Chapter 12

He remembered the morning after, the first day since the dust settled and the blood-red sky fell. The sun came up over the horizon, shadows growing shorter and shorter, until everything -- even the city -- was bathed in light. When he thought of Midgar he was always reminded of the darkness, of smog and gunmetal silver and the poisoned horizon, a city choking in its own strife. But to see the dead metropolis with dawn rising just behind it, glowing with edges of eternity, filled him with an almost overwhelming feeling... as if something very formidable here had just blown over with very profound finality.

It was almost beautiful, in this calm after the storm, that the sun was blessing Midgar for the first time. It was ironic, he mused, that the city was only worthy of it now, as it lay in destruction.

It's finally over...

Any relief that came with that thought was forgotten as he remembered the mark left on him by Shinra, and couldn't help but feel he should have gone down with it. Out of defiance he shut his eyes and turned away, left in obstruction by the shadow of his own fault, and knew with dismal certainty that he would never be touched by the light, not even in ruin.



...and so he would not come apart.

That morning Reno had come out to the hallway of the inn, leaning against the wall next to the window, a lit cigarette pressed between his lips. It had taken an entire night of mental and emotional preparation to get himself back where he used to be. He'd kept his head tilted downward, waiting calmly, even soon before he would go through with what he'd had to do... just like a Turk, level-headed and hard-hearted.

Tifa and Cloud had come out, and he'd hid behind his thick veil of smoke, not turning his head to look up at either of them until they'd reached the staircase. Only then had he beckoned to Cloud, quietly and dispassionately.

He'd sort of stared back at Reno, a blank look in his eyes, as if he were trying to remember how to count to five. With bewildered reluctance, he had walked over and stopped short of him, Tifa unsurely staying by the stairs. Though she was in the corner of his eye, he didn't acknowledge her.

When he'd seen the absence of that dull and pensive look that had always dwelled in Cloud's eyes, Reno burned with certain irony, knowing he wouldn't be smiling very much longer. The thought of seeing how happy he was with his new girlfriend had previously made him insecure, but now it had solidified his resolve. He couldn't have hated him more.

But he'd kept those feelings at bay, made sure they weren't evident in anything he'd said or did. He'd realized he had been standing there and silently loathing Cloud's miserable existence, so he went ahead and spoke in a hushed tone, so Tifa would not hear.

Reno had simply said there was a "new development" in their assignment that he'd just been contacted about, and he needed to "talk it over" with him... in a private place.

The whole thing had been so poorly explained last night that Reno had to figure everything out by himself, including getting alone with Cloud long enough to kill him, then leave without his girlfriend knowing.

Cloud had seemed a bit confused, and looked over at her. "What about Tifa?"

Reno had just stared straight ahead, wary of her in the corner of his vision, and swallowed hard, suddenly realizing how dry his throat was.

He'd blinked once, thinking quickly. "...this doesn't involve her."

At this Cloud had looked even more bewildered, but with much hesitance, he'd agreed to meet up with him in the Nibel mountains(Reno had yet to decide where, exactly).

Not wasting another moment in Cloud's presence, he had turned and walked to the staircase. He'd callously brushed past Tifa, allowing himself a split-second glance at her. Regretfully, she'd been watching him at that very moment, but all her eyes met were cold glass, empty and distant. The angle of light from the window went far into her warm brown irises, bringing out red flecks in them, and she looked so concerned; perfect and innocent as ever.

His heart rate had risen again, completely out of his control, and he couldn't help this other feeling, like a cold knife deep into his gut, as he'd remembered her crying again... her eyes brimming with tears, with such undeserved grief -- the same in kind that had once wracked her body, that had just shot up his spine.

*~*~*~*~*

And now here he was, on some precipice he'd reached by following the meandering mountain trails, lying in wait.

He had nothing to look at save for the dreary view ahead of him: the hopelessly overcast sky and the sharp leaden mountain tops jutting out of the smoky mist. He wasn't sure how high he was up from the ground.

Reno sat with ill posture, leaning his back against the craggy rock behind him with his legs drawn up. His knees poked through the fabric of his pants, the cuffs of which hung loosely around his black boots, fraying a little at the heel. The wrinkled button-down shirt he wore wasn't in any better condition.

He wasn't dressed anything like a Turk; you couldn't even tell he was one. There was such irony in the navy, black and white, no matter what professionalism and culture it stood for. But he felt it had become a part of him, and it was for this reason that he couldn't back out... it would be like denying some part of himself.

It was cold up here. Reno wore his heavy jacket, but not because he'd anticipated the weather... it was to hide the gun he'd brought. It had been too easy getting hold of one; it wasn't hard to find a gun in any town.

Right now, all he could do was wait. He shifted against the jagged rock that dug into his back, discomfort between his shoulder blades. Occasionally he would close his eyes for long moments at a time, partly so he wouldn't have to watch the dreary view ahead of him, partly because he was gathering his senses, but mostly he did this because he was so tired. His situation always kept him from drifting off -- the hard rock poking his back and the bulge of the gun under his jacket kept him from straying too far from reality.

Bowing his head to a sudden bitter wind, his gaze fell over the edge of the cliff. Between fluttering strands of hair he could see Cloud coming up the path, far below. He stopped, searched around and above him until he saw Reno, then scrambled up a nearby trail, out of sight again.

Reno slumped back against the uneven stone behind him, exhaling with relief he wouldn't acknowledge. He'd come... without his girlfriend, or his sword.

He became suddenly very conscious of his heartbeat; how hard it pumped and how loud it felt in his ears. He was nervous, but it was exactly what he would need to get through this.

He sat still, knowing it would be any minute now, letting the time slip past him, his nerves grating, his heart beating more urgently. He could hear the heavy footfalls coming closer, and soon enough, the displaced air filling his ears. Cloud was standing right there. Reno stood up and turned to face him in a fluid motion.

"Well...?" Cloud inquired, breathing a little heavily. "What is it?"

Realizing how cramped he was from sitting badly for so long, Reno stretched his aching muscles, massaged the back of his neck. He was obviously in no rush. "First off," he said, arching his back, "I'd like to congratulate you on your new-found relationship with Tifa. I'm truly happy for the both of you." Then he grinned, something he hadn't done in entirely too long. His eyes betrayed his smile, as they feigned any real mirth; his expression was sardonic in the most bitter sense. "I'll have to remind myself to send you a fruit basket--"

"Cut it out." Cloud wasn't stupid enough not to detect his sarcasm. Unlike Reno, he was anxious to get their conversation over with. "Now just tell me what the new plan is."

His grin dissolved, and he held a grave, almost spiteful look in his narrowed eyes. "Alright," he said at length, and whirled around so that his ponytail slapped his right shoulder, and he began to pace.

"You see," Reno began, carefully pulling words out of the air, feeling the familiar bump of his nightstick against his thigh with every stride, "It's not so much a 'new plan' as it is a... modification of sorts." He abruptly stopped and looked to Cloud intently, watching for some reaction.

Cloud shrugged a shoulder, impatient and slightly annoyed with how he was acting. "Okay..." He trailed off, waiting for him to say more.

Reno blinked, deciding this would not do. He figured he was being too indirect -- he would need to be more candid. But at the same time he didn't want to just let the cat out of the bag altogether... he would try to break it to him slowly, and hopefully Cloud would catch on.

He continued his restless pacing. "Well, when a nice big company, such as -- oh, say, the one we work for -- gets such wide support and it's in such a position of authority, when it has leverage over so many things... you can't expect them not to become, erm... a little crooked..... and maybe they wanna get rid of anyone who might stand in their way... at any cost..."

"...huh?"

"I guess... maybe Shinra isn't gone in the way everyone would like to think. Maybe--"

Cloud interrupted him, his frustration set off by Reno's odd behavior. "Quit beating around the bush!" he nearly yelled. "What are you getting at?"

Reno stopped pacing and cast his gaze toward him again, suddenly looking tired, sick of dancing around the issue himself. So he told him what he'd been getting at, and he said it with flat malice, punctuating a certain word so he got the picture crystal clear:

"They want you dead, Cloud."

Again came that bitter wind to whip around them, so harsh and loud in their ears... interrupting what should have been a drawn out silence, initial shock settling in for Cloud. It passed almost almost as quickly as it came, leaving Reno's hair hanging in front of his face. He arrogantly swept it out of his eyes, wearing an expression of something like mock tragedy.

"Just thought you'd wanna know about it before you... y'know, kick the bucket."

Cloud seemed to still be in a stunned sort of trance. "Wait... I can't die..."

Reno just shrugged, drawing his mouth out in a wry line, trying not to think, knowing it would somehow be his downfall. "Orders are orders," he said, taking a step forward as he pulled out his gun.

Before he knew it, Cloud had slammed into him, knocking the wind out of him and the weapon from his hand. He heard it hit solid rock with a clatter as he could vaguely see a gloved fist coming at his face; it connected, knocking him backwards in sudden pain.

It happened too fast, he'd been caught off-guard. He was supposed to be feeding off the adrenaline rush, not letting his nerves get to him like they did. But he wasn't about to go down just yet, he couldn't give up. He leaned forward to catch his breath, a hand on one knee and the other surreptitiously gripping his nightstick. He could see Cloud ahead of him in a ready stance.

"I don't want to have to fight you," he said.

The bitter-metallic taste of blood filled his mouth, and Reno turned his head and spat it out, not bothering to look at Cloud. "I don't have a choice, do I? Running away is no longer an option... and I'm not screwin' around this time."

He could see Cloud coming at him again, but this time he was ready. Right when he came close enough, Reno jabbed the tip of the nightstick into his torso and pressed the button. He shut his eyes, hearing the pulsing electric crackle that shook the rod as he gripped it, feeling the silvery heat from where he was.

Opening his eyes again, he could see Cloud crumpling to the ground, stunned and unable to move. Reno stood over the man at his feet triumphantly, slinging his nightstick over his shoulder with the same smoothness a Turk would, with that skulking sort of pride. His eyes dimmed as he remembered his hatred, and his moment of domination got the better of him.

He kicked him in the side. "What's the matter, Cloud?" he jeered sadistically. "Can't fight back anymore, can you?" He kicked him again, this time in the ribs, as hard as he could. His voice lowered, taking on a more scolding tone, though he was still mocking. "You brought that on yourself. Shouldn't have tried to resist."

He was empowered by the moment, he'd overcome his doubt and gone back to being the Turk he was supposed to be, indifferent to others' pain. That's how it's always been, that's the motto of a Turk... I'll live at the expense of your own. But in the same way he became embittered because he hated who he'd become -- he didn't care about anyone else's woes.

Remembering he wasn't going to stay immobile forever, Reno went to find the gun, and quickly came back to where Cloud lay, still too stunned to move or speak.

"You're so damn pathetic," he muttered. "What a way for a hero to go..." He stood over him and pointed the gun at his head, hearing it click, and the memories pressed themselves.

So many times he'd done this... so many times, under the dim artificial light, in the worst part of night when it felt like it would last forever and the shadows would follow him home. In Midgar, where compassion couldn't be found, innocence was long lost and there were no answers for contentions. There was always that lull, after he'd taken a life, when it became quieter than silence itself, and perfect irony would make itself known.

You think I'm just a cold-blooded killer, that I'm apathetic to what I'm doing to you. But don't think I don't wonder... don't think I don't know that someday I'll die by the same sword.

It was then that Reno came to realize... he'd been had.

Shinra had led him to be their assassin, their professional fool, to sow nightmares for the ill-fated legacy that was doomed from the start; they had led him into this without telling him of any repercussions. It changed him, he was never the same again. The company collapsed, as it deserved to... but it left him here, as his unknowing punishment, it left him to bear these scars alone.

So this was how it was fated? So he was still here to see the work of his hands? If this "elite" was who he was and always would be, what would be the use in denying it? What would it matter what he did, anymore? There was nothing for him to gain and nothing to lose.

He hated it, he'd been fooled. And it was happening all over again. Here he stood, holding a gun to someone's head, someone whose life had been torn up by Shinra, with much of the same bad memories of the city and the same nightmare in his veins; someone whose loved ones and hopes and dreams had been wasted... someone just as broken.

Reno still stood over him, still holding on to the gun, blind up until that moment to how much his hand was trembling. The long seconds were falling past, his grip was loosening under disloyal fingers, he couldn't squeeze the trigger no matter how many times he told himself to. He wasn't.... he couldn't do it.

He couldn't do it.

Reno jerked back, stepped away from Cloud, shaking his head. I can't... he dropped the gun, causing it to go off in the direction away from them, making him jump. As the echoes of the shot died away he swallowed hard and looked over everything, realizing what he'd just done, and rounded the path to the other side of the mountain. He stood condemned in his own eyes, a coward, fleeing from his own failed mission.

...I'll never play the hand I'm dealt.

Suddenly he became annoyed with his nightstick, with the way it kept slapping against his upper leg. It was no longer a source of comfort but a reminder of his shameful past. On a whim he pulled it out of its holster and threw it as far as he could, his heart lurching as he watched some part of him fast retreating.

There...! A gift for the wind.

He tore down the trail, as fast and hard as possible in his condition, to get away from what he didn't want to believe he'd done. Making a different turn at a fork in the path, he didn't know where he was going but he knew it wouldn't be back to Nibelheim.

He ran until he couldn't keep going. Out of breath, he stopped and leaned back against the mountain side, where he was almost able to see where the Nibel mountains ended. He shut his eyes to it and his trepidation, slid down until he was nearly sitting.

Reno didn't know what to do now, he had just denied himself the terrible unrest he was doomed to, he wasn't even sure where he was going. He was so cold, he hadn't eaten anything in so long, and he was so tired. More than anything he wanted sleep... merciful, dreamless sleep.

And at hand was all this guilt, these horrible transgressions weighing him down, and he couldn't bear it. He wanted to rid himself of it, he would cast it off if he could. But were was the hope to redeem himself? With with how Shinra left no one untouched, he was the last who deserved peace.

Reno heaved a shaky sigh and hid his face in his hands. He'd fallen apart, he feared he had gone insane. Who was he then, if not a Turk? That was no longer where his allegiance laid, and yet he felt he couldn't just drop the name; he was nothing else. His comrades, he worried for them and at the same time envied their ignorance. He felt like his fury was going to take over. What was to keep him from becoming embittered, indignant at this miserable and graceless world that had snubbed him? How could he go on, hating who he'd become?

It was in this moment of abject surrender that he felt a trace of warmth across his hand. Incredulous, he brought them from his face and looked up to see the graphite sky breaking, the first rays of sun he'd seen in too long, dappling the view ahead of him soft and golden. It was a curious feeling, of hope filling him up, as the shafts of light came down on even him, strangely fated. Calmness settled his heart, his troubles somehow humbled within him as he thought after all that there might be some grace in this world...

And so he was not consumed.

*~*~*~*~*

Tifa broke into a run as soon as she'd heard a gun go off, following through the main path because she wasn't sure where exactly it had come from. She didn't know what was happening, or if Cloud or Reno were hurt. The very prospect of not knowing was the most unsettling one for her.

Growing more frantic by the second, she tried searching every crevice of every mountain she passed by, straining to see through the mist. Minutes later, she'd seen no sign of either of them. She eventually slowed her walking, fatigued and discouraged.

But then she saw a silhouette of someone reach the foot of a mountain trail, then stop and lean heavily against the side. Without another thought she approached them, and started running again when she could confirm who it was.

"Cloud!" she cried as she reached him, flooding with relief.

He grunted, tried to stand by himself. "Tifa..."

"Oh Cloud," she murmured as she carefully put her arms around his shoulders and rested her head in the crook of his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and leaned in to keep his balance, despite his head that ached and his ribcage that flared with pain. "What happened? Where's Reno?"

They parted slightly so he could look down at her, and he shook his head, blinking away the worst of the dull throbbing. "I don't know," he said sincerely. Then he sighed, looking bemused and troubled. "...I got a lot to tell you. But let's go back first."

Seeing the tired urgency in his eyes, she didn't object.

They walked side by side, keeping an arm around each other so Cloud could walk better. The sun could be seen peering through the clouds, cutting through the fog for the first time in so long. After they'd gone a ways down, something sharply bright caught the very corner of Tifa's vision.

"What's that?" she wondered aloud. Sparking Cloud's interest, he looked too, but they couldn't tell from where they were. Carefully they moved off to the side of the path, until they were close enough to see.

It was a nightstick.



~The End~





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Author's Note: ...and so that concludes Strife. Man, it's been a year of ups and downs. Some days I'd feel mighty fine about it, others I wouldn't want to even look at it, and I'd just question my ability and think I was too young to pull this off effectively. But now that it's over with, it's a bit rough around the edges in some places, but I guess it's not so bad.

So what exactly was my inspiration for this? I'm not quite sure, I was pretty bored when it hit me, but it might have had something to do with a certain Bible verse I'd read. And also in part because I wanted to portray Reno in a slightly different light. You know all those angst vignettes about him -- those things hardly end on a lighter or more hopeful note! Poor guy... more times than not I'd see them end with him bitterly accepting how his life turned out, and he continues to wallow in this state of mind that's... not nice to have all the time. And many of them are so beautifully written, but afterward they just wouldn't sit well with me. I did make him angsty, but I didn't leave him all bitter and angry and inconclusive.

So I guess next up for me is that Reno/Tifa multi-part that's been floating around in my head the past half year. But can I have a little break? I'm creatively burned out. I'm complete, finished, there's no more air left in the pressure cooker. I'm DONE!

And to all those who reviewed... I could just HUG you. Special thanks to kimetara, who beta-read this fic, but since I don't send the author's note with the first copy to her, I doubt she'll see this. Oh well! Please press that pretty button... just one more time......