Author's Notes: Epitaph is in second person, but it is not an "interactive" story: "you" is directed at Rude and that is made perfectly clear in the very first sentence. The sections occur in Present/Memory/Past and cycle. There are also exactly zero quotation marks in the entire thing, because I hate them. If you can't figure out who's talking, then I didn't do my job.

Warnings: It's not a deathfic, although its title does have significance. Other than that, it is Turk fiction and serious Turk fiction. That should say enough about that. Prepare to be at least a little bit disturbed. And if you're looking for pure smut, don't even bother.

Otherwise, enjoy.


-

Epitaph

-


The Eulogy of a Turk


Come on, Rude, he croons at you, twirling his EMR lightly through the fingers of one hand, and you can see his eyes lighting up, swirling with the combat fury of mako. He never used to tap into the mako-rage before a year or so back, at least not for sparring, but he is now, and he doesn't care if you know it. He raises a hand, beckoning with a quick twitch of his fingertips, and you raise your fists, knowing that if you don't hit first, he will, regardless of whether or not sparring within the next five seconds happens to be on your list of things to do this morning.

Come get me. You know you want to. His grin's the same, laughing and mocking and cheering you on all at once, but that's where the similarity ends, and if anyone knows it, it's you.

Same words, same gestures, but it's changed, all changed. There's laughter in his mouth, now, but none in his voice. His grin is twisted and strange like always, but it's just not twisted like it used to be. It used to be different, so very different. But it's been this way for long enough for you to have stopped caring.

Intentionally, at least.

But it seems like you've already taken too long. Reno rolls his eyes and pounces at you, flailing away wildly in a pattern that only he can read. It amazes you again, how fast he moves, how untrained he seems, and yet how professionally he goes about it, knowing exactly where every inch of his body and weapon are at every moment in time. He dodges you then hits you, once, twice, three times, four: but it's alright for now at least, because the hits are light, more taunting blows than damage dealers. He knows it, and he knows you know it, too.

He also knows that he's faster than you, and that he's only tiring himself out. But he can't resist, and for some reason, although you don't realize it, it makes you glad. Resistance and resisting things he wants has never been a part of Reno, even before, or even if he wanted it, which you're not sure he does. When the day comes that he's in complete control of himself, sane as reality and cynical as winter, you know he'll really be a completely different person.

If the word person even applies to Turks, that is.

And for a moment, you wonder if maybe then, if he changed like that, your feelings might change too, and this scares you. You're not sure why, because no one would know anyway, but it scares you and you can't help but notice it. And noticing it makes you hesitate, missing the chance to connect your knuckles to Reno's jaw.

Slow, slow, slow, he laughs, then backs away, letting you shift out of your guarded position. Getting old already—

You knock him down with a lashing kick to the face, and he stands back up, rubbing at his cheek but still laughing.

Guess not.

And he dives at you again, serious this time, laughing and grinning and fighting you with everything he's got, throwing himself into your punches and kicks like he loves the pain and hitting you like he knows you love it too. It lasts a few minutes, maybe. Maybe a few eternities. Endless time, locked in a deathmatch… that ends right before the death.

And then it's over.

One day, you find yourself thinking while you both pick yourselves up, the deathmatch just won't end in time. That last intentional miss will be an accidental hit. Even today, one more minute would have ShinRa down exactly one Turk. You'll kill him, or he'll kill you, eventually. Which of the two it would be, however, you're not entirely sure.

But Reno seems to be.

Bitch, I owned you.

Sure, you say blandly. Maybe it's a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe it's you just dismissing Reno's insults. Maybe it's an attempt to piss him off, just to see if he's got any real emotion left under all that grinning, smiling cheer.

Of course, he ignores it.

I so owned you. I so did!

Sure.

I hate you. A grin. I gotta kill you before you admit it, don't I?

Maybe.

A flash of laughter in his eyes, tinged with danger. Maybe I will.

Maybe.

Hah!

You just shake your head, concentrate on a Restore materia, and get to work patching up the both of you. He swears fluently as his skin grows shut, waits for you to finish with yourself, then stands back up, heading out into the middle of the mat and twirling his EMR again.

'Nother? A grin, and a toss of the hair. Unless you're scared I might kick your ass so hard you die.

For a second, you're torn between answering Never or Always, before realizing that both would mean the same thing. So you just nod, following him back into the deathmatch circle, wondering, not for the first time, if this one might be the fight where he might actually kill you or you might actually kill him. And you wonder too, not for the first time, how long it's been since the last point in time during which Reno might actually have cared.

En garde, fucker!

-----

No one, you remember, had thought that Reno would even make it through the prelims. He had been too short, too light, too loud, too crazy, too generally un-Turklike to be a Turk. Half the women had weighed the same as him; half the men had held weapons that probably weighed more. His speed had been average, brute strength, average, everything, average: which, in ShinRa's eyes, meant mediocre.

But then, you remember, he'd proved you all wrong. Behind that half-crazed grin and odd, not quite-pure mako eyes, there lay a mind more innocently devious than any you'd ever seen. You remember that, because you remember how he did it, tricking and cheating and dirty-fighting his way to the top, while oddly wishing no genuine ill on anyone in particular. And most of all, you remember feeling slightly jealous every time you heard that he and one of the wannabes had exchanged ranks for sex, especially since none of the wannabes had seemed to regret it.

But that, too, had only been because Reno had been different, back then. If anyone might have been your polar opposite, it would have been back-then-Reno, brilliant and bright and flashing his grins everywhere with such blinding open emotion that they might have hurt if he hadn't really meant them. It hadn't been a matter of Reno bringing life into a room, for he was life every moment that he breathed and you could tell right away that he absolutely loved every minute of it. It had been more a matter of watching him walk into the room, then for some reason feeling as if all the dead things around him might somehow wake up and respond.

Dead things, not really alive and not really changing, but reacting to him anyway.

Dead things, like you.

-----

Hey! he calls, and it's sad, but you already recognize his voice, even though you've never talked to him before. You recognize it, mostly because he yells so much when he fights, and it's sad, mostly because you've watched so many of his sparring matches, far more than you're required to from the job description. When he's there along with you, you can tell that Tseng's interested too, just from the way he watches so closely.

You don't blame him.

And just like him, you're fascinated by this fiery new recruit: it took you a while to realize, but you did, and you are. Only now that you've realized it, you're not really sure why he fascinates you the way he does. The fact that he's different is obvious; just the way he acts-like-himself and acts-like-himself with absolutely no shame breaks up the cycle around here, smashing against the doors of everyone's restrained, corporate personalities and taunting them to come out and play. But it's not just that. Something about him draws you and warms you, stirring up strange, vague memories of laughter that you thought you'd lost and forgotten years ago.

And the thing that confuses you the most is that you hadn't noticed that the memories were gone.

You! Whats-your-name! Wait up!

Turning and raising an eyebrow.

Yeah, you, he answers your unspoken question, then flashes you a grin that almost makes you want to return it. Uh, uh, shit. I forgot your name.

Reno had known your name?

Rude.

Oh. Shit, yeah. Shit.

He sticks out a hand, and you look down at it, blinking. The first thought that instantly crosses your mind is that he's probably bluffing, pretending nonchalance to try and impress one of the Turks. The second thought that instantly contradicts that is that you can tell he's not; you've seen him around those that he's friendly with, and he acts exactly the same way. You wonder a little, then, if he's stupid, insane, or just fearless, before deciding that you really can't tell. Maybe all three.

It's a handshake, Reno says after a few seconds of silence, waving his arm a little and not seeming to be put off at all. Hand-shake. Shaking hands. You know, you do this when you meet people. Like, you take yours, and—yeah, there you go, social, social. I'll have you seducing women like a pro by tomorrow night.

His hand is warm, even though you're standing directly beneath the AC.

Good! Now um… shit, I forgot what I was gonna ask. Shit. Shit. It was something. A pause. …I think. Maybe. Fuck, if you were me, what would you ask, uh, you?

Maybe, you think, he really is just stupid.

God damn. I hate when this happens. I can never keep track of this shit. Reno thinks a little, tilting his head and screwing up his eyes, then shrugs cheerfully. Maybe I was plannin' to hit on you. Hey, man, how about a drink, though?

What?

You're glad you didn't just say that out loud.

Maybe I'll remember later, you know? he continues, playing with the plain, unadorned metal stick that you've seen him decapitate things with and twirling it like a baton. I usually do. Remember, I mean. Though I can't say I'm gonna be sober enough to ask. Or remember if you answer me.

Okay, okay, I lied! he says a few minutes later after you just stand there silently and incredulously staring at him, and rolls his eyes like he doesn't know that you could break his neck right now. With one hand. I had no idea what the fuck to say to you, but I saw you watching me—and don't deny it man, you were there—and you were hot, and I think I like you.

A pause, a grin, and a blunt but somehow fitting offer.

Fuck me?

You want to say yes, you think suddenly. You've wanted to say yes for a while now, wanted to see if maybe that would make the new recruit's strange aura of dead-life reactivity permanently rub off on you somehow and maybe grant you some of your humanity back. And you almost open your mouth, almost do say yes, but you clamp your teeth shut resolutely instead.

Hm.

What's that, like yes? Reno says immediately. Like hell yes? Like sure, I'll do anything you want, sexy, dress me up in a chocobo suit yes? He's laughing now, imagining it.

You cut him off with one word.

No.

He quiets, although he still looks hopeful. No what?

Screw off.

Then, there's a flash of surprised hurt in his eyes, quickly masked up by another grin. But it's there long enough for you to notice it, and the way he takes a step backward away from you makes you want to punch him for being so suddenly scared. You wish you could tell him that he doesn't need to fear you, but he will, and he does, at least for now. And the best part is, you're not sure whether the strange disgust you feel right now is directed at him or yourself.

But you can't figure it out, can't figure him out. The fear is understandable, but not the actual hurt. There was pain there, actual pain, the stuff right out of cheesy romance novels and teenage dramas. He can't possibly believe that he can make it through training and missions with that kind of emotional vulnerability, can he?

That's when you think: he'll never be a Turk.

And then you walk away.

-----

You're watching him from the door, putting on the uniform that you once thought he'd never wear. Now, you can't imagine him without it, rumpled shirt, open jacket, missing tie and all. Before, you remember, he used to defy the uniform codes out of laziness and a sheer unwillingness to bend to the strict, confining rules; now, it's only out of habit, thoughtless and routine.

Smoothing down his pant legs, Reno glances up and sees you watching, then finishes his cigarette and spits it aside. The sarcasm in his voice is thicker than the humid air outside the showers and grates against your skin like rust. Nice view?

Sure, you reply, with what's become your noncommittal answer to everything. Meeting in five minutes.

Yeah, yeah, it's always a fuckin' meeting, he says, and it's anger instead of mild annoyance that crosses his face even while he laughs like he means it. Slamming his locker shut, he lights up another cigarette before he picking up his EMR and slinging it over his shoulder. And just before he passes you, he pokes at you with it. Surprised, but not in an unpleasant way, you duck away from him out of habit, just like you used to when Reno used to like to take random, playful zaps at you.

But there's no shock this time, even though the rod connects, and for some reason, although you realize you'd been expecting this, you find yourself disappointed. You look up, raising an inquiring eyebrow at him, but Reno only half-grins, amused at your memory.

Funny, Rude, his expression seems to say, I thought you outgrew that shit years ago.

But you haven't, apparently, and as you watch him leave down the hallway without a single glance backward, you find yourself wishing that he hadn't, either.

-----

No one else, you think, even remembers when Reno hadn't had his signature electro-magnetic weapon. You do, but maybe that's only because you had been the one he'd coaxed into accompanying him into the Weap/Tech department to pick it up when the model he'd designed was complete. You remember that, how his eyes had lit up when he had seen it, completely forgetting that he had been kind of creeped out by the fact that you had been in Hojo's lab. And the part that sticks out most in your memory is how the first thing he had done when he had taken a hold of it had not been to attack anything, had not been to shock anything, but had been to throw it up in the air and catch it behind him, making sure that above all else, the EMR was balanced for fun.

It was only after he'd made sure he could play with it that he'd zapped you in the side, making you squawk out loud in indignation; then he'd burst into laughter so loud and hard that the scientists had ended up chasing the both of you out.

This is gonna fuckin' rock!

It's not a joke, you remember wanting to turn around and tell him, it's not a joke, it's not funny, it's a god damn weapon and you're going to be killing people with the thing you're trying to juggle. But when you had turned around, he hadn't been playing with it anymore and instead just holding it out in front of him and looking down at it, and his eyes had told you that he already knew that.

Beautiful, isn't it? he'd asked, fiddling with the power switch near the grip at the bottom, devouring the weapon with his eyes as if he could forget about all the people he'd be killing and torturing by focusing on how cool he looked doing it. That had always been his thing, you remember now, just like your thing had been simply to not think. But in any case, he'd asked you a question: Beautiful, isn't it?

You remember not being sure whether he wanted you to agree.

Sure.

Bastard. You know you're jealous.

Right.

He'd rolled his eyes, forcing you to duck away to avoid another zap in the shoulder, then grinned, beginning to swipe at the air.

You know, now that I officially have the most awesome weapon in all of ShinRa…

Hm?

I should probably learn to use it, yeah?

Then his gaze had lifted to meet up with yours: yours cool and collected as always, his excited and yet a bit cautious at the same time. He'd hesitated, then made an honest request:

Hey, Rude, you up for a match?

Sure.

Grin! Really?

And you remember destroying him.

But back then, he'd only cursed expertly without meaning it like only Reno could, accepting defeat and a helping hand up with a laugh and a playful vow of revenge. You'd shrugged it off, for he had always make threats like that. Or at least you had, until you had left the building to head back home.

And then, you remember, you'd found your car coated entirely with whipped cream. And somehow, in the space of two hours, he'd even found a bowl of cherries to put on the windshield, and there they'd sat, still wet and glistening red from the rain. The bowl had held down a note that said, Fuck you very much, Rude, and when you'd moved it to read what was beneath it, you'd found a crudely-drawn smiley face in a pair of opaque sunglasses.

You'd gone home, letting the still-falling rain wash off your car, and eaten those cherries with a bottle of vodka.

And you remember that it almost made you laugh.

-----

It's a plain metal stick, smooth and unadorned with anything but two materia slots, but he doesn't care. It's not a heavy weapon, thin, a bit too long, and not even two-handed, but he moves it fast enough so that it doesn't really matter. There's not even a grip on the thing but he uses that to his advantage, sliding it back and forth in his hands in different maneuvers: further back to swing, further up to jab, middle to make sure it doesn't get in his way as he moves.

The first time you saw it, you remember thinking: he might as well just be fighting with a pipe. Then you remember thinking, wait, the pipe would be thicker, heavier, and probably have ridges. The pipe would actually be better.

But he's owning the guy with the sword anyway.

And he's laughing, egging the other guy on, while he does it.

It's almost a dance, the way he fights: a dance by a madman, a psychotic dream. Except that it's all smooth, all sleek: attack, defense, counterattack, parry, flow into each other not like water but like crackling electricity. He's so used to the weapon, knows every inch of it so precisely, that he can even anticipate exactly where the sparks will fly from stick and sword colliding and direct them straight into the other guy's eyes. Every single time.

It's hypnotizing, watching him, and it's not just you: everyone watching is quiet, staring, and his is the only voice that dares to break the silence. Even Tseng's forgotten his pen and notepad, abandoning his note-taking in order not to miss any details of the fight. And you're the same, just watching and waiting, although subconsciously, you're already noticing his weak points just because it's been trained into you so well.

You want him to win, you realize suddenly, and you think that everyone else does, too. It's an odd sentiment for most of the watchers to have, considering that he's beat them all out for the spot in the final match-up, but it's a sentiment that they have anyway, and this surprises you. They're silently cheering him on, you realize, every single one of them. They're on his side. They're all his friends. They like him, although they'd never admit it.

And, you realize further, you do, too.

You want him on the Turks, just so he can stick around a little longer. It's only been a few weeks, and only been that one short conversation, but you realize that you'd already miss him if he were gone. He's already changed how things work around here, laughing everyone's fear of each other away and turning the entire thing not into a try-out but merely a friendly competition. And here was the evidence, right here, watching him now: all the prospectives somehow, for some reason, united into a silently cheering team.

No, it's not just for some reason, you correct yourself.

It's for Reno.

Tseng's watching, you're watching, everyone's watching now as the two battle it out in the middle of the testing area, trying not to wince at every screech of metal grating on metal. There's blood on the formerly pristine white floor, but it's impossible to tell whose is where. Both are covered in splotches of red, clothes starting to match Reno's hair. When he grins, which is often, you can see blood in his teeth.

But it's getting down to the last few shots, now. It's moving faster, blows falling more and more frequently as each realizes that the other is rapidly weakening, both tense and combat-high on right-before-exhaustion. Whoever wins the next few seconds is going to win it all.

As you watch, Reno swings, misses, and immediately slides into a ducking dodge as the swordsman brings his weapon down; springing upward quickly, he lets gravity slide his hand further up his stick, then twists like a cat in midair, smashing the back of it into his opponent's side. The swordsman was prepared for this, of course, and lets the momentum of the blow add to the power of his spin, catching Reno across the arm and knocking him over in another bright spray of red. Reno swears and has time to turn over onto his back before the swordsman brings the sword smashing directly down at his chest.

And if Reno were sane, you think, he'd have tried to roll away. And if Reno were sane, you remember, he'd be six feet under, split in two down the torso.

An audible noise of snapping bone echoes around the room as Reno twists his arms behind his back and launches himself upward feet-first, catching his opponent's arms at the wrists and forcing him to drop the sword with a cry of pain. At first, you think that it's the swordsman's wrists that are broken, but it's apparent in the next few seconds that the noise had come from Reno's left arm: it hangs uselessly at his side, twisted and still bent behind his back. But that doesn't matter: he's got his stick in the other, and immediately, seeing that his opponent is unarmed, he slides his weapon up his right sleeve and leaps completely onto the swordsman's back, holding himself there with his legs and wrapping his good arm around the man's neck.

Breathe, baby! Breathe! Come on! he yells, gasping for breath himself. His left arm, ignored, flails limply behind his back; his weapon tears out of his sleeve at the elbow from all the force with which he's clutching the swordsman's neck and he throws his head back and laughs, deep and loud and full. His eyes are glowing, greener than before, alight with something that you almost mistake for joy, when he leans forward to talk into the swordsman's ear.

You're payin' for my dry cleaning, right?

And then it's over, both of them crashing to the ground, swordsman first, Reno second and jumping up into a standing position before he hits the floor. The stick's immediately down out of his sleeve, in his hand, and pressed into the other recruit's neck; Reno prods him once or twice, then heaves the stick upward into the first half of a lethal stab. He waits, then, for the swordsman to close his eyes before grinning, crouching down, and sticking out his good hand.

What…?

You're close enough to hear them talking, unlike the rest of the audience, who are all glancing at each other in confusion.

Get up, man. I win.

Blink. And then the obvious, stupid question.

You're… not going to kill me?

The hell should I? They told me to win. I won. Killin' you's not my job.

Interesting, Tseng murmurs, and you can't help but agree.

But, the sword-less swordsman starts, and doesn't get any further.

You, Reno says, smashing one blunt end of his stick into the ground, don't get to talk. Getting all your damn bleedy shit off my pants is gonna cost you enough already anyway without you leaking piss and tears all over my shoes. Get the hell up, man.

The other recruit incredulously takes his hand, and Reno, true to his word, pulls him up. They lean on each other, bending once to pick up the swordsman's dropped blade, and stagger toward the exit where you and Tseng are waiting. As soon as the gate slides shut behind them, you can hear a faint cheer, soft at first, then louder and louder until the whole room seems to be vibrating from the noise. It's all out of place, in the ShinRa building, but here it is, shaking the walls.

But it still doesn't make Tseng talk any louder.

Patch him up, he orders calmly as Reno and the other recruit stumble their way through the door and crumple to the floor, and you know without further detail which him it is that Tseng's talking about.

So you do.

Hey, it's you, Reno says faintly as you lean over him and pick him up easily by the waist. You can tell that the combat-high is over and that he's reeling in the subsequent comedown; it's easy to spot, since you've gone through it more than once yourself. It's the blessing and curse of mako: the ability to break your physical limits with energy that has to be paid back in full immediately afterward. But at least he's still conscious, you think while dragging him along unceremoniously, at least he's still conscious, unlike the other guy.

Uh… uh… Rude. I think. Maybe. Right? he says then, with a weak grin. I hit on you once, I think. Chocobo suit guy?

Maybe, you reconsider, it'd be better if he weren't.

But he doesn't say any more, even when you sit him down on the bench and prop him up against the wall, not making any more noise even in pain even when you snap his arm back around the right way. He just kind of stares, eyes half-shut, at nothing in particular until you straighten and put the materia away. Then, as if he's just noticed you standing there, he sits up on his own, reaching out with one hand to nudge your leg.

Hey. You—Rude.

What.

Do you… think I'm crazy?

You look down, wondering if he really expects there to be a question about it after he fucking intentionally broke his own arm, and then realize that he's not asking whether he's actually crazy or not, but rather whether you, personally, think so. You remember thinking about it for a long time, staring into those strange green eyes, and wondering when the last time it was that someone had actually asked you for a personal opinion. When the last time it was that anyone else had actually cared what you thought.

Just the idea is astonishing.

But he just keeps looking up at you, questioningly, as if this were something completely ordinary. And maybe it is, for him: he's nothing like you've ever seen, after all. Regaining a bit of the composure that you never showed you lost, you shrug a little and answer his question.

We're all crazy.

He blinks once, slowly, as your words sink in, and hazards one more question.

We?

Turks.

And the grin of absolute, unadulterated delight that the one word brings to his face just before he passes out cold is one that will probably be seared into your memory until the day you die.

-----

Sector One, Tseng says, and already, just from his tone, you can tell it's a bad one.

Who gets to die today? Reno asks, and you can tell that he's pleased. Y'know, or get tortured, or maimed or otherwise pleasantly visited?

He likes the bad ones, now.

A certain scientist by the name of Grey, Tseng says, ignoring him. First name, Allan. Height, five-eight. Brown hair, brown eyes. Medium build.

So we killin' this guy? Reno's impatient: his foot tapping rapidly against the leg of the table tells you so.

Tseng ignores him again, as usual. This Professor Grey is an associate of Hojo, and currently works in the bioweaponry department. Recently, we have confirmed suspicions that he is actually in contact with several terrorist factions in Midgar, and is informing them of certain developments in the lab.

Reno's eyes light up. So we make him talk. By screams of pain or otherwise, yeah?

You are to locate him, contain him in a safe area, and question him about the situation. Names, residences, descriptions of the terrorist groups, what they know, as well as who their leaders are and where they are based—

Where, Reno says, already tensed to stand up and get going. It's less of a question than a flat demand.

He has been last seen in Sector One, coordinates 54.231.657.3.479. However, as he is not yet aware of our knowledge of his activities, it is advised to use caution upon approaching him as to make sure that he does not flee the area—

Tseng talks on, and Reno throws you a glance, eyes rolled dangerously far back in his head. He's telling you he gets it, he's informed, he's great. But most of all, he's asking you a silent question, irritable and impatient.

Can we go kill something yet?

-----

Sector Eight, Tseng had said, and you'd known it would be bad before you even heard his tone. The first missions were always bad, serving as one last test upon the try-outs and excruciating training that followed it. And the first missions, you'd known from experience, always either made or broke a Turk.

What's the deal? Reno had asked, and back then, Tseng hadn't ignored him.

The deal is that Rude knows what you both need to know, and you are to follow him and do exactly as he tells you.

Hah. ShinRa likes to stay mysterious, huh.

Perhaps. Tseng had turned to you, then, nodding curtly. Rude?

Yeah.

Dismissed.

Understood.

You had left, after that, and Reno had confidently thrown a casual salute at Tseng and followed you.

It had occurred to you, then, that Reno had trusted you.

And you remember that you couldn't imagine why.

-----

So where we goin'? Sector 8, right? Who's this guy? Do we have to kill him? What's he look like? How long's it gonna take? Does it matter where we leave him? I don't wanna like, mess up on the first mission, y'know.

Are we there yet?

By the time you enter the Sector, he's already asked all this twice.

So where exactly is it we're goin'?

And he's starting again, a third time.

You don't bother to tell him to shut up, mostly because it'll probably be a waste of breath. Instead, you just unlatch the safety on your gun, raise it quietly, and press it right at his temple, not bothering to even glance his way. You like him and you wouldn't kill him, not unless you were either ordered to or forced to, but he doesn't have to know that.

He gets the point, eyes wide and mouth blissfully shut.

But he's grinning again a second later, ignoring the gun and playing with his brand-new EMR in his lap, not at all offended. It's apparent that he's been threatened like this before, as he considers it nothing all too personal. And it's apparent that he hasn't learned yet to fear such threats, because he's talking again a few seconds later, shifting to turn toward you.

You don't talk much, huh?

The combination of the gun firing at such close range in a contained space, the car window shattering outward, and Reno's startled yell almost gives you a headache.

Okay, okay! I get it! Fuck! That almost hit my fuckin' ear.

The rest of the ride there is quiet, except for Reno's insuppressible, tuneless humming and tapping of his EMR against the chips of glass left in the window frame. When you realize, five minutes later, that you kind of want to hum along, you consider strangling the kid, just to drive home the point a bit further. But Tseng would most definitely dislike that, so you just sigh quietly instead, wondering if it's absolutely impossible to get him down.

Then, you're answered almost immediately as the humming stops when he starts to figure out where exactly you're taking him. His eyes widen again, but not just out of surprise this time. This time, he understands. Maybe it's only taken this long because it's so dark outside, what with this being one of the rare unlit areas under the Sector 8 plate; maybe it's because it's been such a long time since he's been back here, a place he used to call home.

The first kill is always someone you know.

Reno quiets, then, and you realize that this is the first time that you've seen him openly nervous. He's feared in the past, of course, been terrified out of his wits, and of course, as all Turks, he'd never obviously shown it. But now, for the first time ever, his face is oddly blank, purposely devoid of emotion and not even trying to pretend to be fine. Something about it is distinctly disturbing, although you're not sure what it is; it's only later that you realize that the expression on his face was probably yours.

So that's it, is all he says.

Sure.

No ties?

No ties.

Can it be quick?

Orders are kill him.

Alright, then. Pause, a deep breath. …let's do this.

The car slides into a smooth stop in front of the house, one that you've known by sight for almost three weeks now. Reno's door is open, his seat empty, and his feet hitting the asphalt before it even stops moving. A crackle from his EMR lights up the area for a second, and from the faint light, you can already tell he's shivering as he strides toward the door, not bothering to wait for you.

But it's always like this, and you know it from experience. They always tend to rush, hurry through it, break-in-and-kill-him-and-get-it-over-with or at least try to, then freeze up when the moment comes. You did it yourself, when Tseng sent you, and you've killed two recruits that way, before Reno. Tonight, you find yourself hoping, won't bring the count to three.

And then you're stepping out onto the street yourself and heading for the house after Reno. Only what you see there, as you get closer, makes you stop in your tracks for a second and raise an eyebrow in surprise. It occurs to you to ask exactly what the hell he thinks he's doing. But that part is obvious:

He's ringing the doorbell.

About 15 times.

And then he's standing, twitching impatiently like a 14 year old kid, and waiting for the guy inside to answer.

And in a few seconds, he does.

…Reno?

He's the guy all right, around sixty years old, blue eyes, brown hair: and the details Tseng gave you are exact down to the smallest detail, even to the millions of tiny scars on his hands.

Reno, he repeats, and it's happy surprise. And a friend?

Hey, Reno says, looking almost embarrassed. Got a minute?

And then the man's inviting the both of you in, Reno walking in casually, tossing his jacket on the back of a chair, and you walking in slightly stilted in disbelief. Reno points to a chair in the corner, which you sit down in, and Reno sits down himself, waiting for the guy to get the both of you coffee.

The hell, you ask as soon as the guy is out of earshot, are you doing?

Reno just looks at you, and shrugs a little. I'm saying goodbye.

There's no more time to talk, then, because the old man's come back with a tray and is offering the both of you a drink. Reno laughs comfortably and accepts, telling him that you're not the most social of people, as you just stare down at your coffee cup, wondering if this is actually happening. Vaguely, you can hear Reno and the man talking about what Reno's been up to these days, where he's been, how he's been doing. It's almost like a father and son, although that can't possibly be the case.

Then, slowly, the man's voice fades away as you hear Reno say ShinRa, then trainee, then tryouts, then finally: Turks. Reno's telling him about the competition, telling him about the final battle, about the broken arm, his new EMR. He's showing it off, showing himself off, grin growing wider and speech coming faster as the man's face grows paler. He's happy again, or at least seems to be, flooding the room with cheer to make up for the undertone of imminent tragedy.

There's just one last thing, yeah? he says confidingly, finishing his coffee and placing the cup delicately back on its plate. It's almost as if he's telling the guy that it's okay for his rent to be late, he understands that his wife is sick, or that sure, he doesn't have to come in to work tomorrow.

I'm going to have to kill you, man. I hope you understand.

Understand, the man repeats hollowly, staring up at him as Reno rises.

Reno just stands there, EMR in hand, looking down at him for a moment with his expression curiously blank again, just like back in the car and just like back when he had asked if you thought he were insane.

Do you hate me?

The man's face twists, anger and disgust fighting for supremacy with something that seems strangely like guilt, and eventually gives in, glaring daggers of betrayal up at the standing Turk. Reno flinches at the expression and the man flinches in return, but it's the man's next words that spur him into a flurry of motion.

You are a monster.

Then, Reno's free hand is reaching into your jacket and snatching your gun before you can react; his other hand is already occupied by his own, both pumping bullet after bullet into the remains of the old man's head. Blood splatters across your shades, across Reno's face, across the walls, but he doesn't stop shooting into his face and into his chest, not even bothering to aim for vital parts, until after the sound of dual hammers clicking into dual empty chambers has been echoing through the room for a good thirty seconds.

Then he sinks, both arms still outstretched, into the couch behind him, dropping the guns onto the coffee table with a clatter. One of the coffee cups breaks, spilling pieces of cheap china onto the floor, and Reno automatically bends to pick them up, placing them carefully back on the table as if somehow, that would fix it.

I'm alright, he says after a few seconds of silence, then looks up at you. Job's done.

Hm, you agree noncommittally. Going?

Yeah, Reno says, beginning to rise and waving the question off with a hand. Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Then—

Wait.

You stop, reloaded gun halfway into your jacket, and look down at him, raising an eyebrow. He doesn't look up to meet you, gazing down instead at his half-open uniform shirt and wringing it in his hands. At first, you think that maybe he thinks that he could somehow get all the blood out if he tried hard enough, but then, as the fabric rips with a violent tear and he tosses the entire thing over to one side, you realize that it's not the shirt he's worried about.

I'm going to take a shower, he says quietly as he walks across the room, and the bathroom door slams shut behind him before you can respond. The lights turn on, spilling onto the tiles on the floor, and inside, you can hear the water, splattering into the walls. He's taking a shower, just like he said. And all you can do is sit there and stare at the door, wondering what the fuck he's doing.

Actually, you decide in a few seconds when the blood on your shades starts dripping downward and interfering with your vision, it's probably the most logical thing to do. To kill a man and then to calmly use his bathroom to wash off the mess? Turklike, indeed. You think you yourself have done it more than once, when the option had been available.

But oddly, it doesn't fit with Reno.

And once fifteen minutes have passed with no sign of the shower ceasing, you calmly walk over and kick in the door, ready to drag Reno's dead, suicided body out of the bathroom and into the car because Tseng always demands proof, when that happens.

But what you see there that makes you stare isn't a fresh or soon-to-be corpse but rather Reno shutting off the water and wrapping a towel around his waist, blinking up at you in confusion as the door snaps in half. What you see there isn't Reno himself but rather his skin, scraped raw and reddening under the yellow lights as if he's been scrubbing far too hard at himself. This, you now realize, was the reason it had taken him so long: another common reaction, to want to clean yourself by tearing away your skin. But that's not all: there are scars there, everywhere, drawn down his arms, etched across his collarbones, printed onto his chest and scrawled along his spine like tattoos. They're all red in color just like the ones on his face: evenly spaced, obviously old but not faded, and completely, without question, all of them, far too smooth to be natural.

You don't ask.

He doesn't tell.

Give me a sec and I'll be ready to go, he says, shaking his head to make the water splatter around, and grins at himself in the mirror. For some reason, that makes you worry less, and this confuses you, because you hadn't thought that you'd be worrying nor could you name what the hell you were worrying about. At any rate, it seems like the shower's put him back into his usual cheer.

Unless you like, wanna watch me dress, he says while you hesitate and try to sort all this out. Wanna watch, go ahead. 'Cause you know I'm totally sexy.

Right, you say dryly and turn away from him, almost able to feel him rolling his eyes at your back. Hurry up. Outside.

Yeah, yeah, he calls after you. You leave me behind and I swear I'll kick your ass.

But five minutes later, when Reno climbs into the passenger seat and straps himself in, he's gone back to being quiet, staring out through the window at the house you've both just left. There's a cheery smile on his lips, but the way his eyes avoid your face tell you more than enough that you need to know. You're wondering, suddenly, if anyone else would even suspect it if they saw him this way: maybe he hasn't realized that you do, just from having been stuck training him so long.

And it occurs to you, then, that you had trusted him: leaving him alone in that house to either run or suicide had been directly against orders. It occurs to you, then, that you had trusted him, and for all your logical reasons, you can't imagine why.

Figuring that out isn't part of the job description, though, and getting back to HQ is. Reno's still tense as the engine quietly roars to life and the car pulls away from the curb of the house; the tension doesn't fade until sixteen point four five seconds later, when the entire building bursts into flames behind you. He sighs then, shoving the sunglasses on his forehead down in front of his eyes, and glances toward you, grinning slightly.

Bomb. Brought it along, just in case. Y'know.

He doesn't say anything about wanting for there not to be anything left to remind him.

Yeah.

Nice 'splosion, though, for a piece of shit you can fit in your pocket, huh? Bet you didn't even know I had it on me. Seriously, I'm like a genius, man. I was playing around with the stuff in the lab and I figured out that all the parts you really needed could—

You can't stand this, you decide suddenly. You're not going to sit here and listen to him babble nonsense all the way back to HQ just so he can keep his mind off of the past few hours. It'll drive you insane. It'll drive him insane. And in a way, it's irritating how obviously fake he is, even if it's only obvious to you.

So then, you find yourself doing something you'd never thought you'd do, not to anyone you knew, know, or ever will. It's done before you can even regret it, and once it's done, you realize that you don't regret it, and you won't. At the very least, it shuts him up, mouth snapping shut and both eyebrows rising in surprise.

You ask.

Who was he?

And then it's your turn to be surprised, because one quiet moment later, Reno tells you.

-----

He's got his hand halfway through the torn slit in the scientist's cheek, wiggling his fingers and watching them move in his open mouth, and he's laughing while he does it, bright and cheery and grating on your nerves like an old, rusted file. The scientist's stopped screaming, at least; he's only breathing in ragged, half-crazed pants now, eyes staring in pure, glassy terror up at Reno, who only grins, withdraws his hand, and pats his face, smearing him with blood.

Now, now. You know you want to talk. Reno reaches around and spins the chair that the scientist's bound to until it's facing him completely, then slides into the man's lap, running the end of his gun down the curve of his jaw in an almost-caress. If you don't talk, someone else will—and trust me, mate, you're not doing anyone any favors. You think those terrorists actually value your life?

The scientist, Grey, only makes a little whining noise, closing his eyes and refusing to look at the neat little pile of fingers—look! Reno had said, laughing, as he'd snapped them off, it's a little pile of you!—that lies on the floor past Reno's shoulder. You glance at them for a moment, then back to what's left of the scientist's left hand which Reno is now holding in one of his own, giving it a squeeze that makes him quiver. And then Reno bursts into a giant grin again, calling over to you.

Got anythin' yet?

You scan the files you've found so far on the scientist's laptop, then shake your head.

Nope.

Reno's grin only widens as he turns back toward Grey.

Good.

And then you're not watching anymore, trying to drown out the noise of screaming and shrieking and soon voiceless agony right in front of you, staring instead down at the keyboard as you type. This is your job, you find yourself telling yourself again, almost unable to hear yourself over the noise; this is your job, and you're paid to do it. Do your job. Reno's only doing his.

But he's enjoying it, and you can tell. He's enjoying it, the blood collecting between the cracks of the tiles in the floor. He's enjoying it, the pain, the screaming, the terror. He's enjoying it, the sudden horrible stench in the air as the scientist shits his pants. And that's fine, absolutely fine, but Gods—if only he'd stop laughing

Got something.

Ooooh. Reno looks up, for the moment blissfully silent, and waves most of the scientist's lower lip at you with one hand, giving it an annoyed look and tossing it aside as it splatters red on his face. What'dja find?

Trying not to look at the scientist's mouth—or rather, the lack of it entirely now, gums and teeth shining openly in the lab lights with saliva spilling down his chin—you turn the laptop around and show him.

No—!

It's out before the scientist can stop himself, and although he's been tied down for the past few hours, fingerless for the past few minutes, and lipless for the past few seconds, he makes a movement as if to cover his mouth with his hand. Reno sees it and laughs again, patting his cheek jovially, almost like he might a dog.

Looks like Dr. Grey's got a family.

Nnnnn…

Mirror, Reno calls over to you, and you dig through the scientist's desk until you find one, tossing it over to Reno who catches it impatiently.

Now, Reno says, twirling the small piece of reflective glass between his fingers, you have a little daughter, don't you?

Nnnnn…

And you don't want her to end up like you, do you?

Nnnnn…

With a grin and a flourish, Reno presents the scientist to himself in the mirror, and bursts into laughter again as he screams, mouth wide and already weakened cheeks tearing apart along Reno's previous incisions as he does. And you're not surprised: the thing he sees there hardly looks human anymore. His eyes would be wide, you think, if he had eyelids left to widen.

Now, Reno says, catching his breath, you know you want to talk. Or little… Tess, was it? Gets to have Reno's special makeover, too. And we'll leave her alive, afterwards, just for you. It'll be a blast, don't you think—

Sector Seven, the scientist whispers, and Reno tilts his head, cupping a hand to his ear.

Eh? What's that? Speak up, mate. Can't hear you over the bloody gurgling. I'm sure Tess'll scream much louder than that when I saw off her tongue with her pretty little hair clip. And then eat it.

The scientist glances toward you, pleadingly, and you just shrug.

He'd do it.

So whaddaya say, Grey? Bet even your wife couldn't love her after what I'd do.

Sec… tor Seven…

He speaks!

Reno sits there, still on the scientist's lap, bouncing up and down a little as you spin the laptop around again, beginning to type down whatever you hear. You're not really listening, just acting as a medium: sound to words, voice to word processor. Names, places, locations, dates, everything that ShinRa wants to know scrolls down the page as your fingers move.

And then, suddenly, it stops.

That's all I know…

Well, then. We got no use for you anymore, do we? Reno asks, dropping the mirror and shifting his body so that he's straddling the scientist, one leg to each side. I don't think those terrorists would even recognize you anymore, man. Your face got real fucked up.

But hey, look on the bright side, he adds, digging out his gun from his jacket and leaning forward a bit, now that we know where your family is, and now that you've been so cooperative, maybe we'll even let your pretty wife go after raping her only once or twice.

Nnnnn—!

Shut up, Reno says, and leans the rest of the way forward, pressing his face to the remnants of the scientist's in a bloody, open-mouthed, lips-and-tongue to teeth-and-gums kiss as he slams bullet after bullet into his chest at close range. The back of the chair explodes out against the wall behind it, walls turning even darker than before, and it's only precisely after the last bullet is gone that Reno pulls back from the corpse for breath, his own face stained red and dripping.

He turns to you, then, and when he grins, you can see blood in his teeth.

We done? is all you say, as usual.

Yeah, yeah.

Sure.

You get up, taking the laptop with you, and are heading for the door when Reno's voice arrests you.

Huh. Rude? You feelin' alright?

What.

Hurry up. Outside, he grunts at you, deepening his voice in obvious mimicry. Shit, no bitching about how messy it was, or how long it took, or what? No whining?

No.

Holy shit. It's the fucking apocalypse, man! Reno throws his arms in the air, still perched atop the dead scientist. Repent!

You just turn away and open the door, for some reason not wanting to look at him anymore.

Serious, though. The hell's with you?

You shrug before leaving.

Think I need a shower.

-----

You remember the first time you ever saw him jacking up, and you remember his surprise when he saw you watching from where you stood. You remember the tinkling noise of glass then, afterward, as Reno dropped the bottle and the glowing, pale blue, mako-like liquid exploded across the floor. But what you remember most of all is the expression of outright terror, the most frightened you'd ever seen him, etched on Reno's face for the few short seconds that it had taken for him to lean down, capture some of the liquid in a syringe, and inject it into his arm.

And you remember the relief that flooded him too, the most relieved you'd ever seen him, once the process had been completed.

Then, oddly enough, Reno had taken one from your book: quietly, calmly, methodically, he'd wiped up the mess while you stood in the doorway, returning the bathroom of the dead man's house into its former pristine condition. It was only when all traces of any sort of foreign material was gone that he'd looked up, meeting your eyes. And he hadn't even bothered, if you remember correctly, to roll down his sleeves, leaving all the evidence that you needed that this was real trailing down his arm in temporarily glowing, pale-blue veins.

You'd wondered what it was, wondered why he used it, and wondered why it was so painfully obvious that he needed it. But you hadn't asked, and he hadn't told you. He'd only stood there, arms painfully bare and hands still clutching the mop he'd used to clean up, and grinned at you brightly, eyes full of innocence and voice pleading at you with completely out-of-place deathly seriousness.

What he'd said was:

Don't tell Tseng.

And you remember wondering how he knew that none of it would matter to you.

-----

Reno starts off with a cliché.

He was… you could say… y'know. Cough. Hesitation. Then: well, he was kinda like my father, yeah?

You blink, glancing over in surprise before turning back to the road, and still don't get it, from what you see. It's still red, his hair, and they're still green, his eyes; his facial features are just as you remembered them, soft but not feminine. There's no way he can actually be related to the man he just killed: you're sure of that much, at least.

Father?

Yeah. Y'know, not the real one, of course, but good enough, yeah? More'n good enough. I think. Actually I wouldn't know, 'cause I never knew the real one, but he was probably one of the good ones, yeah, 'cause when I was little I saw some of the other kid's dads and they were pretty bad like never around or drug freaks or—

Uh huh.

He still hasn't calmed down from the kill, and that's pretty obvious from the way his sentences run on into eternity and his hands refuse to stop playing with the cigarette he's just lit up.

Well, yeah. Lived with him for a couple of years. Good years, yeah? Think I was—no, I know I was eight when he found me, eight and four months and twelve days, and I was with him 'til… sixteen? Seventeen? Something like that. It was good…

Good?

Yeah. He put me through school, forced me to go, all the way through high school. Hated him for it… Reno grins a little, for real this time. And he'd yell and fuss and make a big fuckin' deal about everything, but I learned my shit.

He work you?

Naw, Reno says, shaking his head, and looks almost proud. I worked me, soon as I realized like hey, shit, this guy's just a night-shift guard in the reactor, and shit, we don't even have enough money to pay the mako bills but I'm gettin' awesome presents on my birthday, you know?

Uh huh.

Yeah. I woulda done anything, everything. But the guy'd always worry about me, yeah? Had a curfew and everything, and he'd get pissy about me breakin' the law and stuff. So I got a legit job at an item shop, non-legit job holdin' onto things for local gangs in the store, you know? That I never really told him about.

Sure.

'Cept he did find out, 'ventually. And he got real pissy when I quit coming home—

Prostitution? you think, and Reno notices you glancing over and rolls his eyes like he can read your mind.

Maybe he can.

No, I wasn't a whore, ass. Though I probably coulda made a lot more money that way, from all the offers I got. I had friends. We'd run around. Burn shit. Break into places for the hell of it. High on life. Adrenaline junkies. You know, normal 16 year old stuff.

Uh huh.

But… yeah, he did find out. Got real, real pissy. Can't go out, school and right back, can't talk to friends, can't do shit… you know the drill. Alone at home studying or someshit. Alone. Hell on Earth.

Sure.

So like the ungrateful bastard I was, I left.

Ungrateful?

Yeah… ungrateful. Bastard, too. Guy saved my life, yeah? Had this accident in the reactor he worked in way back when and he cared enough about some random little piece of shit kid to save me. I just took everything I had and left. Shifted Sectors. Found work as a hitman, bodyguard, doing whatever the hell was necessary type jobs… then I heard about the Turks. Man, the Turks

Right.

You know the rest, yeah? You were there.

Uh huh.

Still can't really believe I'm here…

Neither can you, really, but you keep that thought to yourself as Reno trails off, leaning over toward the space between the seats in the car to stare out the back window at the still-bright flames of the burning house behind you. He watches it for as long as he can, only returning to his usual slouching, face-front position as you make the first turn and leave the inferno out of sight. He's quiet for a little bit, but just when you think he's done talking for the ride, Reno starts again.

I never said thank you, you know.

Uh huh.

For saving me, fifteen thousand years ago. I was plannin' to, but…

You are a monster.

The phrase hangs in the air between you both, unspoken but as solid as speech. You're not sure why it bothered him so much: you've heard him being called far worse, right to his face, and seen him laugh it off, sometimes even agreeing and taking the whole thing as a compliment. But this time, for some reason, he'd exploded. And it's only when Reno goes entirely off topic that you realize you'd been expecting an explanation.

Do you… like me?

Blink. Glance. A raise of an eyebrow.

What?

Do you like me.

It's direct, to the point, and painfully blunt, and you find yourself wishing that you could say yes. That you could tell him, yes, yes, and everything in between, that he's like no one else you've ever met before and that when you're around him and he's laughing and living and loving every fucking second of it, you feel like maybe, you're alive too. That when he's around, you can feel excited instead of only tense. That you can feel almost like laughing, instead of only amused. You can feel contented, instead of only satisfied.

But he's not asking it like that, so you hold back the yes in your throat and ponder the question over again. The question is not about whether or not you're in-like with him, but rather if you like him personally for who he is; it's another one of those weird questions that only Reno would bother to ask you, because he's the only one that would bother even wondering what you thought.

And it's just another question that means the same thing.

Do you like me?

And it's just another question to which your answer is the same.

Sure.

No, really. Seriously. I mean it. Really.

Sure.

I'm not kidding! I really want to know!

Uh huh.

Come on, Rude.

Sure.

God damn you! I hate you!

But Reno bursts out laughing, then, and punches you in the shoulder, and it's alright even though it kinda hurts a little, because he's alright, even though he kinda hurts a little. In the next moment, anyway, the tension is gone, and he's sticking his head out the window you shot out of the car on the way here and leaning into the breeze, closing his eyes and beginning to hum again.

When Tseng asks you, later, if anything noteworthy happened on the mission, you tell him no and aren't sure if you're lying. Tseng just nods and dismisses you as usual, but now you're thinking about it, wondering. There wasn't anything noteworthy about Reno's performance that would discredit him as a full-fledged Turk, but that conversation over coffee, that catch-phrase that had driven him mad, that shower he'd insisted on, and the strange, unnatural marks that ran all over his body…

It's only later, thinking back on his story, that you realize that Reno never once mentioned his scars.

-----

Fucking Reactors, Reno says, chewing idly at his cigarette as the both of you circle around the Sector 4 mako plant on the way back to your car. He adds a few more curses in, swiping the side of a foot at one of the pipes before you leave the Reactor behind. It's all just out of habit, though, words and actions and life without meaning: he used to hate them, truly, with a passion beyond passions, but that was before and this is now.

There's no more blood on his face from the scientist, at least: he'd stopped to wash it off in the bathroom before he'd left, leaving streaks of red on the dead man's towels. But that feral killing glow still burns in his eyes, excited and dangerous and deathly alive like electricity as Reno slides into the seat beside yours, slamming the car door shut. It's only a few minutes later, when he realizes you're not starting the car, that the ragelight fades and he looks over at you.

Huh? What?

You just shake your head, shrugging a little.

Scientist. Kinda harsh.

Reno's answer is immediate, hate-filled and angry, and the ragelight's back, shining in his eyes.

He deserved it, the bastard.

And already, just from his tone, you can guess the reason why. You don't have to guess, though, because Reno shows you, digging through his pocket until he's holding the dead scientist's badge up to your face. It's almost always the same reason, anyway.

ShinRa WTBio-317: Allan Grey, Reno reads, making sure you've read along with him before tearing the ID to shreds. 317, he says again, grinning at you with still-red teeth: he's wiped off his face, but not his mouth. You know what that means. 317.

Uh huh.

Heartless bastards.

And you're waiting for the rant to come, the rant that always comes after the 317s, and you're just glad that the scientist held out until almost-sunset because Reno's going to be pissy all day. He's always pissy, and you know it for a fact, after any mission that involves a 317: at least this time he got to torture and kill him instead of rescue and protect as usual. That should have helped his mood, you think, but either way, after a last, long drag on his cigarette, Reno's rant arrives, quiet, calm, and devoid of emotion, which reminds you just how serious he is.

Heartless, he repeats quietly, knowing that you're listening and that you've heard it all before. We kill people, torture people, it's all part of the job description. Maybe we're bad people. Fine. We can fucking be bad people. Horrible people. People bound for hell. But those guys…

Mako-mutation.

Yeah. We're murderers, thieves, liars, killers. We end lives, but don't take them away. We don't eat souls. We're men killing other men. Humans on humans, fair is fair. But to play Fate, to play God, to play I don't even fucking know—

Hojo.

Yeah. They make me sick. And it takes a fucking lot to make me sick.

It's nothing new, and as Reno continues on, calmly piling metaphor on metaphor on contempt on hatred, you're already just nodding and tuning him out. You might have listened, you think, had he actually felt any of it any more, but he doesn't, really, all this hatred just habit and routine, left over from when he really used to be passionate about the subject. He's serious, yes: deathly serious, and you know he would destroy the entirety of the mako-mutation laboratory if he could. But it's not the same anymore, not like it used to be: now it's almost as if Reno only hates out of obligation, hates out of what he thinks should be righteousness.

—soul-eaters, he's saying, when you tune back in ten minutes later. You ever seen those test tubes they got in there, with the things that used to be human? Fuck. It's disgusting. And it looks like shit. Hell, next time we got a questioner mish, I say we drag 'em back to HQ with us, walk them the fuck through 317, and tell them that they all used to be human. Scare the crap of out 'em, tell 'em that could be you. That could be you, insane, that could be you, hideous, that could be you, inhuman… look at 'em change right before your fuckin' eyes, watch the mako screw into your brain and make your fucking pupils start glowing up like Christmas lights as your soul fucking disintegrates.

They'll talk, then, he finishes, rolling down the window and flicking his cigarette outside. They'll all fucking talk.

Yeah.

Fuck, man. It just doesn't get any worse. Soul-eaters, all of them.

Yeah.

They create hell. Personal, private hell. No escape. Hell, you can't even die. Nothing you or I could do could ever be as bad as that.

He doesn't have to tell you the next part since you're already aware of it, but he tells you anyway, glancing over with those odd blue eyes that used to be green.

They make hell, Rude. I would know.

Yeah.

I wish I could burn the motherfucking place down.

And then you're driving in silence for a while, but you know the rant's not over; it won't ever really be, until either 317 dies or Reno does. You're not even sure why he hates them anymore: his old empathy for the victims has long ago been replaced by blind contempt for the entire department, and you're not even sure if Reno's sure why, either. Maybe he's just scrabbling for something, anything to blame.

And for all the nights you've spent thinking about the same thing, you find that you can't find anything to blame, either.

-----

It was Hojo that made you realize it, and you remember being almost glad it turned out that way for some perverted reason. It wouldn't have fit, you remember now, if it had come as some kind of welcome, grand revelation. It wouldn't have been you, it wouldn't have been Reno, and it certainly wouldn't have been as quietly mind-and-life-shattering if it had happened any other way.

You still remember the look on Hojo's face as he turned around, Reno's precious little container of the mysterious glowing-blue stuff in his hand. If you had the artistic skill, you could probably sketch it from memory, both the understanding in his eyes and the curving, knowing smile on his lips. I know everything, his expression had told you: I know everything I need to know, and the rest I can guess correctly. And he had stood there, smiling up at you, fully aware of who had the real power in the situation, and obnoxiously waited for you to clarify your demand that he wait.

But you hadn't, and instead just stared him down, daring him to refuse the direct order of a Turk.

He didn't.

…yes? he'd almost sneered, with all the painfully false fawning respect that he could muster. What is it that I can, heh heh, do for you?

Hand it over.

Heh, hand what over? Please, I'll need you to be a bit more specif—

It.

This? Hojo had held the little clear glass bottle up then, cradling it with both hands and letting the blue inside slosh around a little. Whatever for?

Classified.

As it was so carelessly left on the table here, I assumed—

Incorrectly.

Hojo's eyes had grown thin and spiteful then, filling with the hate the weak hold for those even weaker, before he stabbed you with the words that he knew you couldn't miss.

Yes, that must be it. I had been wondering, you know, why a Turk would need so much mako-antidote.

Mako—?

You'd stopped yourself, but it had been too late.

Someone's got a secret…

His smile had grown wider as you had stared at him in silence, not for the first time grateful for the reflective quality of your shades, and he'd let out a quiet cackle then, after making sure that the two of you were alone.

Hee hee. Someone's got a secret, and I can guess

And before you'd even thought about what you were doing, your hand had shot out and wrapped around Hojo's wrist, applying enough pressure to be acutely painful. He'd gasped in shock, trying to pull away and failing, and you'd only held on harder, feeling bones grate on bone beneath your fingers. And you could tell that he hated you then, hated you more than anyone and anything else in the world, when you'd contradicted him outright and forced him to quiver at the deadly, deathly tone in your voice.

No, you'd said quietly. You can't.

He'd dropped the bottle, then, hissing at you in embarrassed rage and cornered challenge, and it had taken you all of your reflexes and flexibility to drop to your knees and catch the container an inch before it exploded across the smooth, colorless tiles of the 65th floor.

When you had looked up, Hojo had been staring down at you with a triumphant smirk on his face, and then had called you for the weak, pathetic fool-in-love you were.

And then, standing up, brushing your pants off, and calmly smashing a fist into Hojo's left eye, you'd said the longest sentence you'd ever spoken to him as the scientist picked himself up.

Stay the hell away from Reno.

Heh heh heh heh…

Hojo had quit with the giggling when you'd raised your fist again, and instead scurried down the hallway, trailing the wall with one hand and fumbling with his glasses with the other. You'd broken them, you remember; you still have the tiny scars on your knuckles from where the glass had pierced your skin. But he couldn't quietly leave, of course, not before he'd had his last say, calling over his shoulder with another little giggle:

I think what you should be more concerned with, Turk Rude, is trying to keep Reno away from me.

And that's when it had hit you, not like a freight train but rather like the slow falling of a hundred million snowflakes: it had hit you, and hit you over and over again, that you'd do this over again, however many times it took. And that's when it had hit you, there in that hallway, watching Hojo run with his fading laughter in your ears: you'd do it again, threaten or hell, even kill the very head of the research department again, fall to your knees and watch him crow over you again, anything it took, to keep Reno safe.

And all of the lies you had been feeding yourself, your couldn't-imagine-whys and for-no-reasons, had crumbled in the face of that slow, gradual onslaught:

You loved him.

Indisputable fact.

Heh heh, heh heh heh…

Hojo might have been right, to call you a fool.

-----

Knock, knock.

A pause.

Pound pound pound pound, pound pound pound.

Kick.

Slam.

Hey Rude, calls Reno's voice from beyond your handprint-locked door, you here, man? Seriously. Open up.

It's a usual greeting in his usual tone, bright and cheerful and excited about something or other. Or rather, you correct yourself, it's almost his usual greeting in his usual tone: there's a raw note of panic in his voice that he's barely able to contain, rising out of him in slightly too-fast speech even for him, and grating beneath his words in an about-to-crack threat. Not for the first time, you wonder if anyone else would even notice: nobody really takes him seriously enough, not like you.

Rude! I know you're in here. Open up!

Yeah, you say quietly, even though you know he can't hear it. Then, toward the voice sensor on the wall: Open.

A flash of red hair greets your eyes as Reno sticks his head into the room as quickly as he can, and then the rest of him slides into view, slipping easily through the one and a half foot space between the edge of the electronic door and the wall. He stands there, leaning against the doorframe, just looking at you sitting there on the couch across the table, and waits for the door to slide back and click shut behind him before he lets his silly grin fade and speaks again, low and desperate this time.

Have you seen— he starts, then stops, shaking his head. Do you—it—my—

I have it.

The relief on his face slams into you with the force of a hurricane, and almost with the speed of one, too, as Reno only barely manages to stop himself from leaping forward and knocking over the table.

Where?

The small glass bottle hits the table with a soft clink, and Reno's eyes light up at the sight. The grin is back, spreading over his face in something like gratitude mixed with delight, and he can't stop his hands from reaching immediately for it, shooting across the table with his fingers outstretched. But in the next instant, his expression is changing again, to one of trust-yet-apprehension when he realizes you're not letting it go.

Rude…?

Talk.

He ignores you, pretending not to have heard, and only grins at you again, trying as hard as he can to look innocently curious. If it were anyone else, you think, if it were anyone else in any other situation, the act would definitely have worked. Except it's you.

Where did you get it? Shit, I thought I'd lost it, you know, 'cause I left it in the meeting room I think, 'cause I'm a fucking idiot, and I was hoping the janitors wouldn't have just thrown it out with the rest of the shit in there and—where did you find it, again?

Hojo.

The answer is immediate and obviously painfully heartfelt:

Shit.

Reno goes pale, then, arms falling to his sides, and he more falls than lowers himself into the couch opposite yours. He sits there silently, elbows on his knees and head in his hands, and it's a few minutes until he speaks, looking up at you with a face that seems to have aged ten years in an instant.

What did he say…?

Nothing.

Nothing? He said nothing?

Not much.

Does he know? Shit, does—no, nevermind, I—

What.

When did he have it?

Around 1830.

Where?

Hallway. Meeting room.

Shit. I knew I left it—

How'd you get it back…?

Force.

Force?

Nod.

On Hojo?

Nod.

And that's when he stops with the questions, staring at you in muted shock.

You only slide the little glass bottle of what you now know is mako-antidote halfway across the table, repeating your former demand.

Talk.

And bridging the other half to take the antidote from you, the tips of his fingers brushing for one half-second against the backs of yours, Reno takes a deep breath, closing his eyes, and tells you, after making one simple caveat.

Alright. Fine. As long as… don't hate me.

For a second, you're torn between answering Never or Always, before realizing that both would mean the same thing. So you just nod again, leaning forward over your knees, and watch him watching you, knowing that he knows that he's got your eyes fixed on his even though your shades point down to somewhere on the table.

And although what he tells you explains so much, you could never have guessed it, from the way he starts.

-----

Reno's sitting there across the same table from you when you emerge from the bathroom, unsuccessfully willing the fog away from the lenses of your shades. He's got a remote in his right hand and a cigarette in the left, clicking with one and inhaling from the other, lying sideways across the couch with the backs of his heels up on the far arm. You're not sure why he even bothers watching TV anymore, since you both know every channel is at least run indirectly from Floor 47 right here in HQ, but he does, cycling through the channels with an irritated perseverance as you begin to change.

Oh, says a woman, throwing herself at a man, you have no idea how long I've wanted—

Click.

Loveless, says a deep, troubled voice, coming to theaters near—

Click.

And in other news, a ShinRa scientist of some reknown has been found tortured and killed in his home in Sector One, possibly the work of more terrorist—

Click.

Then what you really need is a nice dose of—

Click.

Fifty percent off—

Click.

ShinR—

Click, crash, then the sound of batteries rolling across the uncarpeted floor.

I fucking hate TV.

He's stalking around the room now, looking at things and looking through things without actually seeing them, trying desperately to find something to rage against in the immaculate, expressionless, sterile clean of your room. The empty walls don't help him; the empty cabinets help him less; the fact that the place is almost devoid of furniture only helps to piss him off even further, until he realizes—

That table.

Table?

Yeah, that table. What other table would I be talking about? How long've you had it?

Long.

Too long. Man, we need to get you some new furniture. New anything. New anything that's not… this. More anything. How the hell do you live in here? It's like a fucking hospital.

So?

So it's not normal.

You're looking at the table now, shrugging on your jacket, and what you're thinking is

Neither were you

and just like always, just like he's always been able to, Reno's somehow read your mind. His eyes narrow into dangerous blue slits, and with a swift, stabbing stomp, he slams a foot into the wooden surface, splitting the thing in half with a violent crack and swearing as the jagged edges tear at his skin.

You don't blame him.

I'm sorry, he says, calmer now, once you've gotten his leg untangled from the entire mess; the rest of his apology is cut off in a hiss as your Cure spell takes over and his cuts seal shut.

I don't know why I just… he starts again as soon as it's over, looking glumly over at the destruction two feet away and rubbing a tired hand across his eyebrows. I had to do it…

Yeah.

Sorry. Really. But, he says, hands tightening slightly around the arm of the couch, it's about time we got you a new fucking table.

Sure, you say, acutely aware that the situation has become suddenly awkward. You consider being angry, demanding repayment, or even seeming slightly annoyed, but it's not worth the trouble, and you don't think you could've done it anyway. You almost feel relieved, that the table's gone, now.

And he's right, although you would never tell him that: it is time that you quit dwelling on the past.

Time to change the subject.

To anything.

Food?

It's obvious that the idea of going somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere that isn't this suddenly uncomfortable room is highly appealing, and the way Reno jumps up and nods so quickly almost reminds you of the way he used to be. Maybe it's the fact that neither of you have eaten since yesterday night that drives him; maybe it's the fact that the cafeteria closes in just under half an hour. But as he leaves, confident that you'll follow him without having to drag you along anymore, you're pretty sure that neither of those facts are the reason he's so eager to leave.

It's the memory, you know, that's driving him away, of what happened that one day across the now-broken table. It's a memory that he wants to forget, since it's all over and you both can't go back; it's the same memory that made you keep that table as long as you have, rickety and uneven as it was. Maybe it was your way of clinging to the past, of way back when, when Reno was Reno. Maybe it was your way of clinging to the memory of what Reno told you, a story that you've never forgotten.

And it's the story, you think, quietly telling your door to close, that through everything, anything, any other memory else, it's the one story out of all of Reno's stories, that you know that he hasn't forgotten telling either.

-----

You remember how Reno used to tease you, you and Tseng both, about your strict, boring diets and unchanging meals. You remember how he used to eat: fifteen hot dogs, fresh from the grill, piled up on your table like a little, steaming pyramid. And you remember how fast the food used to disappear, five minutes in and Reno calling for more.

He'd always loved food, just like he'd always loved drink, and although you remember never, ever admitting it, he used to be able to drink you under the table, any day and any night. He'd always loved people, too, constantly dragging you into the most crowded tables and immediately making himself at home, arms around the nearest people and flirting away like no tomorrow. You remember it clearly, the innocent, voracious hedonism, and you remember him laughing and grinning and loving life through it all, reveling in every little pleasure that life could hold for him.

Once, he'd even challenged you to a drink-off in one of the dingy, dusty Sector 7 bars: the Seventh Heaven, if you remember correctly, a little run-down building west of the train station into the Sector. You'd accepted, of course, and bets were made, the patrons already beginning to take sides: and of course, being you, you'd only taken the bet because you'd known you'd win, having set up a deal with the bartender earlier to water down your shots and to make Reno's twice as strong. She'd laughed with a twinkle in her eye and agreed immediately, probably more due to wanting to see the cute redhead get shitfaced and lose than to watch you win, but hey, that hadn't mattered: you had your deal. And Reno, as naïvely trusting as he'd been back then, had taken on the challenge with a grin and a clinking cheers.

And it had taken him, you remember, fourteen shots to slow down and show any sign of drunkenness, twenty-three shots to begin slurring his words, thirty-two to begin swaying in his seat, and a total of forty-six-which-was-actually-ninety-two shots to lose the battle by passing out face-first in his stack of shotglasses and to earn the huge respect of your audience while doing so. And he'd been laughing and joking and prodding you on the whole time, not getting any more bitter or angry but only more cheerful as the night went on.

Holy shit, man, you remember him saying to you the next day when you'd informed him that the game was rigged, why the hell didn't I think of that? Shit. No wonder those things were hitting me so damn hard. I think my respect for you just went up like fifteen billion points…

And then, you remember, Reno had just laughed and bugged you for another competition, ignoring all your muttering about him needing every brain cell he had. He'd bothered you for days on end, refusing to believe your lies that you were busy and showing up at your door to prove that you weren't. And finally, one day, he'd ended up breaking into your office with insanity in his eyes, sticking a gun to your head and demanding that it be rematch time now. And it had only been after he'd gotten you into the car and into the bar that he'd squirted you with water in the pistol he held and then had hidden beneath the counter when you'd realized just what he'd done and went to beat him down for dragging you away from work.

And you remember most of all, not being able to understand any of it: how he worked, why he worked, why the hell he'd risk so much, just for the hell of it. You couldn't, still can't, say that you didn't like it, but it had always been a mystery to you: Reno had always been a mystery to you, just like he probably had to everyone at ShinRa Inc. who lived and breathed rules and regulations. A daredevil, yes, but so were all Turks; a hedonist, yes, but one that was curiously unselfish. Reno had always been different from you all, an enigma wrapped in a mystery in a conundrum that exploded if you ever tried to pry it open and left you with nothing beyond that shallow, cheerful shell.

But you get it, now, knowing what you know; you get it, how he used to work, why he used to work, why the hell he used to risk so much, just for the hell of it. You get it, why he used to be a flirt; you get it, why he never minded that people would call him a whore. You get his addiction to positive attention and his outright ignoring of the negative kind. It was all mere necessity, things Reno used to have to do: he had to do it, had to do it to stay sane, or as sane as Reno ever got back then, anyway.

You get it, now, and in a way, you admire it.

But you were always more right than you would ever have guessed, every time that you had thought of Reno as a freak.

-----

I was eight, Reno starts, pauses, then starts again. Eight and four months and twelve days. Sector 3 reactor. With a buncha older kids… local gang. We were usin' that slide, you know? The huge one that goes down onto the solid mako. We'd do that a lot, y'know, 'cause all the playgrounds were dangerous. The reactor guards kept the monsters and stuff away, so—

Yeah.

He fidgets, seemingly unaware of what to do with his hands before lighting up a cigarette and taking a deep breath. As he speaks, his usual pleasant tone fades into one of apathy: distant and removed as if he were reading from a book instead of talking to you right now. It's odd and strangely unnerving, hearing that tone of voice from him, but it seems to make the telling easier, so you don't comment.

And beside that slide, you know, in the corner of all the solid glowing crap, there was always the liquid… shit. The not-even-mako. The sewage, maybe? I still don't know. But they threw a gil in and it melted to all hell, all sizzling and turning weird shapes, yeah? We all thought it was cool. And it was really cool. Really fucking cool.

So then they decided to throw me, Reno finishes, almost casually, before you can prompt him to go on. His grin is back, flashing cheerily at you, but it's full of more teeth than smile, feral and dangerous. I was the youngest kid, and they could spare me. Maybe I ate too much or something, or maybe I annoyed 'em. But they could spare me, yeah? They're all dead now, by the way, he laughs. Every last one.

It takes a moment for all this to sink in, but sink in it does and you've only got one question. And it's not why; you're cynical enough to just take facts for what they are.

How?

Picked me up and tossed me in. How else? He shrugs, as if it's no big deal. Maybe it isn't, to him in this mood. Maybe it isn't, to him in this mood, and for some reason, as always, him in this mood scares you, although you'd never admit it.

Yeah.

So I'm in there, high as all hell, but I can already feel shit happening, you know? he continues, lifting a hand and making a flipper-like movement with it, a flipper without bone to support its flopping weight. His grin only widens as he watches his own parody, stretching at his face until you're almost sure it hurts. Shit, happening. Arms, legs, back, face, everywhere… shit, happening. Shit, growing. Growing outta me.

And I'm crawlin' out, right, and the kids start screaming like hell… Reno raises his voice, a cold mimicry of childhood. It's a monster, it's a monster, the mako-waste's fucked Reno up the proverbial and literal ass and he's a fucking monster, it's going to eat us, somebody help, somebody kill it!

He spits, as if trying to get the taste of his own voice out of his mouth.

And the guards come running down…

You're not sure how you make the connection, but your mind snaps to it anyway: it's been months, but you just know that it's got to be him, that Reno remembers, and that you're right.

That guy.

Guy?

Your father, you say, and you don't add: the one I watched you kill, back then.

Yeah, Reno says, nodding his head, and for the first time since he's started talking, he shows a spark of emotion, grin fading as he lowers his gaze to the table. Yeah, he was one of 'em… the reactor guards, on duty then. He was a good guy. I owed that guy my life. Everyone else fuckin' ran the hell away, but he picked me up, man… just reached the fuck for me and pulled me the hell outta there. Mako cut his hands up like fuck, even through his gloves—you saw 'em, when we went there, right? Scars, everywhere, like—

Me, he doesn't say, but you already know what he meant.

Anyway. He got me outta there. Rushed me to a hospital, too, paid them out of his own damn pocket to get me pumped full of anti. Reno lifts the bottle of mako-antidote in his hand, then, looking at it with a mixture of gratitude and disgust. The doctors there stopped it, as far as it went. I was in a coma for a week. Woke up, felt fine. But—

But?

Reno—

Yeah, yeah, give me a second…

Sure.

He stays silent for a few minutes, letting go of his precious mako-antidote with one hand to trail the tip of a thumb across the scars on his cheeks.

But when I woke up… hell… no, I was hell. Freakish, like the mako freaks, like the mako monsters in the science labs, but… halfway. Still all peach and fleshy like normal people, but… with… things. Sticking out, everywhere. Even my face… even my fucking face. And it wasn't even ordinary mako, man. No claws, no fangs, no nothing like that, just… droopy floppy shit… everywhere… yeah?

No, he answers himself immediately, shaking his head and rubbing the palm of one hand unconsciously up and down his opposite arm, no, you wouldn't get it. You couldn't get it, man. I'm fucking eight years old and and I already know my life's gonna be hell, just 'cause of what I look like, what I am. Who the fuck could love me—fuck love, who the fuck could even stand me? Just looking in the goddamn mirror in the hospital at myself made me puke 'til I was spitting blood all over the fucking floor.

His grin returns again, then, as he looks up, pinning you with those eerie green eyes of his that have always intrigued you. And now you know why: they were never natural green, even before he'd been made a Turk; they'd always held that faint mako glow that you'd assumed was from previous mako-injections, although you'd never seen eyes that bright before. But you get it now, as he keeps on grinning, as humorless and as emotionless and as stretched as before. Reno is mako, Reno is failed mako, Reno is mako waste.

So here's the good part, Reno says, rolling up his sleeve to show you the horizontal scars that slice up and down across his arm. You ready for this, Rude? Doesn't matter, you asked, and hell if I'm stopping now.

Sure.

If he hears you, he ignores you, pulling his shirt back into place, breathing in deep, and closing his eyes.

I made myself human again.

Reno opens his eyes, flicks his wrist, and then there's a knife in his hand, shining under the ceiling light.

I made myself the fuck human again. Wandered around until I found a razor, locked myself in the hospital bathroom, and sliced all that shit off, all of it, until I looked human again. They figured I was crying 'cause of how fucking ugly I looked, but hell, they were as wrong as wrong fucking gets. I was crying 'cause it fucking hurt, man—it fucking hurt, I'm eight years old, and I thought I'd accidentally sawed off an ear…

He laughs then, and it's flat and dry, rasping like sandpaper across your hearing.

Yeah, for all the fucking shit happening to the rest of me, it was the ear that made me cry, 'cause I needed it, to wear sunglasses and look cool—like the Turks. Funny, huh. And I mean there's shit all over the floor, little pieces of me, making great little squish noises beneath my little hospital slippers and bleeding red all over the goddamn ground, all this shit that I cut the hell off of me, in a cute little pile. I was searching through that for my fucking ear ten minutes before they saw the blood beneath the door, broke the hell in, and found me there. I nearly bled to death… and the best part is, my ear was fine the whole damn time…

The scars, you say quietly, and Reno nods, his half-hysterical energy dying away as he leans forward over his knees, pointing up at the dual red slashes across his cheekbones.

You ever wonder where these came from, these and all the rest of 'em, they ain't battle scars, if that's what you're thinking.

And you know what's even better? All that growing shit? It ain't over. They stopped the reaction, but it's not gone. Anti. Once every 24 hours. Or the whole fucking thing starts all over again. And shit, I don't wanna see what the hell all this delaying and all this medication did to it… think I'll just shoot myself if it does.

But hey. Reno gets up again now, expelling his breath in one quick, releasing sigh, and his chilling apathy fades as he's once more in motion. You wanted the story, you got the damn story. And y'know, in a way? It ain't so bad.

I got stronger. Faster. I can drink anyone under the fucking table. I'm always in perfect shape without working out at all, and I don't gain weight no matter what the hell I eat. And if it comes down to it the anti's not too hard to make. Been doing it years now, right? Besides, I'm still totally fucking sexy and I sure as hell know it. Hell, I was probably still better looking than half of Midgar as a freak.

You look up at him as he makes his way around the room, watching him find interest in the most apparently boring of objects. His fingertips slide across your desk, play along the shelves of your empty cabinets, then delight as they find a crack in your wall. Reno grins, then, for real, pointing toward it as he turns back toward you.

And then, you think, you're finally starting to get it.

So yeah, lots of people always yell at me, yeah? Bet you would too, if you didn't have that whole silent thing goin'. Tseng's always bitching about me never looking ahead and shit, but man… if you were me, would you fuckin' want to?

He laughs again, but this time it's true laughter, rich and not above making humor at his own expense.

I wanna be here, this moment, this instant, right here. You know? Nowhere else. I wanna be feeling this, be touching that, be looking at this crack in your wall that I can secretly put a camera in later, be smelling your damn trash that you forgot to throw out again, damn you—I wanna be here, I wanna be now, I wanna be… I don't know—

Alive, you say immediately, before you can even think about your words, and Reno blinks at you, tilting his head a little, before nodding in agreement.

Yeah… alive. That's probably the best word I can think of. Alive… yeah? Alive now

He struggles for words, then comes up with two more.

Alive now, and happy.

And then in the next moment, when he's dropped all seriousness again and is pulling at your arm to drag you to the cafeteria that closes in half an hour, you just follow him in a daze, wondering how the hell he keeps it up. It's his shield, you're realizing, that cheerfulness with nothing beyond it; the way he flaunts his shallow emotions has always hidden the fact that he's kept the deep ones secret. His superficiality, his entire I'm-awesome ego, everything about him is perfectly suited to keep him safe.

And as he drags you to a crowded table and immediately begins with the seduction of the person in the nearest seat, you're realizing that it had never been the sex he'd been after but rather the superficial acceptance and approval. He's purposely made himself fun, exciting, and ultimately untouchable because he's terrified of actual, serious rejection. It's almost, you think, like he needs to constantly prove that people like him, just to remind himself of his once lost and now regained humanity and to keep himself sane.

And you're thinking back, now, over all the months you've known him, near-death experiences one after the next. He'd never seemed more excited than when he'd had a knife at his throat, a bomb with ten seconds on the timer, or Tseng after him with death threats and bullets; the only comparable delight you'd ever seen was when he met someone new, who like everyone else, quickly succumbed to his charm and became his friend. You'd thought he was crazy, and Tseng had commented so on many an occasion; it had seemed true and at the time, the only possible explanation.

But it, Reno, Reno's psyche, everything, is all starting to make a chilling kind of sense.

Do you like me? you remember he'd asked you, a long, long time ago.

You'd replied, Sure, and he'd punched you, laughing.

But as Reno grins and smiles and makes enough witty wordplay to fill the entire cafeteria with cheer, you just sit there silently, watching him act out the Reno that he is already and yet tries so hard to be, and you find yourself wishing more and more that you had just said

Yes.

-----

Reno looks up from the corner, eyes colored by the shadows into a more black than blue, and sticks his spoon resolutely into his bowl of mushy, nutritious goop, giving up on eating any more with a scowl.

This shit is disgusting, he tells you unnecessarily, like he does at almost every meal: you've been eating it for years and eating almost nothing else for years, just like Tseng and most of the higher classes of SOLDIER. It's shit. How the fuck do you stand this stuff?

And you give him the same answer as always, thoughtless and habitual as ever:

Because we have to.

He sighs, then, and glances longingly over at the still-growing line over by the regular-employee section of the cafeteria, probably remembering, just like you are, when he used to be able to give the cooks heart attacks by eating half the entire section.

But it's different now, anyway, although nothing really has changed.

No, you correct yourself immediately, things have changed. Where you sit is different, always at the usual Turk table in the corner instead of the middle of the room like Reno used to demand. Who you sit with is different, usually just Reno, sometimes Tseng , who used to enjoy the mealtimes but now would rather work instead. But that's not it, not what you're thinking of: what was it, the difference, that made it all so bad—?

It's fear.

It takes the passing of a random employee and her quick, frightened, I-didn't-just-look-funny-at-a-Turk-no-I-didn't glance that makes you realize it, but once it's there, it all makes sense.

You straighten a little, looking around the room, and Reno gives you a puzzled look and asks what the hell is wrong with you now. He hasn't even noticed it, or more likely, he's noticed but not paid any attention. And that's exactly it, what's different about the cafeteria; it's not you, it's not the cafeteria itself, but rather how Reno reacts to it: he doesn't care anymore, what other people think, if they fear him, hate him, or think he's a monster just for being a Turk. The welcoming aura of hey it's Reno glad to see you has long been a thing of distant memory.

Midgar to fucking Rude. Hello? Wake up, man. Day isn't over yet.

You blink, realizing that he'd been talking to you, and nod toward him.

Hmm.

You sure you alright, man?

Yeah.

You on anything?

No.

You've been fucked up all day.

Yeah…

You only realize that you're waiting for him to ask what you're thinking about, dreading the moment when he does, and wondering what the fuck you'd say in response when he doesn't and instead pushes his chair back from the table. Right, you have to tell yourself again, you're getting your Renos confused. Green eyes, blue eyes, and everything in between—

I'm done here, he says, interrupting your thoughts again. You actually gonna eat that shit, or you done here too?

Yeah, I'm done, you say, rising, even though you haven't touched your food. Reno rises with you, and the crowd in the cafeteria parts like magic before the two of you as you both toss out your meals and head for the double-door exit, going straight to the elevators to get up to your rooms to catch as much sleep as possible before the next time your cell phone summons you to work. And you're looking forward to it, the oblivion of sleep, that will maybe make you quit thinking so damn much like you have today.

But Reno hesitates, then, hand hovering indecisively over the elevator buttons, and somehow you know that the day is far from over, yet.

I want to go down, he says, I want—no, I'm going the fuck down.

Sure.

You coming?

From the quiet pleading note in his voice and from the numbers that his fingers unconsciously dance over, you know you've got no choice but to agree.

Reno punches the numbers in then, a secret eight-digit code, and the elevator begins its slow descent with a jerk as he turns, pressing the palms of his hands against the cylindrical glass wall, and gazes out at the glorious orange-red sunset on the horizon, the fading illumination painting his face golden and setting his hair alight. He almost looks alive, then, you think, watching him silently from the side. He almost looks alive, until he turns around and speaks, shattering the illusion of beauty that you hadn't realized you'd built up.

Heh heh heh. I think some bastard just stole Reeve's car.

And then the sunset disappears as you pass beneath the Plate and the elevator comes to an abrupt stop, doors sliding slowly open with an oddly echoing ding. Reno hesitates, glances at you, then resolutely steps out first, leading the way to your destination, a track he knows by heart. You follow, wordlessly, wondering why you even bothered: and for the first time, the knowledge that you loved him—had once loved him—doesn't seem to be a good enough reason any more.

The silvery steel plaque near the doors read:

Basement 3, Lab 17.

Reno breathes in, beginning to grin, and steps through into hell.

Let's go, man.

-----

You remember the first time Reno had ever walked through what he now calls hell, eyes wide, face pale, footsteps quiet and light behind you as you had led him through the mako-mutation labs. You remember how the light from the glowing cylinders had played across his face, dappling it grey and green as the things in them moved and cast squirming shadows over you both. And you remember most of all, having to slow down until his stumbling, awed stride caught up to yours, then having to smack him in the back of the head to get him to snap back into the present instead of staring around like an idiot.

He'd grinned and hit you back, and you could almost hear him thinking: right, there's someone else here with me, I'm not alone, I gotta act happy. And luckily enough it had worked, putting a bit more speed in his walk and energy in his actions, and you remember not being able to help but wonder if maybe he believed in it deeply enough so that half of it might be true.

But after that, when Reno had returned to reality and Tseng had turned around and barked at the both of you to hurry it up, you'd noticed that he'd never taken his eyes off the floor, refusing to look at the things in the cylinders that had dominated his wide-eyed attention a minute before. You remember the first thing that had come to mind was that old joke: all this hitting too close to home? And you remember that you'd given in to the sudden urge to say it quietly into his ear. And you remember, too, the anxious half a second you'd had to wait, wondering if you'd just done the most horrible thing possible, for the dry humor to register and shatter Reno's nervous silence.

A Fuck you! and a laughing shove in the side had been your reward, and you remember that you'd almost smiled as you'd exhaled.

Bastard, Reno had added, rolling his eyes. Fuck you so much, Rude. Fuck you so very much.

You wish.

Yeah, uh huh. Just for the record, I fucking hate you!

But his hand had lingered there on your arm for two seconds longer than it absolutely had to, fingers trailing casually down from your elbow to brush against your own, before Reno had grinned and run ahead to catch up with Tseng, calling at him to wait up as brightly and vibrantly as usual. And you had smiled then, once everyone's backs were turned, and made your own way through the glowing cylinders toward the far end of the room, wondering when it was you had actually done that last. You don't remember the rest, except that Hojo was there, glaring daggers at you and Reno both; but the rest, back then, hadn't mattered, really.

And you remember that it was all good, for a while. You knew Reno's secret, but it hadn't mattered much to you and hadn't changed much except that you understood him a little better. After a while, it stopped mattering to him that you knew, too, and in a way, the way you'd begun to dryly tease him about it had made him able to laugh about it before attacking you with his knuckles. And for a while, it had almost seemed as if that would make it go away: for a while, you had been starting to see the world through Reno's eyes, almost beginning to believe that fun could erase all problems.

The thing that really pisses you off about it now is that the while didn't last any longer than it did.

-----

It's the fourth call, and still, no one picks up.

Ring, ring, ring.

There's a silence in the room for exactly one minute. Then—

Find him, Tseng orders, snapping his cell phone shut, and you rise with a nod, already heading for the door.

Oh, and Rude—

You stop, hand resting on the doorframe.

Yeah?

Tseng places his cell phone in his pocket, beginning to arrange the papers on his desk without bothering to look up at you.

If he's defected, kill him, he says around the pen in his mouth, uncapping it to frown and make a small mark on the top sheet. Or I'll have to kill you both. Hmm, the time on this report is recorded incorrectly…

And then you're walking down the hallway with Tseng's voice on the phone to his secretary fading behind you and with death on your mind.

But you know where Reno is, at least, or at least you know where you saw him last, fifteen minutes ago: he'd ducked into his sleeping quarters in the HQ building, telling you to go on ahead and that he'd be there in a second. And as you walk up to his door, you can tell he's still there, if only from the sounds echoing out from inside that freeze you in your tracks:

Crash. Thud. The shattering of glass. Thud-thud. A cry of pain. And over it all, Reno's unending prayer of profanity:

Oh fuck. Oh, fuck, oh fuck, oh, fuck

Pound pound.

Reno?

Stumble, thud, hiss, fuck, then something drawing closer to the other side of the door.

…Rude? his voice is unsteady, his breathing shallow.

Yeah, you say, and you can faintly hear him exhale. But his breath catches again at what you say next: Gear up. We have a mission.

Fuck. God damn it, I can't

And then Reno's pulling away, moving back into the middle of the area away from you.

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh, fuck…

Pound pound.

Reno.

No response, only the continued unintelligible sounds from within.

I'm coming in, you hear yourself say.

The response is immediate and painfully clear.

No!

Too bad.

The door, you know from experience, is far too sturdy for you to break, made of the toughest metals that ShinRa Inc. has ever been able to produce: it would take a small bomb to even put a dent in it, a small bomb which you currently don't have. You're thinking about heading upstairs and just hacking the damn room open, when a silly thought strikes you and you look up at the panel on the wall. But to your surprise, a bright green Access Granted greets your eyes as you press your hand into the reader and the door begins to slide.

How long has Reno trusted you enough to allow you access to his quarters?

But that thought is quickly wiped completely away from your mind as you step inside and stare at the thing in the middle of the room that seems to look up and stare back at you as the door swooshes shut behind you.

No!

It's screaming at you in Reno's voice.

You—what—Reno—

No!

The fuck…?

And that's when it explodes, diving toward you with an angry screech, and shoves you back against the wall with a staggering, inhuman force.

I locked myself in for a fucking reason, it whispers as you stare, hissing as one of the bleeding cuts in its side scrapes against another of its odd, shapeless appendages. The knife in what appears to have formerly been a human hand glints in the light as it swears, swipes the blade right through the offending mass of flesh, and lets it drop to the already bloody floor before beginning to try to shove you back through the door, screaming at you, still in Reno's voice, as it does.

The door was locked for a reason you bitch quit staring I know I'm a fucking freak but for fuck's sake quit looking at me

Reno…

Quit it! God damn you just get the hell away from me don't look at me god damn it don't make me kill you and I swear I'll do it

Reno—what—

WILL YOU JUST FUCK OFF ALREADY—

It lets out another strangled, angry noise, then shoves you one last time and backs away, crawling its way slowly back out of the doorway and into the room. It's slimy, you realize a moment later as the hand you raise to adjust your shades smears a sticky, transparent substance all over the lenses; it's slimy, and the way it drags itself across the floor with just its arms is absolutely painful to watch.

And you're about to turn around, unable to bear looking at it anymore, when it stops, collapsing forward over the arm of the couch and dropping what you can still tell is its head into its webbed, melting, still-peach hands.

Gods…

Reno—

FUCK OFF.

Reno.

Are you fucking deaf?

Reno.

The knife comes shrieking past your ear, embedding itself into the wall.

…fine.

And the door's starting to open behind you with a quiet swish, when:

But—

Wait—Rude—no—don't leave—

I'm—

Oh Gods, help me, I think I'm gonna bleed to death

And before you know it, before you can even think about what you're doing, you're grabbing that knife out of the wall, eating up the space between you with the fastest non-run stride you can manage, and he's in your arms, fingers clutching at your shirt in pain as you're tearing off what remains of his clothing and trying not to retch at the sight of what lies beneath. He sees the blade in your hand and grasps for it blindly, almost cutting himself on the edge before you pull it away; he clutches at your arm, still, reaching for the knife desperately, eyes glowing a brilliant green in panicked, half-crazed fear.

Somehow, you know that if you let him have the knife, he'll be dead before the end of the day.

Give me that—

No.

Give it to me, damn you—

Reno—

You don't fucking understand, I need to—

Reno.

I—

I'll do it.

What?

It—Reno—stares up at you, fight draining out of him, as you pick up a few shreds of what used to be his uniform and roll them into a thick, wide strip that you set between his teeth. And then you give him one command, a short, simple order, that he listens to immediately because he knows what's coming next.

Bite down.

And then you're the one listening, listening to him scream through the cloth in his mouth, pain muffled but still excruciatingly clear as you work on him, shearing off everything that shouldn't be there. Fifteen fins total on both of his arms. The row of soft, fleshy spikes that protrude down his spine. The flaps on his back. The you don't even know what the fuck to call thems that hang from the undersides of his legs, which require you to saw through newly grown cartilage. The skin that hangs from his cheekbones, precisely where his old scars used to be.

And all the while, he's wordless except for the pain he can't hold back, eyes shut tight as you pull out that Cure materia that you've used on him countless times before and renew the scars all over his body. And in a way, you're glad he is, and that his face is buried in your shoulder; you don't want to look in his eyes right now, for fear of what exactly you might see. Death, maybe, inhumanity, maybe. Maybe that monster that's coming out, raging against the walls of Reno's sanity. Or maybe just Reno, terrified out of his fucking mind.

And you're afraid, maybe, that you'd see your own reflection, more terrified than you'd ever imagined you could even possibly be.

He's slick when you're done, with slime and blood both, and you're covered in it too, clothes wet and sticking against your skin. But when you're done, he's smooth again, as smooth as he was before, pale skin gleaming with blood and slime in the lights that have always been too bright. He stays there, draped across your lap for a minute, catching his breath and carefully testing out his limbs, then squirms into a seat, glancing over at you with a pleading look and one soft word.

Mirror?

And then you're carrying him to the bathroom, ignoring the pieces of discarded flesh squeaking beneath your shoes, and dumping him unceremoniously on the counter, watching him sit up immediately and give himself a good look over. It strikes you then that this is the first time you've ever seen him completely naked, smeared and scratched with blood or no, but the effect is less arousing than perhaps interesting, probably due to the fact that he's practically spinning around in circles to make sure that everything is as it should be. And, even if you say it about your handiwork yourself, everything is.

I'm… me, Reno says finally, after a good five minutes of self-examination, and his voice, when he speaks, is almost cracking with wonder.

You're you, you repeat calmly, then turn on the sink, starting to wash the blood off your hands.

I missed it, Reno says, pulling his knees to his chest, and blankly watches you reach for the soap. I missed it by one hour, man. One fucking hour… and it… I…

You'll be fine.

Yeah… He grins then, and it almost startles you that this is the first time you've seen him do that since you walked in. It's nice to see it back on his face, even if it's making you notice the freshness of his old, renewed scars even more. Yeah, I'll be alright, won't I? It's all good now, yeah?

But there's still a slight fear in his voice that you hate for not going away, and you catch that grin fading in the mirror as he turns and slides off the counter. You start to turn, beginning to speak, but an arm wraps around your waist from behind and a cheek leans itself into the back of your shoulder. And you freeze there, sink water still running unnoticed over your hands, as Reno whispers a word into your ear before leaving.

Thanks.

And when you shut off the water and head outside, he's already halfway dressed and tugging on his socks, swearing at the four missed calls on the cell phone that he's now clutching in his free hand.

Shit, Tseng. Shit. How long ago was—

You check your watch, and your eyebrows rise.

Fifteen minutes.

Reno looks at you and you look at him, and you don't think either of you can figure out whether it's horrible or wonderful. Maybe it's both.

Fifteen minutes? You serious? That's… all?

Nod. That's all.

Well shit, he grins, and stuffs his cell phone in his pocket, grabbing his jacket before carefully making his way over the bloody, flesh-littered floor toward you and the door.

Now what the fuck do we tell Tseng?

Hangover, you end up telling Tseng, at the same time that Reno says that he'd lost his cell phone. Drunk, Reno amends, then, while at the same time you mention the loss of the phone. Eventually, the story works out that Reno had lost the cell in a Sector 3 bar, and by this time, Tseng is irritated and annoyed beyond caring, even at the sight of your blood-soaked clothing or Reno's untied, blood-caked shoes. He just snaps at you both to shut up and listen to the briefing and to consider yourselves lucky that the recorded time was wrong.

And while he talks, Reno gives you a thumbs up behind his back, green eyes still glowing with not only mako but life.

-----

That's what he looked like, is what you're thinking, staring into one of the cylinders as you pass it by. That's what he looked like, that fish thing in there, except not green. The next one looks like him too, except Reno's had been soft, shapeless outgrowths of skin instead of the cylinder-monster's cartilage-filled spikes. And the next one, kind of looks like him too, and the next, and the next, and the next…

It's only when the tip of your shoe hits the edge of one of the raised catwalk platforms that make up the floor that you blink and shake your head, lengthening your stride to catch up to Reno, who's already a good fifteen feet ahead of you. He's not even bothering to look anymore, you notice: all he gives the dual line of glowing tubes hanging in the air around you is a quick, cursory glance, eyes sweeping over and past them with absolutely no interest at all. This time, it's you they're mesmerizing, because this time, maybe, you're the only one who cares. Mesmerizing you enough so that you've come to a full stop without realizing it, staring at your own expressionless reflection superimposed on the face of one of the once-human freaks.

Then—

Come on, Rude, he croons at you, twirling his EMR lightly through the fingers of one hand. Hey. Midgar to Rude. You there? Heh, cool. Hey Rude, I screwed your mom. …Rude? Did you hear me? Hello?

A hand flashes in front of your face, making you blink.

What—oh. Yeah.

Come on.

And then as he continues to lead the way deeper into Lab 17, you notice that your eyes are staying fixed on the floor, unwilling to look around even casually like Reno's doing, feet moving one in front of the other and following him just from the sound of his footsteps. You find yourself wishing that there were someone else here, someone with sparkling amusement in his green eyes that could lean over and whisper: all this hitting too close to home? Someone that you could then shove into a wall, someone that would just laugh and probably bounce right back with a kick to your shin, at which you'd curse and then he'd curse back better, and everything would be alright.

But that someone's long gone, and as you reach the steps at the far end of the room after Reno, you realize that you're missing him more than ever.

And as you reach the top step and walk over to where Reno stands now and catch a glimpse of the reason that the someone's long gone, you can't help but clench your fists a little tighter, although your face remains impassive as usual.

Heh heh heh, heh, the reason giggles, pushing up the glasses on his face, glaring not hatred but triumph at the both of you. The first time Reno had been here, he'd parodied the scientist right behind his back so well that even Tseng had cracked a smile, but this time Reno only looks back coldly, seeming almost satisfied that the cigarette he lights up makes the scientist's face darken in anger.

It's only a small victory, though, because you know just as well as Reno does that Hojo already knows he's won.

Heh heh, back again, Reno? And Rude too, so soon?

Hojo throws you a little squinty glance, then, and then decides to ignore you. It's probably for the best, as you currently want to rip his throat out. But you know, just like he does, that you can't. And you know, just like he does, that the knowledge makes him feel like God.

Yeah, I'm back, Reno says, wandering over to the edge of the raised platform to lean on the railing and gaze downward at the lower level. Can't get enough of your scrawny, disgusting ass.

I'm so glad to see the Turks taking such an interest in science. Too bad there's nothing here that would concern you anymore, hee.

Reno flinches a little, straightening up, but covers it up by turning to blow smoke across the nearest cylinder to his right. He's casual when he speaks, dangerously so, eyes half-shut with what seems like laziness and unconcern. But you know it's really just a thought-out maneuver, planned and executed to hide the ragelight in his pupils from Hojo's sight.

You know what I want, man. Open it up.

Hmmm, hmmm. The same thing as ever—

Just do it.

Yes, yes.

And then Hojo's tapping away at a keyboard and the air-tight gates to the transparent chamber in front of you are gliding apart as a giant arm flashes by, plucking one of the cylinders out of its place in the wall. Reno hands you his jacket and his gun, EMR in hand, and you hold them for him, watching with Hojo as he makes his way into the chamber. It's only after the gates slide shut that Reno smashes through the cylinder with one powerful strike, and it's only then that the monster inside awakens with a roar, clawing its way out of its container to rage at the thing that dared to return its consciousness.

And you watch, Hojo watches, hell, even Reno watches, as it crawls its way through the puddle of mako forming over the floor, still-human leg muscles atrophied and legs useless, dragged along limply behind it as it moves. Blind eyes roll around in what used to be its head as it flails its arms in front of it, trying to find its target: one claw connects with a shin, then the other. But Reno doesn't even wince as the monster's suddenly got its teeth in his leg; he only leans down, free hand outstretched, and rests the back of it against what appears to be a forehead.

But as the mutant shrieks at the contact and buries its fangs in Reno's palm, his face twists, eyes going wide and unfocused with anger. Almost too fast to follow, he's kicked the monster off of him and against the wall, smashing him down to the ground with a furious blow of his EMR.

Mindless, you can read on his lips from long practice. Mindless. Soulless. Monster.

And then he's slamming the end of his stick into the mako-mutant's face, over and over and over again, crushing in its teeth, smashing in its nose, squishing in its eyes so hard that its brain oozes out its sockets. And he doesn't stop attacking it, kicking it and stabbing it, until its head is completely gone, pounded into soft, green, unrecognizable slime. And it's only when Reno draws back, breathing hard and crazed eyes wild, that you realize he's been screaming the entire time.

Heh heh heh, is all Hojo says.

You look at him, and he smiles at you.

Hmmm, hmm.

And that's all the time you have before the gates are gliding open again and Reno limping his way out, reaching for the jacket and gun you're holding. You don't give them to him, but give him a shoulder instead, not bothering him with words but merely offering something to lean on. Hojo watches the two of you, triumph in his expression, but you ignore him, looking at Reno instead.

And you can tell what Reno's thinking, what exactly it is that he's telling himself, mostly because what he's thinking is exactly the same as what's running through your mind, too.

That could have been me, is what Reno's thinking, is what Reno's telling himself, is what Reno's trying to show you both. That could have been me, but I'm better now. Better. It's dead, and I'm not, and that could have been me. I'm better. I am. I am. I'm better.

But as he leans on you and you both stumble your way out of hell, you know that it's not working, not anymore. It used to work, reminding Reno of what exactly he'd bought, but you had only thought of prices, and it seems as if he's beginning to see that, too. And from the way his hands tighten in your jacket sleeve and the way he refuses to meet your gaze, you know that you can't be the only one that's never believed his lies.

-----

You remember that it had been his ringtone that had given him away, that damned annoying song from the Chocobo Racing ring in the Gold Saucer. You remember that it was his, half because nobody else could have pulled off using it without seeming absolutely ridiculous, and half because he'd changed yours to it once, then called you in the middle of a meeting. But it was his ringtone that had given him away, him and Hojo both, and it was his ringtone that had told you exactly where they were, speaking in low voices behind a tall bookcase in the 42nd floor library.

Shit, it's Tseng. I gotta go. Make this quick. Yes or no?

Yes. Hee.

So you're saying… you're saying it might actually fucking work?

Hmmm, hmmm. A high probability.

The hell's that mean?

Ninety-six point four-seven-five percent.

…holy shit, you serious?

Hmmm, hmmmm.

And you could do that? Right now? On me?

Heh heh heh. I think President ShinRa would approve, hmmm?

Heh heh, heh heh.

So how's this shit work?

If you had bothered to ever find out how mako works, you might have noticed that within the mako-touched, the mako becomes stored in the cells, and flows into the bloodstream along with adrenaline. If such a specimen were to be placed in such a state and its blood drained, purified, and recycled enough so that all the mako is used…

You're gonna scare me shitless and filter me?

Crude but appropriate, hee. However, somewhat incorrect in the former of the two. You will of course be unconscious through the operation, heh heh heh.

Unconscious, huh?

You would rather feel pain? Hmmm, hmmm.

Yes? Questions?

Yeah. What's the catch?

Catch? Heh heh.

Yeah. The catch. The trick. The part that fucks me over. Where's that?

No catch, hee.

Okay then, what's in it for you?

Hmmm. You must understand that this is entirely speculation. You would be the only specimen I have available to me to test—

Bullshit. There's gotta be something else, if you're willing to keep this a secret.

Hmmm, hmmm, hm. Perhaps, perhaps. You would not believe me no matter what I said, yes? But would you deny yourself the chance to be fully human? And to spare yourself that daily injection, heh heh.

….

Hmmmm?

I'll think about it.

Do, hee.

And that had been when Reno had emerged from behind the bookcase, expression more serious than you'd remember it being in a long time. And he'd paled when he'd seen you standing there waiting for him, taking a quick glance over his shoulder at Hojo and then looking back at you.

How much did you hear? his eyes had asked you, vibrantly green against his bloodless cheeks.

I heard enough, your nod had told him.

And Reno had brushed past you then, staring at the ground and giving you a half-hearted punch in the shoulder.

Let's go, he'd said, Tseng's waiting for us. And as if the spoken words had broken something in the air, he'd brightened then, looking up at you. Hey, think this one's gonna be a good one? I've been wanting to test out that materia-shield shit.

Yeah. Protect-and-transfer.

Serious? Yes! he'd grinned. I call pilot!

Yours, you'd said, and he'd replied,

Awesome!

But as he'd run out of the library and toward the elevators, you'd thrown a glance backward at the scientist he'd left behind. And although you hadn't understood it back when it had mattered, what you saw in Hojo's smile that night was what makes you want to kill him now. You'd just assumed he was crazy, a hateful bastard like every other hateful bastard out there.

But Don't you get it? was what he had really been saying.

Don't you get it, Rude?

I've already won.

-----

Don't do it, you say, and Reno freezes for a split-second before pretending he hasn't heard a thing.

Do what?

You know.

Huh? What are you talking about?

Don't give me that look.

I hate you.

Don't do it.

Do what?

You know.

…I know.

So?

I have to.

Hojo.

I know, I know. But fuck, man. It's my chance. It's my only chance.

Hojo.

You don't understand—

Okay, you do understand but fuck—

What.

I don't even know anymore. How the fuck did you know where I was going, anyway? I could've been heading to the—

You murmur the code for 317 and glance pointedly toward his hand, which rests lightly on the panel of elevator buttons with his thumb, pointer, and middle finger on the first three digits. He looks, winces, and drops his hand, cradling it in the palm of the other.

…Shit.

Don't do it.

I have to.

You're crazy.

He just looks at you.

You repeat yourself: You're crazy.

He grins a little, shakily.

Not yet.

Reno, it's Hojo.

I know. But he said—

Bullshit.

…I know. But—

But what.

I have to try. I have to know

Forget it. I'll help you.

How?

Name a bar.

I can't, anymore. I can't, I can't.

Why.

I want to, but I can't. I can't. I look around, and there are people, everywhere. People. Humans. Do you know what that's like? Knowing I have the chance but being too afraid to take it?

No.

He almost laughs.

You don't have to be that honest, you bastard.

I try.

Yeah, well, try less hard. But in case you're wondering, it feels like shit. It feels like shit, knowing that you don't have to feel like shit but being too afraid not to. And knowing that you're being smart, by being scared out of your fucking mind.

You're scared?

Hell yes. It's Hojo, Rude. I'm not fucking crazy.

Yet.

Fuck you. I hate you.

Noted.

Reno lifts his hand again then, brushing it along the elevator buttons, then draws it back, suddenly smashing his knuckles against the wall.

It's not fair, man. It's not fucking fair.

No. It's not.

I have to go—

No. You don't.

I have to go.

No. You don't.

I have to—

And then your hands are at his shoulders, entangled in the fabric there, and you're slamming him painfully up against the elevator door.

I won't let you.

Rude?

You heard me.

I heard you.

And?

Yeah. I know.

Good.

But—

But nothing.

But—

But nothing.

Rude—

Fuck you if you think I'm willing to write your eulogy.

And then his expression's contorting into one of fury and his knee is flying upward into your stomach, forcing you backward and throwing you off of him with the power of mako-enhanced rage.

Fuck you, Rude!

Reno—

Fuck you and fuck me!

Reno—

Fuck all this being scared, fuck all this pretending bullshit, fuck everything since I was eight and a half fucking years old.

Reno…

I just want to be good enough for once! Can you understand that? Good enough? And fuck everyone else, it's not them I care about. Fuck them. Fuck you.

I want to be good enough for me!

You're silent then, leaning on the empty table he's pushed you into, and his last words echo through the deserted cafeteria as you look at each other, you calmly and he winding down from explosion, breathing ragged and fire in his eyes.

I'm going, he says again, taking a defensive step backward, because I have to.

You straighten, shake your head, and close your eyes even though he can't see them.

Good luck.

Good—huh?

You heard me.

I heard you.

Good.

That's it? he looks skeptical.

That's it.

And then his hand's back on the elevator buttons, hesitating for a full half a minute before he punches in the code faster than you can follow the sounds of the tones. He's been practicing, you realize, memorizing the patterns of the numbers ever since the day you found him in the library. He's been practicing, and as you hear the elevator doors glide open, you think, it's finally about to pay off.

…thanks.

You look up, and he's sideways, one foot in and one foot out, and you think about dragging him out of there again before dismissing the thought for the final time. To do that now would only stretch out the agony: he's never listened to you when he's made up his mind, anyway. So all you do, all you can do, is give him a half-smirk and a goodbye:

If you don't come back, I will personally kill you.

Yeah, yeah. 'Cept you got one thing wrong.

If I don't come back, Rude? You can try.

But he grins then, raising a hand to blow you an impudent kiss, before the doors shut him out from view as the elevator descends.

And then you're left alone in the deserted cafeteria, with a bruise on your stomach and a weight on your mind, looking at the two trays on the table full of food that Reno had broken into the back to get. And while you want to hurt something, break something, kill something, you know it won't help anything, least of all Reno. All that you find that you can do is pray, if you could remember what all that was about and maybe figure out how exactly to do it.

And this, seated in the darkened room and looking out at the mako reactors that perpetually light up the city, is the first time in your life that you actually try.

-----

What are you looking at? he asks, and you reply,

The reactors.

Oh, right, the terrorists.

Yeah, you say, and don't mean any of it.

Reno doesn't notice.

Man, you never quit thinking about work.

He's staged another break-in into the back of the cafeteria, just like always when he doesn't feel like eating during the day; the night staff's gotten used to it and doesn't even leave the doors locked anymore. He used to do it for the fun of it, only bothering to grab maybe a cookie or two, but now it's the food he cares about, the stuff he's not allowed to have in the watchful eyes of the ShinRa day. When he speaks, it's with a sandwich in his mouth that Tseng used to marvel that Reno could stomach four of but now would only kill him for if he saw him eating it.

Heard they hit 3 today. Tseng was pissed. ShinRa's firing security left and right, heard fifty guards or so got kicked off the Plate. Poor bastards—he eats a potato chip, thoughtfully—actually, nevermind, heh. Sucked at their job, they probably deserved it.

Sure.

He's going around, dipping into this, rummaging through that, just like he used to, only not. It used to be almost unbelievably innocent, completely without thought of what the kitchen staff might think; now, it's more selfish than anything else, aware of the resentment but not caring at all. And for some reason it makes you sick and you turn away, searching through the drinks instead until you find an unopened bottle of water, practically the only thing you're technically allowed to drink.

Hey, Rude?

Reno's stopped searching, perched on top of one of the counters with an apple in one hand and can of soda in the other. The reactor directly behind him beyond the window outlines him in an eerie green glow, making his actual self seem darker in comparison. Only his eyes glow blue, resting with a cold mako light on you.

Hey, Rude… you ever think, maybe, the terrorists are right?

The bottle of water slips from your hand, landing with a dull thud on the tiles of the kitchen floor, as you stare at him, wondering for a second if you just heard him right.

What?

You ever think, Reno repeats painstakingly, maybe the terrorists are right?

You're silent for a long minute before you answer, bending to pick up the bottle and set it on the counter nearest you, mostly because you have no idea what to say. You'd have expected the question a year ago, maybe, back when Reno had been so different, but to hear it now is almost unimaginable, even though it's just happened. And back then, you'd have known the right answer, because back then, the right answer would have been yes, but from Reno's blank, dead expression, you're not sure if he'd kill you if you said it now.

Maybe.

Reno turns toward the window, drawing his knees to his chest, and you're suddenly reminded of that time you'd been watching him in the bathroom, blood-soaked and freshly scarred and alive. Except that this time, instead of examining himself in the glass, Reno's only concerned about what lies past his reflection.

I think they're right.

Your breath catches in your throat, but you force yourself to remain silent as usual, suddenly afraid that maybe talking would break this strange conversation. You're afraid, maybe, that breaking this conversation would take this faint glimmering of what had used to be Reno and tear it violently away from you. But that's alright, because he's apparently not expecting you to talk; he just goes on, regardless of what you think.

I think they're right, man. Not all this spiritual the Planet is alive and we're hurting it and crap and it's screaming in pain and hates us all shit, but just… just, I don't know. Just the idea. That maybe… you know, the world would've been better off without mako, yeah?

No, you want to say, because without mako, you'd have never been a Turk. I wouldn't have met you, and we wouldn't be here.

But you don't.

Maybe, is what you say instead.

Yeah… you know, when I was little, I wanted to be one of 'em? The terrorists, I mean. Trashing the Reactors, destroying that shit. Getting my revenge on ShinRa for everything through blood. I wanted to do that. I wanted to kill it all. But I didn't, because I couldn't, because I cared too much about all the innocent people that were gonna die and I didn't have any way to do it anyway…

Yeah.

But you know what's really funny? he says, and he turns toward you, grinning. I could probably do it right now. Bombs, guns, training, experience, I've got everything but a conscience and it's everything I need. Think about it, seriously, what've I got to lose?

You're not sure why the question makes you almost happy, but it does, and for some reason, you find yourself wishing that he means it.

Hm. You defecting?

He looks at you, eyes alive with excitement and rebellion.

You think?

And for a moment, just one short moment, he almost looks like Reno before his expression dies away and he shakes his head, laughing at you.

Fuck, no. Are you fucking kidding me? I get paid ten thousand times better here.

And then he's hopping off the counter and lighting up a cigarette, still greatly amused by your ridiculous suggestion.

You know what, Rude?

What.

You know, sometimes? You're so naïve.

-----

You remember how pale his face looked, scars burning into his cheeks under the pure white hospital lights. You remember how sharply his collarbones had stood out, shadowed starkly above the loose, wide neck of his pale blue hospital gown. And you remember how many times you'd visited, taking over Tseng's shifts to watch over him, sitting in that chair by his bed with your gun drawn and wondering, always, what the catch had been.

It had taken him three days to wake up, three days of agonizing waiting and agonizing lying to Tseng about the supposed accident in 317 that had stabbed Reno in the arm with a contaminated needle that had made this operation necessary. A mechanical malfunction, was what you had told him: a mistake in the machine, already fixed. And he'd believed you because he believed you wouldn't lie, because he'd never known that you had ever had a reason to: Turks, like Tseng, yourself, even Reno, who breezed crazily through every other emotion like a hurricane, were supposed to be immune to trauma, despair, passion, and love.

Or, you remember thinking that last night in the dawn lit more brightly by mako than sun, Turks were supposed to be masterful liars, liars so good at their trade that even they couldn't help but believe themselves.

But your belief had been failing, then, looking down at Reno's emotionless, lifeless features. Your belief had been failing, walls of security crumbling against the relentless waves of what if he never wakes up and foundations shaking under the weight of what if he's different even if he does. You remember it took all of your years of practiced self-control not to tear out of that room and pin Hojo to a wall, torturing him mercilessly until he told you why he'd done this for free.

And you remember thinking, about everything that had happened, the whipped cream on your car, the drink-offs, the EMR-prods, the good times, the bad times, the fun and serious both. And you remember thinking about one of the first things he'd ever said to you:

I had no idea what the fuck to say to you, but I saw you watching me—and don't deny it man, you were there

and you remember thinking that he'd been right the whole time, with that uncanny ability of his to read your mind.

And although you had been sure that you had never told him, you remember that the one comforting thought that you had during all three nights of painful waiting was that you were just as sure too that all along, no matter how much you'd lied to him, Reno had known how you'd felt about him anyway.

-----

They're—

Blue! he tells you before you can say it, newly-recovered pupils almost disappearing as he grins. I know, I saw it before I passed out. They're blue, Rude! Blue! Not green! Blue! Just like before—

Yeah.

Reno quiets, then, but can't stop himself from grinning even as he shakes his head and attempts to concentrate on what he knows you're going to ask.

I'm fine, I think, he says after a few tense minutes. Can't feel anythin' out of place or anything. Everything looks like it works…

Sure?

Yeah, pretty sure. He lifts up a wrist, bruised dark purple but healing, and shows it to you. Needle went in here, other stuff came out there. Hojo wanted to drug me and shit but like hell was I gonna let that go, yeah? I only let myself blackout after I got outta his lab and into here, and I didn't see him do anything that'd fuck me over.

And in here?

Reno glares at you as you gesture to his head, then rolls his eyes, bursting into laughter.

Still crazy, you almost smirk, and

Shut up! I hate you! he responds, smacking you in the arm.

Not crazy, he repeats a silent moment later, quietly. Not crazy, never will be crazy, not any more…

And then you're both waiting there, terrified, you standing by his side and him propped up by yours, waiting for the terrible secret catch that Hojo's somehow put in to maybe erupt from Reno's chest and leave the both of you dead and dying. But you wait, five minutes, ten, fifteen, and nothing happens: all the machinery around Reno, even the ones gauging mako-intensity, are reading normal for a Turk, completely healthy and fit. And in the seventeenth minute, Reno's hand circles around yours, his voice lost in wonder and his grin lost in awe.

Rude…

Rude, I'm fixed

And then he's scrabbling for the call button that summons his nurse and doctors, telling you he feels abso-fucking-lutely fine and asking you where his clothes are and how soon he can change into them. You hand him his uniform, which you'd thought to bring along, and from the way he rips all the sensors off his body and pulls the uniform onto it, you can tell that he's right about his condition, as healthy and alive as he's always been. He's already dressed and searching for his EMR when the hospital staff rushes in, demanding that he lie back down and get some post-op rest. But

Fuck no, Reno replies, shaking his head and stretching in the bright morning sun, fuck no, and fuck you if you think I'm taking my one sick day and my first damn normal day off in this piece of crap sterile place.

And then he's bursting through the wall of doctors and nurses that are crowding him in, shoving his way out with the contained yet powerful force of a Turk, and then he's catching your hand and pulling you out of the room with him before letting go and dashing off alone down the hallway. You stumble to a halt, staring after him, and the only question that comes to mind is: where?

Where do you think? Reno calls back before you can ask.

Where else, man?

I'm going to party.

And as Reno disappears down the door to the stairs and the crowd of hospital staff crashes into you at the door, all you can think of is how much you wish that you could have gone with him. But you have work, and you know just as well as he does that you couldn't have gone no matter what, and in a way you're glad to see him just as usual, running forward with no absolutely no regrets. And of course, there's the most important thing, maybe the only thing that keeps you from running after him down that hallway and down those stairs and into the city that lives and breathes beneath you.

The most important thing: you know he'll be back.

And right now, that's the only thing that matters.

-----

It's night when you and Reno arrive, cell phones of course set to vibrate, and the bouncer just nods and steps aside, knowing the two of you by word-of-mouth if not by face. Inside, the club is already raging, lights flaring, music pounding, and dancers already packed onto the floor. But it's not excitement you feel, wading in through them all, but rather a curious detached amusement, watching it as if you weren't here.

Something in your mind asks, is this the mandatory weekly nightclub stop?

And another answers that yes, yes, that's all it is.

You slide into your usual place by the bar, ordering a pair of your usual drinks and only nodding in acknowledgement to Reno as he taps your shoulder and heads out onto the dance floor. It doesn't affect you, the nightclub scene, maybe because you'd never accompanied him to one before he changed: you've got nothing to compare him to, for now. And for once in the long, memory-full day, it's something that doesn't directly remind you of something else, a kind of haven for your whirling mind.

Except it's not.

Except it's not, because although you don't have any direct memories of the old Reno in a nightclub, you can always, always, endlessly wonder. Had he gone somewhere like this, maybe, when he'd left you that day in the hospital? Had he gone somewhere like this, ordered a few drinks, danced with all the beautiful people he could find? Maybe he'd just watched that day, maybe he'd just watched like you're watching now, watching the lights and listening to the music and trying to figure it out, trying to see what he'd been missing, trying to experience and live and enjoy everything to the fullest.

You knock the first drink back, and the alcohol slowly explodes in your mind like snow, driving out all thoughts for just a moment and leaving them out because you don't want to pick them back up. You're tired of thinking, and you're tired of remembering, because remembering makes something in your chest ache strangely and no matter how many times you tell yourself it's something you ate, you don't believe it, not even a bit. And you're tired of thinking and even more tired of worrying about what you know you'll remember next, but even as the drinks disappear, one by one, you know it's pointless to even try to stop the memories.

It's only when you hear Reno cry out in pain that you look up and realize that an hour or so has passed and hey, a club-wide bar fight has been going on the whole time. You're not sure who started it or why it's happening, but you decide you don't care and it's probably Reno for both answers anyway. Three dead already, is the first thing you notice: three dead, twelve injured, and Reno's hurt in the left arm. And then you're standing, wading into the fight, dragging people apart and dragging Reno out of it.

He curses at you, demanding that you let him go, but you only silently pull him away, knowing that if he stays in there, he's dead for sure. He fights you then, fights you with everything he's got, smashing himself into your blows like he loves the pain and hitting you like he knows you love it, too. But he gives in, in the end, and you toss him in the back seat of the car, bruised and battered and wiping blood from his mouth.

You're wondering, then, as you climb into the driver's seat, why Reno brings you along to these clubs now when he never used to before. He knows you don't like it, you're sure of that, and all you really ever do is sit in the corner and drink. But he brings you along anyway, for reasons known only to him; maybe even he doesn't know why, or at least doesn't remember. It's just some excuse fading into the dull channels of routine.

But why, you wonder, as he sits up, rolling down the window to yell obscenities at the angry crowd spilling out of the club after you, does he bring you along, if he knows you'll stop him? Why does he take you, if he seems to hate the fact that you save his life? Why is he so terrified of his death being his own responsibility instead of your failure, if he wants to die so fucking badly?

And as the car pulls away and Reno sits back and stares in the mirror at you, he can tell what you're thinking, you're almost sure of it. But he doesn't have an answer, either, and only grins, showing you blood in his teeth, then pretends exhilaration and turns away, looking out the window at the crowd fading into the distance behind you. You want to ask him, force him to talk to you, but he doesn't like talking anymore, not about anything important. You're just supposed to know, just like he's just supposed to know, and even though you both do, it's just not the same.

And half-drunk, driving, and wondering what would happen if you maybe happened to hit the side of that building, you're beginning to realize that you're starting to hate that.

-----

You remember waiting for him in your room at HQ, trying not to keep glancing at the clock but doing it anyway, so much so that you'd ended up just disconnecting the damn thing then reconnecting it five minutes later when you'd stopped counting by minutes and started using heartbeats instead. You remember waiting, just waiting for the time to go by, sitting there and trying not to think, because thinking would make you worry. And you remember being terrified to worry, half because thinking about things that could be might make them happen and half because you simply didn't want to know. You didn't want to think because you had always been better at dealing with cold facts than ideas, and you'd known that, of course, from long experience.

And you'd failed completely at not thinking, of course.

But thinking or not thinking hadn't made the wait any shorter, and by the time Reno had returned, you'd realized that you'd absentmindedly run twelve miles on the treadmill and read through the entire play-now-movie Loveless without remembering a single character's name. How you had known that Reno would come back to your room, you hadn't known, but there it had been, seared into your mind like fact: it was here that he would return, not his quarters or either of your separate apartments in the city. And, in the end, you hadn't been wrong.

But every second of the time you'd lost, you'd made up in the next half-hour. You remember that, even though you really don't want to, and you remember the rest of the night, too, that had seemed to stretch on to eternity. But it wasn't eternity, of course, even though now you rather wish it had been, and the next morning had come far too soon.

But Reno had come back, 3:58 and twenty-six seconds, and you'd almost jumped out of your seat to let him in before hesitating as all the thoughts you had been somewhat successfully ignoring for the past eighteen or so hours came flooding into your head. What if something had happened to him, you had wondered; what if something had happened, and he was waiting outside, completely unrecognizable and hideous beyond imagination? What if the catch that neither of you had been able to figure out had somehow kicked in and turned Reno mako-monstrous again?

But when you had opened the door, there had been Reno, looking just like Reno always had. And looking back on it now, you wish that he hadn't.

Because that had only made it a thousand times worse.

-----

He's slumped against the wall when the door slides open, looking up at you with blue eyes half shut drunk. His jacket's missing, his shirt half-undone, and the sunglasses that usually rest on his forehead have disappeared too into somewhere, nowhere, wherever he's been. But from the way he looks, you can tell that there's more than that missing: a body that seems twenty with an expression that seems thirty with eyes that seem to have seen over half a century of bitter truth.

Rude…?

Yeah.

And he stumbles in, then, as you move aside, clutching the walls, furniture, anything for support.

Fuck, I'm drunk. Fuck—and I only had twelve, man. My tolerance—went to shit

And you're almost not surprised when he reaches you and kisses you, hands at your belt and tearing insistently at your shirt.

Fuck, I'm drunk—no—fuck—fuck me.

You want to ask what happened, where he went, what went wrong, but you don't because he won't answer you and you're not sure that you really want to know, anyway.

Bed, he demands quietly, stripping off the last of his clothing. And

Sure, you reply, and don't resist as he drags you.

And when he kisses you again, it's naked with his eyes closed, smelling like other people's perfume and tasting like other people's lipstick. It doesn't seem to bother him, or maybe he just doesn't notice from being so used to it. And he knows what he's doing, that much is obvious, fingertips trailing over your skin like streams of fire, making you burn.

But there's a desperation in his kiss that goes beyond carnal. The way he crawls on top of you, perching himself on your stomach and bending forward over your chest, is more clingingly pained than desirous or lustful, his hands cool and sweaty against the sides of your neck. He's throwing himself at you, you realize then through a haze of Reno: he's throwing himself at you, begging for something that you can't picture or name, something that he desperately needs and thinks you can give him, something he doesn't know how to ask for except through sex.

And you're just watching, curiously detached, watching your hands on him, his hands on you, watching your bodies touch and slide through eyes that only want to drink him in and a face that only wants another one of his breathtaking, tongue-sucking, mind-blanking kisses. And all you're thinking is

What the fuck happened? What did they do to you? What did he do to you?

and then, in the next moment, you're just feeling glad that your breath is beginning to catch in your throat, because it's stopping you from asking things you don't want to know.

But it's getting harder to think, especially as Reno shifts his position and a slick hand closes over you and he moans into your ear as one of yours closes over him. And for one moment, the only moment left, everything's almost okay as you turn over onto your side to face him, pulling him over and ready to give in to whatever happens next. But in the next moment, Reno's pulling away, disentangling himself from you and sitting up with his face in his hands.

And then he says something you've never imagined he'd ever say and still can't imagine him saying, although he just has:

I… I can't do this.

It takes a few seconds for this to register.

Reno…?

I can't do this. I can't, I can't—

Is it—

No, it's not the physical shit—I just—I—

Can't.

I—

You sit up, then, and it's only when you reach out to him after a few minutes of silently waiting for him to speak that you realize he's shaking in the dimmed lights that he'd somehow remembered to turn down. And it's only when he lifts his head and looks at you, eyes half shut drunk and yet sober beyond sanity, that you realize exactly what it is that's going on. It's not fear or anger or tragedy but rather debilitating disillusionment that's printed on his features, the deadly poison of the optimist and the bitter ambrosia of the cynic.

And that's when you get it, what Hojo's done, and it hurts like fuck, the fact that he's understood Reno so much better than you and all your years. But you get it now, and get it hard: Reno had loved life so much, been so alive, been so differently wonderful because he'd been so wonderfully naïve. He'd been living a life that lived up to something, a vision of a better life that he'd had in his head.

And it makes sense, even more clearly than before, his desire for acceptance, his need to be liked: he'd always thought, you realize now, that if enough people felt that he was normal, likeable, human, that maybe he might be able to have a slice of that life.

But to give him his dream, to give him that life, it had—

No.

Where was your gun? Where was it? Your knife? Weapons, damn it! Or fuck weapons, you could use your damn fists, and Hojo was right downstairs—

It's Reno's hand on your arm, light but firm, that stops you from rising and maybe getting yourself killed. He just shakes his head, silent but commanding, and you grit your teeth so hard that you can almost hear it but force yourself to relax. And he looks at you, and you look at him, and you know he wants to ask,

Do you love me?

but he doesn't, so you can't answer

Yes

and you're sitting there, helpless, hands clenched together tightly in frustration.

But Reno notices that too, shaken and half-broken as he is, and he curls a hand around yours, breaking them apart, and then he's sliding into your arms, expression blank until his face is buried in your shoulder. And that's when he finally speaks, voice wavering in despair, and you're worried that your furious, helpless anger might somehow sear through your skin and burn him up right then and there. But it doesn't, and all you can do is hold him, wanting to destroy the world if only so that you could die and wouldn't have to feel his tears sliding slowly down your back.

It's only time you've ever seen him cry.

Rude…

He whispers, because his voice is gone.

Rude—

Oh God—

Oh God, Rude—

Rude—I—

It's not any different.

-----

He's slumped against the wall when the door slides open, looking up at you with blue eyes half shut drunk. His jacket's missing, his shirt half-undone, and the sunglasses that usually rest on his forehead have disappeared too into somewhere, nowhere, wherever he's been. But from the way he looks, you can tell that there's more than that missing: a body that seems twenty with an expression that seems thirty with eyes that seem to have seen over half a century of bitter truth.

He laughs at you looking, then stumbles his way in, clutching the walls, furniture, anything for support. And you stay outside for a minute, just watching him and remembering the memories you don't want to see, before he turns back toward you, leaning back against the couch.

Wanna fuck, or you too tired?

Tired, you say, before you can think about it, then realize you're right, mentally, if not physically. He complains that it's only three, a good three hours until you're officially due for work, and although you know that you only need two, you just shrug it off and stick to your answer. Sleep sounds nice, especially the kind without dreams, because consciousness and everything that's reminding you of Reno is very much beginning to suck.

But it's not just today, and you know it even as you try to deny it, and from the way Reno just shrugs too and heads for the shower, you know that he's getting pretty tired of it, too. You'd tried, the first few months after Reno had changed, tried as hard as you could to try and maybe change him back. But it had never worked, no matter what you had done: he'd never asked the right question, and you'd never told him the right answer.

And as you watch him disappear and watch the door slam shut behind him, all you feel now is relief that you know he'll never ask. He's far too cautious of the tentative bond that the two of you have to risk anything like that ever again. And even if he does, it'll be another of his sarcastic jokes, sane as reality and cynical as winter.

And that's when it hits you, not like the slow falling of a hundred million snowflakes but all at once like a freight train, head-on and merciless: not hitting you over and over with realization but rather stunning you with its unstoppable force. If he asked that question now, you realize, you have no idea what you'd say: no idea what you'd say, because there's no real good way to tell him

No.

But the world's moving on, and so are you, and it's with a detached, efficient numbness that you get ready for bed. Faintly, behind you, you hear the bathroom door open, and Reno's striding out wrapped in a towel and beginning to change. But you don't even glance over, although not looking doesn't help: you know the scars are there all over his body, the ones that you helped create. And then the both of you are lying down, Reno's hair still wet over his pillow and part of yours, and you give him your usual closing statement:

Night.

And he responds with your usual phrase:

Sure.

And as that sinks in, you're lying there awake, watching the shadows play over the wall and finally, finally getting what Hojo's really done. You had always known that he'd hated you both, but you'd always assumed that it was Reno he'd targeted. You'd always assumed that Hojo had known your feelings and changed Reno, taken away his aliveness, to make you internally writhe.

But you were wrong, the whole time: it was never Reno he'd been after. It was you, ever since that time in the hallway when you had made him show absolute fear. Reno had just been a side-effect, a trophy of sorts, and his devastating disillusionment had only served one purpose.

And the purpose, you're realizing now, was to turn Reno into a certain someone: a cynical, sarcastic, helplessly angry man, frustrated at the world and himself for not being different. The purpose was to make Reno immune to care, devoid of feeling, and to leave him with only a thin layer of superficial emotion that quickly faded and is fading away. Sane as reality and cynical as winter, he's turned into you, exactly how you are in almost every way. And although he still yet has a bit more speech, it's only a matter of time before even this dead-alive Reno is gone.

And he's impossible to love, you know, from trying for so damn long.

Impossible to love, just as you are.

It's with a bitter taste in your mouth that you resolutely close your eyes, willing yourself to sleep with the stubborn self-control of a Turk. But even though you sleep, you dream of mako-monsters and drink-offs in Sector Seven, of whipped cream on cars and Fuck you, Rude, with a smiley in shades. You dream of broken tables, glowing blue antidote, and a scientist's cheek with Reno's fingers wiggling through it. And through all of it, you dream yourself standing by, knowing everything that's happening but doing nothing to change or aid it.

Then it becomes a nightmare, a monster with your face, eyes chained shut by reflective shades that block off any emotion.

And when you wake up shivering for the fourth time that night, you know that Hojo's smile had always spoken true:

Don't you get it, Rude?

I've already won.

And he had, has, will always have won, because you're finally getting it, after so very long. It's not Reno he wants you to hate, past or present; it's not Reno he wants you to see, changed or unchanged. It's you, it's always been you, you and just how pathetic you are. Reno's just a mirror, has always been a mirror, had to die to be a mirror, so Hojo could force you to see.

And as you look over and watch him sleep, scars burning into his cheeks in the moonlight from the window, what you see isn't the Reno of the past anymore. He's dead and gone, leaving his corpse in his wake, and what you see there is you, not asking, not telling. And you're tired of fighting it, so you're letting him go, out into the dimness of memory and never to return. The love is gone, anyway, and in the next moment, the cynic in you is wondering if it was ever even really there.

But there, at least, is one thing that you know for sure. One thing that you can't block out, one emotion that escapes through even the new barriers you've put up. All those years you've spent, trying to figure out the world, trying to find something to blame, trying to figure out what exactly the problem is, have converged into a single, brilliant, blistering line of hate. And as you turn over and close your eyes, willing yourself to sleep again, it glows like mako against the backs of your eyelids. You can't get away from it, you can't make it go away, because this time, it points straight inward toward a silent man in shades.

Don't you get it, Rude?

And now, you do.

You don't like yourself, much.