Chapter Eighteen

Dallas was there. Reno would have known her anywhere. She was speaking, but he couldn't comprehend at first. Then her voice came into focus. "Reno, what were you thinking?" Her voice faded, then came back again. "No, I know what you were thinking when you left, but going up against her? Why would you do that? Cloud is a big boy, he would have been fine."

No, too strong even for Cloud, Reno thought, groggy, unable to make his mouth work.

She sighed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be telling you off when we don't even know how the surgery went. But... what were you
thinking?" She paused. "I can tell you, though, that they're safe. They arrived just after you left. You didn't have to do the hero thing." He felt her hand on his forehead briefly, fingers brushing the hair off his eyelids. "Oh, Reno. Why didn't you wait?"


Reno stood, arms crossed across his chest, and watched Raith completely screw up his hand-to-hand forms, about ready to kill Dallas. Maybe even seriously, rather than metaphorically. She sure had herself a pain in the arse sense of humour, at the least, because she'd paired Reno up with Raith for every training exercise that morning, even though he'd asked her not to.

Reno frowned, continuing to watch Raith, but not saying anything. So far, he'd watched Raith fall off the ropes on the way down and mess up simple zhen exercises he should've mastered before now. He should know better; be better. He was going to get himself or someone else killed, at this rate.

"Elbow," he said.

Raith stopped. "What?"

"Don't you listen? Lift your elbow."

"You told me last time through to lower it."

"Well, this time I'm telling you to lift it."

Raith flashed Reno an annoyed glance, then started again.

Oh, for fuck's sake, Reno thought. "Too high," he said. "Try that and someone will--"

"I am fully aware of what will happen," Raith said, not stopping this time. "And I am also fully aware that I am not doing this wrong."

"Get over yourself."

"F--" Raith glanced at Tseng, who was watching from a short distance away. "Of course, sir."

"Once more from the beginning."

Raith wiped the perspiration from his forehead, then did so.

Almost right this time, thought Reno. "And again."

"Yeah, I don't think so. Thirty times through is enough for one day."

"And it'll take the thirty-first to get it right, obviously."

Raith grunted. "What the fuck do you expect from me, Reno? I'm working twice as much as anyone else to get half as far with you. Why're you ridin' me so hard?"

Reno refused to let anger get the better of him. "It's my job. You screw up, people die. And your attitude is shit."

"My attitude is just fine. At least, Tseng don't have any problems with it. Or Rude."

"Tseng doesn't know you like I do." Nor does Rude.

"I should hope not," Raith snapped.

"That is not what I meant, and you know it."

"I don't know what you mean, any more, in fact. All I know is it don't matter what I do, all you're seeing in everything I do is a bunch of mistakes."

"You are a mistake, Raith."

Raith's face hardened. "Is that right."

Reno winced. Even given his anger, he hadn't meant that to come out as it had, stabbing at Raith's sore spot that way. Totally not what he'd meant. Low blow, Reno. Real nice. "What I meant," he said, trying to back-pedal without giving anything away, "is that you can't be trusted to be honest. Tseng has made a mistake in hiring you. A Turk has to be able to rely on his partner for his life."

"Honest." Raith's eyes flickered to the other end of the mats, where Rude was sparring with Sherin. "Don't be so fucking condescending."

"Remember who you're talking to, rookie."

"Oh, I remember, 'sir'. Been there, bought the T-shirt. How does it feel to be talking out of your arse?"

Reno felt his fingers twitch. He glared at Raith, consciously stopping them from balling into a fist so he could land Raith on his arse.

"Raith!" Rude called from the other end of the gym.

Raith shot a venomous glance at Reno then headed in Rude's direction, shouldering past Reno as he went. Barely heard, he muttered, "hypocrite" as he passed.

Reno swallowed. He had a point. Then he noticed Rude watching him, and readopted his usual loose slouch, looking elsewhere.

His eyes met Dallas'. She wrinkled her nose at him, and her message was clear: You're as obvious as a bucket full of moogles eating pie at a funeral, moron. What is wrong with you?

He scowled at her, and she rolled her eyes, before returning to landing Jask on his arse every few seconds. That made Reno grin. She was pretty good at that, and he didn't mind seeing Jask humbled, at all. Nope. Not at all.

He turned to watch Raith and Rude spar for a while, arms crossed, an absent tightness in his throat, not fully realising that he was doing so until he felt Tseng's gaze on him, watching him watch them.

"I don't know what you think your problem with that recruit is," Tseng finally said in his usual calm tones. "But whatever it is, get over it."

"I don't have a problem with him," Reno said. "I just think he can be trusted about as far as I can kick him."

Tseng regarded Reno soberly. "None of us can be trusted to start with. That's partially why Shin-Ra hires us. We all have a background that means we can do what's required. It's your job to make sure trust within the unit is no longer an issue." He turned back towards the sparring mats. "Once this intake have finished their training, and Katelyn arrives, I will have to reassign partners on a more permanent basis. You don't have a partner yet."

Reno froze.

"And if I order you to take on Raith, finish his training in the field?" Tseng said, still watching the other men spar.

No. Fucking. Way. "Then I'd have to shoot you," Reno said as dryly as he was able.

Tseng rewarded Reno with a very small smile. "You'd try," he said mildly. "You feel that strongly about it."

Reno did his best to push down his irritation. "I'll obey my orders."

Tseng nodded. "You could probably kick him a long way, Reno."

"Fine. As far as you could kick him then."

Tseng smiled again. "Touche." He faced Reno, then. "Curious fact. That man over there is the only person I've ever seen affect your casual fa├žade."

Reno shot him a glance.

"Yes, Reno. I am aware that you fake it. You have trouble maintaining when you're dealing with him, and Raith only messes up when you're the one teaching him. I could wonder why, but, really, even if I weren't already cognisant of the nature of your history with him, and I am, I still don't care. I'll say it again. Deal with it, and get on with your job."

Reno nodded, ignoring the blush he could feel creeping up his neck. "Of course."

"And lay off him somewhat, if you please. I never picked you as a controller. You're smothering him. He will be a very good Turk if you'll simply let him be for five minutes." He paused. "You're an exemplary teacher, usually, Reno. The rookies look up to you, including Raith, whether you are aware of it or not. You're even well-liked amongst some of the SOLDIER recruits." He paused, then raised an eyebrow. "Before they learn to know better."

Reno smiled wryly at Tseng's attempt at humour, then frowned, surprised. "If you say so."

"I say so." He sighed, very slightly. "If you'll excuse me, Reno, I have some things I must do. Ah. Which reminds me of what I was going to say, before I was sidetracked. You and Rude will need to complete the rookies' training, along with the Chief, although I will be available from time to time. Dallas and I have other assignments we need to focus on that will take us away from HQ for long stretches of time. So I suggest you think very hard about what I've said." He narrowed his eyes, which flashed amusement. "And when you're back in uniform, pick up another tie, hm?"

Reno watched Tseng as he walked across the gym. The thought of losing Dallas for "long stretches of time" gave him an unidentifiable kind of achey sensation. Sometimes, he felt like she was the only friend he had in this place. At least, the only one he could be completely open with.

Sure, the others, Raith excluded, liked him well enough, but Sherin and Jask saw Reno as their teacher. Tseng was his boss, and Braden was fine, but not someone you could just chat with, even when he was around. Rude was... complicated. Reno wanted to be open with him, but the sense that Rude was hiding things from him--and always had--just didn't sit well. Everyone was entitled to their privacy, but... still.

Add to that the fact that Reno had started dreaming about him again, kinda like he had when Rude'd first left; dreamt, sometimes, of Rude's stomach that night in the chopper: rising... falling... rising... falling... he clenched his jaw. He was getting sick of jacking off in the shower.

Then there was Raith. Reno's eyes were drawn to him, again before he even realised he was looking. He swallowed. Raith and he'd never been friends.

And never could be.

He ignored his stupid thoughts and continued watching Rude and Raith as they tested each other. Raith was still a lean, hungry cat, but now he was up against a lion. A big, maneless, patient lion, ready with a nod or word of encouragement if required.

Sherin walked over, then, showered and in uniform. "I wonder who would win," she said.


"If those two ever had to really fight, sir."

Reno shrugged. "I'm not sure." He looked at her, then. He expected her to be--what, he didn't know. Admiring, perhaps. But her face was merely curious. He couldn't bring himself to be angry with her, for some reason. It wasn't her fault Raith was what he was. "Who do you think would win?"

She watched them for a moment longer. "A few days ago I would've said Rude."

"Not today?"

She swallowed. "Not today."


She shook her head. "I can't really say." She inclined her head then. "Have some study to do, sir."

Reno nodded. "Have fun," he said dryly.

She grinned. "Always."

Rude and Raith were done, and Reno watched Raith as he wiped his face with a towel and headed in the direction, not of the showers, but the elevators. Probably decided to shower upstairs. Reno stared at Raith's back for a few moments, considering Tseng's words. He had a lot of respect for Tseng, really. The man very rarely said anything that wasn't worth saying.

Reno remembered, then, his own training, and how supportive the others were, even while they were drilling him and knocking him to the flat of his back. Like, they'd wanted him to succeed.

He glanced back at Rude, who was working on a bag, Dallas holding it for him. There was a sight. Reno was surprised Dallas didn't end up on the other side of the gym with each of Rude's punches, as slight as she was. He was probably pulling them.

He sighed. Tseng was right. Reno had let his personal feelings get in the way, and had been way too hard on Raith. Guess I should say something then, huh.


He showered, changed, made his way up to Raith's apartment, and pressed the buzzer. There was no answer. He frowned. The LCD was reading "occupied", so someone was in there. "Raith?" he said, hitting the buzzer again.

Reno turned to walk away, but then felt that sensation he always got on the back of his neck when he knew he was being watched, or if something was not right. On an impulse, he dragged his master keycard through the slot, and let himself in.

Why was it so dark in the mid afternoon? Reno let his eyes adjust for a moment. Shades were drawn, lights were off, and, the apartment being on the sunrise side of the building meant that the effect was one of late night. And Reno suddenly felt like an intruder, which, he supposed, he was.

"Raith?" he said quietly. "What's going on?"

There he was, standing near the window. Reno could see his profile from the faint light coming from the kitchen. He was still. Very still.

"Reno? What are you doing here?" His voice was as still as he was.

"Sorry to barge in. I buzzed but you didn't answer. Needed to have a word."

"Stop there."

"Yeah. Uh. I can come back later if you want."

Raith took a few steps towards Reno, carefully, like he expected to walk on glass, then continued until his face was very close to Reno's. "What are you doing here?" he repeated.

Reno's something wrong sensation hadn't eased, but he stood his ground. "I--"

That was all he managed to say before Raith's mouth covered his own in a demanding, searching, probing not-Raith kiss. One he found himself responding to.

What the--

And that was all he managed to think before Raith grabbed him by the back of the hair, pulling him away.

"You're not Reno," he said.

Reno didn't have time to react before Raith's fist connected with the side of his face, once--twice--a third time in quick succession before Reno thought to move. How the hell was he so fast?

Reno backed away quickly, dodging the fourth blow. "What the fuck are you doing, dickhead?"

Raith stopped suddenly. "Reno? What are you doing here?"

"What's going on?"

"How am I supposed to know? You're the one in my apartment." Raith looked genuinely confused, from what little Reno could see. "Which you should leave."

Reno could feel his left eye swelling. Part of him wanted to launch at Raith and smack the living shit out of him, but the sane part of him realised that there was something just... not right. "What is wrong?"

"Get out, Reno."

"We need to--"

"Get out. I am off duty, this is my home, and you're not welcome in it."

Reno stood his ground, working to get his head together. Tseng was right in one other thing. He wasn't able to think straight when it came to Raith. If this had been anyone else, Reno would've dropped him right there and dealt with the consequences later. But instead, his mind refused to connect thoughts to actions. "Raith," he said carefully, "I don't think you're well." Report all incidents of instability to Braden. But... this was Raith. Raith didn't hit him.

"You have to be kidding me. It's not enough that you have to give me a hard time at training, now you're in my apartment without a by-your-leave and--what?"

"Turn on the light."

Raith leaned forward, his face calm. "Stop. Telling. Me. What. To do."

This was pointless. Raith wasn't being unstable, he was just being a shithead. Reno sighed. Guess he'd had it coming to him. "Fine. See you at training tomorrow."


Reno left, and went to his and Rude's apartment, making his way to the bathroom and checking his eye in the mirror. Huh. He'd been given a good one, but it wouldn't do for Rude to see it. He pulled a minor potion out of the cabinet and smeared it on his face, wincing slightly as the potion tingled, then burned, and the bruise faded to nothing.

Braden wasn't in Midgar, so Reno couldn't report to him. Having figured that, he had no desire to get Raith into any sort of trouble. Everyone had a breaking point, and Reno'd pushed Raith to find it, and Reno knew it. The image of Raith on that day in the orphanage, with his hands in his pockets, eyes downcast, head on the chopping block, waiting for Reno to bring the axe down on his neck, popped into Reno's mind. Yet again, he found himself in the position to completely oust Raith from his life.

And yet again, he backed away from doing that. Raith was still looking for a place to belong, and Sherin or no Sherin, it wasn't Reno's business to be interfering with that. He'd already fucked Raith's life up once before with that stupid photo stunt idea. He wasn't going to repeat that mistake. Those things always came back to bite you, one way or another, and when you worked in a field that could mean your death at any given point, you tended not to want things to bite you. Cos in his line of work, they really were big things. With teeth. And claws.

If it remained a one-off incident, he'd let it be, he decided. If it happened again, then he'd reconsider. Worse came to worst, Reno was completely able of defending himself, now that he knew he might have to.

Thing was... it wasn't the hitting that bothered Reno, or had left him standing there like a fish drowning in air. It was the kiss. It had wormed its way into Reno's bones and now it sat there, a taunting reminder of things as they could've been.

Now, that was seriously fucked up.


"Reno, wake up."

Reno was on his feet in seconds, body going well before his brain caught up. Rude stood in the doorway of his room, half dressed, deftly knotting his tie. The buzzer on Reno's bedside vidscreen sounded loudly. How had he slept through that? He flicked it off at the switch, clearing the last of the fog from his mind.


"Course." Reno picked his uniform pants up off the floor, stripped off his pjs and pulled them on, yawning. Man, he never had this much trouble waking up. Then again, he hadn't been sleeping well. He peered at his watch as he strapped it on. Never mind that he'd only gone to bed a half hour earlier, anyhow.

He dragged his shirt on, grabbed his boots and sat on the lounge to put them on. "What now? " he said as he buttoned up his shirt.

"Same old," Rude said.

"Monsters in Sector Eight again? What's going on around here lately?"

Rude shook his head.

"I wish the Chief would recall Braden for some of this. Might actually mean some sleep for once." He yawned again. "Or we could get the rookies on it."

"The've only been training for a bit over a week. They're not ready."

"They'd cope."

"Sherin might. Possibly Raith."

Reno felt his eye twitch at that. "Let's go," he said, picking up a new weapon he'd been trying out. Monsters didn't always go down if shot, so Tseng'd introduced him to Shin-Ra's newest Electro-Magnetic Rods. He'd used one before, but they had a nasty reputaiton for zapping the user as well, so they'd been dropped from the arsenal for a while. Reno had been burned by his last one.

This one, though, problems sorted; Reno liked it. It could be deadly or simply used to stun, and at full charge usually dropped the nasties. Worse came to worst, even with no charge he could use it as a bludgeon. He'd been in the mood for bludgeoning lately. And, as Tseng had correctly said, the weapon suited Reno's fighting style more than a firearm. You didn't have to stop to shoot an EMR. And it felt good in his hand.

"Good to go?" said Rude.

"Whenever you are."

Rude's eyes narrowed as soon as they left their apartment. "Something's not right."

Reno nodded as he noted the red lights on above the elevators. They were locked down, which meant heading for the stairwell instead.

Rude pulled his radio head unit out of his pocket and tucked it on his ear as they made their way to the stairwells. "What gives, Tseng?"

Reno slid his keycard through the slot on the door to the stairwell, punched in his code and held the door for Rude.

"We'll need to go down from the forty-sixth floor," he said. "Tseng wants us in the Loveless District, Sector Eight."

Reno nodded. They had no internal access to the SOLDIER floors, 47-49. He nodded at the SOLDIER stationed on each floor as they ran down--he didn't know any of them; they didn't socialise much. Just the one Third Class on each floor, unlike Turks, who usually worked in pairs, even at HQ. It exemplified how different these men were. Even at Third Class, the bottom SOLDIER class, they only needed the one, although they did go out in pairs on assignment.

That was how the floors had been arranged. 47-49. SOLDIER. 50-56 Turks. Hojo's Dept, the Dept Heads and the President and Vice President above the Turks. Turks were, so to speak, the President's bodyguard, but frankly, Reno reasoned, anything that could bypass SOLDIERs would probably run over a Turk.

Turks were good, elite fighters and trained in intelligence, but SOLDIER; they were better, mako-infused to the point of near-invincibility--except against each other. Zack Fair would probably take Reno out easily on Reno's best day. Sephiroth? He'd eat Zack for breakfast on Sephiroth's worst.

Sephiroth. First Class. There weren't many of them. Genesis. Angeal. Zack. And only Sephiroth and Zack left, now. SOLDIERs deserted, more every day. Others were going missing, along with, Reno had been told, now former Turks who'd gone looking for them, including some guy who'd used to come into HoneyBees with Braden occasionally, and a few others Reno'd never met. Reno didn't know what was going on, and he didn't care, really. All that was just before his time. His current job was focussing on Avalanche. Tseng was the one who dealt with all of that other stuff. Let him worry about it.

Reno found the few SOLDIERs he'd met in the building irritating. Maybe it was the mako; he couldn't trust it, given its other uses. Those eyes unnerved him too, although he'd never admit it out loud.

Dallas had a lot of good things to say about Zack, though.

It was quiet out. Definitely too quiet for a lock-down. It didn’t take long to reach Tseng and Dallas, and Dallas scowled at him while Tseng had a word with Rude.

"What's with you?" Reno asked her.

"I'm getting tired of this," Dallas muttered. "I was on the phone to Braden." Her lips tightened momentarily before her face popped back into its usual congenial expression. "If we don't find four hours when he's close enough for me to fly a chopper to him I'm going to have to kill something. I'm horny as hellsfire."

Reno shook his head. Before Braden's departure, Dallas had "treated" Reno to descriptions of how good Braden was in bed. Now he got to listen to her being pecky because Braden wasn't around. She had some drive. He didn't mind, he supposed. If she was offloading on him, it helped her do her job. He could live with that. Truth be told, it was kinda cool to have someone he could talk to, and who'd talk to him about anything, with little to no discomfort, and who wouldn't act like you were being a moron. He could tell her anything.

Except about one thing: Rude and that night. Some things still couldn't be told.

"Speaking of killing something," she said in a low voice, glancing at Tseng as the other man answered his phone. "We haven't had a chance to talk properly since Raith joined us. You didn't tell me how incredibly hot he is."

Reno sighed. "Guess he is."

She looked at Reno like he had just gone insane and done the naked chocobo dance in the middle of Midgar. "Guess he is? Reno, he is so totally my type that I'd completely throw Braden over for him if Braden doesn't get his act together, and Raith wasn't already yours." She threw Reno a puzzled look, then, but didn't follow up on it. "Hells, if Braden doesn't get his act together, and soon, I'll just give Zack a call, but failing that... good Gods. Tall dark-haired men with sexy smiles that make your knees--oh. Reno, I am only joking. You should know me better than that by now."

Reno glanced at Rude, but he wasn't paying any attention to them, as far as Reno could tell. "Not really the time or the place, Dal."

"Hm. What gives?"

Reno set his jaw. "Not the time or the place."

She nodded.

Reno shoved his annoyance to the back of his mind as they joined Tseng and Rude. He had to concentrate on the job, now. No time for that other crap.

Tseng looked irritated as he got off the phone. "False alarm," he said.

"Don't make Rude mutter at you, boss," Reno said.

Rude threw Reno a dirty look.

"Don't give me that. You had a half-day off. You weren't the one who had your nightly half-hour's sleep interrupted for nothing."

Tseng's face was deceptively serene. "Someone's playing games," he said, glancing at Dallas. "What do you think, Cissnei?"

Dallas nodded. "I'll look into it."

"Do," Tseng said. "You are dismissed. Go get your beauty sleep, Reno."

Reno grunted irritably, Rude-like. He was wide awake now; there'd be no going to sleep for a while.

Dallas linked her arm in his. "C'mon. We'll go for a walk, settle your brain a bit. Coming, Rude?"

"Thinking I'll go and sleep," Rude said, and wandered off towards HQ with Tseng.

"Lucky bugger can drop anywhere, any time," Reno said.

"Rude's funny lately," Dallas said. "And I don't mean in the ha ha sense."

"What's wrong with Rude?"

"Oh, nothing's wrong with him. Not at all. I like him a lot, Reno. He's just a hard one to read, is all."

"That he is," Reno said. "Always has been."

"You seem to understand him, though, and vice-versa. I don't get why you and he don't just make it official."

Heh? "What are you talking about, Dal?"

"Partners. You work together most of the time anyhow." Her eyes narrowed. "Way to get defensive over nothing, though."

Reno shrugged and moderated his tone. "The idea makes him uncomfortable."


"I don't really know. Never thought about it." Well, he was only half lying. He frowned, then, as the wandered past a large fountain, which tickled the back of his mind. "I've met Zack before, haven't I. Before Mideel, I mean."

"Surprised at you, Reno. You have a better eye for detail than that."

"I was a bit distracted in Mideel."

She nodded. "Yeah. You got all cut about Zack trying to bully into Sector Eight territory back when you were still a rookie." She grinned. "Probably had a little to do with the fact that old EMR was zapping you every two seconds."

Reno grinned. "I remember now. Cocky bastard, isn't he, 'Cissnei'?"

"Don't call me that," she snapped. She sighed. "Not in private, anyway. As for Zack, though, isn't he? What I wouldn't do to--"

"Braden," Reno reminded her.

"Him too." She stuck her tongue out at him. "They grew up in the same village, you know."


"Braden and Zack. Both from Gongaga."


"Hm. Very similar men, with their concepts of 'honour'. But, oh, so verrry different."

"I'm sure I don't want to know."

She looked at him seriously. "Remember that night at all, when the monsters were all through Midgar? SOLDIER couldn't cope. Rude said that Zack was trying to do the 'save the damsel in distress' thing with me."

Reno frowned. "Vaguely."

"Tseng sent you and Rude off, and... well, Zack's my job lately, y'know?"

"I don't, fully, no. But I'll take your word for it."

"He... amused me. So open. Not like Braden at all. I told him about how I always dreamed of flying when I was a kid."

"You dreamed of flying? I didn't know that."

"Yeah. Like an angel. Like, free. And he didn't make fun of me."

"I used to think about flying too," Reno said.

"You wanted wings?"

"Rotors, actually. Never thought about wings. Must be a girl thing."

"And now you can," she said, smiling.

"And now I can," Reno said. And it was Rude who showed me how.

"See, that's why I love you so much. You didn't make fun, either."

"I must be slipping."

She looked up at him, wistfully, this time. "You know, I used to wonder what it'd be like to have a brother, or sister. Parents. I mean, I must've had parents, at least, some time, right? Everyone does. But I don't remember them, and no one's ever told me about them. All I've known is the orphanage, Academy, Turks." She frowned. "I suppose you're all my family."

Reno ruffled her hair. "Sure, squirt."

"I'm being serious."

"I know. So am I." He paused. "I remember my parents," he said. "But they died when I was very small."

"Oh." Dallas hugged his arm briefly. "I think that'd be worse, you know. Having, then losing. What happened?"

"My dad was killed in Wutai. My ma was sick for a very long time, I think. I don't know. I was only five or so when she died. I had sisters, too."


"Yeah. We were split up when the folks died. I don't know where they are, now." Reno felt an unexpected pang at that. "My father used to talk a lot about family. I kinda feel like I failed, somehow, not being able to find them."

Dallas stopped walking then, and wrapped her arms around Reno's waist, hugging him. "You know, if I ever could choose a brother, he'd be you. I really do love you, Reno."

Reno swallowed the unexpected lump that developed in his throat. "Well... right back at ya, Dal."

She grinned. "The L-word won't kill you."

"If you say so," he said. She was wrong, though. It did just that. And there was no coming back from it.

She let go of him and started walking again. "So, what's going on?"

Reno slung an arm over Dallas' shoulders. "Nice walk on a dark night."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

Reno really didn't want to get into the whole Raith thing right then. Apart from anything else, Dallas would have to work with both Raith and Sherin, and didn't need his crap on her mind when she did so. "Why are you so pissed at Braden that you'd even joke about someone else?"

"Why are you still sleeping alone at night?" she countered.

"Who says I am?" Reno quipped.

She was quiet a moment. "Well, that would explain the defensive."

The what? "Heh?"

"Earlier. When I suggested you and Rude partner up?"

Reno grimaced. "Yeah, Dal, conclusion best not jumped to."

"Wellll... unless you're entertaining a ghost, I didn't jump, you pushed me. Security logs? As in, my job?"

Reno removed his arm from Dallas' shoulders. "Yeah. I was kidding, Dal. I'm living like a Wutai monk lately."

"Which would explain the irritable."

"Speaking of... Braden?"

"Uh-uh. Something you want to tell me, Reno?"

"No. But I'm sure you're 'bout to tell me that there is, and then tell me exactly what it is I want to say."

"Oh, fine. Forget it. It's just... I want to see you happy, stretch. I was looking forward to it. And you're not. You're hiding it from everyone, but I'm not stupid. You don't talk to Raith unless you're bawling him out at training for messing up, and Rude, who is your best friend, is uncomfortable with being your partner? C'mon. Give me a break."

"Rude just thinks I'm too reckless and I'll get him killed."

"Oh, bulldertwat. He sits there in that chopper while you do stuff that makes me want to hold on for dear life and barely raises an eyebrow. Rude is uncomfortable around you, but that isn't why."

"What the hells are you implying, Dal?"

"There's the defensive again." Her eyes narrowed. "You tell me."

"It's your story."

They'd reached Shin-Ra HQ by then, and Dallas stopped and turned to face him. "Here's a story for you. Once upon a time, there was a wee boy called Reno, and he had a friend called Rude. One day, Rude ended up in a land far away and Reno, not knowing what had happened to him, took responsibility for his friend's mother. Meanwhile, he met and fell in love with another, Reno's self-confessed 'second' love, who for the sake of the story, we'll call... oh, I don't know, Raith. And that other also disappeared. Then Rude returned to Reno's life, and then just as suddenly, Raith reappeared. Instead of embracing his long-lost love, Reno grew angry with him, and Raith with Reno. What is missing in this picture?"

Reno's gut felt twisted. "Dallas, would you just drop it?"

"I understand why you're angry with Raith. But why is he angry with you? I inducted him. I saw his face when I mentioned your name. It was... hungry."

"You what?"

"Not in any way that would be considered a break in confid--"

Reno turned on her. "Why can't you just mind your own business?"

"Why didn't you the day you spoke to Braden about me?" Her eyes flashed. "Yes, he told me, and you didn't see me going off on a rant because you took advantage of a private conversation. Because I know you were trying to help, and frankly, I didn't mind. But I don't get angry as a self-defense mechanism when I'm hurting. I ask for help, and I'm not ashamed to do so. Why is Raith angry with you? Does he think you're--oh, my Gods. I get it now. He thinks you and Rude are, or were, together, doesn't he."

Reno didn't say anything.

"So why in the Blue Hells will you just not tell him he's wrong?"

"It's complicated."

"Simplify it for me."

Reno shook his head.

"He is wrong, right?"

Reno swallowed. "We just had that conversation."

"That was the most guilty-looking denial I've ever seen," she said gently, looking up at him. Then her eyes teared up. "Oh, Reno," she said, her face sad.

"What's with you?"

She shook her head. "Rude left you. He was the first one you told me about, wasn't he? The first person who you felt something for?"

Reno set his jaw and looked away. No one was supposed to know about this, and he'd let his anger get the better of him, and now, it was outside. Just like that.

"And Raith knew of Rude, but... what did you tell him?"

"I told him Rude was dead," Reno said in a low voice.

"And from what Rude has said, that's a fair assumption. But now, Raith knows. And... why don't you just tell him he's wrong, that you aren't with Rude? Or are you actually not sure who you want--"

"I told you, mind your own business. I am not some two-timing fuckwit, for a start." Reno pushed the involuntary image of Rude sleeping in the chopper, and the memory of his own reaction to that out of his head. "And for a second, Raith ain't--what was it--hungry for me. Not in any way or any how. You misread him, cos I can guarantee you that he didn't think of me at all while he was gone. And as for Rude, you can just forget any of that, cos you're wrong there, too. Rude ain't uncomfortable cos he still has any sort of feeling left, cos he ain't ever had any feeling for me that way to start with. He's uncomfortable cos he'd rather be anywhere else, okay? I ain't your project. Go fix someone else's love life. Like, maybe your own."

He turned on his heel and went inside, heading for the lift. She didn't follow.


Midgar, 6 years until Meteorfall

The cold had finally hit the city, and it had done so with a vengeance, winds skating out from the vast desert wastelands around Midgar, swooping into the city and being driven through the streets along train laneways and man-made steel canyons.

The new year turned, and Reno had to admit that he was curious about what the new girl would be like. All he knew was that she'd been Academy at one point, had graduated with top honours, and had been working out in the field as a ground instructor with the Shin-Ra grunts for a few years. The only thing the DAR had been waiting on was that she'd insisted on finishing with her current class at Junon.

"Do you know her?" he asked Rude.

Rude shook his head. "Must've arrived in Junon after I left."

Reno felt heartily ashamed of how he'd lost his temper at Dallas, but after half a berry pie, two beers and a stuffed moogle toy ("crass," she declared, before grinning at him and putting it on her bed), she spontanously decided not to forgive him, because he hadn't, she said, done anything wrong.

He gave her a steady look at that one.

She just stuck her tongue out at him.

Katelyn arrived soon after the "triumvirate of birthdays," as Dallas called it. Rude's 23rd and Raith's 24th, on the same day, Reno's 22nd three days later, just after the snows should have started, but didn't. It meant a night at the bar down the street, the one that Reno and Rude had pulled Raith out of. There was cake, which Reno dutifully ate.

It tasted like his heart--ashes.

Reno, true to his own word, lightened up on Raith, and there was no reoccurrence of Raith's strange behaviour. It bothered Reno, however, that Raith never mentioned it. Then again, Reno never actually apologised for being so hard, so he figured they were even.

Jask, Sherin and Raith all passed their exams, and Katelyn arrived at Shin-Ra HQ two days later.

Tseng brought her to the Turk lounge late in the evening. Reno was losing a game of billiards, and therefore a fair amount of gil, to Rude. Raith lay on the couch, dozing, while Jask and Sherin cleaned up the bar area.

Tseng introduced her, and she stood quietly until he was done, then Tseng left, taking Jask and Sherin with him.

Reno studied the new recruit. Katelyn was a tiny woman, and that was exacerbated by the fact she was standing next to Rude, who topped over six feet. Reno smiled at the difference. Hells, Reno was a few inches shorter than Rude and the top of her cropped blonde hair would've barely reached his own chin.

He didn't think that would make her any less dangerous than the rest of them, though. Dallas was also small, and you never underestimated her, that was for sure.

"Good to meet you, Katelyn," Reno said, putting down his cue and leaning against the table.

She didn't answer him, instead staring at him, eyes widened slightly. "You're Reno."

What was her problem? "That's what they said," Reno said lightly.

"I didn't think I would ever be able to find you. I mean, she said that--" She swallowed, and took a quick breath. "Did you live in Kalm before coming to Midgar? Did you have two sisters, one older, one younger?"

Reno's insides froze, and the lunch he'd eaten earlier sat badly in the midst of it all. He swallowed. "Yes. I did. How do you know this?"

"I am really sorry to be so strange, but..." Katelyn's face was sombre, and she bit her lip. "I knew Vickie."

What? Wait, knew. Past tense. Oh, gods. Reno was distracted from Katelyn then, by a sudden movement to his left. As he turned his head, Reno's eyes met Raith's. He was no longer slouching on the couch, but was regarding Reno with... what was that, concern? Stupid. Of course it wasn't.

Reno swallowed and turned his attention back to Katelyn. "You knew Vickie."

She nodded. "First at the Orphanage, then the Home, then later, at the Academy."

"What makes you think the Vickie you knew has--had--anything to do with me?"

"Oh, of course. Wait." She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a slim money clip, opened it up, and took a small photograph out of it. She handed it to Reno.

It was a duplicate of his own photo. Smaller, sure, and cropped: only of him and Vickie and the baby; toddler, more, with her big brown eyes. He stared at it, his stomach churning, now. Katelyn could tell him what had happened to Vickie. And maybe even about his other sister. And, suddenly, he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"Reno?" Rude's voice, to his right, sounded very far away.

Wordlessly, without looking at him, Reno handed Rude the photo.

"Shit," Rude said, before handing it back to Katelyn, who dropped it.

Raith leaned over and handed it back to her, but not before he'd taken a quick look at it as well.

Rude put a hand on Reno's shoulder, as if he knew how close Reno was to tipping over. It still felt strange to have him do that. But... nice.

"How is it you have that?" Reno finally said.

Katelyn glanced at Raith, then Rude. "Maybe we should talk about this privately."

"No, I'm good," Reno said harshly. "Say what you have to say."

Katelyn blanched.

Reno shook his head. "I'm sorry. I haven't seen Vickie since I was five years old. I tried to search for her but never got very far. I'd pretty much given up. I'm a bit..."

"It's all right," Katelyn said. "I understand. I'm a stranger to you. I'm sorry for being so blunt. It's how I am, I'm afraid. I don't like to gild concrete."

"How is it that you have that picture?"

"Vickie gave it to me. She made me promise to find you."

"They told me she died," Reno said.

Katelyn's jaw tensed as she met his eyes, and in that moment Reno knew it was true. And that it bothered her as much as it did him, or even moreso.

Rude's hand tightened on Reno's shoulder.

Reno wasn't going to force her to voice it, so he nodded slowly, grateful for Rude's steadying hand. "Maybe we should sit down, eh."

"Good idea," Katelyn said.

Huh. Reno hadn't noticed Raith leave, and the fact he had sent a lancing pain through Reno's chest. Fucking stupid. He sat on the couch where Raith had been, absorbing the man's warmth. This was all too... he didn't want to know.

And yet, he had to know.

Katelyn had taken a seat on the couch opposite him. Poor girl looked nervous, slightly sick.

Reno took a deep breath. "What happened?"

"Do you remember the epidemic in Mideel a few years back?"

Reno shook his head. "What epidemic?"

"I know of it," Rude said. "Haemhorragic fever of some kind, eighty percent casualty rate?"

"That's the one."

"Nasty, from what I read. They managed to keep it contained to one set of villages," Rude said to Reno, "but it still killed about 12,000 people."

"Closer to 15,000," Katelyn said.

Reno blinked. "Why didn't it make the news?"

Katelyn and Rude exchanged glances. "Shin-Ra. Contain the information, prevent panic," Katelyn said. "A good idea, really. If people had panicked, they would've started running, spread the disease further. This way, a proper quarantine cordon could be maintained."

"I suppose so," Reno said. "But what does this have to do with Vickie?" He could guess, though.

"Shin-Ra needed all the help it could get keeping the disease in one area, so we seniors at the Academy were to be mobilised to help. It was to serve two purposes: a practical one, and as a training exercise to help us learn about mass emergency procedures. There were about two hundred of us due to go down, including Vickie and me." She stopped again, and swallowed, hard, blinking rapidly as if she was trying to prevent her eyes from tearing up.

Rude stood and reached for the box of tissues from the bench near the coffee pot.

She accepted them, putting the box on the couch next to her, but she didn't take any. "We never left."

That wasn't what Reno had expected to hear. "No?"

"No. Before we left, we were, of course, to be immunised against the disease. So, we all lined up one sunny day to get our shots. Thing was, there was this one medico who, unknown to anyone at the time, had switched one of the vials of vaccine for a vial of the disease itself."

"Shit," Rude muttered again.

"But why?" Reno said.

"When he was questioned, he claimed that someone from within Shin-Ra had deliberately released the disease in Mideel and he therefore felt it was necessary to 'send a message' by doing the same thing in Midgar. He did not succeed, of course. The Academy had gone into quarantine lock-down even before students fell ill, as this was procedural before this sort of a mission. So when students started to fall ill..."

"It didn't spread," Rude finished.

"No. And it was all for nothing, anyway. His claims were false." She blinked again, this time unsuccessfully, and reached for a tissue, dabbed her face, took a breath and the tears stopped. "One vial was enough for twenty-five shots. And Vickie was one of the twenty-five. No one who received one of those shots lived. Those of us who had received the vaccine did not catch the disease."

Reno felt like he had been punched in the stomach. No wonder her death had been classified. It all made a horrible sort of sense.

Hew was distracted by the lounge door sliding open again. Raith had returned, and he had Dallas with him.

"There is a period, just before... there is a period of lucidity." Katelyn was completely calm, now, and Reno returned his attention to her. "Before she died, she gave me the picture and made me promise to find you, to tell you where your other sister was. She figured you'd be in the military somewhere, given how much you wanted to be like your father. She had always been surprised that you didn't end up Academy, actually. Never did make sense to her."

Reno couldn't stop his hands shaking. That was stupid. But... what had she just said? "You know where my other sister is?"

"Well, I know where she was, just after. One of our commanders came in and spoke to Vickie just before she died. I was there, at her insistence. He apologised to her for what had happened. He also said that your little sister, who she hadn't seen since they were separated, would be taken care of, taken under his wing until she was old enough to work for him, that she would never want for anything. I never did get his name, but he was a Turk. I now know that it was Veld, so I guess you've already found her, if she's still here."

Reno felt Rude's eyes on him then, and faced him, his heart pounding like it would never stop. And, looking up into Dallas' brown eyes, he knew.

"Holy fucking mother of Shiva," Rude muttered.

"What's her name?" Reno said, dizzy.

Katelyn looked puzzled. "What?" she said, as if the answer was obvious and Reno had asked the dumbest question on Planet.

"What is my surviving sister's name?" Reno said through gritted teeth.

"Her name is Dallas. What, didn't you know?"

Reno stared at Dallas, sure his face had the same shocked expression hers did.

"That explains a lot," Raith murmured.

Rude nodded. "That it does."

It was strange, Reno figured, how quickly you could go through a whole range of emotions without trying, when you just let them happen. Glad. Almost ecstatically happy, if he'd been capable of that. Then, angry. More, furious. Because people had known, and no one had told them.

"Katelyn," he said absently, "it has been very good talking to you. But you will have to excuse me for now."

He stood and brushed past both Dallas and Raith, heading for Veld's office, aware that someone was coming with him, but too singly focussed on one thing to note who. He was going to kill the bastard.

Veld's assistant was not at her desk, so Reno just stormed into Veld's office. "You fucking prick. You knew." He started to move forward, ready to deck Veld where he stood, but someone took hold of his arm.

Reno turned. Rude and Dallas had followed him into the office. "Let go of me, Rude."

Veld regarded Reno with thinly-veiled displeasure. "There had better be a good explanation for this behaviour, Reno."

"Katelyn told me a very interesting story."

Veld sighed slightly and nodded. "Tseng was supposed to bring her here first," he said, almost to himself.

"What, so you could order her to keep the fact that for over a year, I have been working with my sister, who I've been looking for since I was old enough to read, a secret?"

"Why would you do that?" Dallas said quietly. "What gave you the right?"

Veld looked at her steadily. "I never saw a reason why either of you needed to know at this late juncture."

Reno scoffed. "Didn't see a--what is wrong with you? She's my family, man. How would you feel?"

Veld was silent.

"And here's another reason for you," Reno said. "What if we'd slept together or something?"

"Is that an issue?" Veld said mildly.

Dallas and Reno exchanged a mutual ew glance.

"What? No. Of course not," Reno said. "But that's not the point."

"I knew it wouldn't be the point, Reno. Dallas has Braden, you had--" he glanced at Rude briefly--"other interests. It was never an issue I was concerned with."

What, Veld knew about how deep things went with Raith, too? Reno figured he would, after all, now that he thought about it. What Tseng knew, Veld knew. The only person who didn't bloody know, it seemed, was Sherin. And Braden. Jask.

And maybe Rude.

Veld sighed. "Well, what's done is done. I did have very good reasons for not telling you both, but now you know." He caught Reno's eye. "And if you all get out of my office immediately, I will let your behaviour pass. Don't let it happen again." He sat back down at his desk and picked up his pen. "Dismissed."

Reno opened his mouth to speak again, but Rude shook his head, so Reno followed him and Dallas out into the hallway outside the outer office, where Raith was waiting.

"That didn't sound like it went well," he remarked.

Rude raised an eyebrow, then headed down the hallway, indicating Raith should follow.

Reno didn't pay any attention, instead running a hand through his hair as his anger started to dissipate. "Huh," he finally said.

Dallas turned to face him. "What you said."

He looked down at her. "So. Guess I have a lot of stuff to tell you, about Ma, and Dad. And Vickie. If you want to hear it."

She didn't answer right away. Instead, she wrapped her arms around Reno's waist and squeezed.

"Uh, Dal? Air, please."

She loosened her hold but didn't let go. After a moment, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and rested his cheek on her forehead. "D'you know what sucks?" she said.


"I am going away tomorrow, and I don't know how long I'll be."

"Yeah. That definitely sucks," Reno said. "Dangerous assignment?"

"Not really. Depends what sort of stuff Zack gets up to."

"Why are you tailing him?"

"Because he has a brilliant arse."

Reno grinned. "I'll pay that one. Tell you what, I'll buy you a late dinner."

"No. We can put it on the company. They owe us that much."

"Actually, this is one I really want to get myself."

"If you want." She broke the hug, then, and bit her lip for a second, looking back up at him. "Um, Reno?" she said in a small voice.

"Yeah, Dal."

"Do you remember that first night we had dinner, and I asked you to, um--"

"Er, no. I don't."

She nodded. "Yeah. No. Me neither. Reckon we could never, ever mention that conversation that didn't happen again? Cos, ugh." She shuddered.

"Ah, yeah. Absolutely."


Reno wasn't sure, for a split moment, what had woken him. Then he looked up and saw Rude standing by his bed, dressed only in his boxers and a T-shirt. What the--? Reno sat up, mumbling something that sounded a bit like "mlphfle?" as he did so.

"Dallas," Rude said, cryptically.

Reno glanced at the clock. 0234. "Heh?"

"Is here."

"Oh, she had better have a damned good reason," Reno muttered as he dragged himself out of bed. He'd only been asleep for an hour or so. A late dinner had turned into a long conversation that Dallas had finally had only ended because she was due a phone call from Braden before she left Midgar.

Rude nodded, a concerned expression on his face. "Think so."

Reno looked at Rude sharply. He was being even more laconic than usual. "Who died?"

Rude shook his head, then coughed slightly as Reno started towards the door. "Pants," he said.

Ah. Reno supposed he should put some on. Or something on. He rarely bothered sleeping in anything these days; most nights he was too damned tired to go through whatever was on his floor to find pjs. Sometimes he did, but then, he didn't normally have company at 2.30 in the morning.

He really liked central heating.

"Tell her I'll be out in a second," he said absently, looking for a pair of jeans.

"I'd be quick," Rude said as he left the room. "Tears involved."

Tears? Oh, not good. Reno found some pants, and pulled them on quickly before dragging a T-shirt on.

Rude was not exaggerating. It was safe to assume that Dallas was a mess. She lay on the couch, her head on Rude's lap, holding Rude's hand, crying almost uncontrollably while Rude intermittently handed her tissues with his free hand. Rude looked up when Reno entered the room and gently lifted Dallas' head so Reno could take his place. Reno sat for a while, running a hand over her hair. There were only two reasons she'd be like this, and both had to do with Braden. He'd better be dead, or I'm going to have to kill him.

She hadn't let go of Rude's hand, so he was perched awkwardly at the other end of the couch. "Do you want me to go, Dal?"

She shook her head.

"What's going on?" Reno said.

"Braden," she said, between hiccoughs, "doesn't want me any more."

Reno caught Rude's eye and Rude shook his head. "Is that what he said?"

She rolled onto her back and looked up at Reno, then let go of Rude's hand so she could blow her nose. "Of course not. He used language like, 'taking a break until this job is done' and 'allowing me space to work' and 'of course I love you, don't be ridiculous'. But it all amounts to the same thing."

"Squirt, he probably meant just what he said. He's just needing to concentrate on his work, or is giving you space to sort out the assignment with Zack. He probably has good intentions."

"Reno, he's been avoiding me ever since he was reassigned. I'm not an idiot. I can take a hint." She sighed. "I'm okay now. Thanks, guys." She grimaced. "No I'm not. But I have to be by morning, huh? It's how we roll. Come Blue Hells, high water, or fucked up heart, we just have to go on and be all Turk."

"It's what they train us for," Rude said.

Dallas rolled back onto her side and drew her knees up so Rude could sit properly. "You think I'm too soft, don't you."

"Didn't say that." Rude rubbed a hand over his head. "You're the best of us."

"I can still hear the hanging 'but'."

"No 'but'."

She sniffed, then blew her nose again. "Turks have all of the outside of me, y'know? Grew up in Shin-Ra, knew this is what I would be. I'll never have children, cos they make it so with that implant females get. They tried to deny me my brother... even though, Rude, you're as much family as Reno is, even if not by blood, just cos you're Turk too."

Rude smiled a little at that, Reno noticed.

"But if Reno wasn't Turk, family or no, he'd be last."

Reno nodded. It was true. Shin-Ra, Turks, self, everyone else. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to go and see Felice. Rude, either. They'd been too busy.

"And the only way out is death. So they can't have that little bit of me that makes me still me, right? My heart? I will not get hard to the point I can't feel. Choose not to, sure. Decide to, okay. But never can't." She yawned. "So Braden and his 'good intentions' can kiss my arse." She yawned again. "Can I sleep here? Too tired to walk next door."

Reno caught Rude's eye again and Rude stood and picked the almost-asleep girl up, carrying her to Reno's room and depositing her on one side of Reno's bed. "Okay?" he said to Reno, who nodded.

Rude looked like he was going to leave, then stopped. "I'm glad you found her," he said. "Glad you know. I know how important it's been to you."

Reno nodded again.

"I'm sorry about Vickie. I'd hoped they'd lied." Rude's eyes burned into Reno's, then, and he looked like he wanted to say more, but then he only said, "night."

"Night, Rude." Reno found some pjs and changed, then crawled in on the other side of bed, his thoughts running fast. Poor kid. He remembered that feeling of not wanting to be alone cos you felt abandoned. Twice. He sighed. She'd learn, eventually. He yawned then and rolled to his side, his back to his sister.

Sister. Funny how safe that one concept, having it, made him feel. He hadn't felt this safe since... that night. And Dallas would be gone by the morning. He frowned. He just hoped the fact that he loved her hadn't somehow doomed her, like it had every other member of his family.

Stupid thoughts. He closed his eyes and willed sleep to come. It took a while.

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