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by Shotgunnova


Twin door-lights flickered on, giving an all-clear to those making the passengers looking for a night of sin in Sector Eight. As the trainís mechanical drone sounded to a halt, all of the downcast eyes at the station platform glanced up, mini reflectors for the dim bulbs strung across the cement overhang. Many in the trenchcoated mass dug deep in their side pockets, ready for any drunken man with a gun in his hand. Not like these places were guarded by anyone competent, or at all, even.

A shaky and unsaid truce at best, one single-file line stepped onto the pavement and the other stepped off, each nervous of the otherís mannerisms and presence. Last out of the traveling iron cage was a man, dressed-down and cradling a brown-papered object in the crook of his underarm. To his advantage, anyone who saw him Ė and there were many Ė only did so out of the steam-fogged windows. One shrill whistle later, the faceless were carried off where only tunnel vision could see, and the new arrivals didnít stick around for greetings.

His attire was uncharacteristically laid-back; without the plush three-piece attire and permafreeze stare so often attributed to his on-the-job persona, it wasnít hard to blend in with the oily residents. Now clothed in once-blue jeans, a t-shirt, and some cheap-looking hat that could have been Gold Saucer merchandise, the feeling of his youth came back in that worrying form.

The first thought was that it had been such a long time since he visited, and his second was wondering if he said the first aloud Ė the man to his fore suddenly stood stiff and reached into the eave of his jacket. Walking past, he saw it was just a woman-shaped lighter, not what item he was anticipating. By the stair-top, the man was gone Ė this area always made one feel behind the bustle.

It was always night beneath the plate, giving it a murky feeling of danger. Everything was of a shadowís nature, stained black with diesel, oil, or blood. If it werenít for the streetlamps and shining windowpanes of the local bars, shots in the dark (as was often their nature) would be shots in the pitch-dark. Where was this place he was going to again...? Oh, right.

Cobblestone or no, the street was worn with tire tracks of all sizes, and the multiple, misshapen grooves showed just how busy the elements had been down here...mostly the human element and a little of nature Ė one always getting the other into trouble, as it were. Soon as the motorcars faded around the curb, he crossed the street into the bosom of neon glare on the other side. One jukebox fragment slung steel guitar all around, which made his mood a little lighter as he went southbound through the crowd.

Eyes fully adjusted to Eightís lack of light, the faÁade of the nearest building comes into view. Its rise steeps and towers irreverently, oblivious to the fact that "pizza" should be less glamorous than anything on the upper plate. The top melts into the steel above, but it is glorious to see anyway, especially among the low, flat-topped apartments that donít even reach two stories. Like a landmark, the chimney-shaped building down the street equals its height Ė the theater. The man with the brown paper jaywalks towards it this time, a little happier still.

Oddly accentuated by the darkness, an ornate banner of a, a lady, is draped over the theaterís anterior, shimmering downwards in the slight breeze. Sheís posing seductively atop the "Loveless" lettering, beckoning people and their wallets to see the matinee. Itís easily twenty feet long, stopping a few yards from the pavement, and has a massive ribbon along either edge. Checking his watch, he sees the clock-hands make for eight-thirty; isnít this the movie?

And there she is, shivering a little under the banner, hands in pockets, short hair a little undone, angular even in her demure evening dress. As he goes to approach her, she spies him. Without a second look, she sprints to him in her black high heels, almost clubbing a passer-by with her flailing purse. Though a little bony, sheís in-shape enough where thereís no panting afterwards.

"Iím sorry, Tseng, the tickets are all sold out."

"Thatís alright. I didnít want to see an evening matinee anyway," he says coyly.

She just smiles, a little relieved. When they had made plans to go "do something" she had seemed really...astonished. Perhaps she was expecting to have been shot down? Tseng was once her boss and all. Funny how clingy she had seemed then, and now...

"Whatcha thinking about?"

"Aw, itís nothing. Címon, letís go for a walk."

She linked his free arm, and smiled when she saw the wine bottle within the wrapping. He chuckled and they started to stroll like one of the older couples. Man, how appearances can fool.

"Did you take the subway to get down here?" she asked after a block or so. Just being so close to him was refreshing, and without the stiff feeling of work, he almost seemed normal. She imagined how silly she must feel wearing regular clothes and...that stupid hat. She held back on comments, not wanting to ruin the mood.

"Yeah, I did. You practically need sonar just to navigate the streets."

"I know. I havenít been down here in ages, so I just took the company elevator, and itís still hard to get used to."

Tseng suddenly wished heíd taken the elevator like Elena did. "When was the last time you were down here?"

Cornered on a slight question and not wanting to lie, Elena sighed. "Well, I grew up down here. Not necessarily here but in the slums." Her face flushed a sweet cherry at the fact, obviously embarrassed about it. Tseng did something he usually did: gave personal info of his own.

"Donít be uneasy; I was born down here, too, in Sector 5. Not something you volunteer to everyone you meet, knowing how people on the upper plate are. I think youíre the first person I told this to..." He laughed a bit, feeling the tension break a bit. When he tugged her closer so sheíd avoid a motorcarís puddle-splash, she laughed also, her uneasiness gone.

"Youíre the first person I told about my birth as well. Itís weird how stuff like that can...can..."

"I know what you mean. I donít have words for it either, but I know what you mean."

Around the corner, the two passed by a pizzeria, full up with teenagers and a random assortment of street scum in the general vicinity. Tseng was just about to ask if his date was hungry when someone rapped on the window to snag his attention. Elena went wide-eyed to see Reno mouthing "hi" to them in mid-chew. Donít let him take me in there, she silently prayed. She was always uncomfortable about that guy, whether it was him berating her or making her look like a fool for doing her job.

"Hey, guys! Hey!" Reno insisted on yelling at them. Tseng turned to Elena who silently shook her head Ďnoí; Reno saw the movement and screamed "Yes! Yes!" in his boyish manner. He looked to be about done eating, though...maybe that was a good thing, Elena thought. "Alright, letís go in." He pushed open the swinging glass door, an old relic from days gone by.
Odd that theyíd find a cozy little diner in the middle of the metal city...

Inside the joint, Tseng took a look around. Just a few yip-yapper children and a few riffraff, nothing much. Leading Elena along reluctantly, he walked to Renoís booth, sliding next to him. Elena made sure to sit across from Reno, although she was sure he had already looked her up and down five times since they entered. Reno stuck out a slice of pie to his friends, but neither wanted any.

"Lookiní good, Elena. Hot date, huh?"

"Yeah, thanks..." She trailed off on the second question, not wanting to clue him in. He took the hint, with a bit of relish at making her uncomfortable. Reno turned to Tseng.

"So whatcha going to do now? I heard you turned in your resignation Ďní stuff. Iíll bet itís been hard since all that keystone business." Funny how he already took a casual tone with the man who wants governed his actions. Thatís Reno, through and through. Tseng didnít want to unload the tale of how he escaped that damn place, though Ė Shinra or the temple, whichever.

"Iím rather content to just live nowadays. Not feeling too industrial..."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. It wonít be the same without you, though," he said through a bite of deep-dish. Were those anchovies he was eating, Elena queried. She began to crane her neck to see, but instead shrunk back and crossed her arms over her chest, not wanting unneeded attention. Reno didnít look.

"Iím through with Shinra. The company is a mess now, and Iíve had an awakening."

"Iíd love to see you tell Heidegger that," laughed the red-haired chum next to Tseng, spitting flecks of sauce onto his unused napkin. "I can just imagine him giving you the evil eye and punching you. No one could take that guyís punches."

"Oh, Iíve got quite a punch myself," said Elena, jumping into the conversation. Reno took the line.

"Is that so, missy? If you could lay Heidegger out, Iíd give you a thousand gil."

Tseng conspicuously checked the watch hanging on his bare arm before changing the subject. "So what are you doing here, Reno? Whereís your bodyguard?" Reno had to laugh at that one.

"Iím waiting to get deployed to some podunk town up in icicle country to stop those...whats-their-faces... I forget. Either way, I may have to buy a parka and snowshoes, so I figure I might as well get a nice hot meal before I fly outta here tomorrow. I mean, who knows what those people eat up there? Bandersnatches, Iíll bet. As for Rude, he ainít my bodyguard. I think heís out back or something, he didnít say."

Elena wondered why it was taking so long for Reno to eat his food. "Early flight tomorrow? Better get some sleep, huh?"

"Sleep? Only the weak sleep. Iím a wheeliní-deeliní man, and Iíve got stuff to do."

"Like eat?"

Reno shrugged, and Tseng looked at his watch again. "Youíre right, maybe I should get some beauty sleep. Then again, I hear itís mostly nighttime up in the north, so thereíll be plenty of sleeping going on." Reno stood and stretched, scratching his chest. "Letís see...oh, here we go." He took out a shiny ten-gil coin and slapped it on the counter; the woman on-duty shook her head. "Címon, beautiful! Thatís generous."

Tseng wondered what they were speaking of. Reno was never generous that he could recall.

"You said a BIG tip, and this ainít a big tip," she said. Reno dug out another coin and slapped it in her hand personally,
grudgingly. Noticeably sweeter, the woman reached down and pulled a massive, iron dowel and gave it to him. Elena couldnít believe he still brought his electroprod everywhere. "Thanks, tootsie," he said, throwing a light spank her way, much to her chagrin.

Elena was disgusted. "Donít you ever pay attention to protocol?"

"Whatís protocol, baby?" said Reno in his most suave, slurred voice, laughing as hit the out door. Tseng and Elena barely had time to exchange a happy sigh between them before the car engine outside revved up and the wheels burnt. Olí Red Hair drove his new Shinra Type-3 from the alleyway, and blew a kiss to the happy couple as he sped off, still laughing. With the top down, Elena thought she saw a shades-less Rude sleeping in the backseat...

With a more tranquil atmosphere about it, the diner seemed a little nicer. The children had packed up and left, and only "Toots" and a waitress were hanging around. Somewhere outside, a clock chimed the top of the hour.

"Sorry I took you in here, Elena." It felt good saying her name; he didnít call people by their first names often.

"Donít worry about it. Men will be men, I guess..."

Tseng did his close-lipped grin. "That they will, that they will. Listen, Elena" Ė two words that mark obvious change in conversation Ė "I just want to thank you for...adjusting well to this change. Ever since the accident, Iíve just been too restless the person you want me to be. Iíve had regrets, about my job, about...everything Iíve done. Thank you for standing by me."

"Oh, Tseng...itís not like that. I want to help you. That day you asked me to have dinner in the made me very happy. I know you probably donít like talking about it, but..."

Tseng clasped her hand that had fallen on the table. "Thinking of you got me through. It took enough courage to ask you, after all Iíve done. Being a boss to someone isnít the best kind of relationship to have, you know?"

"What kind of relationship want to have?"

Funny sheíd pop that kind of question on him, but he had walked right into it. It was just then that he noticed how silent the night had really gotten, like someoneíd hushed everything waiting for his answer. He was sweating, but the days of him putting a wall between everyone were just getting over. He stood up, and Elena did the same in turn.

"The loving kind."

Elenaís eyes glittered, as if held-back tears were welling up behind them. "Tseng, thatís just what I wanted to hear."

"It is?"

"I have to tell you something. I...resigned a few days ago. It was weird knowing how hard I worked to get to the position and it just...quit mattering. The company took care of me, but now I have something I want to take care of...and thatís you." Tseng felt incredibly hotter, and wondered if he was blushing for the first time in his life.

"And that's just what I wanted you to say. Do you...want to get out of here?"

Elena had to think for a moment if he meant the diner oró

"Yes, I do."

Tseng handed the unopened wine bottle to the nearby waitress. "Then let's go."

And they did, hands held, hearts thawed, and without regret.

Caves of Narshe: Final Fantasy VII
Version 6
©1997–2019 Josh Alvies (Rangers51)

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