"Damn it, Laney! That ain't fair!"

"Oh, but it is, dear. It's your own fault, you know. Not doing any paperwork for weeks on end means that, sooner or later, you'll have to pull an all-nighter."

"Yeah, but … How come there's that much of this shit? Does it reproduce at night after you close the drawers? By the time I'm done with it, I'm gonna be old and grey. You can't do this to me!"

"Oh, but I can. It's your own fault for leaving all this shit untouched for so long. I refuse to be held responsible for your awe-inspiring laziness. If anything, you should take the matter up with Tseng, though he's not at fault either."

Amusedly, Rude smiled to himself. He stood a few meters away from his colleagues, a coffee-cup in hand, and had let his gaze wander over the city which seemed even duller and more inhospitable that early in the morning than it usually did, when the not really hostile argument broke his train of thoughts.

A short time ago, Reno had arrived at headquarters and made the mistake not to disappear in the cafeteria immediately as per usual, which was why Elena had been able to corner him right in front of Tseng's office with a pile of forms and files in hand that – judging from their argument – were Reno's responsibility and in desperate need of attention. She had instantly thrown the documents at him in order to prevent him from escaping. It seriously looked like a lot of work.

"And how the fuck is that my fault?" Reno grumbled surly. "I didn't have time for shit like that recently. It's as simple as that."

"Oh?" Elena retorted with a rather smug grin. "So you didn't have the time? Pretty standard for an excuse, don't you think? I wonder what you have been doing … And what ever made you think that matters? It's not like we ever have time to spare. Just for how long do you intend to ignore your paperwork? Until it comes alive and does itself?"

Reno pulled a disgusted face and chewed indecisively on his lower lip. Knowing his partner, Rude assumed that he'd have liked to do just that.

"Well, aren't you a model Second in Command," Elena chastised. "Sometimes I can't help but wonder how the hell you ever got the job. You don't have any self-discipline whatsoever."

"Laney, that's low!"

She gave a cheerful giggle. "Maybe. Why don't you prove me wrong if it bothers you so much?"

Reno snorted disapprovingly, but bowed to the inevitable under a string of silent curses. Disgruntled and without so much as sparing her a second glance, he dropped the papers on his desk and joined Rude at his vantage point.

"Hiya, partner!" he greeted without vigor and without his obligatory good morning-grin. "Looks like I'll have to honor the bureau with my presence for a while longer than I'd like to."

"…"

"Talkative as ever, I can see." And there was the grin. Delayed, but still in place. "How late is it anyway? It should be time to leave soon."

"You just want to get out of work!" Elena, who had followed him without being asked to, stated matter-of-factly. And rightly so.

Rude rolled up his sleeves to let his partner have a look at his wristwatch regardless. It was a quarter past six.

"Well, fuck," Reno commented drily.

Laughing, Elena gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Tough luck!" she declared with glee. "Looks like you still have a couple of hours left to spare."

"…" Rude said. His eyes conveyed his unconditional assent.

"What's wrong with you?!" Reno complained and eyed them with all the consternation of a kicked puppy. It didn't have the hoped-for effect. "Are you conspiring against me or what? You're both heartless, that is what you are!" The look on his face alone was so excessively theatrical that Rude wouldn't have been surprised if he had stalked over to his desk, thrown the papers to the floor and torn his hair.

Unfortunately, he didn't have the time to continue watching this highly amusing spectacle – he had an appointment with Tseng at half past and punctuality was common courtesy on the executive floor. Wordlessly, he thrust his coffee-cup into Elena's hand and turned to leave without sparing his discontented partner another glance. After all, he didn't pity him too much.

"I'm off," he informed them briefly, raised his hand to bid his farewell, and left.

"Eh?" Reno stared after his partner uncomprehendingly. "Where's he going?"

Elena shrugged indifferently. "Tseng called for him," she explained. "Most likely to discuss the details of your mission later."

"What?" Reno frowned indignantly. "Then why in Odin's name didn't he call me up as well? That concerns me as much as it does Rude!"

"It must be because you, my dear, have other fish to fry," she coldly reminded him, pointing to the Mount Nibel of files piled up on his desk. "You don't have time for a briefing with that amount of untouched papers waiting. C'mon, let's get on with it! Let's get this party started!"

"Are you nuts?" Reno hissed, close to being honestly pissed off now. "Where do you think we are? At the annual meeting of the society of dedicated deskjockies? Kindly stop jerking me around!"

"Are you nuts?"


XXX


Elena heaved a sigh. In all probability, she was. How else could be explained that she was driving despite her considerably high blood alcohol level and despite it being the middle of the night? She had to have a screw loose somewhere.

To distract herself, she switched on the radio and listened to the umpteenth rerun of a corny audio drama with half an ear. It took her a while to realize it was Loveless. Under normal circumstances, she would have turned it off instantly for all the irksome memories it brought up, but right now she craved the background noise.

She was glad that Rude had not accompanied her home. He would have discouraged her from going through with her plan at all costs, but if she didn't see this through, she would explode. She knew well enough that it was anything but a good idea to go and visit Tseng right now, but she knew just as well she wouldn't find a moment's rest until she had exchanged at least two decent words with him. She was so damned angry with him! How could he not have listened to her? No matter how big the trouble she'd be in tomorrow, she had to confront him. Now.

If only she hadn't drunk so much …


XXX


"There, there," she put him off with a placating gesture. "I'm not – ahem – 'jerking you around'. You do yourself no service, though, if you don't get to work soon."

Reno answered her well-meant advice with a growl, but decided to heed it anyway. He had long since learned that not wanting to do something was no valid excuse in this environment. He wouldn't have climbed that far up the career ladder if he didn't. Unmotivated beyond belief, he started sorting the papers first by date, then by importance.

Elena smiled at him encouragingly and left him alone with the Herculean task, pointedly closing the door of their newly shared office behind her. Reno almost didn't notice her departure.

He felt slightly lost behind the paper peaks of virgin files. These last days, his mood had persevered a little above zero, but this was just too much. If there were gods in this world, they obviously had it in for him. If his private life didn't even live up to normal standards of crappiness, then couldn't he at least expect his job to be bearable?

A more philosophically inclined man than him might have argued that his misfortune was only natural, seeing that he had single-handedly brought worse fates down on the heads of hundreds of innocent people, but Reno refused to accept punishment for sins he'd committed in other people's names. Maybe, though, that was the problem. If all he did was acting as a mechanical arm for the company, could he really expect to be treated like a living, breathing human being? If he did not take responsibility, how could he expect somebody else to feel responsible for what they did to him?

He felt a lot like banging his head against the wall. What he was thinking didn't even make sense to him. It was a joke. He didn't feel particularly sorry for what he'd done; he just felt sorry for himself, and that needed to stop. He should be old enough by now to understand that the planet wasn't there to please him exclusively.

"Reno, damn it!"

Startled, he actually knocked over one of the half-sorted piles and could only watch the papers scatter all over the floor. He hadn't expected Elena to come back so soon and catch him spacing out. Sometimes, a rabid dog seemed harmless in comparison to her.

"Oh shit," he assessed the situation quite accurately.

"You don't say," office-watchdog Elena retorted coldly. "How often do I have to tell you? Get your ass in gear and do your job! How can Tseng rely on you if you're like that? Really, sometimes you are such a brat!"

Her posture and her tone of voice informed him that what had originally started off as a friendly squabble had suddenly morphed into something else. She wouldn't have dared to talk to him with that much venom only days ago, because – even if he was behind with all that cursed paperwork – he was still her superior. Reno wasn't sure what had changed since then. All he knew was that it had to do with this one magic name: Tseng. Tseng must have said something to her recently, he suddenly realized, and it filled him with a sickening mixture of pity, rage, and fear. He didn't really want to think about Tseng now. The day sucked badly enough already.

"Don't sweat it, I'm on it," he tried to calm her down, even though, deep down, he felt outraged at letting her walk all over him. It wouldn't serve any purpose to talk back now. They'd only fight, and sooner or later the root of the problem would be uncovered. He didn't want that. It would hurt them both. Better to play dumb and back down. "Until you arrived, this shit was almost sorted."

He pointed at the mess on the floor and glared at her. It was safe to fight about the paperwork. From that, they could easily recover.

Elena's expression became blank. "I'm terribly sorry," she said, sounding so disgustingly uncaring that he wanted to hit her. This was still within the limits of his comfort zone, though. He could deal with it. "In that case, please don't let me keep you from 'working'. I'll be as quiet as your phone. You know, when someone tries to call you after work."

He ignored the jab. It was something Tseng liked to reproach him for, even though it hardly ever happened. The last time his phone had been turned off was when he'd forgotten to recharge the battery, because … Oh. He swallowed a sudden surge of bright, hot anger. What exactly Tseng had done, he couldn't tell, but there could no longer be any doubt that he'd let Elena in on their secret without ever asking his opinion or even informing him of his actions. So that was why she came at him like a fury because of something as trivial as neglected paperwork.

Was this Tseng putting them both back into their places?

It was an asshole move reminding them of who was boss around here, and Reno hated that kind of behavior with a passion. Recently, it had become much more frequent and only Gaia knew why. It had been bad enough when Tseng had only been a workaholic, but now this boss thing had become something akin to a raincoat: everything dripped off of it and he just couldn't get through.

"Reno!" Elena hissed and he understood that he'd have to stop spacing out for now if he didn't want this thing between them to escalate after all. Fuming with suppressed rage, he started picking up the files.

~tbc~


Author's note: I apologize for not updating sooner. From now on, chapters will be more frequent, I promise. As you've probably realized by now, this is kind of an AU as it doesn't fit the game's timeline at all. I just borrowed characters, places, and institutions I wanted to have in this story ... Maybe I should also warn you that there will be quite some violence occuring later on. Thanks for reading! I hope you still enjoy this and will continue to do so. :-)