12 July, 402
Early this morning, a ruling by military tribunal found Reno Sol, formerly of Turk Regiment I, guilty of fourteen counts of treason and violence against the Empire. Sol has been sentenced to death by firing squad. This verdict, which comes on the heels of a long court hearing and several weeks of severe internal conflict within the Empire, indicts Sol for many acts of violence perpetrated in Midgar over the past several months, including the shooting deaths of over a dozen local residents.
Sol’s response upon hearing of the verdict was, ‘well, shit’.
Sol’s commanding officer, Tseng Corel, has refused to comment.
“You can’t let them do this to you!”
Reno stifled a sigh and leaned back on his bunk, chains clinking heavily in his wake. “Sit down before you wear a hole in the floor, Alen,” he suggested, waving a lazy hand at the blond youth pacing restlessly across the hay-strewn floor. “And calm down, for Ifrit’s sake. It’s not that big a deal.”
Alen’s black cloak snapped in the air as he whirled towards Reno, angry shock scrawled boldly across delicate features. “Not a big deal?” he demanded, voice cracking as it rose. “They’re going to execute you!”
Reno shrugged, propping his feet up against the wall. “Yeah. So?”
Alen stared at him incredulously. “You’re going to die for crimes you didn’t commit!”
Reno lifted one arm in a half-hearted shrug, slumping further back amid rumpled sheets. “I noticed, but thanks for reminding me.”
“Damn it, Reno!” Alen’s voice rang high and thin off the walls, breaking on the words. “Don’t you even care that you’ve been set up?”
Reno dropped his feet to the floor with a thump. “I suggest you lower your voice, Alen,” he ground out, eyes flat with warning as they flicked deliberately towards the deceptively smooth front of Alen’s leather jerkin. “Or my untimely demise is going to be the least of your worries.”
Alen’s eyes widened in sudden understanding, and he cast a sharp glance at the gray-robed prison guard reclining outside Reno’s cell. The man ignored the look entirely, preoccupied with his ink-smudged newspaper, and Alen tugged sheepishly on his jerkin.
“Sorry,” he muttered to Reno, pitch suitably lower again. “I just can’t believe you’re sitting here waiting to be executed!”
Reno raised an eyebrow. “You got any better ideas? Counting the cracks in the ceiling doesn’t sound like an especially fun time to me, yo.”
Alen made a face at him and Reno laughed.
“Really Alen,” he grinned. “It’s not that bad. All I have to do is show up and die when they tell me to. Nothing easier.”
“But you don’t deserve this!” Alen protested, slim fists clenching rhythmically at his sides. “None of this is your fault!”
“Look, Alen.” Reno’s expression was unusually serious as he looked up at the young Turk, the fresh scars on his cheeks that marked him as a traitor vividly red in the dull light. “That may not have been the fairest trial in the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that this execution needs to happen. The Empire can’t afford an uprising so soon after the war with Wutai, and the King needs something to restore the people’s faith in him. This’ll make sure all the shit that’s been going on won’t get back to the wrong people and create a situation the Empire can’t get out of.”
Alen’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re willing to die like a criminal even though you’ve done nothing but follow orders?”
“Pretty much.” Reno shook his head carelessly, long hair spilling fire bright across an unwashed sleeve. “Whether the moron on the throne deserves protecting or not doesn’t change anything. I’m a Turk, yo. I follow my King’s orders.” His mouth twitched in a humourless grin. “And that includes dying when he wants me to. Whether I like it or not.”
“It’s just not fair,” Alen managed in a choked whisper and Reno sighed regretfully as he stood and stepped in close.
“Hey, hey Alen,” he soothed, then lower, murmured against a furrowed brow, “Elena. Come on babe – don’t worry so much, okay? Things will work out in the end.”
He got a watery smile for that, suspiciously slim shoulders shrugging under his hands. “I told you not to call me that,” the Imperial army’s only female soldier admonished. A hint of tartness crept into her voice as she added, “Never thought I’d see the day when you were acting as the voice of reason, Reno.”
Reno grinned back wickedly. “Yeah well, I never thought I’d ever see you cry either, so I guess we’re square.”
“Bastard,” Elena sighed, though her voice lacked heat. She squared her shoulders resolutely as Reno stepped back, slipping back into her role with the ease of long practice. “You’re really going through with this?” she asked again.
Reno nodded with a one-armed shrug. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint,” he joked. “It wouldn’t be much of an execution if the star attraction didn’t show up.” The rasp of a key in the cell door rattled unsubtly behind Elena, and Reno cuffed her once on the shoulder before settling himself arrogantly back on the cot. “Now get out of here and get some rest,” he ordered. “Tseng’ll have your ass if you show up late for duty tomorrow.”
“Thanks Reno. I – best of luck, okay?”
Reno smiled. “Sure Alen. Thanks.”
The day of the execution dawned bright and clear, anticipation and fear stirring through the dry heat and weighing heavily on the shimmering air. A squad of six men came for Reno just after daybreak, their expressions grim as they went en masse to collect him from his bunk.
Reno, for his part, did nothing to help or hinder their efforts, submitting carelessly to their manhandling as they unchained him from the wall and trussed his hands behind his back. His acquiescence seemed to make more than a few of the men distinctly nervous, Reno noticed, their overly wary looks comical enough to make him grin despite everything.
Which only made them more nervous, but Reno figured that was probably par for the course. His reputation was well deserved, after all.
Once his hands had been securely tied, the squad hoisted Reno to his feet and dragged him carefully out of the prison house. Reno winced as they entered the sun-splashed courtyard, eyes scrunched nearly shut against the desert sun – blindingly bright after nearly a fortnight spend in the cramped little prison cell.
“Can’t see a damn thing out here,” he complained, ambling along casually as the soldiers marched him towards the artillery range. “I hope your firing squad comes equipped with sunglasses or we’re going to be here all day.”
A large crowd had assembled to witness the execution, stark looks of fear, relief and pity etched deeply into rows of nameless faces. If he squinted, Reno could just make out the awning over the Imperial box at the back of the crowd, the vivid silks of the King’s state robes resplendent against the tawny swirl of the sandy courtyard. The man looked like he might be grinning, smug and self-satisfied, but Reno couldn’t really tell from this distance.
Not that it really mattered anymore, anyway.
They trussed him up against a rope-scarred beam along the far wall, gloved hands rough and ruthlessly efficient. Reno let them do it, grinning humourlessly as he craned his head around to peer at the bullet-pocked stone behind him. He hissed slightly as the ropes jerked tight, digging into his flesh, but remained otherwise indifferent to the treatment.
Then the regular soldiers stepped back and the leader of the firing squad stepped forward and Reno couldn’t help a startled, slightly manic laugh as glinting sunlight danced off dark lenses and turned this man’s already dark skin to Reno’s favourite shade of molten bronze.
“Fuck, they’ve got you doing this?” he demanded, shaking his head in wonder. “Damn thorough bastards, aren’t they?”
Rude didn’t respond, face impassive as his firing squad filed in and took their positions opposite Reno. The big man reached down and made a quick check of the restraints, tugging critically on the ropes before straightening.
“Do I pass inspection, partner?” Reno joked, winking irreverently.
Rude just gave him a measuring look, the silence speaking for him. Then he held up a thin strip of dark blue cloth, head cocked patiently to the side.
Reno’s expression slanted. “A blindfold?” he asked his former partner, grin sharpening when all Rude did was raise an expectant eyebrow. “What the hell. May as well do this right. Go ahead, yo.”
Darkness fell across Reno’s eyes, blocking out the sun and the glint of light off the squad’s rifles. Rude’s big hands were firm and competent as they tied the blindfold in place, careful to keep Reno’s long hair from tangling in the knot. Reno threw him a grateful smile that he couldn’t tell whether Rude returned or not.
Rude’s hands fell away and Reno felt him step back, the sound of his boots muffled by the thick sand underfoot. The crowd rustled eagerly and Reno could feel their eyes on him as he stood alone before the firing squad.
There was a trickle of sweat curling down his neck, sliding under the collar of his shirt and making the damp fabric cling to his back. It seemed surprisingly hot suddenly.
“Present arms!” Rude barked, and Reno couldn’t help a small shudder at the stern note of command in the man’s deep voice. Metal clinked as ten rifles came up in tandem and Reno felt the world catch its breath, the spectators stilling in anticipation.
“Take aim!” Rude’s voice thundered and Reno found himself straining his ears, listening for the church bells that would signal the start of the day and, consequently, the end of his life.
He thought of the King in his box, watching unrepentantly as one of his men died for the sake of his regime, and couldn’t help a rueful head shake. Not exactly the sort of assignment he’d been expecting when he enlisted, that was for sure.
The air was still and heavy, the occasional rustle of someone’s cloak the only sound in the crowded courtyard. Then, from somewhere in the city, heavy bells began to ring, a steady, implacable thrum of wood on bronze that echoed through the breathless silence and shuddered right down into the floor.
Reno sighed thankfully. “About bloody time.”
And then he moved, the neatly cut ropes snapping and slithering to the floor around him as he lunged forward under the bead of the squad’s guns, blindfold still tight across his eyes and grin fixed firmly in place.
Someone swore and Reno heard the frantic scuffle of feet as the riflemen tried to follow his path. Gunfire exploded across the courtyard and Reno swerved instinctively to the left, feeling the swish of air as bullets flew past him and buried themselves in the sand. There were stifled curses and sounds of fumbled cartridges as the squad scrabbled to reload, but Reno was on them before they had a chance. He lashed out with a fist at the nearest man, grin widening as his target doubled over with a choked groan. Grabbing the man’s gun from a lax grip, he rounded on where the rest of the soldiers seemed to be, ignoring the panicked screams and frantic scurrying sounds from the crowd somewhere behind him.
Not trusting himself to aim blind, Reno laid upon the firing squad with the butt of his stolen rifle, feeling the crack of bones shudder through his arms with each swing. Everything was a blur of sound and adrenaline, the blackness obscuring his vision leaving no room for error. Blood splattered across his face as he broke someone’s nose and he jumped back from the sound of rushing feet, ducking instinctively to avoid a hastily swung fist.
And then someone grabbed him by the shoulder and he whirled, rifle driving upwards at his attacker’s face in a high, deadly arc.
A strong hand ripped the gun out of his grasp and Reno only had a moment to panic before the blindfold was torn away and he was blinking into the blinding sun and Rude’s impassive face.
“Hey buddy,” he grinned, noting absently that more of the squad were down than he’d taken care of himself. “Can I have that back?”
Rude gave him a look. “Next time, Reno, take the blindfold off first, okay?” He handed the gun over without changing expression, though his mouth quirked slightly when Reno smirked at him.
“Hey, you were the one who gave it to me, yo,” Reno defended, fitting the rifle to his shoulder and firing a warning burst into the milling confusion of riflemen. “I figured you meant it as a challenge. Least I could do was handle it with flair.”
“There was flair alright,” Rude muttered, laying into two men at once with his heavy fists. “Although I’m not really sure it was the good kind.”
Reno was about to respond to that when an outraged shout shattered through the air, rolling like thunder from the Imperial box. He glanced up to find the King on his feet and glaring at both of them as though willing them to implode on the spot. The man’s meaty hands were shaking with rage as he leveled an accusatory finger their way.
“Treason!” he bellowed, easily audible over the continuing clang of distant church bells. “Traitors to the crown – you’ll both hang before the day is out!”
“Oh, I don’t think they will,” a low voice cut suddenly through the panic, the flash of silver that glinted against the King’s neck bright in the relative shade under the awning.
The King froze, eyes wide and panicked as the slim blade pressed against the bare skin above his collar, subtle and deadly.
“R-rufus?” he demanded, shock and not a little bit of panic colouring his otherwise righteously indignant tone.
A blond man in the white robes of the desert nomads stepped forward out of the shadows behind the throne. “Hello father,” Prince Rufus said politely, hand steady on the blade at the King’s neck even as the crowd began to stir with furious murmurs. “I’m afraid I’m not as dead as you’d hoped I might be.”
The King’s breath hitched suddenly and Reno could easily imagine the thin line of red now marring the man’s pasty skin. The soldiers still fighting him faltered in their determined charge, heads craning up and back to stare in blank surprise at their missing Prince.
Rufus was still deadly calm, eyes cold as a desert night as he added, “I intend to be more thorough with you, father.”
“Tseng!” the King called desperately, voice cracking with real fear. “Tseng!”
“Here, your Lordship,” Tseng said, resplendent in the black armour of the Turks as he stepped up at Rufus’ side. The King blinked, uncomprehending, and Reno had to fight the impulse to burst out laughing at the sheer perfection of the whole thing.
Rufus stared evenly into his father’s horrified face, voice measured and pitched to carry. “I’m afraid you’ll find your men are ready to die for a new king now, father. One who doesn’t rule his own people with violence and doesn’t kill innocents to make them examples to the rest.” The muttering in the crowd grew louder, but the King could only stare at Rufus in shock.
“You dare to threaten me?” he demanded, the words ringing hollow and blusteringly empty.
The thin smile Rufus gave him in response was one of the most frightening things Reno had seen in his entire life. “On the contrary, father,” Rufus corrected. “I dare to act upon my threats.”
Silver flashed in the air and the King staggered back in pain, shocked eyes bulging as blood gushed freely from the wound. He gasped, a rattling, wheezing noise, and crumpled to his knees, face growing pale as blood soaked heavily into his clothes. Rufus watched narrowly as his father thrashed on the floor, careless of the blood dripping off his dagger and staining the light weave of his white cloak.
Reno let the rifle fall from his shoulder and cocked one hand on his hip as he watched the King die. Rude stood beside him, shaking blood off his knuckles with the same characteristic aplomb with which he’d cut the ropes binding Reno in the full view of the king and his own rifle squad.
Reno grinned. Life didn’t get much better than this.
Above them, under the carefully erected royal canopy, the King slumped forward with a final gurgling groan and lay still.
Rufus was moving before his father’s shallow death rattle had faded from the air, throwing off his hood and stepping forward towards the dumbstruck crowd, voice falling calm and reasonable into the shocked silence. Tseng remained still and supportive beside him, showing the people that the Turks, at least, would support this new regime with all their strength.
Forgotten in the messy business of rebuilding a kingdom, Reno sighed gustily, glad all that was over. Not that he minded, exactly, but planning a coup was a lot of work. He grinned at Rude, nudging him playfully in the ribs.
“Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”
Rude’s mouth twitched in response, one large hand landing briefly on Reno’s shoulder before the big man went off to make sure they hadn’t killed anybody with their flashy, attention-drawing fight.
A flash of blonde caught Reno’s eye and he turned to find Elena bearing down on him with a steely look in her eyes.
He was probably in a large amount of trouble, but Reno couldn’t really bring himself to care just then.
“See?” he grinned at her, going for the direct approach and hoping she didn’t hurt him too badly. “Told you things would work out.”
He could see Elena gearing up to slap him for his impertinence, then her expression shifted into a grudging smile and she clapped him on the shoulder, just like Rude had. “Yeah, you did. I’ll beat you up for it later, but for right now I’m glad you’re not dead, Reno.”
Reno laughed. “Yeah, me too.” He glanced up towards the Imperial box where Rufus and Tseng were still speaking to the crowd and smiled, pleased.
That was the best damn execution he’d ever had.