Rufus checked his desktop clock again and wondered when Scarlet would leave. She had been chattering for the past twenty-seven minutes, ostensibly discussing her future plans for her beloved Mako Cannon, but she had long since abandoned the topic and was now engaged in one-sided small talk. For all Rufus cared, she could have continued babbling all afternoon; he only wished that she would lose her desire for an audience and soliliquize elsewhere. At first he had attempted to work through her chattering, but she had prevented this by sprawling her arms across his desk and narrowing her painted eyes at him. Rufus checked the clock again. Twenty-eight minutes.
"Are you ignoring me?" Scarlet demanded. She shook her head and sat on his desk, sending papers fluttering to the floor. "You work too hard, Mr. President," she said, tossing her bleached hair. "Don't you ever want to enjoy yourself?" She smiled and turned the clock face-down.
He had made a point of not speaking to her since he had first acknowledged her presence in his office; now she had begun to annoy him. Rufus righted the clock and said, "Scarlet, I would prefer not to pay you for the time that you're wasting. Go back to your department, and perhaps we'll both get some work done." He began to restack the papers that were still on his desk. "Why don't you come back when we both aren't busy?"
"I think we could get a lot of work done right now," she said coyly. She stretched and knocked the fledging stack of documents away with one leg. Tossing her hair again, she glanced at the video monitor on the desk and rolled her eyes. "Oh, god," she muttered, "it's that damned preacher again."
Rufus looked past her at the screen and caught a glimpse of Reeve standing resolutely in the center of the main elevator, his head distorted into a balloon by the convex camera lens. A quick look at the date book confirmed that Reeve had scheduled yet another meeting for that day.
Scarlet's eyes glittered with puerile mischief. "Why don't we have some fun?" she said. "You can take the back elevator to the street and wait until he's gone."
"Why?" Rufus said, hoping that his flatness would preclude an answer.
"Because you need to be in control," Scarlet said. "You shouldn't ever do something that you don't want to do. I'll call you back up when he's gone."
Rufus narrowed his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. We're not children, Scarlet."
"You need to be in control," she repeated. "We're above consequences here." Before Rufus could answer, she slid off his desk and pulled him towards the back elevator. "Besides, I know that you don't want to talk him."
Rufus wanted to protest, but he was too tired to listen to Reeve and certainly too tired to reason with Scarlet. She was a genius with weapons, he had to admit, but that was all that he would say in her favor. Over her years at Shinra, Inc., Scarlet had become a ridiculous figure, combating the effects of aging with higher slits and heavier cosmetics. At times Rufus even wondered if she were made of plastic, if she would melt when she was caught in a strong enough light. That her name rhymed with "harlot" had inspired several jokes among the lower-level employees, most of which were too vulgar-- and accurate-- to be funny. Rufus had never had any respect for her, but she was dependent upon him; he liked the feeling of power.
"Don't you feel more in charge already?" Scarlet whispered, directing him into the back elevator. "I'll tell you all about it when I call you back up."
He didn't answer as the elevator descended to the ground floor; his brain was already chastising him, wondering how he had gotten into this. He certainly hadn't allowed himself to be manipulated by a jejune tramp; Rufus decided that it had been his idea after all, that he was saving time and money by avoiding Reeve. Better yet, he could blame Heidegger, who seemed to be the root of any problem that wasn't caused by Avalanche or Sephiroth. Or Scarlet. But she, at least, had the edge of jaded materialism that the others lacked. Rufus had never had any tolerance for those who attached a higher significance to life.
The glass elevator doors opened onto the back streets of the Shinra tower. With a short breath, Rufus exited and stood back to look at his pride, his power, rising like the Tower of Babel into the heavens, and he was the god who had descended from immortality to survey his world. Rufus allowed himself a half-smile and settled to waited in the shadows.
A paralyzing confusion jolted him; it burst into the most intense pain that he had ever known. Bursts of agony exploded across his back and shoulders. Rufus felt himself falling, but he was still falling long after he felt the pavement strike him. A different kind of pain came through the storm of blows, a high-pitched one that bit through his skin. He never panicked; he never had time to, and he never realized how stentorian pain was until the silence blotted it out.
The first thing that Rufus felt on waking up was the same pain, which seemed to have lasted through his unconsciousness in order to greet him when he came to. His entire body hurt. He wondered for a moment why he ached so badly; then snatches of the past drifted back to remind him.
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. He remembered a slicing pain-- of knives, perhaps? It came as something of a surprise to Rufus that he was alive now.
He'd been stupid. If he hadn't been stupid, he would have taken bodyguards with him. When had he ever gone somewhere without bodyguards? 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 an Reeve's fault? That seemed right. Rufus waited for more memories to penetrate the cloud of pain; he could vaguely recall Reeve heading for his office to rail against the conditions in the slums again. So it was Scarlet's fault. He remembered being too tired to deal with Reeve's moralism and half-agreeing to her prank. But that had been stupid of him, too.
Rufus narrowed his eyes mentally; his body ached too much to do so physically. Turning his mind back to the present, he 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. But he at least needed to know where he was. After a struggle, 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 had assumed were grease scuttled across the cracked ceiling. The mattress accounted for a third of the furnishings; a rusty, probably unused sink jutted from one wall, and a stove that looked like a space heater turned on its side sat on the grimy carpet. 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 impossibly thin and probably female. When it turned to look at him, he saw from the face that he had guessed the gender correctly; but she was a mockery of any woman that he had ever seen.
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 misproportioned; it draped awkwardly over her arms and chest, gathering in the crevices of her skeletal shoulders. She was barefoot and had calluses covering her feet. With a lupine motion, she 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 eyes were as cold and dead as obsidian. Her nose was large and crooked, her lips thin, 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. Rufus didn't think that she was very old, but her emaciation made it difficult to be sure; he guessed that she was near his age, maybe a little older. She let him look at her for another moment, then said in a rasping voice, "'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 might have passed for a man's. Her teeth were crooked and stained. His eyes, which he had never managed to fully open, chose that moment to close again. Hoping that it had all been a nightmare, 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 stretched out in front of her on the floor. "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, then said, "You're a mess, but not too bad considerin' what happened."
"What did happen?" 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 was pickin' through the trash when I heard this god-awful noise up there, and I looked up and saw this poor idiot gettin' the hell knocked outta him by a couple of thugs. So I thought, 'This guy must have some gil,' so I climbed a little ways up the wire and slammed two pipes-- it makes a noise like a gunshot." She cleared her throat. "Thugs took off. I got up there and found this pitiful, bleedin' guy, looked about half-dead, and I drug him home, thinkin' I could 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 drunkenly unintelligible, which ended with the name "Dido."
"I told you what to do with your damn job last time," the girl snapped. "Get outta here."
The voice grew sharp 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 work as 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."
"It's Alexander," Rufus said, employing his middle name.
"Don't lie to me," said Dido angrily. "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 rich or to work as a prostitute... Wall Market is the moral sewer of Midgar; 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. "They hate me here. I was thinkin' about killin' myself insteada just waitin' to starve. Course, now I got money comin' in." 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 never seen your picture, not that it woulda helped; you're such a bloody mess nobody'd know you. But 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 ensured her dedication.
Dido stood and glanced from her skeletal hands to Rufus's healthy ones. "Accepted," she said, shoving her rough 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, both its quality and its tone, irritated him, but he consoled himself with the idea that he would be independent of her when 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 deftly pulling a long knife from her boot. "What's that for?"
"Just watch," she said. "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 started to walk 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; the world was a nightmare of darkness and filth. Dido moved ahead of Rufus now, her eyes scanning the area like a wolf's. She always held the knife as if preparing to strike.
"Wouldn't you do better with a gun?" Rufus asked.
"Don't own one," Dido said, never turning from her vigil. "It costs too damn much payin' for the bullets." Her eyes suddenly narrowed; 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 wolf-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, always focusing intently on the places where something could hide in the shadows. Then she stopped and glared at the space over his right shoulder; the next thing that Rufus saw was the barrel of the gun pointed almost at his face.
He started as the gun went off; the bullet skimmed his shoulder. Behind him came an animal's shriek, followed by a crash. When he turned, he saw a rabid dog lying in a pool of blood, whimpering in a feeble rage as its life seeped onto 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 don't use 'em. Next time I'm gonna shoot, hold still unless you want me to blow your damn head off." Rufus didn't answer, but he began to freeze when she began to aim.
In the short walk to the entrance of Wall Market, Dido killed two more predatory dogs. "They're starved as I am," she explained after shooting the last one. "Most of 'em rabid, too. They'll rip your throat out if you ain't careful. Look. You can see every damn one of its ribs." Her voice softened and cracked towards the end, as if she saw her reflection in the dog's emaciated carcass.
Neither of them spoke again until they reached Wall Market. Several of the men sneered at Dido, and two offered Rufus money for her. It baffled Rufus that they would desire such a skeletal wretch; Dido drove them all off with her gun. "Damn horny bastards," she muttered after chasing one away. Rufus was inclined to agree.
She led him through the rows of tacky neon lights and half-painted houses. Only men wandered the streets; the few women that Rufus saw were in the restaurant. Every alley hid clusters of shadows, engaged in whispered bargains. Rufus had never seen Wall Market, but he'd heard that his father frequented one of the bordellos. Appropriate, 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 richest section of town yet, 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. "I hear Avalanche threatened to rip his balls off. Not a bad idea." She paused and looked up. "We're here."
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 rasped, gesturing to it.
Rufus clutched the cable and began to ascend. His body, already sore from walking, complained torturously; he felt as if he had been through a blender. He reached the top of the wall with a dizzy sensation and sat down to rest.
He looked down the other side of the wall 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 transferred the gun somewhere for better 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 damn jealous of them and their jobs." She smiled bitterly. "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 an animal, pausing occasionally to check Rufus's progress. His light-headedness was almost overwhelming, and he saw her stop as he climbed to her level. He had reached a catwalk formed by a narrow pipe. Weakly, he stood and walked towards 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; his hands missed it.
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 asked, "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. Dido had come up ahead of him; he turned to see where she had gone and felt a pair of rough hands grab him and pull him out of the street.
"Shh!" he heard Dido's voice hiss. "I hear somethin'. Voices."
Rufus listened; the sound of two distant male voices carried in the air.
"You find him?"
"No. Son of a bitch must've gotten away."
"The hell he did. He was dead when the gun went off."
"You think. What if he wasn't?"
"No way he walked off. You know what we did to him."
"Then where the hell is the body?"
"They don't have it. That's all that matters."
"You ever find out who fired the gun?"
"No." A pause. "You can't think the little bastard is still alive."
"What if he is? I say we stake out the HQ until we know."
"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 shadowy corner to the next, pausing only to hear his directions. They reached the outside of the hotel; Dido glanced furtively at 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 vacuous about youth and love.
"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 uttered something else derogatory about the clerk; Rufus ignored her and 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, pretty boy."
"I'm paying your salary, slum rat."
"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; 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 turned her waif's eyes to him; he looked back at her and said, "I'll call. Look at the menu and--" He caught himself and said, "Tell me what you want and I'll see if it's on the menu."
"I don't care. Meat. Bread. Vegetables. 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, how does a slum rat know what room service is?"
"Long, borin' story," Dido said. She sat on the floor and took her weapons from her boots, setting them on the night stand. "I'll get to it, but I bet you're more interested in Rebirth now, huh?" When Rufus nodded, she continued, "I've known about 'em for years, but I never thought they'd pull nothin' off. They ain't a big group-- maybe just the two brothers now, with a few oafs runnin' their headquarters." Dido pulled off her boots and stretched her legs. "All they think about is killin' off the Shinra."
Narrowing his eyes slightly, Rufus asked, "So how are you connected to them?"
"Keep your ass in your chair," Dido rasped. She got up and sat on the bed. "My mother used to ship me out to hotels. That's how I found out about room service and Rebirth. See, I was ten when I started stayin' 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 of brothers talkin' about overthrowin' the Shinra. They were pretty damn fun compared to everybody else, so I listened to 'em whenever I was there. They talked for a long time 'bout assassinatin' the old president. They were nuts. But not idiots. 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, "Sorry. But your daddy was an asshole."
"He was incompetent, too," Rufus said.
Dido's eyes brightened. "Okay, let's hear it-- what'd he do to piss you off?"
"Many things," Rufus said, trying not to stray far from the subject. "It wasn't very generous of him to appoint me as the vice-president. I had to do anything that he found boring; I was just waiting for him to die."
"What about your mom?"
Rufus shrugged. "She was never there; she hated my father by the time I was born. The day after he 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."
"You mentioned a mother."
Dido's eyes receded. "If you can call her that. A long time before I got born, she was livin' with a pretty rich man. She loved him. He was in love with her. There's a difference. He left her without leavin' a single gil. She wasn't even twenty, she didn't have much schoolin', and she was gettin' in debt just doin' small jobs. So she moved to Sector Six." Dido paused and said, mocking her own tone, "And I bet I'm borin' the hell outta you."
"I don't care," Rufus said.
Dido shrugged and tucked her legs underneath her. When she spoke again, her voice was tight. "My mother ended up bein' a whore. We never knew who my dad was. After a while she had to start takin' rougher and rougher men, and she started bringin' 'em home. That's when she shipped me out to the hotel every night." She paused, as if debating whether to continue. When she did, her voice was level, almost detached. "One day when I was twelve, she didn't come get me from the hotel. I went home and found her dead. Some bastard beat her to death."
Dido blinked, but her eyes were still vacant. "She'd been takin' everythin' that came her way to stay outta debt. They took her money to pay off everythin' she owed before they gave me a gil. Wasn't much left then. I moved into that shack outside Wall Market and started scavengin'. Some of the pimps offered me work, and I told 'em to go to hell."
Shaking her head as if coming out of a fog, she said, "And I didn't think I'd yak so much. That's what happens when nobody talks to you for years." She curled her lips in a way that might have been a smile or a smirk. "You ain't such a bastard after all, you know that?"
She lay back on the bed, and neither of them said anything else until the room service arrived. 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. She attacked the bland food with a wolf-like savagery. After a few mouthfuls she looked up at Rufus and said, "You want anythin'?"
He shook his head. She returned to her food with relish, as if she had never eaten anything better. She probably hadn't, at least not in her conscious memory. 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 seen a 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; Rufus downed four tablets. His pain had never fully faded, and any medication seemed better than none. He examined his hands and speculated that a few of the knife wounds would leave scars. Trying to ignore the idea, 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. With the water collecting in the deep crevices on her face, she looked like a flood victim who had been stranded for several weeks before being rescued. "Your turn, pretty boy," she rasped, wringing her stringy hair with a towel.
Rufus took a towel and robe from the dresser and walked into the bathroom. After shutting the door, his first move was to examine the cabinets in there. He found nothing and wondered how long 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 fully taken off 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 seriousness 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 tiny 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; he must have fallen to the ground and to protect it.
When he twisted around to see his back, he knew what part of him had taken the brunt of the attack. Knife wounds and deep bruises covered almost every inch of his skin, russet and scarlet criss-crossing over a multicolored field. Some of the gashes looked disturbingly deep. Rufus shook his head to clear the image as he started the water in the shower.
The hot water stung his back; the pressure pummeled his skin. Despite that, he felt better for cleansing his body of dirt. 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 gray 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."
Sitting on the end of the bed opposite Dido, Rufus said, "I'm not doing anything about it until tomorrow. How long was I unconscious?"
"Lemme think," she said. "I don't keep track of time." She pursed her lips. "Think it was a day, day and a half, maybe. Why?"
"They'll have begun to suspect 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. "Funny people can get so cold."
Rufus half-shrugged and said, "Survival of the fittest-- the good die young."
"Yeah," Dido said impassively, pulling the blankets around herself. "Too bad it's gotta be that way. 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; then, when that accomplished nothing, lay on his back and stared at the spiraling darkness between himself and the ceiling. Beside him, Dido's breathing was regular and shallow; he wondered how she had managed to fall asleep so quickly. Rufus rolled over 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 cold ticking of clocks and the muffled city noises from below. But that was 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, the lazy motions of the rich 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 silence.
Rufus folded his hands on his chest and tried to focus on his fatigue. Sleep had assumed the form of phantom starlight, taunting him when he passed through its insubstantial being. Rufus pulled the blankets over himself 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 animal than human. Her wet hair clung to her head like matted fur. She had the peculiar 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 more tangible up close," Rufus whispered. He 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 the nothingness from 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, but he decided that his body was still in too much physical shock to handle digestion. He stretched and looked over at Dido; her paper-like skin was smooth with the aura of peace that surrounds the dead. "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 tense 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 like hell."
Stiffly, Rufus ran a hand through his hair, feeling strands that stuck out in all directions. "You're no better," he replied. "Since we have no way of knowing what the situation will be with Rebirth, we'd probably be best off making things up as we go along." He was vaguely surprised to hear himself make such a suggestion; he had always plotted his decisions carefully, making sure that each Plan A had an equally sound Plan B. He felt dependent upon chance and hated it.
"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, commenting, "Don't know what you're gonna wear. Your clothes are in pieces."
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 vacantly at her boots. "Ten million gil," she said, a little bitterly. "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.
"It's four in the mornin'," she said. "Guess that's as good a time as any to break into somethin'. Still dark out. Not to mention we can sneak outta here without nobody seein' us." To his expression she added, "I can read numbers, you know. "
With an indifferent nod, Rufus opened the door of the hotel room. The hallway was dim, almost smoky, beneath flickering overhead lights. No sound came from any other room. 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 asked. 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; Rufus felt nothing as he scanned the tower with his eyes. It rose unbending from the plate, the spine of an arrogant, omnipotent creature, futilely blocking 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, a look of suppressed wonder 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. "I don't see them anywhere."
With a start, Dido whispered, "Are you outta your damn 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 pre-dawn 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 was more a 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 had become dependent. 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; then 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 "damn 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 stirred 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. "And money's all we care about, isn't it?" Something in her voice made him wonder if she knew that he would never pay her; 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 like a furtive wolf. The assassins were silent and still, like soldiers awaiting the command to attack.
They had almost reached the light. 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. Rufus glanced at the shadows where the assassins were; he had only heard one voice.
"They're oafs," Dido whispered. "Haven't even heard us yet, and looks like one of 'em is sleepin'." She appeared to take a deep breath; then she began to sneak across the glaring 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 and darted towards her, leaving a cloak of a shadow that stretched to the walls across the street.
Another startled 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; it was impossible that the man had 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. He set his eyes and mouth in a steady, derisive glare and refused to give the assassin the satisfaction of 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. "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 more caustic 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: "Forgot about the brother."
The footsteps of the assassin stopped abruptly; his voice howled with the pitch of savage grief. "Come out, you damn coward!" he roared. A gun fired into the air.
"Stairs are close," Dido whispered, "but he's--"
Her voice severed itself as the rabid footsteps came nearer. "Get out here, you 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 darted towards the stairs and was confronted with a closed door. He tried to force it open. It was locked. A noise came from the darkness, and he froze, cornered in the fringe light of the Shinra logo, facing the impenetrable shadows. Part of the darkness moved; 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 shadows melted into the shape of a man, invisible except for his eyes; these were filled with a mindless hatred, glazed with an empty nemesis. "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; 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 slight 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. "Shinra Emergency Line," said Scarlet's voice, sounding weary, drunk, or both. "If this isn't in regard to a recent crisis, please call our service hotline at--"
"I am alive," Rufus said shortly.
A sound like the overturning of a chair came from the other end. "Oh, my god!" Scarlet cried, her voice undulating with melodrama. "Is that you, Mr. President? I've been fielding calls like a lowly employee-- can you imagine it? Where are you? Are you all right?"
Something in her voice irked Rufus, as if she belonged to lower caste than even the slum-dwellers. "I'm outside the front door. There was an assassination attempt, and I'm--"
Scarlet gasped loudly, theatrically. "Assassins! Oh, my god!" 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, Mr. President?"
Rufus narrowed his eyes in irritation. "I'm fine. But send the medics."
"Right away, of course. Is anyone else hurt down there?"
He gazed at the wall and said, "No. The assassins were killed."
"God, I guess this sort of thing just happens," she said vapidly. "Mr. President, you have no idea how concerned we all were. We were just terrified that you were dead."
Rufus had never before noticed how shrill her voice was, how she made even the word "you" sound selfish. "Just send the medical team to the lobby, Scarlet. As I said, I was wounded." He kept his eyes focused ahead in order to avoid Dido's; he felt less in control now than he had before.
"Oh, right away, Mr. President." Scarlet's voice grated the words against Rufus's ears. "Please hurry inside. It would terrible if something else happened 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 have done that."
She nodded. "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."
"I told you," she said. "I wanted to quit bein' a bitch." The shadow of the wall obscured her upper 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 deeply human red. Rufus watched the flowing crimson for an echoing moment.
The phone beeped. Rufus pressed the talk button listlessly, and Scarlet's voice shrilled, "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 said. He threw the squawking 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.