Chapter Twenty-One

Please note: While I'd previously planned to incorporate most of the scenes Reno is involved in from the BC game, I decided on a different route for the sake of the story. Nevertheless, all dialogue written in this colour is quoted directly from Before Crisis and should not be interpreted as my own work.

Some of the Shin-Ra mission storyline has come from Before Crisis, so there are some spoilers. However, this is an adaptation, and not all of the Shin-Ra political storyline in this story has come from the game, but is my original content, so you won't have seen it if you've played the game. It also should be noted that SE have made changes to the "Nibelheim incident" over the course of the years (the original FFVII, LO, BC and CC all vary--even on the simple 'did he jump or was he pushed?'), so I've just tried to stay mostly consistent for the sake of this story.

Of course, it goes without saying that this chapter is full of spoilers of Final Fantasy VII, Before Crisis, Crisis Core, Last Order--and hells, even Dirge of Cerberus.


Three hours after that conversation, Nibelheim was in flames, destroyed by the madness of a hero.

Reno would never forget that day, as long as he lived. Or for long after he died, he suspected. Even during the events, the years, that followed, as the mess became clearer, he would never understand it. How could one man become so insane that he would go from the hero of the Wutai War to someone who would massacre an entire town because he wanted his mother?

It spoke loudly of the corrupting power of Jenova, he supposed.

Or did it just speak of the frailty of one man? It was hard to tell.

But then, Reno had lost two mothers, and it had never caused him to go out and massacre civilians. No, it took the loss of someone else before he did that.

And then, it was wiped from memory, by Shin-Ra. The only people who remembered were those who lived it.

And those who died as a result of it.


Reno was woken by banging on the door, and was awake about two seconds before the sound was followed by the acrid smell of smoke. His feet hit the floor just as Rude's did.

Kytt was at the door.

"Get it," Reno said, pulling on his shirt. "Fire. Get the hell out. We'll make sure the rest of the Inn is cleared."

"It's not the Inn, sir," Kytt said. "At least, not yet. It's the town." She pointed at the window.

It hadn't taken hold, yet, but Reno reckoned they had about five or ten minutes until it did. The whole town was wood, wattle and daub. "Holy fucking Shiva..."

"Everyone up?" Rude said.

"Raith's getting Zack, Jask and Sherin now." She looked grim. "Sir, it's Sephiroth."

Reno was dressed by now, and followed her down to the bar. "What do you mean?"

"Raith doesn't sleep too good, sometimes. He was down here. Saw the General leave. He's the one setting the town on fire."

Raith arrived then, Jask and Sherin in tow. "Innkeeper's dead, along with his family and what staff were sleeping here," he said grimly.

"Fuck me," Rude muttered.

"Smoke?" Kytt said.

"Sword," Raith replied.

"C'mon, out," Reno said firmly. "We can discuss this in a building that isn't about to catch alight."

It was worse outside. Bodies were lying on the ground, most of them stabbed. "Rude, call Tseng," Reno said. "Let him know what's going on. We're going to need a hand here."

Rude nodded and pulled out his phone.

"Rest of you, let's get as many people out of the path of the fire as we can."

"What about the General?" Jask said. "Shouldn't we stop him?"

"Sure, Jask," Reno said. "If you think you can take him and know where he is, go right ahead."

"Zack's already gone after him," Raith said. "The reactor."

"Fuck," Reno said.

"I'll go," Kytt said.

"Be careful. The fire may've dropped some nasties out."

"I'll go with her," Raith said.

"No, we need all hands here. She can handle it. Kytt, don't engage Sephiroth. Hear me?"

Kytt nodded and ran towards Mount Nibel.

"Tseng said not to do anything," Rude said.

Reno blinked. "He said what now?"

"Get as many people to safety as possible, let the fire burn itself out, don't try to stop Sephiroth and wait for him, he said."

"Well, let's get to it, then," Reno said, and squared his shoulders, wincing as an ember hit his face. It was going to be a long night.


It was hours later, or so it seemed. Or maybe it really was. Reno couldn't be sure.


Reno looked up from the body he was checking and sighed. "Another dead one, Rude. What can I do for you, Raith?"

"Tseng told me to come back down here and report to you and Rude, help out with the injured here. I've got the others coming down soon as well."

"He's here finally, then," Reno said. "About fucking time."

"Yeah, he had to bring a friend. Think it's Hojo."

Rude and Reno exchanged glances. "What the fuck," Reno said.

"Something about... let me find the right words, here... 'special top secret orders from the President'," Raith said.

"And here I was thinking this couldn't get any worse," Rude said.

"Yeah, well. Some people here havin' the worst day of their lives while we stand around gabbing," Reno said. "So... Raith. Need to put you in charge of the others when they get here, but first thing. We want a triage area, somewhere that's not still on fire or in its path, close to the centre of town as can be considered safe, with the ability to at least erect temporary shelter. Water close by, or ability to get same, if at all possible, a plus. Sorry, it's an ask, I know."

Raith nodded.

"Grab a couple of the other Juniors to help you set that up and send the rest on search and rescue. Once there's a reasonable area, get one of the others to start logging names as they come in. Let's keep families together as much as possible." He stopped for a moment. Family. Gods, Dallas. "Rude and I will continue giving first aid. Fuck. Medical supplies. Tseng bring any?"

Raith nodded. "Katelyn, Maxx and Sherin are bringing them down. Be about fifteen. Tseng couldn't land the 'copter near the town. Smoke was too thick."

Rude grunted. "Reno coulda."

"We'll make do," Reno said. He glanced at Raith. "Good to go?"

Raith nodded. "I'll buzz when I have something."

Reno watched him as he vanished through the thick haze of smoke. Keep safe. He resisted the urge to call Dallas then and there. She was perfectly capable of looking after herself, and he had a job to do.

Seemed there were more dead than alive, and it wasn't fire that killed them. Why would he do such a thing?

"Reno, need a hand here," Rude said. "Live one."

Reno moved quickly. "Oh, man." The kid Rude was kneeling next to couldn't've been more than six or seven years old.

"Hold this," Rude said, handing Reno some cloth he'd torn from the girl's dress. "Rip that up for a tourniquet. I'm holding her arm closed and need another pair of hands."

The girl's eyes opened.

"Hey there," Rude said. "What's your name?"

She didn't answer, instead looking up at Rude with fearful eyes.

"It's okay," he said. "You don't hafta talk. Do you mind if I do? Could use someone to talk to right now."

She nodded slowly.

"Atta girl. I'm Rude, and that's Reno. I'm going to see if I can patch up your arm a bit, okay?"

She nodded again. "Hurts."

"Yeah, I'll bet it does, but I tell you what, you're the bravest patient I've had today. Now, I have to say sorry to you. I had to use some of your pretty skirt to help with your arm." He pressed on her arm tighter, taking some of the cloth from Reno to pack the wound.

The flow of blood was more of an ooze, now, and Reno wasn't sure if it was because the flow was slowing or if it was because the girl was running out.

"Tell you what, though," Rude continued, "When you get better, if it's okay with you, I think we can buy you another pretty dress. How does that sound?"

In any other situation, Reno would've smiled at that. As it was, all he could do was feel a warm admiration for his friend and how he was able to make people feel less afraid in their worst moments. Took a lot to calm down a kid.

The girl nodded again. "Where's Ma?"

Reno glanced around, but there was no sign of any females, alive or dead, nearby. He met Rude's eye and shook his head.

Rude tightened another strip of material around the girl's arm. She barely flinched. "Need some medics, and an hour ago if possible," he said quietly. "That last didn't hurt her, and she's getting cold, and that ain't a good sign. She's in shock, and won't last long without some better treatment. Gonna get an ETA from Tseng." He opened his phone, all the while keeping his gloved hand firmly on the child's wound. "Don't worry, little one," he said to the girl. "We'll see if we can find your Ma, okay?"

Reno took off his jacket and tucked it around the kid, then flipped open his own phone as it rang. It was Raith. "Got something?"

"Think so. At the end of the main square, there's an alleyway to a block that has already pretty much burnt itself out. Plenty of room here. Hit the square, then head into the first path to the west. The block is actually to the north but there's still fire blocking your way, small but I doubt gettin' injured through it would be feasible."

"Good job. Medicos arrived yet?"

There was a pause. "The only thing I'm seeing is Science Division. Hang on just a bit."

What? That was just... what?

Raith came back on the phone. "They say they're taking care of the medical side."

"You don't like it."

"Not much, no. Hardly fixed to argue 'bout it though, am I?"

"We're gonna need a hand down here movin' people. Can they send a few?"

"Yeah, that's what they're goin' to do, by the looks. Hold, one more," Reno heard him shout an instruction. "Katelyn and Sherin can handle things here, so I'll get these science wankers to do something useful."

"Where're Maxx and Jask?"

"Called away by Tseng. Kytt's up there, giving him a preliminary report."

"The General's definitely dead?"

"Yeah. Zack, too, probably, by now."

Fuck. "Have you seen Dallas?"

"No, but then she and Braden didn't come up with the others, far as I can tell."

"Reno, what's the sitch?" Rude said.

"One sec," Reno said.

"Be there in a bit." Raith hung up, then.

Reno crouched down next to Rude and said quietly, "They aren't sending medicos."

"I just heard, from Tseng."

"But there will be some SciDiv peons here soon. Is it just me or does something feel very wrong here?"

Rude gave him a steady look.

"You know, beyond the great galloping huge wrong that's already happening?"

Rude nodded.

Raith arrived with the white-coated scientists then, and the next hour or so was spent looking for survivors and stretchering them to the spot Katelyn and Sherin had set up.

Reno frowned. It should've taken longer. Trouble was, survivors were few. Way too few. Finally, he wiped a hand over his eyes wearily. "We done here?"

"Think so," Rude said. "Much as we can, anyway. Fucking lot of use that is," he added in a mutter, angrily pulling off his gloves and throwing them into the smouldering ruins of the Inn.

Raith caught Reno's eye. "Little girl you were both hovering over when I got here died," he said quietly.

"Fuck," Reno said under his breath, watching Rude, whose jaw was clenched.

"We have to report back to Tseng up at the reactor once we're done," Raith said. "I'll go make sure Katelyn and Sherin are good to go." He paused. "We've been told to piss off."


"Yeah. It's a Science Division matter now."

Bloody hells. "Terrific."

"You look tired," Raith said.

"Everyone's tired," Reno said shortly, his eyes still on Rude's face.

Raith nodded, then headed in the direction of the triage area.

Reno waited for Rude, and they headed up towards Mount Nibel and the reactor. First thiing Reno did when they were out of the noise of what was left of the fire was dial Dallas' number.

It rang out three times.

Braden, however, picked up first time.

"Braden. Tell me you have her."

"Yes. Don't worry."

"Is that my brother?" That was Dallas in the background. "Give me that."

Reno winced. She sounded pissed.


Yup, correct that to pissed. "Yes, Dallas."

"Can you tell this blind moron that I do not need to be rescued?"

"Think he already knows that."

"Then tell him to let me go."

"You're so all-fired independent, Squirt, tell him yourself. You're not being held prisoner, and I have enough to do here."

"I should be there helping."

"Seriously? There is fuck-all you can do. Now give Braden a break. He has a job to do as well."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Ask him."

There was a pause. "How bad is it?"

Reno watched as some of Hojo's scientists loaded injured Nibelheim residents onto stretchers. "Pretty fucking bad. Trust me, Dallas. You do not want to be a part of this."

"I can handle death and destruction, Reno. I'm not a child."

"Oh, I know you can. But that's not what I'm referring to."

"What then?"

"Nothing I can go into now. Let's just say this whole thing is stretching whole boundaries of even my questionable morals and leave it at that, eh?"

Another pause. "Zack?"

"Went after Sephiroth. Rude 'n I are heading up to the reactor now, but from what I've been told... Dal, it doesn't look good."

"If Zack couldn't stop him... Reno, who did?"

"I don't know the details yet. When I do, I'll be in touch, 'kay? For now, just be nice to Braden."

She grunted. "You be nice to him."

Reno winced at the sound of the phone hitting the ground.


"Hi Braden."

"Sorry about that. I wasn't prepared for the phone flying towards my head so I wasn't ready to catch it. Not really used to this level of 'unreasonable' from your sister."

"Yeah, not really her usual thing."

"Tseng told me what they're doing up there."

"You can explain it to Squirt, then."

"Not sure she'll take it well--if she even believes it. She's in the camp of 'sure Shin-Ra has done some questionable things in the past, but overall...'." He sighed.

"You have no trouble believing it. Hells, I have trouble believing it, and I'm here."

"No trouble at all, Reno. It's not the first time they've done--oh, hells. Better go. She's out the door. I let her back there and Veld'll kill me. And I don't mean metaphorically."

"I don't envy you, buddy. G'luck." He snapped the phone shut.

Rude raised an eyebrow.

"Veld's put Braden in a shit of a position."

"What d'you mean?"

"Well, here's the thing. He's raised a smart girl with a tendency to independence but the ability to still invest herself in people, taught her how to look after herself, or work with an equal partner, then ordered the one person who she truly needs to respect and love that about her--oh, and who, by the way, does--to try and hamstring her."

"Just wants Braden to keep an eye out for her. We do that all the time."

"Sure we do. But we're not asked to interfere with each other's free will to do it, are we?"

Rude was silent a moment. "Not usually."

Reno caught his eye. "Not past rookie-hood, anyways."

"And so...?"

"Well, Braden's been ordered to keep her away from here, and not to tell her he's been ordered to do so. And Dallas hasn't been ordered to stay away. All equals 'Veld's a gutless fuckwit' to me."

"Thought you were past that."

"Not entirely, no."

"So... Braden's been ordered not to tell her."


"And you, the supposed king of orders sophistry."

"Beg yours?"

Rude indicated Reno's collar. "How many times have you been ordered to wear a tie?"

"None, actually. I'm just--ah, I get your point, Rude. Sneaky of you. I'm impressed. Time for some all-out interference on my part, I guess." He glanced up the hill, watching more scientists scurrying about. They were close to the reactor. Any closer and it wouldn't be a private conversation. "Hang a sec." He pulled out his phone and hit Dallas' number. Took three shoots to voice mail first, but he finally got through to her.


"Shut up and listen. Stop fighting Braden. If you come back here, Veld will have his ears on a platter."

"What are you talking about, Reno?"

"You're a smart girl. I'm sure you'll figure it out. But if you're going to be angry with anyone, you're focussing it on the wrong man."

"Reno, I'm warning you--"

"Oh for fuck's sake, Squirt. We all have orders to follow. Even Braden. Geddit? Now I gotta go." He shut the phone. He didn't feel particularly good about that. But then, he didn't feel particularly good about anything at all. Not on that day.

"Blunt," Rude commented.

Reno glanced up the hill again. "I'm not in the mood to be subtle." He sighed and started walking. "Let's do this."

"Raith had it right. That is Hojo," Rude said in a low voice.

"Well, my worst suspicions just upped three notches of bad," Reno said.

Rude shot him a you ain't kidding look as they reached Tseng. All of the other Turks had already arrived, except for Jask, and Dallas and Braden, of course.

"Done?" Tseng said.

"Best we can," said Reno, "Between us."

Tseng looked relieved and turned to watch the activity at the reactor, arms crossed.

"So, what'd you see?" Reno said to Kytt.

"Some," she said.

"Zack took out the General?"

"Nope. Gave it a try, though."

Reno blinked. "So if Zack didn't do it, who did?"

"You know that kid you were drinking with last night?" Kytt said. "What's his name?"

"Cloud Strife?" Reno said.

"Yeah. He did it."

"No way," Rude said.

Kytt nodded. "He did. Stopped to check on Tifa, then came up behind the General and shoved a sword into Sephiroth's back while he was going for that... whatever it was he was after. Then the General speared the kid through."

"Not even a SOLDIER, and Zack couldn't do it. What was this Cloud kid thinking?" Raith said.

"He got the job done, didn't he. Man'll do funny things for love," Reno said sadly. And the kid never even got a sample of the best bit. Whole thing made him sick, but for some stupid reason, that made him feel the saddest of all. "Hope it was quick for him."

"Oh, he's not dead," Kytt said, indicating one of the stretchers with her head.

Reno turned to look, and sure enough, Cloud was lying on one of them, pale as death, but not a corpse, yet. Zack was on another stretcher nearby, also, surprisingly, still breathing.

Maybe not quite as surprisingly. SOLDIER, after all.

"Although I'd say he's pretty close to it," she continued. "And he still managed to kill the General. Pulled himself right off Sephiroth's sword and... I'm not sure how, I didn't see, Sephiroth went over the edge. Right into the mako pool."

"Where's Tifa?" Reno said.

Kytt shook her head. "Gone."

"Dead, too?" Reno said. "Holy fucking--"

"No," Kytt said, in a very low tone. "Literally, gone. Her martial arts master came and took her out of here."

"Reckon I didn't hear that," Reno said. He looked at the other Turks. "Any of you hear that?"

The others shook their heads, except Kytt. "Can't hear somethin' I never said, in any case."

Tseng turned back to them and looked over them, his face tired.

"Think Avalanche had anything to do with this?" Maxx said.

Tseng shook his head. "This time, I'm going to say no." He frowned. "I think this was just... Sephiroth's insanity."

"Yeah, but the question is what sent him there," Katelyn said.

"I have an inkling," Tseng said. "Nothing I can discuss right now, though. I know you all want answers, but I am not able to provide them. Not now. Soon." He looked at his watch. "I wish the Chief and Jask would hurry."

"They're at Shin-Ra Mansion," Kytt explained quietly when Rude raised an eyebrow.

"Ah," Reno said. "Why?"

"I have no idea. Heard Tseng say something about a research laboratory in the basement and wanting to make sure everything was still intact."

Reno shook his head.

"Another three notches?" Rude said.

"Four," Reno said grimly. "Say 'secret laboratory' and 'Hojo' in the same breath and I'm pretty sure no one's trying to figure out how to brew the best cup of coffee on Planet."

"Don't forget 'special top secret orders from the President'," Raith said.

"Oh, that gives me major willies," Sherin said.

Reno noticed Jask and the Chief, then, and cleared his throat softly, just as Professor Hojo joined them. "Hey, they’re back."

Tseng acknowledged Veld, but Veld addressed Hojo. "The mansion is ready."

Hojo was an unpleasant-looking man with a worse voice. "I've been waiting for this. Start bringing the survivors into the mansion."

"All of you. You heard him," Veld said.

"Hurry it up. I want this operation done fast, just like in Kalm," Hojo said.

Reno blinked. In where? What?

Katelyn glanced at Tseng, who said nothing. "Sir. Are the people carried to the mansion going to be..." Her voice trailed off when Veld looked at her and frowned.

No way, Reno thought. We did not spend time trying to keep those people alive if... He glared at Veld. "You're not saying anything?"

Rude shook his head. "In other words..."

Hojo rolled his eyes. "Don’t worry. I'm not going to kill them. They're going to become the test samples for my brilliant new ideas. Can't you imagine the possibilities?" Then the man giggled. Actually giggled.

Shiva, he's as mad as Sephiroth was, Reno thought. He glanced at Veld again, who was still saying nothing, and then at Tseng, who had a disgusted look on his face, but was likewise silent. "It's going to look weird if all the townspeople disappear at once."

"That's been taken care of," Veld said. "Shin-Ra employees will rebuild this town and play out the parts of the villagers."

From the looks on the other Turks' faces, they were all as shocked as Reno felt.

"Your opinions do not matter," Hojo said. "Just get them into the mansion." Then he went off to check on Cloud's stretcher. "Yes," he said. "This one will do nicely."

Oh, Gods, no, Reno thought.

Rude was the first to speak. "Sir..." This, directed at Veld.

"This is too dirty," Tseng said quietly, his eyes on Veld.

Yeah, and what did he mean, again? Reno just... Kalm? What? When? Were his own parents a part of something like this? As employees of Shin-Ra or as victims? Either way, Reno wanted nothing of this, job or no job. "Can't keep doing stuff like this, you know," he said.

The other Turks were silent, but then, Reno knew they were expecting the Seniors and Tseng to make the case for them.

Veld regarded them all impassively for a moment. Then, "All right. You don’t have to do anything. I'll handle everything here."

"It was Kalm, wasn't it," Tseng said. "Where your wife and Felicia died."

"Felicia?" Reno said. "Was that your daughter?"

Veld nodded and so, Reno noticed, did Jask. He raised an eyebrow.

"Funny stuff happened at that Mansion, dude," Jask said.

"He saw what I did," Veld said. "I killed my family."

"No, sir," Jask said. "You didn't. He ordered a hit on a target some distance away."

"Still, Kalm was hit, and many died. And those that didn't..."

"Ended up having done what Hojo's doing here?" Reno said. "Kalm was my home town, Chief. Anything to say?"

"It was well past your time, Reno," Veld said.

Reno nodded tersely.

"All I know is, it was my order that dropped the bomb that killed my girls. So, from that day on, I killed what was left of my emotions and focused on my work. It was the only way I could forget what had happened. I lost my family. The only thing that I could lean on after that was the Turks. But I don't want you to become like me. That's why I'll do this. Now please, all of you, go back to HQ."


Midgar, 5 years until Meteorfall

The debrief on the incident at Nibelheim was concise and to the point.

No one was to speak of it, ever again. To anyone. For any reason. Any Turk who did so would be shot. This last, delivered by Veld in clipped tones that clearly indicated he hoped he would never, ever have to make that decision and he expected all Turks to spare him from it.

Any further information on Sephiroth's actions would be provided on a need to know basis only, if and when it was deemed necessary.

They were not to ask. You couldn't, after all, ask about something that never happened.

"Dismissed," he said.

The Turks, apart from Tseng, all left Veld's office quietly. Outside, Reno looked at the sea of faces in front of him. All of the Turks except Braden and Dallas, who had not returned, and all with equally grim expressions. No word was said, but Reno knew. They looked at each other, and they decided, together, that they would obey their orders, this time. But, never again would they stand by and watch something like that happen.

And he, somehow, knew that he was now considered by the Juniors to be their point of authority. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He wasn't even sure if he wanted that. It took him back to school, where he'd worn a similar unintentional mantle. Except that, this time, Raith was actually one of his. Professionally speaking.

One by one, they went their separate ways, to their respective duties, or to their leisure time. Katelyn and Maxx had patrol. Reno didn't know about the others.

As for him and Rude? Well, they were the Seniors on the spot. They both had a mountain of paperwork to do on the incident that just hadn't really happened.

Once done, late, late at night, they went to their apartment. Reno did sleep. He couldn't help it: he was exhausted.

He rarely remembered his dreams, but that night... well, he didn't remember much, just images. But they stuck in his mind. One, of a fuckable blond almost-man with a hero complex, piercing blue eyes and a winsome smile.

And the other, of a little girl who had been promised a pretty new dress.


The year continued to pass, and Reno allowed himself to be dragged along by it, keeping to his duties, and also pretty much to himself.

It was probably his imagination, but a peculiar kind of lassitude had settled over him, and from what he could tell, the other Turks as well. It was like Nibelheim had infected them all, leeching into them with that kind of dirt you could never wash off, no matter how hard you scrubbed.

It was not just that, though. Avalanche was quiet, but SOLDIER was in tatters. And a sense of menace hung over them all.

That might have been Reno's imagination though.

The other strange happening around HQ was that, after years of seemingly being disinterested in his father's company, the young Vice President suddenly seemed like he was everywhere. Reno wasn't sure he liked Rufus, at all. There was just an edge to him he didn't like. It was probably the spoiled entitlement thing. He wasn't so much a brat, but he was a young man who knew what he wanted and wasn't backward in demanding it.

Reno kept out of his way. Seemed politic to keep your head down around that one.

One thing was certain. Turks drew together, almost as a unit, with each other, against outsiders. But, mostly they kept within their respective partnerships, and did not mix often beyond them. There were no more trips to the bar as a group. Reno noticed a distinct cooling of relations between Tseng and Katelyn, and without drama, they quietly split.

Reno, under penalty of death, was unable to tell Dallas what had gone down, but fortunately Braden was able to fill her in on what he knew, from what Tseng had told him before the order went down, and before he was ordered quiet himself. She was distraught at Zack's treatment and from what she told Reno, was spending most of her time with Braden, who was, again, her partner. He was glad. It was about time.

Reno found it easy to withdraw. He was, after all, still under orders not to "associate" with Raith, who, frankly, showed no interest in talking to Reno anyhow. When he did run into Raith, Raith was decidedly frosty. Reno found that hard to undestand, especially since he'd thought, just for a moment, that the one positive that had come out of the Nibelheim incident was how well he, Raith and Rude had worked together.

It wasn't much of a positive, but still.

He and Rude, like the other partners, grew inseparable as a unit, spending most of their time, on duty and off, in each other's company to the exclusion of others', except where their jobs called for it. The end result was a kind of domestic congeniality that Reno found both comforting and disturbing. Comforting, because it was familiar. Disturbing, because it was a similar congeniality to what he and Rude'd had back in the Slums; similar to the one he'd had with Raith, minus the sex, of course.

Reno considered that it was the "minus" part that bothered him, but he knew better than to dwell on that for long.

There was one sour note. The only place Rude would not go was his own mother's. And that pissed Reno off.

The shakeup occurred on the second last day of the year, in the form of a phone call while Rude, Reno and Sherin were doing some spot training in the gym. Rude was doing some circuit training while Reno ran Sherin through some forms and practice sparring.

Rude's phone rang twice, and Reno knew he hadn't heard it from the other side of the gym, so picked it up for him.

"May I speak to Rude, please? It's rather urgent." The voice was female, and not someone Reno knew, that he recognised anyway.

"One sec," Reno said. "Rude!" he yelled across the gym. "Phone! Says it's urgent!"

Rude stopped hitting the bag and raised a hand in response.

Sherin looked on, wiping her face down with a towel, until Reno had handed the phone to Rude. "I'm kinda done for the day, sir, I think," she said.

Reno was paying more attention to Rude, whose face was furrowed into a frown, as he spoke quietly into the phone.

"Yeah, got it," Rude finally said. "Thanks Chelsea." He picked up his stuff and walked towards the door.

Sherin and Reno exchanged glances. "Isn't Chelsea the name of the woman you had me follow last year?" Sherin said. She frowned. "About this time last year, if I recall correctly."

"Yeah," Reno said, watching Rude leave the gym.

"The Avalanche operative, who was supposed to use Rude to infiltrate Shin-Ra and fell for him instead; couldn't follow through?"

"Yup," Reno said sourly.

"Didn't that cut him up a bit?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Think she's trying to set him up again? Or is she after a date?"


"Yes, sir?"

"Shut up."

"Yes, sir."

Reno caught up to Rude just before the elevator doors shut. "'Sup?" he said.

"Tell you when I tell Veld."

"Ah. So, not a date, then."

Rude gave him a blank look.

Veld listened to Rude quietly. Seemed Chelsea had told Rude that all three Avalanche leaders, Fuhito, Shears and Elfe, would be at their new base, in Wutai, in the next few days, along with their inside informer from Shin-Ra. Veld asked a few questions, which Rude answered, then nodded. "We'll send someone, then. Not you," he said to Rude. "You're too compromised for this mission."

"As you say, sir," Rude said stiffly.

"Besides," Reno said, "have we missed the big red blinky button that says 'please press here. This is a setup'?"

"I have thought of that, Reno." He looked at Rude again. "I'll send Tseng, Katelyn and Maxx. If I need to talk to you again, I will, but for now, you are not to contact Chelsea again."

"Of course not, sir."

Veld nodded. "Dismissed."


Midgar, 4 years until Meteorfall

Veld did send Tseng, Katelyn and Maxx to do the job within a few days, and they did, in fact, manage to destroy the Wutai Headquarters. Tseng was pretty strained when he returned, mostly because, Reno thought, Katelyn ended up pretty banged up. His guess was that the two of them, given another choice, would not have broken up.

Reno believed it was probably because they had, deep down, a serious division of opinion regarding the Nibelheim incident. But, both of them followed orders to the letter, so how in the Blue Hells were they going to be able to talk it out?

According to the debrief, all of the leaders were eliminated. There had been no sign of the informant, that anyone had seen, but Reno happened to be looking at Veld when Tseng said that, and so he saw the glint in Veld's eye. The old bastard already knows who it is, he thought.

For the first time, he seriously considered it actually was Veld, for about three seconds. Didn't add up enough.

The whole thing just put Rude into a shitty mood, and he banged around the apartment for a couple of days until Reno finally got sick of it. Raith, annoyed, had been amusing and almost cute, like a petulant child you could kiss to easy smiles, but Rude, annoyed, was more like an overdue time bomb that was like to blow up in your hand if you were silly or brave enough to go too close to switch it off.

Reno preferred "brave". At least Raith'd tell you what was up if you asked. Or had, once. "Gonna tell me what's up with you, Mister Pouty, or am I expected to read your mind?"

"Pouty?" Rude growled.

"Yeah, I know as well as you do that you don't pout, but I needed your attention. What gives?"


"Oh, that. Is that all?"

"Doubt my loyalty?"

"Did you fall for the girl?"

Rude kept muttering. "Everything I've done for that stinkin' boss and he has the fucking gall to--"

"Did you fall for the girl?"

"When have I ever even needed to be brought up on--"

"Did you fall for the girl, Rude."

Rude avoided his eyes. "No."

Reno turned a Rude-like steady look on him.

"Not really," Rude amended.

"You were screwing her though."

Rude didn't answer.

"Hence, compromised." Reno ignored the pit of annoyance that created in him. Stupid. He didn't do jealous. "Get over it." That last was probably as much to himself as to Rude, really.

"I would never intentionally--"

"The key word is intentionally. 'Emotional entanglements dull job effectiveness and/or create unnecessary complication.' Every rookie knows that one. Just look at what happened with Katelyn and Tseng. Or Braden and Dallas, for that matter." Or... him and Raith. Reno thought he understood Veld's order, kinda, now. Even Tseng had said that Raith had managed to make Reno lose his judgement, for a time. Sure, he got over it, but... he sighed.

Yeah. He really got over it. Reno knew that wasn't really the case, even if no one else gave a shit.

Was nothing simple?


Meanwhile, preparations continued for a huge event in April: the launch of the Shin-Ra No. 26 into space. While legend--Shin-Ra propaganda probably--said that an ancestor of the Shinra family had arrived on Planet from another, this would be the first known attempt at space travel.

It also meant all hands on deck, so to speak, as all of the Shin-Ra execs, including both the President and Vice President, would be attending the event. Rude and Reno had been assigned to the President, Raith and Kytt to Rufus, and the other Turks were spread out between the other executives and general security under Tseng.

Reno did not envy Raith and Kytt, at all. Or, for that matter, Maxx, who'd been assigned to Heidegger. He was concerned, though. With the apparent destruction of Avalanche, there was way too much complacency, even in Veld. It didn't make any sense, that. Surely he knew better?

"So, apparently everything's on schedule," Rude said three days before they were set to head over to Rocket Town. "Have you had lunch?"

Reno yawned widely. "Yeah. Got something on the way home from Ma's."

Rude looked uncomfortable, as he usually did when Reno mentioned Felice.

Well, screw that. It was about time Rude got over himself. Reno was sick of lying to Felice's face, even though he knew she probably wouldn't catch it. It just wasn't right. "Before we go, Rudolph, you are going to visit Felice."

"I'll do it later."

Oh, for fuck's sake. Enough. "You gonna handle every fucking difficult thing in your life by running away from it like a screaming wuss?"

That got his attention. "You calling me a coward, Reno?"


Rude's eyes narrowed.

"Oh, seriously?" Reno said sardonically. "Okay, yeah, sure. Get huffy. See if I care. We both know you can beat my head in. Whoop de fucking do, big man. I'm not talking about your fucking battle prowess and you know it, or would, if you could get your head outta yer arse long enough to pay attention." Reno sighed. He should know better. Get too straightforward with Rude and he just dug his stubborn heels in and glowered more. He ran a hand through his hair. What the hells, needed cutting again? Stupid frickin' stuff. "What d'ya reckon, Rude? Shave my head?"

Rude blinked.

"Save me on haircuts, I figure."

Rude blinked, again.

"And if you've ever had any regard for me at all, friend o' mine, you'd stop making me deal with Ma's situation on my own."

Rude adjusted his tie. "Yeah. Sorry. Guess I never looked at it that way." He sighed. "I'll go now." He was out the door before Reno could say anything more.

Huh. Frankly, Reno hadn't loooked at it that way before, really, either, until that moment. He'd been too busy worrying about how it was affecting Felice, and Rude. It was kinda disorienting to know that Rude was motivated by... me? he thought. What the fuck. He dragged his brain from the path it was trying to tread. It's what friends did. That was all.

Still. It was weird. Sometimes, Reno thought that he could, maybe, just see how Rude would respond to some small gesture that... he shook his head. Cos, of course, reality. Trying to tell Rude how he felt hadn't worked. "Just... don't ever touch me like that again, okay?"

Reno had many faults, he knew. But invading someone's life in a way they didn't want him to sure as hells wasn't one of them. And Rude, epecially, given that tendency to, y'know, run like a screaming wuss.

He ran his hand through his hair, again. Maybe it was a pointless waste of time trying to keep it short. Ish. Stuck out all over the place anyways.

Well, he had the rest of the day free, Rude wasn't around and Reno had no other plans. Sounded like a great opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

Wasn't like he was getting laid any time soon.

Wasn't like he was really trying to.


Rocket Town, 4 years until Meteorfall

Fuck, it'd been a long day. Rude yawned widely before letting himself into the hotel room he shared with his partner.

Long, and irritating. What should've been a fairly straightforward pre-event security check had turned into a passive-aggressive dialogue between father and son about how the Space Department was a waste of money and resources. Rufus was going to "change things" when he was President, apparently. Rude was of the opinion he'd never get the position if he kept spouting off like that.

Watching Reno chat up some local girl'd just added to it. He was supposed to be working, not trawling for tail.

Yeah. That was all it was.

Rude'd asked Reno to keep hands off, but fact was, there were days he regretted that. Well, Reno'd done just that, so it was all for the good. Wasn't like he could go back and un-say it. Wasn't like he wanted to. He wasn't giving Reno any reason not to trust him in that way. Not again.

He put the bag of food down on the table. They'd both decided, after dealing with Rufus the Dickwad all day, the last thing they needed was a trip to the local bar. Rude felt sorry for Kytt and Raith. They were the ones that really had to put up with it.

Rufus'd grown into a complete fuckwit. He'd been more reasonable when Rude was a rookie.

And thank Shiva for that.

He frowned at the empty room. Where'd Reno gone? He'd only been an hour. Forty-five minutes, tops. Finding a place that served food all night hadn't been difficult, given the influx of people for the launch. It was the influx of people for the launch that were the problem. Too many damned people.

"Reno? Food. Sorry it took so long, the crowds are bad, even this late at--" Rude stopped as Reno came out of the bathroom, and walked up to him, standing an arm's length away. Had he been crying? What? He didn't, not for... not unless... had to be Dallas. Rude's stomach bottomed out. "What's wrong."

Reno opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, swallowing.

"Reno, c'mon," Rude said. He couldn't see Reno like this. He couldn't. "Yer scarin' me."

Reno nodded and looked him in the eye. "Phone call from Kyrie while you were out," he said.


"Ma died."

No. "But... she was fine." She had been, for once, when Rude went to see her. She was smaller, frail, too frail for someone her age, but her mind had been clear and they'd spent the afternoon talking about old times, Rude's time away... his job, which she didn't approve of, but seemed to accept... and Reno.

"You're very fortunate to know him, you know that, don't you, Rudolph," she'd said.

"Yeah, I do," he'd replied, and he'd meant it.

"Don't ever forget it. Now, grab an old lady some tea, would you?"

He'd stood, leaned over and kissed his mother's forehead. "You're not old, Ma. You're beautiful."

So, no. He wouldn't believe it. But then, he'd have to believe that Reno was playing a cruel joke, wouldn't he. And Reno wouldn't... he wouldn't... "You're mistaken."

Reno hadn't broken eye contact, and his were swimming. He swallowed again, clearly trying not to break down. "Rude," he said quietly, reaching out and putting a hand on Rude's shoulder, near Rude's neck. "C'mon."


"Yeah. I know." Reno's hand was now curled around the back of Rude's neck. "You told me."

Rude wanted to tear his eyes away from Reno's. The obvious care was... too much. But he couldn't. Reno's face was grief-stricken but focussed on Rude, and that hand felt too damned comfortable. He needed out. He pulled back, trying to extricate himself from Reno's hand.

Reno, it seemed, wasn't going to let him go that easily, because he just tightened his grip, although not painfully, just enough to stop him. Truth be known, Rude didn't try that hard.

"Don't do that," Reno said.

"Do what," Rude said.

"That running thing. Don't need to." Reno's brows knitted and he rubbed his thumb up and down Rude's neck. Was a habit of his, obviously, that. And it felt too damn good.

Yeah, Rude thought, I do. Otherwise, he was going to give in to what he wanted. And that wouldn't do. "No," he said. "I have to--" he pulled away.

"You're not alone, here."

Stop looking at me like you pity me, like I'm more important than you. "I don't need you," he said.

Reno looked like Rude'd hit him. "Someone said to me once when I claimed the same thing that I was to stop being an arse, cos everyone needs someone, even me. Sound familiar?"

Rude swallowed.

"Well, back at you, then. Besides," Reno said, replacing his hand, "you're my best friend, Rude. Maybe I need you just as much right now."

Rude pulled away again. Gods, this was going to drive him crazy, and he needed to still his head. "I told you not to touch me like that any more. I ain't sleeping with you."

Reno's face went very still. "Who said that was what I meant?" he said, his voice frosty. "Fuck off, then. And when you work out exactly where you're goin' to run to, let me know. If you get around to it."

Anger. Rude'd hurt him, and all because Reno'd wanted to comfort him. That was enough. He picked up his glasses and the hotel keycard and left.

He made it as far as the roof of the hotel. It was a quiet, still kinda night, not the sort of night you'd expect to hear about... Ma. What did I do to you?. He sat on the edge of the aircon unit and looked up. Clear. Not as many stars as you'd see out in the middle of nowhere, but more than you could see in Midgar, where the lights were on all night.

He watched the lights blink on the nearby Rocket Tower, where tomorrow, Shin-Ra would have its triumph.

What the fuck did it matter?

He ran a hand over his head as emotion threatened to overtake him. He stifled it. He'd hurt Reno, again, insulted him, and didn't deserve to feel sorry for himself. Of course Reno hadn't meant that: it was only Rude's interpretation, born from the fact that it was on his mind.

He grimaced. Why was it that he could stare down a Kimara Beast or a Malboro or a horde of fucking Bandersnatches and he'd barely blink an eyelid, but when it came to Reno, he... Reno was right. He did nothing more than run away like a screaming wuss. No doubt at all, Reno was a helluva lot stronger then he was.

And what was he doing, thinkin' like this, anyhow? Thinking of Reno when Ma was--he swallowed, driving the grief down. It was easier to focus on one than the other.

You're a shit, Rude, he thought. Maybe. It was just... he hated it when it was obvious Reno was hurtin' and then acted like it was him who needed. Reno'd always been like that. Even all those years ago, when Rude had--he didn't get a chance to chase down that train of thought, because he was distracted by movement to his left. "Look, Reno--"

"No, not Reno, sorry to disappoint."

Rude looked up. He wasn't sure what Raith meant by that, so he let the statement stand unanswered.

Raith leaned against the wall opposite him. "I take it by the look of ya he's going 'Reno' on you, though. You have my sympathy."

Heh? Going what?

Raith frowned for a moment, then looked Rude in the eye. "He told me you were dead, you know," he said abruptly.

What? Rude clenched his jaw, breaking eye contact. Why would Reno say that? Wait, why would Raith say that? What the hells did he stand to gain from telling Rude this? "You're lying," Rude said, finally, looking back up.

"Sure. Okay. Cos I do that lying thing all the time." Raith was watching him steadily. "Or, y'know, not. I knew him at school. Did you know that?"

Rude nodded.

"Yeah. He didn't think much of me back then, and he wasn't far wrong. Even then, he was different. Better. I didn't just want him, I wanted to be like him. I wanted his, I dunno... his ability to do what he thought was right, no matter what. Later, I tried to emulate him, but I never could. Even now..." he grinned wryly, indicating his shirt collar. "I mostly do this to piss him off, but is this me, or him?"

Rude didn't comment. There was nothing to say.

"Thing is, I never did manage. Time was, Corneo wanted Seisin dead, and it was Reno and me sent to do it. He wouldn't. Came up with some stupid plan to help her, and it went pear-shaped."

"What's your point, Raith?"

Raith stared into the distance for a moment. "My point is, I was wrong about him. All that time I spent thinkin' he was better'n me and I was just plain wrong." He looked back at Rude. "First chance he got, he was out. And he was out because I made it so. And he fucked me over."

Rude glared at him. "Explain."

"Me? I'm scum. I handled the work with Corneo fairly well. But Reno? Working for Corneo was killing him. And I don't mean physically. So when I found out someone had ratted him out to Corneo, and that Don was arranging to have Shin-Ra kill him, I contacted Braden and told him that Reno wasn't responsible for, as it turned out later, blackmailing the President. That's what got me caught by Corneo, y'know. Then Shin-Ra had their 'plans' and their fucking drug trials, so there I stayed. And I'll wager a week's pay that Reno never said word one to help me out."

Rude was quiet for a moment, trying to make sense of the bitter tone in Raith's voice; the stuff he was saying. Didn't work too well. His brain wasn't working too well right then as it was. "Why are you tellin' me this? You want me to plead your case to him or something?"

The corner of Raith's mouth twitched sardonically. "Not a fucking chance. I wouldn't touch that bastard again if you paid me." His eyes glittered, and Rude knew with absolute clarity that, this time, Raith was lying--but not to Rude. To himself. He was bitter because Reno'd hurt him, and was still hurting him.

Raith turned those eyes on him again, then. "Friendly warning, is all. He made me believe that--" he stopped, then, and swallowed. "That he gave a crap. Then, he was gone, and I never heard from, or saw him again, not until Braden and Tseng hired me on behalf of President bloody Shinra. And he gives me the cold and has been treating me like shit on and off ever since." He paused, then looked Rude in the face again. "He uses people up. Don't be next."

"We're just friends," Rude said automatically, then blinked. He didn't need to justify himself to Raith, or anyone else. But Reno'd told Raith he was dead? Why would he do that? Then again, Rude realised with a pang of guilt, he was now denying Reno in much the same way, saying they were "just friends" when really, for Rude at least, every bloody day was an exercise in iron-willed self-control.

Then again, chances were Reno had really thought he was dead. He'd had reason. What was it Reno'd yelled at him when he'd first come to Shin-Ra? His Ma'd made a cake for his birthday and then given him up for dead when he didn't show? That thought meant he needed to fight to keep from choking again. Bad place to go. No, best place to go. He deserved it.

"Yeah, and I'm Bahumet," Raith said. He shrugged, then. "Up to you. Thought you'd like to know where he was really comin' from re you when he was fucking me."

Rude's temper bubbled. "You'd better leave."

"Keep yer pants on. I'm goin'." He looked at Rude seriously. "Really, what you and he do is none of my business, but this--Shin-Ra--is my life now. Turks, my family. I'm grateful you pulled me outta that place, whatever the reason, cos when he left I had no one, even if I didn't know that at the time. I ain't got nothing against you; I'm not telling you this to be a fuckwit. You're one of--if not the main reason I'm still alive, so I mean it. Don't get in too deep with him. Reno's a good Turk, I'd follow him anywhere professionally, but there's a reason for that. He don't feel. He will take what you've got and then let what's left eat you alive... and you'll somehow think it was your doing. Turks can't afford that, Rude. Not at the moment."

Rude wanted to know something else before he left. "Who was blackmailing the President?"

Raith gave him a lopsided smile that was strangely reminiscent of Reno's. "Well, Rude, I don't rightly know. For all I know it was Reno. All I know for sure is that it wasn't me." Then he left.

Rude felt his shoulders slump. There was no doubt that Raith'd been tortured by Corneo; starved, drugged, beaten, raped. Worse than anything Rude'd seen, or been through; main reason he'd always encouraged Katelyn not to be too difficult on the man. He'd always known that, felt a bit of a kinship as a result.

What he hadn't known was that it was all for Reno's sake.

Raith thought... wait. He thought Shin-Ra, and by extension Reno, had let it happen? Rude still didn't know the whole story, but the one thing he did know was that Braden and Tseng, and therefore Shin-Ra, hadn't a clue that Raith'd been in that dungeon. Not until Sherin told them, and even that'd been a fluke.

And he said Reno was treating him like... No sense. None. Rude frowned. What had Reno said once? Raith had betrayed him? How? Didn't he know? He couldn't know. Raith obviously hadn't told him where he'd been. And neither did I, he thought. He'd been ordered not to, and then, there was no reason to. Or so he'd thought.

He dropped Raith's comment about Reno not being able to feel right where it belonged: in the bullshit pile.

There was a sick feeling growing in the pit of Rude's gut, piled on top of the one already there. It was one thing to suspect that Raith and Reno had been together in his absence. It was another entirely to know it for sure.

Worse, to know that the only reason they were both angry with each other, on and off, even after time's passing, was because they still gave a shit about each other. Reno always did resort to anger when he was seriously hurt about something, and it was clear that Raith did the same thing. The only thing they were missing to get their act together was some info. And Rude had it. He was the only one who knew... who'd actually always known, if he'd been able to tell. If he'd known to tell. If he'd thought to tell...


Rude knew Reno well enough to know that whatever had happened between him and Raith, someone had crossed some wires somewhere. If Reno and Raith'd been--been... well, been, and had known about Corneo, Reno wouldna stood for it. Not if he'd known. Rude knew Reno well enough to know that if he had once cared, at all, for Raith, and knew what'd happened to him, Corneo would be dead now, no matter what their orders. And that applied even if Reno no longer felt anything for Raith. Corneo would've still worn bloody, messy death long before now.

Guess I should say something, then, he thought, old orders or no. He owed it to Reno. Let him make his own way, with all he needed to know.

But if you stay quiet, he could be yours... Rude ignored that childish thought. Not least because, he could take Reno, but Reno wouldn't be his, any more than Rude had been Krane's. Reno cared about him, no doubt; they'd been friends for a long time, and they worked well together as a result, but that wasn't the same thing. Crossing that line again would be a mistake.

Besides, he thought, you don't own people.


He looked up. Where was he, the middle of Wall Market? It was busy here tonight, especially for 0100. "Kytt. Didn't hear you come up."

"Uh-oh." She sat down next to him. "What's going on? You look like someone died."

Rude didn't answer.

"Oh. Bub, I was joking, but... who?"

"My Ma."

"Well, that sucks." The one thing Rude had always liked about Kytt, apart from the fact she was a good soldier and didn't suffer fools, was that she didn't waste time with empty platitudes. Instead, she simply folded her arms around his waist and dropped her head on his shoulder. "Do you want me to leave?"

He considered that for a moment, then realised he didn't want to be alone--and the irony was not lost on him. Kytt had always managed to calm his mind, and it wasn't like he could go back to the room... "No."

"'Kay, then." They sat there in companionable silence for a few minutes, before she spoke again. "Reno's Ma, too, all but, right?"

Rude grunted the affirmative.

"How's he taking it?"

Better than I am. "Not so well."

She lifted her head and looked at him curiously, the light from the rocket tower playing on her face. "So why aren't you with him?"

"We're just friends," Rude replied, automatically, again.

"Did I imply otherwise?" Her voice was quiet.

"He's asleep," Rude hedged. It was probably the truth.

"Hm," she said.

"Hypothetical," Rude said, mostly to change the subject. Kind of. Also to get another viewpoint.

"Okay, I'll bite."

"Say you know something, but you're not s'posed to say that you do. But the information you have could fix somethin' that shouldna had no need to be fixin' in the first place. Thing is, if y'do tell, you'd be... risking yourself in some way. And if you don't, you'd be lying in the worst way, almost betrayin' someone."

She looked at him squarely. "This is really eating you, isn'it?"

"Why d'you say that?"

"Because whenever you're really, really bothered about something, the Midgar Slum you spent so much time in Junon training yourself out of comes out in your speech." She sighed. "Do you tell. Hm. Well, that depends."

"On what?"

"One: is the risk worth the benefits? Two: why can't you tell?"

Rude frowned. "Telling would make two people happier." He did not add that it would make one person more unhappy. "Can't tell because ordered not to."

"Well, then. Shin-Ra first, Turks second, self third, everyone else last, bub."

"The people concerned are Turks."

"Ah." She paused. "One very important to you?"

Rude didn't say anything.

She sighed. "Rude, seriously. You need to wake up to yourself."

Heh? "No idea what you mean."

"I'm sure." Kytt shrugged. "One day, you'll work it out. Not my job to fix you."

"I need fixin'--fixing?"

"Maybe your attitude does."

Rude didn't say anything. Not much you could say to someone when you still had no idea what they were getting at and they didn't explain even when you asked them to.

She stood, then, and tapped him on the end of the nose. "Follow your conscience, Sergeant."

Rude grunted. He was planning to, anyway. It was just that his conscience warred between telling Reno and following orders that he wasn't sure even applied any more.

"Go on then. Go see if your partner's okay." She chewed her lip. "Are you okay?"

"I'll keep."

"Well, you know where to find me if you want to talk. Or grunt at me with expression," she added with a small smile.

Rude grunted--with expression.

Kytt shook her head, then squeezed his shoulder briefly. "See you tomorrow," she said, making as to leave. Then she turned back. "No. Actually, I have something to say. Forget Shin-Ra for one night."

He looked up at her, blinking.

"You talk in your sleep, you know. Or you used to." She paused. "I always did wonder who 'Reno' was--until I joined Shin-Ra." She sighed. "Your mother just died, Rude. Go take the fucking lid off, for once."

"We're just--"

"Friends. I know. Again, who said I meant anything else? I mean, you and I, we had a thing once, for two years, almost, and yet, you can sit there and just let me comfort you, right, no problems, all platonic-like? Reno's your best friend, and you can't do the same thing for him? Let him do for you what I just did? So what's different?"

Rude clenched his jaw for a moment. "You don't understand."

She snorted. "I do understand. Hells, even if I wasn't already observant enough to see what's been going on with Raith, I just got an earful anyhow." She put her hand up as Rude opened his mouth again. "I don't want to know the details. I don't care. And Raith could be speaking out of his arse, for all I know." She frowned. "He is, actually, a fuckwit, much as I like him, so he probably is. But, whatever. Just stop calling Reno your friend. It's hypocritical. Cos you're sure as hell not being one to him. Not on this night." She leaned over and took hold of his jaw in one hand, tilting his face up and pulling the glasses off his face. She stuck them in his jacket pocket and looked him in the eye. "Sergeant, sometimes, you gotta realise: even when it is about you, it ain't always about you."

There was no way he could explain. He couldn't lay off Reno, was the problem. If he didn't keep his distance, he'd... this was about Reno, not about him.

"And you still look confused. Okay, let me break it down for you. Realise it or not, you love him."

"Sure. He's my best friend."

"Don't make me kick you."

"Wouldn't want that."

"You know why you can do this with me? You weren't in love. No hard feelings, no real hurts, no issues. See what I'm saying?"


"You're in love with Reno, moron. And I suspect you always have been."

"You're wrong." Rude's words couldn't exactly carry the weight of his convictions, though. He didn't have any. But... fact was, he couldn't. Reno loved someone else, so he couldn't. "We're just friends."

"You stubborn--" She threw her hands up in exasperation. "I wash my hands of you. It's late, or, rather, early. We have the launch today and you're understandably exhausted. Go to bed, Sergeant."

"Ma'am." Rude was halfway back to the room before he remembered, with a smile, that she wasn't his CO any more. Admirable woman, that one. Then his smile faded.

She was wrong.

Fuck. What was he going to say?

Take your medicine. He took a breath and quietly let himself in.

Reno was already in bed, though, out for the night.

Rude stood for a moment, watching Reno sleep. He'd rolled on his side, curled up close to the wall, not at all his usual "why take only one side when you can have the whole bed" style. Funny. Rude knew Reno was as tough as anyone, but asleep, he still looked younger than he was.

Raith's words echoed through his head. He said I was dead... who knows, maybe he was right. Maybe I still am. Rude couldn't fault Reno for that, frankly. Rude had taken off and left Reno and his Ma alone. And now... it was just Reno. Alone.

He looked alone.

Reno didn't have to be alone, though. Once Rude told him what had really happened to Raith; told Raith that Reno hadn't known... no more alone. He rubbed a hand over his head wearily and pulled off his jacket, tie and shirt. We're not kids anymore. So why did he feel like climbing in bed next to Reno, without all of the dross, just like they'd used to, so he could cry for his mother?

Think of it, why couldn't he cry for his mother?

Raith wasn't the fuckwit, here. No. That would be me. He knew how Reno felt about Raith, but Rude just needed--no. He shut down the thought before he completed it.

He glanced at Reno once more before sitting on the other, single, bed to remove his boots. It occurred to him that, soon, it would be him who was truly alone. It was fair enough, really. What goes around, comes around. He'd left, so he lost.

If he hadn't left, Reno wouldn't've ended up with Raith. He frowned, stripping down to his boxers. Maybe. They had known each other at school, but Rude'd never met him before Shin-Ra, and Reno hadn't mentioned him, so it was a reasonable presumption. Then again, Reno never mentioned anyone from the school back then. He'd been too focussed on finding Vickie and Dallas.

Hells, Rude'd never even heard Hamill's name until he was a Turk and Reno'd shared a room with him for almost nine years.

This pulling on him was going to send him mad. Part of him just wanted Reno, and believed Reno felt the same way, then another part of him just remembered Krane. He tended to avoid entanglements simply because he didn't like where his head went when he let it. Was one thing that'd been good with Kytt. He didn't have to dig too deep; he stayed in control. Chelsea, pretty much the same: she was his job.

Reno, though... impossible. Some days, when there was nothing else to do but sit in the apartment and watch TV, he'd watch Reno instead, although he'd never let himself get caught at it. And he'd argue with himself over the whole thing. It got so sometimes Rude really felt like there was two of him up there, one trying to tell him to lay off, the other telling him to take what he wanted. That night with Reno... it'd awoken something in him he didn't want to look at: something that was just animal. That's what'd killed Krane. And he could never let that out, again. So, he lived cold, killed cold and fucked cold. It's all he could afford.

His thoughts were interrupted by movement from the other bed. Rude stood. Crap. Reno was pedalling in his sleep again. He frowned, worried. Reno'd always had nightmares, but as far as Rude could tell, they'd stopped for a while after Reno'd been ill. Lately, though, they seemed to be getting worse; more frequent. Generally, if Rude was in the room, or heard Reno from the hall when they were at home, he'd just stand next to the bed and put a hand on Reno's shoulder, just as he'd used to when they were younger, until Reno seemed better. No space this time though, so Rude figured he'd just keep an eye on him instead.

Then Reno's hands hit the wall, hard. Rude winced. Reno was going to hurt himself at this rate, so why couldn't he bring himself to just crawl in behind Reno and settle him? Kytt's right, he thought, I am a hypocrite, if I can't even do that for him because I'm--. Because he was what? Afraid?

Afraid of what, exactly? No. He wasn't afraid. He didn't do fear.

His mouth twitched. Yeah, he was. Screaming fuckin' wuss.

Carefully, so he wouldn't wake Reno, and keeping his distance, Rude climbed into bed behind him and at arm's length put his hand on Reno's shoulder. Reno quieted almost immediately, as he usually did. Rude watched him for a moment longer. What torments you? What has always tormented you? Same thing every night? Or does it change? He frowned. Reno himself probably didn't know.

Rude sighed, intending to remove his hand and get into the other bed, but then Reno did something Rude'd never heard him do during any of his other nightmares, or at all, really, awake or asleep.

He whimpered, like he was... afraid, and in pain. Like a small boy who'd lost his mother. Which, Rude knew because Reno'd told him back when they lived in the Slums, he had, some nineteen years or so earlier. Rude couldn't imagine what it'd've been like for a five year-old child to spend his last night in his own home sleeping next to his dead mother. And he didn't want to.

Then you took on mine as yours. Didn't seem fair that Reno had to do this twice. Hard enough just the once, the thought, forcing down the pain in his chest, again. "'Sokay, Reno," he said quietly. "Just sleep." He moved closer and wrapped his arm across Reno's chest, folding in behind him, burying his face in the back of Reno's shoulder.

Reno stirred. "Thought you'd pissed off," he murmured.

Rude didn't answer, instead focussing on trying to suppress the inevitable arousal the feel of Reno's naked body provoked in him. What was there to say?

Reno leaned back into him and took hold of his forearm with one hand. "Rude. It'll be okay."

His own statement mirrored back made Rude's heart hurt, and with Reno's movement, Rude was forced to lift his head so he could breathe. No, it won't. Nothing's ever been okay. Never was. Can't never be. Despite his resolve to leave, instead he found himself tightening his arm around his friend, and resting his cheek on Reno's ear.

"Yeah, it will," Reno said, as if Rude had spoken aloud. He was caressing Rude's arm, now, and turned his face towards Rude's. "We just gotta stick together."

Together. Rude closed his eyes and swallowed down that damned emotion, again. But he didn't completely succeed. "I do need you," he said, feeling like he would choke if he didn't let the words out.

"Yeah. Me too." He shifted, again, and his butt was leaning more firmly into Rude's groin. He was still sliding a hand along Rude's arm.

Please don't touch me like that, Reno. I won't be able to... But he didn't give voice to it, cos Rude didn't want to anger Reno, again. Not when that anger was really hurt. Instead, he carefully tried to extricate his arm, drawing it down and out of Reno's grip, across Reno's stomach... and his hand bumped Reno's erection.

Oh, gods. He was hard. So fuckin' hard... resolve fled, and Rude firmly ran the palm of his hand along the underside, fully expecting Reno to pull away and tell him, "not what I meant, arsehole."

Reno moaned softly. "Do that again."

What? Rude didn't react right away, his hand still, Reno's heat in his palm.

"Rude, please. Again."

Swallowing, Rude complied. So... hard. Felt... so good. Reno.

Reno rocked into Rude's palm, and every time he did, his butt ground against Rude's groin. Please. I can't... He slowed his hand so he was massaging Reno instead, hoping that would stop the hip movement. He could do this for Reno, then leave him be. He could.

It did stop him, but not in the way Rude'd hoped. Reno's hand snaked backwards and tucked under the waistband of Rude's boxers. "Lose these."

No, they're the only barrier stopping me from-- He kept massaging, trying to ignore the almost unbearable throbbing between his own legs.

"Oh, f--fuck, Rude. Lose the damned things." And he was pushing them down, until Rude felt his hand close around... fuck. Reno's breath hitched, his head arched back onto Rude's shoulder under his cheek, like he was trying to drive himself into Rude.

Reno was close, had to be. Rude could end this, now. He fisted Reno and upped his tempo, pumping until Reno's hand joined his and he was groaning a string of expletives.

It took all that was left of Rude's tenuous self-control not to bury himself inside Reno right then.

Then, abruptly, Reno went completely silent, and a split second later their hands were coated. Rude drew a shuddering breath. Thank Shiva. Now he could move away from Reno before he did any more harm.

Now he could move away...

Now he could...

Why wasn't he moving away? Why was he turning his head so he could kiss Reno's ear? Why couldn't he still his own breathing? Why was he still, gently, slowly, massaging Reno's softening groin, Reno's come between his fingers? He forced himself to stop that, to move his hand, but Reno's was holding him there.

"Don't stop," Reno murmured, still breathing hard. "Not done with you yet. Just... wait a bit longer..."

What? Rude couldn't think. Godsdammit, what? He clenched his jaw. He couldn't... Godsdammit... what? He was slipping... losing... grinding against Reno's butt, anything to sooth the fire...

Then Reno was stroking Rude again, his fingers also slick, stroking until Rude was covered in it, Reno's fingers like velvet-coated steel. "Want you, Rude. Want you. C'mon."

Gods, his voice. Want. Rude felt rather than heard his own low growl as his self-control snapped. Mine. An unbidden thought that was gone as soon it was there, but it was enough. He stopped stroking Reno's now hardening dick and took hold of his hip... and pushed, driving against the resistance until he remembered... Krane hurt less when he was slow... and he tried to take ahold of himself again and slow and he did his best but it just felt too damned good... until he was deep inside where he stayed, still, until Reno told him to "fuck me, dammit"...until there was nothing but sensation... the smell of him... the feel of him... and, oh, fuck, the sound of his voice... just... him...

Just him, and Reno, and the arguing in his head.

You've gotta stop.

I can't stop.

You gotta, you can't do this to him, not now.

But he wants me. See there? Can you hear him? That's want.

That's pain. It hurts. It always hurts. You're hurting him, and he can't get away.

No. He's free to move.

You've pinned your arms around him.

No. He's holding onto me, reaching behind, pushing me deeper. That... was... 'yes'. That... was my name.

No. You know how it goes. He's saying what he thinks you want to hear, so it'll go quicker. So it'll end. You gotta stop.

I can't... I need him... he needs me...

Need him? Needs you? You've trapped him, you selfish bastard. Waited until he was half asleep and vulnerable...

But... he
told me to...

Just pity.

He said he wanted me.

He doesn't know about Raith... STOP.

I can't!

You mean you won't.

I... don't want to. Gods, listen to him. Came in my hand again.

There you go. Now at least you're being honest, fuckwit.

Gods, Reno, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...

And, as he came deep inside, Rude knew that he was lost.

He didn't want to withdraw. He wanted to stay there, and hold Reno, and apologise, but the words wouldn't form in his head. And it only took a few minutes before the option was pull out or fall out, so you chose the former cos it was less agonising, the knowledge that you chose to leave rather than were forced to, even in this.

Reno rolled over and looked up at him, his eyes serious. "You need to move back a bit and give me some room," he said. "You've left me with the wet spot. Spots," he corrected with a lopsided smile.

Rude's stomach was going to wrench itself out of his body at this rate. How could Reno act like there was nothing wrong? Like Rude hadn't just... he couldn't face Reno like this. He just... shame washed over him.

He moved back, and went to climb out of bed, but Reno grabbed hold of his wrist, his eyes narrowed suddenly. "Don't you dare run," he said, his voice a low, annoyed growl Rude rarely heard from him. "Don't you fucking dare."

"Reno, I--" He stopped. He couldn't explain.

"C'mon," Reno said, his eyes softening slightly. "Stay. 'Sall right. Really. Get some sleep."

Rude had to clamp his jaw to stop himself from allowing the fear in. The fear that he had just lost his best friend again. The fear that he would never be able to put the animal back in its cage. The fear that it would only be a matter of time before he lost it, again. How could he stop that if he was lying next to Reno still?

Funny thing was, something inside him felt like that was the only thing that would stop it.

Reno had let go of his wrist, now, but it wasn't needed. Perhaps he sensed that, as he turned his back to Rude and rolled back, relaxing into Rude's arms. "Really will be okay, Rude," he said quietly before he uttered a deep sigh, and seemed to go to sleep.

"Night, Reno," Rude murmured. I could keep him. I could. And yet... much as he wanted... no. This was the last time. It shouldn't have happened at all, as it was. He held Reno close, and buried his face into the back of Reno's neck, not even realising that he was kissing Reno until he caught himself at it and forced himself to stop.

He was so ashamed, so... torn. What was right? Part of him wanted to keep doing this forever. Thing was, he knew it was just too dishonest to even try.

One more thing he did know, much as he didn't want to admit it. He owed a mental apology, at least, to Kytt. She wasn't wrong, not even close. He was in love with Reno. He always had been. Maybe... no. He still had to tell Reno what'd happened with Raith. You couldn't live on a lie. Then again... how he felt meant nothing. He couldn't love Reno. You didn't abuse the people you loved.

So why the fuck couldn't he let go?

He was on the edge of falling sleep when he heard Reno's voice, softly murmured from just this side of slumber. "Night... love you... Raith..."

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