Modus Operandi

The world underwent a dramatic change when viewed through the sights of a scoped rifle. Objects, be they living or non-living, took on a sharper focus. Contour lines became more noticeable, more distinct. Blurs became edges, and softness became hard and brittle. Light became more harsh, and darkness became light. Almost everything became clearer and sharper through the vision of the sights, except, of course, for the two white lines that intersected to form a cross, and the circle that enveloped the intersection point. While everything around them became sharp, the crosshairs obscured the clarity. Without the crosshairs, the world viewed through the sights of a sniper rifle would have been something wondrous, but since the crosshairs did exist, reality diffused through the perfection and diluted the sharpness.

Yet through certain methods, reality, even through such clear vision, could be dulled. There were ways, the sniper thought, that perception could be altered while remaining clear enough in order to get the job done. Illusion though the imagined perception may be, it was a way of separating oneself from reality, which made it a perverse form of self-deception.

The sniper was a master of self-deception, though he did not know it. The world he viewed was a dirty, dank collection of gray buildings set against a neighborhood that no respectable person would ever want to set foot in. Add to fact that the sun never quite shone in Midgar, and you had the perfect backdrop in which the disillusioned and the unfortunate lived their lives in wretched beauty.

For this area was the Section Seven slums.

Though the wretched beauty of the slums was not lost upon Reno, he ignored it as he viewed the world two stories below him through the crosshairs of his scoped CT-99 rifle. To him, the world, as he viewed it, was a dark comedy.

The poor, dumb bastards, he thought with amusement. The poor, dumb bastards in this case were the two men dressed in large, bulky overcoats - most likely to conceal a weapon - standing outside a single, filth stained door that led into one of the dingy, two-story buildings that was just across the street from his position on the second floor of another building that overlooked the two men below. He watched them with detachment, watched them as they puffed away at their cheap, white cigarettes, watched them as they did the job of looking formidable, something that did not need to be faked. For these street-smart bastards had grown up in the slums, and they possessed the kind of toughness that having lived their lives in penury and danger gave men. By their looks, they were not to be messed with.

But to the sniper, they were not two men, and they were not street-smart bastards. They were merely two targets awaiting the penetrating sting of a bullet that would effectively and instantaneously end their street-smart lives. They were two objects that moved under their own power and presented a threat toward the operation, so it was the sniper's job to ensure that they did not interfere with the carrying out of justice, and ensuring that meant terminating them.

One man shouldn't have such power, Reno thought as he watched the two objects - he began to think of them as Target One and Target Two - shuffle restlessly in the targeting reticule. But he did have the power. He could watch the two men move about in the sights of his scoped CT-99, watch them perform the act that was their lives, knowing that if his right index finger applied four pounds of pressure to the trigger, one life would be shattered in the span of a second, and the other one would have little time to react before he, too, would die. It was a dispensing of judgment by which Reno could give the ultimate penalty. That was what made it darkly funny, watching these men live their lives, not knowing that Death was but a certainty that only had to be implemented.

Reno wasn't a sadist. But viewing the situation as comical helped distance himself from the reality of what was about to happen, so he embraced the dark humor of it all. If anything, it helped him concentrate.

The headset that was nestled snugly in his long, tangled mop of red hair crackled to life. A burst of static flared, and then a familiar voice, "Are you in position, Reno?"

"Ready and waiting, Tseng," he replied. He had been in position for ten minutes.

More static. Then, "We're waiting to get a visual ID. Stand by." Then there was nothing.

He sighed. Tseng wanted to be thorough, and his thoroughness gave Reno too much time to ponder. While on an operation, one was not supposed to think about anything except the purpose at hand. This time the purpose was the capture of one Melissa Speardon, or, if the circumstances for her capture were unattainable, to kill her if necessary. For Melissa had done something that the executives on the 67th floor of the Shinra building hadn't liked at all, and they wanted her very badly. Melissa used to work as a secretary for one of the executives on the 67th floor, and the work that she had done for him also included some very unprofessional courtesies that were shared beneath the covers of the comfortable bed that was owned by the executive. And when the executive had whispered a few secrets about his work in her ear, Melissa had got it into her head that what the executive (and, indeed, all of Shinra) was doing was wrong, and that she had to do something to expose it to the public. Reno was uncertain of the details of the secrets, but the details were sensitive enough that the loose-mouthed executive was no longer working for Shinra. In fact, he wasn't doing any working at all - what was left of his body had been disposed somewhere in Section Two. It was a very neat and clean job - it had been an operation carried out by the Turks.

But the problem of Melissa Speardon remained even after the elimination of the loose-mouthed executive, for the secretary didn't show up for work the following day after having listened to secrets whispered in the afterglow of sex. After a week had passed, her absence had caused a sort of panic attack, and the Shinra Special Forces had been deployed on a frantic mission to find the whereabouts of one Melissa Speardon. As it turned out, Melissa had sought the protection of a group that consisted of seedy and suspicious elements of the fringe of society, a group that was bent on exposing the so-called "truth" of the corruption and scandal within the Shinra Corporation. The Special Forces were once again deployed, only this time their objective was to neutralize and capture the individual Melissa Speardon.

And that was when everything began to go to hell.

An elaborate ambush plan organized by the commander of the Special Forces team, who was just a bit too clever for his own good, had started off badly and had ended in complete disaster. The results were three dead Special Forces members in exchange for only one dead guard in return. The subject still remained at large, the public embarrassment for Shinra had been heavy, and the too-clever commander was now contemplating the remainder of his career working as a security guard in a dark corner of the basement beneath the Shinra building. In short, Special Forces had fucked up.

And when Special Forces fucks up, the Turks get called in to clean up the mess, Reno thought with amusement. It had always been that way, for the Turks were very efficient at cleaning up messes. But Special Forces always thought that they could handle touchy situations for themselves, and they did not like relinquishing control of matters to the Turks. It was a rivalry of sorts, but a harmless one, except to those who were killed because of Special Forces' mistakes.

Reno was a Turk, and he was also very good at what he did, which included a great number of things. You had to be very good at a great number of things in order to become a member of Shinra's most elite service save for SOLDIER, and you had to be willing to do what was asked of you. That was the hard part for most. This time around, the red-haired Turk had been asked to do sniper duty for the purpose of ensuring that the capture of Melissa Speardon went smoothly. Sniping was just one of the things that Reno had shown aptitude for, and it was a hell of a lot better than actually kicking in the front door.

Movement in one of the few unbroken windows of the two story, deteriorating grey-brick structure prompted Reno to switch on his headset. "Reno here. Be advised that there's movement on the northern side of the second story, one person, looks like a male judging by the haircut." His eyes narrowed. "He's got a gun of sorts, maybe a light caliber rifle."

A couple of seconds passed as Reno waited for Tseng and Rude to process the information. "Copy that," came Tseng's voice. "Thanks for the tip. Our approach will remain the same. Just be sure that those two guards don't bother us."

He rolled his eyes. "Ah, roger that. I think I can I hit them. Probably."

The voice chuckled. "Make sure the safety's off, Reno."

The red-haired Turk permitted himself a small grin. His job was the easiest of them all, and yet it was the most important. All he had to do was shoot at whatever he saw. Rude and Tseng, on the other hand, were dressed up in black kelvar and nomex and armed for close-combat, Rude with his modified SG-11 single-barreled shotgun and Tseng with his Mark VII semi-automatic. They were waiting outside the back entrance, waiting to catch a glimpse of the target to make sure that she was really there. They were the ones who would go in first to apprehend the target and neutralize any guards inside. They were the ones who had the greatest chance of getting killed.

Inaudible conversation wafted from his headset, and then, "We have visual ID of the target. Repeat, we have a confirmed ID of Melissa Speardon. Compromise authority has been obtained." A pause. "We'll be waiting, Reno.'"

An exhale of breath surprised Reno in that it was his own. Well, goddamn. It wasn't exactly relief that he felt, but a strange, unknown form of anticipation that was part adrenaline and part fear.

Fear, his mind scoffed. Why should you be afraid? You are the one that is hiding behind the bricks of the building across from the zone of operation. You are the one that is relatively safe. You are the one that sees all.

Shut up, Reno told himself. Now is not the time to listen to your own bullshit. His hands moved, adjusting the gun, but to his eye only the white crosshairs shifted their position to settle upon the bulbous head of Target One. He watched through the reticule as Target One took a long drag on his cigarette.

"Enjoy it while you can, you stupid dickhead," he murmured to himself. As Target One reveled in the glory of his cigarette, his head became the only part of him that Reno could see through the crosshairs, for the rest of his body was irrelevant. Indeed, all else became extraneous, and there were only the crosshairs and the head of the target.

Only those things.

"Go," he whispered into his headset. And then everything at once.

His first shot was not a good one. At the very moment he squeezed the trigger, Target One decided to turn his head to say something to Target Two. As a result, the bullet's destination changed from the center of Target One's forehead to his right temple. Shortly after impact, the bullet fragmented, but since the bullet had already penetrated Target One's temple, the results became predictable. The great majority of Target One's face, including the eyes, nose, and lips, was peeled away in a gratuitous mist of sanguine gore, only to splatter across the ground as Target One was spun ninety degrees before collapsing onto the street. What made it a bad shot was that Target One was not yet dead, for the mouth that no longer had any lips was still capable of uttering wordless screams, the kind of screams that had no structure, no crescendo, but the kind that was simply a wet, gurgling moan.

But Reno was already moving, his hands ejecting the spent shell and pulling back the slide so that the next round would enter the chamber. It was all automatic, the result of his skill and training.

Shift targets. The sights veered to the left to focus on the forehead of Target Two, who was just now beginning to register that what was left of Target One was splattered across the ground. Target Two's hands began to move, reaching inside his coat -

Reno's second shot was much better, the bullet drilling into Target Two's forehead, and there was the sound of the bullet hitting human flesh and bone. It is indescribable. It is a wet, crunching smack of a ripe fruit exploding.

As Target Two fell to the ground, everything re-focused and resumed its normal pace. Only then was Reno aware of the sounds emitting from his headset, the sound of a door being kicked open, the sound of Tseng's voice -

"Go go go go GO GO!"

No, not the normal pace after all. Too fast, everything was too fast, and there was still the man on the second floor of the building, the man with the gun -

Gunfire, from within, not coming from the two Turks. A barrage of shots, and then the retorting discharge of Rude's shotgun. "Shit!" someone shouted, and -

There was only instinct. The rifle elevated slightly, the sights coming to rest upon one of the second story windows......

- this time the rapid staccato bursts of Tseng's semi-automatic, a low-pitched scream muffled by static, and then Rude was firing his shotgun once again -

"Come on, show me that pretty face of yours, you son of a bitch," Reno breathed, his finger tightening on the trigger.....

- more gunfire mixing with the cacophony of static and shouts, and then, "Everybody on the ground, NOW! Everybody - "

.....and sure enough, he did. The window collapsed in a shower of glass as Reno split the target's face with a single shot, the clout of blood spraying upwards.....


"Life is a bitch, ain't it, pal?" Reno would never remember those words, the question that he asked a dead man who could not have possibly have heard him as his lifeless shadow disappeared from view beneath the window.

Yeah, life is a bitch.

And all of that.

All of that.

"Hell," Reno whispered. "Oh, hell," and his hands slowly, ever so slowly, loosened their grip upon the rifle. It was hard, because his hands were cramped, as if they had molded themselves to the shape of the rifle.

Slow breaths. Slow, deep breaths.

As adrenaline and instinct gradually gave way to rational and planned thought, the pace of the operation slowly tempered itself into normality, as it always did when the madness of the first few moments died down. The only sounds were the shouts and curses from the headset, the sound of Tseng barking orders, the sound of a painful scream, and -

"Reno," the headset squawked. "Reno, are you there?"

He closed his eyes, pushing back his tangled red hair. "I'm here," was all he said.

"What's your status?" Tseng, Reno thought.

"The two guards at the front entrance are dead. The man on the second story is dead as well," he replied wearily, even though he was not tired. "Did you get her?"


A frown crept across his face. "Tseng? Did you get her?"

*Crackle* "No," came the leader of the Turk's resigned reply. "But we think she's still in the building. Look, we haven't secured the building yet, so I need you to go around and cover the back entrance. The target may try and - " A sudden burst of gunfire interrupted him, and the sound of it made Reno wince. Was it always this loud? he wondered.

"Damn it," he heard Tseng mutter. Then, "Reno, get to the back entrance as quickly as you can, but watch yourself." As if to punctuate his words, Rude's shotgun discharged twice, only to be answered by a report of an automatic.

Shit. He knew it was hopeless, but Reno picked himself off the floor and scrambled down the stairs, leaving his still-assembled CT-99 on its tripod stand. His only backup was a simple, standard-issue nickel-plated pistol. His rifle was worthless in close combat situations, and this part of the operation hadn't been planned for. Idiot, he swore at himself. Next time, consider that sometimes things don't always go according to the goddamn plan!

He emerged into the dusty, litter-covered street. Greeting his eyes were the two men that he had killed, them and a significant portion of their blood that had spilled on to the ground. Reno gave it no thought - he wasn't squeamish about his work. Instead, he headed toward the narrow alley that opened up into a small, closed alcove that was just as dirty as the rest of the area. There he saw a wooden hanging partially off its hinges, yet still concealing most of what was inside. This had been the entrance that Tseng and Rude had entered.

Pistol at eye level, he advanced toward the door slowly, blue eyes examining the exposed inside of the building. Nothing. The firefight must have been further in.

He adjusted his headset, making sure the earpiece was snug, listening to the shouts and shots within. "Reno here. I've reached the back door. Want some assistance?" He knew it was a stupid question. There wasn't much a goddamn pistol could add to a firefight.

"Negative on that. Hold your position. We've got them pinned down, but we can't move without compromising ourselves, and we can't cover the back position. They may try - " There was a pause as someone loosed a rapid-fire burst. " - they may try to get Melissa out the back entrance. If you see her - " A crackle of static, then nothing more.

Reno's eyes narrowed. "Tseng? I didn't get that last part." Nothing. Well, sometimes things go to hell. The best laid plan only lasts until the shooting starts.


He moved to the side of the doorway, placing himself in the dark shadow of the adjoining building. There he waited, silent as the shadow, waiting for someone to emerge from the kicked-in door. Somehow, his heart managed to beat calmly. Somehow, the pistol did not shake, for his hand did not shake. Training, he thought with dry amusement, has its advantages.

But somehow, Reno knew that it was not training that kept him calm. Training couldn't quite prepare you fully for this. It was the adrenaline. The adrenaline, and the fear that you never could quite shake, the fear that was not fear itself, but a hybrid of fear, an indescribable essence that kept you calm in the face of true fear. It was using a form of fear to fight fear itself.

Because when fear alone had you, you were dead. But when fear was mixed with resignation to what could happen and the knowing that true fear could kill you, it kept you on a precarious balance, upon which one side lay life, and the other, death.

There was Reno, and his breathing, which sounded abnormally loud in his ears. And there was the door, the door that was nearly obscured with the sights of his pistol. And the headset with its random noises.


" - damn, damn, DAMN, DAMN!! She's getting away, get her, GET HER - !!" And then there was a flurry of shouts, and then -

He tore the headset away, ignoring the sound of metal and durable plastic clatter onto the hard ground. His eyes focused down the pistol, waiting, waiting for -

The figure that was piling out the door, the figure that stumbled as the door came off its hinges with a sudden, sharp sound.

By some miracle, Reno did not fire. Instead, he heard his own voice, which boomed, "Don't MOVE!"

The figure looked up at him, panting rapidly. It was a woman, Reno realized, and an attractive one at that. He knew her face. Melissa Speardon, his mind registered. His gun was focused in on her head, punctuating his words. "Get up!" he commanded.

It was a pretty face, even though the haggard brown eyes and hair didn't frame it very well, a pretty face that resembled a piece of stone as the rest of her body moved itself into a standing position. That stony face regarded him with....what? Not apprehension. Not panic. Not either of those, but....contempt.

Reno didn't like that, so he smiled slightly in return, hoping that it would discomfort her. It didn't work. "Up against the wall," he told her.

She complied, if a bit slowly, but comply she did, moving with all the emotion of a robot. Even though her face was hid from him, Reno could still sense the contempt. Time to put an end to that.

"You really are stupid, you know that?" he asked lightly. "Oh, you did manage to outsmart Special Forces, but even for that, you're lacking in something called intelligence, Melissa. I imagine that you'll have plenty of time to find it while you're wasting away in a nice ten by eight cell." He laughed softly. "Put your hands up against the wall."

She didn't move.

The pleasant illusion of the condemned, Reno mused. They get their rocks off defying their captors in any way they can, no matter how small. "Feel better?" he asked. "Now that you've had your little taste of resistance - as if you didn't get enough of it after you betrayed Shinra - why don't you put your hands up on the wall? Trust me, it'll go a lot easier for you."

A breathy whisper, so quiet that the Turk could barely hear. "You don't understand." For a moment, he wasn't sure if Melissa had really spoken.

"Now, what would it be that I do not understand, as you so deftly put it? If you're going to give me the usual trite about how Shinra is destroying the planet, or how Shinra is monopolizing the economic market, or how Shinra is raising the taxes, then spare me, because we both know that all three of those things are true. There's one big difference between you and me, Melissa. You're a sap, and you want to do something about it. I, on the other hand, lack the motivation. And do you know why? Because I enjoy my work, and because the group that you wish to undermine hands me the means to my survival at the beginning of each month."

His voice grew colder. "Now put your hands up against the wall, because your defiance isn't amusing either of us, because you've lost."

She did not move.

"One last time. Put your hands up against the wall - " he said, this time with a veiled threat.

She still didn't move.

" - right the FUCK now!" He pressed the pistol against her back to encourage her.

It was the biggest mistake of his life.

As he touched the barrel of his pistol in between her shoulder blades, she pushed herself back against the gun, knocking it astray from his hand. In retrospect, Reno would remember not having a good grip on the gun.

Before he could move, before he could react, Melissa somehow managed to hook her foot behind his, and then she was slamming an elbow across his neck. The world tilted at a crazy angle, and then he felt himself slam to the ground in a heap, his breath escaping him in one gasp.

For a moment he lay there in a dream-like stupor, his eyes unable to focus in on the swirling horizon. Breathe. Have to breathe. The world began to regain some of its clarity, and the spinning seemed to slow.

Reno slowly became aware of Melissa looming over him, her figure held erect. There was no longer any contempt in her brown eyes, but something else, something undefinable. She stood there, watching him, and then moved her hand toward her belt.

Knife, his mind screamed. His hand moved frantically, searching for his gun, but his eyes couldn't leave her.

There was indeed a knife in her hand, but even as she drew it, she did not make a move toward him. Reno didn't know why she was hesitating, but he prayed that she continued to do so.

His hand found his gun, his fingers clenching the grip. In one jerky motion, he blindly took aim and fired two shots. Then, as he realized what he had done, he raised his arm as if to call the two bullets back.

In retrospect, it would seem an odd thing to do. But this was not retrospect, not hindsight. This was the here and now.

The knife slipped from Melissa's hand and clattered to the ground as the force of the two shots threw her small, petite frame backwards. Her back arched, and her head convulsed in whiplash, her unruly brown hair floating as if in slow motion. Reno saw these things, saw them as trapped in a waking dream in which time was merely an inconvenience, something that ticked without remorse and with infuriating mockery. Of time and Melissa Speardon, Reno was aware.

And then:

Inevitable as it was, the slumping of Melissa's figure to her knees came as a shock to the red-haired Turk. Not because of the slumping itself, but because it gave him a lingering look at the damage he had caused. The first shot had shattered her left collarbone, not a mortal wound in itself, but one that was excruciatingly painful. The second shot had rippled into her right breast and had simply shredded the soft flesh there, leaving only a bloody mound of clothing. A fatal wound, but it had not killed Melissa Speardon. There was a gout of blood, some of it spilling onto the ground, some of it landing on Reno's face.

And then:

Strangely enough, she did not fall on her face; instead, she twisted grotesquely onto her side, her mouth open in a silent scream. The sound of her head impacting against the ground was sickening, but not by far the worst. For only moments afterwards, she began to scream, for unlike the man - Target One - Reno had killed earlier, Melissa still had a mouth, and her scream was unlike any other sound he had heard.

This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. It couldn't be, for it had to be a nightmare.

And all nightmares came to an end eventually. That was Reno's solace.

You shot her.

Shut up!

You shot her, his mind repeated. You took your gun - you took your gun and you put your finger on the goddamn trigger - and you pulled it - pulled it twice - the muzzle flashed - and then you watched, you bastard, watched as you passed judegement on the condemned - yeah, you watched, you fucking bastard -

Sweat dripped from his forehead as his solace faded. His mind denied him his solace. And so he faced the truth. He had shot Melissa Speardon, shot her twice.


Because she was threatening me. She was trying to -

Kill him? Even though she had hesitated....

"God," he whispered. "God." Melissa was still screaming. He couldn't think now, didn't want to. But he didn't want to hear her scream.

So he stumbled to his feet, the pistol still dangling from his hand, blood dripping from his face. He slowly raised it, aimed it at the writhing figure of the woman he had shot - the woman he had shot, he had never shot a woman before -

Her screaming was chipping away at his soul. He had to do something, had to shoot -

Again? You can shoot her again? Anything, anything to stop the screaming. After all, he had already shot her twice. He could finish the job, put her out of her pain...

Couldn't he?

His eyes narrowed through a red haze as he sighted down the barrel. But then they drifted to Melissa...

To her bloody face. To her mangled body. To her once attractive form. To her eyes, which were still sharp and focused. They met his, asking, imploring, pleading -

His arm wavered.

Her painful, drawn out screams.

His arm dropped. No. And then he knew he wasn't going to do it. He couldn't, even though he knew that she would die, knew that she was in pain, knew that she wanted him to end that pain. He couldn't kill her. He just couldn't.

So instead he talked, talked both to himself and her. Anything to pass the time, anything to drown out the sounds of a woman - yes, a woman - in agony. "You didn't give me a choice," he tried to explain. "You tried to get away - you tried to kill me, you tried - "

She was still screaming.

If she had wanted to kill you, she could have done it before you got your weapon.

"You have to understand why I shot you - you have to understand - yeah, I know it hurts, I know, but - you have to understand - "

Still screaming.

But you don't understand. As she said.

"Damn you, why did you go off and do something so goddamn stupid? Didn't you know what would happen? Why did you do it? Why did you have to resist? Why COULDN'T YOU HAVE JUST DID WHAT I TOLD YOU TO DO, YOU STUPID BITCH!! Why - ?"

Yeah, you call her that. You're the one who did something stupid.

"I'm sorry, God, I'm so sorry - I didn't want it to end this way, please believe me - you can't understand that I mean that I'm sorry, but you have to believe me. I'm sorry - "

She could hear him, couldn't she?

You're so pathetic.

"I'm sorry.

"I'm sorry."

Again. And again.

But talking didn't help. So he moved to her side, crouching, being careful not to look at her tortured face. He pulled a small piece of cloth from the back pocket of his navy blue pants and placed it over her collarbone. He did not try to staunch the wound, as it would only cause more pain.

"That's all I can do," he told her. His voice did not sound like his own. "That's all I can do." No, not all he could do, but all he was capable of doing.

And then he realized something was strange, that Melissa was no longer screaming. She was only breathing rapidly, her teeth chattering as though as if she were freezing. She must be in shock, Reno realized.

Her lips moved, straining to say something. That was such a surprise that Reno didn't comprehend what she was doing at first. Then, once he knew, he moved in closer.

"Other....side," she whispered with obvious effort. "Everything looks different....on the other side. only see one." And then she coughed.

But before Reno could reply, two other figures stepped outside into the alley. As the lighter darkness of Midgar revealed their faces, he recognized them as Tseng and Rude. Both were a sight for sore eyes, the former's face being covered in blood from a gash running across his forehead, and the latter's white dress shirt torn at the sleeves. As they saw Reno, both came to a halt.

"Reno...." Rude said slowly, the first words Reno had heard him say all day.

Tseng was suddenly at his side, laying a hand on his shoulder. His eyes were full of concern. "God...." he said, seeing the blood on his face. He peered at him. "You don't look hurt, but....what happened, Reno?" And then he saw Melissa.

For the longest moment, none of the three Turks said anything. There was only the sound of Melissa's tortured breathing.

Tseng finally turned back to him, again studying the blood on his face. "This isn't your blood, is it?"

Reno slowly shook his head. "I shot her, Tseng," he said. Strange how his voice could sound so dead. "I thought that she was trying to kill me, so I shot her." A laugh, a tortured bark of a laugh escaped from him. "I shot her."

Tseng said nothing in reply. Instead, he studied Reno for a moment before standing up, his eyes leaving him to look at Melissa. "She was trying to kill you?"

Deep breath. "Yeah."

The leader of the Turks merely looked at the prone female form lying on the ground. He looked up at Rude, who shook his head. Then he sighed. "Our orders all but stated that...." he trailed off. "Rude....?" he asked.

His face partially hidden in shadow, the bald Turk replied, "The placement of her wounds makes it unlikely that she'll ever recover." A pause, then, "No one would pry too deeply, and it would be convenient for Shinra."

Reno squeezed his eyes shut. He knew what was coming, knew the inevitable course of action, and worst of all, he knew it was the most prudent option available. A convenient excuse, he thought. That's what Shinra wanted, and I gave it to them.

"Come on, Reno," came Rude's voice along with an outstretched hand. "Let me take you out of here." Behind him, Reno could hear the sound of a gun being loaded.

Like a dream, Reno stumbled to his feet with the help of Rude. Once standing, he shook off Rude's offer of support. It wasn't that kind of support that he needed.

He turned around to get a last look at the woman he had shot, something to serve as a reminder. In her ragged and bloody face, he found it. It was something to remember her by, but not the kind of something that reminds you of a laughing woman in your arms, looking up at you with such compassion, and you, the gullible sap, thinking that it would always be lovely to have that one perfect moment to remember some trivial bullshit, one perfect moment in which everything made sense and the world could not be a happier place, because you were living in that one perfect fucking moment, and you didn't give a damn about anything else.

Yeah, it wasn't any of that.

"I know a place," Rude was saying. He was just talking conversationally. Rude didn't do that. "I know a place around here. The 7th Heaven. Nice place. Serves a damn fine drink." He chuckled, another rarity. "I don't know about you, but I sure as hell could use a drink."

"Yeah," Reno replied lifelessly. "A drink." His voice was hollow in his ears. Why not a drink? You can either view this soberly, or you can do it while you're drunk off your ass.

Not a hell of a lot of difference, is there? he asked himself. But somehow, alcohol made confused things clear, and clear things confused. And clarity was something he didn't want right now.

There was a faint click, the sound of a gun's hammer being cocked back.

"All right then. Let's go get cleaned off, and we'll get a drink," Rude said, leading him away to the entrance of the alley. "Let's get away from here."

Away from here. Away from this place.

Behind the pair, there was the sharp sound of a single gunshot. Then, nothing more.

Rude was wrong. It wasn't a very nice place. If you paid attention, you would have noticed the dank air, the somewhat dirty floor, the scratched wooden tables, the erratically blinking neon lights, and most of all, the shady clientele. They were all street-smart bastards here, and they, like the two Reno had killed only hours ago, were not to be messed with.

The two Turks, dressed in casual clothing - it wouldn't do to wear a navy blue suit and a pair of slacks in this place - did not pay attention to the details of the 7th Heaven. But Reno was surprised all the same to see a high-resolution television set hanging on the wall. Only the rich owned such things, for the usual television set owned by those who lived in the slums was of low-resolution and low quality.

But it was not the television set that drew his eyes. It was the large, muscular black man with a hard face dressed in brown leather that caught his notice. Rather, it was the custom-made gatling gun that was attached to his right arm. For a brief moment, Reno wondered how someone had managed to cobble that monstrosity onto flesh and bone.

Who the hell cares?

There was the sound of low, hushed conversation as the two Turks stepped in. Most of the crowd turned away once they recognized Rude, but not the black man, who slowly shuffled to his feat with a kind of contempt that reminded him of....

"I thought it was you, Shinra," he began contemptuously. "I could smell your 'stinkin ass the moment you walked in."

"Yeah, I knew it was you," the black man continued. "Only this time, you brought a friend. Is he one of you, too?" His eyes flared. "Are you one of them, pretty boy?" he asked, leering at Reno.

"Wonderful people here, eh, Rude?" Reno asked softly. The two both ignored the black man as they sat down at the counter, which only seemed to draw more hostility.

"I asked you a question, pretty boy," the black man said again. "I 'spect an answer."

Keep talking, asshole, and it'll take more than that gun to save you.

"Barret," someone behind the counter said warningly. Again to Reno's surprise, it was a female voice. Even more, she was actually quite beautiful, with a smooth face and long, brown hair that reached the small of her back. She moved with a manner of confidence, self-assured in that people would listen to what she said. Maybe it was the outfit, which consisted of a revealing white halter and a black mini-skirt.

But the black man - Barret? - must not have been charmed by the outfit, because he didn't listen. "I heard about a little something that happened not five blocks away from here," he said. "Something in which Shinra was involved." He laughed. "'Course, Shinra's involved in everything. This time, I heard that they shot a woman."

Reno froze.

"Yeah," Barret continued, not noticing. "Heard that they killed her, too. Said that she was a traitor to corporation, and that she tried to kill a Turk. Shot her dead, they say. Probably because she knew the truth about the Shinra."

Reno clenched his fist. Rude noticed. "Ignore him," he said quietly. "He's just trying to intimidate us. He does this every time I come in. He'll shut up after awhile."

"Does he know you're a Turk?" Reno asked quietly.

Rude shook his head. "All he knows is that I work with Shinra."

A meaty hand slapped down on the counter, interrupting them. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" he asked them. "You wouldn't know anything about some girl named Melissa getting killed, would you, Shinra?" He spat. "Well, you can all burn in hell as far as I'm concerned." He stopped, still looking at them.

Rude just looked back. Merely looked, but it was enough to make Barret turn away in annoyance. The black man walked out the front door and slammed it hard enough to shake the bottles of liquor on the far back wall.

The woman behind the counter - the bartender, Reno guessed - came over to them. "I'm sorry about that," she said, though her voice struck him as being cold. "He just gets that way sometimes." No, she certainly didn't sound very sorry. "Can I get you two something to drink? Rude? The usual?"

"The usual, Tifa," Rude affirmed.

"You?" the pretty bartender asked.

"The usual," Reno replied. Whatever the hell it was.

"She knows your name?" Reno asked Rude after she had moved. "How?"

Rude scratched at the counter top. "I come here a lot." Of course. Rude was nearly an alcoholic. But then Reno saw him eyeing Tifa, or whatever her name was, in a very appreciative manner.


"Yeah," Rude said. Their drinks arrived, but they didn't touch them. "Pretty, isn't she?"

Reno didn't say anything. As much as he admired a pretty woman, the sight of one now was too much of a reminder. That was why, after all, he had agreed to come here.

"Talk to me, Reno," Rude said after a moment of silence.

Reno was tired of surprises, so he took no note of that fact that Rude was starting a conversation. Rude, who was his friend, but never talked about anything unless it suited him. "You are asking me to talk," he said pointedly. "You are asking me to talk about things that I do not want to talk about."

"Everyone has to talk about it sometime," Rude replied. "Why not go ahead and get it over with?"

"Because it isn't just something that I talk about over a drink and say, 'Oh, look, I feel so much fucking better now!' This isn't something that I want to discuss, because there isn't much to figure out, Rude!" his voice raised. "God damn it, why do you want me to talk about it?"

"Because it helps if you talk about it, Reno," Rude said simply. "Because if you don't, you become a pathetic shell of self-pity. Believe me, I know."

"You know?" Reno asked in disbelief. "You know? You ever shot a woman before, Rude? You ever know how it is, to watch her bleed and scream and cry and look at you - that's the worse part, when she looks at you with those eyes? Because when she looks at you, she knows, Rude. She knows." He knew he was rambling, but he couldn't help himself. "When she looked at me - she knew."

"Yes," Rude replied. "I know. I know, because I shot a woman once before. Only, it was an execution job." He said the last part quietly.

Reno was silent. "Christ, Rude," he said. "Christ."

"Yeah, it hurt when I had to kill her," Rude continued. "But I learned the hard way that you have to talk about it to someone before it eats you up. I don't want you to go through what I did."

"I didn't know you cared," Reno said sarcastically.

Anger worked its way on Rude's face, making Reno flinch back involuntarily. It wasn't often when Rude got angry. "That's bullshit, Reno. Bullshit. You know I care. You may think I don't, but I do. Because you're a Turk, and you're my friend. Tseng cares, too. He wanted me to talk with you."

Reno was stunned. "Tseng.....I thought that he would want to transfer me out, after what happened with...." he couldn't go on.

Rude sighed patiently, the anger fading away. "You know him better than that. Tseng knows that this would eventually happen, and he wants to make sure that you would pull through it all right. I'd say that he was also worried that when the time came, you wouldn't care." He shook his head. "In this line of business, you can't care too much, but if you don't care at all, then you're a sadist. A sadist doesn't work well as a Turk. Maybe in SOLDIER, but not in the Turks."

That was true, Reno decided. There had once been a member of the Turks, a man named William who didn't give a damn about anything or anyone. That one had no qualms with executions of any sort. The only thing was, he had gotten too detached. One day, he had just started shooting in the middle of the Shinra building. He had killed eleven people before he was put down.

How could you not care? Reno wondered.

He sighed tiredly, staring into the amber liquid of the drink before him. "I don't hurt women, Rude," he began sadly. "I talk to them - kiss them - argue with them - but I don't hurt them. But with Melissa - " he stopped abruptly.

"Yeah," Rude said softly. "Melissa."

His voice didn't want to work. Something, something in his throat, made it hard to speak. "Alright. Melissa. Yeah," he said, not sadly, but in a strange voice that strikes you as both dry and horribly painful at the same time. "Melissa," he repeated. "She knocked me down, somehow. Then she pulled out a knife, one of those cheap, piece of shit things that punks use.

"She was standing over me - looking at me - just looking at me, just looking. I panicked," Reno admitted. "I thought that she was going to kill me. So I panicked, and I grabbed my gun - " he beginning to stutter. "I grabbed my gun, and I just aimed it at her and pulled the trigger twice. I didn't know what I was doing until after I did it - I just picked up the gun and pulled the fucking trigger." A slow, crazy laugh escaped him. "Yeah, I just pulled the trigger. And then she was falling over, only it was slow, too slow, and then I was just sitting on the ground, watching it, watching it happen."

Reno was still laughing, still chuckling in such an awful way that it became hard to tell whether it was chuckling or.....

Christ, I don't cry.

I never cry.

"Tell me about it, Reno," were Rude's only words.

So he did. He Told Rude about the screams.

Told him about the cries, the look in her eyes.

Told him about how he had held the gun in his hand, how he hadn't been able to pull the trigger for a third time.

Told him about her last words, the words that had been addressed to him.

"She told me that everything looked different on the other side." Reno had still not touched his drink. "And then she said that I only saw one. I guess she meant that I only saw one side."

Rude was silent.

"Do I only see one side, Rude?"

Rude shook his head. "No," he said slowly. "You saw a side, but not the other side. You saw Melissa."

"So which side was Melissa?" Reno asked.

Then Rude did something very strange. He smiled. "The abyss."

Reno considered that. He considered it as he rolled the glass between his hands, the glass filled with the amber liquid that he had not drank, considered it as he wondered about the great mystery of things, of beliefs and right or wrong, of morals and destinies.

The abyss. That was what he was peering down at, what he was in danger of toppling over into.

To hell with the abyss.

"I think I'll stay on this side of things, Rude," was all Reno said.

Rude looked up at him, meeting his gaze, staring at him in such a way that was undefinable. "You're going to be a hell of a Turk, Reno."

And thing of it all, Rude was right. Reno was a hell of a Turk, and he knew it. Because he was good at what he did, because he saw it as a job, and because he was willing to see only the sides that he wanted to.

It was part of being a Turk. Except....

"Thanks," Reno said, or tried to. There was something very strange about his voice. "But sometimes...sometimes I don't have to like my job." He lowered his head, not noticing the bangs of red hair falling into his eyes, obscuring his vision of the amber liquid. "One day, though, I'll be able do what I did today with no regrets. One day."

He had to keep telling himself that.

"There are always regrets," Rude told him. "It's the part of the job that they don't tell you about. You could call it a form of hell, but if you stop caring, it only turns into another type of hell, only worse."

Yeah, Reno thought. But where is the line between not caring and caring too much?

It was a question that he would ignore for now. Right now, all he wanted to do was think about was what he had done today, about the woman that he had killed in all ways except for her final end. It would hurt, but you had to hurt before you could get better.

I'm sorry, Melissa....

He raised the glass to his lips, and he realized that he was crying after all.