Part Two: The Best of Friends

Chapter Four

"Medic!" Rude shouted.

I'm moving, Reno thought. But no. The ground was still under him, threatening to swallow him up, or so it felt. Falling into darkness...

Rude's breath was on his ear. "C'mon, buddy. Hang in there. This is nothing, man. We've been through worse than this." Then his voice sounded again, a bellow from very far away, "Fuck you sphincters for a bunch of lazy whores! Medic! Now!"

Reno could hear the panic in his partner's voice. I must be in
real bad shape, Reno thought falteringly, as if he needed the confirmation. Rude never showed inappropriate emotion. Not in public, anyway.


Midgar, 13 years until Meteorfall

The trouble with good intentions is that, if you don't have the wherewithal to back them up, they never do you any good. After all, the road to hell is paved with them.

And hell was the sunless Midgar slums when you had no money to speak of, no home and no friends.

If Reno had been capable of thought while he was having his face pounded by someone's anonymous fist, that's what he would have run through his head. As it was, his brain was too disconnected from anything to worry about something as inane as good intentions or living conditions.

The splodges before his eyes were pretty, though.

He'd fought back at first, but some days, his natural speed wasn't enough. This was one of those days.

There came a time when your face actually stopped feeling the blows and your body took over, knowing the best thing to do was to play dead despite your wanting to continue to pave that road to the netherworld. Reno curled up in a ball, lying on his side, arms over his face. Thing about deserted alleyways: there was never any help when you needed it, and there was always a crazed druggie available to beat you to a pulp for what little you had.

Reno's own crazed druggie had been screaming something at him for the entire time he'd been taking to Reno, although only the five Wutai gods knew what.

Reno grunted as booted feet took to his ribs and the pavement scraped across his skin.

His last thought before he blacked out was that, this time, he was actually going to die.


Reno groaned as consciousness returned. Surely being dead didn't hurt this much?

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," a deep masculine voice said. "Wakey up there. Gotta go."

Reno didn't bother to open his eyes. He'd rather not see the face of whoever it was that was going to kill him.

"You're lucky I was around," the voice continued. "Now c'mon. Shouldn't be around here this time of night. Not safe."

No, really? Reno thought sarcastically, opening his eyes. Eye. He could only see out of one.

"There we go," the voice said again. "Up."

Reno fought to breathe properly as he was hauled to his feet. His knees started to buckle, but he felt an arm support him before he fell. "Whatja do that for?" he slurred. "I was winning."

The older boy just looked at Reno pointedly.

"Well, okay then," Reno said, fingering his cheekbone and wincing. Swollen. His knuckles were pretty banged up, too. "I woulda gotten around to winning. Eventually."

Reno peered at the other kid, reckoning him as older than he was, maybe by a year, maybe more. Bigger than Reno by a half head and probably still growing. And, bald. Even through blurred one-eyed sight, there was no doubt about it. No hair. At all.

Too tempting. Reno reached out and rubbed the other boy's dark-skinned head, wincing as the movement made all of his aching muscles screech. Huh. No stubble, either.

Baldy glowered at him.

Reno grinned, running his hand through his own unruly mop. "Sorry, man. I couldn't help myself. That's pretty cool. Do you shave it to keep it like that?"

"Don't ever do that again, kid, or I'll hurt you."

"Sure. No problem. I'm Reno."


They looked at each other for a while.

"I s'pose you should come to my place then," Rude finally said, at the same time as Reno said, "I s'pose I'd better get going."

"You gotta be kidding me," Rude said. "You're in no state to walk and by the looks of ya, you wouldn't be payin' a hospital anytime soon."

Reno blinked.

"You got a place to stay?"

"Sure I do."

Shit, but this Rude guy was the king of steady looks that said everything he needed to say.

"No, not really," Reno admitted.

"Well, come home with me then. My Ma'll never forgive me if I leave you here in this state."

"Nah. I'm okay," Reno said, then realised how stupid that sounded. In actuality, he was glad for the other kid's steadying arm: he was having trouble keeping upright. Breathing was a bit of a chore, too.

Rude rewarded Reno with another look.

"Is your Ma a good cook?" Reno asked, his head spinning.

"The best."

Reno smiled wanly. "Well, okay then. If you insist."

Rude adjusted his grip on Reno, then started to walk. Reno did his best to keep up. The other kid was strong, no doubt about it, which was just as well; it was all he could do to stop from passing out again. His eyes started to roll into the back of his head.

"It's natural," Rude said suddenly.

Reno blinked. "Say what?"

"The hair. Or lack of it."


"I don't wanna hear any more about it. And stay awake. I'm not hauling your unconscious arse through the slums."

Reno shrugged. "Sure, man, whatever you want." Pain lanced through his side and he coughed. "Um. Can we stop for a second though? I think I'd like to hack up some blood now."


Rude sat on a chair in the corner of his bedroom while his mother attended to the unconscious redhead. "Sorry, Ma," he said again. "I know we can't afford--"

"Don't be silly," she said, looking up at him while she applied disinfectant to Reno's knuckles. "You did the right thing, and I am proud of you. This boy--what's his name?"


"There is no doubt that Reno would be dead if you hadn't stepped in when you had." She frowned, lightly touching the bruises spread across Reno's torso. "He may still die, I'm sorry to say. The lungs aren't punctured, or they'd've collapsed, but there's still damage there. And the fact he's not conscious...I am going to have to go and get a potion from the shop for him if his breathing doesn't improve."

"We can't pay for--"

"That is my concern, not yours," she said firmly.


"My concern, Rudolph." Her tone made it clear she would not entertain an argument. She stood and smoothed her skirt. "I will be back in a half hour. Don't give him anything to eat or drink while I'm gone. If he starts to cough again, lie him on his left side so he doesn't choke."

"Why left?"

"The broken ribs are on his right. You'll have to support those. But try not to move him if you can help it. Keep him warm."

Not for the first time, Rude was glad his Ma'd been a nurse, once, before--

"Have you got all of that, Rudolph?"

He looked up and nodded. "Starve him, support him, don't let him choke. Got it."

She paused at the doorway. "I love you, son."

Rude rolled his eyes. "Ma," he said, embarrassed, then frowned. "I don't like you going down to Wall Market this late. Why don't you stay here and I'll go?"

She smiled. "I can look after myself. Back soon."

Rude sighed, then went and sat in the chair next to his bed that Ma had vacated, wondering how she would be able to afford a potion. He knew there was nothing left in the kitty, and neither of them got paid for another two days. And one of them would need to stay home with this Reno kid for at least that, if he lived through the night.

If he lived. Rude had no doubt he would, though; his Ma knew what she was doing. This wasn't the first time she'd patched up one of the neighbourhood kids after a scrap. No one living in these slums could afford a hospital. The one and only Sector Six Free Clinic had been all but shut down by the local drug syndicate, and it wasn't like Shin-Ra did anything about it. They didn't care what happened down under the Plates.

He watched Reno for a while. The kid looked like he hadn't eaten properly in a year, his skin so translucent that his bruises were stark against it. Rude shook his head. Stupid kid. The attack on him had been random, bad luck, but would've happened to him anyway sooner or later. He was not a local, at least, Rude hadn't seen him around, and he knew all of the 'hood, and most of the kids in it. Yet, Reno had the look of someone who'd been on the streets for a while. Rude shrugged. Must've come in from another sector.

Rude figured he should be the one to take the time off. There would be hells to pay for missing work days, but Ma's job paid more than his. Fact is, if he didn't owe his boss so much money, he would've tried to find work somewhere else. Anywhere else.

His mother returned soon after that, potion in hand. Rude didn't bother to ask her how she'd managed it. He didn't want to know.

"Here, Rudolph," she said quietly, handing him the small bottle, filled to the brim with sickly sweet-smelling, viscous liquid. "It isn't a strong one, but it'll stop him from dying, anyway. We'll see if we can't get him to drink some, but we'll apply some topically first, I think." She removed her cloak. "I'm going to go and warm some wine. It'll help it down. You use about a quarter of the bottle on his ribs, and we can try to turn him over when I come back."

Rude tentatively poured some of the potion on Reno's side, wincing as Reno flinched. He spread the stuff out along the bruising, his fingertips tingling vigorously as they were covered in the fluid. He watched as the bruises faded slightly.

Between them, his mother and he managed to get some of the potion down Reno's throat, and on his back, even though the boy was only partially conscious throughout.

"Well, best we can do tonight," his Ma said. "You should get some sleep, Rude. You have work."

"No, Ma. I'll stay."

She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. "Yes, that's probably best," she said. "Still, try and get some sleep. You'll have to share."

Rude shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time."

She nodded. "Goodnight, Rudolph."

"Night, Ma."

She left the room, then Rude carefully climbed into the side of the bed Reno wasn't already using. Within moments, he was asleep.


Rude searched through the cupboards for what was left of the bread. "Dang it," he muttered. Ma had probably given it to one of the neighbourhood boys again. He didn't mind his mother's generosity, of course, but he was a growing man. He needed food faster than he could make it, and he was hoping to finish it off before breakfast. He sighed and pulled the flour canister out of the pantry. There was enough; Ma always managed, somehow, to make their gil stretch from payday to payday, even with her feeding half the kids in the street. It was one of the things Rude loved about her.

Sometimes, it would be nice to have a bit left over, though, just in case. Payday today, though; they were doing pretty well, unless Ma had to pay back her boss for the potion. She'd already left for work, he noticed, which meant she'd taken on extra hours. He frowned. Not good. She worked too hard as it was.

He mixed up a batch of hotcake batter, then turned on the stove. Over the past 48 hours, that Reno kid had improved a lot. His colour was better, anyway. The potion had done its work and his breathing was easier almost immediately.

Rude would be happy to get his bed back when Reno'd gone though, and he thanked Bahumet it was the large one he'd once shared with his brother. Reno was a busy sleeper, never stopped moving around. It was all Rude could do to stop himself from kicking the kid awake every five minutes just to slow him down. He'd discovered on the second night that a hand on Reno's shoulder did the trick, leaving him still but muttering in his sleep.

Hotcakes, Rude decided, were a pain in the arse, but he finished the job anyway, piling some on a plate for Reno, dumping what was left of the butter on top, and eating his own as he went.

He grabbed the plate and headed back to what used to be his bedroom, poking Reno awake.

"Mhm?" Reno said, then sat up when he saw the food.

"Ma says I have to force feed you something if you refuse to eat today," Rude said, handing Reno the plate.

"No chance. I'm starved."

"She also said to tell you that you can stay here for as long as you need. You are, and I quote, 'far too sweet to put back out there'."

Reno didn't look embarrassed at that, as Rude had expected. Instead he forked some of the food into his mouth, then swallowed before he'd really chewed it properly. "Your Ma's nice," he said.

"Slow down or you'll choke," Rude said sourly. He'd seen his Ma's face when she said that. Rude didn't think he'd be getting his bed back to himself any time soon.

Reno's fork stopped halfway to his mouth. "What's up your nose?"

"Nothing. How are you feeling?"

"Not so much like death is imminent."

"Good. Listen, I have to go to work today."

"Yeah?" Reno said with his mouth full. "What do you do?"

"I'm a kitchen hand at Krane's Bar at Wall Market."

"Well, if I'm staying for a while, I should pay my way. Maybe I can get a job there, too. Help out a bit. It'd only take someone to vouch for me."

"No!" There was no way Rude was going to let Reno anywhere near Krane. Reno was far too pretty. At least, he would be once the bruises completely faded and the rest of the swelling went down. Rude paid his price for owing the man money and having no way to pay it back quickly. There was no way Reno would, too.

Reno blinked at him.

"No," Rude said more quietly. "There's no need. Just get better."

Reno's eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything.

"Look, I gotta go. You okay for a bit?"

"Yeah, I'm good." He took another mouthful of hotcakes. "You were right. Your Ma's a great cook."

"Actually, I made that." Rude grinned, then headed out the door, Reno's "thanks" following him out.

He paused before heading out the front door, squaring his shoulders. Now to face the bad.


Rude hugged his arms around his chest, vomiting his stomach empty before continuing to retch uncontrollably until the muscles ached. Settle, he told himself until he was calm again, it's just reaction. Just fucking reaction. It was always the same, after every shift. A bit more off his debt, and another day his Ma wouldn't be threatened or killed, for every time he allowed Krane to--Rude retched again.

Shit. You'd think he'd be used to it by now.

Two days away from work, so Krane had been particularly violent this time. Rude'd been given a choice: that or his meagre pay, what was left over after the eighty percent Krane took every week towards the debt, that is. Rude knew they needed the money at home, so Krane'd taken what he needed.

After all, it wasn't rape if Rude agreed, right?

He washed his mouth out in the washroom sink, then headed out the back door of the bar, heading home, stopping off to pick up some groceries on the way. Ma wouldn't have time; she had a long shift that day.

"Home," he announced as he walked through the door.

"In here," Reno said from the bedroom.

Rude started to put the groceries away, then noticed that the dishes were done, the washcloths piled neatly on one side of the sink. So the kid could pull his weight. Good.

He wandered into the other room when he was done. Reno sat in the middle of their bed, surrounded by a fortune's worth of books. Rude picked one up. "Where did you get all of these?"

"Stole 'em, mostly," Reno said absently, looking at another book and writing something on his notepad. "Been keeping my stuff stashed at a locker at the train station. Figured I'd better go get it."


"While you were at work," Reno said, a little too patiently, like he thought Rude was stupid.

Rude grimaced, choosing not to lose his temper. "No, I meant, when did you get these?"

"Over the last year. I need to learn everything I can about Shin-Ra's organisation."


Reno looked at him for a moment, his head cocked to one side, biting the inside of his cheek. Then he rolled off the bed and scrabbled around in his bag until he came up with a framed photo. He handed it to Rude.

Rude looked at it. He almost immediately recognised the small boy with the shock of red hair as Reno himself. Rude guessed the rest of them were Reno's family; father, mother, two girls. At least, he presumed two girls; the youngest was only a baby. You could never really tell. It was wearing pink, though. He looked up. Reno was looking at him guardedly, almost like he was daring Rude to make fun of him.

"What happened?" Rude asked, handing the picture back.

Reno took it and carefully wrapped the picture in a shirt. "Ma died when I was five, back in Kalm, and Dad soon after that, serving in Wutai. Sisters went to one orphanage, I went to another. I haven't seen them since."

Rude winced. He knew what it was like to lose family. But then, everyone in the slums did. "Sorry, man. That sucks."

"What sucks is that no one will tell me where they are. I left mine a year or so ago and did the rounds of the girl's orphanages. Apparently they never existed."


"Well, no. I can't identify them properly is the problem. But I know they can locate them by the date we were admitted and our former home address."

"So what are you doing then?" Rude asked, perching on the end of the bed.

"So," Reno said, "what I need to do, somehow, is get into the Shin-Ra intranet and find out which orphanage they went to." He jotted down a few more things, Rude couldn't tell what.

I'm dealing with a nutter, Rude thought. There was no way. The very thought of trying something so brazen was... really, really enticing. "How?"

"Well, I dunno. Haven't thought that far ahead yet." Reno frowned. "Do you know how to use a computer?"

Rude felt himself go red. "No," he said shortly.

"Well, that's okay. I can show you. It's fairly easy; you'll pick it up in no time." Reno looked up from his notes then. "Pity I've lost my textbook. I could just loan it to you."

Rude grunted.

"Or not. What's the problem?"


Reno raised an eyebrow, then went back to what he was doing. "Can you pass me the book on Shin-Ra's intranet security?"

"Sure. Where is it?"

"Just in front of you there. White and black cover with the logo in the corner."

Rude winced as he looked at the seven or eight books in front of him that fit the description, then looked at Reno, who was watching him casually.

"You can't read, can you?" Reno said.

Rude grit his teeth.

"Don't worry about it. I'll teach you."

"Don't you be thinking you're better'n me, Reno," Rude said irritably. He'd managed to hide the fact he was functionally illiterate from his Ma, and it wasn't something he was proud of. He really wasn't stupid. He'd just never gotten the trick. Then his Ma'd needed him, so he never got the chance.

"I don't." Reno looked surprised. "Figure I owe you." He put the book down. "You kept me from gettin' killed, Rude. But if that ain't enough for ya, how about this: you teach me to fight better--at least, enough to stop me from getting my head kicked in every other week--and I'll teach you to read."

Rude nodded thoughtfully, then went to Reno's pack, and carefully unwrapped the picture, standing it up on his desk near the door, in a prominent place.

Reno watched him for a moment, his eyes narrowed again, then grinned widely.

"Okay, Reno," Rude said, sticking out his hand. "It's a deal."

Reno shook it. "It's a deal."

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