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Variations Chapter 1

Preludes and Nocturnes

It's hard, sometimes, to be a Turk. People don't understand us. They see a bunch of elite professionals in suits, with weapons, who do Shinra's dirty work. We're people too. But I guess there must be something different about us, knowing about the things we go through. Our lives are different. I suppose a regular person gets up in the morning, goes to work, and makes little, mediocre decisions about the little things that happen outside the Shinra building, then goes home. Work happens with a familiar regularity, for civilians.

For Turks, work is in spurts and lulls and is all the time, because we're always on call. When Shinra says jump, we ask how high, and all that. Work happens based on whether or not there are terrorists in Gongaga, or a hostage taking in Mideel, or riots in Sector 4. Our decisions affect our colleagues, our friends. The people we live and work with. A choice I make can change whether or not someone important to me lives or dies. Having to make choices like that can make you want to step back and really think about your career.

I talked to Tseng about all this. He suggested that maybe I should write my thoughts down. He told me that it helps some Turks to put their experiences down on paper, where they're tangible. So much of what we do is done in secret, without the public knowing. It helps to have a record, so at least someone will remember. Well, this is my record. I don't know how much it's going to help me, but I might as well try.

Maybe I should put down a bit about myself, first. My name is Rosalind Kramer. I grew up in the slums of Midgar. I'm twenty-three years old and I just graduated from the Turks Academy. I entered at nineteen with firearms as my primary and Materia Technology as my secondary specialty. I have light blonde hair and green eyes, I'm five-six and I weigh one hundred and twenty pounds (give or take). I'm trained in several forms of unarmed combat, and I've entered the Turks at a level that will help me optimize my career for promotion to squad leader.

I started my first day on the job the same way all Turks start: patrolling Sector 8. Every Turk starts their career by patrolling Sector 8. Sector 8 is a relatively calm, quiet sector. The only thing that makes it stand out, really, is the newest Mako Reactor. However, regardless of how unlikely it was that anything was going to happen, I was on patrol. It wasn't likely anything of any significance was going to happen, but it was tradition. Tseng assured me of this when he called me outside the gates of the Sector.

"It's company tradition, Rosalind. Reno started out here. I started out here. Senior Commander Veld started out here. I remember it, clear as day, and so will you. You never forget your first mission, so treat it with respect and make it a good one. It may not seem like anything important, but you must learn to treat all of your assignments as though they are top priority."

I really admire Tseng. He's calm and levelheaded, and he treats all of us new recruits with respect, even though he's second-class and we're only fifth or sixth. He has ethics and morals that are almost above what most people expect from the Turks. He truly believes in doing every job to the fullest, be it a standard patrol or guarding the President himself.

"Roger, sir. Leave Sector 8 to me," I answered. I've been taught that you always treat your superiors with respect. They're your superiors for a reason.

"Have you got any Materia, Rosalind?" Tseng asked. "I can review a few basic techniques for you, if you'd like. It's important to always be prepared for whatever might come your way."

"Thank you, sir, but I think I'm fine." Even considering how much Tseng respects us recruits; he sometimes forgets that some of us have spent all our time in the Academy handling Materia.

Tseng was silent for a few moments before he answered. "All right, Rosalind. Be careful and good luck."

I thanked Tseng again and hung up. I put my PHS away and started out on patrol. It felt really good to be doing my job. All my training was kicking in and I walked down the streets on full alert. Even though this was a small time mission, I finally felt like I really was a part of the action. I've dreamed about being a Turk for years. I knew as soon as I got out of high school that it was what I wanted to do. Nothing is more important to me than being the best Turk I can be.

Tseng said that you never forget your first mission. Something always happens to make it special for you. My first mission was maybe a little more special than most Turks', because of what happened when I came around the corner.

I don't know what it was about them, but I guess it was instinct that made me duck back into an alley. There were two men standing in the street, talking. They looked rough, were dressed in old camouflage fatigues, and they both carried weapons. They were only knives, but I pulled out one of my revolvers anyway.

The first one spoke and what he said startled me. "At last, we're drawing nearer to the day of Shinra's downfall. Don't let this get messed up."

"Down with Shinra!" the other one answered, saluting.

Immediately, I thought of dropping back, out of earshot, and calling Tseng to report this. There was a pair of men openly speaking of the downfall of Shinra. Now, that alone wouldn't have been a threat, but the fact that they were obviously militant made me suspicious.

Apparently I didn't act quite quickly enough though, because my PHS rang. I almost froze up as the two looked right at me. "Uh oh..." I murmured, backing up just a bit.

"Who's that!?" The first one had his knife out before he even recognized me as a Turk.

The second one's knife was out almost as quickly, but he knew who I was. "That uniform...that's a Turk!"

I was a little frightened, but the adrenaline in my veins was already making me bold. "What are you talking about?" I demanded.

"You overheard our plans!" the first man accused, brandishing his knife. "That's not good for you, girl; we're going to have to get rid of you!"

Then they jumped me. You always see in the movies how the tiny little heroine easily fends off her attackers with some obscure kind of martial arts and doesn't even break a sweat, but it doesn't work like that in real life. I'm a small person. I don't weigh all that much and even if it's mostly muscle, I'm not going to try and take on two guys with knives (who each look like they weigh more than two of me) with only my fists.

So I shot them. Once each, in the throat, clean kills. They didn't suffer. And they weren't my first. I cried, the first time, back when I was still a trainee. I don't cry anymore, but it still makes me feel cold all over to watch someone die.

My PHS was still ringing by the time it was over. It hadn't taken long, but when I answered, Tseng still sounded a little worried. "Rosalind, are you all right?"

He sounded kind of panicked actually. I guess having a new operative in the field would make him nervous. "I'm all right, sir. I just encountered some hostiles. They have been dispatched."

"Hostiles? In Sector 8?" Tseng asked incredulously. "Who were they, Rosalind? Thieves?"

I shook my head, even though Tseng wasn't around. "No, sir. They looked militant. They said something like 'Down with Shinra' and spoke of the company's downfall. It seemed like they were plotting something."

"Down with Shinra..." Tseng echoed distantly, like he was thinking about something else. "We need to know more," he said abruptly. "This could be nothing, but it might be something important. I think you should see if you can find any more of these men. I'm going to report to my superior, Commander Veld. I'll be in touch soon."

"Yes, sir."

As soon as I hung up I switched my phone to vibration mode. I was angry with myself for making such a rookie mistake. I should've known better. I would be more careful from then on.

I moved on down the streets, on the alert.  Just one attack is enough to get the blood rushing through your veins and now I was jumping at every shadow, my revolver in one hand, and the palm of my other hand on the handle of my automatic. It might not sound very exciting to stalk through the streets of Midgar, looking for enemies, but it really and truly is. There's such a feeling of exhilaration combined with something that would be terror, if you weren't a Turk who isn't supposed to get scared about these kinds of things.

I cut through a back alley and reached a main road. It was clear, but I got a distinct feeling that I was on the right track. My PHS rang, or rather, vibrated. "Rosalind," I answered crisply, knowing it was Tseng.

"Track down and capture any more of the men you see. We're sending crews to collect the bodies of the two you dispatched. As well, you'll be getting support. Good luck, Rosalind."

"Yes, sir."

Now I had orders. I hung up and ran through the streets. I wasn't patrolling anymore. I was hunting. I ran quickly and quietly, staying in the shadows. There are a lot of shadows in Midgar at dusk. It wasn't long before I heard voices around a corner.

There were two of them again, both in faded khakis, but this time with guns. They looked like machine guns; cheap knockoffs of Shinran models, but still effective.

"I'm going to take the front. You stay to take the rear." The voice was authoritative, commanding. It sounded ex-military to me. I shuddered.

 "Oh, man, I don't wanna take the rear. Why can't you stay here and I go on ahead?" This second voice was whiny and sounded anxious. And young. If these were rebels, they were from varied backgrounds.

"You have a machine gun. You'll be fine."

So they did have machine guns. And the older one was confident. I wasn't happy about this. Two men with automatic machine guns who I wasn't supposed to kill.

"But that's not fair! Why can't we stay together?"

"Because I'm the one who knows our orders and our orders are to split up! Stay here, I outrank you."

The best I could hope for at this point was to tranquilize them.

"But that's not fair! Just tell me what to do and I'll go on ahead..."

I crouched in the darkness and started to assemble a collapsible dart gun from the inside of my jacket, still listening to their conversation.

"We're in charge of securing this route. I'm going to go on ahead, you stay here or I'll report you."

I wasn't about to take on them both at once. I waited until the older man had moved up the street, out of sight and earshot, before I took out the young man. He never saw it coming. He might've heard it, the faint hissing as the dart left the pneumatic barrel, but he was down before it made any difference.

Then there were shouts from behind me. "Shinra traitor!" and "You're not getting out of here alive!"

There were two more of them. I can't understand why they shouted. I had turned around before they had even drawn their weapons. They may have been militant, but I don't think many of them were very well-trained. The first was down before he was within ten yards of me and the second fell shortly after, still fumbling with his weapon.

Then the phone rang. I had no idea that I would receive so many calls during a mission, but I suppose this one was important all of a sudden. Of course, it was Tseng.

"Rosalind, what's your status?"

"I've taken down three of them, sir. All tranquilized, no major damage."

"What kind of tranquilizer are you using?"

I glanced at my gun and the label of the dart. "Curare, sir."

"Hmm. If you think of it, could you use to a multi-party Sleep Materia? Curare tends to be a little dangerous and we don't want any of these men damaged."

I holstered my weapon and took out a greenish blue gem, slipping it into an armlet around my wrist; a Sleep materia. I put in another gem, Lightning, just to be safe. "Will do, sir. If I may say, sir, they may be well organized, but they aren't well-trained. They're...with a few exceptions, amateurs."

"Really? But they are coordinating attack movements? Interesting...I have to report this. There are more agents moving in and gathering information as we speak. Your support should be there soon. Hang in there, Rosalind. I know it seems tough, but you're doing splendidly. I think you entered this company with a bit of a low rank. If this goes well, I might put you in for a promotion."

"Th-thank you, sir!" I couldn't believe that. From sixth class to fifth in just one day! I felt lightheaded; it was such a wonderful thought.

The ranking system of the Turks a series of seven levels. When Turks come out of the Academy, they're assigned a rank based on the abilities they've demonstrated. I had graduated at level six, the lowest possible, because seventh is only there as a buffer for demotions. A sixth-class entrance into the company was about average, fifth-class was relatively decent, fourth-class was impressive, and third-class was uncanny, but not unheard of. In any case, a promotion this early would be wonderful.

"Who are you people?" I demanded, once I'd hung up my phone, walking over to the one who was still conscious and crouching down beside him. "What are your motives?" I felt a brief surge of guilt; he wasn't much older than me. He had dusty brown hair and grey eyes, and he was barely conscious. "What do you hope to accomplish?"

"As if I'd ever tell you, Shinra," he gasped, glaring at me. "Avalanche have their reasons." I've never looked at someone and seen hatred like I saw in this young man's eyes. It was upsetting. I'm a good guy, one of Shinra's finest. He was the bad guy, and I was only doing my job.

"What have the Shinra ever done?" I asked, grabbing his shoulders.

He stared at me like I was crazy, then he went limp. Curare is a fairly fast-acting toxin, but he'd been fighting it. I let him go and got up, moving on. I wanted to get after the young man's partner; the one I thought had been in the military. He sounded like he might have some information for me.

So I kept running, towards the reactor, where the other man had gone. "Avalanche." Who were they? Terrorists? I had a frightening thought. They were headed towards the reactor; what if they intended to do something to it? Mako is a safe power source, when handled by professionals. In the wrong hands, it's an unstable and dangerous weapon. Massive destruction would follow, if these people reached the reactor.

I forced the thought from my mind. It was unthinkable. If they tried to damage the reactor, hundreds would die. They could destroy the entire sector. It was beyond my understanding. They could have no possible motive for killing so many innocent people.

I was angry, when I caught up with the military man. I wanted to attack him with my bare hands, never mind my weapon. He saw me coming and he saw I was unarmed, so he put away his machine gun and smiled at me. He wanted to fight just as much as I did.

I stopped about five yards from him. It was suddenly silent in the streets and I could feel the tension in the air. I hated this man. I have no other explanation but the adrenaline. We stood there for a few moments, hating each other. Apparently he had a reason. I didn't. I just hated him.

"You aren't getting past me, Shinra."

"Who are you?" I asked him. My hands were clenched at my sides, but I was ready. I could see him flexing, tensing up to attack. He was bigger than me, but older and slower. I was confident I could take him.

"It doesn't matter. This is the end for Shinra."

He lunged at me, hands outstretched. I wouldn't have been able to avoid him if he'd charged me, but I managed to duck under his grasp and kick him in the stomach. He was definitely older and slower. When he'd doubled over from the blow to his midriff, I slammed my elbow down on the back of his neck and he crumpled to the ground. I might've killed him. I don't know, because I ran on.

The Mako reactors are huge, steel buildings that tower up above the sectors, supplying power to the surrounding area. They're a marvel of technology and they should be treated with the utmost respect. Each reactor is surrounded by a ten-foot high concrete wall and can only be accessed through certain gates, from a vehicle with special security clearance.

By the time I reached the reactor entrance, I was breathing hard. I ducked into one of the passageways near the entrance to get my breath then froze as I heard people approaching.

There were three of them, all in the motley uniform I was starting to get accustomed to. One of them carried a large package on his back and was apparently the leader.

"All right! The path to the reactor is clear and we have people guarding the way. I'll go start to place the explosives."

My knees started to shake at that point. There were explosives. I couldn't believe it. I sank down in the little alleyway I was hiding in and did everything I could not to be sick. They were seriously going to try and destroy the reactor. Thousands would die.

Mako isn't like regular electrical power. The pipes that carry Mako energy to the houses of Midgar are spread out through the entirety of their respective sectors. Mako is an efficient energy source because it transfers and intensifies any kind of energy inputted into it. The smallest jostle to one of the right pipes in the reactor can cause a slight power surge. The energy generated by an explosion would be carried through the pipes at a hundred times its normal force. The threat to Sector 8 was very, very real.

The leader was doing something with his pack, setting up the necessary charges. I really felt sick and frightened for the first time since the mission had started. Thousands would die, and I would be one of them.

The explosion came soon after. Or it felt like it, at least. It must have been at least two minutes before the charges were set, but it seemed to fly by. When I looked out again, they had cleared out and a red light was flashing by the entrance. I ducked back just in time as the explosion came. I felt the heat and the streetlamps flickered above me, but as the dust cleared, the world was still again.

I peered around the corner. Two Avalanche members came to stand guard in front of the door while the rest swarmed in.

My PHS rang. As usual, I knew it was Tseng, but this time I was panicked when I answered it. "Tseng! They're going to blow up the reactor! Oh, Tseng, it's all my fault...I shouldn't have let them get this far. I should've gone around and cut them off before they reached the reactor. Tseng, what do I do?"

I was ashamed of myself as soon as I'd said it. I was panicking. Like a common soldier with shell shock. I felt like a child. I was trained to be immune to this, but here I was, sitting in the streets, on the very verge of breaking down crying. I'd even forgot to call Tseng by his proper title.

"Rosalind, calm down. We know of the situation. This is important, Rosalind. Normally, they wouldn't be able to breach the reactors inner defenses, but they've chosen the gate that leads to the underground access tunnels."

"I...I'm sorry..."

"Don't worry, Rosalind. It's not your fault. You have to listen to me. They do intend to blow up the reactor. You must stop them at all costs. There will be thousands of deaths if you don't."

"R-roger." This must sound crazy, but I felt better to have orders. Tseng has a very calming effect on people. An objective is a very reassuring thing to have and it was exactly what I needed.

I stepped out of the alley and drew my weapons. "You there! Step away from the reactor gates!" I ordered, striding towards the two Avalanche guards, covering both of them.

They attacked me. They had only knives, again, with foot long blades, but it was a frightening fight nonetheless. I panicked slightly and let off a few shots that didn't find their marks, and earned myself a cut on the shoulder, but I took both of them down.

I heard footsteps behind me, and more yelling, and I whirled around almost before I knew what I was shooting at. I took down one with a lucky shot, then managed to bring the other two down after that, finishing the ammo in both my weapons. But not nearly as quickly as I should have. I was scared. Three had almost been too many for me and I was sure there were more coming.

I was right. There were six of them and they came at me from all sides. It was like with the military man, they kind of hung back and they all put away their weapons, like they wanted to get their hands on me and tear me apart.

"A Turk, hey? Not even you can take care of six of us at once, Shinra," one of them snarled at me.

I had backed myself up against a wall, and I'd frozen up. I was too scared even to try and reload my guns. I thought for sure they were going to come and kill me. Suddenly, I felt a strange kind of acceptance of this and I braced myself to take down as many of them as I could if I had to go. "If I have to die, I'm bringing as many of you as I can with me!" I shouted in a final challenge.

"Get her!"

I'm not entirely sure what happened next, but I suddenly had company. A shadow flew over my head and someone landed in front of me in a blazing flare of electricity. The air hummed and crackled and the Avalanche members scrambled back as two of their number, the one who'd yelled and another, suddenly fell on the ground, twitching and sparking.

"Hiya, rookie! Man, I wish my first mission had been as exciting as this. Goddamn boring Sector 8. You're gonna make history, kid, y'know that?"

It was Reno. I'd met him once before, at my inauguration. But I really can't count that because when I say "met" I mean "saw" and when I say "saw" it's as in "saw him passed out beneath one of the beds in the barracks from an overabundance of 'celebrating.'" I'm not sure he knew I was one of his subordinates. I'm not even sure he knows he has subordinates.

Reno is quite tall, compared to me, and he's very thin. But good looking all the same, and only two years older. He's got long, wild, red hair he wears in a ponytail but what he doesn't tie back is always sticking up because he handles an electrostatic weapon. He's also...I don't really know how to describe it, but he's always moving. If he's walking, he's also swinging his arms or rolling his shoulders or twirling his nightstick. If he's standing in one spot, he's rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet or bouncing up and down. If he's sitting, he's fidgeting. If you talk to him, not even his eyes stay still. Apparently he sleepwalks, too, but I wouldn't know anything about that.

"R-Reno, sir! I...I thought you had other orders," I stammered. I was very flustered to have a third-class Turk as my support. I had been hoping for someone a little closer to my own rank.

"Oh, hell. Orders change, rookie. 'Sides, I was in the neighborhood and I heard all the shooting. Now, let's move things along, I've got a hot date tonight."

The Avalanche members who had scattered with Reno's arrival were back and there were two more of them. "We'll kill the both of you, Shinra!"

I remembered the materia I had and before anyone could do anything I'd blasted three of them with white hot electricity. Reno took advantage of this to make a move on the other three.

"You're not bad, rookie!" he informed me cheerfully, electrocuting one of the men. "There're a lot of these bastards. Keep the materia handy. Easier than taking 'em one at a time."

"R-right, sir," I stammered.

"Well, I'm going to go clear out the others coming from the west." Reno waved his nightstick off to my left, sounding like he was referring to a trip to the grocery store. "You stay here and take care of any others that come your way. I'll be back, rookie. Try not to miss me too much."

And then he was gone. I know I run fast, for a Turk, but I've got nothing on Reno. It must be because he's so thin and there isn't much of him to move from one place to another. Probably one of the most agile operatives we have.

More Avalanche members came, in ones and twos. They tried to attack, but I think the sight of their comrades lying dead in front of the gate probably unnerved them. I took them out with my dart gun. I didn't feel like killing any more of them if I didn't have to. When they'd stopped coming, I went after Reno.

I caught up to him as he finished off a man with a bandana and a pair of brass knuckles on each hand.

"All done!" Reno announced, turning around and grinning at me. "What'd you say your name was? Rebecca? Rosanne?"

"I d-didn't and it's R-Rosalind, sir."

"Don't call me sir, Rebecca." Reno squinted at me, shouldering his nightstick. "And stop stammering. C'mon, let's get back to the reactor."

For a few moments I wished I had someone else as my superior. Reno was breaking all the rules I knew about how to treat those who command me. "That's where they're headed, s-sir...Mister...Agent..."

"It sure seems like it, doesn't it, Ramona?" Reno informed me patiently, walking briskly back to the reactor. "And it's Reno."

"Uh...Rosalind."

Reno stopped and gave me a strange look. I found it very humiliating that he could look at me like I was crazy, given the way he acts. "No, sweetie, I'm Reno, but you can call me whatever the hell you want, I guess. I'm going to call you 'rookie', okay? It's easier."

"Y-yes, sir."

"Don't call me..." Reno trailed off and grinned as we reached the reactor gate. "All right. Whatever the hell you want. You go on ahead, rookie. Only so many went in there, right? I'll hold any more who come, then I'll catch up with you."

I aimed over his shoulder at an Avalanche member coming up the alleyway and shot him. Reno whirled around and fired a blast of electricity from his own weapon, taking out the other two who had followed. Then he gave me a shove towards the reactor.

"Get going, rookie. You're stealing my thunder and I'd like to get at least a little bit of the glory coming out of this mission."

"How like you, Reno," a dry voice commented.

A young man came out of the shadows. He wore standard brown khaki, like most of the other Avalanche members, except a little lighter and the only camouflage he was wearing was a bandana. He looked older than me, but not much older than Reno. He had dark hair and eyes, and would've been kind of handsome if he didn't look so murderous.

I entered the gate, but I stopped to watch before I went down. I couldn't help it. Even if he was crazy, it didn't take much to get attached to Reno and I was worried about him already.

"Who the hell are you?" Reno asked the newcomer, arching an eyebrow curiously.

The stranger ignored the question and looked around at his fallen comrades. "You've made short work of my men. I hadn't expected you would be here, Reno. Though, you are the fastest of the Turks. If anyone was going to get here first, it would be you."

It was hard to tell, but I think I could sense a little tension in Reno's manner, because he stopped moving. He held still and stared at his opponent, sizing him up. "You seem to know a few things about me," he remarked casually.

The man shrugged. "It's common sense. Know thine enemy. Basic battle strategy. Whatever speed you lay claim to, you're not nearly as...quick as I am."

I sensed something behind this question, a strange kind of insult I didn't understand. Reno's grip tightened on his weapon, but he remained nonchalant. "I'll let that pass. Know thine enemy, huh? Well, let's get acquainted then, shall we?"

The man smiled. "Certainly. My name is Shears, and I believe I shall kill you. It will be a pleasure."

I started to climb back up the ladder I'd started down, but a glance from Reno stopped me. "Go, rookie," he ordered tersely.

"B-but..."

"I've got this guy," Reno assured me, dropping into a catlike stance and starting to circle Shears.

"Oh, we won't know until we test that out, now will we?" Shears asked, raising his fists and flexing powerful muscles.

"Be careful, sir..." I called, climbing down the ladder. If he answered, I didn't hear him as I splashed down into ankle deep water. The lights were out in the normally bright tunnels beneath the reactors, making them dark and confusing. This was probably to hinder the Avalanche members and unless one has taken courses on how to navigate them, it's easy to get lost. I was running through the passages within minutes, intent on getting to the reactor core.

Every once in a while I'd run into an Avalanche flunky, but I took them out with tranquilizers before any could raise the alarm. I was soaked up to my waist from splashing through the water, but all I could think about was my objective. It had dawned on me once again that thousands would die if I didn't reach the reactor and prevent the setting of this bomb.

I came to the control room. I kicked the door down and fired my last tranquilizer dart at the man standing guard. He was down before he even felt it. But he wasn't my objective.

There was a man crouched in front of the core base, located underneath the actual reactor. He was wiring and arming a small bundle of what looked like dynamite. Not much, but definitely more than enough. Weaponless, I leapt at him. I was acting on purely feral instincts. I grabbed him by the back of his jacket and dragged him away from the bomb.

"No!" he yelled. "We're so...close..."

I slammed him against the wall, hard, until he went limp. Then I dropped him. I stood in silence for a while. And then I sat down on the floor and started crying. The reality of the whole thing came crashing down on me. I crawled over to the bomb and tore it apart, throwing its components into the water.

After I'd calmed down, I wiped my face off, and tried to clean myself up a bit, because I realized Reno was going to be coming soon and I couldn't look like I'd been crying. When I was sure I'd gotten to the point where I could speak normally, I pulled out my PHS and called Tseng.

"Rosalind? What's your status?"

"I...I've stopped the bomb, sir," I reported.

"Excellent, Rosalind! I knew I could count on you. I promise you a promotion at least. You've averted a very major crisis, and the city thanks you for it. Report back to HQ with Reno."

"Yes, sir." I snapped my phone shut and looked around. Reno hadn't come after all. In the back of my mind, I was worried about this, but I dismissed it. Some ragtag Avalanche member couldn't possibly be too much for a third-class Turk. But I hurried through the tunnels anyway.

When I climbed out of the tunnel, I saw that I'd come out into a very bad situation, and that a third-class Turk apparently isn't a match for this particular member of Avalanche.

Shears had pinned Reno up against the inside of the wall surrounding the Mako reactor and was pounding a fist against his open palm teasingly. Reno's nightstick was abandoned a few feet away and I could see he was in a bit of trouble. Evidently Shears had been toying with him.

Reno spotted me before Shears did and made a final lunge at his opponent, launching a roundhouse kick that made the Avalanche member stumble back momentarily. "Get outta here, rookie," he ordered, gasping a little. "This guy's trouble."

"You're finished, Turk," Shears growled, regaining purchase and retaliating with a solid punch to Reno's chest, sending him stumbling back against the wall, and then to the ground.

"Reno!" I almost climbed back down into the tunnel when he didn't move. I stopped, though, and climbed back out, straightening up and glaring at Shears. I circled left, towards Reno, and Shears let me, allowing me to get the wall at my back so he'd have the advantage.

"He was all talk. And he couldn't even live up to that," Shears scoffed mockingly, as I crouched down and touched Reno's chest to ensure he wasn't dead. My hand came away bloody and I looked up to see strands of barbed wire wrapped around Shears' thickly gloved hands. I winced, but I knew for sure now that I couldn't flee. There was no way I would leave a live comrade at the mercy of someone like Shears. "You're next."

Unlike the others, Shears didn't jump me. He waited for me to discard my weapons and move a respectable distance away from Reno, before he let out an outraged bellow and charged me.

It was the hardest fight I'd had in my whole career, which, although rather short, still hadn't prepared me for Shears. He was fast. I've only ever fought fist-fighters from a distance with a gun. I fought as best as I could, but my training in hand-to-hand combat is limited and it was all I could do to hold him off. And the only reason I think I managed even that was because he was worn out from fighting Reno. I had lost none of the respect I had for Reno as a superior, even if he had lost. Shears was tough.

I managed to get in a lucky blow and sent Shears staggering back, clutching a bleeding nose. "So you've got some meager skill," he sneered, wiping the blood from his face and glaring at me. "But I'm through playing. I'll make you wish you'd been never heard of Shinra, girl!"

He kicked me once, hard, in the stomach and I almost felt myself lift off the ground. I hit the wall and fell down, landing hard on my knees and throwing my hands out to keep myself from falling on my face. I knew then and there that I was beaten. It's the feeling you get that no matter how hard you try, you can't get up. I felt like that, but I wasn't sure whether Shears would kill me or capture me. I almost hoped for the former, because I wasn't sure I could hold up under the torture that was sure to follow if he captured me.

I was spared the answer to this question, as another Avalanche flunky came running up. "Mr. Shears, sir! Fuhito wants us to report to Junon!"

"Damn..." Shears murmured, glancing at me. I felt a chill run down my spine. He'd really been looking forward to finishing me off. He turned to his subordinate. "Finish these two."

"M-me, sir?" the messenger stammered. "B-but...they're Turks..."

"They're just about played out. The blonde will give you no trouble, but you may want to wake the thin one before you kill him. Just so he knows."

I was chilled. These people were inhuman. How could they hate us so much? We'd never done anything to them. I saw my chance, as Shears ran off. There was a discarded handgun a few feet away from me. I glanced at the Avalanche goon. All he had was a knife and apparently he was a little reluctant to use it. He looked over at me and I cringed and cowered in fear, hoping to add to his squeamishness.

It worked, because he turned around once he saw I wasn't going anywhere and crouched down next to Reno. I suppose he figured that it would be easier to kill someone who was already incapacitated. I almost thought I saw Reno move, a little, but he didn't react when the Avalanche member shook him, so I guess I imagined it.

"Hey! Hey, Shinra, wake up!"

While the man was distracted, I lay down on my stomach and stretched my hand out towards the gun. It was out of my reach by about a foot and I didn't want to risk too much movement that would attract the Avalanche member. But I still had to move fast, because he was going to be killing my superior in very short order.

I heard Reno groan and I knew then it was now or never. I pushed myself forward and grabbed the gun, and sat up. I fired three times at the Avalanche member, who had touched the blade of his knife to my superior's throat, and hit him twice in the chest and once in the head. He was down in a pool of blood before he'd even turned around.

Reno sat up and touched his hand to the cut on the side of his neck. "You know, rookie, there's such a thing as cutting it a little close."

"I...I'm sorry, sir." I was ashamed. I should've acted sooner.

Reno seemed to sense my embarrassment and waved it away. "Hey, no problem. Thank you, rookie. I owe you one, okay?"

I felt a little better. I don't think Reno was mad at me. I don't think Reno is even very capable of getting mad at people. "Are you all right, sir?"

"Been better, been worse, gonna be all right." Reno got up and winced a little, stretching. "What about you, rookie?"

"I'm fine, sir. Tseng says we're to report back to HQ."

Reno suddenly looked dismayed. "All the way back to HQ? Man, I just came from there!"

"B-but, sir...it's our orders..." I stammered.

Reno waved a hand dismissively and picked up his nightstick. "Hush, rookie. C'mon. We're going to go find a ride."

It really made me nervous to be subverting an order like this. When Tseng said get to HQ, I assumed it meant to drop whatever I was doing and go straight to headquarters. Reno apparently didn't understand this. "I...I don't know, sir. I think I'll walk."

"Rookie," Reno began, turning to me patiently. "You're not doing anything wrong. We are going back to HQ. We're going as fast as possible. But the fastest way to get there isn't always the straightest path. It's the shortest distance, maybe, but not the quickest route. Trust me, rookie. I outrank you for a reason."

"A-all right, sir."

"Good! C'mon, now, there's more of our people back near the entrance of the sector. We'll hook up with some transport there."

I followed him through Sector 8. He didn't take the main roads; he wove through whatever alleys he could find. And he chattered the whole time. I had never conversed with one of my superiors, so I don't know what I was expecting, but certainly not a stream of inane babble about whatever came into his head. I was flustered. I honestly didn't know how to talk to him.

We caught up with a flatbed truck that was taking agents back to HQ and climbed on. Reno climbed up on the roof and leaned over the side, sticking his head into the cab. "Hello, Ernie!" he greeted the driver cheerfully.

"Heya, Reno. You look a little roughed up," the truck driver observed, grinning. "You all right?"

"Oh, I'm fine. Is that Loretta in the passenger seat?"

Loretta is a second class Turk. She's one of the best there is and one of my heroes. She's tall and strong and she doesn't take nonsense from anybody. I assumed she was here to coordinate the gathering of the Avalanche terrorists we'd taken down. I wondered how she'd deal with Reno, who had changed sides and was now looking into the passenger window.

"Hi, Loretta." Reno beamed at the young woman and winked. "If I told you, you have a nice body..."

"I'd break your fucking neck," Loretta finished calmly, with the barest hint of a smile. "Same as last week."

"Oh. All right, just checking. Thanks, Loretta." Reno sat back up on top of the roof of the cab and beckoned to me. "Come up here, rookie."

"Uh...if it's all right with you, sir, I'll stay down here," I mumbled, keeping my eyes down and huddling in the corner of the truck box.

"Rookie, come up," Reno said firmly, thumping a hand on the roof of the truck. "That was an order."

I climbed up. I can't disobey a direct order, even if it comes from somebody who seems crazy.

"I'm going to marry Loretta," he informed me pleasantly, loud enough that I was sure the woman in the cab could here. "I'm going to marry Loretta, and then we're going to run away together and make love three times a day and six times at night!" He almost shouted that last part.

I blushed. It was very unsettling to have one of my superiors speaking about one of his superiors like that. "S-sir..."

"What do you think about that, rookie?" Reno questioned.

"I...I...does she even like you, sir?"

Reno blinked. "Of course, she likes me. Everybody likes me." He looked at the rest of the Turks, who were riding in the bed of the truck. I suddenly realized we had an audience and I blushed even more. "Everyone here who likes me raise their hands!"

Every hand in the bed of the truck went up and I could see most of them were smiling.

"Don't you like me, rookie?" Reno appealed childishly.

"Uh...of course, I like you, sir..."

"How much do you like me?"

"As much as I'm supposed to, sir." I squirmed away to the other side of the cab roof. I did like Reno, but he made me very, very nervous.

"Do you like me enough to..."

The truck suddenly jerked to a halt. I was sitting with my legs over the back of the cab, so I swayed a little but kept my seat. Reno had his long legs pulled up to his chest and fell off the front of the cab onto the hood of the truck.

"Leave the rookie alone, Reno," I heard Loretta order from inside the truck, amidst poorly muffled bouts of laughter from the rest of the Turks. "Unless you want to go ass over teakettle off the front of the truck again, and next time we'll keep driving."

Reno scrambled back onto the roof of the truck, grinning broadly. I don't think anything gets him down. "Loretta gets jealous," he informed me, winking. "Loretta is the moon and the stars and the sun to me. I just have to remind her from time to time that I'm the same for her."

"S-sir...could you please stop talking to me? I really don't know what to say," I pleaded, covering my flaming cheeks with my hands.

Reno seemed slightly taken aback by this and maybe even a little confused. "Wait right there, rookie." He leaned over the side of the truck again and grabbed one of the side mirrors, snapping it off and sitting back up. Holding it up and rubbing off some of the mud that caked it with his sleeve, he passed it to me. "Whaddaya see, rookie?"

"I...I see myself," I answered, bewildered.

"There's a reflection, then? You're not some soulless undead creature with no mind of your own?"

"N-no, sir."

"Oh. Well, then what is it?"

I was confused. Maybe I would ask Tseng for a transfer when I got back to HQ. I didn't think I could handle being commanded by someone as crazy as Reno. "What is what, sir?"

"Why don't you like me?"

"I do like you, sir...but...I don't know how to talk to you. You treat me like...like...an equal. I'm your subordinate."

Reno held still for about ten seconds and looked at me. Really hard, the same way he'd looked at Shears. "You know, rookie, I'm going to tell you something," he said finally.

"What, sir?"

"You are my first subordinate. I've never commanded anybody before. There are fourth and fifth class Turks out there who're commanding squads of five or six people. I'm third class, and you're the first person Shinra's let me command. My partner manages a couple other new recruits, but I'm in charge of you. And I haven't a hot clue what I'm supposed to do with you."

"O-oh..." If this was supposed to reassure me, it didn't.

Reno sighed. "Jesus, rookie, quit looking at me like I've grown another head. I'm just trying to say that we're on the same base here. I don't know how to deal with you, and you don't know how to deal with me. And I think we're both doing it wrong."

"So what do we do, sir?"

"Let's try something. I'm trying very hard to treat you like an equal, and you're trying very hard to treat me like a superior. Let's switch. You treat me how you would if I were somebody normal and I'll treat you the way I would if I considered you my subordinate."

I squirmed, nervously. I didn't know what he meant. "Normal, sir?"

"A friend. A colleague, maybe, if friend is too hard for you. Another sixth class."

"Uh...all right." I fell silent for a few minutes, until I realized Reno expected me to make the first foray into conversation. "What do I say?" I whispered.

"You could start with, 'Hello, Reno.' It works for most people," Reno advised, grinning a little.

"H-hello, Reno," I repeated, feeling a little stupid.

"Hi, rookie," he answered patiently. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm feeling...I feel...really, really stupid," I said honestly. I'm not good at talking casually with other people. I spent all of my high school years at a military academy and then the rest of my life in the Academy. My father was a military man and he made me treat him as such. Almost everyone I've known has been either my superior, or my subordinate.

Reno laughed. "I think that's a good thing, rookie. Human emotion. I'm proud of you."

"I don't mean to be so difficult, sir. I'm just...not very good with people."

"Don't worry about it." Reno held out a hand in a gesture of friendship and I accepted it. He might be crazy, but I really do like him.

"All right, people, crisis averted! Everyone still likes me," Reno announced to the rest of the Turks in the truck as we turned onto the road leading to the Shinra HQ.

"Shears doesn't like you," I remarked.

Reno paused. "No, I suppose he doesn't," he agreed slowly. "I'm not too fussy on him, either, though, so it doesn't count."

"Who were those people? Who are Avalanche?" I asked, hoping Reno might've had more information than I did.

"I have no idea, rookie, but I don't like it. They know about us. Shears did, at least. He knew about how I fight, how I act...you could sense it in the way he talked. I need to talk to Tseng about it."

"Are we going to report to Tseng?"

Reno nodded, sliding off the roof of the cab as we pulled into the Shinra parking lot. He offered me a hand down, but I got down myself. "C'mon, rookie, we'll take the elevator."

I followed him as he headed briskly towards the front lobby. I was tired. Reno didn't seem to be, but I was getting the distinct impression that he had more energy and stamina than I did. "I'm tired, sir."

"I know, rookie. I'm not exactly fresh as a daisy myself. We're done for the day, though. I'll handle the report to Tseng myself, if you like."

"No, thank you. I need to tell him what I found out. Shears said they were going to be going to Junon." I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to talk to Tseng about my first mission. Weary as I was, I was proud of how well things had gone. Then the door of the elevator slid open and I nearly had a heart attack.

Senior Commander Veld stepped out of the elevator, flanked by two second-class Turks. I snapped to attention and threw my best salute. Reno straightened up a little and smiled at the Commander. "Howdy, sir. We're just on our way up to report to Tseng."

"Very good, agent," Veld answered. His voice was deep and commanding, but he didn't seem offended by Reno's casual mode of address. "I heard about how well things went today, Reno. Look for a little something extra in your paycheck this month."

"Well, thank you, sir, but it really wasn't me." Reno jerked a thumb in my direction. "She was the agent on patrol and it was her who defused the bomb, not me. I just hung around and got my ass kicked by some Avalanche goon."

As much as I liked Reno, I could've killed him right then and there. Commander Veld turned to me and smiled. "Ah, yes. Rosalind, our newest recruit. Brilliant work today, agent. I'll be handling your promotion personally."

My knees were shaking. I felt like I was going to be sick. I was talking to Commander Veld. "Th-th-thank you, s-sir..." I stammered faintly.

"Mmm." Veld returned his attention to Reno, who was grinning at me like an idiot. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you, Reno. We've had several reports that Avalanche are moving for Junon."

That got Reno's attention. For the first time since I'd met him, he looked a little worried. "Yeah, Rosalind heard that. The President's in Junon. You think they might try something?"

Veld nodded. "Right. I want you and your subordinate here to get on the next flight overseas and protect President Shinra."

"Roger, sir. We'll be out of here in an hour," Reno answered dutifully, saluting. I think Veld might be the only person he treats as a true superior. Even so, he doesn't salute very well.

"Good luck, agents. You'll be further briefed upon your arrival in Junon." And then he left.

I stumbled into the elevator and as soon as the doors slid shut my knees buckled and I broke down crying.

"Hey! Hey, rookie, what's the matter?" Reno asked, sounding surprised. "Are you really that tired, rookie? You don't have to come to Junon; you've done more than enough for today. I'll go on my own, if you like..."

"It's not th-that..."

Reno sat down beside me on the elevator floor and patted my shoulder a bit awkwardly. "Aww, rookie, quit crying...what's the problem?"

"Th-that was Senior Commander Veld...and he knew my name!" I managed, embarrassed.

"Commander Veld? Well, of course he knew your name...you're a Turk! He knows all of us. He only handles the promotions of the damn good ones, though. Cheer up, rookie..."

The whole thing was very emotional for me. Commander Veld is the highest-ranking Turk in the Company. I've dreamed of meeting him. He commands all of us, and he'd just told me personally that he would be handling my promotion. "I'm just kind of shocked, I guess," I explained, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I needed to change into another uniform. I was an absolute mess.

"Why're you shocked? Commander Veld's just a regular guy."

I stared at Reno. "Regular? H-he's the commander. He's like a celebrity. It was like meeting some kind of superstar. I adore Commander Veld!"

"You're weird, rookie," Reno laughed. "But I like you. We just need to figure out how exactly to make you understand that rank isn't everything."

"Not to everybody, I guess."

Reno nodded. "Definitely not to me. I kinda hope you get a couple more promotions, rookie. I think you'll be better at talking once you've got some rank on me."

"Oh, I don't think that's going to happen, sir. You're a third-class, and I'm only sixth."

"Fifth. That's a level in a day. Of course, getting from sixth to fifth isn't really that big a difference...the only real change is in pay. But it still usually takes recruits a couple months of specialized grunt work. You did it in a day."

"It was just luck, sir. Any other sixth class could've been on patrol tonight," I said modestly, embarrassed.

Reno shook his head. "But not just any sixth could've done what you did tonight. It's your first day, rookie, and you saved an entire sector."

"W-well...you're still likely to get ahead of me, sir. You'll probably be second-class by the time I get my next promotion. You're very good, sir."

Reno grinned, but somehow it didn't seem very sincere. Kind of half-hearted. "Well, thank you, rookie. But it's a lot more likely for you to pass me than for me to get promoted to second."

"Why's that, sir? Is second-class very hard to obtain?"

"Rookie, for me, it's impossible."

I didn't understand what he meant. Any promotion was attainable if one worked for it. "Oh, sir, I'm sure you'll get it someday. Does the promotion officer not like you?

Reno laughed. "I told you, rookie, everybody likes me. Nah...it's complicated. Don't worry about it, rookie."

I might have pressed him for an answer, if the elevator doors hadn't opened. It was time to go prepare for our next mission. I couldn't believe it. I'd met Commander Veld and in the same twenty-four hours, I would be meeting the President.


Chapter 2

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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