CHAPTER ONE: RENO AND THE CAT
[in which Reno and Cissnei wreak havoc, and Reno does something which surprises himself]
In the year when LOVELESS went through its third cast change, and Gentleman Joe first rode the Invincible Teioh to victory in the Chocobo Challenge Cup, and Wutai was preparing to lay down its arms in defeat; when Sephiroth was still a hero, and the Shin-Ra Electric Company seemed like a good place to work, and the killing had not yet become routine – Reno and Cissnei were sent on a mission.
Three days earlier, thieves had broken into the R&D section of the Weapons Development Department at Shinra HQ and stolen the formula for a delayed-action, broad-range Stun fusion materia that was still in its experimental stages. At about the same time, routine radio frequency scans undertaken by the intelligence arm of Public Safety Maintenance had uncovered a small cell of Crescent Unit operatives based in the Sector Seven Slums. When closer surveillance revealed that these Wuteng guerillas were the ones who had stolen the formula, and that their intention was to make and use the materia to disrupt the public transportation system in Midgar, the job became one for the Turks. Reno, who had just turned twenty-one, and Cissnei, nineteen, were ordered to recover the formula, eliminate the Crescent operatives, and destroy their hidden lair.
Do it discretely, Tseng had told them. That meant silencers and no materia. The Sector Seven slums were becoming a refuge for outlaws and insurgents from
every hue of the political spectrum, and the last thing Commander Veld wanted was to spark off a riot that would give Heidegger an excuse to send in the troops.
Remember to clean up afterwards, Tseng had added, looking pointedly at Reno.
But the cell proved larger than expected, and though Cissnei took out three of the targets with her shuriken and Reno another two with his mag-rod and a third with his gun, two more, lurking in the shadows, nearly managed to slip away unseen through a broken window. The first got out; the second, cutting his hand on a piece of glass, cried aloud and stumbled. Instantly Reno fired his rod. A spark flashed through the room, followed by a sound like bacon popping in the pan, a cry of pain, and the sweet stink of burnt flesh. Almost in the same moment there was a burst of gunfire. A bullet pierced the sleeve of Reno's jacket, searing his arm. He dropped the EMR, which was still switched on. It landed on a pile of greasy rags; the rags burst into flame. All this happened in less time than it takes to tell. Cissnei, gathering her scrambled wits, raised her gun, then hesitated. Already the shack was filling with smoke. She could see nothing clearly.
Meanwhile the target with the gun had pulled the injured target through the window. They ran off up the alley towards the busy market place.
Cissnei dashed after them. Reno grabbed his rod and followed. The targets were still in range. She braced her feet, took aim, and fired.
"Ciss, no!" Reno exclaimed, too late.
The targets kept running. She had missed. Cursing, she lifted her gun to fire again. Reno pushed it down with his rod.
"Look," he said.
At the mouth of the alley a woman had fallen to the ground, clutching her arm and screaming.
"Oh, fuck!" cried Cissnei. "I just shot a civilian!"
Around the bleeding woman the crowds drew back in alarm, turning this way and that, unsure where the danger lay. Someone spotted the smoke rising from the burning shack: there was pointing, shouting, pushing, shoving… Panic seized the crowd, and into that panic the two targets disappeared and were swept away.
"This fire'll take out the whole sector if we don't do something," said Reno.
"Use some Blizzara – Oh shit, no materia -"
"Call Tseng. I'll deal with the casualty." Next moment Reno was at the woman's side, pushing her sleeve up to examine the wound.
"You're Shinra!" cried the man standing next to her. He had paled at the sight of the blood, and was swaying as if he might faint. He was young; the woman was young, too, not much more than a girl, fair-haired and too thin.
"Her arm's broken." Reno told him. "It won't kill her, but she needs to see a doctor. Give her this." Reno took a green pill from his inside pocket. "And take this." He pushed a fistful of gil into the man's hand. "And go up to the Dispensary in Sector One. They'll take care of her. Show them this card – shit, I'm out of cards." Reno looked up at Cissnei, who had just joined them. "Give him one of yours, Ciss. What did Tseng say?"
"He's sending Rude and Mozo with the water cannon. He wants us to pursue the targets."
"Gotta go, babe," said Reno to the injured woman. "We're going after the terrorists who shot you. No one escapes from the Turks! C'mon, partner, let's move."
They ran across the now-deserted shopping area into another alley, turned a corner, and found themselves facing the tall chain link fence that barred the public from access to the plate's support tower. Dead end.
Cissnei wiped a hand over her eyes and looked up at Reno. Down here, even his hair was just another shade of grey. The eternal twilight of the slums robbed everything of colour.
"Nice damage control, Red," she said. "But my ass is still toast. Tseng's livid. I'm such a fucking idiot! I could have killed her! And now we've lost the targets. Did we manage to get the data?"
"Burnt, I'm thinking," said Reno.
Cissnei groaned. "I might as well just shoot myself right here and save the Chief the bullet."
He grabbed her shoulder and shook it. "Stop talking like that. We got rid of their hideout, didn't we? And that girl's going to be OK. And we haven't lost the targets. They went that way." He jerked his head in the direction of the station.
"How do you know?" she asked, as they broke once more into a run.
"I can smell the one I burned. His trail's in the air."
"What's it smell of?"
"Pork. Sulphur. That smell plastic sockets have when the fuse shorts. You can't smell it?"
"Nuh-uh. I'll just follow your nose, you Shinra dog, you."
Reno didn't miss a beat. "Guess that must mean you're my bitch."
"In your dreams, Red."
They grinned at each other, running shoulder to shoulder. Pumped with adrenaline, Reno's feet flew: he could have sped right round Midgar for the sheer joy of running. Cissnei began to fall behind.
"Keep up, loser," Reno called to her over his shoulder.
They came to the Sector Seven station. He sprinted along the deserted platform and jumped down onto the tracks. Ahead of him the train graveyard loomed. Old locomotives sat brooding in the dusk. The air was thick with the smells of rotting velvet, rust and engine oil. Angry graffiti, mostly anti-Shinra, had been scrawled along the roofs of toppled box-cars. He waited, and a moment later Cissnei was beside him, panting slightly.
"Ssh," he said.
They focused all their senses.
There was no breeze here. Nothing stirred.
From one of the abandoned carriages came the faintest scraping of a shoe against wood, and a muffled groan.
"You take the door at this end," said Reno. "I'll take the other. Count to twenty, then go in."
As it turned out, her counting was off by three seconds. While he was still coiling himself to spring, he heard the 'poc' of her silenced gun, and the next moment he was knocked backwards as someone flew through the door and hit the ground running. Scrambling to his feet, Reno took aim and fired. The target veered to the left and kept going, unharmed.
"Shit!" cried Reno. "I missed! How could I have missed?"
He was about to give chase, when a strangled cry from inside the carriage brought him up short. Was Cissnei hurt? Holstering his gun, he drew the EMR and went in.
The smell of blood hit him first, a tang of iron on the back of his tongue. He saw the target sprawled on the floor in a mess of his own brains, neatly neutralized by a shot that had gone in through a small hole in the forehead and out through a much larger hole in the back of his skull. Cissnei was crouched in the corner, bent almost double.
"Ciss? You okay?"
She stood up. Reno saw that she was cradling something in her arms, a furry small thing like a child's toy. For a moment he wondered if somehow some kid, playing in here, had got caught in the crossfire – until he realized that what she was holding was a cat. A dead cat.
"I didn't mean to," she said in a small voice. "It took the ricochet."
She sounded ready to burst into tears. Reno couldn't have that: he hated it when tough girls cried. A little awkwardly, he put a hand on her arm. "Ciss, don't go all girly on me now, hey? You just blew that guy's brains out. Are you seriously gonna start bawling over some scrawny old cat? Come on."
Her eyes burned in her white face. "That man deserved to die. But I hate wasting life for no reason, Reno. I hate it."
"It's just a cat. Shit, Ciss…" Why was she looking at him like that? What was he supposed to say? "Look, you've probably done the poor runt a favour. It's nothing but skin and bone. Probably strayed down here from the plate. The rats round here are bigger'n it is. At least you gave it a quick death." Aiming for a sterner, Veld-like tone, he added, "C'mon, Turk, we've got a mission to complete. Pull yourself together."
That seemed to do the trick. Cissnei stood a little straighter, inhaled a deep breath. Her lips weren't trembling any longer. Reno pressed his advantage.
"That's more like it. Now put the thing down. We've still got – "
A bullet sang past his ear.
Reno dropped to the floor. "The fuck!" he hissed furiously. "He came back!"
Cissnei's shuriken flashed silver through the air.
She missed, and the target ran, and the Turks pursued him. Through the train graveyard they played their deadly hide and seek, and in the end they caught their target, and killed him, and after searching his body and finding nothing, Reno used his rod to reduce the corpse to a pile of greasy ash. Then he called Tseng. Of course with the boss there was no question of white lies. As briefly as possible, Reno summarized all the ways in which the mission had gone wrong: the miscounting of the targets, the escape of two through the window; the fire, the wounded civilian, the panicked crowd; their failure to find the stolen formula….
The only detail he omitted was the dead cat.
Tseng said, "You can go back and search the body in the carriage. Tell Cissnei to go home now. The Commander will see you both tomorrow morning."
A hot little wire of something like fear knotted itself in Reno's gut; determinedly, by sheer strength of will, he forced it to relax. Shutting the phone with a snap, he turned to meet his partner's big round eyes.
She said, "I've landed you in it, haven't I, Red?"
"We both screwed up. The fire was my own fault."
"When they shot at you - and then the fire – that threw me. And then the woman, and that cat… I lost my focus. There's no excuse. Sorry for being such a fuck-up. I know it doesn't make up for it, but do you want me to finish down here? You could go home."
Reno shrugged. "Nah, I'm good. You go home, it's OK."
"But your arm – "
"But – "
"Don't argue with me. I could do with the overtime."
"Yeah, right. Hey, Reno – thanks for not mentioning that cat to Tseng. I know I was pretty amateurish tonight, but I'd hate for him and the Chief to think I was… you know… soft."
"You? Soft? You're a diamond."
"Am I? That's a nice way to put it. Anyway, it won't happen again, I promise."
"Yeah, yeah – go on, take your skinny butt home and let me finish up here."
She gave him a flip of the hand in farewell, and set off along the tracks. With his rod slung across his shoulders, and his other hand in his pocket, he stood and watched her go, her little upright figure growing smaller in the distance. She was about to pass behind a locomotive and disappear from his sight, when he called out to her, "Hey, Ciss?"
She looked round, smiling. Her teeth, and the whites of her eyes, caught what little light there was.
"It's good to be working with you again," he told her. "Next time, don't be gone so long."
Cissnei mimed a salute, then laughed, and darted away.
Reno made his way back to the dead cat's railway carriage. Carefully he searched through all the folds and pockets of the target's clothing, but found neither disks nor printouts. Most likely the formula had been destroyed in the fire…. Not that that was going to cut much ice with the Commander. Ramping the EMR to full voltage, Reno incinerated the corpse, and was getting ready to leave, when he heard a noise.
A noise like the feeble miaow of a starving, wounded, suffering, not quite dead cat.
It had opened an eye, and was looking at him.
"Fucking hell. You're one tough little bastard, aren't you?" said Reno.
It was a jumble of bones in a fur sack, sides heaving, tail limp. And it had a hole the size of a five-gil piece in its gut.
Reno could see it was beyond help. He drew his gun, intending to put the animal out of its misery. Cissnei would never need to know. He cocked the trigger.
Something moved in the far corner of the carriage. A streak of pink and green, shadowy, stealthy, and swift – but he was swifter, oh yes, always, because he was Reno, the fastest of the Turks, never outrun or outmaneuvered. With the butt of his pistol he broke the thing's neck, and it turned out to be nothing but a monster, a little cripshay that evaporated in front of his eyes, leaving behind on the carriage floor the contents of its stomach: fifty-three gil in coins, a half-digested rat, a candy wrapper, some slimy string, and a small bottle of potion.
"Hey," he exclaimed, surprised. "Score."
He glanced from the cat to the potion and back to the cat again. The coincidence seemed improbable, but maybe magic always worked that way.
It was just a small bottle of potion, enough for a small life.
If he could save this cat, Cissnei would be happy.
Did potion even work on animals? He had no idea. He knew nothing about animals. Monsters, yeah, he knew them all right. But nice little family pet type animals? Not a clue. Still, he supposed it was worth a try. Taking a firm hold of the cat's head, he used his thumb and his middle finger to force its jaws open, and tipped the contents of the bottle down its throat.
The effect was almost instantaneous. A momentary glow, a sparkling aura, radiated from the little body, appearing most intense around its wound. The cat's eyes widened. Life came back to it. Hissing, it lashed its tail and showed its claws. Reno grimaced in sympathy. Potion wasn't as bad as cure materia, but it still hurt. You got nothing for nothing in this world.
Within seconds, the bullet wound in the cat's belly had closed up. By tomorrow the scar would be gone. Its fur felt softer, thicker, under his hand. Deep inside the cat's body vibrations revved like the engine of a motorbike, or the ghost of one of the dead locomotives. It closed its eyes, and fell asleep, yet even in its sleep it continued to purr.
Reno took off his jacket, laid it on the floor, placed the sleeping cat inside, and carefully rolled it up, not too tight, not too loose. Fishing his PHS from his pocket, he tried to call Tseng, but the number was engaged, so he left a voice mail to let the boss know the mission was complete and he was knocking off for the night. With his gun back in its shoulder holster, his EMR swinging from its belt loop, and his rolled jacket tucked into the crook of his arm, he headed for the station to catch the last train back to the upper city.
Reno's apartment was small, nothing more than a studio with a kitchenette. He could have afforded something bigger – few twenty-one year olds in Midgar were earning his kind of salary – but what would have been the point? He wasn't home much and he didn't own much. Just the wide-screen TV, the DVD player, and a few bits and pieces of souvenirs picked up here and there which he only hung on to because he kept forgetting to tell the cleaning lady to throw them away. She had tidied his magazines into three stacks on the coffee table: Helicopter Today, Booty Babes, and Practical Electronics. Shinra paid for two of the subscriptions.
Reno put the bundled jacket on his bed and unrolled it. The cat was still sleeping. It – or he, judging by the two taut little balls of fur jutting beneath its tail – was a ginger tabby. It didn't look very big, even for a cat. Maybe it was still a kitten? When did a kitten turn into a cat? Reno didn't know. Leaving it to sleep, he took a can of cold Sephiroth-brand beer ('for that heroic taste') from the fridge and went out onto the balcony.
His apartment was on the top floor of a building near the edge of Sector 8, in a cul-de-sac just off the main road. The apartment's balcony faced outwards, away from the buffed metal tubes and mirrored glass of the Shinra building dominating the inward skyline. From up here, on those rare days when rays of sunlight broke through the clouds, he could catch a glimpse of distant hills. It was the next best thing to flying a helicopter. Sometimes he dragged his mattress onto the balcony and slept here.
Tipping his chair back, he put his feet up on the balcony rail, popped the tab on his beer, and drank deeply, looking up at the sky. Of course it was never truly night even in upper Midgar, just as it was never truly day. The low-lying clouds and the halogen glow from the mako reactors put paid to that. It was hard at first for outsiders, people like Natalya, from Mideel, and Mozo, from Costa, to get used to Midgar's darkness, but for Reno, who had never lived anywhere else, moving up from the slums to the Plate had been like coming into the light. And after a while the city's sepia palette and insomniac moodiness started to feel like just the right kind of backdrop for one's life. Edgy and elegant. Cool.
He was lighting a cigarette when the cat jumped onto his stomach.
"Agh!" he cried. The chair rocked; the cigarette snapped in his fingers, and he dropped the mako lighter. It bounced once, skittered under the railings, and was gone. The cat leapt down again.
He glared at the cat. It gazed back unblinkingly. It was sitting in the way cats do, very upright, tail wrapped round its paws with a Tseng-like precision.
"Don't sneak up on me like that!"
The cat was inscrutable.
"What do you want?"
The cat looked at him harder, as if to say: what are you, stupid?
"You're hungry? You want food?"
Reno went into the kitchen. In his cupboard there was a tin of baked beans that had passed its expiry date and a bag of microwave popcorn. He didn't need to look in the fridge, because he already knew that all it held were two six-packs of beer, a large tin of dark roast coffee, a block of tofu that had been there for over a year, and a half-eaten Moogle Munch.
When he put on his jacket he saw the bullet hole in its sleeve. Now he'd have to submit a requisition for a new one. More form-filling. Great.
He rode the elevator down to the ground floor of his building, where there was an all-night minimart, garishly lit and smelling unpleasantly of cheese.
"Got any cat food?"
"Third aisle on the left," said the Wuteng at the till, not lifting his eyes from his newspaper.
Reno took three cans and a bag of the dry stuff, and added a new lighter, buffed chrome, at the checkout.
Back in the apartment he opened a can and put it on the floor. The cat approached with extreme caution, nostrils flaring, whiskers twitching, tail held stiffly tense. Reno was fascinated, and more than a little impressed, by its self control. He'd expected the starving animal to pounce on the food and wolf it down in seconds. Were all cats as wary as this? Or had this one learned the hard way?
He went to take a shower. When he came back, the can was licked clean. The cat stared at him. "More?" He opened another can – chopped liver flavour. "Don't bust your gut, hey?"
Soon the second can was empty. The cat began to purr. Reno bent over to pat its head.
White hot needles of pain scored the back of his hand.
Cursing, he jumped back. "What was that for?"
His hand was bleeding. The scratches were deep. He rinsed off the blood in the sink, applied potion and a Shin-Aid. The cat's eyes followed his every move.
"I save your fleabitten ass, and this is how you repay me?"
The cat turned around, lifted its tail, and let Reno have an eyeful of its puckered pink arsehole. The action seemed so deliberate, so almost-human, that Reno burst out laughing. With an air of grossly offended dignity, the cat stalked over to the bed, jumped up, curled nose to tail on Reno's pillow, and promptly fell asleep.
There are times, thought Reno, when I'm a mystery to myself. What on earth had possessed him to rescue this ingrate? Had he done it just because he could? A dying cat, a girl's big sad brown eyes, a moment of magic in the right place at the right time, on a night that stank of piss and blood and hot metal?
Cissnei's words resonated in his mind. Wasting life was a hateful thing to do. Who should know that better than the Turks? The Chief had taught them a hundred ways and more to part a man from his soul, both the cruel ways and the kind ways, and had taught them, too, that none were to be used casually or for pleasure. They were professionals. Which was not to say they couldn't enjoy their work. For Reno, the hunt was the thing, the chase, the speed, the pitting of his skills against an opponent who meant business. Reno liked winning. And he liked his enemies to know that he'd won. The jobs he liked the least were the ones when they never knew what hit them. The blow dart. The bullet in the nape of the neck. Was it really kinder? He sure as hell wouldn't want to go that way, without a fight. Without a sound.
The luminous digital clock on the bedside said half past two. Reno was due in the office at seven. That meant three and a half hours sleep. Not bad; he'd managed on less. Fortunately the bed was a presidential-size. Giving the cat a wide berth, Reno lay down on his back and gazed up at the ceiling. He did not want to think about his appointment with Commander Veld tomorrow morning, so instead he thought about what he should do with the cat. The best thing, the right thing, would be to give it as a gift to Cissnei. She'd be all Oh Reno, my hero! You saved the little kitty! and by the time she found out it was a fluffy psychokiller with switchblade claws it would be too late, he would have washed his hands of the thing and she'd be stuck with it. That would teach her to nearly let him get his head blown off while she mooned over some pathetic scrap of fur. He'd need to buy a leash first, though, or a cage, or something that would allow him to remove the cat from his apartment while keeping his skin in one intact. Mulling over these plans, Reno fell asleep.
When he woke up in the morning, the cat was gone.