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Don't Play With Fire

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Ducking under a punch aimed at my nose, I scramble away from my assailant, catching my balance on the hard-packed dirt with the tips of my fingers. My free hand clutches a stolen bag of chips to my body, its protesting crinkles and crunches buried beneath the shouting of the kids hot on my heels. My legs burn with a fire I've never known before, taking flight with a new speed I've never had the urgency to unlock. Jumping away from a desperate, finger-spreading grasp at my jacket, I slide through a narrow passage of leaning steal, hoping to lose them.

This stupid clown crew of urchins has been on my trail for as long as I can remember. Apparently, slipping cans of peaches into my pockets and cutting off girls' hair in their sleep didn't earn me many friends. When I make it back out into the open, one of the younger boys spots me. Panicked, I crush the chips closer to my body and run in the opposite direction, ducking past clusters of confused adults.

"There she is!" he cries.

"'Scuse me!" I cry, pushing a woman aside and turning sharply to the left into a darker, quieter street. I'm stopped quite abruptly.

"Got her!"

Choking, I squirm, digging my elbow back into the kid's ribcage. He laughs, dragging me further into the alleyway by the back of my collar. I kick at him and flail my arms, but it doesn't do me any good. Grunting, he throws me forward before a pair of dumpsters. I gasp for air, reaching up to touch my throbbing throat. The chips fall to the ground. Desperate, I reach to snatch them, but they're kicked away. A girl about my age crouches, grinning smugly.

"Hey, sweetums. What's up?" She rams the tip of her boot into my ribs and knocks me onto my back, pressing her shoe into my chest to slowly suffocate me. Panting, I scowl up at the sky, trying to devise a plan.

"Finally," another girl drawls, crossing her arms and shaking her head. Her obnoxiously pale hair catches the light and reveals the missing chunks I took my knife too. I can't help but laugh.

"What's so funny?" the girl above me demands, pushing down harder. I cough, trying to push her shoe off my chest.

"Get off!"

"No can do." She glances at the boy and nods, pulling a dagger from her pocket. "You gotta pay."

"What're you doing?" I demand. My heart pounds even harder and I struggle again, scared.

"You stole," the boy shrugs, taking the knife from her hand and kneeling beside me. "Don't have time to do this right, so I think one finger will work, yeah?"

"What?" I wheeze, letting my head loll back and smack the dirt. No, no, no.

"Sounds good to me," the girl shrugs. "Besides, if we took the whole hand here, people'd see. Can't have that." She leans down and spits in my face, stomping on my hand when I lift it to hit her. I grit my teeth, screwing my eyes shut. Gods, that hurt.

"Keep quiet or we'll have to kill ya!" the younger girl cries.

"Missy!"

"Sorry."

I take a deep breath. Take it like a champ. It can't be that bad. The instant the dagger breaks my skin, I know that won't work.

"Stop!"

"Hey!" the girl frees my chest to stand on my throat. "Shut up!" Choking, I try to wrestle free, tears streaking down my cheeks as the blade slices through my palm.

"Heads up!"

Suddenly, the girl's foot is off my throat and the knife's searing blade is removed from my skin. Gasping for air, I roll onto my elbow to see what's going on. A flurry of red streaks past and the boy doubles over, spitting scarlet saliva from his mouth. Who the hell…? The knife catches the light just before it's buried deep into the girl's throat. Startled, I stumble to my feet, watching with horror as her blood sprays onto the dirt, turning it to murky red mud.

"Move!"

Something jerks my elbow and I pull away, turning to see a scrawny skeleton of a boy staring back at me with bright eyes. After seeing what he just did, I should grab my chips and make a run for it.

Instead, I let him pull me on top of the dumpster and up the wall of the building, forgetting my food in my daze. When he runs, I follow, daring to look back. The younger girl already has a whole group of friends with her and they're coming fast. I turn back onto to stumble to a stop at the edge of the building.

"Jump!" he calls, sprinting past me and leaping the gap onto the next roof.

The people down below frown, looking up at the sky to see who just fly past. Left with little choice, I back up a few steps and take the leap of faith.

My arms just barely catch the cement edge and my stomach slams into the wall, knocking the air from my lungs. Quickly, the boy drags me up after him and we take off again. My body feels weightless as the adrenaline pumps through my veins. Exhilarating, almost. My jacket flaps around my arms as they pump harder and harder, forcing me to keep up with this mystery boy. This kid knows his stuff.

"Up," he commands, jerking his head toward the rusted ladder before us. I shake my head, shoving him.

"You first." I expected him to argue, to hit me, or even to leave me behind. Instead, he grins.

"No."

The sound of the hooting slum rats catches my ears and I huff.

"Fine."

As quickly as I can, I pull myself up the ladder and step onto the crumbling building. When the boy reaches me, he turns back and stomps on the ladder a few times. I frown, watching a particularly large boy sprinting toward it.

"What are you doing?!" I demand, tugging at his arm. "C'mon!"

He ignores me, giving a final three kicks before the old metal groans and snaps, sending the ladder to the ground with the chunk of rotting wood it was screwed to. He turns back to scan the skyline with a grin. His eyes are sharp, quick, perceptive. They illuminate like a light bulb and he hurries to the other side of the roof, unfazed when the concrete shifts beneath his feet. Who is this guy?

I pick my route carefully, stumbling over loose stones and crumbling cement. Hope no one lives here. He stoops down, jerking a thick black cable free and tying it around his narrow waist.

"What—" I start. He tugs it. Testing it. I shake my head, stepping back. The ground shifts beneath my feet and I shudder. "No, that won't hold!"

"Would you rather let them catch you?" he snaps, glancing over his shoulder at me irritably. "It'll get us away. Ain't gonna kill you."

"Yet."

"Hurry up!"

"Okay!"

I lunge forward, clinging to his shoulders and squeezing my eyes shut. When we start to swing, my stomach churns and I think I might be sick. Before I have time to realize where we're headed, we plummet toward the ground. This is it.

I land with a soft bounce, opening my eyes to realize I've landed on a smelly stack of old, discarded mattresses. The boy shoves me off his back and I land on my ass, watching him stand and dust his clothes off.

"How did you—"

"I saw 'em." He grabs my wrist and drags me to my feet. "C'mon; I don't live too far from here."

We run through the empty streets, watching the slum lights flicker on as the sun sinks below the wall that seals us inside this stupid steel can. The boy slows to a stop past the outskirts of the sector, glancing around before shoving a shrieking plate of iron to the side and slipping into a square hole in the side of an abandoned schoolhouse. I follow, pulling the "door" shut behind me. Carefully, I crawl into the dark underbelly of the building before pulling myself up onto the floor through a jagged hole in the wooden boards.

The boy kneels beside a messy pile of blankets, switching a lantern on. Curious, I walk around the room, taking it in. The musty scent is trapped by the chairs and desks that block every window and door and a pile of garbage has begun to erupt from another hole in the floor he tried to turn into a trashcan. On the opposite wall, there's a box of food, though its only contents are a bag of white rice, a pickle jar, and a packet of peanut butter crackers. A faint smile traces my lips. Evan used to live off those things. My blood runs cold when I hear a faint but familiar click.

"Who are you?" the boy demands. Slowly, I turn to face him, raising my hands by my head in surrender. I should've known…

"What are you doing?"

"Who are you?" he asks again, cocking his head to the side with a smug smile. I try to remain calm, but I can hardly breathe, and my bloody fingers are beginning to tremble.

"Look, I don't know where we are, but I can leave. Thank you for saving me, but I really—"

"Only gonna ask one more time." He motions toward the entrance with the gun before it training it back on my head. "Who's to say you won't come back and rob me blind?" Laughing to himself, he shakes his head. "Nah, don't work like that. Who are you?"

"My name's Kat." I swallow the lump in my throat and nod. "Kat."

"Kat who?" He starts to lower the gun and I breathe a sigh of relief.

"Who are you?" I demand, letting my hands drop and forcing myself to put up a brave face. No more. Please. His face cracks in a smile.

"Name's Reno."

"Reno who?"

"Just got the one," he shrugs, cocky as ever. "So, is it 'Cat' with a 'c' or 'Kat' with a 'k?'" Tucking his gun into his waistband, he heads toward the food box, not afraid to keep his back to me. I've proven to be harmless enough.

"With a 'k.'" I frown at his back. The guy looks older than me by a few years; he's taller, and skinny, even for a slum kid.

"Alright Kat," he says, hitting the first letter of my name particularly hard. "Got any food on you?"

"No, I—"

"Don't lie." He turns sharply, gun right back where it was moments ago. I freeze, my mind fumbling for the right words. Before I can speak, he laughs, throwing his head back and tossing the weapon onto his pile of blankets. "Kidding. It's empty."

"… Oh."

"Not funny?" he teases, kneeling by the box. I scowl.

"No, not really."

"You're no fun." I flinch when something flies at my head. My hand reacts quickly, and I look down to see the peanut butter crackers. "Heard if you feed a dog enough, he'll be your friend. Maybe it works the same with rats."

"Gee, thanks," I huff.

I don't wait very long to eat them, though, starved. He unscrews the pickle jar and takes a bite that's hard enough to spray juice in my face from several feet away. Grinning as he chews with his mouth wide open, he tips the pickle in my direction.

"Welcome home, Kat."

Crinkling my nose, I go back to nibbling on the crackers, refusing to take my eyes off him for even a moment. Little did I know, this fiasco would serve as the catalyst for a friendship that would last for years to come.

Chapter Text

~9 years later~

I groan and contemplate jamming a fork into the toaster to get it over with already. Annoyed, I ignore my grumbling stomach and leave my breakfast to char in favor of getting ready for work. I yank my pants on, nearly ripping a hole in the side when I shimmy a little too hard, and when I throw my jacket on, I grimace at the smell.

Quickly, I drench myself in a shower of perfume in hopes of drowning out the scent and rush toward my door. Hope the smoke alarm doesn't go off again… To avoid all responsibility, I slam the front door shut (if I don't, it'll jam halfway open) and turn the key in the lock. When I shove my hand in my pocket to tuck my keys away, my phone vibrates against my fingers. Huffing, I hurry down the stairs, pressing it to my ear impatiently.

"What's up?" Even in my morning rush, I can't help but grin.

"Hey! Not at work yet?"

"Reno, you know I work the second morning shift."

"When's that?"

"Nine, like every other morning the past five months," I huff, rolling my eyes. A passing woman frowns, uncertain if the gesture was meant for her. "Did you need something? I'm kinda busy."

"Yeah, I need a ride at, like, six."

"Sure." My truck dings when I jerk the rusty door open, and the undercarriage creaks in protest when I sit down. "Hey, I heard that pizza place has a sale today." Please take the bait.

"Well shit, let's do it!" I hear the creak of his desk chair as he leans back, probably to put his feet up on his desk like an imbecile. "Love that place!"

"Yeah, I know." The engine of my truck sputters and I try again, kicking at the floor. "C'mon…"

"That didn't sound good."

"Yeah, thanks," I scoff.

"Actually, can you pick me up at—"

"Bye."

I roll my eyes fondly and set my phone aside, finally getting the vehicle to turn on and strapping in. I glance up at myself in the rearview mirror and shake my head. Don't look at me like that. If I didn't hang up, he'd never shut up. That's Reno, I guess. Easy going, lazy as all hell, but dear Shiva does he take his job seriously. I sigh, pulling onto the busy Midgar roads. Finally get to the upper plate, and what do I get? I serve into the right lane to give the guy that cut me off the finger. A bunch of assholes and a shitty life.

Still, if I hadn't messed everything up, I'd be right where Reno is right now: doing Shinra's dirty work. I guess that's what grown-ups have to do, though. As much as I miss stealing pickles and pissing shopkeepers off, it had to end. Somehow, homeless adults are sadder than homeless kids.

"You ready?"

Kelsey, our other reporter, is almost ready to turn it over to me. I nod, ignoring the cameraman's voice as he barks more orders in my ear, squaring my shoulders and shaking my hair out of my eyes. Behind me, the flames of the burning reactor's remains heat my back. A chilling column of black smoke rises high above the city.

"We're here live at the ruins of the Sector One reactor," I announce, holding my microphone close to my lips and trying to keep my voice steady as I raise it above the angry wind. "Just a few hours ago, a bomb set off within the reactor's core and destroyed the sector's source of electricity. Shinra is still searching for alternative methods of returning power."

"Help—" the producer hisses. I resist the urge to roll my eyes before the entirety of Midgar.

"If you have any information about who may have done this or what inspired this—"

"I saw 'em!" A sweaty man jerks my hand toward his mouth, spitting into the microphone. Startled, I watch my crew for any sign of what to do. "It was a big guy with a gun for an arm and a dude with a big sword! There were others too! I—"

"Thank you," I grit out, pulling the microphone back and forcing myself to maintain my painted smile. "If you have any information, please don't hesitate to call the number on the screen."

The rest of my shift is hardly all that interesting. I'm forced to stand around as we film the crowds that watch the debris burn and the emergency crews that struggle to maintain the fires. When the sun begins to get hotter, citizens turn back and head home. I slouch against a wall, rolling my shoulders to loosen their tension. Gods, even this isn't exciting. Someone pries my mic from my hand and heads back toward the crew, likely packing up for the day. Someone else kicks my foot.

"Hard at work?"

I jump, opening my eyes to see Reno staring down at me with a cocky smile. Behind him, his bald partner, Rude, surveys the scene in silence. I shake my head, pulling Reno into a tight hug and drowning in the scent of cheap cologne and whiskey. Should get someone to bottle the smell. I nudge Rude with my elbow, but he remains stoic.

"Oh, c'mon. You're no fun when you're on the job," I tease, pouting. His eyebrow twitches upward, but he says nothing. Damn, his poker face is good. "You guys here on Tseng's orders?"

"Yeah, he's workin' on something else," Reno shrugs. His eyes narrow on the rubble and he laughs to himself. "Damn rebels, thinkin' they can change the world."

"Clear the scene?" Rude asks, his voice low. He refuses to look at me when I huff. Reno pokes my forehead with the tip of his rod.

"Yup. Gonna have to ask you to pack it up, Sweetheart."

"Whatever," I scoff, lifting one of the cases on the ground at my feet. "Why're you guys showing up so late, anyway?"

"Classified info, 'kay?"

"Asshole."

"Mhm." He whistles, eyebrows raised as he looks past me. Kelsey strides past on her ridiculously high heels and pulls her phone from the side of her very deep v-neck. "Should watch the news more."

"You're gross."

"Scram, bitch."

"Hit him for me," I mutter to Rude, patting his arm and following my crew to their van.

The van drops off at the station, and from there, I head to the train station. It's so expensive to part on this side of Midgar, so I usually drive halfway and take the train back and forth. Somehow, it's cheaper that way. I take a seat in one of the middle cars, turning my phone off and on in hopes of seeing a notification from anyone. Who am I kidding? Reno and Rude are the only people I know. The door hisses open and passengers make quick exits upon seeing a large man with a gun on his arm (what the hell?) and a… Guy with a big sword. I frown, letting them scurry past. The entire car shakes when the gunman plops onto a seat near me. Quickly, I shoot Reno a text.

Your suspects are on a train to Sector 7.

I tuck the device away and slump in my seat, staring at the ceiling. They don't scare me, these rebels. They all have big dreams, ignorant of their real effects on the world, but they don't hurt normal people on purpose. Not when they think they're the common person's hero. The gunman catches me looking his way and scowls, his skull tattoo rippling with the enormous muscles on his arm.

"What're you lookin' at?" he demands. I shrug and return to staring at the ceiling. "Yo, Cloud! Jessie wanted to show ya somethin'!"

The guy with the sword, Cloud I'm assuming, slowly makes his way through the car as beams of red light signal the security check area we've entered. How does he swing that thing? I frown, raising an eyebrow. Is that just an ornament or…? I close my eyes, drifting off into a sleep just light enough to tune out the rebels' conversation. When the train shrieks to a stop, I let them get off before going around them to the parking lot just above the slums.

My apartment door hits the wall behind it when I swing it open (to avoid that damn jam) and I cringe. Gonna have to pay for the hole. Yawning, I collapse on my stained old couch and set an alarm on my phone. Gotta get some shut-eye before dealing with people again.

When I head back out again, the sun is even dimmer than before. My truck chugs along as well as she can. She's never been pretty, and she smells like onions most days, but at least I can get where I need to. Bought her from some shop keeper in Sector Six. Come to think of it, he smelled like onions, too. I shudder and shake the thought away, taking my armpit-truck the short way to the Shinra building.

The headquarters towers above the rest of Midgar, a pillar of doom rather than one of hope. Skylights beam up into its shiny, tinted windows to highlight the company's great monument of success. I shoot Reno another text from the road outside, not wanting to get lost in the parking garage. Soon enough, he heads outside, loosening another button in his shirt to reveal his bare chest to the world. I roll my eyes and put my window down when he taps on the glass. Put a shirt on.

"You might wanna find somewhere better to stop. Tseng wants to talk."

"Why?"

"Didn't say. Not my business," he shrugs.

"He can't just call me?"

"Guess not." I sigh adjusting my grip on the wheel.

"Fine. Get in."

Reno obeys, letting his hand out the open window as I delve further into the land of fancy cars and low ceilings. He glances at the center console and picks up a cardboard carton with a skeptical raise of his eyebrow.

"Still smokin'?"

"Trying to quit," I correct, pulling the box free and tossing it back onto the console. "Don't tempt me."

"Don't keep 'em in plain view," he shrugs, though he's smiling.

Ignoring his advice, I pull into a wide enough space and hop down to the ground. The whole place smells like leather interiors and stuffy new suits. Reno presses his ID to the elevator at the end of the hall, letting me in after him. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, shaking my hands out. I haven't been here in a while, and for good reason. Reno flashes a grin and leads the way across one of the HQ's top floors.

Secretaries and assistants bustle about, though few enter the looming glass doors at the end of the hallway. Above our heads, a large, shiny plaque announces Shinra's Department of Public Safety. Outside the doors, a smaller sign reveals a larger title: The Investigation Sector of the General Affairs Department. A damn mouthful for people who call themselves Turks. Reno lets himself in and I shoot him a look when he doesn't hold the door.

"Welcome back, Sweetheart," Reno says, throwing his arms out in a wide, sweeping motion.

"Just take me to Tseng," I huff, feeling my face go red when a woman across the room raises an eyebrow at us.

"Gettin' to that part."

He strides across the large department's sleek floors and knocks on a pair of glossy wooden doors. Before anyone on the other side can answer, he swings the doors open and shoves me in, grinning. The director looks up from his desk, scowling.

"Reno, I told you to knock and wait before entering."

"Sorry, forgot," Reno shrugs, jamming his hands into his pockets.

"… That was fifteen minutes ago."

"And?" Reno pushes me closer to the desk and I smack his hand away, silently trying to make him stop with my eyes. No such luck. Grinning, he smacks me right back. "Brought you your girl."

"Hello, Kat," Tseng sighs, pushing his papers aside. "Reno, see yourself out, please. And close the door."

"Should I knock, too?"

"Reno."

Reno shoots me a wink and obeys his orders. Thirty seconds in and he's already lost his patience. This doesn't bode well for me. Sighing, I turn back to Tseng, crossing my arms. Let's get this over with.

"What do you want?" I ask, keeping my face stern. Channel your inner Rude; don't break.

"You were at the reactor today," he comments, turning to his computer screen for a moment.

"Yeah, and?" I shrug. "It's what the job requires."

"Anti-Shinra groups are getting out of hand these days." An ebony eyebrow twitches and his long, smooth hair straightens itself as he turns back to me.

"I guess." This isn't working. "Tseng, why the hell am I here?"

"I hate to admit this," he starts, his voice low. He glances at the door, knowing full well Reno is still outside. "With only three of us on the field, it's becoming difficult to track all suspicions at once."

"So you want me to snoop?" I shrug. "Fine. I park in the slums every morning."

"No." Tseng hesitates, his breath lingering in his chest as he pauses to think. I frown. "I… would like for you to rejoin the ranks."

"Oh." I fall back, slumping in one of the stiff chairs before his desk. My heart pounds in my ears and my head feels light. A memory tries to breach the surface, like a word that lingers on the tip of your tongue, but it can't seem to break free. "How do you know you can trust me?"

"You've been sending us tips and clues since you left." He pauses, his dark eyes watching me as I force myself to sit straighter. My palms begin to sweat. "And you're good at keeping secrets." That was low. I shoot him a look and sigh.

"But the President—"

"We're more independent than before. I already spoke with Heidegger." I raise an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. He heaves a sigh. "You're clear."

"And what if I don't have everything I did way back when?" I demand, grasping at straws. I shouldn't accept, but I can't quite remember why. Frustrated, I grind my teeth together, suddenly itching for fresh air and a smoke.

"You've handled kidnappings and bar fights without Shinra-grade weapons nearly every week. Your determination is something to be spoken for." Tseng takes a breath, eyeing the door once more. "If you could balance out the personality dynamic around here, that would be a bonus."

"Tseng, I don't know—"

"The potential I saw three years ago is still there, Kat."

You rejected me then, but now that you need me… I huff, drying my sweaty hands off on my pants. What is it about this place? I force away my thoughts and muster up the strength to look at Tseng, willing him not to kill me with disappointment. As I start to speak, my mind sends forth a memory of the two of us, me and Reno, laying on the ground of the slums, watching the lights of cars on the upper plates flash through the cracks. This is what we dreamed of. I snap my mouth shut, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. Don't fuck this up.

"Alright. I'll do it."

Chapter Text

I close Tseng's doors slowly, stepping into the Turks' sector of the headquarters. Looks dead in here. Frowning, I peer around the corner. Where'd Reno go? Just as I start to head to his office, I hear him cough loudly from across the room, standing at the glass doors that lead back to the main section of the floor. I huff and hurry to catch up, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jacket.

"Ready to get some food?" he asks, cheerful. "I'm starved!"

"You're always starved," I mutter, slumping against the wall of the elevator and watching us descend from our heights through the windows. I can't forget the edge in Tseng's voice. He really must be needing the extra help if he's willing to take me back—after the President himself gave me the boot. Reno clears his throat to break the silence.

"Rude's on the ground floor. Care if the ol' partner comes along, too?"

"Nope." I step out into the busy lobby of the building. Reno waves to Rude over my head, gesturing for him to follow us. Rude nods at me in greeting, touching his sunglasses habitually. I lead the way to my rusty truck in silence, listening to Reno ramble to Rude.

"I call shotgun!" Reno shouts. I throw an arm out, my elbow hitting his chest harder than I meant for it to. Still, it felt good.

"Rude has shotgun." I shoot him a half-hearted smile. "You're the smaller one, so you're in the back."

"But you're the smallest, Kat. Or did you forget?" he teases, jamming a finger. Rolling my eyes, I push his hand away and unlock my car.

"It's my truck. Could just leave you here. Means more pizza for me 'n Rude."

"He doesn't appreciate the cuisine, yo."

"Cuisine?" I snort, shoving him into the backseat. "You've got low standards for a guy with money."

"Who says I got money?" he retorts, but he's grinning.

"Your piss-scented perfume told me all I need to know."

Rude's lips twitch. Reno kicks the back of my seat, rolling his window down. As we drive out of the parking lot, he sticks his head out the window, flashing his middle fingers to anyone we speed past.

"Reno, for fuck's sake, get your head in the car before you get yourself killed," I snap, glancing back at him before veering into the right lane. He gives a honking car one last bird before slumping back into his seat.

"Nice blinker."

"Shut up, Re. I'm driving."

"You're going five over," he mutters, digging his sharp chin into my shoulder. When I ignore him, he licks my ear.

"Ew!" I elbow his face and scrub at my ear with my shoulder. Rude sighs, turning to get some fresh air from his cracked window. "Yeah, sorry. It always smells in here."

"It's your smelly swamp ass," Reno grumbles, sticking his head between ours. "Are we almost—"

"Shit!" I slam on the breaks, laying hard on the horn as I'm cut off by an idiot in a shiny new car. Rude swings his arm out to the left, saving Reno from flying through the windshield. "What an asshole!"

"You almost killed me!" Reno cries.

"Yeah, well, seatbelts save lives." I glance up at him in the mirror. "Seriously, Reno, buckle up. People out here are crazy. I already had this happen today."

"You're not even b—"

"Quit being a backseat driver." I pull into the nearly empty lot for the pizza place. "Rude, can you hit him for me again?"

"I can try."

Laughing, I shake my head and turn the car off, making sure to lock the doors and slam them shut before Reno can get out. I head inside, watching him struggle to get into the front seat for several minutes. Finally, he joins us with a soured expression, hands buried deep in his pockets.

"Ew, you stink," I huff, crinkling my nose. Raising an eyebrow, he lifts his arm and shoves his pit stain in my face. "Dude!" One of the teenage workers at the counter laughs, but he shuts his mouth when we look at him.

"What? Smells like your car, doesn't it?"

"Reno—" I punch his ribs and manage to get Rude between us. "Gods, I hate you."

"Yeah, well, can't smell worse than the piss—"

"Reno," Rude says under his breath, effectively silencing him.

"Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say, partner."

Partner… Will I have a partner? Will I work with Tseng? I frown; we'd both hate that. It'd be harder than working alone. I wonder if a group of three—

"Ma'am?"

"Hm?" I blink out of my thoughts, my face going red.

"Are you ready to order?"

"Oh, right. Uh…" What are words?

"Two cheese," Reno calls over my shoulder. The guy nods, typing in our order. I reach into my pocket for my wallet, but Reno tosses a bill over my head with a wink and a nudge. "Cuz I got money and all."

"Sorry," I huff, running a hand through my hair to keep it out of my face. Reno laughs picking a booth for us to sit in.

"Brain fart?"

"Just lost in thought."

"Uh oh," he teases, kicking Rude's foot under the table. "Rude, I think our little kitty's growing up!"

"You didn't raise me," I scoff, picking at my chipped nail polish. I hate this color.

"But I was your buddy."

"I guess."

"Also." Reno turns in his seat, resting his elbow on the back of the booth. "You got anything to drink in your gross apartment? I was thinking of inviting myself over."

"Not much." I shoot Rude a look. "You coming, Rude?"

"I don't think so."

"Aw, come on. You can't leave me alone with this idiot!" I push Reno away from me when I get a waft of his sweaty smell. "I might kill him!" Despite the painful truth behind my words, Rude dares to crack a slight smile.

"… Only an hour."

"Yeah, man!" Reno cheers, waving the boy that took our order over as he delivers our pizzas with a forced smile.

"Let me know if you guys need anything else," he says, setting the trays down slowly. Reno begins to gobble down his meal before it's even in front of him. The boy straightens, pausing to eye my hair. "Is that your natural color?"

"Yeah?" I raise an eyebrow. He smiles apologetically.

"Sorry, I'm sure you get that a lot." He nods to the food. "Enjoy."

"Why didn't he ask me?" Reno whines around a mouthful of cheese and crust. I shrug, suppressing a smile.

"Mine's prettier."

"Seriously?" He hits his skull against mine; I wince. "Rude, isn't it basically the same color?" Rude stares at him for two long, silent seconds before taking a drink of water.

"What a nice guy," I tease, taking a slice from the pizza Reno didn't touch. "Too kind to break your heart."

"Bitch."

"Excuse me?" I raise an eyebrow. Reno swallows.

"Bitch."

"Wow. And here I was preparing to welcome you into my humble abode."

"Oh, it's humble alright."

"Screw off. Not all of us got lucky."

"Could've."

The table gets quiet and I shake my head, focusing on eating my fill. Reno engulfs almost an entire pizza on his own, muttering around his mouthfuls of food. I nod along as if I can understand him, shooting Rude a look ever now and again, but my mind is on something else entirely. When do I tell them?

We take the leftovers in a foam box that I rest on the console. Reno collapses into a food coma in the backseat and Rude cracks his window a little wider even as rain begins to drizzle from the overcast sky. The smell is refreshing in the midst of the mako-reeking city and I rest my hand outside my window to feel the water hitting my skin.

"We're here!" I announce.

Reno springs to action, a dead man risen, climbing over Rude's lap and popping the door open, refusing to get stuck again. Rude leans as far away from his partner as he can, frowning at the ripped ceiling of my truck until he's free to leave. Laughing, I shake my head and step out into the rain, reveling in the cool pitter-pattering of the water hitting the rusty roof of the apartment complex.

The guys wait for me to unlock the door and Reno mocks me when I close my door a little too hard behind us. Quickly, I kick off my socks and shoes before tossing my jacket across the back of a chair. Reno heads right for the kitchen, opening all the cabinets and leaving them open in his wake. Huffing, he slams the fridge door shut.

"You've nothing in here," he informs me, looking around the apartment he's seen at least a hundred times.

"I've got pasta," I shrug, following behind him to close all the cabinets back up. "It's cheap and tastes kind of edible." What the heck am I supposed to say? I shudder, chilled by my damp shirt. What if he's angry?

"But you get paid a pretty penny, doncha?" he asks, flopping onto the couch and kicking his feet up on the chipped coffee table.

I scoff, lifting a pair of papers off the table and dropping them on his stomach for sitting beside him and patting the last free seat, a silent invitation for Rude. Reno gives a whistle low, scanning over the pages quickly.

"Bills are worse here than nicer places across town. Why don't you move?"

"Because my boss won't let me." He leans forward, lifting the remote turning the TV on. "Says the commute's too far and he doesn't wanna pay."

"Doesn't your ex live downstairs?"

"He moved last week." I scoot over to give Rude more space, offering him a bite of popcorn from the bag on the table. He shakes his head, glancing around the room.

"To where?" Reno asks absently, flipping through the channels with deep concentration.

"His new girlfriend's house."

"Whoops." He grins when a rerun of the new story I was on earlier appears. "Do you ever watch yourself on TV?"

"If I wanna take a blow to my self-esteem, sure."

"Learn from Kelsey. Walks like her asscrack's eatin' her skirt." I choke on my laughter, smacking his knee. "What? It's true."

"Thought you said she was hot."

"She is, she just walks funny."

"But—" My phone begins to vibrate loudly in my pocket. Sighing, I pull it free only for Reno to pluck it from my fingers and pick up the call.

"Hey, welcome to the Leaf House. You gonna adopt a brat or what?"

"Reno!" I cry, reaching over him to snatch it away. Knowing full well who's on the other line, I head across the room and rest a hand on my hip, staring hard at the calendar I haven't changed in three months. "Hello?"

"Kat?"

"Yup."

"… Was that Reno?"

"Yeah, why?" I huff, ruffling my hair anxiously. I can feel Tseng shaking his head on the other line.

"Nevermind."

"Okay…?"

"I expect you in my office before eight tomorrow. Don't get lost."

"How do you expect me to get in?"

"Ask Reno."

"Is that all?"

"…" Tseng lets the air grow heavy with tension before speaking again. "Today's the anniversary, isn't it?"

His question is more of a statement. The words sting as the faintest scent of choking smoke fills my nose, a memory I can just barely grasp—one I buried long ago. Gritting my teeth, I hang up, refusing to play into his therapy. I adjust my attitude and plop back down between the men on my couch.

"So?" Reno prompts, eyes still glued to the screen. "That was Tseng's number, wasn't it? Didn't get a good look, but I've seen it enough times to know." He glances over at me with a smug expression. "Somethin' he forget to mention?"

"Yeah," I sigh, laying my head on Rude's shoulder. I frown, sitting up abruptly. "Why do you smell like peaches?"

"What?" Rude frowns.

"Your suit. It smells peachy."

"… I don't know."

"Probably the detergent his mama bought 'im," Reno yawns, stretching his arms over his head. "What did the boss man want?"

"Well…" I shake my head, picking at my nails. "Did he tell you what he needed me for before?"

"Already told ya he didn't say shit."

"Okay…" I shake off my inhibitions and force the words out. "He asked me to work with you guys."

"What?" Reno shoots out of his seat, leaning forward with his hands pressed to the table and his ass blocking the TV. "He asked you to be a Turk?!"

"Yeah…?"

"Why didn't you say something before?!" He lunges across the gap, crushing me in what was supposed to be a hug. Really, he just squishes me deeper into the couch cushions, cackling like a maniac. "We can be a trio! A thrupple!"

"Reno—" Rude starts, but he's cut off by his partner's excited rambling.

"Man, I can't believe this! After what happened, too! Thought you were never—"

"Re," I huff, shoving him off me. He falls back, sitting on the table and grinning. His eyes are dancing with a light I haven't seen in a long time.

"What?"

"Rude was trying to say something," I shrug, jerking my head toward the quiet man to my left. Rude sighs, pushing his shades up and standing.

"Come with me," he says to me. I thought you wanted Reno? His partner leaps to his feet and he shakes his head once. "Not you." Groaning, I get up and follow him deeper into the house as Reno grumbles to himself and slumps back onto the couch.

"What did you need?" I ask, closing my bedroom door behind us. He stares past my head, looming tall over me.

"Tseng spoke with me today."

"Yeah? What'd the little fucker say?" I cross my arms, picking up on his discomfort almost immediately.

"He showed me your data."

"My data…?" Today's the anniversary… I grit my teeth and shake my head. "Shit!"

"I doubt he'd show me your personal records unless—"

"Rude, please," I huff, scowling at him. "Is all this just a ploy so you can keep an eye on me for him?"

"No. You wouldn't be here." His words are less of a threat and more of an observation, but I can't help but scoff at them.

"Why are you telling me this?" I demand. I'm pissed, but not at him. Tseng needs to learn to mind his own business. "I don't—"

"A warning. He may tell Reno in the same manner." Rude touches his sunglasses and glances around the messy room.

"Fuck." I pinch the bridge of my nose and throw open my side table, fumbling for a cigarette with trembling hands. My fingers shake as I light it up, letting my lighter hit the bottom of the drawer with a loud clatter.

"… I know Reno values—"

"Doesn't matter." My words emerge with a puff of smoke. I run a hand through my hair and take another drag before looking up at him. "If he knows… it's all over."

"I know." Rude watches in silence as I sit on the edge of my bed, drinking in my toxins like a starved glutton.

"Y'know, Tseng told me to tell him years ago." I shake my head, huffing out a short, dry laugh. "Went from good advice to blackmail faster than I expected."

"He does what he has to."

"So now you're defending him?!" I snap. He doesn't answer and I shake my head. "Sorry. I know it's hard sitting pretty in the middle." I kill my smoke on the cement windowsill and smooth my shirt. "Thanks for the heads up."

I lead the way back into the living room. Reno's slouched on the couch, scrolling through his phone. When he hears us come back, he shoots to his feet, his jacket flapping open over his half-buttoned shirt.

"Have fun smoochin' up a storm without me?"

"Smoochin'?" I repeat, wrestling a smile. "No, it was awful."

"Damn, Rude. Gotta step up your game."

"… We have to leave," Rude says sternly, checking his watch.

"Super secret business to attend to?" I ask, raising an eyebrow. Reno shrugs, heading toward the door.

"Dunno. Leave the schedule to the big guy."

"How are you guys getting back?"

"Train's not far," he shrugs. Rude shakes his head.

"We have a ride."

"Okay."

I wave them off, spooked when Reno almost jams my door open, and head to my room. Lying on the bed in the dark, I stare up at the ceiling, heart pounding. Why's he suddenly taking my friendships into his own hands? I wrestle the urge, picking at my fingers, but my bouncing knee and grinding teeth are enough for me to give it, snatching the remainder of my extinguished cigarette and lighting it once more. The smoke curls upward in the light of the setting sun and I take a deep breath of stuffy air. He'd use anything to keep me under his thumb.

~6 years before~

"Kat, do you know why you're here?" Tseng asks, staring me down with sharp, cold eyes. I shrug, indifferent. He clasps his hands behind his back, and when he shakes his head, his tied hair swings behind him like a pendulum counting down the seconds to my doom. "You're not going try."

"Is it worth it?" I ask dryly. His eyebrows twitch and he takes a deep breath to calm him. I have a talent for getting under his skin without trying.

"You have great potential here. Better than anyone we've recruited in years." His eyes bore into mine. "But you're giving up already."

"…" I stare at the wall, crossing my arms tightly over my chest. "It's just… it reminds me of what happened." I force myself to look back at him, to be numb to his disappointment. "Of why they're gone." He's the one that looks away this time. "Tseng—"

"Kat, I know you've had your share of trouble," he says, speaking slowly. "But this isn't the same."

"I wish you'd left me in Sector Two."

"You have potential," he repeats as if he's reassuring himself. "Reno would help you willingly if you would let him."

"You know can't do that."

"If your past gets in the way for much longer, it will follow you for the rest of your life," he reminds me, straightening his buttoned jacket. "Everyone here has a history."

"But are they as bad as—"

"Kat." Tseng lifts his chin and raises his walls with it. "Move past it or leave."

"… I'll try." I let my arms hang back down at my sides, shoving them into my pockets. "Can I go back now?"

"Yes." He stops me when I head toward the door. "You need to tell Reno before this goes beyond us."

"No. You know what'll happen if I tell him."

"You're all he has left."

"And that's my fault," I snap, scowling back at him. "Mind your own business."

~3 months later~

"Get off me!" I kick at the man who digs his knees into my thighs and pins me to the floor of the training room. Whipping a spray of sweat off his face, he throws another blow, laughing when my blood splatters across the mat.

"That's for my sister. Your stupid friend never apologized for killing her."

"That was years ago!" I huff, squirming. "Carlos, please! We didn't know!"

"Fuckin' serious right now? You're gonna pay. Slum rats are people too, you bitch."

"Carlos, get off her," a booming voice commands over the speakers.

Through the thick glass, a bored soldier turns his microphone off and lifts his magazine once more. A woman in a gaudy bee costume is plastered across the front cover. Carlos scoffs, hitting me one more time before getting to his feet and wiping his face off with the edge of his shirt. I stand, smearing blood from my nose across the back of my arm and stumbling toward the exit.

"Whoa, where you headed?"

"Fuck off, Carlos," I grumble, heading out into the hall. He laughs, mocking me, and hurries to catch up.

"Oh no you don't." He tugs on my shoulder and I pull free, angry that I let anyone see me like this. That I let everyone see me like this. "Hey! Apologize for being rude and I'll let it be."

"No."

"Kat," he sings out, slowing down to a leisurely pace. Trainees, cadets, and full-fledged soldiers alike stream through the hallway, hardly sparing us a glance. A Turk understudy causing a ruckus is hardly anything new. "C'mon, baby, just say you're sorry."

"I'm not."

"No?"

"Nope."

"Hm. Too bad." I huff, glancing over my shoulder to see him hot on my heels. "Y'know, I snuck into Tseng's office and had a snoop?"

"That's nice."

"You'll never guess whose name popped up." My heart begins to pound as the tension in my head builds. No, no, no. Go away. I speed up, praying I get to the dorms before I explode. "Yours, honey. And boy did it have a lot to say."

"Go away." Not now.

"You're bold for a girl that killed—"

"I said fuck off!" I scream. One moment, I'm heading for my room. The next, I'm staring down the barrel of my gun with Carlos in my sight. The army recruits around us freeze, looking at each other uncertainly. My blood runs cold and my muscles lock where they are. I've lost my control.

"Whoa, hey," a soldier says, reaching out a hand. "Lower it!"

"Miss!" a young woman in a pencil skirt cries, trying to sober me up. It doesn't work; they don't know I'm beyond my point of no return. They don't know I warned them—Carlos and Tseng.

"What're you gonna do?" Carlos demands, but his voice is hoarse and his eyes are darting around in search of an escape. Behind me, a man mutters into his radio, seeking help to "cool me off." My eyes narrow, lining my shot up.

"Nothing if you shut up."

"If I shut up?"

"Dude, zip it!" a teenage boy cries.

"So, what? She can win?" Carlos spreads his arms out wide. Somewhere else, I can hear running feet. "C'mon, then, bitch. Fire." He grins, cocky. I've never hated a smile more. That's not true. "Kill me!" he shouts. "Kill me like you killed every last—"

Bang, bang, bang. Three shots. One miss. Two hits. Someone screams. Someone else barks an order and rips the gun out of my hands. That's fine. I don't need it anymore. Mostly, I hear panicked murmurs and confused conversation as a crowd gathers. Good. Let them watch the traitor drown in his own blood. A pair of men wrestle me to my knees, pressing my own gun to the back of my skull. I smile. They let go of me to talk to their radios. I wait for my moment and take off, ducking under grasping hands. Someone gets a good handle on my elbow, holding me back. I rip the dagger free from the hidden sheathe on my leg and slam their back to the wall, pressing my arm to their chest and my blade to their throat.

"Don't touch me!"

"Whoa! Chill out, yo!" he cries, staring down at me with wide eyes. Something threatens to shatter the lens of my world. I squeeze my eyes shut. No. Red hair, blue eyes, those stupid scarlet marks on his cheeks—No! I choke the air and my dagger clatters to the floor. My knees land next to them.

"Oh my—" I shudder, startled when what feels like hundreds of hands grab at me, dragging me away. I thrash like an animal, still not entirely myself.

"Hey! Let her go!" Reno demands, rushing forward to push them off me.

"Stop."

Everyone freezes. Tseng stands at the end of the hall, talk, dark, and pissed. I wrestle myself free, but I can't look at him. I can't breathe. Reno kneels beside me, his hand a reassuring weight on my shoulder. But no amount of comfort can make this right. I ruined everything. Tseng waves his hand and the soldiers clear, hesitant. With long, stiff strides, he heads toward us, his eyes glued to the dead man on the floor.

"Kat." His voice sounds distant. "Did you do this?"

"What do you think?" I try to make my words biting, but they hardly come out.

"This is enough," he snaps, bending over just enough to force me to look at him, fingers cold on my face as he stabs into my eyes. "Maybe you do belong in Sector Two, but your self-pity let this go too far."

"Sector Two?" Reno repeats, frowning. Tseng grabs my arm and forces me to my unsteady feet.

"Get your things and get out," he commands, refusing to break eye contact.

"But she—!"

"Reno, quiet. The President and Veld will decide your consequences, but I am personally removing you from our ranks." He peers over my head at the body. "I thought you could manage. I was wrong."

"But…!" Reno stammers, trying to find words.

"Go." Tseng gives me a little shove and I obey.

"Wait!" Reno cries, but Tseng's hand on his shoulder stops him from following me. I take a deep breath and force a smile onto my face. Turning to walk backward, I flick two fingers off my head in a playful salute.

"See you later, Re."

I thought that was the last time I would ever have to deal with Shinra. I was a fool.

Chapter Text

I flip on my living room lights with a yawn, ignoring the groans of the disgruntled man on my couch. He whines and pulls his thin blanket over his head. Oh no you don't. I wrestle it away, throwing his wrinkled jacket at him to cover his half-naked body.

"Get up, loser."

"Don't wanna," he grumbles, rubbing his drooly face on my couch cushions. I huff, smacking him across the back of the head and opening the curtains to let the light of the rising sun beam into the room.

"You're the one that came knocking in the middle of the night."

"Hn."

"Up, Reno."

"Mhm."

Rolling my eyes, I leave him be and hit the shower. Damn idiot nearly got public security called on me the way he was pounding on my door at three in the morning. Fucking drunkard. I sigh, letting my eyes close and taking a deep breath. I can do this. Six years. Six whole years since I was among their ranks. You'd think Tseng would force me to redo all the training, but I guess if he's desperate enough to hire me, he needs the help now. They've lost so many people…

Reno's dressed by the time I head to the kitchen, but he doesn't look happy about it. He follows me deeper into the apartment, running from the light, and slumps against the counter. I pull a mug down from my cabinet, raising an eyebrow.

"Coffee?"

"Yeah." He takes it and drinks half the cup in one sip, not caring that it's hot enough to cook him from the inside out. I shake my head and take a more careful approach. This doesn't feel real. "Don't look like you're comin' in with me today," he comments, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, well…" I shrug. "I'm assuming Tseng's gonna give me something once I get there."

"Tseng?" Reno snorts, taking another long drink and pouring the last bit of coffee down the drain with a crinkle of his nose. "Hate that shit."

"Tseng what?" I press, wrestling a smile. He only drinks coffee when he's hungover.

"He's not gonna give you shit."

"What do you mean?" Suddenly, I'm panicking. Should I have bought my own uniform yesterday? I don't have money for that.

"You'll see."

"Reno!"

"Don't wanna be late on your first day, do ya?" Reno grins, heading for the door. "Let's get movin'!"

Tseng's office is easy to find. Reno leaves me with a final sly smile, heading to his own space with his shirt untucked and half-buttoned. The circles under his eyes are visible even from across the lobby. I take a deep breath before knocking, listening hard for Tseng's voice. I hear a draw close and a few keys tapping. What's he doing?

"Come in."

"Hiding your naughty photos?" I ask, stepping inside. He pretends not to hear me.

"You actually came."

"Why wouldn't I?" I cross my arms, resting my weight on my left hip. "I'm not that bitchy."

"Yes, well, people change." He stands, leading the way back out.

"Where are we going?"

"The President wants to meet with you."

"Wait, seriously?" Goosebumps prickle across my skin and a cold sweat breaks out across my forehead. When I look like this?

"Yes." Tseng steps into the elevator, staring through the tinted glass. "It's been six years."

"Already," I mutter, shaking my head. "Hope he forgot me." He glances up at me, eyes as cold as ever.

"He hasn't." He turns back to the glass. "His son has a large part in our direction with Heidegger."

"The vice president?" I frown. Rufus Shinra? That's a joke. "I thought you were in charge."

"Someone must pull my own strings." You don't sound too happy about it. He sighs when the elevator dings. When I head toward the open doors, he stops me. "Kat."

"Yeah?"

"Be respectful. You are to refer to both of them as 'sir,' understood?"

"Yup."

"Kat—"

"I know, Tseng." I look over my shoulder and offer him a smile. "Trust me."

Two soldiers guard the frosty glass door to the president's office, which is really more of a throne room. Upon seeing Tseng, one nods and opens the door.

"It's Tseng, Mr. President!"

The room is dark, wide, and polished. A thick carpet leads up to the semicircle desk that engulfs a large, round man sitting at its core, surrounded by glowing screens and stacks of paper. Upon seeing us enter, President Shinra looks up, plucking a thick cigar from beneath his bushy blonde mustache. He stands, rounder than I remember, and his eyes are a little emptier. He smashes the end of his cigar on the edge of his shiny desk. Tseng stops a few feet before him, hands clasped behind his back.

"Sir, this is—"

"I know who she is, Tseng." President Shinra looks me up and down, wiry eyebrow quirked. "You're the one who cost me all those soldiers."

"But I—" I stop myself, feeling my face go red. He continues with a grunt.

"They quit after your little spell." He gestures toward us, eyeing Tseng. "So, this is it? She's become like the rest of them?"

"Sir?"

"A poor woman in dirty clothes and a horrible stench." I frown. I thought they smelled fine. "Flowers or something." Oh. "How long has it been since you last fought?" He demands, coming around his desk with long, slow strides. Uncertain if I should look at him, I stare straight ahead.

"I—"

"She's handled herself well," Tseng interrupts. "Weaponless, usually."

"Hm." I flinch when the pudgy old man wraps a meaty hand around my arm and squeezes. "Doesn't feel like there's much to her."

"With all due respect, this isn't SOLDIER."

The President grunts, stepping toward his desk a tracing a finger across its surface to wipe away the ash from his cigar. He rubs it between two fingers, staring at a distant point I can't quite place.

"No, it's not." He looks back at the Turk. "Avalanche took the Sector Eight reactor last night, You're dismissed—go handle it. Kat, you stay."

"O-Oh. Okay…?" I try to catch Tseng's eye but he leaves without another word, closing the door firmly behind him. They blew another one? The President hums to himself and takes his seat behind his desk, pushing a stack of papers aside.

"I trust Tseng's judgement," he says, glancing up at me. "However, there are things we must discuss."

"Okay." I clasp my hands together, unsure what to do with myself. "S-Sir," I add quickly. He raises an eyebrow.

"Six years ago, Kat. The man you shot."

"Carlos."

"Was that his name? Good thing you remember." He intertwines his fingers on his desk, leaning forward. The buttons of his tight burgundy suit look ready to pop open across his rounded stomach. "Your issue. I need assurance you can control yourself."

"It was years ago, sir. I have a better grasp on myself."

"Hm." He leans back in his seat and it creaks, a cry for help. "You're a reporter, right?"

"Yeah."

"Did you ever do a story on Annabelle Mcgrail?"

"No, sir, but my colleagues have."

"Hmph. Wonder why they never let you." He shakes his head. "How long ago was that?"

"The shootings? Twelve years."

"Yes, it was, wasn't it? So much time has passed…" His chubby fingers twirl around the end of his extinguished cigar. "She died, but I wonder about her sometimes. Just what does it take to break a child to that point? Do you know?"

"No, sir. I don't." I frown. "I'm sorry. What are you getting at?" He chuckles, shaking his head.

"I like you, Kat. Tseng will have you on the field soon." He looks up, his dull eyes sparkling. "You're suited should be tailored and ready by tomorrow. We keep extra on hand—haven't had a need for a woman's for some time." Chuckling, he taps his fingers across his desk as if he has nothing better to do. "I'm sure Rufus will want to meet you. In due time, my boy. Go back to Tseng, Kat. I'm sure he's got something for you."

"Okay."

"And Kat?"

"Yes?"

"Manage that temper of yours and you'll be just fine."

"… Okay."

Taking a deep breath and brushing my sweaty fingers on my pants, I hurry back toward the hall, not at all surprised to see Tseng waiting for me there. He raises an eyebrow and I nod.

"It was okay."

"Okay?"

"Said he likes me," I shrug, leading the way to the elevator.

"Hm." He follows, hitting the button for a floor. "Reno's already out on an assignment."

"Already?" I check my phone for the time. "Tseng, it's so early!"

"Yes, well, sometimes the work can't wait."

"Where's Rude?"

"Here. I only needed to send one of them out."

"Okay…"

"What?" He frowns. I shake my head and lean back against the wall.

"Nothing. What's Reno up to?"

"That's not your concern."

"It is my concern, though." I raise an eyebrow, gesturing toward myself. "I'm asking because I'm concerned, Tseng." He sighs, not at all amused by my antics.

"Do you remember the Ancient?"

"Aerith? Yeah, why?"

"She's at a church in Sector Five." Something in his voice changes and I know he's somewhere else entirely in his head. "That's all you need to know."

The elevator dings and I step out onto a floor I don't recognize. Tseng leads the way through a maze of halls and pushes a door open to reveal a giant mess of a room that's covered in diagrams and bolts of cloth. A group of men and women sit on benches, working sewing machines. I frown, turning to the short, spindly man that approaches us.

"This is our new recruit," Tseng says sternly.

"You sure?" The man speaks in an odd, accent, cocking his head to the side and stroking his thin mustache. "She look very small, sir."

"I'll be back in an hour."

"Yes, sir. I will measure the girl."

"I need it done by tomorrow," Tseng adds, abruptly turning to leave.

"But—" The man shakes his head. "Excuse Omid. Wit' all extra tings as well?"

"Yes."

"Of course." The man turns back to me and wipes the sweat off his broad forehead. "Excuse Omid," he repeats. Great. A guy that refers to himself in the third person. "Kat, is it?"

"Yeah."

"Stand over t'ere, please."

I take a deep breath and tolerate his poking and prodding, trying to look anywhere but my reflection in the dirty mirror. All the touching and measuring and squeezing… I take a deep breath, staring hard into my eyes. Cool it.

"Please!" I scream, thrashing on top of the cold, hard table. "Please stop—"

A firm hand strikes me across the face and I cry out, tears streaming past my ears and dampening my hair.

"Quiet!" he snaps. "This is what you deserve." He forces me to sit upright and ties my hands behind my back. Slowly, he drags a chair over and stands behind me, tying the rope around my neck. "You're going to feel what you did to me. You're going to know my pain."

"Please…"

"Step off."

"T—"

"I said walk!"

Sobbing, I squeeze my eyes shut. I know he won't kill me, but I can't do it. Huffing, he shoves me, leaving my feet to dangle above the ground as I choke, hanging from the rungs of the basement ceiling. Why is this what I deserve?

Omid steps back, pinching his chin and looking me over.

"You know, Turks seem very sad to Omid. All do bad tings to better our world, but don't care." He smiles, sympathetic. Pitying. "Is Kat bad too?"

"It's a job requirement," I huff. "I try not to thinking about it."

"Keeping it locked away does no good, lady." He tilts his head. "Ruined Omid's nephew."

"Yeah, well, we're not here to do good."

"No," he laughs, scribbling down a note. "You are not."

"You survived," Tseng comments as I follow him to the elevator.

"He was nice enough," I shrug. "Wouldn't stop talking in the third person, though."

"Don't know where we found him." He shakes his head. "Our next step is Rufus."

"Why do I have to go around meeting all these people?" I huff. Tseng shakes his head.

"Because, ultimately, they decide your fate. Best make a good impression."

We head to another part of the building (I'm never gonna learn my way around here) and stop at another glass door. A soldier lets us in, announcing Tseng's presence but never mine. Weird. A blonde young man sits at a desk with even more papers than his fathers. He stands upon seeing us and I feel my blood run cold at the sight of his eyes. Ruthless, cold, cunning. Definitely not a man to be trusted. A man caught for traitorous acts against his father forgiven and donated a position of power. What the hell is wrong with these people?

"I assume this is Kat," Rufus says, eyeing me.

"Yes," Tseng nods, shooting me a look that makes me straighten my shoulders.

"Yup," I add. Rufus raises an eyebrow and turns back to Tseng.

"You better not have brought me another Reno."

"She's not Reno," Tseng replies, and he's serious—which is an insult, frankly. Despite his laziness and his poor sense of dress, Reno's still second in command to Tseng—he's damn good at his job.

"Friends?" Rufus asks, shaking a strand of loose hair out of his eyes. He walks toward me, his long white suit flowing around his legs with every step. Gods, he's tall. "Looks weak."

"Excuse m—"

"Defensive," Rufus snaps, cutting me off and shooting another harsh look at Tseng. "Which screams impulsive to me. Unless, of course, I'm missing something."

"She—"

"Save it." Rufus sizes me up once more. "I'd like to see you in practice."

"Fine," I answer, my voice biting without an ounce of respect. I don't care what Tseng says; this brat's gonna have to earn it.

"Tseng, you have work to do?" Rufus hints, gesturing toward the door. Tseng nods, shooting me one more look before heading out. He's not happy.

The training center is just how I remember it. Blue, steely, and smelly. I pluck the virtual reality goggles from his hand, refusing to touch him. Taking a deep breath, I step into the square training room, watching Rufus stand on the other side of the glass. I can feel his eyes burning into my back when I put the goggles on, trapped within a dark world of nothing.

"You're searching for a young man that has been reported in the area," Rufus says, his voice steady and bored. I recognize the Sector Six slums when the scene lights up. I have a gun in my right hand and a rod strapped to my left hip.

"What's he look like?" I ask, pressing my back to a wall and hiding in the shadows.

"A young man."

"I can't—"

"That's all I have."

"Fuck's sake," I mutter, peeking my head into an alleyway to see a man in a suit hurrying through the dark streets. Young man? Sighing, I hurry after him, careful to keep my footsteps light and my head low.

"We need him alive."

"Okay—"

"So in other words, don't go rogue."

"Killed a guy once and now suddenly I'm a bloodthirsty monster," I grumble, taking a shortcut to get ahead of the guy.

"If you've only killed one man, I'm concerned that you're here."

Just as I'm about to cut him off and give him a good smack across the head with my rod, Rufus stops me.

"New orders: kill him."

"Those from you or the script?" I huff, watching him run past, oblivious.

"Me."

All too familiar with the slum's streets, I cut a few corners and line the running man up in my sights. It feels too easy. I shoot him and he falls on his back, lifeless. Anxious, I wait for any sign for more, but the screen fades to black. Frowning, I put the goggles off and turn to face Rufus.

"That's it?"

"I had to see you obey orders." Rufus raises an eyebrow. "You're too defiant for me, but I trust Tseng's judgment."

"Too defiant," I repeat under my breath, crossing my arms. I hand the goggles back over and he sets them on the table behind him before walking away.

"Dismissed."

Chapter Text

"Ah, Kat!" Omid cries when I step into his office. "Your uniform is ready!"

"Good." I offer a smile when he hands me a neatly folded suit made from thick black material.

"Omid should have more done in a few days."

"Sweet, thanks."

I leave with my uniform hugged to my chest and head toward the elevator that I swear I've spent half my time in at this point. Outside stands a tall man in a blue suit. He offers a smile, stretching his dark goatee, and holds out a hand. I take it uncertainly, raising an eyebrow.

"You must be the new Turk." He pulls away and his dark eyes light up. "I'm Reeve Tuesti, head of Urban Development."

"Kat."

"Tseng's mentioned you on occasion," he continues, chuckling. "Quite a unique girl. Funny, though. I can't seem to find your name anywhere."

"Why are you searching for my name?" I frown.

"Yo! Kitty Kat!" Reno cries, running toward us. "Whatcha up to?" He asks, grinning.

"Heading to Tseng's office," I answer, tearing my eyes away from Reeve's.

"See you got the shit," he teases, tugging on the edge of my uniform.

"Yeah." I stare at the glowing button that promises an elevator is coming, but the wait feels like it's lasting a hundred years.

"Let's take the stairs," he huffs, grabbing my arm and pulling me toward a nearby door.

"How many floors is it?"

"Eleven. Ain't half bad."

"Eleven?"

I hurry to keep up with him, wheezing by the third set of steps. Reno, far ahead, leans over the rail with a stupid smile on his face.

"Really gotta cut back on those cigs, man."

"Fuck off."

The uniform makes me feel like I'm choking. I tug at the collar uncomfortably, helplessly staring at my awkwardly knotted tie in the mirror. Huffing, I rip it off and undo the top button. Reno makes fun of me and takes me to Tseng's office. There, I hold my noose out, pleading for help.

"Help?"

Tseng sighs, shaking his head, but he comes closer and does as I ask, giving me step by step instruction as I stare hard at the wall behind him. Reno leans against the door behind me, snickering. It's been a long time since Tseng's been brave enough to touch me. I've always been something to keep at a distance, a disgusting, rotted trophy of his past that he just can't seem to leave behind. When he steps back, I grimace and tug at the collar again.

"It's too tight."

"You weren't listening," he sighs. I shake my head, rubbing the back of my itchy neck.

"No. Sorry."

Before he can lecture me, his phone rings. He gives me a stern look before answering, heading back behind his desk but refusing to sit. Slowly, he puts a hand in his pocket, frowning.

"Yes, sir. I'll put him on it right away. Sir? Yes." He takes a deep breath and hangs up. For a moment, the silence hangs in the air. Then, he looks up, directing those piercing black eyes at Reno. "You let Avalanche get away?"

"Just Cloud and the Ancient," he shrugs.

"I would have appreciated a notice," Tseng fires back sharply. "I need both of you on this."

"On what?" I frown. He doesn't answer, staring hard at his computer screen. "Tseng?"

"President Shinra has commanded that we drop the Sector Seven plate."

"What?!" I demand, alarmed by his words. All those people…? My home?

"Without evacuation?" Reno asks, frowning.

"Yes. He's personally requested that you bring Kat," Tseng continues, straightening. "I'll go after Aerith while Avalanche is occupied. They'll learn of this somewhere, I'm sure."

"But this is—" I start.

"What we do," Tseng finishes. "Rufus wanted to see you."

"Me?"

"Yes."

"Of course he does," I huff, turning toward the door.

"Control yourself," he barks, short-tempered. "Rufus is unafraid to do what it takes to get his way."

"A little for that," I grumble, pushing the doors open. Reno stands with his back against the wall, eyes glued to the floor and hands deep in his pockets. If he'd said something before…

I shake my head. I can't think like that. This is what I'm supposed to do, so this is what I'll do. No questions asked. Taking a deep breath, I knock on Rufus's door. The guard outside eyes me, though he refuses to open the door for me as he did for the director. Only when a voice crackles from the guards' radio does he open the door with his ID. I huff, stepping inside.

"You needed me?"

"Yes." Rufus looks up from his endless papers and jerks his head toward a stack of cardboard boxes. "I need you to bring those down to my secretary. She's just down the hall."

"Am I really—"

"Yes. Watch your tongue," he snaps, turning back to his papers.

Gritting my teeth, I lug the boxes down the hall a stack at a time, earning the soft apologies of the woman at the desk every time I set them down beside her. After four trips, they're all where they belong. Then Rufus sets me to delivering his paperwork to someone else on another floor, and so I obey, hearing the chides of Tseng in my ear every time I'm about to bite back. After he demands that I deliver lunch to his guard, I decide enough is enough. Tseng can suffer the consequences later.

"Why can't you do it yourself?" I demand, crossing my arms. "Just send him away. I'll watch for you."

"And how will you let people in?" he argues, bored.

"I—"

"I'm busy doing important things," he snaps, looking up from his work sharply. "Of course, you wouldn't know the meaning of that word, would you? Important?"

"Excuse me?" Frowning, I watch as Rufus stands, wandering around his small, clean office.

"Slum scum. You're all the same." He makes a show of brushing his pristine sleeve off and flipping his hair out of his face. "You have no morals, you have no respect, and you most certainly do not matter."

"Oh, really?" I retort, crossing my arms. "And who taught you that? Familiar words from family, maybe?"

When he first starts walking, I expect him to stop. He doesn't. My back slams against the wall and something solid presses to my chest, a direct threat. I can't catch my breath staring up into that ruthless face, but I can't look away either.

"Where are your boundaries?" he snarls. "You know nothing?"

"Struck a nerve?" I mutter, wincing when he pushes the gun further into my chest.

"You—"

"I certainly hope I'm not interrupting anything."

Rufus freezes, eyes flitting up to the large man blocking his doorway. He takes a step back, tucking his weapon away slowly as he recomposes himself, though his face is clearly laced thick with disdain for his father.

"How did you get in here?"

"I have full access everywhere, son, I own the damn place." President Shinra turns his eyes to me. "Kat, you're dismissed."

Nodding, I hurry out of the room, squeezing past him and jumping when the door slams. I shiver when a loud thud comes from the office, shuddering. I don't want to know what's going on in there. I find myself in Tseng's office, babbling away about what happened and the noise. Tseng, rather curtly, tells me to mind my own business and leads me out of his space.

"Your office is ready," he says stiffly, pointing to a door across from Reno's. "You're close to Reno and Rude should you need anything. I'll let you know if the President gives any more orders—he may call you directly." He turns to me, strict as ever. "Kat, I don't need to remind you, but I will. If you make enemies and I'm instructed to remove you from your position, I will." Remove me. We both know what that means.

"Yeah," I sigh, crossing my arms and staring at my new door. Tseng nods, refusing to look away from me.

"You knew the risks when you agreed to return."

"I'm not quitting."

"Good. Get set up and I'll see what I can do about Rufus."

"Don't worry about it," I shrug. "It was a one-time thing."

"You're sure?" That I don't want the guy pissed at me for tattling?

"Yeah."

Chapter Text

"Hungry?" Reno asks, poking his head into my office. "It's lunch hour."

"No, not really." I shake my head, leaning over to file through a box of files Rufus left for me to figure out. "Gotta get this done. Rufus is a pain in the ass."

"He really doesn't like you," he laughs, shutting the door behind his back. "Too bad. Brought you a sandwich from the caf."

"You can keep it."

"Ungrateful," he scoffs, sitting on the edge of my desk and dropping the wrapped food on top of the paper in front of me. Huffing, I toss it back onto his lap. I groan upon seeing a greasy stain on the center of the page.

"Dammit, Re."

"Well don't want it."

"Fine."

Reno stands and presses his hands to the surface of the desk. His eyes glitter with mischief and he pulls the paper out of my grasp.

"Already chuggin' out the busy work no one wants, huh?" He grins, peeking over the edge of the page. "Pretty sure I told Tseng I didn't want this one."

"Gee, thanks." I pull it back, staring hard at the words before me. "I don't even know what half this shit means."

"Don't have to. Just sign it and move on."

"And that's why we have to drop the plate," I remind him. He shrugs half-heartedly, turning his eyes to the wall. "It doesn't bother you?"

"It does, I guess. But we gotta do what we gotta do." He puffs out a short, sarcastic laugh. "I dunno. It's a big move, that's for sure."

"Yeah." I force a smile and scribble my name down at the bottom of the page. Fuck it. "Well, it's too late to be developing a sense of morality."

"Yeah," he laughs, shaking his head. "So, you're not gonna eat it?"

"Already said no."

"And you're stickin' to it?"

"Yup."

"Fine." He taps the edge of the desk with his rod. "You're tryin' too hard. Not even Rude reads this much, and he's got a stick up his ass."

"Gotta be a curvy stick if this is the peak of his standards," I mutter, turning to another page. Reno snorts. "The only reason I give a shit is because Rufus tried to kill me earlier."

"Charming one, ain't he?" He rests his weapon his shoulder with a smile. "Shoulda warned you."

"You really have been slacking," I tease, glancing up at him and pushing the sandwich forward with the tip of my pen. "Seriously, I don't want it."

"Alright, got it." Reno lifts the wrapped food and tosses it in the air only to catch it a moment later with a wink. "Reject my love—I see how it is."

"Mhm."

"I'll just have to make someone else swoon over me."

"Go ahead," I mutter, stuck on a word. What the hell does that even mean? "You've got limited options."

"Rude isn't a bad choice."

"Rude wasn't your first choice, though," I remind him, laughing to myself when he shrugs and swings the door open.

"Whatever. See ya later, Cutie."

"Can't wait."

"Ready to head out?"

"Ready as I'll ever be."

I stand on the helipad next to Reno, peering up at the chopper we're to take to the plate tonight. The door behind us slams shut; I turn to see Tseng and Rude coming nearer. Reno raises an eyebrow, cracking a smile at his partner's mirrored expression.

"What's up, Boss?" he greets. Tseng eyes the second helicopter.

"Don Corneo spilled over," he answers, his smooth hair shining under the bright lights of the helipad. "I'm assigning Rude with the two of you; we may need the extra help."

"And you?" I ask. His dark eyes meet mine and he nods toward the second chopper.

"I'll keep an eye on the ground."

"You got it." Reno pulls his hands from his pockets and clasps them behind his head, slouching. "Three of us? Avalanche's good as dead."

"I certainly hope so."

"Well, let's not prolong the inevitable," I huff, stepping toward the chopper and sliding the side panel open. I send Tseng a final thin, lipped smile before hopping inside and closing the door behind me. Reno and Rude climb into the front and I lean forward between their seats. "Ready to hit it, boys?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Reno mocks, raising the pitch of his voice. I punch his shoulder and he starts the blades up, shooting me a cheeky grin.

"So, what? We got to the top of the pillar and set the blast?" I ask, frowning. "That simple?"

"Supposed to be," Reno shrugs. "Doubt it'll go that way, though."

"Why's that?"

"Terrorists are desperation incarnate."

"Oh, big words," I tease, patting his shoulder and turning to Rude. "Our little boy's growing up."

"Yeah, okay."

Slowly but steadily, we begin to lift into the air, rising high off the helipad and heading for the illuminated city below. The chopped jolts and I huff, falling into my seat in the back.

"Could be a little smoother of a ride," I murmur.

"Alright, Mom, how 'bout you let me handle this," Reno retorts, straightening in his seat. "It'd be even rougher if you were flying."

"It's been a few years," I shrug. "For you? Maybe a few days."

"A week, thank you."

"Oh wow. You poor thing." I reach forward and fluff his bright hair. When he moves to bat my hand away, the chopper jerks to the side. Rude straightens us out with a grunt.

"Can you get her off?" Reno whines to Rude, rolling his eyes at my laughter. "Please, Dad?" The only sign that Rude heard him is the slightest pinch of his eyebrows. "Damn, that's cold. Gettin' disowned hurts, y'know."

"Take it like a man," I bite back, staring out the window as we approach the pillar.

Bright sparks and rapid-fire popping signals a battle of rebels. I lean forward again, watching men and women scurry up the pillar stairs, firing at Shinra helicopters and soldiers with fear in their eyes and determination in their blood. Reno gives a low whistle.

"Think we gotta say somethin'?"

"I'd ask Tseng," Rude replies, eyeing the battlefield we hover over.

"Wait a minute…" Reno mutters, shooting the helicopter closer to the pillar. I hang on tight, startled.

"What the hell are you doing?!"

"Gotta make sure they know who did this," he huffs, pulling to a stop and turning the beaming lights onto the pillar. A head of blonde hair ducks behind the railing. Cloud, wasn't it?

Reno turns on the microphone inside, clearing his throat as he readies some bullshit speech I assume he was ordered to give.

"Testing, testing…" he calls out, flipping his own switch into "work Reno." Well, this'll be fun. "Attention, Avalanche scum! We know all about your evil plans to destroy the pillar. But the Turks—" I hit the side of his head, lips pressed together in a scolding look. "Ahem! But Shinra—that's us—won't let you get away with it!" Rude sighs and shakes his head. "So go crawl back into whatever hole you crawled out of… or something." He looks back at me, eyebrow raised. "That outta do it, right?"

"Um , the mic—" I start. He waves me off and Rude shrugs.

"Eh, good enough."

"Are we gonna do anything about that guy?" I ask, pointing at Cloud as he straightens, his enormous sword peeking over his shoulder. Reno's eyes narrow and his lips quirk into a bitter smile.

"Wait. I know you…" He scoffs. "Mister 'First Class.'" Before either of us can ask any questions, he pulls the lever for the chopper's artillery and sends a spray of bullets raining over Cloud's head. "First-class asshole! Gotcha now!"

"Reno—" Rude starts.

"You ain't got nowhere to run!" Reno cries as Cloud races up the stairs for cover. He's quick to unload bullet after bullet into the shabby shelter of stacked pipes Cloud's ducked behind, teeth grit and shoulders hunched forward.

"Got history?" I ask, watching the soldier's cover chip away piece by piece.

"Hell yeah we do! Made me look like an idiot in front of Aerith!"

"Ah. Wounded pride." I lean closer to Rude, heart beginning to pick up the pace as I realize what we're getting ourselves into. My first real role in the Turks. Might as well act the part. Because really, what is a Turk without their bad guy front? Rude sighs, flipping a switch before speaking into his own mic.

"Throw down your weapon and surrender! Shinra does not negotiate with terrorists."

I can't help but exchange smiles with Reno. What the heck is he deepening his voice for? To sound scary? Reno snorts, finally breaking. He throws his head back against his seat, laughing. Rude ignores him, clearing his throat. Sick of waiting, Reno shakes his head and stares back down at Cloud's hiding place.

"Man, screw this cheap-ass play." He unleashes another round onto the pipes, laughing when they fall to the slums below in a burst of fire.

"Nice," I drawl out, holding my arm out. Reno bumps fist against mine, grinning.

"Damn right."

"Wait, what's—" I frown when another burst of fire erupts from the slums below. "Hey, tune in Tseng. Why the hell did you turn the radio off?"

"He wasn't talkin' to us," Reno mutters, eyes narrowed on Cloud's remaining pipes. His spiked hair just barely peeks out over the top. I huff, turning the dial on the radio and searching for a familiar voice. Finally, Tseng's comes on.

"Confirmed, one more bird lost," he reports. That was another helicopter? "Probably for the best. After all—" He stops short and I frown. What are you doing out there, anyway? "Change of plans. Reno, can you hear me?" I answer for my friend, who's entirely absorbed in watching after Cloud.

"Yeah, we can."

"You take it from here. Someone's been a little too adventurous."

"Who?" I ask Rude. He shakes his head, turning the radio's volume down.

"Aerith, probably."

"Pop your head out and let me finish this already," Reno huffs, crossing his arms behind his head. Rude points ahead.

"Stairs."

"Huh?"

I stand on my toes to see a woman sprinting up the stairs, taking them two at a time. A friend of Cloud's maybe? Reno's grin grows menacing as he reaches for the trigger again.

"Two birds with one shitload of bullets!"

Suddenly, Rude veers the helicopter to the side, smacking Reno's head against the glass and sending me tumbling back into my seat. Ow. Huffing, I drag my way back to the front, watching Reno's bullets spray across the width of the pillar, missing the woman and Cloud entirely as they run off.

"Dammit! You wanna explain yourself?!" Reno shouts.

"Seriously, what the hell was that for?" I demand.

"Uh… Hand slipped."

Rolling his eyes, Reno slumped in his seat, crossing his arms behind his head and glaring at the place Cloud once stood. I sigh and rest my elbow on the back of his seat, tugging at the tie around my neck.

"Should we just head to the top?" I suggest, finally breaking the silence.

"And miss this asshole? No way."

"Re, where do you think that asshole's headed?"

Reno sighs and straightens, admitting defeat.

"Yeah, fine. Let's get this show on the road."

Rude pulls us up to the top of the pillar, where a second chopper shoots down a group of mako tanks. Three people scramble out of the way, all of which I recognize. Cloud, the woman, and their big friend with the gun arm. Full circle, huh? Reno gets to his feet, ducking past me and throwing the side door open.

"Comin' with, Kat?" he asks, watching the fight with a glimmer in his eyes. I nod, peering over his shoulder when he leans forward, hanging onto the rail inside.

"Yeah. Can't let you get yourself killed, moron."

"Hm. Time for a rematch."

"You really hate him?"

"Oh yeah." When he looks back at me, his ponytail whips me across the face.

"Ow!"

"If that's all you can take, maybe you should stay back, Sweetheart?"

"And let you have all the fun? No thanks."

"Alright then." He stands. "Rude!" When his partner tosses his rod back at him, it nearly smacks me upside the head. Reno catches it without looking back, but he's laughing, knowing full well I almost went toppling overboard.

"Let's do this!" I call over the chopper blades, pulling my handgun free to make sure it's fully loaded.

"You're gonna want somethin' more than that," Reno says as we pull closer. "And the guy with the sword's mine."

"Worry about yourself."

"Sure thing, babe." He grins when Cloud pauses to look up at us.

"You!"

"It's nothing personal, bitch!" Reno hollers, diving down from the helicopter with a flip for flair.

I grimace when he lands on the edge of Cloud's blade, his rod crackling with electricity that was meant to stun the soldier. With a final wave to Rude, I drop down to the ground, letting the impact run through my legs before I straighten, taking a deep breath. You're a Turk. Act like it. Scoffing, I let a smug smile cross my face and raise an eyebrow at the woman when she turns to stare at us. Let the games begin.

Chapter Text

"Missed me!" Reno taunts, sliding under Cloud's sword with ease. I follow him to the control panel, ducking past a round Rude shoots to block Cloud from pursuing us.

"You're next, asshole!" the gunman shouts, firing back at the chopper. Reno laughs.

"Sorry, losers! Gotta play for keeps today. No time to dick around."

"Well, maybe in a little later," I tease, catching Reno's weapon when he tosses it to me to focus on typing in the code Tseng gave us earlier.

"Don't tempt me, Kat," he laughs, glancing up when an automated voice comes from the panel.

"Plate separation authorized. Awaiting confirmation."

"Yeah, yeah. Coming right up," he murmurs.

"Hey!" I shout, raising my gun when Cloud begins to race toward us. He hardly seems to care when I squeeze off a few shots that just barely miss. When Reno reaches for the confirmation button, I shove his rod back into his hand.

"Oh no you don't!" he cries, whipping around to parry a swing from Cloud's enormous sword. "Not while I'm working!"

The soldier stumbles from the force of the blow, sliding back several feet. Something changes in Reno's eyes and I suppress a laugh. Oh, this is about to get fun. I knew working with my best friend could never be less than interesting.

"Press it!" Cloud dares.

"Shall I do the honors?" I ask, knowing full well what Reno has in mind.

"Nah. Let's get rid of these sorry fuckers before we blow the joint."

Cloud's friends join him, watching us. This time, I can't help but snicker at the tone of Reno's voice, the same one he always used to taunt the slum rats before we stole their stuff for ourselves.

"Now, now… You ain't got shit on us. No one gets in the way of Reno and the Turks."

"Not Kat and the Turks?" I tease under my breath. He scoffs, shooting me a sly glance.

"You are the Turks, Sweetheart, and I'm the leading man."

With that, he sparks the materia on his rod and shoots toward the trio in a flash of blue light. I step back, freeing my knife from its sheath on my hip before running at the girl. She rolls away from me, fists raised. I quirk an eyebrow, listening to the gunman cry out when Reno gets a good shock on him. Cloud stumbles back as the woman sizes me up.

"Careful, he's quick!" the soldier warns.

"And her?"

"Why don't you see for yourself?" I ask, voice calm despite my pounding heart.

Pressing her lips together, she swings one of her red boots toward my face, following with two quick punches. Fortunately, she misses as I duck under the kick and her fists. I take a quick breath before swinging at her with the knife, using my forearm to stop her next kick and get a good cut into her leg. She grits her teeth, bouncing back and staring at me hard with her soft brown eyes. Raising an eyebrow, I size her up. Damn, what a rack. Bet she's the apple of every slum man's eye.

She hurries to hit me again, but this time, I catch her arms and try to pull her down with them. Fuck, she's strong. With a cry, she pulls free and gets a solid hit on my jaw, knocking me backward onto the ground. I roll out of the way of her next hit, getting onto one knee and firing off two shots. My face stings. One misses, but the other lands on her collarbone. She grits her teeth, stretching out a palm and washing her body over with swirling green light the erases the blood off her skin. Of course she has materia.

Gritting my teeth, I rush back at her, sending a wall of fire to burn her stupid shiny hair. She kicks me through the flames, spinning around and slamming her other leg into my stomach. I land on the ground, wheezing and staring up at the underbelly of the plate. Holy shit. She dives into the air once more and I ready my dagger, prepared to get her good when she least expects it, but then she freezes, engulfed in a golden pyramid of light. Across the platform, Reno shoots me a wink before rushing toward Cloud in another burst of light, mowing him over.

The soldier rolls to his feet and I sprint toward Reno, skidding to a stop before him and throwing up a glimmering magic shield to block a spray of bullets from the gunman's arm. My friend laughs, nudging me playfully with his elbow. The woman falls to the ground with a cry, landing on her knees as Reno's spell wears off. The trio slow, waiting for us to make the next move. Reno lifts his chin.

"So… Heard you gave Rude a beating." When did they send Rude after them?

"Had to," Cloud retorts.

"No choice, huh?" Reno laughs to himself. "I guess I ain't got one neither."

With that, he rushes right back toward the soldier, rod sparking as he tries to paralyze Cloud. Much to my surprise, the woman comes right back for me, relentless. I wipe the blood flowing from my nose on the back of my sleeve and draw my gun, firing three shots in the time it takes her to close the gap. I block her flurry of attacks until the end, where she throws me into the air as if I'm weightless and slams me back onto ground with a scream. I land on my stomach, choking and gasping for air as I drag myself onto my hands and knees. She waits at the ready to see if I'll get up again. Suddenly, an idea sparks and I groan, letting my hands slip and drop me to the ground like I've passed out.

Without missing a beat, she turns to help Cloud and the gunman fight Reno. I scramble to my feet the second her back is turned, raising my blade and running at her. You're gonna pay for that! The instant I'm about to bury my dagger in her back, she swings a leg around and sends me flying into the center support of the pillar. My back slams against the wall before I fall, my entire body screaming in agony from the beating. Still, I can't say this doesn't feel good. It hurts like hell, but it feels good. I drag myself to my feet, scorching the gunman when he tries to unleash another round of bullets at Reno, who backs off a step or two.

"Stubborn little shitbirds, ain'tcha?" Reno mutters, looking up sharply when Rude swoops the chopper in close. I hurry to get to his side.

"Prepping for bombing run, how copy?" Rude announces.

"Say what?!" Reno hisses, backing away as Rude comes in closer. He scoffs as the undercarriage of the chopper opens, grabbing my arm and sprinting to the other end of the platform. "I see you're doing whatever the hell you want!"

"Guess you're rubbing off on him," I tease, heaving myself over a fenced cluster of boxes for cover.

He follows, laughing. We press our backs to the fence, feeling the rumble of the bombs hitting the ground. Unfortunately, the trio is still shouting at each other, in one piece. Reno scoffs, using the edge of his sleeve to swipe at a bloody smudge across my face.

"Hangin' in there?"

I raise an eyebrow at his own cuts and bruises. "I could ask you the same."

"Hm. Assholes." With a cocky smile, he grabs the chains of the fence. "Let's finish this."

He launches himself over, leaving me to climb on my own. Huffing, I follow his lead, shielding my face from the flames. To my surprise, Cloud runs at me now, bright eyes narrowed and sword held at the ready. Across the platform, Reno kicks the shit out of the woman. I can't help but laugh, dodging a slash from Cloud's sword and firing a shot into his shoulder to slow him down. Can't fight him with a fucking shiv.

"Re!" I call, running past him. Somehow, he knows what I mean, tossing me his sparking rod and taking catching the sad little knife I throw his way. He's a hell of a lot better at hand to hand than I am—I'm sure he'll be okay.

Turning back to Cloud, I parry his heavy swings with the electromag rod, watching the bright blue sparks fly and grinning at the feeling of finally being useful. I push back harder than ever, driven by adrenaline and being fed up with getting kicked around by his lady friend. All I need to do is touch him with the damn thing…

Quickly, I parry a flurry of blows and roll past him, though not quite fast enough to shock him. It's slow going, and it's frustrating, but he doesn't get a single hit on me before I manage to jam the rod into his arm and spark it, stunning him enough to give Reno his rod back.

He catches it in the blink of an eye, launching the woman into the air and smacking her around with his weapon before throwing her back toward the ground. She lands with a groan, slowly dragging herself upward. Oh no you don't. Reno gives me a single pat on the back he runs past, ready to take on Cloud. I press my boot to her enormous chest and force her to lay down with a smug smile. She starts to say something, but I hit her head hard with the butt of my gun before she can.

"Bitch," I huff, turning back to Avalanche. Just as I do, the helicopter bursts into flames, spiraling out of control. Fuck.

"Rude!" Reno shouts, turning to watch the chopper tumble toward the platform.

"Reno, look out!" I cry, rushing toward him. I muster up all my strength and ram into him, just barely knocking us out of the way of the blast as the helicopter lands and explodes into a spray of flames and debris.

"#%^&*^…" he groans, pushing himself upright. A chunk of metal clatters across the ground. I recognize it as the door we jumped out of the get here.

"Those sons of bitches," I grumble, forcing myself to my feet and offering him a hand. He takes it, nearly pulling me back down the ground. Unsteadily, he turns to the rubble. My heart begins to ache with realization. Is Rude okay?

"Shit…" Reno hisses, bending over to pick up a pair of shattered sunglasses. Sweat streaks down his face, carrying his blood with it.

Startled, I jump when a hand clamps down on my shoulder. I turn back, relieved to see Rude looking down at us. Reno puffs out a short laugh.

"Clipped your wings, huh?"

"I was planning to join you anyway," Rude replies, pulling a new pair of glasses from his pocket and sliding them onto his face.

"Any landing you can walk away from…" I laugh, shaking my head and staring at the flames of our ride. Rude hums in response and his partner lifts the rod off his shoulder.

"C'mon. Let's teach those pricks a lesson."

"About what happens when they mess with the Turks?" I finish, offering him a smile. He laughs, pushing me forward playfully.

"Now you're catchin' on, Kat!"

Rude turns to Avalanche, eyes set on their gunman. With the woman still lying on the ground, I stand back, firing off shots when I can, standing in front of the control panel so that no one can attempt to reverse the coding and stop the blowing of the plate. But all those people—No, now's not the time to think like that. We have orders. I have to prove that I can do this.

No matter how many times I land a shot on Cloud, he refuses to slow down. As much as Reno insists on being alright, his little show back at the crash told me otherwise. Now, his fighting proves him wrong as well. He's not entirely useless, but he's taking more hits, letting the soldier get the best of him. Across the platform, the woman starts to get up, healing herself with a spell and hurrying to help the gunman deal with Rude. To stop her, Rude slams a fist into the ground, sending forth a shockwave that stuns the pair. I manage to get a few shots on the big guy, but the girl keeps healing him.

With a scowl, she turns to me. I huff. Fucking annoying. She runs at me for the third time, ready to strike. Ready to end this shitshow, I prepare to shoot her through the head only to be thrown to the side when Rude knocks into me, shoved away by the enormous gunman on Avalanche's side. He falls on top of me, pinning me to the ground. For fuck's sake. From my vantage point, I see Reno hit the floor, gasping for air as he rod rolls out of his reach.

"Get off of me!" I grit, trying to lift myself. It's nearly impossible with Rude, a man who is twice my size, using me as a mattress.

Slowly, he gets to his feet, but when he tries to head to the control panel, the gunman knocks him to ground. A few feet away, the woman pounds on the keyboard, desperate.

"How do we stop it?" Cloud demands, raising his sword to Reno's throat. I aim my gun at the blonde's hand, ready to shoot the sword from his grasp if I have to. I won't kill him unless I have to; Reno called it.

"Who knows?" Reno laughs, wheezing before falling onto his back with a groan. And out go the lights.

Sighing, I look to Rude for help. He doesn't move, eyes directed on the gunman whose arm is pressed to his head. I guess it's all on me then. Before they can stop me, I run around the side of the pillar and hit the girl with my gun a second time before pressing the button for confirmation, turning back to dare any of them to kill me now that the deed's done.

"Plate separation initiated," the automated voice announces. "Commencing separation sequence."

"We have to stop it!" the woman cries, clutching her head where I hit her.

"Go for it," I shrug, walking past them to get to Rude now that he's free. In the distance, I can hear a helicopter approaching. "You call for help?"

"Yeah." He stands, heading toward Reno and heaving him over his shoulder. "Tseng's coming."

"Good."

The chopper pulls up close and the door slides open. I climb on first, moving past the soldier inside to let him help pull Reno in. I pause upon seeing Aerith, the Ancient Shinra's been keeping an eye on for so long. She offers a small smile. I frown back, pushing the soldier further in.

"You keeping an eye on her?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then sit. Reno goes on your other side."

"Yes, ma'am."

Rude enters the cockpit and Tseng leaves it, hardly sparing me a glance. "Sit down up front in case he needs something."

I obey, though I'm focused on watching Tseng step outside with Aerith in tow. He pushes her onto her hands and knees in the doorway of the chopper, making sure her friends can see.

"You'll have a hard time disarming that one," he calls over the blades. "It'll blow the second some idiot touches it."

"Please, stop it!" the woman begs, running closer.

"Hm. Only a Shinra executive can set up or disarm the Emergency Plate Release System."

"Shut yer hole!" the gunman shouts, raising his arm to fire.

"I wouldn't do that," Tseng warns, raising an eyebrow. I sink further into my seat, glancing back at Reno. He's out cold, dripping blood and sweat all over his wrinkled uniform. They got him good. "You just might make me injure our special guest."

"Aerith!" the woman cries. Aerith looks up, smiling softly.

"Oh, you know each other?" Tseng glances down at the Ancient, eyebrow raised. "How nice you could see each other one last time. You should thank me."

"What are you doing with her?" Cloud demands. I yawn, shooting Rude a bored look. He sends it right back, impatient. We just want to leave and get Reno patched up.

"Haven't decided. Our orders were to find and capture the Ancient. It's taken us a long time, but now we can finally report this to the President."

"Tifa!" Aerith shouts, stretching an arm out to the woman. "Don't worry! She's alright!" Irritated, Tseng jerks her upright by her collar and strikes her across the face. Rude grabs my shoulder when my temper sparks and I turn to yell at him. Don't ruin the show. Instead, I roll my eyes and sink back into my seat.

"Fuckin' uncalled for," I mutter.

"You have a minute or so," Tseng continues, motioning for the soldier to pull Aerith back inside. "Think you can escape in time?"

With that, I swap places with Tseng and slam the door shut, glaring at the red mark on the Ancient's face with disgust. I know it was for show, but… It makes me feel sick. Left with no seating, I hang where I was when Reno and Rude were flying, though I make sure Tseng can tell I'm pissed.

"What happened to Reno?" he asks, pulling us back toward the Shinra building as the plate's pillar begins to ripple with fiery explosions. I refuse to look back, shrugging.

"Picked a fight with Cloud."

"Hm." Tseng glances over his shoulder at his second in command before looking forward again. "He'll be alright after a few days in the infirmary."

"And Aerith?"

"She's Hojo's now."

"Right." Sighing, I lay my head on Rude's shoulder and let my eyes close. After that beating, I'm gonna need a long night's rest.

Chapter Text

"C'mon, Re, quit being so dramatic," I huff, his weight nearly crushing me as he leans my way more than Rude's. He woke up on the ride back and refused to let Rude carry him to the infirmary, insisting that he couldn't wound his pride any more than he already had.

"Ain't bein' dramatic," he snaps, eyes screwed shut as he takes another painful step.

"Yeah, okay."

"He is leaving a trail," Rude remarks, glancing over his shoulder at the line of muddy, occasionally bloody, skid marks that lead to us.

"Whose side are you on?" I demand, struggling to keep Reno upright with my own injuries to deal with.

"Lucky I was there to take the hits for ya," Reno drawls sleepily, grimacing as Rude tugs on his arm. I scoff.

"You picked on the wrong guy, Re. Not my fault."

"Couldn't hit the girl."

"But you did."

"Yeah." He laughs to himself, wincing. "Only cuz she hit you first."

"Gee, thanks."

"No problem, babe."

One of the many Shinra doctors around us finally gestures for us to enter his office, finally letting Reno lay on something other than me. The doctor sighs, straightening his lab coat and helping Reno lie flat on his back before pressing his stethoscope to the redhead's chest. I stand back, arms crossed and slumping against the wall to give my legs a break. Reno flinches when the cold metal touches his skin, groaning and squeezing his eyes shut.

"Do I even want to know?" the doctor asks, stepping back to scribble something down on a sheet of paper. "You look like shit, but at least your heart's still beating."

"Got roughed up in a fight," Reno mumbles.

"I can see that." He shoots his patient a stern look. "Were you alone?"

"No, Rude 'n Kat…"

"A rude cat?"

"No," I laugh, shaking my head. I wince, feeling a sharp pain in my side where Tifa got me good. "His name's Rude and mine's Kat."

"Ah, okay." He stands, forcing Reno to sit up. "Sorry, sir, I'm going to need to get a better look at your wounds." Huffing a short laugh, he glances up at us. "Apologies, but you have to leave now. I hear Reno of the Turks tends to surprise the medical personnel by going commando."

"Why doesn't that surprise me," I sigh, forcing myself off the wall and heading outside.

"Freeing," is all Reno gets out.

"Looks like shit," I comment, watching Rude close the door. He nods. "Does he usually get that beat up?"

"This is something of a unique situation."

"Sure."

I sink to the floor, letting my head loll back against the wall but refusing to fall asleep. I have to know he's okay before that. Not that he looks like he's on his death bed, but if he's gonna be stuck here, he might get a little looney. I jump when the door the Reno's room opens and the doctor steps outside.

"He okay?"

"Yes. He's asleep." He nods down the hallway toward the next open room. "Go see if Marx will take you. You're looking in a bad way yourself."

"Not as bad as him."

"Well, bad nonetheless."

Sighing, I raise an arm and wave my hand around until Rude catches my drift and pulls me onto my feet. Marx… Why is that name familiar? I head a few doors down, knocking on the open door. A man with a tight ponytail and a bushy beard turns around, raising an eyebrow over his gray eyes. Time feels frozen as I stare hard at him, breath caught in my chest. He looks me up and down with an equal look of surprise. My heart skips a beat. Why can't I remember why I…? The man, Marx, shakes his head, gesturing for me to entire his office.

"Rude, I—" I stammer, shaking my head. I'm overwhelmed with panic I can't explain, backing out of the doorway until I hit my friend. Rude shakes his head and nudges me further in.

"Are you alright?" the man asks. I swallow the lump in my throat and nod, slowly heading toward the examination table.

"Uh, y-yeah."

"Okay…" He presses his lips together, sizing Rude up before turning to me. "My name is Tyler. Do you need assistance?"

"Doctor few doors down sent her," Rude explains, frowning when I don't answer for myself. I'm too busy wiping off my sweaty palms and trying to control my breaths. What's happening?

"I see." He wanders closer. "I can handle this from here, sir."

Rude nods, and with one final glance in my direction, he leaves me alone. Tyler heads closer to me clipboard in hand as he eyes me. I refuse to meet his eyes, awkwardly shifting on top of that unbearably crinkly paper.

"Are you alright?" he repeats.

"Yeah. Just… Give me a potion or something and I should be okay."

"Hm." He chuckles, shaking his head. "Afraid I have to take some vitals first, Kat." I frown, my head jerking upward to look at him.

"How do you know my name?"

"You, uh…" He shakes his head, pulling his stethoscope off his neck. "You're the newest Turk, right?" I flinch when he reaches toward me, the words flowing out before I can stop them.

"Don't touch me."

"I'm sorry."

"Just don't."

"I have to. If you'll just take a deep breath and—"

"No." I press my lips together. "Call me crazy but… I don't like you." Ouch, okay. Couldn't have said that another way? Somehow, he understands, scowling and stepping back. A bitter smile overtakes his face and he shakes his head.

"Of course. Your body never forgets when your mind might."

"What?" I frown, scooting further away from him. "I don't think we've ever met." He scratches at his beard, eyes now cold when they meet mine.

"Good. That means the dosage worked."

"Excuse me? Dosage of what?"

"How long has it been since the last one?" he murmurs to himself, crossing the room and pulling a stapled pair of papers through the cabinet before pressing his finger to a spot on a page. "Four, maybe five, years now? You're due for the third." He glances up at me, eyes alight with curiosity only a scientist could possess. "Fascinating. The effects fade so gradually."

"What is?" I demand, anxious and irritable. "Are those about me?!"

"I'm afraid I can't disclose that information." He puts his hands in the pockets of his coat and shrugs one shoulder. "You went from not knowing me at all years ago to having a vague recognition-reaction. The human brain really is fantastic, don't you think?"

"I swear to Shiva…" I stand, on edge. "If you don't tell me what you're talking about—"

"You'll do what, shoot me? I don't think your uncle would take too kindly to that." I sigh, frustrated. "Sit down. I'll explain." He's taunting me. Still, I obey, left with little choice.

"Talk."

"Do you ever feel as though you can't quite remember something the right way?"

"I guess. Doesn't everyone?"

"Not large chunks of information, though?"

"What do you mean?"

"Kat, where were you between the ages of thirteen and fifteen?"

"I—" I frown, staring hard at the wall. Nothing. There's always been nothing. I smell the slightest hint of smoke, but that might just be my anxious habits kicking in and begging for nicotine.

"Exactly." His face splits into a smile and he shakes his head. "Fascinating. Anyway, you can thank me for that."

"What?"

"Ah-ah-ah," he admonishes. "Stay seated. Before you get too heated, you should be thanking me. You were suffering."

"How?" I snap, hugging my arms to my body uncertainly. "I don't understand."

"Just relax. I'll take those vitals and tell you more if you do."

"I don't know if I can."

"Try." He stands, nudging my chin upward with his finger. My breath catches and I obey quickly so that he doesn't have to touch me any longer. "Deep breaths. Where was I? Oh, right, suffering. See, there's a reason people remember you as a maniac here."

"The boy I shot—"

"Not quite. You didn't remember then, either. But it's on the right track. That temper of yours isn't just from the color of your hair." He pushes me forward and presses the stethoscope to my back. "Are you a smoker?"

"Sometimes, why?"

"I can hear it."

"My temper?"

"Right. It's more than that. I won't give you details or I'd be fired by someone you'd least expect, though. All I can say is that as long as you're not hearing voices, you should be alright."

"Voices?"

"Deeper breaths, please."

"Tyler, what do you mean by—"

"And tell me if you start having vivid memories," he adds. "I know you want to remember, but once you do, you'll remember why you wanted to forget. It's more than memories, Kat. You become a different person."

He steps away to take a few notes. I chew on my lip, processing all the information he just gave me. Despite how willing he is to give me information, I can't help but hate his presence. Something about his touch made my blood boil. You become a different person.

"You want me to tell you so that you can make me forget?" I ask, my voice quiet.

"Well, yes. It erases a world of hurt—for everyone."

"… What did you do to me?" I dare to demand, glaring up at him. He pauses, taking a deep breath.

"Bad things, I admit. However, I'm trying to right my wrongs and get a little research done at the same time. I've always had a fascination with psychology."

"What bad things?"

"I can't say. I don't want to spark an early reaction."

"Don't wanna spoil your results?" I huff bitterly. He tips the end of his pen toward me.

"Bingo."

"Can I leave now?"

"Without your potion?"

I catch the bottle he tosses toward me and uncap it, giving it a good look for any suspicious particles. Tyler shakes his head with a scoff and I roll my eyes before downing the bottle's contents. I stand, dropping the glass vial in the trash can before opening the door.

"Don't forget to let me know if you have any symptoms!" he calls after me, voice cut off when I slam his door shut behind me. Rude glances up from where he sits on the bench in the hall raising an eyebrow.

"What happened?" he asks. I shake my head, standing before him and crossing my arms.

"Do you know anything about him?"

"Not even his name. Why?"

"Rude, you read all about me, right?" I sit beside him, resting my head in my hands. "He said… he erased my memories to keep me sane because I'm really someone else. That the effects last five years and that I might get everything back but it'll be bad." I glance up at him and he stares dead ahead, leaning forward and pressing his elbows into his thighs. "Is that true?"

"… I don't know anything about him, Kat. Only about you."

"Tell me what he means, then?" I plead. He shakes his head once. "… Is it that bad?"

"The past doesn't matter when you're here." He stands. "Reno asked to see you."

"He's awake again?" I frown, getting to my feet. Huffing, I kick at the wall weakly. "But I'm not done being angry…"

"Are you angry?"

"I don't even know." Sighing, I shake my head. "Yeah, let's go see him."

Rude opens the door, waiting for me to enter to the room before closing it behind himself. Reno scowls up at us, shirtless and covered in bandages. The doctor glances up from his computer across the room. I can't help but smile at my friend, coming over to crouch down to his level at his bedside.

"Stuck in bed?"

"Fuck off," Reno scoffs, rolling his eyes. "I'll be up 'n at 'em in no time."

"I'm sure you will be." When he continues to frown, I poke at his cheek, sticking my tongue out when he makes a face. "You'll get 'em next time, Re Re."

"Damn right I will." He forces himself to sit upright with a grimace, clutching the bloody gauze on his side. "Tell Tseng I ain't stayin' here overnight."

"You can't walk," I argue, standing.

"I know," he groans, pressing his back to the wall. His eyebrows twitch together as he wrestles to hide his pain.

"Well, the good news is, he was, in fact, wearing underwear today," the doctor breaks in, standing. "And also that he'll make a full recovery within a few days, as predicted."

"I'm not staying—"

"You're staying until you're better," I interrupt sternly, ruffling his hair. My stomach growls loudly and Reno cracks a smile.

"Me too."

"Yeah? I have to go rescue my sandwich from my office."

"Why you got food in your office this late?" Reno huffs, closing his eyes and resting his head on his shoulder. "You shouldn't even be here."

"Where else am I gonna go?" I argue. It was meant to be a joke, but reality hits harder than I expected. My apartment's gone. The entire section of the city I've lived in for years, gone just like that, and by my own doing. Reno takes a deep breath, glancing up at Rude. They exchange silent words before he looks at me.

"Could stay with Rude. I'd let you in my place, but I don't have to key on me."

"Where is it?"

"In my office. And it's locked."

"And where's that key?"

"Hell if I know."

"Okay…" I turn to Rude and he raises an eyebrow. "Well, do you care if I crash on your couch until I get my shit together?"

"No."

"Be careful, though. He's a neat freak." Reno laughs to himself, tapping the top of his head. "Not that you couldn't tell by lookin' at him."

"Oh, trust me, I know." I turn back to Rude. "Thank you. I'm still getting that sandwich, though."

"Better get goin', Sweetheart." Reno reaches out and bats at my arm, the only part of me he can reach. Smiling, I give his hand a squeeze and head out the door.

I slump against the wall of the elevator, exhausted, and close my eyes. The ride feels excruciatingly long from the lower floors to the higher ones—I guess that makes sense. The Shinra Building has dozens of floors, and I don't even know what most of them are. The doors ding as they slide open and I catch sight of Tseng on the way to my office. I try to ignore my instant anger at his actions earlier and lift my hand in a half-hearted wave. I expect him to nod back, but instead, he walks toward me, following me to my office.

"I assume you checked in on Reno."

"Yeah. He's doing alright. Bitter than he's on bed rest." I pull open my door and unwrap my peanut butter sandwich, taking a big bite. Then I frown, leaning against the edge of my desk. "Tseng… I just met this guy… Name's Tyler Marx."

"Yes?" Tseng raises an eyebrow. I roll my eyes, staring hard at him in an effort to break him.

"There are very few people in this world that know we're related, Tseng. Who the hell is he?"

"I knew this would happen," he sighs, tugging his gloves off his hands. "What did he tell you?"

"That he erased my memories. Told me that if I start to remember anything that changes my personality, I should let him know and he'll erase them again." I raise an eyebrow, unafraid to attack him now that the truth is out. "What does he mean by that? What's so wrong with me that that's necessary?"

"There are many things you don't kn—"

"Well, yeah, clearly!" I throw my arms out to the side, irritated. "Tseng, I don't know why, but I hate his guts and I can't recall three whole years of my life!" I take a bite of my sandwich and talk around it. "And I didn't even realize until now…"

"You weren't supposed to realize."

"What, you're in on this now?!"

"… Do you regret anything?" he asks. I scowl.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I suppose not." He shakes his head, eyebrows furrowed. "Some part of me wishes you could to suffer for what you've done."

"What did I do?" I demand, suddenly not very hungry. With a huff, I rewrap my food for later. "And if it's so bad, why the hell am I here?"

"Because I'm doing a favor for her," he snaps, glaring. I frown back, turning my eyes to the door. "Not for you."

"Since when do you owe my mother anything?"

"My sister had final wishes and I intend to honor them."

"You hated her."

"Don't confuse your feelings for mine," he retorts, heading toward the door. "Clearly you can't remember things correctly."

"I know the first part!" I shout after him. "But I don't know why I—"

"Let it be," he interrupts, closing the door behind him.

I scoff, mocking him under my breath. AssholeJamming my hands in my pockets, I decide to take a walk around the building to cool off. Acts like he's so damn innocent. If he wants to honor my mother's last wishes, he should have started a long time ago instead of letting me struggle for my life in the slums for so long. He worshipped her—I remember that much. I scoff, shaking my head and staring up at the ceiling. Worshipped a fucking whore. Not even sure which kids were actually my father's. Not even sure if he's really my father.

"Fucking bullshit," I mutter to myself.

"Most people consider talking to oneself a sign of underlying psychological damage," a calm voice says back. I jump, looking down from the ceiling to see Rufus Shinra crossing my path, followed by a sleek, black guard dog. "I like to think differently."

"Maybe that just means you're in denial," I reply, jerking my head toward the muscly creature. "Who's this?" It flashes its enormous fangs, yawning.

"Dark Nation," he replies, keeping his voice low as if it might soothe the beast. In fact, I think it does. Nodding, I crouch down, extending a hand to let it sniff. Its hair stands up on its back, but its nose quivers at the scent of my skin.

"Never knew you liked animals," I admit, rubbing between the canine's tall, pointed ears.

"I don't dislike them. I have a preference for this one in particular."

"Makes sense." I stand, offering a half-hearted smile and praying that he doesn't count jokes as disrespect. "I can't imagine the great Rufus Shinra snuggling puppies and kittens in his free time." Rufus hums in response, hiding his amusement well.

"Have you met the demonic creature Rude keeps in his quarters?" I shake my head, frowning.

"Demonic?" I gasp, checking the time. "Shit. Gotta get downstairs."

"Talking to yourself again?" Rufus asks, motioning for Dark Nation to follow him. I smile sheepishly and shrug, rubbing the back of my neck.

"Old habits die hard. See ya, sir."

As I head off in the opposite direction to get some rest on Rude's couch, I could swear I see a hint of a smile on the vice president's face.

Chapter Text

"Who the fuck is she?"

"Kat, this—"

"I'm Elena." The blonde's voice is all too excited as she sticks her hand out for me to shake. "Here to replace Reno!"

"Replace Reno?" I repeat, looking to Tseng for an explanation. He shakes his head.

"Not permanently, just while he's incapacitated."

"So she's leaving after he—"

"Well, no—"

"Then what the—"

"Kat." Tseng sighs, closing his eyes to regain his composure. I scoff, eyeing the woman across from me, irritated by the life in her eyes and that eager-to-please smile. "She's more than qualified." I roll my eyes, understanding the implications he's making. More qualified than me.

"Fine."

With that, Tseng turns back heads back into his office, pinching the bridge of his nose. I sigh, slumping in a lobby couch and staring far, far away from Elena as I sip on my paper cup of black coffee. Instead of taking the hint, she sits down next to me, face flushed.

"Okay, I can't be the only one here who thinks he's cute."

I snort, choking on my coffee. Gods. Ew. When I finish coughing the hot drink from my lungs, I wipe the tears from my eyes and look at her. She raises her eyebrows, both confused and concerned.

"Wait, Tseng?" I ask, though I know what she's going to say.

"Well, yeah." She laughs, hanging her head and tucking her short hair behind her ear. "He's become something of a legend to trainees."

"For his looks?"

"No, no." She looks up sharply, brown eyes wide. "That's just me. Unless you agree?"

"Uh—"

"Oh, gods." She buries her face in her hands and peeks at me through her fingers, horrified. "Someone said something to me about you. Like, he let you in with practically no training and—" She shivers. "I didn't think he was into redheads."

"What?" I can't help but laugh, utterly confused by the twists and turns of this conversation. "I'm sorry, but what are you implying?"

"Well, I thought you two, y'know…?" Her face goes redder than before. "Did I misread that, too?"

"Elena…" I sigh, rubbing my face. Shaking my head, I stand. "Don't worry about it. Tseng and I will never be something."

I head toward the elevator, following whatever direction the person before me entered. Taking a deep breath, I wander down an unfamiliar hallway, lost in my head. It's harder than I thought, working here with him. Everything's so different. When he used to come home, everything was okay. We could forget my parents' mistakes for a while as we begged Uncle Tseng for stories from his work at Shinra's Headquarters or when it was just the two of us sitting outside on the porch. What did we use to talk about? I can't remember. I do know that for a long time, he hated me. Hated my guts. So why did he change his mind about Taavi?

"It seems I run into more than I expect to lately."

"And you seem to take more walks than I expected," I retort, looking up to see Rufus passing by. He pauses and I turn, offering to walk with him. He doesn't say no if that means anything.

"Sitting still gives me a headache," he admits, eyeing my uniform. "Decided not to follow the dress code?"

"I'm off duty," I shrug, swinging my loosened tie absently. "At least I'm wearing the damn thing."

"If that's an accomplishment, I'm not sure why you're here."

"Hey, that makes two of us." Before he can comment on that little remark, I nod toward the empty space by his side. "Where's Dark Nation?"

"Sleeping, I assume. I don't keep him with me at all times."

"Right." His eyes go cold when they meet mine; I shiver, starting to back off and head in the direction I was wandering before. "I, uh, have to go check on Reno. See if he's holding up okay."

"You do that," he mutters, turning back to the hallway.

Shuddering, I shake my head and hurry to the elevator once more. Fuckin' weirdo. When I reach the infirmary, Reno's already going stir crazy, ranting and raving about all the bad things he's gonna do to Cloud's man-parts when he sees him again. When he notices a few healing cuts on my cheek, he goes off on Tifa, too, threatening to rip her boobs off. I sigh, shaking my head and sending the doctor an apologetic look.

"Y'know, I think my doc's into me," Reno continues, eyeing the doctor from his seat at the counter. "Just can't stay away from me, touchin' me all over, takin' off my pants…"

"And here I am, obeying my orders to never leave you unsupervised," he grumbles, shaking his head tiredly.

"Hey, no need to be embarrassed." Reno yawns. "I attract 'em all."

"I'm sure you do." The doctor stands. "It's my anniversary and I'm stuck here with this goon until my replacement comes."

"Anniversary?" I repeat, smacking Reno's hand when he reaches up and tugs on my hair.

"Yeah. Been married fourteen years."

"Well, congrats." I shoot a scolding glare, but Reno grins back. "Got any kids?"

"A daughter in secondary school. Painted me and my wife some pictures as gifts. Sweet girl."

"Wish was that good of a kid," I murmur. "Though, you're probably a better father than mine."

"Yes, well, I'm sure all you Turks have had your share of hardship. Otherwise, I'm not sure you could do your jobs as well as you do." The doctor stands, antsy, and touches his glasses. "Do you mind keeping an eye on him until his new caretaker arrives?"

"I can try." He leaves without another word, desperate to go home after a night of listening to Reno ramble. Can't say I blame him.

"Never told me about your dad," Reno points out, raising an eyebrow. I shrug.

"Never came up."

"He a dick?"

"Yeah." I laugh, trying to ignore that niggling feeling that reminds me how many pieces of my past I'm missing. "How about yours?"

"Never knew 'im," Reno shrugs, closing his eyes. "Hey, what did Rude have to tell you the other day that I couldn't know about?"

"It's nothing," I sigh, shaking my head. "Just stupid drama, that's all."

"Really? Rude doesn't do drama, Princess," he murmurs, toying with a strand of my hair as he thinks.

"Yeah, well…" I shrug. Before he can lecture me about keeping secrets, my phone rings. Sighing, I stand and pick up the call.

"What?"

"Avalanche is advancing in their ascent of the Shinra Building!"

"Elena?" I frown, glancing down at Reno. He opens his eyes, waiting for me to explain.

"Tseng's putting you and Rude on stopping them."

"Why isn't Tseng telling me this himself?"

"He's busy."

"Okay…" I take a deep breath, rolling my eyes. Reno snickers.

"They were last seen with the mayor. I can make sure Reno isn't—"

"No, do what Tseng told you to do. Reno isn't going anywhere." I shoot him a stern look for emphasis. "And tell Rude I'll be there in a sec." With that, I hang up.

"Who's that?"

"Your temporary replacement. Somehow, she's even more irritating than you."

"Huh. You're one lucky gal. What's Tseng need you for?"

"Avalanche is here."

"What?" He sits up sharply, grimacing as he tries to get up. I shove him back down.

"Reno, just stay here. We're not killing them." He groans, eyes screwed shut with defeat.

"Shit."

"Just stay here. I promise we won't finish them without you."

"Fuck off."

The elevator takes an eternity to get to my floor, but I'm not sure taking the stairs would make things much faster. I thought only important people were allowed on the executive elevators. Huffing, I step inside and mash the button for my destination. Look at me calling myself important. When the door opens again, Rude's waiting.

"Seriously? You just stood here?"

"Rufus's orders."

"To do what, stare at the wall?" I scoff, hurrying into the hallway. I've seen what this clown crew can do; I know for a fact that we have to be careful.

"To make sure you weren't alone."

"He doesn't trust me," I mutter, loading my gun.

"You're new."

"Where are these guys that we're supposed to be looking for?"

"Hojo reported them in his lab. We can cut them off via the elevators on the other side of the floor."

"How's that?"

"Wait for them to get inside and follow."

"Sounds like a plan."

We take the elevator to the research floor, backs pressed to the wall. It's not long before I hear the thudding of hurried footsteps heading toward the elevators. Upon hearing the doors hiss closed, we make a run for it. Rude jams his foot in the doors and steps inside, calm. The enormous gunman from the plate curses under his breath.

"We'd like to go up," Rude says, voice stern. Cloud scowls, eyeing the keypad.

"C'mon," I prod, gesturing toward the numbers with my gun. "You don't want to make this hard."

"Where's Reno?" he demands.

"Keeping an eye on Hojo. Up."

Heaving a sigh, he presses a keycard to the panel and selects the option that brings us as far up as we can go. I shoot Rude a look and he nods, pulling his restraints from his back pocket.

"Come quietly and you have nothing to worry about."

"Nothing?" Tifa asks, frowning. I jerk her arms behind her back and cuff them together.

"Nothing from us."

"Fuckin' Turks," the gunman growls.

Cloud's eyes flit about the small space and I know he's searching for an exit. It's Tifa, though, that makes a move once we're leaving the lift. She swings her elbow back, hitting me square in the mouth, but I get a good grip on her obnoxiously long hair and shove my foot into the back of her knees, forcing her to the ground.

"Don't make this harder," I hiss in her ear, spitting coppery blood onto the floor. Rude grunts, dragging the gunman away.

"Tifa!" he bellows.

"Chill," I snap, jerking her to her feet. "Did it to herself."

"Shinra bitches…" he huffs.

I nod toward the second elevator and Rude heads inside, bringing back the Ancient and strange feline-like creature whose legs he bound together on short ropes.

"All I had," is his only explanation.

"Let's get this show on the road," I huff, looking up to see Tseng heading toward us. "Coming to lend a hand?"

"Yes."

We guide them up to President Shinra's office, gun raised and eyes on the lookout for any sudden movements or silent communication. Tseng pulls Aerith away, handing her off to a soldier that he mutters his commands to before falling back into line with us. A pair of guards lets us into the President's office. After lining them up, we step back, waiting. Like clockwork.

"Where's Aerith?" Cloud demands, clearly ticked off by the circumstances.

"In a safe place," President Shinra replies, standing and making his way around the front of his desk just like he did for me. "She's the last surviving Ancient… Don't you know? They called themselves the Cetra and lived thousands of years ago. Now, they are just a forgotten page in history."

"Cetra…" the strange beast murmurs. I frown at Rude. It talks? "That girl is a survivor of the Cetra?" President Shinra chuckles, spreading his arms wide to the sides.

"Cetra, or the Ancients, will show us the way to the Promised Land. I'm expecting a lot out of her."

"The Promised Land? Isn't that just a legend?"

"Even so, it's too appealing not to pursue. It's been said the Promised Land is very fertile. If the land is so—"

"There's gotta be mako!" the gunman shouts, cutting Shinra off. Tseng remains stonefaced even when I raise an eyebrow at him, demanding to know when this speech is going to be over. Elena think's he's cute? I crinkle my nose, turning back to the President. Ew.

"Exactly. That's why our money-sucking mako reactor is necessary. The abundant mako will just come out on its own. That is where Neo-Midgar will be built. Shinra's new glory…." He chuckles, though his smile fades when the gunman spits at him, missing by mere centimeters.

"Bastard! Quit dreamin'!"

"Oh, don't you know? All it takes for dreams to come true these days is money and power." The President shrugs, heading back for his seat. "Well, that concludes our meeting." Rude nods toward me and I raise my gun, jerking it toward the door.

"C'mon, get outta his way!"

Slowly, the comply—all but one. The gunman strains against his bindings and rushes toward President Shinra.

"Hold it! I got more I wanna say to you!"

Rude steps in front of him, and with a forceful shove, turns him around to follow the others. The big man wrestles Rude and Tseng all the way out the door, where I point the gun at his head, a silent threat. He narrows his dark eyes.

"You wouldn't. Gotta make a show of us, doncha?"

"No, I wouldn't kill you. You don't think it would make the people feel better if we incapacitated such a big, bad man, though?"

"Fuckin' Turks," is all he can muster before letting Rude lead him to the front of the single-file line.

Chapter Text

"Shit." I bang my head back against the copilot's seat, unable to feel anything but nausea. "So you're telling me the guy that used to sneak me blueberries after training is the same guy that just skewed the President and splattered his guts all over the walls?"

"That's the theory," Tseng sighs, pulling the chopper close to the edge of the balcony that Rufus stands on with his long, loose suit flapping in the night wind.

Cloud stumbles back, sword raised and readied to fight anyone we might drop on him. Fortunately for him, we're just here to swoop in and rescue the vice president. Well, the president now. I shiver and Tseng glances in my direction. Gods, that brat's in charge of the whole fucking company now. I squeeze my eyes shut only to see the bloody mess the office was with that enormous katana piercing through the President and pinning his body to the desk.

"Weren't we supposed to protect him?" I ask, forcing my eyes back open.

"Yes." Tseng sighs, cocking his head to the left. "I can't say Rufus isn't relieved, though."

"Relieved?" I repeat, frowning. He shakes his head, lowering the helicopter closer. Rufus tucks his shotgun away and hangs onto the outside rungs of the chopper as we lift back off.

"Open the door."

I set my headset aside and use all my might to pull the door open, squinting into the wind. Offering a hand, I poke my head out to see Rufus hanging on tightly, but he ignores me and steps inside as if nothing has occurred in the past few hours. The door closes with a loud slam that wasn't entirely intentional.

"You alright?" I ask, watching Rufus fall into a seat in the back. He raises an eyebrow at me irritably and pulls a potion from his jacket. "I'll take that as a confirmation."

"Let's just land this."

"Yes, sir," I mutter, heading back up front. "Ready to hit the ground?"

"I'm not sure that means what you think it does," Tseng replies, shaking his head when I laugh.

Once the propellers begin to slow and the rails hit the helipad, we hurry out of the chopper, surrounded with a raincloud of suffocating silence as the three of us head for the President's office. My stomach twists into knots when the door opens, but the President's body has been removed and the blood has been wiped off the walls. Rude and Elena stand waiting.

"We're all here, sir!" Elena chirps, standing straighter. Rufus hardly spares her a glance before watching me and Tseng join them.

"Yes, you are." His eyebrows pinch together for half a second before he recomposes himself. "Smells like bleach."

"Yes, well, we had to get the blood off somehow," an old woman in a tight uniform says, waddling past him with a cart of chemicals and bloody rags. Rufus doesn't look at them, doesn't look at her. I wonder if that's a coincidence.

"Mr. President!" a man cries, hurrying across the room. He's dressed up in a plain blue suit and in his hands, he carries a folder and a pen. "Can we discuss funeral arrangements for—"

"Can it wait?" Rufus snaps, getting impatient.

"The people will be expecting—"

"The people can wait."

"But sir—"

"Out."

The man nods, looking over the rest of us before scurrying out of the room. The old woman shakes her head, wheeling her squeaky cart into the hall, grumbling nonsense to herself. Taking a deep breath, Rufus turns back to us. My eyes dart about the room, searching for any signs of the President's remnants amongst the stench of bleach that can't mask the remaining metallic scent in the air. When I look back at Rufus, he's staring right back at me. My heart leaps into my throat.

"Kat, are you listening?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you say I must go to Junon?" he demands, looking back at Tseng. My uncle keeps his cool, nodding.

"That's the only reliable transportation we have. Our available aircraft can't make that flight."

"Why's that?"

"Avalanche, sir," Elena butts in. "They set the warehouse—"

"I didn't ask you." Elena's mouth snaps shut and Rufus shakes his head, angry. "Elena, can you arrange a ride for myself and Heidegger—perhaps some of his men, too—in three days?"

"Three days, sir?"

"Yes. I need to make a show of my father's death," he mutters, waving her words out of the air dismissively. "Rude, I'll need you to worry about security. Tseng should keep an eye on Avalanche…" He shakes his hair out of his eyes. "And Kat, you will remain here with Reno."

"You're kidding," I huff under my breath, crossing my arms and rolling my eyes. For a moment, I forgot everyone can see me. I freeze upon feeling their stares, my face going red. Fuck.

"No, I'm not. And now the two of us have to have a talk to prolong my time dealing with this mess tonight. The rest of you—get some rest. Tomorrow we start new."

"Right," Elena nods, pressing her lips together and looking back at me nervously. I can tell she's conflicted between her overwhelming sense of rules and duty and her dedication to finding and making good friends—all the better to climb the ladder with.

"Come with me," Rufus commands, taking me down a path I know all too well.

We head toward his office and I keep my head held high. Brat. I close the door behind me, standing with my arms crossed tightly and a stern look held on my face. Right. You can do this. You're Rude. You don't break.

"What is your issue with staying here?" he asks, absently sliding a paper across his desk. "Not that I care."

"What the hell am I staying for?" I demand. "Reno can handle himself, and if Avalanche is who we're after, then I should be out there helping."

"You not going anywhere until you prove to me that you can follow orders," he replies sharply, finally meeting my eyes. "End of story. You've done nothing but complain since your arrival. Your hiring was an act of pity on Tseng's part—one I regret signing off on."

"I've already proven myself!" I argue, already breaking down my front. "I dropped that plate without question—"

"My apologies. Would you like a celebratory banquet? A trophy, perhaps?" Rufus turns to face me. "You did your job—I shouldn't have to reward you for that."

"You don't. You should let me keep doing my job."

"Hm." He shakes his head. "This isn't something I need you for, and I'd rather you stay out of my way. Besides, if you were to become injured or killed, there are a few people who might have an issue with that."

"Like who?"

"Perhaps Marx," he replies, lifting his chin. "Or, your dear uncle, who has somehow allowed himself to withstand revenge. It's quite impressive considering what you did to—"

"Enough."

"Is it?" His eyes narrow and he eyes me with disgust. "I see nothing but pride for what you've done—"

"There's no pride!" I shout over him, hands tightening into fists at my sides. "Why do you care? I bet your daddy didn't mind that I—"

"Yes, but I'm not my father. And don't mistake my curiosity for care."

"And when do you expect me to do that? Once you get on your knees to suck Shinra off just like everyone else? You're not fucking special!"

In a strange bout of déjà vu, I find myself, yet again, with my back to the wall, my breath knocked from my lungs and a gun to my chest.

"I shouldn't have to demand your respect, Kat," he says in a low voice, refusing to let me look away from those scary, scary eyes. Ruthless, cold, and cunning. I push closer to the gun, and instead of covering under his stare, I stare right back, daring.

"Then shoot me already. Stop making empty promises."

"Hn." Rufus's jaw works tightly and he steps back with a push. "You're far too intriguing. Of course, there's also the part where Tseng would have my head brought to him on a silver platter."

"You're scared of Tseng?" I demand in disbelief. He shakes his head.

"No… It's not often that I have direct, important demands to keep someone under my command alive. In fact, this is a first."

"I'm special," I retort. He raised an eyebrow, turning his gun over and over in his hands.

"And why is that, exactly?"

"Reasons."

"Reasons?" He scowls. "You do realize I don't have to honor Tseng's wishes, don't you?"

"It's none of your business," I bite back, irritated. Even if he's backed off a bit, I can't leave. He's still in my way. "Why do you want to know?"

"Didn't I already tell you?" When I scoff and look across the room, he steps forward, jerking my chin upward and forcing me to look him in the eye. "I'm intrigued." Something in my mind sparks, and suddenly, I remember—


"Do you know how much it means to me that you came back?" The man hooks a finger under my chin, but when I look up, his face is blurry.

"Why does it mean anything?" I ask, reaching up to brush the shaggy dark hair out of his face. He grabs my hips and pulls me closer, and they feel so, so big. So possessive.

"Because." One of his big hands brushes over my face and, somehow, I know he's smiling. "You're beautiful. I'd never ever let you go if I had the choice." He pulls me closer, burying his face in the crook of my neck. "My precious Kat…" His lips brush across my skin and I shudder at the heat of his breath. "I love you."


I take a sharp breath, startled by what felt like an hour only to realize it was a mere moment. That voice… Rufus doesn't even seem to notice, his head leaning to one side.

"I want it to be your voice that says it."

"Why me?" I scoff, trying to return to the present.

"Family relations," he replies, brushing his thumb over my bottom lip. I take a deep breath to calm my sparking nerves, unsure what he's getting at. "They've caused many problems in this company, and I don't intend on keeping it that way."

"Gods, he's just my uncle." I force myself to meet his gaze. "That's it. No strings attached, no vengeance, and no drama."

"Good." Rufus is long gone before I can blink, standing behind his desk with his hands pressed to its smooth surface. "You're dismissed."

Nodding, I hurry into the hallway, scrubbing at my face with my sleeve to get rid of the feeling of his hand on my face. Not really sure where else to go and knowing damn well I won't be sleeping, I head down to the infirmary, thanking the gods that Reno is awake when I get there. He looks up, grinning when he sees who's here.

"How're you feeling?" I ask, pulling up a chair. He folds his hands together behind his head.

"Like shit. I'll survive."

"Damn, thought you were finally good as dead," I retort, rolling my eyes and resting my chin on the mattress. He turns onto his side with a wince, propping his head up.

"Did it make you sad?"

"Hell no!" I laugh, shaking my head. "One less shitty person in my life."

"Bitch," he huffs, reaching out and tapping the tip of my nose. I raise my eyebrows, waiting for an explanation. It doesn't come. "Doc says I have to stay here a few more nights."

"Poor Re Re," I coo, sticking out my bottom lip. He scoffs, pushing my face away. "Hey, remember that time I broke my leg on a fuckin' fruit stand in Sector Eight?"

"You think I forgot? I had to carry you on my back all the way back home because Public Security was chasing us."

"Huh. Those were the days."

"Yeah…" I shake my head, reaching out and playing with his bony fingers.

"Need somethin'?"

"No, just feeling touchy." I sigh, shaking my head. "I was about to head to Rude's when this whole fiasco started. Not sure he's even awake by now and I feel bad knocking."

"Don't. I'll try 'n have him find my keys tomorrow."

"Or, if you're in need of assistance, I'm headed home now."

Startled, I turn to see Tyler standing in the doorway. That voice. Suddenly, when I look back on that memory I can see his face again, that strange young man that was holding me. That said he loved me…? I frown, shaking my head.

"I'm not staying with you."

"My wife won't mind. My daughter shouldn't either."

"Your wife?" I repeat, confused. Why would he invite me over to his house when he has a wife and a child? Child… Fuck, how old was I back then? I shiver, suddenly feeling sick.

"Besides, I'm sure you'd get along with her."

"I said no," I huff, looking to Reno for help.

"Kat, if you don't—"

"She's stayin' with me," Reno snaps, waving for him to leave the room. "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."

"Right," Tyler huffs, frowning at me. "I'll be going then."

"I'm so tired," I groan, letting my head hit the bed once the doctors' left. Reno shakes his head.

"What's his deal?"

"I don't know, to be honest." I force myself to look up and he frowns.

"The hell's goin' on? Is this about what Rude couldn't tell me?"

"No, it's not. I already said that was just drama. And I really don't know about that guy."

"…" He shakes his head, falling onto his back and staring at the ceiling. "How's the boss? Heard the prez took a hit."

"A hit? He's dead."

"Same difference."

"Tseng's fine. I think he's just tired."

"Ain't we all? Why don't you go down to Rude's? He already offered."

"You offered for him," I point out. He shrugs, smiling.

"Whatever. Keep an eye out for his demon dog."

"Even Rufus warned me about that one."

"Rufus?" he repeats. "Damn, never know he could hold an actual conversation."

"Why's he have it, anyway?"

"Think it was his moms. She died earlier this year and he got all her shit, demon rat included." He flicks my forehead. "Hey, don't fall asleep on me."

"I'm sleepy."

"Go to Rude's. Number thirteen—there's an executive wing where we live."

"Nice."

Sighing, I drag myself to my feet and slump against the wall of that stupid elevator I spend all my time in. I'm itching for a smoke, but the ones at home are crushed under the plate's rubble and the others are in my truck. Really should keep some with me. Wandering down the wing of widely separated doors, I head down the left hallway and find myself before a tall, pristine door labeled with the number thirteen. Taking a deep breath, I knock on the door, instantly setting off a high-pitched barking. After listening to some shuffling, I step back and the door opens. Rude raises an eyebrow, still in his uniform.

"Oh, good. You weren't asleep."

"I waited for you."

"Sorry. I went to see Reno after Rufus chewed me out." If that's what you want to call it. The yipping continues from further in the apartment. "Is that the demon dog I've heard so much about?"

"Yeah," he sighs, letting me in. "Elixir."

"What kind of a name is that?"

"Don't know. Didn't name it."

"It?"

"Yeah."

He heads down the hall and opens a sliding door, kicking at another door to stop the barking. It only works for a few seconds before the dog starts up again. Rude huffs, handing me a blanket. Clearly, he's not a fan of this little rat dog he inherited.

"Thanks. G'night, Rudie."

"Night."

He kicks the door once more before heading further away where I can't see him anymore. Sighing, I turn to the couch and kick off my shoes by the door. Rude's place is clean. Like, scrubbed down once a week clean. Not a stain on the couch, not a scratch on the walls, not a burn on the coffee table. I yawn, falling onto my back and loosening the top buttons of my shirt. Somewhere down the hallway, Rude shuts the lights off. I squeeze my eyes shut, pulling the blanket up over my chin. My nose crinkles. Smells like Reno.

Chapter Text

"Kat." I groan, pulling the covers over my head. Rude sighs, tugging at them. "You're going to be late."

"I don't care," I grumble, burying my face in the couch cushions. "Tell Tseng he can go fuck himself."

"No." He pulls the blanket off of me and I curl up with a shudder.

"Why's it so cold?"

"It's not."

Scoffing, I roll onto the floor with a dramatic whine before dragging myself to my feet. I straighten my uniform, awkwardly fidgeting with my tie before looking to Rude for help. He shakes his head, giving it a tug to the right and turning my collar over before heading to the kitchen.

"Gods, please tell me you have coffee."

"No." He opens the fridge and takes out a carton of juice.

"Do you just not eat?" I slump against the counter, rubbing my face. "There's no food in there."

"Rufus."

"Yeah? What about him?"

"I'm surprised he's given you this many chances."

"Really? He just seems a little stuck up," I shrug. "Said he couldn't kill me because Tseng would have his head."

"Tseng can't have his head." Rude tosses the carton back in the fridge and turns to me. "Stop tempting him."

"It's hard," I admit, rubbing the back of my neck. "He's such a dick."

He frowns, staring hard into his glass.

"Why does Tseng care?"

"He doesn't care about me." I jam my hands in my pockets and shrug. "He's doing someone a favor."

"Who?"

"Can't tell you."

"His sister?"

"Well, if you knew, why'd you ask?" I scoff. "Read that somewhere, too."

"Same documents Tseng showed me."

"Of course. Where's your demon rat?"

"Locked in his room."

"His room?"

"Yeah."

"You're not very nice to him."

"Plenty nice when strangers aren't here."

"Strangers," I huff.

Inside the elevator, Reeve greets us with a thin-lipped smile. I nod back, and that's the extent of our interaction. Tseng raises an eyebrow when I walk into his office uninvited.

"Do I even need to ask where I am today?"

"Do you?" He shakes his head. "Rude, Elena, and I will be headed for the mines."

"Avalanche is there already?"

"No, but they will be soon. Someone gave them a ride out to the farm."

"The farm?" I frown.

"I forget you've never left." Slowly, he sets a paper aside, glancing up at his screen. "There's a chocobo farm outside of the marsh blocking the mines."

"And how far away is that?"

"I'd say an hour flight by helicopter at the most."

"Nice. When's Rufus want me?"

"You're already late."

"Oh, joy."

I take the stairs this time, waiting for the guards to let me into Rufus's office. He's scribbling away at some papers, likely the arrangements of shifting the company over to his control. Already working his ass off, hm? I lean against the wall, arms crossed, as I wait for him to acknowledge me. He signs off on a few more things before looking up.

"I thought Tseng might have told you to knock by now."

"Knock on what? I'm not allowed anywhere near your door." I roll my eyes. "And Tseng didn't raise me."

"I'm well aware. You wouldn't last a day under his roof," he murmurs, turning yet another page over.

"Did you call me up here just to berate me?"

"I wanted to inform you that I won't be tolerating your attitude anymore. I plan to be rid of my father's focus on money and use a more… threatening approach."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Who are you, anyway? I feel like I've met four different Rufus Shinra's.

"Fear." He stands, setting his pen down on the desk and pacing. Hasn't moved to the big room yet. "It controls the common people and forces respect from subordinates, as it should for you." His voice is tense as he scowls at me. He really is sick of my shit. "I will not tolerate this disrespect any longer, understand? You may as well be showing every other employee of Shinra that I am not to be feared."

"Well, are you?"

"Kat." He shakes his hair out of his face, getting frustrated.

"I'm not scared of you," I retort, hating the way my name sounds on his tongue.

"Is that so?" He huffs, wandering closer. My blood begins to boil, but I grit my teeth, wrestling it into my control. "Let's try again: how much will I be tolerating?"

"… Nothing."

"Exactly. Nothing." He lifts his chin, a proud smile tracing his lips. "Keep that word in mind, Kat. You're nothing, not without my command. I've had enough with the backtalk."

"So you did call me up here to berate me," I mutter, raising an eyebrow. Nothing. Hm. More familiar than I thought. "Can I go now, or did you have more to get off your chest?" There he goes again, charging like a wild animal. I stumble backward, alarmed.

"Did you not hear a single word I said?" he demands, easily towering over me. His breath hits my face and I shiver. "I will tolerate this behavior no longer." There's that gun again, too. Feels all too

"You're a one-trick chocobo," I retort. Reno always told me I had a short girl complex. Guess he's right. "Fucking do it already."

Rufus stares hard into my face, and for a moment, I think he'll back off again. Then he squeezes the trigger, firing a bullet clean through my right arm. Holy fuckI grit my teeth, flinching when I try to reach for the burning wound but forcing myself to stop. The tears well up from the pain, but I blink them away, refusing to show my pain. Gods, that hurts. Dissatisfied with my reaction, Rufus knocks me to the floor, placing one of his perfect shoes on my back.

"Remember this: you are below me. No matter how far you get, that's where you'll always be."

With a final press of his toes into my back, Rufus heads back toward his desk. Gritting my teeth, I force myself to my feet, clutching my arm. Blood oozes between my fingers and I squeeze my eyes shut, feeling a trail of warmth trickle down my cheek. For the love of all things good in the world, Kat, just take your beating and leave. But I can't. That's not who I am. I'm an idiot, but at least I stand up for myself.

"Keep going like this, and you'll be no better than Daddy."

Something shifts in his demeanor and he struggled with his perfectly kept control, raising the gun once more and firing at my head. I flinch, closing my eyes and praying for a quick death. Instead, the bullet hits the wall, just barely missing my ear.

"Get out before I lose my patience." I start toward the door, but he stops me. "And, Kat, if Tseng hears about this, I'll be sure not to miss next time."

"Yessir," I mutter.

Dizzy with adrenaline, I go the only place I know to return to—the infirmary. I've just been walking in circles. I stumble down the stairs, not willing to let anyone see me in the elevator. Squeezing my arm in hopes of crushing the pain away, I knock into the railing, hoping to gain so sort of support. Instead, I take a tumble, unable to catch myself. My head slams into brick and I see stars. How hard did he hit me? Slowly, I force myself back to my feet, dreading the thought of anyone seeing me lying on the floor, and take the walk to the infirmary one step at a time.

"Whoa, hey!" I look up to see Reno sitting upright, his door propped wide open. "What the hell happened to you?"

"I'm fine," I murmur, blinking the dark spots out of my vision and heading for Marx's room. Hoping no one's there, I kick at the door in a single warning before turning the knob with my bloody hand. He looks up from his computer, stunned to see me in this state.

"Just slap me back together so I can get out of here," I wheeze, wincing when I sit on the table.

"You're not going anywhere," he insists, closing the door. "Take that jacket off. I need to see your arm."

"I have to get back to Rufus—"

"You have to worry about yourself right now." He clicks on a flashlight. "Look at me." I do as he instructs, too tired to fight, though I'm a little uneasy when he has me unbuttoning my shirt to show him the bullet wound. Gods, that's gross. "The good news is that I don't think you have a concussion."

"You don't think?"

"No." He lifts my arm, staring hard at the nasty wound. "Was this point-blank?"

"Maybe."

"It's messy." He reaches for a pair of tweezers. "Hold still. I have to get the little pieces out."

I screw my eyes shut, letting my head hang back. This feeling…


"C'mon, Kat, just sit still. This is why you can't have access to firearms."

I grit my teeth, trying to stifle my cry of pain as Tyler digs around in my side for a bullet with his fingers. It's just the last one… My skin is clammy and my stomach hurts from squeezing so hard, but he finally finds what he's looking for. He pulls it free, showing me the piece of metal as my blood drips down his hands.

"See? Not so bad." He sets it aside and wipes his hand off. "You alright?"

"That hurt."

"You'll be okay." He brushes my hair back and presses a kiss to my forehead. When he pulls away, I see him readying a syringe in his other hand.

"Ty, I said no mako—"

"Kat, I'm a professional." He pins my arm to the table, forcing a smile that looks menacing. "Just sit still and it'll be okay before you know it."

I try to fight back, but he's too big, too strong. The needle stings, but the mako burns. The fire spreads slowly throw my body, stinging like a thousand knives trying to cut each fiber of my being apart little by little. He kisses my cheek and locks the door behind him, leaving me to writhe in the dark alone.

"I love you…"


"Okay, you should be good to go." Tyler takes the potion vial from me and tosses it in the trash, writing something quickly. "I'd ask about your memories, but you look like you're in a hurry."

"Yeah…" I blink out of my trance, disgusted that I let this man touch me again, and stand.

"Try not to tear those open," he calls after me. I shake my head, dizzy from being pulled back and forth in my head. Who are you, Marx?

"I was beginning to wonder where you were." Rufus looks up, as smug as he can look whilst concealing his emotions. And yes, I knocked. "Tseng and the others should be returning later, but in the meantime, I need someone to fix this printer. It's given out and the repairman seems to have disappeared." Can't say I blame him.

"Yes, sir," I mumble, crossing the room to the shuddering printer and pulling its plug. "Does it have an instruction manual?"

"I'm sure it does. I don't own it."

"Right…" I sigh, pulling out my phone so search for directions. Gods, a drink sounds wonderful. Rufus raises an eyebrow.

"You didn't change?"

"This is the only uniform I have."

"Have the tailor give you another. He's meant to make multiples per each employee."

"I will later."

Crossing my legs, I shed my holey jacket and roll the sleeves of my shirt up, hoping not to destroy my clothes further. Ink stains my hands and paper shreds cut my fingers, but I keep going, determined to prove my worth. How the hell did this get jammed? Huffing, I pull my hair back and keep working until I'm positive that everything's perfect. Finally, I stand, wincing when my sore hips stretch back into place.

"Okay. I think it's working now." I stand back, crossing my arms and watching as Rufus tests a page, grinning when the printer beeps, satisfied. "Sweet."

"Yes. You can leave now."

"Already?" I frown, flinching when he raises an eyebrow. Like a fucking dog. "Sorry," I mumble, grabbing my jacket and heading for the door.

"For what, exactly?"

"Huh?" I turn back, confused. "Oh. Disrespect…?" When he doesn't answer, my heart begins to pound. Did I do something wrong again? "You made a face."

"Did I?" Rufus shakes his head. "You were on the floor for two hours; I didn't expect you to think that too soon to leave."

"Two hours?" I repeat, checking the time. Holy shit. "Is Tseng back?"

"I don't know." He frowns, eyeing the darkened bloodstains on my sleeve where it bulges out, stretching around the wraps wound around my wound. The tension in the air takes a shift that I don't like. "Come here."

I stop myself from asking why, pressing my lips together and standing before the desk. Rufus slides his chair back, opening a drawer and rolling a glass vial across the table. I catch it, startled.

"Use it," he commands. "It'll speed up the healing."

"Uh… Thanks…?" I uncap the bottle, unsettled when he watches to make sure I down the whole thing. Stop staring at me.

"Kat." I lower my head, clutching the empty glass bottle at my side. If I squeeze it hard enough, will it cut me? "Don't expect me to go easy on you in the future. Pity isn't a common indulgence of mine."

"Yes, sir." I pocket the bottle and hurry out the door, clutching my jacket to my body. At least this time I made it out in one piece.

Chapter Text

"Gods, what happened to you?" Elena demands, staring at the stains on my arm and the bandage on my face that's surrounded by a bright red bruise. The elixir worked wonders beyond Marx's poking and prodding, but I'm still achy and tired. When I try to head to my office without answering, Rude steps into my path, raising my arm and shooting me a stern look. Tseng's face is almost a mirror image of his when I pull away, rolling my eyes.

"What happened?" he asks.

"Nothing."

"Doesn't look like nothing."

"Let it go," I snap, trying to step around him. He doesn't let me and Tseng calls my name. Dammit.

"With me. Now."

Irritated, I follow him across the lobby to his office and slam the door shut behind me. That felt good. Tseng sighs and I notice that he's tied the top of his hair out of his face.

"Trying a new style?" I ask, hoping that he'll let it be.

"Kat, what did you do?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Rufus. What did you do?" he stares hard at his desk, shoulders tense and movements stiff.

"Nothing."

"You're telling me that is for nothing."

"Yeah—"

"Marx said otherwise."

"Tyler told you?" I demand, huffing and hugging my jacket closer. Tseng raises an eyebrow, glancing up at me.

"Was he not supposed to?"

"No, he wasn't." I pull my hair down and ruffle it like a disgruntled bird.

"Why?"

"Rufus—" I shake my head. "Look, he was just making a point about fear, okay? I'm fine and it won't happen again."

"It took physical abuse to get you on the same page," he scoffs, sitting down. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me.

"Just don't say anything to him," I huff, opening his door and hurrying out, irritable.

The next two days consist of slowly accumulating more uniforms from Omid, avoiding getting killed by Elixir, letting Reno bitch at me from his bed, and playing servant to Rufus. It feels like an eternity later that I'm climbing into the copilot's seat in a Shinra helicopter with Reno in the pilot's and a whole cargo of people in the back. Namely, the rest of the Turks and Rufus, the new President Shinra. And to think he's my age. What a privileged little… Sighing, I shake my head. We're just waiting on Elena. Still, I'm grateful that the plans changed; now Heidegger has his own ride and the rest of us are going together.

"Can we just tie Elena to the roof?" I ask, leaning back in my seat. Reno snorts and Tseng scowls.

"No."

"But why? It'd make the ride a lot quieter."

"Kat."

"Fine," I sigh, rolling my eyes when Reno snickers. Quickly, he turns to face Tseng.

"Hey, why couldn't Rude be up here with me? She's annoying as hell."

"Re!" I protest, punching his arm. Tseng already looks like he regrets his decision to put us together. Rufus looks just as irritated, if not more, glaring at the window.

"Because she hasn't flown in a long time."

"Yeah, if anything that means she shouldn't be up here." He jerks his head toward Rufus. "Not with the new prez on board."

"I'm sure you can handle it," Tseng replies curtly.

"Be grateful," I whisper, flicking Reno's ear. He flinches, smacking my hand away. "Only a handful of people have ever gotten to fly with me at their back."

"Fuckin' terrifying," he mutters, grinning when Elena runs out to the helipad.

"I'm here!"

I roll my eyes when Reno very clearly stares at her ass as she climbs into the back. Wiggling his eyebrows at me after getting a proud eyeful, he turns back to the front, starting the chopper blades up.

"And we're off!" he says cheerfully as we take off.

I smile, shaking my head, though I can't help but admire his adorable face of concentration. There are very few instances in which he's missing a smug smile or a glare, and this is one of them. I shake my head, glancing into the backseat. Rufus looks entirely lost in thought, staring hard out the tinted windows. For once, he doesn't look angry. Rude raises an eyebrow, frowning when Elena wiggles restlessly for the umpteenth time in the past five minutes. Reno huff, slamming his head against the seat and stretching his legs.

Finally, after I spend the next hour or so gawking at the grass, swamps, and mountains, our destination comes into view. I raise my eyebrows, sitting taller to get a good look. A city of towering buildings is built around a massive gun that protrudes off the ocean's shore. Reno laughs, pulling a flask from his pocket and taking a drink when he knows Tseng can't see. He tosses it across the gap and I roll my eyes before partaking. Definitely not water. Still, I'm happy to feel that warm burn all the way to my stomach, knowing it'll take the edge off Elena's chipper voice.

"Never been to Junon?" he asks, unable to suppress a smile when I take second and third drinks.

"Never been outside Midgar," I shrug.

We land slowly, and with Reno talking the lead, there's not a single issue. Finally found what you're good at, hm? Scoffing, I shake my head and hop out of the chopper. Rufus opens the door and leaves after Tseng, hardly sparing me a glance before continuing down the walkway. Thanks would've been nice. Elena jumps down and I stick my leg out at the last moment, "accidentally" tripping her. I didn't expect her to slam into the concrete, skinning her palms and scraping her chin. Still, I struggle to stifle my laugh, covering my face with my arm.

"Shit, sorry," I hiss, shoulders shaking as I turn back to find Reno.

Catching me completely by surprise, Elena cries out, angry, and jerks me backward by my collar before slamming her small, bony fist into my face. I stumble, but catch myself fast enough to slam my elbow into her nose, knocking her onto her ass.

"The hell was that for?!" I shout, rubbing my sore jaw with a sour expression. She scrubs at her bloody nose with her sleeve, scowling up at me.

"You started it," she mutters. She looks more like a pouting child in a suit than a Turk.

"I said I was sorry!"

"You laughed!"

"Oh, grow up!" I scoff, rolling my eyes.

Gritting her teeth, she lunges at me again, knocking the wind out of me. Gasping for air and feeling nauseous as alcohol burns at the back of my throat, I make a desperate claw for her, scratching the side of her face as I grab her jacket. She digs her fingers into my bullet wound, kicking me in the stomach.

"Bitch!" I retaliate by throwing her back to the ground. I may be small, but I'm definitely bigger than she is. My heart's racing and my vision starts to go in and out.

"Enough," Tseng snaps, grabbing my arm and jerking me back. I wince, squeezing my eyes shut and reaching to pry his hand off my sore arm. He loosens his grip, but he continues to scowl. "Kat, you—"

"She started it," I snap. His look of disappointment who kill anyone else. "Tseng, you know it's not my fault. I can't help it," I add bitterly, glaring at the blonder as she gets to her feet.

"You can't help it?" she demands, scoffing. Tseng surprises us all by hesitating. Even Rufus stops walking to look back at what's going on. Slowly, Tseng straightens, smoothing his suit and turning his dark eyes to Elena.

"This is no way to succeed Gun's accomplishments," he admonishes. Who the hell is Gun? Stupid name. "Your father would be disappointed."

"… Sorry, sir." She turns her eyes to the ground before looking back up, genuinely ashamed. For a moment, I almost feel bad.

"Let's get movin'," Reno pushes, tapping my shoulder with his compressed rod and jerking his head toward Rufus. "The prez is waiting."

"Yeah…"

We keep moving, heading down a lift that carries us to the street level. As a group, we step into the temporary Shinra base only to be greeted by a towering man in a green suit that's covered in pins. I'm not sure what any of them mean—then again, I'm also not sure if any of them are real, either. Heidegger scratches his bushy black beard and grins upon seeing us.

"Gya ha ha! Nice to see you, Mr. President!"

"Hm." Rufus turns to us. "I don't need all of you right here. Kat, Rude, you're dismissed."

"But sir—" Tseng starts. Rufus raises a hand to silence him.

"It's unlike you to argue, Tseng. I'd prefer you go back to keeping your mouth shut."

I shove my hands into my pocket and nod for Rude to lead the way, waiting until we're out of view to light up a cigarette. We vanish into the gathering crowd, ignoring the stares we receive from the citizens and elbowing our way down the street.

"Where're we headed?" I ask, half-jogging to keep up with Rude. "Hey, I asked you a question!"

"Somewhere you'll fit in well," is all he says.

"Why'd we come here again?" I ask, swirling my drink around in its glass. Rude touches his shades.

"You didn't have to come with."

"No, I meant Junon. I don't mind this."

"The President's security is of utmost importance," he grumbles, taking a drink.

"And yet, here we are." I empty my glass and offer a thin smile when the bartender refills it. "Wonder what the others are up to."

"Probably at the other bar."

"Wanna see 'em?"

"No."

"Me either." I sigh, resting my chin in my palm. "So… are we flying to get Rufus after he heads over on that boat?"

"Yeah."

"And what are we after?"

"Stopping Sephiroth and Avalanche every step of the way."

"And the other Turks?"

"Veld?"

"Yeah."

"I don't know."

A deep sound bellows from outside and I sigh, throwing my head back and downing the last of my drink yet again. Rude stands. Together, we head to the waterfront.

"We should find Tseng. If he thinks I'm getting in trouble, he's going to smother me."

"Why?"

"My mom."

I groan, stomping in a puddle that stains my pants a darker shade of black and tugging at the roots of my hair. There's that feeling again, the one where I just can't seem to remember what I want to.

"Kat?"

"Goddammit!" I kick an empty trashcan over, jerking the carton from my pocket to light my third cigarette of the morning. "It's gotta be Marx."

"What does?" Rude frowns, staring down the people who stop to stare.

"My family." I wave my puff of smoke out of my face and slouch against a nearby wall, letting my head smack against the brick. "I haven't thought about them in years, and I can't remember why—" I shake my head with an irritated huff. "Every time I'm around that man, I get all sorts of memories, but I don't recognize them."

"What memories?" he prods. I shake my head and stand up straight.

"Nevermind. I'm just frazzled." I take one more long drag from my smoke before throwing it in the puddle and crushing it under my shoe for good measure. "Let's go find Reno."

"Reno?"

"I mean Tseng."

My hands are trembling when I put them in my pockets, and I know he saw them. Why does everyone know but me? I would give anything to sit down for a day and just watch my life back, just to have that part of me back. What about my past turns me into someone different. It's been five years… it could be different. But it's the memory of Carlos that tells me otherwise. Why couldn't I control myself? Why can't I control myself? Am I just immature? I shake my head, kicking a crushed can across the pavement.

But Tyler said it was me. That's who I was, and no one wanted me like that. Reno doesn't know me like that… Does he?But he hasn't said anything about me changing, has he? Tyler said I've had two... Ten years total. Does Tyler erasing my memories make him the good guy or the bad guy? He stole from me, but at the same time, that saved me somehow. What did he mean by voices? Did I have schizophrenia or some jazz? Sector 2… What happened in Sector Two?

Chapter Text

I stare through the helicopter window, staring longingly at the ground as we wait for Rufus to entire the helicopter. He stands outside, giving Heidegger that look that I know all too well. That, and we're waiting for Elena because she left to go pee in a random nearby building. Tseng sits in the front beside Reno, though he constantly glances back at me. Rude's with the other chopper that's carrying Heidegger and Scarlet to wherever this random-ass town is that they're supposed to be regrouping in.

The plan is to drop Rufus, Heidegger, Scarlet, and Tseng, leaving them one chopper, and then take the other back to Shinra with the rest of our sorry butts. We won't be back in Midgar until tomorrow at the earliest, and I'm okay with that. I pull the door open when Rufus comes toward us and Heidegger runs around the docks, screaming at sailors and soldiers alike. Must not be used to criticism. Rufus steps past me and I catch a waft of the sea's scent from the outside, sticking my face out in the warm sun of Costa del Sol for a moment.

"When's Elena comin' back?" Reno asks, yawning and stretching his arms over his head.

"I'm not sure," Tseng sighs, getting impatient.

"How long's it take a girl to pee," I scoff, falling into the seat beside Rufus. He frowns at me when I almost touch him.

"How should we know?" Reno retorts, turning to grin at me. "You're the only one here."

"Maybe she's having issues."

"Like what? It's stuck inside her?"

"It happens."

"What?" Reno raises his eyebrows. "No, it can't. That's bullshit."

"Even heard of a UTI?" I fire back. "It just doesn't come out."

"Fuckin' bullshit," he huffs, falling back into his seat.

"No, it's not." I almost scream with relief when Elena hops into the chopper and closes the door behind her. I spread my arms wide, my voice laced thick with sarcasm. "Pick a seat, any seat!" Rufus scowls at the hand in his face, leaning away from my arm and staring out the window.

"How much did you drink?" Tseng asks, frowning at me. I roll my eyes, slumping in my seat.

"Not enough."

"Grand," Rufus says under his breath.

"Put your bony ass on me and you die," I threaten when Elena begins to sit a little too close.

"It's not bony—"

"Smaller chopper than the last," Reno comments, grinning back at us. "Packed in like little sardines, huh? Bet the VP—sorry, just the P—is lovin' the female attention!"

"Can we leave?" Rufus snaps, making a point of jerking his leg away from mine.

"Working on it," Tseng mutters.

Slowly, we rise into the bright, summery sky and take off, leaving Coast del Sol behind. Much to my delight, I'll be back later while the helicopter refuels. Rufus lays his head against the glass with a sigh, staring at the clouds. His face goes from neutral to a scowl when I can't stop fidgeting—I'm not used to sitting hip to hip with my boss, okay? Sighing, I lay my head on the back of the seat, stuck between two people that I'm not too fond of. If I fall asleep, everyone will yell at me, so I keep my eyes open, staring hard at the ceiling as I wonder about Tyler Marx and all that he's hiding from me.

When we land, I pull the door open and send Tseng off with a smile. He hands me a key and lets me know that if I need anything or if Reno gets sick of me, I can stay in his place. I roll my eyes and shove it in my pocket. Relieved with the promise of a comfy bed, I wave to Rufus, too.

"Good luck, sir!"

To be honest, he doesn't look like he expected that. He frowns, unsure how to respond before deciding no response is necessary. Reno laughs and I climb into the front, refusing to let Rude have all the fun. The bald man gives me a look when he climbs in back, but I ignore it, happy to busy myself with something.

When we finally land in Costa del Sol, my legs feel numb. I step outside and stretch, feeling my back crack in, like, seven different places. Reno laughs, shoving me playfully. I elbow him back and then the four of us head to a hotel on the edge of town that overlooks the sea. The woman at the desk checks us in under Tseng's name and we head upstairs.

"One big room, huh?" Reno scoffs, eyeing a pamphlet the receptionist gave him. "Got all this Shinra money, but we don't have any privacy. At least we get free drinks at the bar."

"Since when are you worried about privacy?" I scoff. Elena laughs to herself, shaking her head.

"I'm not. I'm worried about the big guy. He needs his alone time."

"I'll manage," Rude replies, shaking his head. He quickly suppresses the slightest of smiles, but I don't miss it.

"Here we are," Elena announces, unlocking the door. She pokes her head in and she shrugs. "At least it's spacious."

"Told ya it was big.

Reno flops down on the nearest bed with a heavy sigh. I make a point of jumping onto the same bed as hard as I can, nearly throwing him off. Scoffing, he shoves my knee and closes his eyes.

"Stay awake, idiot. We've got a whole night ahead of us," I tease. Elena shakes her head.

"How are you not exhausted?"

"Trust me, I am." I fall onto the bed beside Reno's, sighing. I might never get up. "But it's not often that I get free drinks and a bed."

"Damn, I gotta steal you back from Rude," Reno huffs, sitting up. "Who's hittin' the shower first?"

"am headed downstairs," I announce, grabbing his hand and forcing him to stand. "Come on. You can't leave a pretty lady like myself alone in a strange new world!"

"Pretty," he snorts.

Rolling my eyes, I drag him out the door, silently offering for Rude (or Elena, I guess) to come. They both shake their heads and we shrug it off, headed down to the bar for a little rest and relaxation.

There are more people here than I expected, but it's not packed. Guess this place is pricier than the one across town. Reno elbows his way to the counter and manages to make a woman uncomfortable enough to get me a seat. Laughing, I take it, letting him order for me.

"You're an asshole."

"Don't give a shit," he retorts, catching a pair of sliding glasses and handing one to me.

"To recovery?" I ask, raising my eyebrows. He laughs, nodding and clinking his glass to mine.

"Sure, Kitty Kat."

It's probably an hour or so later than we wander out to the beach, carrying our socks and shoes in our hands and wandering out to the water. I kick a spray of sand up at Reno only to get a mouthful. He makes fun of me for several minutes until a passing couple asks if I'm okay. We wave them off and I fall onto my back, not caring if sand gets in my clothes. The stars look amazing out here where they aren't blocked out by Midgar's smoke and smog.

"Fuckin' beautiful," I murmur, resting an arm across my forehead. Reno falls down beside me, crossing his arms behind his head.

"Cool, isn't it?" He takes a deep breath, finally, finally, relaxed. "I like it out here."

"Me too." I close my eyes, absorbing the sound of the waves and relishing in the silent company. "We should've done this sooner."

"Yeah."

"… Never thought I'd be back with you guys."

"Me either." He smiles, glancing over at me. "Happy you are, though."

"Are you?"

"Wouldn't've said it otherwise."

"I guess." I force myself to sit up, dizzy for a moment. "Thanks for being my friend, Re."

"Course." He sits up, too, knocking his shoulder against mine. "Who the hell else would be?"

"Whatever," I scoff, shoving him back. When I threaten to throw sand in his face, he pulls his goggles down over his eyes, grinning like a fool. I crack up, doubling over. "You look so fucking stupid."

"Oh, fuck off."

"I can't." I fall backward, content to stare up at the sky a little longer.

"You won't," he corrects. I huff, smiling.

"No, I won't."

My bed is comfy as hell, and as soon as I step out of the shower, I envelop myself in a complimentary robe and collapse, exhausted. Rude's light is the only one left one as he reads. Elena's been out since we left, and Reno died when we returned from the beach. It's the most eventful day he's had in the better part of a week, and I'm sure he's still healing even if he won't admit to it. My eyes close all too easily and I sink further under the covers. It's the perfect recipe for good sleep.

But my consciousness could never grant me that.


"Good morning, Miss."

I tear my face out of my arms, curled up in the corner of my cell. Is this real? I frown at the young man that stands in the doorway, trying not to remember his face too well. Sometimes I have hallucinations and perceive things that aren't there. At least, that's what Professor Hojo tells me. He only comes by sometimes, though, and it's usually just to test a new miracle cure to my ailments—they never work. I don't know if I mind them; I like the company. The young man clears his throat, my silence making him uneasy. He awkwardly adjusts his white lab coat.

"You probably don't remember me. I'm Tyler?"

"A scientist?" I ask quietly. Dad was a scientist. I shake my head, pressing my lips together. No, don't think about him. It'll only hurt.

"Pardon? Miss?" I look up and he nods, his gray eyes flitting about the room. "I'm supposed to take you to the psychologist now. Miss A—"

"Don't say it," I snap, getting to my feet.

"R-Right. Sorry. I forgot about that."

He follows me more than leads me, unlocking doors with his ID and leading me through the white halls to a pristine door made from stainless steel. Outside a tall vase of flowers stands, labeled with the scarlet Shinra logo. He lets me in and offers an uncomfortable smile before leaving.

"Hello, Dear!" a woman greets.

I don't know her name. I try not to know her face. They tell me she'll be gone, soon anyway. They all will be. Some names are okay to remember, though. Professor Hojo is fine. I'll have to ask them what they think about Tyler. My own name isn't okay to remember, though. One time the woman said it; I think I tried to choke her.

The woman has me sit down on a chair across from hers, smiling. She tries, but she knows she's keeping secrets. She knows I'm keeping secrets, too. She tells me that Shinra is after me, that they want me dead. That they don't draw the line at executing a thirteen-year-old girl. Someone important wants me dead, so they're making exceptions. If she can't turn me around, they'll take me to calm the people of Midgar. That's just the way it is.

"Hello," I whisper to her fluffy white cat as she gently steps onto my lap, familiar with my presence. Her name is Belle; Belle is okay to remember.

"You really like her, don't you?" I don't answer, running my hand over Belle's smooth fur over and over and over again. "You know, I've been thinking," she continues. "I know you need something to be called—" I scowl at her neck, afraid to see her face for the first time. "Don't look at me like that. What if we named you after her?"

"Belle?" I ask, frowning at the feline. "No."

"No? Hm…" She snaps, sitting upright. "Well, how about Kat? Kat with a 'k' to add some pizazz."

"Kat with a 'k'…" I murmur. It feels right. I nod.

The session goes as it usually does. She pokes and prods and suggests that I externalize my feelings instead of internalizing. She doesn't understand what externalizing means to me. She doesn't understand that I'm not in control of any of this. I tried to tell her. She told me it was all in my head. But then why do I lose control of my body?

"So, Kat," Tyler greets, hitting my new name with extra emphasis to prove to me that he's making an effort. I really don't care if he tries or not; I won't. "Hojo tells me there's someone here to see you today." He offers a nervous smile. "But… he's a bad man, so we'll be around to make sure you're okay."

"Hojo isn't here?"

"No. He's watching, though. He doesn't want you to get hurt."

"Who is it?"

"You'll see."

Tyler opens the door to a room without windows. There are two couches facing each other and a table between them. The wall supports two glowing vending machines. There's a long glass wall on one side, and I realize that's where Hojo is. At least someone that's okay is here, then. Tyler has me sit down and I obey, eyeing the old photographs of Midgar that hang on the white walls. He leaves with a final smile.

I'm not nervous until the door across the room opens and I see the man. The bad man. Suddenly, I feel sick and my palms are slick with sweat. He's the one that wants me dead. The man straightens his suit and his short ponytail sticks out oddly from behind his head when he looks back at the two-way mirror. His dark eyes meet mine and he holds his hands behind his back, keeping himself under control. I don't have that luxury, feeling the pressure build in my chest until I have to look down at my pants, biting my lip until I bleed. We're alone. I could end this family forever if I could hit him hard enough and hang myself later… We both deserve it.

"Do you remember me?" he asks. I don't answer, staring hard at my pants. "Don't make me ask twice. It's ridiculous enough that you can't hear your own name without losing it."

"… I do."

"And you remember what I'm capable of?"

"Yes."

"Then why did you do it?"

I grit my teeth together. " Do you remember what I'm capable of?"

"You're a little girl," he scoffs. "I'll only ask once more: why did you do it?"

You had to.

She was tainted.

Your mother loves you.

"Do I really have to buy into your game?" he demands, losing his cool. "Fine. Why did you kill Taavi?"

Taavi… She always watched out for him. She practically raised him, gave him no choice but to love her. She taught him the ways of the world and hid him from them at the same time. His beloved sister… Taavi. I screw my eyes shut, shaking my head. My fingers twitch, twisting tightly in the fabric of my pants. No.

"And Joseph?"

"Stop."

"And Mike, Evan, and Logan?" He slams a hand down on the table and I flinch. "Sarah? She was five."

"Stop."

"What the hell is wrong with you, Anna?!"

Kill him.

With pleasure.

"I said shut up!" I scream, leaping to my feet. My hands remain at my sides, itching to squeeze the life from his eyes. He stares back, unafraid. Foolish. Cold.

"If you can't handle what you've done then you—"

Enough.

I lunge at him when he least expects it, letting his head slam against the smooth floor and digging my thumbs into his throat with power that is only mine. Where are you? His eyes go wide and his hands push back.

"I didn't kill them, Tseng!"

He kicks me off him, touching his throat. I fall on my back, howling laughter into the air so that everyone can hear me.

"Get the fuck out!" I shriek, feet kicking up in the air and arms clutching my stomach. It's so funny. "Get the fuck out!"

Tseng stands slowly, watching me with a mixture of horror and disgust as I writhe on the floor, laughing, laughing, laughing.

"You really have lost yourself."

I roll onto my feet and rush at him, slamming him against the glass with superhuman speed. Digging my nails into his neck and kicking at his knees, I throw him to the floor and dig my thumbs back in with strength that's not mine, cackling as he tries to wrestle me off.

"I'll kill you myself!" I scream, throwing my head back and laughing. "I'll fucking kill you, and then I'll rip your nasty little eyes out! I'll paint your name all over the walls in blood and—"

Someone grabs my arms and pulls me away, calling for help when I begin to thrash like a wild animal, kicking and screaming and laughing. Tseng scrambles to his feet, beyond disgusted as he watches them jam a needle into my neck and press a plunger. I wail, cackling as he leaves through the door, ushered out both a doctor.

"Run, Turkey, run!" I shout, though my voice is getting raw and my eyes are growing heavy. "Go burn with Taavi!"


I jolt awake, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. It's pitch black in the room, deep in the night, and no one stirs. I throw the covers off and head to the bathroom, careful to only release a trickle of water to let the others sleep as I cool myself off, hands shaking and heart pounding. In the darkness, I stare at myself in the mirror, shivering when I run through the dream again. Was it a dream or a memory? I already know the answer; I've never had a dream that's felt so oddly familiar and so specific. Sick, I close the door and slump against the wood, tugging at my hair.

I shudder remembering what hearing my own thoughts felt like. What those voices sounded like. They echoed the feeling of thoughts, like when you hear yourself reading. It wasn't a real sound, but it wasn't from myself. At least, I don't think. Was that why Tyler took those years away from me? The hatred laced in Tseng's voice… Is that why he abandoned me to fend for myself on the streets? I'll kill you! I shiver again, feeling feverish. What the hell happened? Why couldn't I remember names or look at faces? Who are they? The voices?

"Fuck," I whisper, closing my eyes and letting my head hit the door softly.

Chapter Text

"The hell?"

A loud thump sends a rumbling jolt through the door and knocks me forward. I blink away the bleariness of sleep, not entirely sure where I am for a moment until I see the glass wall of the shower across the room and feel the cold tule beneath my legs. Oh shit. Quickly, I get to my feet and the door flies open to reveal Reno, who stares back with an eyebrow raised.

"Did I interrupt something?"

"Uh, no." I yawn, looking at my face in the mirror and wincing my neck aches at the sudden turn.

"Were you sleeping?"

"Maybe."

"I always knew you were like a dog," he teases, standing behind me and making a face in the mirror. "Always sleepin' on the floor and barkin' at strangers."

"Yeah, sounds like me," I huff, heading back to the roof and closing the door behind me so he can pee in peace. Rude is nowhere to be seen and Elena's already dressed, ready to hit the skies and head back to Shinra HQ.

"Hey." She greets me with a smile despite the bruises on her nose from my elbow. I fall onto my bed, staring up at the ceiling and forcing myself to keep my eyes open.

"Hey."

"You okay?"

"Yeah?" I frown, lifting my head enough to see her. Reno steps out of the bathroom and I crinkle my nose. "You did not wash your hands."

"Nope," he grins, reaching toward my face. I cringe away from him.

"Ew. Get your penis fingers away from me."

"Mm, penis fingers."

Rude pauses in the doorway, not entirely sure what he's walked in on. Laughing, Reno taps my cheek and jumps back into his bed.

Elena clears her throat to redirect my attention. "Because there aren't many reasons for people to fall asleep on the bathroom floor."

"I didn't feel good," I lie, shrugging. Reno scoffs.

"Since when are you a lightweight?"

"Might be all the travel."

"Well, you better get used to it."

"I will."

We make it back to Shinra before noon, and left with little to do and no orders but to wait for Tseng and Rufus, we separate, heading to the executive wing of apartments. Reno lets me inside and I collapse on the couch, still tired.

"I'm not stayin' long," he warns, heading to his room to change. I shrug.

"That's fine. I'll bother Rude."

I stare hard at the blank television, wondering why Shinra built living quarters to begin with. Because the Turks are called back and forth so much? What about the ones that have other parts of their lives? I sigh, shaking my head. Most of the people that work for the Turks have no one else and they want nothing more than to forget. Then there are those like Elena that had nothing to lose but their dignity. A good life, a good upbringing, and a little friendly competition. Makes me sick. How can any normal person do this shit?

"Okay." Reno heads out of the hall in a suit I can't guarantee is clean, but it's cleaner than his other one. I stand, about to tease him about being a grown child, but the look on his face is serious.

"What's up?"

"Nothin', it's just…" He sighs, scratching at the back of his head and resting a hand on his hip. "Look, I wasn't gonna say anything, but…" Shrugging, he crosses his arms, watching me for my reaction. "I was awake last night when you woke up. You feelin' okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," I answer quickly, nervously chewing on my cheek. "I really just wasn't feeling good."

"You were throwing yourself around that bed," he points out, frowning.

"Didn't feel—"

"Good. Yeah, I got that." He shakes his head, flicking his wrist to extend his rod before contracting it again, a nervous tick. "This have anything to do with Rude?"

"Rude?"

"Y'know. What you talked to him about?"

"Reno, I told you—"

"Yeah, you lied to me," he snaps, jamming the rod back into his pocket and scowling at me. Shit. "Asked Rude about it. Said it was about you, not shitty fuckin' drama."

"It was about my drama."

"Okay, well, why can't I know?"

"Because." I huff, shaking my head. "Reno, if I'm not telling you, it's for a good reason, okay?"

"What, you're gonna protect me?" he mocks, heading toward the door.

"Reno—"

"Whatever, man. I gotta go."

"… Right."

I sigh and follow him into the hall, watching him walk off with his hands jammed in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. Shaking my head, I head a few doors down to Rude's place, guilty. I'm sorry. I wish I knew what it was I'm supposed to keep from you. He opens the door with a frown, shaking his head when I wordlessly step inside and plant my ass on his couch. Thankfully, he tucked Elixir away before opening the door.

"Did you need something?" he asks.

"… You remember what Marx said? About memories?"

"I remember what you said."

"Yeah." I sink lower in my seat, pressing my back into the couch cushions. "I got a really big one back last night. More like a dream than one of those little flashbacks." I shiver, goosebumps prickling up across my skin. "Rude, it was awful." He sighs, sitting a few seats down and resting his elbows on his knees.

"What was it?"

"I think… a hospital? I was thirteen, I know that much. And I wasn't allowed to memorize names or faces because 'they' said so." I rub my face with my hands. "Gods, I sound crazy."

"It was a memory?"

"Yes. I'm a hundred percent sure." Shaking my head, I rest my hands in my lap and force myself to take a deep breath. "They put me in a room with Tseng and he was ticked. He said their names and it changed me somehow—"

"Whose names?"

"My family. He started with my mother and then…" I press my lips together. "That doesn't matter. I completely lost it. I was choking him and screaming about gauging his eyes out and painting the walls with his blood… Rude, it makes me sick that that could be real."

"…" He frowns, touching his glasses. In the silence, Elixir yips and yaps, fraying our nerves. "You should stay away from him."

"Who?"

"Marx." He sits up, watching me through the dark lenses over his eyes. "Have you learned anything about him?"

"Sometimes I see him holding me down or hugging me… One time he kissed me." I crinkle my nose, shuddering with realization. Gods… "Fuck… Rude, I was only a kid. He was a grown-ass man…" My heart begins to pump harder and a cold sweat breaks out across my skin. Disgusted, I look up at him. "He said he loved me… Were we…? Did he…?" Rude nods, turning his gaze down to the floor.

"There was a considerable amount of charges against him that were dropped about ten years ago."

"For being a pedo?"

"For a lot of things."

"How do you know?"

"Tseng told me."

"What else did he say?" I demand, scooting forward on my seat to get closer. He shakes his head. "Rude, please. I need—"

"That's all I know, Kat."

"You promise?"

"Yes."

He stands to quiet his rat dog and I slump lower in my seat. Ten years… that's when he first erased my memories, right? I close my eyes, searching for answers. I could ask Marx, but know what he did… Ew. Who else could I ask? Tseng? That's a no-go. Marx is gross and I don't even know that woman was or where she is. Hojo. I sit upright. Holy chocobos. Hojo.

Just as I realize my next lead, the door swings open and Reno announces is presence, looking much calmer than when he left. He flings something in my direction and I flinch, squeezing my eyes shut when I catch it.

"What is this?" I frown, staring at it. "Oh shit!"

"Figured you could use somethin' better to fight with," he teases. "Same model as mine, so you know how to use it."

"Thanks!"

I laugh, genuinely surprised when I extend the rod and stare at the pointed end where electricity would crackle if I were to touch the button by my thumb. Reno doesn't answer, digging through Rude's cabinets until he finds a large glass bottle. Rude raises an eyebrow upon entering the kitchen, but he doesn't say anything.

"So, Rude, how's the rat?"

"Irritating as ever," he grumbles, peeling the lid off an instant ramen cup and filling it with water. Reno laughs, shaking his head and pouring his drink into one of Rude's glasses. I stand, not wanting to be left out. "I need a woman."

"I feel ya," Reno grins, leaning back against the counter and taking a sip. I place my hands on my hips, frowning.

"Guys, I'm a woman."

"Not the kind we need," Reno shakes his head. "Need a hot one that doesn't mind cookin' and cleanin'."

"Ignoring the hot part, I don't think I'm your girl."

"That's what I said." He laughs. "And you're not hot."

"Excuse me!" I protest, crossing my arms. "Rude?"

"… No comment."

"Rude!" I push his shoulder. Unfortunately, I do so while he's pulling his ramen from the microwave, knocking the bowl from his hands and splashing piping hot water all over his pants and across my arms.

"Fuck," I hiss, hurrying to the sink to run water over my skin. It's already an angry shade of red. Reno cackles behind me. "Where'd Rude go?"

"You burned his dick, man!" he howls, throwing his head back. "With soup!"

"Sorry," I wince, praying Rude can feel my apology from the other room.

"Come here," Reno laughs, beckoning for me to join him by the counter. In his hand, he holds a glowing orb of materia.

"Where'd you get that?"

"It's Rude's."

"Well then let him use it!"

"Kat," he snickers, shaking his head. "C'mon, let me."

"He's right there," I nod, continuing to hold my stinging arm under the running water. Rude comes back around the corner, frowning down at the large, wet spot down the front of his clothing.

"Reno," he calls, raising his hand. Laughing, his partner tosses him the materia.

"Yeah, yeah." The redhead sets his half-empty cup on the counter and wanders into the hallway to an unknown location. Shaking my head, I down his glass, mutter an apology to Rude, and head out the door. Time to find Hojo.

"What do you mean he quit?!" I demand, slamming his hand down on Reeve's desk. Reeve flinches away, frowning at me over the top of his computer screen. "Reeve, this is important!"

"I don't doubt that, Kat, but I can't help that he resigned." He adjusts the front of his suit jacket and sighs. "He said some things about Sephiroth when he left, but that's as much as I know."

"I don't give a shit about what he was mumbling about on the way out the door. I need to know where he went." I huff, tugging at my hair and turning to face the wall in his dark office. Sharply, I turn back. "Don't you have his phone number or something?"

"Why do you need him so badly?" Reeve counters, raising an eyebrow.

"Turk shit."

"I may only be the head of Urban Development, but I know what Turks do and what they don't. They don't get mixed up with Hojo's projects unless specifically announced by President Shinra, and only under special circumstances."

"What?" I grit my teeth, hitting my hands on his desk again. He scoots back, eyeing me with a frown.

"They don't involve themselves with personal business, Kat. Turks don't beg me for contact information."

"I'm not begging."

"Alright…" He strokes his goatee down into a point, brown eyes glancing about the room as he thinks. "I can try to find a number, but I doubt he'll answer. I need you to answer a question in return, though."

"Okay…?"

"I got a little curious, I admit," he shrugs, cocking his head to the side. "And I couldn't find the name Kat anywhere in previous Turk trainee records. You're nowhere within Shinra's records before now, actually."

"Okay, and?" I demand, my heart beginning to pound.

"I was, however, able to narrow you down after searching through Tseng's family relations—"

"What the hell?" I groan, hitting his desk a third time. "Reeve, this is none of your business, got it? My family matters have absolutely nothing to do with you."

"Yes, well—"

"Well nothing. You go sniffing around again and I'll hurt you."

"Will you?" he raises an eyebrow. "I doubt that will turn out well—"

"Literally no one likes you!" I shout, leaning closer to his face.

Reeve frowns, his eyes turning back to his computer screen as he takes a deep breath. A meek knock on the door breaks the tense silence and I turn to see his assistant in the doorway, her knuckles raised to the open door. She clears her throat, eyebrows raised.

"I'm sorry. Is this a bad time?"

"Make it quick," Reeve mutters. I step back, crossing my arms and refusing to look at her.

"It's nothing much, sir. There are just a few budget things you need to sign before Scarlet can begin her work." She hands the folder over and smooths her skin.

"Thank you. I'll have them to you later."

"Alright." She gives me a once over with an arched eyebrow before heading out the door and closing it softly behind her. When I start to follow her, Reeve stops me.

"You didn't stay for my question."

"What?" I snap, impatient and disappointed. "Ask the damn question, Reeve."

"What happened to the psychiatric institution in Sector Two?"

"I don't know."

With that, I'm gone, hurrying back to the only place I know to go: Reno.

Chapter Text

"Guys! I'm back!" I step into Rude's apartment, spotting Reno on the couch. He glances up and holds up the bottle he took from Rude's cabinet.

"Mind putting this back for me?"

"Thought I wasn't the woman for you," I tease, snatching it away and heading for the kitchen.

Upon opening the cabinet, I realize I'm not nearly tall enough to reach the shelf this belongs on. I turn to the couch where a crown of spiky red hair peeks up over the edge of the cushions.

"Re, can you help me? I'm too short for this world."

"Fuck off," he grumbles.

"Reno."

"Shit, fine."

Huffing, he gets to his feet, pulling the bottle from my hand and easily setting it on the top shelf. I smile, clinging to him so that he can't put his arms down.

"Thank you," I croon, laughing when he rolls his eyes.

"Yup. Mind letting go?"

"I don't think I will."

"Kat," he huffs, trying to pry me off.

"Why? What're you in such a huffy mood for?" I scoff, straightening and crossing my arms. He shakes his head and flops back down on Rude's couch, watching Kelsey interview a man from the slums as the cameraman focuses on her chest.I take a deep breath. "Fine. Where's Rude?"

"Probably reading."

"In his room?"

"Yup."

Rolling my eyes, I head down the hall, eyeing the trio of doors that greets me. The one in front of me is the bathroom. Shrugging, I open the door on the right side of the hall, poking my head into the dark room.

"Rude?"

A loud snarl startles me, and in my effort to get away, I fall onto my ass, reaching up to shield my face as a flurry of tan fur lunges at me. A sharp cry rises from my throat before I can stop it, trying to swat the demon chihuahua away only to have it rip at my other fingers.

"Shit!" Reno comes running from the room, shoving Elixir into the corner with his shoe and grimacing when the dog gnaws on his pant leg. "Rude, your demon dog just ripped Kat a new one, man!"

"I can hear that," Rude huffs, opening his door. Irritated, he hoists the chihuahua off the ground and closes himself in the room with it. I get to my feet, staring at my bloody fingers as I try to figure out where the bites are, exactly. Reno grabs my wrist and jerks me down the hallway.

"Ow!" He ignores me, turning on the hot water and forcing my hand under the tap. "Fucking ow, Reno!" I shout, ripping my hand out of his grasp and cooling the water off a little. "What the hell?!"

"Oh, shit, sorry!" he sneers, pissed off. "I'm just having the greatest day of my life, Kat, and I really appreciate you demanding my attention every two fucking seconds!" Huffing, he turns on his heels and leaves the kitchen.

"Reno!"

The door slams behind him and Rude emerges from his room with a frown. He raises an eyebrow at me, and I shake my head, turning the water off and reaching over my head in search of something to wrap this up with.

"What set him off?"

"No idea. Said he was having a bad day after attempting to melt my fingers in boiling water. Have any bandages?"

"I have the materia."

"That's okay. Good reminder not to fuck with your dog."

"Hm. Sorry."

"It's fine." I finally locate what I'm looking for, glancing at Rude in a silent plea for help. He reaches over my head and sets the roll on the counter for me. "Thanks."

"Where did he go?"

"I don't know." I busy myself with wrapping my fingers, peeking up at him. "So… should I still stay with him?"

"I don't see why not. He'll be sorry later."

"I know what you mean, but that sounded like a threat," I point out. Rude puffs out a small laugh, shaking his head.

"It's not."

"Okay."

Three hours later, I'm sprawled across Reno's couch in one of my own old t-shirts that I found in his drawer and a pair of his sweatpants, watching some stupid, cheesy romantic comedy that I've only been half paying attention to. I'm tired, but I don't want to sleep until Reno comes home. Gods only know what he's getting himself into.

As if on cue, Reno stumbles through the front door as the credits roll. I mute the TV, sitting up to see him tossing his jacket on the table and clutching the back of a chair.

"Reno?"

"Hm?" He lifts his head, eyes bloodshot when he looks over his shoulder. A lazy grin stretches across his lips.

"Where've you been?"

"Gettin' girls," he mumbles, shivering. "Why's it matter?"

"I was just curious."

"M'kay." He hiccups and shakes his head, clumsily kicking off his shoes and socks. "Wasn't doin' that. Can't lie to you."

"Okay." I stand, taking a deep breath. "Well, you ready to go to bed?"

"No." He shakes his head, adamant. He falls into a seat at the small table, resting his head on the smooth wood. Suddenly, he lifts his head, staring at me through bleary eyes. "Why're you fuckin' Hojo?"

"Um, what?" I blink at him, unsure what else to say.

"You're lookin' for him, ain'tcha?"

"Where did you hear that?"

"Got my ways." He rubs his face with a groan that turns into a nonsensical shout. I frown, leaning against the back counter. Usually, when he's this bad, he's at least slap happy. Now, he's just angry. Not angry. Hurt.

"Well, I—"

"Why's Rude get to know everything?" he demands, rocking back and forth in his seat. "You fuckin' him too?"

"Uh, no."

"Sure." He lets his forehead hit the table, bringing it back up with a shake and a bitter laugh. "Why'd you need Hojo?"

"I need information."

"If he was cheatin' on ya, couldn't blame 'im," he chuckles, eyeing me. "You're nothin' special, Sweetheart." I roll my eyes, trying not to take his words to heart. "Got a cig?"

"You don't smoke, idiot. Let's get you to bed."

"Don't touch me," he grumbles, getting to his feet unsteadily.

I shake my head, following him toward the kitchen to get to the hallway. His place is laid out exactly the same as Rude's—they all are, probably. Suddenly, he turns into the kitchen, fumbling with the glass on the sink and chugging down a cup of water. I sigh and lean against the fridge with my arms crossed. You're a wreck. I stare down at my feet, wondering when I can next go out to get some clothes other than Reno's to wear. A gasp stings my throat when Reno slams his hands down by either side of my head, staring down at me with a crooked smile

"Gods," I hiss, pressing a hand to my heart. He traps it there, leaning closer. Gods, your breath.

"You're no one's," he slurs, laughing to himself. "No one's allowed to touch ya."

I frown, confused. "What?" Snickering, he lowers his head and nudges my jaw with his nose. I shudder when his breath pours down my back.

"You're mine, Kitty Kat." His lips brush my neck and I squeeze my eyes shut. Don't put us in this situation, Re. Don't be an idiot.

"… Okay?"

"Is that all you can say?" he grumbles, looking back up at me sharply. Scoffing, he straightens and trips his way to the hallway. "Get the fuck outta my house."

"What?"

"Get the fuck out!" He kicks the wall, denting it in. "Ruinin' my fuckin' life."

"How?" I demand. That one stings. And to think we were so happy just yesterday. "Reno, what the—"

"Get out."

Huffing, I head out the door, leaving him to take care of himself and making a point of slamming it hard behind me. Ruining your life? I shake my head when my heart squeezes. He's just in a bad mood. Still in Reno's clothes and feeling bad about bothering Rude again, I turn to the only place I have left: Tseng's apartment. I find it easily because, well, it's just a short walk down the hallway. I jam the key in the lock and turn the lights on. Dark even with everything lit up. Sighing, I step inside and toss my shoes on the mat by the door before closing the door behind me.

"He'd better apologize to me tomorrow," I mutter.

He'll pay if he doesn't.

freeze. My breath stops in my throat and my heart skips more than one beat. I listen for anything around me, but I know damn well that no one's here. It's just me. That was the sound of my voice in my head. I shiver, suddenly sick. How do I…? My stomach churns and I squeeze my eyes shut. Dad, you were always… Suddenly, I understand. With sweaty, trembling fingers, I throw Tseng's cabinets, searching for anything to calm me. Quickly, I unscrew the cap of a large bottle and throw my head back, taking down as much as I can before I gag, choking as burning alcohol splatters to the floor.

"Fuck," I hiss, leaning against the counter and burying my face in my hands. The scent of the drink burns my nose and its flavor is repulsive, but I can't bring myself to care. I'll pay you back, Tseng, I swear.

If he hurts you, you'll hurt him back.

"No!" I snap, choking on the air and tugging at my hair. "Get out!"

Those who cause your suffering will die at your hand.

"Stop!"

I take another long drink from the bottle, clutching it in my hands as I pace the length of the apartment like a caged animal, heart pounding, fingers trembling, and mind racing. All those faces and names I couldn't remember... Those voices in that dream… I grit my teeth, pausing only to take another drink. What if I lose control?

This body is not your own.

A frustrated scream tears through my throat and I hurl the bottle at the wall, watching the glass spray across the room. It's not good enough. I slam my fist into the wet mark it left, inhaling the overwhelming scent of alcohol as I bruise my knuckles on the wall until it breaks through.

You can't escape your destiny.

I sink to the floor, blindly reaching for a thick piece of glass on the soaked ground. My back presses to the wall and I eye the shard, overwhelmed with panic as I wonder if ending it all right here would be too much. If it's even possible. Gritting, my teeth, I reach to dig the tip of the glass into my arm, a trial run. It stings, but watching the blood flow is refreshing somehow. My head begins to spin. If I could just put myself out of my misery… Things would be so much easier for everyone. I take a deep breath, trying to dig deeper, but my arm returns to my side and releases the glass, controlled by something else altogether.

You can't escape.

"Get out!" I scream, kicking the remaining glass across the floor and slamming my head against the wall as hard as I can.

You will end them.

"No!"

They will pay the price.

Pull them apart piece by piece. Watch their tears fall. Let their blood spill.

"Stop!" I press my hands to my ears, my blood pouring down my sleeve and warming my arm with a thick, coppery scent. The palm that clutched the glass cakes crimson streaks into my hair, smudges them across my ear, and leaves a print on my cheek, but I just. don't. care.

Afraid?

Rufus.

Tseng.

Reno.

They've turned against you. Traitors.

There's no need to fear any longer.

I'm here.

"Please…" I sob, falling onto my side and curling up as tightly as I can, unable to control my quick, sharp breaths, my tears, or the shaking. The hissing voices continue, flashing images, horrible images, of those I know now and those I knew then, all bloodied, beaten, and empty-eyed. Their screams echo around my skull, only growing louder when I squeeze my eyes shut.

They will die.

I sit up sharply, desperate for an escape. Gritting my teeth, I drag myself onto my knees, ignoring the crunching of the glass beneath me, and slam my forehead against the wall. Over and over and over again, I hit my head, not caring if it stops me from waking up tomorrow. Finally, I hit it hard enough that I can't stay upright, collapsing by the wall as the ground spins beneath me and my vision fades in and out. Gods… With a long, final sigh, I give in, letting the darkness take me far, far away.

Chapter Text

Everything hurts when I'm turned onto my back. The fingers pressed to my neck, searching for a pulse, burning my skin. My bones cry out in agony when two arms lift me into the air, life-flighting me into the hallway where hushed voices converse quickly. The light stings my eyelids and my groan echoes around my head like a cry for help in an empty cave. The voices go quiet. My head throbs when it touches a pillow and a sharp pressure comes from my face before every sense fades one by one.

The next time I wake up, I'm staring up at a bright ceiling that shoots a blaring pain through my skull. I squeeze my eyes back shut, wincing. I try to lift my arm to shield my face from the light, but my hurts even more.

"Take it easy."

I jump, that agonizing pain blinding me again. I brave it through narrowed eyes to see Tseng sitting at my bedside, arms crossed. "Shit," I huff, letting myself fall backward. "I'm—"

"No. am not particularly pleased that I had to fly back here in a rush because you were reported missing only for me to find that you'd thrown a temper tantrum in my home." He frowns. "You will be paying for those damages, by the way."

"I know," I sigh. "Tseng, I'm sorry. I don't know what happened."

"To me, it looks like you threw a drunken fit in my—"

"No, that's not it."

"Then what? I thought you didn't know."

"… They came back," I mumble, staring up at the lights until I get used to the lights.

"Who?"

"Voices." He doesn't answer. I take a deep breath, shaking my head. Ow. "They… told me that you were going to die. You, Rufus, and Reno. And that I was going to do it." I bite down on the inside of my cheek, forcing myself to look at him. "I didn't know what was happening. I was afraid."

"And Marx?"

"They didn't mention him." I turn back to the ceiling. "I don't know what to do."

"The effects wore off early," he murmurs. I frown.

"You told him to—"

"Yes, you already knew that," he retorts, raising an eyebrow. "How much do you remember?"

"Just the bits and pieces I've seen over the past week or so."

"Kat…" he sighs, shaking his head. "There were inexcusable things that you did. I had to take precautions to ensure your safety beyond Sector Two."

"Why does everyone keep talking about Sector Two?" I scoff, rolling my eyes. "Why won't you tell me what happened?"

"You'll see for yourself soon enough."

"Fine. Be that way." I toy with the blankets. "How long have I been here?"

"You were last seen eighteen hours before I found you," he answers, though his voice sounds distant. "You've been in bed for two days."

"Three days," I mutter. "Reno didn't say anything?"

"No. Did he know where you went?"

"No…" I shake my head. You're mine. I shiver, dreading the next time I have to see him. It makes me sick to know everything was fine a few days ago, but now, I can't stand the thought of seeing my closest friend. "Does he know?"

"What?"

"Where I was?"

"He was there when I found you," he replies, frowning. "What difference does it make?"

"… Was he mad?"

"No?"

"Good."

"Okay." He stands, straightening his clothes. "I got you your own place to stay by the rest of us. The key is on this table."

"Where are you going?"

"I have some business to conduct with Scarlet in Gongaga. After that, we'll see. As long as the President is out there, I can't leave him alone."

"Why'd you come back for me?" I ask, propping myself up on my sore elbows. He pauses, pressing his lips together. With a shake of his head, he heads toward the door of the infirmary room.

"Taavi. Get some rest."

I drift back off into a light, restless sleep. No dreams, no darkness. The occasional flash of light when I accidentally close my eyes, frustrated that I can't turn over to get off my back. The mattress is thin and springy, uncomfortable and cheap. No wonder Reno got cranky after spending so much time here. I jolt awake when the door swings open, sitting up slowly to watch as Rude hurls Reno into the room, pulling him by his collar and shoving him further in.

"No, no, no, no—Ow!" Reno cries, crashing into the floor on his hands and knees. Rude closes the door, nodding toward me.

"Tseng told us you woke up."

"Yeah? How do I look?" I raise an eyebrow. "Wasn't expecting company."

"Like shit," Reno huffs, getting to his feet and brushing off his shirt. Rude grunts in agreement, holding out a potion. If I could squeal, I would.

"Gods, I love you, Rude," I gush, downing the potion in one go.

"Hey, I love 'im, too," Reno huffs, slumping against the wall. "Doncha love me back, partner?"

"Not at this moment, no."

"Well, how about this one?"

"No."

"Now?"

"No."

"How about… now?"

"Reno—"

"Oh!" He cries, snapping his fingers. "It's this one, ain't it?"

"… No."

"Fine." Reno crosses his arms, rolling his eyes and refusing to look at me. "Not fuckin' apologizing."

"Apologizing?" I frown, looking to Rude for an answer.

"Reno—"

"Don't 'Reno' me!" the redhead snaps. "You know what she did!"

"Wait, are we talking about me?" I frown.

"No!" Reno huffs, finally turning to scowl at me. "We are talking about you."

"That's what I said."

"Fuck off!" he scoffs, throwing his hands in the air.

"So you are mad at me."

"Wow. Got ourselves a real Sherlock Holmes, Chief!"

"Reno." Rude touches his glasses. I don't think he's ever looked this irritated with his partner. What is going on?

"She ruined everything!"

"How did I—"

"Don't play innocent. You know what I mean!" he shouts. I cringe when the sound burns through my ears, ringing through my head like a gong. Rude shoots Reno a warning frown.

"I don't though," I huff, losing my temper. It hurts a lot more after bashing my head against a wall.

"Just admit it already—"

"I can't!"

"What if I was gonna ask Tseng, huh? Bet he'd know!"

"Then ask Tseng!"

"Bet you've been sleepin' with the Boss, too!" he huffs.

"Ew, Reno!"

"Reno, she doesn't remember," Rude sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Oh, so now you're defending her!"

"Actually, I can affirm that," someone butts in. Marx steps into the room, meeting Reno's death glare head-on. "In fact, I'm the reason she can't. Ask away." Proud of it, too.

"The hell?" Reno snaps.

"To her, you're spouting nonsense and making false accusations," he explains shrugging. "She has absolutely no recollection of anything you could be referring to if you mean to pull the past into the present."

"Gee, should've hired you as my psychologist earlier," I scoff.

"What did you do to her?!" Reno demands, still worked up.

"I simply erased a select portion of her life from her memories. Simple as that."

"The fuck?! Wait until Tseng hears—"

"Tseng ordered the operation," Marx interrupts, cocking his head to the side. He glances at me, eyebrow raised. "Neither of you said anything to him?"

"No," Rude sighs. Reno's hands ball into fists and he stomps a foot on the ground.

"What the hell, man! This what you were hiding from me?"

"Yeah."

"Fuck this shit," he huffs, pushing Rude aside and heading out the door. I take a deep breath, making sure Marx knows I'm thoroughly displeased. He wasn't supposed to learn about it like this.

"You said they're coming back?" he asks, unfazed. "Memories, voices, and such?"

"Yeah."

"I take it this gentleman knows about your condition?"

"Yeah, well, he didn't' get much of a choice."

"Hm." He unlocks a drawer and pries open a case. Inside rests a line of syringes filled with an unassuming fluid. "You look strong. Would you mind holding her down while I give her this?"

"No," I butt in, glaring up at Rude. "Rude, do not."

"Trust me when I say that it's in everyone's best interest," Marx argues, eyeing the needle in his hand. "Look what happened the instant her friends returned."

"I want to remember!" I cry, scooting further up the bed when Marx comes closer.

"Rude is it?" Marx pauses, pushing his glasses up. Rude frowns. "I know—you don't know me. But you need to understand what I'm saying. This is only the start. She will suffer breakdown after breakdown. It will eventually lead to the deaths of others before it ends in her own, whether she performs the act or not. She is not in control."

"How do you know that?!" I demand. He sighs, shaking his head.

"The last time this wore off…" He chooses his words carefully. It's frustrating being spoken to like a child. Like this isn't my problem but his. "It got so bad that I secured you to a table to let you ride it out like a drug addict going through withdrawals. You broke your restraints time and time again. It's an impossible feat."

"What do you mean?"

"You were buckled down with steel and weights that were twice as heavy as you. You snapped them like twigs." He huffs, raising an eyebrow. "You were only nineteen. You killed the guards in my lab and you tried to kill yourself. All this screaming about suffering and revenge… it's not yours." Marx takes a deep breath, turning his eyes to Rude's. "So please. Help me, for her sake."

"Nineteen…" I frown. "But… that's when I was still living with Reno. Doesn't he remember this?"

"Five years ago…" Rude frowns. "He was preoccupied, likely. That's when Rufus was discovered funding Avalanche."

"Well, isn't that some news," Marx murmurs. "Shinra covered it well."

"That's our job." Rude shakes his head. "It's her choice, not mine."

"Fine." Marx roughly shoves the syringe back into its case. "But if it gets too bad, do not hesitate to bring her here. I may not be your friend, but I do care about her wellbeing." I crinkle my nose, remembering all too well the circumstances under which we became close.

"Will do."

I lay there for two more days, ignoring Marx's prodding questions and praying that Rude will pay me a visit since I know Reno won't. He keeps me up to date, letting me know what the others are up to. He and Reno slowed Avalanche in Gongaga, Tseng and Scarlet are on the hunt for Huge Materia, and Rufus is headed toward Rocket Town for Cid Highwind's plane because the airship isn't ready to fly him anywhere soon. In all that time, not a single memory or voice to be heard of.

Finally, I'm given the go-ahead to leave. I take the key Tseng left for me and change into a fresh uniform before heading to the elevator. Reeve is inside, heading up, and he's muttering to himself. I frown, stepping in beside him.

"I told you already, I can't get water in my joints."

"What?" I raise an eyebrow, confused. He shakes his head.

"No, no, no, that's not right."

"Reeve?"

"Yuffie, are you—"

"Reeve." I wave a hand in front of his face. He holds up a finger.

"Fine, fine. Be careful." With that, he removes his finger from an earpiece and turns to me. "I apologize. Did you need something, Kat?"

"Did you find any information on Hojo?"

"Unfortunately, no."

"Shit." I sigh, leaning against the wall. "So… Were you just talking to Avalanche?"

"Yes, through Cait Sith."

"That thing's pretty cute."

"Thank you," he chuckles. "I modeled him after a toy I saw once."

"Figures."

"You know…" He huffs, a small smile creeping across his face. "I know you're paid the full price of being a Turk, but do you actually work?"

"I'm hoping to start soon," I laugh, shaking my head. The elevator dings and I step off. "See ya, Reeve."

I head to my apartment and lock the door behind me. It looks eerily similar to everyone else's. Shaking my head, I turn the bathroom lights on and stand under the hot water for at least an hour, relishing in the unlimited warmth. My bedroom drawers hold only the clothes I was wearing when I went to Tseng's place. I shrug and pull them on; at least they're clean.

"Gods, I have to hug Tseng next time I see him," I mutter, taking my car keys off the counter. It'll be nice to spend some time alone without Reno's hissy fits and Rude's demonic dog.

The dashboard is dusty when I get into my truck. It's only been a week. Blowing the dust into my face doesn't do anything but make me cough. Shaking my head, I pull out of the parking lot and rest my elbow on the open window, letting my smoke billow out into the city air. Thankfully, no one at the store knows who I am (I'm not sure why they would; I'm paranoid about the plate, I guess) and I lug my groceries back through one of the alternate entrances to the Shinra building. I abuse my executive elevator privileges, but who wouldn't? Inside, Reeve smiles at me, laughing.

"Not you again."

"Dude, do you live in here?" I scoff, smiling.

"Some days." He eyes my bags. "Do you need help with that?"

"No, I'm okay." He shakes his head, reaching for the bags in my right hand.

"Let me help."

"Whatever." I divide out the weight to even myself out, raising an eyebrow when his stare lingers longer than normal.

He blinks out of a thought, shaking his head. "Sorry. It's just… you're not like the other Turks."

"How's that?"

"You spend more time wandering around aimlessly than any other."

He smiles. "We covered this earlier."

"Ah, of course. I had a feeling of déjà vu." Tell me about it. I roll my eyes, bouncing impatiently as the elevator takes its sweet time climbing the height of the Shinra Building.

"Want anything to drink?" I ask once we finally reach my apartment. Reeve shakes his head, setting the bags down on the counter and glancing around the room.

"No, thank you." He pauses. "I have a question, if you don't mind."

"Not again." I huff, scooping grounds into a coffee filter. "What is it?"

"Why was Heidegger so excited for your return?"

"Was he?" I frown, leaning against the counter. "I had no idea."

"Yes, well, he spent a full two days bragging about it."

"Hm. Thought he hated me." I cross my arms. "I have a question for you."

"Okay."

"What the hell does the head of Urban Development do?"

"Well," he smiles, scratching at his goatee. "I deal with petty construction, mostly, but lately I've been redrawing Sector Seven." His expression falls into a frown. "Though, they won't approve it. Our new focus is Neo-Midgar."

"I saw the displays. You designed that?" He nods and I whistle. "Damn, Reeve. Got a visionary on our hands."

"Truly," he mutters. I take a deep breath of the coffee scent that slowly winds its way through the room. "Well, most recently the President had me working on a census. Scarlet and Heidegger get to play with their toys while I attempt to count every life within the bounds of these walls."

"Yeah, good luck with that," I scoff.

"Numbers will be significantly lower now that the plate's fallen." His words are cold, chilling me to the bone. I shudder, afraid to look at him even though I won't be met with anger. Reeve's too kind for his own good. I wonder if he knows did that. Probably.

"Well…" I laugh at my own joke before I manage to get it out. "Just get Reno drunk and let him loose. That'll get your numbers up real quick."

"I'm not sure that's our solution, but I appreciate the offer," he chuckles. He tugs at his goatee, his smile staying for good this time. "This place is full of those who would only use others in self-interest. It's nice to have a friend."

"Yeah… it is."

I offer him a smile when he lives, a shudder clawing its way down my spine when they speak.

Forget him. Now.

Chapter Text

"Ah! Hello, Kat!"

I step into his workspace. "Hey, Omid."

"What does Kat need? New suit?"

"Yeah, actually," I admit, awed when he hands me a stack of three.

"Careful wit' dem. Can only make so many at a time."

"Right. Sorry."

Errands complete for the day, I change into a uniform just for shits and giggles, pop a few pills for my returning headache, and cross the hall. I knock on Rude's door three times, crossing my arms as I wait. He opens the door with an eyebrow raised.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"I—" I stop, shaking my head. "Sorry. Is Reno here?"

"… You came here to look for Reno?"

"Well, is he?" Rude sighs and steps back, letting me in.

"Yeah."

"Then get off my back," I scold, stepping inside and standing on my toes to see Reno sitting by himself at the kitchen counter, head held up on his chin and fingers turning a coin over and over. Sighing, I brush past Rude, sitting down beside his partner and staring hard at the counter.

"What do you want?" he asks, voice sullen.

"To talk."

"…" Reno looks over his shoulder at Rude, who shakes his head and heads to his room to leave us alone. Once the door closes, he speaks again, sitting up and crossing his arms. "Spill."

"Why are you mad at me?" I ask. When he starts to protest, I shake my head and pick a dog hair off his knee. "Don't give me that look. You've spent too much time around Tseng."

"Oh, you mean your uncle?"

"Is that why?" I scoff. He shakes his head.

"No, it's just… I dunno. I know you're not here for no reason, but the rest of us had to work our asses off. People got cut all the time and found new shit to do. But you—"

"I know." I sigh, resting my arms on the counter. "I haven't done anything remotely useful since Tseng brought me back."

"I don't wanna think he just got desperate."

"But he did. That's the thing." He twists around to face me, watching me shrug. "I guess it is what it is. He'll let me go once he's sick of me."

"… I know."

"Is that what's got your panties in a knot?"

"I don't wear panties," he snorts, grinning. I roll my eyes.

"Yeah, you don't wear anything."

"Depends on the day." He sighs, his smile fading, and reaches forward to tug on my hair. "That's not all."

"Well…?"

"When you went to look for Hojo, I managed to get somethin' outta Rude," he admits, finally relaxed for once. His pale eyes stare hard at my hair as he runs a finger down a section, smoothing it. I frown, but I don't pull away. No one's allowed to touch you. "I guess… I learned stuff I didn't wanna know. But I can't blame you for what happened." But what did happen? Upon seeing my confusion, he shakes his head, pulling away. "It wasn't you."

"… What did he say?"

"I—" Reno frowns, running his tongue over his lips. "Marx said you'd remember eventually, right?"

"But I'm sick of being kept out of the loop, Re."

"I don't wanna talk about it." He stands. "Let me be selfish."

"… Fine."

"Want anything to drink?" he asks, walking around the counter and reaching up into Rude's cabinets to retrieve the bottle he put up there days ago.

"Is that even yours to offer?"

"Yeah, actually," he scoffs, raising his eyebrows. "Can you believe that?"

"You? Being a good friend?" I roll my eyes, though I'm smiling. "Never."

"Hey, too close to home," he teases, taking a drink from his cup and leaning forward across the counter. I prop my head on my palms and close some distance in the gap, unable to wipe the smile off my face.

"You stink."

"Damn, I was hopin' for some wholesome compliments, not that."

"Reno, who are you talking to right now?"

"Not Rude."

"Does Rude shower you in compliments?"

"You don't know what Rudie and I get up to." When I crinkle my nose, his face breaks into a smile. "You could always join, Kitty Kat." I shiver. Stop calling me that.

"Gross. No thanks."

"Suit yourself."

He taps the tip of my nose and steps back to finish his drink. When the glass hits the counter, his phone buzzes loudly beside my arm. I toss the device to him and he picks up with his eyes rolling.

"Yeah?" When I raise an eyebrow, he mouths 'Tseng' in response. "Yup. You're joking. That son of a-!" He sets the glass in the sink more aggressively than necessary. "Yeah, okay." Hanging up, he shakes his head and shoves his phone into his pocket.

"So?"

"So Highwind took the plane and zipped off with Avalanche."

"Wait, seriously?" I laugh despite myself, genuinely surprised.

"Yeah. Tseng's flyin' Rufus back."

"Great." I sigh, rubbing my face. "I spent all my time away from him asleep."

"That's your fault, Sweetheart." He claps a hand down on my back and heads toward the front door.

"Where are you going?"

"Gotta go get a buncha useless shit from Scarlet. Pres doesn't wanna talk to her when he gets back."

"Hm." I slump forward, burying my face in my arms. "Wish he wanted to talk to me." I frown, cringing. Not like that. I just need something to do.

"Nothing a candle can't fix."

I step back from the flame and take a deep breath of the flowery scent. So much better. Shaking my head, I blow the flame out, scolding myself for letting it burn overnight, and hurrying out the door. I'm already late getting to my office. My eyes are heavy, puffy with circles. I didn't sleep well, too afraid to dip below the surface of unconsciousness in case I see something I don't want to. I'm stuck between fearing nightmares and wanting to understand who I am. I'm exhausted and my body hurts, but I have to keep going. I won't let this chaos get in my way.

Lost in thought, I don't notice the woman crossing my path until I knock into her, sending a spray of papers flying through the air. Startled, she cries out, wobbling on her heels. She catches herself, bending down to gather her papers. Sighing, I kneel beside her to help. I'm late already, anyway.

"Sorry about that. I was thinking."

"No, that's okay."

She shakes her head, tucking her graying hair behind her ear. She looks to be in her mid-forties, composed and calm. She accepts my sloppy stack with a smile. It falters, her green eyes staring hard into mine, but she brings it back up quickly, carefully standing and offering a hand.

"Thanks for the help. I'm Amelia."

"Kat." I take her hand and she hesitates again before shaking.

"Kat?"

"Yeah?"

"Nice. I like it." She tugs her tight skirt down, her face going pale. "I'll see you around, I guess."

"Yeah, see ya." I frown. What a weird lady. She hurries in the opposite direction, her heels clicking loudly against the floor. What was all that about?

I shake my head, hurrying to get to my office. It's too late to get there unseen, though. Elena stands at the coffee machine, smiling, and Reno stands beside her, arm pressed to the wall and hand tucked in his pocket as he talks to her. He shoots me a mocking stern look.

"Kat, what time is it?"

"Fuck off," I scoff, getting my own cup of coffee and chugging it down.

Elena crinkles her nose. "Black. Ick."

"It's fine," I shrug, refilling my cup and looking up at Reno. He raises an eyebrow. "What? I didn't sleep."

"I can see that," he huffs, shaking his head. "Was just askin' Elena how she's always early."

"And?" I press, turning my attention to the blonde. She smiles, shrugging and clutching her paper cup closer to her body.

"I'm afraid of being late, honestly. My dad was a military leader here. You know how that is."

"Do I?" I murmur into my cup.

She frowns, but before she can speak, Rufus steps into the room, posture straight and hands clasped behind his back. We all pause, turning to pay attention.

"Where's Rude?"

"I'll get 'im."

Reno hurries past me and knocks on Rude's door at the end of the long lobby. Rude emerges with a frown, but Reno jerks his head toward Rufus and heads back to my side. The president watches with sharp eyes as Rude joins us, taking a deep breath.

"In conjunction with our inside intel, Tseng has located the ultimate destruction magic."

"Black Materia?" I frown.

"Yes…" His eyes meet mine, cold as ever. "How did you know?"

"I think I read it somewhere."

"Bullshit," Reno scoffs, elbowing me. "You don't read."

"Not since I met you, no," I retort, shoving him back. Rufus presses his lips together, irritated by our antics.

"It doesn't matter." Then why did you ask? "Tseng and Elena will be searching for the Temple of Ancients to stop Avalanche and recover this materia. We hope to beat Sephiroth with—"

"Hold on. I haven't had a single real job since I first got here, and you're sending her?" I demand, pointing at Elena. She frowns, leaning away from my finger.

"It was a request from Tseng. Don't interrupt."

"Whatever," I mutter, taking a long sip of my coffee.

Reno lifts his chin. "What do the rest of us do, Boss Man?"

"Don't call me that," Rufus scowls, starting to lose his composure. "And you're to do the work Tseng assigned you weeks ago."

"Busy work? Shit."

"Rude, I need you to keep an eye on Corneo's home. I don't want him to attempt a return."

"Yes sir."

"And Kat." Rufus spits my name out of his mouth like poison. "Reeve needs assistance with Cait Sith. There's your job."

"Great," I huff. He raises an eyebrow.

"You can just as easily return to running errands for me."

"No, I'm good."

"… Come with me." He turns, heading for the doors that separate us from the rest of the floor.

"Where are we going?" I ask, frowning. Reno shakes his head, turning to Rude to bitch about his paperwork.

"My office."

When I start to turn toward the hallway I'm so used to following, he pauses, heading in a different direction altogether. He arches an eyebrow and I sigh, hurrying to follow him. Right. You get the big boy chair now.

"Listen, I—"

"No."

A pair of guards lets us into his new office, the enormous, dark palace his father used to use as his evil lair. The door closes behind me, sealing me inside. Instead of sitting behind his enormous desk, he swipes a finger across its surface, scowling.

"Remind me to fire whoever was meant to clean this. It's been disgusting for months."

"Will do." I cross my arms, wandering far behind him as he heads toward one of the enormous windows to stare out at the city of Midgar. It looks uglier in the day time when you can see the rubble of Sector Seven and the looming cloud of smog that vanish in the black of night.

"Do you remember our last conversation before I left?"

"About fear?"

"About respect." He shakes his hair out of his eyes. "Come here." Slowly, I walk up to the window, heart beating fast. I know I'm short, but he seems so tall when he's close. "Do you remember what happened?"

"You threatened me, shot me, and hit me," I list off.

"And?"

"And…?" I frown, looking up at his reflection in the tinted glass. He doesn't look back, eyes scanning the horizon as he waits. "Oh. The elixir?"

"Yes. Mercy." He frowns. "Pity. I couldn't think of anything else while I was away." You couldn't stop thinking about me? I shudder and he glances down at me. "I can't help but feel that encouraged your actions today."

"It didn't—"

"Don't interrupt."

"Or what? You'll push me around and wave your gun in my face?" I snap, tired of the lectures. "You're a one-trick pony, Rufus. Bullying people doesn't earn their respect when all you have to back up your words is bullets."

"Is that so?" he murmurs, turning back to the window. "That isn't what Midgar thinks."

"I'm not Midgar."

"I've noticed." He turns to face me fully, flipping a strand of his pale hair out his face only for it to fall right back down. "You continue to be disrespectful, rude, and irritating. If either of us is a one-trick-pony it's you."

Traitor.

He will suffer.

"Shit," I hiss, frozen in place. He frowns, watching me gnaw on my lips and pick at my fingers, trying to drown the voices out.

"Excuse me?"

"Not you."

Your gun—shoot him.

You have a knife.

Stab him.

Skin him.

"Stop—"

"Kat?"

Tie him up and burn him.

Make him suffer for his torture.

He wants respect?

He doesn't respect  me.

"Is everything alright?" he asks. I shake my head quickly, holding up my hand to keep him from touching me when he reaches out. I try to step back my legs don't move, fighting back.

"Don't." Shivering as I begin to feel feverish, I grit my teeth. "Get away from me."

"Kat—"

"Please."

Revel in the flow of his blood as it stains these pristine floors.

Watch it spill down the stairs like a crimson waterfall.

"Stop!" I reach up to cover my ears, already knowing it won't work. My hands instead dig into my hair, tugging. "Rufus, please!"

"I don't understand."

"Move!" I scream, hoping that raising my voice will get him to move. He stands back, frowning with disdain at the tone of my voice.

Fulfill your destiny.

Make them fear your power.

This is what you were created for, child.

"If I do… you'll leave?" I whisper, feeling myself slowly slip away, tired of fighting.

Of course.

I don't remember much. One moment, I'm staring hard at the floor. The next, I'm lunging at Rufus with my knife clutched in my hand. From there, I hit the ground, flat on my back. They leave me immediately and I screw my eyes shut, waiting for certain death as my body trembles from smacking against the tile. As my head spins slowly back into reality, I hear someone speaking to me. Rufus looms overhead, frowning. This frown isn't cold, though. It's as close to genuine concern as Rufus Shinra can get. Slowly, I sit up.

"What was that?"

"They wouldn't stop. I thought maybe if I could just stick it out, they'd leave me alone, but I lost control completely and the next thing I knew I was running and—"

"Slow down."

"I'm losing control," I huff, flinching when he crouches down to my level, something I thought would never happen in a million years. I shake my head, refusing to look at him as the lump gathers in my throat. The tension is thick. "It's not me."

"Losing control of what?"

"Myself. I'm not me."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know." I flinch when a cool finger touches my chin, nudging my face around until I look up at him. My breath catches in my throat when I see beyond the guarded chill. "I just… don't."

"Losing yourself," he repeats, his hair slipping further into his face the longer he looms there, frighteningly close. "Is that what you most fear?"

"I…" I swallow, my words catching. What are you doing, Kat?

"Is it?" he prods, refusing to back down. Stop.

"I think so. I don't have much, but I don't want to lose what's left."

"Mm."

"You gonna use that against me?" My heart skips a beat when he smiles.

"Probably."

Honestly, I don't know who leaned in first. I don't think either of us will ever admit to it. I do know that we tip-toe at first, soft and careful—everything we're not. also know that when I pull away for air, I'm afraid of his unguarded expression. I don't have to see it much longer when he dives back in for more. I'm sweating, my heart's racing, and my ass is sore from sitting on the hard floor, but I don't stop until I can't catch my breath. It's an oasis of happiness, but it still feels good to feel wanted.

Rufus takes a deep breath, somehow keeping his cool when he stands. I know my face is bright red and that I've probably sweat my way through my jacket by now. Slowly, he straightens his jacket, turning away from me and turning back to the window. He presses his lips together, watching me in the reflection.

"You're dismissed, Kat," he says after a long silence.

I nod, standing and hurrying out the door. What the hell was that? I shiver, hurrying to my office before anyone can see me and ask why I'm so flustered. I can't scrub away the lingering feeling of his touch. I don't even get to blame him because I liked it. So, so wrong. Tseng would kill me right where I stand. I close my office door behind me and press my back to the wood, realization slapping me across my face. That was so unprofessional.

Chapter Text

"Rufus said you need help," I announce, stepping into Reeve's office. He jumps, sitting at his desk and staring hard at his screen.

"What was that?" a voice calls. "Cait?"

"System malfunction," he says quickly, taking his headset off and standing. "At least knock. Please."

"Sorry. Didn't know you were busy." I shove my hands into my pockets, closing the door with my foot. "Do you always have to talk for him?"

"Of course not." He glances back down at the screen. "They're headed for the Temple of Ancients. Are any of your people going to meet them?"

"Yeah. Tseng and Elena." I look around the dark office, searching for anything I might actually understand. I don't find much. "What'd you need?"

"Nothing much at the moment. We're headed to the Gold Saucer to get the Keystone. Tseng will meet me there."

"Won't they know you're a spy?"

"I'm hoping they don't catch me." He sighs, shaking his head. "They probably will, though."

"And you don't have any leverage?"

"Well…" He leans forward, staring at the floor. "We do have an option that I don't like too much."

"And that is?"

"Aerith's mother. She lives in Sector Five and she's currently caring for Barret's daughter."

"Barret has a daughter?"

"Yes. Marlene. She's four years old." Reeve looks tortured when he sits up. "It feels dirty."

"Sometimes you can't play fair." I offer him a half-hearted smile. "I'll get on it."

"Alright. I'll need them brought her calmly, and preferably sooner rather than later."

"On it," I repeat, heading out the door.

I take my truck down to the Sector Five slums, puffing my way through two cigarettes to calm my jitters before parking far enough outside that no one should mess with my vehicle. Reeve texted me directions and I follow them easily. Every single person along the way stops to stare at me, though they all know exactly where I'm headed. Turks have been heading to this girl's house every month for as long as anyone can remember. Tseng, usually.

I knock twice, standing back and looking around the garden. The smell of overflowering flower baskets and bushes easily overpowers the scent of the slums' garbage; I can't help but smile. The place feels like an enchanted garden from a storybook. It's beautiful. A woman in a green dress and a white apron opens the door, frowning. Her grip tightens on the doorknob when she sees what I'm wearing.

"Hello?"

"You must be Elmyra." I step closer and she backs away. "I'm Kat."

"You new?" she demands. "Your people already took Aerith."

"She's been gone for a long time," I shrug. "I'm not here about that."

"What do you want?"

"… Can I come in?" She scowls, staring at me for a moment longer before stepping aside. I don't bother closing the door behind me, looking around the small house. Looks a lot bigger on the outside.

"I have a question."

"I'm sure you have a lot of 'em. The garden's beautiful, by the way."

"It's Aerith's." She sizes me up with sharp eyes, resting her hands on the back of a wooden chair. "Are you related to Tseng?" I frown.

"How'd you know?"

"Your eyes." She raises an eyebrow. "And your walk."

"My walk?"

"Somehow, even when you're slouching, you're standing straight."

"Okay…" I shake my head. "Look, I'm here for Marlene."

"What is it with you people and taking others' children," she huffs, tightening her bun and crossing her arms. "You can't take her."

"I have to."

"Why? Is she an Ancient too?" she demands, standing her ground. I press my lips together.

"Do me a favor—"

"I don't do favors for Shinra."

"Listen, Mrs. Gainsborough. There are a few ways we could do this." I cross my arms, cocking my head to the side. "I can have a whole troop come down here and take her by force. I can have Tseng take Aerith into his personal custody across the world. I could even kill you and take her." I shrug. "And as a child of trauma myself, I'd rather Marlene not have to witness any of those things."

"…" Elmyra shakes her head. "You can't kill—"

"But I can. I was told to retrieve Marlene by any means necessary." I come closer to her, forcing her to look at me. "Listen to me. I swear on my life that we won't harm her. We just need her for leverage."

"Leverage?"

"We have a spy within Aerith's group." I hope they don't mind me spilling the beans. This lady's a pain. "In order to keep him alive and well, we need a reason for Avalanche to care. If we have Marlene, we can convince them to let him live."

"You want me to help Shinra spy on my daughter?"

"No. I want you to make this easier."

She presses her lips together, hanging her head as she thinks. I wait impatiently, eyeing a photograph of her and Aerith that hangs on the wall. Happy families. Who needs them? I shake my head. Shinra likes to ruin everything. Finally, she looks up.

"Fine. I go with her, though."

"That's fine."

"Marlene!" Elmyra calls. A door upstairs opens and a small girl in a pink dress hops down the stairs, pausing when she sees me.

"Miss Elmyra? Who's that?" Her eyes are sharp, cautious. Her father taught her well.

"My name's Kat."

"Kat? Like a kitty?"

"Sure." She giggles and turns back to Elmyra.

"That's a funny name."

"Yes, it is." Aerith's mother kneels, smoothing the girl's skirt. "We're going to go with her."

"Is she Shinra?" she whispers. Elmyra nods. "I don't like Shinra," Marlene tells me, eyeing my uniform.

"I'm taking you to see the flower lady."

"Aerith?"

"Yes."

"Okay…"

I keep a sharp eye on them in the backseat on the drive back to the Shinra Building, but I doubt they'd fight back. Elmyra knows the Turks. She knows full well I have weapons on my person and an army at my disposal should I need it. I take them up in the elevator, happy that no one's there, and lead them to Reeve's office. He looks up sharply, standing.

"Hello. I'm terribly sorry to inconvenience—"

"Sit," I command, pointing to the leather couch on the other side of the room. Elmyra obeys, taking Marlene's hand, and Reeve frowns. "Don't get up unless I say so, got it?"

"Don't worry about us," the woman answers quietly, watching Marlene swing her legs.

"My name is Reeve Tuesti," Reeve says, offering a smile. She only scowls back. I conceal a smile, turning my back to her. "I—"

"Are you the man that's spying on Aerith?"

"Not just on Aerith, ma'am. All of Avalanche." He sighs and sits, eyeing his screen. "And it seems Cloud and Aerith are busy. It's time to go."

"Go then."

I sit on the edge of his desk, watching from Cait Sith's perspective as he snatches a black, round stone from Cloud's room and races out of the hotel. Marlene squirms in her seat and Elmyra strokes her hair in an effort to calm her. Cute kid.

"Go, go, go," Reeve whispers when the robotic cat pauses to admire the stone. His phone rings on his desk and we all jump. "Hello? Who is this?" he demands, eyes never leaving the screen. "Oh. He'll head over now." He hangs up quickly.

"Shit," I huff when Cloud appears with Aerith, both of them eyeing the stone in Cait's hands.

"Not around her," Elmyra snaps. I raise an eyebrow.

"Have you ever heard her father speak? She'll manage." I turn back to the screen, watching Cait Sith scramble away from Avalanche as they chase him around the Gold Saucer theme park. "Where's Tseng meeting you?"

"Outside the chocobo races," he murmurs, forcing the bot to a stop once it reaches the base of a long set of stairs. Quickly, he waves for Marlene to come over. When the girl hesitates, I stand and rest a hand on her shoulder, guiding her to the desk.

"Look who it is," I whisper, pointing to the screen. Her big, brown eyes light up and she grins.

"Papa! Tifa!"

"Hey, that's Marlene!" Aerith cries. Her mother stands quickly, but I shoot her a look to keep her quiet.

"The flower lady!"

"That's all we need," Reeve murmurs. I nod and take her back to the couch. She looks over her shoulder, trying to catch another look at her father. He wraps up his conversation with Avalanche before turning his screen off and leaning back in his seat, taking a deep breath.

"So… What do we do with them?" I ask, jerking my head back to our new hostages. "We can't bring them back to Sector Five."

"And why not?!" Elmyra cries. "We gave you what you wanted!"

"What if we need you again?" I shrug. "If Barret begins to doubt, he'll start pushing boundaries. We have to keep them in line."

"This is ridiculous."

"It always is," Reeve murmurs. "Where to put them…" He sits up abruptly, pressing a buzzer. "I can have my assistant provide a place in Kalm for them to stay."

"Kalm?"

"Yes. They can't return home, but they won't be far."

"I guess that's okay."

"I'll ask Tseng for you. For now, keep them under wraps."

"Where?"

"There are holding cells on lower floors, but they're hardly prisoners." Reeve frowns. "Keep them with you?"

"With me?"

"To rest and get something to eat."

"Right," I scoff, looking back at the pair. I frown. "Fine. You guys are staying the night in my apartment and then we're heading to Kalm tomorrow."

"Fine," Elmyra repeats.

I lead them down to my apartment, happy that no one's out to see me keeping our "hostages" in my own home, and open the door. Marlene walks in slowly, wide eyes taking the place in. Elmyra doesn't spend much time looking around, frowning when I lock the door.

"Bedroom's down the hall and to the left. Bathroom on the right. I'm sleeping on the couch."

"It's your home—"

"I can't have you sneaking out into a fully armed building in the middle of the night. No one knows you're here; you'll get yourselves killed." I shake my head, loosening my tie. "Use whatever you can find to feed yourselves."

"Okay."

Marlene follows Elmyra to the kitchen as the woman digs through my cabinets for something edible. She frowns at the number of bottles I've accumulated, eyeing my large collection of crackers and pasta with disdain. Then, she pauses, pushing a box aside and pulling out a slip of paper. I frown, taking off my shoes at the door.

"What's that?"

"It's… you. And Tseng."

"What?"

I cross the room, taking the picture from her hands. It's a lot more than two people. My heart skips a beat, and suddenly, I can't breathe. Our family…

There are eight smiling faces in total. A man with bright red hair, my father, sits beside a thin woman on the stained couch, his arm resting across his wife's shoulders. At his feet sits a row of five children. I can't remember their names, but I know their faces. My brothers and my sister. Twin boys dressed in matching overalls stick their tongues out. I sit beside them, legs crossed in a baggy pair of jeans. On my other side, a small girl in a baby blue dress and blonde pigtails sucks her thumb. Behind the couch, Tseng stands next to a teenage boy, his hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. He was still training back then. The boy at his side beams, arms crossed and legs spread wide.

Taavi always hated Tseng's uniform. She hated his profession. Despised the fact that he worked for Shinra despite their family's descent from Wutai. She hated my father for furthering the research that ended the war with her homeland. Tseng hated her inability to remain with her family. He hated cleaning up her messes while she ran around with other men as my father hid behind a bottle. Why can't I remember their names?

"Your family?"

My stomach twists and I force myself to take a breath. "Yeah. It was."

"… I'm sorry."

"Don't be." I fold the photo in half and shove it in my pocket. I'm angry that Tseng left that there. I don't care if he meant to taunt me or to simply remind me of who we are. I hate it. "Feed her and get to bed."

"Alright."

I head to my room and sit on the edge of my bed, pulling the photograph back out. What are your names? Huffing, I dial Tseng's number in my phone, not caring that he's working. I just need to know why.

"Kat?"

"Yeah." I sigh, crossing my legs. "You guys at the Temple yet?"

"Almost. Why?"

"I found the picture in my kitchen."

"… I see."

"Why the hell did you leave it?"

"I thought it might help you recover your memories in a more positive light."

"I…" I pinch the bridge of my nose. I can't deny that he honestly meant well.

"You what?"

"I can't remember their names, Tseng." Frustrated, I fall onto my back. "Why can't I remember? Marx didn't even remove those memories."

"I don't know."

"I'm fucked up."

"Yes, you are."

"Thanks," I scoff, smiling. "Well… Good luck."

"To you as well."

I hang up, letting my phone bounce on the mattress I lift the picture back up into the light. My mother's dark eyes meet mine, as hollow as her cheeks. Why did it happen to us?

Chapter Text

"Get off the couch," a boy demands, crossing his muscular arms. He's older than me by a few years, by the looks of it. "Dad's gonna be home soon and he'll want this spot."

"Okay." I roll off the cushions, clambering to my feet. I turn to talk to him, but he's already heading upstairs. Huffing, I cross my arms.  Fine.

Sighing, I pull my sweater tighter to my skin with a shiver and head to the kitchen. Dad never bothers to pay for heat during the two months out of the year when Midgar gets cold. We've spent the last few days waiting for Mom to return. I would call, but I don't know where she went. Huffing, I shake my head. Tseng was supposed to get here two hours ago. My stomach growls and I open the empty fridge.

Across the house, my sister wails. The twins laugh, running away and shoving each other back and forth. The girl chases them, sniffling as she clutches her beheaded teddy bear. When I turn to watch them tease her, someone bangs on the door.

"Anna, get the door!"

"Yeah, Anna!"

Anna?  The older boy pushes my back, startling me.

"Hey, that's you, dumbass."

"Don't call me that," I mutter, tugging the front door open to reveal Tseng. He raises an eyebrow. "Hi?"

"Sorry I'm late. I forgot my key."

"Okay." I step aside to let him in. He watches the twins run in circles before turning back to me.

"Has your father come home yet?"

"Nope. Mom hasn't either. Where were you?"

"Work." He frowns, turning back to the children. "Boys, put your shirts back on and clean up this mess."

"Whatever,  Mom ," one scoffs, rolling his eyes and shoving his brother with a squeal.

They forget their uncle's order almost immediately, returning to their screaming as Tseng heaves my sister into his arms, tense and irate.  This isn't his job.  I press my lips together and look down at the floor. I should've kept things tidier, so he didn't have to worry. I could have at least tried to make dinner out of our remaining canned tomatoes and slices of bread. If I really cared, I could've made the boys calm down. Tseng bites his tongue when the boys run past, now missing their pants.  I wish I was better. I'm sorry.


"Miss Kitty, are you okay?"

"Just tired," I mutter, sipping on my second cup of coffee.

"Why? Because you slept on the couch?"

"I just didn't sleep."

"But nighttime is for sleeping!"

"Yeah, right?" I scoff, shaking my head. Wish my body knew that. I turn to Elmyra. "Are you guys ready to head out?"

"Nearly." She smooths her apron, raising an eyebrow. "Marlene hasn't finished eating."

"You should have breakfast!" Marlene chirps around a mouthful of jellied toast. "It's super important! That's what Tifa always tells me."

"She seems like the type."

"What's that mean?"

"Nothing. Finish your breakfast, kid. We've got places to be."

The flight to Kalm is relatively silent, save for the sounds of the blades slicing through the air. Marlene holds her headphones over her ears and stands on her toes to look out the window, eyes wide with awe. Elmyra hugs her arms close to her body, trying to hide her frayed nerves. We land on a pad outside the city and I follow Reeve's directions to a house hidden well within the city's towering walls. The cobblestone nearly blinds me with its pristine blue color and the smiles of passing strangers make my stomach twist into knots. It's like they live every day celebrating the fact that they were lucky enough to be born outside the garbage pit mere miles away.

"You have to be in the house from eight in the evening to eight in the morning every day. After that, you're allowed to go anywhere within the city. If you must be late or leave early for any reason, you must call Reeve. His number's on the counter."

I set the keys down on the table and scroll through the long message Reeve sent, searching for something I might've missed.

"If you run out of money or something in the house is broken, call Reeve. If you try to run, you, Marlene, and Aerith are all bound to suffer consequences." I look up, eyebrow raised. "Any questions?"

"Despite the circumstances, I can't help but think you're being too kind," Elmyra comments, looking around the bright house with suspicion.

"Well, that's all Reeve. I'm just here to do the dirty work."

"When can we leave?"

"When I say so. We don't know when this whole ordeal will end yet."

"… Fair enough."

"Oh, and Marlene?"

"Yes, Missy Kitty?"

"Reeve heard you like flowers, so he had them put some in your room upstairs."

"Miss Elmyra? Can I go?"

"… Sure." Elmyra turns to me. "I have to talk to Miss Kitty alone."

"Okay!"

"What do you need?" I ask, tucking my hair behind my ear.

She wanders to a window on the front of the house, pulling the curtains aside to peek at the streets. "Aerith isn't coming back, is she?"

"To Shinra? Not anytime soon."

"She's learning who she is," she sighs, shaking her head. "It's good for her, but… not like this."

"Yeah, well, sometimes things are harder than they have to be. Fine as long as we get the same outcome." I scan the homey living room, wishing I could crash and take a nice, long nap.

"Hm. If that's what you think." She jerks her head up at a video camera in the corner. "Are these everywhere?"

"Yeah. Gotta take precautions." I scratch the back of my head, shrugging. "Word on the street is you're a stubborn woman. No one wants to risk it."

"Stubborn, yes. Stupid, no."

"Fair enough." I turn on my heels and head for the door. "Well, let Reeve know if you need anything. I'm heading back."

Upon reentering the Shinra Building, I see Amelia heading past, standing tall in her black heels. She sees me and slows, smiling. Left with little choice, I walk up to her, straightening my jacket.

"Didn't know you worked on this floor."

"I don't," she admits with a sigh, shifting a stack of manila folders into her other arm. "I've been running around like a headless chocobo. I didn't realize that working for President Shinra would be so messy. Stupid of me."

"President Shinra?" I frown. It takes me a few moments to remember that's Rufus, not his father. "Oh, right. What do you do?"

"I'm one of his three assistants," she answers, laughing quietly. "It sounds ridiculous, but even with three of us, we can hardly juggle all this work."

"Busy guy," I mutter, feeling my ears go red. Yeah, busy screwing with my head.

"Busy women," she laughs, pausing. "You're intriguing me, Kat. Mind getting lunch with me today?"

"Uh, sure." Surprised, I follow when she continues on her way.

"Alright. Meet me there at one."

"Yeah..."

"So, what did you do before you joined the Turks?"

"I—" I raise a finger, taking a moment to swallow my bite. Amelia smiles. "I was a reporter."

"On the news? I thought I recognized you."

"What did you do?"

"Me?" She continues to cut up her salad, shrugging. "I was a counselor a while back. I worked in a bunch of psychiatric wards. Specialized in extreme effects of psychological disorders."

"Such as…?"

"Anything, really. Depended on the institution." She takes a long drink of water, peeking at me over the edge of the glass. "My last gig was in a private practice to do some counseling. Boring stuff compared to what I was used to."

"Got any fun stories?" I prod. She takes a bite of her salad, staring at the wall behind me as she thinks.

"Don't we all?" she says finally. Sighing, she gives in. "Well, there was this one I don't think I'll ever forget. There was an incident where a young girl with what I'm pretty sure was schizophrenia suffered from these crazy intense hallucinations." She chooses her words carefully. I assume it's because she doesn't want to reveal anyone's identity and chew on my sandwich, engrossed. "She did some… pretty horrible things to her family, but all under the influence of a fantasy. Her remaining family pled that she was insane and she was handed over to me."

"What happened to her?"

"…" Her lips curl into a sly smile and she shakes her head. "You know what? It doesn't matter if you know. It was Annabelle McGrail." I almost choke on my bread. "Right? Crazy stuff."

"She died when her institution burned, didn't she?"

"Yes." She nods solemnly, eyeing me in the strange way she's been since we met. "I was there when the place lit up. She had assistance from an employee or two—she had to. No teenage girl is strong enough to pull off what she did."

"That's a lot to handle," I huff.

"Yeah… I try not to think about it. That was a long time ago."

"I get it."

"I'm glad."

She smiles again and I smile back. How can someone who works for such an insufferable (albeit attractive) prick be such a pleasant human being? Her eyes turn to someone behind me and her smile fades instantly.

"Gods, please tell me that isn't who I think it is."

"Who, Tyler?" I frown, watching the doctor pass the cafeteria.

Without another word, Amelia stands and charges at him. I stuff the last bite of my sandwich in my mouth and hurry after her, confused. An employee scowls at us, clearing our dishes. Sorry. I was gonna come back. Marx turns upon hearing her click-clacking, raising an eyebrow.

"Miss Knope? I wasn't expecting you here."

"The feeling's mutual," she snaps, her eyes growing cold as she crosses her arms. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I work here…?" Marx glances at me.

"You do not."

"Yes, I do."

"He does," I butt in, earning a sharp stare from the woman. "He's been treating my injuries for, like, two weeks."

"He has not," she huffs, shaking her head in disbelief. "You're kidding. After everything you did, you—" She tugs at her hair, flustered.

"Hey, are you okay?" I touch her arm and she flinches away.

"After everything I did?" Marx repeats, clearly ticked off by her statement. I back away, watching with uncertainty. "I've been righting my wrongs, Amy! You've been living off in La-La-Land while I fix the problem you created!"

"The problem I created?!" she cries. My face gets hot when people start to stare. "You're the one who—"

"I was trying at least," he snaps, lowering his voice. "All you did was fill her head with flowery bullshit she never used."

"You abused her trust!"

"And you think I don't know that? Like I said, I'm righting my wrongs." He gives her a once-over, scoffing and turning to carry on his merry way. "Go back to faxing papers, Amy. I've got important work to do."

Amelia stands there sputtering as he leaves, hands clenched into tight fists. Taking a deep breath, she shakes her head and turns back to me, fuming.

"Are you okay?" I ask, knowing it's a stupid question.

"This is bullshit," she huffs, staring at the table where her lunch once sat. "Complete and utter bullshit."

Chapter Text

Tired, I knock on Reeve's door. It takes a moment, but he finally calls me in. He glances up at me, pressing a finger to his lips. I close the door carefully and wait for him to finish talking to Avalanche. On his screen, I see two windows, both from different perspectives.

"Two Caits," he explains, pulling his headset off and straightening.

"Do you need help with them?" I ask, eager for anything to do. He shakes his head quickly.

"No, I can't have you do that."

"Why not? All I gotta do is keep him on track and answer questions through the program."

"Well, yes…" He sighs, holding his headset back up. After a moment, he sets it back down. "Sorry. Cloud was irritated about something. If you don't mind, you can sit for me while I run to get something to eat."

"Sure."

I pull the headphones on, watching Avalanche through Cait Sith's eyes. The Temple is a long tunnel, winding through corridors of ancient stone and shimmering mist that feel like something out of a fairy tale. A small group of them fight off a living wall (yes, that's right. A living wall.) with magic and Cloud's enormous sword, eventually breaking it to pieces. Cait's mog pumps out a paper fortune just as Reeve returns.

"Hello?" I ask, muting the mic. He motions for me to get up.

"Thank you. Rude told me to have you meet him in his home. Something about Reno."

"Of course it is," I huff, handing him the headphones.

He speaks again when I reach for the doorknob. "Kat?"

"Yup."

"Please don't take control of Cait when I'm not around. I have a very strict system to follow."

"You don't have to worry about me," I laugh, shaking my head. "That was boring as hell."

"Good," he smiles.

Irritated that Reno's upset yet again, I head down to the apartment floor and follow the sounds of arguing. Rude's standing in front of his door, his arms crossed as Reno paces, rambling. My friend turns to see me and throws his hands in the air.

"Speak of the devil!" he cries. "The royal bitchherself has arrived!"

"Reno, stop," Rude huffs, touching his glasses.

I cross my arms, stepping between the two. "What's your problem now?"

"Nothing!" Reno shouts, turning and running his hands through his hair. "Nothing's wrong, Princess."

"Then why are you acting like a child?"

"Oh, I'm acting like a child?!" He whirls back around to point a finger in my face. "You can't even breathe without my help! Quit actin' like you didn't do anything wrong!"

"I didn't do anything," I argue, pushing his hand away.

"Reno—"

"Oh, don't worry, Rude. I won't touch 'er. Go ahead! Take your girl and run off into the sunset with her!"

"Reno, what the—" I start, confused. He shakes his head, interrupting.

"No, really. You two were just meant to be!"

"Rude's really not my type," I scoff, glancing up at the bald man. "No offense, dude. Reno can keep you."

"Oh, sure, that's what I want." He throws a hand out in Rude's direction. "C'mon, Rudie, let's go have our happily ever after."

"What the hell do you want?" Rude sighs, annoyed by his partner's tantrum.

"I want her to admit what she did!"

"She doesn't—"

"Reno, you just told me you couldn't blame me for anything!" I shake my head, baffled by his sudden change of heart. "I don't remember!"

"I was wrong, okay?!"

"Then tell me what I did so I can make it right!" I shout. He's frustrating me out of my mind. He shakes his head. "Tell me or get the fuckover it! This is ridiculous!"

"You killed someone," he snaps, refusing to face me.

"And? You killed people, too. What's your point?"

"It fucking mattered."

"It? Doesn't sound like it mattered, Reno, because you're making this about you. Whatever it was is dead. Nothing now that—"

"Don't talk about him like that!"

My head hits the wall hard enough that I see stars and my vision triples. Blood fills my mouth when my teeth clamp down on my cheek from the sudden movement. Reno squeezes my shoulders, shaking me.

"I will fuckingkill you, you little—"

A loud crack cuts him off. Startled, we turn to see Rufus at the end of the hall, gun in hand as he walks toward us much calmer than he should be. The hole in the wall beside my head is enough to turn Reno's anger.

"What the hell—"

"Reno, violence is not permitted between members of your ranks. Let her go."

"Get the stick outta your ass," Reno snaps. Rufus raises an eyebrow and I try to push Reno off, knowing that look all too well.

"I won't tolerate insubordination." Another crack and Reno gasps, gritting his teeth and clutching his side. Blood oozes out between his fingers.

"Fuck off," he grits, glowering up at the president. Rufus remains composed, his gun raised at the ready. "I won't tolerate bein' fuckin'—"

"Learn to keep your mouth shut."

"Learn to mind your own goddamn business."

"Must I really aim to kill?"

"Okay, that's enough," I snap, stepping forward and clutching the hot barrel on the gun with a grimace. "Put the gun down. Reno, go take care of yourself."

"Whatever, man," Reno scoffs. He does as he's told, pride wounded more than his flesh.

"Of all the people for him to listen to…" Rufus watches Reno go, clearly irritated with his defiance.

"You're the one who came out here, guns blazing," I scoff, letting his weapon go.

"I can't have the rest of Shinra assuming the Turks are allowed to cause scenes during their petty arguments," he replies, turning his cold stare to me. "Your second is causing more problems than he's fixing."

"He's not my second."

"I saved your life."

"Is that a joke?" I huff, crossing my arms. Right now, I don't care if he lectures me about respect for a billionth time. He needs to know he can't just go around shooting his employees. "He wouldn't have killed me."

"No? Whoever you killed was obviously important to him."

"…" I take a deep breath, staring up at the ceiling. I flinch when I feel something touch my hip. Rufus holds my rod in his hands. "Hey, give that back!"

"Not until you can learn to control those… attacks."

"I didn't even have one!" I protest, trying to grab it. He holds it away, pressing a hand to my shoulder to keep me from getting around him. "And stop indirectly mocking my height!"

"Someone has to watch you while Tseng is away."

"That's not your job." Huffing, I turn back to Rude. "Can you believe this?"

Rude shakes his head and steps into his apartment. He's not happy. My heart leaps into my throat when someone grabs my arm. I pull away, scowling at Rufus.

"Don't touch me."

"Your rod?"

"Oh, so you had a change of heart?" I roll my eyes. "Why don't you keep it? Little momentum of how well you watched over me?"

"I don't appreciate your attitude."

"What, are you my father?"

"If I was, I wouldn't have left you as you were." He comes closer, looming over me. "I would not have tolerated your mother as she was. And I most definitely would not have allowed my brother-in-law to raise my other illegitimate children."

"The hell?" I frown, watching him turn the rod over and over in his hands. "How much do you know?"

"Enough." He tilts his head forward, his hair falling out of place. "Enough to know we're similar in more ways than I expected. It seems we're not always who we appear."

"What's your point?" I demand, my stomach twisting when his eyes leave mine, losing their edge.

He looks back at me, thinking. "… I don't know."

I gnaw on my cheek, wishing I could step back. "Is there anything else you need while you're here?"

"You don't have to be on the enemy's side."

"I'm not…?"

"Reeve. Where does he stand?" he asks, his voice taking an odd edge.

"He, um…" I shake my head, tearing my eyes away as my heart begins to pound. "I don't know."

"Is that why you're on edge?"

"No." I cross my arms. "It's a lot more than that."

"I see."

"Good…"

I glance up, shivering when he takes hold of my arm again. This time, I don't pull away. I want him to speak, to break the silence even if it means he gives me another review of what it means to be a good employee. But he doesn't. He only stares, reading me. I hate it. Gods, don't shoot me. I can't take it anymore, standing on my toes and giving in to the same heat that enveloped us mere days ago. I guess that's what he wanted because when I pull away, he's smiling again, smug.

"Don't shoot Reno again," I huff, my face going red as I pull away and head to Rude's door. We have to talk. Rufus hums in response, leaving and taking my rod with him. The door opens before I knock and Rude frowns down at me.

"What the hell was that?"

"What the hell was what?" I demand, letting myself in.

"You know what."

"Stopping Rufus?" I sit down on his couch and take a deep breath of the stuffy air. "Someone had to. Guy doesn't know when enough is enough."

"Kat." Rude stands before me, eyes stern. "I can see into the hall."

"How?" I demand, leaning back to see a peephole. "Shit." My heart threatens to choke me and I shake my head, defensive. "Look, it's just—"

"I understand you need power for others to listen, "he interrupts. "But this isn't—"

"Rude. That's not what this is about. I swear." I cross my arms and slouch. "You really think he'd let me do that if he didn't initiate it?"Rude goes quiet, pushing his shades up and looking past me to the kitchen. "I don't want to talk about it, okay? Just don't tell Reno."

"… Fine." He looks back at me.

"So… What was with Reno?" Rude sighs and sits down, knowing this conversation will take a while.

"He's figured something out."

"Without Tseng?"

"Probably."

"What was it?" I press, leaning forward to catch his eye. He shakes his head. "Rude, please. I need to know so that I can fix this."

"You don't remember anything?"

"Rude, it's getting pretty redundant at this point," I huff.

"You were twelve. This is before Marx's erasure."

"Rude…" I sigh, resting a hand on his knee when I turn in my seat to face him. He eyes my hand with a frown. "Either Marx is lying or something else happened to me. I don't remember anything from that year."

"Nothing?"

"I know that something happened to my family and I know Tseng says it's my fault. And I know I did something that hurt Reno way before I knew him. But that's just… It's all things I've heard."

"Tseng… How involved was he?"


Arms shaking, I hoist the garbage bag over my head and drop it into the tall can. I grimace when something sticky runs off the bottom of my bag and drips down my arms.  Gross.  Nose crinkled, I slam the lid down and hurry back inside. We have to do a lot more chores now that Mom's disappeared again. We're all mad at her; even  Tseng's  giving her the cold shoulder.

I kick my muddy shoes off at the door and shiver at the change in temperature. Mom's not  really  missing. We know where she is—on the other side of the rotting wooden fence in our yard, snuggling up with our neighbor, Jake. The familiar scent of cigarette smoke burns my nose when I pass by my older brother's room. I roll my eyes.  Gonna die from lung cancer, dumbass.  Instead of going to my room, though, I go to the bathroom, standing on my toes to look out the dusty window.

"What's she doing?" I whisper to myself, hoping for an answer. Jake presses a kiss to my mother's cheek, wrapping an arm around her narrow shoulders and holding her close. A girl plays in the dirt in front of them. She looks just a few years old, but she looks  familiar  too.

Receiving no answer, I head downstairs, waiting on the holey couch for her return. She's only ever gone for five days at a time. I guess some guilty part of her conscious makes her come back. That, or she doesn't want her  belongings  taken from her for neglect. The front door closes and Tseng comes downstairs, wincing when my little sister tugs on his earring.

"What?" Mom snaps upon seeing me watching. She scoffs, pulling her shoes off and setting her purse down. "Can I help you?"

"No."

I stand and head to the kitchen for water. I don't know what I expected. Maybe I was hoping she'd be happy to see me.  That girl… I have to ask.  She falls onto the couch, massaging her temples as the twins run past, screaming and laughing. When I come back out, Tseng's set my sister down, arms crossed as he watches his sister grumble to herself.

"Hey, Mom?" I start, clutching my glass close.

"No, you may not have your own room."

"I wasn't going to ask—"

"Good." She looks up, her eyes dark and sharp as daggers. "What do you  want? "

"Taavi," Tseng murmurs, trying to remove the edge in her voice. She scowls at him.

"The neighbor." I chew on my lip, sucking on the cut that I keep pulling back open. "Since when does he have a kid?" The chill in the air only intensifies when Tseng stops breathing.

"Since she was born," she retorts. "Happy?"

"Whose is she? Does he have a girlfriend?"

"Sweetheart, I don't—"

"You're the only lady he's ever with," I accuse, squeezing the cup in my hands until I'm sure it's about to burst into a thousand shards of glass. Tseng's eyes are colder than hers, staring hard as he, too, waits for her answer.

"It's none of your business—"

"It  is!  Do I have a half-sis—"

"They're all your half-fucking-siblings!" she shouts, getting to her feet to corner me. Her pointy finger nearly jabs me in the eye as I press my back to the wall, trying to get away from her. "You  know  that! Don't fucking get on my nerves just for the sake of—"

"Taavi!"

"Don't  Taavi  me, Tseng!" She turns to her brother, enraged. "You're practically raising the damn girl. Teach her some fucking manners!"

"She's not my daughter," he replies sharply, eyebrow raised. "She's  yours ."

"And now you're gonna turn it all on me!" she cries, throwing her hands in the air. "I told you, Tseng. I  told  you I  never  wanted to have him fucking up any child's gene pool, but  there she is!"

"Taavi, stop," he commands, but she rolls her eyes, shoving him.

"Katie's perfect, you know," she continues, her voice shrill as she laughs. "That little girl? Precious. She was  meant  to be." She whips around, throwing her finger back into my face. "That  thing?!  Not  my  daughter, either." She turns to me, eyes alight with the fire of hatred. "Do you get it now, or do I have to spell it out?"

"I get it," I answer, my voice small.

"Good."

"Anna—" Tseng starts, trying to grab me as I walk past. I pull away, heading back up the stairs and locking myself in the bathroom. Katie's still there with her father, shoving fistfuls of sand in her wet, slobbery mouth. I grimace.  Perfect?

She needs to go.

I know.

How will we remove her?

"The only way I know how," I shrug, heading to my shared room.

I get on my knees and pull a box out from under one of the twins' beds. Inside, there're a lot of dead bugs, feathers, and bones to dig through, but at the bottom lies a hunting knife. I tuck it into my waistband and put the box back. Quickly, I stand, rolling my shoulders back and taking a deep breath.

Tseng tries to stop when I pass him on my way out, but I shrug him off and lift myself over the fence. There she is—the bane of my existence. Jake looks up, his smiling faltering upon seeing his mistress's daughter. He can't move fast enough to stop me, either.

I go blind to the world, giving in the shadows that engulf. Stabbing, screaming, shouting—they all feel distant. Blood flows, the grass turns slick, and my skin is stained, so I revel in the warmth. A little girl's shriek hurts my ears, so I silence her. A man bruises my arm when he grabs me, so I make him let go.

Red. Everything is red. I smile. Red like my hair and like strawberries and like justice. Mom wails, gasping for air and gagging when she hits the ground. Tseng twists the knife out of my grasp, but he knows it's too late, his eyes trying to take in what his mind can't process. His horror stops him from comprehending the truth: this was necessary.

They're gone, Mom. You can come home now.

Chapter Text

"Kat?"

"Shit, sorry." I take a deep breath, sick to my stomach. "I just…"

"Did you see something?"

"Yeah." I twist my hands together. "Something pretty disturbing." Gods, is that real? I know it is, though, because I can feel it. Mom's hatred, Tseng's protection, all that blood… it's so familiar.

"What was it?"

"I—" I laugh, still in shock. "I killed a little girl and her father out of jealousy." Rude frowns. "Not what you were looking for?"

"No."

"Me either." My stomach churns and I turn back around, staring up at the ceiling. She didn't want my dad's "fucked up genes?" What did she mean by that? "Rude, what was Reno upset about?"

"… You killed his father."

"His what?" I frown. The word doesn't fit with Reno at all. In fact, imagining him with a family is an incredibly foreign image in my mind. He's always been on his own, hasn't he? Apparently not.

"Not by blood," Rude mutters, pulling his shades off his face to wipe off a smudge. "He was left on the front steps of the church in Sector Five in the night and the minister found him the next morning. Took him in as his own."

My heart sinks. "I've never heard this." Guess we were both hiding things from each other.

"The minister was killed when Reno was fourteen."

"And that was my fault?"

"Yeah." He pauses to tug on his gloves. "At least, that's what I heard from Tseng and Reno."

"Why didn't he remember it was me?"

"Tseng said you were covered in blood and soot when you were apprehended. Unrecognizable."

"Why did he tell you and not me?"

"To avoid confusion." Rude slides his glasses back on, hiding his eyes. "But now that you're remembering… I don't see the problem."

I stand, brushing at the wrinkles in my clothes and pressing my lips together. For a moment, we stand in silence as we process the information that was exchanged. Katie… Why can I remember her name but not the rest of the family's? Shaking my head, I look down at Rude.

"I'm gonna go talk to him."

"Be careful."

"Don't have to tell me twice."

Once I leave, though, I decide to give Reno a little more time. He's probably still taking care of that bullet wound. Instead, I head back to Reeve's. No one answers when I knock, so I let myself in. Empty. Frowning, I wander inside, staring up at the diagrams on the walls. Guy's pretty good when it comes to envisioning developments for Midgar. I snort. Of course he is. He's the fucking head of development.

For a moment, I consider calling Tseng to process the whole Katie situation. I want to hear him tell me it's not real. But he's on duty… If he's still inside the Temple, then I won't be able to reach him. Chewing my lip, I turn to Reeve's computer. Well… I won't stay for long.

I sit down quickly, pulling Reeve's headphones on. Only one Cait Sith is on, his eyes directed at an enormous crater in the ground. The Temple? I clear my throat and turn on the mic.

"Hang on, guys." Barret, the enormous gunman, turns to scowl at me. "Tseng was in the Temple. Where'd he go?"

"What, gotta know for your bullshit news?" he demands. Tifa sighs, shaking her head.

"Vincent?" A tall man in a long, tattered cape lifts his eyes, frowning before he looks at Cait.

"He was killed. By Sephiroth."

"How?" I demand, my heart beginning to pound. There's no fucking way.

"He was stabbed," Aerith replies, her eyes soft and sad. "We found him at the entrance. He was alive then, but… I don't think he made it out. He couldn't move." She cocks her head to the side. "Don't you remember?"

It's true.

And, as if my situation couldn't have gotten any worse, Reeve walks into the room at that very moment. I tear the headphones off and stand, caught red-handed. He freezes, but he knows what I'm angry about. I cross the room just to shove him, my eyes stinging and my heart aching.

"When were you going to tell me?" I demand.

"Kat, I didn't want—"

"You were gonna wait until I heard it from somewhere else!"

"I'm sorry—"

"No, you're fucking not." I push my hair out of my face, tugging it in an effort to feel anything but my suffocating panic. "Please tell me it's not true, Reeve."

"Kat…"

"Fuck this," I huff, pushing past him to get out the door.

I can't explain why it hurts so much. He hated me. But here I am, running back home with my eyes stinging, unable to catch a breath of air without my throat squeezing. Amelia stops to greet me, but I can't bring myself to look at her, charging into the stairwell and running to my apartment. Reno closes his door behind me, frowning as I fumble with my keys. Frustrated, I grit my teeth and kick the door before trying again, two tears dripping from my chin to my shirt.

"Whoa, hey, calm down."

Reno takes the keyring from my hands and twists the right one in my lock. I can't bring myself to thank him, ashamed to let him see me in such a wreck. So instead, I ignore his touch on my shoulder, take my keys, and slam the door in his face.

"Fuck," I choke out, resting my elbows on the counter and pressing my palms to my forehead. Why him of all goddamn people? I pull my phone out of my pocket, searching for any notice of his death. Nothing. Why hasn't Elena said anything? I huff. Because she's probably torn up about losing her crush.

Selfish. She'll die.

That mere whisper is all it takes for me to pull down a bottle and start guzzling. I can't see anything but Katie's mangled body and my mother's anguish. Tseng… He always cleaned up after me. I wonder if he ever cared about me. I shake my head, choking on a sob. I doubt it.

It's not long before I can't feel. I can't see, stand, or think either. Perfect. I take one last swing from the bottle, draining it dry, and drop it in the trash. Sloppily, I scrub at my face to wipe up a few drops that spilled over, stumbling toward my couch for support. I can't hear the voices anymore. Good. I toss my third cigarette onto the tile. So fuckin' lonely… Rude's probably asleep, Reno's pissed off at me, and Tseng's… I choke on the air, digging my nails into the fabric of my sofa.

At the time, it didn't seem like a bad idea. I don't have much else to do and I have to get my rod before I find myself in a fight without any way to defend myself. I stagger my way down the long hall to a door Reno once showed me—the door of Rufus Shinra's abode. I laugh when I trip, stumbling into the wall before I knock a few times. I don't get a response, so I knock again, desperate to retrieve my weapon and to maybe even have a conversation. But I know I'm lying to myself. The truth comes free when the door finally opens and Rufus frowns down at me, turning the rod over and over in his hands.

"Thinkin' about me?" I ask, unable to stop smiling. He frowns.

"Are you drunk?"

"Not really."

"You're not even standing."

"I'm fine," I huff, letting go of the doorframe and staggering a bit before catching myself and keeping my balance. "Answer the question." Rufus glances down at the rod, a thousand thoughts racing through his mind before he looks back up.

"Yes, I was."

Grinning, I take hold of the rod in his hands and press my lips to his in a sloppy kiss. He only pulls away when I close the door behind me, frowning. Full of uncertainty.

"Kat, you need to go home."

"Don't wanna," I mutter, hardly able to keep my eyes open. To hide it, I kiss him again.

"Kat—"

"I know what I'm doing," I insist, undoing the button on his pristine white jacket. He frowns for the six hundredth time and I pull him back down. "I promise. I know."

"I don't—"

"Don't lie to me," I continue, prying my weapon from his hands and dropping it to the floor before pulling him closer. "I know you want this."

"I—"

Rufus-fear-me-I'm-perfect-Shinra at a total loss for words. I snicker and quiet him again. This time, he doesn't resist. This time, I won't be alone. I trip over my own feet on my way further into his house, shaking my head and laughing at my idiocy. I'm quick to lean back into him, tugging at his clothes.

"I'm okay." I laugh, pushing my fingers through his messy, messy hair and dragging him deeper. I'm okay.

Chapter Text

"Holy fuck," I groan, rubbing my face as an overwhelmingly sharp pain shoots through my head. "I'm not okay."

I reach over the edge of my bed and shake a few pills into my palm before tossing them down my throat. My phone lies face down on the floor where I left it after shutting off my shrill alarm, buzzing once. Reno's probably wondering where I am. With a groan, I bury my face in my hands. My head is screaming and I'm exhausted. The worst part is that I remember why. Why didn't I black out?

I roll out of bed slowly and take a cold shower to wake myself up. Halfway through getting dressed, I scramble back to the bathroom to throw up, but nothing comes out. My head's fuzzy, reminding me that I'm probably not even sober yet. The walk to our floor is insufferable with Shinra's blinding overhead lights and the loud crowds of employees arriving for the workday.

"Shit, you're not lookin' too hot." Before I can reply, Reno presses a paper into my hands. "Drink up, Sweetheart."

"Thank fuck," I puff out, not caring if I scorch my tongue. Maybe the pain will keep me away from Rufus for a while. Even the mere thought of his name makes my face red and my head ache more. Not at all how I expected to feel.

"Doin' alright?" he asks, leaning a shoulder against the wall outside his office. I shake my head, closing my eyes to ease my throbbing head.

"I feel like absolute shit."

"What happened?"

"Partook in too much go-go juice," I murmur, taking another sip. He laughs quietly, taking mercy on my poor soul. "Like, way too much."

"Why?"

"Why the hell not?" My chest stings and I swallow the gathering lump in my throat. That's enough of that.

"It's Tuesday, Kat."

"And?" I look up when Rude heads over.

"Hey, you guys will never believe this," Reno says, perking up upon seeing his partner.

"What?" I ask, wincing at the volume of his voice.

"Rufus said he's staying home sick today," he announces, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. "His assistant said it's just because he's tired, though." My face goes red and I begin to sweat. Can't imagine why. "You know how many days I wouldn't be here if I could stay home for bein' tired?"

"I'm sure that's not all," Rude points out, eyeing me. "Feeling okay?"

"Hungover."

"Hm."

"Why don't you go get an elixir?" Reno asks, resting an arm across my shoulders and resting his head against mine. I wince at the pain upon impact. "It'd make you feel better." Rude raises an eyebrow.

"Aren't you mad at me?" I huff, staring sadly at the bottom of my cup.

"Not right now."

"Quit changing your mind." I roll my eyes, lifting my arm to rest my hand on his back. He puffs out a short laugh when my temple hits his shoulder.

"Can't help that I feel bad for you."

"Feel bad for me?" I frown, blowing Rude a kiss when he takes my cup to refill it, knowing full well I won't be alive until I've had at least two cups. "Why?"

"I dunno." Reno shrugs, lowering his voice. "Last night. You were freaked about something."

"Oh…" I take a deep breath, taking my cup back. My heart sinks.

"What's wrong?" he asks, not budging. I relish in his warmth a little longer before answering, knowing that I'm about to ruin their day.

"Have either of you heard from Tseng or Elena?"

"No?" Reno answers, disappointed that I haven't answered his question. Rude shakes his head.

"Well…" I take a careful sip, trying hard not to listen to my own words. "He's not coming back."

"He's not—" Reno straightens abruptly, splashing a little coffee from my cup to the tile floor. I look up at the two, miserable.

"Sephiroth found him in the Temple and—" I choke on my words, hiding my face in the cup.

"What?" Reno shakes his head. "That ain't right. Where'd you hear that?"

"Avalanche. I spoke to them through Cait Sith last night."

"Fuck, man." Reno paces across the room, tugging at his hair. "Bullshit. That can't be real."

"I don't think Aerith has any reason to lie to us."

"Aerith?" he repeats with a groan. Rude blinks at the floor before shaking his head and retreating to his office. "Where'd he go?"

"Probably to be alone." I chug down the rest of my scorching hot coffee and toss the cup away. Reno shoves a hand in his pocket, rubbing the back of his neck. He tears his eyes from the floor to look at me.

"You okay?" I nod, but I don't turn down his hug, pressing my cheek to his chest and squeezing him tight. "Don't look like it."

"I'm hungover, my uncle's dead, and last night I—" I stop myself, shaking my head.

"You what?"

"Nothing. I'm just tired."

"Don't gotta be so closed off all the time," he mutters, resting his chin on my head.

"I'm not." I pull away enough to raise an eyebrow at him. "Since when do you care?"

"What, you think I'm just pretending to like you?"

"Oh shit, we're supposed to like each other?"

"Shut up," he snorts, forcing my head back against him so he doesn't have to look at me.

"How are you feeling?" I ask, looking at the walls absently as I listen for an answer.

"Could be better, I guess."

"…" I close my eyes. "Reno, I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"You know what." My chest shudders when I take a breath. "I'm really sorry."

"I know, Kat." He sighs. "Sorry for gettin' so mad."

"You're done being angry?"

"Probably." When I pull away, he's grinning. "Can't stay mad at my Kitty Kat for too long." You're mine.

"No?" I smile, shaking my head. "I'll take it."

We spent three whole days with little to no direction, hearing nothing from Elena or Rufus as we crank out old reports to keep ourselves busy. I lean back in my seat, my back aching from the amount of time I've spent on my ass in the past week. I haven't even heard from Reeve. He's either upset that I invaded his little project or ashamed that I discovered what he was keeping from us. When I straighten to get back to writing my shitty report, the door swings open. Reno waltzes in, looking mighty proud of himself.

"Hello?" I raise an eyebrow. He pushes my papers aside and sits on my desk.

"Avalanche is headed for the Forgotten Capital. Wanna go after 'em?"

"Elena's already on their case." I stretch my arms over my head. "She thinks they killed him."

"Sounds like her." Reno grins despite our topic of conversation. "Hungry?"

"Not really."

"Oh, c'mon. I know you didn't eat yesterday."

"And?"

"You've gotta be starving!"

"Well, I'm not." He rolls his eyes in disbelief and reaches into his pocket.

"Fine. Guess what I found?" Before I can answer, he shoves a glowing green orb of materia in my face. I flinch, scooting back to look at it. "Lightning materia. Know where I got it?"

"Reno!" I gasp, snatching it from his hands. "You went all the way back to that shit-shack to get this?"

"Though it might cheer you up," he laughs. "Place looks just the same."

"Do you know how many years it's been since I saw this?" I demand, smacking his arm with the back of my hand and marveling at the materia's swirling colors. "Does it even work?"

"Not like it runs on batteries. Last I knew, materia ages like a fine wine."

"What are you, my dad?" I scoff, standing to squeeze him into a hug.

"Could be," he laughs. "Prefer Daddy, though, if you don't mind."

"Absolutely not."

"Lame-o." He stands. "You gotta join me for lunch if you wanna keep that."

"I'm okay with that," I shrug. I tuck the materia into one of my desk drawers. "Where are we going?"

"Pizza?"

"Again?" I laugh, twirling my key ring around my finger and heading for the door.

"Hell yeah. Can't deny that call of greasy and gooey cheese."

We head to the parking garage. Reno tries to pull my keys away and I snatch them back.

"There is no way in hell you can convince me to let you drive."

"Why not? You can get somethin' much better than that stinky rustbucket."

"I'm attached." I unlock the car with its remote, happy to hear her chirp and the click of her doors. "Get in the passenger seat, asshole."

"You're the boss."

I climb into the front seat and roll all the windows down, nose crinkling at the car's never-ending onion scent. What the hell is that coming from? Reno whistles, fanning his face and I roll my eyes, motioning for him to buckle up. He doesn't. Sighing in defeat, I pull away from the looming Shinra Building and light up a smoke, happy to enjoy a little taste of freedom. Reno eyes the cigarette before holding out his hand.

"Gimme that."

"No." I glance at him with a frown, holding it on the edge of the window.

"I'm not gonna toss it."

"I don't believe you."

"Well, do believe me."

Shooting him another look, I hand it over, fully expecting to have to light another. Instead, he puts it to his lips and the end flares up as he takes a long drink of poison. I shake my head, smiling faintly when he hands it back with a puff of smoke pouring past his lips.

"Thought you were against it."

"Can't say I miss the taste."

"Then why'd you take it?" I ask, laughing as I take another drag. He shrugs, smiling. "Miss gettin' high off your own supply?"

"Damn those were the days," he sighs, his head rolling back on his shoulders. "Until I got caught I guess."

"Yeah, well, at least you weren't shooting anything into your arms." He shakes his head, poking my shoulder.

"Don't act so perfect, Princess. You partook."

"Wasn't my supply," I tease, turning us toward the pizza place. "And you offered."

"Yeah, I did." He sinks back into his seat. "Miss it. Those were some fun times."

"It's all fun and games until you get too baked and you kiss your best friend." I laugh when he slaps my leg.

"Not funny. I wasn't in any condition to be around pretty girls."

"Mhm." Careful, Re. Words like that give a girl hope. "So I went from nothin' special to pretty?"

"I said you were pretty."

I hit him this time.

"Asshole." I can't help but snicker thinking back to that night, though. "Gods, you were fucked up."

"Yeah," he chuckles, pushing his hair up out of his face. "Got a bit ambitious. Don't remember much. Don't even remember kissin' you."

"Well, do," I scoff, pulling into a parking space. "And it was gross."

"And you won't let me live it down," he sighs, hopping down to the ground.

I shake my head, holding open the store's door for him. He tips his head toward me, smug, and joins the line, sharp eyes scanning the room and bony fingers hiding in the pockets of his wrinkled uniform pants. I stand at his side, arms crossed. Suddenly, he turns to me.

"Hold my spot. Gotta pee."

"At least say please," I mutter, watching him go. I jump when someone touches my shoulder, turning to see someone from my old camera crew. "Holy shit! Hey, Joe!"

"Hello Kat," he greets, smiling and scratching at his scruffy beard. "Nice seeing you here."

"Nice to see you alive."

"Haven't seen you in a while." He eyes my uniform, his smile struggling to stay upright. "Guessin' you took the Shinra job."

"Yeah, I did," I sigh, rubbing the back of my neck sheepishly. "Feels like a blast from the past every day."

"I can imagine." He turns his dark eyes to the menu. "You come here often?"

"Sometimes. Depends on if my friends want to come."

"Friends?" He raises an eyebrow. I laugh.

"Does that surprise you?"

"No! I just didn't expect you to be here."

"Why's that?"

"Dunno. Always thought of you as somethin' classier."

"Classy?" I shake my head, grinning. "Absolutely not."

"I'm back," Reno announces, nudging me when he steps back in line. His smile fades when he eyes my old coworker, his eyebrows pinching together into a frown. "Who's this?"

"That was fast," I mutter, jerking my head toward the old cameraman. "This is Joe. Used to work with him."

"You're Kat's friend?" Joe asks, but he's gone cold, realizing who we are. The scum of Shinra.

"One of 'em." Reno cocks his head to the side, raising an eyebrow. "Problem?"

"Not at all." Joe turns away, refusing to speak any longer. Sighing, I turn back to the line. Reno orders, elbowing me when I step up.

"Already got it, Kat."

"What the heck?" I huff, following him to a booth. "What do you want?"

"Huh?" He sits across from me, struggling to suppress a sly smile.

"You don't pay for anyone ever."

"Did the last time we were here."

"Is there something you want?" I ask again, massaging my temples. He shakes his head.

"Just my old Kitty Kat back."

The past is gone.

The end will come.

"What do you mean?" I ask, swatting at my ear as if a fly buzzed past. "I'm still the same old Kat."

"No, you're not." He sighs, pressing his elbows to the table. "What's Rude up to?"

"Reno, you're his partner. Not me."

"So? You got his number?"

"You don't have his phone number?"

"Stop emphasizing everything I say and give me your phone."

"I hate you." I slide the phone across the table and he shoots me a quick wink, blowing me a kiss.

"Thanks, Princess."

"Just make it quick."

"Hey, partner." Reno slouches in his seat, spreading his knees wide. A lazy smile traces his lips and he stares back at me when he catches me watching. "Whatcha doin'?" Poor Rudie. "Did she really? Stupid bitch… Nah, Kat's lettin' me use it. C'mon, man, you know I can't do that." He rolls his eyes at me. I can just barely hear Rude's voice on the other line. "It is hard, Rude! I hate cleaning!" He sits upright abruptly, angry. "Hang on! That was one time! Oh, whatever."

"Thanks," I say to our server quietly when she sets the pizza down at our table.

"Hey, man, you do you. Kat says she loves your shiny head—"

"Wait, can I talk to him?" I ask, reaching out a hand.

"No, she thinks you're hot, dude."

"Reno!" I kick him under the table. Rolling his eyes a second time, he hands it over, ready to dig in.

"Hey Rudie," I greet, watching Reno take half a slice in one bite. I lean forward, pulling the phone away from my face. "Hey, baby, what that mouth do?" Reno chokes, laughing.

"Hello?" I can hear the frown in Rude's voice.

"How's it going?"

"It's been better."

"Are you tired? You sound tired."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I didn't sleep."

"Why?"

"Reno stayed too late trying to convince me that you—"

"Ow! Reno, did you seriously just—" Reno grins, ripping another hair out of my head. I smack his hand. "Sorry, Rude."

"Kat, where's Elena?"

"Chasing Avalanche," I shrug, picking some melted cheese off the pizza and popping it into my mouth. Reno's already reaching for his second piece. Eats like an animal.

"She hasn't reported back?"

"Nope." I sit back. "Rude, she's sure they did it. They didn't, but won't listen to reason."

"At least she found something to do."

"I guess? Are you—"

Reno snatches the phone back, flipping me off when I protest. Annoyed and disappointed, I nibble on a greasy piece of pizza knowing damn well it's going to make my stomach hurt later.

"Sorry, Rude, gotta go. Crashin' my date with Kat." He laughs. "Goddamn third wheels." He hangs up and tosses my phone at me. I huff, wincing when the hard glass corner hits my collarbone.

"Don't be so mean to Rudie."

"Still can't get over that," he shakes his head. "Won't let me call him anything but Rude."

"I conditioned him into accepting it," I shrug.

"Like a fuckin' dog?" Reno snorts, gobbling down the rest of his pizza. "Always comes running back to his Kitty Kat."

"More like his Kitty Kat always comes running back to him," I scoff. "Guy's practically my therapist by now."

Reno gets the leftovers boxed, crossing his hands behind his head. I check my phone for any contact from Elena and find nothing. Finally, Reno gets to his feet.

"Ready to go back to Hell?" he asks. I shake my head, jumping when I feel him touch my butt.

"Reno, what the hell?"

"It's nothin'," he grins, twirling my keys around his finger as he walks past. "I'm driving."

"Reno!"

"Stop by my place tonight."

"Reno."

"Bye, bitch."

Chapter Text

"Reeve, for Shiva's sake!" I kick at his door, frustrated. I know he's in there. I can hear him rustling around like a rat. Finally, he unlocks the door and lets me in. "I've been knocking for ten minutes, asshole!"

"Apologize, Kat." He pauses halfway through closing the door. "Is that short for Katherine by any chance?"

"No." I frown, resting against his desk and crossing my arms.

"Strange name for a child… Nevermind. Did you need something?"

"No, I've just been harassing you for no goddamn reason," I retort. "I needed to see how Aerith's mom and Marlene are."

"They're fine," he assures me, pulling up their camera footage. Elmyra sits by the window, staring outside while Marlene colors a paper at the coffee table.

"How's stuff with Avalanche?"

"They still don't trust me," he sighs, shaking his head.

"Can you blame them?"

"No."

"We've almost caught up to Aerith. That's why I took so long."

"Can I watch? I'm bored out of my mind."

"Don't young people have anything to do on Friday evenings?" he asks, raising an eyebrow and smiling faintly. I shake my head, smiling back.

"I've got plans for later, but not for now."

"With Reno?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Nothing. You're good for each other." He turns his monitor back on and unplugs his headphones so that I can hear too. On the screen, I see Cid Highwind step back from Cait Sith's camera's, his forehead wrinkled into a frown and his teeth gripping a half-burned cigarette.

"There, Brat. Fuckin' cat bot's workin' again."

"You didn't even do anything, you old fart!"

The Forgotten City is like nothing I've ever seen before. The sky looks like the ocean, swirling with all different shades of deep blues and grays. Buildings are spaced apart enough to look like they're floating, and maybe they are. I don't see any paths to them. A shimmering, steep staircase appears, carrying Avalanche from the peak of the city to the base. Water laps at the base of a stone altar where Aerith kneels, hands clasped together in earnest prayer.

Cloud runs forward only to wrestle with someone no one can see, struggling against himself. Reeve and I exchange looks, confused. He lets his sword clatter to the ground, breathless.

"No!" Tifa cries, running forward.

I'm sure Reeve tried to move his switches fast enough. I'm sure Cloud would have run if he could. I'm sure I squeaked. But none of that makes a difference. Aerith dangles off the end of Sephiroth's blade, lifeless. Reeve stares in disbelief, frozen in place. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath. Poor Elmyra.

A few minutes later, after watching Cait Sith trudge back through the city and power off in the corner, I stand, taking a deep breath and swinging my arms. My chest aches with guilt.

"What do we tell Elmyra?" I ask finally. Reeve leans back in his seat, quiet.

"The truth."

"I'll fly out tomorrow," I sigh, rubbing the back of my sore neck as I head toward the door. What a bummer.

"No, I think should wait and think of the right way to tell her."

"Suit yourself."

"How can you walk away like that?" he demands. I let my hand rest on the doorknob, turning to watch him vent. "Such a horrific, bloody murder of an innocent woman and you can just carry on?"

"I'm getting numb to it, I guess."

"Tseng's passing affected you."

"But yours won't."

"... I'm sorry."

I huff, heading for the elevator and thanking the gods that it's empty. Bored, my mind turns from Reeve to Rufus. I haven't seen him since that night. I haven't heard from him since that night. No one has. We know he's in his office, but no one knows what he's up to. Heidegger is threatening to storm his office and demand answers. I can't help but worry. Is he okay?

"Hey, bitch," Reno greets, grinning.

"Hey, dickhead." I step into his apartment, resting my hands on my hips. Trash litters the counters and somehow laundry has spilled from his room into the hallway.

"Yeah, I know," he huffs "Rude's making me clean it up." Rude looks up from his seat at the counter, nodding to me in greeting.

"Well, clean it," I retort.

"I will eventually."

"You will now," Rude argues. I laugh, watching Reno as he rolls his eyes and starts dumping shit into the trash.

"So, guess what just happened?" I ask, propping my head up on the counter. Both men glance in my direction. "Nothing? Wow, okay. The Ancient died."

"Whoa, what?" Reno stops, shaking his head. "Wasn't expecting that."

"What happened?" Rude asks, frowning.

"Same thing as Tseng."

"Damn shame," Reno huffs, pushing down on the garbage pile in an attempt to fit more. "Tseng really had a thing for her, y'know."

"He what?" I grimace. "Wasn't he a little too old for her?"

"You tell me. I have zero guesses of his age."

"He was."

"I don't think it was an attraction," Rude corrects. "A soft spot, more like."

"Yeah, well, fuck your accuracy. Romance is always more fun."

"Elena likes him," I shrug. "Liked."

"Yeah, and everyone knew about it, too. Even Tseng."

"She wasn't good at hiding it." I take Rude's water glass to steal a sip, ignoring his frown.

Reno snickers, glancing up at his partner. "Rude likes Tifa."

"You do?!" I grin, nudging Rude playfully. "She's a cutie!"

"… Yeah." He stands, pushing his water glass over for me to finish.

"Fear of backwash?"

"Something like that."

I empty the glass and lean over the counter to set it in the sink before tugging Reno's garbage bag out of the bin. Gonna get stuck if it overflows. Reno tosses his dishes into the dishwasher carelessly and I rinse out the empty bottles that line the counters. When he starts to head to the couch, I stand in his way, hands planted firmly on my hips.

"Not until you thank me for my services."

"What'd you do, blow me?" he scoffs. I raise my eyebrows, refusing to smile. "I'm not thanking you for taking my garbage out of the trash can and putting it on the floor, Kat."

"I replaced the liner."

"Well shit, let me bow down, then." He tries to move around me and I step back into his path.

"No."

"You're a tough one," he laughs. I can't help but cry out surprise when he ducks down and grabs me around the hips to throw me over his shoulder. "Good thing you're so small, huh?"

"Reno!" I give up trying to kick and look up at Rude for help. He shakes his head. "Dude, let go!"

"Right here? Okay." I scream when he lets go of my legs, clutching his pants. He cackles when he catches me again, throwing his head back. "Kat—"

Wheezing, he hauls me to the couch to pick up a pair of cups, wrapping a single arm around my knees to keep me hanging over his back.

"Not funny!" I snap, slapping his ass. He laughs again, shaking his head.

"Careful. I can do it back."

"With what free hands?"

"I'm fully capable of setting these down." He hoists me up higher on his shoulder, shaking me. The blood rushing to my head is starting to make it throb.

"Reno, please put me down."

"No can do, Sweetheart."

"Why?" I whine, letting my arms hang limp. Like a body.

"I'm enjoying my view of this sweet ass."

"Re…" I sigh, shaking my head. "I'm not enjoying my view of yours."

"No?" I look up at the floor, realizing that we're heading down the hallway.

"Dude, where are we going?"

"Where do you think?"

"To drown me in the bathtub?"

"I wish."


"Tyler!" I squeal, clinging to the back of his shirt as he spins, draping over his shoulders. "Put me down!"

"Not a chance!"

"Don't drop me!"

"Trust me," he laughs, pausing to spin in the other direction. "I won't." After a few more moments, he sets me onto my feet. "See?" I shake my head, standing on my toes to press a kiss to his lips. The apartment smells like trees, not like the chemicals of the hospital.

"It's so nice here. Thanks, Ty."

"Of course." He holds me close to his side, running a hand over my hair. "Anything else you need?"

"No, this is perfect."

"You don't mind being so close?" he frowns, looking down at me. I laugh, reaching up to push his hair out of his eyes.

"That's the best part, silly."


Startled, I cry out again when he flings me back forward. My back hits his mattress and I grunt, not expecting the impact. He laughs, planting his hands on either side of my head and grinning down at me.

"Sup?"

"Fuck off," I scoff, pushing him off me and sitting up. "Gods, Reno, it's so messy."

"Expect anything less?" he asks, gathering his clothes and shoving them into a basket across the room.

"No." I sit up to watch him pick up his dirty laundry, bored. "This is what you invited me over for?"

"Just wanted to see you," he shrugs. "Got a problem with that?"

"No, I think it's sweet." He scoffs, rolling his eyes, and I smile, crossing my legs.

"Yeah, well…" Reno finishes his laundry gathering, dusting his hands off and turning to face me. "Rude said you needed to tell me something."

"Do I?" I frown. Does he mean about Rufus? But he doesn't know about… I shiver, shaking my head. "I mean, we always have shit to talk about. I have no idea what he wants me to say, though."

"Sounds about right." Reno falls onto his back, crossing his arms behind his head. We sit in silence for a few minutes before he breaks it. "What're you thinking about?"

"Shinra." I pick at a loose thread in his blanket.

"What about it?"

"We're falling apart without Tseng." I sigh, shaking my head. "Feels like I got here just to sit on my butt all day."

"Feels that way for everyone," he admits. "Even Elena." His expression sours. "And I'm workin' on finding us something."

"That wasn't a jab at you." I laugh at his face. Then I the smiles fade and I go back to being serious. "It's just… He and Marx are the only ones who know what's wrong with me. I've got the bad one left."

"I get it." He props himself up on his elbows. "Listen, not to be a downer, but I gotta know."

"Okay?"

"Why're you so sad? Just Tseng or what?"

"Sad?" I huff, shaking my head. "I guess. It's only been a few days. Give it a few more and maybe I'll be happy again."

"Again?" he repeats, frowning. "Haven't really seen you happy in a long time."

"I know."

"Why is that?"

"Stuff keeps coming up." I poke his cheek, smiling when he catches my hand and refuses to let go. "But look who's talking." He cracks a smile.

"What do you want then? Just Tseng?"

"…" Rufus. I want to know that he's alright and if he hates me. He's the one that should've sent me home, but I told him—"I don't know. It's just lonely and confusing."

"Hm." Reno pushes his goggles higher up on his forehead and lowers his gaze to the fingers he toys with absently. "He loved you, you know." My heart stings and I shake my head. "Kinda like a dad might've."

"He didn't, Reno."

"But what if he did?" He looks back up.

"He only brought me here because he was low on help."

"There were tons of trainees like Elena that would've killed to be here, Princess, you know that." He shrugs. "He knew you were havin' a hard time and took you in. Don't think he realized how much he asked about you." A faint smile traces his lips. "He tried to act like he hated you, but he worried a lot."

"I wasn't having a hard time," I mutter, but I don't have the heart to fight.

"You're too stubborn."

"So are you."

"Yeah." He huffs a short laugh and looks back up at me. "Kat, something's still bothering you."

"And?"

"I'm your best friend?" he reminds me, grinning. I shake my head, my heart warming at the sight. How do I do that to you? You're always so temperamental around others, but here it's safe.

"Fine. I don't know if you want to hear it, though."

"Depends. What's it about?"

"Rufus."

"What about him?"

"Some hot tea." I laugh nervously when he sits upright, giving me his full attention.

"I'm ready."

"So, about, oh, a week ago Rufus brought me to his office to lecture me. It was weird, though. He wasn't being mean." I look down, twisting my fingers through the fabric of his unmade sheets. "I had one of those… attacks, I guess, where I lose my mind. I almost killed him. But he stopped me." I take a deep breath, feeling my heart flutter when I look back. "And then… we kissed."

"You what?" Reno reaches forward, pressing his fingers to my neck. I flinch.

"What are you doing?"

"Checking to see if you're actually still alive."

"Oh, stop." I brush his hand away. "Anyway, after I stopped him from killing you the other day—you're welcome—it happened again."

"Gods, you're lucky," he huffs, but he's grown distant. I shouldn't tell him… but he'll be upset if he learns somewhere else.

"Yeah, well, just you wait. After I found out about Tseng, I started hearing those voices again, so naturally, I got shitfaced."

"That why you came to work so hungover?"

"Yeah. Problem is between those two points I went to Rufus's place to try and find my rod because he took it from me in the hall earlier. Things didn't, uh, go as planned and I wound up leaving at around four in the morning." Reno's eyebrows almost reach his hairline.

"You fucked Rufus Shinra?"

"Yeah…?" My face gets bright red and he blinks at the wall, shocked.

"Not what I was expecting, to be honest."

"Yeah, well, that's what's been on my mind," I huff, shaking my head. "Big, big mistake. Probably the biggest of my lifetime."

"Not everyone gets the bragging rights, though," he teases, trying to lighten the mood. I smile for his sake. "Wanna watch something? I'm bored."

"Sure."

We head to the couch, noticing Rude's absence almost immediately. A neat note on the counter tells us that he was summoned by Rufus. Reno makes a joke about Rude's new duties now that the president doesn't see me and I roll my eyes, flipping through the channels until I come across a true-crime documentary.

"Really?" Reno whines, holding a bag of tortilla chips and munching away. He falls beside me on the couch, kicking his feet up on the coffee table.

"Yes, really."

"Alright." Sighing, he offers me the bag. "Want some? One of the only things left that's not expired."

"I'm still scared of it."

"You're an idiot," he huffs, resting his arm on the cushions behind me so I can scoot closer.

"I'm the idiot," I scoff, jabbing his ribs. "Shut up and eat your tortillas."

"Whatever, Kitty Kat." You're mine.

I push the thought away, hating the way it still makes me shiver. We spend a good hour arguing over who the killer is before the show ends and we fall into a comfortable silence while the credits roll. Well, comfortable for me. Reno's wiggling never ends. His foot's been tapping the floor for at least forty minutes and he keeps touching his hair. Finally, he speaks.

"So, you 'n the boss… Are you guys a thing, or…?"

"Me and Rufus?" I sit up, turning to face him. "No. I don't think I ever want to touch the guy again."

"That bad?" He laughs, but he's staring at his legs. Something's up. "What's he think?"

"I don't know. I haven't seen him."

"He didn't say anything after?"

"Rolled over and went to sleep," I huff, shaking my head. He snorts.

"Seems like the type."

"Why do you ask?"

"Just curious," he shrugs, looking at the open window. "Like, if you were to be with someone else, he wouldn't care?"

"I don't know," I repeat, frowning. "He seemed more invested than I was, to be honest."

"Huh. Wouldn't expect that from him."

"He's probably just not used to being bossed around by an inferior specimen such as myself."

"Specimen?" He raises his eyebrows, finally glancing up at me. "So he would care?"

"Probably. But what can he do? Exercise his right to whatever woman he touches? Shinra's fucked up, but I don't think that's a rule he can enforce." Something's wrong. "Reno, what's up?"

"Nothing." He shakes his head. "It's stupid."

"I don't care. I want to know."

"Nah, I'm no good at this sort of thing."

"Reno." I grab the remote and turn off the TV. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Reno, I'm going to stab you."

"That's not gonna help." I sigh, waiting for a real answer. He takes a deep breath. "Fine. I just don't think he's a good guy for you, that's all. Didn't want you getting all tied up the fucker's lies."

"That's all?" He nods. "There's really nothing else?"

Can't you see it?

"Nothin'."

"Why don't I believe you?" I twitch my head toward my shoulder involuntarily upon hearing the voice.

Do it.

Do what?

"I don't know. Trust is important, Sweetheart."

"Why do you care if Rufus has claimed me? I'm not a fossil, Re." I demand, sitting straighter.

He shakes his head. "Already told you."

"You told me some of it."

"I don't wanna tell you the rest."

"Why?"

"Because," he huffs, exasperated. "It'll ruin everything."

You were right.

Do it.

Do. It.

I chew on my cheek a little longer before the urge becomes too much. Move. Say something. Just don't touch him. Naturally, I disobey, giving in to the temptation all too easily. I was expecting it to be like when we were kids—gross and messy and embarrassing. But… It's not. It's soft and deliberate and real. I close the gap between us, turning fully toward the couch and sliding a leg over his lap, hands folded against his chest. He smiles against my lips, and when we pull away, forehead to forehead, he's grinning. His hand traces up the side of my hip, gentle.

"Scared yet, Princess? Don't see you running for the hills."

Hot, heavy air. That's all I can breathe in, but I can't pull away for a moment because it might end there. I refuse to pull away when he reaches up to undo the buttons on my shirt, when my head hits his goggles, and when I pull his hair a little too hard and he laughs. We're addicted to the sparks that soar when we touch. Part of me fears I'm just another distraction for the weekend; the other part relishes in the feeling of running my fingers down his stomach, in smiling when he shivers despite the sweat breaking out across his skin. I pull away only to get us off the couch, committing his flushed cheeks to memory.

The room is dark and cold, but it's the perfect temperature beneath his messy blankets, my back pressed to his despite all the space we have to spread up. I don't let my mind wander to the future or to the past. When I pull the blankets higher, Reno turns over, throwing his leg over mine and pulling me closer. Sleepily, he presses a kiss to the top of my head before going still again. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and pray that, for once, he's not going commando.

Chapter Text

"Rufus needs to get to the Northern Crater!" Elena cries in my ear. I flinch away from the phone, rubbing my temples. It's a wonder Tseng didn't have an aneurism working with these people every day. "We need that airship ready to go!"

"Why couldn't you call Rufus?"

"He kept ignoring my calls! Can you believe that?" Well, yeah. "What's so wrong with him that you can't deliver the message?"

"Nothing, I'm just tired." I toss my coffee cup in the trash and lift the orb of materia that Reno gave me. "I still have to speak with Elmyra about what happened to Aerith."

"The Ancient?" Elena goes quiet for a moment. Then she huffs. "Yeah… I hear that goddamn freak got to her, too."

"You think Sephiroth killed Tseng?"

"Yeah. There's no way Cloud could've down it. One hit and he rolled all the way down the slopes like a ragdoll." Do I even want to know?

"I'll let Rufus know."

"Good."

Elena hangs up and I press the materia back into my rod. I'm just as bad as Reeve. How could I blame him for not telling me about Tseng, my relatively distant uncle, when I can't tell a mother that her own child has been brutally murdered by a madman. Speaking of Tseng… I sigh, shaking my head. It's been exactly a week, but it feels like it's been an eternity. In the elevator to Rufus's office, Amelia distracts me from my dread.

"Hello, Kat. Doing alright?"

"I guess."

"Good. I haven't seen you around in a while." She tucks her hair behind her ear, offering a small smile.

"I've been busy."

"Oh." Her smile falters and she adjusts the weight of her omnipresent folders. "Am I bothering you? I'm really sorry about that little display—"

"No, you're not. It's just one of those days, I guess."

"I understand." The elevator dings and she steps off. "Hopefully I'll see you soon."

"Yeah."

Heidegger replaces her and my stomach twists into a knot. Now that Tseng's gone… The giant of a man clasps his hands behind his back, turning his scarred face down to look at me. From his height, I must look like a child.

"You're Kat?" One of his dark, thick eyebrows raises and I nod. "Tseng's niece. I've heard you have potential."

"From who?"

"Several people. Tseng and Rufus, mainly." He shrugs, his green coat shifting stiffly with the movement. "That'd better be true." I shrug, ignoring the stares of the unknown passengers in the elevator. "You don't think so?"

"I really don't know."

"Well then what the hell am I paying you for?" He throws his head back. "Gya ha ha ha!" Gods, what a horrible laugh.

"As far as I know, sir, you aren't paying me."

The air in the elevator simply ceases to exist. Not a single soul moves when Heidegger's smile fades and he turns his dark eyes down to me, scratching at his bushy black beard. Grunting, he shakes his head. The elevator stops.

"I'll have you know, Kat, that I was supposed to order your execution a decade ago. You might want me on your side."

With that, he's gone, towering over the rest of the Shinra employees like the goliath he is. Shaking my head, I cross my arms and look at my feet, ignoring the stares of the others in the confined space. No one speaks until I get off. From there, I head to the President's office, waiting for the guards to let me in before walking that long, grim carpet up to Rufus's desk. He glances up, setting his pen aside and straightening. He looks terrible. Dark circles trace his eyes and his suit is wrinkled in hundreds of places. The desk is a horrific mess.

"Can I help you?" he asks curtly, breaking me from my thoughts.

"Yeah. Elena called. She said that you need to get to the Northern Crater as soon as possible. Suggested using the Highwind."

"Why's that?" He turns back to his papers, sorting a stack and straightening them against the edge of the desk.

"She's located Sephiroth. Avalanche is headed there, too. You wanted to stop them still, right?"

"Yes. You said the Northern Crater?"

"Yeah."

"Very well. Is there a way for you to get a copilot and fly us to Junon?"

"Us?"

"Yes." Rufus raises an eyebrow, his eyes as cold as ever. Right. It was nothing. "Heidegger, Scarlet, Hojo, and myself."

"Hojo?" I repeat. He frowns.

"Yes. He's returned. You haven't heard?" He shakes his head. "Regardless, we need to get there quickly if we're to beat Avalanche."

"Right." My heart's racing. If Hojo's back, that means I can finally get some answers. He knew who I was before all this.

"Perhaps there's a chance of collecting more Huge Materia for Scarlet while we're gone," he adds under his breath. Gods, he's even talking to himself. What the hell happened to you?

"Should that be the priority right now?" When he scowls, I shake my head. Nevermind.

"Have that helicopter ready to go soon."

"Okay." I start to turn, but I stop myself. Upon seeing my hesitation, he sighs, setting another set of papers down.

"What is it?"

"Are you okay?"

"Pardon?" He's defensive, irritated by my care.

"You just… You look like you haven't been sleeping. If you're not feeling well, maybe—"

"Kat." Rufus pushes his hair out of his face and leans his head to the side. "Let me clarify something. What happened between us was a short-lived display of lust. Nothing more."

"I know," I frown. "This doesn't have anything to do with that."

"Then don't worry about it. Your job is to do what I tell you to, not to stick your nose in my business."

"Okay." I take a deep breath and turn on my heels, heading for the door. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't that. I know for a fact that his lust wasn't the reason for his actions. Maybe that was the case for me, but for him… Something tells me it was something else.

"Kat."

"Yeah?"

"Just to be clear: we're not friends. I am your boss and I expect to be treated like it."

"Yes sir."

"Go."

I take the stairs, angry for a reason I can't find. Shaking my head, I push the door to the floor open and head straight to Reno's office. His ankles are crossed, his feet resting on top of his desk. He leans back, reading a paper he holds out to the side. I can't help but smile when a beam of light from the window catches his eyes and makes them glow. Looks like a fucking cat. He doesn't look up at first. In fact, he's been a little weird. Not because of me, but because of Rude.

Baldy wasn't pleased when he realized what happened, going on some long-winded rant about how he couldn't leave us alone for five minutes without getting into trouble, pacing back and forth with Elixir yipping at his heels every step of the way. I don't think we've spoken since. He's ignored us. But here's the thing about Rude: he hates change. He doesn't like it when everything goes from one way to another with little to no warning. He wants everything to be the way before I came along.

"Need somethin'?" Reno asks, quickly finishing his reading.

"Yeah, actually. We've gotta fly Rufus and company to Junon."

"You're takin' me?" He raises an eyebrow, smug, and glances over at me. "Heard Elena's tryin' to keep up with Sephiroth on her own right now."

"She's trying to keep up with Avalanche, too."

"Course she is. Let's go." He swings his legs off the desk and sets his paper down. Pressing his lips together, he jerks his head toward the door, ready to get out of here for a bit. "Boss have any requests?"

"The more room, the better."

"Right. So a two-seater?"

"No."

"Why not?" He grins at me over his shoulder, but it fades quickly. "You talk to Rude yet?"

"I was just thinking about how I haven't, actually. I've just been so busy with Reeve." I pull my hair up as we walk, tying it out of my face. "I really need to stop by Elmyra's to let her know about Aerith. Feel fuckin' terrible for holding out on her."

"We'll stop there on the way back, yeah? She's in Kalm?"

"Yeah."

"Shithole of a town. People know they've got it good and they make sure everyone else knows it too."

Reno opens the door to the hangar, and I catch it before it can swing back and hit me in the face. Shooting him a soured expression when he laughs, I follow him outside. He picks out a chopper that's big enough for the group and I take the copilot's seat, not willing to be responsible for this whole cast's lives. Without a word, we land on the helipad outside Rufus's office and the strange group of leaders piles into the back.

"Enough space?" I call into the back. I can't look back, not with Hojo back there.

Rufus nods once, eyeing Scarlet's shoulder as she scoots closer to him. "Plenty, thank you."

I exchange confused looks with Reno. Did the Rufus Shinra just thank me? Reno shakes his head, slouching in his seat and pressing a series of buttons on the ceiling.

"This is Shinra Shuttle One, ready for take-off," he mutters. I huff, shaking my head and wrestling a smile.

"Honestly, Reno darling, could you be any slower?" Scarlet asks, holding up her phone and swiping red lipstick across her lips twice.

"I can try," Reno murmurs as we head up into the air. "Woman's questioning my stamina."

"I don't think she is, no." I roll my eyes.

The flight takes close to two hours. My legs are stiff by the time we land. When we hit the ground, I hop out and pace the length of the helipad to get my blow flowing. I can feel Hojo's beady eyes watching me rather than admiring the spectacle of the airship across the hangar that everyone else stares at in wonder. Something about his beady eyes makes me shiver. What did he and Marx do?

"Go get 'im, Boss!" Reno calls after Rufus. The President ignores him, leading the entourage toward the Highwind. Once they're on their way, he rests an elbow on my shoulder. "Ready to hit it?"

"Yeah."

"Hey, did Hojo seem kinda weird?" he asks, frowning. I shrug.

"He's always weird, Reno." I shudder, reaching up to flip a few switches. "Guy's always given me the creeps. Don't really know why."

"I get it." Reno cocks his head to the side, eyeing me in the silence. "You don't know why?"

"No idea."

"Hm." He cracks a smile and I frown.

"What?"

"Nothin'. It's just…" He reaches out and tugs on the back of my ponytail, winding his fingers through my hair. "Always liked your hair like this. Cute."

"Okay." I scoff, rolling my eyes, but my face betrays me, going red all too easily. "It's just because it makes us match, Mr. Rattail." He laughs and shakes his head.

"Ain't a rattail."

"It is!"

"Too much hair."

"Reno, look up the fucking definition of a rattail. Right now."

"Can't, babe, I'm driving."

"You are not—"

We lurch into the air and my hands slam down on the dash to catch myself. He laughs when I punch his shoulder, turning us to Kalm. Once we're in the small town, he decides to follow me to Elmyra's house instead of leaving me to bear the burden alone. Marlene opens the door, beaming up at me.

"Miss Kitty!"

"Miss Kitty, eh?" Reno teases, elbowing me. I roll my eyes at him and shuffle into the house to see Elmyra approaching the door.

"Marlene, I've told you not to open the door for strangers."

"But it's Miss Kitty!"

"Miss…" She walks further into the room to see me and Reno, frowning.

"Reno, why don't you take Marlene to her room to draw," I suggest, nudging him forward. "Marlene, show him your room."

"Okay!"

"Mrs. Gainsborough, we have to talk."

"Is this about Aerith?"

"Yes."

She cries when I tell her, dabbing at her eyes with her apron. I know she tried not to, her strong jaw working and her eyes narrowed on the wall. But she couldn't help it. Even after knowing all these years that something might happen to her daughter, she could never prepare for the news. When I get her a glass of water and a box of tissues, she tells me that in some ways, I remind her of Aerith. I tell her that I shouldn't. We're not even close to the same. Reno and I leave the mourning woman when Marlene finishes giving him a tour of the house.

"Wanna get a drink?" he asks.

I shrug and follow him across the town to a bar. It's dark inside, lit by small neon signs and a glowing backboard behind the array of bottles of the back wall. I pull myself onto a wooden stool beside Reno and take a deep breath of the heavy air. The mere scent of someone else's stale smoke has me reaching for my pocket. My eyes close and my brows furrow when I'm disappointed. Forget them in Midgar…

Someone taps my shoulder and I turn to see a tall man offering an unlit cigarette. I glance up, eyebrow raised, and he huffs out a laugh. "You want it or not, Sweetheart?"

"Hey, if you're offering."

"Cig's a cig. Ain't worth much."

He lights it for me before turning it over. Reno raises an eyebrow, resting his cheek on his palm and looking the man up and down, eyes sharp as ever. The man stares right back, fearless. He's easily twice the size of Reno; I bet he figures he could take him if there's trouble.

"Y'all are Shinra, aren't you?"

"How'd you guess?" I scoff, taking a long drag and reveling in the feeling of heat in my lungs. "Thought we blended right in."

"In those suits lookin' ready to knock someone on their ass in the name of Rufus Shinra? Not likely," he grumbles, sitting beside me and raising a few fingers at the bartender.

"Ever heard of sarcasm?" I retort. He grunts.

"Have you?"

"Touché."

"What's it to you?" Reno asks, catching the glass sliding his way. Smoke pours past my lips and into his face. He grimaces, fanning it away as I suppress a laugh.

"Not much. Folks around here like to think y'all got no power outside Midgar. I tell 'em that's not true." The man takes the bottle the bartender hands him and looks back at me. "You guys related?"

"I really hope not," I laugh, shaking my head.

"Hm." He turns in his seat, facing us. "You know why there are so many monsters between us 'n Midgar?"

"Research department," Reno mutters, plucking the cigarette from my hand and having a go. I frown, taking a drink from my own glass. Twice now? "Release their shit to the wild without carin' what happens to the people."

"Sounds about right." The man stands, tipping his bottle toward us. "Well, y'all just remember that Turks ain't the rest of Shinra. You can make your own decisions." With that, he's gone.

"That really what people think?" Reno scoffs, shaking his head and passing the smoke back over.

"I guess. What a weird guy."

"Yeah." He looks over his shoulder, watching the man go. "Think he came over intending to hit on you?"

"I doubt it," I huff. "Probably just thought he'd take the chance to talk to some real, live villains."

"Hm." He tosses the rest of his drink back, motioning for a refill. "So, how'd Elmyra take it?"

"Not well, but what can you expect? She lost her kid."

"Except that wasn't her kid and she knew this was coming."

"Doesn't make it any easier."

"Don't think it'd make me cry."

"Yeah, well, you're a heartless bastard," I tease. He flashes a smile.

"Says you."

"Quite the pair."

"Power team." Not power couple? I cringe at my own thoughts and shake my head.

"How much longer you wanna stay?"

"Just a few more minutes."

"Okay." I finish off the cigarette and drop the butt in the ashtray.

"Lemme see… I spy with my little eye—"

"Gods, Reno—"

"Somethin' obnoxiously red."

"Your hair."

"Nope."

"My hair?"

"Goddamn, you're good." I roll my eyes and punch his shoulder again. Laughing, he empties his glass again, face twisting as he swallows it all at once, and stands. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah."

I toss a wad of cash on the counter and follow Reno out the door. He gets into the helicopter before I can say anything, so I follow suit, taking a breath to break the silence. He leans across the gap and cuts me off with a kiss I wasn't expecting. Smiling at my surprise, he pulls away and sits back in his seat.

"For the record, that asshole was about to get a beating if he made another move."

"Okay, Reno," I scoff, rolling my eyes.

Ears red and heart fluttering, I get us off the ground. Once we're back on at Shinra HQ, I head to Reeve's office to update him about Aerith's mother and look for anything to do. Without Tseng or Rufus, we're at a loss. Reno may have been Tseng's second, but that was only a ranking. He doesn't know how to lead the Turks, not on his own.

"Hey, Reeve. Need anything?"

"No." Reeve glances up and motions for me to join him. "Look. Rufus is arriving.

I stand beside him and lean forward, ducking low enough to see Cait Sith's full view. Scarlet, Heidegger, and Professor Hojo follow closely behind the President, all stopping to look around the crystalline cavern in wonder. A short distance away, Vincent, the spooky caped man, aims his terrifyingly bright red eyes at Hojo, clearly pissed at the man's presence. I feel you. I shudder when Cloud's feet begin to lift off the ground in what looks like a scene from a horror movie, tearing at a twisted collection of roots hanging from the ceiling.

"That's fucking terrifying."

"He's a failed Sephiroth clone, according to Hojo," Reeve replies. "His memories were altered somehow, but some he shares with Tifa. I suppose that's how we know which ones are true."

"What if she's lying?" I ask, glancing at the director. He shakes his head, going quiet. "Reeve?" He takes a deep breath, sighs, and then looks up at me.

"Their way of life bothers me. They aren't paid, they're willing to risk their lives for any one person, and—"

"They've got our lives in their hands. We both know Shinra can't do shit about Sephiroth."

"… I can't stop seeing her death." He tugs at his beard, dark eyes flitting across the screen. I can't even begin to understand what the hell I'm seeing, so I focus my attention on him. "Did she have to die?"

"If it happened, there was a reason." I lean against the edge of his desk and cross my arms. He huffs, looking back up.

"I didn't take you as the type to believe such things."

"Well, I don't really. I think there are important people here that have important things to do. She was one of them."

"I understand. I just wish I could do more than sit here and press buttons."

"Listen, Reeve." My face breaks into a smile and I rest a hand on his shoulder. "You're not one of us. You're too good for Shinra. For fuck's sake, you're working with the largest effort being made to save the Planet, and you're saying you want to help more? You're the inside man and you're doing the best you can. If anything, you could become one of them."

"… You want me to start spying on Shinra?"

"It wouldn't be hard. We're on the inside."

"You'd help me?"

"Maybe." I clasp my hands behind my back and turn back to the screen. "If all goes to hell, we need all the help we can get."

"Let me know when you decide."

Chapter Text

Tears soak my sleeves, my throat sore as my breaths catch and my lungs cry for air. It's dark, cold, and tight. The only light comes from the slats in the wood. I remember when Mike locked me in here all those years ago. I was, what, four? I was so scared, hearing those voices for the first time. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, and I couldn't break the doors open until my mother came home and scolded my brother. It was just the two of us then. I remember how big her belly was as she lugged the twins around. I remember that Dad used to stay sober back then.

Now, this closet is my only source of comfort. Here, I can listen to the voices in peace. I don't have to tell Tseng who my mother hit today or that I failed another test in school. My father can't tell me to shut up because his head hurts and the boys can't tattle to me as they push each other around. Here, I'm safe.

You need to leave soon.

I know.

I can help.

Let me figure this one out by myself.

I'll be here if you need me.

Thank you.

Sniffling, I wipe my running nose on the cuffs of my sweater's sleeves and lean back against the closet wall. I know Tseng will come looking eventually, but for now, I want to be alone. I can't be trusted anymore, and I understand, I guess. I don't know what he did or who his friends are, but no one ever came knocking to talk about Jake and Katie.  Weird.

I jump when the door swings open, burying my face in my hands when the blinding hallway lights blare into my eyes. Mike grunts, grabbing my elbow and dragging me to my feet.

"Get up, toothpick." Turning his head back to the stairs, he shouts. "Found 'er, Uncle Tseng! She was hiding in the closet again." He lets go and I stumble, catching my balance on the railing.

"Mike, why can't you just leave me alone?" I sniff, letting my hair cover my face.

"Why're you crying?" he counters, slamming the door shut. "Talkin' to your voices again?"

"Why's it matter?"

"Why's it—" He scoffs, forcing me around by grabbing my shoulders and twisting sharply. "Kat, you've  killed  people!"

"It's not me—"

"Bullshit!" He laughs, bitter as he crosses his arms and walks away. Soon, I realize it's because Tseng's coming up the stairs. "What's next, us?!"

"I would  never —"

"That's enough, Michael," Tseng interrupts. My brother, ever-adoring, nods obediently and heads downstairs to keep our younger brothers entertained. Sighing, Tseng turns back to me. "Are you alright?"

"I'd be better if you'd let me be."

"You know I can't do that."

"Tseng, I'm not the one—"

"It's your body, Anna. Take control."

"That's not how it works." I hug my arms to my body, kicking at the wood floor with my bare feet. Part of me prays I'll get a splinter. "Professor Hojo says it's in my cells."

"And you are those cells, Anna, so it is you." He shakes his head. "I understand, I promise. But that doesn't mean you can do whatever you want. There are consequences."

"For  Dad? "

"Sometimes children pay the price for their parents." Tseng turns his eyes to the peeling paint on the walls. "But… I'm trying, Anna. I won't let you suffer."

"… Thank you."

I'll save him.

I close my eyes, and when they open again, it's bright. I shudder, heart pounding as I'm overwhelmed by the scent of smoke. The fire's dark and light at the same time, a violent, powerful force of nature that threatens to take me. I try to draw my arms closer to my body, but the object I hold stops them cold and my sticky, bloody hands raise the shotgun up to my chest. I can't breathe, my eyes are stinging, and my body is trembling.

What the...?


I step out of the elevator, freshly showered and ready for a new day. Well, sort of. My eyes are heavy and not even coffee could help the dream I had last night made it very hard to get back to sleep. I'm not even sure what's a dream and what's a memory anymore. I need to talk to Marx. No, I need to talk to Hojo. I need someone to explain what's wrong with me, and since Tseng's long gone, I have to focus on someone else. Sighing, I rub my face. It's just too much.

"Morning, Rudie," I greet, yawning as I step out of the elevator. He nods in my direction. "Where's Re?"

"Sick."

"Is he sick or is he just tired?" I ask, raising an eyebrow. "Rufus won't be happy."

"I won't be happy about what?"

I jump, nearly hitting myself in the face, and turn to see Rufus standing beside me. Swallowing my fear, I tuck my hair behind my ear and look him dead in his cold, empty eyes.

"Reno's out today."

"He's coming in or his pay is cut in half for the month." He looks me over sharply before carrying on his way down the hall.

"Want me to get him?" I ask. Rude shrugs and I roll my eyes. "Look, I know you're mad at me, but do you at least know what's wrong with him?"

"No."

"Dick," I huff, turning right back around and heading into the elevator I left mere moments ago.

Luckily, Reno's apartment is unlocked. I throw the door open, my heart fluttering when I remember what happened the last time I was here. Shaking the thought away, I head to his bedroom, pushing the cracked door open to see him curled up on his side, blankets hugged to his bare stomach and eyes glued to his phone screen.

"Reno, you gotta get up."

"Hn." He pulls the covers over his head. I roll my eyes and cross my arms.

"Seriously, Rufus said he's cutting your pay for a month if you don't come in today." A hand emerges from the covers with a single finger raised before getting sucked back under the covers. "Re, I don't wanna do this to you."

I receive only a grunt in response. Left with little choice, I rip the blankets off and toss them on the floor. He shivers, dropping his phone on the floor and pressing his face into his pillow.

"Reno, c'mon."

"Don't wanna."

"Re, I'm gonna beat your ass—"

"Shit," he hisses, reaching out and grabbing the trashcan beside his bed mere moments before he hurls. I crinkle my nose and sit on the bed, resting a hand on his back. It's sticky with sweat from his fever.

"Gods, you're burning up."

"Was waitin' for the day you'd call me hot," he grumbles before lurching again.

Sighing, I keep his skinny little ponytail—not rattail—out of his way until he's down. He turns onto his back, knees raised an arm flopped across his forehead. After catching his breath for a moment, he turns his eyes to me and forces a smile.

"Must've gotten somethin' that's been floatin' around."

"Must've." I know I have to get him dressed and out of here, but it's hard not to feel bad when he's shivering like he's naked in Icicle Inn's ski slopes. I reach forward and brush a few pieces of hair off his sweaty face. He takes my hand, raising an eyebrow smugly.

"You my mom now?"

"Gods, I hope not."

"That'd be weird, huh?"

"Yes, Re, it would be."

Humming, he closes his eyes and I prey my hand away, standing to find anything resembling clean laundry. After a moment, he forces himself to his feet and wanders across the hall to his bathroom. I toss his clothes on the bed and look up when I hear him resting against the doorway. He's scrubbing at his teeth, eyes half-open.

"Wear these, butthole."

"You come up with such charming nicknames, ya know?" He leaves to spit out his toothpaste and returns a few moments later, already out of breath.

"Are you okay?"

"No. That's why I was in bed, Princess." Reno tugs on his pants with an alarmingly empty expression, staring at the messy bed. "Good to know you care so much 'bout my finances."

"I didn't want you to get in trouble."

"Wouldn't be getting in trouble. Rufus wasn't gonna do shit."

"Sorry," I huff, crossing my arms. He shakes his head, glancing over at me.

"Nah, it's okay."

"You really do look like shit."

"Thanks. Feel like it too." As he shrugs his shirt on, he jerks his head toward me. "How's that thing with Reeve going?" Oh, you know, I endorsed him betraying Shinra and even offered my help. No biggie.

"He's not as bad as I thought he would be," I admit with a shrug. Reno's lips curl into a smile.

"Yeah? Big cock, or...?"

"Gross." I roll my eyes and catch a glimpse of my reflection in the dirty mirror on the wall.

"Heard all of Avalanche was taken at the Crater."

"Where'd you hear that?" I frown. "Did they take Reeve?"

"He wasn't there, Sweetheart, or doncha remember? You saw him yesterday."

"I know." I nod, sighing.

"Why would they take him?"

"He's sorta double-siding it."

"He ain't workin' for Shinra?"

"He is, he's just helping Avalanche out more."

"Hm." Reno snatches his rod off the side table and starts toward the door with a shudder. "Ready for a fan-fuckin'-tastic day at work?"

"If you don't puke everywhere."

"Aw, that makes up most of the fun, babe."

"Stop calling me that," I scoff, closing the door behind me and following him toward the elevator. It's slow going, and he's sweating and shivering the whole way, but we make it eventually.

"It's better than butthole."

"Anus."

"There it is," he mutters, laughing to himself.

The elevator stops halfway, and lo and behold, Reeve enters, eyes lighting up when he sees I'm there.

"Oh, thank the gods, Kat, I was looking for you."

"Why?" I frown. Reno hardly glances up, slouching against the glass wall.

"I've made my mind up about—"

"Great. Can it wait?"

"But you told me to—"

"Yeah, but not now." I huff, jerking my eyes toward Reno. "No one cares about the amount of cement you ordered, Tuesti." Reeve frowns, but he shuts up. "I'll see you in a few."

"Yeah…"

I grab Reno's arm and pull him toward the glass that divides us from the rest of Shinra. He huffs, staggering after me and looking absolutely miserable.

"C'mon, Re."

"Don't wanna," he mumbles, tugging at his earring with a scowl.

"Get into your office so you can sit down."

"And where are you goin'? Gettin' on your knees for Reeve?"

"Gross, Reno."

I push him in the direction of the offices and head to the stairwell, figuring it'll be a faster route to Reeve's office. I push into his office, wheezing, and cross my arms. He looks up sharply, having just sat down.

"Hey, Reeve," I greet, taking a deep breath. "Sorry about that. You really shouldn't talk about turning against Shinra in the Shinra executive elevators."

"You're right. I apologize, I just got excited."

"So…?"

"This situation is perfect for me to make good on my decision to help Avalanche." Reeve stands, tugging at his beard. "They were taken to Junon last night aboard the Highwind. The Crater was chock full of the Planet's Weapons. Unfortunately, we don't know where Cloud is and Tifa took a hard hit to the head. It's hard to know when she'll wake up."

"What do you need me for?"

"I need you to get them out of there."

"What?" I shake my head. "Reeve, I said I'd help you, not get my ass executed!"

"I know, it's crazy, but—"

"Crazy? This is fucking insane!"

"Kat, please—"

"If I make one wrong move, we're both as good as dead."

"Listen to me. Rufus plans to make a show out of their executions in one week to calm at least that bout of fears. Shinra will look like the hero and the people will trust Rufus again. He plans on using a gas chamber Scarlet made on Tifa and Barret. The others are scattered."

"What's the plan, Reeve?"

"Cait will be disguised as a reporter in the room with the gas chamber. Unfortunately, that leaves everyone else to you. Red XIII was taken to Hojo's lab in Junon. That should be the easiest one if you can get access. The Highwind is holding three more people."

"And they are…?"

"Vincent Valentine, Yuffie Kisaragi, and Cid Highwind."

"Okay."

"The crew onboard are still loyal to their original Captain, for controlling the ship shouldn't be too difficult if you can remove the Shinra loyals."

"How'd you figure all this out?" I shrug. "I mean, it looks like you've thought this out pretty well."

"Something will go wrong," he assures me, pacing.

"Yeah, and? Something's always going wrong, Reeve. If you set low expectations, you won't be disappointed."

"I'm not sure that's how I want to live."

"You do you. What do we do until then?"

"Until then, we're good, law-abiding Shinra employees."

"Gotcha."

"Just remember we're pulling this off next week."

"Right."

Leaving Reeve behind, I head back to the Turks' little separate world, getting a third cup of coffee and knocking on Rude's door. It's time we work this out. I hear him say something and peek my head in, eyebrows raised.

"Okay if I come in?"

"That's what I said."

"Okay, Sassy." I step inside and shut the door behind me, offering a small smile. He touches his shades and waits for me to speak. "Do you even have any more work to do at this point?"

"Not really." Never one to beat around the bush, Rude stands, tugging at his gloves. "What did you need?"

"Just wanted to talk since neither of us is busy."

"About what?"

"Rude." I sigh, setting my coffee on the edge of his desk. Taking a deep breath, I muster up my strength and look him in the eye. At least, as well as I can with those damn sunglasses on his face. "About me and Reno—" I cut myself off. The words feel strange coming out. "Reno and I? Reno and me? Me and… Whatever."

"Kat—"

"Listen, I know you don't like change, but I—"

"This isn't about change."

"Then what is it about?" Rude shakes his head, glancing at the ground. I huff, pushing away the hand that he raises to block me and plucking his shades off his face. "Look at me, Rude. What is it about?"

"Reno."

"What, you think he can't handle it?"

"No." He pauses, brown eyes reaching over my head to look across the room. "Yes."

"Which is it?"

"I don't think he can."

"Why?"

"Because of what happened." Rude sighs, reaching for the glasses. I step back, shaking my head. "Kat, you killed his only family."

"Yeah, well, he's not the only one."

"What?" He frowns, suddenly going still.

"I… keep having these dreams. I'm in my house, I hear the voices, something happens, and then suddenly everything's on fire and I'm holding my dad's shotgun." I chew on the inside of my cheek, staring at my shoes. "Every night."

"Kat…" Rude runs a hand over his bald head. "That's all you see?"

"Well, yeah. Something different happens between the lines, but they always begin and end the same way."

"Hm." He lifts my coffee cup and holds it out to me. I shake my head.

"No. Not until we get back to Reno."

"Reno… You have to know this was a long-term hope of his."

"Yeah, I figured that the way he's admitted half his past preferences over my appearance in the past few days."

Rude rubs at his beard, eyebrows pinched together. "Kat, he doesn't mean for this to be casual."

"Yeah, I got that." I cross my arms, frowning. "I'm not using him, Rude. He's my best friend. Hell, if it hadn't come to this, I might've considered him a brother."

"…"

"Not, like, in an incesty way. That's why I said if—"

"Got it." Rude plucks the glasses from my fingers and hands me the cup in return. "Just be careful."

"I know." I take a sip, my shoulder slumping. "Rude, what if it doesn't work? Like it's weird or we decide that we should just be friends?" Rude sits back down, frowning. "Would it break him?"

"Is that something you're considering?"

"I'm honestly not considering anything. I don't know what to think because I don't know what he wants."

"Why not ask?"

"Because it's Reno. You don't need me to say that." He nods, tugging at his gloves again before turning back to his computer. "So that's it? You don't know?"

"This is your problem."

"Right." I down the rest of my coffee and toss the cup into his bin. It lands with a soft crinkle of the plastic bag. "Hey… you're not mad anymore, are you?"

"I wasn't mad before."

"Rude."

"No." He glances over at me and I smile.

"Thanks, Rudie. Very good talk."

"Mhm."

Without another word, I abandon him to bother Reno, but not before I take a trip to a drink machine and get an obnoxiously blue sports drink. Re looks miserable when I open the door, hands crushing his head and eyes squeezed shut. He cracks them open to see who it is that's entered his office before closing them back up, spinning his chair.

"Isn't that going to make you sick?"

"If I puke again, maybe I'll get the nasty shit outta my system."

"I don't think that's how bugs work."

"Shh! I'm concentrating."

"Reno."

Reno does one last sharp spin before slamming his hands onto his desk to stop himself, staring hard at the door to steady his head. After blinking for a few moments, he looks up at me with a stupid grin.

"What can I help ya with, Kitty Kat?"

"Don't call me that," I huff, rolling my eyes and handing over the cold drink. "Brought you this."

"Thanks, Miss Kitty." Reno reaches toward the bottle and I pull it away, raising an eyebrow.

"None of that either."

"What do you want me to call you?" His whining is fraying my nerves already.

"Kat, Reno. That's my name."

"Damn, someone's feelin' snippy." When he reaches out, I hand the drink over. The lid cracks when he twists it open. I wander toward a boring photograph of Midgar that hangs on the dark wall while he chugs the sugary water. "Haven't had a smoke yet?"

"Haven't thought about it." But now that he has, my fingers are itching. I glance over at him and he laughs, capping the now half-empty bottle.

"Fuck, go ahead. We'll die here together."

"Fair enough." I don't waste any time lighting one up, tearing my eyes away from the picture. "Is that okay? I don't know what kind you like."

"They all taste the same to me," he shrugs, slouching in his seat and running a hand through his hair. "Thanks for it, by the way."

"No problem." I smile at his forced gratitude and sit on the edge of his desk. "You bored?"

"Would be if I didn't feel like shit."

"Yeah…" I take a long drag of smoke, staring up at the ceiling. "Rude's not mad at us anymore."

"No? What'd you say?"

"Nothing, really. Asked why he was upset, and he cooled off."

"Just wanted attention, I bet."

"Who, Rude?" I laugh, shaking my head. "Maybe."

"Guy's gotta get lonely bein' ignored all the time."

"He's the one who makes it that way," I point out, turning to look back at him. His eyes are shut, lashes casting shadows across the scarlet curves on his cheekbones. It really is chilling when he's calm, but not in a bad way. It pulls me right from the bubble of my own mind and brings my back into stark reality. Sometimes, it's refreshing.

"Yeah." He peeks one eye open. "Kinda like how you give off 'don't fuck with me' vibes."

"Reno, never say 'vibes' again." He laughs, grimacing.

"No?"

"No." I twist around and rest my elbows on the desk, letting my cigarette burn between my fingers. He leans forward and mimics my pose, so close that our noses almost touch. "Don't breathe your diseased air on me." In response, he blows into my face. "Re."

"Nope, can't call me that. If I can't call you Kitty, you can't call me Re."

"You're revoking my Re privileges?"

"I'm revoking your Re privileges."

"That's not fair. You have, like, other names to use."

"Life ain't fair."

"Damn, that's cold."

"Yeah. I'm learning."

"To what, be a dick? You're already good at that."

"Shut up."

He smiles, eyes brighter than they were before. Good. I smile back, annoyed when I feel my stomach flutter. It's just Reno. Why am I being like this? It's just Reno… Am I willing to risk illness? When he winks, I'm left with little choice but to erase that from my memory. Naturally, I do so by closing the gap. His laugh is quiet, bubbling up until he can't contain it anymore, pulling away to cackle in his chair, knees drawn to his chest and hands clutched to his chest.

"What?" I snap, embarrassed.

"The fuckin' look of disgust on your face!" he cries, laughing harder.

"Dude, chill. You're gonna make yourself throw up all those nutritious electrolytes."

"Yeah, yeah." He wheezes, scrubbing the tears out of his eyes and downing the rest of the drink. "You're doomed now, you know that?"

"Am I?" I stand, placing my hands on my hips. "I like to think I have a pretty good immune system."

"Don't matter. I think I'm fuckin' possessed."

"Reno, you're sick."

"Elixir gave me his demon." Groaning, he buries his face in his hands before peeking up at me between his fingers. "Mind doin' that again? Made me feel better." There go the butterflies again.

"No," I scoff, crossing my arms. "Don't wanna tempt fate."

"I thought you had a strong immune system."

"Well, yeah."

"So…?" He raises an eyebrow and I roll my eyes, putting the cigarette back between my lips.

"No, Reno."

"Fine, Kat. Thought you were trying to quit."

"It's been stressful." I let a puff of smoke pour past my lips and shake my head. "Thought you were trying to drink less."

"Touché." Reno leans back in his seat and laces his fingers behind his head, turning his eyes up to the ceiling. "Not less, just not here."

"So you replace here with more from home."

"Bingo." His grin fades fast and he frowns. "How've those memories been? You haven't said much about them."

"Well…" I sigh, sitting back down on his desk. "I still have no idea what Marx has to do with anything. I was just telling Rude I keep having the same dream of me inside my house. It's always on fire and I'm always holding a gun." Reno's eyebrows draw tighter together, and he looks anywhere but at me. "Re?"

"Not Reno, remember?"

"Reno. You okay?"

"Yeah. I just don't get it."

"What?"

"Why they had to take 'em. You said it was ten years ago, right?"

"Yeah… But I don't remember anything before those injections, either."

"Maybe you blocked 'em out on your own."

"Maybe…" I toy with my hair, irritated at my own inability to understand myself. "It's just so messy."

"What's with Marx, anyway?"

"As far as I know, I was being kept somewhere. A hospital or something. He worked there and somehow we wound up in a relationship." I shiver, my stomach churning. Gross. Reno scowls.

"Wait, he's old, though."

"Not old, but yeah…" I shiver again. "Reno, I was, like, fourteen."

"That's fucked up."

"Yeah…"

"You think he…?"

"Probably." I gnaw on my cheek. "It feels so fucking gross that he's still the one in charge of my past all this time later."

"Disgusting," he scoffs. His eyes meet mine and stay there. "So… I've never known you, or what?"

"You've never known me more fucked up than I am." Despite the topic, we laugh.

"Yeah, I guess. Always lookin' for an excuse to make everything harder."

"Are you? Then you've got the right girl," I tease. His smile grows smug and he cocks his head to the side.

"Don't have to convince me twice, Kitty Kat."

"Don't be weird, Re."

"Am I being weird?"

"Yeah."

"Hm. That's a vibe and a half."

"Reno."

Chapter Text

"Oh gods, why me?" I groan, stomach lurching as I clutch the toilet bowl and vomit for the second time today. I'm gonna be late. But, I can't ditch Reeve in this effort. If I do, he's fucked.

I drag myself to my feet, brush my teeth, and hurry out the door. The hotel staff nod as I walk past, eyeing me curiously. I flew out to Junon last night under the pretense that I will be here if extra security is needed. I hurry across the town to the section of Junon that Shinra inhabits, slipping inside the research facility when a polite young soldier holds the door for me. Reeve left me an earpiece on his desk yesterday, so I press the button to turn it on, hearing a tune ding into my ear when it connects.

"Hello? Kat?"

"Yeah?" I mutter, standing alone in the stairwell.

"Good. I need you to head to Hojo's lab."

"You disabled the cameras?"

"They're disabled as long as the guard's asleep."

"Reeve, they can watch the footage back!" I hiss, looking around sharply to see if anyone can hear me.

"They're off, Kat. When he wakes up, he'll turn them back on."

"Why didn't you just say that to begin with?"

Rolling my eyes, I climb higher until I reach the door to Hojo's lab, taking a deep breath to my nerves. Feverish, I shudder. Bet Reno gave me this shit.

"There's a man that leaves at eight-thirty every morning."

I check my watch. Two minutes. Huffing, I shake my head. Close call, Reeve. Could've warned me we'd be on a tight schedule. I press my back to the wall, sticking to the shadows of the dim stairwell. Sure enough, just as the clock hits eight-thirty, a soldier steps through the sliding door and hurries down the stairs. I dash through the opening, keeping my head low. Hurrying through the large, dark hallways, I follow the directions Reeve gave me last night. The door he mentioned is slightly ajar, but when I poke my head in, no one's there. This can't be right. Something paces in a large cage, followed by a bright, flickering light. They left him unguarded?

"Hey," I whisper, hurrying into the room. The creature looks up. "You're Red, right?"

"Yes." His golden eye flickers up and down, sizing me up. "And you're a Turk."

"Yeah, well, not right now." I pull my gun out of my pocket, checking to see if my makeshift silencer is secure before firing at the lock. The door of the cage creaks open. Red pokes his head out, his large nose quivering. He frowns up at me, enormous paws hitting the tile floor softly.

"I remember you. You locked us up."

"And?" I tuck my gun back into my waistband, nervous.

"How can I trust you?"

"I just broke you out," I scoff. "Your friend inside sent me."

"Is our friend your authority?"

"Well, no. But he's a friend of mine, too." When he doesn't follow me to the door, I roll my eyes. "Look, cat. I can't stand around waiting. My ass is on the line, Tifa and Barret are up for execution, and I've gotta get Cid's sorry ass out of a prison cell. Sound good?"

"I'm not a cat," he mutters, padding past me and stepping into the hallway.

"Fine."

"There should be a back entrance to the hangar. Go down the elevator and exit there."

"Won't people notice?" I ask, crossing my arms. Red frowns back at me, but I ignore him.

"You're taking another prisoner to the Highwind for transport."

"Okay…" Shaking my head, I turn back to Red.

"What's the plan?"

"Overtake the Highwind. Cait Sith will take care of Tifa and Barret."

"Is there anyone else on board?"

"Vincent and Yuffie."

I pull a set of chains off a nearby cage, shooting the lab-rat-dog-thing an apologetic look before binding him up like an animal that's sorely misbehaved. We hurry to the elevator, earning a few strange looks as I parade past with Hojo's experiment on a leash. Luckily, we make it to the hangar without much issue. Red glances up at me, keeping his voice low.

"Excuse me for prying further, but are you Cait Sith's controller?"

"Wish I was that cool," I scoff, shaking my head. "No, I just help the guy out. Orders from Rufus Shinra, ironically."

"Shinra ordered this?"

"No." I suppress a smile. "And if he finds out I'm part of this, I'm dead. Keep your mouth shut."

"So you're turning against Shinra?"

"No. Well, technically this is betrayal, I guess, but I really just want to help R—Cait's controller." I stare a soldier down when he starts to talk to me, pressing a finger to the earpiece. "Where are the others being held?"

"In the belly of the ship. They aren't technically cells, but they're most definitely locked up. You might want to—"

"We'll be fine."

"Alright."

Just as I reach the base of the hovering ship, I hear a click and something hits the space between my shoulder blades. Rolling my eyes, I shoot Red a sharp look and turn around, impatient.

"Do I look like I'm about to shit on your party?" I demand. The soldier, really just a boy, lowers his weapon, nervous under my stare. "I'm under orders, kid. You want me to report you to the President?"

"N-no, ma'am. I'm sorry, I didn't realize—"

"Stand straight," I snap, scowling. "And stop jumping at shadows before you get someone killed."

"Y-yes ma'am."

"Now, where's the entrance for this hunk-a-junk?"

"There's a ramp over there, ma'am."

"Move," I command, yanking on Red's chains and hurrying toward the ramp. Guards that watched the scene stand down, nodding respectfully as I pass by. One opens a locked door for me, allowing me to enter a long hallway of doors.

"Where are they?" I ask under my breath. Red raises his nose and sniffs, closing his eye.

"I can smell them," he says, frowning. I pause at the door and lock eyes with a passing guard. He looks considerably older than the rest, but I figure I'll give it a go.

"You. Open this door. Got a delivery."

"Who the hell are you?" he demands, stopping to scowl at us. Fuck.

"Kat. Open—"

"Kat who?"

"Kat from the Turks. Ruf—the President sent me to lock this oversized cat up."

"If you don't have the authorization to open that door with your ID, I'll take him and you can leave. The President should have told me his bootlickers were coming."

"Excuse me?" I snap. Red shifts uncomfortably by my feet. "was sent, not you. Let me in." He doesn't budge, working his jaw irritably. "How do I know you're not one of Highwind's lackeys?"

"How do I know you're not? Turks don't deal with this shit."

"I'm new, shithead. I get to do the delivery work."

"Well then, shithead, deliver him to me and I'll take care of the rest." His eyes are sharp, angry. "I'm not opening that door for you, so either drag your sorry ass back to Rufus or hand the cat over."

"I don't have time for this," I huff, pulling my gun and shooting him through the head point-blank. Red jumpsd, blinking down at the guard's body as I dig through his pockets for a keycard.

"Was that necessary? I could have—"

"What, done the deed for me? I'm a big girl, Red. I can handle myself."

"He'd done nothing wrong."

"He was in my way." I swipe the card through the slot by the lock, reveling in its echoing click. "I may be helping you, but that doesn't mean I'm a good guy."

"Someone heard that gunshot," Reeve warns in my ear.

"Shit," I hiss, waiting for the door to ever so slowly slide open. "Red, keep an eye out for guards."

Red nods, sitting and facing the end of the hallway. I glance in the other direction, nearly shitting my pants when I turn back to stare down the barrel of a loaded gun. Instinctively, I point mine right back, fumbling. Then I pause, frowning and using a single finger to push the gun aside to see a pair of crimson eyes locked on the grinning cat-dog thing at my side.

"They didn't take your fucking weapons? Idiots." I shake my head, tucking the gun away and peaking into the room. "No one else in here?" Valentine redirects his weapon, deadpan.

"Who are you?"

"Name's Kat. Cait Sith sent me." He doesn't move. "I'm here to get your ass out of this cell, so you might want to—"

"No."

"Really, Vincent, she's helping us." Red's prickly fur stabs my skin through the fabric of my pants and I wince. "She's a Turk."

"She's Shinra."

"You know what?" Fearless, I bat the gun out of my face and scowl up at him. "Stay in the fucking cage then, Valentine. I have to get Cid and Yuffie before reinforcements see me helping you."

The ex-Turk frowns, watching me leave to open the doors of his friends. A young girl nearly knocks her face into mine when she pokes her head out, eyes brightening upon seeing Valentine emerging from his cell.

"Vinnie!" she squeals, running at him. Huffing, I shake my head, unlocking the last door to see Cid Highwind twiddling his thumbs on the edge of the room's bed. He jerks his head up sharply, grinning.

"Oh, hell yeah." Standing, he saunters up to me, clamping a hand down on my shoulder. "See ya finally made it in."

"See you finally made it back to your ship," I retort. "We've gotta take control of this baby. Cait's saving Barret and Tifa from a gas chamber."

"Hell of a day," Cid scoffs, shaking his head and motioning for the other three to follow him. "Unchain Red. Let's get these sons of bitches."

Chapter Text

"Where have you been?"

I think I pee a little when I hear his voice. My shoulders tense and I cringe, closing my eyes. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Flexing my fingers into fists, I take a deep breath before turning to face Rufus.

"Security like I said."

"Bullshit." The word coming from his mouth is almost as shocking as him catching me here. "You helped them escape."

"No, I—"

"There is footage, Kat." Rufus lifts his chin, colder than before, if that's even possible. "Don't like to me. You left witnesses in your wake."

"I must have a doppelganger," I argue, laughing awkwardly. He closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. "Rufus—"

"My office."

"But—"

"Now."

Defeated, I hang my head and push my hands into my pockets, following like a kicked puppy. I'm fucked. Even the guards look smug when I step past them. Rufus walks behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back, and I stop before it, heart pounding.

"Kat, do you know what happens to traitors in Shinra?"

"I guess."

"Then why—" Rufus slams his palms down on his desk and I jump, terrified.

Defend yourself.

He can't hurt you.

I won't let him.

Stop.

"Why," he repeats, "did you so publicly undermine my authority?"

"Because I know what happens to the traitors that have the President on their side," I retort, though my voice isn't as strong as I hoped it would be. Rufus's eyes on fire. He's pissed. I should be afraid of what he's going to do, but I'm more concerned about keeping myself under control.

"How many times must I explain that I'm not my father?"

"And I'm not your son. At least, not your legitimate one." I sigh. "Look, Rufus. That irritating clown crew is our only fucking hope in surviving this shit. Have you looked at the sky? It's only right."

"That's not my point. The people I need to control don't understand that Avalanche is their only fucking hope." My blood runs cold when his eyes meet mine. I've never seen him this angry. "Don't lecture me on what's right. I decide that for myself."

It would take half a second.

"Yeah, and for the rest of the damn world!" I snap, irritated. "This isn't just about you!"

"Kat."

"Oh, sorry. Forgot I'm—what was it? Slum scum? I don't matter, right? Is that how you think of the people you control?"

"In order for us to defeat Sephiroth, we need the support of the people. Avalanche was the perfect scapegoat," he explains, staring hard at his desk as he tries to calm himself.

"Shinra can't defeat him with the people's support. Money is for building dreamworlds, not killing magical psychopaths." Rufus glances up at me, shaking his head and straightening before wandering around to the front of his desk. This is it. This is where I die.

"Shinra ruined your life before you were born. You came back anyway."

We're in control of our fate.

"And? It's not like you'd get it," I retort. He raises an eyebrow, the look on his face chilling.

"don't get it?" Standing straighter, he tilts his head ever so slightly to the side. "I watched my mother bleed out after a severe punishment from my father. My half-brother suffered a slow, painful death at the hands of science as a failed cloning experiment. My father was slaughtered like an animal by a monster he paid to create. And I don't get it…" He shakes his head, his lisp twitching into a bitter smile. "At least you have the luxury of forgetting." For a moment, I can't breathe. No wonder he's so fucked in the head… Still, determined to justify my actions, I lift my chin, trying to hide my pity.

"Shinra didn't break me."

"Then who did?" He wanders closer slowly, refusing to look away from me.

"I… don't know. My parents, maybe. I know my family was falling apart. Tseng was all I had and now he's—" I shake my head, taking a deep breath. The voices are quiet now. "Shinra didn't make me do anything."

"Do you remember what you've done?"

"Not yet."

"Hm." He stops in front of me, stern. I can't help but look at my shoes. "I don't want you working with Reeve any longer."

"But—"

"He's putting ideas in your head. Now we know who our problem is." He presses the tip to the underside of my chin, forcing me to look up at him. "I've always coveted your luck, Kat. It was only that at the start. But now…" He shakes his head once, refusing to break eye contact. "I refuse to lose the last person I care for."

"Oh, so now you care about me," I scoff. My voice is quiet, soft, and I can't bring myself to roll my eyes at his words. I know he's being serious. He hates me because he can't let me go.

"I need to make sure those attacks stay at bay."

"What are you, my doctor?"

"Fortunately, no." Rufus cracks the slightest of smiles and pulls away, returning his hands to his back. "I'm keeping this quiet now, but you're walking on eggshells."

"Thank you." I breathe a sigh of relief, tucking my hair behind my ear.

"I'm not your enemy," he adds. "In fact, I'm inclined to admit that I understand your purpose. I can't condone it."

"Makes sense."

"Kat." Rufus's voice goes back to being stern. "No more. You work for me, not Reeve."

"I know. You won't have any more problems."

"Good."

When the doors open, Reno's waiting outside, slouching with the bottom of one boot pressed to the wall. He raises an eyebrow and pulls his hands from his pockets. I raise mine back.

"Hey?"

"Hey." He nods at the guards and follows me down the hall. "You good?"

"Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"I—"

"Wait." I stop, raising a hand and glancing over my shoulder. "I have to pee. Stay out here."

"Wasn't plannin' on comin' with you."

In the bathroom, I peek into the stalls to see if they're empty before pressing my hands to the counter, staring hard into the mirror. The yellowish light makes my skin look sickly, all color washing away. My pale face goes green, my green eyes look greener, and my red hair looks dull. The breath leaves my lungs as if the damp air sucks it out and my weight falls forward until my shoulder blades touch. How the hell did I make it out of there alive? I shake my head, taking in a deep, shuddering breath. How did Rufus make it out alive?

Now, I can't hear the voices. My head feels empty. Back there, I could feel my control slipping as my head suddenly felt stuffy and my body started to go numb. I've grown to hate that feeling more than anything, and I haven't even felt it outside of dreams. I don't want to know what'll happen when it all comes back full force and these episodes control my life. Is that how it was? I have no idea. I've already lashed out at Rufus. Every other time, I've taken the damage myself to save the others. Is it even worth it? I shudder, turning on the tap and splashing my face with ice-cold water.

"Snap out of it," I tell myself. I want to know who I am, but I'm too afraid to put the pieces I have together. What if that triggers something and I never turn back? Is this voice the person I was?

Shaking my head, I reach to the left and pull out a few rough paper towels to dab my face off with. Water streams down my neck and soaks into the collar of my black blazer, making it even darker. Like blood. I shiver and toss the paper out, feverish and scared I've left Reno for too long. He glances up when I leave the bathroom, his eyebrows pinching together and his smile going smug.

"Did you piss straight into the air?"

"No?"

"Why you got water all over your shirt?" He nods to my jacket and I shrug.

"Counters were wet."

"Hm."

"I think you got me sick," I add, pressing a hand to my forehead. "I puke everything I eat."

"Thought you were immune, Sweetheart," he teases, nudging me with his elbow. I roll my eyes. "Happens to the best of us. Enjoy it while you can." Then he rolls his eyes. "Besides, you don't look as sick as I was."

"I have a strong immune system," I remind him. He puffs out a dry laugh, turning the corner at my side. His face quickly contorts back into a frown.

"Seriously, though. You're not in deep shit?"

"Reno, what?" I stop, crossing my arms.

"Hey, don't play stupid." Keeping his hands in his pockets, he comes closer, glancing down the hall and moving to stay out of the way of the other employees. "I heard about what you did. Fuckin' ballsy."

"From where?" I demand, my stomach twisting into a knot.

Reno shrugs, eyes turning to the floor. The cogs in his mind are visibly turning. "Rufus asked me if I knew what you were up to. Told him I didn't. Just wanna make sure I—"

"Oh, so this is about you." I scoff, turning to leave. He presses a hand to the wall, blocking my path.

"No, it's not. Should I have taken the fall?"

"What?" I frown and he finally looks at me. He looks genuinely concerned. It's a new expression on his face, and I don't like it. It's my fault. Pressing my lips together, I shake my head. "No, Reno. It's fine. Things would be worse if you did."

"Would they? How are they now?"

"Fine."

"Are you in trouble?" he asks, lowering his voice and bringing his face closer, still looking around to see if anyone's listening.

"Not really."

"Really?" His eyebrows raise sharply. "Rufus really likes goin' easy on you. Must've been some good head."

"Oh, whatever." I huff, swatting his chest and meeting the eyes of a woman that stares at us. She turns away sharply, embarrassed. "Re… He said I'm not working with Reeve anymore because it's dangerous."

"It's dangerous? Workin' with us is a little worse."

"Not lately. But…" My heart skips a beat and I shake my head. "He said it's because he can't lose the last person he cares about."

Reno whistles, eyes lighting up. "Damn, you really did a number on the guy." Laughing, he tilts my face upward. "Seems you got a talent for that."

"Gods, don't be weird." I roll my eyes, standing on my toes to shut him up and hide my flushed face. Reno pulls away with a sly smile.

"Y'know, I kinda like this little thing we got goin' on."

"Do you now?" I scoff, pushing my fingers through his hair and pulling him back in. For a moment, I forget we're in a hallway in Shinra's HQ. Someone clears their throat and I jump, startled to see Reeve eyeing us.

"Erm, hello." He clears his throat, awkwardly scratching his beard. "I apologize if I was interrupting anything."

"No, you're fine." I push Reno to the side, crossing my arms. "Is Cait okay?"

"Yes, everything is going well."

"Cool. I can't talk to you anymore."

"But—" Reeve cuts himself off, confused.

"Reeve, Rufus knows. I'd be more careful if I was you."

"… Of course."

With an awkward wave, Reeve excuses him and hurries away. Reno huffs, stuffing his hands back into their pockets.

"Wanna go bother Rude?"

"Always."

The door's unlocked. Rude glances up from the documentary on his screen, nodding toward us in greeting. Reno intertwines his fingers behind his head, leaning back.

"Sup, partner?"

"Nothing much." Rude's sunglasses are on the table, not glued to his face for once. I've known him for what feels like forever, and it's still strange to see his eyes in broad daylight. Or house-light, I guess.

"What're you watching?" I ask, coming closer. "True crime?"

"Yeah."

"Thought your life would be more interesting, honestly."

"Rude's?" Reno snorts, heading for the kitchen. Upon hearing voices, Elixir begins to bark, speeding into the living room and yapping at my heels.

"He fucking hates me."

"Yup." Rude snaps, getting the chihuahua's attention, and pats the couch cushion at his side. Growling, Elixir gets a running start, stops, shimmies, and then scrambles onto the couch, curling up at Rude's side. I laugh, shaking my head.

"Would you look at that. Best friends."

"No."

Leaving Rude to his documentary, I head to the kitchen and hug Reno from behind, struggling to get tall enough to rest my chin on his shoulder. He puffs out a short laugh and glances at me before turning around and leaning back against the counter.

"Tempted to steal his chips and run," he admits in a whisper.

I laugh, shaking my head. "I mean, if it won't piss him off…"

"Shouldn't." Reno opens the cabinet, pulling down a half-empty bag and hurrying for the door. Rude doesn't seem to care, looking back at me.

"Close the cabinet."

"Yup." I obey, wishing him well and chasing Reno across the hall to his place. Victorious, he holds the crinkling bag over his head in celebration.

"Got myself two snacks!"

"Re, when are you going to learn that teenage lingo doesn't look good on you?"

"I won't as long as it irritates you." He smiles, sparing the quickest second to press a kiss to my lips before tearing into the bag as if he's a starving animal.

"And this is what I spend my free time doing," I mutter, accepting a salty chip and rolling my eyes when Reno winks.

Chapter Text

I hardly make it to the bathroom in time the next day, my knees slamming onto the tile hard enough to break my kneecaps and my hands clutching a toilet bowl that's likely never been cleaned as I empty my stomach. When I can finally catch a breath, I swipe the cold sweat off my forehead, rinse my mouth out at the sink, and head to the kitchen for water. I shudder when I feel that heavy presence return to my head.

Again?

Yeah?

This isn't normal.

I'm sick.

Are you?

I refuse to let my mind wander, walking over to the window in the living room and opening it wide before lighting up a cigarette to calm myself. Puking first thing in the morning should be considered fucking trauma. The sun rises slowly, light picking up Midgar's omnipresent haze of pollution. In the distance, the edge of Sephiroth's Meteor looms overhead.

I hear something shift behind me, but I don't look. Two warm arms wrap around my body, startling me, but I don't have the energy to react. Reno presses a kiss to my neck and I lay my head back on his shoulder, not quite caring when he plucks the smoke from my fingers to have a taste for himself.

"Still sick?"

"Yeah."

"Hm." He hands the cigarette back, staring out at the skyline. "Don't feel warm or anything."

"I dunno." I sigh, closing my eyes. Wish we could stay here forever. "I'm starving, but I can't keep anything down."

For a moment, all he can muster is a hum. Then he squeezes me a little tighter and kisses my cheek, taking a long, slow breath. "You know what you need?"

"What?"

"A vacation. Wutai's nice."

"So I've heard."

"I wanna go." Reno cocks his head to the side, his thumb running back and forth across my hands where they rest on his arms. "Elena got back last night. Think she'll come?"

"She wouldn't miss a chance to get on my nerves." I open my eyes, turning my head upward to look at him. "Rude invited too?"

"Course he is. Can't live without 'im."

"Right." I put my head back on his shoulder. "How do we convince Rufus to let his entire group of Turks leave?"

"Easy. We don't have jack shit to do and Shinra's gettin' nowhere with Avalanche."

"Maybe don't mention that last part."

"Maybe not. Or maybe I send you in so you can work your magic, give him a boner, and then grant my wish."

"What, like his dick's a genie in a bottle?"

"Yeah, exactly." He laughs, shaking his head. "Might have to rub it a little, but you're cool with that, right?"

"Ew, Reno."

"What?" He goes quiet for a moment before he laughs again. "Is it big?"

"What?"

"His dick."

"I dunno. It's not not big."

"Well, good for him."

"Yeah…" I sit up, taking one last drag before crushing the end of the smoke on the windowsill. "I'm gonna get back in bed."

"I'll start makin' calls."

"Good luck."

"Don't need it."

I fall into Reno's bed and hug his pillow to my body, wincing when my back begins to ache. Weird. It feels like I have a fever, but I'm not warm. I squeeze my eyes shut. Maybe I'm just dealing with the backend of the sickness. Outside the bedroom, I hear Reno's voice echoing around the bathroom as he talks on the phone. A long series of calls later, he enters the room and crawls onto the mattress, looming over me with a grin.

"Ready to get your shit together?"

"I guess." I push him away and stand, stretching. Reno holds up my phone and I stick out a hand, waiting to catch it. It slams against my chest and I double over, the pain rippling down my spine. "Holy shitThat hurt way more than it should've."

"What, getting hit in the tit?"

"Yes!" I pout, rubbing my chest. "Gods, they're sore."

"TMI," Reno retorts, rolling to his feet and waving me out of his room. "Go pack your bags. Rufie gave us two days."

"Rufie?"

"Yeah. Go."

"Is this what it feels like to get kicked in the balls?" I wince, still hurting.

"Not even close. Get outta my house."

"I'm going."

Not long after, we're stepping off our ride and marveling at the shapes and colors of Wutai as if we're infants. The air is cool when I take a deep breath, refreshing. A crystal-clear stream runs clean through the center of town, winding into the dusty, barren canyons outside the city. It's strange finally seeing this place. This is where Taavi and Tseng spent a good portion of their childhoods. I've never been, though. So far, the farthest I've been outside Midgar was my very brief time in Costa del Sol with the others.

The hotel is plain, not that expected anything crazy. Elena called in for us and we all paid Reno back after she used his account. It all came together very quickly. She booked herself and Rude separate rooms, and based on rumors alone, packed me and Reno into a room together. She's lucky we're on good terms. Otherwise, I'd kick her ass. With a sigh, I toss my bag onto one of the beds and pull the curtains open to get a good view of the rocky shoreline under the sinking sun.

"Gods, you were right. Maybe I'll come back from this a new woman."

"You think?" Reno gestures for Elena and Rude to follow him into the room, shedding his jacket. I raise an eyebrow, suppressing a smile.

"Please tell me you brought one of those ugly tourist flower shirts."

"You think I own one of those?"

"Uh, yeah."

"He does," Rude says, keeping a perfectly straight face when his partner shoves him.

"Yeah, I do, but I don't wear it."

"Well then what's the point?" I scoff, shaking my head. "Disappointed."

Mocking me under his breath, Reno crosses his arms and turns back to Elena and Rude with an eyebrow raised. "Ready to hit the bar?"

"Think I'd turn it down?" Rude retorts. I laugh, loosening my tie and following them out.

Despite our shared need for a long, fun night, it's not too long before we're heading back, ready to hit the hay. Reno passes out the second he hits the sheets, but I head outside onto the narrow balcony for a smoke. Across a short gap, Elena leans over a similar rail, taking in the scent of the rushing water and the smoke from the fires on the ground. She offers a smile and a short wave.

"Hey." I close the door behind me and light up a cigarette. The buzz in my veins steadily decreases. "What're you doing up?"

"I could ask you the same," she replies. Then, with a defeated sigh, she runs a hand through her hair, staring out at the glowing red lights of Wutai. Meteor casts an eerie violet glow across the night sky. "I… just feel like this is a waste of time. I figured Tseng would tell us to go if he was here, but it's like…" She shakes her head with a soft smile, peeking up at me around her long bangs. "My sister, Gun. She was a Turk. Bet she never would've even considered this."

"Yeah, well…" I shrug, taking a long drag and letting the smoke billow out, poisoning the air like I poison everything I touch. "Elena, I get family rivalries. I swear I do. But… You're not Gun." I flippantly gesture toward her with my cigarette. "I mean, I'm not going to pretend I know either of you, but if you're stuck in her shadow, maybe you're following her too closely."

"I can't help that." She hangs her head, forearms crossed over the railing. "Maybe I shouldn't have taken the job."

"That's not what I meant." I can't help but laugh. Somehow, despite our differences, we've wound up at the same conclusion. What if I hadn't taken it? Would Elena have come up sooner? Would she have dropped the plate?

"Still."

"Elena." I straighten, forcing myself to crush the rest of the smoke under my shoe. She turns her eyes over to me and I smile. Those innocent, childish honey-colored eyes. When I first met her, I couldn't imagine her as anything more than a nuisance. Look at us now. "I meant that you should make a name for yourself. You don't have to be Gun or beat any of her accomplishments. Just do your best."

"… Okay." She straightens, stretching her arms over her head. "Thank you."

"Heading to bed?"

"I'll try." Smiling, she opens her balcony door. "If Rude ever turns off his reading light."

"Just put the blanket over your head."

"I'll try."

When she's gone, I slump back down against the railing, irritated by the ache in my back. I'm so tired, but I'm too afraid to sleep. I don't know what I'll see. I shake my head, pushing my hair out of my face and scratching at my head. Part of me wishes Reno knew everything and the other part knows it's better that he doesn't. How can you look at someone who's done such awful things and ever see them the same way? How can he look at me period knowing what I did to his only family? I don't even know what I did, but I'm still crushed beneath the weight of my own disgust. I can't imagine what it's like for anyone else.

When my eyes get too heavy to stay open, I head back inside and change out of my uniform. Across the room, Reno's sprawled out across his bed, mouth open and hands clutching his pillow. He didn't even manage to get under the covers. I smile and shake my head, tugging on a pair of sweatpants and kicking my uniform into the corner. He even left room for you. I roll my eyes and crawl into my own bed. Something tells me he'll get a better night's sleep if I'm not there sweating and thrashing around. With a yawn, I pull the blankets up over my head and let sleep swallow me whole.


The scaffolding above my head creaks and groans its protests to the spring wind. I step over a collection of rusted tools and metal scraps and sit down in the shadows of the abandoned building. Shinra gave up funding for this project years ago, not even offering enough money for the workers to take all this junk away. That's okay, though. It looks like the rest of the slums. Sighing, I hug my knees to my chest and lean back against a pair of steel rods. This is where I come for fresh air, to think when Tseng sends me out to make friends. Sometimes, she talks to me. Others, it's total silence. It's okay either way, just as long as I'm not bothered by my family and their omnipresent noise.

Down the path, a group of children talks, running through the rocks and rubble to stop before the incomplete structure. I close my eyes, letting the breeze carry my comfort. There's always someone here. One man may stop and stare solemnly up at the ruins or a group of kids will run around the perimeter to check it out, but they never stay. They respect the sacred border of the monument to Shinra's failure.

This group is different, though. They don't fear consequences. They're older and stupider, determined to defy the obedience of their youth. Their feet crush clumps of dirt as they wander nearer. I squeeze my eyes shut tighter, praying for them to leave. No such luck. There are three of them, a couple of years older than me. They duck under steel bars and climb over piles of brick, talking about the orphans in Sector Five, laughing at their misfortune. I press my self further into the corner, but my shoe slips against the dirt, and the skidding sound stops the trio abruptly.  Go away.

"The hell was that?" a boy hisses.

"Bet there's a rat in here."

They come closer and I panic, trying to scramble away under a collection of twisted pipes. Someone grabs the hood of my jacket, jerking me backward and dragging me into the open. "Found her!"

"Get off me!" I cry, trying to twist my way out of their hands.

"Aw, she's so  little !" a girl coos, shoving my down onto my back. I prop myself on my elbows, trying to scoot away. The boy behind me grabs my shoulders and forces me down as the girl digs her greedy hands into my pockets. She whistles, pulling out a handful of cash. "We got ourselves a top-plater, boys!"

"Give that back!" I swipe at her hands, but she holds the money over my head, flashing her gapped teeth in a menacing smile.

"What was it for,  baby?  Can't be food; gotta have a lot of that comin' from Mommy and Daddy's money."

I sniffle, letting my eyes fall away from hers. "The offering plate." It's where I always put my monthly allowance, praying for a new family—or, at least, that mine would be fixed. I never ask for  her  to leave my head, though. She belongs here with me. It's my family that's bad. It's  Tseng  that suffers.

The girl snorts, shoving the cash into her jacket pocket. "Course it is. Only rich people can afford religion." She stands and kicks at my leg. "Take her stuff and toss 'er. Little bitch needs to learn her privilege."

The boys empty my pockets and pluck the plastic beads out of my ears in hopes of selling my things to anyone who might want them. The girl takes my shoes, spitting in my face when I kick at her. When they're done, the taller boy lifts me by my arms and shoves me down the ridge of dirt and onto the road. I skin my hands and knees, left barefoot, jacketless, and fifty gil lighter. My blood boils and I stare hard at the ground, listening for her voice.

Slum scum. They always want what they can't have.

Why do they get to take my stuff? It's not fair.

Life isn't fair.

But—

But that doesn't mean they can get away with needless violence.

I stand, wiping the blood from my lip and taking a deep breath as she directs me. I watch them walk down the path, swinging their spoils aimlessly, laughing. Kicking aside a stack of rusted rods, I hoist one of the path's jagged stones into my hands. My legs are stronger than ever carrying me down the path faster than they can run when they see me coming. With a gritted scream, I swing, refusing to stop until none of them move anymore. I stumble to my feet, collecting my things back with sticky, trembling hands. Their faces are gone, nothing more than bloody, fleshy puddles. I leave them there as a testament to her power and pull the clip from the girl's hair as a trophy.

Good girl.

Let's go home.

I ignore the stares of the people on the street as I pass, blissfully unaware that I'm stained with crimson splatters from head to toe. No one stops me at the church when I drop a fistful of crinkled, damp bills into the golden plate. Everyone watches as I head up to the top and smile up at the sloped, collapsing front porch of my house. Tseng looks up upon seeing me approach; his face goes pale.

"Anna?" He stands abruptly, glancing at the people walking past on the sidewalk. Quickly, he pulls me up the steps and into the shadows of the porch, looking me up and down, horrified. "What happened?"

"Some kids roughed me up in the slums."

"The slums? What were you doing there?" He frowns, motioning for me to shed my stained jacket.

"It's quiet there," I shrug.

"Why are you  bloody? "

I shrug again. It doesn't feel wrong, so I tell him the whole story. I tell him about the peace and about the kids that stole my things. I tell him about the voice ("Y'know, the one Dad told you about?") and about what they looked like when I was done beating them to a pulp with a single stone. Tseng stares at me as if I'm speaking another language altogether. When I'm done, he looks dizzy.

"Is something wrong, Tseng?"

He shakes his head, blinking out of his thoughts. Quickly, he opens the door and ushers me inside. His hands are shaking when he reaches for the light switch. "No. Go get changed. Don't let anyone see you."

"Did I do something wrong?"

" Go ."

Frowning, I slip past him and obey, rinsing off in the shower and tossing my clothes into the laundry basket as if they're only covered in mud. When I start back toward my room to find something new to wear, I hear Tseng speaking to my mother in a hushed voice. I tiptoe to the railing on the upper floor, peeking over the edge to look into the living room. My uncle holds the bloody jacket out and my mother refuses to look at it, arms crossed and a chilling scowl on her face.

"She  killed  them, Taavi!"

"No, she didn't. She's looking for attention again, Tseng."

"What's with all this blood, then?" He shoves the jacket into her chest, forcing her to look at it.

Crinkling her nose, she steps back."Didn't she say those kids roughed her up?"

"All this blood came from some scrapes?"

"Maybe."

"Taavi,  look  at it. You know she isn't making this up."

"Stop," she huffs, shoving the jacket back at him. "She's ten years old, Tseng. How do you think she killed all those older kids with a rock?  Think ."

"I am thinking." Tseng takes a deep breath, his short hair shaking into his eyes when he hangs his head. "Taavi, what about Jon? The voices?"

"I thought he took care of that."

"Clearly not. Anna said she still hears them, that they  tell  her things."

"Shit . " My mother steps back, pushing a hand through her black hair and glaring at the wall. "I knew she shouldn't have discontinued her appointments with Professor Hojo."

"What was she doing with Hojo?!" he demands, pissed off.

She shakes her head, defensive. "He said he would try to reverse Jon's mistake, Tseng! Keep your goddamn voice down!"

"Why the hell would you  willingly —"

"I'm sick of this shit." My mother places her hand on her hip, pointing a finger at him. "Don't act like you know anything. You're  hardly  an adult, you're not married, and you don't have kids. You don't understand what it's like."

"I  understand  that I would  never  let that man near—"

"I didn't know any better!" she cries, throwing her hands in the air. "He works with my  husband  for fuck's sake!"

"And that makes him trustworthy?!"

"You know what, Tseng?" Mom waves him away when he holds up the jacket again, hurrying toward the front door. "Since  you  care so much,  you  deal with that little freak of nature."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know."

"Taavi, she's  your  daughter."

"She's a  mistake ."

She throws open the door and slams it in Tseng's face. My uncle stops in the doorway, heaving a defeated sigh as he glances back down at my bloodied jacket. Confused at why I can hardly breathe, I head back to my room and sit on the edge of my bed, clutching my towel closer to my body.  What's wrong with me?

Chapter Text

It's about noon when I wake up. Slowly, I sit up, wincing when my head begins to throb. Reno looks up from his phone to raise an eyebrow, smug.

"Hangover?"

"Must be." I frown, pressing the heel of my hand to my forehead to relieve the pressure. "But I didn't drink that much."

"Gettin' out of practice." He swings his legs out of his bed and heads into the bathroom, returning with a glass of water. "Here. I'll getcha a pill or two."

I sit up and take the cup, raising an eyebrow. "Wow, you're so nice. Makes me wonder what you want." Reno rolls his eyes.

"Just feel bad for you. Haven't been feeling good for a while."

"Yeah…" I sigh, gratefully taking the painkillers from him and throwing them into the back of my mouth. Thirsty, I chug the rest of the water down. Reno waits, sitting on the edge of my bed.

"These're my pants," he grumbles, tugging at the thin material on my legs.

"Not anymore."

"Thieving bitch." Lacing his fingers behind his head, he falls back onto the mattress with a soft bounce. "Have any more dreams?"

"Yeah, finally a different one."

"Yeah?" Reno props himself up on his elbows, eyes as bright as always. "Care to share?"

"Only if you put a shirt on."

"Why? Am I distracting you?"

"Re." I roll my eyes and throw the blankets over him. "Didn't fit the mood."

"Was it a bad one?"

"Not as bad as usual, but…" I shrug, looking over at the window. "Not exactly pleasant."

"So…?"

"I beat a group of kids to death with a rock," I admit with a sigh. He frowns, blinking up at me as he tries to comprehend my abrupt storytelling. "They tried to steal my stuff, and that voice told me to kill them, so I did. Bashed their heads in and walked back home like nothing happened."

"Damn."

"Tseng freaked out. Can't blame him." I pick at a loose thread in the sheets, shaking my head. "I was only ten."

"Ten? Holy shit, Kat." Reno goes quiet when I don't answer, slowly sitting up. I don't have the heart to tell him to put the covers back on, my heart stinging with every beat. What kind of monster am I?

"Maybe… I should let Marx take them away."

"What? No." Reno shakes his head, twisting his legs up onto the bed and crossing them. "No."

"Why?" I scowl up at him, sick to my stomach. "Reno, I'm fucked up beyond comprehension. I don't even know if that's the first time I killed people without a second fucking thought. It's disgusting. I don't want to know who I am anymore."

"… You're serious?"

"I think so? I don't know." Frustrated, I shake my head, pushing my hair out of my face. "It's too much."

"Well…" Reno frowns, running his fingers back and forth across my knee rapidly. "I know it's selfish, but how can you expect everyone to just forget with you? I can't live pretending like I don't know anything."

"Re, I can't live pretending this is okay."

"You don't have to. That's who you were, Kat, not who you are."

"Who's to say who I am?" I argue. "You've never even known the real me. Doesn't that scare you?"

Reno shrugs, forcing himself to look at me. "Not really."

"It should. I don't know what will happen if that voice comes back in full force like it used to. Whoever it is isn't very forgiving."

"Well, then, I'll just have to make sure you won't have to forgive me for anything."

"Reno, this is serious."

"I'm being serious."

"Are you?"

"Kitty," he scoffs, laughing. "I ain't leavin' you in the dust because you're problematic. You've always been the biggest pain in my ass."

"Wow, thanks. I'm honored." I can tell he's tired of the depressing conversation I'm trying to push, so I give up, reaching forward and taking his hand off my knee. With a wink, I press a kiss to his knuckles. "You've been the biggest pain in my ass, too."

"Cute," he snorts, pulling his hand away.

"So…." I throw the sheets back and stand, stretching and trying to ignore the shooting pains that echo around my skull. "What's on the agenda for today?"

"Turtle's Paradise." Reno gets to his feet and pulls his crumpled clothes off the floor. "Shoulda brought another uniform…"

"Yeah, me too. Feels wrong to wear anything else anymore." I follow suit, quick to tug on my clothes. "Are Rude and Elena awake yet?"

"That even a question?" Reno raises an eyebrow, buttoning up his shirt. "Probably went for a run at the asscrack of dawn. 'lena said she wanted to get some sun today, too."

"Hm."

It's not long before we're drawn together at the bar like flies to a corpse. I clink my glass against Rude's and toss the drink back with a grimace. My skin's coated in a thin, sticky film of sweat, both from the alcohol and the heat of the day. Reno crosses his legs, shoes off and hands clutching his ankles as he leans back, stretching. Giggling when he belts out a line of the song that's quietly playing over the speakers, Elena loosens a button on her jacket and sinks further into her cushion on the floor. I take Reno's shot for him, trying not to relive the whole "You're mine, Kitty Kat" ordeal.

"I needed this," Elena admits with a satisfied sighed. Rude nods, his bald head beaded with sweat. He glances up at the paddled fans that spin at a lazy speed on the ceiling.

"Wish it was cooler."

"Just pretend it's a sauna," Reno murmurs, closing his eyes and motioning for the bartender to refill his glass. "Sweatin' all the drinks off."

I raise an eyebrow, leaning back on my palms. "I don't think that's advised." Chuckling, Reno peeks open an eye.

"Sweetheart, nothing I do is advised."

"Uh huh."

"Y-you?!" Elena leaps to her feet, nearly toppling over. She grabs hold of Rude's shoulder to catch herself, red in the face as she stares at the door. "How'd you get here?!"

I turn to see Cid Highwind, Tifa, and Barret in the doorway of the bar, looking just as surprised as us. Elena continues to sputter and I sigh, shooting Reno a look. He doesn't seem to notice, staring hard at his glass. It's almost like he's pouting.

"Nevermind that!" Elena stumbles over the floor cushions and reaches for her gun. The trio of Avalanche members eyes her, unfazed. Cid looks ready to laugh. "I guess it's fate that brought us here together. Get ready to die!"

Reno sighs, setting his glass down on the table. "Elena, you talk too much."

"W-what?!" Elena turns to stare at him in disbelief. "Reno—"

"What are we doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?" he demands, staring right back. I stifle a smile, glancing at Rude. He shakes his head, refusing to look back at Avalanche. Oh, right. Tifa's here.

"Taking a vacation and resting up from work," Elena answers in an exceptionally matter-of-fact tone. She really doesn't get it.

"And now our vacation's ruined."

"B-but—"

"Even the booze tastes bad now," he huffs, sliding the glass my way. I roll my eyes, taking a drink and shooting Cid a wink.

"Poor Re Re," I mutter into the cup, taking a long drink.

"… Sorry." Elena steps back and slowly sinks back onto her cushion, sulking.

"Drink up, Rude," Reno continues, throwing his head back as he rambles. Not quite drunk, but definitely not sober. "How long've we been a team? Bein' a Turk's shit at times, but all in all, I'm glad I did it."

"Oh boy, he's getting sentimental," I tease. He shoves my shoulder, rolling his eyes.

"Shut up, Kitty. Jus' sayin', I got to meet a buncha wingnuts like you, Rudie."

"Round?" a worker asks, holding up another platter of glasses. Gods, our bill's gonna be enormous.

"Hell yeah."

"To the Turks!" Elena chirps, trying to lift the mood. I glance back to see that Avalanche is continuing to stare, quite interested in this little slice of Shinra they never get to see.

"And Reno," Rude adds under his breath. Reno winks at his partner, clinking their glasses together and tossing the drink back.

Elena turns back to Avalanche. "You're lucky alright. Get outta my sight! Next time I see you, I won't be so nice."

"Shut up, Lenie." Reno raises an eyebrow, grinning at me. "You haven't had enough, Kitty. More for everyone!"

"Slow down, Re," I laugh, shaking my head. "I'll take you up on that a little later."

Not five minutes later, a young soldier bursts through the door, doubled over and gasping for air. His blue uniform is nearly blinding in the neutral colors of the bar. This isn't gonna end well. Reno looks bummed again already.

"He is here!" he cries. "We've finally found the Don! Get the Turks here for backup!"

Elena springs to her feet, still a little unsteady, and hurries toward him. Reno heaves a depressed sigh, shaking his head.

"… What a drag."

"W-what was that?" the soldier asks, confused.

"We're off duty right now. Can't save your sorry asses."

"We know you're off duty, but—"

"If you knew, you shouldn't have bothered us. Lookin' at you's makin' me sober."

"But you all have orders from HQ to look for him too!" None of us reply and he huffs, standing straighter. "Alright, fine! We'll get him without any help from the Turks, you'll see!" He runs through the exit, but returns moments later. "And don't think HQ won't hear about this!"

"Wait!" Elena cries, steadying herself on Rude's back again. Huffing, she turns back to Reno. "Reno, do you think that was really such a good idea? I mean, is that the way a professional—a Turk—would act?"

I snort, choking on my drink. Reno laughs, thumping a hand down on my back. It only makes me cough harder, eyes watering from the burning in my nose.

"Elena, don't misunderstand. Those who sacrifice themselves for a job aren't professionals. Those're just idiots."

"I applaud your wisdom," Rude mutters, sending another grin across Reno's face.

"Rude?" Elena squeaks, genuinely upset.

"…"

"Well, I don't buy that! Goodbye!" Elena marches out the door, face red and filled with determination. She looks like an angry toddler.

"Relax." Reno leans his elbows forward onto the table, eyeing Rude as he watches her go. "She's not a child. Let 'er have her way."

"Yeah, well, she can't go alone. She'll do something stupid." I stand, straightening my shirt. "You guys have fun."

"No, not you," Reno groans, slumping.

"Spend some one-on-one time with your partner," I laugh, patting his back as I step past. "Me 'n Elena'll kick that perv's ass. Sound good?"

"Whatever," he grumbles, pouting again.

"So moody," I scoff, shooting Rude a wave and hurrying out the door. Definitely not sober. "Elena, wait up!"

"I'm going after him no matter what!" she snaps, scowling at me over her shoulder.

"I'm coming with!"

Finally, she stops, blinking at me. "Wait, you are? Why?"

"Well, someone's gotta help you make a name for yourself."

She smiles at that, nodding and leading the way toward the pagoda across town. The bumpy stone path is littered with tall grass and vibrant flowers. Tourist shops are wide open, calling for us to look at their wares. Some stop once they realize we're Shinra. I take a deep breath of the clean air, unfazed. That was Tseng and Taavi's first falling out—Shinra versus Wutai.

"He's in here," Elena says, motioning for me to follow her into a crawlspace. Down here? How would he fit?

"Let's get this asshole," I huff, ducking under the frame and straightening once we're inside the dark room.

Before we can get far, an arm crushes my body back into someone much stronger and a hand clamps down over my mouth. By instinct, I grab hold of the arm and bite down on the palm. For a moment, it leaves and I start to yell for Elena only to see that a tall man in black's holding her down, too. The next time the hand returns, there's a cloth. Everything screams for me to hold my breath, but he hits me hard enough to knock the wind from my lungs, forcing me to gasp for air. Oh gods…

"Get me down!"

Startled, I open my eyes, completely disoriented when I see nothing but blue. For a moment, I don't understand. But, upon realizing I'm looking at the skyline of Wutai and I can't move my arms or legs, I see that I'm hung far over Wutai. What?

"Two Turkies and a princess. So hard to choose!"

"Oh gods…" Elena groans, waking slowly.

"Gross-ness!" a girl squeals. I turn my head to see a young woman tied to my right, squirming against her bonds and scowling at the Don through the short hair that's stuck to her sweaty face. Why does she look so familiar?

"Is this that statue in the mountains?" I ask Elena.

Corneo answers me instead, wiggling his fat body in delight. "Of course it is, chickie! A smart lady!"

"Ew." I crinkled my nose. "I'll accept anything except chickie."

"Fiesty!" he cries, giggling with childish glee. Elena and I exchange disgusted looks. "I know who my next wifey will be!" With a twirl and a twist of his curled, blonde mustache, the Don spreads his arms wide and draws them together to point his fingers at me. "This firecracker of a lady!"

"Ew!" the girl shrieks.

I roll my eyes. "Gross."

"Stop right there!" a woman cries. I turn my head to see the Avalanche trio heading down one side of the statue to stand on its hand. "Let them go!"

"Not you again!" the Don cries, stumbling backward. "I'd only just picked—"

"Lay off, perv," I snap, getting a headache from all his squealing.

"Tifa, I'm so sorry!" the girl whines, squirming. "Let me down!" Oh, right. It's Yuffie.

"Not so fast!" Don Corneo raises his fat palms as Avalanche begins to draw their weapons. "You want me to drop them?" He pulls a switch from his pocket and presses a button before tossing it over the cliff. Slowly, we begin to turn upside down. "Whoopsie!"

"You're fucking joking," I huff, trying my hardest to keep my shirt from rolling up over my face.

"Hey!" Yuffie protests. "Not cool!"

"You have a tramp stamp?!" Elena cries.

"We don't talk about it," I snap, feeling my faces start to get red. Whether it's from embarrassment or from hanging over Wutai by my ankles, I'll never know.

"It's a dragon, Kat," she hisses.

"Yeah, I'm fully fuckin' aware."

"Is it Leviathan?"

"Does it matter?"

"I don't—"

A slender wyvern swoops down toward the Don when he opens his arms, turning to face Avalanche. What, is that his pet? Cid almost kills the thing with one swing of his spear. Tifa raises her fists and rushes in to give it the same beating she gave me weeks ago. I'm so invested in watching them trash the pathetic creature that I almost don't see Reno and Rude watching on the other side of the statue's head, smugly waiting for Avalanche to do the hard work for them. This is their vacation, after all. I can't help but smile, shaking my head. Should've known they'd come for us.

It's not long before the wyvern swoops away, sending the Don tumbling over the edge of the statue's hand. He just barely catches himself on the edge with a cry, dangling hundreds of feet over the city. Reno takes that as his cue, jumping the gap and resting his rod on his shoulder with that haughty look he wears so well plastered on his face. Hardly sparing us a glance, he turns and crushes the Don's fingers beneath his shoe, raising an eyebrow.

"I've got a question for ya, Don, since you can't seem to keep your eyes off my girl." Stupid fucker, I think as I struggle to suppress a smile. "Why're we stopping you? A: We hate you; B: we care about the ninja; C: we're bored."

"Uh… Uh…" Corneo begins to sweat, eyes flickering between mine and Reno's as if I suddenly have an obligation to save him because he chose me to be his next plaything. I raise an eyebrow, waiting. "The first one."

Reno's lips twist into a menacing smile and he twists the toe of his shoe, twisting the Don's fingers for good measure. "Wrong." With a kick, he sends the fat fucker falling to his death. I cringe when his scream stops echoing up toward us. Satisfied, Reno turns back to face Avalanche. "The answer?"

"Because it's our job," Rude finishes, glancing up at me.

"Aw, thanks guys!" Elena chirps with a smile.

Yuffie starts to squirm again, whining. "Let me down!"

Reno cocks his head to the side, grinning up at me. "Been a while since I've seen that one, babe."

"Shut up."

"Help me get the brat down, Teef," Cid says, dropping his spear onto the stone and shedding his denim jacket. Everything halts when Reno's phone rings. He answers it with a sigh, staring out at the horizon.

"Yeah, whatever. You bet. Mhm." When he hangs up, he looks back at Rude. "We've got new orders to find Avalanche." Tifa raises her fists on instinct. "But," Reno continues, "we're on vacation."

"My head's gonna explode!" Yuffie sobs.

"Shut up or I'll fucking skewer ya!" Cid snaps.

"A little help?" I plead.

Reno shakes his head, nodding toward Elena. "We're gettin' her down first to stay outta their way."

"Re!" He ignores me and I slump back against the wall. "I hate you."

Reno and Rude have a hard time getting Elena down, so Cid winds up being the person to help me down, with some assistance from Tifa. The pilot offers a cigarette and we puff away as we watch Reno struggle to undo Elena's rope.

"Goin' alright with you guys?" I ask, making a point of refusing to look at Tifa or Barret.

"Good as it can. Heard about Cloud?"

"Yeah. Sucks."

"Yeah." Cid chuckles, shaking his head. "Good luck to y'all. Looks like those numbskulls might need your help."

"Don't they always?" I sigh, stomping on the butt of the smoke and shoving my hands into my pockets. I'll let them suffer a little longer.

Chapter Text

I'm sick again when I wake up, dizzy and disgusting. I'm home now, so at least there's that. Still, I'm not sure I want to go back to the long, boring days of waiting around for something to happen. Even Rufus seems bored out of his mind when I see him in passing. I splash my face with cold water to wake myself up, staring hard at my reflection under the harsh bathroom lights. I look paler than ever; the dark, puffy circles under my eyes look more like remnants of a beating than bags.

Despite that, I can't help but see Tseng's face in my own, reflecting in the sharp angles and deep shadows. The eyes… Elmyra said they're the same. I sigh, feeling a little stupid when I stand on my toes to get a closer look. Dark, dark, dark. They're not even the same color, but even the way I look back at myself holds the same coldness he did. I shiver, feeling my head grow fuzzy and light, but I can't look away. What is it?


"Where are you taking me?" I demand, watching Tyler lock my cell behind him. He doesn't answer, shoving a bag into my chest and motioning for me to follow him down the bright hallway.

We've stopped talking since he was caught subjecting me to his twisted research. What I thought was love wasn't it after all; I was only being used again. Still, they don't say anything about him. I can speak his name and I can recall his face without that painful sting in my chest.  Why can't I forget him?  No answer. Sighing, I hurry to catch up, refusing to look at other personnel that pass by.

"Tyler!"

"You're being pulled for a few days for family."

"Family?" I repeat. He doesn't look back, punching in a passcode and swiping his keycard through the slot. The door clicks, sliding open. "You mean Sonyeh?"

"Yes."

Without another word, Tyler motions for me to enter the lobby. A tall, slender woman stands with a graceful smile that reaches her lively gray eyes. She tucks a strand of her long, dark hair behind her ear and clutches a purse to her other side.

"Thank you, Dr. Marx."

"Mhm." Tyler adjusts his glasses, his expression deadly serious. "Be careful, Miss Kisaragi."

"Of course." Sonyeh turns back to me, her smile only growing. "Well, let's get you home, yeah?"

I frown, squeezing the bag tighter to my chest. "Home?" Something inside the bag shifts, leaving an empty space that crinkles closer to my skin. It smells like cheap soap. Sonyeh shakes her head, smacking her forehead with the heel of her hand.

"Of course he didn't tell you. Tseng said you could stay with us for a few days. Get a feel for the real world again."

"Oh."

It's been a year since I stopped hearing threats against Tseng—since we've been relatively amicable. Something tells me this was more Sonyeh's idea than his. Ever since he announced their engagement to me, she's made an effort to pay me regular visits. She's nice enough, I guess. Doesn't strike me as Tseng's type, not that I know what that would be.

I know a few things about her. She's the estranged daughter of Wutai's emperor. She ran away when she was younger and all ties were cut for good when her father learned she was going to marry a Turk. Her favorite color is some very specific shade of pink I can't remember and she has a habit of chewing on her right pinky while she thinks. I don't think she knows anything about me but what I did.

"Ready to hit it?" she asks, cheerful as always. Maybe that's why it doesn't match up in my head. She's always so  happy,  and Tseng's, well,  gloomy.  Serious. Drab. It's an odd pair.

"I guess."

"You can help me cook dinner."

We take a taxi across Midgar to her and Tseng's small home across the city. I'm surprised that she visits so often with how long the drive is. Maybe she doesn't work. It begins to rain when we step onto the curb. Where most would cover their heads and hurry indoors, Sonyeh spreads her arms wide and spins, taking a deep breath and turning her face to the sky. With a satisfied sigh, she smiles back at me.

"I love the rain." Her smile falters and she cocks her head to the side. "How long has it been since you saw the sky?"

"It's been a bit."

"Well, I won't steal it from you if you want to stay out here a little longer."

I look up at the dark, looming clouds, flinching when a lightning bolt strikes the ground in the distance. "I'm ready to go in."

I forgot how violent nature could be. All the paintings and photographs in the hospital say the real world is a peaceful, beautiful, patient. That you make evil within yourself. I almost forgot those were all lies.

Sonyeh nods and unlocks the front door, ushering me inside. "Kick your shoes off by the door. You know how Tseng can get; no stains in the carpet." I obey, watching as she unwinds the long scarf that was draped around her neck and hurries into the kitchen. "I told him I'd make dinner tonight. Wanna help?"

"Sure." I shrug, following her and tugging at my baggy, white clothes. She laughs, pushing me out.

"You can change first, silly. Feel normal."

"Okay."

The bag contains only a single pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. They're loose on me, but at least it's something. I shove my uniform back into the bag and leave it in the hall. Sonyeh laughs when she sees me again, washing a trio of carrots in the sink.

"Well, Tyler didn't guess your sizes correctly at  all ."

"That's okay," I shrug, shoving my hands into the pockets of my sweatshirt. Gods, it feels good to have pockets again.

"Wanna help?" she asks again, lifting up the carrots and setting them down on a glass cutting board. I nod, coming closer.

Sonyeh starts to hand me a knife and then hesitates. Her round eyes flicker up to mine, checking to see if I noticed—if she hurt my feelings. I don't mind; I know what I've done. I know why she's afraid. She takes a deep breath, forcing a smile and pressing the handle into my hand.

"Normalcy," she whispers to herself, shaking her head and turning back to the potatoes she was chopping. "So… What do you do to stay busy in that place?"

"Sometimes I read. Most of the time, I see the lady and her cat or I sleep."

"The lady?"

"Therapist."

"Is she nice?" I shrug. "What about her cat?"

"Her name's Belle." The knife slices through the thick end of the carrot and hits the cutting board with a crisp clack. "She's fluffy and gray. Soft. I like her."

"I'm surprised she's allowed to have Belle around. A lot of people are allergic to cats." I don't answer, watching the knife cut the first carrot to irregular slices bit by bit. It's mesmerizing. "Anything else?"

"I talk to you a lot."

"Yeah?" Sonyeh smiles back at me, but I don't look up at her. I can feel their presence, but I don't know what they want. "Does it bother you that I come so much? I'm sorry if it does. Tseng works a lot and I get lonely."

"No, I like it."  At least, I think I do.  I move on to the second carrot, still trying hard to hear the voices. They're waiting, watching. Willing her to do something wrong. Wishing for a reason to hate her. I frown. "But why do you bother? Everyone says I'm a lost cause, even Tseng."

"Oh, honey." Sonyeh drops a few potato chunks into a pot of water. "Don't think like that. You're different, sure, but as soon as you learn how to take care of yourself and see the signs, you'll be alright." She dusts her hands off and tosses a pinch of shredded cheese into her mouth. "Besides, Tseng wishes he could see you more. He  told  me so."

"Does he?" I scowl at the blade, confused. "I thought he hated me."

"He's hurt. Hurting isn't hatred." Sonyeh rubs her hand on my lower back, peeking over my shoulder before turning back to the fridge. "Nice chopping."

"Thanks…" I shake my head, head filled with nonsensical whispers. Questions. "But… He tried to have me executed."

"Sometimes pain makes us blind." Sonyeh stirs the pot with a wooden spoon, humming to fill the silence. With a tap of the spoon against the pot, she turns back to me. "He really loves you, Kat. We both do."

Lies!

It's Marx all over again…

I press a hand to my head, trying hard to wrestle myself back into control. I can hear Sonyeh talking, concerned, but I tune her out.  Not this one… Not this time.  I can't ruin things for Tseng again. My heart throbs, confused and pained.  He loves me? But he tried to kill me…  A sharp pain shoots through my head and I grit my teeth, feeling them choke the air from my lungs.  I tried to kill him, too.

Foolish little girl!

I'm here to protect you!

You're going to trust this?

Wait! She didn't mean anything by it!

She's using you to get closer to him.

She's going to turn against you.

It's better this way.

You'll see.

I lose my grip entirely. My hand squeezes the knife and swings it around, digging a deep gash across her smooth forehead. With a startled cry, she raises her hands to protect her face, but I kick her to the floor, pinning her arms down and stabbing deep into her wrists, watching the blood flow like a smooth, crimson river. She struggles, sobbing, but they're too strong. The handle of the knife hits her temple until her eyes close.

She looks eerie there, sprawled out on the white tile in a pool of red with her pink lips pulled into a frown. It's wrong. The knife digs in, slicing a premade smile into her cheeks. Slippery and sticky with blood, I stand, dizzy. Springing across the floor (delicately, on my toes, like the dancers I saw on TV at the hospital), I spin and hurl the knife into the table. Her bright blood platters across the wood, drops slipping into grooves.

Twirling and swinging my arms about, I dance across the couch cushions, jumping from the coffee table to the TV stand to a stiff chair in the corner. Around and around and around I go, jumping and twirling and dancing. It's the only way to get rid of all this extra energy... I don't know how much time passes. It's enough for the shallow water in the pot to boil down and for the potatoes to start burning, filling the house with smoke and setting off the alarms. It feels invigorating and I dance to the sound of the chirping alarms, my mind twisting them into a rhythmic song.

The door opens when the sky gets dark. The house is smokey, but the alarms have stopped. I stand on the coffee table, spinning in place and admiring the splatters that stain my sleeves. The keys hit the floor with a dull jingle and I pause only for a moment to see Tseng staring at me. I can hear his heart pounding from across the room. For a moment, he can't say anything, looking from me to the smoke to the knife in the table. The river from the kitchen has begun to seep into the carpet, turning tan to black.

"Kat." Tseng closes his eyes, taking a deep, trembling breath. "Kat, what did you do?"

"Stained the carpet," I sing, closing my eyes and tilting my head back like Sonyeh did in the rain. My gut twists.  Why can I still remember you?  I take another breath of the smoke to numb my body, continuing my dance. "Stain the carpet, stain the carpet. Not the shoes, shoes, shoes."

"Kat!" Tseng snaps, fingers curling into fists at his sides. "Where's Sonyeh?!"

"She made dinner," I shrug, running my fingers through my hair and wondering if it'll stain. "Maybe left it in too long." Smiling, I take a sharp turn, leaping onto the couch. "Burn, burn, burn..."

Tseng slowly walks toward the kitchen, hardly able to take in a full breath. His shoe sinks into the bloody carpet and he stops before the smiling body. He makes a strange noise, but I can't see his face, so I keep twirling, arms spread wide. He doesn't yell or cry or tell me to stop. He stares a little longer.

Finally, he draws nearer, pressing his fingers to the side of her throat. His hand jerks away as if her skin burned him. I close my eyes and fall backward, free-falling toward the floor. My back hits the ground and I laugh, breathless. I can hear him talking to someone, probably on his phone. Probably the carpet cleaners.

He's upset; I understand. I made a mess. He invited me here, and I trashed the place. I tried to cook, I tried to clean, I tried to cure my sadness. I roll back to my feet, spinning, spinning, spinning with my face to the ceiling and my arms out wide. It's okay that he's upset, because…

You know how Tseng can get; no stains in the carpet.


I shudder, squeezing my eyes shut. Gods, what the fuck is wrong with me? All that blood, the horror on Tseng's face, the whimsical carelessness of a child who has no idea what she's just done… It makes me sick a second time. Shaking, I drag myself back onto my feet and force myself to brush my teeth. I'm paying Marx a visit.

It's slow going, but eventually, I get myself into a clean uniform and down the hall to the elevator. No one but an odd assortment of unrecognizable workers is inside, so I keep to myself, slouching against the glass wall until the lift sets me free with a chime. I step onto the infirmary hallway and jam my shaking hands into my pockets. Forgetting Tseng's admonishments, I open Marx's door without knocking. Elena looks up sharply, arms crossed as she attempts to stare down Marx, who looks quite sick of his job.

"Can it wait, Kat? Your associate here won't leave me be."

"It's fine," Elena scoffs, rolling her eyes. "Can't change policies."

"What?" I frown, uncertain if I should enter the room.

Marx shakes his head and scratches at his beard. "She's upset that I'm forced to make the President aware of any health conditions his Turks might have."

"Any?" I repeat, raising an eyebrow. "So, like, if I have the flu, he has to know?"

"He gets an email," Marx shrugs, placing his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. "Whether he reads it or not is not my concern. I'm just following the rules."

"He doesn't need to know about my hernia!" Elena cries, stomping a foot on the ground.

Marx shakes his head, looking over at me. "Take it up with Shinra. Is there something you need, Kat?"

"Yeah, actually. If you don't mind," I add, glancing at Elena.

She shakes her head, scowling at the floor. "Go ahead."

"Is this about…?" Marx starts, shooting me a look. I shake my head. "Okay. Go have a seat. Miss, if you don't mind, I have to see my patient now."

"She can stay," I say, shrugging and sitting down on the crinkling paper. "I don't care."

"Thanks," Elena huffs, sitting in a chair beside me and crossing her legs. "Haven't had anything to do. It's driving me crazy."

"Alright then…" Shake his head and pushing his glasses up, Marx sits down on a rolling stool and pulls himself closer. "What's up?"

"I've been pretty sick the past few days."

"Define pretty sick. Deep breath."

The cold metal on my chest makes me flinch, but I obey. "I've just felt like shit. Puking, sore, headaches, the whole works. Reno wasn't feeling too hot last week, so I thought that was it, but it hasn't gotten any better."

"Hm." Marx presses the stethoscope to my back, listening. "You're still smoking."

"And?"

"Other than that, your lungs sound okay." He slides back toward his desk and I roll my eyes at Elena. She nods, pressing her lips together. "Any ideas what Reno had?"

"Nope. Far as I know, he was over it in two days."

"Yeah, well, people recover at different rates." He types something into his computer. "I'll get your blood pressure to check-in and then we'll see about those symptoms. You could just be hanging on to a bug a little longer than he did."

I cringe as my arm is crushed under an unpleasant amount of pressure and roll my eyes when I get another lecture about smoking. Elena snaps to shut him up. Marx's nerves are getting frayed by our attitudes, but something about his desire to make up for his mistakes makes him keep his cool. He rests his elbows on his knees, leaning forward.

"Well, we can do a few things, Kat. You can ride it out a few more days to see if it's what I said, we can do some bloodwork to test for other things, or I can keep poking at you."

"I don't mind bloodwork," I shrug. "I'm bored and I want to feel better."

Nodding, he leaves and returns with a tray. Elena squirms at the sight of the needle, making a point of looking at the wall. I shed my jacket and roll up my shirt sleeve, watching the needle slide into my arm and the blood flow out. I hate that it's Marx doing this, but in some twisted way, he's the only one I trust.

"So, a few questions." He cocks his head to the side, keeping an eye on my arm. "Routine."

"Spill."

"How's your hydration?"

"Not top-notch, but I'm not dead yet."

"Alright." He raises his eyebrows, taking a deep breath. "Are you sexually active?"

"Yes...?"

"Using protection?"

"Yes."

"Every time?"

"Yes, Dad."

"Just making sure."

"Any other pressing questions on your mind?" I scoff. Elena shakes her head, a smile tugging at her lips.

"Not if you're going to be like that."

"Like what?"

"Kat." Marx shoots me a look that I'm sure he uses to scold his teenage daughter (that's still so weird) and withdraws the needle. "I'll run this quickly, make sure there's nothing too sketchy."

"Is that your effort at layman's talk?"

"Did it work?"

I roll my sleeve back down, swinging my legs boredly as I wait. Elena sighs and glances up at me with a smile.

"So… Are you and Reno a thing?"

"A thing? Sure." I raise an eyebrow. "Like in the sense that anything else is a thing."

"You haven't made it, like, official?"

"Haven't thought about it. He hates that kind of stuff." I crinkle my nose. "I do, too."

"Huh." Elena shakes her head, tucking her hair behind her ear. "I know he was your uncle and all, but… I miss Tseng."

"Yeah? Me too." I cross my arms, cold. "Would you have wanted to be a thing?"

She laughs. "Y'know, it's kind of stupid, but… I think so. He… asked me to dinner when we were in the Temple. That was right before he died." She shivers. "I wonder what would've happened."

"Wait, he really asked you out?"

"I don't know if it was, like, a date!" she cries, raising her hands defensively. Her face is turning red. "He could've just been hungry."

"Elena, Tseng doesn't-didn't-spend a lot of his time at casual coworker dinners."

"No?"

I laugh, shaking my head. It's funny to imagine. It's Tseng, so he didn't stammer or stumble over his words. He probably laid it out there without a second thought for her reaction. I'm surprised, though. Maybe he heard she was interested and decided to shoot his shot. Poor guy didn't hit it before he bit the dust.

"Well… It doesn't matter now, I guess."

"No, I guess not." I pick at my nails, impatient. "C'mon, dude. Where is this test?"

As if on cue, Marx steps through the door, face grim. In his hand, he holds a stack of unstapled papers. I sit up straighter, raising an eyebrow. Marx touches his glasses and raises the papers.

"So…?" I prod, wiggling in my seat. What if I'm dying?

"So…" Marx clears his throat, scanning the second page over and over again as if he's trying to make sure he's getting the words right. "I'm not sure this is great news."

"Okay? Is it that you're wrong?"

Elena laughs, covering her mouth. He shakes his head.

"Well, yes and no." He touches his glasses again, scratching at his beard. "You may want to quit the cigarettes and bar nights."

"We already had that lecture," I huff, waving his words out of the air. "Spit it out, Tyler."

"Fine." He tosses the stack of papers onto my lap and they nearly go flying apart. Elena catches a page that floats to the floor, frowning at the list of negative signs.

"What the hell's this?"

"Congratulations, Kat," he says dryly, tucking his hands away into his pockets. "You're eating for two."

Chapter Text

"What?"

"That would explain your symptoms," he continues, touching his glasses. "Morning sickness, aches, fluctuating mood…"

"I think the mood's just her personality," Elena points out. When I scowl at her, she shakes her head. "Do you still want me to stay, or…?"

"Please." I can't imagine what would happen if Elena left this room without me, ready to blurt her new secret to the first person she meets. Groaning, I bury my face in my hands. How did I let this happen? "What the hell am I going to do?"

"Well, you have a couple of options." Marx sits on his stool, resting his hands on his knees. "If you decide to keep it, you can take time off work, but that will more than likely turn into a permanent situation."

"Fuck," I moan, closing my eyes and letting my hands fall into my lap.

"It's not that bad. have a kid, Kat, and I'd say she's turning out alright."

"This is different."

"… I know." Marx sighs, pulling his glasses off and tapping them against the counter. "I wouldn't recommend that, not with what in your blood."

"I'm not letting it go. Not if I can help it." I tug at the threads in my pants, feeling sick. My chest is tight and I can't get rid of the lump in my throat. Is this really my only choice?

The child stays.

I'll protect you both.

I shiver. "They won't have to suffer through what I have."

"That's not my point. The voice, Kat."

"She's there to protect me from myself."

"She?" When I shake my head, he continues. "Kat, she isn't just the result of psychological damage. She is in your DNA, passed to you through your father after he decided to use himself as a test subject."

"What is it?" I demand, turning to scowl at him. "I know you don't want to mess with my memories, but I have a right to know."

"You'll know soon enough. You've still been remembering?"

"Yeah?"

"What was the last thing you recalled?"

I glance at Elena, hanging my head. "… Killing Tseng's fiancé."

"Then you're close."

"How do you know?"

"We've done this before, remember? No, I don't suppose you would. Apologies." Marx pulls his keyboard closer. "Consider your options well, Kat. I know what I would choose."

"Well, it's a good thing it's not your decision."

"No, it's not." He frowns, eyes narrowed on his screen. "Do you know who the father is?"

"I…" My words get stuck in my throat as I try to remember the first time Reno and I... Fuck. I can't breatheNo.

"Kat?"

"No, I don't think—I don't know."

"But what about Reno?" Elena asks, frowning.

I press my lips together and realization dawns clearly on Marx's face. How does he know? He clears his throat and blinks away a thought before typing rapidly on his keyboard.

"What are you—"

"It's Rufus Shinra, isn't it?"

"Tyler—" I cut myself off, shoulders slumped in defeat. It's too late—he has to report to the President. Elena's eyebrows look ready to disappear into her hairline, her jaw slack. This is a sick mess. "I don't know what to do."

"Well, let's hope he doesn't see this and you have space to think. Something tells me he won't take kindly to this news."

"You don't know jack shit about how he'll react," I snap, defensive. If anyone has the right to assume what he'll say, it's me. I'm the only fucking person on the planet that sees through his cold, empty mask.

Elena exchanges a look with Marx, eyes ripe with pity. "Let's get out of here, Kat. Spend a little time thinking?"

"Yeah."

Shaky, I gather my papers and head out the door, my steps quick and long. Elena hurries to catch up, pressing the last paper into my hands.

"Where are you headed?"

"Home."

"Oh. Okay."

"Elena."

"Hm?"

"Please don't tell anyone."

"Of course not." Elena frowns, off-put by my pleading. "Why would I?"

"I don't know."

I press my hand to the door for the stairwell, hurrying to be alone. I brush past a pair of workers that speak in hushed voices, apologizing under my breath. I'm panting by the time I reach my floor, but I can't slow down, or I'll fall apart. It's just my luck that Reno's heading in the opposite direction down the hallway. He grins, but I don't look at him, trying to hurry past. Not now. Just let be. He grabs hold of my elbow and the papers go flying, crinkled from being crushed to my chest.

"Reno!" I cry, falling to my hands and knees.

"Wasn't tryin' to." He bends over to help me. I panic, slapping his hands away and gathering the pages by myself. "Hey, calm down!" I sigh, scooping the mess into my arms and taking a deep breath.

"Sorry."

"What's up?" he asks, watching me get to my feet. "Fuck, Kat, you're shaking."

I shake my head, peering past him to see my door waiting for me. "I'm fine, I promise."

"What're these?" He reaches forward to pry a page away, but I step back, holding them tighter.

"Don't! It's just…" I close my eyes, trying to calm myself. "I just had Marx do some testing. It's just boring medical shit, Reno."

"Well if it's boring, why can't I see?"

"Because it's none of your business." I step around him quickly. "I have to go organize these now. And I'm not coming in today—doctor's orders."

"Okay…?"

I'm sick again the next day, only reaffirming what Marx told me. I bury my cigarettes beneath a pile of laundry and hurry out the door to keep myself away from them. Upstairs, Rude and Elena are talking quietly. I slip past them to toss back a couple of cups of coffee before turning back to join them. The blonde steps to the side with bright, lively eyes, continuing her rambling story.

"Plus, I heard that Scarlet stabbed some guy in the eye with her stilettos yesterday." She shudders, jamming her hands into her pockets and glancing at me. "She kinda scares me. Doesn't she freak you out even a little, Rude?" Rude shrugs, nodding toward me in greeting. Elena smiles, though I can some of it's forced. "How're you today, Kat? Hanging in there?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Does she scare you?"

"I'd be stupid not to be afraid."

"See?!" she cries, pointing at me as she stands on her toes to get closer to Rude's face. "She's terrifying! Gods, Kat, you and your black coffee."

"I like it this way," I remind her, raising an eyebrow and taking another sip. She crinkles her nose.

"Did you drink it when you were younger? Coffee stunts your growth, you know."

"I know," I frown, looking her up and down. "Elena… you're shorter than me."

"She's sensitive about the subject," Reno butts in, throwing an arm over my back and setting an elbow on Rude's shoulder.

"What subject?"

"Your height," he shrugs, turning to flash a cocky half-smile. "It's alright. We still love you."

"Get off me," I scoff, rolling my eyes and shrugging him away. "I'm not that short."

"Well…" Elena shrugs when I scowl at her.

"I'm just below average!"

"Mhm." Reno laughs when I elbow his ribs. "See? Sensitive. At least 'lena's not afraid to admit it."

"Lena?" I repeat, glancing at Elena. She shrugs again, turning back to Rude.

Reno leans down closer to my shoulder and I flinch away, scared he's trying to pull something annoying. He raises an eyebrow, keeping his voice low. "Hey, come to my office."

"You sound like Rufus," I huff, pushing my empty cup into Rude's hand and following. Reno's partner frowns down at the cup, taking a deep breath to calm his irritation.

"I hope Rufus ain't gettin' that close anymore," Reno scoffs, closing the door behind me.

Suddenly, I get nervous. What does he want to talk about? There's no way he knows… Reno clasps his hands behind his head and wanders toward his messy desk. The distance in his eyes and the absence of my voice tell me he's thinking. Shuddering, I hug my arms closer to my body. I'm starting to sweat, anxious. I begin to search for words to break the silence, turning my eyes to the floor. He slams his hands against the desk and I jump, nearly peeing my pants.

"When the fuck did you plan on telling me?" Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

"Tell you—" Stammering, my voice stops. What can I say?

"Kat, I'm not stupid."

"I didn't say you were. I'm not stupid, either."

"Course not." Reno frowns, staring hard at the papers before him. "You know damn well what I mean."

"Reno, I—" I shiver, clenching my teeth.

Shaking his head, Reno straightens, staring up at a generic photo of a cityscape on his wall. "Yesterday, when you dropped all those papers… I took one. I don't know why; I just knew I had to."

"What the hell?" I snap, irritated. "That was none of your—"

"Don't you fuckin' lecture me," he retorts, turning back with a scowl on his face. "Your business is my business, Kat."

"Since when?!"

"Since always, you dumb bitch!" He laughs, turning and grabbing my shoulders, shaking me. "Kat, we've always had each other's backs. All these damn secrets are driving me fucking insane. You were being weird, and I had to know what was wrong."

"Reno, I'm—"

"I don't wanna lose whatever the fuck we have goin' one any time soon, but you make it so damn hard!" He pulls away, tugging at his hair and turning his back to me. "I couldn't sleep."

"I'm sorry."

"No, don't apologize."

I press my lips together, face red and hands sticky with sweat. My mind clings to one thing he said—one thing that makes me crack a smile. "Whatever the fuck we have goin' on?"

"What?"

"That's what you said."

"Well, yeah. I'm not done…" Reno huffs, shaking his head and shoving his hands into his pockets. "Not with us. But this kid…" He doesn't finish his sentence, retreating.

Sympathetic, I step forward and rest a hand on his back, peeking around him to catch his eye. "I'm not done either, Re. I'm your Kitty Kat, remember?"

Reno's lips curl into a smile that he fights at first. Then, he shakes his head and gives in, turning to face me. "You're a goddamn mess and a half, Kitty, you know that?"

"I'm very aware."

"Fuckin' pain in my ass."

"It's because I hate you." I stand on my toes, pressing a quick kiss to his lips.

He grins, watching as I hop onto the edge of his desk. "Those were two very contradicting statements." He gets me back, reaching around me and pulling a paper free. "This is the one I stole."

"How noble of you to return it," I tease, scanning the page. Out of all the pages of negative tests, he somehow pulled the single positive result. That's what I'd call Fate—if I believed in her.

"You should probably get back to work."

"Oh, so now you want me out."

He shakes his head, running his fingers over the back of my hand. "No, you should stay."

"You were right the first time," I sigh, standing and shoving the paper into my pocket. "Got everything off your chest?" He doesn't answer. I turn the doorknob, turning back to see him staring at the picture again. "Okay, well, have fun."

"Yeah."

I shake my head, returning to Elena and Rude, who haven't budged. Something's weird about him. Elena offers a thin smile, crossing her arms.

"What's on today's agenda?" I ask, taking my empty cup back from Rude. I want to feel relieved, but I can't. Something felt off when I left Reno alone.

"Dunno," Elena answers, shrugging. "Corneo's dead, Tseng's not here, and Reno's not keeping us in the loop with whatever Rufus is doing."

"Where's Avalanche?"

"Heading to Mideel to take care of Cloud."

"Hm. Shame what happened to him. You won't chase them?" I crumple the cup absently and Elena laughs.

"What, are you that desperate to get rid of me?"

"Of course I do," I scoff, fighting a smile. "Hey, do either of you know where Hojo—"

I'm cut off by a crash coming from Reno's office. It's quickly followed by the rustling of papers splashing to the floor. Guilty, I chew on the inside of my cheek. I'm sorry, Re. Rude frowns, glancing down at me, but I refuse to look back up. I know this is my fault.

"Is he okay?" Elena asks, careful.

"Should be. I didn't do anything to piss him off."

"What happened in there?" Rude looks back at the office door, tugging at one of his earrings.

"Nothing."

"Kat—"

"Rude, I swear I didn't say anything that would set him off. At least, I don't think I did. Maybe he got a phone call." Gods, Kat. You're a shitty liar.

"Hn." Without another word, Rude heads toward the door, ignoring Reno's shouts for him to leave, and shuts it tight behind him. I can hear the muffled sound of the redhead yelling at his partner.

Cringing, I turn back to Elena. "This won't end well."

"Does this have to do with…?"

"Yeah."

"You told him?"

I sigh, shaking my head. "He found the papers."

"Oh." Shifting uncomfortably, she stretches her arms behind her back. "Well, what did you want to talk to Hojo about?"

"There's a shitload of stuff I need to understand about myself. Every time I remember I need to talk to him, he's on vacation or he quit."

"Damn."

"Yeah."

"Y'know…" Elena cuts herself off with a giggle. "There's this rumor going around about you and Reno."

"What's that?"

"You guys are actually related, but you fell in love and now you're, y'know."

"Gods, that's gross. What's wrong with people?" I don't even have the heart to crinkle my nose, anxiously listening to the quieted argument behind us. Elena notices, reaching out and touching my arm to get my attention.

"Hey, why don't you help me with something? My computer's all busted up and I need someone who at least kind of knows how to fix things."

"Sure," I nod, following her. Please be okay.

Chapter Text

"What the hell is that?"

"Sapphire Weapon. It attacked Junon while Tifa and Barret where supposed to be executed. You didn't see it from the ship?"

"I was in the belly of the beast. There are more Weapons, aren't there?"

"Yes."

"How the hell are we going to stop them?" I sigh, shaking my head. "Especially with Cloud the way he is now."

"We'll be alright. Cid has it under control."

"You're three people short." I straighten, crossing my arms. "You'd better think of some other way to help them. And quick—I'm not supposed to be here."

"I'll figure it out." Reeve tugs at his beard, looking up at me. "Why don't you go home? It's getting late."

"Okay." I start toward his door, though I stop after a few steps. "Are you going home, too?"

"In a few minutes, yes."

"Okay."

"May I ask why you're concerned?"

"Just wanted to make sure you're not killing yourself," I tease, opening his office door. "Goodnight, Reeve."

"Goodnight."

I close the door behind me softly, hurrying away from his door. The hallways are dark and bland, empty. Silent. A voice rips a startled gasp from my throat.

"I was about to call you."

"Gods, Ru—Sir." I press a hand to my heart, feeling it pound against my ribs as I turn to face him. "You scared me."

"Pay more attention to your surroundings." Rufus eyes me coldly, tugging at his gloves. "Come to my office."

Oh shit.He didn't skip the email, did he? Makes me wonder what Marx put in the subject line. Something like "Urgent News: your dumb bitch employee is causing problems for you again" maybe. I can see it. The walk is stuffed with silence, threatening to burst by the time the door closes behind me. Rufus heads all the way up to his enormous desk but he doesn't sit. Instead, he types something into his computer and clicks around while he waits for me to stand before him. Finally, he straightens, hands clasped behind his back and sharp eyes looking me up and down.

"How are you feeling?"

"What?" I frown, taken off guard.

He raises an eyebrow. "I heard you've been sick."

"Oh, um, yeah. I'm fine."

"Good." Rufus takes a deep breath, turning to stare at the towering windows that reflect the office right back at us. There's no looking outside. It's a cage of mirrors where I can see us from all angles. It's suffocating.

"What did you need me for?"

"I wanted to…" His voice trails off and he shakes his head. "No, I'm not beating around the bush."

"Sorry?"

He brushes a paper aside, watching it move with his eyes narrowed. "Kat, do you know how many illegitimate children my father had?"

"N-no?" I stammer, confused. So he does know. "I'm sorry, sir, I—"

"Two. Both sons." He shakes his falling hair out of his eyes and looks up at me. "Perhaps you remember Director Lazard."

"The director of SOLDIER?"

"Yes. His mother was a slum woman." Rufus puffs out a dry laugh and hangs his head. "And Evan… He was the secretary's."

"I—" I stop myself, not sure what to say. Why's he telling me this?

"And now, here I am." My heart begins to sink. He's comparing himself to his father again. Does he think he's…? He presses his lips together, hands pressed to the surface of his desk. "Slum-scum."

"Sir—"

"Cut the formalities for a moment," he sighs, falling into his seat and staring hard at his computer screen.

"Fine. Rufus, I don't understand what you're getting at."

"No?" He sits straighter, folding his fingers together on top of his desk. He's clearly not here to listen to me deny the truth, but he refuses to let this last any longer than it has to whether I drag my feet or not. I chew on the inside of my cheek, fidgeting. I don't want to hear this, but I don't have much choice. "I received news from Marx today. It seems your pregnant."

"And you think you're…?"

"Yes." Rufus takes a deep breath, forcing himself to look at me. His eyes are laced with enough bitterness to kill a citrus orchard. "Kat, do you remember anything about the circumstances of that night?"

"The circumstances of…?" I frown, confused. He stares for a moment longer and I realize what he means. "Oh! Right, sorry." Blushing, I cross my arms. "No, I mean, I remember some of it."

"That's… not what I meant."

"Then what did you mean?"

For once, Rufus looks uncomfortable. If we weren't talking about this, I might've smiled at his uneasiness. Clearly, he still hasn't come to terms with what happened. "There were moments when caution was thrown aside in favor of… other things."

"Oh." Suddenly, I feel sick. I don't know what I expected. It was either Reno or Rufus—it's unsettling to know that it's the latter. What do I tell Re?

"You're the only one who can vouch for the validity of that theory, though." Rufus stands, turning back to the windows. "I don't particularly want to know about what you and Reno do in your free time."

"No, you—" The words catch in my throat, refusing to come out. You're right. I could stand here and lecture him about how he should've been careful with the state I was in, but what's the use? It's my fault, too. "Is that all you wanted me for?"

"I suppose. Just a reminder."

"Reminder?" Is this where you tell me to leave?

"Yes. No one is to know. That child, whether we like it or not, is mine."

"Yours…" I whisper, frowning. Mine.

He can't take them.

If he tries, he's as good as dead.

Ours.

Yours.

Mine .

I flinch, squeezing my eyes shut. Rufus cocks his head to the side, standing.

"Did that upset them?"

"Yeah."

"Does it upset you?" I open my eyes to see him watching me, cold as ever. When I don't answer, he shrugs. "I don't care. Facts are facts, Kat."

"It's not yours, Rufus."

"Would you rather I say ours?"

"… No." I take a deep breath and lean my head forward, rocking back and forth on my toes. "I'd rather you leave me alone."

"And if these were other circumstances, I might. Unfortunately, illegitimate or not, that child is entitled to—"

"They don't have to know."

Rufus raises an eyebrow and I start fidgeting again. "After all this time you've spent suffering from the secrets of your past, you'd do the same to your own child?"

"… Marx says my condition can be passed down through my genes. You want a person like me in power?"

"We'll worry about that when we get there."

"Rufus, this is twenty years in the future!"

"No, it's not. This is now and this is my decision. You can do what you like, but you cannot deny the truth."

I shift my weight back and forth between my feet, staring at the floor. I'm angry, I'm afraid, and I'm anxious, but he's right. I can't do anything about it. He can't do anything about it. Powerful people are bound by their rules and formalities. I miss the days of simplicity. What the fuck am I supposed to tell Reno?

"Are you going to tell anyone?"

Rufus sighs, closing out the email on his computer. "Not yet. Heidegger is another issue I have to handle on my own."

"He wouldn't want me working?"

"He'd want you removed in a less than optimal manner." The president brushes his hair out of his eyes and wanders closer to me. "He's not been very secretive that he was the first and loudest advocate for your execution."

"My execution?" I repeat. "When the hell were you planning on executing me?"

Rufus's frown deepens. "Twelve years ago. I had nothing to do with it. You don't remember?"

"I know that I…" I shove my hands into my pockets, trying to piece the tidbits I have together. "I know that Tseng wanted me executed—everyone called him the 'bad man' that wanted me dead. And I know that I was put in the hospital so that I wouldn't be punished, but Heidegger? I have no idea."

"Hm. Well, he did."

"Why did he care?"

"You made him look like a fool."

"How?" My eyebrows are so tightly knit together that they might as well be touching. It's frustrating enough that I can't remember what I've done. The fact that Rufus expects me to be caught up at this point makes it even harder. "I was, what, twelve years old? I don't even know what I did."

"Then think about it, Kat." Rufus returns to his pompous attitude, eyebrow raised ever so slightly and eyes sharply judging every movement I make. "Do research on what you remember. It won't be hard to figure out."

"And what if I don't want to?"

"If you want to remain in the dark, you can. If this is for Marx…" He sighs, cocking his head to the side. "Then forget it. His results are born from a villainous study no one has business participating in, much less becoming a prisoner to. I know what he's done, and he holds no power over you."

"That's nice and all, but it's not true. He could erase everything I've recovered whether I want it or not." I shake my head, leaning my weight on my left hip. "He… says he's doing it to right his wrongs, but it really just boils down to selfishness yet again."

"Then why participate?"

"I…" I huff, not quite sure how to explain. "I guess… I feel like I owe him the chance. Tseng gave me another go, and I'd say things are going alright."

"This isn't the same."

"No?" I scoff, leaning forward and pressing my hands to the outer edge of his desk, forcing myself to look at him. "Rufus, I've killed kids. I shot some guy named Carlos in the hallway downstairs for teasing me. I'm pretty sure I killed my own family. Where does that leave me compared to Marx?"

Rufus doesn't react to my words in the slightest, waiting until I'm finished speaking. "You didn't force anyone to suffer. You never once lied about your intentions. Marx could say neither of those things applied to him."

"It doesn't mat—"

"But it does. If you held half the charges over your head that Marx does, you would not be here."

"Why does a charge matter? All my crimes were—"

"Cleared, as were his. An event can be erased from a record and still have occurred." Rufus glances up when the guards crack the door open. "Not now."

"The doctor wants to—"

"What doctor?"

"Tyler Marx, sir."

Rufus sighs, motioning for him to shut the door. When the latch clicks, he turns back to me. "Take the time to search. No one will know unless either of us says something."

I tear my eyes away to stare at his desk, afraid to speak. I can't stop the words from coming out, though. "… Reno knows." Rufus closes his eyes, frustrated.

"How?"

"He took one of the results pages Marx gave me."

"… I'll speak to him."

"I think it's better if you don't say—"

"I don't care what you think, Kat." He jerks his head toward the door. "Now go. I need to speak to Marx."

"Rufus—"

"Go."

Huffing, I turn on my heels and head toward the door. First, he calls me here to tell me that this baby is, without a doubt, his. Then, he encourages me to look deeper into a past that he knows I'm afraid of, and that's after his pep talk about freedom. What the hell is happening to you, Rufus? I don't look up at Marx when he passes by, refusing to acknowledge his greeting. What happens if I dig, though? Do I lose my shit? Or is it incredibly underwhelming? I shake my head, pushing my way into Reno's apartment and ignoring his bitching about me scaring him. Guess there's only one way to find out.

Chapter Text

"Mornin', Sweetheart," Reno slurs around the toothbrush in his mouth.

I frown, sitting up and pushing my hair out of my eyes. I don't remember much past the conversation Rufus and I had last night. Reno and I probably talked and went to bed. Shaking my head, I get to my feet and stretch my back.

"Morning."

"How're you feeling?"

"A little queasy. Hopefully, it'll pass."

"Yeah." Reno crosses the hall to rinse out his mouth, scrubbing his face dry with a towel and pulling a white shirt off the rail on his tiled wall. Yawning, I close the gap and rest my head on his back, letting my eyes fall shut.

"I'm so tired."

"Yeah? You slept like a dead body," he laughs, buttoning up his shirt.

"Did I? Feels like I ran a marathon."

"Well, you better wake up fast. I got an actual assignment for us to do."

"No way," I gasp, grinning at his reflection. "I didn't know those were part of our job anymore. Thought I got paid to sit around and look pretty."

"You got the first part down."

"Hey!" I smack the back of his head and he ducks, reaching for his uniform jacket. "What're we doing?"

"I tell you when you get dressed. Stop stealin' my shirts."

I spread my arms out to show just how large the t-shirt is on me, laughing. It looks like I have wings. "What, when was the last time you repped the theater's production shirts?"

"Doesn't matter. It's mine."

"Then learn to share, Anus."

Rolling his eyes, he leaves me alone and I force myself to pull on my uniform from yesterday. Everything about my body is sluggish and slow. I feel like someone attached a hose to my back and sucked the life from my veins. I need another vacation. Reno knocks on the doorframe, catching my attention abruptly.

"Something up?"

"Yeah." He holds up his phone, a crooked smile twisting his lips. "A real assignment from the big man himself."

"You're kidding." I snatch the phone from his grasp, reading the brief message. Giddy, I toss it back with a grin. At least Rufus isn't babying the situation. "We're back to serving Scarlet, huh?"

"Better than sitting on our asses another day."

"Damn right."

The flight to Junon isn't as long as I remember, though I can't help but notice the distinct lack of Tseng's eye-rolls and Rufus's pouting from the back. It's kind of sad. I guess hauling Huge Materia into submarines doesn't require the extra company, but it would be nice to go back to those days for just a moment, wouldn't it?

The extra security feels a little unnecessary. I shouldn't have to show my ID every five feet to follow my orders. To be fair, I haven't instilled much confidence in these soldiers, but the accompaniment of Reno should ease their minds. How crafty do these people think I am?

"Let's get to the damn sub," I huff, tucking my ID away for what I hope is the final time.

Reno laughs, shaking his head and tucking his hands into his pockets. "Gotta load up the Materia first, Sweetheart. Didn't Tseng ever teach you patience?"

"No, but he'd be lecturing me about that now if he was here."

Reno nods toward a looming crane that dangles a gleaming yellow sphere over the open hatch of a scarlet submarine. The entire dock smells like seawater and rust, bustling with dozens of soldiers and crew members that eye us as we stroll past along the soaked concrete pathway. From here, the Huge Materia will be transported to Rocket Town to fill their looming old rocket and launch it at Meteor. All this in a baseless hope for a miracle.

"Do you think all this is gonna work?" I ask, crossing my arms and watching the crane operator poke his head out, waiting for a signal.

Reno rocks up onto his toes, bouncing on his feet when he sinks back down. Finally, he shakes his head, hanging it lower before glancing at me from the corner of his eye. "Have you seen the thing? Hurling rockets at that hunk's not gonna do shit, even with Huge Materia."

I nod, watching the operator place the Materia in a chamber inside the submarine. "I think so, too. What do they plan on doing about the barrier Sephiroth put up?"

"Dunno. They're moving the Sister Ray to Midgar, though."

"Why…?" I frown. "How do they plan on moving the entire face of Junon to Midgar?"

Reno laughs, shaking his head. "Don't ask me. They wanna power it with mako and that's where we have the most pumps, I guess." He turns his head to smile at me. "Had to sit on a boring meeting with Heidegger and Scarlet."

"Perks of being number two," I tease, nudging him with my elbow.

Someone steps up behind us and Reno rolls his eyes, shooting me a dry look. "Get back to work."

"No thanks. Manual labor's not my thing."

I frown at Reno and we turn to see Cloud, Cid, and Vincent waiting. The spiky-headed blonde smirks and Reno raises an eyebrow. Cid wrestles a smile when our eyes meet. I force myself to remain emotionless.

"What're you doing here?" Reno huffs. He shakes his head, his red hair bouncing with the motion. "No, nevermind. I don't have time to mess around with you losers." He jerks his head to the left, a smug smile tracing his lips. "But where are my manners? I'll leave you some entertainment."

Reno grabs my elbow and turns me. We run past a clanking robot with two enormous crane arms, ducking under a swipe from one of the claws. I look back when I hear Cid howl, laughing when I see him dangling over the ground by the ass of his pants.

"What the hell is that thing?" I call over the creaking and clanging of the fighting behind us.

"It's what happens when Scarlet lets me dick around with the scraps," he replies, grinning from ear to ear when he looks back at Avalanche. Hair flying back out of his face, lights dancing in his eyes, and arms pumping hard as he makes his great escape… It's like our youth all over again. Running, running, running. When will we ever stop? "Up!" he shouts, pulling me ahead of him toward the ladder on the side of the sub.

I climb up obediently, snickering at the sound of Highwind's curses. Wasting no time, I drop into the belly of the beast, waiting for Reno to follow suit. He leads the way to a control panel at the front.

"Smaller than I thought it would be," I comment, climbing in the seat beside him. A few crew members hurry around us, ordering the hatch to close.

"Quit whinin'," Reno mumbles, flipping illuminated switches. "That thing closed yet?"

"Yes sir!" a man calls.

"Thank fuck," he breathes, pushing a lever and sending the sub lurching forward as it sinks below the blackened waves. "Hope that little toy keeps 'em occupied long enough."

"It should. Cid looked ready to shit himself when he was swinging around like that."

Reno laughs, shaking his head. He takes a breath to speak when the entire body of the sub rumbles. Alarms begin to blare and red lights flash. Startled, I turn to Reno. He frowns, throwing a look over his shoulder. "The fuck?"

"They're in pursuit, sir," the man reports, hanging onto a handle on the wall.

"Damn radars don't work on this piece of shit," Reno grumbles, banging a fist on the blank screen. Another rumble rocks the sub and the crew begins to panic. "This fuckin' blows."

"Shoot back?" I suggest, heart pounding. How do things always go so wrong so quickly?

"Not gonna help us now." Reno huffs, gritting his teeth when the sub jolts and the lights flicker. Even with the front lights on, we can hardly see anything in the black ocean water ahead of us. "There's gonna be a lifeboat on board."

"What about the crew?" I ask, frowning at the empty hall behind us.

"Boat should be big enough." Reno gets to his feet. "And if it's not, we just gotta beat em to it."

"Reno, what—" I start, rolling my eyes.

A blurry beam of light cuts me off, blasting a hole in the thick glass that separates us from the water. The rush of salty seawater slams me against the wall on the backside of the room. My forehead stings where a thick shard of glass gashed through my skin and released a river of blood onto my face. Reno pushes himself off the opposite wall, also having been nicked by the glass, and clings to the wall to stay upright.

"Get to the boat!" he shouts over the rushing water, reaching across the gap to pull me in the right direction.

The crew scurries away, rushing for an open door at the end of the main hall. Stumbling and slipping, I drag myself through the rushing water as quickly as I can. Reno uses the wall to drag himself past, clawing at the shirt of the last crew member to enter the lifeboat's hold. The man slams his elbow backward into Reno's nose and quickly closes the door behind him, locking us out. Clutching his nose with an angry cry, Reno stumbles back into the opposite wall.

"Fuck!" he screams, lurching toward the door and slamming on the steel. I half expect him to burst into flames with his rage sparking in his eyes and the tension in his body as he slams the door with one strike after another. "Goddamn motherfucking cunts!"

"Reno!" I grab his arm and pull him back, anxiously feeling the water swell around my legs. "Are there any other exits?"

"I don't know," he huffs, catching his breath as his eyes dart about the cabin. "Could be another boat down the other side."

"Let's see."

Braced against the current, we wade through the blackened waves to find any escape route that doesn't involve us braving the cold and the crushing pressure at this depth. I nearly topple over when the sub rocks forward, tipping backward as all the air rushes toward the hole in the front. Clinging to the back of Reno's shirt, I peer over his shoulder and point toward a dim sign.

"There!"

"Fuckin' hope it's what we need," he grumbles, hurrying toward the door. He punches the button to open the door, but it flashes vibrant red, locked. "Shit."

"What do we do?" I ask, anxiously hugging my arms to my body to keep my warmth in. Already, the water reaches the base of my ribcage, freezing everything beneath.

"Switch's gotta be up front," Reno murmurs, turning back the way we came. The lights flicker and my blood runs ice cold in momentary panic. He has a look in his eyes that I don't like. "I'm going back for it."

"What?! We can't just pry it open?"

"Don't have time." Reno presses his lips together, thinking. "And I'm not dying here."

"But—"

"Stay here." When he turns to head back, the sub groans, tilting upward in a steeper incline that before. Reno grits his teeth, hanging onto a railing tightly.

"Don't go," I plead, shaking the stinging droplets out of my eyes. Reno puffs out a short, airy laugh and presses a kiss to my lips before dragging himself back up toward the controls.

Shuddering, I hang on to the doorframe tighter, keeping my head above the rising waves. The water's still rising fast, and if we don't make it out of here in time, we'll be nothing more than two bloated bodies at the bottom of the ocean. That's not how I want this to end. The lights flicker again, but this time, they don't come back on. Only dim red emergency lights illuminate the way, reflecting off the water in ways that hurt my eyes. How's he going to find his way back?

Just as I begin to panic thinking that he's been gone too long, the door slides open and the water rushes in, nearly sucking me under. Clinging to the edges of the frame, I swing myself inside and slam the button to close the doors with my fist. Behind me is our salvation, the interior of a rusty old lifeboat that was clearly meant to be removed years ago. My fingertips are eerily pale when I press them to the door, squeezing my eyes shut as drops of diluted blood drip from the tip of my nose. Please…

"Shit," I gasp, startled when the doors begin to slide open. Reno follows another rush of water, laughing hysterically. I close the door behind him and he hurries toward the panel.

"Sit down, Sweetheart. Let's get the fuck outta here."

"Don't need to tell me twice."

As soon as we're close enough to swim to the sandy shores outside of Junon, we jump ship, letting the rickety lifeboat sink as we drag ourselves onto the beach. We manage to make it to the grass before we collapse, exhausted, shivering, and relieved to be alive. Reno falls onto his hands and knees, pressing his forehead to the dry grass, eyes closed as he catches his breath. I roll out my back, letting the sunlight thaw my frozen bones.

"Shit," he whispers. "I love dry land."

"I'm never getting into one of those torture cans again," I retort, peeling my jacket off in an effort to feel less soggy.

"Gotta admit," he says, turning over onto his back and flopping an arm over his forehead. "Avalanche is a damn good shot with that thing."

"Screw that. I'm wringing Cid's neck that next time I see him." I force myself to sit up, shaking my head. "What about the Huge Materia?"

"Ain't worth the hassle. Gonna get those fuckers fired for tryin' to drown us."

"How're you going to do that?"

"Tattle. If that doesn't work, I'll kill 'em myself." Reno sits up and wrings his hair out, his hair spiking back up again as it dries.

"Fine by me."

After a moment of silence and soaking up the sun, we get back up. I squeeze the water out of my jacket and pull the unbearably damp material back on. Reno throws an arm over my shoulder, presses his lips to my temple, and turns to the city on the horizon.

"Guess we should deliver the bad news to the skank, huh?"

"Guess so."

Chapter Text

The needle pushing through my forehead isn’t as painful as I thought it would be. The woman leaned over me chews on her lip and shimmies closer, standing on her toes. She smells like bread and coffee, probably her lunch. Or her dinner. What time is it anyway? I don’t remember. Since I can’t go to Marx for my problems anymore, Reno sent me to this lady. She huffed and puffed about wanting to leave for the day, but after seeing that it was a simple stitch job, she set her bag aside and got to work.

Snipping the thread with a small pair of scissors, she steps back and admires her handiwork for a moment. “Alright, you should be set to go. Just don’t rip those open and they’ll heal just fine.”

“When should I come back?”

“They'll go away,” she shrugs, heaving her purse onto her shoulder. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go get my kids from school before they’re dropped off without a housekey and bother the neighbors.” With that, she rushes out the door.

“Oddly specific,” I mutter, sliding off the examination table and straightening my uniform that’s stiff from salt. The halls are slowly beginning to empty for the night, making it easy to wind my way into the stairwell and climb the stairs with tired legs. I’m stopped on the way up, greeted by a broad smile and arms that are, for once, freely hanging without a load.

“There’s no way you’re still real,” Amelia greets, stopping before me. Her eyes are alight with genuine joy. I find it confusing. “It feels like I haven’t seen you in a hundred years.”

“Feels that way, doesn’t it?” I crack a smile and step aside to allow a train of laborers past. “Rufus been keeping you busy?”

“Is that a joke? I haven’t sat down in days.” She gives me a onceover, her smile never faltering. “But you probably know all about that.”

For a moment, I panic, thinking that she somehow knows about my situation with the young president. But then I remember—I’m a Turk. We’re supposed to be busy. 

Laughing uneasily as my stomach untwists from its knots, I nod. “Yeah, it’s been a little crazy.”

“Any updates? My life is boring now that I’m not pacing the halls in hospitals every day.” She leans against the railing, crossing her arms and pulling the sleeves of her sweater over her hands.

I shake my head, following suit. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you. “Nothing very interesting on my end, either. Found Don Corneo on accident and ended that whole ordeal.”

“That sleezeball?” She rolls her eyes. “Good.” After a moment, she lowers her voice, leaning a bit closer. “I heard you assisted Avalanche with their escape from execution.”

“Oh, I—” My face goes red and I fumble over my words. 

She shakes her head. “No, I stand by it. They’re the only ones that can get us out of this, I think. Crazy to say it out loud.”

“Yeah…” I press my lips together, turning my eyes to the tall glass windows to my right. The sun sets slowly over the city, but the darkness won’t ever come. Not with that looming doom of Meteor hanging over our heads and threatening to blast us all into oblivion in a matter of days. What does that mean about us? Do I live like I’ve only got seventy-two hours left?

“Also, on a more serious note…” Amelia straightens and clears her throat, her smile fading with her retreat. “Is Tyler Marx still your primary—”

“No. I cut that off. Still would’ve even if Rufus hadn’t ordered it.”

Rufus ordered it?” Her eyes go wide and her jaw slackens.

“Yeah. There are a lot of things I’m trying to understand about myself and he’s only making things harder.” I shrug, forcing myself to look her in the eye. “So I’m done.”

I half expect her to get awkward about my vague response, perhaps to even demand for more answers. However, what I get is an expression of complete understanding. She reaches out to squeeze my arm, offering a smile.

“I’m glad. That’ll be very good for you.”

“I’m hoping so,” I nod, curious as to why she’s so sympathetic. Before I can question her further, she takes a deep breath and tucks her short hair behind her ear.

“Unfortunately, I’m going to be late picking up the President’s dinner if I stay here any longer. We have to talk again before we burn alive, alright?”

“Definitely.”

I wave her off and continue my walk up the stairs, arms hugged to my body and mind racing. Worked in mental hospitals… What’s so weird about that to me? No one’s out when I reach the hallway, so I head straight home. I’m tempted to throw myself in bed and hibernate, but I force myself to remove my salt-encrusted uniform and brew a cup of coffee.

Rufus’s words from last night still ring clear in my head, a nonstop whisper in the back of my mind now that I’m finally alone in the quiet. Think about it. Research. Think. But do I really want to? 

For a moment, I forget where I’ve been for the past few weeks. I forget why everything is happening the way it is, why I’m so alone, and why I can’t ask the right questions. I reach for my phone and scroll through my contacts, reaching to touch Tseng’s name.

And then it all comes back. He’s been dead and gone for weeks. I’ve been isolated for so long and it all feels like a blur. I press my lips together, swallow the lump in my throat, and let my head roll back onto the couch cushions. He’s gone. There’s no helping me now… Shaking my head, I stand, pacing to burn off some of my nervous energy. No, Rufus said I just have to think. I have everything I need…

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to remember anything connected to what I have. I know about Sonyah, I remember Tyler’s crimes, and I can still clearly feel the slick blood on my hands from all those I’ve killed. But what’s the missing piece? My heart skips a beat when the slightest scent of smoke fills my nose. My eyes blink open, but there’s nothing burning. That’s right…

Fire.


The air is hot, thick with billowing clouds of black smoke that roll into the air and rush back toward the ground, blocked by the same ceiling that’s caged me for two years. My hands are sticky with drying blood and my eyes burn with hatred hotter than the flames that lap at my legs. The glass clutched in my hand killed more than its fair share of guards, dripping with a crimson mixture of our lives melding together on one sharp edge.

I make my way through the hospital armed with only the glass and my determination, ignoring the other patients that panic and run for their lives. I couldn’t care less where they go. I don’t want anything but my old life back. A nearby seat in the hall begins to burn, puffing thick smoke into the air. I wave it away and slam my foot into a familiar door, nearly knocking it off its hinges. Where is she? A drop of blood rolls off my fingertip and fizzles in the flames to my right, burning black.

The rug is charred and it’s nearly too dark to see. A head of dark hair peeks up over the edge of the desk at the back end of the room and a menacing smile twists my lips. As I draw nearer, she begins to whimper, clutching Belle, my namesake, closer to her chest and burying her face in fur. I throw the chair to her desk away, reveling in her fearful cries. Tyler’s words ring through my head.

“She thinks she’s helping? Kat, she forces you to look back at those painful memories so she can manipulate them until there’s nothing of you left.”

For a moment, I close my eyes, remembering the warmth of his hand on my cheek, the heat of his lips on mine. But then I’m overcome with rage that surges forward, threatening to swallow me whole. He never loved me. He used me. I grab the woman’s wrist and jerk her forward onto her hands and knees. Belle runs free, sprinting out of the room with no regard for her owner’s survival. I kick the woman over, kneeling over her body with the glass raised, ready to kill. She shields her face with her hands, choking on smoke and sobbing.

“Kat, please,” she whimpers. “It’s Amy. Remember?” Don’t say that name. I shake my head quickly, my hand hanging in the air, waiting. “Please, Kat. Just let me go and you won’t ever have to see me again. I swear.”

Liar!

She’ll turn them against you.

She couldn’t “fix” you.

You’ll suffer if you aren’t preemptive.

“Shut up! Shut up!” I scream, reaching up to clutch my ears. The woman screams when the glass plops onto her chest. Teeth grit, I lift it back up with desperate, trembling fingers and jam it into her side. “You don’t control me anymore!”

She cries out, clutching her wound as I leave, blinking her name out of my head for good. Now for Marx. Rushing around burning furniture and leaping over flames that block my path, I search high and low for the coward that ruined my life. I swat at my clothes when flames catch, holding little care for my burns or bruises. I don’t care if I die as long as he does, too.

The predictable idiot is in his office, raising his hands into the air when I throw the door open. My skin burns from the anger, not from the heat, and my eyes swell with bitter tears. Blood pours onto the ground when I tighten my grip on the glass shard, fizzling and popping. Stammering, Tyler stumbles away from me, panicked.

“Kat, please, baby. Don’t—”

“Don’t call me that,” I snap, eyeing him with disgust. “Or I’ll skin you alive.”

“O-okay. But…” He lowers one hand to point at the glass. “But please put that down. I want to talk.”

“Then talk.”

“But—”

“You have thirty seconds before I lose my patience.” I raise an eyebrow, a smug smile tugging at my lips. “You remember what that’s like, don’t you?” Panicked, his eyes flicker toward the door. “There’s no way out, Tyler. Twenty-five.”

“Okay, um…” Taking a deep breath, he buries his hands in his hair. “Tseng!”

“What about him?”

“He’s here.” Twenty. “You remember his name. You won’t kill him, will you?”

“No.”

“A-and you’ll remember mine?”

“Yes.” My lips twist into a snarl. “To remember what a disgusting, sick motherfucker you are.”

“But how can you kill someone if you’re going to—”

“You don’t deserve life.” Ten. You killed me. You gave me life just to dig your dirty claws into my chest and rip my heart out. You made me feel just to make me numb.” Five. “I was nothing but an experiment to you.” I step closer, shaking my head. “It’s your turn to feel that pain. You won’t ever have the chance to hurt someone else.”

I lunge toward him, aiming for his throat. Startled and desperate, Tyler reaches for a t ray of medical tools and raises it. The glass bounces off, but the force behind the blow knocks the tray from his sweaty hands. As the shard clatters onto the floor, I grab one of the dispersed scalpels and slam my elbow into his jaw when he tries to make a run for it. Stumbling, he just barely ducks out of the way of a swipe from my newfound weapon.

“You told me she was manipulating me!” I shout, getting a good cut into his arm when he raises it to shield his face. “But it was always you!” I swing my legs around and knock his knees out from under him. His back slams against the floor and he gasps for air. I drop onto his stomach, readying the scalpel. “You did all that…” I squeeze my eyes shut as the tears run free, staining my cheeks. “But… I can’t stop loving you.”

I expected a spray of blood to match the force with which I bring the scalpel down. Instead, I feel the heat of a hand on mine, prying my weapon away. Tyler lays on his back, eyes squeezed shut as he awaits death. I should fight back, wrestle free, but I’m spent. Choking on a sob, I let my head hang back, defeated. Tseng peers down at me, shaking his head.

“I want Mom back,” I choke out, letting the tears fall freely. He shakes his head, tossing the scalpel aside and pulling me to my feet. Sobbing and trembling, I turn and twist my fingers into the front of his uniform, finding comfort in a familiar presence. “I’m sorry. I just want to go home.”

Tseng shakes his head and somehow finds it within himself to hold me.


I gasp for air, feeling like I’ve been held underwater for decades. What the hell? My throat begins to close as my breathing picks up. Desperate, I press my hands to the kitchen counter, staring hard at the cheap stick-on pattern that shines back up at me. Those hands… That voice. Amelia? Suddenly, I feel ready to collapse, my legs shaking beneath me and my stomach churning. Gods…

“Annabelle…” The name passes my lips as a whisper, hardly making a sound even in the silence. A shudder claws its way down my spine and I close my eyes, focusing on catching my breath. That’s what Rufus meant.

I want nothing more than to pull up Tseng’s number again, even if there’s no point. Before, I would have demanded that he tell me the truth, to confirm if what I’m seeing is real. Now? I want nothing more than to hear his voice and see that irritating disappointed look in his eyes. Nothing would mean more than his face right now.

But he’s not here and I can’t ask for that. Shivering, I hug my arms to my body, breathless and dizzy. What the hell is wrong with me? Of all people, I had to be her. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s a hard pill to swallow after all this time hoping I was who I am. I’m Kat, not…

You’re powerful this way.

Nothing can stand in your path.

Finally enact your revenge.

Come home.

“Who are you?” I demand, squeezing my eyes shut. The sound of her voice makes my ears ring and my heart pound harder. There’s no answer, but I can feel her there, lingering. “Please. You said you’re here to protect me.” Shaking my head, I cover my face with my hands and struggle to speak around the lump in my throat. “So please—

They’ll turn you against me.

Torture you.

“I’m begging—”

This is how you stay strong.

How you’ll reach your peak power.

How you’ll restore our home.

Together.

“Enough with the goddamn games!” I shout, slamming my hands down onto the counter. “Give me anything!”

For a long time, I hold my breath, taking the silence as a “no”. Then, her voice returns with force, sending chills down my spine and goosebumps rippling up my arms.

Mother.

“Mother…?” I frown, confused. What is this, some sick possession? Taavi wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole. But then I realize. The voices, my father’s experiments, Hojo’s project… Sephiroth. Mother?”

This time there really is nothing but silence. 

 

Chapter Text

"Theoretically, it's perfect." Rude turns his head toward the looming Sister Ray, watching workers walk the length of the cannon carefully. He touches his glasses habitually, eyebrows furrowed.

"Theoretically? How 'bout nontheoretically?" Reno asks, his voice carrying a serious tone I haven't heard it wear in a long time.

"It leaves me concerned."

"Then I'm relieved."

I frown, pushing my hands into my pockets. The sheer size of the gun makes me woozy. "What do you mean?"

"I thought I was the only one worried." Reno gestures to the place where steel meets steel, the joint between the weapon and its base: Shinra HQ. "Are we seriously going to fire this thing? What about testing it out? What about Midgar?"

"Will it all look like Sector Seven?" I wonder aloud, turning my eyes to the lights if the city beyond our pedestal.

"Would you reassured if I said it'll be alright?" Rude counters with an edge in his voice. I kick at a puddle, watching the water spray and listening to the faint patters of droplets landing on the pavement.

Reno scratches the back of his head, shrugging one shoulder. "Hey, don't get mad."

I grimace as a soldier slips and tumbles over the edge of the canon, falling to his death between the cracks in the upper plate. Gods, I pity whoever finds that body. Reno glances in the direction of the movement before looking back to the Sister Ray, unfazed.

"Scarlet's crazy, man."

"I agree."

"She had to do something," I point out, nodding toward the source of the city's new maroon glow. "Meteor's getting close. Feels like I can almost touch it."

Reno stares at our imminent doom a little longer. "Yeah…."

"Should we go inside? I'm tired of watching it rain bodies."

"We can," Rude nods. "If you're sick of the show."

"I am. Besides, I want to find Elena."

"What for?" Reno asks, swinging his rod around before resting it on his shoulder. He looks distracted, eyes darting about the grand entrance to the Shinra Headquarters- a place we've all come to call home.

"I just want to talk to her, I guess."

I spare Meteor one last look before stepping through the glass door Rude holds open. Is this going to kill us all? As if on instinct, my hand raises to brush the fabric over my stomach. Is trying pointless? The fate of the world rests in the hands of a rag-tag rebellion we were told to stop so long ago. Now, all I can hope for is the strength to disobey. With my track record, it shouldn't be this hard.

"Girl stuff?"

"Huh?" I frown, turning to Reno. He raises an eyebrow. "Oh. Not really. It's just…" I laugh, taking my hand off my stomach. Too early to act like a mother. "I need a little womanly input and I haven't told Amelia yet."

"Oh, that." His voice is flat, bored, and his eyes turn to the dreary staircase that burns our tired legs.

"Yeah, this."

"You're doing alright?" Rude asks, brows creasing back into his usual frown. I can't help but smile at his concern, looking over my shoulder with a lopsided grin.

"Better than I thought I would be. Maybe it hasn't really hit me yet." I shrug, staring hard at Reno's back as he hurries a couple of steps ahead. "And maybe I'm scared for the future. Forget losing this for a while—what do we do if Meteor doesn't stop?"

"Die."

"Well—"

"There's no point to worrying," Rude continues, catching up to my side and shooting me a stern look. "Your concerns are valid, but you can't help the situation."

"Wish I could."

"Don't we all?" Reno calls back, draping his arms over the rod balanced across his shoulders. He forces a grin, but it never reaches his eyes. "Don't worry about the kid, Kitty Kat." I shudder. "We can worry about what they get to see of our lives later, right? You don't have to stop working if we survive this, y'know. No one's gonna stop you." Rufus might.

Thankfully, he turns around before he can see my guilty expression. He doesn't know yet… Rude reads me clear as day, but he stays quiet. I shake my head, keeping my voice low.

"This is such a mess."

"Has to be like that sometimes," he grumbles back.

"It didn't have to be, though. Could've been more careful."

"You learned your lesson."

"And now my kid has to suffer for it?" I demand, irritated with myself. Reno huffs, glancing over his shoulder.

"Quit whisperin' back there."

"This is taking a turn I don't like," Rude murmurs, shaking his head.

"You didn't like the whole thing to begin with," Reno reminds him. "Startin' with Kat."

"It's just different."

"And you hate different," I sigh, hugging my arms to my body as a group of cadets hurries past. "We know."

"I don't hate you."

"… I know."

Rude presses the button for our floor on the elevator and steps back, head low. His partner sighs and slouches against the glass wall, closing his eyes and rolling his head back.

"Elena's probably typin' away in her office," he mutters. "Thinks she's still gotta keep up with work even though Rufus told 'er to give it a rest."

"She likes to work hard, I guess," I shrug.

Rude shakes his head. "It's Gun."

"Yeah, I know. I'm familiar with the whole family rivalry scene."

The lift chimes and we step out, the air filled with a chill I haven't felt in years.

"It's a wasteland," I mutter. "Dead."

"Reports say we've got four days left. People are leaving to be with their families."

"I get that. Nowhere for us to go, though."

"Nope," Reno puffs out, brushing past me without another word.

Frowning, I exchange glances with Rude and head for Elena's office. She jumps when I open the door, tucking her pale hair behind her ear and sitting up straighter.

"Hey, Kat. Need something?"

"Not really." I lean back on the edge of her desk, crossing my arms. "You know you don't have to do that report, don't you?"

"Yeah…" She blushes, ducking her head. "It's stupid, but I want something to feel normal. Kinda sucks living like we're all about to die."

"Well…"

"Don't do that. There's still a chance."

I kick at the floor, shrugging. "I guess… How do you feel about it all?"

"It sucks," she laughs, shaking her head. "But I wish I could stay here forever, even if Tseng's not here. It's good having friends like you."

I choke on my stifled scoff with a nod. "Yeah, it is. I feel the same."

I take a deep breath, unsettled. Not by anything that Elena said, but by Reno's behavior. He's acting closed off and snarky, more so than usual. It's disheartening. I thought things were going well, but these past few days… They've been weird. I want everything to go back to the way it was before Tseng died. At least they were more comfortable.

"Hey, Elena?"

"Mhm?"

"I need to tell you something." I turn around, itching to claw my own skin off. I'd rather die than admit the truth out loud, but I have to acknowledge it. I have to tell Reno.

"Okay…?" Elena smiles, nervous.

"It's nothing to do with you, really, but I'll go crazy if I don't say it."

"Then say it."

"I—" I take a deep breath, closing my eyes. "The baby. It's Rufus's."

"Oh." Elena's eyes go wide and she takes a deep breath. Shaking her head, she leans forward, face contorting into a frown. "Wait, how do you know?"

"Well, it's pretty self-explanatory," I admit, rubbing the back of my neck. Laughing awkwardly, I hang my head. "We took a riskier approach than me and Reno."

"Oh—Ew!" She shakes her head quickly, holding her hands up. "I mean, you do you, but I don't really want to envision that."

"Yeah, I'd prefer if you didn't," I retort, crinkling my nose. "I don't want to think about it, either."

She slumps back in her chair, turning a pen over and over in her hands. Suddenly, she straightens, struck by realization. "Wait, does Reno know?"

"Nope." I roll my eyes at her expression. "I'm telling you to psych myself up. It's the first time I've ever even said it out loud."

"Oh geeze." She runs a hand through her hair, resting her chin in her palm. "Well, now I'm stressed out for you."

"You don't think he'll take it well?"

"You do?"

"No."

"Look, Kat." Elena sits up, her eyes soft and sympathetic. She reaches out and takes one of my hands, smiling gently. "You know him better than anyone in the world. Even if you tell him, he won't up and leave you."

"No, but he'll be bitter for a long time." I let my head hang forward, the weight of my consequences crushing me slowly. "Maybe even forever. And I don't know if I can take that." Taking a deep breath, I cock my head to the side, weighing all the possibilities. "Or we'll die in four days and nothing will matter, so I should either tell him so that he knows before he dies or keep it a secret so that we're happy until the end."

"Gods, you're morbid." Elena shakes her head and stands. "I say tell him soon. Like, today." My heart skips a beat and I turn to frown at her. "The longer you keep this a secret, the more it'll weigh on you. You won't be happy if you stay quiet, Kat, you'll be guilty."

"How the helldid you get to know me so well in such little time?" I wonder aloud, puffing out a short laugh. Her smile broadens and she shrugs.

"You're easy to read, I guess. At least, compared to the others. You wear your heart on your sleeve and you don't hide your intentions." She rests a hand on my shoulder, genuine. "You're an honest person, and that's why you'll be miserable if you hide this any longer." Honest?

"You should be my therapist," I scoff, earning a small laugh. My chest feels tight considering what she said, but I know she's right. He has to know. What's a better time than the present? "Okay, well, thanks for helping me feel better. Means a lot."

"Of course. You did the same for me."

"Yeah, I guess."

"I wasn't just returning the favor. I swear I care about both of you guys." She tucks her loosened hair behind her ear and shrugs. "It's nice having friends."

"Isn't it?" I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. "Okay, well, I'm off to spill the beans. Pray he doesn't throttle me into a new dimension."

Grinning, she raises her hands. "Finger crossed!"

I force a smile and leave her office, heart pounding and fingers trembling. I wish Tseng was here. I'm not sure what he could do to help, and he'd only be disappointed in me, but at least he could tell me what to do. Right? I sigh. No, he'd just tell me it was my choice and refuse to talk about it anymore. Maybe he'd even add a little extra cushion to his persistent babying. I can't help but smile at the thought, crossing the empty space to Reno's door. Gods give me strength.

Reno's feet are kicked up on his desk as per usual, his shoes hiding his face as he stares down at his phone. When I open the door, he glances up, raising an eyebrow. When I don't speak, he sighs and hauls his feet down to the floor and sets his phone facedown on the desk.

"What's up, Buttercup?"

"Nothing really." I shrug and sit on the edge of his desk, trying to gather my courage. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Yeah, just a little tired, I guess."

I offer a smile, but he refuses to look up from the surface of his desk. "Really? Thought giving you some space would help you get to bed at a good time."

"Yeah, you're distracting," he mutters half-heartedly, leaning back.

My smile falters and the room suddenly feels cold. He's radiating tension. I'm not welcome here.

Picking at my fingers uneasily, I gnaw on my cheek, mustering up all the courage I can. Here goes nothing. "Reno, I—" My words catch in my throat and I squeeze my eyes shut. Rip the bandage off. "I have to tell you something."

"No surprises there." He crosses his arms and shrugs when I shoot him a puzzled look. "Got a knack for hiding shit and you know it."

"So do you," I retort. Pressing my lips together, I shake my head. I'm not here to fight. Don't make things worse. "I mean it, though. This is important."

"Why? Does it have anything to do with me?"

"Well, obviously. I wouldn't be—"

"I know it's his, Kat."

I flinch, unable to breathe around the tightening of my chest. His voice is dry, his words so blunt. I wasn't expecting it. Rufus got to him first… Sighing at my slumped shoulders, Reno stands, pacing across the room to get some distance between us.

"Why doesn't this have to do with you?" I ask finally, watching his back as he stares up at a photo of Midgar on the wall. He snorts, shaking his head.

"What does it have to do with me?" he counters. "Not my kid, not my problem." My stomach churns, and for a moment, I think I might puke. "If we make it through this shit, Rufus wins."

"He wins? What's that supposed to mean?" I demand, confused by his change in attitude. "Reno, all it means is that this kid is entitled to a slice of Shinra's power. I'm not running back to the guy just because my kid carries his DNA."

"Not that simple," he says under his breath.

Irritated with his pouting, I roll my eyes. "Reno, for fuck's sake, look at me!" He doesn't listen, shaking his head and turning his eyes to the ground. "Fine, don't. Whatever." Nothing. "This doesn't change anything. I don't want Rufus—"

"This doesn't change anything?" he snaps, glaring at me. At least he's looking at me now. He looks pissed. "It changes everything, Kat! He's gonna hold this shit over your head for the rest of your goddamn life, and there's nothing I can do."

"I won't let him!" He rolls his eyes and turns back to the photo. Scoffing, I push myself off his desk and cross my arms. "Re, he can whine and complain and yell all he wants, but if he wants to remain respected, he can't force me to do anything."

The only response I receive is a half-assed shake of his head. My heart begins to hurt. I sigh, carefully squeezing him into a hug behind and resting my cheek on his back. For a moment, the silence is suffocating. Slowly, it begins to ease up. The tension shatters altogether when he rests his hands over mine, leaning his head back until it lays on top of my hair.

"You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, Re. I won't let you go so easily."

"… Okay."

"Okay? That's it?" I tease, squeezing him a little tighter. He laughs quietly, straightening and shaking his head. "You can do better than that."

"Yeah." He loosens my grip and pries himself free from my grip. "You're my favorite problem to deal with, Kitty Kat."

"Wow." The effects of the nickname have faded since his episode in his apartment all that time ago, but it still gives my stomach a gentle twist. It'll leave eventually. Reno pushes his hands deeper into his pockets and rests against his desk, raising an eyebrow when he catches me watching him.

"Like what you see, Sweetheart?"

I don't have time to acknowledge his question before my own comes tumbling out. "Do you really feel better, or are you putting up a front?" Reno frowns, shifting his weight to the left. "Because after I first told you the situation, you starting throwing shit around your office."

"No, this isn't like that," he assures me, shaking his head. After a moment, he puffs out a small laugh and offers a smile, nodding for me to come closer. I obey, raising an eyebrow. He brushes my hair out of my face and pinches my chin, tilting my face upward. "We'll figure it out if that's what you want."

"Is that what you want?"

"Yeah."

"Then it's what I want too."

"That's not how this works," he points out, laughing.

"It is now, even if it sucks. I've put you through enough trouble for this lifetime."

Reno grins, cocking his head to the side. "Well, look on the bright side. At least I find it endearing."

"It's not the bright side," I scoff, pulling his hand off my face.

"Then what is it?"

"Well…" I laugh, standing on my toes and pushing his forehead down to meet mine. "I'd like to think it's my luck finally beginning to turn."

Reno rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. "Thought shitty jokes were my thing."

"Hey! I'm not joking!"

"I know, but..." Reno sighs and closes his eyes, pulling me closer. "I know."

Chapter Text

Midgar is dark, black as night with only rogue mako sparks drifting past like shooting stars to provide light. In the distance, an enormous, looming monster birthed as a guardian of the planet looms at the ready, preparing to destroy this death trap of a city. Elena rests her hand against the glass, eyes locked on the gargantuan creature.

"Do you think it'll get us before Meteor does?"

"Doubt it," Reno replies, leaning against the window and peering at the horizon over my head. Rude grunts, touching his glasses. "We got the giant gun, remember?"

"I guess."

"It doesn't inspire much confidence," I point out, crossing my arms. "Not when half the workers have been treating it like a suicidal slip-n-slide." The ground rumbles and Elena jerks away from the glass, startled.

"I think it's going to fire soon."

"Should we scram?" Reno suggests, jerking his head back toward the elevator doors. I nod.

As a group, we head for the executive elevators, dreading the incoming impact of our new unpredictable toy. Just as Reno's bony finger reaches for the glowing arrows on the wall, the power flickers and the building is swallowed in deep silence. It's beyond eerie.

"Shit," he hisses, banging a fist on the steel door. It doesn't budge.

"The power's out," Elena whimpers, huddling closer to my side. "It sucked us dry."

"Don't say it like that," I scoff with a grimace.

The ground's trembling only grows stronger as bright green light flares through the reactors' pumps and flows into the Sister Ray. With nowhere to go, we watch the cannon rear her ugly head back toward the building, sights on the Weapon on the horizon.

For a moment, the world holds its breath. Everything is silent and still. Elena clutches my arm and Reno's hand squeezes my shoulder. It feels like forever. But a moment is only a moment, and before we can take another breath, the Sister Ray fires. The force of the shot sends entire panes of glass rocketing backward into the face of the Shinra Headquarters. I duck my head, grateful when Rude uses his much larger frame as a shield for the rest of us.

The shaking ceases quickly and we hurry toward the open holes in the wall, watching in awe as the Weapon, now with a gaping hole in its chest, lies on the ground, the amber lights across its porcelain body flickering out as its power returns to the Planet. Miles into the distance, the faint glow of the Sephiroth's barrier, the one thing protecting him from any damage, flickers out. My heart skips a beat.

"Is Rufus alright?" I ask, on edge now that the damage has been done. Elena pulls out her phone and dials quickly, placing a hand on her hip. The wind of the city's heights tugs at my clothes and threatens to pull me over the edge, but I stay, clutching a steel support and letting the air nip at my skin. Despite our situation, I relish in the freedom of its pull until Elena hangs up with a shake of her head.

"No signal. Should we—" She gasps when the power flickers back on, restored now that the mako can evenly distribute throughout the city.

Rude immediately turns back to the elevators, pressing the buttons with a frown. Nothing happens. "Seems not all power's back on."

"The emergency lock system?" Reno suggests, pushing his hands into his pockets. One of his feet taps the floor repeatedly, burning through his nervous energy as we try to find a way out.

"Must be," Rude mutters, eyeing the elevator doors up and down.

"Reno, Rude, take the stairs."

My heart freezes and my skin breaks out in a cold sweat. There's something chilling about hearing a voice you never thought you'd hear again or seeing a face you said your goodbyes to long ago. It's horrifying, sure, but the ice thaws soon after and there's nothing, but sweet, sweet relief. When I turn to see if he's really there, my mouth gapes open like a child's.

"Chief!" Elena cries, her eyes swimming with pools of joyful tears.

"What's wrong?" Tseng demands, arching a thin brow. I take a deep, shuddering breath, flexing my frozen fingers at my sides.

"Uh, you're alive?" Reno suggests sarcastically, though there's a broad smug smile on his face.

"As you can see for yourself. But now isn't the time to explain."

"Yeah, I gotcha."

"Tseng," Elena whispers, her body kicking into motion as she pounces, throwing her arms ar0und him and clinging to his clothing.

"Oh c'mon Elena, you know I wanna do that too," Reno teases, his grin broadening.

"No need to hold back," she sniffles, shooting him a smile.

"I'll pass."

Tseng hums, resting a hand on her shoulder and stepping back. His eyes glitter with amusement I haven't seen in years; something tells me he's proud of his choice to wait for his grand entrance. His gaze settles on me. "Kat, what's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Smug bastard," I scoff, pushing past Elena to crush him into a hug. He rests a hand on my back, hiding his smile in my hair. "This is a dream."

"Feel free to pinch yourself."

"Asshole," I huff, stepping back and scrubbing a runaway tear off my cheek.

Regaining his composure, Tseng looks up at the four of us. "Come on. It's time to get to work."

Reno and I are sent to check on Rufus while Elena and Tseng help the citizens of Midgar on the ground. Rude's searching the building for anyone who used the emergency line after getting stuck or injured. In the president's office, there's nothing but rubble. The glass walls have all been blown inward leaving a crunching layer of shattered shards over a pile of splintered wood and toppled steel.

Reno groans, frustrated as he steps away from another dark corner. "You've checked everywhere?"

"Three times," I admit, rubbing the back of my neck.

"Three? Geeze, someone's committed."

"Reno, focus."

"Yeah, yeah." He kicks a large pane of glass across the floor and watches it chip against a standing cement pillar. "You're sure you looked everywhere?"

"Pretty sure. Even if he was burnt to a crisp, there'd be a body, right?" Let's hope he wasn't, though.

"So he's alive, then."

"I guess." Crossing my arms, I peek around the outside edge of the office. The helipad is empty, save for a few more glass panes and a smashed helicopter that I've already searched several times. "But where is he?"

"We should probably check the girders."

"The what?"

"Support beams," he clarifies, pointing up to the hole ripped in the ceiling.

I nod, following his lead. Under each one, I hold my breath, dreading finding the young president's body. Under each one is nothing but rubble. I breathe a sigh of relief.

"Where now?"

"I don't know. Maybe he left?"

"How? And to where?"

"I dunno." Reno huffs and shakes his head. "Let's go, man. We tried."

"Wait." I frown, pointing to a panel that peeks out from the floor, exposed as the desk had been blown back by the force of the explosion. "That's not normal."

"So? Nothing here is normal."

"Let's look." I roll my eyes, tiptoeing over slippery pieces of glass and clinging to piles of steel and cement for support. When I reach it, it won't budge. My heart sinks, but only for a moment. Desperate, I crawl under the desk and feel around for a switch.

"Kat, it's just a wall."

Just as the words come out, the panel slips and sinks below the floor, leaving a gaping three-foot hole in its wake. I nearly topple inside headfirst, catching myself on the edge and pulling back. Reno peers under the desk, eyebrows raised.

"You're a goddamn genius."

"Runs in the family," I mutter, sticking my head into the hole. From here, all I can see is what looks like an air duct. "I'm going in."

Reno shrugs, stepping back. "Better hope he's in there."

"Yeah, let's hope."

I lower myself into the passage, blindly crawling forward. My body just barely passes the entrance to the duct before the smooth metal suddenly dips. My hands slide and my body follows, toppling down the tunnel. Heart racing, I try my best to slow down, but the momentum is too much. A light burns my eyes as I slide into a room, stopping only when I slam headfirst into a wall.

Grimacing, I sit back on my knees, looking around the room. It's more of a box, really. An enormous "L" is painted on every wall, including the ceiling and floor. The letter is also engraved on an ornate box and the bed in the corner. I take a deep breath and get to my feet, eyeing the door before me. The way out?

"Anyone here?" I ask softly. I can't help but gasp when something behind me shifts. Rufus looks half-dead, eyes barely open and feet staggering.

"Good work," he rasps. Before I can ask if he's alright, his eyes roll back and his knees give out, sending him to the ground.

"Rufus?!"

Startled, I fall beside him, heaving his head and shoulders onto my lap. My fingers press into the side of his neck, searching. I breathe a sigh of relief when a steady thrum meets me halfway. The door behind me beeps and slides open. I turn to see Reno staring down at me with a smug smile. It fades when he sees the state of the president.

"I'll go find a doctor. Wait here with him."

"Check outside while you're at it," I suggest, pushing the hair out of Rufus's face. He doesn't look too beaten up, even after the force from the blast. Something tells me it wasn't the pain that knocked him out cold. Frowning, I eye the box beside the bed. What's in there?

"How's the Boss?"

"Sound asleep."

"Looks like he's happy to see you again."

"Reno," I huff, scowling at him. "Hurry up."

Nodding, he turns tail and hurries off in search of anyone that can help Rufus. I turn back to the president, eyeing the burns, bruises, and blood that cover his body. It could be worse, really, but it still makes me feel sick to see him like this. All those rumors about how no one's ever seen him bleed… I scoff, shaking my head and resting my hand on his forehead. Rumors are just that, aren't they?

"What's it all stand for, Rufus?" I ask quietly, not at all expecting an answer. "All these 'L's'…" My voice trails off.

"L…" I jump, glancing down to see Rufus's eyelids flutter ever so slightly. His brow creases and he stills again. "Is for loser." L is for loser? I shake my head, turning my eyes back up to the bolded letters. Probably his father's doing if I had to guess.

"L is for loser," I repeat under my breath.

Shinra's at a loss. Sephiroth could win. Game over. You lose. Better run, loser. Shivering, I look back down at Rufus, unnerved.

"This is an executive passage. Tell no one, ya got it?" Reno steps back into the room followed by three men with a stretcher.

"Rufus Shinra?!" One cries, eyes wide.

"Shut it!" Reno snaps, ushering me out of the way and hooking his arms under the president's.

I stand, looking around the tiny room. There's an open pill bottle on an empty wooden dresser that looks like it was once filled with pain medication. No wonder his lights went out so suddenly. That shit mixed with those injuries will take anyone out. The bed looks like it's never been used, perfectly made and giving off a musty smell. I sit on the edge, watching the men carry Rufus out. Rubbing the back of his neck, Reno turns back to me.

"Mission accomplished?"

"Yeah."

"What's up?" He cocks his head to the side, sitting beside me. The mattress sinks lower, pushing me against his side. I don't fight it. "He'll be alright."

"It's not that. I'm just thinking."

"About what?"

"This place." I motion toward the walls. "His dad was a shithead."

"All of 'em are." He rests his cheek on top of my head, taking a deep breath. "Should we see if Tseng needs—"

My phone cuts him off, ringing loudly. Frowning, I pick up.

"Hello?"

"Kat? This is Reeve?"

"Reeve?" I frown, standing abruptly. Reno scowls, rubbing his face where I bumped him. "What's going on?"

"I need you to go to the top of the cannon and stop Hojo. He's pulling more power to fire the Sister Ray a second time."

"Why the hell would—"

"He wants Sephiroth to have the energy. Another one of his experiments."

"… Why're you whispering?"

"I've been arrested for treason. Figures." He sighs. "I sneaked my phone in here with me." Yeah, you seem like the type to say "sneaked."

"Okay…"

"Please hurry."

Reno raises an eyebrow when I pocket my phone, shaking my head.

"Is there any way you can bust Reeve out of jail?"

"Why the hell would I do that?"

"He's been locked up. At this point, we're clearing the way for Avalanche," I point out, crossing my arms.

"But I don't even like the guy."

"No one does, Re." I roll my eyes. "For me, then?"

He cracks a smile, standing slowly. "You drive a hard bargain, Sweetheart. Where you headed?"

"The Sister Ray." I straighten my jacket and square my shoulders. "Hojo has some explaining to do."

Chapter Text

fter watching bodies rain down from the peak of the Sister Ray earlier, I'm not too keen on climbing to the top, but I leave the headquarters anyway. This may be my last chance to get some answers before all hell breaks loose. I take off running through the streets and I don't stop until I reach one of the staircases built into the scaffolding on the edge of Sector Eight. I tip my head all the way back to see the groaning hunk of metal, flinching when a raindrop splashes onto my cheek. Don't stop now. You've only just begun.

"This is stupid," I huff, hurrying toward the stairs.

The rain begins to fall quicker, making the steel steps slick and dampening my uniform. Mako's pungent scent burns my nose, making my eyes water and my skin break out in a film of cold sweat. Still, I persevere, pulling my rod free and checking that my Lightning materia is still in place. Thanks, Re. I know my gun is loaded and I can feel the dagger on my leg shifting with every step I take. Hojo is known for being insolent and I don't have much time. If I have to resort to violence, I might let Mother take the wheel. I'm not sure how much more bloodshed I can take.

I turn a corner too quickly, gasping as I slip face-first onto the platform. My fingers grasp the edge just as I'm about to slide over, my head spinning as I stare down at the street below. ShitTaking a deep breath, I drag myself back onto my feet and keep going. This is a long way up for a lab rat. I step off the stairs and cling to the flimsy rods along the edge that form a shoddy rail, willing my feet to remain planted on the slick metal.

As I go, I wonder what I'll ask him. I don't have every piece of the puzzle, but I have most of them. Will he be willing to explain why he and my father did what they did? Will it make any sense or will I spend my last moments listening to the rambling of a madman? I'm not sure how he'll react to seeing me again. He tried to pretend he didn't care when in the helicopter, but he was watching me the entire time. We didn't speak. Maybe he knew I'd been looking for him.

By the time I see the hunched scientist's lab coat whipping around in the wind behind him, my stomach has twisted itself into knots. My palms are sweaty, providing little to no grip on the rail. I let go, standing straight as I step down into the command center.

Hojo's fast for a crotchety old weasel, I'll give him that. He whips around, gun in hand and trained on my head.

"Do you know what happened to the last Turk that meddled?"

"Valentine?" I raise an eyebrow, refusing to acknowledge his weapon.

"What do you want?" he demands, beady eyes narrowed through his thick glasses. "I have work to do."

"I have questions," I admit, shrugging. "And, seeing as you were directly involved in my experimentation, I figure you have the answers."

"I haven't got all day," he snaps, waving the gun to prod me on.

"Sector Two. Remember me?"

"Of course. Daughter of Jonathan McGrail." McGrail? Was that our name?

"Good." I sigh, feeling my confidence wane. What am I doing here? "The voices… They're really just one, aren't they? She calls herself Mother." Hojo frowns, standing taller and stepping away from his computer. "What does that mean?"

"You really should have checked your family history before approaching your father's nemesis." Nemesis? What is this, middle school? A deafening bang startles me from the thoughts and I grit my teeth with a strangled cry, clutching my chest. The blood oozing between my fingers thaws my freezing hand, the heat from the bullet sending shivers down my spine. "The voices?" Hojo raises an eyebrow, touching his glasses.

"Before you were born—conceived, even—I worked in the same laboratory as Professor McGrail. When I discovered the power of Jenova's cells, I formulated a way to strengthen members of SOLDIER beyond natural human capabilities. Your father jealously stole my trial batch and attempted to use himself as a subject." Hojo turns back to the computer with a low chuckle, setting his weapon down within easy reach.

"He started to hear a voice in his head. She would tell him things about the future that frightened him. Hallucinations came soon after." I frown, wincing when the slightest movement of my arm radiates the pain of the bullet wound throughout my chest. "He almost killed one of the students training in the lab, driven mad by the control she had over him."

"What does this have to do with me?" I demand, wincing when the pressure in my chest moves the bullet.

"Are you a moron, Miss McGrail?"

"No." Something about hearing him say that name makes my blood boil, and the reason is right on the tip of my tongue, but it refuses to come.

"Jenova was passed to you genetically. At six, you were taken to me by your father who demanded to know if I could fix you." He laughs quietly, shaking his head. "Fool. I may work miracles, but I can't cleanse your filthy blood. It's a shame you're only learning now of your power. You're the living embodiment of all the problems in this world." Jenova… She's not the problem here.

"It's you that's the problem."

"Me?" The gun goes off again and I grit my teeth, squeezing my eyes shut as another circle of blood forms on the other side of my chest. You have bad aim, old man. "My dear, you don't seem to realize who you're talking to."

"You're a goddamn freak!" I force out, coughing when the pressure in my chest builds up too far.

"Am I?" Hojo presses one more button before wandering closer, hands clasped behind his back and eyebrow quirked. "Dearest Annabelle, you seem to have forgotten already." I shiver, grimacing. Anna… The voice hisses something in my ear, but I can't hear it over the pounding of my heart. Hojo circles me like a vulture, black eyes piercing into mine. "I hated your father for his sabotage, and you stole my chance for revenge. It would be wise not to test my patience."

"Fuck your patience!" I prop myself up on my free hand to get a better look at his ugly face. "How does killing me pay for his crimes?"

"You're the closest thing I have. You're the last one of his line. You saw the light leave his eyes, not me." Hojo cackles, turning his face upward into the pouring rain. "What other reasons shall I provide?"

"You tell me, Crazy. You're the psycho here."

Glowering, he turns back and fires into my knee. Fucking hell... I can hardly gasp for air around the agony building up in my lungs.

"I don't have time for this now," he mutters, checking his watch. "But it'll be sure to find you after the show. My son needs my help." You have a son? "I suggest you run while you can."

"I'm not afraid of you."

"No?" He eyes me with disdain before turning back to his computer. "Then you'd best fear bleeding out here."

Pressing my lips together, I take a deep breath and reach for the railing to my right. It's excruciatingly slow because of my injuries, but once I'm upright, I try hobbling away, using the railing for support. My bleeding knee slips and I swallow my cries, tears streaking down my cheeks and mixing with the rainwater. I won't die here.

I've hardly taken four steps before my unsteady legs give way, feet slipping in the water and hands too full to catch my fall. I slide under the rail, the curved edge of the cannon carrying me toward the ground stories below. My heart plummets into my stomach. Blindly, my hands grasp for anything to break my fall. They catch a rod on the scaffolding, the force of the stop tugging at my chest and tearing a gritted cry of pain from my throat.

"Shit!" I shout, my fingers burning and my body trembling. I throw my head back to see how far I fell, alarmed by how close Meteor's ominous glow is. Even through the rainclouds, it illuminates the world with its eerie light, reminding us of our imminent end. Would it be better to go now without them?

"Hey, kid!" I gasp, biting down on my cheek to distract myself from the pain of the reaction. "What the hell're ya doin'?!"

"A Turk?!"

"Shut the fuck up, Barret, I know 'er." Cid shields his face with a hand, scowling up at me. "We'll getcha down!"

"How teh fuck…" I mutter, squeezing my eyes shut. It'll take too long. I glance toward the ground. Time to hedge my bets… Ready to have this agony end one way or another, I let go, closing my eyes as I plummet toward the ground. At first, it feels too long, as if I've gone straight through the Planet and into the atmosphere on the other side. Then comes the jarringly painful landing of my wounds hitting Cid.

"Gods, what the hell happened to you?!" he demands. "Yer crazier than I remember!"

"Hojo—"

"He's up there?" Cloud demands, turning toward the cannon. The enormous sword on his back shifts and I can't help but grimace remembering where all this began. Me and Reno, dropping a plate and killing hundreds of innocents. What a life we live.

"If you set me down…" I'm cut off when my throat tightens. I swallow the lump and continue. "I can get back—"

"Bullshit," the pilot snorts. "There ain't no way in hell yer walkin' on that leg."

"Cid, we don't have—" Cloud starts. He's cut off by someone screaming nonsensical words at the top of their lungs. Frowning, he frees his sword and cuts off whoever was running at him with such an irritating war cry. "Lay off, Reno. You retreated."

"Let her go!" Reno shouts, scrambling back onto his feet and stepping around Cloud's sword. Cid raises an eyebrow and hands me over willingly, though he scowls at the bloody stains on his white scarf.

"Sher's gonna kill me…"

"Oh hey," I puff out, shifting uncomfortably against Reno. "Glad you could make it."

"Holy shit, Kat," Reno snorts, staring down at me. "You're still heavy as fuck."

"Thanks."

"Good luck," he says to Avalanche, turning tail and hurrying back to the Shinra Building. "Keep those eyes open, Kitty. Docs can't ask questions if you're asleep."

"I don't want to answer any— Shit!" I can't help but scream when my foot knocks against a light pole. The wound pulls and my knee feels ready to rip apart at the joint.

"Shit, sorry."

I shake my head, wishing I could scrub at the tears dripping down my face. "Reeve…"

"I got him out, don't worry."

"What the hell happened?" Rude demands, stepping around a member of the lobby's staff.

Tseng reaches us first, frowning as he tugs my hand away from the pool in my chest. "It's a wonder she's still breathing," he says stiffly, pressing a hand to Reno's shoulder and pushing him toward the medical personnel that have gathered to treat those who were harmed in the Sister Ray's blast. "Over there."

"Don't bother them if they're busy," I insist, trying to sit up to see my uncle's face better.

He shakes his head, solemn. "This is life or death, Kat. Don't be foolish." Quickly, he turns to Rude. "See if you can find Tyler Marx. If not, return to evacuating the city."

Reno hurries across the lot, careful not to slip on the slick pavement. One of the medics steps away and quickly takes me from Reno, his hands rough and rushing. I grit my teeth, eyes heavy and body exhausted.

"Fuck, man, be careful with her leg!"

"Sorry, sir, but we have to be quick." The medic sets me on a nearby stretcher, his colleagues joining in once they realize I'm one of the Turks. Should it even matter?

I take a deep breath, wincing as I turn my eyes up to Reno's. "Do you think they'll fix it?"

"What, you?" Reno laughs nervously, clutching one of my bloody hands in his. "You're indestructible, Kitty Kat. It'll be alright."

"You think?"

"I know."

Chapter Text

Twenty-four years ago, I was brought into the world by Taavi and Jonathan McGrail. They named me Annabelle, my grandmother's name. I already had an older brother, Mike, who was two years older. Three more children would follow in the years to come.

Tseng advised his sister not to marry Jonathan long before marriage was in the picture. She didn't listen, lost in infatuation with a young Midgar man with sparkling eyes and big dreams to become the next world-dominating scientist. Tseng was only nine when they married, but he could tell that their relationship would end only in pain and bitterness. When she refused to listen, he refused to be a part of her life any longer.

I first heard the voices at three years old. They all came from the same source, but they all held different emotions. Some were angry, some protective, some sad, and others were warm and nurturing. At first, it scared me. I would scream and cry and demand that my parents find the woman hiding in my bedroom, but each time Taavi dismissed it as attention-seeking and put me back to bed. If it was daytime, I would be spanked and placed in a corner until I calmed down. She never understood, fearing the unknown. I could hardly blame her.

Mike used to lock me in closets and cabinets when my parents were out just to antagonize me. I would beg for mercy, not for fear of the dark, but for fear of the visions I was shown by the voices. I saw my family die over and over and over again, perhaps in a hundred different ways before I reached six years. By then, I knew exactly what death felt like, and it was terrifying.

Once my mother caught me conversing with the voices, she decided enough was enough. She sent me to Hojo with my father in hopes of finding a cure before it was too late. But it was. I was beyond fear. I wanted to know more about what Jenova had shown me. All the flames and the blood and the screaming… I wanted to know why. Hojo let me voice those questions, taking notes and asking for clarification. I thought he wanted to fix me, but all he was after was a new section of his thesis involving Jenova cells.

When I was eight, the twins were born. The year prior, my father turned to alcohol and spent most of his time stumbling around the Shinra labs or sleeping on the couch. My parents hardly spoke anymore, and my mother started spending suspicious amounts of time away from her children. After having her third and fourth children, Taavi decided she needed help that her drunkard husband couldn't give her—she called Tseng for the first time in twelve years. He'd been training with Turks at the point and he decided to answer her cries for help, showing up on our doorstep as a long lost relative in the eyes of me and Mike.

"I need your help, Tseng. You can say you told me so all you want, but Jonathan's no use, and I can't raise four kids on my own."

"I told you it wasn't right."

"Yes, well, it wouldn't be so hard if not for Anna." She sighed, tucking her hair behind her ear and letting her shoulders slump. "She's… different. She's still hearing voices and I think it might be because of what Jonathan did to himself in that lab."

"… I'm not raising your problem child for you."

"Tseng, please. I'm not asking you to. I just need a little help every once in a while."

"I'm working for Shinra now, Taavi. I don't have time for—"

"You don't have to remind me of your betrayal." She scowled, eyes sharp and voice laced with hatred directed at the Turks. "What're you going to do, hold me at gunpoint and demand I get a divorce? The kids will still be here." She placed her hands on top of his, begging. "Please."

Later that evening, while Mike roughhoused with the twins in the front yard, I sat on the front porch, watching in silence. I wasn't paying attention to them, though, as Jenova was whispering things to me about the way things would be in the future. How I would be alone, but I would be stronger than ever. How I would lose something, but have everything. It was confusing, and Tseng must have read my frown. The old boards creaked beneath his polished shoes as he approached.

"Something wrong?"

I shook my head, picking at my fingernails. "You're my uncle?"

Tseng nodded slowly, hands clasped behind his back tightly and eyes wandering to the boys in the yard before snapping back to me like they've been tied to rubber bands. "I suppose."

"I have a question." I crossed my legs, leaning back on my palms and looking up at the sky. Dad said we were lucky to live on the upper plate, and in hindsight, I realize that he's right. Back then, though, it felt like a curse. Everyone hated us because of where my father worked. It wasn't fair. "If drinking is so bad for you, why does Dad do it to make her quiet? Isn't there another way?"

"Her?" Tseng frowned, on edge.

"Yes." I shrugged, shaking my hair out of my eyes. "She calls herself Mother. She's a little moody, but she's not that bad."

"Oh." Tseng took a deep breath, his head tilting ever so slightly to the left. "People reach points where they stop caring. You're a bit young to understand."

"No, I think I get it. It's like how Mike stops cleaning his room because he's used to the smell. By the time he notices again, it's too much work to clean the mess up." I shrugged again, watching one of the twins shove Mike with a shrieking laugh. "No one wants to take responsibility for their own actions."

"You're very perceptive," he commented, turning to watch the boys as well. "Where did you learn that?"

"I watch people all day. Mother helps to explain things sometimes, but I can figure them out on my own a lot of the time. Reading people isn't as hard as everyone thinks."

"You know a lot more than you should at your age."

"Yeah, well…" I hugged my knees to my chest and gnawed on my cheek. "Mother says I'm special. I have to grow up faster so that I can become who I'm supposed to be."

"And who's that?"

"I dunno." Smiling, I turned my face upward and met his eyes for the first time. "Only time will tell, right?"

As the years passed and Tseng stopped by more often, my parents spent less and less time at home. I don't know when I realized that my mother was spending all her time with other men and that none of my siblings were from her marriage. It was as if I woke up one day and it was there. There was no moment of realization, no surprise. It was a cold fact that I'd always carried in my back pocket.

Tseng was always stricter with my brothers than he was with me. He would force them outside to give me peace, allow me to help him with dinner, and ask about Jenova. For once, it felt like someone genuinely cared about me. Sometimes I could feel him watching me when I spoke to others or when I sat alone, thinking, but I could never read the look in his eyes. He was good at hiding his feelings.

He decided that I needed to spend more time around kids my age when I wasn't being schooled and sent me outside. It was cold and my pockets jingled with change for the church—I thought perhaps donations would please the gods and fix my family. It never worked. Slum rats found me and threatened to hurt me. I was ten when I killed for the first time, heading home with my head on my shoulders and my composure kept cool.

Tseng knew what I'd done when I came home. He gave me a towel for my bleeding nose and had me explain. When I told him I was only obeying Mother, he believed me. She'd fed me information and comforting words for free—from there on out, she'd take her payment in control. He comforted me like any father would've and sent me to wash up before anyone could see me. No one ever came to take me away. I was safe.

Two years later, I killed Katie. I don't know if it was out of jealousy or spite. I do know it was Mother, her control consuming me and giving in to the craving to end the lives of those that tore our family apart thread by thread. My mother hated me for it. She never let me live it down. She'd attack me with words and her own hands. Tseng always defended me, but he couldn't always be there. I always made him stop. I was scared that Mother would take him, too.

One night, my parents were home together at last. They spoke for hours before they called all five of their children downstairs. They announced that they were finally getting divorced, that they were ready to divide our family. They couldn't take it anymore. They also told me that they were sending me to Hojo's lab full time to see what could be done—they were done trying to save me. They told me that they loved me. I screamed that I hated them, hurling curses and insults. I threw a lamp at my father; he threw it back.

Enraged, I headed upstairs and locked the door to my room. My back hit the wall and I fell to the floor, sobbing. The hateful echoes of my family's voices flooded my mind, a clear reminder that I would always be the outsider They never loved me.

"You're a freak, Anna."

"Why don't you go cry to Mother?"

"You're a mistake."

"I wish you'd never been born!"

This is what I was telling you all along. Had you chosen to listen, you would not have suffered. These people have betrayed both of us. They are mere stains on my world. You are one of the few loyal children left.

In that moment, I should have known. I wasn't a chosen one, I wasn't special, and I wasn't loved. But I wanted so badly to believe I was, so I obeyed. I didn't care anymore. I didn't want to feel their hatred burning through their stares any longer. I was done.

It wasn't Jenova that stole my father's gun from his closet. Jenova didn't haul the neighbor's gas cans around the house and soak the walls and floors. Jenova didn't light the first match that quickly grew into a monstrous flame that consumed my home and those that slept within as the light of dawn crept over the lip of Midgar's towering walls.

From outside, I could hear Mike waking the younger kids up, trying to escape. I knew they wouldn't, willingly allowing Mother to overtake me for the first time. I could hear Sarah's screams as the flames blocked her from an escape. Evan, the older twin, was crushed when a portion of the ceiling collapsed. Mike leaped from the roof, clutching Logan to his chest. His leg snapped in two beneath him. I watched the panic flare in his eyes when he saw me approaching with the gun.

"Anna?! What are you doing?" He eyed the weapon, gasping for air. "Tseng wouldn't have wanted—"

I raised the gun and fired twice, one bullet for each boy. "Cleaning up."

The neighborhood woke up to the sound of blaring alarms and roaring flames. I ignored the black column of smoke that rode from the house and walked through the streets until I reached the slums. It's as if no one could see me, a small twelve-year-old girl smeared with blood and soot and wielding a firearm. Even if someone was to stop me and demand what I was doing, to look me in the eye, they would find nothing. I wasn't there anymore. I was a machine driven by a new master.

When I reached the center of the slums, I opened fire. "Tseng never cared." An old man gasped, collapsing against the wall. "Your parents never loved you." A young girl's feet gave way and her hand slipped from her father's. "You know death better than anyone." Screaming, a boy with wild red hair falls to the ground, shaking a middle-aged man's arm as blood ran into the brim of his hat.

"Dad!" Eyes brimming with tears, he ran at me, throwing me onto my back. The gun skittered away, but I didn't reach for it. I couldn't react when he grabbed my collar and heaved me upward into his face. "What the hell's wrong with you?!"

"Off!" A soldier pulled him off and held him to the ground. An entire troop circles around me, gun raised. "She's coming with us."

There was trial after that, but I'm not sure why. I was clearly guilty and I never denied it. There were three options that were presented to me: death, prison, and the Sector Two asylum. The third was proposed personally by Tseng. He gave them the details of my struggles with Jenova's voice. After all I'd done, he still wanted the best for me.

I sat in a jail cell for two months before I was transferred. There I was placed under the care of Professor Hojo, who visited occasionally, Amy, short for Amelia, and Tyler Marx, Hojo's understudy. I changed my name to Kat. A year into treatment, Tyler started making promises of a better life. He told me that he loved me. And I believed him. He gained Hojo's permission to study me personally in his own home and spent most of his time manipulating me into giving him anything he wanted.

And then he turned. He plunged experimental concoctions into my veins, pushed me around, and shouted insults I hadn't heard in years. When I fought back, he threw me back into my cell and returned to the lab. He'd gotten his results and he didn't need me any longer. I realized that there is no such thing as love.

The first day I planned to kill him Tseng visited and told me about his engagement to Sonyeh Kisaragi, the eldest daughter of Emperor Godo of Wutai. It was a forbidden love, but she was willing to throw away her title for him. He took me to his home to meet her and she let me help her plan the wedding. I liked her a lot, and I didn't trust the feeling.

Over the next yeah, Sonyeh visited me dozens of times. We got to know each other, though I was usually closed off and chained to my seat. She took me home for a weekend, determined to see me as a person instead of a mindless shell. It was a grave mistake. I snapped when she told me they loved me, stabbing her until she stopped moving. I was out of mind, covered in her blood and dancing to the eerie silence of their home until Tseng came home. He didn't shed a tear, driving me back to the asylum in deathly still silence. He didn't say goodbye when the doctors dragged me back to my cage, refusing to look at me.

It wasn't long until I found a way to burn the asylum, too. I was fifteen and I'd lost all recollection of what I'd done. I didn't know who Annabelle or Taavi or Mike were anymore. I'd forgotten Tseng and Sonyeh and Marx by the time I reached the slums, on the run from something I couldn't recall. I'd been living on my own for three months when I first met Reno.

Our lives were okay for a while. We struggled to find food and to keep warm at night, occasionally sharing a ragged blanket and sleeping back to back to thaw our frozen bodies. Friendship was new to me, and thankfully, Reno made it easy. Everything was fine until he started selling drugs to another group of slum rats.

Two years after saving me, he was looking for ways to make money. No one was interested in hiring a homeless boy with an attitude. A boy he met in Wall Market got him into the business. He didn't use anything he was selling, save for a few frightening times, and he began raking in cash faster than either could have imagined.

Reno was chased by Shinra officials and forced to throw away a whole month's worth of income. A few days later, the boys in charge of the whole "business" beat the life out of him and left him to die. He managed to drag himself back to our abandoned schoolhouse before his legs gave way and his eyes refused to reopen. I was terrified. I bought potions with the money he earned and forced him to drink them, sick to my stomach seeing him in this condition.

I went outside, not caring that the rain soaked me to the bone, and I ran. I didn't know where I was going until I stopped short before the ruins of an old house. I didn't understand why I wanted to be there, but I collapsed on the remains of the porch steps and cried until I couldn't breathe, desperately searching for the comfort that sat just out of reach, taunting me.

I didn't know he'd followed me until I felt a soggy sleeve slip around my shoulders and pull me into a soaked shirt. He was a shoulder to cry on, my solid rock. He sat there with me for a century while I cried. I didn't know why I was so sad here, but I wanted to stay. I couldn't, but I wanted to.

The next year, Reno convinced me to take up training in Shinra's ranks. When we entered the building to sign up, I caught sight of Tseng and instantly recognized him, feeling a rush of relief and anguish. I didn't let myself touch him, but he redirected us to the Turks before we could be enlisted in the army.

When I was kicked out of the program for killing that boy Carlos, I went home to the apartment that Reno and I shared at the time. I waited for him on the couch, dreading his reaction. I shouldn't have been afraid. He came home with cake and coffee and a big, bright smile on his face. He was there for me through it all, refusing to be consumed by his anger and his fear.

Everything was looking up until five years passed, leaving us in the mess we're in today. Twenty-four years built up and burst through the glass box I kept them locked in all at once without anyone to shelter me from the blast. And still, he stayed, pacing back and forth at the end of my bed in hopes that I'll wake up someday.

Someday.

Chapter Text

It takes all the strength I can muster to pry my eyelids open, and once I get them there, they squeeze shut again, burned by the sunlight pouring into the room. Someone's faint voice points out the movement and another calls my name. I can feel people watching me and it's uncomfortable. Fuck off. Groaning, I try to raise my arm, but it's too heavy.

"The window," I mumble, my words slurring together. Somehow, they understand and the shades rattle, closing in one sharp motion. I try again, squinting. It's still so bright.

"Welcome back, Kitty," Reno grins, leaning forward in the chair he's pulled up to the side of the bed. Rude looms beside him, expressionless. Much to my surprise, Tseng's out cold in another chair across the room, face as stern as always even in his sleep.

"Thanks." My voice sounds funny and my head's hazy. Where are we?

Reno seems to read my mind, laughing quietly to himself and shaking his head. "We're in Kalm. Didn't think it'd be safe for you or Rufus in Midgar, so we moved you guys out here. He woke up two days ago, though."

"Two days?" I almost sit up, alarmed, but the stinging in my chest knocks me back down. It all comes back: Hojo's bitterness, Cid's rescue, getting carried away.

"Marx kept you under a lot of drugs to keep you asleep. Said it'd help you heal faster." He sighs, shrugging. "He unplugged all his shit and left a few hours ago. Not sure where he went."

I frown, ignoring the fears of not knowing what that psycho pumped into my body, and nod toward Tseng. "What's with him?"

"He's been awake for a long time." Reno laughs. "Thought it'd catch up with him eventually. He keeps stressing like that and it won't be long before he gets Rude's hair." At that, Rude raises an eyebrow, but he doesn't say anything.

"Is he worried about Meteor?"

Reno flashes a weak smile and stands. "Shield your eyes, Sweetheart." He pulls the shades back up to reveal the sky. "Take a look." From here, the looming mass looks hardly a few miles from Midgar, though it's still very easily close to impacting Kalm as well. "Veld and the others came to help evacuate the city after we got you and Rufus out. It was good bein' with 'em, even just for a little while."

"Reeve called," Rude adds. "Avalanche was about to fight Sephiroth when he did."

"How long ago?"

"About—" He's cut off when the ground begins to shake, shooting Reno a frown. "An hour or so."

"Great." My heart begins to pound and I can't bite back at my fear this time, trying to make a joke as Meteor draws nearer by the second. I swear I can feel the rock's heat from here. "Well, nice knowing you guys."

Reno rolls his eyes and turns back to the window. Meteor doesn't feel so slow anymore. Decorations and water glasses rattle on the room's surfaces, crashing to the floor as the shaking gets stronger. "Fuck," Reno hisses, stepping away and sitting on the edge of my bed.

Before I can brace myself for the rock's impact, uncountable tendrils of light shoot forth from the ground, glowing a blinding shade of bright green. The lights push upward against Meteor in an effort to wrestle it away. The Planet's defense. As they split into white-hot threads that spread across Meteor's surface, Rude checks his phone with a scowl.

"Vincent Valentine and Yuffie Kisaragi are in Midgar."

"For what?" I ask, hardly able to breathe around the pounding in my chest.

"Further evacuation."

"I don't know if it matters anymore."

"What the shit is happening?" Reno demands, drawing our attention back. The lights flare and we shield our eyes. Is this the end? For a second I think it is, overwhelmed with suffocating heat. But then it's gone and the world goes dark. I let my arm fall, staring at the smoking remains of Midgar, stunned.

"Holy chocobos."

"They did it," Reno says, eyes wide with shock. His face splits into a grin and he turns sharply to face me. "Holy shit!" He falls onto his back and smiles up at Rude. "Was that thrill better?"

"Exceptionally."

"Thrill?" I frown, catching sight of Tseng standing. He tears his eyes away from the window, glancing at me. Before he can speak, Reno sits up.

"See, Kat? You could've slept through it all just fine!" I sit up to hit him, stopped short when a shooting pain fires through my shoulder. He winces. "Take it easy, Kitty. You pulled your shoulder, too."

"How…?" I frown only to recall catching myself on the scaffolding. "It didn't hurt before."

"Not compared to all those bullets, no."

I groan, rolling my eyes. "This is gonna be fun." Suddenly, I notice the absence of two people. "Where's Rufus?"

"Another room with Elena," Tseng replies, straightening his jacket. "Fractured ribs and a broken heel. He's stuck in a wheelchair."

Rude's phone chimes loudly and he checks it, raising an eyebrow. "Speak of the devil…"

"Brat's bein' needy today, ain't he?" Reno scoffs, shoving his hands into his pockets.

"…" Rude turns and leaves silently.

Standing, Reno stretches his arms over his head. "Shit, it's late." He glances at me over his shoulder, eyes bright and smile wide. "You still tired, Kat?"

"I could hibernate again," I admit, laying my head back into the pillows and relaxing.

"Yeah, so could I." He laughs, turning back to Tseng. "How 'bout you, Chief?"

"It's amazing how much more polite you are after I've been dead a while," Tseng teases, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "I think I'll keep Rude company while he babysits."

We laugh as he leaves, quieting once the door closes behind him. Reno rubs the back of his neck, resting his hand on his hip.

"He seems cheerful," I point out.

Reno nods, pacing the length of the room. "Yeah. I think he's happy to be back." Good to know he found somewhere to belong. "You okay?"

"I'm fine." I press my lips together, feeling dread create a pit in my stomach. "Is it okay?"

"Is what okay?" Reno frowns, looking back at me.

"The baby."

"Oh." He heaves a sigh, shrugging. "Yeah, Marx said everything was alright after we got you stabilized." He puffs out a weak laugh. "I don't think he likes me."

"You think?"

"Eh, he'd probably dance on my grave if he wasn't so stuffy."

I wince, trying not to laugh, and search the side table. "Where's my phone?"

"Can't be a second without it?" Reno teases, raising an eyebrow. He pulls it from his pocket and hands it over. "Charged it for when you woke up."

"Thanks. I'm glad you were hopeful."

"Marx said you'd be alright, remember?"

"Mhm." I turn the phone on and raise an eyebrow at Reno when he sits beside my pillow, watching me text my uncle.

Tseng, you didn't happen to ditch Rude, did you?

I'm not sure if he'll answer me, so I lay back against Reno's leg and close my eyes, resting my phone on my stomach. After a moment of silence, it buzzes and I sit back up, thrilled that he answered.

What do you think?

I roll my eyes and Reno snickers, shaking his head.

Don't be such a goody-two-shoes. I would've.

I'm sure you would have.

"He knows you so well," Reno comments. "Isn't he supposed to be babysitting?"

"Rufus must be sleeping."

I need to tell you something.

Over text?

Don't be so cynical.

"You can't help that he's old."

"He's only a few years older than you."

"Yeah. Old."

I scoff and turn back to my phone, heart skipping beats sporadically.

You there?

I'm waiting.

Oh. Well, I'm pregnant. Surprise!

"Cruel," Reno snorts.

"Marx didn't tell him, did he?"

"Nope. He wasn't in the room when you were being treated. Too busy serving our beloved president." He nods toward my phone, smug. "Radio silence."

"You're right."

Hello?

Whose?

… Yours.

Kat, incest is not funny.

Yeah here's the thing… It's Rufie's.

"Gods, you're horrible," Reno mutters, turning away from the screen as if the news still hurts. Slowly, he gets up, shedding his jacket. I huff and toss my phone onto the foot of the bed, staring at the ceiling. He raises an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"I need to take a shower."

"Okay." He's smiling before he can help it, reveling my handicap. "You need help?"

"Please?"

"Aw, poor Kitty Kat can't take her own shower," he whines, pouting. I throw my pillow at him, scowling.

"I can shower just fine. I need help getting there."

"Mhm." Reno wiggles his eyebrows. "Sure you don't need help with the rest?"

"Don't be gross. It's not gonna be pretty."

"I know. It's you."

"Screwoff."

Snickering, he heads to the bedside and offers me an arm. We stumbled toward the bathroom slowly, taking our time as my knee slips in and out of place, even wrapped up tightly in Marx's bandages. He helps me get a towel out of the cabinet and leaves me to eye my nasty wounds in the mirror alone. Gross. I peel off the bloody gauze and carefully step into the shower. The water stings, but it feels good to wash up. It's only when I step out that I realize I don't have anything to wear. Fuck.

"Hey, Re?"


"I'm not getting in a fucking wheelchair," I snap, arms crossed as I glower at the seat. Rude sighs and shoots Reno an exhausted look.

"Kat, c'mon, we can't carry you around forever," Reno pleads.

"I'm not getting in."

"You don't want to strain your chest—" Tseng starts.

I cut him off with a glare. Defeated, he nods, and Elena hands over a pair of crutches. I'm lucky his head's pounding knives into his skull, or I'd probably get chewed out. Just as I tuck the supports under my arms, Rufus wheels into the room, stopping by the window.

"All of you…" He turns to face us, resting his chin on the shoulder of his scuffed suit. "What do you all plan to do from here?"

"Are you're serious?" I demand, raising an eyebrow.

"I don't remember being fired," Reno chimes in, tucking his hands into his pockets.

The others nod, waiting for the president's response. Without Shinra, we're nothing. We threw every other source of identity out the window when we signed up for this. It's everything we have everything we are. Slowly, Rufus turns the wheelchair around, thinking.

"Fine. I have two orders for you then." He lifts his gaze, staring hard at everyone. "Return to Midgar and find out the situation there. I also need you to gather some friends." His eyes are cold when they finally reach mine. "Just because people may be our staff does not mean they're friends. Understand?"

"Why did you look at me when you said that?" I mutter, scowling.

"I know that," Tseng replied, frowning. "But what use will it be gathering friends now? What are you going to do?" Tseng questioning orders? Death did him good.

"I want information for now, no matter how little or how much." Rufus turns to my uncle. "Tseng."

"Yes sir."

"I'm sure you've been reprimanded—"

"There are still many things Shinra can accomplish, sir."

Rufus nods, his pale hair swinging free into his face. He doesn't seem to notice.

"I'm sure this'll be fun," Reno says cheerfully, elbowing Rude. "We'll take city duty."

"I'll go with Tseng, then," Elena replies. I can hear the nerves in her voice and I struggle to hide a grimace. Gods, why'd she have to fall in love with my uncle of all people? I glance over at him, curious. Can he even tell? I start to follow the others our the door, ready to join Reno and Rude when Rufus speaks up.

"Kat, you're staying here with me."

"What?" I snap, stumbling into the doorframe when I turn too fast. Not used to these damn things.

"You're in no shape to be working." He raises a slender eyebrow, watching me fumble with my crutches. "Besides, you wouldn't want to leave me alone when I could—"

"Whatever," I huff, plopping back down into my bed. I instantly regret it, cringing. "Ouch."

Chapter Text

I never thought I'd be sitting in a bed beside Rufus Shirna as he carts himself around in a wheelchair, heavily bandaged and leg weighted with a thick cast. But here we are, staring out the window wistfully wishing for our freedom like a pair of dogs left alone during the workday. The silence becomes suffocating and it's hard not to pick holes in the material of my pants.

"So… How do you think they're holding up?"

"They as in the others?"

"Who else?"

"They're fine." Rufus's voice is dry, bored even. He refuses to turn away from the window, pale eyes locked on the street.

"Well, that's good I guess." I chew on my cheek, anxious to ease the tension. Of course, the next thing out of my mouth does the opposite. "The kid's okay."

"Marx told me."

"… Oh."

"Is something wrong?" he asks, making a half-assed effort to glance over his shoulder. "You're acting strange."

"I'm fine, I just feel weird."

"Weird?"

"It feels like…" I sigh, shaking my head, my stomach twisting into knots. "Like something bad is gonna happen. I'm just being paranoid."

But maybe I wasn't. After another hour of silence, the doorbell rings. I sit up straight, heart skipping a beat. That's not the others. It rings twice more before I stand, hobbling over to the window to see what Rufus is staring at. A group of men is outside, sweating and trying to pry a window open. Impatient, the closest man smashes the window.

"Great, an angry mob," I huff, closing the door and pushing a chair until the knob to keep us safe a little longer. Rufus nods toward the nightstand.

"There's a gun in there. Give it to me."

I obey, handing the gun over and watching him slip it into his sleeve. "How'd they find us so fast?" Where the hell did Reno put my rod?

"They probably saw Tseng and the others leave this morning."

"Dammit." I jump when the door at the end of the hall opens, slamming against the wall as the group files upstairs.

Rufus glances up at me, raising an eyebrow. "Sit down, Kat."

"But they're—"

"You can't fight them. Sit."

Scoffing, I obey, crossing my arms and leaning my crutches against the wall. It takes a moment of shoving, but the men manage to pry the door to the room open and rush inside, guns raised and faces sweaty.

The one in the front sneers, pulling back his chapped lips to reveal a set of crooked teeth. "Looks like you've gotten yourself into quite a mess, Mr. President." He waves his gun as he speaks, eyes wild with excitement. My hand twitches as I remember the knife on my leg and immediately two guns are pointed in my direction.

"Indeed. But now's the time I fear most." Rufus raises an eyebrow, calm and collected. "There is nothing more frightening than a foolish mob."

"We might be foolish, but at least we know who should be taking responsibility for everything that's happened."

I take a breath to retort, but Rufus shoots me a look, determined to appease his audience. "Then let me ask you this: what will you do after you leave this house? Have you thought about your futures?"

"What do you mean?" the man snarls, eyes narrowing. It's not that hard to understand, dumbass.

"There are two kinds of people in this world: people who give orders and people who take them. It is a question of one's abilities, not a trick question. Often when an incident occurs, it is the ones who give orders that are made to take responsibility." Rufus refuses to break eye contact with their leader and I can tell it's starting to unnerve him. Goddamn, he's a good bullshitter. "As a result, those who remain lose their direction and panic arises. Then everything comes to a halt."

The man blinks for a moment before he regains his anger. His knuckles go white when his hands squeeze his gun tighter. "You don't plead for your life well."

"You might be leading a number of people here, but how long will that last? What kind of future can you give them?"

"We're a foolish mob. As long as we live for today, that's all that counts." The men in the back that aimed their guns at me have lowered their weapons, frowning. I conceal a smile, taking a deep breath.

"No, not 'we,''" Rufus cuts in, cocking his head to the side. "It's just you."

"You have some kind of plan?" one of the men in the back asks.

Their leader scratches at the scruffy hair on his chin. "Of course. First, I would secure my home. Kalm can't shelter all the Midgar refugees. It looks like you're one of the locals here."

"Yeah."

"Do you want this town to become like Midgar?" Rufus asks.

The in the back man closes his mouth, turning his eyes to the floor. Their leader shakes his head, furious. "It's only natural that we help the people who need refuge!"

Rufus continues, unfazed. "Take this for example. What do you do when it rains? Where would the overwhelming amount of people go? Perhaps anyone would provide them shelter out of good will, but think about how big Midgar's population is. It may not be very big anymore, but you can't shelter them all. Can you lay their discontent and anxiety to rest? What can you tell them when all you care about is living for another day?"

"Shut up!" the leader shouts. Rufus doesn't so much as blink, waiting. The man from the back speaks up again.

"Well, you may be right. What would your plan be?"

Rufus tilts his head, a hint of a proud smile on his face. "It would cost my life to tell you." My face falls into a frown and I turn to him, frightened. What the hell are you doing?

The leader snarls, lowering his gun. "I don't have any more time to waste on this. Knock 'em out." Rufus meets my gaze, taking a breath to speak, but the man's rifle slams him in the head before he can say anything. I jump, watching his eyes roll back and his body slump. Holy shit… the man stops before me, eyebrow raised. "Got anything to add?"

"No."

"Goodnight, then."


I'm trapped in hazy delirium, drowning under the weight of the drugs the men pump into my body. I've been wavering between sleep and awareness for days. Rufus thinks it's been close to two weeks since they took us, but I'm not sure how he's tracking time. I haven't heard Jenova's voice once, trapped in eerie silence aside from the jingling of my chains every time I move.

From what I can gather, we're chained up in the leader's basement. His name's Mutten and I have no idea what he wants from us. Our wrists and ankles are locked to the wall, preventing too much movement and the drugs keep us from fighting. Not too long ago, a doctor came and looked over our wounds, putting my knee in a brace and prescribing Rufus additional medication for his pain.

A chubby woman brings us our meals that I can't eat because of the nausea. Rufus doesn't seem to notice, picking over the food until he's bored and returns to his sleep like a dog. Mutten visits every few days to try to squeeze information on rebuilding Midgar. Rufus only feeds him one cryptic bite at a time, knowing that if he gave him what he wants, we'll die. And by the looks of this basement, our deaths wouldn't come swiftly.

"Tell me everything," Mutten urges. "I won't kill you."

Rufus looks up at the man, sharp as ever. "Then take the chains off us. We won't run away."

A few days later, Mutten's getting impatient with us. Rufus refuses to say anything more about rebuilding, but the next time Mutten visits, he wants something different: the password to the Sector Five warehouse. When Rufus doesn't answer, Mutten strikes him across the face. After the third hit, Rufus straightens his head slowly, taking his time in torturing his enemy.

"I can't tell you something I don't know."

"Tell me the new passkey, dammit!"

"Someone must have changed it. I only know the emergency—"

Mutten hits him harder this time, sending a short spray of blood across the floor. Rufus takes a moment to gather himself, his hair plastered to the bleeding cut on his forehead. I tear my eyes away, dizzy. Much to my surprise, Rufus's lips split into a smile.

"I see. You're from the army."

"You've passed by me many times before," Mutten bites back, bitter. "But to you, I'm just another one of your troops."

Rufus's eyes flicker to the floor, his smile fading. "… I'm sorry." My heart skips a beat and I glance across the room to see if he's being serious. Was that a genuine apology?

Mutten's eyebrows twitch together before he turns to me. His eyes narrow and he squats before me, pinching my chin between his bloody fingers and forcing me to look up at him. My eyes flicker between all four pairs of his, trying to find the real deal in the chaos of my doubled vision. He grits his teeth, standing sharply and turning back to the president.

"I should've known. You have lapdogs, don't you?" Rufus doesn't answer. "Where are they?!"

"I was taken away when they weren't present. They don't know my whereabouts."

"I see." Rufus's head jerks sharply when he's struck again, blood dripping from a deep cut in his lip. Mutten turns to me. "You know something."

"He already said they weren't—" My heart leaps into my throat when his knuckles collide with the side of my face, my head spinning even faster than before. "Fucking ow."

"What's the passkey?!" he demands, refusing to look away from me.

"I don't know!" Another punch, although this one is into my bandaged chest. My body screams and an involuntary gasp tears through my threat as my bones crack from the impact. Holy shit!

"I don't tolerate disrespect, dog. You know what it is." His eyes flare with rage and he jerks me forward by my collar. "You've been contacting them!"

"You took my phone, moron!" I force out, gritting my teeth to ease my pain. "How the hell do you think I'm contacting them?"

"I don't know. I do know it's one of you." Mutton throws me back toward the wall and turns to Rufus. "And I will kill her if I don't get an answer soon." A knock at the door jerks him out of his act. "What is it?" he demands, irritated.

"You have a guest."

"A guest? Who could—" He shakes his head. "Nevermind. I'll be right there." He continues speaking as he heads for the door, keeping his head up and his shoulders square. "The construction of the new city has begun. I'm really looking forward to it, Mr. President. They're building my city. I'd love to show you it, but you leave me no choice but to leave you and your pet here."

He leaves quickly, locking the door with a loud click. I try to focus my sight on Rufus, grimacing at the amount of blood streaking his skin.

"Are you okay?"

"I'll survive." He looks up from the floor, eyeing me. "Are you?"

"I think he turned my ribcage into bone meal," I admit, struggling to catch a full breath.

"That bad?"

"Fucking awful."

Two voices over our heads raise into shouts. One sounds familiar; it must be Mutten's. A startled scream just barely starts before a gunshot goes off. Thundering footsteps precede the arising scent of smoke. What the hell happened?

"A fire?" I frown, huffing out a dry laugh. "That's my trope."

Much to my surprise, Rufus acknowledges the joke with a slight laugh before attempting to stand. He almost gets there, but the chains snap short and his weak knees give out, throwing him back to the ground. If I didn't feel so hazy, I might've laughed. We have to get out of here.