Chapter 1.  "Who's Afraid of the White Knight?"
Track 1: "Candy Perfume Girl" by Madonna

I remember very clearly how Rufus’ office looked that first time I sat in front of his mahogany desk.  While it didn’t have the 180-degree glass wall that his father’s office did, there was a very wide bay window behind his seat, backlighting him menacingly.

I sat there, tense, in the plush chair.  The back of Rufus’ chair was turned towards me; he was looking out the window.

“It’s really something to look out like this and see all the people down there, looking like ants,” he said softly.

That should have told me a lot about his personality and the way he regarded people, but I didn’t know that much about him at the time.

“I never cared much for heights, sir,” I said nervously, not really having a good reply to his remark.

Fortunately, he took that as a kind of joke.  “Ah, the words of a down-to-earth Turk,” he laughed, turning to look at me.  “Hello, Mara.”

His strawberry-blonde hair did not catch any of the light from the window and looked unnaturally dark.  As I looked anywhere but his ice-blue eyes, I wondered what he had called me in for.  “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, I did…”  He leaned back in his chair.  “I’ve got this corporate dinner thing that I have to attend next week, and I was wondering if you might come along—for the sake of appearances, I need a date, you know?”

It seemed as if he were trying to make it sound as offhand as possible, so I thought it would be safe enough.  “Er…well, what would I have to wear?”

“Hmm, do you have the usual ‘little black dress’?” Rufus asked, grinning.  “That would cover it, I think.”

He was playing on the fact that every woman, including me, has a ‘little black dress’.  “Well then, er…okay.”  I smiled, still feeling somewhat nervous.

“Ah, thank you,” he said, sounding relieved.  “I owe you one.  I’ll send you the details later, all right?”

“Okay.”  I took that as a dismissal and rose.

Rufus looked at the clock on his desk.  “Off to Lenny’s?”

In fact, I was about to head out to the pub where I habitually hung out with Reno and Rude after work.  No doubt they were burning with curiosity as to why Rufus had called me to his office at the end of the day.  “Yes, sir.”

He smiled to himself.  “Take it easy, then, Mara.”

Confused, I just nodded and let myself out.

A half-hour later, I was comfortably squished next to Reno in a booth at Lenny’s.  To this day, I don’t think I was ever happier than at those times, when the three of us would drink the cheap beer in that shabby place.  I could forget everything and just enjoy the company of my friends.  Of course, it wasn’t the best for my health -- they got me started smoking, on top of drinking that nasty beer, but…those were the days.

“So, what did Boss, Jr. want?” Rude asked, lighting his cigarette.

“Eh.”  I shrugged helplessly.  “He needed a date for some… business dinner thing.”

The two men burst out laughing.  “Oh, Lord.  The White Knight had to ask a Turk for a date?” Rude snickered.

I grinned, not really offended by his implication that Rufus was too good for the likes of us.  “More likely, he had to RSVP today, forgot to ask someone, and just happened to see me walking by or something.”  I looked sidelong at Reno, hoping, in a silly way, that he might be just a little jealous.  I felt stupid for it, especially since Reno just laughed along with Rude.  For the nth time, I wondered why I ever thought that a rough-and-tough cool guy like Reno could like a powderpuff girl like me, but outwardly I just smiled.

“Prob’ly right,” Reno snorted.  “Heh, I can’t imagine our Mara at one of those snob-fests anyway.  She’s too… earthy,” he drawled.

Oh, that hurt, especially coming from him.  It’s always nice to be “one of the guys”, until they start forgetting entirely that you’re a girl.

“Ass,” Rude laughed.  “Don’t say that.  Or don’t you remember the New Year’s Eve party?”

Oh yeah… I had worn my “little black dress" to that party… with black patent leather thigh-high boots with four-inch stiletto heels.  Apparently Reno did remember –  he blinked, started blushing almost imperceptibly and took a long drink of his beer.  I smiled sweetly.

“Just don’t wear those boots, eh?” he said weakly.

“But of course.”  I grinned mockingly.  We all snickered, and everyone relaxed again.

The dinner itself was pretty much what I had expected -- a meal interrupted by idle chat and business deals.  Rufus looked very dapper in his white suit; I felt a little odd sitting next to him in my sleeveless black dress, but I was dressed quite appropriately, so I just dealt with it in my mind.

“You’re looking quite elegant tonight,” Rufus said during a lull in the various waves of conversation.  He swirled the chardonnay in his glass and smiled at me thoughtfully.  “I have to admit, I was wondering what you would do with your hair.”

I smiled shyly at his compliment.  Since I usually wore my angled-cut hair in a topknot, its uneven lengths gave the impression of spikiness.  But worn down on my shoulders and tamed with a little gel, it made me look completely different.  “I guess you would have never seen it like this before…I always put my hair up for work to keep it out of my way.”

“Ah, sensible, but it’s a shame…such pretty hair, too.  Mara in her finery…polished onyx.”  He grinned.  I blushed a little at his poetic compliment, not used to getting such comments.

“Relax, Mara.”  He patted my hand.  “You don’t go out much, do you?  I mean, besides bar hopping.”

I shook my head.  “Not at all, really…”  I was wondering why he seemed so…nice.  It was at odds with the things I had heard about him.

“You should, you know…”  He refilled my wine glass, and I took a polite sip.  I wasn’t used to the taste of wine at all, and I didn’t realize that wine was a good deal stronger than cheap beer.  I was already starting to feel pretty mellow.

By the time dinner was over, I had heard enough about competition, mergers, takeovers and buyouts to last me a year.  Rufus walked me out to the waiting limousine, very solicitous of my tipsiness.

“So,” he said as we sat in the car, “did you have a smashingly boring time?”  He smiled.

“I’m afraid so,” I replied with a sheepish grin.  “Not my area of interest…”

“Ah…?  Maybe I can make it up to you…  Would you like to come up to my place?  Have a cup of coffee?”

Drunk as I was, I still knew better than to walk into that lion’s den.  “Uh…no, thanks, I should get home…work tomorrow morning and all…”

“Tired already?”  His voice was teasing, his smile mischievous.  “Funny, I always figured you for a night owl.”

He always figured me?  Now what did that imply?  I couldn’t make the connection in my fuzzed mind.  I was a night owl, as a matter of fact, but I wasn’t about to admit it at that point.  “No, not really…”

“Hmm…”  He leaned close, murmuring, “are you sure I can’t change your mind, Mara?”  He ran a finger lightly over my stocking-clad knee and up my thigh to the hem of my dress.

I shuddered, wondering what the hell he was thinking.  “D-don’t,” I stammered, blushing.  I think that if I hadn’t had been so hung up on Reno, I just might have taken Rufus up on that; I don’t doubt that it would have been fun at the time.  As it was, though, I was more repelled than attracted.

Unfortunately, he thought I was just being coy.  “Don’t what…?”  He leaned closer, his face only an inch away, and brought one hand up to stroke my cheek.

“Rufus, I – “  Before I could say anything more, he cut me off with a demanding kiss.  I have to admit, it was a rather nice kiss, and I was too surprised to push him away.  When his other hand started sneaking up my dress, however, it shocked me out of the wine-induced fog.  I shoved him away and slapped him, more out of reflex than anything – I was used to fending off drunken groping – but I instantly regretted it.  Rufus was not drunk, even if I was, and his eyes glittered with anger.  He put his hand up to the red mark on his cheek.

“Oh!  R-rufus, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – !” I stammered.  His expression did not change.

“You’re going to make this up to me, or you’re going to pay,” he said in a tight voice.

There was only one thing that he wanted from me as an “apology”, and I was not going to give it.  I shook my head.  “I won’t, Rufus, I won’t…”

“So be it,” he said in a voice made all the more threatening by its lack of emotion.  He knocked on the glass partition behind the driver.  “Take us around to the Turks’ apartments.”

We were both silent for the rest of the ride.  I was wondering what he could possibly do to me as payback, and he was staring out the windows at the lights of Midgar.

When the limo finally stopped in front of the apartments, Rufus favored me with one last glare before I stepped out.  He was definitely still angry, but he looked hurt and sullen, too, like a child not getting his own way.  He was a spoiled brat, after all, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, but it made me feel a little guilty.  Still, he wanted way too much from me.

I murmured a good-night and fled inside, leaning against my door as I pushed it closed.  It had been a miserable night, all told.

A knock on my door woke me early the next morning – too early.  It was just before six o’clock as I pulled a robe on and went to answer it.

I immediately wished I hadn’t.  Professor Hojo stood there, smiling as enigmatically as a cat.  “Miss D’Andrade,” he said in his rather unintimidating voice, “Vice President Rufus has made an appointment for your physical checkup this morning.”

“What?”  I was dumbfounded. This was Rufus’ “payback”?  A doctor’s appointment?

“Come along now, Miss D’Andrade,” Hojo said coaxingly.

“But I’m not dressed…”

He stared at me as if he hadn’t noticed.  “Well, so you aren’t,” he muttered under his breath.  “Hurry, then.”

By this point I was completely weirded out.  I wasn’t familiar with Hojo’s work, so that wasn’t what worried me, but his distracted manner was disturbing.  I could see how an appointment with the good Doctor could be less than pleasant.  Not wanting to cause any trouble, however, I hurriedly washed my face and put on my suit in the bathroom before walking back out.

Hojo escorted me to his lab, or, at least, the innocuous part of it.  It was then that I remembered that Hojo wasn’t the type of doctor that did physicals.

“Er…”  I tried to voice a protest, but he smoothly cut my off by guiding me to a chair and popping a thermometer in my mouth.  After a moment, it beeped shrilly.

“Hmm…”  Hojo took it back and peered at the readout.  “A little colder than most people, but your records are consistent.  Interesting…”  He jotted down some notes in my file.  “Please stand on the scale?”  The way he said it sounded more like a question than a command.

Shrugging, I kicked my shoes off and stepped onto the scale.  Hojo fiddled with the weights until the arm balanced.  “One hundred thirty-five pounds…”  He pulled out the height measure from the back of the scale and lined it up with my head.  “And sixty-nine inches.  Good, good.”

I stepped off the scale as he jotted that information down in my file.  “Now, please remove your jacket so I can check your blood pressure.”  He seemed to be all business.  I shrugged out of my jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, then sat back down so that he could clip the pressure cuff onto my upper arm.

“Well, you have healthy low blood pressure, which is frankly surprising, considering your line of work and the fact that you smoke,” Hojo mused.  “Just as well…”

I sat there, still feeling rather unsettled as he riffled through my file and made more notes.  “Hmm…you’re due for a new tetanus booster, Miss D’Andrade.”

“I am?”  I was awful at keeping track of those things, but it had been a long time since my last set of shots.

“Yes.  I can give you that, if you’d like.  It’s recommended that you keep that particular immunization up to date.”

I nodded.  Tetanus was not something I wanted to risk.  “Okay…”

“I’ll go get the vaccine.”  He handed me a hospital gown.  “Please change into this.”  Without waiting to see if I was going to do so, he shuffled off.

I couldn’t have rolled my sleeves up far enough to expose my shoulder, so I sighed and exchanged my shirt for the flimsy gown behind a large filing cabinet.

Hojo came back soon, carrying a hypodermic and wearing latex gloves.  He waved for me to sit back down.  “All right, Miss D’Andrade, this is a somewhat newer formula; there might be a few side effects, like a mild case of dizziness.  Just rest until the feeling goes away.  I’d suggest you stick to your desk today.”

I nodded uncertainly.  I had heard of vaccines causing a mild case of illness, but not tetanus.

He was rubbing a spot on my shoulder with an antiseptic wipe.  The evaporating alcohol gave me a moment’s chill.  “Whoops, hold still now, it’s a little pinch…”

I watched the needle slide into my arm.  It didn’t really hurt; I was used to having blood drawn, and he was very careful.  When he had injected the dose, he withdrew the needle and stuck a bandage on the soon-to-be sore spot. “There, you’re all set.”  He disposed of the gloves and needle, and made a few more notes.  Ignored, I picked up my shirt and retreated behind the cabinet again to change, then came back out to retrieve my jacket.

“Am I done?” I asked as I shrugged it on.  I intended to go back and take a quick shower before work.

“Yes, and take it easy today, Miss D’Andrade,” Hojo answered distractedly, still writing.  I shrugged and slipped out.

I was feeling a little spacey as I walked into the small Turks central office.  Reno and Rude were loitering around the coffee machine, like usual in the morning.  They both grinned as I wandered in, thinking that I was hung over.

“Have a good night?” Reno snickered.

“Hell, no.”  I described the incident in the car to them, and then the weird appointment with Hojo.  They looked suspicious.

“That can’t possibly be the ‘payback’,” Rude said, echoing my own suspicions.

I nodded.  “Sure, it was weird and everything, but… it’s not enough for the pride of the White Knight.”

“But still – it’s gotta be related,” Reno pointed out.

“You’re right, I know…  But I don’t get it.”

We mused over it for a little while, and then dispersed to do the paperwork that plagued us whenever we weren’t in the field.

Towards lunchtime I was beginning to feel dizzy.  When the boys came to ask me to lunch, I declined, thinking that it was just the side effects Hojo had mentioned.  At one point, I put my head down on my desk, just intending to close my eyes for a moment – and I’ve regretted it since, although I think that things would have turned out the same way even if I hadn’t decided to take a catnap.


Well, with this fanfic, I'm starting the classic tradition of writing author's notes in each chapter.  I had a lot of extraneous thoughts going on in my head when I was writing this 'fic.  It's part pure 'fic, and part roleplay.  I hope that fans of the game will forgive my writing. O.o;  My similes seem to be getting stranger in my old age (if you haven't seen any weird ones yet, you will, I promise).

Next episode:  The answer to the question all you gamers have been asking -- who the hell is Mara and why is she in this story?

Chapter 2