Change the Rules

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by nekojita

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chapter one

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Reno tossed his cigarette aside at sight of the sleek black sedan and rose to his feet as the car approached. He stood in front of the wooden stairs that led upward, his skin itching from the feel of the sunlight that filtered through the trees’ budding branches and his thoughts too scattered for him to control.

Elena stopped the car a few feet away, and Rude immediately got out from the passenger’s side so he could open the door for their ‘guest’. Dr. Alim blinked his dark brown eyes a few times and slicked back his pepper-shot black hair with a nervous gesture, a large black leather satchel clutched in his right hand. He nodded in thanks to Rude and upon seeing Reno, frowned so fiercely that for a precious moment, Reno felt as if it was almost two years ago. Back when ShinRa’s headquarters had been in one piece, when he’d go to Medical and Alim would be dressed in his blank pants, white shirt and white lab coat, plainly disgusted to have to deal with him as a patient again.


The lab coat was missing, as was ShinRa’s headquarters and much of its glory, and Reno felt a stab of pain when even the disgusted look was somewhat tempered. "Where is he?" Alim asked as he held the satchel close to his leg, as if afraid that Reno would snatch it away.

"Hope you ain’t got anything against heights," Reno drawled as he motioned to the steps and swaying bridges behind and above him. The last time that Alim had seen Rufus, they’d been in Junon, holed up in some posh hotel. Reno missed the room service with a passion that bordered on desperation as he was getting damn sick of eating fucking twigs and leaves that were supposed to be ‘healthy’ for him. All because Tseng felt that they should show their solidarity to Rufus by sharing the same diet. Fuck, how much more ‘solidarity’ did one need after willingly leaving civilization – such as it was any more – for a place that had things like sunlight and fresh air and bugs other than cockroaches. Lots of fucking bugs that he wasn’t allowed to shoot anymore, not after putting a hole through the floor trying to get rid of one that had hundreds of creepy, twitching legs. He shivered in disgust as he turned around and headed upward, toward Rufus.

"Keep smoking those cigarettes and you won’t be able to handle more than a flight or two of steps," Alim lectured as he followed, a slightly peevish tone to his deep voice.

"Right, I really should quit if I want to enjoy my retirement," was Reno’s snide remark. As if any Turk had much of a life expectancy, especially now. "Next you’ll tell me something *really* stupid, like drinking’s bad for me." He snorted in derision as he led the way, his left hand itching to slide beneath his black coat to grab another cigarette, but he ignored the impulse. He’d just have to put it out once he got upstairs and he didn’t have too many left. For some damn odd reason, Healin Lodge didn’t believe in selling the things. Reno was getting desperate enough to try and smoke his dinner one night just to save a few precious cigarettes.

Alim muttered something under his breath but didn’t voice it loud enough to be properly heard, so Reno let the most likely negative comment about himself slip past. He might not get along well with the doctor but at least Alim was here to see Rufus and had kept the President’s existence and condition a secret. As long as he kept doing his best to help Rufus, Reno would ignore any snide remarks from the over-educated bastard that weren’t spoken directly to him.

Oh how the mighty had fallen.

Still, he’d already used up his one chance to strangle the doctor and if he tried that again, or pushing him back down the flight of stairs they’d just climbed, Rufus would shoot him. Then Tseng would pulverize whatever was left, and that would be that. So instead, Reno settled for giving Alim the nastiest look he could manage once they reached their destination and he held the door open for the doctor.

Something in the expression made Alim’s swarthy face visibly pale and for him to break out in sweat as he cautiously entered the Lodge’s largest cabin. Reno quickly followed, certain that Rude and Elena had already searched the doctor but unwilling to leave Rufus alone with the man. Closing the door behind him, Reno stepped further into the room and stationed himself between Rufus and Alim.

"Dr. Alim, thank you for making such a long trip." There was a hint of exhaustion to Rufus’ deep, smooth voice, something just the slightest bit off that made Reno’s teeth grit together and placed his nerves on edge. Rufus sat in his wheelchair, impeccably dressed in all white save for a black shirt. Between the turtleneck, vest, blazer, pants and trench coat, the bandages wrapped around Rufus’ handsome face, neck and his right hand seemed part of his outfit. It wasn’t until one noticed the dark stains soaking into the white cotton that a person might realize that they served a purpose other than decoration.

Reno noticed the spreading taint and clenched his teeth some more, frustrated beyond belief at having an enemy in front of him that he couldn’t fight, that he couldn’t *defeat* no matter what he did. Only Alim could do any good here, and with each visit he seemed able to do less and less.

Alim shifted the satchel to his left hand and took a hesitant step forward. "I am your personal physician, President Shinra; the distance doesn’t matter as much as the patient." He came to a halt when Tseng moved from behind Rufus, as if he’d just wheeled the President into the room, to stand by Rufus’ side. "Good afternoon, Tseng."

Tseng bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Good afternoon, Doctor." He held out his hand with cool expectancy, and Alim handed over the satchel without any complaint or hesitation.

Feeling a bit slighted that he hadn’t been trusted with the goodies, Reno began to tap his baton against his left shoulder as he stared at his lover. Rufus didn’t seem to pay him any attention at all, instead he looked intently at Alim, his face a little paler than normal and shadows beneath his blue eyes. Last night hadn’t been good; Rufus had awoken several times because of agonizing attacks and the lack of sleep showed.

"Reno, open the blinds so the doctor won’t have any trouble seeing," Rufus commanded, the hint of exhaustion from before gone. Realizing the stubborn bastard was doing his best not to seem weak in front of anyone, Reno sighed and did as he was told, his baton once more dangling from his wrist. He squinted as he twisted the levers that allowed sunlight into the cabin’s living area, for a moment wishing that it was an overcast day. Light revealed too many things that they were all trying to deny, with the possible exception of Alim.

"Thank you, Reno. Now wait outside."

Turning his back to the windows, Reno stared at Rufus for a few seconds, his mouth slightly open and his brow furrowed. He and Tseng were always present for the examinations, a precaution in case someone had gotten Alim to change loyalties. Even if Rufus kept a pistol tucked inside his coat, the geostigma had become so… so advanced that he barely had any strength left. "What?"

"Wait outside, Reno." Even if Rufus had suffered through a terrible night and only possessed a fraction of his usual strength, he had lost none of his steely resolve or stubborn nature, and that showed in the way he gaze flatly at Reno, his mouth pressed into a thin line. "Go."

Reno stared back for a couple of heartbeats and then managed a mostly cocky grin. "Sure thing, President," he drawled, and even saluted Rufus with his baton. "I’ll just go and play with the fucking bugs."

He knew from the cold look he received from Tseng that he’d probably catch some hell over the ‘attitude’ later but he really didn’t give a damn. It wasn’t like the man could fire him, not unless he wanted Rufus to be left even more vulnerable. Most of the Turks who’d survived Meteor had scattered to the four winds, and the ones who stayed loyal were too spread out, doing their best to keep what remained of the ShinRa Electrical Company from vanishing forever. Reno felt pretty sure of the fact that he was irreplaceable and choked back on a bitter laugh as he slammed the door shut.

What the fucking hell was that about, he wondered as he stepped onto one of the complex’s swaying bridges and sat down, turning to dangle his legs over the edge and drape his arms over the rope railing. He desperately craved another cigarette and a bottle of potent whiskey but had to make do with cursing Rufus under his breath. There were only three cigarettes left to last him until the day after tomorrow, when it was his turn to go fetch some supplies. Alcohol, other than the watered down wine available here, was out of the question entirely as he was rarely off-duty any more. What he wouldn’t give to just leave this hellhole in favor of the nearest dive bar.

Thoughts of alcohol and bars, as tempting as they were, didn’t last long in the face of Rufus asking Reno to leave but allowing Tseng to stay. That *burned*; it made Reno so furious that he wanted to pull out his gun and shoot something to oblivion, to beat it to death with his baton or zap it enough times that it was reduced to carbon. Hell, he was half tempted to trudge through the overgrown weeds called trees around here and find something that attempted to run away from him, but it wasn’t worth the effort. He’d add a dead rat or rabbit or something to his list of kills and Rufus would still be an asshole.

Reno was by his fucking side all damn day, and now he wasn’t good enough to be there while Alim poked and prodded and took samples and all that other medical shit. No, but Tseng was, and the thought stoked that burning feeling, made it all the hotter and more bitter. Reno knew that Tseng had been with Rufus longer than the rest of them, had guarded the President since he was a kid but it was still fucking unfair. Tseng watched Rufus’ back and damn near died for him, but Reno was the one who was beside him at night, his sleep continuously interrupted by cries of pain that he did his best to soothe. He was the one who got soup tossed at him when Rufus got tired of the twigs and leaves too, had to deal with the brunt of the bastard’s temper when Rufus was bored and felt like lashing out.

But *he* was the one asked to leave. For a completely irrational but almost happy moment, Reno had the impulse to *really* follow Rufus’ order, to just keep going until he left all the fucking trees and bugs and overbearing presidents behind, until he could sit down at some bar and drink until he passed out.

He could do it, too. He had a copter and a mostly full tank of gas that should get him out of this crummy forest and somewhere decent. Things might be a little tight until he got access to the money he’d squirreled away over the years, but he’d been a smart, paranoid bastard and could still access it despite ShinRa’s collapse. From there, he’d have his choice of the whole damn world to pick for a new place to live, and he could drink and smoke himself into an early, glorious death that would be a hell of a lot nicer than what he’d get while on the job.

The fantasy was so tempting, too. He would convince Rude to tag along and the two of them could spend their days in a drunken stupor. Well, that might not hold as much attraction for Rude as it would for him, but he’d have a good drinking buddy at the least, his best friend in the world.

Yet despite the lure of the entire thing, of being his own man once more and answerable to no one, he didn’t move. All of it was just wishful thinking, a sweet dream that he thought about from time to time, more often since Meteor had occurred. He was a Turk, and as long as his President was alive, he wasn’t going anywhere.

Reno sighed and closed his eyes as he leaned against the rope. Funny, he’d always thought of himself as such a rebel, so independent, and here he sat like a good little boy, doing what he’d been told. If it was the Old Man in there, he’d have cut and run months ago, certain that no one would be able to track him down and drag him back for desertion. That was still the case now, but….

But Rufus- but Rude, Tseng and Elena weren’t going to leave, not as long as Rufus drew breath and maybe even afterward. There’d been so much pain when they’d thought that Tseng was dead that no one wanted to be the one to ‘break up’ the team again. Despite the fact that Reno had been raised by a woman who possessed the maternal instincts of a piece of rock, he recognized the bond between his fellow Aces and himself and was loathe to be the one to break it.

He was staying for them, he told himself, not for some asshole in a wheelchair. They’d lost so much when those damn weapons had come smashing down from the heavens that now they clung to whatever they had left. ShinRa Electrical Company’s headquarters might be a huge hunk of rubble, but the company lived on as long as Rufus did, and that meant that they were still Turks.

The dark thought that they might not be Turks for much longer made Reno curse out loud and shake his head. Rufus was a tough bastard, someone too mean to die from some stupid black crud creeping all over and through his body. Alim, sadistic asshole that he was, would figure something out. The Turks would find something that would beat the geostigma into submission, be it materia or potion or even the cause of the whole fucking mess in the first place. Rufus would get better. Then Reno could give him shit over his attitude today and demand a raise before he got some sleep.

"I never thought this day would ever happen; Reno becoming one with nature." Rude’s deep, sardonic voice cut through Reno’s thoughts, something that he was grateful for even as he gave his partner the finger.

"More like I’m just gathering the nerve to jump," he muttered as he slid the sunglasses from his forehead to over his eyes before he opened them and glared. "Maybe I can take out a rabbit or two if I time it right."

"I’ll bet a hundred gil that you land on an ant hill," Rude remarked and sat down beside him, which made the walkway sway in a very unsettling manner. "Your last act can assure them of food for the winter."

Reno made a gagging sound and smacked his right hand against Rude’s shoulder, which hurt him a hell of a lot more than his very muscular partner. "Thanks. As if the little fuckers haven’t tried to take enough bites out of me already." He turned his glare toward the ground, ten meters below, and even hawked a mouthful of spit in hopes that it hit one of the fucking nasty bugs.

"You’d think they’d learn after the first bite that you taste lousy and are rather poisonous." Rude smiled blissfully in the face of the truly dirty look directed his way. "So, is Elena in there," he asked as he nodded in the direction of the cabin.

Just like that, Reno’s mostly good mood vanished. "Nah, just Rufus, Tseng and the sadist," he mumbled as he once again resumed staring at the ground below. He really missed living in Midgar, with all its noise and lights and motion. There was noise here, eerie, annoying sounds that slithered and croaked and whistled at all hours of the day and got on his nerves. Why the hell had Rufus insisted that they come out here? They’d been pretty happy in Junon.

"Ah." One of the best things about Rude was that he wasn’t too much of a talker. Oh, he could be if he was in a bar and having a few drinks or Reno brought up the right topic, but Rude was a deep believer that silence was better than senseless babbling. With just the one word, he made it clear that he was surprised by the situation himself and didn’t think too highly of it, but he didn’t push and ask questions that would just bring the burning emotion back so strongly that Reno either went to the cabin to slap Rufus or left Healin Lodge for good.

They both were quiet for a few minutes, long enough for Reno to use his baton on some damn flying thing that buzzed around his head until he zapped it to death. As he grinned with victory at the sight of the charred bug corpse falling to the ground, Rude placed something on his lap. "Here."

Moving quickly to catch the oblong box before it slid away, Reno stared in wonder at the carton of cigarettes. They weren’t his normal brand but he still felt like kissing Rude in gratitude. "How the hell did you manage to get them?" he asked as he turned toward his partner, a huge smile on his face.

Rude shrugged and smoothed his right hand over his goatee. "Elena needed a few things that couldn’t wait another two days, so I picked them up for you while her back was turned." He seemed to pause in consideration of something for a few seconds, then reached for the inside pocket of his black coat. "I was going to save this until later but maybe you could use it now." In his large, gloved hand was a tiny bottle of flavored vodka, barely more than a decent shot but a welcome sight nonetheless.

"Rude, I swear I will bear your babies for this." Reno snatched the bottle and didn’t think twice about breaking the top’s seal and guzzling down its contents. Just two swallows and it was gone, the taste of fake limes lingering in his mouth but it felt so good sliding down his throat. There wasn’t nearly enough to get him even slightly buzzed but it was alcohol, something his system had been deprived of for much too long. "As many kids as you want, partner," he said as he wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand and then licked it clean.

Shuddering in horror, Rude shook his head. "That’s not necessary. I think the world has already suffered enough." He grabbed the empty bottle from Reno’s hand before it was tossed to the ground and tucked it back into his coat.

Wanting to ask if there was more, Reno opened his mouth then closed it a moment later and lit a cigarette instead. Right, get pissed off at Rufus and then do his best to get wasted. If his lover didn’t shoot him in the head for that, Tseng certainly would. He’d just have to wait until Rod or Delia arrived to spell him and the others for a bit to go out and get drunk. "Fuck, I miss how things used to be," he said as he closed his eyes again, suddenly feeling the lack of sleep from last night. That had to be what made him feel so maudlin all of a sudden.

He missed Midgar and being able to walk around as if he was untouchable. He missed spending the day kicking in heads and busting down doors, having a few drinks after the shift was done and somewhere in the middle of all of that, stopping by Rufus’ office for a quick fuck or two. Even with fighting AVALANCHE, life had been pretty damn good. Now it was sleepless nights and too long days filled with worry and not being able to be of any use. He wanted to do something other than be there for Rufus to yell at, to be something more than a distraction but that was the way things were now. He hadn’t been in a physical fight for over a week and he missed that as much as the alcohol, missed the fact that he hadn’t had an excuse to fly anywhere for twice that long. "I’m fucking bored." All he could do was give blowjobs and be a convenient target and listen to whatever his lover had to say, and that left him feeling so… so helpless.

"Things are certainly… different from before," Rude remarked as he adjusted his sunglasses and stared off at something in the distance. "But you might not want to wish for a change just yet. Elena told me that Tseng has had some good leads come in lately, so that means we’ll soon be busy checking them out."

Reno perked up at hearing that, eager to do something other than face his own thoughts. "There more talk of those silver-haired bastards?" he asked, itching for a good fight.

"A little." Rude turned to him and frowned. "She said that some really odd things were mentioned but that Tseng didn’t elaborate more than that."

Reno didn’t care if things got odd; all he wanted was for a chance to do something. He couldn’t stay here much longer and just watch that black shit cover Rufus a little bit more every day. He couldn’t leave, either, not unless it was to do something, to follow an order. Somehow that Shinra asshole had slipped a leash on him but he didn’t know how. Guess he just got used to following orders from someone worthy enough to obey. Rufus had looked after the Turks the best he could, even before becoming the President, and Reno felt that loyalty was owed. There were only two other people he could say that about, and since they were sticking by Rufus, he would as well. But he’d still jump at the opportunity for a good fight, he thought as he took a deep breath of smoke.

"Rude, I’m sitting up in a shitting tree right now, bait for tiny winged fuckers to bite me at all times of the day. ‘Odd’ isn’t anything new," he muttered as he scratched at the annoying sensation of multiple bug feet crawling along his right arm.

That actually provoked a chuckle from Rude. "All right, I’ll concede the point to you on that." He smiled and laughed again, and Reno was struck by the question of when was the last time he’d seen his partner truly smile. Tseng and Elena would do it every now and then, usually in each other’s presence but over all, there hadn’t been much to make anyone happy lately.

"This is just so fucked up," he whispered and began to play with the end of his tail, something to do with his hands since he couldn’t punch anything.

"Welcome to the new world." The amusement was gone from Rude’s voice and replaced by a weary bitterness. "Things will be like this until we get the company back on its feet."

"Yeah." Despite all the shit that had happened in the last two years, none of them had any doubts that ShinRa would rise again. Rufus already had things all planned out; how to convert the old Mako Reactors, how to gather together the people who had run away after ShinRa’s collapse, how to put his remaining wealth to use. He would often talk through most of the night about it when the pain was too bad, and Reno would lie there and listen. Rufus was the brains of the organization while he was just one of many who would do whatever they were told to bring those plans about.

"The first thing I’m gonna do when that happens is get so shit-faced that I’ll be passed out for three days," Reno mused, his anger and frustration fading in face of the happier thoughts. "Then I’m gonna crawl to the nearest store and buy the biggest fucking bug bomb that I can find and make sure none of the little shits even *think* about putting any one of their damn feet in my apartment." He smiled around the cigarette that dangled from his mouth at the image of a ring of bug corpses surrounding his apartment building and the fun of stepping on the damn things. After that, he’d lock both Rufus and himself in the man’s office with a gallon of lube and fuck themselves unconscious. Then wake up and do it all over again.

Rude chuckled again and shook his head. "I think you need to work a little bit more on that ‘one with nature’ thing." He easily blocked the answering punch from Reno. "I’ll join you on the drinking binge, but I-" He fell silent and both of them turned toward the cabin when they heard the door open and close. Tseng walked in their direction, his face perfectly impassive. Not even when the slight breeze blew his black hair onto his face did he make any expression, he just gracefully tucked it aside and kept looking straight ahead. Behind him was Alim, who didn’t appear very happy.

"Reno, go watch over the President," Tseng said once he reached the bridge. "Rude, you will come with me as I return Dr. Alim to his home."

Tossing the cigarette butt aside as he scrambled to his feet, Reno then tapped his baton against his shoulder and scowled at his supervisor. "Hang on, I’ll go with Rude. You can stay with Rufus." The dismissal still stung and he didn’t feel much in the mood to be at Rufus’ beck and call at the moment.

"That was an order, not a suggestion," Tseng replied, a hint of anger in his smooth voice and brightening his dark eyes.

Before Reno could give Tseng a ‘suggestion’ on what he could do with the order, Rude stood behind him and squeezed his shoulder. "Go, Reno. Don’t do something you’ll regret."

"Like what, get out of this overgrown weed patch and have a good time?" he asked as he looked back and forth between Tseng and Rude. After a few times his neck began to hurt and he grew tired of seeing the same impassive expression staring back at him. Sighing out loud, he clutched the carton of cigarettes to his chest and stormed past Tseng and Alim.

Fucking hell. How could he regret not putting up with a pissy Rufus? Yet the closer he got to the cabin, the weaker the burning emotion became. The truth was, a pissy Rufus was much better than a dead one, and he wasn’t ready to lose the bastard just yet. Once that happened, he’d have no more reason to be a Turk, to have any meaning in his life. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad thing a few years ago but things had changed too much, he’d grown too fond of certain people and the respect he got for wearing the uniform. He’d have a hell of a time finding a lover like Rufus, someone who would happily fuck him one minute and bitch at him the next, someone who didn’t take his shit or expect too much from him.

Pausing at the door to his lover’s cabin, he took a deep breath and tried to get his thoughts straightened out. Rufus would run roughshod over him if he was all muddled, and it was a good way to get a ceramic bowl chucked at his head. Pushing the sunglasses back onto his forehead, Reno rubbed his aching eyes and told himself that he was running on too little sleep. Exhaustion made him cranky and emotional and too fucking touchy, it was as simple as that. Maybe he could talk Rufus into going to bed early tonight and manage a few hours of rest somehow. Maybe Alim had done something to help with the attacks or lessen their severity. Both Reno and Rufus were running on empty lately and that wasn’t a good thing.

Reno took a deep breath and opened the door. Something finally occurred to him that helped to vanquish the burning emotion. Rufus may have ordered him out earlier, but he’d also ordered him back. Tseng wouldn’t willingly leave their President when he was like this just to return Alim home. Smiling a little over that fact, Reno opened the door.

*******

Rufus fought with the pain for several seconds, his jaws clenched and eyes narrowed as he sought control over his traitorous body. Thankfully, Dr. Alim was too busy wiping his tools clean and returning them to his bag to notice, and Tseng was looking at the doctor.

"There’s still some hope that all the body needs to fight the disease is a strong enough immune system," Dr. Alim explained as he stared into his bag. "The shots I gave you should help. You’re… you’re already doing remarkably well considering how much the disease has spread."

"Thank you, Doctor," Rufus replied, even though he knew the man was just offering him false hope. No one had been cured of geostigma yet, and the entire world was searching for a remedy. Despite all that Dr. Alim did, the disease just continued to spread, to consume more of him day after day.

Finally looking directly at Rufus, Dr. Alim tried to offer him a reassuring smile. "I’ll continue my research, and in the meantime, contact me if you need anything." He darted a quick glance at the bottle of pain pills he’d left on the table beside Rufus. "They’re rather powerful, so be careful to not take too many at a time."

Was the warning so the doctor wouldn’t get blamed if Rufus overdosed or a suggestion, Rufus couldn’t help but wonder. Or perhaps he wasn’t doing as good a job at masking his pain as he’d hoped. "Thank you again, Doctor. I’ll send for you if there’s any need. Tseng, please escort Dr. Alim home." He wanted the man and his false hopes gone.

Tseng started at the order and frowned but unlike Reno, didn’t need to be told twice. "Yes, President." He did, however, hesitate a few seconds after he agreed.

Sensing the unspoken question, Rufus rubbed his left hand over his tired eyes. "Take Rude with you and send Reno back in." He fought to prevent the exhaustion from affecting his tone but wasn’t sure he was successful at that, either. What he desperately wanted right now was a few hours of pain-free sleep. He was willing to trade half his wealth for that, which was still a quite considerable amount.

"Understood, Sir." Apparently, he wasn’t the only one not doing a good job of hiding his true emotions as there had actually been a note of concern in Tseng’s voice. Bristling at the implied worry, Rufus let his hand drop onto his lap and did his best to suppress the pain while he waited for Reno. For once his lover didn’t take very long, arriving a minute or two after Tseng and Dr. Alim’s departure.

"Oi, you wanted to see me?" Reno asked as he closed the door behind him, his tone as insolent as his words. Rufus felt a jolt of energy fill his pain-wracked body, a rush of adrenalin that helped him to sit up straight in the damn wheelchair and give his lover a cold look.

"Close the blinds," he ordered, his tone curt and slightly reproachful. Reno didn’t seem to care that he was walking on thin ice with Rufus’ temper because he gave him a cocky salute before he moved to obey. As the room was overtaken by darkness, Rufus let out a deep breath and began to relax.

Reno turned on one of the small lamps in the room and approached the wheelchair, smelling of cigarettes and wearing a sour expression. He was obviously upset about something but he sat on the floor in front of the wheel chair in one smooth motion, facing Rufus.

Reaching out with his mottled right hand, Rufus pulled the sunglasses that held Reno’s bangs mostly off his forehead away and let them drop into the Turk’s lap. Then he brushed aside the outrageously colored hair, all the while intently watching his lover’s face. Never once did Reno flinch from the touch and his fit of pique seemed to disappear as he closed his eyes and leaned into the caress.

Everyone treated Rufus as if he was infectious or fragile, someone who shouldn’t be touched under any circumstance… but not Reno. Nor did Reno shy away from his touch as if afraid of his disease. As tired from being treated like some pariah as he was from the pain and lack of sleep, Rufus cupped his hand over his lover’s left cheek and savored the warmth his lover’s body generated. "Are you going to pout all day because I asked you to leave?"

Reno opened his pale eyes and glared slightly, the only one who dared to not treat Rufus as if a dirty look would spell the end of him. "I always stayed before. You want me to go sit on my ass somewhere, let’s head back to Junon. At least there aren’t any fucking bugs there."

Rufus tilted his hand and rubbed the pad of his thumb along Reno’s bowed upper lip. "The next time you question an order like that, you’ll go back to Junon alone." Very rarely did he ever bluff; he much preferred to be able to back up his threats but Rufus took a gamble just then. He would never allow Reno to leave him but he also couldn’t have the man think that he could disobey orders.

Blinking in surprise, Reno parted his lips as if to object but didn’t say anything when Rufus’ thumb slipped into his mouth. Instead, he sucked gently on it for a few seconds before he opened his mouth and grasped Rufus’ wrist. Bringing Rufus’ hand closer, he placed a kiss on its palm. "I fucking hate bugs," he grumbled, an evasive answer but it was clear that the threat had worked.

"Yes, Reno, I am very well acquainted with that fact since I hear it repeated at least twenty times a day," Rufus sighed, his heart speeding a bit faster at such a simple contact, Reno’s lips against his skin.

"Yeah, well, you picked this place." Reno’s scowl returned. "Why not Costa del Sol or Wutai or *anywhere* else?"

"Because I have my reasons," Rufus smoothly replied in a cold tone of voice, and the scowl faded away as Reno sighed and slumped forward, against his legs. Reno had the courage or the suicidal urge to ask questions that no one else would, but he knew when not to push too far. Well, most of the time he knew the limits. Sometimes. Regardless, Rufus wasn’t about to explain that they were here because when launching a potential offensive strike, it was best to not be so visible to one’s enemy. He hadn’t told his lover exactly what he had planned for the upcoming future and he hadn’t planned to do so any time soon.

Damn the disease for making him weak, both emotionally as well as physically. His left hand clenched into a fist while his right remained curled open, gently pressed against Reno’s mouth. When the time came for action, he would hold Reno back as much as possible. Logically, the redhead was an admirable bodyguard; someone who was often underestimated and who could produce unexpected results. However, it wasn’t logic that kept him at Rufus’ side.

Much to his growing horror, Rufus realized that he couldn’t continue on his own, that he had become to rely on Reno too much in the last few months as the disease had progressed. Without his lover, there was no one to touch or touch him in return, no one to give him warmth or dirty looks, or crack inappropriate jokes at the worst possible moment. Without Reno, there was no one to wake him up at night before the nightmares became too powerful, no one to soothe him when the pain became unbearable. The remaining Turks would obey him to their death, and Tseng could be trusted to do whatever was necessary no matter how unpleasant the task, but only Reno would kiss Rufus’ diseased hand as if there was nothing wrong with it. The one Turk who everyone had despaired over ever being reliable had proven it in a most unexpected way.

At least, he had *so far*. Rufus’ left hand slid beneath his coat and touched the hard handle of his pistol. He was never without the weapon anymore, unable to trust his own body for his defense any longer. Should Reno ever decide that he was no longer going to be Rufus’ Turk and prepared to leave, Rufus would draw the gun and fire. The option of leaving, of *abandoning* him to this wasting, agonizing death by himself was not available to Reno, whether he knew it or not. If Rufus had to become this dependent on someone then he would exert that final control. He would not give up so much of himself and allow it to be spit upon and walked away from. Reno was *his*.

"Mmm, one of these days you’re gonna tell us your ‘reasons’ and we’re all gonna die from shock," Reno remarked as he closed his eyes and rubbed his cheek against Rufus’ hand, looking so much like an exotic cat that Rufus expected to hear a purr. "Who taught you that ‘explanation’ is a dirty word?"

Rufus pushed his fingers into his lover’s hair and tightly gripped the crimson strands. "’Explanations are for the weak, the people who need words to sway others to their cause because they lack the authority.’" His father had told him that many years ago, and while part of him was appalled to echo the man, he had to admit the way Reno wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue in disgust was very amusing.

"That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t want to tell you anything’," Reno pointed out as he shifted closer, until his chin rested on Rufus’ left knee and his arms were folded on top of Rufus’ thighs, carefully placed to avoid putting pressure on any infected spots.

"No, it’s a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t *have* to tell you’," was Rufus’ instant quip, and again Reno wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue. There was no talk of disease, or how to rebuild ShinRa, or possible dangers, just Reno giving him shit and accepting the rebukes as if nothing had changed in the last two years. This was why Rufus allowed him to always be around.

"Then why don’t you just say it to save yourself the breath and us the aggravation? Rich people, you think words are supposed to be wasted like your money." Reno sneered to show his disdain for the wealthy but his eyes were bright with amusement.

Rufus refused to wear any bandages on his hands so they could always be free to stroke through Reno’s hair. "Considering the way you talk – no, the way you *bitch* incessantly, you must be the wealthiest man on the planet."

Reno chuckled and stuck out his tongue again, in acknowledgement of the insult. "Nah, when you don’t have anything but words to your name, you learn to toss them about pretty freely."

"If that’s a bid for a raise, I must admit that your argument is very effective. So there’s hope of you shutting up if you are paid more money?" The pain began to fade away as they bantered, Reno’s warmth and wit better than the pills that would dull his mind and slow his reactions.

"Hey, I expect hazard pay for every fucking bite I get while here," Reno sniffed and yanked back the left sleeve of his coat before he waved his arm in front of Rufus. "I’m not paid enough to be fucking eaten by bugs." On his pale arm above the cuff of his baton was an angry red welt. From the looks of it, a mosquito must have gotten to him.

Rufus grasped his lover’s arm and pretended to closely examine the bite. With his higher temperature, Reno probably was very attractive to the insects – when he wasn’t surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. "If you’re so concerned then you should have shown this to Dr. Alim." He let the warmth soak into his hand as he continued to hold onto Reno’s arm, no longer feeling so exhausted.

Reno snorted in disgust. "Bastard would probably tell me I need to have the arm cut off."

"Then how could you ever smoke and drink at the same time? What a great loss to humanity that would be." Rufus smiled for the first time that day when Reno raised his other hand to give him the finger. "You’re being insolent again," he warned as his grip tightened around Reno’s arm. He relented after a moment, not about to waste his remaining strength on a lost cause. Instead, he began to unsnap the wristband to the baton.

"Yeah, well, insult me and you better expect something in return," Reno mumbled and closed his eyes. "And if you dock my pay then I just get to talk even more."

"As if that’s even possible," Rufus couldn’t help but comment, which earned him a truly dirty look. To soften the insult, he pulled Reno’s left hand to his face and placed a kiss against the tips of its fingers. "You left yourself wide open for that, I’m afraid."

"Only with someone like you. Not even Tseng catches me out as many times as you do," Reno said, his eyes drifting shut once more. "Speaking of him, you do realize that it wasn’t fair to make Rude go with him to take Alim back home. There goes any chance of Rude picking up some take-out in the way back." He frowned as he spoke, his slanted eyebrows drawing together and his bottom lip sticking out slightly in a pout.

Rufus stroked his hand through his lover’s hair and recalled the last time he’d sent Rude and Elena to return Dr. Alim. Reno had snuck into the bedroom that evening once Tseng was gone, a slice of still warm pizza piled high with mushrooms, peppers and onions in his hand. He’d argued that since it had vegetables on it that it still met Rufus’ dietary requirements, and Rufus actually had to stifle a laugh at Reno’s interesting logic. He’d eaten the pizza, certain that it wouldn’t be his death and had actually moaned in delight of eating something so greasy and doughy and good. Dammit, he hadn’t thought about that when he had ordered Tseng to leave, just that he wanted to be alone with Reno.

His mouth watering slightly at the thought of pizza, Rufus tugged on a lock of Reno’s hair. "The Healin Lodge is renowned for its meals and their positive effects on a person’s well-being. I think you should show some more gratitude for being allowed to daily partake in a diet that many people would willingly enjoy." Somehow, he managed to keep a straight face throughout all of that, although the effort was wasted as Reno kept his eyes closed.

Snorting in derision, Reno rubbed his cheek against Rufus’ leg. "If I have to ‘partake’ in it for much longer, I’m gonna start eating the damn bugs. I’m sure they taste better than a bunch of fucking twigs-"

Reno’s rant was lost beneath the crashing wave of pain that tore through Rufus, centered in his chest but quickly spreading throughout the rest of his body. The world faded away until only the agony remained, expressed as endless explosions of bright lights in the darkness that surrounded him. He couldn’t even force his body to move enough to breathe as the slightest motion only served to spark off even more pain.

"Rufus?" Gradually he became aware of Reno’s voice as the agony receded much more slowly than it had rushed in. It still filled his entire body but he was once more able to draw breath, and he slowly realized that the darkness was from the fact that his eyes were closed.

He was hunched over in the wheelchair with his arms wrapped around his chest. Reno still knelt beside him, his arms resting ever so lightly on Rufus’ shoulders, his left hand stroking Rufus’ hair.

"Should I call Alim back?" Reno asked as soon as Rufus forced his eyes to focus properly.

Taking as deep a breath as he dared while the nerves in his chest still burned with pain, Rufus shook his head. "No." There was nothing that Dr. Alim could do anyway, other than order him to take some of the pain pills. That was something he refused to do, unwilling to dull his wits at such a dangerous time and half afraid that if he relied on the painkillers, that he’d never stop taking them.

"Okay." There was something wrong with Reno’s voice, something that made it sound uncharacteristically quiet and shaken, and when Rufus managed to lift his head enough to look at his lover, he saw the most uncertain smile ever on Reno’s pale face. The expression strengthened after a few heartbeats and Reno removed his arms from Rufus’ shoulders. "Can’t say that I’m upset that he won’t be coming back so soon."

Rufus managed an amused grunt and straightened up until he could rest against the wheelchair’s back. Breathing still hurt but he was able to mostly suppress the pain now that he had Reno to concentrate upon. "One day I’ll find out why you hate each other so much."

Reno’s smile turned into a wicked grin. "I’m a hell of a lot cuter so all the nurses want to flirt with me and not him." He gave Rufus a wink as his hands skimmed lightly over Rufus’ body.

"I’d say you strangling him had something to do with it but you never got along before that." Rufus flinched when Reno’s right hand touched his chest and felt disgust well up inside when he noticed how his lover’s fingertips were covered with something black and wet.

Reno pressed his lips together and wiped his right hand along the clean floor. "I think we need to change your bandages. Let me-"

"No." While his strength had most vanished in the last few months, Rufus still possessed some, which he closely guarded so as to retain for any time of need. He latched on to Reno’s left and prevented his lover from getting up from the floor. "Don’t bother," he gritted out, his chest once again tight with pain. "I’ll change them later." He was *not* going to allow Reno to clean up after him.

"Rufus." Reno sighed and cleverly twisted his arm free, somehow reversing their positions as he now clutched Rufus’ arm. "It’s nothing I haven’t seen before," he said, showing a surprising amount of insight. He offered a tired smile as he brushed aside the hair that had fallen onto Rufus’ forehead. "I’ll run the bath and-"

"*No*." Rufus twisted his arm until he could grab onto the sleeve of Reno’s coat. "I’m fine, I’m-"

"You’re hurting and being a stubborn idiot," Reno snapped, his limited supply of patience clearly gone. "Stop being such a tough bastard and take some of those fucking pain pills so I can clean you off and put you to bed, dammit!" He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Stop fighting so damn much." The anger was gone from his voice and replaced with exhaustion and pleading.

How could Rufus explain that he was terrified that if he stopped fighting for even a moment that he’d lose? Surely Reno could understand, having fought against impossible odds before. But something, be it his pride or fear of being seen as weak, prevented him from explaining so he fell back on an old excuse instead. "I refuse to take anything that will leave me so incapacitated, and I am perfectly able to tend to myself," he said in as cold a voice that he could manage.

Reno pressed his lips together again and shook his head. "Stubborn bastard." He slumped forward and released his hold on Rufus’ arm. "You just like making things difficult for me," he complained as he once more rested his head on Rufus’ lap.

Not sure what Reno was trying to do, other than insult him, Rufus cautiously skimmed his fingers over Reno’s spiked hair. "I should dock your pay for each time you call me ‘bastard’," he joked in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. Not that he hadn’t thought of doing just that in the past, but he never followed through with it because he knew that it would only make Reno insult him all the more.

Reno snorted and shifted back onto his knees until just his forehead rested on Rufus’ lap. "That means you can’t bitch about me doing it as long as I’ve some pay left." He lifted his head and gave Rufus one of the most indecipherable looks that Rufus had ever seen from the redhead before. "You better be twice as damn stubborn with this fucking disease than you are with me."

Not knowing what to say just then, Rufus could only nod. It wasn’t often when Reno made any reference to the geostigma and what it was doing to him.

Seeming to accept that as an answer, Reno sighed, the sound low and deep and one of utter exhaustion. For a moment he looked utterly worn down, his complexion paler than normal and almost grey, his almond-shaped eyes lightened as well and surrounded by dark circles. For the first time Rufus noticed how the shoulders of his coat hung down as if a size too big, and he knew that the coat was an old one of Reno’s. He also knew that Reno had gotten just as much sleep as he had in the last few days – no, even less as he could take naps during the day while Reno watched over him. He felt shamed by a surprisingly strong sense of guilt and began to reach for his lover’s face.

Then Reno shook his head and upper body, and the appearance of exhaustion vanished. He smiled at Rufus and captured the hand held out to him to place another kiss on its palm. Letting it go, his smile turned wicked as he quickly undid the buckle of Rufus’ belt.

Feeling himself grow angry, Rufus grabbed two handfuls of the idiot’s hair and gave it a sharp tug. "I said I could handle this myself."

"I’d like to see you do *this* by yourself," Reno muttered and winced from the pulled hair, but he didn’t stop what he was doing. Which wasn’t lift up Rufus’ shirts and expose his chest as Rufus had suspected, but to unzip his pants and reach into his boxers instead. Suddenly figuring out what his lover was about to do, Rufus relaxed his grip and sunk back into the chair with his legs splayed open.

"I’m not sure that’s on the list of Dr. Alim’s recommended activities," he remarked, his breath growing labored once again but this time the cause had nothing to do with pain but everything to do with Reno’s warm hand on his cock.

Reno chuckled as he squirmed his way between Rufus’ legs. "Bastard would shit a brick if he knew about this. I’m half tempted to tell him the next time I see him." He glanced up at Rufus through his disheveled bangs as he leaned forward. "But it’s one way to put you in a good mood and… well, I’m not gonna stop just because Alim tells me so."

Rufus hissed when he felt Reno’s tongue swipe along his cock. No matter the fact that he was exhausted and still in pain and barely had the strength to stand, he felt his body begin to respond. It was almost an ingrained response by now – whenever the pain got to be too much, Reno was always there to distract him from it. The first few months had been with his body but lately, Reno could only use his very talented mouth. Rufus felt a deep, almost painful longing for how it felt to fuck his lover, to thrust inside Reno’s tight, hot ass.

Chuckling slightly, Reno wrapped his left hand around the hardening cock while his right one sought out the zipper of his own pants. "Didn’t think you would object to this."

Threading his fingers through Reno’s hair, Rufus used that hold to bring Reno’s mouth closer to where he wanted it. "I’ve a few complaints, such as you’re talking too much and taking too long," he hissed as his hips began to rock forward, into the tightening hold around his cock.

"Yes, President," Reno replied, the words almost mocking but he did what he was supposed to do. He took the tip of Rufus’ cock into his mouth, his lips wrapping tightly right behind its flared head, and began to suck.

Tossing his head back, Rufus looked down his nose to watch his cock slide into Reno’s mouth, to see the wanton glow in his lover’s eyes and the deepening flush spread across pale, tattooed cheeks. The pain was indeed fading away, his chest restricted by a sense of growing pleasure as he became fully erect, Reno’s hot, moist mouth and hot, dry hand completely encasing his flesh.

He knew he wouldn’t last long, his stamina gone the way of his health and most of his strength, but time seemed to drag on so slowly during these moments. All the warm touches he missed, the simple contact that had been stolen by the disease was made up for during these few blissful minutes. He felt whole once more, felt so *alive* when Reno’s tongue slid up the underside of his cock, a teasing caress that made him dig his fingernails into the armrests of the wheelchair and his breath escape in a sudden hiss.

Reno never tried to prolong things, not when another attack could happen at any moment or the pain was too strong for half-efforts. He practically assaulted Rufus’ flesh and nerves with that wickedly talented tongue, that incredibly hot mouth and perverse, calloused hand. And for however long it took, Rufus could let go, could relent in his endless battle against the geostigma because the pleasure took over for him, gave his body renewed strength and drove back the pain. For too short a time, things were normal, were the way they were before he noticed the black stains on his skin and the agony set in.

He couldn’t do much more than close his eyes and gasp for air in an effort to not suffocate. There was the sensation of Reno’s thick hair between his fingers, Reno’s mouth and hand tight around him, Reno’s muffled moans and pleased chuckles seemingly louder than his own ragged pants. He couldn’t plead for more, for Reno to take him in deeper or to suck harder, not without revealing how strongly his lover affected him but he could pull Reno’s face closer to his crotch, could thrust his hips forward and know that Reno would just swallow and take him all in.

There was no more pain, and the only desperation was from the need to have more of that warmth, more ecstasy and more oblivion. Reno moaned something, the sound not as important at the way it caused his throat to vibrate around Rufus’ engorged cock. Rufus could imagine that they were in his office, that he was seated in his padded leather chair while Reno knelt in front of him, surrounded by three white walls and one of glass that overlooked Midgar. The scene in his mind had actually happened so many times in the past and it would again, he swore, his fingers twisting amongst the strands of Reno’s hair as his hips rocked forward with a speed and strength he had thought past his limits this morning.

Reno gave the base of his cock a squeeze before his hand loosened and shifted downward to cup his balls. Rufus barely had to the time to cry out in complaint before his lover’s mouth completely engulfed him, all the way to the root. That was when the darkness returned, as sudden and potent as before but this time it was bliss and not agony. The sparks of brilliant light were not in time with the beats of his heart but with each successive wave of ecstasy that stretched on so impossibly.

When Rufus managed to open his eyes, he realized that Reno’s head was once more resting in his lap, his lover panting heavily as if he had just run several miles. Forcing his head to move so he could see Reno, he moaned slightly as pain contended with the remaining pleasure. The pain won out but just barely, settling to a dull ache that allowed him to breathe normally once more and regain control of his body.

Reno sat hunched over, the left side of his face pressed against Rufus’ knees and his right hand in his lap. As Rufus watched, he moaned as well and began to move, his left hand rising to wipe along his mouth. He noticed Rufus’ attention and winked. "I think we could both use a bath now," he said and lifted his right hand from his lap to show it smeared with come. He swiped his tongue along the back of his fingers before he grinned and cleaned his hand on his stained shirt.

Realizing that Reno would leave him out here and take the bath alone if he resisted for much longer, Rufus let out a deep breath and glared. He didn’t like being manipulated… but Reno had done something that no one else would, had made him feel better and even gave him an excuse to save his ragged pride. So all he did was sniff in disapproval as he more or less conceded *this* battle. "I notice the one thing you *don’t* bitch about here are the bathes."

Smirking in amusement, Reno slowly rose to his feet, his legs seeming unwilling to support him without complaint. He tucked himself back into his pants and zipped up halfway before he bent down to retrieve his baton. "The tub and the bed are the only decent things about this bug-infested hellhole."

Thinking how the rest of the world considered Healin Lodge to be an idyllic retreat, Rufus couldn’t help but smile. "You obviously missed your calling as an entomologist."

"I don’t know, sticking pins in bugs that I get to kill sounds like a good way to spend the day," Reno remarked as he wheeled Rufus toward the bathroom. "Much rather deal with the fuckers dead than alive," he said as he tried to stifle a yawn.

Once by the large, sunken tub, he put down the brakes on the chair and began to remove his clothes. Rufus glared at his lover for a moment to make sure that Reno didn’t even think about helping him and began to undress while sitting down. This was something he had too much practice with lately, removing his soiled clothes and the stained bandages. Once everything was gone save for his unzipped pants, he carefully stood up and let his remaining garments fall to the floor.

Reno eyed him warily as he slowly stepped into the very large tub filled with hot water but very wisely didn’t attempt to help. However, Reno’s arms wrapped around Rufus’ waist when he sat down and leaned back against his lover.

As Reno’s hand lazily trailed a soft washcloth up and down his chest, Rufus allowed himself to relax. He didn’t look at his body, unwilling to see how much the disease had spread since yesterday but for once he didn’t feel so disassociated from it. Reno’s touch was pleasant and a welcome reminder of pleasure, and the kisses placed against the right side of his neck made him close his eyes and sigh.

"By the time we finish with this, I’m sure dinner will be ready. How about we call it a day after choking down the swill, hmm?"

Rufus reached up and behind to cup the right side of Reno’s jaw. "I need to speak with Tseng tonight." Feeling Reno’s jaw clench, he patted it a couple of times in apology. "Then we can get some rest." He could only hope that he stayed awake until Tseng’s return, considering how pleasantly drained he felt at the moment. While he and Reno needed the sleep after the last few nights, there were still a few matters that required his attention before he allowed himself a break.

"Yes, Sir." Reno sighed, the sound so exaggerated that Rufus couldn’t help but smile. "You’re a damn slave driver."

"Keep saying things like that and you’ll find yourself collared one of these days." Opening his eyes, Rufus turned around in the tub and reached for the attached hose. "Come here, your hair reeks of smoke." He stared at his lover until Reno muttered something under his breath, turned around and scooted closer.

Washing Reno’s hair, Rufus thought about how he was taking a break from rebuilding his company and most likely dying to indulge in a quiet moment with his lover. Reno was someone he hadn’t expected to be together with for more than a few months, let alone a few years. Hell, ever since Meteor, he hadn’t even had another lover besides Reno, hadn’t even felt the lack. All that mattered was that the person sharing his bed was loyal and interested, was someone he trusted and desired. Without Reno, he would probably have broken down and taken the pills by now, would be a useless addict for Tseng and the others to drag out of bed and wheel around while he made a feeble attempt to hold ShinRa together. Reno was both a source of strength and his greatest weakness, and the latter made something clench tight inside his chest, a burning, acidic sensation that urged him to snake his arm around Reno’s shoulders and pull the Turk close to him.

He nuzzled aside the clean, wet hair that clung to the side of Reno’s head. "You’re a Turk until you die," he said, the words seeming to come from nowhere but were what the strange, turbulent emotion made him say. "You’re *my* Turk. Never think that you can leave."

Reno went stiff against him for a few heartbeats then slowly shook his head. "I know. Coulda left after… a long time ago but I didn’t. You’re stuck with me, you lucky bastard." Reno chuckled, the sound weak and strained, but he didn’t pull away, didn’t try to shake off the tainted arm that pressed almost threatening against the base of his neck.

Uncomfortable with the conversation and the emotion that had caused it in the first place, Rufus loosened his arm a little and licked Reno’s left ear. "One of these days I’ll convince you of the fact that my parents were indeed married before my conception."

This time, Reno’s laugh was genuine. "Aw, my money’s on the stories I heard when I was a kid, about demons leaving their brats in place of the human kids they stole." He glanced over his shoulder as he slicked his hair back, away from his too pretty face. "No way to tell if demons believe in marriage, right?" he asked before he stuck out the tip of his tongue.

Leaning forward to nip at the protruding bit of pink flesh, Rufus shoved the hose into Reno’s left hand and turned around so he could have his hair washed in return. "That has to be one of the most ridiculous bits of speculation that I’ve heard in years," he sniffed. "Besides, if anyone proves that theory true, it’s yourself. That would certainly explain a lot about you." He grabbed the crimson hair that floated in the hot water and held up its end. "Clearly you’re a fire demon."

"I think that’s just your way of telling me I’m pretty hot stuff." Reno laughed again and prevented Rufus from being able to say much of anything by turning on the water and drenching his head – and face as well. "Sorry," he offered in a half-hearted attempt at an apology while Rufus sputtered.

Rufus bided his time until after his hair was washed – thankfully with no more attempts at drowning – and the bath was finished. As he sat on the edge of the tub and dried off with a plush towel the size of a blanket, he smiled at his lover. "Let your hair dry naturally, I’m not about to put up with you fussing over it and polluting the air with a bunch of chemicals."

In the process of tousling the damp strands with his hands, Reno blinked and stared at him with a perplexed expression. "But…." He seemed to notice Rufus’ stern look and began to pout. "It looks stupid when it’s not styled," he complained as he stalked out of the bedroom.

Rufus didn’t think so, not with the way the longer top strands fell around Reno’s face, still unruly but for once appearing as soft as they felt. Feeling a sense of victory for the first time that day, he waited patiently for Reno to return with clean clothes and began to reapply his bandages. After the last few months, he was an expert of wrapping them around his body without really looking at what they covered.

"Here, I’ll get your arm," Reno offered while he set a pile of white and black clothes in the seat of Rufus’ wheelchair. He was amazingly quick at the duty, the only reason Rufus allowed him to do it, for once not making any smart comments as he worked. When the bandages were wrapped around Rufus’ forehead, he turned to pick up the clothes and hand them to Rufus while he dressed.

Garbed once more, Rufus felt better than he had in the last several days. His body may still be exhausted but his mind seemed recharged and ready to discuss some more plans with Tseng after dinner. No matter how much the geostigma spread or new adversaries appeared, he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of rebuilding his company. Somehow, he’d make the vision from earlier come true again, of him and Reno in his office.

Replacing his gun in its holster, he reluctantly sat in the wheelchair. Walking was too much a waste of precious energy, and pushing himself too far only seemed to increase the frequency of the agonizing attacks. He would do his best to rest this evening and hopefully would be able to get some sleep.

Eyeing Reno, who stood before him, dressed in wrinkled but clean black and white, his hair not spiked for once and his baton back on his wrist, Rufus pondered how he’d get Reno out of the cabin so he could talk to Tseng privately. Perhaps he could send him out on some errand, or even have Tseng order him to get some rest. Reno couldn’t do much to protect him if he was ready to pass out from exhaustion, but Rufus refused to sleep alone.

Deciding that he’d have a word with Tseng once the man returned, Rufus motioned that he was ready to leave. Grumbling under his breath about being a Turk and not a damn chauffer, Reno pushed him out of the bathroom.

If Rufus had learned one thing in the last couple of years it was that there was no telling what the future might hold. He’d gotten his dream of being in charge of ShinRa and then had it mostly snatched from him, had escaped a sudden, fiery death only to face a slow, painful one. He wasn’t going to give in to the pain or seeming inevitability of it all, nor would he allow anything else of his to be taken from him. He would rebuild his company with Reno and Tseng by his side. He’d had to accept some setbacks in the last two years but that was going to end now. He’d get back what he’d lost and keep what was his. The only thing that had really changed was that he now considered a certain foul-mouthed, short-tempered reckless idiot of a Turk in that latter category.

*******

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