Chapter Twenty

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), so I've just tried to stay mostly consistent for the sake of this story.


Rude wasn't there. Reno couldn't open his eyes; couldn't see; but he could feel that Rude was gone. And for the first time since he'd been hurt, Reno felt... panic. Real fear.

Why couldn't he move? Or speak? Rude?


"Whoa, there, Reno. Settle down. You'll bust your stitches." He felt a hand on his shoulder.


"Rude was getting a bit ripe. Made him go get some air and a shower while you were out to it. He'll be back. And pissed he wasn't here when you came to. Don't tell him, huh?"
Cloud? Hadn't he been and gone already? Reno tried to speak again, but he was too tired...

"...and we rebuilt it." Cloud was still talking when Reno floated back again. "Tifa's glad to have me around more I think."

There was a pause.

"I haven't had a good bourbon in years, y'know. You come to
Seventh Heaven when you're done here, and I'll get Tifa to track some down." Another pause. "He'll be back soon. Promise."


Midgar, 5 years until Meteorfall

The bar was almost deserted, which was, at that moment, exactly how Reno liked it. First day of the year was also the quietest day of the year, given that all of the regulars were at home nursing varying-strength hangovers from celebrations that'd gone on to the early morning. Good chance to take some time alone to think, away from the apartment; away from Rude; away from Shin-Ra.

He couldn't understand what was going through him. He didn't get his head, at all. Where did he get off, thinkin' it was okay to be feeling like this for two people at once? He buried Rude around Raith and buried Raith around Rude, but neither completely left him--and the irony was, it was all pointless anyway. What I really need to do, he thought, is forget about both of 'em.

He almost snorted aloud into his beer. Yeah, like that would ever happen. Both men had become so much a part of who he was that he didn't know how to separate them from each other, let alone himself. Strangest thing, given they were such different men. The only thing they had in common was they both didn't want him. You're a fuckin' moron, no doubt, Reno.

Thing was, he got Rude's point, why he was the way he was, why that was no more, sorta. They were all but kids, it'd been cold, stuff happened. Reno couldn't be sure, and he sure as all hells wasn't going to ask, but he suspected that'd been the first time Rude'd been groiny with anyone. So, Rude had regrets, all got awkward after. He guessed. But Reno couldn't for the life of him work out what'd gone wrong with Raith. Sure, Reno'd acted like a bastard towards him to start with, but once they were together, everything'd seemed fine. And that last night... Five Gods. It'd been real, even if nothing else was. Reno was sure of it. Or Raith'd been a real good liar over a real decent period of time. Reno didn't think so.

Then, he was just gone, without a word. Like Rude. Must be me. Has to.

Reno considered asking Raith why, for about two seconds. Fact was, he really didn't want to hear the answer he already knew anyway. It was one thing to suspect something was seriously wrong with you, something inherently unwantable. It was another to know for sure that there was.

And Rude wasn't going to give Reno any answers in that department. He'd already said all he was going to say.


He looked up. "Hey, Katelyn."

"I'm sorry to bother you," she said, looking like she was, actually, sorry.

"No bother."

"I have to ask you something, sir. In strictest confidence."

"Okay." He indicated she should sit.

She studied his face for a moment. "First, I should explain about Tseng. I--"

"You love him?"

She winced. "I do."

"Is he treatin' you right?"

"He is."

"You treatin' him right?"

She nodded.

"No need to explain, then," Reno said, and he meant it.

"No, really. I should have spoken to you before--"

"Katelyn. Put it outta your mind. I'm not worried about it."


"Do I need to give you an order?" he said with a smile.

She shook her head.

"'Kay, then. What's on your mind?"

Katelyn hesitated.

"You can speak freely, if that's what you need me to say, and off the record."

"It's not that; I'm just not sure how to broach this." She frowned. "It's about Raith."

Reno felt himself immediately on guard. "What about him?" he said, working to keep the "defensive" out of his voice.

"You must understand that I am only bringing this up with you because, for one, you knew him before the Turks, and for another, if I mentioned what I'm about to say to Tseng it'd go official. And while I know Raith and I have our differences, I've no desire to see him out."

"So, what is it?"

"I'm concerned about him."

"Concerned, how? Job performance?"

"No. Health." She hesitated again. "Actually, more to the point, his mental health. Has he always been so... moody?"

Reno blinked. Not at all, no. Raith could switch from vulnerable to brash on a tick's notice, and had that wall thing he did with his eyes, but moody? Not a term Reno'd ever associated with him. And, now that he thought about it, not a term he'd apply now, either. If anything, from what Reno'd seen of him over the past year, once Reno'd stopped getting on his case, Raith had been almost too calm; coldly professional, even. He decided to step carefully. Possibly, Katelyn's dislike of Raith was getting in the way of her judgement, even if she wasn't aware of it, yet... although, Reno couldn't discount her opinion, especially given some of Raith's behaviour. "What do you mean?" he asked carefully.

She frowned. "I'm not sure. Maybe I shouldn't have brought it up."

"No," Reno said. "You have now. And if there is something wrong with Raith then I want to know about it." His health, mental or not... damn well better tell me, Reno thought, then noticed Katelyn giving him a blank look. He'd been too vehement, maybe. "Part of my job is to keep you Juniors on the ball," he said. "If there's something wrong, then it puts you all in danger."

"That is one of the things that does concern me," she said, "apart from his wellbeing. His new partner will have a lot to contend with."

"I'm sure she'll cope," Reno said. Rude had been on the evasive side when Reno'd asked him how well he knew Kytt, but Reno managed to get the impression that Kytt was entirely able to handle most things. Even Raith. "But that's for others to worry about."

Katelyn reddened. "Of course, sir."

Reno sighed. "Don't be like that. Just tell me what you have to say."

"Raith has had some pretty bad headaches, sir."

What? Reno sat up and paid more attention. "Define 'pretty bad'."

"At least twice I've seen him driven to his knees by them, and he is not one to give in to pain easily."

Don't I know that, Reno thought. "When?" he said, genuinely alarmed.

"Over the last year, just the twice."

"Why is this the first time you've mentioned it?"

"He told me to butt out the second time, said he was dealing with it. And that was three or four months ago. He's seemed to be fine since."

"I'm confused. This sounds physical, not mental."

"He's not sleeping, he's irritable and he won't accept help."

"You said he said he was dealing with it."

"Yes. And I have also considered that it's only that he won't accept help from me, and that the reason he's irritable is that he's not sleeping. But I thought I had better mention it, sir." She paused. "If his new partner needs to say anything, it should not be the first anyone's heard of it. But, as I said, it may be nothing, which is why I didn't want to go 'official'."

"And now you figure it's my responsibility, and you can wash your hands of it," Reno said dryly. Of him.

Katelyn gave Reno a direct look. "Something like that, sir. You are, as you said, supposed to keep the 'Juniors' on the ball."

Reno drained his beer. "If I didn't like you so much, Katey--" he used her hated nickname deliberately-- "I would tell you off for that. As it is, sure, I get it." He stood. "Hope your time with Maxx is easier." He grinned then. "Do that thing you do with your hips with Tseng. Might loosen him up some."

Her mouth twitched into a smile. "Might, at that."

Reno frowned, then. It wasn't enough. "Contend with. Apart from differences of opinion, and Raith not feeling well enough to sleep properly, and being rude to you, what did you have to 'contend with', Katelyn?"

"Nothing, so much. It's more of a feeling I have, really. Let's just say he's not right and leave it there."

"Yeah, I don't think so."

"It's like something's missing. He's kind of... vacant sometimes, when no one's looking. Like something's been taken from him."

Reno nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Yeah. He probably should talk to Raith and find out what was what. And Reno couldn't figure out what was causing him more discomfort: the need to talk to Raith or the fact Raith was not feeling good. Discomfort? Yeah, that was one word for it, Reno supposed. Gave him a gutache, was what it did. He stifled a sigh. His responsibility, after all. "I'll look into it," he said. "Thanks for bringing it to my attention." Yeah, thanks, Katey. Really appreciate it. Really. So much for getting Raith off his mind. Waste of a good beer.

He wandered out of the bar and back up the street towards HQ. Figured he may as well get it over with. Not that he knew what to say. Hells, the last time he'd tried to talk to Raith privately about anything he'd been punched a few times and told to piss off.

He stopped walking for a moment, then, as a thought occurred to him. No. Surely Raith'd never taken his fists to Katelyn. Surely she would've said. He considered, momentarily. Yeah. She really didn't like Raith. She would've said.

Five Gods, what was wrong with him? It was only a conversation. Why was he so freaked about the idea?

Turned out that he needn't've wasted time or energy being worried, because he couldn't find Raith. Not at his apartment at HQ, not at the old one, nowhere. Wasn't answering his phone--but then, Reno considered, it may've been because of the who that was calling.

What if he's really sick and isn't telling anyone cos he hasn't got anyone to tell? Yeah, like Raith'd tell him, anyway. He sighed. Nothing was ever simple, was it. Well, there was one avenue he hadn't tried.

He headed for Veld's office. Veld's assistant wasn't at his desk, so Reno wandered to the door and knocked.

"In," Veld said.

Reno opened the door and stuck his head in. "Chief, do you have a moment?"

Veld put down the file he was reading. "What can I do for you, Reno?"

"Been tryin' to raise Raith and can't get him on his phone or at his place. Katelyn's still here so I thought I'd check to see if he was out."

Veld nodded. "Sent him up to Icicle this morning, get a few things done before Tseng and the SOLDIER go up there at the end of the week. Radio silence."

"Ah." Damn. "When's he due back?"

"When the job is done." Veld gave Reno a direct look. "Anything I can assist you with?"

Reno affected 'casual'. "No, sir. Nothing that can't wait. Thanks." Reno turned to leave.


Reno turned back. "Yessir?"

"Leave Raith alone."

Reno frowned, genuinely confused. "I wasn't--"

"I don't want you associating with him until I say otherwise." Veld's voice was firm.

What the fuck. "Why?"

"That's an order, son."

That word, coming from Veld of all people... Reno saw the years he'd missed of his sisters' lives, then. Those he'd never get back. "I ain't your son. My father was a better man than you'll ever be."

Veld looked amused. "I didn't know your father, so I can't challenge that assertion. But it's an interesting one, considering that you don't know me, either."

"I know all I need to know," Reno said. He swallowed. "Do you know what the one thing I remember most about my dad is? How important family was to him. He died when I was five years old, and yet I can still hear his words in my head like he said them two minutes ago. 'Family is important. It is everything. You must promise me, Reno, if anything happens to me, you'll look after your mother and sisters'." Reno closed his eyes momentarily as the memory of riding on his father's shoulder's dropped into his mind. Then he wore the anger again. "You denied me that, Veld. You. The one thing my father ever asked of me; the one thing I could do to honour him--you took that from me when you stole my sister and then didn't tell either of us, even after we'd met. Don't you ever call me that again."

Veld was silent, his face thoughtful.

"The real irony?" Reno said. "Turns out I am doing the very thing my dad would've liked. Flying for Shin-Ra, the organisation that got him killed, then took his kids and split them up. Go, me. He'd be so fucking proud. Now, am I dismissed, sir?" Reno turned on his heel again.

"Reno, wait."

"More orders, sir?"

"Don't be snide." Veld frowned, then looked back up at Reno. "I do love Dallas, you know."

Reno felt rage building. "That had better not be some sick, twisted declaration of--"

Veld put his hand up. "No, you misunderstand me. Dallas is like a daughter to me, and that is how I see her." He indicated the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat."

"I'd rather stand."

"As you wish." He leaned back in the high-backed chair and watched Reno for a moment. "I am the company's man. This. My job; my life. It's what I am, it's who I am, it's all I am. Therefore, it is easy for me to follow orders, for I have nothing else. It is even easier to follow orders when they do, in fact, coincide with my own interests. So, when I am told to take in an orphan who has just lost her only family, her sister, it is easy for me to do this, for she filled--" he stopped for a moment. "It was easy."

"Only family," Reno said flatly.

"Only," Veld said. "And, when I am later informed that there was, in fact, a brother, who was also being raised by Shin-Ra, as for all intents and purposes, that is what happened, as your home was funded by Shin-Ra, and that I was not to say anything to anyone, including Dallas, about that, this was also an easy thing for me to obey, as it fed my own wants. I did not bring your wants into consideration, for they did not suit the company, Dallas, or myself."

Reno frowned. "But... why? How does it, did it, serve Shin-Ra to keep us apart? I don't understand." He ground his teeth together, angry and bewildered. It didn't make any sense.

"I cannot answer that."

"Who was giving you your orders, Veld?"

"I cannot answer that, either. There is only one thing I can say, at this juncture." He took a breath. "I didn't want to lose my daughter, again, and so without conscious intention to do so, I denied you your sister. I must ask your forgiveness."

Well. That was unexpected, especially when it was delivered in the same tone of voice Veld always used. Cold bastard. Reno really didn't know what to say to that... but one thing he did know, it wasn't going to be sure, Boss, never mind. "Yeah, I'm gonna have to get back to you on that one, Chief."

Veld nodded. "I understand." He picked up the file again. "I am really very busy, Reno."

"Sure." Reno left the office, his mind running at chopper speed. Veld's selfishness, that Reno could understand, he supposed. But Shin-Ra's actions regarding his own family? Weird.

And why in the Blue Hells would Veld order him to leave Raith alone? That didn't make sense. Reno'd stopped giving Raith a hard time, well before Raith's training had even ended. Thing was, deep down, Reno knew that wasn't what Veld meant. And he also knew Veld didn't mean in the, for lack of a better phrase, romantic sense. He meant, at all.

Still didn't make any sense.

Ironically, it was going to be, Reno knew, an easy order for him to follow, cos it suited what he wanted, kinda. Raith was the very last person Reno wanted to deal with. And the bitch of it was that the reason he wanted nothing to do with Raith any more was because Reno knew that, given any chance at all, he would give everything away--the flying, the regular eating, the salary--just to turn back time to when before Raith left him. Just for one more fucking smile from the man.

And he hated that. Not just because it made him feel like he had no self-respect; hankering after someone who didn't want him, who'd left him, who would turn on him, although that was part of it. No, it was because turning back time to then meant that he'd lose Rude, as they were now, and it made him feel slightly sick to think about that. He needed Rude like he needed air. Fuck, but that's messed up.

And what if Raith was--well... Veld didn't say anything about not being able to keep an eye on Raith, when he could. When Raith was nearby to have an eye kept on him. If Reno could manage to do that without ripping his own brain to shreds first.

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts he almost missed the one that dropped into his head, only then, that wasn't about Raith, or Rude, or how stupid Reno was. What did he mean, "lose his daughter, again?"


"His own daughter died," Rude said, after Reno had filled him in that night while they ate dinner, on everything but the original reason he went to see Veld, or of anything about Raith, of course.

"I'm sorry, what? I didn't even know he had a family."

"He doesn't, now. 'Cept Turks."

'Cept Dallas, Reno thought, annoyed. "Why didn't you mention this before?"

"Never asked. No reason to." He picked the fried onions off the top of the meat of his second chocoboburger and ate them separately, then replaced the bun and bit into it. "This is really good, Reno. You can cook more often."

"I'll pass," Reno said shortly.

"Veld's a funny one. I know you don't think much of him, but to anyone without your reasons, he's inspired complete loyalty. Tseng and Braden are devoted to 'im, as were many of the Turks we replaced."

"Hard to see why."

"I don't know the whole story, but I get the gist that both Tseng and Braden would be dead if Veld hadn't recruited them, and that he treated them like sons." Rude took another mouthful, chewed and swallowed. "He's more distant now than he was."

So, kinda like Reno would be dead now if Tseng and Braden hadn't recruited him, and Reno had utter respect for them, and would've even without that, really. "What about you?"

"I wouldn't crawl through fire for him, but I don't dislike him." Rude gave Reno a direct look. "But then, I have your reasons."

Reno blinked. Well. That was... disturbing. He picked up his own plate and took it to the sink, pushing down any thought he had about pursuing that line of conversation as he turned back and leaned against the bench. All it meant was that Rude had his back. Besides, Rude'd asked him not to go there, any more. So, he wouldn't. "So what happened?"

"I don't know the circumstances, but he had a wife and daughter in Kalm, and then they died. And from what Braden told me, Veld holds himself responsible for it. He's the one instituted the 'no marry, no kids' policy for Turks. Guess he figured it was too hard if it all went pear-shaped. Guess he'd know."



Huh. So, the Chief was from Reno's own home town. Reno grimaced. Didn't make it any easier to forgive him. "What d'you think, Rude?"

"He has a real good excuse for it." Rude finished his burger and picked some crumbs off his plate, sucking them off the end of his finger, his face thoughtful. "Saw what it put you through," he said. "Years. I figure it's up to you."

Yeah. That was a lot of help.

Rude looked him in the eye, then. "But whatever you decide, I sure as hells ain't forgivin' a thing. Veld knew what it's like, so to put somene else through that, well, that's worse."

"Even if acting under orders?"

Rude avoided Reno's eyes. "Even if. What, we ain't people any more cos, orders?" He glanced at his plate, then. "Really good food, Reno."

Reno watched Rude clear his plate. The man was giving off some sort of weird... something. Made the hairs on the back of Reno's neck stand up, is what it did, like, danger. That was weird.

It was also giving Reno a hard-on.


He turned back towards the sink quickly and started filling it, gritting his jaw and he clattered utensils into the sink. Idiot. He really needed to get this stupidity out of his head, and fast, before he made things worse. Last thing he wanted was Rude to run off again. Maybe he should talk to Tseng about getting his own apartment.

"I can do that," Rude said.

"No, it's fine," Reno said shortly. "Really." He sighed, then. The crabby wasn't necessary. Wasn't Rude's fault. "Look, I'm sorry," he said as he turned back... but Rude had left the room.



Reno didn't get a whole lot of time to think about Rude, or Raith, or anything else, for that matter, for a while, fact of which didn't bother him at all. Nice to get his mind off, really.

Avalanche stepped up operations, so Veld sent Tseng and Zack Fair up to Icicle to investigate reported activity by the terrorist group in the area. Unfortunately, their chopper went down on a snowstorm on the way, so Katelyn and the new Turk, Maxx, were sent up to help Raith organise a search and track down what was going on.

Reno wasn't sure what to make of Maxx. He was a big guy, no doubt, as big as Rude. Hit as hard as Rude did, as well, from what Reno could tell. Unlike Rude, however, he wasn't at all shy, but blithely confident of his abilities, yet incredibly polite about them. He didn't come across as arrogant, but Reno would still raise the odd eyebrow at a couple of his comments.

He did have one major flaw, that Reno could see, though, from watching him fight. He was impulsive, occasionally jumping in without looking. It didn't necessarily stand him in good stead, either. He fought emotionally, his style changing depending on his mood, unlike Rude's more balanced, cool approach. Nevertheless, his ability in the martial arts field rivalled Reno's own, although he was nowhere near as quick.

Katelyn seemed to like him. Reno was glad of that. It was one less thing to worry about.

He had to admit he was very curious about what Kytt would be like.

While Raith, Katelyn and Maxx were in Icicle looking for Tseng and Zack, Veld ordered Reno, Rude, Jask and Sherin to try and track down Fuhito, the leader of Avalanche, along with his "special corps", who had last been seen in Junon.

It was a complete waste of time, as it turned out, because Fuhito had been in Icicle.

Raith's report on the incident was thorough and terse. Tseng and Zack had walked into Icicle and they had continued their search for the two SOLDIERs Tseng and Zack had been sent up there to find in the first place. During the search, Raith and Zack, along with Kytt, who had been living in Icicle for a month or so, had located the Avalanche Base of Operations on the area, but during an operation to sabotage the base, once Tseng asked Raith to do with Zack and the two rescued SOLDIERs, those SOLDIERs, who had been captured and somehow changed by Fuhito, had turned on Zack and Raith mid-mission, requiring them to be killed.

The mission failed as a result.

The executive called a meeting a few days later, after Rude and Raith's birthdays, once Raith and Kytt had returned. Reno arrived at the Turk conference lounge, waiting for the outcome of that meeting with a distinct feeling of foreboding, especially when he saw that the President and Rufus were present, along with Veld and Tseng... and Raith. Only Dallas and Braden were missing.

Reno passed the time standing in the back of the room with Rude, studying Raith's new partner, a tall woman, a bit older than Raith by the looks of her, business-like in approach, attractive but not in the perky way Sherin was or the cute adorable way Dallas was. Her face was serious and she had a stillness about her that spoke of some discipline, a military bearing, like Rude and Katelyn... but more like Rude. Her body language, when Raith said a couple of words to her introducing her to Jask and Sherin, was comfortable when she replied. Well, that's good, Reno thought. She obviously 'copes' very well.

He tried not to look at Raith, but he couldn't help it. Had to see if he seemed unwell, of course. Yeah. That was it.

One thing he did find interesting, though. She and Rude knew each other at Junon, supposedly, but other than a quick smile and nod of the head when Rude entered the room, neither bothered to talk to each other. In fact, when Sherin introduced her to Reno while Raith got himself a drink from the fridge, Reno could swear that she deliberately avoided looking at Rude.

The reason for that was obvious.


Reno spent a good five minutes wrestling with how he felt about that before deciding that it was pointless worrying about it... even if the thought of Rude and Kytt did give him more than a little of that 'discomfort' thing he frequently had to deal with. Wasn't like he could do anything about it, then or now. Wasn't like Rude wanted him, after all.

And his eyes were blue, not green.

"How're you liking it all so far?" he said.

"Fun," she said. "You know, so long as that whole bleeding death thing is avoided."

"Always a plus if you can do that," Reno agreed. "I hear you're pretty good at that, though. Avoiding death."

"Yessir. I make a daily practice of it."

"Good to hear. Keep it up."

She grinned.

Reno indicated Raith. "Keeping you on your toes, is he?"

"Pretty much, sir."

"No problems?"

She shook her head. "Not a one. Good gods, but the kid sure can shoot, hey, sir?"

Reno grinned, amused at Raith being called the kid in the same breath as she called Reno sir, given that the kid was a couple of years older than he was. "He is, at that." He didn't get a chance to say anything more, though, because Veld came out of the Inner Conference room, closely followed by Tseng.

It only took one look at Tseng's face to see that things had not gone well.

He took a seat at the table, waiting for the other Turks to do the same. "What happened, Chief?" he said.

Veld didn't have a chance to answer before Tseng spoke. "Why are they dismissing you? The outcome of the last mission had nothing to do with you!"

Reno blinked at Tseng's un-Tseng-like outburst, then glanced at Raith and Kytt, who were watching Veld with identically unhappy looks on their faces.

"It has nothing to do with the mission, either," Veld said with pointed looks at Raith and Kytt. "It's what's been decided by the executive. I have no choice but to obey."

Raith shook his head. "This is too much..."

Reno winced as he looked at Raith. Damn. Veld had been stitched up for whatever reason, and Raith was going to feel responsible, even though the mission failure had been nothing to do with Veld, and secondly, as far as Reno could tell, hadn't even failed because of Raith.

Veld frowned. "Rufus thinks there's a leak in the Department. The President has decided it was me. The mission had nothing to do with it. Be at ease." He stood and turned to leave.

Tseng stood, as well. "Sir, wait. What's going to happen to the Turks now?"

Veld caught Tseng's eye. "You're in charge now."

Then he left.

Tseng, Reno and Rude exchanged glances.

"What's going to happen to us?" Sherin said.

"We're under the command of one of the department heads, now," Reno said.

Tseng nodded. "We're to follow the orders of whoever is placed in charge of us. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter who it is."

Reno exchanged another long look with Rude. Rude's face clearly said exactly what Reno was thinking. This can't be good. There was a dearth of Department Heads to choose from, and they were mostly power-hungry bastards who were out for the good of themselves. Reeve Tuesti, the brand new Head of Housing and Development, was a reasonable man, but Reno couldn't see him being placed at the head of the DAR. Then there was Scarlet, Head of Weapons Development, and a complete bitch to boot. Also, unlikely. That left Heidegger. Public Safety.

Public Safety, my arse Reno thought. Try, 'can't see past my own fat head.' The man had already run the Shin-Ra military into the ground. Surely the President wasn't going to let him do the same to the Turks.

The door opened, and Reno realised that, surely, the President was a fucking idiot, as Heidegger walked in.

"Good. You’re all here. From this day on, I’m in charge of you lot, he said, plonking himslef down at the head of the table. ""You’ve been nothing but trouble from the start. I’d say your old boss couldn’t keep you in line."

Reno felt his temper rise. He wasn't fond of Veld, no, but at least the man, no matter how misguided his actions at times, had the good of the Turks on mind. Heidegger was a gnat Reno wanted, very badly, to swat.

Heidegger preened his beard self-importantly. "Things will be different under my leadership. It's not for nothing I'm in charge of the Public Safety Maintenance Department."

Rude looked like he wanted to say something but wisely, Reno thought, didn't.

"All right, Heidegger continued. "These are your orders. It appears that Avalanche is heading for Junon. I will want all of you to patrol the city. If there’s anything suspicious, let me know immediately. I’ll call on the army to take over from there. The army will take care of anything that happens in Junon, but I can’t deploy them if there isn’t a reason to. So you will find me a reason to."

So, what Heidegger wanted to do was use the Turks as bait so that he could have a legal reason to use troops on civilians. Reno wondered how long it would take to remove Heidegger's beard, strand by strand. It could hurt. A lot. The concept was not at all unentertaining.

Heidegger smiled, then. "I don’t want to hear any complaining--that’s all you Turks are good for, anyway." He stood then. "Well, that's all. Go scuttle somewhere and I'll call you when I need you." He left.

Reno didn't realise that he was heading after the bastard until he felt Rude's hand on his arm.

Tseng stood, his face calm. "I think this calls for a drink, people. Anyone else with me?"

Reno followed him to the bar without a word, and they filed into their regular corner booth and ordered drinks.

Rude was the first to speak. "What do you make of it, boss?"

Tseng winced. "I'd rather you didn't refer to me as that."

"It's what it is," Reno said, annoyed, not so much at Tseng, but more at the circumstances. And irritated by the effort it was taking to avoid Raith's gaze. What was with him? Why was he staring at Reno? "And the question stands."

Tseng took a mouthful of his vodka. "I think we need to watch our backs. There is a leak, but it's not Veld, so it hasn't been plugged. And Heidegger being in charge is... bothersome."

Sherin crossed her arms. "It's more. He now has all of the Shin-Ra forces at his disposal, and he got the President to approve it."

Tseng nodded. "We were supposed to be a different department with a different Head so that no one executive would have full military power." His face grew troubled. "Fact, the Turks aren't a military arm, but we are supposed to have separate executive power just in case the military Head gets above himself."

"And now he has SOLDIER, the Junon forces, military dispatch and the Turks," Kytt said grimly, exchanging glances with Rude and Katelyn.

Reno noted the exchange. "What?" he said.

"Checks and balances," Katelyn said.

"I don't know," Rude said. "It was only a rumour."

"Still..." Katelyn said doubtfully.

Kytt grimaced. "I'm thinking, now, that there was something to it."

"What?" Tseng said.

"Sir," Katelyn said, "what happens to failed SOLDIER candidates?"

Tseng frowned. "I don't understand the question."

Katelyn gave him an exasperated look. "It's a fairly clear one, Tseng." She coughed slightly. "Sir," she amended, her face apologetic.

He smiled briefly. "What I mean to say is, I presume they are sent home or conscripted into the army at Junon."

Rude and Kytt both shook their heads.

"We've never met anyone who tried and failed," Kytt said. "And I was there for five years, with some active service in Wutai before I was promoted."

"We haven't conscripted SOLDIER before, though," Tseng said.

"I still don't understand how anyone can fail," Jask said.

"It has to do with the mako," Reno said. "Some people can't take it. They get addicted to it or poisoned by it. Either way, further 'treatments' end badly."

"Ah," Jask said.

"Thing is," Katelyn said, "We picked up a number of conscripts last year, and, I don't know about the rest of you, but I've never seen any of them again. Not here, not back at their original homes. SOLDIER numbers haven't increased. So, where are they all going?"

Tseng looked troubled.

"Thing is," Katelyn said, "I have been looking at the histories we've been taught, and they don't... I don't know. They don't read right."

"Why haven't you said anything before?" Tseng said.

"Relevance," Katelyn replied. "Some of the contradictions lie in things my father told me. I figured that he was wrong."

"Your father?" Maxx said.

"Is an instructor at the Academy."

Maxx nodded.

"Why don't you tell me what's different," Tseng said, "and I will decide the relevance."

"Well," Katelyn said, "the histories we are taught here say that the Turks were moved sideways from Public Safety to Admin Research in a fairly recent department reshuffle, leaving SOLDIER and the army with Heidegger. What they don't say is that, in fact, at about the same time SOLDIER was moved to Public Safety."

Tseng frowned. "SOLDIER has always been Public Safety."

Katelyn shook her head. "Not according to my father. According to him, the army has always been Public Safety, Turks have always been Admin Research and SOLDIER was previously Weapons Development."

Reno frowned. Weapons Development was supposedly a pure research arm, working together with Hojo's Department, Science Research. Not a wing of the army so much as the department that, as its name implied, developed weapons. "Makes sense, if you think about it," he said. "SOLDIERs are more specialised weapons than an army. And once they were finally 'developed', move them. No biggie."

"Sure," Rude said. "So why hide it?"

Tseng nodded. "The fact, if true, is innocuous enough."

"Well," Katelyn said, "this is only a gut feeling but I think this is a reason why Heidegger wanted Veld out."

"I don't understand," Tseng said.

"I don't either, except that there's enough niggles going off in my head to think that. Couple of other incidentals." She knitted her brow. "Trying to piece it together myself. The fact it's hidden. SOLDIER being a part of WD is innocuous, so why hide it? More, why say the Turks were moved when they weren't? And, this all happened while Veld was a young Turk, about the same time his partner went missing."

"What did happen to Veld's partner?" Sherin said.

"No one knows," Tseng said. "Vincent is generally presumed dead." He turned to Katelyn. "If this differing version of the reshuffle was the case, he would've told me. Or Braden," Tseng said.

"No," Reno said with a glance at Rude, "he wouldn't. Veld is a company man, all the way." Not that that's done him any good.

"Until recently..." Tseng said, under his breath.

"Sorry, sir?" Katelyn said.

Tseng shook his head. "Nothing of importance." He frowned. "You think he knows why the cover-up, if that's what it is, and that is why he was fired."

"Sure had nothing to do with Icicle," Kytt said. "Wasn't his stuff-up. Or ours, for that matter," she added, glancing at Raith, who, Reno noticed, looked like he hadn't heard her. He didn't react, anyway.

In fact, if Reno hadn't known better, he woulda thought Raith'd just looked away from him. Stupid thought.

"Besides," Katelyn said, "it's not like Shin-Ra isn't extremely good at covering things up. Even big things that should, possibly, be noticed, that kill a lot of people." Her eyes met Tseng's then, and something passed between them. "Like rumours of an epidemic, started by Shin-Ra itself."

Tseng's eyes softened. "Only rumours, unproven."

Reno swallowed. She was talking about Vickie. "What about the other rumours?" he said, mostly to mask his own discomfort. "The ones you and Rude and Kytt mentioned?"

"They really were just stories," Rude said. "No reason to substantiate them."

Kytt grimaced. "Get a group of people together and you're going to get urban legends. Thing is, though, Rudolph, didn't you ever wonder what happened to them?"

Reno raised his eyebrows in surprise. Only one person got away with calling Rude that in public and that was his mother. Reno, occasionally. Anyone else? Never.

Yet Rude didn't even react to it. Instead, he nodded slowly. "Occasionally, curious. Not enough to give stupid tales designed to scare people a second glance."

"Well, do tell," Jask said.

Kytt shrugged. "We were in the army. People die. That's no surprise to anyone. Thing is, sometimes, recruits would just disappear, and they weren't dead, or executed."

"You were in a prison situation," Sherin said. "Escapes?"

Kytt and Rude loooked at each other, amused. "No," Kytt said, "not escapes. You didn't escape. Even if you were deployed a long way from Junon, there was no out."

"How is that possible?" Maxx said.

"It'll be easier to see on you," Kytt said.

Rude nodded and turned around, dropping his head slightly.

"There's a small scar, you'll notice, at the base of Rude's skull."

Reno looked. Huh. There was.

Rude turned around again. "That's where they plant the explosive."

"The what?" Reno said.

"You escape, go AWOL, or break the rules, then they set it off," Rude said.

"Effective little bugger," Kytt said. "No bigger'n my little fingernail, yet still packs enough of a punch to separate the brainstem. You only need to see that happen once to be smart and just see out your time."

Reno swallowed. That explained why, at least, Rude'd never even tried to contact them. "Is it gone now?"

Rude nodded.

"So, what were the rumours?" Maxx said.

"Recruits were taken, in the middle of the night, somewhere else, to a secret facility to have their minds probed," Kytt said.

Rude frowned. "Dumb-arse stories."

"Like the concept of 'magic' was dumb-arse, Rude?" Kytt said. "And now, you know it isn't."

"This is different," Rude said. "Mind probes?"

"People did go missing."

"People were stupid enough to break the rules and paid the cost. The rest was just to scare us."

"Stop being so damned stubborn," Kytt said.

Reno didn't know whether to grin or blink at that one.

"Nevertheless," Katelyn said, interjecting with a withering look at Kytt, "it doesn't add up, and I think Veld knows why."

Tseng sighed, his face doubtful. "I don't doubt what you're saying, Katelyn. I don't believe, however, that Shin-Ra would put so many people at risk by orchestrating, then releasing, a deadly disease just to test SOLDIERs. Heidegger, though, is another matter. He is power-hungry and looking for a vacuum." Tseng looked grim. "What I believe is that Heidegger will not rest until we are all either completely under his thumb or dead."

Reno set his jaw. "I'd rather be dead than be thumbed by that piss-pot."

"I'd rather you weren't," Tseng said firmly.

For some stupid reason, Reno caught Raith's eye in that moment. And the look on his face, before Reno dragged his eyes away... it made Reno feel hungry.


True to his word, at the beginning of the following month Heidegger sent Reno, Rude and Katelyn to Junon. True to Reno's belief, it almost killed the three of them. The only reason they lived was that, somehow, Veld was suddenly back in charge and the obvious Avalanche ambush was thwarted by his leadership.

Reno realised, in that moment, that maybe he could forgive the man after all.

After Junon, Avalanche was quiet for a while, and yet Reno was able to keep his mind busy with things other than his stupid, unwanted feelings for Raith and Rude. It was exhausting to the mind, all that pretending. He pretended, when he was with Rude, that he only thought of him as his friend. Well, he did think of Rude as his friend, but he pretended there was nothing more to it.

He almost managed to convince himself, there, for a while.

He pretended, when he visited Felice, that he couldn't see how badly she was deteriorating, healthwise. It wasn't just her mind, any more. She was also losing weight, looking frail. He pretended to himself, when he was there, that Rude was just too busy to see her, pretended to her, sometimes, that he'd just left, just to put her mind at ease, knowing that she would not catch the lie, any more.

He pretended, when he went home, that he understood why Rude couldn't see her any more.

He pretended that he didn't miss Dallas, who was never there and who was rarely able to call.

He pretended not to watch Raith for signs of any sort of illness whenever he could, which was not often, for he and Kytt were usually on the other side of Planet. He pretended that he couldn't see how much Raith was growing to hate him, the looks of disdain Raith sent his way whenever he thought Reno wasn't watching. He pretended that didn't bother him. Pretended he could comprehend why.

He pretended to be casual, Turk, go-lucky Reno. And he pretended he didn't feel completely, utterly alone.

Mid-year, Avalanche reignited in the most dramatic way possible: they infiltrated the Shin-Ra building. Their timing was good, too: Reno and Rude were out, seeking information, Raith and Kytt were out of Midgar, as were Katelyn and Maxx. Most of what was left of SOLDIER were on training exercises in the wastes surrounding Midgar. Somehow, Fuhito managed to get into the building, kidnap Hojo, and get to the roof and steal a helicopter. Jask and Sherin went after them and Fuhito set off an explosive device. The Turks were badly injured as a result.

Reno didn't have to pretend to be bothered by that.

Tseng and General Sephiroth were able to rescue Hojo, but had no luck in apprehending Fuhito. The whole thing gave substantial credence to there being a high-level leak in Shin-Ra.

Dallas phoned that night. "Oh, thank the Gods, Reno. I was afraid you'd been killed."

"No, I was nowhere near it all. Rude and I saw the explosion from halfway across town while we were heading back."

"How are Jask and Sherin?"

"They think they'll live," Reno said. He paused. "Should you be calling me?"

"Screw that. Tseng has me on radio silence cos he doesn't want Zack to know I'm following him. Zack is perfectly aware I'm following him. So I don't think it matters. Besides, even if it did... screw that, Stretch. I wanted to hear your voice on the alive side."

"You slippin', Squirt?"


"You let a mark see you?"

"Oh, you bloody bet I did. Zack is just so... so--"

"I so don't want to know this, do I?"

"Probably not, no." Dallas then spent the next half hour or so telling Reno everything he didn't want to know. Boy had some stamina, it seemed.

"What are you smiling about?" Rude said as he emerged from the bathroom just as Reno hung up the phone.


"Ah. What'd she have to say?"

"You don't want to know."


The next time Reno saw Raith was in early August, the night the Turks got together at the pub to celebrate Jask and Sherin's return to full duty. Even Dallas and Braden were there, although Reno noticed, with some sadness, that she refused to talk to him and he avoided looking at her. It was a good night, plenty of conversation and some good laughs. Reno spent some more time talking to Kytt, who he decided he liked. She had a frank manner about her that was refreshing. She got on really well with Dallas, as well.

As far as Reno could ascertain, she had no complaints regarding Raith, his job performance, or his mental state. He left her chatting with Dallas--something about men's butts that he was sure he didn't want to hear about--and headed over to Braden, who was leaning against the wall, holding a LLB in his hand with a distant look on his face.

Reno leaned against the wall next to him, watching his sister as she threw discreet glances in their direction. "Long time no see."

Braden sighed slightly. "Just let me put the glass down. Then we can go outside."


"You mean you don't want to beat my head in?" Braden said mildly.

"Wasn't planning for it to be part of my day, no."


"So, I'll go from the beginning. Hey, Braden. Long time no see."

Braden raised an eyebrow. "Okay. I'll play. Yeah, it's been a while. How're things?"

"Oh, pretty good, I suppose, apart from the... oh, fuck this. Braden, I know what you're doing."

Braden looked uncomfortable.

"Not saying a word. Just... don't take anything she's doing to heart, okay? She was kinda..."



Braden glanced at his drink. "Well, what goes around comes around, right?"

Reno was distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye, then, and turned his head just in time to catch a glimpse of Raith going out the door, one arm over Sherin's shoulders. "Yeah," he said, feeling like he'd been punched in the stomach. "Guess so."

He didn't stay for long after that.

The next day, Reno woke with a cracker of a headache, which was bloody annoying because he'd hardly had anything to drink. Or maybe it was bloody annoying because he was bloody annoyed. Maybe it was bloody annoying because Dallas was gone again, off to follow some guy who was going to let her down, eventually, after the one she really wanted already had. Maybe it was bloody annoying because he was bloody sick of bloody wanking in the bloody shower and fighting bloody monsters in sector bloody eight that took no bloody effort to take down and didn't rid him of any bloody energy at all.

Whatever the reason... he sighed and looked at the clock. He had exactly ten minutes to get ready for work. Shit, fuck and crap. Okay, so he'd forgotten to set his alarm. Why hadn't Rude woken him?

He dragged himself out of bed and looked for his uniform pants, which were nowhere. Neither were his others. Crap.

He wandered to the living room, where Rude was sitting in an armchair, watching the morning news. "Seen my uniform?"

Rude looked up, blinked once, and then directed his eyes at Reno's face. "In the wash, Reno," he said mildly. "Jeans in your cupboard--on your floor, maybe. Might like to put those on, just as an aside."

What the fuck was that noise? "Why didn't you wake me for work?"

Rude's mouth twitched. "Because it's our day off."

"So you stole my clothes?"

"No." Rude no longer looked amused. "Are you okay, Reno?"

What a stupid bloody question that was. "No, I am not fucking okay. I am late for work and I can't find my pants and no one wants--no one..." Reno blinked as his vision swam. "Rude, I don't think I feel so good."

Reno must've lost consciousness, because the next he knew, he was in Rude's bed with some doctor about to stick a needle in his arm. He had pj pants on, too. Every muscle in his body hurt, but not as bad as his head.

The doctor smiled at him. "How are you feeling, Reno?" she said.

"Better days," he mumbled. What was wrong with him? He was never sick.

"I'd say so. Does your head still hurt?"

Reno nodded.

"Ah. Well, let's see what we can do about that. I'm just going to take a blood sample, okay?"

"Pin me," he said.

"Good to see your sense of humour's still intact." She took the sample, then bent his elbow over a swab.

"What's wrong with him?" Rude said.

"Nothing serious," she said, "but it'll probably knock him out for a while." She held up some kind of scope. "May I?"

Rude nodded.

She looked through the scope at his eyes, ears, throat... "Looks like you're clear, but I want you to call me if you develop similar symptoms, right? Headache, aches, irritability."

"Sure, Doc Mir," Rude said.

She nodded. "Be sure you do. I have three of you down with this already, and while I don't expect any more, I want to be sure."

Reno opened an eye. "Who?"

"Katelyn, Raith," Rude said.


"With equally worried partners, and who I have to go see next," she said. She handed Rude a bottle of pills. "Remember what I said?"

"Yep. Two, twice a day, with meals, not on an empty stomach. No other medication without checking with you first, no alcohol."

"Good boy," she said. "I'll check in on you later, Reno. Get some rest."

"Don't have to tell me twice." Reno rolled on his side and was asleep before they'd left the room.

Reno was ill for a couple of weeks. He remembered Rude was there, making sure he was showered and fed in the first few days when Reno could barely move, let alone stand. He remembered asking Rude why it was he was in Rude's room.

"My room's clean," Rude said. "Figured you'd prefer the doc not see yours."

"So nice of you," Reno said sardonically, before going back to sleep.

He wasn't in any danger, but he couldn't remember ever having felt so tired. And his head was nothing to write home about, either.

Then, one day, he just felt better. There was no gradual improvement. Just, one day, he felt like ripping his scalp off from the pain, and the next, he was fine.

Rude wouldn't let him up until the doc had checked him out, and even then Reno could feel Rude watching him.

Within a week, he was back on duty. It was mid September, and Reno was restless, almost as much as he was before he'd fallen ill. "Wonder how Dallas is doing," he said idly after they'd come from a briefing regarding an investigation Zack Fair, Sherin and Jask were to do in Nibelheim, with General Sephiroth. Apparently the reactor there needed a look-see.

"She phoned while you were down."


"Tseng wouldn't let her come back to HQ. She was worried about you."

Reno was struck by a thought, then. "Zack is going to Nibelheim," he said.

"Yeah," Rude said. "What of it?"

"We're going to Nibelheim."

"Why would we do that."

"Because where Zack goes--"

"Dallas goes." Rude stood, then, and headed for the door.

Reno blinked. That was abrupt. "What are you doing, Rudolph?"

"Going to get the chopper fueled. Going to Nibelheim, aren't we? Think up a good story for Tseng and I'll get the paperwork done."

Reno watched Rude leave. Sometimes, he thought, I think I could really love that man.


Nibelheim, 5 years until Meteorfall

September in Nibelheim was nice. Nice mountains, nice air, nice weather. Not too hot, not yet cold.

Yeah, Reno thought. Real... nice. Real fucking nice.

What wasn't nice was that he and Rude'd arrived, late in the afternoon, to find they weren't the only Turks there. Jask and Sherin, Reno had, of course, expected. Reno didn't see Dallas, but he knew she was there, somewhere... cos, yeah, there was Zack Fair, with two Shin-Ra infantrymen and the General, talking to some local girl.

He raised an eyebrow at her, at that outfit she almost wasn't wearing, short skirt and the biggest boobs he'd seen on any girl who wasn't quite full-grown yet. Maybe full grown. She had to be sixteen or seventeen. He grinned. Certainly was impressing one of the young infantrymen who'd turned up with Zack. Helmet or no, the guy was gawking, cos he didn't turn the front of that helmet away from her... huh. Reno watched him, amused. Going from the angle, the infantryman was looking at her face. Someone had his priorities screwed up.

Zack was around. Dallas would be nearby. Meant Braden was around, somewhere, too, he supposed.

What he hadn't expected was that Kytt and Raith would also be there. This, he didn't discover until he heard Kytt call them over from the doorway of the town's Inn.

So, he and Rude went inside to join a veritable party. Turks didn't congregate much, but they did drink pretty hard when they did. Kytt and Raith, Kytt explained, had been heading for Wutai from Gongaga when Jask'd radioed and mentioned they were in Nibelheim, so they decided to stop in on the way. "Didn't expect you two as well," she said, giving Rude a broad grin.

Soon, Zack and General Sephiroth joined them as well, the two infantrymen each taking a berth at the bar. Sephiroth didn't stay for long, heading to his room, he said.

"Tifa took us out to the reactor earlier," Zack said. "Not sure what we're supposed to find, but it all looked normal to me. I'll go up there again tomorrow, I think."

Reno figured Tifa was the girl he'd seen them with.

It was probably his imagination, but the night felt... weird. Wrong, like, something was coming. He glanced around the table, aware. Raith kept glancing at him. Rude kept glancing at him. Kytt kept glancing at Rude.

And the air felt... stifling.

"Leave Raith alone. That's an order, son."

He had to get away, away from that table, for a moment at least. He couldn't understand why it was that Raith's presence still managed to do his head in. Maybe it was the fact that he saw Raith so infrequently, the time was truncated. Like, it had been a year since Raith'd turned up again, but it was only, like, a couple of weeks of real time. So he felt like he'd only had that time to get over him. Cos when Raith wasn't around, Reno tried not to think of him. So, when he was there, Reno couldn't help himself. Like he'd never left.

And then there was Rude.

Heh. That didn't make any sense, even in Reno's own head. He took his drink and, ignoring Rude's questioning glance, wandered over to the bar, taking the only free seat, next to one of the young infantrymen who'd turned up with the General and Zack. Huh. He looked kinda familiar, now that Reno thought about it. Reno glanced at the blond youth as he indicated to the bargirl to set him up with another bourbon. "And another one for him, as well," he said, "if he's old enough."

"I'm sixteen. I'm old enough," the infantryman said glumly. Then he seemed to pay attention to who he was talking to. "Um, I mean, sorry, Reno. Um, sir."

Reno grinned. Was he ever that young? He couldn't recall ever being that young. Mind you, at least the kid looked older then he said he was. Reno could remember being mistaken for a minor for a couple of years after he'd turned sixteen.

Gods of Wutai, he thought. That was, what, seven years ago? Something like that. It felt like longer. And shorter. "Just Reno," he said. "I ain't your sir. Leave that to Zack." It twigged to Reno, then, why the kid looked familiar. "I've seen you around HQ, haven't I? SOLDIER candidate?"

The blond nodded.

"And you're still around, then, eh. Most of 'em have run off."

"I want to be in SOLDIER. First Class, one day. Like the General, and Zack."

Reno raised an eyebrow, amused. The kid was clearly prone to hero worship, and Sephiroth and Zack Fair were at the top of his list. "Sure, then. Good to have a goal." He nodded his thanks to the bargirl as she set the drinks on the bar. "You have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but I don't know your name."

"Oh! Sorry. I'm Cloud. Cloud Strife."

Huh. Wasn't Cloud the name of the kid Jask said sucked with a gun and couldn't stand up to being hit? How did he make it into SOLDIER candidacy? Reno didn't think it'd be great to say that, though. "Pleased to meetcha. So, why so melancholy, Cloud Strife?"

Cloud shrugged and sipped at his drink, before making a face.

Reno laughed. Now he remembered being that young.

"What?" Cloud said, throwing Reno a glance. His eyes flashed.

There we go. Kid had some spirit after all. "Trick to that, kidlet," he said. "Bourbon is for mouthfuls, not sips."

"It'd taste the same either way."

"Nah. See, a good bourbon is like sex. Take it too tentatively, and it goes down long and bitter, and you miss the meat of it. Too quick, and it's done so soon there's no point drinkin' at all. But," he took a mouthful of his drink and swallowed, "taken at just the right pace, with each mouthful savoured properly before going to the next one, that there is something to treasure." He grinned. "Course, you don't want to overindulge, or you just end up with regrets in the morning."

Cloud's face was bright red. "I wouldn't know."

Legal adult. Old enough to drink, old enough to know, Reno thought, running his eye down Cloud's body. But... bit too young for me 'cept for the lookin'. Pity, really. Funny he was thinking that way, really. He suddenly understood Braden's original reluctance to get involved with Dallas. Weird place to be, that. Hells, at this rate I'll be thinkin' like a proper adult. "So tell me about her," he said.

Cloud looked at him sharply.

"Two things make a man look like he'd like to eat crushed glass. Dreams unrealised, love unrequited." I gone all poetic. Nice. "You're still dreamin', so must be the other." He grinned. "Besides, I saw you mooning at that Tifa girl earlier." At least, Reno hoped it was this infantryman he'd seen. You couldn't tell with their helmets on who was who. Had the right shape, though. Filled out his trousers real well--front and back. Yeah, same kid. "So why aren't you talkin' to her rather than sitting at a bar on your ownsome?"

"I can't."

"Define 'can't'."

"I just can't."

"You mean you're scared to."

"I am not scared. I grew up here. And I know her."

"So, what's the problem?"

"I'll be back when I'm SOLDIER. First Class."

Reno resisted the urge to laugh at him, again. Local boy makes good and rides in to swoop up the girl. Right. So Cloud wasn't just into hero worship, he was also big on some fantasy trip thing. "And what do you plan to do with her then?"

Cloud reddened again. "I haven't really thought about that."

Reno smiled lazily. "Liar." He took another mouthful, and watched as Cloud imitated him. "I hope she knows what you have in mind. Cos there sure as Hells ain't nothing worse than thinkin' someone's run off with no care for how you're doing about that." Interesting, Reno figured, how that statement brought to mind the person who'd taught him about a good bourbon--Rude.

"I made her a promise."

Reno leaned over so their faces were close so he could talk quietly. "My suggestion? Don't hide. Go let her know you're on your way. Be sure. Cos if you ain't sure, all you're doing is setting yourself up."

"She'll wait."

Reno knocked back the rest of his drink. "Well, I hope you gave her something to remember of you while you were gone, a bit of incentive to do just that. They never just wait, not for no reason."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, a memento. Letter? Kiss?" Reno winked. "Baby?"

Cloud blinked at him, his face scandalised. "I wouldn't do that."

Reno laughed. "Don't look so indignant. I was only joking about the last one. Seriously." He indicated to the bartender to pour him another, dropping gil on the bar. "I'm not joking about the others, though. If you haven't kissed her yet, drop her a line. Girls like letters."

Cloud stared at the bar. "Have to be a letter, then."

It was on the tip of Reno's mind to suggest an education--just a kiss, mind--but then he decided against it. Let him keep it for his girl. Still... Cloud really did fill out those trousers nicely, and it'd keep his mind off--he resisted the urge to glance at the table where Rude and Raith were sitting. Ah, well. He looked up as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. "Hi Zack."

Zack grinned. "Stop teasing my infantryman, Reno. He's not ready for the likes of you. Are you done with him?"

"He's all yours," Reno said lightly. Oh, and by the way, if you're going to be messing around with that Aerith chick, better to leave my sister be or I'll end you, mako strength or no.

Cloud scowled. "It's still light out."

"Early start in the morning. Need to check out that reactor."

Cloud nodded and stood, wobbling a bit.

"Cloud, are you drunk?" Zack said.

"No," Cloud said belligerantly.

Zack glanced at Reno.

"Probably not," Reno said. "Just finished one when I got here, and half while I've been here."

"Stop babying me, Zack," Cloud said. "Sir. Whatever."

Zack and Reno exchanged grins. "Hm," Reno said. "Lessee, Cloud Strife. Overblown sense of honour. Check. Barely developed sense of humour. Check. Perfect SOLDIER material there. Good luck--to you both."

Cloud looked at Reno, then, pale blue eyes unwavering. Gods of Wutai, but that was unnerving. Innocent country kid he was, but there was some steel in there, somewhere. "I said this to that other Turk before--" Cloud indicated Jask-- "but can you not tell Tifa I'm here?"

"Whatever you say, kidlet," Reno said. "Still think you're nuts, but if that's how you roll, ain't no business of mine."

Cloud nodded. "Good talking to you, Reno."

"Likewise, Cloud," Reno said. "Who knows, buddy? In a year or so, there may actually be one SOLDIER First Class around that I can stand to talk to."

Cloud met his eyes, again, and smiled suddenly. "Sure, Reno. Why not?" Then he followed Zack upstairs.

Holy fuck, Reno thought, watching them leave. Why couldn't you've been just a couple of years older, Cloud Strife?

Optional Extra: Cloud's Side of this encounter.

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