Brick by Brick

ShinRa and AVALANCHE. PG. ~1200 words.
Some day soon, Reno’s going to sit Cloud down and list out the ways he’s just like Rufus.

Afternoon sunlight streams through the rippled glass windows. It glows warmly on scarred, dark tabletops and tumbles hazily all the way down to the floor. The floorboards are scuffed and worn but clean. Leaning on the bar, Reno clinks ice in his glass.He likes this place. Between the pock-marked dartboard on the wall and the small, intimate tables, it feels more like a pub straight out of old-time Kalm than a watering hole smack in the middle of Edge. Hell, he even stuffed a couple more gil than the whiskey’s worth in the till.

Footsteps echo dull on the steps outside, the nice heavy tread of somebody used to stomping around with a lot of gear on his back. Tseng and Elena scrape their chairs back, Rude eases a couple feet away from the door. Everybody’s got their hands in plain sight, looking relaxed, their weapons tucked away.

Tifa’s fine ass is the first through the door with a half dozen children swarming in after her. Cloud’s hair is dripping wet; puddles instead of ratty orphans follow in his wake. He looks good for a guy who keeps dying. More like Rufus than he knows.

“Tifa,” Cloud says, eyes going flat in a blink.

“AVALANCHE,” Rufus says in greeting. He’s sitting at the table in the very centre of the room, a good ten feet between him and the exits. Reno didn’t like it much, but the boss is the boss, and Reno’s too happy to see him marching around on his own two legs to really care.

He doesn’t need to remind himself Cloud’s one of the good guys. It’s habit that makes the spot between Reno’s shoulder blades itch, not Cloud’s wary stare.

Just like a good hero should, Cloud steps in front of his woman. Doesn’t seem to matter much that Tifa could punch a hole in his chest, or that she glares one in the back of his head before she ushers the children straight up the back stairs. Reno tosses off a wave to the one giving him the hairy eyeball right before the door slams.

Tifa marches back to the front entry and sinks into a pretty decent thug pose for somebody just hitting five and a half, her back resting on the heavy wood and her eyes harder than Cloud’s head.

“What do you want?” Cloud asks.

Rufus gestures for Cloud to take the chair already pulled out across from him, inclining his head knowingly when Cloud stays standing. “I want to talk.”

Just like the last time, and all the times before, Cloud’s face says he doesn’t want to hear a damn word that comes out of Rufus’s mouth. If it were anybody else, he wouldn’t even give Rufus the chance.

“So talk.”

Reno’s seen all the dirt on Cloud. The guy’s royally fucked in the head. All ShinRa’s fault, too. Makes Reno glad he still can’t tally himself in the nice column, because he’d just as soon blow somebody’s head off than make small talk with the man who’s not really but close enough to responsible for ruining his life.

Rufus’s slim fingers curl around his glass of plain Rocket Town brew. There’s not a mark left on him. They’re not sure just what that rain was, but they’ve got a couple of working theories that are just as miraculous as they are worrisome.

“I hear your friend has found a sizeable field of oil,” Rufus says. He strokes condensation from the glass, carefully timing the moment his eyes meet Cloud’s. “I want you to allow my help in developing it.”

“Go ask Barret yourself.” Cloud clomps past Rufus’s table, gaze landing on Reno and the half-empty bottle of Kalm Golden Sylkis at his elbow. Reno grins. Cloud’s glare hardens.

“Cloud,” Rufus says, twisting in his seat.

“I already told you, I’m not working for ShinRa.”

“There’s very little of ShinRa left.”

Reno’s the only one who can see Cloud’s face, so he’s the only one that sees the tiny flicker in blue eyes. Hell, he’s not sure Cloud’s soft enough to feel pity for Rufus now. He’s not sure either one of them could take it.

The silence is a tangible weight before Rufus breaks it, saying, “To most, Cloud, you already are.”

Tifa starts, hands balled into fists so tight her leather gloves creak. Rude steps forward, her eyes dart to him, and Rufus shakes his head.

“Two years ago, the people saw you fight WEAPON alongside ShinRa,” Rufus says. “Today, they saw AVALANCE and Turk fight together again. You wear the uniform of SOLDIER,” he presses, “and even if we know it for the tribute it really is, they don’t. It has ever been a symbol of ShinRa. Of me.”

“You think that’s a good enough reason?” Tifa explodes, arm flung wide as if to erase everything Rufus had said. “That he should just roll over and do what you want because some people who don’t know better think he’s on your payroll?”

“Tifa,” Cloud says again, a plea this time instead of a warning. “He’s not worth it.”

Rufus pushes his chair back and stands. Tseng and Elena follow suit, Tseng smoothing his tie and Elena her slacks.

“There are dozens of relief caches in every sector of ShinRa territory,” Rufus says, pulling a folded map from inside his suit jacket and dropping it to the table beside exact change for his drink. “Food stuffs, medical supplies, low-grade materia. You may use them as you like, provided you notify my people for restocking when the contents run low.”

Reno hops the bar, nabbing his whiskey on the way. The kid must’ve learned that hairy eyeball from Tifa, because the look she gives Reno practically scours a few layers of skin off him.

“That is merely my opening offer,” Rufus continues. “There may not be much of ShinRa left, Cloud, but I doubt that is as warm a comfort as a steady foundation to rebuild the world’s energy networks would be.”

Tifa stands aside while Cloud stares resolutely at the display of gleaming bottles behind the counter. At Rufus’s signal, Rude and Elena file out first, Tseng remaining just inside the door and Reno hanging back to be the last one to leave.

“Hey, Cloud,” Reno says. “When’re you gonna take me for that ride?”

“Get out,” Cloud says, with a little too much resignation and not enough heat. Some day soon, Reno’s going to sit him down and list out the ways he’s just like Rufus.

Before Rufus steps into the sunlight, he turns and says, “It would be trite of me to say think of the children, but that would hardly make it any less true, would it?”

Cloud is silent. Tifa seethes. A very real smile tugs at the corners of Rufus’s lips as Reno shuts the door behind them.


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