Reno had never liked birds.
Things hadn’t flown under the plate; there was something unsettling about creatures that could be both on the ground and above your head at once. The sounds they made were especially jarring to Reno: the sudden fluster of flapping wings, the atonal chirps and warbles.
There was one of them—a bird—on the windowsill now, staring through the dust-mottled screen—at him, or perhaps beyond him—he couldn’t tell exactly what that inky black bead of an eye was fixed on. He stilled the movement of his fingers on the computer keyboard and leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms back behind his head.
“Hey,” Reno said to the bird. It didn’t move.
“You a former resident of Midgar?”
The bird cocked its head.
“Did you have a little nest somewhere, on the plate?”
The bird shook its wings now; ruffled its feathers.
“Are you or anyone in your household currently exhibiting signs of Geostigma affliction?” Reno asked softly, sarcastically.
The bird took a few steps, claws scratching along the sill, and Reno sighed, picked up the lit cigarette smoldering in the cheap plastic ashtray next to the computer monitor, put it between his lips and tapped out the remainder of the sentence during which he had paused.
Case Study of Resident 146, age 37, male. Exhibited signs of supposed Mako poisoning later revealed to be Geostigma. Former residency: Sector 5, Midgar
Reno paused again. Midgar what? Under-plate? Ground level? He didn’t want to write the word that hummed in his head, because it didn’t fit the purpose of their cause, didn’t help Shinra’s case much, now—but he had no choice, really, and he hit the keys--
The door to the makeshift office opened behind Reno, and the bird on the windowsill fluttered away at the sound. Reno turned, already having a feeling as to who he’d see, and he was right—
“Casual Friday?” Reno asked, chuckling to himself as he looked Rude up and down. Rude wasn’t in his suit; he was dressed in regular clothing, a sight Reno was getting more and more used to, day by day. Rude used to look strange, back then, when he wore casual clothing; now he looked out-of-place when he put on the blue suit-- though Reno would never say it.
Reno mashed out the tip of his cigarette in the ashtray and went back to typing.
Rude moved to stand besides Reno’s chair, leaning a hand on the surface of the cheap plastic desk—wasn’t even a desk, so much as a fucking picnic table, or something, Reno thought—and bent to look at the screen.
Reno’s eyes fixed on Rude’s hand, and his mind surged through a catalog of memories, images that overtook him in one dark, melancholy instant. All because it had never been Rude’s hand on the desk, and it had never been Reno sitting in the chair—this metal folding chair—it had always been Rude seated in a soft, high-backed leather chair while Reno sat on the desk—that desk had been huge and expensive, polished wood topped with blotters and calendars and business card holders and all manner of expensive custom office supplies they never actually used—except, of course, for the glass ashtrays. Reno, sitting on the desk facing Rude, legs crossed, smoking, swigging from his flask, passing it to Rude while they laughed about bullshit, discussed important things like where they’d go drink later and the new secretary’s tits and what car Rude was thinking about buying—drunk off all that energy and power and life--
“That bad, huh?” Rude asked as he scanned the screen, and Reno blinked, seeing only what was in front of him again: Rude’s hand, un-gloved, resting on a scuffed up piece of dirty plastic.
Reno leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms, ignoring the twisting in his stomach while Rude read what was on the screen, scanning summaries and facts and figures gathered the old-fashioned way: painstakingly, day by day, by knocking on doors and handing out surveys, opening piles of mail containing filled-in circles and hand-written messages of hate, death-threats, pleas for monetary assistance, medicine, a cure. The sum of it all the same, day by day: this is all your fault.
“Yeah. Rough estimate of about twenty new cases per square mile. People love to talk about it, for sure, in fact-- a particularly lovely young lady told me today, and I quote, to ‘eat your own shit and die’.” Reno turned his head to look up at Rude’s face. “So where you been all day?”
“Picking up where you left off. You’re the one who wanted to compile data.”
“Too hot outside,” Reno mumbled, though Rude knew that wasn’t it at all, but he didn’t say so, only continued—
“And then Elena conned me into grocery shopping.”
Reno laughed. “That must have been delightful.”
“It certainly was,” Rude said flatly. “She’s picky. Spent forty-five minutes looking at fruit.”
“Anybody recognize you?”
“Hell no. You think I’d go down there in this?” he touched one of the sleeves of Reno’s suit jacket, which was slung over the back of the chair.
“That’d probably rile folks up real good,” Reno said, and laughed. “Start a food fight,” he nudged Rude’s hip with his elbow.
Rude tried not to laugh. “You clocking out or what?”
“Yeah,” Reno sighed. “Just have to email this to Tseng.”
“What about Reeve?”
Reno made a what-are-you-kidding-me noise. “Hell no. Man’s a regular downer. Don’t want him getting depressed in my Inbox.”
“He’ll be ‘getting depressed in your Inbox’ sooner or later, if the Pres—“ Rude caught himself, cleared his throat awkwardly—“if Rufus keeps us working for him.”
Reno shook his head. He sent off the reports, closed out of the program and shut down the computer, stood up and stretched. Rude could hear the pop-crack of Reno’s bones; Reno normally didn’t creak like that—neither of them did, or perhaps the right word was had—but then again, neither of them saw much in the way of vigorous activity these days, and it wasn’t as if Healen had a gym.
“Saw Strife today,” Reno said, abruptly.
“You went out?”
“Yeah. How do you think I encountered eat-shit-girl? Silly me, wearing this suit. Had to pick up smokes.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Oh,” Reno said, throwing his hands up in an exasperated gesture. “Yes, Rude. We went out for fucking lattes and discussed poetry—“
“Don’t be an ass.”
“I’m not,” Reno said. “But what kind of question is that? I mean, we acknowledged one another. But it’s like—well, would you talk to him?”
“Nope,” Rude shrugged. He looked at Reno. “Might talk to Tifa, though.”
“Oh fuck you. You and your hots for them AVALANCHE bitches, I swear. Let’s get out of here.”
By here, Reno meant this room; there really weren’t many other places to go outside of Healen, at this point. Reno pulled his jacket off the back of his chair and shrugged it on as he walked past Rude to the door. Rude followed, and Reno shut the door from the outside of the office, digging in a pocket for his keys with his free hand.
“You hungry?” Rude asked.
“Not really,” Reno murmured, looking through the keys. He found the one he was looking for and slipped it into the lock, turning; there was a click as the bolt slid through.
“So what else happened?” Rude asked, knowing, already, that Reno was holding back.
Reno turned around and slumped against the door, facing Rude, slipping his hands in his pockets.
Rude folded his arms, waited; Reno swallowed and looked at Rude again.
“You know Strife’s got it right?”
Rude’s arms fell back to his sides, his facial expression suddenly tense. Rude wasn’t often shocked; right now was one of those rare moments.
“Well, shit.” Rude said.
Reno stared at the floor and Rude stared at Reno until he started to speak, and as soon as he did, Rude knew that one of the many bizarre triggers in Reno’s brain had been pulled.
“I mean how does that happen? Saves the fuckin’ Planet and now— it’s just fuckin’ ironic. I mean… what about us? Why don’t we have it? What if I got it?” Reno bit his lip.
“I don’t think it’s contagious.”
“You don’t know if it’s contagious. Listen, I got these marks.” Reno slid the sleeves of one arm up to expose a darkened section of scar tissue on his forearm. “Look.”
Rude sighed, suppressed an eye roll. “You’ve always had that.”
“It looks like it changed.”
“Then go to a doctor.”
“You know I don’t fuckin’ trust doctors,” Reno said. “But anyway, I mean, how come it ain’t hit any of us? Really—I mean—”
“You forget already that Rufus has it?”
Reno stared at the mark on his arm.
Rude sighed. “Karma works in odd ways. Could be Rufus is the one paying for all of Shinra’s collective shit.”
“Yeah,” Reno said absently. “All of us. Who are we now anyway? Don’t even know why we’re still wearing these damn suits. Collecting fuckin’ census data for some fuckin’ project--”
“You’re a Turk,” Rude said.
Reno glared at him. “Oh Rude don’t even talk to me about—“
“And you’re wearing it because we don’t have clothes,” Rude said through gritted teeth. “When we left Midgar what did you have? A fucking duffel bag?”
Reno remembered that too, in his mind’s eye; the mass panic and confusion in Midgar, that terrible red thing in the sky surrounded by tendrils that seemed to grow and shift and breathe, the whole thing ready to crash down at any unknown second. How, when Tseng told him they’d be shutting down the highways, loading up Shinra cargo trucks with civilians (only as many as could fit—the rest, well, they hadn’t spoken about the rest) and convoying out of the city, Reno had run to Rude’s apartment— phone and radio signals had crashed at that point—practically pounded down the door and almost passed out from the sheer relief of finding Rude still there. Reno had been filled with irrational dread at the prospect that perhaps Rude had gone to HQ, taken a vehicle and left already— but there he was. Reno had pulled a pair of pants and some shirts out of Rude’s drawers for him and threw them into the only small suitcase Rude owned—when would Rude have foreseen a need to ever leave?—while Rude loaded two guns and strapped them both on. When Rude had tried to calm Reno down—impossible, as Rude’s own hands were shaking—Reno had turned from where he was ransacking Rude’s bathroom and brandished a toothbrush at him like it was a knife, saying
I’m not fucking leaving without you, you understand? We stay together no matter what, do you hear me?
“Do you hear me?” Rude’s voice echoed the memory. “You made a decision,” Rude continued, and Reno looked away. “You stayed. With Shinra. This—“ he said, pinching a section of Reno’s sleeve between his fingers, “is Shinra. This is you. Besides,” Rude took a breath, willed himself to calm down a bit and laughed to himself, a short noise low in his throat. “Without the suit, you just look like a punk with a bad dye job.”
“Oh fuck off,” Reno said, frowning and running a hand over his hair.
“Your roots are starting to show,” Rude said, laughing as he spoke, because even after all these years it was so easy to get Reno distracted with bratty bullshit.
“Fuck off for real. Go wax your dome,” Reno said through a laugh. Rude snorted.
Reno took a deep breath. “Anyway— yeah. Yeah listen—if I did get it—I—I don’t think—I wouldn’t want to fuckin’ live.”
Rude frowned; Reno was really stuck on this Stigma shit.
“Science department’s researching a cure,” Rude offered.
“Yeah but—seeing them like that, worse than Rufus, even—“ Reno paused and furrowed his brow. “It’s not a fucking department, Rude. It’s some sorry fuckers who didn’t have enough sense to get the fuck out of here and now Rufus is payin’ ‘em to fuck around with test tubes and shit,” he shook his head, looked at Rude. Rude had crossed his arms again and was giving Reno that look which said you better get to the point or shut the fuck up.
“Who knows,” Reno continued. “If it is contagious… if I did get it, I wouldn’t want to live. Puking up black shit, fuckin’ melting into blackness, hell, Rufus can’t even walk some days. And I’d look fucked up—”
“You usually look fucked up,” Rude said.
Reno sighed. “Oh, fuck you. You’re not even listening to me.”
“I am listening. And you couldn’t look any worse with the Stigma than you did after Seven.”
Reno’s eyes shifted off to the side and he raised a hand to his mouth to bite at a nail.
“Besides,” Rude continued, realizing that Sector Seven probably wasn’t the best topic to bring up considering Reno’s mood, “You also tend to look just as fucked up after a few drinks.”
Reno relaxed, laughed a little, nail still between his teeth.
“Reno,” Rude said, and Reno relaxed against the door behind him, met Rude’s eyes for a moment before dropping them to the floor. “You don’t have fucking Geostigma. And—” he paused for a moment, as if not entirely sure about what we was about to say. “You’re not going to get Geostigma.”
After a moment of silence, Reno spoke. “Would you kill me?” Reno asked, still staring at the floor. When Rude didn’t answer, Reno looked at him.
“What?” Rude finally said.
“If I got it and wanted to die, would you kill me?”
Rude sighed. “Yeah,” he said softly.
Reno laughed a little, his voice low, almost sounding sad. “Be that easy for you, yeah?”
“If it was what you really wanted, I’d do it.”
“How would you do it,” Reno asked, “if you had to?”
“I’d shoot you.”
Reno sighed, a joyless smile on his mouth. “Executed by my own partner,” he mused.
"Could always zap you," Rude shrugged. “With your e-mag.”
Reno smiled a little. "No thanks... ever get hit with that?"
"You hit me all the time, when we first got partnered together. Clumsy fuck."
Reno cackled. “Sorry man.”
Rude turned. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s eat something.”
“I said I’m not hungry.”
“Shut up already and eat something,” Rude said, waving a hand in the air. “You’re getting all… bony.”
Reno fell into step besides him as he walked through the hallway towards the general common area of Healen, eyes cast down at the floor, shoulders hunched a bit, hands shoved in his pockets.
“And no, it wouldn’t be fucking easy, you asshole,” Rude said quietly.
“Worst thing I could imagine. Stop talking about it.”
They looked at each other then, and it was all there, in both of their faces—fear, anxiety, defeat; the lost feeling of years spent existing in modes of life now extinct, of being somewhere between young and old and all that came along with those two abstract concepts.
Reno patted Rude companionably on the shoulder, gently, once, before shoving his hand back in his pocket. They didn’t speak, but Rude knew what it meant—
And perhaps beyond that—you’re my best friend. Deeper still—I need you. Mutual truths, really; because they all needed one another, now, in ways they’d never thought to contemplate before.
Rude was glad that they’d mastered unspoken communication so early on in their partnership; it made shit like this that much easier.