Chapter 1

Rufus scanned the steep cliffs that blocked his view of the horizon. Nothing. No one.

He reached down for the metal canteen at his side, raised it to his lips, and found it empty. He cursed silently, letting it slap back down. The chocobo stirred at this unwanted irritation, but Rufus kept a firm hand on the reins.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm. The coarse fabric of the threadbare coat scraped his skin. He’d sold off his expensive white coat a long time ago, probably more than a year, and the suit that had gone with it a few weeks after. It was almost to the point he didn’t miss the well-tailored silk.

Not much of a gripe, he supposed, with the way things had turned out since the Meteor came.

Sephiroth had not destroyed the world. Here and there, pockets of humanity had emerged from the fire-and-Lifestream chaos and begun rebuilding.

Rufus hadn’t tried to rally the survivors of ShinRa - there weren’t many, and without Midgar, with Junon in ruins, there wasn’t anything to rally around.

Instead, he’d made his living on the road. He did odd jobs, forgetting his troubles in their simplicity. He also did bigger jobs - mercenary jobs. Most of the time, he didn’t have to steal.

He was well armed, had food in his belly, and a chocobo - that, at least, stolen - to ride. Hell, by the standards of this world, he was as rich as ever. He had it all. Everything but a drink, and that would be remedied as soon as he reached a town.

Something moved on the cliffs, interrupting his train of thought. A scoped rifle was in his hands in a second, tracking the shape. Probably one of the monsters that thrived in this ruined world.

There!

He almost fired. Only a flicker of recognition kept his finger from tightening on the trigger, and he wasn’t sure if it was wise not to have shot anyway.

"No man may bring weapons into Cosmo Canyon," shouted the creature in the sight, his voice carrying over the distance in the empty hills.

Rufus slung the rifle over his shoulder and began riding forward. His fingers drifted down to the automatic carbine he wore at his belt. He’d bought the thing from an ex-SOLDIER in Junon, and it was to that greedy bastard that his coat had gone. The weapon was ShinRa issue, as new as anything was now that production had stopped, with plenty of Materia slots and enough kick to put down a creature like the one on the cliffs.

He would not surrender his weapons. But he didn’t want a fight, either.

The chocobo was near the cliffs now.

The creature moved fast, that was for damn sure. Rufus tracked his former enemy with his eyes and wondered if he’d be taking the ‘former’ off.

This was the creature Hojo had called Red XIII, and he’d been a member of AVALANCHE.

Red landed in the dust ahead of Rufus, his eyes narrowing. "No one may bring-"

"I heard you the first time," Rufus said. He continued to spur his chocobo forward, but the bird was nervous around so obvious a predator. "My weapons stay."

"You’re... Rufus Shinra?" Red took a step back - a mistake if he meant to attack, so he probably didn’t. "I thought you were dead!"

"A lot of people think that," Rufus said, trying to keep the skittish chocobo from bolting as it circled warily around Red.

Rufus wished he hadn’t been recognised. It could complicate matters. He was no friend of this creature, or of the people of Cosmo Canyon. It would have been better to slip in unnoticed, and stay or leave, depending on the situation. There was no use lying to someone - or something - who had seen him at close hand, though.

"You certainly can’t bring your weapons into the canyon," Red growled.

Rufus thought about it. He didn’t fancy his chances of killing the creature with a silenced weapon - Red was too fast, too strong. And making a show of it would be a mistake, too.

He could always go back to Corel.

What difference did it make? Wherever the hell he went, it was always the same.

"Fine," Rufus said, wheeling his chocobo. He started back down the pass, half-ready to turn and give his antagonist a scare - or a new hole in his skull. It wasn’t worth it, though.

Besides, like it or not, AVALANCHE had killed Sephiroth.

Rufus supposed he owed them his life.

"Not much of a debt," he muttered.

"Wait!"

He whirled, the carbine in his hand and pointed at Red’s head. He held his fire, which was about as much gratitude as he was going to show.

"Grandfather says you may come in. Armed." The strange creature shook his head in disbelief.

Grandfather? Rufus shrugged. He wouldn’t make another town by nightfall, and he’d probably have to waste ammo on the bolder animals that prowled the night and thought a chocobo, or a man, was easy prey. Besides, he needed a drink. "Fine," he said again.

He was led back down the pass, keeping his chocobo at a trot to match Red’s pace on the rocks.

They came to a gap in the pass, and there, built into the side of the mountain, was Cosmo Canyon.

The village had more than doubled in size since the Meteor. Spared the bubbling Lifestream because it had no Mako reactor from which the green fluid could emerge, spared the Meteor fragments by luck, it was as close to civilization as he was likely to see.

Most of the buildings were crowded onto the lower part of the cliffs, cut into the walls and propped up by a network of wood and metal poles. People, many of them dressed in patched-up and second-hand clothing like Rufus’ own, filled the village. They eyed him nervously - none of them were armed.

But Red’s presence seemed to calm them, even if it didn’t do much for Rufus’ mood. This place was, he’d heard, where AVALANCHE was started. A lot of problems started in this town.

He might be starting some himself, if he didn’t like what ‘Grandfather’ had to say.

Before he did, though, he needed fuel. He reigned in the chocobo and hopped off, his worn coat leaving a small dust cloud in its wake.

"Where are you going?" Red asked.

Rufus ignored him and pushed open the doors of a makeshift building marked ‘Pub.’ Aside from the lack of visible weapons, it was much like any other watering hole in this ruined world. Rufus walked up to the bar, pulled out a handful of bullets, and laid them on the alcohol-stained wood.

The bartender ignored him.

"You won’t get much for those here, young man."

Rufus turned at the sound of the voice. An old man was standing, no, floating in the doorway. His eyes were tired and he looked to be about as old as the cliffs the canyon was built into, but he moved with magic, and that meant he might be dangerous.

Idly, Rufus wondered where Red had gone. To get his grandpa, probably.

"Who the hell’re you?" Rufus asked, turning back to the bar. He would pretend he didn’t notice how the old man moved. Safer that way than provoking a confrontation.

"Folks around here call me Grandfather," the old man said. He was much closer now. "Bugenhagen is my name. And you are Rufus Shinra."

Rufus swore under his breath. Just announce it to the damn world, old man, he thought. "Yeah," he said.

"I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time," Bugenhagen said.

"You and every damn barmaid in Junon." Rufus turned around abruptly, staring into the wizened face. "I don’t have any money, I wouldn’t give it to you if I did, and that line never worked for them, either."

Bugenhagen, either not realizing how far he was pushing Rufus or not caring, chuckled. "I suspect I’ve been waiting a great deal longer than them, young man," he said, "and for far less self-serving reasons."

"Go to hell," Rufus said. He looked back to the bar and saw, not without some amusement, that his payment had been accepted. He grabbed the glass and took a drink, not much caring what it was.

It was bad, that was for sure. He took another gulp.

"I’ve been waiting for you for ten thousand years," Bugenhagen said.

Rufus laughed and drank the rest of whatever he’d been given in one gulp. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of trinkets he‘d acquired in his travels. He looked them over, decided it was worth it, and placed one on the table. "Your best," he said to the silent tap man.

Bugenhagen didn’t seem to be able to take a hint. "Do you know why I’ve been waiting, Rufus Shinra?"

"No," Rufus said. He didn’t much care for this crazy old fool or his stupid jokes. If that was what they were. Grandfather, huh? Maybe the Cosmo people called this geezer that to his face, but there were some more creative appellations Rufus could imagine them using behind his back.

The drink was set on the bar, and the trinket taken, without a word.

Bugenhagen said, "I’ve been waiting because you are the Leader."