It's two o'clock on a weekday afternoon and I'm sitting in the Wall Market mansion, looking up at the one tiny window in the room. Elena is behind me, cutting my hair, and Tseng is sitting across from us, pretending to read a newspaper.
" Why don't you just ask?" I mutter in the direction of the window. It's not rattling – the winds have stopped. But the change in weather is not necessarily a relief. A coolness has settled over Midgar since the winds blew out of town, and while it would normally be welcomed, all we can do after everything that has happened is interpret it as a bad omen: winter will be here soon, and there is no power. Only those of us within the walls of this mansion know that there is the potential for power, and the three of us in this room are probably the only ones who know what it would truly cost to take advantage of it.
" Ask what?" Tseng mutters, lifting his head.
" Whatever you came in here to ask," I say dryly, giving him a look. " I know you're not just hanging around so you can watch me get my hair cut."
" Reno, sit still," Elena says in a sigh, pulling back my bangs to snip them shorter. Tseng is just staring at me now, called out and irritated.
" I thought you might grow your hair back out," he says, still dancing around whatever favor he wants from me.
" Only losers have long hair," I tell him, pretending to yawn. Elena tsks and swats my shoulder.
" You just can't pull it off," Tseng says, straightening his neat ponytail. " You never could."
" Alright, boys," Elena mutters, not looking up from her work.
" That's a fine way to talk right before you ask me for a favor," I say, feeling the usual teasing darken considerably.
" And you've adopted an interesting philosophy about talking to your superiors," he answers coolly, folding his paper.
" You're not my superior anymore," I snap, not taking my eyes off of him. He smiles a little bit, looking down at his shoes, freshly polished since the dust has stopped blowing through the streets all day long.
" If you don't work for Shinra anymore, why are you here?" he asks.
" You know why I'm here," I grumble.
" Whatever you're doing with Rufus," he says, raising an eyebrow. " You're working for him, one way or another. Believe me."
" Here," Elena interrupts hurriedly, thrusting a hand mirror at me. I inspect my hair, make a face.
" Too short in the front," I complain, patting down my bangs.
" Ungracious as always," Tseng says, sniggering at my haircut.
" Tseng, just ask him," Elena demands impatiently, putting her hands on my shoulders. He frowns and I give him a wicked grin, leaning back into her.
" It's not a favor for me," he says, sighing. " It's for Rufus."
" Well, whatever Rufus is doing," I say, standing and brushing pieces of red hair from my shirt. " It's a favor for you, one way or another. Believe me," I add, stepping closer to him. He shakes his head.
" It's really amazing that you've become our operative within the Avalanche camp," he says. " Rather unfortunate, too."
" What can I say, I'm a people person," I tell him, smirking.
" Meaning that you sleep with a wide variety of people, regardless of political ideology?" he returns, cocking his head slightly.
" Tseng!" Elena protests.
" Maybe you should go," I say, turning to her. " Wouldn't want you to see this side of your Prince Charming."
" I think you're both being ridiculous," she says, squaring her shoulders. " You're letting Rufus . . .,"
She trails off, shakes her head and folds up the towel she had around my shoulders while she was cutting my hair. She seems to want to say more, but doesn't, instead slipping quietly from the room.
" What does he want?" I ask Tseng when I turn back to him. He had his mouth open, but shuts it when I've spoken, wets his lips.
" Vincent Valentine," he says. " You know him?"
" Yeah. Big pale guy, real creepy, doesn't say much."
" That's him," Tseng mutters. " Rufus would like you to get some information from him."
" Information?" I still haven't managed to get the location of Sephiroth's death from Cloud, not that I've been trying. I've come to know Cloud well enough to realize that Sephiroth is one place you don't go, especially if you try once and come to a dead end. Rufus hasn't asked me about my efforts yet.
In fact, I haven't been speaking to either of them much, though I seem to be constantly in the presence of one or the other. There aren't many things left to say that don't lead into corners. I've thought about cutting my losses and leaving both of them out to dry, maybe running off to Costa del Sol or Gold Saucer, disappearing into sunlight and neon, but I know they would come with me. They might not be there in body, but no matter how many miles I put between us, I lost the chance to run from both of them a long time ago.
" Rufus wants to know about a woman Vincent used to serve as a sort of –special bodyguard for, when she worked for Shinra," Tseng explains.
" What woman?" I ask, though I could make an educated guess.
" Her name is not authorized for release," Tseng tells me evenly, and I give him an insincere grin, bat my eyelashes.
" Vincent will know who you're talking about," he mutters. " Rufus just needs to know where she's located. Vincent might try to tell you that she's dead, but you should press on. Rufus believes she's alive."
" This is about his mother, isn't it?" I ask, swallowing heavily. Tseng turns his back to me, rubs his hands together, brings them to his face and sighs.
" This is his mother," he says.
" Fuck. Tseng—"
" Are you going to do Rufus this favor, or aren't you?" he asks, knowing I don't have a choice. Or that I won't let myself have one.
" Why can't you do it?" I ask.
" I'm not exactly in the best of graces with that crowd," he says. " I haven't been doing my – er, what do they call it? 'Reconstruction' duties." He laughs.
" Neither has Vincent," I tell him. " I haven't even seen him lurking around in weeks. He might have left."
" No, he's there," Tseng says, eyes unfocused. " And anyway, I can't – Vincent and I have something of a history."
" Of course you do."
" He used to be a Turk," he tells me, looking up.
" You shittin' me?" I ask, making a face when I think of vampiric, weepy-eyed Vincent.
" Why'd he quit?"
" Things got complicated," Tseng mutters in response, starting for the door. " He won't exactly be anxious to talk about this woman, or anything to do with Shinra. You'll have to tell him that you want to inform her that her son has passed away."
" Wouldn't she know?" I ask, thinking of the news stories after the attack by Diamond weapon.
" She might," Tseng says with a shrug, reaching the door. " But Vincent doesn't know that. Are you alright to do this, Reno?"
" What's in it for me?" I grumble, meaning yes.
" Every favor for Rufus is really a favor for you," he answers easily before breezing out of the room.
I leave Wall Market without seeing Rufus, who is locked up in a meeting room with his scientists. I still don't know what they're doing there, but I assume it has something to do with the mako reactors housed underground, and how Rufus is going to use them to his advantage. I've been trying to stay out of the master plan as much as possible, which is part of the reason why Tseng's handed-down order to interrogate Vincent is bothering me.
When I get back to the dorms I expect to find them mostly empty, everyone outside toiling away at the worksite. But I hear voices when I come to my apartment's door, and lean in to try and make out what they're saying. One of them is Cloud's, and the other is a woman's. I have a pretty good guess as to who it belongs to.
I open the door and see him leaning in the doorway of our bedroom, looking irritated, Tifa standing before him with her hands on her hips. Neither of them is even partially undressed, and while I'm not exactly surprised, it's still something of a relief.
" What are you doing here?" Tifa barks before I can get a word out. From the looks of things she and Cloud have just had some kind of disagreement, and she seems all too ready to take some frustration out on me.
" Uh. Lunch break?" I say with a disinterested shrug. I haven't been to the worksite yet today, and yesterday I only stayed to keep Cloud company for a few hours before sneaking off to Wall Market. Elena and Tseng haven't been in a week.
" Don't think that just because you've—whatever—" she glances back at Cloud uncertainly. " That you can get out of work. And where are the other Turks?" she demands, walking toward me.
" Hey, how about you, sister?" I snap. " I don't see you out there whistling while you work, and I didn't see you yesterday, either."
" Just because you didn't see me doesn't mean I wasn't there," she says quickly. " And I'm on lunch duty."
" Lunch was two hours ago," I remind her.
" Well, there goes your excuse!" she says, stopping to put a hand to her forehead. She's dressed for work, wearing a giant pair of overalls and a baggy t-shirt, but her clothes are clean and her hair doesn't have that matted-sweat look that a day's worth of hard labor brings.
" Calm down, you're gonna have a stroke," I mutter, glancing at Cloud. He's stepped back, half of him inside the bedroom now, his head peeking around the doorframe. Just to spite both of them and whatever little secret discussion they were having, I go to the kitchen counter and rifle through my modest liquor stash, coming out with a bottle of vodka and drinking from it.
" Starting a little early, aren't you?" Tifa asks, straightening and looking back to Cloud, as if he should have something to say about this.
" Here, have a sip," I say, offering her the bottle. " You look like you could use it."
" No," she says, shaking her head and going for the door. " I've got work to do, unlike some people. You know, Reno, there are going to be consequences."
" What consequences?" I roar, drinking again, tired of the idle threats. I almost wish they would actually try to do something to punish me for not showing up to work, as it would make deciding whose side I'm on a lot easier.
" You think about what I said," she says, talking to Cloud now. He shakes his head, and Tifa gives me one last dirty look before walking out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her.
" Thanks for sticking up for me!" I shout at him, drinking again.
" What's the matter with you?" he asks, narrowing his eyes.
" With me?" I ask in disbelief, sitting down at the table, already feeling the effects of the vodka against my mostly-empty stomach.
" What happened to your hair?" he asks, making a face. I reach up to pat my short bangs down self-consciously.
" Elena happened."
" I would have done it," he mutters, scratching the back of his neck, embarrassed.
" Don't worry about it," I grumble.
" Is that where you were?" he asks. " With her?"
" Yeah," I answer, sighing, putting the cap back on the bottle. " What's Tifa's problem?"
" A lot of things," Cloud says.
" No shit."
" I didn't mean it like that," he tells me, frowning.
" Yeah, well."
" Are you going to stop working?" he asks cautiously, after a pause.
" Why, you think they'll really arrest me if I do?"
" Reeve might try," he says, walking over to sit next to me at the table. He reaches up to brush short red hairs from my forehead.
" I would have given you a better haircut," he says.
" Like you've ever given anyone a haircut before," I say with a scoff, putting my head down on the table next to the bottle of vodka. " Does it really look that bad?" I mumble.
" No," he says, tilting his head to look at me. " Well. The front, yes."
" This is shaping up to be a great fucking day, I'll tell you what," I grumble, reaching up to unscrew the cap on the bottle again. Cloud catches my hand.
" I'll make you feel better," he says, stopping off my aggravated glare.
" Shall I unzip?" I ask, releasing the bottle.
" Just come here, smartass," he mutters, walking into the bedroom. I watch him go and toy with the idea of taking one more defiant slug before following. I want to press him about his conversation with Tifa, but I know I can't. If I do he might start asking questions about Rufus, and I'm not willing to give him any answers yet.
When I get into the bedroom he pulls me onto the bed and rolls me over on my stomach. I groan with disappointment, realizing this means I won't be on the receiving end of a blow job, but when he squats over my back and starts working on my muscles I give him a long sigh of approval.
" You're tense," he says.
" What's bothering you?" he asks.
" Are you fucking kidding me?" I say with a laugh, and he stabs harder at a knot in my back. " What isn't?"
" You didn't seem like an anxious person, back when you were a Turk," he says, moving down to my lower back.
" Harder," I mumble, drooling on the sheets, and he obliges. " It's not that I'm anxious," I tell him, eyes falling shut. " It's more that I'm beleaguered. Is that a word?"
" I think so, yeah," he says, moving up my back with his thumbs. " Anyway, I know what you mean."
" I know you do."
" I've been thinking," he says, his voice small. " Maybe we should go to Wutai."
My eyes snap open again.
" Listen, I need a favor from you," I say, ignoring his request. I can't think about leaving right now, not with him. If we left together, Rufus would come with us. He would be a ghost again, but he'd still be there.
" What do you need?" he asks, bending down so that his lips are on my neck. I sigh against the mattress, wanting to roll over but staying in place, facing away from him. I wish he would flip me himself, but he's not making a lot of first moves these days.
" You know that guy Vincent?" I mutter. " I need to talk to him."
" So what do you want me to do?" he asks, sitting up again.
" Should I just go knock on his door?" I ask. " Or what's the deal? He seems kind of – odd."
" He's odd, but he's friendly," Cloud tells me. " I could invite him over for dinner or something."
" You know I don't eat dinner here," I say, my muscles going tight again. He slides off of me, sits against the back of the bed. I'm still staring into space, my head on the mattress, but I can see his elbow out of the corner of my eye. I wish I could look at him. I wish he would make me look at him.
" This is for Rufus, isn't it?" he asks, the pathetic tone in his voice making me want to pummel him.
" Don't start acting like a goddamn woman," I snarl, sitting up, trying to wake myself. " You know who it's for, now can you help me or not?"
When I do finally look over he's looking all wounded, shoulders shrunk. I want him to get mad; I've never wanted anything more. I can't do this with someone who doesn't get mad.
" Why can't we just go?" he says, shaking his head, looking away. " Why can't we just go to Wutai? Everything would be here when we came back."
" No it wouldn't," I say automatically, knowing I'm right.
" So what?" he mutters.
" Don't pretend you don't care about your friends," I snap. " You and Tifa were having a real heated conversation up here earlier—I don't suppose you want to tell me what that was about?"
He moves his bottom lip slightly, one mako eye crinkles at the corner, and I know the answer, knew it.
" You don't understand," he says pleadingly.
" Neither do you," I tell him, standing. " Why aren't you out there working, by the way?" I ask, walking to the door.
" I guess I don't care anymore," he mutters, not meeting my eyes.
" Liar," I say, turning to go. I want him to come after me, even if just to punch me in the face, maybe for that more than anything, but he doesn't.
Knocking on Vincent's door, I don't really expect him to answer, so when he pulls it open abruptly after the third knock I stumble backward in surprise. The creep seems to have gotten even paler since the last time I saw him slinking around the premises in his fey little cape, and the room behind him is, predictably, pitch black. I wait for him to produce a firearm of some sort and tell me to get off of his property, but instead he stands waiting, expressionless.
" Eh, Vincent?"
" Hello, Reno," he says. " How can I help you?"
" Just, uh, wanted to talk to you," I say, touching my hair, suddenly nervous.
" About?" he asks patiently. He's much more soft spoken than I expected—I don't think I've ever heard him talk before.
" Uh, you used to be a Turk?" I blurt out, and his eyes change immediately. They don't exactly go dark, but the corners flatten out, and there is a dull sort of recognition that isn't pleasant.
" That's true," he says, glancing behind me.
" Listen, can I come in?" I ask, turning to look back myself. " I sort of need to talk to you about the old days, eh heh."
" I suppose that's alright," he says after a pause. " Just let me open the curtains. I was napping, you see."
He turns and goes into the apartment, and I wait for some kind of signal to follow him in, assuming he's cleaning up the afternoon's animal sacrifices or something. But after getting no such signal and seeing light stream in through the far windows, I wander nervously inside, shutting the front door behind me.
The main room in Vincent's apartment is sparse and surprisingly clean. In the center of the room there is a worn rug and a small table, a deck of cards and a half-empty bottle of wine on top. The furniture consists of a motley collection of wooden chairs, and he offers me one beside the window, where he has drawn back the heavy blankets that are draped over the curtain rods.
" Thanks," I mutter, falling into a seat. I wait for him to sit down, but he simply stands in front of me, most of his face still hidden behind the collar of his giant cape.
" Would you like me to sit?" he asks, after I'm silent for a few panicked moments. " Would that make you more comfortable?"
" Yes," I answer easily, and I think I see him smiling—in his eyes, anyway—before he goes for a chair, pulls it over and sits across from me, folding his hands in his lap.
" I'm sorry, I don't entertain many people," he says. I want to ask him to take his cape off, too, but decide that would be a little presumptuous.
" That's alright," I say, glancing out the window. I start to think about the story Tseng told me to feed him, about wanting to tell Rufus' mother about his death, but I didn't really get it together before I stormed upstairs after my fight with Cloud, and now that I'm here something tells me this bastard could see through a lie without blinking.
" Listen, you know Rufus Shinra?" I say in a long breath. He nods.
" He's alive," I admit, my heart jerking as I say it. Vincent raises his eyebrows, pulls down his cape so that I can see his mouth.
" Are you sure?" he asks, his voice different.
" Yes. He wants—he needs your help."
" My help?" he says, looking at the ground, laughing darkly to himself. " I was never very good at helping the Shinras."
" He needs some information about this woman, see," I explain awkwardly, pulling at my collar. Vincent's demeanor has quietly gone from relaxed and dreamy to rigid and alarmed.
" A woman?" he asks sharply, leaning forward.
" He said you'd know who he meant," I say, trying to meet his eyes, glancing away.
Vincent sits back, runs his tongue over his teeth. I'm not sure why, but I feel exactly the way I did when I was questioning Cloud about Sephiroth, and not just because I'm reluctantly doing Rufus' bidding without any real reason, again.
" Lucrecia," he says breathlessly. " She was—I don't know that she could help Rufus, either." He goes to the window, puts a hand over his face.
I start to ask him if this woman was Rufus' real mother, but then think better of it, since I've already crossed the line by admitting that he's alive.
" He doesn't want her help, really, he just wants to see her," I explain, though I'm not sure I'm right. " He just needs to know where she is."
" She doesn't want visitors," he says sharply, gripping the window sill.
" Not even Rufus?" I ask uncertainly, my heart pounding at the base of my throat.
Vincent is quiet for a long time, staring out the window. In the sunlight his pale skin looks almost translucent.
" Why did you leave the Turks?" I hear myself asking, unable to stand the silence.
He laughs a little.
" You might say I was asked to leave," he mutters.
" If Shinra fucked you over, I'm sorry," I say, standing. " Join the club. But Rufus—I know it doesn't seem like it, but he's a—well, he needs help."
" She won't help him," he says quietly, looking away from me. " He doesn't know . . .,"
" He needs to find out, then," I tell him. " He's obsessed with this—this idea—look, he just needs a reality check, some kind of closure. If she can give him that, at least—"
" Closure!" Vincent says, his voice suddenly loud, full of mirthless laughter. " The only real closure, my friend, comes from realizing that such a thing cannot be achieved."
" Uh. Yeah. Look, could you just help me out here, man? I'm gonna get my ass kicked if I don't come through on this."
" Is it really violent retribution that you're afraid of?" he asks, calm again, casting me a sly look. " You're bold enough to test Avalanche's patience by not reporting for duty at the worksite."
" How did you know about that?" I ask, frowning. " You haven't been around in weeks."
" I see a lot of things," he mutters, smiling to himself. " And your weakness, I'm afraid, is that you do not. Worst of all, you think that you do."
" Yeah, whatever," I snarl, getting impatient. " You're wise and all-seeing and I'm a fucking dolt who's blind-drunk most of the time—believe me, pal, I get that line from just about everyone I know. Are you gonna tell me where this broad is or what?"
" I'll do you one better," he says evenly, straightening to look at me, his impressive frame blocking the sun through the window. " I'll take you there."
Not wanting to face Cloud again, I hurry over to Wall Market at dinnertime to give Rufus the good news, that Vincent is willing to lead a mother-hunting expedition. I decide that my admitting that he's alive can be forgiven, since I came through on this, and with such a quick turnaround. Maybe he'll even forget about the information he wanted about Sephiroth, which I'm pretty sure I'll never get, least of all from Cloud.
When I get there the loud girl, Ana, opens the door for me. She seems to have been designated as lead security prostitute, while her friends have been assigned to kitchen or cleaning duties. She gives me a grin as she lets me inside, slapping me on the back.
" Hey, Big Red!" she says gleefully.
" You know, I'm not particularly fond of that nickname," I tell her, sniffing the musty air to try and get a hint of what the other gals are cooking for dinner.
" Check this out," she says, lifting up her shirt and pooching out her stomach as far as she can. " Actual fat! I have a stomach! Can you believe it?"
" Hey, congrats," I mutter, moving ahead through the hall. Just last week she was spitting at the mention of Rufus' name, and the transformation from anti-Shinra activist to embracing the hand that manipulatively feeds you is not exactly a phenomenon I relish, though I certainly can't blame her.
When I get into the dining hall the usual crowd has assembled—Elena is sitting on the stairs braiding the hair of Marty, another one of the girls we haphazardly rescued, who is playing cards with Cooper. Palmer is eating handfuls from a bowl of nuts while Quara and the two other girls set the table, and Tseng, Heidegger, Gordon and Rufus are nowhere to be found, as has become typical. Occasionally even Heidegger is booted out of the inner circle.
" Where's Rude?" I ask, heading for the drink cart.
" Back at the dorms, with Scarlet," Elena calls from the stairs. " She's been lonely."
" Rufus still doesn't want her here?" I ask, pouring myself the last of the brandy.
" I think it's the other way around," Elena says.
" Hmm." I walk over to the three of them, watch the card game for a few minutes. They're playing poker, but there's no betting pool as far as I can see.
" Rufus isn't paying you to entertain the kitchen staff," Palmer grumbles, his mouth full of cashews. Cooper looks up.
" Gordon doesn't want me in there," he says, gesturing to the meeting room. It used to be some kind of pleasure chamber, but, like most things in this brave new world, it has been transformed into something a bit more utilitarian.
" How about you?" Palmer says, gesturing to Marty. " Shouldn't you be polishing silverware or something?"
" Shouldn't you be, like, designing rockets?" I snap, turning on him. " Or whatever the hell you're supposed to do. Why are you here, Palmer?"
" None of your business!" he huffs, going red and turning back to his bowl of nuts.
" How about you?" I ask, turning back to Cooper, who looks up at me over his bad hand of cards. " What the hell did he hire you for?"
" I don't think I'm supposed to say," he mumbles, glancing around. He can't be more than five years older than me, and he's wearing a brown button-down shirt over cargo pants, looking more like a janitor than a scientist.
" You were a student of Hojo's or something?" I guess, leaning on the banister. Marty looks up with interest for his answer.
" No," Cooper says, smiling a little. " I never met him. I heard he was inhumane."
" Well, you're working for Shinra," I say with a shrug. " You should know all about that."
" Reno, please," Elena mutters, finishing with Marty's hair and smoothing it down. " Just let it go. Have something to eat." She looks up and nods to the plates the girls are bringing in.
" Food supply's getting low," Palmer mumbles, surveying the small roast chickens and piles of yellow rice.
" Alcohol, too," I add, draining my brandy and giving the empty glass a shake.
We all sit around the table, the girls and Cooper at one end and the rest of us at the other. Elena picks at her rice slowly while Palmer nearly devours an entire chicken himself. The door to the meeting room doesn't open until everyone has finished, all of us sitting with our elbows on the table, slouching in our chairs. Only Palmer and the girls sit up straighter when Rufus enters the room.
" God, chicken again?" he mutters, making a face. " How old is this stuff, anyway? We need to send out for supplies."
" I'd be happy to make a list, sir!" Palmer chirps.
" Thanks, but I think I'll send someone a little more conservative when it comes to food," Rufus says, standing in place as Tseng, Gordon and Heidegger take their seats at the table.
" What do you care, you eat ice cream for dinner every night, anyway," I mumble without thinking, far too sober at this late hour and dreaming of my vodka bottle at home, among other things.
" Ice cream!" three of the girls shout in unison.
" We were wondering if you had more!" Ana says, clapping her hands together.
" More?" Rufus says slowly, looking at me with irritation.
" Don't get all pissed off, I have some good news for you," I tell him, tipping back my empty brandy glass for the thousandth time, trying to get some invisible last drops out.
" Perhaps you should tell Rufus the good news in private," Tseng says quickly, pausing in the midst of reaching for a bowl of rice.
" Is this about that component we discussed?" Gordon asks with poorly concealed excitement, and Rufus shoots her a look that instantly calms her down.
" Let me find out," he says, flicking his head toward the stairs and walking from the table, indicating that I should follow him up. Elena and I exchange a look before I get up.
" By the way, Cl—my haircut hasn't exactly been a huge hit," I tell her, throwing down my napkin.
" Sorry to hear that," she says, smiling wickedly. " And nice save," she adds under her breath, watching me go.
Rufus disappears into his bedroom and I slip inside after him, shutting the door behind us.
" I guess I'm not allowed in the meeting room, huh?" I say, putting my hands in my pockets and watching as he drops onto the bed. " That's okay, I'm much more at home in a place like this, as you know."
" Did you find her?" Rufus asks breathlessly, ignoring my joke. " Is that the good news? Or is it—him?"
" Him? Sephiroth? No, I spoke to Vincent, like you wanted," I tell him. " He didn't exactly tell me where this—what was her name? Lulu?"
" Lucrecia," Rufus says, clipped.
" Right, that's what I said. Well, he didn't tell me where she is, but he did say he'd take us there."
Rufus is silent for a moment.
" Us?" he says tightly.
" Oh yeah. I told him you're alive. Whoops."
" Reno," he moans, putting his head in his hands. He stares at the floor for a moment, then lifts his eyes to mine again, takes a deep breath. " Might he have been lying?" he asks.
" I don't think so," I say. " He doesn't seem like the type."
" You mean because he's in Avalanche?" Rufus asks, raising an eyebrow.
" There is no more Avalanche," I say weakly, knowing it's not true. No more Avalanche and no more Shinra. Who was it who told me that? Or did I say it myself?
" Don't be naive," Rufus says with a scoff, standing. " And by the way, what in God's name did you do to your hair?"
" Elena cut it," I mumble, embarrassed. Rufus walks to me and pulls a hand through my hair, rearranges it with a critical eye. When he's done he shifts his eyes down to mine, and smiles a little.
" Thank you for doing that for me," he says. " We'll go together, you and I, with Vincent."
" What, you aren't bringing your scientists?" I mutter.
" No, they have work to do here," he says, stepping away from me as if remembering himself. " I may bring the other Turks, though, for protection. That would be a laugh, wouldn't it? The four of you together again, accompanying me on an intelligence gathering mission?"
" Intelligence gathering?" I blurt without thinking. " I thought this was about your mother."
He freezes in the middle of pacing the room, his back to me.
" What made you think that?" he asks, his shoulders going back. Since that year in Junon it has always seemed that Rufus thinks he can fight anything off if he just stands straight enough.
" Nothing," I lie, my face going red, wondering why he doesn't want me to know. " Remember when you told me that you would tell me everything?" I ask him with something that was supposed to be a laugh.
" I never said that," he says, still not looking at me.
" Fine," I mumble, going for the door. Rufus catches me around the waist before I can reach it, pulling me backward.
" I'm sorry," he says, pressing his face into my back. His hot breath feels good there, so damn familiar, even through my shirt.
" For what?" I ask, though I'm sure I don't want to know. I stare at the door, wondering why I can't barrel through it, wondering why the very idea of leaving him hanging still makes me want to turn and start apologizing myself.
" Everything," he whispers. " You'll see."
It's late when I start back for the dorms, and I feel wide awake as I make my way through the dark streets, bothered by the stillness and my own sobriety. The gun Rufus gave me is in my back pocket; I've been carrying it with me since I shot the man who attacked me. I can't be sure where I killed him exactly, as the wind was so strong that day, and I was in something of a mindless trance when I left him for dead. As I walk past the remaining landscape I keep thinking I recognize the place, every night, all the way home, keep waiting to see his bones lying there, picked clean by rats. I haven't fired another bullet since that night, but I haven't given up the gun, either.
Cloud still thinks Elena has it, for all I know. I've been hiding it in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom when I come in at night. I'm not sure why I don't want him to know about it, but it's just another way that I've gotten farther away from him as I try to keep the rest of my life from blowing up in his face.
When I get back to the apartment I half expect to find he and Tifa in middle of another secret conversation, and I'm relieved when I see him instead sitting at the kitchen table and reading something. But when I come in he quickly snaps it up and sticks it into his back pocket.
" What's that?" I ask instantly, standing at the door.
" Nothing," he says, folding his hands on the table.
I mumble a string of obscenities under my breath, stomping into the bedroom. Behind me, I hear him come sheepishly to the door, and he watches me as I pull out my duffel bag and start filling it with dirty clothes.
" What are you doing?" he asks after a few minutes.
" Haven't we had this conversation before?" he asks, coming in to sit on the bed.
" Probably," I say, not looking at him, folding socks before throwing them in, just to keep myself busy. I'm pretty sure some of the mismatched pairs I've packed are his, but I pretend not to notice.
" Change your mind about Wutai?" he asks hopefully, though I'm sure he knows I haven't.
" I'm going away for awhile, with Rufus and Tseng. Maybe Elena and Rude, too," I say, zipping my bag, then unzipping it, pointlessly shuffling the contents around.
" Reno," he says, and something in his tone sets me off. I jump off the floor and pounce on him, push him roughly back onto the bed. He doesn't fight me, even when I reach back to yank the booklet he was reading at the table out of his pocket. I look down at it, my knees clamped around his legs and holding him in place on the bed, and it takes me a moment to be able to think clearly enough to read the title on the cover.
" Loveless?" I say, making a face. I flip through the booklet and see that it's a program for some play. It's worn on the edges and a few pages are missing. I look down at Cloud incredulously, waiting for an explanation.
" I told her I'd take her," he says, his cheeks going pink.
" Tifa?" I ask, crumpling the thing in my hand. He shoots up and shoves me off without warning, yanking the booklet away from me as I fall off of the bed.
" Aeris," he says after I've landed on the floor, wincing. He puts the booklet down against the sheets and smoothes it out carefully. " She wanted to see it, but couldn't afford a ticket. She told me while we were traveling. I told her I'd take her back to Midgar someday, that we'd see it together."
" You can't go back to Midgar," I grumble from the floor, running my hands through my too-short hair. " Not like that."
" I think I knew it would never happen," he says, his voice strained. " I took her to some stupid show at Gold Saucer. God, that was pathetic. This looks like it would have been real, I don't know. Arty. I found this thing on the ground when we came back to Midgar without her. Someone just threw it away. She would have kept it, you know? If we'd ever gotten to go, she would have kept it. Sometimes I just get it out and look at it," he adds pathetically, putting his hands over the wrinkled pages.
I want to apologize but I can't. We all have our ghosts. I guess I should learn not to ask.
" I'm leaving in the morning," I tell him, standing, brushing off my pants for effect. " Don't let me sleep too late."
I wait for him to ask me why I don't just leave now, but he's staring down at his ruined keepsake, mesmerized. I scoff and turn to go for the kitchen, for that bottle of vodka.
" I'm going with you," he says when I reach the door.
" Haven't we had this conversation before?" I ask with a sneer, half-turning back.
" I don't care what you say," he tells me, his face blank. " I'm going with you."
" Like hell you are."
" I'm going with you or I'm telling Tifa," he says, his eyes glowing cold. " I'll tell her everything about Rufus."
I'm stunned into silence for a moment, staring at him. His expression is bare and unfamiliar, the sentimental fool who was just pouring over his tragedy suddenly long gone. I think this is the face Sephiroth must have looked into before Cloud put a sword through his chest, and I think I know how he felt.
" You don't have any proof," I choke out.
" I could take her there," he says coolly. " To the mansion in Wall Market. I could show her everything, have Barrett and Cid clean the place out."
" I followed you," he says, almost smiling now. " You know, you're worse than Tifa. You think I'm such an idiot."
I fly at him, fist arching back, but he catches my blow easily, and rises from the bed with effortless strength, pushing me backward until my back crashes against the wall, so hard that I'm dizzy for a few seconds, staggering in his grip.
" People underestimate me," he says when my eyes find his. " You especially."
" Get off me you son of a—"
He lifts me toward him and then slams me back against the wall, making my mind go hazy again. When I get my wits back I try to fight him off, even as he leans in to kiss me, my arms shoving hopelessly against his as I whimper into his mouth in frustration.
" Even after everything I've done," he says, pulling back, his nose brushing against mine with an odd tenderness as I struggle to breathe in choked gasps. " People still underestimate me. Did you think I was just going to sit back and watch him turn you into his lap dog again?"
I rage against him one last time, screaming as I push him away, my face burning, the humiliation of his attempt at understanding Rufus and I searing under my skin. He takes the bait and pulls me from the wall by my shirt, spinning me around until I've landed hard against the bed, my stomach bouncing against the side of the mattress.
" You did, you thought I'd just throw up my hands," he says, speaking through gritted teeth now. He yanks wildly at my belt, and though I don't try stop him I'm more than a little nervous in the face of what I've considered goading him into for some time now.
" You want to be treated like shit, I can do that, too," he growls in my ear.
He fucks me until tears escape the corners of my eyes, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm relieved, or because it hurts, or because I'm relieved that it hurts. My own dick is trapped inside my half-down pants and underwear, smashed hard against the side of the bed, and jerking against the mattress inside the tight fabric makes me come even before he does. He seems to take ages, and not just because I'm sore. When he finally finishes he cries out in what sounds fairly close to pain, sliding out of me and down to the floor, pulling me into his lap as he goes. I lean forward, my head against the side of the bed, and listen to the two of us straining to breathe normally for a few minutes.
" Fine, come with me," I say, as if it was my idea, as if I haven't finally learned that I was never in a position to give him permission to do anything. I crawl up into the bed, hands shaking, shedding my clothes and throwing them over the side. Facing away from him, I hear him go into the bathroom and run the water, stumbling out of his own pants as he goes. When he gets into bed behind me I wait for some kind of sign to turn toward him, because I want to, because my heart is racing and I'll never sleep.
" C'mere," he says, his voice a little hoarse. I roll over and give him an annoyed look, as if I was trying to sleep and not waiting for his cue. He doesn't meet my eyes, but frowns down at my hair, pushing aside the remains of my bangs, concentrating, pursing his lips.
" It's no use," I say, before I can stop myself, " He already tried."
Cloud smiles slowly and looks at me, mako eyes blazing but not angry anymore—victorious now, satisfied, retired.
" What are you going to tell him?" he asks, not bothering to conceal his amusement.
" Don't worry about it," I snap, glowering at him. He grins and puts his head to the pillow, tucks his hands under his chin, transforming, with unsettling ease, back into the kid I've apparently underestimated.
" You wouldn't really tell Tifa," I whisper irritably, rolling away from him.
" Want to try me?" he asks, his voice muffled by his hand but not lacking conviction.
" Shut up," I mumble, my heart thumping hard against the mattress.
" I'll do what I have to," he says after some time as passed, both of us pretending to try and sleep. " I always have."
I think again of Sephiroth, though just doing so gives me goosebumps, suddenly. How he must have thought he had it all worked out, because when the chips were down Cloud would ride whatever wave he had to in order to stay at his side. Cloud, the only one who really had any chance of screwing up his plans—Sephiroth must have known that he was in control, because Cloud was confused, because he held onto things and let himself get led around.
More than watching the world he thought he had claimed crumble around him, more than the hole in his chest, I think looking down at the sword that went through him and realizing he was wrong about Cloud must have stung most of all.
In the morning I wake from a hour of thin sleep to a room that feels cold. For a moment I'm afraid I've stayed the night in Rufus' bedroom, but when I sit up I see Cloud sleeping at my side, having inched closer to me during the night. He opens his eyes when I stir, blinks at me and leaves his hand curled over his mouth.
" I can't do this," I tell him, thinking of the night before, of his demand to come along with us. I can't let he and Rufus get within a hundred feet of each other. They both might survive whatever struggle would ensue, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't.
" I know," he says sweetly, and I'm fooled for a moment. " That's why I'm doing it for you," he assures me, kissing my forehead before climbing out of bed.
" Fucking bastard," I grumble, sitting up, a sick feeling lurking heavy in my stomach. Cloud goes into the bathroom, pretending not to hear me, and washes his face. When he's done he opens the medicine cabinet and takes out the gun. In light of everything that happened last night, I almost expect him to turn and empty it into my chest.
" Might want to take this," he says, walking to me and putting it carefully in my hand. " Traveling on the roads is dangerous."
" Should I even ask how you know about this?" I mutter, glaring at him.
" I'm not stupid," he says, moving to the corner of the room, where his sword rests against the wall, gathering dust. He gives it a loving stroke before dressing and pulling his sheath over his head, slipping the sword into it. Fuming, I dress quickly and jam the gun into my pocket, retrieving my night stick from the opposite corner of the room.
" So where are we going, exactly?" he asks, hoisting my duffel bag onto his shoulder. I walk over and yank it out of his hands, slinging it over my back.
" I don't know," I snarl, heading for the door.
" Really?" he says, following me. " You're sure bringing a lot of clothes. Don't you want to eat something before we leave?" he asks when I get to the door.
" I'm not hungry," I tell him honestly, my stomach churning. I'm supposed to meet Vincent down in the lobby and then take him to the outskirts of town, where Rufus will have a vehicle waiting with the other Turks. I don't know what I'll tell them about Cloud, and I don't know if Cloud will call me on my lie if I come up with one. I have no idea what he'll do at any given moment, at this point.
As we walk downstairs, Cloud scribbles a note for Tifa on a slip of paper. When we reach the lobby he leaves it with a volunteer worker who is setting out the day's community breakfast. I give him an unappreciative look as he makes his way over to the front doors, where Vincent is waiting.
" I just wanted to let everyone know where we'll be," he says.
" But you don't know where we'll be," I snap.
" I thought Wutai would be a good cover," he tells me with a dark look.
" You're coming with us?" Vincent asks, frowning behind his collar. Cloud nods.
" That's alright, isn't it?" he asks.
" No," I answer easily.
" I – suppose," Vincent says, looking between the two of us. " Has Reno told you what we're doing?"
" I don't particularly care," Cloud says brightly, going for the door. Vincent looks at me quizzically.
" You said you 'see' a lot of things," I remind him, deadpan. " If you can't figure this out, then you're clearly full of shit."
" That was rather uncalled for," he mutters as I push my way outside.
" Wait!" someone calls shrilly, making us both turn. Standing at the foot of the stairs is Scarlet, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, her long blonde hair sloppy around her shoulders. She jogs toward me, hellfire in her eyes. She looks a lot like her brother when she's angry. Rude appears on the stairs behind her just as she reaches me, dressed in his usual suit and sunglasses, looking concerned.
" You can't," she says, grabbing my arms.
" Can't what?" I ask, shrugging her off. " What's wrong with you?"
" Rude told me what you're doing," she says, out of breath. " He said you're leaving to find this woman, Hojo's assistant?"
Vincent bristles beside me, and I glance over at him and then back to Rude, who is lingering on the stairs. He doesn't have a bag or any guns with him.
" C'mere," I say in a hushed growl, grabbing Scarlet's arm and pulling her away from Vincent, back to the foot of the stairs.
" Who said anything about Hojo?" I whisper to the two of them, peeking back at Vincent, who is watching us with interest.
" Rude said you're looking for Lucrecia," Scarlet says.
" Wow, that's the first time Rude has remembered the name of a woman he's known for under a decade," I say with a scoff, giving him an irritated look. " Great timing on developing that talent, my friend."
" I didn't want to lie," he mutters. " Not to Scarlet. Rufus is her brother."
" Please, you can't let him go," she says, grabbing at me again. " I'm serious, Reno. This woman is—it's the worst possible thing for my brother."
" Why?" I ask, looking back to Vincent.
" I can't explain it all right now," Scarlet hisses. " Just trust me."
" Since when have I had the power to stop Rufus from doing something?" I ask, glaring at her.
" Well what good are you if you can't?" she says, her voice cracking. " You're the only one who ever had a chance."
" I've got enough problems right now," I snarl, pushing away from her. " If you want to protect your brother from himself, you're a little late. But be my guest if you'd like to try. I'm through."
" Then why are you going with him?" she asks, stopping me in my tracks. " I know what your life is like now, Reno, and I know what it was like before. Why do you still bother to pretend not to care, if you're going to chase him around on this—"
" Just leave me alone!" I shout childishly, hurrying ahead to Vincent. I turn back and glare at Rude.
" Come on!" I call. " We're leaving."
" I'm not coming," he says weakly, stepping down to stand beside Scarlet. She hooks an arm through his.
" Spider woman," I mutter, turning to push through the front doors. Outside the sun is already up, but there is a chill in the air. Vincent follows me out, and we walk to Cloud, who is waiting on the drive.
" What's the hold up?" he asks.
" Yes, what was that all about?" Vincent asks me.
" Just a little Shinra family business," I mumble, walking ahead of them.
" You're a member of the family now?" Cloud asks with a scoff.
" Okay, raise your hand if you don't feel like the bastard child that Shinra tormented and left for dead!" I shout, whirling on both of them. They step back and give each other an embarrassed glance. Neither of them raises their hand.
" Let's go!" I grumble, hoisting my duffel bag and heading for the edge of the city, furious. As if Scarlet needs to tell me that Rufus is headed for disaster. At least I'm going with him, down with the ship, instead of standing on the shore and telling him where he went wrong while he sinks.
By the time we reach the rendezvous point on the edge of the city, the walls of my heart feel like they've grown paper-thin from the strain of its violent beating, and I'm waiting to explode from the inside out with every step. Elena and Tseng are leaning on a buggy that Rufus has procured for the trip, both wearing their Turk-issue sunglasses, which they pull down when they see the three of us approaching, staring in disbelief.
" Cloud?" Elena says, as if this couldn't possibly be who she is actually seeing, as if Rude is going to pull off the mask any minute.
" What's going on, Reno?" Tseng asks, reaching for his gun.
" Relax, you paranoid ass," I sneer. " Cloud is coming in Rude's place. Scarlet got to him."
" What do you mean she got to him?" comes a voice from inside the buggy, and Rufus' head pops up in the window. He's got a blanket wrapped around him as a makeshift disguise, and all I can see are his nose and lips. Despite the situation, I burst into laughter when I see him looking like a talking quilt.
" So it's true!" Vincent says in a hushed voice. " You have survived."
Rufus pulls the corner of the blanket away to peek out at Vincent with one gray eye. His gaze shifts quickly to Cloud when he spots him standing behind me.
" Cloud Strife?" he mutters. " Wha—Oh. Ah ha!" He glances over to watch me turn red, and now it's his turn to laugh wildly. Cloud pokes at the inside of his cheek with his tongue, and I wonder if he regrets coming, and if I could possibly feel sorry for him.
" Um, should we get going?" Elena asks, uncomfortable.
" I don't like this," Tseng fumes, staring at Cloud.
" Oh shut up," I snarl. " He came with us to rescue your ungrateful ass."
" The last—the last one of them—oh ho ho!" Rufus is laughing too hard to speak, collapsing into a pile of blanket on the floor of the buggy. " The last one of them I expected to defect was Cloud Strife! Reno, you're a talented fellow."
" He hasn't defected," Tseng says. " As far as I can tell," he adds, glancing at Cloud warily.
" First of all, fuck all of you, second of all, let's go," I snarl, pulling open the buggy door and throwing my duffel bag inside.
" Are you sure you want to do this?" Elena asks Vincent as he steps toward the buggy.
" I feel it is my duty," he says absently, climbing in past her. Elena looks to Cloud, raising an eyebrow.
" How about you?" she asks.
" I'm fine," he mutters, climbing inside. Tseng shakes his head, but goes around to the driver's side as Rufus climbs clumsily into the passenger seat, still wrapped in his blanket and chuckling merrily at his realization that Cloud is the person I've been going back to the enemy camp to see. I know it's partly a cover, that he's probably hurt and humiliated and worse, but I'm sure he is genuinely amused at my choice as well. I huddle with Elena in the back of the car, Cloud and Vincent sitting in front of us, both trying to appear stoic, Vincent more successfully than Cloud.
" So where are we headed?" Tseng asks Vincent as we drive out of the city.
" To the western continent," he answers.
" The western continent?" Rufus says, letting the blanket drop away as he turns back to frown at him. " I didn't know that – I didn't arrange for sea or air transportation."
" I'm sure you still have some connections in Junon," Vincent says, not without a hint of derision.
" Junon isn't exactly Shinra friendly anymore," Rufus mumbles, turning. " Dammit it all to hell. We're going to have to think on our feet here, Tseng."
" Yes, sir."
I scoff with dramatic flair in the backseat, and Tseng looks up into the rearview mirror to glare at me.
" Why didn't Rude come?" Elena asks me, tapping my knee before Tseng and I can melt each other's faces off with our stares.
" Because Scarlet thinks Rufus is a moron, and she won Rude over with that argument," I say loudly. " Nearly got me, too, maybe I should have listened to her."
" Oh, probably," Rufus muses from the front seat, still giggling.
" So is anyone going to tell me exactly what we're doing?" I ask the group at large.
No one speaks.
" That's what I thought," I huff, folding my arms over my chest and slumping down against my seat. Elena squeezes my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear:
" I don't know anything about why we're doing this, and to tell you the truth, I don't think Tseng does, either."
" Terrific," I mutter, looking over at Cloud. He smiles at me, completely inexplicably. I shake my head at him, unable to even believe that this is happening to me. I wish I could crawl across the backseat and put my head in his lap, let him mess with my terrible hair, let him win already. But I can't get near him or Rufus during this little road trip.
Something tells me that both of them are going to try their hardest to make that as difficult as possible. As we ride further out of Midgar I realize that, when we come back, I'm going to have to weasel my way out of limbo. I'm going to have to chose a side, one way or another.
Because you can never go back to Midgar, not really, not the way you left it.
A/N: This is a shorter chapter, but I think it serves its purpose as a transition back to the present. Was it too dialogue heavy? My writing tends to skew toward dialogue rather than description, and I'd like to know if readers think there should be at least some attempt at more of a balance . . . you will get more descriptive passages in the next chapter, as new places and scenarios will be introduced. Let me know what you think!
And thank you as always for your thoughtful reviews! They mean so much to me.