Runaway Train by Soul Asylum
Smoke rose in unconcerned, unremitting threads, hanging thick in the air above his head like a collection of bad thoughts and negative emotions. It suited the atmosphere and his mood. A man only sat alone in a dark and crowded bar when he had no use for company. It wasn't the wisest of choices, but then, Reno had never cared to do things the right way.
A half-smoked cigarette smoldering in his hand, he lifted a shot glass rimmed with whiskey and saluted his distorted reflection in the mirror behind the bar before tossing it back. It went down burning and settled heavily. Behind him, the low throb of voices competed with the steady hum of music. Laughter, female and throaty, shot through the mix like the disquieting stab of gun fire. It was likely some man was going to get lucky tonight.
"Better him than me," he muttered, suddenly struck by an image of himself and Rude sitting in a bar in Junon, smoking and mocking some inept man's attempt to pick up one of the many prostitutes that hung around. In those days, Shinra had been the center of it all. And he hadn't wondered what he was going to do with himself from one day to the next.
Things changed, were changing, and he didn't like the feeling that nagged at him, telling him he was old news, washed up, and used. That unsteady sense of running during an earthquake. The world tilted out of focus when he sat down to think, and he had been doing his damndest to leave it alone since that day they had all decided to forsake loyalty for personal preservation. But the funny thing about what you ran from was, it always caught up with you eventually and knocked you on your ass.
Temper shifted, worked through him, leaving the sharp sting of heat and regret. The bitter swell of it caught in the back of his throat, nearly choking him, and he grabbed the nearest glass, swallowing a large portion of it without regard for ownership or pacing.
It didn't help. He knew, with the experience of a long-time drinker, that whatever you wanted to get rid of in the night always followed you into the morning. It was a waste of time and money. Yet, the pathetic truth of it was, most people, himself included, didn't have anywhere else to be.
"Hey," a voice intruded on his thoughts, rough and deep with anger, "that was mine."
Reno took a last drag on his cigarette before grinding it into a gleaming, black ashtray.
Slowly, deliberately, he twisted on his barstool until a face materialized through the haze of smoke, heat, and sweat. Used to taking in details and quickly, he pulled in all he needed in the time it took to fill a shot glass. You could never really shake what had become habit.
He judged the man to be middle thirties with the hard cast of too much booze and the beginning decline of not enough exercise. Faded jeans and equally worn flannel strained against uncooperative flesh. Reno estimated he had a good five inches on the guy, and that while the arms beneath the rolled up sleeves were thick, he had faced worse and lived.
"So get another."
There wasn't any reason to stay here. It wasn't much different from sitting in his apartment, and he was almost to the point where sleep held more appeal than getting drunk.
As he slipped from the barstool, leaving an appropriate amount of gil under his empty glass, a hand closed over his wrist. Fingers bit into his flesh through the fabric, nearly grinding the slender bones comprising it together.
"You owe me a drink. I want it, or you aren't going anywhere."
There was a slight stir around them, and Reno noted the bartender became more alert, his hand dropping below his waist. Probably, to reach for a shotgun.
The vicious knot that had been sitting low in his stomach until now tugged higher, burning with the need for release. Here was an outlet for his mood. He wanted nothing more than to smash his fist into the stranger's face.
Maybe another night, another bar.
Driving a thumb into the exposed throat above his collar, Reno waited for the resulting gag and the slackening of the fingers around his wrist, before he shook them off and turned his back, dropping a wad of gil at the foot of the barstool. His hands went into his pockets out of habit, and he used his shoulder to shove through the door. It was dark, damp, and cold. He didn't exactly appreciate the sea air, but that hadn't stopped him from living here.
The alley smelled of putrid garbage, unwashed bodies, and week old excrement.
He kicked a foot out of his way as he walked, gratified mildly by the stirring beneath the piles of dingy newspaper. He didn't care for the questions or the paperwork that came with finding a dead body. If this wasn't the quickest way home, he would have avoided it altogether.
It was the sound of breaking glass that had him looking back.
Tension knifed through him, tightening his muscles and narrowing his concentration. It didn't take a genius to determine that four guys in an alley were trouble.
His hands stayed in his pockets, and a brief smile twisted his lips.
"Looks like you pissed someone off," he said softly to himself. It wouldn't be the first time.
Pride, idiocy, whatever it was termed, kept him still. Running would have been the smart thing to do, but he hadn't run from anything in his life, except maybe responsibility.
They fanned out, falling on either side of him, the one facing him still rubbing at his throat which bore an angry, red imprint.
Reno's hands curved into fists, but he left them where they were.
"What, the gil wasn't good enough?" His tone was light, carrying a hint of mockery and the edge of laughter.
"We're going to mess you up!" someone spat at him.
"All four of you? I'm honored."
That was all the invitation he needed. Pivoting, Reno slammed his fist into the face of the man behind him and felt the answering give of bone. Without stopping to catch his breath, he bent low and drove forward, shoulder first, sending them both into a conglomerate of trash cans. The resounding clatter stirred up displeased cats and nervous rats. Something fell on his face, and he threw it off, disgusted as he struggled to his feet.
His Mag-rod was off his belt and lit in the next breath.
An unfair advantage demanded unfair weaponry.
Obviously he wasn't the only one with that idea, he realized, as a chain shot from the shadows, curling around his leg and driving him to his knees. The scrape of cement tore through the cloth, exposing stinging skin to the bite of air.
Rolling, he hit his back hard, and lashed out. There was the dull thud of connection, and the brief illumination of electric shock, casting the unlucky bastard's face in the muted light of pain. The pressure around his leg didn't let up, however. He tore at the chain with his opposite hand as his eyes scanned the narrowed space for more threats.
Where the hell were they?
When he was half-way to his knees again, he was violently tugged off balance. Cursing, he held on as he was dragged a good three feet before someone planted the hard toe of a boot in his ribs. The ground was wet, and it soaked through his jacket, plastering the material to his back. He tried to focus on that, rather than the searing agony ripping through his chest like the claws of a displeased and spoiled house cat.
"Now I know why I don't own any goddam cats," he wheezed, dropping his Mag-rod to grasp the chain with both hands.
The body on the other end gave, but another surfaced behind him and slammed something between his shoulder blades. Hunched over, he heard the snap-hiss of his own rod as someone picked it up and activated it. Damning his stupidity for dropping it, he considered that the chain had to go before anything else, and blindly hurled himself aside.
The jolt struck the pavement.
The flash stung his eyes, and banking on the fact that it had probably startled everyone else, he went for the man holding the chain. Yanking it from the other's hands, Reno uncurled it from his leg, and beat the guy upside the head. As it was coming back around, he went for the knees.
Someone tackled him from behind. He hit hard, his chin clipping the pavement with a force that made his entire jaw go numb. Then there were three and four of them on him, holding him down, while the last slammed his Mag-rod into his side and blasted him again and again, until he bit his own tongue to keep from screaming.
A chill wind gusted down the street, picking up the lighter papers and debris and tossing them in the air, causing the pedestrians walking by to lower their heads, or raise their hands, usually fruitlessly, to try to smack the projectiles away. Tifa lowered her own head and hugged her grocery bag closer to her, trying to use it as a shield against the cold wind. It was only September but already Junon was feeling the first bite of winter. The city was located in a temperate region, almost the same latitude as Costa del Sol, as a matter of fact, but because the winds coming in off the ocean blew from the north almost year round it never seemed to get very warm, thus missing out on the tropical resort town's main draw.
The wind faded after a few steps and she lifted her head once more, turning her attention momentarily to the sky over her head. A thick band of clouds blanketed it. She could see no stars, no light from the heavens. The turbulent clouds blocked it out. The winds must have been blowing with more force up there, for the clouds raced across the sky, swirling and churning, raging like a cauldron at full boil. She was thankful that at least it hadn't started to rain yet, and hoped it would hold off until she made it home. An angry sky, that's what her father would have called it.
Her father... She felt a pang in the pit of her stomach at the thought of him. Was it still sorrow that he was gone that she felt, or perhaps guilt at having forgotten about him? How long had it been since she had last thought of him, or her old home town? She had grown up there, and it still held some of the best memories of her life, memories of a simpler time, the smell of fresh grass, of summers that seemed to last forever, playing jump rope in the streets, sleepovers, of being happy just to be alive. All that before Sephiroth had come to her town and forced her to grow up. Too soon...
She was walking forward with an easy stride, which was suddenly interrupted as her foot was intercepted by a metal bar lying on the ground. She nearly stumbled, just barely holding onto her grocery bag as pain shot through her toe and the metal bar clattered away.
"Ah shit!" was her spontaneous outburst as she hopped around for a moment, mostly on one foot, waiting for the pain to subside. Eventually it did and she lifted the damaged appendage, trying to inspect her pump as best she could. The toe was scuffed but she didn't think it was scratched too badly. It was hard to tell in the dark, but she thought she could polish it out. She didn't want to buy another pair of shoes. They never seemed to last long. She couldn't remember how many pairs she had gone through in the last year.
"I wouldn't go through so many if morons didn't leave pieces of pipe lying around on the sidewalk," she couldn't help but mutter as she continued on her way, ignoring the fact that if she had been looking where she was going and not daydreaming she might have avoided the obstacle.
She made a sudden turn to the right, slipping into a trash filled alley that led behind the row of bars and strip clubs that lined the streets of this area of Junon. She didn't usually go this way, she usually went around, down by the airport, but she wanted to get home before it started to rain. She wouldn't be in this part of town at all except that it was difficult to find a grocery store open this late. She was well aware that it wasn't safe for the average person to wander around in this part of town at night, especially a woman, but then again, she didn't exactly consider herself your average woman.
Even so she quickened her step as she walked, and not just because of the vile smell. The sooner she was out of here and back home, the better she would feel.
Home. She lived in a small flat over on Edmond street, not far from the elevator down to the lower level, with a lovely view of the bowling alley out her kitchen window. It was funny, she had grown up in Nibelheim, the small country town still holding some of her fondest memories. After it had been destroyed she had ended up in Midgar, the very epitome of the word city. The slums of Midgar had been dirty and bleak and everything that Nibelheim was not. She had hated it there for a long time. Midgar was gone now, destroyed by meteor. She was no longer a shy young girl depending on others for support, hadn't been for a long time. She was perfectly capable of deciding for herself where she should live, yet instead of heading back into the country, not Nibelheim, certainly not there, which now held as many painful memories as happy one's, but somewhere else out of the way, such as Kalm or Mideel, she had ended up here in Junon, the largest city left after the fall of Midgar. The new bastion of crime and squalor. She had been a country girl and thought that's where her heart still lay, but if that were true, whatever possessed her to remain here?
She didn't have any answer to that question, nor time to ponder it as her reverie was interrupted yet again, this time not by a impediment underfoot but instead by the unmistakable sounds of a struggle in the darkness ahead of her.
She paused, hesitating, not sure what to do. She could take care of herself but that didn't mean she was anxious to attract any trouble. If she continued, would she end up being caught in the middle of something that was none of her business or could she just pass by?
The feel of a raindrop splattering on her arm was the deciding factor.
She started forward once again, in spite of a sneaking suspicion that she would regret it. She could see figures resolve themselves out of the darkness ahead now. Three or four men, she thought, gathered on one side of the alley. She could see punches being thrown, and someone on the ground, and also a weird sparking light, like the end of a live electrical cord. What was that, some kind of tasar? It reminded her of Reno's old Mag-rod. Boy, that was a long time ago. She was surprised she even remembered it.
There was someone on the ground all right. As she approached she could see more clearly. Four men, all gathered round the man who was down, pummelling him, and one of them using some kind of electrical weapon. The man on the ground didn't seem to be defending himself, he was just curled up into a ball with his arms wrapped around his head, trying to minimize whatever damage his tormenters decided to inflict. She could hear him moan at each blast of electricity. The smell of burnt flesh mixed with that of the rotting trash.
The men paid no attention to her. She walked slowly by, but she found, instead of hurrying on, that she slowed, each step more reluctant than the last. This wasn't a fight, it was a massacre. What had the poor guy done to deserve this?
It was none of her business. She should stay out of it. She had lived in Junon long enough to know not to stick her nose in other people's business. She knew that as well as anyone. Yet in spite of that, the sound of their blows on his undefended flesh made her teeth clench. She couldn't just stand there while they pummelled the guy.
"What the hell are you doing to him?"
She succeeded in arresting the beating, at least for the moment, as they all stopped and turned to glare at her. For a moment, they didn't seem to know what to make of the woman standing in front of them holding a bag of groceries asking them questions. She suspected it didn't happen very often.
Eventually the man closest to here spoke up.
"None of your business. Beat it bitch."
Apparently deciding that would be more than enough to send her scurrying on her way, they turned back to their prey with no more thought of her.
Tifa carefully placed her grocery bag down on the pavement, hoping the rats would have had more sense than her and departed this portion of the alley for safer ground. She stood there for a moment, then reached into the bag and pulled out a smaller plastic bag containing three tomatoes. She removed one from the bag, weighing it for a moment in her hand, deciding whether these men were worth wasting a perfectly good vegetable on, but she thought it would get her point across.
The projectile hit the man stooping in the back just below the neckline. She saw with more than a little bit of satisfaction that some of the pulp from her sacrificial vegetable splattered up into the man's hair.
He spun around, one hand going toward his back, and coming away covered with tomato remains.
"What the hell?"
"Leave him alone!"
The man glared at her again. It appeared that this time they weren't going to dismiss her out of hand, but whether that was for good or ill she couldn't be sure.
"What's he to you?" one of the other men spoke up.
"He's a human being, Tifa replied. "You've beaten him enough. He's not even fighting back. If you keep it up you'll kill him."
"Like we give a shit."
"Haven't you done enough damage?" Tifa asked. "What did he do to deserve this?"
"None of your damn business!"
The man who she had targeted with her food group weapon stood up, holding some kind of rod in front of him.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" he hissed. "Maybe you'd like to get a little taste of this too!"
Tifa's brow creased as she stared at the device the man was waving in front of her. She felt a shock suddenly run through her, and it had nothing to do with the instrument in the man's hand. That didn't just look like Reno's Mag-rod. It was Reno's Mag-rod.
She looked down at the crumpled heap at their feet. No blue suit. That's probably why the thought didn't occur to her sooner, but then there wouldn't be. The Turks had been a part of Shinra, and Shinra was long gone. No, the suit didn't give him away, but the shock of red hair certainly did, even before he lifted his head and looked around slowly.
Reno. She couldn't believe it. Of all the people to meet, after all this time. Four long years since they had fought, since Avalanche had beaten Sephiroth, stopped meteor and destroyed Shinra. Four long years and in all this time she hadn't seen hide nor hair of Reno, or any of the Turks, for that matter, something she had been eternally grateful for. She wouldn't have left anyone in Reno's situation, hell, she wouldn't have left a dog in that position, but of everyone in the entire world, Reno was the one person she would have been most likely to make an exception for.
Still, it was too late to ponder the wisdom of her decision to intervene for at that very moment the man in front of her lunged forward, the Mag-rod sparking angrily in her face.
Unfortunately for him, Tifa had some experience with this weapon. She twisted quickly to the side, her left hand coming up to slap the rod aside, just as a blast of electricity crackled through the air. A quick snap kick to the stomach doubled the man over. Her leg shot up in the air again, then she drove her foot down on the back of the man's head. Without further ado, he fell to the ground in a heap.
Tifa turned toward the others, assuming her battle stance.
The other men hesitated, obviously surprised at how easily this mystery woman had dispatched their comrade. Whether they decided it was some kind of fluke or just that their friend had been taken by surprise, they must have decided they would have better luck for suddenly they all rushed toward her.
In their exuberance they forgot about their original target, perhaps thinking, not unnaturally, that he was down for the count. However they soon found out that was far from the truth as Reno, ignoring the pain from his injuries, suddenly rolled over and pulled himself to his knees. Grasping the chain his opponents also seemed to have forgotten he whipped it through the air, striking one of the men in the knees and sending him sprawling.
One of the men balled his fists and aimed a vicious roundhouse at Tifa's head. A deft turn to the side on her part left him nearly falling over from the momentum as his knock out punch struck only empty air. The second man somehow got hold of her wrist. He pulled her toward him, nearly yanking her off her feet, and she could not avoid his backhand blow to her face. Her head turned at the blow, her eyes blinking at the sting of it, but the adrenaline rush of battle prevented her from feeling much pain. Pivoting, she brought her elbow down on his forearm, breaking his grip on her. Each one of them was stronger than she was. She couldn't get tied up in a slugfest with them. She had to depend on her speed and mobility.
The man swung at her again. She blocked the blow with her left hand, then drove her other arm up, her palm striking the man in the chin, snapping his head back. He stumbled backwards, arms flailing, then toppled to the ground, as luck would have it, squarely on her bag of groceries. Tifa's eyes widened as she saw her footstuffs crushed and scattered amid the debris and filth that covered the alley floor.
"Oooh! Now I'm really pissed!"
She spun around, sending a lightning jab at the face of the lone attacker that was still on his feet. It hit him square in the nose. She followed up with another jab, and then another. The man raised his hands in front of him, clumsily trying to block the bows, but to no avail. Tifa continued to whale on him, striking half a dozen more blows before he finally fell to the ground.
"All right, all right, I give!" he said, covering his head with his hands.
"You give? You give?" Tifa sputtered. "Did you stop when he said 'I give'?"
She looked up, pointing at Reno, and for the first time noticed he was on his knees, beating the fourth attacker with some kind of chain? The object of his attention lay sprawled on the ground in front of him, unmoving.
"Reno!" she shouted.
He stopped, panting, his head coming up to look at her.
"Enough!" she growled. She turned back toward the man in front of her. "Well?"
"Umm, well, he didn't really say I give," the man replied petulantly. It was obvious from his words and behavior he was the drunkest of the lot.
Tifa just looked at him for a moment, then turned away.
"Get out of here," she snapped, shaking her head. She walked over to Reno, who was looking at her with surprise in his eyes and a crooked grin on his face. She didn't know why. He didn't seem to have much reason to be jovial. It was plain to see he was in bad shape from his meeting with these thugs. His clothes were torn and he was bleeding from scrapes that covered most of his body. The bruises on his arms and legs were already turning an very ugly shade of purple. He had an open cut along the side of his face and one eye was nearly swollen shut. And that was without even mentioning the burns on his back. Whatever else she thought about him she had to admit he had guts. She was surprised he was even conscious at this point, much less fighting back.
"Can you stand?"
Reno tentatively lifted one leg and placed his foot under his body. He started to stand, but almost immediately sank back down. She could see pain lacing across his face, but he did not cry out. She slipped one arm under his and added her strength and this time he managed to attain an upright position. She glanced over at their adversaries, but the men seemed to have had more than their fill of combat for one day and were wandering off as if nothing had happened, all except the man Reno had been beating with the chain, who had yet to regain consciousness.
Reno took a slow step forward. Tifa kept her arm under his, supporting him, but then he irritably pushed it away.
"I don't need any help, thank you very much," he muttered. He stood there for a moment, swaying slightly. Tifa didn't touch him, but kept her hands ready to grab him should he begin to topple, an event that seemed quite likely to her.
"You do need help," she contradicted. "You can barely stand."
"I said I'm fine," he snapped.
He began to walk away from her. Even as badly damaged as he was, he still took the time to give a quick kick to the man still on the ground as he went by.
"Reno," Tifa admonished.
He continued on his way, walking painfully slowly, taking little baby steps. The backdoors of the buildings lining the street faced the alley, and he seemed to be headed for one.
She placed her hands on her hips.
"Where are you going?"
"All this fighting is thirsty work," he replied without looking back at her. "I'm going to get a drink."
She came up beside him.
"Reno, do you have any idea how badly hurt you are? You don't need to go to a bar, you need to go to a hospital!"
"I ain't going to no damn hospital!" he spat out with surprising vehemence.
"Ookay, fine," she replied as he continued stubbornly toward the door. "But what do you think is going to happen when you walk in that door? The people inside are going to take one look at you and call an ambulance. You'll still get carted off to the hospital and you probably won't even get your drink."
The logic of that must have sunk in because now he did stop. He turned to look at her for a moment out of his one good eye.
"Fine," he said finally. "I'll just go home and drink there."
He started off again, this time headed down the alley. Tifa stood there looking at him, exasperated. With those tiny steps he was taking it would take him all night to reach the end of it.
She felt something wet strike her forehead. She looked up as the clouds above her head finally started to release their burden.
"Oh this is just great," she muttered as the rain splattered around her.
She looked at Reno. In spite of his protests, it was obvious he wasn't going anywhere under his own power, or not very far anyway. Nevertheless the temptation to just leave him was stronger than she wanted to admit. If it was any other person she wouldn't hesitate to help, but Reno...
In spite of her efforts to prevent it, memories came flooding back to her, memories of her life in Midgar, her days with Avalanche, and their fight against Shinra and Sephiroth. It had been so long ago, and she had tried so hard to forget, and here Reno, unintentionally or not, was dredging them up again. Memories of her friends, those who had lived and died.
Especially those who had died.
She wasn't about to forget what Reno had done to Sector Seven. President Shinra might have given the order, but it was Reno who had pushed the button that had dropped the plate and killed her friends.
No, she shouldn't be standing here in the rain helping this man. If anything, she should have added her own blows to those that struck him. If anyone deserved to die a miserable death, it was him.
So what was she still doing here? The rain was coming down harder now, it's drumbeat steady on the pavement. She was getting soaked, yet still she stood there watching Reno take one excruciatingly slow step after another. Looking at him she felt she should hate him for what he had done, yet for some reason the feeling inside her wasn't one of hatred at all. She wasn't sure what it was. Reno was a creature of habit, had done what he was told with little or no thought of the consequences. It had been four years ago and they had all done foolish things. Hatred was a difficult thing to hold onto for that long, or at least it was for her. He looked so pitiful struggling just to put one foot in front of the other. She hadn't seen him at all since then but she knew Shinra was gone, and with it the Turks, and though she didn't pretend to know what went on inside his head, she had known him well enough to realize that the Turks had been everything to him. She wasn't the only one who had lost...
Tempted as she might be she couldn't just leave him. She didn't want to see even a bastard like him die here in this alley. Her groceries were gone and she was already soaked. A minimal amount of assistance wouldn't do her anymore harm.
She walked over to him again.
"Where do you live?"
He peered at her. It was obvious he had been drinking, hell, Reno was always drinking, but his eyes seemed surprisingly clear, or eye rather, in this case. He had always been that way. You could never tell which of his inebriated actions were actually caused by alcohol and which were a calculated attempt to get others to underestimate him. His mouth flattened before he turned his head and spat out some blood.
"Is that some kind of pick up line?" he questioned.
"Don't be an ass," she replied. Same old Reno. "I just want to know how far you have to go. Walking at this speed, if it's any distance at all it will be well into next week before you get there."
"What direction does it look like I'm walking?" He quipped, rubbing a hand across his mouth as if that would help the sting.
She only stared at him. The look on her face wasn't tolerant.
"Over on eighth street," he finally told her.
Eight street. All the way over on the other side of town. Figured. She grabbed hold of him again.
"I told you I don't need any help!" he snapped, trying to push her away again but this time she didn't let go in spite of his protests.
"Oh shut up. At the rate you're going you'll be dead before you get down the block."
She ignored that. She had no desire to delve into Reno's psyche to begin with, but especially not now, not out here in the middle of a rainstorm. She merely tightened her support on his arm and pulled him forward. They came out of the alley and she turned them to the left. Reno's head came up.
"This is the wrong way," he pointed out. "My place is in the other direction. Where are we going?"
"My place," she replied. "It's a lot closer."
He looked at her, a hint of surprise flaring on his features. In spite of the pain he was in, his trademark sardonic grin made it's first appearance.
"Your place, eh? I knew that was a pick up line."
She ignored that too and pressed onward. If she had gone home the long way she would have been safely curled up on her couch by now. Instead she had gotten in a fight and lost her groceries, and now she was plodding home in the middle of the rain with a man she despised. Some short cut this had turned out to be.
It took almost forty five minutes to cover the distance it usually took Tifa fifteen to traverse. Finally they arrived in front of a nondescript apartment building near the eastern edge of the upper section of the city. Tifa had hoped the rain would slacken up a bit, but it had only gotten worse as they had progressed, and now they were both dripping wet. Her damp keys nearly slipped out of her hand as she fumbled to open the door while still holding Reno upright, but she eventually managed it. She breathed a sigh of relief to finally be out of the rain as she pulled him inside. Reno found himself in what was obviously Tifa's living room, filled with the usual living room accoutrements, though with a distinctly modern flair. The sofa was made up of dark red modular pieces, laid out in the shape of an 'L' in one corner of the room. A long necked lamp, it's light focused on the ceiling, stood behind the sofa with a glass coffee table in front. A separate section of the couch had been set farther down the wall as a stand alone piece. A modest entertainment center made it's home on the opposite wall, television and VCR, with none of the fancier gadgets often found with such systems these days. A low bookshelf took the place of a wall to their right, which wasn't so much a wall as a room divider separating the living room from the darkened kitchen.
"You're back! I was starting to get worried."
Reno looked up at the sound of this new voice. A carpeted hallway offered one more way of egress from the room, undoubtably leading to the bedroom, he thought. A young teenaged girl with dark hair and pixish features stood there.
"Sorry," Tifa said, tossing her keys on the coffee table and peeling off her jacket. Holding it gingerly in her hand while at the same time trying to prevent it from dripping on the rug she walked over to a louvered wooden door at the front end of the hallway. "I tried to take a short cut which didn't turn out to be so short."
The young girl did not reply, noticing the strange man standing in the middle of the room bruised and dripping wet for the first time. She turned to Tifa, her eyes widening slightly.
"Ohmgod, is he okay?"
Tifa pulled open the louver door to reveal a small laundry room. She tossed her jacket on the floor inside.
"He'll be fine," she said reassuringly, not really wanting to answer any questions right now.
The girl didn't look so sure.
Tifa turned and pulled some towels off a shelf. She walked back out into the living room and placed them on the couch. She went back over to Reno and helped ease him down on it. He kept looking at the young girl and then at Tifa curiously, but she ignored his questioning glances.
Having gotten Reno at least off his feet she walked over to the girl. She fished some gil out of her jeans pocket, counted out some quickly, then handed it to the girl.
"Thanks Priscilla," she said. "There's a little extra there cause I was so late."
"You don't have to do that," Priscilla protested. "It was no trouble and you were only a little late."
"Well, still," Tifa responded. "Now you better get home. Did you bring an umbrella?"
"You can use one of mine then."
Tifa disappeared down the hallway. Priscilla and Reno looked at one another awkwardly. The ex Turk grinned at her, but she just lowered her head and looked down at the floor shyly.
Tifa reentered the room and handed Priscilla an umbrella and her coat.
"Same time tomorrow?" Priscilla said as she prepared to leave.
"Yes," Tifa told her. Seeing that she was done, Tifa led her over to the door. She opened it and peered out. It was still raining, though it appeared to have slackened a little. It was a good thing Priscilla's parents had moved to this part of town from down by the shore last year, or the girl would have a much longer trip.
"Goodnight Miss. Lockheart," Priscilla said. She looked over at Reno one more time, but said nothing. She stepped out the door and Tifa closed it behind her.
Tifa walked back to Reno, looking at him critically. The first order of business was to get him out of those wet clothes, but what did she have for him to wear? In spite of the amusement she might get from giving him one of her robes, she didn't think he would be too keen on the idea.
It seemed he was more interested in other things anyway.
"What was that girl doing here?" he questioned.
Tifa didn't reply, instead walking back into the laundry room. If he was too dense to figure it out for himself, she wasn't about to spell it out for him. She thought she might have something he could use back in there somewhere...
"Did you hear me at all?" he questioned.
She started looking through a pile of clothes thrown in back of the room.
"Yes I heard you," she called out.
She found what she was looking for. She walked back into the living room.
"I don't really have anything for you to wear," she told him. "The only thing that might fit are these old sweats. They may be a little too small but I'm afraid it's all I've got."
"Why are you avoiding the question?" he wanted to know.
"Just shut up and relax, you need to conserve your strength."
"What's with you?" he said irritably. Why was she being so evasive?
"What's with you?" she responded.
He froze. For a moment she wasn't sure why, but then she saw he was staring at something behind her.
"Mommy?" she heard a small voice.
Tifa spun around. Another girl stood in the hallway. A child this time. She looked to be no more than three of four years old. Her hand came up, brushing her black hair out of her sleepy blue eyes, her other hand holding a small teddy bear. She was wearing a white nightgown with a red rose print.
"Karisa! What are you still doing up?"
"Couldn't sleep," the girl replied.
Tifa walked over to her. Karisa held out her arms. Tifa was still soaked from the rain and instead of hugging the girl just ran her hand along her cheek. Karisa looked up at her and touched her hair.
"Mommy all wet."
"Yes, mommy's all wet," Tifa agreed with a smile. "Silly mommy was out in the rain. C'mon, I'll come tuck you in. It's way past your bedtime."
She took the young girl's hand, but before she could lead the child away Karisa's eyes fell on Reno.
Tifa glanced back at Reno.
"No one," she muttered, giving Reno a not particularly friendly look. "Let's get you to bed."
Tifa walked down the hallway out of sight.
Leaning back, Reno closed his eyes, derisive amusement pulling at his lips. Tifa probably wasn't aware of just how apt her description of him to the kid was. Since the loss of his place as a Turk, he really was nothing. It was like rewinding the last ten years of his life, taking him back to a time when he went from one job to the next, never finding a place to fit.
He hated managing money. Worse yet, he hated slogging through menial tasks with people who had never had the chance to rise above the bottom level. Maybe a glorified assassin wasn't everyone's idea of the perfect job, but it had been better than the alternative. Which was where he found himself now. Working at the Junon docks, hauling freight like a first class loser. A loser that couldn't even afford decent liquor.
It could have been different. He had been so sure he was smart by investing a healthy portion of his earnings. With the effective destruction of Shinra, he essentially lost it all. His job, his money, and his apartment. Where he lived now wasn't fit for an animal, much less a human. But it wasn't like he couldn't admit to being used to it. When you came from nothing, you ended up with nothing.
So why was he here, letting Tifa baby him? It was more than obvious he wasn't wanted. Her sense of decency, or pity, or whatever the hell she wanted to call it was all that kept her from leaving him lying in the alleyway. Not that he supposed it mattered. He hadn't exactly protested that vehemently. Maybe he had wanted to be here, seeing where someone else lived. All that was waiting for him was an empty, dirty apartment.
He would be damned if he admitted to being lonely.
Lifting his head, he opened his eyes, scanning the small living space. There were a few pictures of the kid. Apparently Tifa had been busy in the last few years. He wondered what possessed her to bring a child into a world as screwed up as this was. Junon might have been less crowded and polluted than Midgar, but it wasn't all that much better.
It was the soft click of a door that had him looking to the hallway.
"You have a kid?" he asked as soon as she reappeared.
"You've always been quick in the uptake, I'll give you that," Tifa said sarcastically as she walked over to him again. The sweats remained on the couch beside him where she had set them down.
"C'mon" she said, extending her hand. "Let's get you in the bathroom so I can take a look at those wounds."
Tifa half expected him to protest, but he lifted his arm and let her take hold of him. He resisted the urge to groan as she pulled him to his feet. Grabbing the sweats with her free hand she helped him into the bathroom and set him down on the toilet seat.
"Why were you fighting with those men?"
She leaned over him, unbuttoning his shirt. She was wearing a low cut, puffy-sleeved, strapless blouse. It strained against her, offering him the vision of soft, pale skin, a vision he couldn't help lingering on. What was it about a woman's breasts that was so alluring? There was nothing quite like how they felt against bare skin, or the palm of one's hand.
Not receiving an answer, Tifa looked at him. Noticing where he was staring, she lifted her hand and snapped her fingers in front of his face.
"I'm up here."
He lifted his head and grinned at her.
"Did you say something?"
"Why were you fighting with those men?"
Reno didn't reply for a moment. He wasn't particularly keen on sharing, but since Tifa had saved his ass it wasn't going to do further harm to give her the truth without embellishing.
Shrugging, though it pulled at aching muscles, he answered, "I stole the guy's drink."
"You stole his drink? Whatssamatter, you can't afford to buy your own?"
"It wasn't intentional."
"It wasn't intentional, huh?"
Somehow, he didn't think she was swallowing it.
"So they were beating the crap out of you over some stupid drink."
"Apparently," he noted vaguely. "Guys are funny that way. So, you have a kid huh?"
"Yes, I have a kid," Tifa replied, finally managing to get the shirt off Reno's back.
"Damn," Reno continued. "I didn't know ol' Clod had it in him."
Tifa felt a jab shoot through her stomach. After him seeing Karisa she should have been prepared for this kind of talk, but still...
Straightening her shoulders, she looked Reno over. He had bruises over most of his upper body, but she had already known that.
"Where is he anyway?" Reno continued to jabber. "Not that I'm all that anxious to see him. Still, who knows, maybe he'll be balding with a beer belly. That might give me a good laugh."
His back was the worst, crisscrossed with burn marks from the Mag-rod. Some of the skin blackened from it. That had to hurt like hell.
She stood up, tugging up the top of her blouse and then opening the medicine cabinet above the sink. She thought she had some kind of burn cream somewhere.
"He's not here," she said.
"Oh? Why's that? Has he joined a bowling league or something?"
She found what she was looking for, pulling out a small jar of burn cream and some antiseptic. She still thought Reno should go to the hospital, but judging from his reaction the first time she had mentioned it, she didn't think that was an option.
"Lean forward," she commanded.
"Yes dear," he said contritely and obeyed.
She placed the antiseptic on the tank behind the bowl and opened the jar of burn cream, then rubbed it on the wounds. Reno flinched when she first touched them, but steeled himself and remained in place after that.
"So where's Cloud?" he repeated.
The jar slipped out of her hands, falling to the tiled floor. She impatiently stooped down and picked it up again. With her beside him momentarily he looked at her face, surprised to see that it was pale, and even he couldn't miss the look of sadness in her eyes. A sudden thought came to him and he lowered his head to look at her left hand. It was unadorned.
She stood up again.
"I haven't seen Cloud in years," she finally said.
He realized he had seriously misjudged the situation.
"Years," he said slowly. "So the kid..."
Tifa didn't say anything, just finished up applying the cream and then started on the antiseptic.
Reno waited impatiently for a reply until it became obvious that yet again she was not going to respond.
"The kids not Cloud's?" he asked bluntly.
"I didn't say that," Tifa replied.
He twisted his head around so he could see her face.
"So it is?"
"She's not an 'it' Reno. She's a little girl."
"So she is?" he corrected.
"I didn't say that either," she answered. "Hold still. I'm almost done."
He gave her a look.
"So what are you saying?" he blurted out.
"Keep your voice down!" she admonished. "I don't want Karisa to wake up again."
"Sorry," he said.
She said nothing. She had done what she could with the antiseptic. She opened the medicine cabinet again and pulled out some bandages which she used to cover the worst damage. That was all she could do. She didn't know how much it would help. She only had the equipment to deal with rudimentary wounds here. If he had any internal injuries, there wasn't anything she could do about it. If she had a cure materia she could do more, but with the mako reactors gone no more materia was available, and the one's they had had slowly lost their power over time.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" Reno finally concluded.
"Because it's none of your business," she replied with a hint of annoyance. She picked up the sweats and dropped them in his lap. "I've done what I can. You can do your legs yourself. I'm not touching your pants."
Her glare wiped the disappointed look off his face.
"Just call me when you're done, but not too loudly. And hurry up. I want to get myself cleaned up before I go to bed."
"Yes ma'am," he said smartly.
She walked out the door, shutting it behind her, then leaning against it with a sigh. What the hell are you getting yourself into here, Lockheart? When she had been in the alley, she had just thought of getting Reno out of there. She had thought to get him back to her place to treat his injuries but not beyond that. What was she going to do with him now? She walked over to the living room window and peered through the curtains. She could see the streetlights twinkling in the rain, rivulets of it making patterns on her window paine. Even with his wounds bandaged he was far from well. She wouldn't throw him out in his condition even if it wasn't still raining. No, like it or not, it looked like she was going to be forced to let him stay the night. If she had thought this out she might have been more reluctant to bring him here, but what choice did she have?
She clasped her hands in front of her. They were as cold as ice. She was still soaking wet and she realized she was shivering. She had been so busy with Reno that she hadn't had time to take care of herself.
She walked back down the hallway, pausing in front of the door to Karisa's room. Hearing no sound she opened it a crack and peered in. A small night light near the bed revealed her daughter safely tucked under her blankets, fast asleep. Tifa stood there for a minute, just looking at her. No matter what went wrong during the day, no matter how bad things got, she always knew she could forget it when she got home, when just seeing her little girl could cheer her up. Knowing that she was safe. Tifa would do anything to protect her from the world, to avoid the kind of life she herself had lived.
With a silent sigh she closed the door and walked into the bedroom. She peeled off her clothes, shivering again at the feel of her cold wet jeans on her legs as she removed them. She left the clothes on the floor where they fell, walking over to a small closet and opening it up. She took out a towel and wiped herself dry as best she could, finishing up by wrapping it around her hair, which had become quite a tangle. It was so unmanageable. One of these days she was just going to get it cut and be done with it. When she had completed this task she reached into the closet again and extracted an orange terry cloth robe and wrapped it around herself. It only fell to mid thigh and was a little shorter than she wanted around Reno, but it was all she had.
Picking up her wet clothes she returned to the hallway and deposited them in the laundry room. She looked at the clothes piled up there. She really should do a load, but she was too tired. It would just have to wait until morning.
She heard the bathroom door open. Startled, she stuck her head out into the hallway to see Reno standing there, holding onto the door frame for support.
"I told you to call me when you were done," she chastised, walking over to him and taking his arm.
"The day I can't take care of myself is the day I die," he growled.
Tifa made a face at his bravado, but said nothing, leading him back one more time to the couch in the living room. She removed the towels from the sofa and he not so much sat, as fell onto it once more. His face was still pale and as badly swollen as before. She could see he was still in a lot of pain.
"Hold on. I'll get you some aspirin."
"I'd rather have a drink," he told her.
"I don't think you need any more alcohol," she replied.
"I don't care what you think," he responded. "I need a drink!"
She stared at him, anger darkening her features. The word 'no' was right on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't say it. He was an adult, he could make up his own mind no matter how stupid his decisions. Beyond that, there really wasn't any way she could stop him if he was determined enough. She could see he was a stubborn bastard, that was no surprise. She didn't want him stumbling around the place, possibly disturbing Karisa, looking for liquor after she went to bed.
"Fine," she said tartly. "Kill yourself with the stuff. See if I care."
She walked into the kitchen, flicking on the light. Her liquor was stored in a cabinet over the refrigerator. She didn't have all that much.
"What would you like?"
Tifa's hand quivered at that response, memories once again flooding back into her mind. Memories of the day she met a man she thought she would never see again, yet had wanted to more than anything. The renewal of a promise made long ago. A promise that, in the end, had never really been kept.
Gulping back the bad taste in her mouth, she reached up and grabbed hold of a bottle of Scotch. Reno lifted his head in the other room, craning his neck to see her over the bookcase. She was standing on her toes to reach the bottle, and the bottom of her robe exposed the smooth, curved expanse of her thighs. She had well-made legs, he would give her that.
Pulling the bottle down she walked over to the sink, opening another cabinet. She took out a glass and placed it on the countertop, hesitated a moment, then took out another one. Her jaw ached where the man had hit her, and it had been a rough day. She could use a drink herself.
She added some club soda to her own drink, but just put ice in Reno's. She walked back to the sofa, handing him his drink. His head tilted at the sight of a drink in her hand as well, but he made no comment. She looked at him for a moment.
"So what do I do with you Reno?"
"I don't know. What do you want to do with me?"
Kick you in the ass, she thought.
"You don't have anyone you can call? No significant other?"
"You know me, I'm not the type to be tied down," he responded.
An answer that did not surprise her one bit. He hadn't changed at all.
"What about Rude or Elena?"
Reno just shook his head, eyeing her sharply.
"I haven't seen Elena since shortly after you and your friends took down Shinra," he stated. She couldn't really tell if he sounded bitter. "Rude's out of town right now. He won't be back until the end of the week."
So she was stuck with him. Just what she was afraid of. She took a large gulp from her drink.
"You can stay the night," she told him. "The couch isn't all that comfortable to sleep on, but I'm afraid you're stuck with it."
"I've slept in worse places. This'll be fine," he replied.
Tifa had no doubt as to the truth of that. She lifted her glass to her lips and drained it. Reno's eyebrow lifted and he looked at his own half empty glass.
"You sure polished that off quickly," he commented.
"What of it?"
She walked back into the kitchen.
"If I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to get drunk," he said.
She turned to look at him, leaning on the bookshelf.
"You think one drink is going to make me drunk?" she questioned. "You don't work in a bar all these years without learning how to handle your liquor."
"All these years? Does that mean you're still working at one?"
She turned around, walking over to the sink and placing her glass in it.
"Sort of," she said.
"Sort of?" Reno questioned. Why was it that he couldn't seem to get one straight answer out of her? He stared at her as she walked back into the living room, but she avoided his gaze. "My, aren't you the mysterious one. What's with all the secrets?"
"I told you, it's none of your business," she replied.
"I'm surprised you're working at all," he continued. "I thought you guys made a ton of gil on your little adventures. You saved the world. You were famous. How come you're not retired hanging out on the beach at Costa del Sol?"
Tifa tilted her head toward the floor, looking uncomfortable. For a moment she just stood there.
"Fame is fleeting," she said finally. "We didn't make that much gil. Costa del Sol is a little too warm for my tastes."
He just looked at her. He thought there was more to it than that. A lot more. The more evasive her answers the more curious he became. He had always enjoyed pushing until he got what he wanted out of people. Tifa was no exception. He didn't feel he owed her all that much, considering she had only spared him from a few more bruises and the chance to never feel again.
She suddenly shrugged her shoulders.
"You're not my friend, Reno," she said bitterly. "You didn't drop in to chat about old times. I dragged you out of an alley where you were getting the crap beat out of you because I wouldn't have left a dog in that position, but that doesn't make us buddies. I don't know why I'm even talking to you at all."
He leaned forward, giving her a penetrating look.
"Because you're lonely?"
She stopped, staring at him. Had he come closer to the mark than he had expected?
"What makes you say that?" she finally questioned.
"The look on your face," he replied.
She turned away, looking flustered. Then she turned back toward him.
"The only look on my face is one of disgust," she said. "Now I'd love to stand here and chat with you but I've got better things to do. I'm tired. I've had a long day and I'm going to bed. There are blankets in the hall closet.."
She stopped, remembering that he wasn't particularly mobile at the moment.
"I'll get them for you," she said resignedly.
"No, no need. I'm perfectly comfortable," he replied. "You go run along and get your beauty sleep. I'll be fine. No need to worry about me."
She gave him a look, not sure just how sarcastic he was being. Deciding it was pointless to comment, she walked back into the kitchen and turned out the light. She did the same in the living room.
"Get some rest," she said as she stepped into the hallway.
She stopped. She hadn't really expected that. She couldn't see his features very well in the darkened living room, but he seemed sincere.
"You're welcome," she said slowly.
She turned away again.
"Is she Cloud's?" he called out as she started walking again.
She stopped again, turning around one more time.
"I told you, it's none of your business," she said. "Now go to sleep. Don't cause me any trouble."
"I wouldn't think of it," he said innocently.
"Yeah right," she replied. "Don't cause any trouble, don't talk, don't move. If you do something stupid and wake up Karisa, I'll make that beating those thugs gave you seem like a pillow fight."
He gave her a long look.
"Do I have your permission to sleep?"
"Yes. Now." she replied, and turned away again.
Reno watched her. There was a sharper edge to her now; less youth and more resignation, for all she snapped at him. He hadn't exactly known her before. She and her friends had simply been in the way, a problem to tackle when he was ordered to. He hadn't actually given a damn what they did either, so long as it didn't offend him. Considering the outcome, he supposed he should have paid more attention.
But he couldn't blame her completely. It was a culmination of bad decisions, and all too effective self-screwing on the part of many people. Some of them were dead, and some of them were better off than others.
Allowing himself the luxury of a sigh, he thought about how the blankets she had mentioned seemed too far away.
"What the hell are you doing here?" He muttered, and drew a hand down his face.
Tifa walked wearily down the hall. She glanced at her daughters door but did not stop this time. She turned out the hall light and walked into her bedroom.
She hadn't left the light on in her bedroom. She was too tired to turn it on now. She could see a faint light through the curtains on her window, but her eyes hadn't adjusted to see much more than that yet. She felt her way over to the bed, pulled down the covers and flopped down on it. She let out a small sigh of relief. She hadn't realized how bone tired she was, and the bed felt sooo comfortable.
Had she been too bitchy? Reno hadn't asked for her help, had tried to brush it aside, in fact. Nor had he asked her to bring him here. She had done it of her own free will. He hadn't acted badly, well, no more badly than she expected from Reno. But he hadn't caused any trouble. They had been bitter rivals, but that had been a long time ago.
But did that matter? Just because it was a long time ago, did that make it all right?
The bed was comfortable, but she found she couldn't relax. She still felt tension tightening her muscles, clouding her mind. She started to concentrate on that, using her martial arts training to force each portion of her body to relax.
Even if it was a long time ago, he still seemed the same. He still acted like the exact same Reno she had known back then. Did she have to remind herself that that Reno had been a cold blooded murderer? She had a murderer in her house, had dragged him in herself. She had a kid for chrissake! What the hell was she thinking?
She shook her head. It certainly wasn't going to help her to relax to think like that. Reno was a murderer, yes, but he didn't just kill for the thrill of it. He had been a professional, had taken a certain pride in that. He didn't kill for no reason at all. She didn't think she or her child were in any danger.
Or at least, she hoped they weren't. From experience she knew that she couldn't trust her judgement of men. It had let her down too many times in the past.
Her mind a jumbled mass of confused thoughts, she finally drifted off into a fitful sleep.