The dream was always the same.
Reno stood on the beach in some unknown place between dream and reality, feeling the sea breezes caress his face as he watched the setting sun in the distance. The fading light of day painted the sky in millions of fiery hues, their blazing fury trying to burn away the dark that was rapidly descending on the world as the moon rose to seat itself on its celestial throne. He was conscious of the sand beneath his bare feet and wind playing gently with his ponytail, but what truly merited his attention was the vanishing rays of sunlight over the horizon that were quickly loosing their battle with the darkness. The struggling remnants of the sun's rays danced across his skin, planting their fiery kisses on his pale face. The gently rolling sea glittered in the light that remained, enjoying it before the ocean seemed to suck the sun into its watery embrace.
And as the sun descended into the night sea, Reno stood on the beach and waited. Waited for "it" to come.
The wind whistling down the beach suddenly picked up considerably, whipping his hair into a violent frenzy and trying to tear his blue suit jacket from his narrow shoulders. Sand came streaming down the length of the beach, grit striking the side of his face while other particles tried to worm their way underneath his collar. Reno squinted his glowing aquamarine eyes slightly, unconcerned with these petty distractions. He was only focused on the waves of the ocean.
From the sea, "it" emerged at last. The green beast surged out of the dark waters, moonlight pooling on its wet flesh that wasn't really flesh, but metal. Water streamed down its sides, and dozens of waves rushed away from its gigantic form as if in terror, running far and fast until they were shattered by the solidness of the packed sand on the shore. Water swirled around Reno's bare feet and splashed him in the face, but he neither noticed nor cared. He craned his neck back in rapt fascination of the beast that towered above his head until it seemed to touch the sky itself.
"Emerald Weapon," he whispered.
Though he wasn't sure if the Weapon had ears or not, or if it even had a brain, it somehow heard and comprehended his whisper for Reno suddenly felt its attention come to bear on him: a small, tiny human being standing in the shadow of the majesty of this creature born from the Planet itself.
Then it spoke.
"I AM EMERALD," it said, voice deep and timeless, making Reno's head throb with the sheer magnitude of the mighty sound.
"I can see that," he said softly, not daring to use sarcasm in the presence of such a creature. "Why am I dreaming of you? I never dream of you…"
The Emerald Weapon spoke again, but this time it used a language Reno couldn't understand.
"What?" he asked in confusion. "I don't understand…"
The Weapon gave a thundering response to Reno's bafflement, and again Reno was frustrated to hear the great emerald creature speaking in that strange tongue again. He had a feeling Emerald Weapon was trying to tell him something, but for all the life in him, he couldn't understand the language the thing was speaking in.
"I don't understand what you're saying!" Reno cried as the wind seemed to tear at him with more fury than before. "Speak English! Please!"
This apparently displeased the Weapon because it suddenly lifted one of its massive claws and, as Reno watched in shock, dipped it into the water and sent a humongous tsunami flying right at the shore and the insignificant mortal man standing alone on the sands.
Reno barely had time to fling up his hands as the watery wall filled his vision and then slammed into his body, swirling around him like out of control dancers waltzing on a boundless floor. He felt himself being flung left and right by the water's embrace, and he shut his eyes tightly even though he knew it would do him no good. His heart was thundering out of control in his chest as the waves wrapped him in their arms completely, whispering to him – whispering words that he could almost understand…
Something told him to open his eyes, but when he did, he found that he wasn't sinking to the bottom of the ocean like he had originally thought he would. Instead, he was surrounded by liquid that glowed a fluorescent blue-green and carried with it millions of whispering voices.
"Lifestream," he whispered with a voice that wasn't really a voice at all.
Then the voices slammed into him. Young, old, deep, high, whispering, screaming, they all began to speak at once until they became one horrible symphony that tore at his sanity, trying to rip it free from his skull. He heard the voice of an old man speaking of a daughter long dead, and a teenage girl telling him of a lover lost in the fury of a war that Reno had only read about in the history books. Reno tried desperately to hold onto one of these voices, something to keep him adhered to the sanity that was rapidly slipping away from him.
But it was no use. The voices were unnaturally persistent, and their combined might rolled over him like a wave seeking to drown him. But suddenly, he heard the voice of Emerald Weapon rising above the rest…
"LEARN," was all it said. "LEARN."
"Learn what?!" Reno screamed, but he couldn't even hear his own voice above the din. Panic seized him, and he felt himself start to drown in the sheer multitude of the voices. He was sinking into the depths of the Lifestream.
"Reno!" a voice suddenly cried, and for second, he thought that the Weapon was calling him again, but this wasn't the voice of the green behemoth. No, this new voice was feminine and husky, calling to him like she had known him for years, and Reno felt himself reaching out for this creature with all his being.
A hand suddenly fastened on his wrist, and the voices faded away into a soft whispering, growing fainter and fainter until they had vanished completely, leaving Reno's soul feeling raw and exposed, as if it had just been through fighting some great battle that it had barely won.
"Reno," the woman's voice whispered again.
He had apparently shut his eyes sometime during the voices' onslaught, and now he opened them to see none other than Rena floating in the Lifestream slightly above him, her hair billowing behind her in dark cloud of black and red fire, her shirt – or rather, his shirt – stained a blazing emerald blue-green by the stream of souls all around them. Her golden eyes gleamed gently down at him, and for the first time, Reno realized that the luminescence of her eyes and the Lifestream were almost identical. Natural, brilliant and terrible all at once.
One of her small, delicate hands was locked firmly around his wrist. It was her that had stopped him from drowning, her that had chased away the voices that had been threatening to steal his sanity away.
"Reno!" she cried again, only she wasn't moving her mouth. She just floated there above him peacefully, smiling at him a little.
"W-What?" he asked.
"Reno! Wake up!"
His eyes widened. "Wake up?! What the hell?!"
The dream quickly vanished around him. Rena's hand holding his wrist gave away to a pair of hands resting on his back and shaking him slightly. The brilliant and horrible Lifestream dissipated into nothing and a cool darkness took its place. Someone was shaking him and calling his name.
"Reno! Get up!" Rena cried, her voice echoing through his empty room.
Reno's eyes snapped open immediately, and he rolled instinctively away from the warmth of her hands, sinking into the center of his lumpy mattress as the worn bedsprings creaked in amusement.
"Rena?" he muttered hoarsely, rolling onto his side and squinting up at her in the darkness. She was standing beside his bed, peering down at him with golden eyes that were even more unnerving to look at in absolute darkness than they were in the light.
"It's me," she said softly, clasping her pale hands together in front of her.
"I can see that," Reno said grumpily, sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes, noting that he had fallen asleep in his clothes…again. So much for looking decent for work tomorrow. "What the hell are you doing in my room?" he asked Rena. "Come in here to seduce me?"
Rena sniffed, her eyes narrowing. "Hardly," she said flatly. "You called me here."
Reno blinked in confusion. "What?" he mumbled grumpily.
Did I call out her name in my sleep? No, I don't think so…
"You called me here," Rena repeated patiently, fiddling absently with the hem of her too-large shirt. "You were having a nightmare."
"And I called your name?" Reno asked dubiously, but then he suddenly remembered an ethereal figure of Rena floating above him in the Lifestream, holding onto his wrist, preventing him from drowning…Had he called her name then?
Rena suddenly shook her dark head, absently brushing away strands of hair as they flopped into her face. "You didn't call me here with your voice," she told him. "Your heart called me here, to wake you from the nightmare."
Reno's eyebrow lifted so far that it threatened to disappear into his hairline. He gave Rena a hard stare, looking into her golden eyes and searching for any indication that she might be lying to him. But all he managed to see in those honey-colored orbs was an innocent, heartbreaking sincerity. Poor, crazy girl actually believed what she was saying.
Reno snorted. "Hmph. Whatever you say, sister."
"I take it you don't believe me?" Rena asked evenly.
Flopping back against his lumpy mattress, Reno responded, "So you're some kind of psychic or something?"
"A psychic," Reno repeated impatiently, studying her shadow-wrapped figure and trying not to think of the fact that she was a beautiful young woman, standing in his room, next to his bed, looking down at him. "You can hear people's thoughts and all that crap?"
"No," she replied calmly. "Just yours."
A scowled darkened Reno's face. "You hear my thoughts?" he demanded sharply, not at all pleased with the idea of someone poking around his mind and screwing him up like those goddamn Jenova cells screwed up Strife and the other specimens.
But, much to his relief, Rena shook her head. "I don't hear your thoughts, and even if I could, I wouldn't listen to them."
"Why not?" Reno couldn't resist asking. "If I could get inside people's heads and see their every thought and desire, then I would sure as hell do it."
"Well, unlike you, I seem to have a lingering respect for the privacy of others."
Reno deflected the insult with a mirthless laugh and rolled over, putting his back to her. "Whatever," he muttered. "Thanks for waking me up, baby. Now go back to sleep so I can get some shut-eye."
Rena didn't reply, but Reno hadn't really been expecting one from her. He listened to her leave the room quietly, feeling an odd sense of disappointment settle in his heart. He had been hoping for some odd reason that she might lay down next to him and stay with him until the dawn came. He wouldn't have done anything to (or with) her, but it would have been nice just to have her there, a bit of warmth next to him. It got so cold in his room sometimes.
Dammit, Reno, he berated himself, rolling onto his back and covering his head with one of his sad-looking pillows. You better stop being all glazed-eye-stare over this girl. But, but she's also as feisty as hell!
A smile spread across his face as he recalled her indirectly scolding him a minute ago for not respecting other's privacy.
If only she knew.
If only she knew about his past, then she would know that there was no such thing as privacy when one works for the Turks. They knew every intimidate detail about his life down to the women he had been with and the people he had killed as a street rat. Reno could hide nothing from Shinra, but that was the way the tyrannical organization had meant it to be. No one ever left Shinra Inc. voluntarily. They couldn't. Because the corporation had become their lives. In all reality, they ceased to be considered people at all. Shinra's money-hungry ways and ruthless methods of operating devoured its employees and subordinates whole, making them lose themselves and their purposes.
And, three months ago, Reno had been one of those mindless machines, a Turk – the President's personal lapdog, biting when and where he was told, never asking questions or daring to wonder if what he was doing was ethical, for he knew in his heart that it wasn't.
What a wonderful life it had been. Ignorance is bliss, after all, and Reno had become ignorant of his own free will, surrendering himself to all the wonders and pleasures that life with Shinra had to offer him. To a young man who had known nothing but running for his life and barely surviving by the skin of his teeth, being a member of the assassin/bodyguards the Turks had been paradise in its purest form.
It was only now, three months after the fall of Shinra and the defeat of the Turks, that Reno was finally forced to abandon his state of ignorance and face the horrible reality that he was nothing without Shinra. As soon as the organization fell and he tumbled blindly from its deteriorating womb, it was as if he had lost everything. What did he have now? A crappy apartment owned by a bitchy landlady who hated his guts, a car that was now riddled with bullet holes, a job that paid half of his former salary, no money in his pockets, no food in his refrigerator, no purpose in his life.
It was with these dark thoughts that Reno finally drifted off into a fitful sleep, one blessedly devoid of dreams.
His own internal alarm clock awoke him about an hour later, and he realized that he had fallen asleep with the pillow over his head and was now in dire need of breathable air.
"Ugh," Reno declared, chucking the limp pillow to the floor, where it landed right next to a pair of discarded dress pants. The light from the world outside was already seeping in through his window and burning away the shadows in his room. Reno made a face and shut his eyes against this light.
Groaning, he rolled onto his belly and, without even opening his eyes, reached for the phone on the floor beside his bed, cursing as he knocked it off the cradle and had to fumble around for it on the carpet. Lifting it to his ear, he opened his eyes long enough to punch in a number that he had learned to dial in record time. Then he plopped his head back down on his lumpy mattress and listened to the ringing on the other end, realizing belatedly that he had no pillow since he had booted it to the floor.
After two rings, a deep voice picked up on the other end. "Yes?"
"Rude!" Reno exclaimed, his voice still hoarse from sleep. "Hey, how's it goin'?"
"I'll be there in ten minutes," Rude said calmly.
Reno grinned; Rude knew that he would only call his cell phone this early in the morning for one reason. "Thanks, buddy," he said. "Oh…and make sure you have enough money to feed my face, too!"
"Sure thing," Rude deadpanned. "Rude out," he said formally, and clicked off.
It's been three months, and he still can't shake all that formality, Reno thought with a grin as he hung up the phone. Groaning, the meager sleep he had gotten not nearly sufficing, he forced himself to swing his feet off the side of the bed and rise to a sitting position.
After waiting for the room to stop spinning, he pulled in a deep breath and yelled, "Rena!!!!"
She better not have run out…
His worries were short-lived, however, because Rena suddenly poked her head into his room, one dark eyebrow lifted slightly. Her clothes were rumpled from sleeping on the couch, and she didn't look very happy at being summoned to his room like a lowly servant.
"What is it?" she asked, voice reflecting the annoyance in her eyes.
Reno gave her a maddening grin. "Nothing. Just wanted to make sure you were still here. You can go away now."
She glared daggers at him, staying stubbornly rooted in the doorway as he stood up and stretched languidly, arching his back like a cat and exposing a portion of his well-muscled stomach.
"Are you just gonna stand there like a dumbass and watch me all day?" Reno demanded of Rena, yawning and not even bothering to cover his mouth. "I'm gonna take a shower, and unless you want to join me, you better haul your ass outta here."
Rena's eyes narrowed as she glanced dubiously around. "You don't shower in your bedroom, do you?"
Reno snorted, making a face at her. "No, retard."
A mischievous thought suddenly crossed his mind, bringing a lewd grin to his face. No, but I get undressed in my bedroom.
Without warning, Reno suddenly grabbed the hem of his shirt and yanked it over his head. Rena gave a startled gasp, and he extricated himself from his garment just in time to see her literally running down the hall and disappearing around the corner, back toward the living room.
Gotta hand it to you, Rena. You're the first girl who actually RAN AWAY when I started to get undressed.
Laughing, Reno tossed the shirt on his bed and strode towards the shower.
Five minutes later, he emerged, sopping wet and cursing because all the hot water had mysteriously disappeared. Damn his rotten, cheap apartment building! Damn his rotten, cheap landlady and his rotten, cheap neighbors! Hot-water hoggers. Hell, while he was at it, damn his rotten, cheap LIFE!
Grabbing his old shirt from the bed, he dried his hair with it while yanking a suit and shirt blindly from the closet, putting them on in record time and grabbing an elastic band from his (mostly empty) chest of drawers and securing the lower half of his slightly damp hair in a ponytail. He snatched his gun and nightstick from the same chest of drawers and was about to pat himself on the back for being ready way ahead of time when he suddenly felt a draft on his feet. Looking down, he realized that he was still parading around in his socks.
Okay, he thought, looking around his room. Shoes! By the front door! I'll just make Rena bring them to me. You know, piss her off some more.
Grinning at the thought, Reno was about to holler for her when he suddenly heard a scream coming from his living room. All laughter evaporating in an instant, Reno unholstered his nightstick and was running down the hall when Rena suddenly blew past him in a flurry of motion, heading towards the sanctity of his bedroom, leaving the smell of fear in her wake.
Reno was about to call after her when he suddenly heard heavy footsteps echoing just around the corner. Pressing himself up against the wall, he began to charge up his nightstick, the business end of it trained with assassin ruthlessness at the corner, ready to blow away whatever was prowling around his apartment and scaring Rena.
To his utter surprise, none other than Rude suddenly poked his head around the corner.
Reno's mouth fell open. "Rude?!" he cried.
Rude lifted an eyebrow so that it rose over the top of his sunglasses. "Is it safe to come out?" he asked dryly. "Or will I get my head blown off?"
Reno shut off the electricity churning in his weapon and shoved the nightstick back in its holster. "It's fine, Rude," he said tiredly as his friend rounded the corner calmly, looking prim and proper, as always.
"Was that girl one of your 'friends'?" Rude asked flatly.
A scowl darkened Reno's face. "No!" he declared, whirling around and stomping back down the hall to his room. "She's just the biggest wuss in the world! Rena, get back out here!"
He stormed into his room to find Rena hiding in the farthest, darkest corner of his room, looking like she was trying to disappear into the cracked wall. The only thing that ruined the whole vulnerable thing she had going on was the deep scowl she had on her face, which made her look more angry than frightened.
"Your friend startled me," she said tersely, before Reno could go off on a rant.
Reno rolled his eyes as he heard Rude walk up behind him quietly. "Whatever," he snapped at Rena. "I think Rude should be insulted. He isn't THAT scary!" Turning around, Reno draped his arm over one of Rude's broad shoulders. "See? He's my friend." He gave Rena a mocking grin.
She just continued to stare at the two blue-suited figures in the doorway. "You have a friend?" she suddenly asked Reno.
Reno glared at her. "Bet your ass I do. Two friends, to be exact!"
"Oh," Rena said quietly. "I had two friends, too."
Surprised, Reno lifted an eyebrow. "Really? Where are they now?"
Shifting her weight from foot to foot, Rena looked like she regretted saying anything in the first place. "Where I left them," she ventured warily.
"And that would be…?"
Rena folded her arms across her chest and turned her face away, silently telling him that the conversation was over.
"Whatever," Reno muttered, rolling his eyes. "Anyways, Rude this is Rena. Rena, this is Rude."
Rude nodded at the girl politely. "Good morning, Rena."
Rena blinked in surprise, not use to be treated courteously after hanging out with Reno. "G-Good morning," she replied.
"Okay," Reno said, grabbing his sunglasses from his chest of drawers and using them to hold some of his wild hair back from his eyes. "Now that everyone's friends, can we please leave? Rena, get out of that corner and come on."
"You're taking me with you?" Rena asked in confusion.
"You're taking her with you?" Rude asked simultaneously.
Reno turned and gave his two companions withering glares. "Are you two gonna give me crap about this? Rude, the first thing you need to learn about this girl is that she'll fly the coop if given half a chance. If I left her alone here, as soon as my ass was out the door, she'd probably be climbing out the back window. Now, hurry your asses up!"
Ten minutes later saw the trio cruising down the streets in Rude's convertible, which was the exact same design as Reno's, minus the bullet holes, of course. President Shinra had loved conformity amongst his Turks, that he did. After much arguing and bickering, Reno had literally scooped Rena up in his arms and dumped the struggling girl in the front seat next to Rude, much to her annoyance. She seemed to be a little afraid of Rude, for some odd reason. Anyhow, Reno had received a scratch on his chin for all his troubles, but he wanted to make sure that she wasn't going to jump out of the car or anything crazy like that.
"Rena, remind to cut those claws of yours later," he grumbled from his spot in the backseat.
Rena spun around and gave him a dark glare before facing forward again, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Reno grinned and kicked the back of her seat, earning himself another glare. "You know, sister, if looks could kill, I would be six feet under by now."
"What a pity that would be," Rena snapped, the roaring wind sending some of her long hair fluttering around her head.
"Reno," Rude suddenly spoke up as he merged onto the freeway on the way to the corporation they worked as bodyguards for. "You can't take this girl to work with you, you know."
"Of course I know!"
"Then just where do you plan on taking her?" Rude asked, glancing dubiously at the fuming Rena in the passenger seat. "She's a bit old for day care."
Reno grinned. "Don't sweat it, Rude, I got this all figured out! We're gonna leave her with a good friend of ours."
Rude's sharp mind caught on immediately. "Oh no…"
"It's Elena's day off!" Reno exclaimed, leaning forward and punching Rude on the shoulder. "I'm sure she won't mind taking care of our feisty, bitchy little friend here!"
That line earned him a glare of apocalyptic proportions.
* * * * * * * * * *
The woman stood on the rise of the hill as the sun began its ascent to its throne on the top of the sky. Rays of pure light blazed around her slender figure, allowing those approaching only a shadowy glimpse of the features that made up her youthful face. A cheerful morning breeze ruffled her golden blond hair, sending it whispering around her narrow shoulders, but the cold, dark expression on her face never wavered, refusing to greet the coming day with the same euphoria that the whole goddamn world was doing.
Electric blue eyes that held the unmistakable glow of Mako in their azure depths watched as the three dark-haired figures coming up the hill stopped beneath her.
"Well?" she asked impatiently.
"She's not here," the girl with her hair done up in a plethora of tiny braids said flatly. "Kamari, Fatima and I did an extensive scan of the village, and the girl isn't here."
"You're sure?" the blond-haired girl demanded, her eyes narrowing as she gazed off at the sleeping mountain village at the bottom of the hill.
"Jinn's always sure," Kamari snapped. "Her magic is infallible, Minerva."
Minerva sighed, not at all pleased with the results of their fruitless searches. "Very well," she said. "Kamari, Jinn…burn it."
Jinn lifted a graceful eyebrow. "Is that really necessary? She's not here so why burn the village?"
Minerva glanced at her. "You're choosing now to ask me that question? We've burned every village so far, and now it's starting to bother you?"
Jinn shook her head, braids settling around her slender shoulders. "It's not burning the villages that bothers me, Minerva. It's killing the villagers that I don't approve of."
"You don't worry about the villagers," Minerva ordered, her eyes hard. "That's Kamari's job. You just make sure that this place is reduced to nothing but ashes."
Jinn nodded reluctantly. "I see."
Without another word, she turned and started descending the hill to the village again, her cousin Kamari following close behind, unsheathing her Wutainese katanas as she went. The two girls said nothing, to each other or to their two friends on top of the hill.
"They grow weary of all this killing," Fatima observed, her brown eyes pensive as she stared after the two cousins: Jinn the mage and Kamari the ninja.
"Once we find the girl," Minerva said softly. "There will be no more of this senseless killing."
"Someone escaped," Fatima said suddenly.
"What?" Minerva turned to her surprise.
"From the last village," Fatima clarified, a troubled look on her face as she listened to Jinn start yelling incantations for the Fire spell. "A man escaped to the village of Kalm."
"Damn it," Minerva cursed. "Kamari's getting sloppy. We can't have people escaping left and right."
"It's was bound to happen sooner or later," Fatima commented, watching as pillars of white-hot flames began to devour the village beneath them. "Kamari may be a great ninja, but she can only take on so many at once, and the last village was rather large. Too many to kill."
Rare worry creased Minerva's brow, but her eyes were cool and calm as she gazed at the flames licking towards the sky like blood-covered fingers trying to pierce the heavens above. Her sensitive ears detected the screams of the villagers as Kamari went to work in the heart of their happy home, but these sounds of terror didn't faze Minerva. She had been trained to ignore such things.
"Do you think that this man will bring problems down on our heads?" Minerva asked Fatima softly.
"Yes," the shorter girl replied without hesitation. "The Fates have already spoken to me."
"And?" Minerva asked her dark-haired companion. "Exactly what problems will we be having?"
Fatima turned to stare up at her leader and friend. "AVALANCHE has been notified of our actions," she told Minerva softly. "It is only a matter of time before they band together and come to stop us."
Minerva's electric blue eyes widened in shock. "AVALANCHE?" she whispered.
Fatima nodded solemnly.
Worry still marring her features, Minerva turned her Mako blue gaze to the burning village at the bottom of the hill. Jinn's Fire spells had already swallowed half of the houses and were moving onto the others with hungry eagerness, flames plunging into houses and searing everything in their paths. Minerva knew that Jinn's magic was powerful enough to annihilate the village in a matter of minutes, but the fact that one man had slipped past Kamari's guard in the last village was gnawing at her conscience. She didn't blame her friend for the error; chances were that Kamari didn't even know that she had missed the one survivor. Minerva and her friends would probably still be unaware of the man's presence if it hadn't been for Fatima's psychic abilities. But now that she knew that AVALANCHE had been alerted to what they were doing, she couldn't allow for any more mistakes.
Fatima jerked in surprise when Minerva suddenly moved away from her side and began to descend the hill. "Hey! Minerva, where are you going?!"
Without looking back, Minerva replied. "I'm going to go and make sure no one escapes this time. You just make sure that if someone manages to get out of the village, you cut them down. No more mistakes, Fatima. No more mistakes…"