Part Four: The Sirocco of Change

Chapter Fourteen

"How is he?"

Reno heard the voice through a miasma of pain. Who was that? Tseng, he thought, but he wasn't sure. His mind was kinda... fuzzy, moving in and out of this dream-like state, going places that felt more real than the pain.

Maybe that was why he was going there.

"Not so good." That was Rude, far away. Reno opened his eyes as much as he could, his vision swimming. There was something stuck in his hand. He wanted to pull it out but he couldn't seem to move properly. His fingers wouldn't work.

A hand was placed on his arm. "Leave that alone." A soft order, female voice, not unkind but firm. "Just giving you something before you go in."

Go in? Go in where? Where was he?

"You'll be fine," she said.

"I heard." Yes, Tseng, on the other side of the room, with Rude. Why would he be here? Shouldn't he still be busy with the battle?

"Doc was just here." Rude again. "Ruptured spleen. Battle of Midgar used up their stock of potions. Ain't no more coming."

"We're not making them any more. Not now we know that..."

Lies... Raith... It wasn't real. Real...
What do I mean by "real"? Do I mean all this, or what is going through my head? Reno was too groggy to sort it out. But Raith... wasn't here. Why wasn't he here? Reno couldn't remember. Hurts... Then, it didn't. Sleepy...


Raith's face always took on a dream-like cast after sex. Kinda like... if he'd been that cat Reno liked to compare him to, he'd be purring. Like, peaceful. Yawn, stretch, smile, caress. Purring.

Not so much, this time. He lay on his side, facing Reno, their feet intertwined, Raith playing with Reno's hands, as was their habit; as was normal. But instead of their regular teasing complacency, Raith's eyes were, instead... intense. As if he could look all the way through Reno's head, let alone into it. But also, guarded. Like, I need to feel you. But don't you dare look too hard at me.

It took Reno a few moments to realise what it was he was looking at. Sure, he'd been aware of the possibility, behind Raith's cocky exterior, but Reno'd never actually seen this in him before.

It was fear. Raith was afraid.

But why? What was Raith afraid of? Didn't make any sense.

Reno's first instinct was to reassure, but he wasn't sure how, except to just... touch. He reached out and ran his fingers into Raith's hair, caressing Raith's eyebrow with his thumb. Reno followed the movement of his own fingers with his gaze, and wondered, not for the first time, what he had done in this life to inspire--to deserve--such depth of devotion from this complicated, enticing man.

It was like it was all way too good to be true.

Raith's eyes closed briefly, and he leaned into Reno's hand. "Do you remember the first time we met?" he said. He sounded a bit on edge.

Reno swallowed uncomfortably. He didn't. Reno couldn't remember a time Raith hadn't been at their old school, so therefore couldn't pinpoint any particular first conversation or whatever. What Reno could remember was not great, for the most part. But, obviously Raith could, so saying that wouldn't be good. Or smart. Reno figured it'd hurt Raith that Reno had no idea what he was talking about. And it felt wrong that he didn't. He wished he could.

After all, Reno remembered the very first second he met Rude.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty, wakey up there."

Reno met Raith's eyes then, and winced inwardly. They were shuttered. Reno'd taken too long to respond, again. One of these days, Reno thought, I will get this right. "Ya know," he drawled slowly, allowing his fingers to stroke Raith's face again. "I find it hard to recall a time I didn't know you at that school."

"You don't remember." Raith's voice was very quiet.

Reno frowned. Raith was hurt. And it was real important to Reno that Raith not be hurt. Not by him. Not any more. "I don't hold onto that sort of detail. You know that."

Raith gave him a doubtful look and pulled his head away from Reno's hand. "You have the best eye for small details of anyone I know."

"In the now, maybe." Reno rolled onto his stomach and ran his hand over Raith's chest, feeling gooseflesh prickle under his fingertips. "I tend to shut out the past."

"No, you don't. You have a mind like a steel trap."

Man, there was no putting anything past Raith, and Reno wasn't sure that was a bad thing, when all was said and done. But, still... "Fair enough," he conceded. "But I do live in the now. And, you know, there's that short attention span." He tilted his head and kissed Raith's throat. "Here, now. That's what matters. But--" Reno kissed him again-- "it's important to you. Remind me."

"We were both new to the place." Raith rested his hands on Reno's lower back with a small sigh. "You told me all the way back then that you wanted to fly Shin-Ra 'copters when you grew up."

Reno really didn't remember telling Raith that, not until recently. "I did?"


"Huh." Old dreams, never to be realised. Reno rarely thought about it any more. Fact was, he wasn't even sure that he really cared about that any more. He gave Raith a half-smile. "Guess that ain't happening, hey."

Raith grimaced sadly and avoided Reno's gaze.

"What?" Reno said.


Reno frowned, momentarily confused. Raith knew how Reno felt about him, now. Why was he still doing the stonewall thing? "Don't do that. What?"

"No, really, nothing." Raith smiled wolfishly, and kissed him, and Reno was sure, then, that he was hiding something.

Frankly, though, Reno didn't want to know what it was. 'Cos all that mattered was the here and now, right? And all Reno wanted to do, here and now, was sleep, wrapped around the man he loved.

But, before he did, he needed to address one question... "Somethin' bothers me," Reno said.

Raith regarded him warily. "What?"

"What it is you see in me."

Surprise crossed Raith's features, and he blinked. "Reno?" he said softly.


Raith watched him steadily, but said nothing.

"What?" Reno repeated, feeling his face grow hot.

The corner of Raith's mouth turned up. "Really not what I expected you to say." He gave Reno another quizzical look. "I really don't get what you're asking me."

Reno grinned. "Sure you do."

"Y'know," Raith said, "if you were after a second go around, you only had to ask." He sighed. "Sometimes it'd be nice not to have to play games."

It was Reno's turn to blink. "I wasn't--"

"Reno, you can't be serious. You've known me for far too long, and you know how I feel. How I've always felt."

Always? Always a little in love with you, Reno... I wasn't being flippant... Huh. Reno guessed he did know that. No, wait, of course he knew that. But was that what he'd asked? No. Try again. "I don't doubt the how. What I don't understand is the why."

Raith's eyes searched Reno's face. "You actually mean that."

Reno bit his cheek for a moment. He was making an idiot of himself. Ah, well, all in now. "I do."

"You don't know why I love you."

"Mm-mn," Reno said, shaking his head.

"Isn't it enough to know that I just do?"

Reno felt his face grow hot. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"Why are you apologising?" Was Raith's voice exasperated or surprised?

Reno couldn't tell. "Sorry," he mumbled again.

Raith's hands tightened on Reno's lower back and he smiled crookedly. "Pony Boy--" he stopped, and bit his lip. "Sorry. I keep forgetting you hate that."

Reno rested his head on Raith's chest and listened to his heartbeat for a moment. "I haven't hated that in a very long time, actually."

"Hm," Raith agreed. His chest rose and fell a few times before he spoke again. "I do love you, Reno, so much that the words are inadequate. But if you don't know who you are, then I can't tell you. Nothing I say will give you what you want."

Reno had no bloody idea what that meant, but figured he'd made enough of a fool of himself for one night. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling for a while. "Something else," he said.


"The money you gave Seisin. Aren't you concerned Corneo will trace it from your account?"

"Not really."


"Why are you bringing that up now?"

Reno frowned slightly at Raith's tone. Why so irritable? "Worried about ya," he said finally. He could ask again in the morning. Just before sleeping was not a good time to bring up anything that could lead to an argument.

"Don't be." Raith paused. "I know how to get cash together as well if I have to."

That did not sit well with Reno, at all. Rather, he felt a brief sinking...something. Almost like a premonition of what he, really, already knew was coming. Corneo would have their blood. It was only a matter of time. "Raith--"

"It's late." Raith yawned widely. "Sleep would be good right about now."

"Hm," Reno agreed. Raith did look tired, moreso than usual; he had dark circles under his eyes that Reno hadn't really noticed before. Reno guessed he was probably as stressed about the whole Seisin/Corneo business as Reno was.

This didn't have to be discussed now. Let it pass, until morning. He leaned over and turned on the alarm, then rolled back onto his side. "C'mere," he murmured, and drew Raith to him, dropping his shoulder so Raith could rest his head there.

Raith curled around him with a sigh, and only then, leaning his cheek on Raith's forehead, did Reno truly relax--and only then did Reno realise he'd been worried that Raith would pull away from him. Only then, as he listened to Raith's steadying, slowing breaths as he fell asleep on Reno's shoulder, did Reno realise how different it all was. Things had changed.

Cos now, down in the depths, Raith could hurt him.

Reno closed his eyes and sighed contendedly as his arm gradually grew numb. He understood Raith's fear, now, and it was a fair turnaround, considering. Totally worth it, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.


Raith was gone.

And Reno knew the moment he walked into the Mansion that he should not have turned up to work that morning. Mistake. Mistake. Mistake.

But he'd woken up and Raith was nowhere to be seen, and no matter where Reno looked, he couldn't find him. The apartment was empty. Seisin's bar was closed and the doors barred. Even the streets were eerily deserted.

That last could've been Reno's imagination, though. He couldn't really remember how he found himself at Corneo's Mansion. He'd kinda walked there in a fog. Walked? No, it'd been quicker than that. Maybe he'd taken a transport. Maybe.

He honestly couldn't remember.

Where was Raith?

The Mansion was full of people Reno had never seen before. When had Corneo hired so many bodyguards?

And, wait... what? He turned his head, distracted. Was that... Seleen?

Couldn't be.

One of the strangers walked up to Reno.

"Hey," Reno said congenially.

The man didn't answer. Instead, he motioned to one of the other strangers and grabbed Reno.

Reno wasn't sure how it happened, but within seconds, it seemed, he was on his knees in the Throne Room, in front of Corneo, with his hands tied behind his back.

"Where did she get the cash, Reno?" Corneo demanded.

Reno had the impression he'd been asked the same question a few times, although he didn't remember hearing them. He knew who Corneo was talking about, though. Seisin. "I didn't ask, Don. Figured you'd just be happy to have it back."

The room tipped, and Reno was suddenly looking up at Corneo from the floor, his eyes watering in reaction to the sudden blow. He hadn't even seen the fist that'd hit him. He flexed his jaw, glaring up at Scotch, who'd king hit him from the side. "You only get to do that only once, Scotch," he muttered.

Scotch shrugged and pulled his gun, aiming it in the general direction of Reno's face.

Corneo stood and walked over to Reno, looking down at him. "How stupid do you think I am, Reno?"

Reno didn't really think he should answer that question. Play dumb. "I don't understand, Don. What's going on?"

"Reno, I have to ask you why it is you think I have had Scotch, here, discipline you. Is it, one, because Scotch needs the exercise; two, because I am unecessarily cruel; or, three, because a good father watches over his children and makes sure they are rewarded when they do right and punished when they do wrong?"

Ah. Corneo did like his questions disguised as multiple choice exams--of which none of the above was usually the "correct" response. Fuckwit. "May I ask what it is, exactly, I've done wrong?"

"I think you already know that, Reno."

"Well, I wouldn't have asked, Don."

Corneo regarded Reno with one cocked eyebrow. "You should know, in this business, Reno, that it is never wise to trust anyone."

Reno was silent. Corneo would get to the point when he felt like it, and not before.

"Your partner. He told me what I needed to know."

Reno stayed silent. Old interrogation trick, that one: pretending you knew more than you did because someone else had told you.

"Something about a jar full of money in your bedroom, and paying that woman's debt for her."

Right, that was a little too detailed for Reno's liking, but that didn't mean Raith had sold him out. It just meant that Reno probably should have been more careful about making sure his apartment wasn't bugged. He hoped.

"Nothing to say to that?" Corneo said.

"Only that you already think you have all the answers, so why bother asking me?"

"I wanted to see if you would lie to me Reno." Corneo's voice was different, now. Cold. "After all I have done for you. It is very disappointing."

And in that moment, Reno knew. He was going to die. That was it and that was all. He met Corneo's eyes steadily, and the only thing that went through his mind then was that he was amazed how calm he was. Sure, he'd been in life and death situations before, producing that adrenaline-pushing, heart-pounding excitement that he seemed to thrive on even while he wasn't really thinking about it.

He'd been bashed, and Rude'd pulled him out of it. He'd been shot, and Raith'd fixed him up. He'd thought he was going to die, or recognised the possibility, many times, but this was the first time he'd been on his knees, gun in his face, knowing he was living his last moments, knowing that there was no one going to prevent it this time.

It kinda sucked.

Then it occurred to Reno that he'd put enough people in the position he was in. Murderers and drug dealers. But then, wasn't that exactly what he was? What goes around, comes around, as they say.

And then he kinda... accepted his fate.

Scotch cocked the gun, and the click was deafening. "Just say when, boss," he said.

"No, wait," Corneo said. "Bring out the other one."

Wait, what? No, no, no, no, no.

And Raith was there, with a gun in his hand as well.

Wait, what? Why had they given Raith a gun? Allowed him a gun?

"Let him do it," Corneo said.

Scotch shrugged and lowered his gun.

And Raith cocked his. "I'm sorry, Reno," he said, his voice as quiet as death, his eyes like flint.

Wait, what?

Suddenly, staring into the muzzle of the gun, Reno didn't feel so calm.

Then there was noise. Just... noise, as Raith spun and fired at Scotch, then took down the two men who had jumped in front of Corneo... Reno blinked in shock, and didn't see... and then Raith fell in front of Reno, and his eyes were no longer flint. They were... vacant. And there was blood... and he was dead.

And then something hit Reno in the head... and there was fog... and he was cold... blasts of cold...


An ice-cold gust of wind blew across Reno's face, waking him with a fair shock. He blinked as papers flew across the room, then almost reflexively glanced at the clock.

"Fuck," he muttered as he got to his knees and closed the window. They'd overslept. Um, no, hang on, he'd overslept. Raith wasn't in bed, and Reno couldn't hear the shower. He took a single deep breath and listened for a second. The apartment had an empty feel about it, and Reno knew without even leaving the room that Raith wasn't there.

So, where was he?

A sense of déjà vu washed over Reno, then, and he shivered for reasons that went beyond the wind.

Then he remembered the dream. That incredibly real, way-too-clear dream. He knew he dreamed a lot. But he never remembered them. Ever. Except that one he'd had about Rude, and his own family, the night he'd killed Seleen.

Gods, how long had it been since he'd even thought about his sisters?

That one had taken a while to stop running though his head, as well. But this--he drew his knees up to his chest, drawing the bedclothes with them, the premonitory dread he'd felt the previous night settling firmly in his stomach. He had to grit his teeth to stop them from chattering.

Raith betraying him, or seeimg to. Reno realising what he was; murderer. Corneo killing them both. Dying. Worse. Watching Raith die, his blood all over--Reno swallowed, hard, trying to swallow the emotions the memory brought with it. It wan't real. He had to remember that. It wasn't real.

Oh gods. Surely Raith hadn't gone into work without him. Surely not.

One thing he did know. Come hells or high water, he could not do this job any more. And there was no way he was allowing Raith to eat a bullet for his sake.

There had to be a way out. For both of them.

Something Raith'd said the day before about vacation time tickled the edge of Reno's mind. Going away, both of them.

But never coming back.

Reno almost smiled at the concept.

It could be done, if they were careful, and quick about it. There were places Corneo had no ears, and he and Raith were privy to most of those. He frowned. Felice would be a problem. Money would be a problem. Reno had a veritable fortune in his account he couldn't really withdraw, and Raith's spending was miserly compared to Reno's, so he would be in the same boat.

There was no real way they could just withdraw it all, though.

And even together, they wouldn't have enough to keep Felice and Kyrie for any more than six months, once the money stopped coming in. He couldn't see how to keep Felice safe if he and Raith took off.

He was sure that, between them, he and Raith could come up with something. But first, he wanted to know where Raith was. No, he needed to know.

He was halfway through keying in Raith's number when a possible solution hit him. But it would only be a solution if the guy he'd seen the previous day had been Rude. He closed his phone slowly. How the hell would he find that out?

He chewed on his upper lip, frowning. Even if that had been Rude, and Reno could track him down, did he really want to open that can of worms, now?

If he did track down the guy, and he was who Reno thought he was, and then Rude was able to take over the care of his mother, how would Reno explain that to Raith? He sighed. The truth would have to do. And before he possibly located Rude, not after he had. Yesterday, preferably. Today, if possible.

Of course, even if that was who he thought it was, there was no guarantee he'd be able to look after Felice's needs. But then, if he was, he obviously had the wherewithall to hide for--what was it?--three years? Without a word.

It occurred to Reno then that he was planning to abandon Felice. That did not sit well with him, at all.

Not at all.

There was one other thing he could do, though. He wasn't sure how much time they had, but he could start gradually bleeding his account. He should also get that cash from Felice's--his--apartment, move it here. That was, they could leave in a hurry if they had to.

Besides, he'd promised he'd go over there and see how she was doing.

First things first, though. He punched in Raith's number and waited... voice mail. Reno hesitated only briefly. Had to be done. "Hey. I need to talk to you about something, as soon as you can. Some explaining to be done. Just... call me as soon as you get this, 'kay?" He hesitated again, then sighed. "Be careful." Another hesitation. "Love you, no matter what happens. Hope you know that."

He snapped the phone shut with a grimace. That wasn't getting any easier to say. Stupid. Maybe, once he'd cleared up that one dishonesty that was now plaguing his mind... maybe.

The thought of seeing, of facing, Rude again, too... Reno almost hoped that the man he'd seen wasn't Rude at all. Almost hoped? Wished for it with all that was in him, truth be known. Gods help him, but he almost wished Rude had died.

It was less complicated that way.

The thought made him feel sick. How selfish was he, really? And complicated, why? He was telling Raith that he had brushed off Rude with a lie; and he was with Raith. There was no Rude, not any more. Rude was no longer a part of his life. Even if it was him, Reno would go his way, Rude would go another. As it should be, given the circumstances.

And why that thought made Reno's chest tighten, he didn't know.

He ran a hand through his hair, which, he noted, needed cutting again. It was just stress. Obviously, his job was getting to him. He needed more sleep. Should probably eat better. And he was worried about Raith and what might be happening to him at that exact moment. And he was worried about Felice.

Oh, gods. Felice. What should he say to her? "Hey, I might've seen Rude last night"? With nothing to go on, was that fair to her? He sighed. Fuck it, why was it his responsibility to hide Rude's actions from her, anyway? He hadn't asked for that. He hadn't minded watching out for her; he owed her that, at least, and he didn't consider it a burden at all. He liked her too much for that. But wasn't it time that Rude acted like a man and owned up to what he was supposed to do?

He showered and thought about it. If he was wrong, he was giving Felice false hope. But, deep down, Reno didn't think he had been wrong. And he knew what it was like to know that a member of his family was out there, somewhere, with no way of knowing if they were alive or dead. It could drive you mad if you let it. Didn't Felice deserve some hope?

But if he was wrong...

Maybe he should just tell her what he'd seen Rude do that night. She knew Krane: she may even be able to make sense of why Rude had killed the man so violently.

The part of him that didn't wish Rude had died wanted to see him, if only to ask why he'd taken off and not trusted Reno enough to say where to. What had he been doing all this time? Why hadn't he even contacted them? Even given the events of that night... no. Especially given the events of that night.

He'd left Reno, and done so deliberately and coldly, that much was clear. But, where the fuck did Rude get off, leaving his mother to worry like that?

He towelled himself dry, trying to push all of that out of his mind and instead filling his mind with much nicer thoughts. Like, say, Raith's throat bared to him when they were together. Stirred at something very primal in Reno, that. It was a trusting act, allowing a predator access to your windpipe. He sighed, wishing that Raith'd just stayed home. A languid day in bed was something that appealed to Reno very much in that moment, and wasn't something they'd indulged in for a while.

Then Rude's face superseded over Raith's, and Reno frowned at the intrusion. Get out of my head, fuckwit.

He sighed, and made his way to Felice's apartment.

Felice wasn't there, but Kyrie was, sitting at the breakfast bench watching a newsreel vid and chewing on a sandwich.

Reno dropped his keycard on the bench and sat down. "How's Felice?"

"Better," Kyrie said with her mouth full.

Reno frowned slightly. "Where is Felice? Not still in bed, surely."

"No. She got a phone call and went out."

"Why aren't you with her?"

"She doesn't need me to go everywhere with her, Reno. She's blind, not incapacitated." She dropped a sugar into her cup and stirred. "She wanted to go on her own. She was insistent on it, actually."

Reno nodded. "When will she be back?"

"She didn't say. I can't imagine she'll be too long, though, if you want to wait. Want a sandwich? Tea?"

"No thanks." Reno stood, then, and went to his room, where he kept the jar.

It was empty.

Completely empty.

What the hells?

Reno frowned. That couldn't be right. It had been three-quarters full, even after he and Raith'd counted out the cash for Seisin.

And no one knew it was there. At least he was fairly sure--except him. And now, Raith. Unless... no. Surely he paid Kyrie enough that she didn't have to steal from them. And there was no way Felice would...

He wandered back out into the kitchen. Guess he'd need to ask.

Kyrie looked up from the newsreel vid. "What's wrong?"

"Have you been in my room at all since last night?"

She shook her head. "Of course not."

"How about Felice?"

"Not a chance. She has no reason to be in there." She took a sip of her tea. "Raith came by again last night though. Maybe he was in there?"

Reno's world went very still. "He didn't say why he was here?"

"No. It was late, I was asleep, didn't actually see him, and he was quiet enough that he didn't wake me. But the keycard log says his key was used."

Reno nodded. It was a part of her job to keep an eye on comings and goings, just in case. They did work for Corneo, after all. "When was this?"

She frowned. "About midnight, maybe a bit before?"

That fit into the timeframe Raith'd been gone. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"Why would I? He's in and out of here all the time picking stuff up for you or dropping groceries off."

Reno nodded. That was true enough. But, empty Reno's cash jar? Why would he do that?

And why hadn't he called back yet?

Reno tried not to come to any conclusions. There was probably a very good explanation for it. Probably. So, he needed to allow Raith time to give that explanation.

Thing is, why sneak in and take the money that Reno would've gladly given him, if he had only asked? And then, not even mentioned it when he'd arrived home?

It didn't feel right. At all.

He'll have his reasons, Reno thought. Just as I had mine for not telling him about Rude. He wouldn't think about it. He was just still handling the hangover of that dream.

"What's happening?"

Reno looked up at Kyrie. "Nothing. Look, gotta go. Tell Felice I'll be back."

He all but ran out of the apartment, Kyrie's "Reno--" following him out. He ignored her. He didn't feel like giving any complicated explanations over things he didn't understand.

Maybe I'm dreaming again. He looked around him, but all seemed to be in order. The street teemed with traffic and people, as was normal. The sun was out, as was normal. The guy at the door of the apartment complex smiled as he let Reno through security, as was normal.

But nothing felt normal. Not like in the dream, where everything looked cock-eyed, but Reno accepted it without question.

He leaned against the building outside and looked down at his hands. They were shaking. That couldn't be right.

He had to call Raith again.

No, he couldn't do that. He wasn't that sort of person, hounding someone if they didn't return a call immediately. He should wait.

He needed to know.

He was in the process of reaching for his phone when he saw Braden approach him, a small smile on his scarred face, his eyes expressionless behind his glasses, suit neat. "Hello, Reno," he said.

"Braden. Whats up?"

"Much," Braden said quietly. "Now, don't make a fuss, Reno."

"A what?" Then, Reno felt a pinch in his neck and another suited figured at his side, the exact outline blurred.

Wait, blurred?

He fell, but he was sure he didn't hit the ground.


Reno's mouth tasted like... cherries?

Hells, was he dreaming again? His head was slumped forward, and he sat up... was he sleeping on a desk? What? Where was he? His eyesight cleared, and he looked around at his surroundings.

The first thing that got his attention was the fact his hands were cuffed, and the cuffs were chained to the desk in front of him.

That couldn't be good.

Corneo has me, he thought. Oh, gods. Where was Raith?

Then his mind started to function, slowly. No, he remembered... Braden? And someone else? Maybe not.

The room was empty of all but the desk, a heavy-set one bolted to the floor, the chair Reno was sitting in, and another on the other side of the desk. The room was painted dark, and felt airless. There was a bright lamp on the desk, and Reno was hot; so much so, that he could feel sweat trickling down his back and forehead.

Ignore it. He wouldn't show any weakness here, not until he knew what was going on.

He glanced around. Door. Steel door, grilled at the top. No other way out.

What. The. Fuck?


There was a small vid camera unit in the corner of the room, so Reno figured whoever had him would know he was awake.

Hells. Where was Raith?

He watched the camera lens for a moment and dropped his shoulders casually, leaning back in his chair, uncomfortable though that was. Stay calm.

He counted the passing of time for as long as he could hold his patience, which amounted to about fifteen minutes before he felt like bugs were crawling down the back of his neck. He was not made for waiting. He smiled wryly at that.

There was a technique he'd been taught back at school, if he could remember it... he closed his eyes and breathed, trying to calm his mind, and mentally, silently, counted. That was all.

He reckoned it took about another half hour before someone appeared.

Reno opened his eyes as the door opened. It was Braden, all suited Turk and a no-nonsense expression on his face. "Reno."

"Braden." Reno wanted to ask what was going on, but resisted the urge. He had no power here, but best not to show he knew it.

Whatever the problem was, this wasn't going to be good.

Braden waited for the space of several heartbeats before speaking again. "I suppose you know why you're here."

"Can't say as I do, Braden," Reno said casually. He decided then that, no matter what he was asked, he knew nothing. Seemed to be the best course of action, at least until he could work out what was going on.

"President Shinra is being blackmailed."

Reno didn't have to feign surprise. "What?"

Braden sat in the other chair. "There are three people, besides Turks, who know about the President's visits to HoneyBees, Reno. Corneo. You. Raith. Corneo knows better. You, we have. Raith, we will have soon." He crossed his arms. "It will go better for you if you just tell me the truth. I like you. I'd really rather not kill you."

Reno watched Braden steadily, keeping his face as impassive as possible, but his thoughts were racing. Raith, he'd said the night before, had his own ways of getting untraceable cash. Besides taking mine? No, not that train of thought. That would show.

"Nothing to say?" Braden's voice was calm and regretful. "Look, Reno, if it wasn't you, all you have to do is say so. I'll understand that your partner acted without your knowledge."

Reno glared at him.

"Come on Reno. Do you really think that Raith wouldn't turn you in under the same circumstances?"

Reno raised an eyebrow. "And here," he said, "I'd heard you Turks were good at this. How fucking stupid do you think I am?" He leaned back in his chair, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. "For a start, that interrogation methodology is so well-used it was in my school textbook." And, in yet another creepy déjà vu moment, in Reno's dream of the night before. "For a second, you may like to get to know your subjects a bit better before using hackneyed lines on them."

Braden pushed his glasses up his nose and threw Reno an amused glance. "That textbook probably told you not to make presumptions, either."

"Your point is?"

"My point." He sighed and picked up a vid, and glanced at the screen, tapping a couple of buttons. "We both know, then, what Raith was before he started working for Corneo. And I am aware of what you were doing. Whole world of difference."

Reno had to work, again, to keep his face impassive. As a point of fact, he did not know what Raith did before Corneo. He'd never told Reno, and Reno had never asked. He hadn't thought to. All he knew was that Raith had killed Stork in that time, and Reno didn't like to dig up the past. It didn't matter.

Braden put the screen down casually. "You worked to look after a friend's mother. Raith, on the other hand... well, let's just say, once a thief, always a thief, right?"

Reno shrugged casual-like, keeping his thoughts muted. He would not let this get to him. Braden was using the I'm your friend routine, now. Well, Reno would not fall for it. "Thieves, murderers, guns for hire, extortionists. Something we have in common with you Turks, right? We're all bastards."

Was it Reno's imagination, or was that a flash of genuine regret across Braden's face? It was. He smirked inwardly. Interrogate me, huh? Forget it.

It was only a flash, though, as Braden's scarred face grew stony. "Don't play with us, Reno. It's not worth your trouble."

Reno snorted. "Was that the royal 'us', Braden?"

Braden shook his head. "Well, can't say I didn't try." He leaned forward slightly and looked Reno in the eye. "Trouble with thinking you know more than you do, Reno, is that you end up digging yourself a grave you didn't need to. Fact. We have it on very good authority that you are who we're after. Fact. We don't give a shit where Raith is. We're not even looking at him for this. He's done a runner, from what we hear."

No way. "You lie," Reno growled.

"I have no reason to lie to you. I'd rather have him in hand, actually. You obviously harbour some affection for the man, and I am not above using that to get some truth. But, gone he is, or soon will be." He reached into his jacket pocket and casually dropped something on the desk in front of Reno. "A copy, only, from an engraver who used to work for Corneo, and now works for us."

Reno frowned and looked at the card in front of him. It was an ident card, and the photo was Raith. The name, however, wasn't. "So?" he said.

"Our contact has a good side business making false ID's. Thing is, she makes one for the client, and a copy for us. They can run from whoever they want; say, Corneo; but not from Shin-Ra. So here we are. Got this one this morning. Just the one." He sighed in that false way some people get when they're faking sympathy. "Just the one. And used already, to book passage to Mideel. Raith's account hasn't been touched, and she's very expensive. Where do you suppose he got the money?"

Reno swallowed. He knew where Raith had gotten the money.

"So I thought, perhaps, that we'd been misinformed."

Reno frowned for a moment, confused, then realised that Braden was suggesting, again, that Raith had blackmailed the President and that was where his money was from.

And for the first time, he started to wonder if Braden was right. Reno knew he hadn't done it. And if Raith had, then why take Reno's money?

Because that's what thieves do? Reno blinked, surprised at his own thought. No. No way. And he wouldn't stitch Raith up for this. He couldn't. Because whatever had happened, he had to believe... "Raith. Corneo. Me. And your Turks. Ever considered it was an inside job?"

Braden didn't even try to vacillate. "Considered. Discounted. We do have inside info, Reno. And that says it was you. I am sorry, but if you can't tell me otherwise, then you will have to take the consequences."

"Whatever. I don't care." And Reno didn't. He was too busy being... confused. Confused, and lost. The world was askew, just as it had been when Rude left.

There was an explanation. There was. Reno just didn't know what it was, yet.

The door opened, then, and another Turk entered the room, dressed the same as the others, suit and tie, boots. This time, however, the Turk was a tiny brown-haired girl, phone in hand.

She was all brusque business as she glanced briefly at Reno and leaned forward to say something in Braden's ear before handing him the phone, but there was a moment--a very brief moment--of eye contact between them as she touched him, and Reno could see as clearly as a kiss that they were a couple.

Braden put the phone to his ear. "Yes. One moment." He covered the phone with one hand. "Watch him."

The girl nodded and watched Braden leave. Then she turned and looked at Reno, full in the face, and Reno was immediately struck by her huge brown eyes, and, more, how young she seemed; younger than him, at least.

He was also visited with a strong sense of familiarity. "Do I know you?"

The corner of her mouth turned up, which, again, tickled the corners of Reno's mind. "No. We haven't met." Her voice lacked any warmth.

"Are you sure?"

"I'd remember."

Reno turned on his smile, full-on. "I'm sure you would."

The girl's expression changed only slightly--and clearly put Reno in the "moron" basket.

Right. So flirting was out.

So he waited, and felt the silence in the room like a scythe.

He didn't have to wait long, though, for Braden was back within a few minutes. "Dallas," he said to the girl, "please move Reno to the other block for me. Change of plans. We do want his partner, after all."

The girl looked puzzled, but didn't question him. Reno smiled briefly as he recognised the look on her face as one of "but you will tell me later", and Braden nodded almost imperceptively. Braden was, obviously, her superior in public, but Reno had no doubt that in private she was the one who was really in charge.

Dallas nodded to the nameless guard in the room, and Reno was dragged to his feet and manhandled to an elevator, then out again to another room, where he was dumped in another uncomfortable chair. This time, however, he wasn't cuffed to the desk.

Reno looked around the room. It was less spartan than the other one, looking more like an interview room than one designed for interrogation. It was hard to describe why he thought that, subtle differences to the room, he supposed. The lighting was more natural... less harsh. There was a window.

Some nameless, faceless employees brought Reno coffee, which he didn't drink, and food, which he didn't eat, and let him use the facilities, under guard.

And when Braden re-entered the room an hour later, he looked more relaxed. That was something most people wouldn't've noticed, Reno knew, but there was just something about him: a cast of his eyes, the way he held his shoulders. Reno guessed that he was a man to whom killing also didn't come naturally.

He'd always liked Braden, even if he didn't know the man very well. Reserved, but generally easy-going.

It was all very suspicious, though, and Reno knew he would be nuts to be fooled. Once Shin-Ra had a hold of you, there was no getting out. "Where's Raith?" he said.

Braden parked himself on the edge of the desk in a manner that was strangely reminiscent of how Stevens used to do so, so many years before. "Well, we don't rightly know, at the moment, Reno," he said in his quiet timbre. "We lost him, and Corneo hasn't seen him, he says. And," he added, "Corneo knows better than to mislead us. He has no reason to protect either of you."

Reno frowned and stared at the floor.

"Raith has done a runner, we think. But we want to find him, and we will. He is, after all, the main reason you are here."

The main reason? Wait, had Raith been their "inside information"? What? That couldn't be right. It couldn't. "What the hells do you mean by tha--" Reno stopped as the door behind Braden opened and yet another Turk walked in.

Reno had heard the concept of time moving in slow motion when a significant event happened, but he'd always thought the idea was a crock. But... time moved in slow motion, as he realised who he was looking at.

Man. Rude'd always been big for his age, but he'd buffed up some. Dressed in the same suit and tie as Braden and the other Turks wore, his was pristine perfection at its best.

So one thing, at least, hadn't changed. He was still pedantically neat. Actually, he was probably worse.

The rest of him, though. He'd gained some earrings; a couple in one ear and a full row in the other. And he was, Reno noted again, stopping his absent fingering of his own earring, huge. Shoulders had broadened; the suit was, in fact, a bit tight across them. He was beefy, and he carried himself with a definitive military bearing.

And he was wearing shades, dark sunglasses. Inside. His face, around them, was impassive stone, and Reno was more than annoyed that he couldn't see his former friend's eyes.

Come to think of it, Reno thought, I am just plain more than annoyed.

How the hell--? What the--? When had Rude become a Turk? How long had he been in Midgar? What the fuck had he gone and done?

Well, obviously, he could now look after his mother, after all. It was just as well, given that Reno would likely not live to see the week out, especially if any one in the Shin-Ra corporation believed that he was blackmailing the President.

Reno's stomach began to churn again. Why would Raith stitch him up like this? Why? Why? After everything they'd--Reno looked up and saw Rude looking at him steadily through the sunglasses. Fuck. You don't know me any more, dickhead. Don't try to read me.

He swallowed his emotions and shoved a wall in front of his eyes, á la Raith at his most incommunicative. Rude didn't react, but then, it wasn't like Reno could see his eyes properly.

"Fortunately, though, you have friends here," Braden continued, "so it looks like this is your lucky day. I believe that Corneo intended to have you wiped out, but now we have you, instead."

Reno couldn't tear his gaze from Rude's sunglasses.

"Reno?" Braden prompted.

"What?" Reno snapped, looking at Braden.

Rude cleared his throat in a manner that was way too pointed for Reno's liking, given the circumstances. Given any fucking circumstances, really.

His eyes jerked back to Rude's face, seemingly of their own accord. Rude's jaw was clenched and his throat working, as he swallowed. Oh, so he still had an emotion in there, somewhere, did he? How nice for him.

"Reno." Braden's soft, calm tones cut through Reno's rancour better than any yelling could. "You don't have a lot of options, here."

Reno ran a hand through his hair. "So what's new?"

"I don't need to explain them for you, surely?"

"No." Of course Braden didn't. Corneo already wanted him dead. So, it appeared, did Shin-Ra, for something he hadn't even done. Something that it looked like Raith had done...

Something it looked like Raith had done. And set him up for. Or even if not that, had left Reno holding the bag for. And, besides all of that, he'd stolen that cash... And after all his talk about how he'd always choose Reno, he'd run?

How could he do that?

The timing of the theft, if Kyrie had been honest--and Reno saw no reason not to believe her--hit home to Reno, then. That was what Raith had been hiding the night before. The phone call, the extra time away... the evasive behaviour. He'd taken the money been before they'd--Reno swallowed, trying not to acknowledge the weight on his chest. Especially not while Rude was watching him.

Instead, he stared at the table and deliberately settled cold anger over his shoulders. It wasn't difficult. He was there already; was angry. He was angry with Raith, and he was angry with his former best friend. And it felt so much better than any other emotion that threatened to invade. Like a soothing balm on a raw burn, that anger.

Cos most of all, he was angry with himself. He had known, before he'd allowed himself to be drawn in, what Raith was. He had known. He'd ignored it, and for what? Good sex? To somehow replace Rude, who had also made it very clear he didn't think Reno was worth it, anyway?

Reno pressed his lips together and suppressed his fury best he could, almost gruntng with the effort. He sure could pick 'em.

He should've just stuck with random one-nighters.

A small voice, deep down, screamed at him. No. You're wrong. Something's not right here. Raith would not do that, but he ignored it. That was just that blinding, stupefying thing called love. For all the good it did him. What was it Seisin had said? Consider his judgement may be impaired?

Considered. Noted as a high probability.

"Make your point, Braden," he finally said, "then kill me, or whatever it is you've been ordered to do with me."

"Kill you?" Braden's face broke into a smile. "We're not going to kill you, Reno. More than that, we want to make sure Don Corneo can't touch you, either. You're too valuable an asset for that."

Asset? That was a term the military used for its soldiers. Reno frowned. "I don't understand."

Braden pushed his glasses back up his nose and scratched his chin. "We want to offer you a job."

"What?" Reno's voice hadn't cracked like that since he was thirteen years old, but he didn't care.

"We'd like you to become a Turk. One of us. What do you say?"

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