Fandom: Final Fantasy 7
Characters/Pairings: Reno/Tseng, Elena, others.
Date Written: 2008-2009. Started ages ago, FINALLY finished up. There was such a tiny bit left and I've been writing LIKE FIRE lately, so.
Summary: Some people lodge more deeply under the skin than we realize or would like.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 to R for language. Implied slash.
Notes: Based loosely on another work, but all author's notes are at the end, to avoid spoiling the impact.
Stress leaks through every crack in the place, tension breathing around doorframes and up between the floorboards – he swears that if he cut out a chunk of the wall and squeezed it, the stuff would drip out, heavy and clotted like old blood. And he should know, because there’s been a lot of blood lately: old, new, good, bad and otherwise. There are children’s stories under the plate about skeletons that sit on beds, feeding their prey guilt and fear and madness with their rotted tongues, of creatures that tear bloody holes in mirrors and visitations by dead old psychopaths, their atrocities still fresh in their hungry fingers. He’s admitted on more than one occasion, not ashamed in the slightest, that that shit used to give him nightmares on a regular basis.
It’s three in the goddamn morning, and it isn’t a nightmare that wakes Reno up this time.
It’s Elena, from the sound of it. Sobbing? Out in the common room, muffled by two doors, an arm, and a suit sleeve. Identifying the source is easy enough, but the context... “Fuckin’ early for this,” he mutters, throwing the sheets back and stumbling onto his feet. He feels unbalanced and top-heavy, and he realizes foggily that he went to sleep on the receding edge of very, very drunk. He can’t quite remember why.
Running his hands back through his unwashed and unkempt hair, Reno takes a moment to try to reorient himself. Elena – returned from a routine information-gathering mission with Tseng earlier in the evening, would have headed right back out on a final live-ammo testing run with the new back-up candidate. Ritter something, smart kid, little jittery. Being pushed a little too hard and fast for his safety, maybe, but no one ever said applying to the Turks was good for your future breathing prospects.
He wanders out into the lounge without preliminaries, and if Elena wants to take issue with his lack of pants, she’s free to do so, but he figures she’s got other issues competing for her attention right now. Slipping into the chair across the table from her slumped-forward, shuddering form, he gives it a long minute before reaching out and tapping her lightly on the arm.
She blinks blearily up at him through a ragged, disarrayed fringe of blonde.
“Hey,” he offers, voice uncharacteristically gentle. Or maybe it’s the alcohol, dulling the edges of the annoyance anyone would have a right to, being awoken at this sort of an hour. He taps the folders splayed under her pillowed arm, too well concealed to make out what exactly they are. “What’s the story here?”
Elena sniffs loudly and not flatteringly, but there’s nothing about a meltdown that’s flattering. “Casualty report,” she finally manages to get out.
It takes a second, but Reno connects the dots – brand new recruit, live testing, and Elena falling apart as if she were personally responsible… shit. Poor kid, too, but it can’t be helped now. It’s a rare generous streak most likely brought on by the fact that he’s too disoriented to know what he’s doing, but Reno gets the edges of the folder and papers between his fingers and shimmies them out from under her slumped torso.
“Reno, what are you-“
The folder, freed, snaps shut, and a hand pushes back through his hair, stays at the back of his head. “I’ll handle this, okay? You go get some sleep. And yeah, yeah, I know – you were the one there, it’s yours to do, policy, policy, etcetera etcetera fuck me with a boring-stick.”
Elena says nothing, wide-eyed with something approaching horror.
“Seriously, don’t worry about it. I can forge your signature just fine.” True. He’s done it before, though usually not to help her, unless getting her in the shit for authorizing the rather premature Rufus Shinra Memorial Holiday in her name, and thus strengthening her character through adversity, could be considered ‘helping’. “Also: me, offering to do any paperwork I don’t strictly have to do? That, ‘lena, is fucking altruism. Suggest you take the offer while it stands, ‘cause it’ll be expiring as soon as I sober up.”
Elena takes a breath- a long, deep breath that seems to pass, shaking, through her entire body. Plants her hands palms-down on the table and pushes herself to stand. Takes a step towards her suite, then pauses, looks back. Her face is a picture of raw misery, blame and doubt and guilt tearing the vocabulary of expression in every conceivable direction. “It was my fault, Reno. I couldn’t get to him fast enough. Wasn’t there when I needed to be.”
Reno shrugs, eyes cast onto the paperwork flipping through deft fingers. “I doubt that. Y’know how it is- shit happens sometimes.”
She stands for a moment, then leaves without another word. Another moment or two later, there’s a presence behind him, looking over his shoulder, ‘hm’ing thoughtfully in the back of his throat. The specific timbre of the sound, the size and carriage of the presence… “She wake you up too?” Reno asks, twisting in his seat to glance up at Tseng.
The older Turk comes around to sit in the chair Elena abandoned, and while there’s a certain inescapable dignity that clings to him like syrup, unshakeable, he’s… tired. Visibly so. Not hiding it. He nods, leaning heavily in the chair, hands threaded together over his midsection. Still in his duty blues but missing his usual tie. It’s late.
It’s later than it should be.
Reno blinks against exhaustion, then lets out a low, impressed whistle, re-reading a section of the form to be sure he’d gotten it right. Apparently, the kid had actually tried to tourniquet himself with something he'd had on-hand. It hadn’t helped, he’d been hit too far up the leg - among other, bigger problems. Femoral bled out. Likely wouldn’t have made it even if it hadn’t. Still, that takes a lot of will, and part of him figures it’s a shame to have lost someone that resourceful. The other part – the part still soaked in ethanol – is feeling mildly queasy. “Where the hell was Elena for this long?” It’s a mutter, out loud but more to himself than the other man. “It’s just a goddamned training theater.”
A loose shrug from across the table, fatigue clouding concern.
Reno takes a breath, letting the beginnings of anger and blame trail off into the warm alcohol buzz, and lifts an eyebrow pointedly at Tseng. Teasing. “Yer out of uniform.”
“One,” Tseng starts, letting heavy eyelids flutter closed again the trials of the day just passed. “I am, in fact, the boss of you, not the other way around. Two, it’s three in the morning. Three…” and an eye cracks open here, glancing exaggeratedly downward. “I believe – and please, correct me if I’m mistaken - you’re doing official paperwork in your underwear, so it’s not as if you have room to talk.”
Reno grins, barely suppressing a snigger. Well, it’s the truth. The pen in his hand skips around the page, filling in all the pertinent details. “Rude and I had a bet going for a while, y’know. Whether you wore the tie to bed at night.”
Tseng’s answering smile is a little too quick, a little too biting, but it’s been a long day. “You know the answer to that one, Reno.”
“True,” Reno draws the word out, scribbling something out on the form. “And I guess I could call the bet in, but he’d wanna know how I got the information.”
“So make something up. You’re good at that, if I recall.”
“Yeah. I am.”
It was late… early… before Reno managed to finish up the myriad of forms filed thickly within the unassuming manila folder left sitting cockeyed on the table. Now he’s on the couch, hours later, passed out heavily into a Turk-shaped depression he’s been working on since the couch was replaced six months ago. He grumbles into the mid-morning sunshine spilling in through the room’s one window, partly because it’s had the audacity to wake him up, partly because his head is pounding away mercilessly, and partly because the comfortably familiar weight he fell asleep next to on the couch is very absent.
Well, no shit. Not everyone sleeps until ten.
Reno yawns, rolls over so that he’s curled inward against the couch. Goes back to sleep.
A day passes – maybe two. Reno isn’t keeping very good track, isn’t sleeping well or eating on any kind of a schedule and it feels like there are eyes on him all of the time, chill fingers walking their way up his neck in an instinctual alarm that goes past logic and reason straight on down to bred-in-the-bones instinct. So he drifts from one moment to the next, and things start to feel more and more disjointed.
Tseng orders him to go sleep, sometimes. Orders him to haul his skinny ass into the kitchen and pour himself some cereal. It happens at odd times, but it’s all that’s keeping him together. He can’t quite remember what it is that’s trying to take him apart.
He wakes up with his fists clenched sometimes, the remnant of some abstract dream of violence and desolation. He has to take a breath, hovering in the half-light, and consciously relax them from around the sheets. He can never remember the dreams.
He wants to go after Avalanche – wants it so badly he can taste it between his teeth, and he’s not even sure why. Reno’s never been squeamish about his work but this sort of bloody-mindedness is new. It feels like a compulsion. Feels like vengeance. Ask him what exactly he’s avenging and he won’t have an answer, but regardless, he needs it.
He’s needed it for two days now, like an infection running through his veins, slamming hard into his brain. Teasing him with a puzzle he’s missing the critical piece to. Half the time he’s just giving into it, riding the buzz of imagined violence in his head. The rest of the time he’s honestly worried.
Tseng huffs disapproval at the fourth cup of coffee Reno’s about to pour himself, six packets of sugar already in hand. “Do you really need to be even further on edge than you already are, Reno?”
A beat of silence, then Reno pours the coffee. Rips the packets open in one tear. “I’m not on edge.”
“I can see you shaking.”
A barked laugh, completely devoid of humor. Not even doing a good job at pretending. “Get the shakes all the time, it doesn’t mean anything. You know that.”
Tseng narrows his eyes; takes in the hunched posture, the hands clenched too tightly around what they hold. Anger rippling off of Reno in skittering, discordant waves. “You usually get shakes when you’re thinking about doing something stupid.”
“Heh…” A trailed off silence there, the packets tossed carelessly towards the trashcan. Only two of them make it in. Flashes of bloody murder march unannounced through his head, and he winces. “Okay, sure. Guilty.” He brings the coffee up, then sets it down again, not taking so much as a sip from it. Runs one hand through his hair, scrabbling at it as if seeking some sort of purchase, the motion rough and bordering on self-injurious. Not really noticing. “How do you do that?”
“Hand out of your hair, Reno. You’re going to hurt yourself. How do I do what?”
Fingers untangle, then fist into his pocket, needing somewhere restricted to be. “Call me like that.”
It’s only half a smile, but there’s real affection there behind the expression. Lightly teasing. “It’s my job description to know you better than you know yourself.”
Reno laughs. Picks up the coffee again; takes a sip. Grimaces. Still too bitter; he goes in search of more sugar. “Which job are we talking about here?” he asks, a playful suggestiveness leaking into his caffeine-scarred voice.
“Oh… several of them, I think.”
It might be the tension and the dreams that keeps driving him to the bottles lining the communal bar’s shelf, or it might be something else entirely, he isn’t sure – just knows that they’re disappearing faster than they ought to be, and therefore, Elena must be stealing. Or Rude. Never mind that it’s supposed to belong to all of them – his brain isn’t processing that right now – just. Dirty thieves. All of ‘em.
It can’t be Tseng because Tseng hasn’t been drinking at all in the last day or two – ever since he got back – and it strikes Reno distantly that this is odd. The man’s never been a lush but he can usually be counted on for a drink or two on the late nights that bleed over from long days, when sleep seems like a distant and long-lost luxury and tomorrow looms ominously, unforgiving in its approach and promising survival to no one. A drink or two while Reno has three or four, and a warm hand at the base of his spine, secreting him off to somewhere beyond the reach of prying eyes – one suite or the other, and maybe the morning comes just as quickly, but at least the night doesn’t feel wasted.
Lot of long days lately, longer nights. Reno holds the bottle up in offer, from across the room. It’s declined. It’s not a surprise at this point.
He just shrugs and pours himself another.
“Reno…” Elena trails off, taking in the scene in front of her. The room’s a disaster, furniture toppled, discarded clothing smelling sharply of alcohol. The redhead in question is ignoring her, deep in conversation in the middle of the mess, clearly wearing whatever wrinkled atrocity of a uniform he fell asleep in last night, hair flat and unwashed and half pulled from its band. “Reno.” Sharp.
Tseng looks up from where he’s sitting cross-legged across from Reno, nods to Elena in acknowledgement. Yields the floor, as it were. They’re apparently tag-teaming him now, Reno realizes, and he closes his eyes in something that looks like weariness but is probably irritation. She seems pissed. She doesn’t have the rank to be pissed, but she carries it off well, and god- it’s too early for this. Eyes rove blearily towards her, expression ragged but intent. “What?”
Elena takes a breath, steadies herself against the doorframe. “It’s at three today. Plenty of time to clean up…” her voice cracks for a second, betraying the emotion. “You need to be there.”
Reno has no intention of leaving this room at any time today, honestly, he’s feeling that horrific- but he nods, to get her to go away, so he can get back to pitying himself and letting Tseng tell him how stupid he is for getting so smashed in the first place.
“He’s not taking this very well,” Elena mutters, falling onto the sofa alongside Rude. He’s already in his formal uniform, crisp black lines disappearing into the matte fabric and turning him into an amorphous mass of non-light.
“I wouldn’t really expect him to,” comes the clipped reply.
Tseng is poking around his suite now, as if he’d never seen it before – though to be fair, he’s probably never seen it in quite this state. He’s very carefully not touching anything, either out of respect or out of a desire to not catch any of the horrific diseases that spawn from filth and then marinate nicely in a constant crust of alcohol and apathy. “Here,” he finally says, pointing into the closet. “Though why you keep your formals crumpled at the bottom of your closet – well, it’s not exactly beyond me. I know you well enough to not be surprised. But honestly, Reno…”
“Not going,” Reno says from the far wall, sitting on the floor still and starting to list markedly to one side. It’s not booze this time – he hasn’t had a drop since he woke up – but the headache is starting to wear him down, and if he can just lie down for a minute…
Tseng is in front of him suddenly, crouching down in place. One hand comes up as if to steady Reno by the shoulder; it’s reconsidered, and settled back onto his knee. “Reno. I would really appreciate it if you were there.”
There’s something in the tone – something wavering and guilty – that makes it clear: It’s as close to a direct order as he’s going to get.
Reno sighs, sounding vaguely broken, then shoves himself to his feet and heads for the closet. Shower. Uniform. Water. Aspirin. Not necessarily in that order.
Tseng leaves him to it.
Funeral duty is never a fun thing, not when he’s expected to say something about a person he barely knew because hey, they went and died on his watch, or maybe they just died because someone wasn’t there to help them and he’s the boss or the second in command or whatever and he’s responsible for his team’s actions, inactions, and screwups.
Reno isn’t honestly sure who his internal voicetrack is talking about, anymore.
“It wasn’t Elena’s fault,” Tseng grouses lightly alongside as they tread slowly through the snow, through the gates at the small side entrance to the cemetery. “Before you react, yes, I know perfectly well that you know that, but she doesn’t. There was nothing she could have done.” Actions, inactions. “Could you tell her that for me?”
“Now that…” Reno begins, reaching into the back pocket of his uncomfortably close-tailored formal black uniform for the obvious outline of a flask. Unscrews the top. “…sounds like a head-honcho sort of duty to me.”
Tseng wordlessly declines the offer implied in the flask tipping towards him with a wave of his hand. His voice is thoughtful. “I’ve tried. She doesn’t hear me. Can’t, perhaps. But I have a feeling she’ll listen to you. Call it leader’s intuition if you want.”
Reno takes a long swallow from the flask, the silvered metal catching a flash of sunlight coming through the heavy, snow-laden branches of the nearest tree. A few moments pass in companionable silence as they make their way through the older section of the cemetery, jagged and broken gravestones chewing at the grass and sky like rotted teeth.
“It’s not your fault, either, Reno.”
The redhead almost falters in his step, then continues, the reaction plastered over and unremarked on. Why would it be his fault, anyway?
“And you know, all of those things that you end up wishing you’d had the chance to say… well. You’d be surprised how much people already know.”
Now Reno really does miss a beat, covering it as best he can by mumbling about rocks and uneven ground. Doesn’t say anything significant for a long moment. Then, eventually: “As much as I appreciate the pearls of wisdom, what does that have to do with this? Not like I had anything to say to the kid- I barely knew him.”
Tseng settles his hands behind his back, posture casual, blue fabric shifting comfortably over his frame at the change in position. “Seemed like an important thing to say. What do you think?”
“I think it’s messed up that we gotta wear our blacks and you don’t. The hell, man.” Half kidding, half serious, Reno quirks an eyebrow at the older man.
Which only earns him a tight, self-assured smirk in response. “Rumor on the street has it that I’m in charge. I can do what I like.”
“Which apparently includes randomly going without your tie for three days. Not that I disapprove, mind you…” Reno trails off into discontented muttering, slender fingers snaking under the knot of his own tie, trying to loosen it without it appearing loosened.
Tseng shrugs then, a loose and boneless rolling of shoulders that would be more at home on a man with far fewer cares than Reno knows the older man carries. “Mn. Lost it, I think.”
Reno stops walking then, drawn up short. Eyes Tseng with something wavering between disbelief and amusement. “How do you lose…” A sharp laugh, dismissive and light but with a dark edge. “…you know, never mind.” He turns his head to regard the small knot of people a bit further ahead, black-clad and moving awkwardly amongst themselves, avoiding clods of snow and patches of mud, a murder of uncoordinated and disoriented crows. Too few people, by his count- he looks back to Tseng. “Not that I actually care much, but I hope they managed to contact his family-”
“He didn’t have any family, Reno. You know that.”
Elena, behind him and to the right, a tight, worried waver in her voice audible through the obvious grief. Reno’s expression is underlined with confusion when he turns to regard her. “Headmeat’s going soft there, ‘lena. He had… two sisters, I think? And his mother’s still around, somewhere.” He distinctly remembers the kid telling him so at one point. He can’t remember whether it was when he was doing his profile up for the company database or just a normal, everyday conversation, but the knowledge is there regardless.
And Elena’s looking at him intently, gaze stranger than before, more guarded. A slight, fractional shake of her head. “No…. no Reno, he really didn’t.”
And he’s about to reply, defensive pride rising in waves, mouth opening to call her crazy, to maybe even suggest some leave time if he finds he’s feeling particularly mean today – but nothing comes out, because he glances up then and sees Ritter Davies a step and a half behind Elena, uncomfortable-looking in his dark civilian clothes,
(oh god you’re seeing ghosts now)
looking at Reno with a careful, wary sympathy.
Blue-green eyes widen for a split second, then narrow angrily. And Reno has no idea where the anger’s coming from, but it infuses his voice with steel and hides the terrified waver that would otherwise wriggle its way free as those eyes settle on the kid and his gaping mouth finally forms around words. Low, dangerous. “How the hell can you be here?”
“I…” And the kid’s apparition is actually answering a fucking rhetorical question, or trying to. Clearly thrown off-balance. “I know I didn’t end up making the cut-”
(Elena, wandering heavily into the common room late at night, slumping next to you where you’ve put away one bottle of liquor and’ve started on another. Telling you how it didn’t go well, that the kid had freaked in the middle of the live exercise, demanding to be let out. So they’d let him out. At that point in the selection process, of course, there’d been no terrible state secrets shared; he could still walk away without getting a bullet in the back. Elena seemed wearier than she should have been, and through the haze of drink, you couldn’t remember why.
The question hanging between the two of you, though: Did he lose it because he just didn’t have what it took, or because he’d been shaken by the news – news that still hadn’t sunk in for either of you, the dangerous undertow of reality driving you to chase good Nibelheim Scotch down with cheap Junon whiskey, the television across the room an endless, roiling snowfield of static.
Either way, the kid had walked, and she’d let him. It was for the best. You stumbled off to sleep a little bit later, topped off with distilled forgetfulness.)
“…but I still wanted to pay my respects, and… I…” Voice trailing off, faltering under Reno’s scrutiny, Ritter just stands where he is, a step and a half behind Elena, shivering lightly in the winter chill.
Reno blinks, otherwise motionless. “Pay your…”
(The casualty paperwork, spread under Elena’s shaking hands, spotted and smeared in places where she’d cried over it- grief tumbling out without any restraint or control, her entire world cracked in two. And can you focus enough, in this almost memory, to read the name on the top of the form?)
Reno closes his eyes.
(The looks on their faces the last few days, sadness and loss and just as prominent, concern- worry clouding their eyes as they looked askance at you from across the room, when they thought you wouldn’t notice. You always noticed. Rude, you already got it from sometimes – the man had made it his crusade to keep you from flying off into irretrievable, impulsive stupidity more than once. But Elena- that got to you, what was Elena, the rookie, the emotional train wreck, doing worrying about you?)
Elena asks, quietly, inflection even and careful, “Reno… why do you think we’re here?”
(“Lost it,” he’d said, airy and dismissive, and were those cord burns running across the insides of his fingers, red and angry furrows from something pulled at too tightly, too desperately?
Silk is strong, only gets stronger when it’s wet, no matter it’s water or blood.)
And he opens them again, taking in the group of people gradually gathering around him – Beyond Elena and Ritter, Rude stands stock-still, sunglasses nowhere in sight, squinting to cut the glare on the snow and maybe to hide something deeper. A bit further on, a small handful of upper-level ShinRa executives: Heidegger looking annoyed and obligated; Reeve looking sick, and weary, and weary of being sick, like a days-old sock in the gut that refuses to fade; Rufus unreadable, face set in stone above the incongruous black coat, a spark of something like pain glinting for only a moment somewhere behind his eyes.
Reno turns his head to where he’s sure Tseng is still standing beside him, confused eyes asking for an explanation and falling on nothing but painfully empty air. He glances around furtively.
(…where’d he go?)
Nowhere, apparently, because aside from the nearby group, the grounds are empty. And just like that, the world is that much worse – that much greyer and colder, snow melting into his shoes and pant legs, sinking into his bones. Hands thread back through his hair, head dropping heavily towards the ground as he just stands, feet planted, back turned to everyone. He looks for all the world like a man trying to regather his wits, to get a handle on himself and his emotions. That’s almost certainly what Elena will think she’s seeing.
What he’s really doing is tracing with his eyes the single, unaccompanied track of footprints back through the snow to where he’d entered the cemetery. Under his feet, the snow is a muddy mess, stirred up by his tossing and turning between what is and what he wishes were; next to him, the crisp white is undisturbed.
And just what, exactly, is he expecting to see in all of this – what delusion is he trying to confirm, scouring the fading western sky for some evidence of, clinging to so hard he can feel his bones vibrating in place?
When he turns back to them, there’s something on his face that looks like a smile but isn’t one; hollow and dark and afraid, it’s just unnerving enough that when he angles himself to slip between them on a solitary trek to the gravesite, no one dares raise a hand to stop him.
End note 1: This was inspired by the concept behind an episode of the unrelated TV series ‘Scrubs’ entitled ‘My Screw-Up’. I did not directly copy the plotline or attempt to recreate the same character dynamics – it’s about the overall scenario, not retelling the same story. The only thing I directly paralleled was the closing scene because it was so perfectly played that it could not be improved upon. For those who haven’t seen it(most if not all of you), let me clarify: Delusion/hallucination, not ghost.
End note 2: This does not fit in with the continuity of ‘Crossed the Rooftops’ or really any of my other work in this fandom, and I’m okay with that.
End note 3: I know that Squaresoft has officially retconned Tseng’s death as of Advent Children, but I’m keeping it in my personal canon for two reasons: One, because so much of my development of Reno’s character over the years has been grounded in it and removing it upsets too much of who he’s become in my mind; and two, they can call it a translation error in the English version if they want to, but I own several Japanese-language comics that deal with his death and the aftermath, so I cannot believe this ‘misinterpretation’ was limited to the English translation. This combined with his absence from the rest of the game and the remaining Turks’ lackluster and distracted dry attention to duty from that point onward make me think that at the time, yes, it was intended that he’d been killed.