Chapter Sixteen

Funny, the little details you remembered, many years later, long after they ceased to have any real importance.

Especially in times like now, when you only had the benefit of hindsight and no real way of separating true memory from stuff you'd made up in your own mind to make yourself feel better.

It really
was funny, the details you remembered. Rude bought Reno a new shirt, that first week they'd met again.

But Shin-Ra never did return Reno's gun.


Sometimes, while training, Reno would forget how much he yearned for Raith. He wouldn't forget Raith, so much; he was always on the edge of Reno's mind, but while he was sparring with Braden, or Dallas, or Rude, or trying to work out the ins and outs of a piece of machinery, or practising his shooting, the craving for Raith would dull, somewhat.

Maybe not so much when he was practising his shooting.

For reasons unknown to Reno, but that he suspected Rude knew, Tseng made the decision to move Rude out of his one-person apartment and put the two of them into a two-bedroom across the hall from Rude's old one.

He discovered this only when he came back to the Shin-Ra building after his dinner, and Security informed him.

Terrific, he thought. He really didn't want to deal with a room mate right then. Especially not Rude. He had enough on his plate as it was. He needed to try and sort out what had happened to Raith, somehow, and he didn't want Rude watching over his shoulder as he did that.

Rude, it seemed, was not happy with the arrangement, either. He was sitting on the couch in the living area when Reno arrived, watching something on the TV, and said nothing as Reno walked through the door.

He was out of uniform, but was still wearing his fucking shades. And he radiated tension, not at all like he'd been in the gym earlier.

Reno dropped his bag on the floor and dropped into the sofa a seat down from Rude. "'Sup?" he said, more to slice the air than anything else.

"Not much," Rude said.

"Did you call your Ma yet?"

Rude didn't answer.


"Went to see her. Get off my case."

Reno's mouth twitched sardonically. Truth hurts, does it? he thought, but he didn't say that. He wasn't that shitty. "Good," he said, instead.

Rude turned his head away.

Reno happened to be looking at him at that exact moment, so he caught a look at Rude's eyes through the side of the shades, where they didn't cover. He could've been wrong, but... they were swollen, reddened, like he'd been... crying? What? He relented then, dropping a hand on Rude's shoulder.

Rude flinched.

Fine, then. Reno stood, removing his hand. "I'm fagged," he said. "Which room do you want?"

Rude shrugged. "Don't mind," he said absently. "They would've dumped my crap in one room. Move it if you want to."

"Nah. I'll just take the other," Reno said, picking up his bag and heading towards the short hallway. "'Night."

Rude didn't answer.

This apartment was almost a carbon copy of the other one Rude had, except the living space was a bit larger and there was a bedroom on either side of the hallway rather than just the one. The bathroom was at the end of the hall instead of on the other side.

After the couch the night before, the bed looked inviting, so without bothering with stupid stuff like cleaning his teeth, Reno stripped and fell into it. It wasn't long before he was asleep.


Basic, it seemed, was going to take him about a month, and it was hard physical training sandwiched between study sandwiched in between firearms practice. For the most part, Dallas took care of his training, which suited Reno. She was a serious girl, when it came to training, but had a sense of humour not unlike Reno's own.

And it meant he didn't have to concern himself as much with Rude's frankly, very bizarre behaviour towards him. It was almost like... things would be almost the same as they used to be between them, before that night, and then suddenly Rude would look at him funny and walk away, or just zone out for a moment.

Not often, but sometimes.

It was weird.

The first week of training, Reno would make his way to Raith's apartment, every night, and fall asleep there. Some nights, it was like he could hear Raith there, or hear him... calling... but he put that down to wishful thinking.

Or his own insanity. He'd had similar feelings when Rude left. Rude needing him, and such rot. Rude hadn't needed him, though. Reno knew he'd been deluded then, and he was probably just as deluded now.

He'd grown up a bit since he was sixteen.

The second week of training, he had his first theory test, on the Shin-Ra computer system. He aced it, of course. So, on his second week, he stayed at the console in his own room, and spent some time looking through the Shin-Ra computer syetem, looking for Raith's file. He found it, of course. But his clearance wasn't high enough to read it.

Then he did a search for his sister Vickie's file. His clearance wasn't high enough for that, either.

Lastly, he tried his own file. Surely, that would have something in it about one, or both of them. "You have to be kidding me," he finally muttered. "I don't have enough clearance to read my own fucking file?"

"You're not really supposed to," Rude said from the doorway.

"Don't you knock?"

Rude leaned against the doorjam. "Open," he said in a tone that clearly said, "moron."

Reno let it pass. Rude had a point. "If I don't have clearance for anything in here, why do they bother?"

"You will," Rude said. "Give it time." He paused, looking at his feet, which were bare. Which Reno only noticed because he'd noticed Rude never walked around their apartment with bare anything, and Reno was fairly sure that was deliberate on Rude's part.

"But for your sisters," Rude continued, "not for a while, if at all. I've already tried." He raised his head, then, looking Reno straight in the eye.

"You have?" Reno said softly, more out of surprise than anything else.

Rude coughed and broke eye contact, glancing around Reno's room. "Your picture's missing," he said.

"Yeah, I left it at--home."

"Seeing Ma tomorrow if you want me to pick it up."

"No, that's okay. I'll go now. I guess this is home now, huh." Reno stood quickly, turning off his vid. The last thing he wanted to do was try to explain that he saw Raith's apartment as home, still.

He bumped into Dallas on the way down to the elevator. Literally. "Sorry," he said, reaching out to grab her arm before she fell.

She grunted at him, her face like a thundercloud about to explode.

"I didn't mean it."

"Not everything's about you, Reno."

"Ah. What has Braden done now?"

"You're going somewhere."

"So, walk with."

"Where are you going?"

"Somewhere I need to be."

"That was specific."

"I know. Now, c'mon," he said, holding the lift door open for her.

She shrugged and joined him. She didn't say anything until they had left the building and were halfway down the street. "He's such a pain in the arse," she declared, then. "I'm going to have to try that suggestion you made about serving something to him naked, cos the Five Gods know nothing I'm doing now is working."


"Ah. Ah," she mimicked. "Men!"

"Hey, don't lump me in with Braden."

"Yeah, well, you won't do anything either."

"We talked about that."

She sighed. "I'm sorry, Reno. I really am. I'm just..."

"Itchy. I know."

"'I respect you too much'," she mimicked. "Bloody hell, if he respects me so damned much why won't he let me make my own decision?"

"Get no argument from me." Reno paused. "But he has to be allowed to make his own decision, there, too. Goes both ways, you know."

"But he wants to. I know he does."


"Well..." her eyes beelined to Reno's groin, then up again with a cheeky grin. "And like, tonight. Everything's fine, then we get to a certain point and he just backpedals, apologises, runs away and leaves me feeling..."


She grunted. "Yeah, I guess so. And worse."



Reno slung an arm over her shoulders affectionately. "Well, you're not that, kiddo. 'Kay?"

"Back at ya," she said. They walked for another few minutes without speaking. Then she said, "where are we going?"

"His apartment," Reno said, knowing he wouldn't need to tell Dallas who "he" was.

"This can't be good for you, Reno."

"Actually, in this case, I have to pick up a couple of things."

"You're hoping he'll turn up, aren't you."

Reno didn't answer. He didn't have to; she already knew.

"I can get that ID card, you know. So you can check it out."


"It's in Braden's desk."

Reno shook his head. "No. You can't take advantage of him that way."

She shrugged. "So I'll ask him for it."

"For what reason?"

"I'll make R--him--my case."

"Why would you do that?"

"I like you, Reno. Besides, I'm curious. And nosey."

"No arguments there."

She wriggled out from under his arm and started to head back the way they came.

"What are you doing?"

"Going to ask him now," she called back with a wave.

Reno shook his head. The girl was incorrigable. He had no idea where she found all that energy.

He fell asleep in Raith's apartment again that night, but at least he got his picture.

Week three of his training, Reno and Rude raced up the ropes in the gym. Reno won. Then, at the end of the week, he had his marksmanship test. He managed to do okay in that, too.

At the beginning of week four, Dallas found him in the library, going over a few points again for his Shin-Ra Company history test. This one, he was not sure of, cos frankly, he didn't give a shit. It was as boring as a dead chocobo.

What she had in her hand, however, was interesting. "He said yes," she said in a low voice as she sat next to Reno. "One thing I will say about not getting laid, I can guilt him into anything."

Reno threw her a mock stern look.

"Stop that," she said with a grin. "Okay, here's the sitch. I looked into the fake ID, and it's real. I mean, the contact Braden talked about did make it."

"Hang on, what? You've already looked into stuff?"

"Of course I did. You're too busy right now. Thought I'd save you the trouble. Now, are you going to let me finish or not?"

"Go ahead."

"Thankyou. Right. Okay. Now, while he only got the one ident card made, he booked two tickets to Mideel."


"Two. Keep up. But, as far as I can tell, those tickets were never used. And there were two more tickets, under the same name, booked to Gold Saucer. And three to Wutai."

"Wait, three?"

"Three. And, Reno, none of these bookings were used, or cancelled."

Reno frowned. That didn't make any sense. "It was almost like he was laying a false trail."

"Think so? Why two bookings to two destinations, and three to another then? Why not use any of them at all? And why only the one ID card?"

"And if he was laying a false trail, where is the real one?"


Reno shook his head. "And if he did go somewhere, why did he leave everything behind?"

Dallas' face was sympathetic. "Reno, it's possible he never left Midgar."

"Or he took a train out and booked from elsewhere. Or bought a bike and drove. Or the real ticket is in another name."

She nodded. "There is that, too."

Something niggled at Reno, though. Vacation. "Felice," he said suddenly.

"I'm sorry?"

"The third ticket was for Felice. Rude's Ma. He intended us to go to Wutai."

"But, he didn't. You didn't."

"No. Braden picked me up instead and..." he scrambled out of his chair. "We have to go to Corneo's. Now."

"No, Reno. You have a test in less than an hour. We don't have time."

"You don't understand. Corneo was after us. The only reason I'm safe at all is because of this." He plucked at the Turk uniform jacket.

"Reno, where is your tie?"

"Fuck my tie," he said. "If Corneo has Raith, he is a dead man."

"You won't be able to help Raith if you don't pass," she said. "Let me go."

"Not a chance," Reno said flatly.

"I'll take Rude, then."

Reno looked at his watch. "We have time. Come on."

The took the elevator down to the basement, where the Turk bikes were kept. "Keys," Reno grunted.



"Okay, then, hold your pants up," she said, unlocking the key cabinet and picking out a set. "Maybe I should drive."

Reno held out his hand.

"Oh fine then."

To her credit, she didn't yell at him once on the way, not even when he almost hit a pedestrian. He parked the bike at the front steps of the Mansion and strode inside, heading straight for the Throne Room, ignoring Stork's "hey, Reno," as he passed. Behind him he heard Stork's rude comment to Dallas, and almost smiled at her tart response. She could handle herself.

Corneo was in his Mr Deluded Palace, sitting on his throne like a slug at a picnic. "Reno," he said, congenially. "Well, I must say, you've done well for yourself."

"Where is he?" Reno demanded.



Corneo looked genuinely surprised. "I would think you would know more about his whereabouts than I would, Reno. He stopped working for me the same day you did."

"I don't believe you."

"Believe me or not, no matter." His eyes narrowed. "Why don't you ask your current employer?" He ran his eyes over Dallas, then. "Well, chicky. I haven't seen you before. Why is that, then?"

"I don't play with dung beetles," Dallas retorted.

"You can search the Mansion, Reno. I have nothing to hide. Besides, I was ordered by Tseng not to kill either of you."

Reno glanced at Dallas, and she nodded.

Well, the one thing Reno did know for sure was that Corneo would not openly go up against Shin-Ra. He turned to leave.

"He did mention one thing," Corneo said as Reno was walking away. "Something about Mideel. He said he needed to get away. He hated Midgar and everything in it. I think that was what he said. No, wait. Everything and everyone. That was it."

Reno didn't bother to look back. If he did, he knew he'd have to kill that fat bastard.

Scotch tried to get Reno's attention as he was leaving, but Reno ignored him, straddling the bike and waiting only long enough for Dallas to get on as well before he took off.

"Don't pay any attention, Reno," Dallas said as they pulled up to the Shin-Ra building.

Reno shrugged, letting the anger settle in his gut comfortably, but who he was angry at, he didn't know. Corneo? Raith? Himself? Did he believe Corneo? He didn't know. So, why was he angry? "I have a test to take," he said, handing Dallas the keys. "No more of this for a while, okay?"

She nodded.

He passed the test, but only barely.

The day before his final physical exam, last day of the fourth week, Braden called Dallas and Reno into his office. Reno apparently needed some more bloodwork that night, and there was some paperwork to do that he wouldn't have time to finish. "I'll need you to get that done, Dallas, if you could," Braden said.

"Sure, sir. No problem. Whatever you say." She bobbed a curtsey and left the room.

Reno hid a smile, partly at the sight of Dallas curtseying in a suit, and partly at Braden's confused expression.

He turned to Reno. "What did I say?"

Reno grinned, then started to speak, then remembered the whole military authority thing. It may have been late, but they were still on the clock and in uniform. "Can I speak freely, um, sir?"

"Go ahead."

"No, I mean, really freely."

"Freely is freely, Reno."

Reno shrugged. "Well, what I'd like to say, sir, is: what are you, twelve?"

Braden looked even more confused. "I beg your pardon?"

"Or have you taken a vow of celibacy or something? Or is there some other reason you can't just give the girl what she wants?"

Braden looked at Reno steadily, and his features darkened. "That's none of your business."

Okay, so that approach wasn't going to work. Reno sighed inwardly. Try appealing to the man's sense of chivalry. He seemed to have a lot of that. "Yeah, probably not. But, trust me, it will be soon. Mine, and everyone else's."

"I don't follow you."

"Clearly. Seriously, I know what girls are like when they're frustrated."

"How's that?"

"Snippy, grumpy and a general pain in the arse. And worse. Curious."

"How's that worse?"

"Okay, I know you love her. And she's in the same rocket. But, she's pretty full-on."

Braden nodded.

Reno figured he could afford to exaggerate a bit, here. "Think about it. Dallas. In a frighteningly bad mood. About ready to blow off the top of her head-type bad mood. All that energy's got to go somewhere. And she is really, really good at hand-to-hand. And tomorrow, who's she gonna want to fight as a warm-up before my exam?"

Braden looked genuinely discomfited at that.

"And if that's not enough," Reno continued, "don't think a set of broken ribs and you in the hospital will appease her. She's eventually going to look to get that lid blown off. Somewhere else."

Braden's eyes flashed. "She wouldn't."

Reno shrugged. He wasn't going to take this any further. He got the distinct impression he really didn't want to see Braden truly angry. "Probably not." Not now, anyway. "It could be that she loves you so much she's prepared to live like a Wutai nun for the rest of her life. Or until you grow up. But do you really want to test that theory?"

"Until I what?" Braden's voice was very low. Then his eyes narrowed. "You've spoken to her about me, I take it. Did she ask you to talk to me on her behalf?"

Reno figured he may as well risk a smack in the teeth. He'd gone this far. And a small part of him felt really invested in seeing Dallas happy. "You're smarter'n that. Give the girl some credit. Fuck, man, you're in Midgar, right? You're both adults, and you ain't doing the girl any whoosiewhatsit Gongagan 'honour' by confusing the shit out of her."

Braden pressed his lips together for a moment. "Permission to speak freely revoked, Reno. Leave me. Now."

"Shall I curtsey too, sir, or would you rather I just got on my knees and unzipped you?"

"Reno," Braden growled. "Get out. And pick up another tie on your way home. You seem to have lost yours again."

Reno grinned, knuckled his forehead cheekily and left. Discretion was the better part of not getting your head kicked in, after all. Not that Braden scared Reno.

But Tseng did.

And Rufus Shinra did, to a certain extent, too. That one was a few pancakes short of a full breakfast, no doubt. Congenial enough, as far as Reno could tell, but there was a certain something it was difficult to put his finger on. Like, given too much power, he'd be a menace.

And one day, Rufus would be in charge of Shin-Ra. It was a worry.

Or it would've been, if Reno gave three hoots.

So he got his blood tests done, picked up a tie, went to the apartment, dumped the tie in the back of his closet with the rest of the ones he'd been given as replacements or ordered to get, and slept.

The morning of his exam dawned bright and clear. Kinda like the sort of day you'd see for a funeral, just cos the Universe liked to be snide, sometimes.

He made his way to the gym, to see Dallas, Rude and Braden all lined up in the gym uniform, looking at him. Veld and Tseng were off to one side, in their suits.

Dallas motioned him over. "Don't worry, you'll be fine," she said under her breath. "Okay, Reno," she said in her normal voice, "test time. First, hand-to-hand. You get to fight me, then Rude, then Braden, then all of us together." She nodded at Veld and Tseng. "They'll decide, then, whether you get to move on to the next test. 'Kay?"

"Got it. Cake," he grinned.

"Whatever. We're not gonna go easy on you, you know that, right?"

"Sure." He looked at her then. She seemed very... something. "Okay, spill. Why are you so bloody cheerful? Surely the thought of beating my head in isn't that attractive a prospect?"

"Oh, always. But no, not today." She threw him a cheeky grin. "You were right," she said, her voice lowered somewhat.

"Of course I was. I'm always right." He paused. "Um, about what?"

"Braden. Totally worth it. Oh. My. Gods."

"Thought you were walking funny today."

"I am not--oh, you're hilarious," she said as he grinned. "Ready to go down, boyo?"

He wandered over to the mat. "Cake," he repeated. They bowed, and it was on.

Contrary to his statement of confidence, none of the bouts were easy at all, and none of his opponents, true to Dallas' word, held back. Not even Rude. Reno took a few hits, gave a few hits, did what he could to avoid being hit by Rude, in particular, cos his punches weren't any lighter at all, no sirree.

The test against all three of them, though, was actually easier than the others. Something in him, pressed like that, just... took over, and he worked more on instinct than he had previously.

He was blowing hard when they were done, but he was still standing.

It helped that all three Turks were actually encouraging him between bouts, almost like they would be happy if he did well, even though they pulled nothing to ensure it. That was kinda... nice.

He watched Veld and Tseng as he downed some water, and Tseng nodded to Dallas. She nodded back.

"Okay," she said, "Phase two."

"Right," Reno said.

"We're going to take you to the bottom of the Shin-Ra building. You will need to get to the top, to the 'copter on the helipad, in this time." She held out a stopwatch, with the time set, and Reno felt himself blanch. That was impossible. "You're not allowed to use the lift."

"Seventy Floors?"

"Yep. Any way you can, without using the lift. You have until we reach the ground floor to decide how. Take anything you think you'll need. They'll meet you at the top."

Reno frowned for a moment. "Okay."

He watched the others as they took the lift up, except Dallas, who would go with him. Running up the stairs was clearly impossible. So was trying to climb the building. He wasn't allowed to use the lift. Riding a bike up... would take too long. Even the best bike would not make it around the stairwells. He couldn't take the lift... any way he could... think outside the box, maybe. He smiled then, and picked up his phone, then made his way down with Dallas.

"Ready?" she said.


"Go," she said, clicking the stopwatch.

He flipped open his phone and dialled Rude. "Hey, buddy. Can you warm up the chopper and come get me right away? Carpark on the next block, yeah. Thanks."

He wandered over to the carpark, to the sound of Dallas cracking up laughing behind him, and Rude took him to the helipad. He made the time.

"So," Dallas said once she'd arrived, "Phase three."


She grinned. "There is no phase three. Come on, back to the gym."

He nervously entered the lift with the rest of them.

Reno bit a fingernail as he watched Veld discuss his future with Tseng, in low tones. It was only then it occurred to him to wonder what they did with rookies who failed. Shallow grave?

His discomfort was not eased when Veld gave Tseng a curt nod, then left the gym without even looking at Reno.

Tseng wandered over to where Reno, Dallas, Braden and Rude were standing.

"Happy to say we've decided to keep you, Reno," Tseng said quietly, then he smiled in a way which could be counted as a grin, for him, and extended his hand. "Congratulations."

Reno shook the proffered hand. "Guess that's a Good Thing," he said.

"Means you don't have to call Rude or I 'sir' any more," Dallas said with a grin.

"Oh, but I liked that," Reno said dryly, glancing at Rude.

Rude said nothing. His eyes were amused, though.

"Congratulations, Reno," Braden said.

"Thankyou, Braden," Reno said as seriously as he could. "I do have one more question, though."

"What is that?" Braden said.

"When do I get to learn to fly that chopper?"


Reno got to learn how to fly a chopper immediately, as it turned out, in between those horribly boring patrols Dallas had warned him about, and it was Rude who taught him.

He wasn't assigned to guard the President, at least, not at first. He supposed the blackmail thing still hung over his head, a bit. Sometimes, he'd go out on patrol with Rude, sometimes with Dallas, sometimes with Braden. Once or twice, even with Tseng.

Reno didn't spend any more time looking for Raith, for a long time. It was like what Corneo had said somehow seeped into him and become a part of his belief system. Of course Raith left him.

Everyone did, sooner or later.

The other thing he did, usually with Rude or Dallas, was to recruit for SOLDIER, Shin-Ra's elite wing. For the most part, it was travelling, finding people who wanted to join, and taking them back to Midgar. Reno kept his head down, and did as he was told, and for the most part didn't pay too much attention to what he was doing. He got out of Midgar a lot. You couldn't argue with that.

Midgar, 7 years until Meteorfall

"Well, I'm bored already. You?" Reno said to Dallas.

"Data entry sucks, sure."

"Why can't one of the office--oh, I know, don't look at me like that. Our report. Blah blah. Shoot me now."

"If you don't stop bellyaching, I will," Dallas said irritably.

"Sorry," Reno said, and he meant it.

"Well, what if we--" Dallas stopped as Reno's phone rang.

Reno glanced at the readout. He didn't know the number. "Hold that thought," he said as he opened his phone.

"Reno. Jink Masden."

"Hey, Jink. 'Sup?" Reno frowned. Jink was the manager of the body corporate of Raith's apartment building. Why would he be calling Reno?

"Raith's missed his BC fee deadline this year. Thought you'd know why."

"I don't know, no." Heh? Raith was never late with his bills. Like, ever, under any circumstance. "How late is he?"

"Final notice goes out tomorrow. He's always been on the money, and I haven't been able to raise him, so figured I'd call you before sending it out, as a courtesy."

"Yeah, thanks. I appreciate that."

"Haven't seen you around much lately. Or him, for that matter."

"Been busy. New job."

"I heard."

"How much does he owe, Jink?"

"Can't really tell you that, given your name's not on the BC contract."

Reno grunted. "I'm aware. Listen, not sure why he's overdue, but let me know how much needs payin' and I'll transfer the funds."

There was a moment's silence on the other end.

"You know what I do now, right?" Reno kept his voice light, but he figured he may as well throw Shin-Ra's authority around a bit. That was what it was there for, after all.

There was another moment's silence before Jink spoke. "Fine, then. He was paying quarterly up until late in the year, but it didn't go overdue until the year turned over again, and he now owes us six months, just on three months overdue. I'll need it upfront by close of business to stop the notice going out."

Raith had been missing for nine months, now? Time flew. Reno did some calculations. That was a fair amount, but it was no problem. "I'll be over at two--" he looked at his watch-- "no, better make that four." He paused. "No word from him at all on this?"

"None. Thanks Reno. Appreciate it. Tell Raith to get his act together when you see him, would you? He's been a good owner until now."

"Sure thing." Reno snapped the phone shut.

"What's wrong?" Dallas said.

Reno told her the gist of the conversation. "I dunno. If he was in Mideel, no matter what the reason, he'd still pay his damned bills."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. He was petty that way. On time, every time, not even a minute overdue. One of our few real fights was over the fact I'd forgotten to pay something on time--for my own apartment. Something's wrong."

Dallas looked concerned. "You're not going to want to hear this."


"Maybe he just decided to cut all his ties."

Reno swallowed. Yes, he had believed that since they'd visited Corneo's, but now... "Dallas, the power in that apartment is still on. He was paying that by direct deduction from his bank account. If he was cutting ties, why wouldn't he cancel that? Maybe just sell the bloody thing? Or rent it out? Cancelled my keycard?"

"How do you know that?" Dallas frowned. "You're still spending time there, aren't you."

Reno didn't answer. She had made a statement, not asked a question.

"Oh, Reno." She sighed. "Maybe it's time we had a look at his account."

"Can we do that?"

She turned back to the console and typed in some instructions after entering her user code. "Sure we can."

"Aren't there some sort of privacy statutes?"

She snorted. "Of course there are. For everyone else. They don't apply to us. If we have clearance, we can do it." She raised an eyebrow. "For the record, we have clearance. Not for each other's details, but for the general public's."

"Nice of someone to tell me this."

"Reno, you passed your exams with high marks. You should know this."

"Doesn't mean I paid attention." He shrugged.

"Oh, for gods' sakes. Start paying attention, doofus."

"All of the questions in the exam were on the privacy statutes," he muttered. "Besides, I can't see Shin-Ra being too happy about me looking up personal stuff on company time."


"Bite me," he retorted, grinning.

"Don't tempt me," she said mildly.

She sat in front of the console. "This might take a sec--oh, there we go," she said as a splashscreen for the Midgar Central Bank appeared.

Reno pulled over a chair and sat next to her. "You're good."

"I know. So, do you know his account number?"

Reno shook his head.

"I thought you were close."

"Do you know Braden's?"

"Of course not." She blushed. "Oh, I see. Well, no mind. I can do a search using name, employer, address and date of birth instead." She typed in Raith's name and employer. "Address and birthdate?"

"January 19th," Reno said, before giving her the year and the address.

"Huh. Three days before yours," Dallas said.

And the same day as Rude's, but a year apart, Reno thought suddenly. Why hadn't he made that connection before? Partly, he supposed, because Raith never wanted a big deal made out of his birthday, or any sort of deal at all, really, like, it didn't matter. Reno frowned. Something else he should've done better. Let Raith know Reno was glad he'd been born.

"Damn. Password?"


"Raith must've used--must use--phone banking. It's demanding a password."

"Well, I don't know."

"Hm. I can run a cypher, but it could take a few hours..." she looked at Reno speculatively. "What was the most important thing in his life? Like, what would he find easy to remember."

Reno shrugged. "Oh, I dunno. His guns, I guess. Try... Fearl."

She typed that in. "Nope."

"Fearl 39."


"We could be here all day anyway. Run the cypher."

She narrowed her eyes, typing in another string of letters. Reno. "How close were you two, really?" she said as "incorrect password" flashed on the screen.

"Was that a dig?"

"No." She entered Reno's birthdate. That was wrong, too.

"We went to school together."

"You went to school together. You worked together. Lived together. You all but told me you're in love with the man. You can't stay away from his place. His Apartment Manager calls you when he can't get ahold of him. And you seriously think his guns are the most important things in his life?"

Reno blinked. "What?"

"Gods. Men! Well," she said slowly, "if you were to ask me what the most important thing in my life was, do you seriously think I'm going to be answering my shuriken?"

Oh. "I see your point."


"Stop that." He closed his eyes momentarily. "If you laugh at this one, I'll hurt you."

"Again, tempting, but no problem."

"Try 'ponyboy'." He winced.

"I won't ask," she said as she entered that. The screen changed to a page full of figures. "Although, I really, really, really want to now."

"I'll never tell."

They both studied the figures for a moment. "Go up a page for me, would you?" Reno said. "Something isn't right."

"What do you mean?"

Reno read the lines for a bit longer. "There, see?"


"The power bill comes out every month, as I thought, but there's nothing going in, at all."

"Well, yeah, that makes sense. He's obviously not working for Corneo any more."

"Yeah. But... look, can you bring my account details up on the same page?"

"Yeah, sure."

"No password. I do my banking in person. Don't like direct debits."

"Pity. You could do that transfer from here if you had one. As it is, we can only read the details."

"Is all I need," Reno said absently. Sure enough, his suspicions were confirmed. "See, there." He prodded the screen with a finger. "That's when I started with Shin-Ra. See how Corneo's payments stopped?"


"Right, now have a look at Raith's. Corneo's payments also stopped, but look at the dates."

"Raith was still being paid for--what. Three months afterwards?"

"Three months after he supposedly left Corneo and pissed off to Mideel, yeah. And two months after Corneo told us Raith was no longer in his employ."

"That makes no sense."

"You're telling me." Reno looked through Raith's account again. "Apart from the power bills, nothing else is coming out. The account hasn't been touched." A cold feeling settled in the pit of Reno's stomach. He had miscalculated. Badly. "Screw this, Dallas. I want to go to Mideel. I need to find out what's going on. You had his file, Dal. Shin-Ra wanted him at some point. Why no follow-up?"

"I don't know," she said, frowning. "Braden never told me. There was stuff in that file I wasn't privy to."

"Well, time to follow up." He closed the screens. "Can we get into his file?"

"Well, I can try, but we don't have the clearance for anything we don't already know, and--"

"You'll get into trouble. Fine. Log out and we'll do it with my logon."


"Even if it's the worst case scenario, I have to know."

"You think he's dead?"

That hadn't occurred to him. Not seriously. "Perhaps."

Dallas looked at him for a long time, her eyes serious. "You're not going into screens you shouldn't be. But, okay. I'll come up with something, and see if I can't convince Braden to make the arrangements. At least we can see if he actually went there under the card he arranged, like Corneo said."

Reno nodded. What he hadn't said, though, was that Raith being dead wasn't what he meant by "worst case scenario." The worst Reno could think of was that Raith had, in fact, taken off, left Reno behind to pick up Corneo's pieces with Shin-Ra, or die. And had done so without a word.


Reno was gone, and he'd refused to tell Rude where to, or why he was going. Rude hadn't pressed him. Possibly, Reno wasn't supposed to say anything.

But then, when Dallas, not known for having a "big mouth", had met Reno at their apartment, she'd mentioned to Rude that they were off to Mideel, and would be about a week. Rude had been facing Reno at that time, so he saw the "shut up" look Reno'd shot at her.

Rude let it pass. Reno wanted to keep his secrets, let him.

Rude didn't like to admit it, even to himself, but he was torn between missing his friend and being relieved that Reno was away for a while. Reno was kinda mentally exhausting to have around. Funny thing was, Rude hadn't known that until he'd gone.

He wasn't sure why. It wasn't like he was required to keep an "eye" on Reno any more, like he'd had to when his friend was a rookie. He no longer had to spend each day feeling like he was some sort of potential backstabber.

He was glad Reno had never, even unknowingly, put him in the position where he would've needed to make that choice. He still had no idea what he would've chosen to do if Reno had shown himself disloyal to the company.

Rude was uncomfortably aware that he probably would've left it unreported.

That could not be good. You did not put loyalty to one individual, even another Turk, above your loyalty to Shin-Ra. You just... didn't.

Shin-Ra, or, at least, the President and DAR first, individual Turks next, self third, everyone else last. It was how it was. How it had to be.

The other thing he'd been glad of was that Reno had managed to survive for longer than the guy that had gone through training with Rude, killed on his first time out with Braden after passing Basic. He'd liked Hamill. He'd had a familiarity about him that Rude'd been unable to put a finger on, until Hamill had told him where he'd grown up.

Midgar was a small town, after all, really, no matter how large it'd grown.

Hamill had always been a bit strange; maybe, over-eager for action, but being killed so soon out on such a light patrol hadn't made much sense to Rude. But, he didn't know the details, and Braden wasn't sharing, so... whatever.

Reno had been ear-marked as Hamill's replacement, at Braden's suggestion, although Veld had insisted on some sort of blind test for him, "given the nature of his current job," he'd said. Rude had presumed, when he and Tseng had set up the test, that Veld just wanted a report on Reno's fighting ability, but it seemed that it was how Reno reacted when he was attacked by a clearly inferior opponent that was the crux of the matter.

Rude had been singularly unprepared for his own reaction the first time he saw Reno again, looking deep in thought, leaning casually against a crate outside Krane's Bar, just where Rude had last seen his friend those few years before. A few years, and a lifetime, he'd thought. It was as dark as it had been that night he'd left, so he hadn't seen Reno's tatts at the time. So, the only thing he felt was... home.

He'd deliberately avoided seeing Reno, and his Ma. When he'd returned to Midgar, after his paperwork had been settled at Shin-Ra, he'd tried, once. He'd changed out of his uniform, girded his mind, and wandered down to the house that he'd shared with his mother and friend, only to find that they were gone.

"I'm not sure exactly where she is now," said the man who lived in the house in response to Rude's question. "But after her illness her son set her up in an apartment up top."

Rude felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. His brother? "Her son?"

"Yeah. Redheaded kid."

Not his brother. Reno. How could he afford an apartment up top? Wait. "Illness? What illness?"

"Don't know the details. She wasn't expected to live, from what I was told. Sorry, I don't know any more." He frowned, then. "I don't know why you're looking, but I'd step careful, if I was you. The son ain't too popular hereabouts lately."


The man just shook his head and closed the door.

Rude had made his way back to the Shin-Ra building, and had then been engrossed in his training. Truth be told, he used the training as an excuse not to look too closely at what he'd heard. If Reno was watching his Ma, she'd keep for a while.

He didn't like to admit that he was afraid to face her.

Then there was Reno... the haunting spectre of Rude's shame at his own behaviour that last night...

But he'd been ordered to report, so he had to watch as Reno was attacked by the guy Tseng had hired, resisting any urge he had to help. Not that Reno really needed his help.

Rude had always liked the way Reno moved when in full fight, but he'd developed a few moves, and a style that could only be described as dangerous. He used to fight for fun, and exercise, now he moved like he meant it, like he'd spent the intervening years needing to fight, on the streets. He was a predator, now.

And yet, he held back and didn't press the weaker fighter.

Rude couldn't take his eyes off him.

Then Reno turned his head and looked right at him. Shit. Rude moved back into the crowd, turned, and headed back to his apartment at Shin-Ra.

Tseng had given him a quiet tongue-lashing for leaving, but Rude hadn't cared. He'd thought he had put all those... feelings... for his friend away, tucked them somewhere that they wouldn't bother anyone any more, but it seemed not.

It wouldn't do.

It wasn't until, for reasons Rude hadn't been apprised of, things went cock-eyed and he and Braden had drugged Reno and taken him back to Shin-Ra for questioning, that Rude had made the connection between Reno's money and where he worked.

Maybe the seething rage he'd felt as a result had been an over-reaction, under the circumstances. Maybe.

Whatever. The results were the same. They'd settled back into old familiar patterns, like it was before.

But it could never be the same. How could it? How could Reno ever see Rude the same again, after what he'd done? Sure, Reno'd claimed he was angry at Rude for leaving and never contacting them, but that couldn't be all of it. It couldn't be. There was a part of Reno that stayed distant in a way that he hadn't been before. Like, he would never let Rude abuse him again.

Not that Rude wanted to.

Part of him wanted to explain all of that. But he couldn't. Never. Not ever.

Still, while they were not partners, they were paired more often than not, and worked well together. Rude's request to Tseng, once Reno's Basic had finished, that he get his old apartment back had been met with nothing more than a coolly raised eyebrow.

Rude took that as a "no."

When Braden and Dallas had been officially partnered, the suggestion privately made to him, by Braden, that he and Reno do the same had Rude grunting an almost involuntary "no." Nothing more had been said. Shin-Ra wouldn't force people to work together if they had strong objections. It made things too dangerous out in the field.

Rude wondered, often, why he'd said that. Just... the thought didn't make him comfortable.

He wasn't stupid. He did suspect, on the darkest nights of his imaginings, that his feelings for Reno went deeper than simply "best friends." But if that was the case, it was to stay exactly where it was. Hidden. Reno couldn't know.

His search for information on Reno's sisters had stalled very early in the piece, because Rude simply didn't have high enough clearance for the files he needed. He still didn't. It was frustrating.

Reno never mentioned them again after the one time Rude'd found him trawling through the Shin-Ra files during Basic. It was like he'd given up. Rude never asked.

Rude's first meeting with his mother again had been, well, difficult. His own fault, he knew. Probably, he should have phoned first. He just couldn't bring himself to do it. But, he'd made a promise and Reno was right on one count: he had to man up to his behaviour. Knowing she was cared for didn't change that.

So, while Reno was out to dinner with Dallas, while Shin-Ra staff transferred Rude's stuff to the new apartment, Rude'd taken a transport over to Reno's--his Ma's--apartment. The irony of it being the same building where they'd picked up Reno two days earlier was not lost on him.

The girl who answered the door gave him a shocked look. He thought it was simply because of his uniform, but when he was wordlessly let inside he saw the picture of himself on the mantle, and understood.


"Is my mother here?" Rude said quietly.

"She is, but she was just about to go to bed. And I don't know if--"

"Better tell her I'm here."

"Sure. Um, maybe you should know that she can't--"

"See. I know."

"I don't know if you are who you say you are. I mean, your picture... but--"

Rude probably should've thought to remove his glasses. He did so.

"That helps." She still looked worried, though.

"I can get Reno on the phone if you like."

She sighed. "No, that's not necessary. I just..." She straightened her shoulders. "Have a seat." She left.

Rude didn't sit, instead fiddling nervously with his glasses, turning them over and over in his hands, steeling himself for the tongue-lashing he knew was to come. It didn't matter. He deserved it.


Knowing his Ma was blind was one thing, but actually seeing it was another. For a moment, he couldn't answer, swallowing hard.

"Rude?" she said, uncertainly this time.

He coughed. "Yes, Ma," he said, and her face split into a smile.

She crossed the room with surprising agility and reached her hand out. He took it, and they sat.

"Well, let me look at you then, Rudolph," she said, running a hand across his shoulders. "You're taller, I think."

"I'd say so, yes," he said.

"Bigger, too. What have you been up to?"

"I was in the army for a while."

She smiled. "But you're in a suit?"

"Yes, Ma."

She ran a hand over his head. "Ah, see, now I know it is really you."

"You had doubts?" He swallowed again. That was a stupid thing to say.

"I thought I might be dreaming," she said softly. "Does your brother know you're back?"

Startled, he glanced at the girl. "She means Reno," the girl said.

Rude frowned. "Reno knows I'm home," he said gently.

"That's good," she said. "He's missed you. He waited for such a very long time..." her voice trailed off. She stood suddenly. "I have to sleep now," she said. "Please come again."

Rude blinked, watching her as she disappeared back in the direction of what he presumed was her bedroom.

"Don't take it personally," the girl said. "She gets... confused... sometimes, especially lately. The medication after her surgery messed things up a bit. Most of the time she's fine, but occasionally..."

"I see."

"You got her on one of her very few bad days. Tomorrow, she'll remember you came but forget you leaving. I daresay the shock of seeing you suddenly..."

Rude nodded.

The girl sighed. "Rude, I don't know you, and so I'm not one to judge. I daresay you had good reasons for not being here. But, you have to understand, your mother was very, very ill. How much did Reno tell you?" She paused. "Because I presume he did tell you something."

Rude nodded again. "With the shouting, not much detail."

She raised an eyebrow. "Well, I'll leave any such censuring to him, if it needs to be. Your mother had a malignancy in her brain. Removing it meant that her optic nerve was destroyed, which is why she can't see. But they also had to cut out some of her brain. That's why she sometimes gets fuzzy. She doesn't sleep well most nights, so she's on medication to help that. For the most part she's perfectly lucid; I don't want to give the wrong impression. Fact is, she's so close to normal most days that Reno probably hasn't noticed any difference, especially since--" she stopped.


"Never mind. Seriously, come back tomorrow. With a good night's sleep under her belt, she'll be better."

Rude noded again and put his glasses back on. "Thank you...?"


"Thankyou, Kyrie."

He left then, making his way back to Shin-Ra, trying not to think about it all.

He was watching some doco on the vid later that night when it hit him, and he cried, for a long time. Cried for his mother's loss of sight, and for not being there when he was needed. Cried for what he'd done to Reno. Cried cos he'd killed someone, even if the bastard had deserved killing. He'd killed since, and would probably have to again, but that one was personal. It was the first. And it had... destroyed everything.

Then he heard voices outside the door before the keyscan blipped, and only just got the shades on before Reno walked through the door. He didn't need to see Rude wallowing.

Rude would've felt much better if she'd just yelled at him, told him off like she used to when he'd done something stupid, but she had never upbraided him for his absence. Not then, not since, lucid or not. Not even once.

It just wasn't right.

Now that Reno had taken off wherever with Dallas, though, Rude was in Braden's office, being stuck with showing the lastest rookie the ropes. Her name was Sherin, and she was, admittedly, very good with a gun, from what he'd seen.

Rufus Shinra had recruited her, though, which left room for doubt.

Braden was halfway through his instructions when Tseng walked into the office without knocking. "Sorry to interrupt, Braden, Rude," he said. Then he glanced at Sherin briefly.

"Rufus' new recruit," Braden explained.

"Ah. Sherin, then," he said to her.

"Sir," she said.

Tseng handed Braden the electronic file. "Take a look."

Braden skimmed it. "They're building numbers."

"Yes, they are. So, we are to as well. Veld has decided that another couple cannot hurt."

"How did Heidegger take that?"

Tseng smiled. "He wasn't happy. Said something about how building Turk numbers took the 'elite' out of our description."

Braden made a rude noise. "He's still annoyed that the reshuffle took the Turks out from his department and made Veld a Department Head." Braden scratched his eyebrow for a moment, then adjusted his glasses. "I, for one, am glad. I don't trust that man. He already has the Shin-Ra military and SOLDIER under his control."

Tseng nodded. "Fortunately, Rufus agreed with Veld. And so did the President. So, we will be taking on one or two more, at least. Maybe three," he added absently as he took the file back from Braden. "I think we're going to need them. This group is going to be trouble."

"So, where are we looking?"

"That's yet to be decided upon. Thought you might have a couple of ideas."

"Well, we have the pick of the Academy, for one."

"I had considered that. Except, I don't know. Seems to me that Academy graduates, while excellent military leaders in the army, also lack that certain 'something' we need."


"That's the word I was after. And they're very focussed on impressing the importance of their rank on their subordinates."

"And we aren't?"

"Not in the way I mean, no. Respect is one thing, but here, rank is earned, not bought."

"Veld was Academy."

"Yes, he was. As was Vincent."

Braden raised an eyebrow. "Who?"

"Veld's partner. Different time, though. And Heidegger wasn't in charge when Veld went through the system. The school was better run. None of the tragedies that have dogged the place in the last few years."

"Hm," Braden agreed. "And after what happened with Hamill--" he darted a gance at Rude and frowned.

Rude pretended not to have heard anything, but his curiosity was piqued. Hamill had been Academy, before going through training with Rude. He didn't ask. He knew better than to expect an answer.

Tseng sighed. "I'll discuss it with Veld. Meanwhile, have the others keep an eye out for likely candidates. They know what we do and what's required for the job. Can't hurt to at least have a look at anyone they come up with; make sure they're up to scratch."

"Will do."

"Um, sir?" Sherin said.

"Yes, rookie?" Braden said, his voice expressing his annoyance.

Sherin swallowed. "I'm sorry, sir, to interrupt. But I might know someone who would be good as a Turk. Sir." Her voice trailed off uncertainly.

"You've barely started your training and you think you know of a 'suitable' candidate." Tseng's voice was stern, designed to intimidate, but Rude knew enough of him to see the twinkle in his eye that told Rude he wasn't entirely serious. He would be, though, if Sherin turned out to be wasting his time.

"I think so, yes, sir."

"What makes you 'think so'?"

"He's a bodyguard for Don Corneo. Well, former bodyguard. Not so much now, because he's lost favour with him, more of a prisoner, really, and he--"

"Sherin," Tseng barked, un Tseng-like. "Get to the point."

Sherin blinked.

"Arrange thoughts, then open mouth," Braden said quietly.

She nodded, then took a breath. "Right. From what I've been told, he was the best shot in the organisation, bar none, before he was thrown in Corneo's little pit. Kind of like, if you saw his gun in front of your face, you did so because you were already dead. Better shot than me, by far. I'm told."

"Why was he imprisoned?" Tseng said.

"All I know is that he was 'a disappointment.' Corneo wants something from him, and he won't give it."

Tseng frowned slightly. "What does Corneo want from him?"

"I don't know. I asked. Scotch wouldn't tell me. And Scotch is the only person in that hells-hole that has any sympathy for him, at all."

Braden's expression mirrored Tseng's as they exchanged glances. "How long has he been there, do you know?" Braden said at the same time as Tseng said, "What's the man's name?"

"Well, I've been in and out of there for the last six months or so, so at least that long. And, Raith, sir."

Braden and Tseng traded a very long, meaningful look before Tseng spoke. "How is he, psychologically? Is he sane?"

"I think he's doing well enough for someone who's been tortured, drugged and sold. Pretty much, yes."

"How do you know about this?" Braden said.

"Oh, because I'm the one who's been buying him," Sherin said flippantly.

Fucking rich kids, Rude thought.

She grinned suddenly. "That isn't what it probably sounds like."

Braden looked at her steadily over the rims of his glasses.

She shrugged. "Okay, no, sometimes it has been exactly what that sounded like. But while I have my ticket on the guy, no one else has. Advantages of having all that money, I suppose." She sighed slightly. "Worth every gil, too. He's very--" she stopped. "Um. I shouldn't--sorry."

Rude wondered how Sherin's daddy felt about forking out the bill for his spoiled brat to bandy about with one of Corneo's whores.

Braden raised an eyebrow. "We don't need the details, no."

Sherin's face reddened. "He's not there because he wants to be," she said, her voice suddenly serious. "I've tried to have him moved to my place, and offered Corneo a huge sum to do so, and he refused."

"How huge a sum?" Braden said.

"Double the normal cost of a ticket buy-out. Then I tried triple."

Rude's eyes widened at that. Buying out a HoneyBee contract was expensive, more than twice what he earned in a year, even as a Turk. For Corneo to knock back that amount, let alone more... what the fuck had this Raith guy done?

"He declined a triple buy-out?" Braden sounded as surprised as Rude felt.

Sherin nodded. "His exact words were, 'my dear, you can take five of my boys with that money. Take your pick. Anyone but him, ho ho'."

"Drugged, you said." Braden took his glasses off and cleaned them with a cloth from his pocket as he spoke.

"Yes," Sherin said.


"I don't think so."

"Are you sure?" Tseng asked sharply.

"Ninety percent sure. He'd hallucinate, sometimes, but no rage. He wasn't violent at all. And he never--" She stopped again, biting her lip.

"What?" Tseng said.

"He never tasted sweet," she said quietly. "I would've run a thousand klicks if he had."

Tseng's eyes narrowed, then he nodded. "Thank you for the information. We'll look into it. Dismissed."

She stood her ground. "But--"

"Dismissed, Sherin."

Tseng crossed his arms as Sherin left, his face a mask. Then he grunted irritably.

Braden glanced at him. "Issue?"

"I know we're trying to get our numbers up, but when did we lower our standards, exactly?" Tseng said in a low voice.

"Your point?"

"Well, it's quite clear that Rufus only hired her so he could get his dick sucked more regularly. What an air-head."

Rude didn't voice it, but he was inclined to agree. Not necessarily that Sherin was stupid, but he knew from experience that Rufus could give a whole new meaning to a rookie "passing their orals."

"You need to spend more time in the yard, Tseng. You're being grossly unfair." Braden pushed his glasses up his nose, glancing at the floor quickly, but Rude hadn't missed the raised eyebrows at Tseng's use of language. "I don't doubt that our VP has other reasons, as well, knowing him. But she can shoot. Think she's smarter than she pretends to be, as well."

Tseng threw Braden an incredulous look. "She had no way of knowing we've been looking for Raith."

"Of course not. But, whatever her reasons for ticketing him, we know what Corneo's like. Whatever you said to him obviously didn't sink in. She gave Raith value, and that's probably the only thing that's kept the man alive."

Rude had no idea who this Raith guy was, but figured Braden had a point. Corneo was well-known for his high employee turn-over rate, and they rarely came out of it alive. Rude believed that if Reno hadn't been pulled out of there when he was, he'd be long dead.

"A bit of ingenousness can't hurt, either, for some of the missions," Braden said. "Kick that sense of entitlement out of her and she'll be fine."

Tseng nodded. "You're probably right. I do need to spend more time in the gym. Veld is keeping me busy with paperwork, and expects me to keep up with him. He's a machine. Hardly have time to scratch myself. And if I ever tried, Rufus would find something for me to do, instead. And this new group... as if I don't have enough to do with that girl as it is."

"You are the Two-I-C, my friend. Duties, responsibilities."

"Don't remind me. Which is why I'm glad of the possibility of new Turks. Then you and Dallas can get some things done for me." Tseng sighed. "Looks like we may have been wrong about Raith."

"Looks like," Braden said.

"Keep an eye on Sherin for me, will you? Let me know how it goes." Tseng turned to include Rude, then. "Go and give Don Corneo our regards, would you both? I'll arrange a private hospital room in the meantime. For Raith, that is." He started towards the door, then turned back, a thoughtful look on his face. "Warn Corneo, as well, I think. Strongly. Let him know that further disobedience will not be tolerated. And keep this one priority two classified, for now. Clear?"

Rude blinked. Priority two classified. Even Rufus wasn't to know, and anyone else, other than the three of them, was on a "need to know" basis only. "Yes, sir," he said.

Braden raised both eyebrow. "Not even Reno?"

"No. Not yet," Tseng said. "Let's be absolutely sure of his loyalty, first."

Braden nodded. "Done."

Rude didn't waste time feeling indignant on behalf of his friend. He knew the score. Reno had worked for Corneo, so had this Raith guy, and Reno's recruitment into Shin-Ra hadn't been a completely clean one. Tseng's instructions were sound. He felt the corner of his mouth turn up as they wandered towards the lift, though. He really didn't like Corneo. A quick glance at Braden told Rude he had a similiar opinion. "Don't suppose we could 'accidentally' end him," Rude said.

"When was the last time any of us 'accidentally' ended anyone?"

"Good point."

"Shin-Ra want him alive, so he stays alive." Braden's tone spoke whole volumes about how he felt about that.

Rude hit the down button for the lift. "Who is this guy we're pulling out of there?"

"Someone we've been after for a while."

Rude noticed that Braden didn't define what he meant by the word "after." He figured it wouldn't be politic to ask. "So, what's the plan?"

"In. Hit people a lot. I'll give Corneo a piece of Tseng's mind while you grab the package. Out. Deliver package. Go home."

Rude nodded. "Got it."

Rude had always admired Braden's direct approach, and that day was no exception. He strode through the front door, guns drawn, and shot the first of Corneo's door guards that tried to pull his gun. "Obviously, he's new," he said.

Rude nodded. Corneo's men knew better than to interfere with Turk business.

"Anyone else?" Braden said as another of Corneo's men barked, "Hold your fire, you idiot," to the other doorman, just as Rude let fly the punch to the face he'd prepared for him.

"Saves us firing him, I suppose," the man who'd ordered the doorman to stop said mildly as the door guard hit the floor. "What can I do for you both?"

"Where's Raith, Scotch?" Braden said.

"I don't know what you're--" he stopped as Braden levelled his firearm again, this time at Scotch's face. "Back room." He handed Braden a card. "You'll need this. It's the only locked room." He paused. "I'd be quick if'n I was you."

"Tell them to let us through." Braden handed the card to Rude as they followed Scotch in. "To the left behind the Throne Room. Corneo," He said to Scotch. "Now."

Rude didn't bother to wait for Scotch's response, making his way through the disgustingly gaudy mansion until he found the room he was after. He glared at the guard at the door of Raith's room, who put both hands up and backed away.

"Corneo don't pay me enough, man," he said.

Rude ignored him and swiped the card.

The room was dark, but Rude could still see a figure, flat on his back on the floor. He flicked a few switches on the outside of the room until he found the light, blinking as it flooded the room.

The man on the floor did the same, blinking, but it seemed he couldn't rise. Fuck me, Rude thought. He didn't look good, at all. Too pale, too thin, and a sheen of sweat on his face.

"Raith," Rude said. "Come on. Time to go."

Raith attempted to move, but his eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he passed out, instead. Rude dropped to his knees next to him, pulling off a glove. Clammy. Not good. For a split second, Rude considered dropping the man over his shoulder so they could get out of there, but instinct told him that would be a bad move. "Get Braden," he growled at the guard who was standing at Raith's door. "Now."

He pulled the blanket off the bed and covered Raith with it, but then Raith started to shake uncontrollably. Silently thanking the Universe that his mother had been a nurse and taught him this stuff, Rude rolled Raith to his side so that when he vomited, and he would soon enough, he wouldn't choke to death.

In between keeping a hand on Raith so he wouldn't roll back as he fitted, and trying to keep the man's airway clear, Rude glanced around the room, looking for signs of whatever he'd taken, or had been given, or whatever. Nothing that he could see from where he was. But... there--a single mark on Raith's arm. No syringe, so he'd probably not injected himself. No tracks, so it was a one-off.

"What?" Braden said from the doorway, a dishevelled Corneo in tow.

"Got a problem," Rude said. "He's been injected with something."


"Not reacting like Kandy."

Raith stopped fitting at that point, and went very still. Rude looked down at him. Shit. Raith'd stopped breathing and was starting to go blue around the mouth. "He ain't gonna make it at this rate," Rude said, digging a couple of fingers into the man's jugular as he rolled him onto his back, lowering an ear on his chest. He listened for the space of two heartbeats. "Faint pulse, irregular beat," he said, tilting Raith's head back and breathing into his mouth.

Braden nodded, pulling out his PHS. "Tseng. Forget the bed for the moment. Send a bus." He listened for a second. "Yeah, they've given him something. Doesn't look good." Another pause. "I know. Get the bus here." He hung up and turned back to Corneo. "What did you give him?"

"I-I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Corneo stammered.

"I'm sure you do." Braden's voice was very, very quiet.

Rude didn't pay any attention to the rest of the conversation, concentrating on counting and breathing. He carried with him the requisite potions, of course, but they wouldn't help in this case. Raith wasn't injured, and he was being affected by a drug, not a spell.

Why Rude was actually feeling concerned, he wasn't sure. Just that the guy was probably a friend of Reno's. Besides, it was his job to bring out the package alive.

The Shin-Ra medics turned up soon enough, and Rude stood back, watching quietly as Braden spoke to one of them in low tones. He glanced at Corneo, who was also watching Braden, his face white.

That guard--Scotch--turned up, crossing his arms. "Told Corneo he was messing wrong," he muttered in Rude's general direction. "Sick fucking puppy, Corneo is."

Rude didn't bother to respond. Scotch obviously didn't want to die, hence the arse-crawling. From the look on Braden's face, though, it wouldn't be his choice, either way.

For whatever reason, however, once the bus had trundled off with Raith inside, they left the mansion with all inside left relatively unharmed.

Rude didn't bother to ask why. Braden wouldn't tell him anyway. And he was furious, and you didn't mess with Braden when he was furious.

They sat in the ICU at the Shin-Ra Base Hospital for what seemed like hours. Rude didn't mark the passing of time. He could sit still for days if he had to.

The doctor in charge beckoned to Braden after some time, and they spoke for a while. The doctor's face was grim; Braden's gradually grew angrier, but when he turned back to Rude, it was calm. "He'll live," Braden said, "thanks to you."

Rude nodded, glancing through the window of the ICU at Raith, who had, it seemed, fifty different tubes and wires hooked to his body. Frankly, he didn't look like he'd live. If he was a friend of Reno's, and Rude had no idea if he was or not, maybe Reno should know he was there, at least, just in case.

"I need to reiterate something, Rude," Braden said. "We'll need to keep him here for a while, do some... tests. See if whatever Corneo gave him has affected him, and if so, how. No one is to know about this. Not even Reno."

Rude nodded tersely, wondering if Braden had read his mind, somehow. Probably not. Normal debrief.

He and Reno, both, were already keeping secrets from each other. What was one more?

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