But seriously, the more I see of Sane!Sephiroth in CC, the more squee-worthy he becomes!
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (Feral-verse)
Pairing/Characters: OT4 (Aeris/Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth); Cid/Vincent; Rufus/Turks
Warnings: hints of future (and past) foursomes, m/m, xeno-sex
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: Rufus and the Turks deal with a potential liability within their ranks.
A/N: If readers are interested in more details on the setup and plot of the Feral-verse, check out the discussion of this particular OT4-plotbunny.
A/N: Vandal is based on a playable character from Before Crisis -- namely Character E (Martial Arts, female).
CREDITS: This particular batch of OT4 plot-critters was mainly fed and inspired by:
-- icedark_elf, especially "Confused" and her dark AUs "Ravens" and its prequel "Becoming Gods;
-- forgottenlover and her fic "Plans of the Dead", which gave me the perfect jumping-off point;
-- mimi_sardinia for her great ideas about Cetra viruses;
-- Princess Artemis and her Cid-centric fics "Venus Gospel" and "The Thief of Hell";
-- ciceqi's "Anthroverse", "Mascotverse" stories, and her lovely Cid/Vincent xeno-fic Wanting";
-- ladynero's Crack!Fic series, especially the stuff about O4 symbolic tattoos and suggestion what could have happened to Aeris' body;
and many others. So many thanks, guys! ^_^
[ Healin Lodge, one month after the onset of the 'feral' epidemic ]
Vandal started slightly when she heard the light rapping sound and looked up from her laptop to see Elena standing in the open doorway. She hadn't heard the other female Turk approach. Despite all her Turk training and Shinra's drug treatments, she was basically still a baseline human. Elena, however....
"Sorry about that. I keep forgetting to make a little more noise," Elena said apologetically.
As for Elena, she was no longer completely human. She was a 'feral', with all the radically enhanced physical abilities and powers that particular condition entailed. For reasons still unknown to the scientific community, certain individuals had begun to experience a physiological and psychological change which transformed them into something... different.
The concept of modifying human beings to give them increased combat abilities was hardly new. The Shinra Corporation had been doing it successfully for decades, as evidenced by both the JENOVA and SOLDIER projects. But to achieve that success, the Shinra Corporation had invested enormous amounts of time, money, and talent into research and experimentation.
But the 'feral' phenomena was very different from the carefully researched, highly controlled methods used by Shinra. The transformation seemed to occur spontaneously, without human intervention. There was some evidence that the change was might be linked to the recent outbreak of a seemingly harmless stomach virus, but the specific relationship, if any, between the virus and the feral transformation remained unclear.
"Rufus and Tseng want to see you and Rude," the blond Turk continued.
Vandal immediately closed the laptop and rose to her feet, slipped on her jacket, and flicking her long dark gray hair into place.
"Right. Let's go."
They waited briefly in the hallway for Rude to join them. As Elena led the way, she and Rude fell back slightly and exchanged a quick glance. She knew the tall, dark man well enough to see past that impassive front and he could probably read her just as clearly. Neither of them were looking forward to this upcoming meeting, not when their futures as Turks were on the line.
Of all the Turks still working for Rufus, only she and Rude had not gone feral, which meant that the two of them were now lagging way behind their colleagues in physical and combat ability. And it was a basic axiom that a team was only as strong as its weakest link.
The brutal truth was that a normal human was no match for a feral's enhanced strength and speed. Ferals were easily capable of displaying metahuman-level physical abilities comparable to those previously only seen in Shinra's SOLDIERs or in other individuals enhanced with mako and/or Jenova cells. While a highly trained human operative like herself could still handle opponents with those sorts of enhancements, a successful outcome often required a high level of preparation and/or an uncomfortable degree of pure luck.
Before the current feral epidemic, that type of heavily enhanced opponent -- Cloud, the Sephiroth clones Kadaj, Loz, Yazoo, the last few remnants of SOLDIER -- were limited in number and readily identifiable for what they were.
That situation had radically changed. Ferals were showing up everywhere. If the latest estimates were accurate, a good ten percent of the entire human population was going feral to at least some degree. And while some ferals showed clear signs of their condition, ferals could often pass for ordinary humans. The bored scrawny teenager loitering on the street corner could be an ordinary human or a feral capable of flipping a large truck over one-handed. Reno and the other now feral Turks could not only easily recognize another ferals, but they had the capability to handle them.
Since humans like her and Rude could do neither, the effectiveness of a human operative was rapidly becoming questionable. An operative who could not do his or her job -- or worse, became a liability on his or her teammates -- had no place in the field, and possibly no place at all with the Turks.
She glanced again at the man walking beside, knowing that Rude, being Reno's longtime partner, was even more acutely aware of the issue.
When they reached the door to Rufus's office, Elena opened the door without knocking, stood aside, then watched with worried eyes as they walked past her.
Vandal and Rude entered the office to find Rufus sitting at the desk in his usual white suit and Tseng standing beside him. However, Reno's presence in the room was a bit of a surprise. She hadn't seen much of the redhead over the last few days, which was probably a good thing since Tasha had warned her that Reno was in a really snarly mood and feeling snappish... and not just verbally.
Now the redhead slouched against the paneled wall of Rufus's office with his arms folded, quiet and tense. Both his posture and his expression made it clear that Reno was still seriously pissed off at something. Perhaps even more troubling was the way he studiously avoided looking at her and especially Rude.
Okay, that wasn't a good sign.
No fur, fangs, or glowing tails were in evidence. But after having seen the others in action, either she nor Rude needed any visual reminders of their power.
The man-sized golden nine-tailed fox sat on a swirling mass of mist, his gleaming teeth bared in a vulpine grin of satisfaction, as the brilliantly red five-tailed fox and the sleek black panther-like tentacle hound moved with eye-blurring speed, decimating the horde of behemoth-sized monsters which had dared to attack their territory.
"We have a situation, one that needs to be addressed," Rufus said.
"Yes, sir," she said calmly as Rude made a terse nod of acknowledgment.
Vandal had a fairly good idea what Rufus's next words would be -- she and Rude were going to be pulled out of the field. True, reassignment was better than a flat out dismissal from the Turks, and much better than the traditional 'permanent termination' notices issued during the pre-Meteor days with Rufus's father. Getting rid of the two of them would have been a senseless waste of resources, and neither Rufus nor Tseng were wasteful. They might be physically inferior to the now-feral Turks, but she and Rude still had their brains and their technical skills.
However, the chance to stay with the Turks didn't exactly make up for being effectively demoted to a support role. The idea that Rufus and Tseng no longer considered her good enough for field work stung her pride. She understood the reasons for such a decision, but that didn't mean she or Rude had to like it. Frankly, it sucked.
"As you two are well aware, recently there has been some significant... changes among the Turks and the general population," Rufus said.
Reno snorted loudly, but resumed his sulky silence after a hard look from Tseng.
Rufus ignored the interruption and continued, "A significant number of humans on this Planet are Changing into what the public likes to call 'ferals'. The term's somewhat inaccurate, but let that go for now. As you might imagine, this has caused considerable consternation among those who remain human, especially as they begin to realize that ferals are considerably stronger and more powerful than ordinary humans."
The meeting wasn't going at all as Vandal expected. Why didn't he simply give the two of them the bad news? He didn't need to rationalize his decision to them, not when the problem and its solution was so blatantly obvious to everyone. And where was Rufus going with this discussion? But despite her impatience to get the whole unpleasant business over and done with, she listened attentively as Rufus continued speaking.
"They don't understand what's going on and they can't control what's happening, so it's only natural that the remaining human population will feel anxious, suspicious, insecure, and even fearful. There's no denying that ferals are different, and unfortunately, wherever there are differences among people, there will always be individuals who, for various reasons, want to exploit or exterminate those who are different."
All right, maybe she was totally wrong about the reason for this meeting. Pushing her own personal concerns aside, she considered Rufus's words. What he said made perfect sense to anyone with the most basic understanding of human psychology and socio-political theory. If humans were willing to discriminate on relatively trivial grounds -- skin color, sex, social class, just to name a few -- how much more extreme would their reaction be toward the ferals, who just might be capable of replacing the regular humans as the dominant species on the Planet?
"We are already getting reports of organized pro-human and/or anti-feral activity. These groups will claim that they are only acting to protect humanity from the feral menace and maintain its racial purity. Some might even honestly believe in what they preach."
Which, Vandal knew, was typical of terrorists and extremists -- some acted out of genuine conviction, some acted from malice, and then there were those who used their cause to profit.
"Regardless of their reasons, these individuals will do their best to promote prejudice and intolerance in order to gain popular support for their various agendas. And once they gather sufficient support, they will attempt to enslave or destroy us. They won't succeed, but they'll try. And if they try hard enough, a hostile situation could easily become an outright war." Rufus paused, then continued quietly, "And if it comes down to a war between ferals and humans, humanity WILL lose."
Vandal found the certainty in Rufus's tone not only disturbing, but downright frightening. Rufus was an expert at deception, but something told Vandal that Rufus's statement was no bluff. He wasn't trying to impress or intimidate her, but merely giving her facts as he knew it. And if Rufus stated that the humanity would lose a war with the ferals, he probably had very good reasons for that belief.
Rufus settled back in his chair. "But it's not in the humans' nor the ferals' best interests to allow matters to escalate that far. This Planet is perfectly capable of comfortably supporting both ferals and humans. And speaking as a feral, as long as humans leave us and ours alone, we're quite content to leave them alone. Besides...," Rufus's smile suddenly developed a decidedly dangerous and chilling edge. "I'm much more interested in eradicating JENOVA's influence from this Planet than tussling with mere humans."
As Rufus mentioned JENOVA, Vandal saw Tseng's lips twitch slightly, as if suppressing a sudden urge to snarl. Reno didn't bother to hide his own reaction.
"Fucking parasitic bitch," the redhead snapped, baring his too-sharp teeth in a vicious grin.
The sharp edge of Rufus's smile disappeared and he continued in his usual urbane tone, "With careful diplomacy and negotiation, I think reasonable ferals and humans will be able to come to some sort of workable arrangement."
"But extremists, by definition, are not reasonable people," Vandal said drily.
Rufus tipped his head slightly in acknowledgment. "In their fanatical pursuit of their agendas, these extremists are, whether accidentally or deliberately, quite capable of inflicting significant harm to ferals, humans, and even the Planet itself. And that's where the two of you come in. I have a very important assignment for you."
Vandal took a deep breath, then said quietly, "You want to prevent feral-human hostilities from spiraling out of control. And to do that, you're going to need sources of information from within those extremist organizations."
"You want us to go undercover," Rude said in his deep voice.
"Correct. Among all the Turks, you are the best candidates for the job," Tseng said.
"Because we're still human," said Rude.
Rufus spread his hands in a silent admission. "You may have noticed that the Change causes not only physical alterations, but also some significant mental and emotional ones as well. A feral can pass for an ordinary human on a short term basis, but not for an extended period of time under close scrutiny."
"On various levels, ferals no longer think or react like ordinary humans, do they?" Vandal calmly observed.
"No, we don't," Rufus replied candidly. "And unfortunately, the more powerful we are, the easier it is to betray our true nature, if an observer knows what to look for."
There was a brief silence, then Rude said, "A question?"
"Go ahead and ask, Rude."
"If you and the other ferals don't consider yourselves normal humans anymore, then what exactly are you?"
"I can't tell you that," Rufus replied.
Both she and Rude understood the reason for the refusal. It wasn't personal. Obviously, that was a critical piece of information. The two of them were going undercover in a hostile environment. If something went wrong and their cover was blown, what they didn't know couldn't be tortured out of them.
But while Rufus's refusal had been expected, the faint tone of reluctance that accompanied it was not. Vandal didn't know why, but the idea that Rufus had even felt the urge to share this important secret with her and Rude was oddly gratifying, and even a little heartwarming.
"Understand that this is a purely a voluntary assignment," said Tseng. "As a deep cover operation, you will be isolated and almost entirely on your own for an extended period of time. We will provide you with all the assistance we can, but support and contact will be understandably limited."
She glanced at Rude, then turned back to Rufus, "I believe we fully understand the implications. I accept the assignment, sir."
Before answering, Rude looked at Reno, and for the first time during the entire meeting, Reno allowed his eyes to meet Rude's gaze... then the redhead's lips quirked upward in a rueful grin that had equal amounts of affection, apology, and resignation.
Okay, so it turned out that Reno wasn't pissed off at Rude after all.
Rude shook his head in a reassuringly familiar gesture of exasperation, then turned back to Tseng and Rufus.
"I'm in," he said.
"Thank you." Rufus said simply.
Tseng stepped forward and said briskly, "Rude, Vandal, your mission will be to make contact with and infiltrate the anti-feral movement. Once placed within the target organizations, you will do whatever is necessary to maintain your cover until it is no longer feasible. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Tseng," they both replied.
"You will portray yourselves as mercenaries, having separated from the Turks under less than friendly circumstances. The extremists will be searching for skilled, experienced operatives, especially those who might have anti-feral leanings. Once they are aware that you are free agents and available for hire, they will come looking for you."
"They might suspect a setup," Vandal said.
"Considering the general state of paranoia these organizations tend to operate under, I'd be surprised if they don't," Rufus said drily. "But you will have a very plausible reason for leaving the Turks, one that the anti-feral activists will be glad to accept." He steepled his fingers as he continued, "At the moment, virtually no one is aware that I and the Turks have gone 'feral', so to speak. You will leak that information to the extremists."
"So we make it look like we couldn't stand the idea of dealing with ferals," Rude said thoughtfully.
"That's the basic idea. Work it any way you want -- you can dole out tantalizing hints, or you can rave about furry mutant freaks, whatever you choose."
"Do Rude and I stick together, or separate?" asked Vandal.
"There aren't that many good mercenaries around, so it won't be a problem if you happen to occasionally run into each other. However, you should operate separately. It provides more coverage and is less likely to provoke suspicion," Tseng replied. "Cissnei will help you establish your cover as mercenaries."
"Cissnei?" Vandal said, a bit startled.
"You aren't the first Turks to go on an extended undercover assignment," Tseng said blandly. "Any more questions?" When they both shook their heads, he said, "Then go get ready."
As she and Rude headed for the door, Reno straightened up and sauntered over until he was walking beside Rude.
Just before they reached the doorway, Rufus abruptly spoke.
The three of them stopped dead and turned to look at Rufus, who had risen to his feet.
"You may be human, but as long as you consider yourself Turks, you are mine. Remember that."
"Yes, sir," they both replied.
Reno suddenly flung his right arm over Rude's shoulder in an unmistakably possessive gesture, then gave Rufus a defiant stare as his tails appeared and bristled.
Instead of being offended by Reno's little display, Rufus merely smiled, then said with a faintly malicious purr in his voice, "Oh, and Reno? Don't leave any marks on Rude that might cause awkward questions later."
Reno bared his teeth in a smirk.
"No awkward questions. Right. You got it, boss."
Once they were alone in the office, Tseng said, "Reno's still not happy with the idea of being separated from Rude."
"Under the circumstances, would you be?" Rufus replied.
"No, of course not."
Rufus glanced at the office's door. Even though it was closed, he could sense Reno's distinctly sharp, spicy presence moving toward his quarters. Rude was there as well, but as a human, his presence was much fainter and almost completely overshadowed by Reno's.
Tseng continued pensively, "For years I've sent the Turks on dangerous assignments. It was never easy, but this time, it somehow seems much harder."
Rufus glanced over at the black-haired Turk and said, "Your brain tells you that Vandal and Rude can handle this job. Your feelings tell you that they need to take this assignment for the sake of their self-respect and pride as Turks. Unfortunately, your instincts are telling you something very different. Rude and Vandal are human, and in our eyes, that makes them dangerously vulnerable. And when the people we care about are vulnerable, both humans and ferals feel the urge to protect them."
Rufus gave Tseng a wry smile. "However, the protective instincts in ferals are much stronger than in most humans. We're more deeply hardwired for it, right down to the genetic level. That's why it's so hard for you to send the two of them on this assignment and why it's so hard for Reno to let Rude go off alone, even though both of you know it's the right thing to do. Fighting one's own instincts is never easy."
"Did Zack tell you that?"
"Yes, when we last met, and we both know that Zack Fair is quite the expert on being protective," Rufus said with a chuckle. "Basically, when he took me aside, he gave me the 'Quick and Dirty Guide to Feral Life', as he called it."
"I see." Tseng raised an eyebrow and added drily, "Is there any other enlightening bits of information from Zack's lecture that the others and I should know about?"
"You already know most of it already. Perhaps only on an instinctual level, but the knowledge is there," Rufus said casually.
"That might be true, but I think you'd better spell these things out for us to avoid unpleasant surprises," Tseng said rather pointedly.
"I suppose you're right," Rufus admitted somewhat ruefully. "Even though it's after the fact, you and the other Turks are entitled to a full disclosure of what it means to be 'feral', so to speak."
His point made, Tseng changed topics. "Speaking of being 'feral', did you have chance to speak to Aeris about Rude and Vandal?"
Rufus nodded. "She confirmed my suspicions -- they simply don't have the necessary genes to make the Change... on their own."
Tseng frowned slightly. "On their own. Does that mean...?"
"She said that it might be possible to induce them to Change with the right intervention. Of course it's just a theory at this moment. Even if it could done, there's no guarantee that the two of them would survive such a radical procedure." Rufus shrugged. "It'll take time before Aeris can give us a more definitive answer. Unfortunately, at the moment, her primary concern is Sephiroth."
"Do you really think she can free Sephiroth of JENOVA's influence?"
"Zack seems fairly certain that she can."
"Does he have any basis for this belief?" asked Tseng. "Or is he just being as relentlessly optimistic as usual?"
"This isn't merely wishful thinking, if that's what you're implying. I believe that like Sephiroth, Zack managed to absorb an astonishing amount of information about the Cetra during his years in the Lifestream." Rufus turned to Tseng. "Or at least about our particular breed of Cetra. There's no other way to explain his knowledge about the Change and other matters."
Rufus walked over to the window. "Everyone, my father included, believed that Aeris was the last Ancient. But it turns out that they were only partially correct. She is the last and most pure-blooded Ancient... of her line."
Rufus looked down at his own hand. For a brief instant, golden fur appeared and claws sprouted, then vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
"No one ever considered that there might be different kinds of Cetra, and that those Cetra strains could lie dormant for millennia, quietly spreading through the human population. No one ever imagined that this dormant Cetra blood could awaken and so profoundly change the people who have it."
He turned back toward Tseng. "So if Zack says that Aeris can eliminate or at least quiet JENOVA's influence over Sephiroth, I'm inclined to believe him. We both seen what she can do. She managed to cure the Geostigma and purge the Jenova cells that caused it. I'm sure Sephiroth is a more complicated problem, but Aeris has a great deal of incentive to succeed."
"Because he's her mate," Tseng said.
"So it all comes back to our desire to protect the people we care about, doesn't it?"
"Yes." Rufus uttered a sharp laugh. "It's all part of the Change. Ironic, given that I've spent most of my life trying to control the people around me, not protecting them."
"You may not have been consciously aware of it, but you've always had those protective instincts," Tseng said quietly. As he circled around the desk, he continued, "This undercover assignment isn't merely about turning a potential liability to an asset, or about acquiring information, or about giving Rude and Vandal the opportunity to feel useful. Is it?"
Rufus made a noncommittal shrug. "They have some very important decisions to make for themselves, about their future. And they can't do that with us around."
For an instant, Tseng looked puzzled, then his eyes widened slightly.
Rufus shook his head sharply. "It's not exactly mind control in the classic sense, but a strong feral has ways of subconsciously influencing the humans around him. You can't turn hatred into love, but you can 'encourage' someone into thinking a particular way, as long as they aren't strongly opposed to it. Call it a rather potent form of subliminal persuasion. In other words, the rest of us are 'leaning' on Rude and Vandal, even if we don't intend to. And that goes double for Reno."
"Does Reno know about this?"
"Yes. As you can imagine, he wasn't happy about it," Rufus replied drily.
"I wondered why he's been avoiding Rude for the last few days. It also explains his nasty temper and the way he's been storming around the place with his fangs bared."
"At least he managed to find a productive way to deal with his anger and frustration. I don't think there's a single Jenova-tainted monster left alive within a hundred miles of here."
Rufus's thick furry tails were now visible, flicking sharply from side to side, as if to emphasize his next words.
"Tseng, our Cetra blood has awakened and there's no going back for any of us. Others might view us as freaks or victims of unfortunate biology. But we are neither. We are no longer mere humans -- we have Changed into something far more. We now perceive the Planet and our environment in ways ordinary humans simply can't understand. Rude and Vandal haven't had the opportunity to fully grasp the implications of that. By putting distance between us and allowing them to associate with other humans, especially the pro-human and anti-feral factions, I'm giving them the chance to make an independent and informed decision. If, after all that, they decide they can accept us for what we are, then Rude and Vandal belong with us."
Rufus paused, then opened his hand as if to release something into the air. "But if they have doubts or if they can't accept us, they belong with the humans and are no longer my concern."
Removing his jacket and tossing onto the desk, Tseng said, "You explained why it's so hard for me and Reno to let the two of them go out on this assignment." His tie followed the jacket. "But that reasoning applies equally well to you, doesn't it? It's just as hard for you, knowing that there's a good possibility that you could lose them in any number of ways."
"But it had to be done, for their sake and the safety of the pack," Rufus said quietly.
Tseng moved until he was standing beside Rufus, then leaned in close. He nuzzled, then began to lick Rufus's neck, just under the ear, his tongue moving in slow, comforting strokes.
Rufus gradually relaxed, and lifted his head, giving Tseng better access to his throat. With his eyes half-closed, he could see Tseng's skin transforming into a smooth, silky black pelt.
"Tell me, Tseng. Is your alter-form's resemblance to Dark Nation coincidence or deliberate?" he murmured.
Tseng paused, then as he resumed his licking, he purred, "I don't know. It just feels... right."
[ a few months later ]
In Junon, Vandal ignored the shabby 'NO FUCKING FURRIES!!!' sign on the door and walked into the bar. She ordered a drink, found an unoccupied table, and settled down to wait for her contact.
These days, instead of the suit, she opted for a more casual look -- black leather jacket, black knit top, and black jeans -- and wore her once shoulder-length dark gray hair in a shorter cut. But although her appearance had changed, she knew she still conveyed an image of cold, hard, professionalism. The clients seemed to like that.
While she had gone the hard-core mercenary route, Rude had tried a more street-level approach. When she had last seen Rude, he had gone thug-style with a vengeance, complete with torn t-shirt, hoodie, and a do-rag over his bald head. The mirrored shades and black leather gloves remained the same, however.
As scary as Rude might look to the average bystander, Vandal knew that the more militant pro-human groups wouldn't be the least bit put off by Rude's street gangster looks, not with his skills with explosives and demolition. He was human, he didn't particularly seem like ferals, and he knew how to make all sorts of things go boom. That was all the terrorists cared about. Their recruiters were already after him, but Rude was taking his time, waiting -- as any good mercenary would -- for the best offer.
Two men moved purposefully toward her table and Vandal recognized both of them. The slimmer, dark-haired man in the dark duster was Howard, a mercenary with a reputation for brains, professionalism, and efficiency.
The other man was a big, heavily muscled blond named Fordyce, one of the late unlamented Heidegger's personal henchmen. He was adequate in his limited way, but had never possessed the skill or the attitude to make it into the Turks. Naturally, he held a grudge over it. And like his former boss, Fordyce was a flaming bigot. Naturally he would hook up with the anti-feral crowd as fast as he could.
"Vandal," Howard said politely, as the two men sat down.
"Howard," she said, just as politely, then her voice cooled slightly. "Fordyce."
"Yeah, glad to see you too, Vandal," the blond man responded with a sour look. He might have said more, but a hard look from Howard kept him quiet.
Good. Howard appeared to be the one in charge. His intelligence made him dangerous, but she preferred dangerously competent over recklessly stupid any day.
"I admit that I was a bit surprised when I heard that you'd left the Turks and gone independent," Howard said.
She made a noncommittal shrug. "Plenty of people quit their jobs every day."
"Yes, but you're a Turk...."
"No, I was a Turk. I'm not a Turk anymore."
"Sorry, you were a Turk, in the past tense. So why did you leave?"
She gave him a thin, cold smile. "I wasn't fired for incompetence, if that's what you're worried about."
Howard held up his hand. "No, of course not. If I'd had any concerns about your abilities, I wouldn't be here talking to you. It's just that you never struck me as the type to casually abandon old loyalties."
She shrugged. "Circumstances change. People change. You know that. I decided that it was time to leave and seek new job opportunities."
"You mean that Tseng got tired of humping you?" Fordyce said with a smirk.
Both Vandal and Howard completely ignored the other man, which made Fordyce scowl.
"Vandal, I know that you're not the only person to quit the Turks within the last few months. I also have a fairly good idea why you felt the sudden urge to change employers."
She narrowed her eyes and said, "Really."
Howard glanced around the crowded bar. "This isn't the best place to go into details, but let's just say it's related to that 'no furries' sign on the door."
Vandal gritted her teeth, but not too obviously. Howard had clearly done his homework and probably knew a bit about her personality. It wouldn't do to act overly emotional, so she kept her reactions low-key.
She leaned across the table and said softly, but with a definite hint of irritation, "If you already know what's going on with Rufus and the Turks, then why all the questions about my leaving?"
"I merely suspected. So it's true?"
Vandal sat back and looked slightly disgusted with herself.
"Look, all I'm going to say now is this. I'm no wimp, and I can take a lot of crap. But my previous employment situation with the Turks got too weird and too uncomfortable for even me to stand. I wanted out, and I got out. You have a problem with that?"
"Aw, don't tell me you got tired of them damn furries sniffing at your crot...."
Her head snapped toward Fordyce. Apparently the idiot has some sense of self-preservation because his voice faltered, then trailed off into a mumble.
Howard didn't allow the other man to finish and snapped, "Take a hike, Fordyce. NOW."
Confronted by two dangerously irritated professional assassins, Fordyce muttered something about taking a leak. Once he was gone, Howard said, "Sorry about that."
"Why the hell did you bring that asshole along?"
"Internal politics with my employer. You know how that goes. But you were saying?"
"I said, 'You have a problem with that?'"
"None at all," Howard replied quickly. "But my employers would certainly be interested in discussing the matter further with you."
"They're involved in scientific research and they're interested in ferals. A first-hand report from an experienced observer would be invaluable to them."
"Is that why you contacted me? Because your employers wanted to pump me for information?"
"No, my employers are assembling a private security team for their organization, to protect themselves and their operations. With your skills and your experience, you would be a invaluable member of that team. Interested?"
"What's the offer?" she demanded.
He named an amount that was reasonable, if not exactly generous.
She snorted in amusement, sat back in her chair, and said, "Try again, Howard. I'm a bargain at twice that price and you know it."
He grinned back at her. "That's what I told them. To put it bluntly, they're desperate for good people, so you've got a fair bit of leverage in salary negotiations."
"If Fordyce represents what your employers currently use for security, I don't doubt it."
Howard grimaced and said, "If it was up to me, I wouldn't hire him either. But he has his uses. Don't worry, you won't be working with him. You'll be working with my team and we're all pros."
"That's reassuring. All right, I'll take the job."
By the time Fordyce returned, she and Howard had already settled the last few details and were amiably discussing the relative merits of the local whiskey.
"Are we done here?" Fordyce growled. "Is she in or out?"
"In," Howard said succinctly, rising to his feet. "I'll see you in two days, Vandal."
She waved her hand in acknowledgment and watched them shoulder their way through the crowd and out the door.
So Howard's employers were engaged in scientific research into ferals. It sounded innocuous enough, but Vandal knew better. In their own way, Howard's employers were just as anti-feral as the wannabe terrorists trying to hire Rude. The major difference was that Howard's employers had more money and were much better at hiding their agenda behind a slick humanitarian facade and fancy PR bullshit.
She freely admitted that dealing with ferals could be profoundly unsettling at times. One moment, they could act like any normal civilized human being, and then in a blink of a eye, they could shift to blatantly animalistic behavior.
But when one thought about it, humans could be as uncivilized, uninhibited, bloodthirsty, and ruthless as any animal, especially when they felt threatened. So when it really came down to it, was there really that much of a difference between humans and ferals?
"You may be human, but as long as you consider yourself Turks, you are mine."
Vandal finished her drink, tossed a few gil on the table, and headed out the door.
Human or feral, a Turk was a Turk, and this particular Turk had a job to do.