufus signaled for Dido to follow him and stole through the hall in a breathless, suspended silence.

As he came to end of the hall before the desk, he paused and glanced around the corner. No one. They moved to the door like shadows, flickering briefly across the hotel lobby before emerging in the street.

"Which way's the buildin'?" Dido whispered. She had drawn her gun.

Rufus led her through the empty streets. The only sounds came from a few buildings where late-night parties were winding to a close, or from drunks wandering home. They reached the Shinra building and hid in the shadows on the left side of the street that led to it.

Perhaps he should have felt a sense of security or homecoming. Yet Rufus felt nothing as he scanned the tower with his eyes. It rose from the plate like the city's spine, obscuring the starlight that it could not reach. Over the lobby door hung the neon-lit Shinra emblem, which illuminated the area immediately in front of the building and the edge of the back stairway. The "i" had begun to flicker. The assassins were not visible, but the right side of the street was also lined with shadows.

Dido titled her head back to view the building, awe and resentment mixing in her eyes. "Got some workaholics in there," she said at last, nodding at the lights in a few of the windows.

"Should we make a run for the door?" Rufus asked.

With a start, Dido whispered, "Are you outta your goddamn mind? Slum rats are tricky. I oughta know. They're in the shadows, probably takin' shifts watchin'. You run out there, they'll blow you to pieces."

"Then how do we get in?"

"We sneak," she said, melting into the walkway of shadows that extended almost to the stairway. "Can't shoot what they can't see." There was a break of light in the darkness ahead, which, although not bright by normal standards, was garish in the predawn blackness.

Rufus followed her silently. His breaths seemed unbearably loud to him, breaking the quiet in great huffs, although he knew that he scarcely made a sound. He had never been particularly afraid of death. What he felt now was, no doubt, just discomfort regarding the untidiness of the situation. The neat timetable of his life had been shredded. Any plans that he made now were destined to be disrupted, in a way that made all back-up plans irrelevant. And, more importantly, he wasn't in control. This he hated above all else.

Dido's hand caught his sleeve. Shaking her head to prohibit talking, she pointed to an area of darkness across the street.

At first Rufus could see nothing. At last he distinguished two faints shapes that were scarcely separate from the shadows, like subtle lumps in cake batter. The assassins' voices were almost inaudible, but Rufus caught the words "nothing yet," "coffee," "your turn," and "boring."

A hushed, rasping voice whispered from near his shoulder, "Ain't no way we can get to the stairs with them right there. Any ideas, pretty boy?"

Rufus shook his head. The assassins were invisible again, their forms melted back into the dark.

"We can't distract 'em," Dido whispered. Her voice was so quiet that Rufus had to strain his ears to hear her. "Better get ready to run. If we're lucky, they won't see us, but that ain't likely. And if you see me about to shoot, don't move. Got it?"

He nodded. The break in the shadow cover lay about halfway between his present position and the stairway, caused by the absence of a building to block the city lights. A dumpster had been set here, presumably to fill the space. It did of a poor job of this, leaving large slices of light on either side of it.

"If I'm injured," Rufus whispered, "I won't pay you a gil."

Dido's eyes were invisible in the shadows, but Rufus could guess the expression that they would hold. "Of course," she whispered caustically. "Got to keep you pretty, don't we?" Something in her voice made him wonder again if she knew that he would never pay her, and he didn't want to have to depend upon her honor instead of her avarice.

With a quick gesture for Rufus to follow her, Dido crept towards the dumpster. The assassins were still.

They had almost reached the light when the rapid ringing of a cellular phone pierced the air. A muffled curse came from across the street, followed by an indistinct, angry conversation and a definitive beep.

"They're oafs," Dido whispered. "Haven't even heard us yet, and I think one of 'em is sleepin'." She took a deep breath, then darted across the slab of light.

A bullet exploded into the night and struck the dumpster. A voice yelled in fury. Dido scrambled behind the dumpster as a large figure clad entirely in black ran into the light, trailing a cloak of a shadow that stretched to the walls across the street.

Another voice shouted, "What the hell was that?"

"Stay put!" growled the running man. "Someone headed for the stairs. I'll take care of it."

Rufus didn't move, didn't breathe. The man stopped in front of the dumpster, panting, scanning the area with a slow half-rotation of his head. His bearded face was coated with charcoal. From his vantage point, Rufus saw that Dido was slowly moving to peer around the dumpster.

The assassin paused and turned his head, flitting his eyes over the dense shadows until they rested on Rufus. Rufus froze; how could the man have seen him? With motions barely discernible in the dim light, the assassin took a small flashlight from his pocket and aimed it at Rufus.

The sudden beam of light held him fast, pinning him to wall. Rufus gazed back at the assassin. He had already ruled out running and fighting, both of which would be futile. Setting his eyes and mouth in a steady, derisive glare, he refused to give the assassin the satisfaction of seeing him tremble.

"The little bastard survived," the man growled, shifting the flashlight to his left hand in order to draw his gun. "I knew it. Like trying to kill a damn cockroach." He pointed the gun at Rufus's head and grunted, "Shoulda done it this way to begin with." Rufus kept his eyes locked on the assassin's as the gun fired.

The assassin fell to the pavement, a bleeding hole in his temple. "Idiot," Dido muttered from the dumpster's shadow. "Forgot about me."

Her hand shot out and grabbed Rufus by the wrist. With a sharp tug she pulled him behind the dumpster. "Good boy," she whispered. "You held still that time." Then, with a sharper tone: "You didn't think I'd really let him kill you, did you?"


"Liar." Her voice smirked. "I saw your face. All set to check out." The air tightened. Dido froze, her body radiating tension like an agitated dog's. The sound of pounding feet came from the pavement. Dido cursed quietly. "Almost forgot about the brother."

The footsteps of the assassin stopped abruptly, and his voice howled with the pitch of savage grief. "Come out here, you coward!" he roared. A gun fired into the air.

"The stairs are close," Dido whispered, "but he's-"

Her voice cut off as the rapid footsteps came nearer. "You goddamn coward!" the assassin bellowed. Another bullet struck the wall near Rufus.

"Hell with it," Dido rasped. "Just run!" She shoved Rufus towards the stairway, forcing him into the glaring slice of light. He dashed towards the stairs and was confronted with a closed door. He tried to force it open, only to find that, for perhaps the first time in Shinra history, it was properly secured. A noise came from the darkness, and he froze, cornered in the fringe light of the Shinra logo, facing the impenetrable shadows. Then part of the darkness moved, and a furious cry and a gunshot exploded into the air.

For an instant the glint of a bullet cleaved the darkness, speeding towards Rufus's chest. Then Dido was in front of him, her body angled sideways. She jerked as if a massive hand had shaken her, but she did not fall or cry out. A crimson stain spread over her left shoulder. Panting, she glanced at Rufus, who was unharmed.

Part of the shadows melted into the shape of a man, near-invisible except for his eyes, which were glazed with a mindless hatred. "The next one goes in your head, bitch," the assassin spat, "and the one after that goes in his."

His mistake lay in pausing to speak. Rufus saw Dido's uninjured arm extend in a blur, and her gun fired in a burst of noise and smoke. The assassin howled, releasing a futile bullet as the shadow of his body convulsed and was swallowed by the darkness. Dido shook and fell to her knees, clutching her blood-soaked shoulder.

"You shouldn't have done that," Rufus said. "The dead have no use for money."

"Wouldn't have got a gil if you got shot," Dido returned, her voice shaky. She took a loud breath and stood. "And goin' back to livin' the way I was is no better than bein' dead." With a wince she added, "Probably deserve it. I just shot two of my own- who the hell do I think I am?"

Rufus walked to the first assassin that Dido had killed, searching the dead man's pockets until he found a cheap cellular phone. It was still warm from its proximity to the man's body.

"And besides," Dido said vacantly as he dialed the phone, "it felt good to do that, just once."

Rufus heard a grainy ringing on the other end of the line. "Please state your security clearance code," said Scarlet's voice, sounding weary, drunk, or both. "If you do not have clearance, please call our service hotline at-"

"I'm alive," Rufus said shortly.

A sound like the overturning of a chair came from the other end. "Oh, my God! Is that you, Mr. President? I've been fielding calls all night and- Where are you? Are you all right?"

Something in her voice irked Rufus. "I'm outside the front door. There was an assassination attempt."

"I can't believe that got past security. Heidegger never should have let the Turks leave for so long." She paused. "I'm tracing your call, sir. Whose phone are you using? I don't recognize the number."

He ignored her. "Send a medical team to meet me in the lobby, Scarlet. I was wounded earlier."

"But you're all right now, Mr. President?"

Rufus narrowed his eyes. "I'm fine. But send the medics."

"Right away, sir. Are there any other victims?"

"No. The assassins were killed."

"God, I can't believe this happened. Mr. President, you have no idea how concerned we all were. We were terrified that you were dead."

Rufus had never before noticed how hollow her voice was. "Just send the medical team to the lobby, Scarlet."

"They're on their way." Scarlet's voice softened. "Please hurry inside, sir. We can't let anything else happen to you."

"I know." He hung up the phone and said, "They're sending the medics down. For me."

"I ain't stupid," Dido rasped, drawing back into the shadows. "We been usin' each other from the moment we met. I expected this."

As she gripped her bleeding shoulder, he said, "Then you shouldn't-"

"I know. But I was tired of bein' a bitch." She turned her head and gave him a caustic smile in profile. "That's all I had left to go on."

"I don't feel guilty about this," Rufus said.

Dido nodded again, still smirking. "I know. Didn't expect it."

"Then why-"

"I told you," she said. "I wanted to quit bein' a bitch." The shadow of the wall obscured most of her face, revealing only her curled lip.

Rufus turned and walked towards the building. An instant later he heard a gunshot.

His back tensed, anticipating a bullet, but he felt nothing. He turned. Dido lay prone on the ground, her fingers limp around a smoking gun, blood pooling around her body in a deep crimson. Rufus watched the flowing liquid for a long moment.

The phone beeped. Rufus pressed the talk button listlessly, and Scarlet's voice said, "Mr. President, where are you? We've got a report to file, and we'd better get you to a hospital-"

"We're both so damn selfish, aren't we?"

Rufus threw the phone into the dumpster and glanced once at Dido's body, then turned his eyes to the artificial lights as he re-entered the Shinra lobby.
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