Chapter Twelve

There was a saying... "As soon as you wonder if you are happy, you immediately become less so." Reno'd heard that somewhere; he couldn't, now, remember where.

He had been lacking a part of himself, back then, and there were parts of his world he'd hated, but he had still been happy, for a time, even with that one thing missing. He thought so then. He still thought so, even knowing what had happened afterwards.

Perhaps, especially knowing what had happened afterwards.


"Jask." Don Corneo was emphatic. "I want him hunted down and brought before me. Alive. He is no good to me dead. Do you both understand?"

"Got it," Raith said.

"I mean it," Corneo said, sounding on the strident side, now. "If he dies I will hold the two of you personally responsible and you will end up in the ground next to him."

Raith inclined his head. "We understand, Don. No dead Jasks."

Reno stood quietly, arms crossed, face impassive, deliberately not looking at Raith for fear the day before would be written all over his face. That would not be good, given Corneo's dislike of "fraternisation" between his employees.

Talk about asking for the impossible. Shoot at someone, they're probably going to die. Don't shoot, and this Jask guy was hardly going to stick out his wrists and declare that, suuure, he would come quietly before Corneo, thanks for asking. Oh, and sure, I won't kill you first. I'm a nice guy. Ridiculous, much?

Corneo waved his hand at them. "Well, get to it then."

"Will do," Raith said, inclining his head. Then he headed for the door, striding out of the room briskly.

Reno followed more casually, watching Raith's arse as he walked; a handy distraction from his irritation.

Raith, however, let fly in a low voice as soon as they'd left earshot of the Mansion. "Corneo, you fucking shit of a twat."

Reno blinked at him. "Something bothering you, I take it."

"No. Ya think?"

"Well, I know why he pisses me off," Reno said, yawning. "Fucking last minute double shifts. I had plans for today. Wanna fill me in on your specific problem?"

"Well, you almost got dead day before yesterday for no good reason. He doesn't want Jask at all."

That didn't make any sense. "How do you figure that?"

"Trust me. I've worked for the bugger long enough to know."

Reno couldn't say much to that. "Well... okay then. So what are we doing then?"

"We're going to spend the next however long it takes Corneo to get sick of this game pretending to hunt Jask down." He kept walking briskly towards the train station. "And we're being followed," he added.

"Who by?" Reno said without looking back.


"Eh. Shouldn't be too difficult to lose him."

"Maybe we shouldn't." Raith stopped at the newstand, and flipped through a magazine before handing over some gil for it. He rolled it up and shoved it in his back pocket.

Reno leaned casually against the counter. Sure enough, there was Scotch, ducking behind a wall. "Take him on a goose, ya reckon?"

"Take him into Sector Seven, get him shot up instead. Never did like the bastard much."

"Yeah, except... why is he following us, Raith?"

"Corneo's checkin' up on us."

"Right. So if Scotch turns up dead, that'd be a mite convenient, don't ya think?"


Reno started walking again, heading for Seisin's bar. "So we lose him."

"That'd be convenient, too, eh."

"Yeah... 'cept Scotch ain't gonna admit to losin' us. He'll have to make something up. He's not exactly bright." They had reached the bar by then. "In and through?" Reno said.

"Sounds like a plan."

They wandered into the bar, which hadn't actually opened, officially, this early in the morning, even though the door was open. Seisin looked up from the counter she was wiping. "You're in early."

Reno winked. "We're not here."

She nodded. "You know where the back door is."

"Thanks," Reno said.

They wandered through the kitchen, which was curiously empty of staff. Reno frowned. Probably meant she couldn't afford any. "Why's he checkin' up on us, Raith?"

"Not rightly sure. Mayhap he's wondering how much we know about Jask. Now that he's put out a 'don't kill' order on the guy, after all his ranting... I smell a rat."

"My turn to say, 'ya think'?"

"I'll pay that one."

"What I don't get is, what does it matter what we know? It's not like we're the opposition or nothin'. Besides which, we don't actually know anything." Reno glanced out into the back alley, just in case Scotch had grown half a brain, then, satisfied, wandered out into that alley where Rude had left him, all that time ago.

"Something I aim to change," Raith said, pulling the door closed behind him. "There's only one reason Corneo'd have for keepin' us in the dark on this one, other than us just bein' the help. Shin-Ra."

Nothing about what Raith was saying rang sense to Reno's mind. "We're already privy to the President's 'arrangement'. What else is there?"

"We're only privy as of a couple of days ago. We haven't actually escorted him in yet."

"He's probably trying to avoid a repeat of Brad, then. Although what any of that has to do with this Jask guy, I wouldn't know."

Raith shrugged, and glanced behind them. "We've lost Scotch, anyways."

"Idiot's probably hanging out around the front door, waiting for us to finish our breakfast. Train?"


It was a short walk to the station.

"You do know they'll just shoot at us again," Reno said.

"Oh, yeah, I know. But we're not headin' for Sector Seven. I want to have a look at the security feed from last night's incident in Sector Two."

Reno nodded. Sector Two'd been hit by what they believed was Jask's lot. A security guard'd been killed. It'd been all over the news that morning. "How're ya going to manage that?"

"Not sure yet. I figure between us we'll come up with something. I just want a look at this Jask guy."

Reno nodded. "I did have a chance to have a look at some of the Shin-Ra intranet handbooks a while back. If you can remember anything from our decryption classes we have a fair shot, I think."

"I remember some. You?"

"A bit. Ya know," Reno said, smiling broadly, "this should be fun."

Raith threw a wolfish grin right back at him. "Yeah. I likes me a challenge," he said, and the double meaning was clear. Damn, but he was hot... "Train."

"Huh?" Reno said.

Raith nodded at the train that'd just pulled up.

"Ah. Big noisy locomotive thing? Not really my preferred ride right now," Reno said before jumping on the train, grinning to himself. Let him chew on that for a bit.

He made his way to the back of the carriage and found a seat, since it was a longer trip this time.

"Just out of curiosity, what is your preferred ride?" Raith said as he sat next to Reno, giving him an obviously deliberate vapid look.

Reno grinned. "Too cheesy."

"It wasn't that bad."

"No, my response to that would've been too cheesy."

Raith leaned back and put his arm across the back of the seat. "Throw it at me anyway, just for kicks."

Reno put on a artificially deep voice. "You don't call me 'Pony Boy' for nothin'."

Raith looked at him steadily. "Yeah. Too cheesy."

Reno grinned. "Bastard."

"C'mon. You like me, and you know it."

"Meh. You have a nice arse," Reno drawled with a shrug, "so I can put up with the rest of you."

"Ah, so I'm just a piece of tail to you now, am I?"

"You didn't think it was your mind I was after did you?"

Raith smirked. "Too mean."

"I could kiss it better, if ya like."

"Ah. Now you're talkin'." Raith's arm dropped off the back of the seat and he tilted his chin so his mouth met Reno's.

Time moved very quickly when you weren't paying attention to its passing, so Reno almost missed the train arriving at the Sector Two Station.

"So where to?" he said as he jumped off the train, flashing his pass to the guard at the gate as they went through.

"We'll go to the building that was screwed, see if we can't find a way into the security feed."

"You're doing this by the skin of your teeth, aren't you?"

Raith grinned. "Sometimes, you have to just rely on luck."

Getting into the building wasn't difficult--it was a mall. It wasn't going to stop trading just because a couple of stores on the ground floor were trashed and a security guard was killed in the process.

"Offices are that way," Reno said.

"We'll just need to avoid the security guy and see if we can--shit." Raith turned his back in a hurry.

Reno frowned. "What?"

"You're not going to believe who that security guard is."

Reno looked around Raith. The guard did look kinda familiar... wait. He was a young guy, but if he was younger... fatter... "No way." It was Fraser. "You're right. I don't believe it. Hey, I'd bet he could lay a V-line for us."

Raith gave him a withering look. "Idiot."

"I'll talk to him, see if he just won't let us go and look so we can avoid all the other shit. Coming with?"

"It'd probably be a good idea if I stay--"

"Too late." Fraser, it seemed, had spotted Reno and was walking towards them both, a broad grin on his face.

"Reno? I thought it was you."

Huh. The stutter was gone, it seemed. Good. "Hey Fraze," Reno said.

Raith gave Reno a tired look, then turned around. "Hey Fraser."

Fraser's face blanched. "R-raith." Then his eyes narrowed, darting from Reno's face to Raith's, and he reached for the gun at his hip.

Raith was faster, grabbing Fraser's wrist before he could draw. "Don't be a moron, Fraser."

"Raith," Reno chided. "Fraser, is there somewhere we can catch up, privately?"

"You work for C-corneo."

Reno sighed as he watched Fraser revert. "Settle down. You're not a kid any more and we ain't here to hurt ya." He grinned. "And I really would like to catch up. Are you still in touch with any of the others?"

Fraser gave him an incredulous look.

"Let go of 'im, Raith."

Raith raised an eyebrow.

"C'mon. Fraser's my buddy. He ain't gonna shoot me. Or mine," he added, giving Fraser a meaningful glance. "Right?"

"Uh, sure," Fraser said uncertainly. "We can talk in the break room, I guess. I don't have a lot of time, though."

Raith let go.

Reno slung and arm over Fraser's shoulders as they walked to the room. "So, how is everyone? What happened to you all?"

"Well, after you left, the old gang kinda splintered. Stevens was pissed, and stomped on the Midgar-outsider war, split us all up." He gave Reno a serious look. "He took you goin' really hard, I think. And you," he added sourly, glaring at Raith, "although only he'd know why."

Reno happened to be looking at Raith when Fraser said that, so he saw the brief tightening around Raith's eyes that told Reno, and only Reno, that he was hurting.

"Most of 'em ended up at the Military Academy or in Junon," Fraser said as they entered the room.

Reno nodded as he leaned on the table in the middle of the room. It was about what he expected. He spent another ten minutes making small talk, which he figured was about as much patience as Raith had. "So, Fraser," he said, "we need a favour."

"Figured that was coming," Fraser said. "Reno, I will do anything you ask of me. I owe you that. I'm gathering whatever it is you're after will probably lose me my job if I'm caught, but I figure that'd be one all. But th-that?" He pointed at Raith. "Forget it. I owe you, Reno, but I'll raincheck this one."

Reno set his jaw. "Grow up, Fraser."

"Are you kidding me? Raith and his cronies made my life in that school a living hell. I couldn't turn a corner without one of them ragging on me."

"They weren't Raith's cronies."

"What difference does it make?"

"It makes a lot of difference, Fraser. You got your revenge, okay? Believe me, you got your--"

"I'm sorry," Raith said quietly.

"What?" Fraser said.

"You're right. What you had to live with was fucked up, and I'm sorry."

Fraser looked like he didn't know how to take that. He sighed instead. "What do you need?" he said in a kinda dead voice.

"Just a look at the security tapes from last night," Reno said.

"Why? No, don't tell me. Then if you're caught, and I'm asked, I don't have to lie."

"Smarter," Reno said.

"Fine. Come with me." Fraser led them to a room down the hall from the break room. It was more of a storage closet, really, walls lined with shelves of vids.

"They're dated," Fraser said shortly. "You can view them on the console, there. Lock the door when you're done."

"Thanks, Fraze," Reno said.

Fraser paused at the door. "I hope I never see either of you again, hear?"

Reno frowned, then nodded.

Raith had found the correct vid by the time Fraser left the room.

Reno watched while he loaded it, thinking he should probably say something but not really sure what.

Raith turned to him when he was done with the input. "Are we having fun, yet?" he said dryly.

Reno winced. "You wanted luck."


"Tell you what... remember those plans I mentioned earlier?"


"That should be fun."

Raith grinned wickedly. "C'mon, lets see what's what."

Reno watched the screen as the vid played. Most of the gang members looked similar, in a "if you've seen one you've seen 'em all" kinda way. There was one feller that the others obviously deferred to, though. "Reckon that's him?"

Raith nodded. "I'd say so."

Jask was medium height, aubern haired, sideburned and, basically, a punk-arsed kid younger, probably, than Reno. Reno watched as he and maybe ten others bashed through a window with gun butts and bully-sticks and created a whole lot of destruction for not a lot of profit.

From what Reno could see, they didn't actually steal much. And he couldn't tell how the guard had died, either: too much chaos. He just sorta... ended up on the ground within camera view. "So, that's Jask."

"Doesn't look that impressive," Raith commented.

"The 'thrill seeker' label seems to fit."

"Little more than that. More like risky attention-seeking."

"Death wish?"

"Maybe. If he keeps carrying on like this, we won't need to do anything. Shin-Ra will be forced to act."

"I dunno. Maybe."

"Wonder what the big deal is, Corneo-wise."

Reno shook his head. "Time will tell."

"Guess so."


Reno swiped his keycard at Raith's apartment door, entered, and threw the keycard on the table near the door, along with his gun and spare ammo clips. It'd been his almost nightly ritual for weeks, now. His phone followed. Lights were on. So was the television. "Y'home?" he called.

"Kitchen. Coffee?"

"Nah, thanks." Reno wandered into the living room and dropped onto the generously-sized couch. He pulled off his boots, then sat back and closed his eyes with a sigh. His head was aching. "Need to sleep. I'm done fer."

He felt Raith sit next to him, but didn't open his eyes.

"Did they pay up?" Raith said in a low voice.

"Yeah. And I didn't have to break anything to get it done, neither." Even so, Reno couldn't even verbalise how much he hated Corneo.

"Pity. Arseholes like that are why girls like Seleen end up the way they do."

Reno didn't answer, and after a couple of seconds he felt Raith's hand on his shoulder, fingertips caressing his neck. "I should've gone instead," he said.

"Why?" Reno opened his eyes and gave Raith a sideways look.

In lieu of a response, Raith drew Reno's head into his lap, running his fingers over Reno's forehead, slouching into the couch so that Reno's cheek rested against Raith's bare stomach, warm, fresh from a shower.

"What's on the box?" Reno said sleepily.

Raith's hand rested lightly on Reno's chest. "Not a lot. Y'hungry?"

"Nope. Ate earlier." Reno yawned, dropping his hand on Raith's, and dozed for a while, half aware of the noise of the news in the background, and Raith's other hand in his hair, his thumb massaging a pressure point on Reno's head.

Funny thing, that. Raith always seemed to know when Reno needed something, and he always acted on that knowledge. Reno was pretty sure he wasn't as plugged in, if you didn't count their actual sex life. He always had to remind himself to say thanks for things, and he probably forgot half the time.

Speaking of... he dragged himself out of his near doze and looked up at Raith. He was watching the TV, a contented look on his face, occasionally raising an eyebrow at the commentary on the box. Sounded like a doco on the Wutai war. Most of the time, outside the apartment, Raith's face was kept studiously neutral, but Reno could almost see Raith's thoughts as he reacted to the voiceover. That one was bullshit. That one, meh, fair enough. And that one was yeah, that makes about as much fucking sense as Reno does when he's plastered.

Reno frowned slightly. He never could get what Raith saw in him. He was just a fucked up street fighter with no future and an inability to take anything seriously. He didn't even cook, and rarely remembered to clean up after himself. And he was afraid, all the time, except... now. And times like this.

Afraid. Not the scared, frightened type of afraid you see in people who were in physical danger--that just gave him a rush that had him and Raith ripping the shirts off each other's backs almost before the door was closed at Raith's apartment, or risking a mutual hand job in a secluded, camera-blind corner of the Mansion.

Or the bone-dread kind of afraid that led to people not wanting to live their lives. That'd never been his style, either.

No, it was more the quiet type of afraid, that everyone has in there, no matter who they are; that part of yourself you don't want to admit to existing. The part of you that knows you have it so damned good right now that something has to go wrong; that realisation that you didn't know how alone you were before this, and you don't want to be alone like that ever again.

And after weeks, Raith still wasn't tired of him. Reno kept waiting for him to piss off; to tell Reno to piss off, but he... hadn't.

At least, not yet.

Strange irony, that; Raith'd made Reno afraid. Yet, the only time Reno felt no fear was when Raith was about.


They hadn't exactly moved in together, but Reno spent most nights they didn't sleep at the Mansion in their own rooms at Raith's apartment. Reno never had Raith at his place overnight. With Felice and Kyrie living there, it didn't feel right.

Besides, Raith was too damned vocal in bed, and there was no way known that Reno wanted him to put a lid on that. Truth be known, so was he.

Felice knew Raith, of course, and knew of their relationship, and welcomed him as a part of the family. It made Raith uncomfortable, though, that she was so friendly towards him. Reno had tried to explain that she was grateful for Raith's part to play in her recovery and that she just plain liked him, but Reno was fairly sure that he just couldn't take genuine affection, even in words. It wasn't like he'd ever known any, except from...

"What're you looking at, Pony Boy?" Raith said quietly without looking down at Reno, his thumb still caressing Reno's temple.

Reno pulled himself out of his reverie. "You," he said.

"Why?" This time, Raith did look at him.

That was an unexpected question, and Reno wasn't exactly sure how to answer it, so he ignored it. "That feels good," he said, instead.

"You didn't answer my question."

Damn. "I'm trying to work out why someone would actually wear these silly chocobo-print pj bottoms," Reno said lightly.

Raith grinned. "You're the one got 'em for me."

"They were supposed to be a joke, dude."

"Yeah, well, they're silk. Very comfy. And they look good on me."

"You think everything looks good on you. Which'd be a fair assessment," Reno added quickly as he saw the area around Raith's eyes tighten. How was it he always managed to say exactly the wrong thing? How was it that he cared so much that he did? "Cos pretty much everything does," he finished lamely.

"I know," Raith said lightly, but he was wearing his bullshit face.

Reno sat up and twisted so he could tuck a leg behind Raith's back. "You're too damned good for me, Raith," he said, swallowing.

Raith leaned forward, resting his hand on Reno's chest until Reno was lying on the couch, Raith's face close to his. "Don't be so fucking stupid," Raith murmured, his mouth meeting Reno's in a series of light, gentle kisses that deepened until they were making out in earnest in a tangle of tongues, legs and arms.

Raith tended to direct bedroom antics and Reno was quite content to go with that, overtly, anyhow. He wasn't really sure why, although he figured maybe he felt like he was trying to make up for the way Stork'd treated Raith.

Then again, Reno'd never really been one for making the first move. He preferred knowing. If someone wanted him, then they could tell him, let him know so he wouldn't make the same mistake he'd made with Rude.

One simple fact this whole thing with Raith'd taught Reno, much as he hadn't wanted to face it: Rude hadn't wanted him that night. He'd just reacted. Raith, now... that was a whole 'nuther matter.

Funny thing was, what Reno liked best about being with Raith wasn't the sex. Sure, that was good enough, but it was about something else, as well. The secrecy was part of it; what they could get away with right under Corneo's nose, but it was more than that. It was the time spent, outside work hours, just doing the normal, everyday stuff. Arguing over whose turn it was to wash up. Discussing the merits of the new .22 semi auto over the old version.

Or nights like this one: making out for what felt like hours on the couch because the TV got boring, then falling asleep because one or both were too tired to take it any further. Stirring briefly in the early hours of the morning with his head on Raith's chest and his arm numb from lying on it. Waking up again in bed with only a groggy memory of how they got there and just enough time for a quickie before having to get ready for work, because, yet again, they were working a double shift...

Raith asked Reno about his family, one lazy bed-ridden afternoon, the sun streaming through the bedroom window, illuminating tiny duststorms in the languid air, and terminating on Raith's chest.

After only a moment's hesitation, his eyes on those tiny particles, his hand perched on Raith's head as it rested on the pillow of Reno's stomach, Reno told him of his father, and mother, and sisters. He told Raith why he'd been happy to leave the school, and of his failure to locate his one remaining sister. He told him of the task his father had given him, and how he was unable to do what had been asked of him.

He even told Raith of his boyhood dreams of flight.

"Your dad sounds like he was a good guy," Raith said when Reno was done.

"Do you remember anything of your parents?"

Raith's face darkened. "Nothing of my ma."

"What happened?"

"Don't know."

Reno ran his fingers across Raith's chest. "You don't have to--"

"No, I want to talk about it. It's just that I never have, so I'm not sure where to start." He rolled on his side so he was facing Reno, his ear on Reno's navel. "Stevens never told me what happened to my mother, but I got the impression it wasn't good. Dead, maybe, or she just took off."

Reno's brows knitted as he caressed Raith's wrist in what he hoped was a soothing rhythm. "How did you end up at the school?"

"Ah, that was another story altogether. My dad was very much alive--still could be, for all I know. Probably in jail, or worse. He dropped me off one day when I was about seven and never came back." His eyes closed momentarily. "I hated that place, but it made a change from the beatings. My dad liked his Kandy, too, and apparently I look way too much like my ma. It's all he used to bellow at me. Even before he was taking that shit."

Reno's hand grasped Raith's wrist, then his jaw clenched as he imagined the small boy he remembered Raith to be at the receiving end of such treatment, at the hands of his own father? Hellfire, but that sucked. Reno couldn't even imagine...

Seven years old... so they'd arrived the same year, Raith two grades ahead. No wonder he'd been such a tough little shit from the start; had latched onto someone stronger quickly, and never broken ranks, yet had worked so hard for Stevens' respect. He'd hung around only to see Stork through school. That was all. He coulda gone anywhere, done anything, the kinda grades he got.

And Reno had let Fraser fuck that up for him... Reno's chest tightened and he had to swallow hard to bring that under control. Gods, where was that coming from?

He moved so he could face Raith, very aware, now, of what his earlier behaviour had really cost the other man. At school... when he'd first started working for Corneo... every rejection, every shitty comment... I'm a bastard, no doubt, Reno thought, swallowing again. Raith gazed back at him steadily, and not for the first time, Reno saw the chink in all that brash.

Reno rested his hand on Raith's cheek, burying his fingers in raven hair. "Your ma," he said, "must've been a pretty amazing-lookin' lady, then, cos I never get tired of watching ya."

Raith's eyes softened and his face reddened. Then one side of his mouth curled up in a smile. "I know," he said lightly.

No, he didn't, Reno realised then. Not unless he was told. "Brash" equalled "defensive" to Raith. No one else'd ever told him he was worth anything, so Raith'd come up with his own substitute.

Reno curled his arms tightly around Raith's back and drew him close with gentle nibbles that increased in fervour until Reno was kissing him with all of the apologies he couldn't voice.

Hell, but he couldn't understand why Raith's hurt affected him so much. Surely it wasn't just guilt?

He never told Raith anything of Rude, though. Some things could not be told.


Sometimes Reno did forget how much he hated working for Don Corneo, like the night a new dancer came in to HoneyBee's from Wutai, all legs and grace and sleek hair down to her waist. Reno watched her dance, enjoying her sinuous body as she slid her hips exotically from one side to the next. She was way too classy for HoneyBee's; he hoped Corneo wouldn't ruin her for better things.

She caught his eye and raised an eyebrow as he continued to watch her with open appreciation. She smiled, running her hands down her body and playing up to him with a wink.

"Pay attention," Raith said, leaning against the wall beside him.

"Oh, I am," Reno said.

"Not to her, dumbarse," Raith said. "You're on the clock."

Reno checked his watch. "Not for another ten minutes, I ain't."

Raith grunted. "I don't see the fascination," he said, indicating the dancer.

"I keep forgetting you've never been with a woman."


"Different. Still fucking incredible."


"Well, they're soft, and malleable, and there's all this self-lubrication, for a start, if you do the job right. Oh, and boobs. Man, do I love boobs. Seriously, the next time one of the girls comes on to you, if she strikes your fancy at all, have a go."

Raith frowned, surreptitiously rubbing the inside of Reno's wrist. "I don't cheat."

Reno flashed him a lazy grin. "I wouldn't mind."

"I would," Raith said coolly.

"Suit yourself."

"So will you be 'having a go' at the dancer?"

Reno caught Raith's tone, and grinned again. "Nah." He leaned towards Raith, speaking quietly. "Have all I want right now. But if you ever do feel like bringing a nice girl home, count me in," he added, mostly because he knew it would send Raith up in flames, and being who he was, he wouldn't be able to take the lid off until after work, and it'd just build. Raith got aggressive when he was angry, speaking of fucking incredible... and there it was, that glitter in Raith's eye that told Reno he'd hit paydirt. Booyeah. Fun to be had, yo.

Pity he had to wait another six hours, he thought, turning back to watch the dancer. Raith didn't get aggressive nearly often enough, and watching her while thinking of him was getting him hard.

"What's Corneo up to tonight, then?" Reno said.

"Not a lot. Apparently he's just going to do some 'entertaining', again."

"Again?" Reno rolled his eyes. "So, a quiet night, for us at least. Just so long as he lets us stand outside the door this time. I am so not in the mood for listening to Corneo lovin' tonight."

"Bad enough outside the door," Raith agreed.

"And I swear to all five Wutai Gods that if I have to listen to him rape one more girl I will kill him myself, so tonight's pick had better be voluntary on her part."

"I hear that. But, no, we have that 'Special Guest' coming in tonight."

Reno rolled his eyes. "Yeah. That's so much better. What's the name of the Turk coming with him?"

"Braden." Raith gave him a sideways look, then. "All you want, you reckon," he said in an undertone.

Reno sighed, vaguely disappointed that Raith's annoyance had evaporated so quickly. But then, affectionate, contented Raith was even better than pissed off Raith. Instead of speaking, Reno lifted an eyebrow and threw Raith his trademark smirk.

Raith mirrored it right back to him, and it landed with devastating effect. Reno coughed slightly and broke eye contact. It wouldn't do to be trying to rip the guy's clothes off in a room full of people. Especially not this particular room full.

He felt more than heard Raith's self-satisfied chuckle, and grinned inwardly. The bastard had known what Reno was doing all along.

And for some silly reason, that made Reno almost... happy.


Junon, 9 years until Meteorfall

Rude stood at the window of his cell-like room, staring out at the sandy ground beyond the glass, and at the water beyond. Three years he'd been gone from Midgar. Almost three years with no knowledge of what was going on at home, and no way of contacting anyone.

It'd been a deliberate choice on his behalf, but still. He worried. He worried about who he'd left behind and what he'd put them through.

Not a day had gone by that he didn't think of Reno. He'd thought of him as Rude had left Midgar, reasoning that if he got as far away from his friend as possible, he'd never be tempted to hurt him again. That maybe he could wash the blood from his hands. That maybe, however slim a possibility, he could forget what Krane had said about his ma.

It wasn't true. He knew it wasn't true. Yet, the thought that his ma had somehow sold him to Krane to pay off his brother's drug debt never truly left him.

It wasn't true. It wasn't.

He'd thought of Reno as he'd tried to work out some way of making it up to him, without success. He'd thought of him as he'd picked a fight with some of the Shin-Ra troops in Junon, and been thrown into the brig, charged, and sentenced to his own stint in the army with no communication with the outside world permitted.

Rude thought of him today. It was Reno's nineteenth birthday. The third he'd been away for.

He stripped his shirt off and sat on his bed, flipping through pages of tests he had to grade. Paperwork was not his forte. How the hell he'd ended up an instructor, he wasn't sure. He guessed being able to belt a few heads in took him places he hadn't expected.

Junon was a place he hadn't expected. Once a small fishing village, President Shinra had taken a shine to the place and had converted it--was in the process of still converting it--to a mini-Midgar. He used it as a second base of operations. The people here were a mix: some former fisher folk; some still fisher folk, remnants of the old village; others soldiers and support staff.

There was a quick rap on the door, and it opened before he'd a chance to say anything. He didn't look up. Only one person would dare enter his quarters without a spoken invitation, and she was always welcome, anyway.

"Ugh. Put that crap down for a while," she said.

He sighed and dropped the pile on the floor next to the bed. "Never did get the point of having written tests for hand-to-hand," he said, looking up into a pair of brown eyes. "Evenin', Kytt."

"Did you forget it was my last night?" she asked, cocking her head to one side. It was a straightforward question, no complaining, no pouting. Pouting wasn't Kytt's way.

"No." Not exactly. He would've gotten around to remembering.

She straddled him and put her hands on his shoulders. "Liar."

He tangled his fingers in her hair with a smile. It was something about her that always did make him smile, that hair of hers. She spent so much time being "one of the boys", but she would never cut the stuff, no matter how much it got in her way. It grew down to her butt, dark ash brown, straight, and it brushed his face whenever she kissed him, as she was doing now. He did always love the feel of it as he slid his hands over her hips when they were together, alive and warm as it was. Smelled like apples all the time. That was weird.

"Your sentence is almost up, too," she said. "Another three months, right?"

He nodded. "So what have you decided to do with your freedom?"

"I've decided to go to Wutai, after all. The war's done, but there's still work out there for someone with my skills."

Rude squeezed her rump fondly. "Which skills?"

"Don't make me beat you to death, Rude."

She probably could, too. "Ah. Those skills," he said, deadpan. "So you're going to do the mercenary thing, after all."

"Come on, Rude. Don't even try to look disappointed. We're not exactly living a Shuyin and Lenne story here."

Rude smiled slightly. It was an old story, that one. One Kytt had told him the first time she'd woken him up in the middle of the night a couple of years earlier with an unexpected hand job, as a point of fact. It was the story of a couple destroyed by a war, killed by that war, and of the man, Shuyin, who had remained, ghost-like, for a thousand years, blaming himself for the death of his beloved Lenne until his hatred almost destroyed a planet. Rude grimaced slightly. The story went that a group of adventurers, including President Shinra's ultimate ancestor, had prevented that destruction and reunited the spirits of the lovers.

A nice enough tale, Rude supposed, but he reckoned it was really more a way for Shinra to set himself up as a partially mythological figure. Stuff like that just didn't happen, magic and ghosts and crap.

What Kytt said was true. She wasn't in love with him any more than he was with her. Their nights were born of habit more than anything else, much as he enjoyed every bit of it. There was a certain amount of monogamous, mutually-enhanced lust, sure; and he liked her, a lot. But at no time had Kytt taken on an importance that overshadowed--

"You could do the same," she said suddenly. "We'd make a good team. I'll go out there, scout out the work, get started and you could join me when Shin-Ra finally lets you go."

It was a tempting thought. It was, especially with those big eyes of hers regarding him so unblinkingly. But Rude couldn't consider that, not now. Not today. And not while he didn't know how his ma was doing. Or Seisin. Or...


He looked up at her. "Yeah?"

"What're you thinking?"

"I'm thinkin' that me and customer relations are not exactly made for each other."

"I could look after that... and you're not buying it, are you?"

He shook his head. "They've made me another offer."

"Yeah? Who, they? Shin-Ra?"

"Yeah. That Turk that was here today. Offered me a job." Tseng, his name was. Strange man. Quiet, disciplined, he made his offer in controlled tones that made it clear he didn't suffer fools, and that he wasn't actually going to take "no" for an answer.

Not that Rude'd any intention of saying no.

She frowned. "That's a helluva set of handcuffs to wear just when you're looking at your freedom, Rude."

He raised an eyebrow in assent. "Difference is, this time I'm choosin' to wear 'em."

She nodded slowly. "Wouldn't you prefer to be your own boss?"

He fingered an earring, one of many collected over the past three years. "I'm a brawler, Kytt. It's what I do. But I ain't a thinker. I'm the sort of guy you point at a target and fire."

"You underestimate yourself, Rude," she said seriously. "Up to you, though."

He grunted.

"Hm." She gazed at him steadily, then pulled off her T shirt, leaving him with a full-faced view of deep cleavage framed by black fabric. "Better get to it, then."


She gave him an amused look. "If this is the last night we're spending together, I'm going to make the most of it." She pushed him backwards with a fair amount of force and gripped his hips with her knees. "You'll need to get the rest of your kit off, sergeant."

"I am familiar with the process."

"Oh, I know you are," she said with a throaty chuckle, leaning over him so that hair of hers brushed his face and touching her nose lightly to his as she unbuttoned his uniform pants. "Aaand--you're not really here again. What's up?"

He'd never told her anything of his past, and given he wasn't going to see her again, it was a pointless exercise doing so now. "Maybe I'll miss you," he said. And maybe that was actually true, as well, to a certain extent.

She sat up again and undid her bra, dropping it on the floor. "You're just going to miss these," she said, smirking.

He grunted in agreement, moving so he could flip her on her back, which given their relative sizes, was not that difficult for him. She was taller than average for a woman, older than he was by two or three years, but she was also wiry-strong, not stocky. "Yes, ma'am, that I will."

"Well, sergeant, you'd better get your face down here and say goodbye properly."

Maybe he should, at that. He bent his head and ran his tongue across one breast, sucking on the nipple until she sighed in response, then moved to the other one as she inched one hand into his trousers and caressed him firmly.

"I'm going to miss this here feller," she said. "He's impressive."

"So you've mentioned a few times," Rude mumbled, working his way up her neck.

"I gush because it's true," she said, lifting her hips so he could pull her trousers down.

Rude gave her what he had, but he was pretty sure Kytt could tell he was on auto-pilot, although she didn't say anything, and she didn't complain, either. He just had too much else on his mind.

He'd known he would take up Tseng's offer all along. He'd spent his time in Junon working towards the possibility.

Being a Turk meant being based in Midgar. It meant he would have a security clearance that meant he could finally see what could be done to track down Reno's sister. If she'd been placed anywhere in the military system, he'd be able to fnd her. It meant he would be able to tell Reno what'd happened to Vickie. And as a Turk, he'd earn more than enough gil to properly support his ma.

Finally, everything he'd hoped for since he'd deliberately gotten himself arrested that day would come to some sort of conclusion.

Three more months, and he was going home.


Midgar, 9 years until Meteorfall

Raith flipped his phone shut and Reno knew without asking that there was something wrong. Very wrong.

"What's going on?" Reno said.

Raith didn't answer. Instead, he opened the gun locker he'd recently installed in his room at the Mansion and handed Reno his shoulder holster.

Reno accepted the holstered weapon, shouldered the holster and buckled it on, watching Raith's face as he picked up his other weapon and tucked it into the back of his waistband.

Raith didn't look happy. He waited for Reno to finish doing that then headed for the front door, indicating that Reno should follow. "We have to collect some gil from a bar downtown," he said quietly. "Proprietor made the mistake of borrowing from Corneo and not paying it back in time."

"Who now?"

Raith looked at Reno seriously as they left the Mansion and picked their way through the crowded night streets, flashing neons reflected in his eyes. "Seisin. And she's on her last warning."

Reno's stomach sank. Pay up in full today, or die today. And if they went back without the gil... "Fuck, but I hate this job," he growled. He shook his head. How had he not known about this? "Screw Corneo. I won't do it."

"If we don't do it, Corneo'll send someone else. Someone who won't be so easy on her before they kill her."

"No hope she has the cash?"


Reno shook his head. "Won't do it."

"C'mon. It's not like you haven't done this sorta thing before. You kill even cooler than I do."

"Drug dealers and murderers, Raith. Seisin's good people. I can't believe you're even fucking considering this."

"Growing a conscience, Reno?" Raith sounded annoyed, but Reno was fairly sure it was at the circumstances, not Reno himself.

"Gotta draw the line somewhere."

"Yeah, well, you don't get to decide where."

"Actually, Raith, when it comes to me, I do."

"Well, you're decidin' between her, or us. And I don't aim to die tonight." He set his jaw. "And I don't aim to have you die either."

Neither did Reno, on either count. "Damn it all to hell. Woulda been better if I'd known this was coming. I didn't even realise she was on the list. Hell, if I'd known she needed money that badly, I'd've told her to steer clear of Corneo."

"I didn't know either." Raith gave him a pointed look.

"Ah. We're bein' tested. Again." Reno chewed on the inside of his cheek. He was sick of this.

And, when it all boiled down to it, what he was really sick of wasn't the standover, or the shitting on people he formerly called his neighbours, or even the occasional killing. It was the constant knowing that one wrong move could get Raith killed in his stead.

And that thought made him so bloody angry he could've easily marched back to the Mansion, blown Corneo's head off, and pissed on the consequences.

A slow-dawning comprehension, never before properly touched, followed anger. And the need to act, right now, followed understanding.

Reno grabbed Raith by the back of his collar, and turned down the next alley way, a narrow lane stacked with crates, barely wide enough for a motorbike. He ignored Raith's muttered "hey!" and scanned the long, dark laneway best he could. As far as he could tell, it was deserted.

He pushed Raith up against a brick wall lining one side of the alley, then leaned against him so that their mouths were close; their thighs pressing together.

Raith smiled slightly, but his face was bewildered. "Getting a distinct sensation of déjà vu here, Pony Boy. What gives?"

"I hope that isn't the only sensation you're getting," Reno said in a low voice, pushing back some of Raith's hair so he could see his eyes properly. He curled the other palm around Raith's hipbone, then bent his head, drawing Raith into a probing, deep kiss that had them both breathing heavily within a few moments. "To answer your questions," he said, biting gently on Raith's neck in between his words, "yes, I am coming on to you." Bite. "Yes, it's mutual." Bite. "And I'll ride any time. Maybe even now," he added, teasing Raith's groin with his thigh until he could feel comforting hardness against his leg.

Raith dragged his hands under Reno's T shirt. "Not that I'm complainin', but what's brought this on?"

Reno unzipped Raith's pants and stroked him firmly, watching a single bead of perspiration run down the other man's forehead down to his throat, Raith's throat working as he swallowed--trying to keep quiet, if Reno knew him at all. And he did, oh yeah. "You're just too damned fuckable," he said, licking off the droplet, enjoying the half-lidded expression on Raith's face.

"You developin' an exhibitionist streak?" Raith groaned, one hand digging into the muscles of Reno's lower back like a Wutai massage.

No, Reno thought. Just... a sense of urgency, like they needed to take every moment they could, because this wasn't going to last. And there was too much left unsaid. Like, I'm sorry it took me so long to do this. And thanks for everything you've done for me. And...

Reno stopped stroking, and Raith met his eyes questioningly, his brows knitted. "What's wrong?"

Just speak, dammit. "I love you, Raith," Reno said in a low voice, his mind spinning with the utter strangeness of those words.

Raith's hand froze and he swallowed, hard. "No one's ever said that to me before."

Reno rested his arms on Raith's shoulders and touched Raith's forehead with his. "And I've never said it to anyone either, so we're even."

"Took you long enough," Raith said, wrapping his arms around Reno's waist.

"I'm sorry," Reno murmured.

Raith kissed him lightly. "I think... we need to finish this later."

Self-consciousness warred with lust for a moment, and self-consciousness won out. "Yeah, um, okay."



Raith moved so he could look Reno in the eye. "Me too."

"I know," Reno said lightly.

Raith let go of Reno and zipped up his pants, a smile playing on his lips. If Reno knew Raith, it was triumph, the arrogant... Reno smiled as well, shrugging inwardly. Whatever. Raith deserved it.

"So... Seisin," Raith said, his voice still husky. "Ideas?"

Reno raised both his eyebrows, surprised. "Thought you were all set to slit her throat."

Raith sighed. "Not if there's an alternative."

"I have something in mind. But I don't want you involved."

"Why not?"

"Because it'll get us both dead, is what. This way, if someone finds out what I'm doin', it'll just get me dead."

Raith's eyes narrowed. "You're gonna pay it for her."

Reno nodded. "Doesn't he get that you can't get repaid by a corpse?"

"Corneo knows she doesn't have the money. She's to be an example. Corneo was making noises yesterday about how he's been too lenient lately."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Wouldn't have made any difference."

Reno watched Raith for a moment. "So she got her money from a friend. What does he care? He can make an example of someone else."

"Yeah. Good move, Reno. Like Corneo ain't keepin' an eye on your account. He thinks you're settin' up a loan op here, in competition with him, and you can still kiss your keister goodbye."

"I'm not a complete moron. I do know how to squirrel cash."

"Why would you think you'd need to do that?" Raith said with a curious look.

Reno shrugged. "When we all lived in the slums, Felice'd keep whatever was left over each week in a jar for leaner times. Came in handy--'til it ran out, of course. But she always managed to put some in every week, even if just a single coin, up until--" He grimaced. No bringing Rude's name into anything. "Never lost the habit. How much does Seisin owe?"

Raith named a figure.

Reno nodded. It was doable, but he knew Seisin would never be able to come up with that. Not at Corneo's usury. "I should have at least that. I've never used anything I've put away."

"Right. Let's do it, then."

"Not you. Just me."

"Nah. Anything you do rebounds on me anyways. All in, or all out." He frowned. "Corneo's goin' to send someone over to her to find out who gave her the money."

"We'll just have to make sure it's us he sends."

Raith shook his head. "Won't be."

"So we'll cross that bridge then." Given how often Don had been testing them lately, Reno seriously doubted that he and Raith were long for this world, anyways. And Raith had to know that. "C'mon. I need to go to my apartment." Reno turned to walk, but Raith's hand on his shoulder stopped him.



"You have to know something. Seisin... you know I wouldn't have wanted to--"

"Yeah, I know."

Raith's fingers tightened. "I don't think you do. It's just... if there's ever a choice, you know, between you or anyone else, it'll always be you. Do you get that?"

Reno nodded, frowning slightly at Raith's vehemence.

"I mean it, Reno. I need you to know that. I'm not a killer by choice. I--"

"Raith." Reno wasn't really sure why this was so important to Raith, but if it was, then it was. He reached out and grasped the back of Raith's neck, squeezing in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "I get it."

"You know what'd be good? Getting out of Midgar for a bit. You know I've never left this city? And how long has it been for you?"

"Not since I left Kalm."

"So whaddya think? Finally take some of that vacation time?"

Reno blinked. "We have vacation time?"

"Of course we do."

Huh. Right up there with the pension plan. "Why did I not know this?"

"Don't you read your payslips?"

Reno shrugged.

"You're hopeless."

"I know. What's brought all this on?"

Raith's eyes met his again. "You did," he said with the smallest of smiles.

Reno felt his face grow hot. Huh. I don't blush, he thought, tilting his head to one side and chewing on the inside of his cheek.

"Fuck, but you're gorgeous," Raith said.

Reno let go of Raith's shoulder with a self-conscious cough. "Let's go get this done, before you get me so hot I won't be able to walk."

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