I Know What's Beneath
the Snow Fields -Chp.48
At the far corner of some narrow side street stood "The Fleetwood", one of the many bars dedicated solely to the nightlife in Midgar. A flight of stone steps led down to the main entrance, where a broad, impressive guard stood watch.
The sign by the entrance read "The Fleetwood" in golden, rather elaborate letters. Past these oak doors and down two more steps, the corridor opened into a large, luxurious hall. Round tables of all sizes scattered across the spacious room. A hazy sea of smoke hung overhead.
All lights had been dimmed greatly, if only to attract everyone's attention to the entertainment up on stage. Some young singer in a skin-tight, glittery dress basked under the spotlight with a hand-held microphone. She sung some sentimental love ballad in an overly-sweet voice, smiling or winking many times to her admiring audience.
Not surprisingly, most of her audience comprised of men: lonely bachelors for a night out; bitter husbands on the run from their nagging wives; even old men who fancied themselves still as young as before. They smoke and drank deep, some murmured about any idle topic, others simply enjoyed this pleasing sight (or the music, whichever they preferred).
The magnificent bar spread itself down the middle of the hall, with many high stools outlining its shiny, wooden counter. Plenty of customers lounged around for drinks or a friendly chat. The old bartender, a respectable gentleman nearly 60 years old, bustled about like a bumble bee. He served up the alcoholic beverages, replaced filled ashtrays, and hustled the waitresses to work faster.
Indeed, nightlife thrived so wonderfully at "The Fleetwood". An oasis for anyone seeking respite from the mountainous troubles outside, be they work, debt, loneliness, women (or men).
One particular young man sat slouched back against the bar counter, swirling what little remained of his drink around in a glass. He was of medium height, gaunt, and slovenly dressed in looses slacks, and an untucked shirt. He had an amazing shock of pink hair, with a thin, long pigtail dangling behind. One neat scar marked each cheekbone, not only accentuating the leanness of his face, but also the cynicism in his sea-green eyes.
Another man sat on the stool on his right. This man lay slumped over the counter, his bald head tiredly buried in both arms. He appeared taller, older than his lean companion, certainly more muscular. Yet despite the noisy bustling around him, the weary man never lifted his head. He was either drunk or asleep.
The pink-haired man glanced a moment at his bald companion, then turned his narrow eyes back to the dazzling singer on stage. He coolly finished off his drink, while one foot beat along with the sweet music.
He hardly noticed anything else until a nervous voice nearby suddenly addressed, "....Mr. Reno?"
Reno cast a languid look to the side. He found the entrance guard standing there, his sweaty face red with evident irritation.
"Uh..Sir, there's someone who insists on seeing you now," informed the vexed guard, "I tried my best, but..."
The man hadn't finished his complaint when suddenly a blond young woman popped out from behind him. She glared so angrily at Reno, who almost choked out his drink on recognizing her.
"So there you are!!" she exclaimed aloud, "I have just wasted the last half hour trying to get this idiot to let me through!!"
"Hey! This is a private club, Missy!" retorted the incensed guard at once, renewing the argument yet again, "You can't just barge in here, bothering customers, like you're queen of the castle!! I oughtta...."
The young woman opened her mouth for an immediate rebuttal. Luckily, Reno intervened in time. With many assurances like "Sorry, she's with me" and "Yeah, yeah, I know her", he managed to appease the furious guard. So the man reluctantly retreated back to his post, leaving Reno to handle this infuriated woman by himself.
The argument thus settled, Reno slumped back into his stool, then leaned forward against the counter. He casually signaled the bartender for another drink.
"Elena, what the heck are you doing here?" he frowned disapprovingly at the woman.
Elena wore a smart business suit, with a posh handbag slung over one shoulder, which gave her petite figure an air of immediate importance. Her blond hair, carefully parted on one side, reached down to her chin. The haircut, coupled with her impeccable make-up, suited her attractive face perfectly.
She peevishly folded both arm across her chest. Anger marked every feature of her face.
"I have been searching every bar, casino hall, and nightclub in Midgar for you!" she scolded the lazy Reno, "You were supposed to come home early tonight, remember?"
The man merely scoffed the obligation aside. When the drink had been delivered, Reno picked the glass up to his thin lips.
"Ah...gimme a break, Elena," Reno dismissed so casually, "Can't a guy enjoy a little drink out once in a while?"
"Not tonight! You were supposed to get the groceries, pick up that payment bill from the bank," she angrily snatched the glass from between his fingers, then cried, "...AND pay for this month's rent!!"
Reno blinked back at her, as if he'd never heard of the word.
"...rent?" he repeated.
"Yes! For the landlady!"
Reno thought a moment.
"Oh! Is it my turn already? Seems I just paid her and already the old bat's screaming for more," he rubbed his temples, then sighed out, "Alright. Whatever. I'll pay her later."
Elena slammed the glass onto the counter, at the same time giving Reno such an angry look. She found his easy-going attitude far too unbearable.
"You'll pay her tomorrow," she decided, "C'mon! It's midnight now! I'm taking you home before you really get drunk!"
She began tugging at his arm to drag him away. All in vain; Reno easily yanked his arm out of her grip. Not only did he lean further against the corner, he picked up the glass again to show he would not leave just yet.
"Now looky here, Elena. I've had a bad day, okay?" Reno complained as he sipped his pleasant drink, "Everyone's been at my throat, hassling me around for no reason. First that silly sales clerk, then this sourpuss customer, then my boss. I just need a break."
"Hmph! They're probably hassling you because you never...what's wrong with Rude?"
At last, Elena had noticed the older man slumped forward against the bar counter, which instantly caught her concern. Indeed, Rude hadn't flinched a muscle during the entire conversation.
Reno glanced askance at his slouched friend, then explained with another sip, "Oh, Rude's had a pretty rotten day too."
"What happened?" Elena asked worriedly.
"His paranoid little boss-man was convinced (again) that someone wanted to kill him today. So, he made Rude accompany him on every single meeting he had....fifteen in all."
With a kind pat against his friend's heavy shoulder, he chuckled out, "He was so damn tired in the end, he just fell asleep on the table. He didn't even drink anything."
"Oh, poor man! That's horrible!" The tender Elena sympathized.
"Hey! How come HE gets all the sympathy here?" retorted Reno sourly, "I had a bad day too, y'know!"
He pouted at her in feigned anger, the perfect resemblance of a jealous child. In an instant, Reno had won her favor again. But rather than let him see her defeated smile, Elena tossed her head to the side.
"He's a hard-worker, you're just a silly slacker!" she accused playfully, "Thanks to you, that 'old bat' will probably have us all kicked out by...."
"Hey there, sweet thang!!" cut in an arrogant, gruff voice all of a sudden.
Elena started at this rude interruption. On turning around, she found a hulk of a man towering over her. He had a dirty black beard, and wore a beaten leather jacket torn at one elbow (some sort of fashion statement, perhaps?). An insolent smile stretched across his ugly face, showing off the wide gap between his two front teeth.
Two other men, evidently his companions, lingered behind. they chuckled like idiots or passed on a rude comment amongst themselves. They all reeked of sweat and alcohol.
Elena, on the other hand, seemed quite perplexed.
"I been watching you from across the room over there," he announced with a cocky motion of the hand, "Never seen you here before but damn! You look hot!"
All three men exploded into coarse laughter, the drunken leader giving her another meaningful wink.
In return, Elena blinked back in confusion. She glanced back at Reno for help, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and looked away.
"Name's Wallice," introduced the bulky man. He grinned more stupidly as he shifted his impressive weight to the side, "but everyone calls me King Wally, leader of the Fire Fang Gang. We own the whole sector! And you are...?"
When he casually dropped his hairy paw on her slender shoulder, Elena at last understood. She instantly brushed his hand off with a curt, "Not interested"
However, the drunken man would not be so easily refused. Much to her alarm, he roughly grabbed hold of her arm, then yanked her forward.
"What say you ditch scarecrow and baldy over there? Enjoy the company of real men," Wallice invited with a drunken guffaw, " C'mon baby! Don't you be playing no hard-to-get!"
"Ow! Let go of me!" cried Elena angrily. She squirmed in this painful grip, "I just said I'm not interested! Let go!!"
"Hey, babe! you better show respect to our King!" demanded one of the drunkards.
"Yeah! No one refuses King Wally!" laughed another.
"Let go! Let go, I say!" resisted Elena.
"Say pal," called Reno's cool voice suddenly.
Everyone looked at him, the stupid drunkards with a hateful glare, Elena in surprise. Reno sat slouched in his high-stool, at complete ease with this situation. A somewhat crooked smile twisted his lips as he addressed Wallice.
Rude, however, remained slumped over the counter.
"What the hell do YOU want, little man?" thundered the brawny man. He flung poor Elena aside, and faced the intruder in full view, with both fists propped against his hips.
"The lady just said she wasn't interested," Reno remarked cuttingly, "Now obviously, if she had wanted an *ape* for company, she'd have went to the zoo. At least the ones over there smell better."
All three drunkards gaped stupidly at the insult until at last Wallice understood. He bared his teeth in a raging fury.
"CAMERA, YOU GODDAMN...," he roared out.
The drunkard hurled one huge fist straight for Reno's face. However, not only had Reno anticipated the attack, but had already decided the counter-move. In the blink of an eye, he gracefully flipped back onto the counter, just as Wallice savagely punched the stool instead. No sooner had Reno touched onto the counter, than he grabbed hold of a heavy ashtray nearby and swung it clear into the shocked assailant's face. The blow knocked a tooth out of Wallice as it sent him flying to the side, right into an empty table.
The violent commotion brought the entire hall to a confused halt. The beautiful singer, who had been singing an encore, stumbled over her words. The music stopped. Many customers turned their heads around towards the ruckus. Even the entrance guard peeked inside to get a look.
Reno stood on top of the bar counter, hardly bothered by the odd stares he received from every direction. The scornful smile had changed to a most cold frown. His deep sea-green eyes were narrowed in cool indifference.
Elena looked on in anxious concern. Surprisingly, Rude remained slumped over the counter, right by Reno's feet. Nothing it seemed could awaken him.
For a moment, Wallice's two drunken companions stared at their fallen leader. He lay thrashed against the floor, the broken table and chairs all heaped on top of him. A blind rage suddenly seized them.
"Asshole! Year gonna pay!!" swore one man.
"No one does that to Fire Fang!!" thundered the other.
"With a cheesy name like that, I'm not surprised," remarked Reno coolly.
This second insult would not go by unanswered. They both lunged straight for him, roaring at the top of their voices for vengeance. With such easy nimbleness, Reno dodged the double attack by cart wheeling aside along the counter.
One of the furious drunkards lunged at full speed right after him, hoping to grab hold of this slippery enemy. However, Reno had foreseen this attempt too. Therefore, he simply sprang high over the man's head, which caused the latter to tumble wildly over the counter, and crash into the wine bottles behind.
Reno, on the other hand, landed on the ground again, unharmed.
Outraged to insanity, the last drunkard charged like a bull straight for Reno. But this time, Elena would not be an idle watcher. With a loud "Reno, look out!", the woman swung her expensive handbag right against the attacker's face, then flipped him up into the air by one incredible sweep of the hand. The astonished man crashed head first back into the floor, where he lay fully sprawled out without moving.
During the entire brawl, Rude hadn't lifted his head once.
Both Reno and Elena stood the victors, he in cool composure, she more worried about the damage done to her precious handbag. Everyone gawked in amazement at the spectacle. Some simply watched on, others muttered faint exclamations like "cool!" or "What happened?"
In any case, Reno carelessly flicked his long pigtail back. He seemed quite bored by the drunkards pathetic attempts.
"Honestly! Ganging up on a poor man like me," he drew out lazily, "You guys are lucky I'm in such a generous mood, otherwise I would've killed you."
The silly squabble thus concluded, Reno returned to the bar counter. However, he stopped short when Wallice suddenly scrambled back up to his feet in a perfect fit of rage. To him, this fight hadn't finished yet.
He savagely grabbed hold of the nearest chair, screaming out, "C'mere, you scrawny little punk-ass!! I'll kill ya!! I'll kill ya!!"
Reno turned his head around. He only dignified the threat with a composed, rather indifferent expression, then turned away again. Not at all bothered, he stood at the bar counter to finish up his drink.
That was the final snub. Wallice charged straight at Reno, swinging the chair around in a mad passion.
The old bartender, who hadn't dared speak all this time, suddenly intervened from behind the counter.
"Hey!! Hey!! Wallice!!" the old man cried out in alarm, "Don't go messing around THOSE guys!!! They're damn TURKS!!!!"
Wallice instantly halted, and stood agape at the warning. The news spread like wild fire from mouth to mouth. The more cautious people backed away; others crowded around for a closer look. Faint mutterings broke out. Indeed, that one word "Turks" had caused a noticeable stir amongst the shocked spectators.
Nevertheless, Reno remained at the bar counter with his back to the crowd. Elena stood by his side, very discomforted by the dozens of curious stares. Rude stayed slumped over as always.
Wallice stared another moment before suddenly exploding into the coarsest, most loud bout of laughter.
"Turks?! HAH! Gimme a break, old man!!" he roared all over the hall, "Turks ain't nothing no more!! Just a buncha wussy, push-over bums without a job!!"
"What did you say?!" Elena snapped back at once. Anger instantly boiled her blood.
Reno merely picked up his glass again in perfect easiness.
"Turks! Whadda joke!!" the drunkard spat out, glaring more venomously at Reno, "Yeah! Not so hot now that you can't hide yer ass behind ShinRa, huh? Yeah, on top of the world....doing anything you want, then bam! Suddenly, you jes' low-life worms!! Huh! You must be the worst piece of shit on the whole damn planet!!"
Amidst this insolent laughter, Reno gulped down the rest of his drink without the least care. He didn't need to look behind. He could discern the spectators' nervous stares change to hateful glares.
Wallice hurtled a few more drunken oaths, encouraged onwards by two or three other spectators, until Elena could not bear it any longer.
"Ooh! How dare you, you...you...JERK!!" she retorted, "Why I.."
Much to her surprise, Reno gently grabbed her arm.
"Elena, let it go," he dismissed gravely.
"Every underdog will have his day; every sewer slime will have his say," he replied, indicating Wallice with a nod of the head.
The drunken man did not need to understand the wise proverb to realize he had just been insulted.
He instantly resumed his mad charge with the wooden chair, shouting, "Who you callin' sewer slime, you turkey!!! I'll friggin' rip ya ta...."
Everything ended in a flash, far too quick for anyone to expect. Before the aggressive drunkard could even finish the threat, Rude suddenly sprang off the stool for a swift rebuff. In one powerful sweep, he kicked the chair out of Wallice's two hands. Without pausing, Rude swung himself around once to deliver one mighty elbow clean into the man's ugly face, thereby sending him flying back into another table. Wallice did not get up again.
Reno stood in his same spot, totally indifferent to what had just passed. Elena blinked is surprise, while all spectators lingered in silent awe. Indeed, no one (except perhaps Reno) had expected this sleeping man to leap up like that, much less for him to be such an effective ally.
Imposingly tall with stern brown eyes, Rude studied the unconscious Wallice another moment, then turned away in sour resentment.
"Bad enough you wake me up with that silly hollering," he muttered tiredly, "..but to go on and insult the Turks?"
The old bartender, always a strong advocate of peace, had been quite upset by the brawl, more by the disturbance of his customers. The entrance guard had been equally as furious, especially when he discovered two tables, a chair, and countless wine bottles had been destroyed. The guests had all muttered amongst themselves, and glared so fixedly.
Elena, Reno, and his friend Rude had no choice but to leave.
It was one o'clock in the morning, dark, and extremely cold. The shops and cafes had closed long ago. Houses stood in darkness. No lights shone through their windows, the doors having been securely locked and the inhabitants retreated to bed. The side streets stretched into empty bleakness.
The three strolled down one deserted alleyway in total silence. They were heading home.
Elena led the way, while both men trailed behind a few steps, their pace being far more relaxed. Reno walked with one hand thrust deep into his side pocket, the other had slung the jacket over his shoulder. Rude marched by his side, still rubbing the bit of sleep from his eyes.
Reno flexed out one arm, but instantly twitched it back in sharp pain, "Owch! Damn it, I think I pulled something when I flipped backwards (must be getting old)..."
Rude glanced at him. He remained silent for a moment.
"...we won't be able to go back there for a while," he stated softly. Indeed, they had created too many enemies.
"Yeah. Thanks a lot, Elena."
"It's not my fault!!" she retorted against Reno's sarcasm, "I only went there to look for you! And besides, that jerk deserves what he got! I'm glad Rude broke his nose!"
Elena tossed her head away in silent vexation, refusing to have any share of the blame. However, she had only taken two steps when Reno suddenly skipped up to her side. With such friendly easiness, he dropped one arm around her shoulder.
"Now Elena, I would've flung him off a cliff for you, but then, there're no cliffs here in Midgar," he joked with a meaningful wink.
Elena's frown lifted into a reluctant smile, not at all bothered by his arm. He had soothed her bad temper again.
For a long time, nobody spoke a word. They reached the end of this bleak alley, where it led into a wider street outlined on both sides by bleak shops. Soon, they emerged onto the main boulevard.
"But Elena, you shouldn't be wandering around Midgar by yourself," Rude finally reproached in fatherly disapproval, "...it's getting pretty dangerous now."
"What do you mean?" she asked him.
"Didn't you even hear about that big park shoot-out?" commented Reno as he slipped his hand off her shoulder, "It happened like four..five days ago. It's been all over the news!"
Elena turned back to him. She obviously hadn't heard of it.
"There was this really brutal shoot-out in the Midgar Public Park...y'know, 'Snow Fields' Park. Bullets flying all around, and there was even a bomb somewhere. So far, they've found eight bodies, but think there's still more around."
"I heard it was some gangster shoot-out," Rude added, "...some kind of criminal war between two rival gangs. Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure. They're all dead."
"That's awful," Elena mumbled sympathetically.
Reno thrust both hands deep into his pockets, with the jacket tossed under his armpit. A contemptuous frown marked his face.
"Sheesh! These gangsters are getting crazier every time!" he scoffed out in scorn "First, they made that huge gas explosion at the ShinRa Haunt...now this! And the police here are so damn stupid...can't even put two and two together. Now if this had happened with the US around, ah!"
They both watched Reno flick back his long pigtail, then cast his narrow eyes down to the ground. They knew too well what he had meant, yet neither the uneasy Elena nor the silent Rude cared to comment.
The three marched down the black road, past empty office buildings and dingy side streets. Nobody spoke for a long time.
The long path led across a stone bridge which arched above some gravel street down below. On reaching this lonesome structure, Reno suddenly hopped onto the broad parapet, and walked along with his two silent friends. However, he soon stopped in his spot. With hands still buried deep into his pockets, he watched the grim skyline of Midgar from the top of the parapet.
"But y'know, it's kinda funny what that guy back there said... about us," he remarked coolly at last.
Both Rude and Elena stopped, then looked back at him.
"I mean, we used to be Turks, right?" Reno asked the bleak skyline beyond. A touch of bitterness marred his playful voice, "The secret service of ShinRa Inc. Watch out! Nobody messes with *those* guys. They're damn Turks! They're professionals!"
Neither one of his friends spoke. Rude, in particular, seemed rather uneasy with this man's strange tone. He ventured up towards Reno, while Elena remained in her spot.
"But now, that's all changed. Everything's changed so much in such a short time," Reno sighed out to himself, "It seems we pick up more dirty looks and trouble once people find out who we were. It's like, they want to get revenge on the company by taking it out on us. And he's right. This time, we don't have any company to hide behind."
Rude stopped at the parapet, and leaned against it so that one elbow lay next to Reno's feet. He fidgeted in an uncomfortable silence as he listened to the strange soliloquy.
He happened to glance up at his friend. Deep solemnity marked Reno's entire face. His narrow sea-green eyes had strayed off into the far distance.
"Sometimes....just sometimes...I wonder what Tseng would say if he could see us now," Reno muttered softly into the air, "..or better yet, what the President would think of us. His secret servicemen...one of the highest-ranking jobs in all of ShinRa Inc., look at us now: an electrician in a small-time company; a bodyguard for some high-strung loser; and a secretary in some unknown law-firm."
No one replied.
"It's just....not the same, is it?" he smiled weakly. His voice had sounded almost regretful.
Elena beheld the two men from a distance, one perched up on the parapet, the other standing by his side. They had always struck her as rather....different. Neither of them possessed Tseng's "no-nonsense" attitude or his cool professionalism. She recalled their first meeting. She had thought Rude "too quiet" and Reno "far, far too carefree". Yet in time, they had proven themselves quite capable. They were life-long friends, both dedicated heart and sole to their job.
It came as no surprise to her if they occasionally sunk back a moment into their old memories. After all, they had shared so many precious years of friendship as Turks.
After the historical fall of ShinRa Inc., these three friends had somehow managed to still stay together, driven more by need than anything else. All of them had been forced to seek new employment and residence elsewhere, "turn a new leaf and start again".
Unfortunately, not only had their new jobs been disappointing, the salary had been too meager for a new, separate life.
Therefore, the three had wisely decided to share the costs amongst themselves, thus cutting the expenses by a third. They lived together in some medium-sized apartment, snuggled in one of the back streets. They alternated paying the rent and buying necessities. Each had a separate bedroom and a private life. This was how they had lived for the past year.
A very strange "family", to use the term loosely. To Reno, Elena took too long infront of the mirror, even longer in the bathroom. She showed ghastly poor culinary skills, and had absolutely no knowledge of tax budgets or credit balances. She hassled him too much to do his chores. Her mother, though a respectable gentlewoman, annoyed him with her snobbish airs (she always referred to him as "that horrible street-punk").
To Elena, Reno could switch from silly to serious regardless of the situation. He never tidied up his room or folded his clothes, yet surprisingly, stacked his beer cans into such neat piles. He forgot too many things, like rent and chores. He always found some occasion to drink, or if not, made one up himself.
Poor Rude seemed the only flawless one. By nature, he was quiet, tidy, and so kind to his friends. He worked hard, and did his share of chores without complaint. Of course, he too enjoyed a good drink with an occasional cigarette or a poker game, but never to excess. He knew his own limit.
Yet for all their differences, they were content enough. Both men were quite protective of their Elena, Reno always being the quick one to disperse her bad temper. He calculated all the complicated bills and tax accounts for her. Rude repaired any problems around the home, from the mysterious clog in the drain to the scary mouse under her bed.
In return, Elena tended to Rude whenever he had too long a day (like massaging his sore back while he watched T.V). She reminded Reno if he forgot, set his unsightly room into *some* reasonable order, and defended him against her mother's vicious tongue.
How greatly this life differed from their old lives. Everything had changed too much. Indeed, what would Tseng or the President think if either could see them now?
The three had resumed their journey down the boulevard in complete silence. They soon turned into some dimly lit side street, down a few more stone steps, then onwards into another narrow street. At last, they reached an apartment building, their home.
They silently entered the square reception hall, where one of them signaled for the elevator. When it arrived, they all shuffled inside, and Elena pressed the appropriate button.
For an awkward moment, no one spoke.
"A..anyway," stammered Elena at last, "..are you boys hungry?"
"Kinda," admitted Reno.
"Do you want me to make you some lasagna?"
"No thanks. I wanna live a bit longer."
Elena's eyes instantly flared up at the cutting remark.
"My cooking isn't THAT bad, you jerk!!" she defended, flashing one fist into his dubious face, "I'll have you know, *Rude* loves my cooking! Right, Rude?"
The direct question sent poor Rude into a flurry of confusion. He dared not contradict her; then again, he dared not risk tasting her food.
"..er...well, Elena..," he fumbled out, "..uh...it's just, we hate to bother you with cooking. It's late, you're tired. Why not just give yourself a break and order some take-out instead?"
"Sweet-talker," mumbled Reno under his breath.
Nevertheless, Elena accepted the kind suggestion with a defeated "hmph!"
The elevator soon came to a chimed halt, and withdrew its metallic doors. They marched down the long corridor, where they stopped at one particular door. Elena fumbled in her handbag for her keys.
"Fine! We'll order ramen noodles for tonight," she decided as she opened the door, "But Reno, don't forget! First thing tomorrow, you must pay the landlady and..."
Yet before Elena could step inside, Reno suddenly grabbed her arm to stop her.
She looked at him in surprise. She found his deep eyes glaring so suspiciously into the black apartment. All his muscles had tensed. Rude glanced from his friend's face, then towards the source. His face too grew icy stern. They stood in unnatural stillness, reflecting the deathly silence inside the dark apartment.
"..w-what is it?" asked Elena.
Reno, however, hushed her by placing one finger against his lips
"There's someone inside there," he whispered ominously.