Chapter Twenty-Three

Reno knew, now, of course. He knew better. He'd fooled himself into thinking he didn't need Rude, didn't want Rude, for the same reason he later fooled himself into thinking he didn't need Raith. That he didn't need anybody.

Cos it was easier to convince himself of that than come to terms with the idea that he was all but dead to the people he loved.

How could he have known how wrong he was, every single time? Yet he made the same mistake, every single time.

So he pretended, and he lied to himself. Fact was, though, what he'd told Tseng Shin-Ra could never buy, he'd eventually just handed over to them, for the price of exactly nothing.

Meanwhile, for three long years, he waited until his life could start again.


Rude leaned against the doorjam, arms crossed, watching the ICU with more concentration than he'd ever used when guarding either the President or his son.

Reno was asleep, now, sitting in a chair, his head resting on his arms, which were in turn resting on Raith's narrow ICU bed.

From what the doctor had told them, the evening before, Raith should've woken by now, but he hadn't stirred. Doc Mir didn't let Reno see it, but Rude could tell she was puzzled, and concerned. Tseng had just left, after a low, vaguely heated discussion between them. Rude hadn't heard much of it, but he had, at one point, heard Tseng mention Hojo and Doctor Mir's objection had been so vehement that he'd clearly heard the "don't even think about it, Tseng."

"How is he?"

Rude glanced down at Sherin. "Which 'he'?" he murmured.

She looked up and him and smiled sympathetically.

"People always think he'll cope," Rude said quietly.

Sherin's face turned quizzical. "Sir?"

Rude looked back at Reno, trying to ignore the dull ache in his chest. "Reno. He's casual, right. Smart. Laid-back. Nothing ever touches him. Can handle anything. That's what you Juniors all think."

"Jask near-on idolises him, sure," Sherin said. "And not one of us wouldn't do anything for him. He's... Reno."

Rude grunted.

"You're the backbone of the Turks, see, sir. Tseng is the soul. Dallas has the mothering thing going on and Braden is our valour. But Reno, well... he's the heart of us." She sighed. "I had no idea he and Raith were even close. I actually thought they didn't get along too well, alpha boys and all that. Guess I need to go back to Awareness 101."

Rude didn't say anything, hoping Sherin would drop the subject without being prodded.

She grinned suddenly. "Unless they were all secretly hot and heavy when they both worked for..." she stopped, her smile fading. "Oh, no," she said, under her breath. "No. No. It was him."

Rude had no idea what she was going on about. "Hm?"

Sherin's face had crumpled. "I have to go, sir. I'm very sorry."

She left before Rude had a chance to say anything.

"He will cope," Kytt said from behind Rude.

"He has a breaking point like everyone else," Rude said without turning around. "Push hard enough and he loses the laid-back, and you get to know it."

Kytt moved forwards so she was standing next to Rude, where Sherin had been. "Speaking from experience, I take it."

Rude shrugged one shoulder. "Wouldn't take much to push him past any point he'll come back. I don't ever want to see that, Kytt. And he's damned close."

"This has got to be difficult for you."

"Not me that's dealing."

She made an impatient noise. "Be that as it may, you haven't slept in almost thirty hours, and you have got to be almost gone. Evidenced, I might add, by how much talking you just did in public, like."

Rude glanced at Kytt to see if she was making fun of him, but, no, her face was concerned.

"You can't watch over him 24/7," she said.

"He might need something."

"If that's the case, might need you fully functional. He's asleep. Not comfortably, by the looks, poor bub, but he's down. Take time out to sleep yourself. Keep burning it at both ends like this and you'll be useless to anyone, your partner included."

Rude's mouth twitched. Tseng hadn't told anyone else of Reno's intention, it seemed. Reno didn't even know Rude was there. And he wouldn't give a shit if he did know.

"Tseng's going to lose patience with you soon, you know," Kytt said quietly. "You still have a job to do."

"Rufus is shut down. Avalanche is quiet."

"Avalanche is not our only concern. Look, Braden and Dallas are covering well enough, and Sherin's right, we'd all do whatever it takes for you both, but I'm sure Reno's sister would rather be able to spend some time with him instead of doing your paperwork, and Braden and Raith are buddies, too. I understand your need, here, but you're being a little selfish, making us all worry that you'll drop as well."

Rude looked at her sharply, but Kytt's face was not annoyed. He exhaled. "Yeah. You're right."

"I'm not trying to be hard on you. This is a transition we're all having trouble with, the whole Veld thing--fuck me--even if Raith weren't down and Reno all but out of commission. We all need you on board. We need you to let us be a team, rather than a bunch of individuals all trying to martyr ourselves for another."

"Self third."

"Yeah, but Turks second, not Turk."

Rude nodded slowly. She had a point, of course.

"Come on, Sergeant. I'll walk you home. Don't worry, Tseng has a watchdog here for the redhead." She nodded at the waiting room.

Rude turned. Jask was sitting on the couch, reading a couple of files and making notes.

"Or if you'd rather, you can come and stay with us. Dallas sure as hells won't mind."

"I'm fine, Kytt. Thanks, though."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, you--all of you--make me want to kick your collective arses. You, Reno, Raith; you're all as bad as each other."

Rude raised an eyebrow.

"What I just said, about a team. There is a reason Veld makes us--made us--do everything as partners. It's cos even that stupid, sad, lonely man could see that no one, no matter how strong, no matter how well-trained, or how able, can do anything alone." Kytt pointed at Reno. "Look at that. Does he look like he feels alone to you?"

Rude looked and swallowed, before he nodded.

"Yeah, well. Look around you. Is he?" She grunted. "There's Raith. He's not responding like he should be. Know why, in my opinion? He's been dealing--or not, as the case may be--with some sucky, horrible shit, and he's been trying to do it so much on his own that he's run out of puff and doesn't want to fucking live. And look what he has sitting right there. Standing out here. All he has to do is wake up to himself and see it, instead of being so godsdamned determined to give up and die. Then Reno, sitting in there like he's alone. If he'd fucking turn around, he'd see you. As for you, maybe you need to see who's been standing behind your back while you've been thinkin' to watch Reno 'on your own'." A single tear rolled down her cheek and she brushed it off impatiently.

Rude frowned. He hadn't really thought about the fact that Kytt was worried about her partner, either. But also... "You?" he said.

"No. Well, yes, but no. Us. All of us. We're a unit, each reliant on the rest, like it or not. Nibelheim hit us for a bit--yeah, whatever, I know, so shoot me--but it also told us who was ours. Reno is ours. And so are you. When the Chief wouldn't say no, when even Tseng wouldn't stand up, you both did. Let us be us, Rude. Fucking turn around and look."

Rude rubbed his head and sighed. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Kytt. I've been..."

"Not really thinking. I know." She glanced into the room where Raith lay. "I'd give Reno the same lecture but I don't think he'd listen to me." She turned back to Rude and gave him a meaningful look.

Rude shook his head. "Let him be." Reno had to stay, just in case Raith woke up. Not that he'd listen to me, either. Not now. "Nothing I say will help, anyway. He's too pissed at me."

"Right, whatever you say. So, I'm thinking you'll take me up on my offer now, right?"

"If you say so," Rude said, following her. "How are you, then?"

Kytt gave him a surprised glance as they entered the lift. "Me? I'm fine."

Sure you are, Rude thought, looking at her steadily.

She smiled ruefully. "I see your point." She hit the button for the Turk apartment floor. "Yeah, it's getting to me, but Raith's been unhappy for a while."

"What do you mean?"

"Remember the first year you were at Junon, not long before we were promoted? The kid from my division who came back from Wutai and did the suicide by escape thing a month or so later? What was his name?"

"I don't recall, but I know who you mean."

"Something kinda broke him. I think Raith's been a bit the same."

"Putting you at risk, at all?"

"No. Or I would've said something offical."

Rude nodded. "You've been good for him."

Kytt said nothing as they walked to her and Dallas' apartment.

"You sure Dal will be okay with me stayin'? I can go home. It's just down the corridor."

"If you don't let her mother you, Rudolph, she will slice me into small edible pieces with that shuriken of hers."



"I wish you wouldn't call me that."

"What? Rudolph? It's your name."

"Yeah. One only my ma called me." And Reno.

She nodded. "Okay. No problem."

The girls' apartment was set up differently from Rude and Reno's. Instead of two separate rooms for the lounge area and kitchen, there was a kitchenette off to one side of the open dining area with the lounge area in a separate room towards the bedrooms.

Dallas was sitting at the dining table, working her way through some files. She looked up when they came inside, then yawned widely. "Hey Rude."

He looked at the pile of paperwork on the table in front of her. "Hear tell some of that is mine. Thanks, Dal."

She pushed out the chair opposite her with her foot. "Have a seat, bub. You look beat."

He smiled slightly. Dallas and Kytt were starting to take on each other's speech patterns. "So do you." He sat. "Pass some of those over."

"Meh. I'm quicker at it. And you hate paperwork. You bellyache about it almost as much as Reno."

Rude raised an eyebrow.

"Hey, just cos your mouth is shut to the point of 'actually not talking' doesn't mean you're not complaining."

Kytt snorted.

"Besides," Dallas said, "no way. You're sleeping, my sweet, once she's fed you." She yawned. "As am I, if I can. Oh, and there's some of Reno's mail here. Think it came to me by mistake." She handed him a large envelope.

He glanced at it as he took it. No return address. "Thanks," he said. "Don't let me forget it."

She nodded, then glanced at Kytt. "How is Reno?"

"Jask has him covered," Kytt said. "You can get some shuteye."

"Raith?" Dallas said.

"The same," Kytt said.



Rude stood and headed over to the window. There was no way he was going to be able to sleep. This was not how it was supposed to be. Reno was supposed to be... happy. He rubbed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, fighting "irritable". Raith now knew Reno hadn't known about Corneo's, sure, but what the fuck good was that?

He couldn't help but wonder if he'd distracted Raith with what he'd said, made him lose his focus. A distracted soldier was a dead one, and ordering Raith to talk to Reno as soon as possible after they were done at Corel would've distracted him. Fuck.

He turned back around. "I should just go home. There's no need for you two to have to worry." That way, if he couldn't sleep, he could go back to the hospital and keep an eye on things. It wasn't like he really wanted to be in the apartment that didn't feel like home any more.

Yeah. Dallas and Kytt'd definitely been spending way too much time together, he knew now, because he was now on the receiving end of a pair of identical feminine "oh really?" expressions.

"I've eaten," he said, probably defensively. It was a reflex. One of them had mentioned food a moment ago. It was safe.

"Well, you need to sleep, then," Dallas said. "And, no, you will not be going home to the empty apartment where you can ignore your need to sleep and sneak back to the hospital."

He blinked. Had he said that out loud? He hadn't thought so.

"Come on," Kytt said. "You can bunk in my room."

"You're too tall for the couch, Kytt," Dallas said mildly. "I'll take it. Rude can use my bed."

Rude knew better, but Dallas' tone had a definite I'm pulling rank feel to it. It made him distinctly uncomfortable, and he couldn't put his finger on why. "No, I'll go home," he said.

Dallas turned that voice on him, then. "No," she said. "You won't." She sighed. "Can we have a moment, Kytt?"

Kytt shrugged. "Sure. Want me to get you a pillow or something?"

"No thanks."

"So long as you don't fall asleep on that thing with your boots on, m'kay?"

Dallas nodded.

Rude waited until Kytt had disappeared into, he presumed, her room, then frowned. "What is going on?"

"I'm worried about you."

"I can worry about myself."

"Rude, okay, look. I know what happened between you and my brother the night your ma died. I also know that, for whatever reason, you turfed him right after. I don't know why, I don't want to know why, but I do know it was illogical and I can't even bring myself to be shitted about it. I know there was more to it than what you said. I'm also aware of his stubborn--can I say--over-reaction, and can only say in his defence that you really hurt him. And I know you well enough to know that you'd never want to do that."

Rude didn't like where this conversation was heading, at all. "What's your point?"

"This thing with Raith has got to be eating at you, right."

Oh. Not what he'd thought, then.

"I am not going to have you anywhere alone where you can work yourself to death, stay awake until you're tired and walk into a hail of bullets or do anything else equally daft. And I'm not goung to have you sit in an empty apartment where everything around you reminds you of your partner."

Rude frowned. Really not what he'd thought. "I'm not suicidal, Dal."

"No. But you are in self-destruct."

"You don't need to mother me."

She set her jaw. "Clearly, someone has to, because you're doing a piss-poor job of it yourself."

Dallas' expression was so much like Reno's that Rude almost laughed. He didn't, though. "I just got that lecture from Kytt, thanks."

"Bothers you that someone gives a shit, does it?"

Rude hadn't expected that, either, so he wasn't sure what to say in reply. He sighed instead. "Okay, I'll do as I'm told, on one condition."

Dallas' grin flashed. "What?"

"The couch. Either you let me use it or you feel free to use the other side of your own bed."

"You're too tall for the couch as well, dumbarse. And you snore."

"Well, I go home then."

"There is another option."

Rude ran a hand over his head. "Not really. There's a history there."

"I'm aware of it. Who don't you trust? Her or you?"

Rude considered that for a moment, but said nothing. He didn't know. Kytt could just make him... uncomfortable... out of hours.

She shrugged. "Fine then. I want to watch the late news first, though. See if there's any more crap about business interests in Wutai."

Rude nodded, understanding. "Tseng would go if anyone was needed again. You don't need to worry about Braden."

She shook her head. "I care this much--" she held her thumb and forefinger up, pressed together to indicate less than nothing--"about that. Oh, and stop looking at me like that. I know your bullcrap expression."

Rude raised an eyebrow, then yawned suddenly. Fuck, when had he come over so tired?

"Ugh. Go to bed."

He nodded, and headed to the other bedroom. He turned at the door. "Thanks, Dal."

She shrugged. "Sure, no problem."

Rude'd had just enough time to strip off down to his trousers and was sitting down to take off his boots when there was a knock on the door.

"Just me," Kytt said.

Damn. Another lecture, then? "Yeah."

Kytt wandered into the room. "Got a minute?"


"Can I sit?"

Rude indicated the spot next to him.

"So, you told him, didn't you."


"You told Reno. What Raith said on the roof at Rocket. About what Reno said about you." She grimaced. "Look, you can't take what Raith said as anything serious--"

Rude stood so he could hang his jacket on the back of a chair Dallas had in front of a small table she had a bunch of female-related-stuff-Rude-didn't-know-what sitting on. "No."

Kytt's eyebrows disappeared into her hair. "Why is Reno so 'pissed' at you then?"

"More than pissed. Reno was looking for a new partner." Rude swallowed uncomfortably, crossing his arms. "You were right about a couple of things. I was no friend to him."

She frowned. "What does that mean?"

Rude shook his head.

"Sit down, sergeant," she said. "And I'll work some of the tension out of those shoulders of yours. You need to sleep."

"It's fine," he said. "Raith's your partner, so--"

"So let me do what helps me deal," she said.

He sat. "As you wish."

She knelt on the bed behind him and worked her fingers into his neck muscles. Damn. He'd forgotten how much force she used when she did that; just this side of what, are you trying to kill me, but you felt great when she was done.

"Did you make a decision regarding that 'hypothesis' we discussed?" she said.

"I did. Haven't followed through though. Should've. Didn't. And now, can't."

"I am not going to even pretend I understand."

Rude wasn't sure how he could explain it, either. Wasn't like it was his story to tell. "Thing is... there was a misunderstanding between 'em, something I only knew as a result of what Raith said that night. Turns out I knew all along something that Reno didn't. And it still isn't mine to tell." He frowned. "Has Raith told you... anything?"

"I know he's been through something he won't talk about."

"So you know what I mean. His choice to tell, and in any case I was ordered not to. But Reno thinks--" he grimaced. "Something else. It's too late."

"It's never too late."

"If Reno knew the details, now, he'd--" he stopped.

"Breaking point, you think."

Rude didn't answer that, but he thought so. He didn't know what Reno thought Raith'd done, but the guilt of being wrong, alone, would eat at Reno, and Rude wasn't going to be a party to that. "If Raith dies, he can't know. And if he doesn't, it's Raith's to tell. I ain't never had no business knowing."

"Raith told me you saved his life."

Yeah. Pulled him out for Shin-Ra so Shin-Ra could kill him instead. "Maybe."

"Fuck, Rude, no wonder you're not sleeping. Between your ma, and this, and the whole beating yourself up over I don't know what thing, I don't blame you." Her hands stilled for a moment. "Still, that doesn't explain why you think Reno is going to call your partnership quits though. Hells, he's been pissed with Raith for a long time, yet he's still at the man's bedside."

"Easy to forgive someone you--" he swallowed again-- "someone you love when you think you're seein' them at their last."

"I guess it is." She was quiet for a moment, then her hands started kneading his shoulders, again. "And if Raith doesn't die, and Reno finds out you knew about whatever it was all along and didn't tell him?"

"Doubt he could get angrier at me, Kytt." Damn. That dull ache was never going to leave, was it.

"What happened?"

"Surprised you don't already know," Rude mumbled.

"Why's that?"

"Dallas does. Reno tells her pretty much everythin'."

Kytt was quiet a moment. "Reno tells her a lot of things in confidence, Rude. Means she doesn't repeat 'em to me."

Rude nodded. Actually, that did sound like Dallas. She said what she had to say, and could come across as flighty sometimes, but she was actually very circumspect and didn't have a big mouth.

"Can I ask you something, Rude?"

"Can I stop you?"

"What will you do if Raith dies?"

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

"Well, far as I can tell, you're doing the big 'sacrifice yourself' thing, thinking Reno is better off with Raith or some such. So, if Raith dies, what then? Step in, make Reno feel better?"

Rude shook his shoulders free of Kytt's hands, then turned and glared at her. "That question is well beneath you, Kytt."

"Yeah, probably. But now I know, and I'm real sorry."

"What for?"

"For you."


"Because you don't think enough of Reno to give him a choice to decide what's--who's--best for him."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, I think I do."

"Feel free to let me in on it, cos I sure don't."

"I won't show all workings for the sake of time, but what I think is that you and Reno got more'n 'friendly' at Rocket, and fair enough, too, then you backed off outta...hmm, given our 'hypothetical discussion', probably guilt, and then, because you haven't told him the whatever-the-hells that was about, he's pissed at being summarily rejected without being given any real reason why. You pushed him at Raith, deliberately, but have taken no responsibility for it, and then Raith had the temerity to go get himself hurt. Close?"

Rude crossed his arms again.

"Yep. Close, if not spot on," Kytt said.

Rude didn't answer.

"Rude," she said, getting off Dallas' bed and standing in front of him.


"You're a fucking idiot."

"Too far."

"No, not far enough. I think you're scared."

"I ain't afraid of being rejected," Rude said through gritted teeth.

She snorted. "Yeah, I know. You count on it, and if it looks like he wouldn't you'll create it. What you're afraid of is if he felt the same way you do. Terrifies the shit outta you. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why."

Fuck. What was it, 'Psychobabble Rude Night'? "Go away, Kytt. You really have no fucking idea what you're talking about."

"Yeah. I didn't mean to rile you up. I'll leave you alone. It's what you want, anyway." She pulled the door shut just a little too hard when she left.

One thing Rude was sick and fucking tired of: people kept trying to read his head. He wished they'd stop it. They wouldn't like what they saw if they ever looked too deep.

He made an effort to sleep. He did. He watched the clock for at least a half hour before he got up again, wandering out to the lounge room. Was a time he could sleep anywhere, anytime, but at the moment he was too fucked up. Maybe some TV would put him down.

Heh. Dallas had fallen asleep on the couch after all, TV on. Rude couldn't help but smile. Reno's little sister, and she had that same "kid" look while sleeping that Reno did. She'd done the exact same thing Reno had when he first met Rude, too: rubbed Rude's head, cheeky grin on her face. Sweet thing, she was, always had been.

Except for that unnerving intuition of hers. That, he could do without.

Rude, now, couldn't imagine how he'd missed the familial resemblance. He shook his head. She had, of course, fallen asleep with her shoes on. That was never comfortable. Carefully, he sat down at the end of the couch and, lifting her feet into his lap, undid the laces on her shoes. He was halfway though carefully removing one shoe when Dallas spoke.

"You undressing me, Rude?"

He dropped the shoe on the floor and got rid of the other before he stood and hit the off switch on the TV. "We had a deal," he said. "C'mon."

"Couldn't be bothered moving, too tired," she said. "I'll just sleep here."

"Which you'll regret in the morning when your back starts yelling at you for it," Rude said. "Arms up."

She stuck both her arms in the air, as if she was a child, and he scooped her up and carried her to her room, helped her out of her uniform and into some nightshirt thing. Far as he could tell, she remained mostly asleep.

"You know what I like about you?" she mumbled once she was under the covers, opening an eye.


"Sometimes you mother me. It's nice."

Rude shrugged. "Least I can do."

"Sure," she said. "Now lie down and get some sleep or I'll knock your stupid arse unconscious for you."

He sighed. Pointless arguing. Sweet thing, yes, but with a determination of pure steel and a heart that could embrace the world if need be. Braden was the one needed his head examined.


Midgar, 3 years until Meteorfall

Reno'd grown to hate Midgar winters, especially when it snowed, and the one that was in the process of trying to pass had been the worst he could remember since the year Rude'd first left him.

This one had felt colder, even though he'd spent much of it inside.

Tseng had allowed Reno three weeks before all but demanding that he come back to work. Reno had resented Tseng at the time, but he knew, now, that if he wasn't being busy, then the last few months would've sent him mad, partially from inactivity, but mostly because Raith was no better.

Raith was no better.

He sat by Raith's bedside and talked to him until he was sick of the sound of his own voice, and he was no better.

He helped with physical therapy, when the regular nurse, a bulky guy named Monik, needed a hand, which was most of the time, given lifting Raith off his bed just to change his sheets could be a two-person job... and he was no better.

Reno'd taken to getting the latest Shooter every month and reading it to him, and Raith was no better.

Reno spent a lot of time trying to divorce the reality from how he felt, because as time passed, the chances of Raith waking became slimmer, especially since Doc Mir'd not been able to get any physical response from him, even though tests showed all functions to be, supposedly, normal.

It didn't make any sense, apparently.

Tseng made sure one of them was always with Raith, and concentrated on keeping them working as a unit. Avalanche was quiet, Rufus was out of the way, and there he stayed, under the attentive eye of Tseng.

And they searched for Veld and his daughter, half-heartedly, and Fuhito, with a bit more gusto. But... nothing. It was like the man had disappeared off the face of Planet.

As time passed, Reno became aware of Rude, keeping an eye on him. At first Reno'd ignored it, then, he'd grown annoyed, but gradually he grew used to it and, while there was no way Reno'd let Rude get close, ever again, there was no more talk of breaking up their partnership, and no more talk of Reno moving out.

Part of the reason was that Tseng and Katelyn's reconciliation didn't last, so Tseng's berth was no longer available, but the fact was that Reno spent virtually no time at the apartment, anyhow. He tended to sleep at the hospital, and he ate at the hospital caf or at one of the cafs on whatever floor he happened to be working on.

Reno still didn't like Rufus, but at least he hadn't ordered Katelyn killed.

She visited, when she was in Midgar, which was not often, sat with Reno and said not much, which he liked about her. Jask, or Sherin, or Maxx, seemed to feel the need to try and cheer Reno up. Katelyn just... sat.

But then, she knew, didn't she, what it was to sit a vigil at someone's bedside.

As far as work went, Rude worked with Kytt or Dallas more often than not. The three had been sent to Wutai when the corporate situation started to bubble again; Tseng knew better than to send Reno out of Midgar.

Come to think of it, as much as possible, Reno didn't talk to Rude at all. He was grateful, sure, but he still couldn't bear to look at Rude too close. He just wanted to keep things as level as possible. Between work, and the hospital, he didn't have any energy left for anything else.

All he knew was that Winter was passing, finally, and Spring, dead as Midgar was, was better than Winter, and Raith was not awake to see it.

It was easier to focus on Raith, really, because then he wouldn't have to face Rude.

Today, Reno was late. Monik had finished tucking Raith back into his bed after his physical therapy, so Doc Mir motioned to Reno to enter.

"Is that doing him any good?" Reno said.

"Well, it's not doing him any harm." The doctor frowned. "The thing is... he's not really losing muscle tone, which after six months, shouldn't be possible, but I don't want to meddle with what we're doing since whatever is keeping him sustained, it's been working."

Reno nodded. "Physically, he's still fine, then."

"Healthy as either of us. I don't know. That materia... I can't work out whether it's been good for him--kept him alive--or if it is the reason he's still unconscious."

"Perhaps it's both."

"Could be." She smiled a "thankyou" to Monik, who left, and then checked Raith's drip. Reno'd noticed that, over the past months, the doc had done many of the things you'd expect a nurse to check on herself, and she double-checked everything; drips, catheter, tests. He knew that at least part of the reason was that she genuinely cared for her patient, and part of it that she had no idea why Raith was still out to it, and it frustrated her. However, he couldn't help but think there was also something else to it; like, she knew something else was a factor.

Maybe he was just paranoid.

"What else can I do for him?" he said quietly.

"Get more and better sleep, for a start. In a real bed. At home."

"Doc," Reno chided, watching her as she pulled up the blanket from Raith's feet and tapped the ends of his toes with a pin, watching him for a response. It'd been a test they'd tried weekly, with no reaction.

That day, though, Reno saw something different. Raith's foot twitched, pulling away from the needle. Not just his toe. His whole foot, jerking backwards from his ankle down.

Doc Mir looked at Reno, eyes steady. "Please tell me you saw that."

"I saw that," Reno said, "if what you saw was independent movement away from that pin sticking in him."

"That's what I saw," she said, a grin splitting her face as she made some notes and finished her checkup.

That was the first breakthrough.

The second came later that year, mid-Summer. Reno'd spent a frustrating day away from the hospital, clearing baby Malboroughs out of the sewer. He'd come straight to Raith's room afterwards, reeking of Malborough guts and Midgar's shit, intending to have a shower when he'd arrived.

Monik paled when Reno walked through the door.

"C'mon," Reno said, "don't be such a wuss."

"I've smelled a lot of shit, but Malborough guts are officially the worst."

"Explains the looks I was getting in the lift."

"You made some poor idiot ride in an elevator with you? Dude. That's cruel and unusual."

"Yeah, it ain't nice," Reno said. "How's he been?"

"Ask him. He won't talk to me."

"Funny man." Reno did walk over to Raith to have a look, absently running a hand down Raith's arm. "How're you doing?" he said quietly. "Sorry I was gone so long. Full work day." He wrinkled his nose then. "Yeah. Nasty. I'll shower now."

Monik indicated Reno's uniform. "Burn those." Then he paused. "Wait."

"What?" Reno turned to look at Raith.

"Hand moved a bit like he was reaching for you." He grinned. "Must be the smell. That'd wake the dead."

"You think he can tell when I'm here."

"No doubt."

"Why? He don't generally react."

"Just a feeling. Been around this place a while. You get to know which ones are there and which ones ain't." He nodded at Raith, then looked back at Reno, his eyes... different. "He won't go nowhere, not if he has anything to say about it. There's an inevitability about him." He glanced behind Reno briefly. "Your other friend. He's conscious, but he ain't there."

Reno turned. Rude was sitting in the lounge outside, reading one of the old Shooters Reno donated to the waiting room once he was done reading them to Raith. "Rude? What do you mean?"

"Hiding so far away from things his apparent self is empty, dude. But he'd kill for you. My guess is he already has."

Reno shrugged. "We're partners. It's our job."

"That ain't what I meant. You, my friend, are what I like to call a catalyser."

"Chemistry term?"

"Kind of. Everyone has ripples, y'know, like a stone in a pond, right. But you? You affect everyone you touch and you don't even know it."

Reno swallowed. "You're creeping me out a bit, Monik."

He grinned. "I see a lot of death. Makes me think. But, yeah. You'll never be able to sit back and wait for things to happen to you, cos they won't never turn out well if you do. You have to be the one who does the risk. Or, nothing. Cos you're the centre. Feel me?"

Okaaaay, Reno thought. He liked Monik, but there was a screw loose somewhere.

Yet, while he showered, changed into clean clothes, finished his report and then ate his dinner by Raith's bed, he couldn't get that out of his head.


Midgar, 2 years until Meteorfall

The year turned, and soon, it was Winter, again. Reno had grown so used to the hospital that he'd almost forgotten what the inside of his and Rude's apartment looked like. He went there for a change of clothing most days, but he still, wordlessly, left all of it to Rude.

Rude was not often home, either, as he was spearheading the search for Veld, unsuccessfully, probably intentionally so.

Reno showered in Raith's room, slept in Raith's room, ate in Raith's room when he could and did his paperwork in Raith's room, ranting out loud to Raith when things didn't add up or he got sick of typing on the mini console he'd set up. Or he'd just sit and watch out the window and describe what was going on outside. Or he'd watch the green-blue glow of the reactors of Midgar. Or he'd just sit, and say nothing, or doze in the armchair. Sometimes, it was enough just to be there. With him.

Dallas commented that they needed to put a sign on Raith's hospital door: "Reno's Office." Then she frowned as she mentioned that she wasn't joking and that while she understood Reno's need to be where he was, he also needed fresh air and the occasional night out.

He did take her up on it, once or twice.

She and Braden reconciled in early February, and she moved out of Kytt's apartment and back into Braden's. Around the same time, Rude started spending the nights he was in Midgar at Kytt's.

Reno didn't pay attention to that. It was all work politics, as far as he was concerned, and he wanted nothing of it. His work time was spent doing regular patrols, sometimes with Jask or Sherin, often with Kytt or Dallas, once or twice with Tseng or Braden. Maxx and Katelyn spent most of their time on missions outside Midgar.

Even though they were still "officially" partners, and had fallen into a holding pattern, Tseng never sent him out with Rude.

Raith became, more and more, a part of Reno's routine, someone he talked things out with, even if he never did respond, except for a fluttering eyelid here, a twitch of the finger there. He kept Raith abreast of what was going on with Shin-Ra and the world around, kept reading him the magazines, and even dug out an old copy of Loveless from the Turk library.

That, he didn't get, at all. Poetry, or whatever it was, Reno decided, was not his thing. Every five minutes, he'd snort and mutter something about cheese to Raith. "Except ours is better," he said.

He tried music, too. Raith, he thought, did hear it. Occasionally, Reno thought he saw Raith's fingers moving in time. It might've been his imagination, though.

He played with Raith's fingers a lot. At first, he felt like he was being invasive, but the Doc told him that touch was essential for coma patients.

Raith'd always liked playing with Reno's hands.

Sometimes, he got so frustrated he wanted to stab Raith in the toes with a large needle just to see him move. He resisted the urge.

Funny thing was, Reno never thought that Raith'd not wake up. He expected it, every day, and when Raith didn't, Reno'd think tomorrow.

Hundreds of tomorrows had passed, and still, Reno thought tomorrow.

Then came the first day that Reno seriously considered that there may not be any more tomorrows.

"Reno," Braden called from across the gym. "Tseng wants you down at Raith's room, right away."

Reno allowed himself to drop off the rope. "What's going on?"

"Not sure, but don't worry, Raith's okay." Braden frowned. "Tseng didn't sound happy, though, and I could hear Dallas ranting in the background."

Reno didn't bother to change, instead heading straight for the Base Hospital floor.

Reno and Braden walked into the room, and Reno immediately knew something was wrong. Besides Doctor Mir, there were also a couple of other doctors that Reno didn't recognise, standing near Raith's bed, along with Tseng, Dallas and Rude.

And Heidegger.

Dallas was talking quietly, but stridently, to the unknown doctors.

"I don't like the look of this," Braden said.

"You and me both."

Dallas saw Reno then. "Oh, thank Gods. Reno, talk some sense into these morons, would you?"

"What's going on?"

She indicated one of the two doctors. "This--this--amateur is claiming that there is no chance that Raith will wake up, and the bright spark to his left is 'concurring'. They're going to switch off his life support."

"He's not using life support."

"I mean, pull his feeding tubes," she said. "They want to let him dehydrate to death."

Reno's glance swept over the two doctors and Heidegger, and zeroed in on the real source of the problem. Heidegger. "Over my dead fucking body, you will."

"Reno," Tseng chastised mildly.

"No. I am Raith's next of kin, and you can't do a damn thing to him without my say-so. And I say 'no fucking way'."

The first doctor Dallas had indicated did a reasonable job of trying to look like he was sympathetic. "You are prolonging the man's suffering, with all of this. Would you like to be left immobilised in your bed with no chance of recovery?"

"No chance of--" Reno turned to Doctor Mir, who looked decidedly unamused. "What do you say?"

"I don't agree with that assessment," she said.

The other doctor scoffed. "Keeping his body alive is pointless. There is, definitively, no mind left."

"That is 'definitively' untrue, you pompous arse," Reno said. "Have you even spent five minutes with him?"

"Are you a doctor?" Heidegger said, then blanched as Rude glared at him.

"I agree with Reno," Doctor Mir said. "Raith is now showing clear signs of deep and REM sleep cycles."

Tseng looked at her questioningly.

"Rapid Eye Movement," she said. "It means he's dreaming."

"Can't dream if your brain don't work," Reno said. "Right, Doc?"

"Yes," she said. "There is a dream-slash-rest pattern occurring. Currently, the deep sleep is the longer function, but REM indicates he's not necessarily vegetative. His heart is beating on its own, he is breathing on his own, and he is responding clearly to both pain and vocal stimulus, and has been for some time. I cannot agree with catastrophic measures at this juncture."

"Your opinion is outnumbered, doctor," said one of the other doctors.

"Majority doesn't rule here, doctor," Doctor Mir retorted.

"I do," Heidegger said.

Reno glared at him. "No, you don't."

"I have control over his medical cover," Heidegger said. "And he will not be covered by us as of next week."

"Do you agree, Tseng?" Reno said.

Tseng didn't speak, but his eyes spoke volumes. He did not agree. However, given what was happening with Rufus, the orders to do with the Chief, there was no way he could say so.

What fucking use are you then? Reno thought. Fine. He looked Heidegger in the eye. "You or anyone else touch this man in any way other than to make sure he is nourished and cared for and I will shoot you myself. If he dies, I don't care what the reason, I will kill you. If he is harmed in any way, I will kill you. I don't care who you are or what the official cause of death is certified as, I will kill you. Even if he does die on his own, of 'natural' causes, and you had nothing to do with it, no power on Planet will stop me from ripping that stupid beard from your face hair by hair, feeding you your own dick, and playing with your intestines for a while before I end you. Do you read me?"

Heidegger smiled. "You cannot threaten me."

"I think he just did." Rude stood next to Reno and Dallas. "And while we're here, if anything happens to Reno so he can't kill you, I--"

"We," Dallas corrected.

Rude nodded. "We will."

"Got that, boss-man?" Dallas said.

"I kinda like that idea with the intestines," Rude said in aside to Dallas. "You can keep a man alive for a long time even while feeding him his own guts. Coupla hours at least. Days, if you're careful."

"Me? I'm fond of the whole dick removal thing," Dallas said. "What'd'ya think? Rusty knife?"

Rude shrugged. "Blunt."

"Can we feed him his balls, too?"

Rude made a point of considering it. "Sure. That's what they train us for." He pointed at one of the doctors, the vocal one. "Him, too?"

Dallas' eyes glinted. "Oh, yes."

The doctor paled.

"Say something," Heidegger said to Tseng.

"Of course." Tseng turned to Reno, then back to Heidegger. "I'd listen to them. I'd say they mean it. Stopping these three once they have their mind set on a course of action is like putting your foot out to trip a train. Useless, and painful."

"Threatening your own black ops team isn't the smartest thing for anyone to do," Braden added. "Rude really could keep a man alive while eating his own intestines. Shin-Ra taught him how."

Heidegger glowered at Tseng. "I have my authority--"

"Raith was injured in the line of duty," Tseng said. "Saving the Vice President's life, in fact, and even if that weren't the case, Turks look after their own. As our 'boss', you should know that. Shin-Ra owes him, and by my calculations he has at least a year of full cover left." He crossed his arms. "I could talk to Rufus, and get his authority instead, if you'd prefer," he said coolly. "Sign the forms, Heidegger."

Heidegger scowled, then nodded curtly. "Another six months," he said. "We'll look at it again then." He waddled out of the room, then, followed by the two doctors. Doctor Mir nodded, then followed.

"All else fails," Braden said. "Go over their heads."

Tseng didn't answer him.

Braden shook his head. "You'd've done it. Gone to Rufus, even knowing--"

"If I had to," Tseng said curtly.

Reno didn't bother to talk, instead pulling the covers back up over Raith's chest. It was cold out. Then he stood and leaned against the windowsill, watching Raith breathe and only half listening to the conversation the others were having. Six months rang through his head. It wasn't that he didn't think he could get Raith more time after that, it was just that... six months... Reno couldn't bear the concept of Raith still being unconscious then.

It was the first time Reno really paid attention to how much time had passed.

"Do you seriously think Heidegger is going to let him live another six months?" Dallas said.

"I don't understand why he'd be so adamant about this," Braden said. "One thing to shoot someone in the head, but dehydrating someone to death?"

"Power," Rude said.

"No more than throwing his weight around." Tseng agreed. "He won't murder us, but he will try to find judicious reasons to pick us off one by one. We're all going to have to watch Raith 24/7, I think, just in case. Reno can't--and shouldn't," he added pointedly, "be here a hundred percent of the time. Teams of two, one outside the door, one in the room. Every medication to be administered or approved by Doctor Mir only, in the presence of one of us."

"Got it," Braden said. "Means we'll have less manpower to search for Veld, though."

"Well, if that there isn't just a right royal shame," Tseng said mildly. "I'll go and have a word to the doctor now. Reno," he said. "I want to see you in my office in a half hour."


"A half hour," Tseng said firmly. "Do not be late, under any circumstances. Dallas and Rude can watch things here."

Reno nodded. "Sir." He watched Tseng leave then said, to no one in particular, "I'm in trouble, ain't I."

Braden pushed his glasses up his nose. "Not from Tseng, I don't think."

"Guess you'd know," Reno said.

"Heidegger's another matter, though, Reno. Watch your back." He smiled at Dallas and ran a finger down her cheek in a "goodbye" gesture. "See you all later. Reno, Tseng meant it when he said not to be late."

Reno nodded, and Braden left.

Reno knew he should go right away, but he couldn't bring himself to leave. Heidegger wanted Raith dead, and Reno had no doubts that he would try, despite their threats, unless Tseng was able to pull an idea out of his arse.

"Won't happen," Rude murmured.

"What?" Reno said.

"Heidegger. Won't get his way."

That was unnerving, how Rude did that, even after everything. Reno caught his eye. "Thanks," he said, not entirely comfortable with the feel of the word. "You know, for backing me up."

Rude nodded. "Anytime."

"Go on, then," Dallas said. "We'll keep him safe. Don't worry."


"You want to what?" Reno said, incredulous.

"You heard me." Tseng's voice was mild steel.

"You want to give me your old job." Yeah. Forget that.

Tseng smiled. "Did I stutter?"

"Surely Braden is more suited, Tseng. Hells, he has seniority. So... no."

"Reno, sit down," Tseng said.

"I'd rather--"


Reno blinked, and did so.

"Do you think I'm a fool?"

Reno shrugged. "Yeah, sometimes." Moments like these, maybe?

"Well, in many respects, you're probably correct." Tseng sat back in his chair. "There are two reasons why Braden is not suited for this position. The first one is that he and I think too much alike. That worked very well when we were partners: he is, perhaps, my closest friend. However, when it comes to planning ops, that is an encumbrance, for we see the same things, and therefore could miss much. You, however, pick up on what I miss, for your mind works differently. Which leads me to the second reason." He paused. "You're not afraid to stand up. Braden, like myself, has been too conditioned to obedience. Today showed me that, even if the events at Nibelheim didn't already make that clear in my case, and the way Braden allowed himself to be twisted in the wind by Veld regarding Dallas..."

Reno nodded. "Okay, I'll pay that one."

"While you still need to learn circumspection, Reno, and you will obey me when it is required, up until that order is given I would encourage you to disagree as you see fit. Braden will not do that, not with me."

"I don't want the job."

Tseng sighed impatiently. "Tough."

"Sitting behind a desk all day would drive me crazy, Tseng."

"Hm. With this so-called restructure, much of the administrative minutiae is with Heidegger's department. There is not a whole lot more paperwork than you already have, certainly less than what was entailed when I was doing it. Unlike Veld, I would expect my Two IC to be out in the field, my eyes, so to speak, much as you are now, really, but with a higher security clearance, more say in the decision-making process and, frankly, more protection from the likes of Heidegger." He scratched his cheek. "He'd have to assassinate you now rather than just having you killed, and there's a lot more planning involved in that, not to mention needing the appearance of legitimacy. Gives us a chance to prevent it, at least."

Reno grunted.

"You had to know this was coming, eventually. I've been hinting around it for a while."

"Not really, no. Seriously. Okay, I can see why not Braden, but why me? Why not Dallas, or Rude, or for that matter, Katelyn?"

"Apart from the reasons already stated, surely it's clear to you how much loyalty you engender in others--and before you say anything, your recent personal problems with Rude, and past ones with Raith, notwithstanding, Raith would--and did--still follow you through fire on a professional basis and Rude has done nothing but support you, as his partner, since Corel, despite having to hear from me that you wanted out." He gave Reno a pointed look. "I would say that both men deserve more of your trust than you gave them credit for, perhaps, if that was for me to say."

Reno focussed on the desk in front of him, chewing on his cheek. "Perhaps." In Raith's case, probably. In Rude's... no. As long as Rude thought Reno was less, then it didn't matter what he did. Hells, when it boiled down to it, though, Rude was probably right.

Tseng watched him serenely. "I see what you said about grudges still holds true."

Reno shrugged.

"Well, Reno, you can love them, but they'll never love you back."

Yeah, so what's new? Reno nodded. He sighed, then considered for a moment as a thought wandered into his mind. More paperwork meant more time at the hospital. He didn't know when Heidegger was going to come for Raith, but one thing was sure: when he did, Reno would be there to stop it. He could send the other Turks out on the patrols and just work from Raith's room. That'd work. He shrugged. "Okay then."

Tseng's eyes narrowed. "What are you up to?"

"I'm accepting your 'offer', y'know, like you're actually giving me a choice."

"You make me nervous, Reno."

Reno shrugged. "It's what you pay me for."


Midgar, 1 year until Meteorfall

Rude looked annoyed. "What are you doing?"

Reno waved the latest Shooter. "End of the month."

"It's your September RDO. Why don't you actually take the fucking day off, grab a chopper and get some air away from HQ that isn't killing something, for once?"

"Why don't you mind your own business?"

"Reno, it's been three years. You gotta stop this. Visiting Raith every day is one thing, but you spend every waking minute in that damned room."

"I'm where I need to be."

"Don't doubt it. Said the same thing myself, back when. But you're also putting your life on hold waitin' for him to wake up."

"You talk like he's dead."

"Well, he ain't alive, and as a result, neither are you."

"You can just shut the fuck up."

"When was the last time you left Midgar, huh? Got in a chopper? Headed down to the bar? Or did anything but work, sit in that room, or work while sitting in that room?"

"I don't create the paperwork, Rude. It's my job. Heard of multitasking?"

"You hate paperwork. Three years ago you woulda gone nuts at that much paperwork. Nutsier at never going outside. Worse at never flyin'. You really think Raith'd want that?"

"Well, what do you want me to do, huh? Ignore work? C'mon, give me your 'Reno's Life According to Rude', since I obviously suck so much at it."

Rude threw Reno a sardonic look. "You're not even opening your mail." He grabbed the pile and pulled out an envelope at random. "This one's a year old." And another. "This one came last Summer." Then a large heavy envelope from the back. "Hells, Reno, this one has been sitting here since just after Raith's accident." He shoved that one into Reno's hand. "Ever considered that these may be important?"

"Figure if it's that important, then whoever it is will phone me. Most of that crap will be someone sending me stuff asking if I want to buy an interest in our competition, or change my banking habits, or some such rot anyway. It's not like I've ever had any real mail."

"Fine. Open it, don't, I don't care. But get rid of it. I'm sick of looking at it."

"Yeah, okay, I'll deal with it when I get home."

"No. If you're sitting in that room all day today, then take it with you."

"I'm going now, if that's fine with you."

Rude just looked at him steadily.

"Oh, and I'd appreciate it if you'd call my sister and tell her you've already given me my telling off for the day. I'm sick of the pair of you tag-teaming me. I ain't a child."

"She's worried about you."

"Yeah, everyone's so 'worried' about me. Y'know, I'm capable of worryin' about myself, if it ever becomes necessary."

"You're not really yourself."

"Oh, really? What the fuck am I ever going to be if not 'myself'? I may be a different 'myself' than you want me to be, but hey, live with it. It ain't like you ever thought much of the old 'myself' anyways. Go bother Kytt. You piss me off too much."

"Low blow, Reno."

Reno frowned, then remembered that Kytt'd broken it off with Rude a couple of months earlier. At least, he thought it was a couple of months. Reno was sure Dallas'd mentioned something. She and Rude were pretty fucking pally with their attempts to "arrange" him. "Yeah. Sorry. Forgot."

"Either way, you want to be shitty to me, go ahead. Just leave Dal outta the range of your temper, right?"

"Don't tell me how to relate to my own sister, Rude. I do fine, thanks."

"You're ripping her up, point of fact."

"Yeah, well, maybe she needs to let me just look after myself, too."

Rude took a breath, obviously trying to still his temper. "Okay," he conceded, "I get it. You want to do this on your own. Fucked, but... I get it. She doesn't, right? Give her a break. She feels like she's losing her brother." He adjusted his tie. "Keep this up and even Braden'll be pissed at you."

"I think the real problem is that I know the truth."

"What's that."

"You all think he's going to die, and the fact is, I'm sick of seeing it in everyone's face."

Rude didn't say anything.


"I miss my friend. Was a time you'd be trying to get me to head down to the bar, get out a bit."

Reno didn't want to follow that conversation any further. "Gotta go. I'll get the mail done and try to be better with that stuff, 'kay?" He paused on the way to the door. "Don't think I said this when I should've. Sorry about Kytt, Rude. Really am." He left before Rude answered.

Funny how things kinda came full circle. It was true, Reno guessed: he was now the less sociable of the two, but he had meant it when he said he was sick of seeing Raith's impending death on peoples' faces. It wasn't that they wanted him to die. It was just that they thought he would.

Reno wasn't going to entertain the notion. Raith was still going strong, muscle mass was virtually the same... everything was virtually the same... except his reactions, which were improving. Slowly, but they were improving.

The fact that it was impossible didn't make it any less the case.

The guard on Raith's room had been reduced to one Turk at a time when it became apparent that Heidegger wasn't going to follow through with his threats, at least, not right away.

Reno suspected Tseng had intervened through Rufus, after all, but if that was the case, he really didn't want to know.

He dismissed Jask as he arrived.

"So, Raith," he said as he entered the room. "What've you been up to?" He dumped the armful of papers on the table. "New Shooter, if you want to read it. Or I can just shut up and read my mail and let you sleep. Up to you." He ran his fingers across Raith's forehead. "They gave you a haircut. Keep forgetting mine. Should see how long it is." He looked down into Raith's face. No reaction. "Okay, I'll read my mail and let you be. Some of it's pretty old. Rude's been kinda pissed about it."

He wandered over to the table. How to go about this? The pile wasn't huge, but it was still substantial. He shrugged. Oldest to most recent, he guessed, sorting it, pulling out everything he knew without opening it was "one time only offers" crap. That done, the pile was halved. Okay, start at the beginning. He picked up the large envelope Rude'd shoved in his hand before, along with a couple of others from the same time period, and sat.

He turned the envelope over. No return address. Huh. Was a bit heavy for that kinda risk. Curious, he tore it open.

"Holy fuck," he muttered. "Holy fuck." It was from Felice. Reno had completely forgotten that she'd promised he would have information on his sisters if and when she died. How had he forgotten that? There were several folders, old-style files, printouts, with a note from Felice inside. All it said was Be careful.

He opened the first file. It was on Vickie, and pretty much confirmed what Katelyn had told him, that Vickie had been injected with... a string of letters and numbers, there, which Reno presumed identified the exact virus, and had not lived. Survived by one sister, Dallas, ID #, and location, which at that time was identified as the girls' orphanage he and Rude had gone to, and a brother, Reno, location listed as his own school.

Hells. She'd died long before he'd even left, when he was about eleven or twelve years old. Had Stevens known? Somehow, Reno doubted it.

The next file was on Dallas. He smiled when he opened it, at the picture of her, at about seven or eight years old, in school uniform. She'd been a cute kid. Location at the time the printout'd been made: Shin-Ra HQ, Veld's address. 1 sister, deceased. 1 brother.

He frowned. Perhaps Veld'd never read her file.

In the back of her file was a copy of his father's Wutai record: where he'd served, rank--he was promoted to major just before he died--a complete service record, classified and all. Reno swallowed, hard, as he read the notation at the bottom: KIA, Wutai, and the date. His parents had died within two days of each other, his father first. At least he'd been told the truth, there. Dallas' file also had notations on his mother's illness. Cancer. He and Rude had ultimately lost their mothers to the same disease.

He closed that file quickly, to look at later, when he could do so in private, and swallowed, again. Erin and Viktor. Those were his parents' names.

There was no file on himself, but the largest one was full of lists and numbers and what looked like medical terminology, none of which he could make heads nor tails of.

He frowned. There was nothing dangerous, so much, in his sisters' files, even taking into account the timing... maybe Vickie's. Maybe. This large file had to be the loaded gun, then. He studied it for a while, then gave up. He'd need help.

He closed the file casually when Doctor Mir walked into the room. She was used to him working on classified stuff for Shin-Ra, so she wouldn't think twice about him closing a folder when she appeared.

"How are you, Reno," she said.

He shrugged. "Same old."

"And how are you today, Raith? Hm, Conversational as ever, I see." She warmed her stethoscope then listened to his chest, then did all the other check-up-y things she did every day. "You're looking a bit pale, Reno. Getting enough sun?"

He shrugged. "I'm taking you to lunch today, Doc, if you have time."

She glanced at her watch. "Actually, today, I do."

"Have to warn you, I have an ulterior motive."

"Reno, if it gets us both out of this building for more than a few minutes I don't care what your motives are."

"Good. Let me organise Raith another babysitter, then, and get my stuff back up to my apartment."



Reno had enough time to organise a pleasantly surprised Rude to watch Raith, and separate out the relevant file into an envelope before he met Doctor Mir at the small café restaurant next to the regular Turks' bar.

She waited until the food arrived before she asked the question. "Right. So, what gives?"

"Need some discreet advice for a file."

"Sure. What is it?"

"Research for a project I'm working on. Classified."

She nodded, then held out her hand and Reno handed her the envelope.

"They look like medical terms," he said, "but I have no idea what they mean. I need some clarification from someone who knows what they're talking about and can keep it to themselves."

"All right," she said, opening the envelope and pulling out the file. "Curious that this is paper not data."

"Nature of the researcher involved."

Doctor Mir looked amused. "Researcher, hm."

Reno nodded.

"Let's see." She licked her finger and paged through the file, stopping occasionally to read, forehead creased in concentration. "What you have here, Reno, is a list of test results. Blood, urine, skin. Covers immunoglobulin, haemostats, mako suitability tests, DNA... wait." She looked up, her face alarmed. "Where did you really get this?"

"I'm not at liberty to say."

She flipped through a few more pages. "Reno, you need to tell me now. Did you pull this from the mainframe?"

He shook his head.

"Who did?"

"Someone else."

"You need to get whoever it is somewhere safe, then."

"She's already dead." He paused, then decided he could feed her a bit more information. "That's how I got this. She promised to give it to me when she died. She had it for a long while, Doc, and it's been sitting in my apartment unread for three years. If there was any danger in it, it's long past."

"No. It's not." She flipped over another page, and her eyes widened slightly. "It's definitively not." Another page. "Oh, my gods." And another, and she looked up at Reno again. Her face was not alarmed this time, but there was something... excitement? "Reno. I need to take these three pages... and--" she flipped back through the file-- "some of these results."


"I... oh, I hate saying this... can't tell you. I really can't. But I think--" she stopped. "I will return them. I give you my word."

Reno frowned. Tseng trusted Doc Mir to not let Heidegger kill Raith. Reno did. But he didn't even know what she was looking at, so how could he know what was right, here? "And you'll explain?"

"That I can't promise, and I'm sure you can understand why."

"Just tell me what for."

She looked me in the eye. "I don't want to get your hopes up, Reno."

"There is something in there that can help Raith, isn't there."

"Might. I want to make that clear."

"I don't understand how," he said. "Okay, I got this stuff from Rude's mother. She used to work here at the Base Hospital, as a nurse."

Doc Mir nodded. "Okay, so how did she get a hold of this? It's so high clearance that neither you or I could have access to it."

"Who would?"

"Hojo. The people who work directly under him. A few others, but not in entirety. I've had some of it, where it pertains to active Turks, but that's all. This has missing pieces that--well, let's just say it explains a lot, and I really need to get into it."

Reno shook his head. "She was looking for Dallas and Vickie, for me. This was when I was sixteen, Doc, well more'n ten years ago. She came home and told me to let it go, but she'd kept the info for later, to be given to me in the event of her death or told to me when she felt able to do so. We knew Vickie was dead, and that's all she confirmed for me. But, while I knew Raith at school, at the time she got this, Felice didn't know of him at all. So how could anything in there have anything to do with him?"

"Okay. That gives me context." She flicked back to the first page of the medical files. "What we have here is the test results of a number of people, in two different places." She flicked to another page. "This is a key, that matches the numbers on the file to the specific institutions the tests were run at." She pointed to the top of one of the files. "We're looking at test results for the students of two Shin-Ra military orphanages."

Oh. That made sense, then. Too much sense. "Holy fuck. That's from my orphanage, isn't it?"

"Yes. And, unless I miss my guess, probably your sisters' as well." She ran her fingers down the first columns of figures. "This is from yours. Each of these numbers matches up with the ID number of a specific student. I happen to be really familiar with one in particular, so much so I could recite it in my sleep." She poked one number. "That's Raith. And, unless I miss my guess, the number down from his is yours."

Reno glanced at it. "Yeah, it is. Least they numbered us in alpha order."

She nodded. "I've been missing some of Raith's records, and while I know that--" she stopped. "This is part of what I can't tell you. I've had holes. This fills a hole."

"Okay. I get that. Can you at least tell me what it means?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Let's just say that Shin-Ra has a penchant for trying to 'improve' people. You know of SOLDIER, so you know that. Sometimes it takes, sometimes it doesn't. For you, and Dallas, and Katelyn, it took, and there's been, at least, no lasting harm. For others, like Hamill, it didn't. The jury is still out on Raith, because of--other factors. Until now, I didn't have full information as to how or why. Now I do."

Reno didn't know where to head first. Improve? Took? Harm? Other factors? Hang on--Hamill? "Wait, what? What do you mean, Hamill?"

"He was before your time, went through Basic about the same time as Rude."

"If it was the same Hamill, then he was also my roomie, and best friend, for nine years. What, he was a Turk?" Hamill'd always wanted to do that. But... "What do you mean, was?"

Her face stilled. "I didn't realise you both came from the same orphanage. Hamill went through the Academy, and there was one other school who fed that as well." She sighed. "Unfortunately, Reno, Hamill was killed on his first mission out. I'm very sorry."


"I am not privy to the exact details, but the report said there was some stray gunfire and he unfortunately stepped into it. Braden would know more. He was there." She frowned. "Are you all right?"

Reno nodded vaguely. "Sure. Sure. I'm just... I haven't seen Hamill since I was fourteen, but it was always in the back of my mind that he'd gone on to... I dunno what. Always thought I'd catch up with him again some day." He pushed that away for later. "Sure, take those, Doc. Sort him, if it's possible."

She pulled out the relevant pages and enveloped the rest of the file before handing it back. "Don't take this back into HQ. It's unlikely, but if anyone from Hojo's department sees you with it and recognises it for what it is, then there will be questions asked and I don't like the thought of where you'd end up."

"Kinda past that fear of death."

"You wouldn't be dead, Reno." She shrugged. "I wouldn't be so concerned if Heidegger hadn't been so adamant that Raith die. That may've been simple politicking, but you never can tell. Either way, what you have there is dangerous information, and partly because I think it goes deeper--and higher--than it looks." She flashed a smile. "But what would I know? I am just a simple doctor." She stood, then, and reached for her purse.

"No, this one's on me," Reno said.

"Thankyou." She paused. "If I'm right, I will be moving Raith out into the regular ward while I try to treat it."

Reno frowned. "Why?"

"It's an ICU-type procedure, and I have to follow protocols." She rolled her eyes. "The reliance on potions has made some of my colleagues suspicious of older medical techniques. One day, we're going to find we've regretted not keeping our surgeons trained for more simple operations."

"You know them."

"Some. But no one lives forever, Reno." Her face grew stern. "If you want to be around when he wakes up, I strongly suggest you get some sleep. You look terrible." She grinned and waved then, looking for all the world like a young girl, and disappeared into the crowd.

Reno went the other way, dumping the envelope in the train locker he'd been using since he was fifteen for anything he didn't want others to know about. He hadn't needed to for a while. He grinned when he opened it. He'd completely forgotten he still had Raith's blue shirt and chocobo-print silk pajama bottoms. Huh.


Reno was officially pissed off by the end of the day. He'd tried to go back to the hospital but he'd run into Dallas, who'd cornered him and lectured him on his eating habits, his lack of sleep... fuck, what didn't she lecture him on?

"Yeah, whatever," he said. "Raith's being moved. I need to go and help."

"No. What you need to do is go and have a nap before you fall into a coma yourself. After you have an actual meal."

"I just ate an actual meal." He'd been so annoyed with her he'd forgotten all about telling her about Felice's mail.

"Don't make me go over your head and call Tseng. I will, you know."

He glowered at her, but did as he was told, falling onto his bed fully clothed. Truth be known, he was wiped.

It felt like he'd only been asleep for moments when the phone rang. He picked it up blearily. Dallas. Shit, what now. He opened it. "If you're calling to lecture me again, I'm not interested, Dal."


"No. How about you let me talk, for once. I'm eating, okay? Always was, anyhow. I am capable of looking after myself, and while I really do appreciate that you care, at the same time I'm getting sick of the presumption that--"

"Reno, will you stop talking for a second and just listen? You need to come down to the hospital, right now."

Something in Dallas' voice made Reno pause, and he knew something had gone wrong. Gods, Raith, he thought, already out of bed and moving towards the closest elevator before the thought was completed. He swallowed. "What is it?"


"What is it?"

"He's awake."

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