"Tseng," Rufus said the next time the Turk stopped by for the (not insignificant) last three profiles of the board members. He had to admit, he was very curious to go through all of them.
Of the three of them, Hojo's was, by far, the largest, consisting of at least seven folders and Rufus had said he wasn't completely finished with it. Veld was curious as well and Tseng had instructions to take all of the profiles back to the office before delivering it to the President. Not to mention the way the information had been compiled would help them piece together their Vice President's potential network.
"Yes, sir," the Turk finally answered.
Rufus handed over another small file. Inside was all the information the company had on one Cloud Strife: ShinRa cadet.
"I'd like to set up a meeting with him."
Tseng blinked. "If I may ask, why, sir?" He was a cadet. True, he showed promise (Tseng had gone to investigate him), but he was starting from scratch – less than, even as he had so many bad habits from being taught incorrectly or self-taught that it would take a great deal of time and effort to train said boy properly. He was mediocre at best.
"I've been thinking about my own safety as the future president of this company – and thus, the world. Ignoring Wutai, there will still be many people after my head. Including Wutai, I have to take more precautions than father has. This cadet will be immensely helpful."
Tseng allowed himself to frown ever so slightly. "How?"
Rufus just smiled and went back to cleaning up what was left of his 'project mess'.
Right about then, the Turk realized that Rufus was cleaning up scraps of information or extra pages that had been printed unnecessarily. He didn't see any used folders anywhere. Which made him wonder just where the boy had put the copies of the profiles that he claimed to have?
And why hadn't he called for a maid?
Cloud hoped he didn't look as nervous as he felt. He was pretty sure he did, but then, who could blame him? He'd been pulled out of class. That, in and of itself, was highly unusual. The fact that he'd been fetched by a Turk didn't help matters. At all.
Had he done something wrong? He didn't think he had… but while he got along with most of his squad-mates, he didn't get along with all of them and it wouldn't be the first time he'd been framed for something he didn't do.
"In here, Mr. Strife," the man who had come to get him – one of obvious Wutian heritage with a dot in the center of his forehead and dark hair pulled back in a pony tail – nodded to him politely as he opened a door to one of the offices on one of the higher floors that Cloud most certainly did not have access to as a lowly cadet (he'd lost track of which one specifically thanks to his nervousness – he should probably work on that).
The boy swallowed and nodded, walking into the room as confidently as he could. Inside, he found another boy a bit older than him sitting at the end of a long conference table. He had blond hair slicked back from his face and wore what looked like a white overcoat and purple gloves. He wore a smile that made Cloud uneasy. It wasn't cruel or malicious, per se, but if the other boy was going for 'friendly' or 'trustworthy', he'd missed the mark.
On either side of said boy stood two more Turks. One looked just older than both he and Cloud and had red hair, a sloppy outfit and the grin of a cat who just got the canary, the cream and the catnip. The other was a much older man with dark, shoulder-length hair, glasses and a scar down the side of his face. He looked far more stoic and professional.
"Hello, Mr. Strife," the blond said as he gestured to the table. "Please, have a seat."
Doubling down on his nervousness, Cloud pulled out the nearest chair, at the foot of the table, and sat on the edge of it, his hands under the table and firmly in his lap. He tried not to wring them but wasn't very successful.
"Now, Cloud – do you mind if I call you Cloud?"
How was he supposed to answer that?! Could he answer in the negative? Probably not.
"Um… sure," he responded, mentally kicking himself for his hesitation and uncertainty.
The other teen went on as if he hadn't noticed, for which Cloud was grateful.
"Cloud, then. Do you know who I am?"
The cadet felt sweat break out on his forehead. Was he supposed to know? Was this a test of some kind? There wasn't any royalty these days (except in Wutai, he supposed), so this couldn't be a duke's kid or something like that… but there were some awfully wealthy men in the city who may have sway enough to get their kid watched by the Turks.
People who could ruin his life without even realizing it and utterly destroy it if they actually tried.
Cloud didn't answer for several seconds, trying to wrack his brain, but he honestly had no idea. Except, he did remember the President had a kid not too long ago. Although Cloud didn't actually remember an announcement for said son's birth and didn't know the kids' name or age or description as there weren't many pictures of him out there. It didn't help that Cloud came from Nibelheim and was lucky to get any news. Realizing he'd been quiet for several seconds now and that he needed to answer, he decided that honesty was the best policy.
"No, sir. I'm sorry, sir," he said, trying to make his voice come out as more than a whisper. He'd never been like this at home! Why was this so difficult for him?
Right, the kid may very well have the power to completely ruin his life. Or worse, send him back to Nibelheim. He hated it, but it was a good reason.
Cloud blinked and couldn't hide his surprise.
The other blond sat back in his chair, chuckling. "That means I'm not well known as of yet and that my identity is safe. As for who I am," he leaned forward, grin taking on a sharp quality, "My name is Rufus. Rufus ShinRa."
The cadet could have sworn he felt his chair and the floor fall out from under him. Part of him was proud of himself for initially being on the right track, but most of him was just horrified. It occurred to him that this could be a prank, but he dismissed it pretty quickly. With the Turks involved, this had to be real. Not to mention the office and the ability to pull him out of class...
He stood as quickly as he could, coming to attention and saluting.
"Sir!" he said.
The other man chuckled again and waved his hand nonchalantly. "No need for that, cadet. You may relax and sit back down. At ease, or whatever it is they tell you to do."
Reluctantly, Cloud nodded and went to sit back down, now eyeing Rufus cautiously.
"Why am I here?" he asked, voice tight.
"A good question," Rufus replied. Then he sat back, putting up a hand to rest lightly against the side of his face as he looked Cloud over. He seemed… amused, for some reason. "Don't worry, you aren't in trouble."
The cadet felt his shoulders relax a bit, but that was the most relief he could convince himself to take.
"I've seen your file. You came from the Western Continent on your own about five months ago and enlisted as a cadet. You want to become a SOLDIER, correct?"
Cloud bit the inside of his cheek for a second. Almost everyone he'd told that to had either laughed in his face or dismissed him entirely. Everyone except his mother and Tifa. That had surprised him (rather pleasantly if he did say so himself). Those of his squadmates who hadn't outright mocked him seemed to find the idea amusing or even cute (Bryce had said something about Cloud being their squad's mascot of all things…).
Still, he hadn't backed down before, and – ShinRa or not – he wasn't about to start now. "Yes, sir."
To his surprise, the older boy just nodded. Then he sat forward, folding his hands on the table in front of him.
"Then I have a proposition to make, cadet. You see, I am looking to improve my own security. I will be making a debut soon, begin to have a public presence so I can eventually take over the company from my father. I'm sure you've heard of the many assassination attempts on my father's life?"
Cloud blinked. Just what was being proposed here? He hated that he didn't know, even as he inclined his head slowly in affirmation. "I've heard of a few," he said.
Rufus nodded as if it were a given… which, it kind of was, now that Cloud thought about it. "Now, while I have the utmost faith in the Turks as a security detail, I have recently become rather… paranoid." His amusement had returned, as if he knew a joke no one else did. "I figure a few extra precautions wouldn't hurt.
"I'm looking for someone to be my body double."
Cloud's mind screeched to a halt.
He'd been hoping Rufus had somehow seen something in him and wanted him to become part of his guard detail or something. But a body double?
"I realize you're a bit on the short side, but that's not terribly difficult to fix – although it would take some training."
Cloud clenched his fists. He hated it when people pointed out how short he was, no matter the truth of their words.
"Why me, sir?" he asked softly.
Rufus raised an eyebrow in question, so Cloud clarified. "There are a half-dozen other boys with blond hair who are… closer to your height," and if he said that through clenched teeth, well, he didn't say something he'd really regret so he'd count it as a win for now. "If all you're looking for is blond hair and pale skin, then why me?"
The teenager across from him blinked, then smiled (a little sharply) and brought his hands up, still folded, in front of his mouth. "A couple of reasons. First, I want a cadet – someone who is young enough and raw enough that he can be trained from the beginning to be what I need him to be. So my age or younger. That will also help sell the image I'm going for.
"Secondly, the drive. Of the boys I looked at, you have advanced the most since you came here."
Cloud found himself scoffing. "That doesn't mean much when you start further behind than everyone else," he muttered, albeit loudly.
Rufus shrugged. "I'm looking more for potential for the future rather than competent now. I'm still not planning to really announce myself to the public until my sixteenth birthday in about four months, and I doubt I'll be a large part of the public after that – until I officially take over the company, which could be when I turn eighteen or when I turn forty, whenever my father decides to retire. I have time, and your drive to better yourself is something I can't help but admire. It's also something I would prefer working with.
"I know you weren't raised pampered or spoiled in any way. I realize you're from a small town and may have been somewhat… sheltered, but again, I read your file. You know struggle and don't expect everything to just be handed to you. That puts you leagues above the rest of the candidates for that alone.
"You're not stupid either. You hold your place with your studies solidly in the middle of the class and would be, I suspect, higher in the rankings if you simply had the stamina and build for the practical applications.
"Basically, you're smart, your honest, you're a dedicated hard-worker and you have most of the physical attributes I'm looking for. No, you don't look exactly like me, but again, those attributes that you don't have we can work around. You may have to learn to fight in heels though."
Cloud, whose eyes had gotten wider and wider as the Vice President went on (and he'd been unable to help his cheeks going darker and darker too) felt his whole face flush in embarrassment and horror.
Rufus shrugged. "It isn't impossible. Just difficult."
Cloud spluttered. "B-b-but h-heels?!"
And the amusement was back. "Is there something wrong with heels? You're androgynous enough, you'd probably pull off a dress well too."
If there had been any not-red skin on his face, it quickly disappeared, although he was able to force himself to not hide his face in his hands. It took everything he had, though. He hated his 'pretty face' almost as much as he hated his height (or lack thereof). It made him a target – it always had – and the combination ensured that he never had a social life.
Well, that, and the fact that he and his mother had been the town pariahs, but he'd hoped that would change when he'd gotten into the army.
It hadn't. And his looks had so much to do with that.
Rufus' amusement only seemed to grow at Cloud's increasing embarrassment.
Nothing he'd said had been wrong, per se. Perhaps exaggerated (he could not pull off a dress, thank you very much!), but not wrong. Cloud had just never seen the traits the Vice President had highlighted as anything particularly outstanding. He'd always felt so… normal. Like he blended into the background when he needed to stand out (albeit, he stood out when he needed to blend in at times – hence the targeting and bullying).
Then the other boy's expression sobered.
"Look, Cloud, I'm going to be honest with you." He got the impression that Rufus didn't often sound so serious, and worried the cadet. A lot. "This job probably won't be safe or easy. You will essentially be a target in my place. I would expect you to keep up with your studies and if you think your physical training now is difficult, it's nothing compared to what I would likely expect of you as, naturally, I want you to be able to fight off who or whatever might come for me. I don't like losing my people, so the Turks would guard you as well as they would me. But even they can't stop everything, hence why I'm setting this up to begin with.
"As for why you should take it, there are two reason: 1…" he handed a piece of paper to the dark-haired Turk with glasses, who obligingly walked calmly around the table and handed said piece of paper to Cloud, who opened it. On it, he saw a number. A very large number.
"If you accept, that will be your compensation and quarterly salary."
The cadet felt his eyes nearly fall out of their sockets and he choked. Some people didn't make that much money in a year. His mother might have been able to claim this as her gross income after maybe three years, if she were lucky. He wasn't even sure he knew what he would do with that kind of money.
For the first time, he looked up at Rufus, disbelieving.
The other blond shrugged at his expression. "It's about what a SOLDIER first would make. Which brings me to my second point: if you say yes, I will put your name forth for SOLDIER candidacy and personally make sure you have the training necessary for it."
Somehow, Cloud's brain stopped working and he could only stare at the teen in front of him. This… this was too good to be true. He had to be missing something… he had to be…
"What—" he started, but his voice sounded harsh and airy. He coughed a little, composing himself as best he could, then straightened up, looking Rufus dead in the eye. "What's the catch?" he asked.
Again, that one eyebrow went up.
"If something is too good to be true, it usually is. So what's the catch?"
Rufus's smile turned sly, if appreciative. How does one person have so many different smiles?
"As I said: you have a head on your shoulders. Here," he handed a folder to the Turk with the glasses (who had returned to Rufus' side). Said Turk retraced his steps and handed said folder to Cloud. "There is the contract. Read over it. I'm willing to negotiate."
Cloud looked down at the multi-page document inside the folder and gulped. He wasn't good at legalese… but he should be able to get the gist of it.
"Um… how long do I have?" he asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. They'd already been there for several minutes.
Rufus shrugged. "As long as you like. I've already sent for refreshments and I have the rest of the afternoon off. I'm also happy to excuse you from class for the rest of the day." Almost as if on cue, the older teen's phone went off and he checked it. "Ah, yes. Tseng is already on his way with those refreshments."
Cloud swallowed and looked down at the papers again. He took a deep breath and returned his gaze to the other teenager, nodding firmly.
Then he got to work.
ShinRa, it seemed, never did things by half.
The refreshments, as it turned out, were trays of tasty treats of all kinds – savory and salty, sweet, spicy, sour. Cloud had never had anything like it, and while it wasn't exactly a pizza, he still enjoyed the food. They had water to drink, but many other things as well. He didn't think any of them were alcoholic, but he decided to stick to the water anyway.
The last thing he needed was to be inebriated while trying to force himself to read the words on the paper and understand them.
Why did they need all of this for two people?! The Turks certainly weren't touching any of it, but Rufus seemed happy to delicately eat his meal, as if he were some great food connoisseur. Considering his name and background, he may very well be.
Eventually, the cadet finished reading through the document. Instead of looking up, he simply stared at it for several seconds, then began to read from the beginning again, asking for a pen and some paper to take notes on (which he promptly got). After he finished it a second time, he sat back, frowning, and looked at the mess that was supposed to be his notes. He never had been a good note taker, but he'd gotten down the gist.
"This is basically signing my life away," he eventually said. There were clauses saying he could not quit without his superior's approval, that he would not quit unless he felt he could not fulfill his duties, and there was no retirement or end date specified. He would be part of the company image and would have to act like it for the rest of his life… basically, Rufus would own him.
The older teen cocked his head to one side, curious and (again) amused. "What did you think joining SOLDIER was? This isn't much different from their contracts."
Cloud felt his expression grow incredulous. People actually – willingly – signed their lives away like this? Really? He suddenly felt sick. What had he gotten into when he'd become a cadet? Maybe… maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. If becoming a hero meant this… was it worth it? How could he save people if he didn't have the freedom to help them? With this contract, if Rufus told him to sit by and watch as they slaughtered people, he would have to do so or risk punishment which included but was not limited to jail time, wage loss and public reprimands. He hadn't seen the word 'execution' in there (in regards to his own punishment, in any case) but somehow it felt implied…
Eventually he took a deep breath and thought back to his mother. What would she do in this situation? Well, she'd likely tell the boy off for being greedy then grab him by the ear and send him to bed to think about what he'd done. However, Cloud didn't feel like Rufus was being greedy. Somehow he got something more along the vibe of 'desperate', although he couldn't point to anything that made him think that.
It came down to how badly Rufus wanted Cloud specifically. What would he be willing to negotiate? What could Cloud negotiate for? His cooperation, he supposed. Then his eyes slid to the paper off to one side… he really didn't need that much money. Not even to send it back to his mother. So that was something he could negotiate with.
And he'd have to be as firm as possible while still remaining polite and respectful. He hadn't had a lot of practice with that, but if he treated this like he'd treated his mother when negotiating about joining ShinRa… and she hadn't even wanted him to at all. When he'd yelled and gotten emotional, she'd responded in kind and nothing had gotten done. When he'd quietly laid out his plan and reasons, it had worked better. So he had to do that here.
He took a deep breath, then straightened and stared at Rufus with as serious an expression as he could muster.
"I want to change a couple of things," he said as formally as he could, trying to think back on the manners his mother taught him (manners he'd rarely shown, so he hoped he got it right). "First, the company doesn't own me. You can't tell me what to do in my free time, company image or not. Obviously I'll try not to embarrass anyone," himself included, "but if I want to… say…" he searched his brain for something, "go drag racing, I will."
Rufus contemplated that. "Drag racing is a rather dangerous sport and could potentially lose me one of my valuable asset who I've put time and money into," he eventually said, voice a little cool although his expression remained as polite as ever. He was so much better at this than Cloud was. Of course he would be.
Still, what he said rubbed the cadet very wrong and he grit his teeth. "That's just it," he said, "I'm not just some 'asset'. I'm an ally. I'm not something you get to throw money at until I do what you want and I hate it when people try to force or bully me into doing things I don't want to do." Well, that sounded more like the old him from Nibelheim at least. Nice to know the old him was still around.
This time, the expression Rufus shot Cloud held no amusement, although he didn't look angry either (thank Fenrir). "You don't respond to bribes or threats – yet something else that separates you from the general masses."
And now Cloud was back to blushing again. He wasn't used to compliments. Not like this. It made him very uncomfortable. Was he doing this on purpose? Probably. The jerk.
"Pray tell, then, what do you respond to?" Rufus asked.
Cloud's fists clenched and he swallowed again before looking the other teen in the eye. "The truth… and respect." Didn't everybody?
Rufus blinked, then nodded as if he should have known that, or as if it were obvious. Good. That made him feel better.
"On top of that, I want to be able to quit if I have to. If I do this, I will do it to the best of my ability," something his superior officer encouraged all the time. It had been the one thing from the man that Cloud had taken to heart. "But my mom comes first. If she needs me, I need to know I can go home if I have to."
"Hmm. I suppose I can understand that," Rufus said quietly. Then he nodded to the glasses-wearing Turk. The man sat down at the table, whipped a laptop out of somewhere and started typing. Cloud blinked at him.
They were… accommodating him? Then… what else should he push for when it came to change? He tried to remember back on things he'd discussed with the recruitment officer when he'd initially come to Midgar. Something about renewing contracts? Was there a set time for that? Should he specify?
"A-and we should have to renew the contract every so often. Is ten years good?" He wasn't sure…
Rufus just stared blankly at him for several seconds, then snorted as if Cloud had said something particularly funny. Then he turned to the typing Turk.
"Put in a clause about renegotiating the contract every ten years." The red-head to the other side of Rufus actually had to turn away to hide his snicker. Great. Cloud hoped he got in trouble for that later. "Or at any other time if both parties consent. Also, Cloud can 'quit' at any time without repercussion as long as he gives the proper notifications. Discuss it with me, at least. A two-week notice is normal, I believe, unless an emergency pops up, terms to be discussed upon proper notification."
Cloud thought he'd been able to follow everything and catch everything he needed to… he wasn't sure if he had, though, but he'd done his best, and now he could get out of it if he'd made a mistake.
He glanced at the Turks, remembering the rumors and their reputation. Would Rufus demand something like that from him? "And I don't kill people," Cloud blurted out, just in case. He hoped he hadn't come across too accusing.
"Fair enough," Rufus said with a shrug, then looked at the typing Turk. "He may use lethal force at his own discretion." Then he turned back to Cloud. "I hope you know that with every caveat I make, your salary goes down." He took out another piece of paper and wrote something else down on it, then folded it and handed it to the red-head. Said Turk strutted over to where Cloud was and held it out with a mocking bow.
The cadet scowled and snatched said paper from his hand. It was a significantly smaller number, but still something far over what he'd ever dreamed he'd make. There were still a lot of zeros on the page.
"This is a… quarterly salary?" he asked slowly.
Rufus shrugged. "You're putting your life on the line. I'm not going to short-change you for that. It would, of course, go up as you get promoted. Oh, and you'd have a second class room here as soon as you get into SOLDIER."
How did he even know Cloud would get in? He sounded so confident…
"I… don't want a free ride into the SOLDIER program," he said softly.
Rufus raised one eyebrow again. He seemed to like that expression. "Free ride?"
Cloud's hand clenched around the paper he still held. "I don't want to get in because someone bribed someone. I want to earn my place." He wouldn't mooch and he didn't want to be a SOLDIER in name only.
"Oh," the older blond waved his hand nonchalantly. "I don't plan on having anyone incompetent answering to me. If you get in, you will be at the level a SOLDIER is expected to be."
"And if I don't get in…?" he asked.
Rufus blinked as if that wasn't even an option. Then he frowned and thought about it.
"Then we'll keep training until you do make it in," he said with a shrug. "I'll even set up private lessons if I have to."
Cloud flushed a little at that… again. He really hated that he did that so often. Something else he'd never done at home. The big city really did change people.
He made a vow to double down on his efforts to make himself ready for SOLDIER. Making someone tutor him just to keep up with everyone else would be beyond embarrassing!
Alright, so there were things about this that weren't perfect. That made him feel better, but it was still sounding too good to be true. This kind of an opportunity didn't come along often… he knew that much at least. And honestly, he didn't mind a little danger on the job. It sounded kind of exciting, actually.
Finally he nodded, because he wasn't an idiot. "Alright, I'll do it. I mean, I have to look at the contract again, but if it's changed like we agreed, I'll do it."
Rufus didn't seem to take offense to that. He, again, merely seemed amused. Was that just his default state?
"I think we'll get along just fine, Cloud."
They somehow had a portable printer. Right there.
Cloud didn't even know those existed.
Somehow, he felt his priorities might be a little screwed up at the moment.
Or maybe he was still in shock that an opportunity like this would come to him of all people.
They passed him two small stacks of papers, of which he looked over both. One was for him to keep, the other for the company. And they had made the changes they said they had (even the salary… how had the Turk even known? They'd never said it aloud!). Cloud looked to make sure they hadn't added anything else. They hadn't.
So he picked up the pen, and trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach, signed his name on both copies.
The dark-haired Turk with glasses picked up the contracts and took them to Rufus who also signed and dated both of them, then brought one of them back to Cloud.
Rufus grinned triumphantly. "Welcome to the company, Cloud."
AN: Sorry about the long wait. I love having several different stories going at once, but my muses will often focus on one story at a time until I get blocked, and then I move to other stories. *shrug* It's how they work.
In any case, I hope you enjoyed this. It was one of my favorite chapters, showing that Cloud is indeed competent, but very inexperienced.
And don't worry, we'll see the fallout from Rufus' information gathering.
Thoughts? Ideas? You can post them here, or you can head over to my discord: discord dot gg /EVUrHMd4za (without spaces, dot = . )