Midgar's in the midst of a power outage, and Reno learns a little more about the man he calls 'partner.'
It had been close to six months since his ordeal at the hands of Olivet's gang, and while there were days he almost felt like his old self again, moments like this reminded him only too well that he would, very likely, never be the same again.
Panic attacks, Claudia called them. Brought on by his fear of losing control. She'd put him on medication for them, but she'd also said he'd probably have breakthrough attacks whenever he was stressed.
A flash of lightening so bright it left spots in front of his eyes briefly lit up the room, followed by a loud roll of thunder, and he instantly knew what was wrong.
The power had gone off.
One of the several million things he truly hated Steven Olivet for was the return of his fear of the dark. It had been years after his mother died before he could sleep without a light on, but he'd finally learned how to, and for a long time, the darkness had been his friend and ally. Turk training had taught him how to use it to his advantage, how to make himself invisible.
He'd been playing piano with the lights off the night they took him.
Rude, calm in the face of it all, had started leaving the bathroom light on when they went to bed. The time would come, he'd assured Reno, when he wouldn't need it anymore. Till then, it wasn't like it was gonna raise their electric bill by hundreds of gil a month to have one little light burning all night.
He managed to turn his head just enough to see that, yes, the light was off.
Damn. He was maybe three inches away from Rude, but it might as well have been three hundred miles, the way he felt right now.
Idiot! You're not paralyzed! You can move if you want to. It's just the fear making you think you can't!
"Rude?" His voice was barely a whisper.
Next to him, Rude stirred.
"Yo, big guy?"
He felt his partner turn over. "What's wrong?"
"Power's gone out."
Rude's hand briefly touched his face, and then slid down to rest against his chest. "You spazzing?"
"Big time, yo."
"I could get a flashlight."
"You have to get up to do it?"
"Rude, you leave me alone in this bed in the dark, and you get to explain to Claudia why I burrowed my way right through the mattress."
Rude chuckled. "Can't have that. Come'er." He put his hands under Reno's arms and lifted him, which resulted in Reno being draped over him like a blanket. "Better?"
"Mmm. Still scared, though, and I don't know why."
"That's your brain's fault." Rude tapped the side of his head. "Contrary little fucker hasn't gotten up to speed yet. Claudia said it'd take a while for the meds to kick in. You've only been on them for three weeks. Assuming you've been taking them like you're supposed to."
"Like you, Claudia, Rufus, Tseng and Elena wouldn't kill me if you found out I wasn't?"
Despite the warmth of Rude's body, he was shivering. "Tell me a story, Rude."
Rude laughed softly. "Strawberry, I think I've told you every myth I know a dozen times over."
"So tell me something new. Like how you ended up working for Shinra."
"You never read my personal file?"
"Didn't have a chance. At first Tseng wouldn't let me, because he said I didn't have the proper security clearance, and then the whole business with AVALANCHE came up, and we dropped the plate on Sector Seven, and I got sidetracked, and it didn't seem like it was such a big deal anyway, and dammit, Rude, start talking before I go completely insane!"
"We've been partners for close to eight years, and you honestly don't know anything about my past?"
"I know your name's Ruderick Johnson, and that you're 34. I know your dad's name was Karel. And I know your parent's obviously didn't love you very much, because nobody who loves their son names him Ruderick."
"It was my granddad's name."
"Where'd you grow up?"
"A little mining town called Oslo, about 50 miles north of Junon. Coal mining, like in Corel, except we never mined anywhere near as much as they did."
"Never heard of it."
"Doesn't surprise me; most people who do know about it only remember it because of what happened."
"Something happened to it?"
"Yeah. Ten years after I left home. The mine had closed down after Shinra started putting up Mako reactors, and a lot of the people had moved, but there were probably still a couple hundred living there when it disappeared."
"Wait. How does an entire town 'disappear'?"
"What do you know about coal mining?"
"Not a whole helluva lot. Wasn't much call for it in Sector Four."
"I'll make it as simple as I can, then. Part of what makes mining so dangerous is a gas called methane, which tends to gather in underground pockets. You accidentally dig into an area where there's methane, and a spark is all it takes to make it explode. You've heard about explosions that trapped and killed miners?" Reno nodded. "They hit a pocket of methane."
"When I was born, the Oslo mine already had a couple of sections sealed off due to methane buildup. They put up doors to close off the tunnels that were burning, and made vent holes to the surface so the gas wouldn't build up and explode."
"What's that got to do with the town 'disappearing'?"
"The town was built on top of the mine. Some of those fires had been burning for close to 100 years. From what I've been told, they can burn virtually forever, or at least as long as the coal holds out. So the ground underneath Oslo was honeycombed with mine shafts, some of which were on fire."
He was silent a moment. "I was off work the day it happened. Watching TV, and this special bulletin came on. Around 3 a.m., people who lived in the area around Oslo reported hearing an explosion and seeing a fireball shoot up into the sky. Their first though was that a Mako reactor had exploded, except there weren't any reactors in the area then."
"From what the scientists said, I guess the methane levels built up to a point where the vents couldn't clear the smoke out quick enough. The explosion was Oslo blowing up. The fireball was burning methane."
"It blew up?"
"It blew up, and then it collapsed. By the time the news crews finally made it out there, nothing was left but a big smoking hole in the ground. Everything on the surface, the houses, the cemetery and, I'm assuming, any people who were still there, died in the explosion."
"Shit! And you're family lived there?"
"That's the thing-I don't know if they still lived there or not. I ran away to Midgar when I was 14 because I didn't want to spend 10 hours a day a mile and a half underground. It was a rotten life that made you old before your time. You burned oil for light, and coal for heat and water, and lived from paycheck to paycheck. Hell, I didn't see an actual indoor bathroom till I came to Midgar. You did your business outside and took your baths in a big iron tube with water that had to be heated on the stove. I told you I was an only child?" Reno nodded. "I got that way by default. My parents had seven kids-I was the only one who lived to grow up.
"What happened to the others?"
"Two were stillborn. I had a twin brother, five minutes older than me, who died from complications of pneumonia when he was six months old. One of my sister's caught Chocobo pox when she was 18 months old and died of that..."
"Rude, they've had a vaccine against Chocobo pox for years. I remember getting vaccinated when I was in school."
"Yeah, well, the state of public health services in Oslo left a lot to be desired. My other brother fell down a deserted mineshaft when he was four and broke his neck. The last one, I think, was simple minded. By the time she was born, I was almost 13, and I used to help momma take care of her. It was like taking care of a rag doll; she lived nearly a year, but she never smiled or learned how to sit up by herself. She just died in her sleep one night."
"After that, momma went kinda crazy. Decided it was all her fault her babies died 'cause she'd had to work down the mine pretty much up to the day they were born. Took to her bed and refused to get up. My dad didn't know what to do; he couldn't afford to take her to a doctor, never mind a psychiatrist. Technically, I should've started working in the mines by then, but dad was afraid to leave her alone while he worked and he couldn't get anyone to sit with her. So I ended up staying with her during the day. She slept most of the time, but when she was awake, I'd read to her."
"That how you got so good at telling stories?"
"I guess. I've still got the few books we owned. Besides my clothes, they were all I took with me when I left."
"Abyway, she'd quit talking after my sister died. Then one day, a couple of months later, I was reading to her, and she turned to me and said 'Rudy, you need to get away from this place. You're too damn smart to spend the rest of your life wielding a pick-ax. There's a whole world out there you don't even know about.'"
'Turned out she'd been saving money Shiva knows how long. I think that originally, that she meant to take me and leave. But after Magdalene died, she said she couldn't go. Not if it meant leaving her babies behind."
"She'd managed to save up close to 300 gil. There was a bus to Midgar that came by once a day; the fare to ride was 50 gil. She'd planned it so I could live off the rest till I found a job."
"So you left?"
"Yeah. Felt guilty about it then, and I feel guilty to this day. But momma had her heart set on me having a better life. Hell, Ren, she was 14 when she married my dad, and 15 when she had her first baby. She was 31 when I left, and she looked closer to 60. Though nobody knew it at the time, the mine was a few months away from closing. Shinra'd started building Mako reactors, so why did you need coal anymore?" They lay there a moment in silence, hands entwined.
"What was her name?"
"Madelyn. Everybody called her Maddie. I favor her side of the family."
"Was she dark like you?"
"Darker, actually. I got my old man's eyes, though. He was almost as pale as you; had hair so light blonde it was almost white."
"That why you took to shaving your head? Ow!" Rude thumped his shoulder. "I'm gonna tell Rufus you're beating me up."
"I'm shaking in my boots."
"What'd you do once you got to Midgar."
"Well, for starters, I was as confused as hell. Only thing I knew about big cities was what I'd read in books. What saved me was that I'd pretty much reached my adult height. Didn't have the muscles yet, but the guy who hired me as a bouncer said I looked as intimidating as all fuck?"
"You were a bar bouncer when you were 14?"
"Yep. A place in Sector Seven called Downbelow Station. The couple that ran it, Evie and Devon, were really nice. Let me live in one of the upstairs rooms and paid me decent wages. Whenever I had the time, I'd go to the library and read anything I could get my hands on. School in Oslo didn't go past sixth grade, because most of the kids went down the mine when they were around 12."
"So you've always been smart."
Rude shrugged. "Never thought of it as being smart. I loved reading, and I was good at remembering what I'd read. The teacher in Oslo told us once that some guy said knowledge was power, and I believed him. I wasn't planning on spending the rest of my life as a bouncer any more than I was planning on being a coal miner. I was gonna be someone special."
"How you get into the Turks?"
"Kind've fell into it be accident, given that I set out to join SOLDIER."
Reno snickered. "You in SOLDIER?"
"Hey, I stood a pretty good chance at qualifying, if I hadn't let it slip to another guy that I was only 16. Two years as a bouncer had built up the muscles, and I figured SOLDIER paid enough to let me bring momma and my dad to Midgar to live. Course, when they found out how old I really was, they were all ready to kick me out on my ass. Except I'd gotten 100% on the written exam you had to take to qualify for training. The guy who was in charge of my unit had worked at Shinra a while before he got into SOLDIER and knew Tseng. I guess he told the Sergeant that if he got any inductees who showed signs of knowing their own head from a hole in the ground, but weren't qualified otherwise, to send them to him. Next thing I know, I'm discharged from SOLDIER and hanging around in the front office of the Shinra Building waiting to see Tseng.
"Tseng's been a Turk that long?"
"I don't think anyone knows how old Tseng actually is, except maybe Rufus. I have this suspicion he was probably underage when he joined himself, but the Turks weren't as tight about you being legal then as they are now."
"What'd he look like when he was young?"
"He looked like Tseng. We used to say that he'd probably been born looking the way he did, and he'd still look exactly the same when he finally died at the age of 200 or so. He asked me if I had proof to show I was 16, and I told him I'd been born at home with the help of a midwife, and near as I knew, the only proof I even existed was standing in front of him. I mean, I knew what month and year I was born in, and on what day I was born on, but I couldn't hand him a piece of paper that said so."
"He said that was okay; they could always provide me with a fake birth certificate, but he was just this side of believing I was lying, because I sure's hell didn't look like a 16 year old kid."
"And that's how you ended up a Turk?"
"Yeah. The training wasn't that hard, given that I'd spent a good two years throwing drunk guys out into the street if they started getting grabby with the waitresses. Loved learning how to fly. Only real problem I had was making friends. I could work with someone if we were partnered for a mission, but outside work, I tended to keep to myself. Made people think I was either a snob or some sort of zombie, when the truth of the matter is, I was scared. Even with the suit and the training and the gun, I still felt like some hick kid from the sticks."
Reno laughed softly. "That's pretty much what I thought when Tseng assigned me as your partner. I remember complaining to him about sticking me with such a stiff. Know what he said?" Rude shook his head. "Told me that maybe I should quit flapping my mouth and start paying attention to someone besides myself. Said you were the best field agent he had, and that I could learn a whole helluva lot from you, but you weren't just gonna hand it to me gift-wrapped."
Rude chuckled. "First time I ever saw you, I wondered what Gods I'd angered that Tseng had made you my partner. You were pretty much everything I hated rolled into one loud, spiky-haired package. At the same time, I envied you. Used to watch the way you could strike up conversations with total strangers and have them convinced you were their best friend in five minutes. Only way I knew to get what I wanted was to scare the shit out of them."
"That's because you're one scary looking dude, yo. Wouldn't work if they all knew what a marshmallow you are inside."
Rude pulled him close enough to speak directly in his ear. "I'm only like that for you, babe."
"Know that. Part of why I love you so much."
"The light's back on."
Reno glanced over towards the bathroom. "What time's it?"
Rude fumbled on the nightstand for his watch. "Almost 4 a.m. Need to get some sleep, little big man; we're due in at eight."
"Well that sucks." Reno slid off him and cuddled up, one arm over Rude's chest. "Rude"
"Did you ever find out whether your parents were alive?"
"No. When I explained the situation to Tseng, he said he'd do what he could. Neither of them were born in Oslo, but I don't think they ever mentioned where they'd grown up. Momma had at least six sisters, but I never met any of them, so I had no idea what there names were or where they might live. Don't know if my dad had any siblings or not."
"I'll give Tseng credit for being thorough. He spent close to a year tracking own leads, but they were all dead ends." He sighed. "I've made my peace with the fact they're most likely dead. I just hope they didn't suffer any at the end. Right afterwards, I started buying spots for them at a crematorium. No ashes to bury, but I put up a plaque for each of them with their name and how they died. I go visit them once a year. Apologize to momma and my dad for never coming back to rescue them."
"I think they probably understand why." Reno yawned. "Rude?"
"Can I go with you next time you visit them?"
"Don' t see why not. Might as well introduce them to the man I love."
"Love you too." Reno mumbled against Rude's neck, and closed his eyes.