Chapter 15: Hurt



Two blue suited men stood in the middle of Olde Junon, staring rather indifferently at an obliterated Deli. One, with wild red hair spilling down his face, flicked a cigarette to the ground while the bald headed one simply stood there, arms crossed in his trademark statuesque manor.

"Well," Reno sighed, frowning as he lit up. "Guess we better get to work."

He stepped over the yellow police tape, and walked into the charred, blackened building, ignoring the officers investigating and the paramedics who futilely wheeled out blackened, fleshless skeletons atop stretchers. As he strolled, he accidentally crushed a skull under his foot.

"Fuck..." He muttered, brushing the ash and specs of bone off his boot. "Why the hell do I always get stuck with the shit jobs..." He looked to his fellow Turk expectantly, but the tall, no funny-business muscle simply shrugged. "God dammit..." Reno swore lazily, rubbing his eyes as he tried to overcome a mind-numbing hangover. "Elena and Tseng are on their way to exploring a freaking mythical temple while I'm stuck working a fucking crime scene..." He looked up at the sky and sighed. "Well, may as well finish this one fast..." He put his arm in front of a wandering cop who was madly scribbling onto a notepad, oblivious to his blue clad superiors. The officer looked up, and jumped in surprise when he saw the two Turks standing in front of him. "Alright," Reno began, forcefully tearing the notepad away from the officer and looking it over, half awake "So what's up?"

"Well, it seems there was an explosion..." The rather nervous cop began with a gulp.

"No shit ..." Reno sneered, briefly looking up from the messy writing to peer around at the incinerated Deli. "Who the hell cares?"

"Well, there doesn't seem to be any trace of a bomb..." The officer continued sheepishly.

"So?" Reno continued, irritated that he was still here instead of sleeping on his couch. "Ever hear of materia, dumbass? You know, it's that stuff we use to make things go boom."

"...And it seems that the explosion took place within seconds of those creatures bursting out of Gaea's peak..."

The skeptical Reno found himself at a loss for words, brief as it may be. "Coincidence." He uttered impatiently, finally finding one.

"...And a strange man was seen fleeing the scene immediately after the explosion." The officer went on with a gulp. "Reports indicate he matches our mysterious assassin of the late Pr. Shin-Ra, and the attacker of Pr. Rufus Shin-Ra's transport to Costa Del Sol. That's why we called you..."

Reno stared at the man for a second, and shoved the notepad into his arms, storming off with his comrade close behind. "God dammit..." Reno sighed, his hands on his hips, disappointed in the news that he wouldn't be going home any time soon as he flicked away yet another cigarette. "Looks like we've actually got a job to do here..." He shrugged and swung his arm around the giant Turk's shoulders, doing his best to lighten his own mood. "Well, Rude my friend, you up for a little bit of seek and destroy?"

The silent Turk cracked a rare smile.

***

Aeris stared at the newly ominous Buster Sword across the room, dried blood peeling from its tip. She sat atop her bed with her knees clenched to her, eyes a transparent sort of glassiness to them with her back against the wall, trembling slightly.



Zack came into the room, wiping at his bloody face with a towel. "You okay?" He asked her, putting the towel around his shoulders as he sat down beside her. She didn't acknowledge him, eyes locked on the blade. He watched her for a long minute, a frown on his face. "Well, I've gotta get home." He told her, regrettably making his way to the sword. "Sorry about today. I know it was rough." He sheathed the sword, and she tilted her head and stared at her feet. "Unfortunately, There are a lot of psychos out there... Goodnight." He finished with a wave as he opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

"You've done it before, haven't you?" She called after him rather quietly, focused on her feet.

"Hmm?" He asked, frozen in the doorframe "Done what?"

"Killed." She began, daring to look up into his eyes. "I've never really thought about it before tonight, but you must have done this before, right? It wasn't your first time, was it?"

He snickered uncomfortably, looking away from her. "Goodnight, Aeris." He told her, shaking his head as he once more turned his back to her.

"How many people have you killed, Zack?" She asked, a bit choked up and worried.

"I don't want to talk about this..."

"How many?" She pressed, cutting him off as he began to shuffle nervously.

"Drop it, Aeris. You're not being fair..."

"Please, Zack ." She begged sheepishly. "I need to know..."

"No you don't..." He muttered, his eyes to the floor as he shook his head.

"Well then I want to." She said, moving up to the bed's edge and staring a hole through him.

"I don't know..." He murmured, looking up into her eyes, a rather abashed look in his own. "It's not like I've kept count..."

"Did they deserve it?" She asked after a hesitant gulp.

He didn't answer for the longest time, his arms folded as he stared at the ground. "I...I don't know..."

"How can you not know?' She demanded shakily but forcefully. "You killed them, didn't you? How could you kill them if you didn't know?!"

"I only know what I'm told and what I see..." He countered raising his voice slightly.

"And that's enough for you?" She asked, rising to her feet. "You're willing to take a life just because someone tells you to?! What if they lied?! What if they tricked you?"

"You're making too big a deal of this..."

"You're a murderer."' She told him dryly, her eyes filled with furious tears.

"Don't call me that." He said, a heading tone to his voice as he looked up at her with iron eyes.

"It's what you are, isn't it?" She hissed. "God, I don't even know you anymore..."



"Bullshit!" He roared fiercely, and she stumbled back onto her bed from it's sheer force. He had a vicious sort of gleam in his eye as he took a menacing step towards her, but immediately pulled back, groaning in frustration as he tried to swallow his rage. "I've never been anyone but myself around you, Aeris. I am who I am, and I've never once pretended to be any different for you." He began, somewhat unsuccessfully calming himself as he turned away from her and snickered. "You know, it must be so easy for you sit there and call me that. It's so easy for you to just sit there and look down on me from that high moral horse of yours..." He trailed off, and she only watched him as he contemplated his words.

"You may think you have it rough down here, Aeris ." He began anew. "But it's not that much different anywhere else. People fight to survive everywhere. You do what you have to, even if it's wrong. You just desensitize yourself, and you don't let yourself think about it, because you just know that you have to do it, so you do it." He paused, waiting for a reaction, but none came. "I'm not going to try and justify the things I've done, Aeris." He said solemnly. "But I'm not going to apologize for them, either. I don't regret anything, because I'm who I am because of what I do. If you can't accept that..." He trembled a bit, and sort of forced a smirk as he turned to her "Well then I guess I've definitely got something to be sorry for."

She stared at him for the longest time, her wet, pained eyes digging into him as she hugged a pillow to herself. "You need to go..." She finally said quietly with a gulp, turning her eyes to the floor.

"Aeris ..." He began, taking a step towards her.

"Just go!" She screamed, sending him reluctantly retreating backwards.

He stared at her for about a minute, pondering his next move. In an irate huff, he stormed out her room and down the stairs, her eyes on his back the whole time. As soon as he passed her front gate, she let out a pained sob, falling onto her bed and crying longingly into her pillow. She had never let herself think of him as a SOLDIER before today. She had made herself look beyond the title, and see the abundant good in him. But she saw now that she had looked too far past who and what he was: a killer, an assassin, a blind lackey, and most of all, a SOLDIER. Now her self-deceit had caught up with her, and the man had become his title. He had killed, and she saw in his eyes how subtly he enjoyed the sport of it. She had fallen in love with a monster, and she feared that her's was a future not fit for a second.

She pressed her hand against her abdomen. She could promise no sunny days ahead; she was too uncertain to hope. This was not the world to birth a child into, let alone one with a killer for a father and herself as an inadequate mother. She couldn't bear to bear one.

***

Tifa watched Adam from across the room as he watched her, somewhat uncomfortable under his steely golden scrutiny. She knew he was picking her apart; unsuccessfully attempting to understand why she was here. He didn't want to confess weakness by simply asking her, and she wasn't anxious to tell.

"You know,' She began, shivering as a cold wind came through the torn wall, trying to kill the silence with a conversation. She pointed at the shattered syringes and spilt powders littered around him. "That stuff is really bad for you."

He forced a sneer, consciously freeing her from his gaze, as he looked to the floor. "Are you that desperate to talk, Teef ?" He looked back up at her with those piercing eyes. "I'm sure there's plenty of other things you're curious about."

"I don't want to sound like some after school special or anything," She continued awkwardly, ignoring his offer and showing some genuine worry. "But whatever problems you have, they're not going to help."

He looked at her for a long second, reading her. "I appreciate the concern," He told her truthfully, accepting her topic of choice, at least for the moment "But I didn't really expect them to, anyway." He shrugged indifferently. "I just wanted to feel something. I didn't care if it was healthy or not."



She stared at him, slightly confused and sympathetic. Her eyes unintentionally wandered to his magnetic butchered wrists and forearms. The blood had ceased to flow, and the deep blue color had dried to his pale skin.

"You don't have to be polite about it." He said plainly, noticing her focus. "I was just...frustrated." He began, correctly assuming what her next question would be and saving her the pain of asking it. "I was worried I was dead." He snickered at the absurdity. "It's hard to explain..." He continued, shaking his head. "I couldn't feel anything. All those little sensations that come with just being alive... they were gone. I lived my whole life with them, and all of a sudden, they weren't there anymore." He looked up at her, and she did her best to feign understanding, but he saw through it.

"You don't even notice them when they're there," He went on. "because you're just so used to them being part of it all. But when they're gone..." He paused, holding his fist to his heart, staring emptily in front of himself. "It's like there's not even anything left there inside of you. You're hollow; like you've just had everything inside you ripped away, but for some reason, you're still there. But that's all you are. You're just there. You're not anything, you just exist, and that's all."

He paused, swallowing hard as he struggled to remain stoic and distant, burying emotions.

"I needed so badly to feel something." He explained, somewhat shamefully. "I tried drugs, but they didn't do anything. Nothing. No buzz, no high, not even pain. But there's always pain... That's what worried me the most, because when there's nothing else, there's still usually pain..."

She bit her lip, her head spinning as he so joylessly drew a picture of his numbness for her.

"I tried to make myself hurt..." He forced himself to go on, exposing the disgusting wounds, looking at them with a child's fascination. "I cut, I tore, I stabbed, I ripped away at myself..." He shook in fury as he watched the wounds heal, and it poured into his voice. "Nothing. Not even a tingle. I bled for fucking hours!" he roared, and the two of them trembled together at his own force. After a moment, he laughed, shaking his head. "But nothing. Ever."

He dragged an unsteady hand through his hair, and looked out his makeshift window. Again, the two sat in silence, with nothing but the harsh wind escaping the stagnance. She couldn't help but wonder what had become of the mighty SOLDIER, how he could have possibly lost so much as to turn into this: a desperate, tortured, broken man. She was compelled to look away in repulsion from the once distinguished idol.

"It must be beautiful." He began, interrupting her pondering.

She looked up, unaware of what he was referring to, and found his eyes focused on the dwindling sun across the ocean as it succumbed to the inescapable darkness of night.

"The sunset, I mean." He gestured his hand at the painted sky, a forlorn sort of twinkle in his eye. "The pinks, the yellows, the oranges... must be nice."

"Yeah, I guess..." She shrugged, raising a skeptical eyebrow to the image, digging past the scenery in hopes of finding something unseen.

"I can't see them anymore." He explained with a frown, a detached sort of way to his speech. "It's all grey these days. No more colours." He paused, shifting his weight. "I try to remember what they look like a lot. I don't want to let myself forget them, but they're all just fading into dull shades of black and white." He shuddered. "I see right through people now. I see what they're thinking, I see what they're feeling, and I see what they try and hide from everyone. Everyone's got a skeleton in there closet, and everyone's always pretending to be something they're not. They're all black when I look inside them. All of them. I try to see the colours, but I just can't, so I forget them..." He then grinned wryly. "Except for red. I definitely remember red. What's that say about me?"

"Wow..." She uttered, observing him like a favored specimen "Must be..." Tifa began, but trailed off, unable to think of an appropriate word.

"Bland? Depressing? Bleak? Go ahead and stop me, or else I'll just go on forever."

"Refreshing." She decided, unusual a choice as it may be. "I mean it must simplify everything quite a bit. Eliminates all the specifics, makes everything black and white." She cringed as he raised his own eyebrow at her. "Pardon the pun."

" 'Refreshing' is hardly the right word." He told her, shaking his head and ignoring her unintentional wisecrack. "How can something be refreshing without ever having any flavor to it? Life needs spices."

"But too much can ruin the meal." She cracked again. "You on the other hand are left with the bare basics. You see everything as it is, no disguises. No more faking beauty or masking the deep down reality of people."

"If getting rid of the fake beauty leaves no beauty at all, I hardly see why it's a good thing." He countered. "If what's real is just darkness, isn't it better just to live superficially? Better to be locked away in a pretty prison than be outside in the storm, right?"

"But there's still real beauty," She persisted. "It's just harder to find. But when you've got it, it'll be all the more satisfying when you know it's real."

He snickered, bitter and all too jaded not to be skeptical.

"What about me?" She asked after a moment's quiet, a small but warm smile on her face and a sweetness to her eyes. "Am I beautiful?"

He stared at her in silence, unreadable and statuesque as he wondered what would be the best answer. He finally decided on none, looking away from her and again at the grey sun, leaving her to analyze his reaction, or lack there of.

"So when are they coming for you?" He asked, interrupting her musings.

"Hmm?" She murmured, again ignorant to his implications.

"Avalanche." He specified. "They must be coming for you, or else you'd have already gone to them."

"They're not coming." She told him, shifting uncomfortably as she looked away from him. "They don't know I'm here..."

"Well if they don't know you're here, then they probably think you're dead." He warned her. "I made quite a mess of them and that ship. A casualty could only be expected, and I'm sure they realize it."

"Probably for the best..." She muttered inaudibly to herself.

"Now why is that?" He asked puzzlingly, once more understanding things not meant to be understood.

She frowned at his eavesdropping. "I don't want to say." She told him.

"You're sure?" He offered his ear. "Because odds are I already know what you're going to tell me."

"We should get you a doctor," She side-stepped the subject, gathering her things off the ground beside her. "You're bleeding pretty badly..."

"I wouldn't worry about it..." He showed off his healed forearms, devoid of anything resembling a wound or a scab, only what seemed like dried ink on his skin.

"That's not possible..." She stared at the scarless skin in a quiet shock. "It's a miracle..."

"Well, I wouldn't call it that..." He snickered. "I doubt anybody up there's trying to do me a favor..." He laughed for a second, but all of a sudden turned deadly serious and looked away at the sky as something caught his attention.

"What's wrong?" She asked worriedly, standing to her feet.





"Someone's here..." He explained, jumping to his feet and reaching for the Masamune and Buster Sword across from him. "We've gotta move..." He muttered, ushering Tifa towards the door just as it exploded in a vicious burst of controlled but unvanquishable flame that sent them hurtling into the wall opposite them. As they slunk to the floor into two seemingly broken piles, faces cringed, a blue suited red head strut through the charred remains of the entrance.

"Well," Reno began with a cocky smirk, Mag rod crackling as he leant it against his shoulder. "What have we here?"