All the profitable ones belong to Square Enix.



It's a bit late for Halloween but… Welcome to a bit of the deep dark. I do believe this is the first story to actually require the elevated rating. Sorry for the delay and thank you for your patience.

Theme for this installment/Mystery animal hint: Their unique gait allows them to stalk their prey for miles. They don't kill immediately but run the prey down until it can no longer mount a defense and then eat it alive. It's kinder and quicker then some of the other methods predators use, such as suffocation.


How had it come to this?

Roland Tomassi sighed softly and tried not to start at every small noise. There was little point to it now. He was miles away from any sort of settlement. He poked at the tiny fire desultorily and tried to focus on his plans for the next day. Pack up camp, destroy all evidence that he'd spent the night there and move on. It was unlikely he'd cover much ground tomorrow; what with his leg refusing to heal. When he'd headed out of Wutai and into the jungle he'd been worried about monsters and other large scale predators. He knew now that the real dangers came not just from big things with big obvious teeth but from smaller, more innocuous looking creatures. End of the day he wasn't sure what was worse, the wild life or the weather. The days were muggy and he sweated out water he couldn't afford to loose. Then the sun set and the sweat damn near froze to him. No one had ever told him to could get cold in a jungle.

Then again there were a lot of things he knew now. About how there were always more bugs and snakes and those creepy little monkeys that watched his every move. Even some of the fish were aggressively carnivorous. He absentmindedly scratched at the makeshift bandage on his leg. Three days ago something bit him or scratched him while he was fording a river and the wound was getting worse by the day. What he would have given for one basic Cure materia. Hell, he would've settled anything to add to the bottle of rum that served both a pain killer and a disinfectant. He wished he dared us it as a sleeping aid since the gash throbbed at night. More often then not it was enough to keep him from getting the few hours of sleep he allowed himself but he couldn't afford to let his guard down like that. There could still be worse things hunting him then jungle cats.

Roland looked over his few possessions in the faint light and grimaced. He was running out of prepackaged rations and it was harder then he'd thought to catch things out here in the wild. From what little he could remember from the books he'd read about the jungles of Wutai in his youth, the place had fruit and game just hanging off the trees, waiting to be plucked. That impression had been bolstered by what little he had been able to garner from the man who sold him his gear. The old merchant had made it sound like the jungle was just an overgrown backyard. Roland took a moment to curse the man and then his own pitiable understanding of Wutainese and of course, his miserable luck.

Overgrown backyard my overgrown ass, he thought testily and glared at the surrounding trees. The place was a backwater hellhole infested with insects and poisonous plants and rodents of unusual and terrifying size. The water was questionable even when boiled, a process that took entirely too long over the miniscule fires he allowed himself. The fruit, what little he could identify as not poisonous, was hard to get to. Hell, even the obvious herbivores were vicious. A man my age should be sitting somewhere ordering a stiff drink not fighting sharp toothed little fuzz balls for worm infested fruit. He was tired, too hot or too cold and uncomfortably moist from the moment he woke up until the moment he went to sleep, not that he slept for long. Every little noise awakened him. The constant state of readiness had proven occasionally useful but a week of it had worn on his already frazzled nerves. Adding insult to injury he had nightmares during the brief periods of rest he did get. Add in a spectacular case of boredom and a not so subtle feeling of isolation and Roland was no longer sure that he'd done himself a favor making it all the way out here.

He looked away from the fire and up the sky, trying to find some pleasure in the night. Out here, provided you found a break in the thick canopy overhead, you could see the stars. You couldn't get that in Midgar. There the clouds were too thick most nights and the lights were always too bright. Even in Kalm it had been hard to get a really good view of the stars most nights but occasionally a strong wind would come off the sea and clear the view. Graham had always loved those nights…

Roland shifted abruptly, his right hand searching for his gun as he scanned the area. He'd heard a sound, something that seemed out of place. His hand curled around the muzzle of his pistol and he pulled it toward him slowly. The sound hadn't come again but he thought it best to place the gun in his lap and keep scanning the area. After a few minutes he sighed and relaxed a little. The chill quickly resettled in his bones. He sighed and decided to go to sleep. He had a busy day ahead of him tomorrow, most of which would be spent running like a scared rabbit. More like limping he sighed and wrapped himself up in his thin blanket.

"Roland…"

Graham was seven again and they were at the beach. His bitch of an ex-wife, Graham's mother was sharing an umbrella with Marla, his current mistress. Loni, his current wife, was making out with his long dead younger brother Orlando but for some reason it was ok. After all, they were all family…

"Roooooland…"

They were all at the beach, somewhere near the Gold Saucer. It would be a bit of hike to get back the amusement park but Graham had insisted on being taken to the beach. It was much colder then it should have been for this time of year but the sun was bright. Roland shielded his eyes with one hand and watched at his son caught little crabs and then methodically crushed them between two stones. Roland contemplated telling him to stop but thought better of it. No use telling him anything now, he was already dead after all…

"Rolaaaand… wakey wakey… Come on you idiot, get up!"

Roland looked at his ex-wife; sure she had to be the one calling him. It didn't sound like her but she was the only one who had ever had the balls to talk to him like that. The woman could flay the hide of a zolom with a few well chosen words and had been known to reduce hapless servants to tears when the mood struck her. But she saved her greatest shots for him. She'd never forgiven him one transgression. Not the time he forgot to bring her mother flowers, not the fact that he'd made his fortune toadying up to Shinra and not the fact that he didn't toady hard enough to, as she put it, 'really get somewhere'.

By the time Graham was ten he'd finally had enough. He'd dumped her for someone younger, sweeter and less inclined to point out his failings, true or otherwise. He could only imagine what she was saying about him now that Graham was dead. But she wasn't the one talking to him now. She was walking toward Graham, a bow and arrow in one hand and an apple in the other. He decided he'd better intervene since her aim was questionable at best. He tried to get up from his lounger but something was pressing on his chest. Roland gave up on doing anything about his family and concentrated on getting his core to shift upwards as commanded.

"ROLAND!"

Roland came out swinging, his arms flailing wildly in a quest to connect with whoever or whatever was on his chest. Roland's eyes snapped open and he got the impression of red and green and then black. For a split second the form on top of him had more arms then it should and white teeth gleamed. Next second he was throwing a man off of him. A strange looking man to be sure but still, he assured himself as he scrambled to the other side of the fire pit, still just a man. For a moment the dark shape that was the other man simply lay unmoving, just barely inside the circle of firelight which seemed to have expanded. Roland flicked a glance at the fire. It had definitely gotten bigger, due no doubt, to his 'guest'. Oh well, the increased visibility would be helpful. Then he suddenly sprang to his feet, his back to Roland. It was as if some trigger had been released. He shook himself, cocked his head as if listening and then spun around. Roland sucked in a breath. He knew this man.

"Reno…" he said softly, his voice hoarse from disuse. The other man's grin widened and he bowed, his baton dangling from his right wrist like some benign affectation. The bow lasted only a second; afterwards the Turk straightened and stood watching Roland, somehow managing to look as if he were leaning against a wall. He appeared to be in no hurry, something that comforted Roland not at all. Roland's thoughts were dividing between gibbering pleas and blank confusion. Finally he opened his mouth to plead, to coax, to somehow turn aside the doom this man was paid to deliver. "I… I can… pay you. You don't have to do anything, just leave me here and I can give you the codes…"

"Ah Roland," Reno sighed. "You're disappointing me. And after all I've done for you…" Reno's voice trailed off, his glowing eyes and broad grin giving lie to his mournful tone. Roland just blinked, his voice dying in his throat. After all he's done for me? Killed my son and gods know who else not to mention chasing me for the last two weeks? Roland's hand's clenched and for a moment he indulged the vision of attacking the bastard, of using his superior weight to knock him down and then breaking those white teeth with a rock. Maybe he could have at one point in his life. When he was in his twenties and there was more muscle then fat on him. Hell, he might have even put up a fight two weeks ago when he first caught a glimpse of that hair and took off in the opposite direction. But his chances were so low now as to be nonexistent. The days of running too fast, sleeping too little had worn him down and even now his leg was protesting his sudden movements.

"Honestly Roland," Reno said in a conversational tone. He seemed to be inspecting his feet now but Roland wasn't fooled. If he made one move toward his gun or toward the forest, the Turk would be on him like white on rice and that would be the end of it. "Honestly." Reno continued, "What were you going to offer me? 'I can pay you'. Huh. You ain't got no money no more. Shinra cleaned out your accounts the day you disappeared. Your eminently fuckable little trophy wife was back at the Honeybee Inn within a couple days. I gotta thank you though. You obviously kept her in fighting trim. Bet she could suck the polish off a door handle. Little miss you had on the side was just as good." Reno's grin was ingratiating and his odd green eyes practically glowed. "Man, I had to cast Cure on myself after both of 'em. How did you cope at your age? Course, neither of 'em held a candle to Graham…"

Roland was faintly aware that he his mouth was open as he launched himself at the redheaded bastard who'd taken everything. He knew he was screaming and that it was as incoherent and pathetic as his attempts to land a solid punch on the laughing demon in front of him. Devony and Tanya didn't matter in and of themselves but the idea that they'd both panted for the same man who was going to murder him in some godsforsaken jungle was bad. But it was nothing compared to the idea that the same man that had fried his little boy like an egg had smiled at Graham and lied to him and kissed him, knowing the entire time how things would end up…

When the pain came it made everything clear. He wasn't Roland Tomassi, former businessman, husband of Tanya, keeper of Devony and father of Graham. He wasn't the man who had found his son electrocuted in the sloppiest suicide set-up ever, an obvious message from Shinra to acquiesce on some idiot business deal. He wasn't the man who, in rage and grief, had tried to hire someone to take out Shinra's heir by whatever means necessary. He wasn't even the man who had spotted a shock of red hair one day and suddenly started running. He was an old man having a heart attack brought on by the stress of all the things he had been.

He hit the ground hard, ending up flat on his back with one hand clutching his chest. He was vaguely aware that the Turk was just watching him, a spiky blur on the edge of Roland's vision. After a moment the pain subsided a bit though breathing was still hard. The Turk approached slowly and stepped over Roland, straddling him. He gingerly sank down until he was just barely resting on Roland's stomach. Roland's vision cleared a little further and he saw that he was being watched intently. The Turk looked oddly serious.

"Ya done old man?" he said. He seemed honestly curious, his head tilted to the side and his narrow face strangely guileless. If he could have drawn the breath Roland would have laughed. Another minute passed, the pain settling into a dull if vicious ache and his breath slowly coming back. Finally he found enough air to push out a few syllables. It wouldn't be poetry and it wasn't original but it would have to do. "Fuck you… Shinra… dog…"

Reno's lips quirked and he rested a bit more weight on Roland's midsection. "You know," he said wryly. "you're not the first person to call me that. I always wondered why though…" The Turk grew pensive. "I can see how I'm like a dog. Loyal and retrieving shit and I'm kinda trained though I betcha Tseng would disagree… The thing is though; I figured I was kinda like a cat. I'm gonna dump your bloody, broken body in front of my masters and they're gonna wrinkle up their noses and yell at me and then their gonna reward me."

Roland grimaced. He was screaming at his body to move, to push this fuckwit off him after which he could have another go at him. Come on, he thought. Just one more go… His chest spasmed slightly and he gritted his teeth. "Let me guess… you get a pat on the head, maybe… some milk." His voice was regaining strength, maybe…

Reno smirked. "Nah. They just give me money. Then I go out and buy liquor and pretty little things to do the petting." He stroked his EMR in a suggestive manner and waggled his eyebrows. "I'll try it though. Curling up and purring in Tseng's lap. Nah, he'd have me spayed. Rude'd go for it though. Maybe. Stares at my ass enough…"

"Neutered, you… idiot. Females… get spayed. Males get neutered. Unless you're telling me something…"

Reno frowned. "Yeah, yeah old man, whatever. Maybe Rufus would go for it… Anyway, yeah, I'm kinda like a cat. Sex everywhere and plenty of time sleeping. But you're right; I'm like a dog too. I get shit done and cats don't protect anyone worth cold shit, 'cept themselves and maybe kittens and Rufus is no kitten." Reno's mouth stretched into a smarmy little grin. "Right, I'm gonna save that one for later if you know what I mean. Him with little ears and a fuzzy..."

Roland bucked with all his might and was rewarded with a punch to the chest, positioned to hit him just above his heart. He gasped and writhed a little, trying and failing to ride out the waves of pain. He wasn't sure if he was having another heart attack but he wouldn't have been at all surprised. Once again Reno waited patiently for the gasping to die down, for the reflexive spasms to cease and for Roland to come back to himself at least partially. Once he had calmed Reno sat on Roland again, this time resting what felt like his full weight on his victim's stomach.

"See," Reno said, sounding for all the world like a man scolding a child. "Its shit like that got you here in the first place."

"Wh…" Roland could feel himself drifting. He liked dry lips and tried again. "Why?" He couldn't manage the entire question. Why did you let me run? Why am I on my back in this jungle instead of several weeks dead in Midgar?

Reno considered him and then shrugged. "Why'd I hit you? Cause I don't feel like frying two members of the Tomassi family. Redundant ya know? Predictable." Roland shook his head and wheezed. He was having increasing trouble breathing. "Oh," Reno said. "Why'd I let ya run?" Roland nodded slowly. "Mmm…" Reno hummed for a moment. "Dunno… figured you deserved it. It takes guts to plot against Shinra's little golden boy, even more to drop everything and haul ass outta town with just the money in your pockets. You made it from Midgar to Junon to Mideel to the Gonaga to Cosmo Canyon to Rocket Town to Wutai, all on your wits and luck." Roland blinked. The Turk had been following him the whole time?
"You're what, fifty something? You made it to damn near every continent, covering your tracks pretty freaking well for an amateur. I thought you were just gonna settle down in some back alley in Wutai but no, you just got some gear… you got fuckin' jacked by that old guy by the way… and then you hiked out into the wilderness. Bet you thought us Turks would just leave you alone if you came all the way out here, us being city creatures and all." Reno leaned in close and Roland's world was suddenly a pair of glowing green eyes and that wide grin. "All the shit I do to my body, you think I can't make it out here?" he laughed almost pleasantly. Roland just sighed. None of it mattered anymore. The weeks of worry, the fear, the grime he'd covered himself in just to blend in. The time he'd spent out here, cold and tired and too scared and depressed to enjoy the stars. None of it mattered because this little fiend had been trailing him, just waiting for the right time. Waiting until he was at his weakest.

He wasn't surprised by the gentleness in Reno's voice. "Like I said Roland, you got a gift. You got to run from your own death. You did pretty well at it too, you should be proud of yourself. Plus…" Roland heard the distinctive sound of a gun being cocked. "Plus, I'm even gonna use my gun on you Roland. Ain't I sweet?" Roland sighed again, not sure whether or not to nod. He ached. His only child was dead, his money was gone, his second wife was back to selling herself and he was on his back in the mud, his heart doing its best to give out. He gathered himself and asked for what he needed.

"Please."

Reno watched the old man come to a decision about it. Really, there was no other way to go but Reno was glad to see Roland got it. He grinned and stood, his gun steady in his left hand. "Say hi to Graham for me Roland." he said and shot his victim through the head. It was a clean shot; the old guy probably didn't even feel it. Reno lifted his face to the sky and took in a breath. Then he looked around, his eyes intent. He smiled when he saw the glint of metal sticking out of the threadbare pack Roland had left near the fire. Reno headed over to investigate and sure enough it was hunting knife. The thing wasn't the best quality, nor was it very sharp but it would do. He headed back over to Roland and set to work.

"Ya see Ro-ro," he said as he once again straddled the corpse. "I lied to ya a little. I'm badass and all but even I'm not quite badass enough to bring your whole body back to Midgar. So…" he grunted as he used his EMR to break a couple of his victim's ribs. "That's it… so anyway, Ro, I'm in a bit of trouble for taking the time to chase you so I have to have proof that I killed ya. My word won't do it, they want something solid. You know, the head of the infidel and all that. But heads are surprisingly hard to cut off ya know?" He was working mostly by feel now, his right hand searching for that distinctive bit of muscle. "A little to the right and… there we are. It's for the best that I take this Ro, it being broken and all." Reno laughed a bit at his own joke as he set about carefully severing his prize from the surrounding tissue. He looked around for a minute before shrugging and easing off his own jacket to wrap his trophy in. "They'll do a blood test on this and I'm home free. Think of it this way. Part of you is goin' to get back home. Provided I don't get hungry first of course…" Laughing, Reno headed out into the night, his prize cradled in his left hand, his EMR twirling in his right.


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