“Hey!” Reno snapped his fingers at the girl behind the bar. She glanced over to him, harassed.
“There is a queue,” she said pointedly.
“I can see that honey,” the red-head jerked his thumb to point behind him. “What I want to know is where I can get a piece of the action?”
She glanced to where he pointed to the cage in the centre of the bar. The rusting fencing stretched from floor to ceiling, marking off a rough square.
“The fight’s off. Cancelled. Someone from Shinra caught wind of it.” she pulled two pints dripping foam from under the taps and slammed them onto the bar.
“Oh yeah? Where’d it move to?”
The girl glowered at him as she served the next customer. “Not here.”
“Doesn’t matter to me. We were supposed to make a fortune tonight, and they bloody cancelled on us. All the advertising, all the damn extra beer I bought in. And now all I have to look forward to is endless round of punters like you asking me where the fight is.”
“Life’s a bitch,” Reno said sympathetically.
“Yeah yeah. No point wasting time complaining about it I guess,” the girl sighed again and looked at Reno with a more friendly expression “You drinking tonight?”
“Whiskey. Double. No ice.”
She slid the tumbler across to him, he caught it with deft fingers – drained the glass in one swallow – and simultaneously flipped her a ten. “Keep the change.”
She shot him a look, but he was already on his way out of the bar. Disappointment warred with the whiskey, but the disappointment won. He had a quota to meet, and Malik – champion cage-fighter – was someone he had had his eye on for a good few weeks.
“Who the fuck could have blown the whistle?” he wondered. “It’s not like Shinra gives a crap what goes on down here anyway.”
Down here – the slums – was looking particularly grim tonight. Street lamps flickered miserably in the smog. The muggers had enough sense to steer clear of the lanky red-head with the metal rod slung over one shoulder, and the dangerous gleam in his eyes. Reno was not just a Turk, but a new Turk – razor-keen and burning to distinguish himself. After intense physical training and endless rounds of briefings Tseng had finally judged him ready to start on the Turk’s raison d’etre.
“The truth is,” he’d said, “there is no easy list of characteristics to look for. Who makes a good Soldier? I’ve recruited talented fighters who’ve cracked after just two rounds in the Mako program. I’ve recruited unlikely alcoholics who’ve thrived and gone on to First Class. After a while you just get a sixth sense for it.”
“So what,” Reno asked. “I just go scrape some bums off the street and see what happens?”
“Go with your gut. Just remember that the Shinra army needs a steady influx of recruits. You need to make your quota each month – and whoever recruits the most successful candidates gets a bonus.”
Reno picked his streets at random, crossing Sector Two haphazardly. Luck led him to Rickyard Court, and his ears pricked up at the sound of drunken shouting mingled with cheers.
The pub was called The Dog Whistle. A battered bill-board displayed a muddy picture of a dog with its head cocked. Inside, the pub was a heaving mass of bodies, drunken spectators shrieking at the two fighters as they clawed at each other. Bookies worked the crowd methodically. Reno shoved his way through the edge of the crowd until he could see the cage. It looked as though it had been hastily erected, the wood chipped white on the ceiling where the bolts had been driven in.
In the cage, the two fighters grappled. Neither of them were Malik, but that didn’t surprise Reno at all. He knew enough to know that there would be a few warm-up fights, newcomers trying to prove themselves, while the crowd had time to drink itself into a reckless mood. He watched the fighters thoughtfully. One looked hardly fourteen, and exhaustion was written into his grimace. He wore a purple headband. The other fighter Reno pegged at nineteen or so, with wiry muscles and an oddly relaxed expression. He wore a yellow headband.
“16 to 2 on purple,” the bookie appeared at his shoulder. Reno shrugged and bought a ticket. He might as well fit in.
The fight was one-sided. The older fighter was stronger, better trained, and more thoughtful in his attacks. The kid was soon pounded into the floor, and the baying of the crowd increased. Bar staff were working the crowd alongside the bookies now, carrying portable kegs of cheap beer on their backs and dispensing it into plastic cups. Reno ignored them.
The next fight was similarly short. Two women clawed at each other, shrieking insults. The fight looked real, but Reno quickly noticed that no real damage was being inflicted and suspected that the two were putting on a show rather than trying to win. The end of the fight confirmed his thoughts, with one girl ripping the top from the other girl. Bloody and half-naked, the girl bared her teeth at the crowd, who roared with approval.
Then the cage was empty, and the crowd shivering with anticipation. Reno could feel the tension running through them, feel the way they had become almost a mob, reflecting and spreading, their individuality drowned for a moment in the stronger current.
Malik was muscled, but in a lean, sinewy way. He was bare-chested, and a black tattoo curled around his left arm and flowed across his back. As he pushed his way up the steps and into the cage, the crowd trembled with anticipation. He looked out across the mass of bodies, and Reno saw casual superiority reflected in his face. Reno smirked to himself. Here was a man born for Soldier – even if he didn’t know it yet.
Malik’s opponent was no push-over. A man who called himself Nightfist, a bulky heavyweight who grinned maniacally at the crowd and lifted his fists above his head. Reno knew Nightfist’s record as well. A long line of wins, but the few times Reno had seen him fight he had not been impressed. He had a few routine moves, but had no ability to think on his feet. A deadly punch though, if he did manage to land a few hits it took a strong man to stay conscious.
The bookies were making good business. Reno shrugged non-committally at the one thrusting tickets at his face. The bookie shrugged in return and moved on to the next person.
After each fighter had strutted for a few minutes – giving the bookies plenty of time to take the bets – the fight began. Someone blew a whistle, and Malik instantly slid into the crouching pose that was his trademark. Nightfist circled him warily, and then attacked.
Nightfist was faster than Reno remember, his fists flashing in deadly tandem. Malik seemed hardly to move, yet each time he dodged just enough that the punch did not connect. Nightfist frowned and stepped back, assessing. Malik took the opportunity, and a beautifully executed roundhouse kick slammed into Nightfist’s gut. The big man grunted, angry. A brutal rain of punches rained down on Malik, who leaped backwards and up, grasped the cage and hung for a moment, a half-smile quirking his mouth. Then he scissored his legs, kicking Nightfist repeatedly in the face. Blood spurted, and the crowd roared approval.
Reno guessed why they had used Nightfist as Malik’s opponent then. Nightfist was not a great fighter, but he took damage like a tank. Wiping the blood from his mouth and nose, the big man grabbed one of Malik’s legs and flung him to the floor and stamped on him. Reno winced, but Malik rolled away and sprang back to his feet.
Reno lit a cigarette, and smoked thoughtfully as the rest of the fight played out. When both fighters were coated in blood and sweat, their faces locked into a grimace of anger and pain, Malik finally took the finishing blow, with a hard chop to the back of Nightfist’s head. Nightfist fell clumsily, trying to grab the cage as he went down, but Malik kicked him in the back of the head again and again, until the giant man finally passed out. The whistle blew again, and Malik – panting – lifted one arm above his head in the traditional victory salute.
Reno worked his way back through the crowd then, and out the door. The night air was cold after the sweaty heat from inside, and Reno shivered, lighting another cigarette.
“Okay,” he muttered to himself. “It’s time to pull him in…”
He made a quick circuit of the pub, and satisfied himself that there was only one exit. The heap of junk piled up next to the ramshackle building provided both a hiding spot and a vantage place. Reno sat, smoked and watched the pub gradually empty. The die-hard gamblers were the first to leave, shaking their heads over the losses or with the grim expression of a winner already planning the next flutter. The drinkers were next, trickling out slowly, laughing, shouting or arguing depending on how their night had gone. The alcoholics were the last to leave, walking in a fixed way of those expert in hiding their inebriation.
“C’mon Malik,” Reno whispered, impatient.
Nightfist left then, bandaged and bruised but surprisingly cheerful. He held the arm of a woman in a suit, who tutted over him affectionately. Reno couldn’t decide if she was a manager or a girlfriend. They strolled away towards Sector 7.
Finally Malik emerged, alongside the staff. They bid him goodbye as they locked up, although Malik did not really reply. He stood for a moment, staring at the flickering mako-powered street light. It’s greenish light cast an unpleasant shadow across his face.
As he left, Reno stubbed out his cigarette and followed him quietly. The slums made for easy stalking – there was always a hiding place, so you could stay close. Malik threaded his way through the litter and debris. Reno watched him as they walked. Malik was loosely dressed in black trousers and t-shirt, but you could see the play of muscles in his arms and shoulders. He moved quietly, a shadow that slipped through the streets with barely a ripple.
They reached a tiny house, built against the wall that divided sector 3 from sector 4. Malik unlocked the door and went inside.
Reno unslung his EMR. The metal stick was polished to a high sheen. Prior to the Turks, Reno had bodged a similar weapon from a vacuum hose and a taser. Tseng had offered him his pick from the Shinra arsenal, but Reno had had his skin saved by his homebrewed weapon too many times. He had insisted on keeping it, and in the end Tseng had offered to commission Scarlett to design a similar, but more professional and reliable weapon. Reno had agreed reluctantly, but the more he used the EMR the more he liked it. The vacuum hose had been prone to ripping and – on one memorable occasion – melting.
He rapped the door with the end of the rod.
Malik answered. He glared at the red-head in the suit. “What?” he demanded.
“I’m here to offer you a job,” Reno said.
“A job?” Malik looked genuinely taken aback.
“Yep. It’s your lucky day.”
Malik stared suspiciously at the man, and then shrugged. “I don’t need a job. I’m making plenty.”
“Ah, but gil isn’t everything!” Reno spread his arms. “Ever slummer has the same dream after all. A blue sky, a soft breeze – a house that isn’t made out of old oil drums.”
“Top plate? Shinra?”
“Yep. Told you it was your lucky day.”
“I suppose you’d better come in.”
It didn’t take long to hash out the details. Reno knew well enough that what he was offering was something many would kill for. As Malik was not one of those people with a long-running grudge against Shinra, recruitment was simply a matter of arranging a time for Reno to escort the man to the science department for the Mako transfusion.
At the end, Malik held out his hand. It was a strong handshake, and Reno felt a flush of pride. First recruit to his name, and he knew Malik would show well.
Three weeks later, Reno found himself reporting to Tseng. It had been a crazy three weeks – in which Reno had been bouncing between Junon and Nibelheim, trying to dig up information on a new group of eco-terrorists.
“Hmm,” Tseng said, when Reno had finally come to the end of his story. Reno sighed. The Wutaian was nothing if not inscrutable. Reno had no idea if he was doing well or badly. He couldn’t tell if Tseng was amused or infuriated by his new Turk, or if he truly didn’t care, and considered him an expendable resource rather than an employee.
“So what do you think?” Reno asked, hopefully.
Tseng considered. “Go back to Junon,” he said finally. “Follow up on the dealer. Something about his story doesn’t ring true.”
Reno grimaced, and turned to leave.
“Oh. Malik,” Tseng flipped his folder of paperwork open. “He made it through the transfusion process. Very positive results. Well done.”
“Yes,” Tseng began reading his paperwork.
“Well now,” Reno said to himself, leaving the office. “Looks like I did at least one thing right.”
The Soldiers had their own training floor, a mix of firing ranges, sparring areas, and the odd battle rooms where those close to graduation tested themselves against the seemingly endless array of Hojo’s unwanted creations. Reno loitered, watching them train. Mainly young men. Most of them, Reno thought, running from something. Mundanity, poverty, a knocked up girlfriend, a bloody trauma. They trained violently, desperate to out-do each other. There were a few older men. Some were veterans of the Shinra Guards. They had proven themselves worthy of notice by one or other of the recruiters – a Turk, or Heidegger himself. They carried pasts that were unreadable. Women were in the minority, but not rare. Tough, competent, they dispatched enemies with a practical ruthlessness that Reno found fascinating. They, in contrast, ignored him. Reno didn’t mind – he preferred soft, quiet women and simple relationships. The brief refuge of a stolen night with someone whose name he would not remember; a little oasis of tranquillity and comfort.
Malik was easy to spot. He sparred confidently, cage fighting had given him all the training he needed. His eyes, so dark as to be almost black, had the strange lustre that was the signature of a Mako infusion. He had taken to it well, instantly comfortable with his body’s new strength and speed.
“Oy,” Reno strolled over, twirling his EMR. Malik whipped a sharp punch to the face of his opponent and nodded. Wary.
“Let’s get a drink.”
Maik nodded again. His opponent was nursing a nosebleed.
They went to a cheap pub in the slightly-less-wealthy district of Upper-3. The young woman behind the bar flirted good-naturedly with every one who drank there. Reno ordered whiskey, Malik vodka and lemonade.
“So,” Reno eyed Malik critically. “Not getting lazy I hope, now that you’re not fighting for your life every night.”
Malik shrugged. “Eh. These soldier boys don’t know how to fight. They box and jab, but there’s no power to any of them. I wouldn’t want them at my back.” He brooded for a moment. “If they are the best of the best then Shinra’s in trouble, Mako or no.”
“You really think so?” Reno was shocked. Nobody ever spoke badly of the Soldiers, the regiment that was Sephiroth’s legacy.
“Oh, some of them have some skill. The older ones. But none of them are – they’ve never been in a battle they had a chance of losing. Sure, a few of them died, but they’ve never faced mass-slaughter. They’ve never had everyone – the whole squadron’s survival depend on them functioning perfectly. They’ve never been on a forced march with no food and no sleep and nothing but near-certain death to look forward to.”
“Aw c’mon. How are they going to get an experience like that anyway, in this day and age? This isn’t the fucking dark ages. Anyway, you might be a cage-fighter but since when have you been on forced marches of death?”
Malik slammed his empty glass onto the bar. “There weren’t many of us, and even fewer of us are left alive. But we sacrificed everything to get into Wutai. That our sacrifice was forgotten – overshadowed by Sephiroth and his easy wins – that we got there a day too late! It doesn’t change what we did!”
Reno nodded at the bartender, who refilled the drinks.
“So what – you fought in Wutai? You don’t look old enough.”
Malik glowered at the red-head, who stayed dead-pan. After a moment Malik sighed and picked the glass up.
“Yeah. Company 38. The poor sods who got picked to fight their way through the enemy line and into Wutai. The sharp end of the wedge.”
Malik shrugged. “Suicide mission. But we got through.”
“Cleared the way?”
“Sort of. Most of us died. Those that didn’t – got taken prisoner eventually.”
“Yeah,” Malik swirled the clear liquid in his glass, staring into the whirlpool. Reno waited.
“In the end, we were taken to Wutai. The line was collapsing – Sephiroth tore through it, he ended up doing what we should have done. I managed to escape before the end – before they killed all the prisoners and then surrendered.”
Reno said nothing. The killing of the prisoners had been a last-ditch attempt at blackmail. Wutai had known they were losing, and had threatened to kill the POW’s – about 1800 strong by that point – if Shinra didn’t back off. Shinra hadn’t, and Wutai had fulfilled their threat. Two days later Sephiroth had been in the capital accepting the surrender, Heidegger by his side. None of the bodies had been returned. Hatred ran deep on both sides. Shinra had played it as the barbaric act of a nation that could not be trusted. They never mentioned that they had been given a choice.
“Anyway. Pointless to think about it now. There’ll never be a war like that one. These boys will be good enough for guard duty and monster patrol I suppose.”
Reno nodded thoughtfully.
“You can be damn quiet when you want to be, can’t you?” Malik studied the red-head again. “I figured you for the hyperactive type.”
Reno shrugged. “Only when the other guy’s not worth listening to.”
“Tell me about the Turks,” Malik said bluntly, and scowled when Reno widened his eyes in faux-shock. “I know you work for them, and you know I know. Don’t screw about.”
“Nothing to say, really. We look around for guys like you. People who can, erm, give Soldier a bit more back-bone.”
“So you’re just headhunters. Nothing else?”
“Nothing else. Why?”
“That’s not what the Soldier’s say.”
“Sure, I know. They all have a goblin in the night story.”
“You’d make a good goblin I reckon.”
Reno rolled his eyes, and waved to the bartender again. “Goblin-shmoblin. Finding guys decent enough for soldier is a full-time job. You seen the general populace lately?”
“So how’d you end up a Turk, anyway?”
Reno considered. “Luck, I guess. I was in the right place at the right time.”
“Yeah. I guess it’s luck that you ended up in that bar that night. Watching me fight. Good money, but no future… you came at the right time.”
Reno’s PHS buzzed, and he glanced down at it. “Hmm. Looks like I need to be out making some other guys night. No sleep for the wicked.”
Malik nodded and finished his drink. “Look me up again. Ain’t nobody in Soldier worth sharing a drink with.”
“Shit and fuck!” Reno kicked at the dead body in front of him. His dealer was spread-eagled in a pool of his own blood. Someone had slit his throat and let him bleed out.
Reno passed a hand across his face. It had been a long night and all for nothing. His informer had been found out – and left for him to find. Now he had a giant mess to clean up. “Fuck,” he said again.
His PHS buzzed. Tseng. Reno answered it, wondering briefly if his boss was somehow psychic and knew when he had screwed up.
“Reno,” Tseng’s voice was tense. “Forget Junon. Get to Corel.”
“Get there now! I’ll brief you later.”
“Uh, sure thing, right away.”
The PHS went dead. Reno studied the body in front of him, and then left, locking the door behind him. When he returned, he had a gallon of gasoline. He splashed it over the body, the liquid mingling with the congealed blood. He splashed it up the door and around the windows. He chucked the container into the back of the room and stood in the doorway. With a sigh, he lit a cigarette and flipped the match in a spitting arc to land next to the body. It went up with a whoosh, and Reno turned and walked away.
Corel was a spitting wreckage. A drizzling rain had put out most of the flames, but a few embers still glowed in the shadows of broken beams. The Turks watched it burn. Thick black smoke fogged the sky. Reno cupped his hand over the cigarette as he lit it to protect it from the rain.
Most of the houses had collapsed into themselves. Here and there a wall stood, and the soot-smudged glimpse of a life that had burned away stood exposed. A painted portrait charred and peeled. A metal bed frame, half sunk in the rubble of the house that had collapsed around it.
Tseng stood with his back to Reno, gazing out over the city. Reno’s throat was dry with talking, but he knew better than to stop. Too many strange things had happened in Corel, from Rufus’s betrayal of Shinra and Avalanche’s subsequent betrayal of Rufus.
From the city, some had escaped and run north. Others had fled into the desert. There were rumours that some squads had been sent out on death runs to find those that had fled and kill them. Reno had been unable to find anybody that would admit to it, however.
“You’ve read Scarlet’s official report?”
Reno snorted. “Should win a fucking Pulitzer.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Go back to Junon. Look to see if any ex-miners turn up looking for vengeance. I have a bad feeling about this – everything is getting messy” Tseng turned back to the window.
“You don’t think Rude could use a hand?”
“Rude is capable. Go to Junon.”
Tseng’s office was on floor forty-two. It was not that high – Tseng preferred the Turks to keep a low profile, although Reno knew that his boss had not managed to contain all the rumours about the men in suits.
He was heading for the roof, but on a whim he stopped off again on the Soldier’s floor. He passed Hojo on the way out of the lift, and gave an involuntary shudder as the scientist slithered past him.
Malik had been promoted, and was now Soldier Second Class with his own small squad. He had two of them with him, and was lecturing them on tactics in one of the empty classrooms when he spied Reno at the door.
“Excuse me,” he said to them and headed over.
“Hey man,” Reno said. “Fancy another drink?”
“Can’t right now,” Malik said regretfully. “Gotta get these two numbskulls ready for their test tomorrow. You sticking around?”
“No – gotta fly out again,” Reno said.
“You guys sure do work hard at your recruiting,” Malik observed wryly.
Reno eyed him. The burning of Corel had left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Like I say – no rest for the wicked. Too many guys burning out halfway through training.”
“Hojo’s overdoing the Mako is why – and I think on purpose.”
Malik leaned closer to the Turk and lowered his voice. “Some of them go in and don’t come back out. Not even as bodies. Some come out half-crazy. I know he makes monsters out of the animals. So whose to say he ain’t making monsters out of the people?”
“He’s crazy. You know he is.”
Reno shook his head. “He’s Shinra’s top scientist. And talking like that is damn close to treason – you keep thoughts like those to yourself.”
Malik leaned back and glanced at the two Soldier’s behind him, studying their text books intently. “Both of them came via you, you know that?”
Reno glanced at the two. A brown-haired heavy-set man he vaguely recognised, and a blond kid that he remembered knocking out in a fight.
“You used to treat this like a game. Capturing the best,” Malik was intent. “I saw the recruits you delivered – always had that spark. You would send up 10 people, if that. Most of them made it through. But now you deliver – maybe 50 people a month, maybe more. Hardly any of them come out. Shinra’s not fighting any wars. We lose a few in Junon every year, but not 50 a month! And that’s just you.”
“Quota went up – and what do you care?”
“This place is a slaughterhouse. I could live with that. The bodies that come out. But I can’t cope with the ones that don’t come out at all.” Malik shrugged. “And you – you’ve got that -” Malik stopped and shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You get on. Just remember where those guys you pick up and promise the moon and stars and sun – remember where they end up.”
Reno crept through the fire-door of the warehouse and slid it quietly closed behind him. Crates were stacked neatly in rows of ten. Reno took the crow-bar from his bag and counted his way back. On the fourth row he stopped and lifted one of the crates from the stack. Using the crowbar he splintered the lid upwards. A layer of aluminium capacitors met his gaze, but he pulled those out and removed the layer of cardboard they rested on.
The distinctive orange blocks of plastic explosives snuggled neatly together. Reno sighed, and turned the crate around so he could see the shipping label.
He stood up then. Tseng would need to be told, and quickly. If Avalanche had spread to Midgar then things were worse than any of them had thought.
“Sector Seven weapons store…”
The torch light flashed around him, startling him and near blinding him.
“Hey! Whose that!”
Two men, both dressed identically in grey camouflage trousers and black polo-shirts started running towards him. Reno swung his crow-bar at the first one, who ducked as the metal bar whistled past his ear.
The second was reaching for a gun in a holster on his hip, but Reno dropped his crow-bar and had his EMG out before the man had got the gun clear. Electricity crackled through the air and the man collapsed in the smell of burning flesh. Reno spun away, and the first man roared with anger and launched himself at the Turk. He crashed into Reno at chest height, and they both went down, the man on top. He managed to punch Reno in the face once before Reno got his block up and thrust upwards to roll the man off. The man snarled as his back hit the floor, and Reno slammed the EMG into the man’s stomach and hit the button. The body bucked twice and fell still.
“Shit,” Reno said, tasting blood. He raised his hand and explored his face. A split lip – he’d got off lightly. There was a potion in his bag. He took a step towards it, and then froze. A third man had appeared, holding what looked like a modified rocket launcher. A scar ran clear down one side of his face, pulling the mouth into a permanent smile and the eye was milky behind the pink flesh.
“Fuck you,” the man said, and a rocket launched. Reno ducked and rolled, and felt rather than heard the rocket plough into the crates behind him. He curled into a ball and felt the rush of flame and heat pass above him. The man screamed – high pitched. Burning debris rained down on the Turk who stayed pulled into a protective ball. The crackle of flames started then, and Reno cautiously shielded his eyes with one hand and crawled towards the fire-door he had come in by. Another row of crates exploded in a fountain of flaming wood and explosive. The heat wave was incredible, Reno could feel his suit charring and thanked whatever gods were listening for the fire-materia linked neatly with the elemental defence in his EMG. Rude had loaned the materia to him a few weeks back when he had heard Reno was tracing the manufacture and delivery of explosives from Junon. Rude was always right – Reno pushed open the fire door and the flames billowed out, greedily sucking up the air outside.
The hotel room was bland but serviceable, and the owners had put the Turks up before and said nothing when Reno came through black with ash, smeared with blood and red eyed. Looking longingly at the shower, Reno first called Tseng, and told him tersely what had happened.
“How badly injured are you?”
“Hell, nothing a shower and a potion won’t clear up.”
“Good. I’ll send Rude to the weapons shop. The man with the scar – he was from Corel prison. He left after winning a chocobo race – two weeks ago.”
“That’s the new system isn’t it? Bloody stupid.”
“Dio’s persuaded Shinra it is an ideal solution, and will attract people to the Gold Saucer. I think we can expect to see more ex-cons working against Shinra in the future. For now – come back to Midgar. If there is a splinter group here than we need to make that our top priority.”
It was raining when Reno arrived back in Midgar. The city slumped beneath the drizzle, the green mako lights flickering. Reno landed his helicopter, and noted the increased number of guards and soldiers patrolling the roof.
Increased security was everywhere. The building swarmed with blue and red guards, Soldiers stood to attention on every floor. The strangest things were the Hojo-creatures. Mutated animals that slunk about with barely contained fury. Reno didn’t ask how they knew the difference between Shinra and enemies.
Reno turned before entering the lift, and saw Malik marching towards him. There were a few grey hairs now, but the man had been promoted again.
Malik grinned. “Last week.”
“That’s not the half of it. Here.”
Reno took the white envelope Malik offered and blinked at his name spelled out in ornate silver curls. Opening it, he stared at the thin piece of card with the two bells cut out from white-lace on the top.
“You’re getting married?”
“Yes. You’ll come right?”
“I – yeah, yeah, I’ll come. I didn’t even know you were dating someone.”
“You’ve been gone six months.”
“Yeah, I suppose I have. Well, shit Malik. Look at you. What’s she like?”
“She’s a guard. Joined – just after you left actually. She’s a smart woman. You’d like her.”
“Well, hey – I gotta go report, but are you around later? Looks like I’m going to be in Midgar for a week or so at least.”
“Yep. I get off at 8. I’ll meet you at that same pub as before, how about it?”
“Sounds great, see you there!”
The pub in Upper-3 had not changed much, though the young bartender had gone. Her replacement, a man in his mid-fifties, poured drinks silently and worked out the change in his head. Reno ordered a double-whiskey, and waited for Malik. Tseng had granted his request for one days vacation with a slightly quizzical look. Reno had been too embarrassed to admit he was going to a wedding.
It had been a long seven years. Reno couldn’t remember any of the other recruits he’d picked up. There had been a few at the start – he’d tried other cage-fighters, but over half of them had cracked during the Mako transfusion. He got the bonus regularly, Tseng was a better recruiter but always busy. Rude seemed not to care, meeting the minimum number and no more. Tseng had always given him an update in the earlier days – telling him who had got through, and who had died, and who had failed to adapt. Now it was something all three of them did but rarely talked about.
Unlike Avalanche. What had started as a tiny group had spidered it’s way across the planet. As soon as the Turks shut down one splinter group, another was set up. Reno knew that Tseng blamed Heidegger and Scarlet for a lot of it. The two seemed set on creating public relation disasters, and expecting Tseng to clear up the mess afterwards. Reno indicated for another whiskey.
And what a mess! Corel had been the first major disaster, and the most public. But not the last. Reno swirled his drink around, stared into the whirlpool.
“That’s the look,” Malik said. “The look of a man whose been to hell and back.”
Reno snorted. “Hardly. There aren’t any wars going on these days.”
“There are worse things than war.” Malik nodded at the bartender who brought him a vodka-lemonade.
“Like marriage?” Reno cocked an eyebrow at Malik, who rolled his eyes.
“Sarah, her name is. She’s beautiful. Here.”
Reno took the photograph and looked at Malik and the brown-haired woman he was holding. She was smiling, radiant with happiness. Malik looked half-shocked, as though he couldn’t quite believe his luck. There was a great tenderness in the photo, and Reno felt a flash of anger, which he swiftly quenched.
“She’s pretty,” he said.
“Best woman in the world,” Malik said proudly. “We met when she was on duty. I was trying to get back into the building – I’d left my keycard in my locker – and we just started talking. We’re living in her apartment at the moment, but we’re saving up for a deposit – we’ve got our eye set on a nice little two-bed.”
“Where’ve you been, anyhow?”
Reno shrugged. “Here and there. Spent some time in Junon.”
“I hear the President’s son lives in Junon.”
Malik glanced at Reno. “Well – how about you? Met any girls?”
“In Junon – oh, a few,” Reno grinned at Malik. “You’ll get bored ya know. Variety is the spice of life.”
“Sure, and that’s why your girls are always small and dark with those big eyes,” Malik mocked. “You should just pick one and settle down. Chasing tail all the time must be getting old now.”
“Never! All the fun is in the chase!”
“Ahh, you think so, but you’ve never tried the alternative.”
“I don’t need to – I can see it in your sappy grin.” Reno shook his head. “You’ll be pussy-whipped in no time.”
“And loving every minute of it.”
Malik glanced again at Reno. The red-head was thinner than he remembered, all angles and planes. His eyes were shadowy with the kind of tiredness that doesn’t go away with a good nights sleep. Every time someone entered the bar his muscles would tense up and his eyes would flick to assess.
Malik nodded to the bartender. Another round of drinks went down.
“I mean,” Malik said “Picking out bed-linen has gotta be better than shooting down the Wutes. I remember – we used to burn the corpses. Christ, that smell. You don’t ever forget it.”
Reno winced, and picked up the tumbler of whiskey.
“It’s like that accident at Corel – fucking tragic. I don’t want to think about shit like that. I’d rather just come home to a wife that loves me, cook up some good food, focus on me and mine.”
“And if the world doesn’t stay conveniently out the way?” Reno asked. “You can’t just ignore all the shit in the world and hope it doesn’t come knocking.”
“Sure you can. If a disaster comes – well, you protect your loved ones. It makes life a lot more simple. If I’d been in love I’d never have gone on that suicide mission. No grand concept is worth not being able to come home to her.”
“There’s no grand concept. You just stop the shit at source, and then all the families can go and pick out their damn bed-linen. Someone has to do it.”
“You think one man can stop shit from occurring? More shit comes about from a guy thinking he’s saving the world than all the murderers and thieves in history.”
Reno glanced at the bartender, who brought another two drinks. “Sure, messiahs do damage. But not a garbage man. He just cleans up the trash before it swamps the world.”
“Did you burn Corel?”
Reno was taken aback. “No.”
“You didn’t?” Malik looked surprised.
“Is that what this is about? Fucking hell – I didn’t burn a town down.” Reno glared at Malik, and then added “The reactor exploded,” as an afterthought.
“So – you cleaned up the trash?”
Reno shrugged. He thought briefly about the clean-up operation. Watching guards dig through clouds of soft grey ash and twisted buildings to uncover the skeletons, charred clean.
“What does it matter? That was ages ago.”
“Two years ago today,” Malik glanced down at the bar. “Sarah had a relative there.”
“Hmm,” Reno drank the whiskey. He was getting drunk, but it was a relief. He was starting to feel relaxed for the first time since he could remember. “So you two – what? Bonded over your shared sob stories?”
“You could say that,” Malik said.
“See, that’s the fucking problem. Everyone has a grudge, some sob story that they, they think means they’re fucking special. If everyone just quit with their stupid little tragedies and just – hell, maybe you’re right. Maybe we should all be buying matching sheets. But that ain’t how it works.”
“Maybe we should stop giving people cause to grudge.”
“Fuck! Try telling Miss Cluedo that! Or anybody for that matter. You think the Wutaian’s will ever forget the war? Sure, it’s a tourist trap now, but you can see it in the way the older ones look at you – and by the fact drinks are always twice as expensive if you let on you’re from Shinra.”
“I’m forgetting the war,” Malik said quietly.
Reno shrugged, and slammed the glass down on the bar. “Fuck, most of us have forgotten it. But it only takes one, one fuckhead with a long memory, to bring it all back.”
The two fell silent. Reno drew a finger through the whiskey that had slopped over the edge of his glass.
“You saved me, you know,” Malik said, finally.
“What?” Reno looked up.
“That night – I’d made my plans. A bottle of vodka, a hot bath. A knife.”
Reno stared at Malik.
“Couldn’t sleep. Ever. Always dreaming – living in that hole. Never seeing the sky. The fights kept me alive. Not the money. The adrenaline. But it got old. Always another forgotten face that I pummelled into the floor. Just going around and around, angry and despairing.”
“And now – now I’ve got a real job. A woman who loves me. Friends I can joke around with. I still dream sometimes. But when I wake up, there’s someone there. It’s not just an empty room in the dark.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Reno asked.
“I want you to know. You saved me, whether you meant to or not, whether I was a name on a list or not.”
Reno shook his head. “Bullshit.”
Malik sighed. “I gotta go – Sarah will be wondering where I am. But you – you should find someone to save you. Before you wake up in an empty room in the dark.”
“Bullshit,” Reno said again.
“Maybe” Malik said, as he left. “Maybe not.”
Reno collapsed next to the girl, shuddering as the tide receded. She gasped as he slid out, then rolled over and wrapped herself around him. Reno stroked her head absent-mindedly. Glossy black hair, cut short around a heart shaped face. She snuggled into his side. Reno watched the window, at the lights that glowed along the underside of the plate. One of them had gone out, leaving a puddle of blackness.
“You always look so serious,” Kylie ran her fingers lightly over Reno’s chest. “What are you thinking about?”
“Hush. No talking.”
Kylie pouted and rolled over. Reno sighed, and rolled over as well. He scooped the girl into him, buried his face in her hair, and let her faint smell of shampoo, sweat, and perfume drown him.
They fell asleep like that, until Reno’s PHS buzzed. Groaning, he sat up and pushed his hair out of his eyes. His trousers were over a chair forcing him out of bed to answer the summons.
“Reno. There’s been an incident.”
“Sector one. The reactor.”
Reno blinked, turned the television in the corner of the room on. The news presenter talked sombrely, whilst behind him film footage of the burning reactor rolled.
“Get here. Now.”
The PHS went dead. Kylie sat with the blankets pulled up around her, staring at the newscast.
“Go back to sleep. It’s nothing.”
She didn’t reply, hugged her knees, and watched the newscast blankly. Reno sighed as he pulled on his shirt. He had met her three weeks ago, and had spent more nights here than in his own apartment since then. At first she had been quiet, saying very little and making no comment on his coming and going. The last two nights she had become more inquisitive. He didn’t need the hassle.
“Go back to sleep,” he told her again as he left. If she replied, he didn’t hear it.
“Barret Wallace,” Tseng said as Reno entered. The older Turk was expressionless as always. Rude raised a hand in greeting and then turned back to the reports covering his desk.
“There’s a surprise…”
“He’s grouped up with some anti-Shinra propagandists. They’ve previously been non-violent. And one unknown using a buster sword.”
“Casualties have not been confirmed yet, but estimated between three and four hundred.”
“It looked big,” Reno agreed. He went and stood behind Rude, reading the profiles the Turk had lined up.
“They’re strong. They’ve disappeared into the slums now – we don’t have any trace of them. But the President has decided to set a trap.”
“A new weapon, an air buster. A kind of mechanical soldier.”
“…” Rude turned the page on his report.
“The President himself will be spearheading. I’ll be with him. Reno… we’ve been instructed to pull in the Ancient. It’s been re-prioritised.”
“Not this time. Rude. I want you backing up Scarlet. She’ll be deploying the air busters at each reactor. Rude – you’re dismissed. Reno, stay here for a moment. I have some files on the Ancient.”
Tseng opened the locked filing cabinet beside his desk as Rude left. As the door clicked shut, he glanced up. His grey eyes were troubled.
“Reno. Malik was patrolling near the reactor when it went. He’s dead.”
“Soldier administration has taken over – informed his wife. But I thought you should know. Here – this what we have on the Ancient.”
Reno took the files automatically, and blinked at the enigmatic man he had worked with for so long.
“Thanks,” he said finally. “For telling me.”
“Don’t let it affect the mission. We need Aerith.”
Reno nodded and left the room.
The next few days passed in a blur. Both Avalanche and Aerith escaped, but Heidegger pulled in a connection he had and discovered where Avalanche’s hideout was. With the stack of failures at apprehending Avalanche laid out, President Shinra came up with a plan that was not efficient, but was thorough. He assigned the dropping of the Sector 7 plate to the Turks.
Reno thought of Malik and volunteered.
It was a hot day, and the slums reeked of rot. Every pillar came pre-built with a release system. It was meant as a defence against fire. Avalanche were there – of course they had heard about the plan – but Reno didn’t care. He set the detonation device, and fought the terrorists systematically. He had half expected to be consumed by rage, but instead it was though he was not all there – fighting with clinical precision, and retreating without remorse. Leaping into the waiting helicopter, he did not even look back as the plate collapsed behind them.
Reno dragged himself to wakefulness, blinking as Kylie’s face came into focus. She stared down at him, biting her lip.
“It’s you,” Reno muttered, and rolled over.
“Reno! It’s eleven in the morning and your PHS has been going for hours!”
“What? Oh – shit!”
Reno sat up, and felt the room lurch around him. “Oh, fuck. I need water.”
Kylie fetched him a pint glass and perched on the end of the bed as he drank it. “You came in stinking drunk last night,” she observed. “I hadn’t seen you for days.”
Reno gulped the water eagerly, he felt as though his mouth were full of sawdust.
“You’re lucky I let you in,” she added, taking the empty glass back.
“Yeah, thanks,” Reno ran his hands through his hair. Tseng was going to be pissed. Maybe. It was the first day he’d been late in ten years.
“You kept talking about Malik,” Kylie said.
Reno shook his head. “What did I say?”
“That he was the only good thing you ever did,” Kylie said. “And that you should’ve saved him. Who was he?”
“Just a man I knew.” Reno swung his legs over the edge of the bed and leant his head in his hands. Nausea and exhaustion. “I was drunk. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“You said he died and it was your fault.”
“I was drunk.”
“Um,” Kylie said non-committally. She went and refilled the glass. Reno took it and looked at her. She was wearing a white blouse and brown pin-striped trousers. Her hair was clipped back from her face. She looked older with it like that, more business like. “You missed work for this?”
She shrugged. “You were in a bad way.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
She shrugged again. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Where do you work?”
“Temp. Secretary. Office Angels.”
Silence fell. Reno wondered if he should phone Tseng. He felt like shit, completely wrung out. If someone had jumped him then, he’d have welcomed the blow.
“I answered your thing,” Kylie said.
“Yeah. The guy said to take the day off. He said you were no use to him hungover,” she added, somewhat apologetically.
“You want to get lunch?”
“I – no. There’s something I have to do. Sorry.”
“I understand. You can use the shower.”
Malik had been buried in a cemetery at the south of Upper-4. The gravestone had a small pile of wreaths on it. His fellow soldiers had obviously grieved him. The gravestone has ‘Loyal soldier and loving husband’ engraved on it. Reno hunkered down on the grass and traced the words with his finger. “Fuck man. How could you let this happen?”
Standing, Reno lit a cigarette and watched the smoke drift upwards. Above him, the clouds moved slowly across the sky.