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Variations Chapter 2

The First Movement

It's a three-hour plane ride from Midgar to Junon and I slept most of the way. The company jets are very comfortable, so it was a very good sleep. I didn't wake up until Reno came over to the bunk I'd taken and told me we were entering Junon airspace. "Up and at 'em, rookie! We're over Junon."

I sat up and yawned, rubbing my eyes to clear the sleep from them. "Already, sir? How long did I sleep?"

Reno shrugged and grinned. "The whole damn way, rookie. You're cute when you're asleep. Comfy jet, huh?"

I blushed. "Didn't you sleep, sir?" I asked, trying to change the subject.

"Nope. Can't sleep at a time like this. Too wired."

"Are you nervous, sir?" I asked, a little concerned. Reno was twitchy. It was more than just his absentminded fidgeting to vent all the extra energy he seems to have, it was more restless and jittery. He was actually shaking. "You look edgy, sir."

Reno shook his head. "It's nothing, rookie. Go get ready to disembark. I'll be with you in a minute."

"Yes, sir." I headed towards the front of the plane and got my shoes from where I'd left them by the passenger door, but I watched Reno while I put them on. He'd headed to the bathroom at the back of the jet and opened the door of the medicine cupboard inside. I leaned forward, fumbling with the knots on my shoes as I watched him. He took out a small bottle from the cupboard and shook two or three pills into his hand, then swallowed them dry, without water or anything.

I stared down at my shoes as he looked towards me, then risked another glance at him. He'd closed the door of the medicine cupboard and was busy straightening his tie. I wondered if he'd seen me watching, so I decided to chance asking him about it.

"Do you have a headache, sir?" I questioned as Reno came out of the bathroom and joined me by the door. The plane had landed at Junon International Airport and was taxiing to a stop on the runway.

"Huh?" Reno glanced at me briefly and realized I'd seen him. "Oh...yeah. Just a headache. No worries, rookie."

Reno is the kind of person who simply can't lie. I don't know why he can't, but there's something about his tone of voice that let's you know right away that he isn't telling the truth. I let it pass, though. "All right, sir. I hope it gets better."

"I'll be fine, rookie. C'mon. Our plane didn't crash, like I was expecting, so we'd better go. You ever been to Junon?"

I shook my head. I hadn't ever been, but I knew the city like the back of my hand. At least as well as I knew Midgar, where I'd grown up. All Turks study the major cities, in case they ever wind up doing missions there. It's important to know how to get from one place to another.

"Well, I'll tell you right now, it's a great, big, dirty city and I hate it."

This took me slightly by surprise. "You hate it, sir?"

Reno nodded vigorously as the door of the plane opened and we climbed out. "With a passion. It's ugly and rusty and it stinks. And something bad always happens when I go to Junon. Let's go get a cab. Make sure it doesn't run you over."

I looked around the airport curiously as I followed Reno into the terminal building. I hadn't seen much of it, but Junon didn't seem so bad. The airport looked out over the glossy black ocean to the west and I could see the sun rising back in the east. It was actually kind of pretty.

It was still early, only about nine o'clock (we'd left Midgar at around five), but the airport was bustling with people. I stayed behind Reno as best I could, but he walks fast and I got lost among the crowd once or twice. But he always showed up from my left or my right (never in front of me) and grabbed me by the arm. Eventually we reached an elevator down to the street level of Junon. "Try not to jostle the car too much. The cable's liable to snap," Reno cautioned as we stepped on.

"Why do you say that, sir? I mean...Junon can't be that bad..."

"Every Turk," Reno announced grandly, as we took the elevator down, "has an unlucky city. No matter what you do, something will always go wrong with whatever missions you do in said city. Junon is mine. I can guarantee that something is going to go wrong with this mission, rookie. It might be big, it might be little, but something'll get screwed up."

I didn't believe him. I don't believe in luck or chance. "Are you sure it might not all be in your head, sir?" I asked hesitantly.

"If it's in my head, then it's in everybody else's too. It's a statistically proven fact that some Turks do worse in some cities than in others," Reno declared as we got off the elevator and left the airport. "There's always one city in particular for everybody. Why do you think we have branch offices all over the world? They're for the Turks who have problems with Midgar."

I was sure he was pulling my leg. I hadn't heard a word of this when I was in the Academy and it didn't make any sense. "You're kidding aren't you, sir?" I said skeptically.

Reno sighed and shook his head. "No, rookie. You'll understand when you find yours. For now, try not to walk under any ladders or pick up any tail up pennies. I've got a corner on the bad luck market in Junon."

"All right, sir."

Reno flagged down a cab and stood about ten feet back from the curb as the driver pulled up. I climbed in while he went around the front and lifted the hood, checking the engine.

"What the hell's he doin' to my cab?" the cabby demanded as Reno slammed the hood shut and then dropped down out of sight, presumably examining the underside of the car.

I recognized the behavior and flushed slightly. "He's...uh...checking for explosives. My colleague is a little paranoid about Junon."

"Just a little," the cabby muttered as Reno climbed in the back with me.

"No bombs that I could find," he reported, suspiciously eyeing the driver, who looked about seventy-three years old. "Listen, pal, no funny stuff. Take us to the Hotel Crowley on..."

"I know where the Crowley Hotel is!" the cabby interrupted belligerently. Apparently him and Reno had gotten off on the wrong foot. "I lived here my whole damn life and I don't need no upstart Turk tellin' me where t'go."

Reno muttered something under his breath that I didn't quite catch and slumped down in his seat bad temperedly.

"What's the President like, sir?" I asked after a few minutes, to try and get some of the bad feeling out of the cab.

"The President's a cantankerous old asshole who doesn't listen to anybody," Reno answered truthfully. "But he's not so bad if you know how to handle him."

This knowledge upset me a bit. "Do you know how to handle him, sir?" I asked nervously.

"Oh, yeah. He likes me. He doesn't listen to me, but he likes me well enough." Reno sighed heavily and stared out the window. "I'm not exactly tickled about this assignment, rookie. It's gonna be tough."

"Well, at least we know what to expect, sir."

"Yeah. A whole lotta trouble."

I was getting a definite feeling that Reno was in a bad mood. I couldn't help thinking there was more to it than just being in Junon, but I didn't know what. As we pulled up to the hotel, his PHS rang, so I paid the cabby.

"I'm sorry about him, sir," I apologized quietly, once Reno had moved out of earshot to get better reception, and gave the cabby a tip. "He's just in a bit of a sore mood. He didn't enjoy the plane ride over."

The cabby waved away my apology. "That's all right, girly. He's better tempered then some of the Turks I've met. Have yourself a good day!"

"You too, sir!" I called after the cabby as he drove off down the street.

I went over to where Reno was talking to Veld, one hand cupped around his tiny cell phone and the other covering his ear so he could hear better. "Affirmative, Commander...Yes, sir...right away, sir...Yeah, I did, sir, same as goddamn always...two of them...sorry, sir, it's just that Junon makes me nervous. Roger, sir."

"What did the commander say?" I asked, as Reno snapped his PHS shut and returned it to his pocket.

"He wanted to know if we'd reached the hotel yet. I told him we had. He told me that the President is waiting for us in the Presidential Suite on the top floor and that we're to report to him immediately."

"Why did you apologize to him?" I questioned, as we went into the hotel and to the elevators.

Reno shifted slightly and jabbed the button for the top floor. "He told me not to be short with him," he answered uncomfortably.

"Oh." I glanced around the lobby while we waited. It was a beautiful old building, with marble floors and stone walls and polished mahogany paneled walls, but what made it even better were the guards posted everywhere. There were at least six with guns in the lobby alone. "Don't all these guards make the other guests nervous?" I asked curiously.

Reno looked at me strangely. "There aren't any other guests, rookie," he explained. "The President is here for his annual address to the city of Junon. He speaks to the citizens, inspects the troops, poses for a few photo ops...he's booked the whole damn hotel solid."

He laughed at me then, because my mouth dropped open. "Th-the entire hotel?"

"It's not that big of a hotel, really. And President Shinra doesn't like to be disturbed. Besides, other guests are a security hazard. Anyone can check into a hotel. His entourage takes up the whole top floor. They've all left early to set up for the press conference. The rest of the floors are empty, except for five guards on each. Most of the hotel staff are even taken off duty. It's a big deal."

"I'll say," I agreed as the elevator came to the main floor with a soft chime. I glanced at the panel when we got in and saw that there were only three floors in total, including the main floor. "How many guards are there here?"

Reno squinted thoughtfully, then quickly counted on his fingers. "Only about ten, right now. Most of them are setting up a perimeter at the Junon Branch Office, where the press conference is taking place. This is a really big deal, rookie. As soon as this one ends, they'll start the planning for the next one. We got here during a lull. The lull, as a matter of fact. There is a six-hour window before the press conference when the majority of the President's entourage and body-guards are occupied away from him. They've been doing this for years, and apparently it can't be avoided. This is the danger zone. Normally it's not a problem, but we've got Avalanche to worry about."

"How bad do you think it's going to be? With Avalanche, I mean."

Reno shrugged. "I really don't know. There were a lot of them in Midgar, and it's obvious that this attack is coordinated...and if they've timed it for now, then they know about the lull. Speaking reasonably, rookie, it could be pretty damn bad."

The elevator stopped at the top floor and we stepped out into a richly carpeted hallway, lit softly by golden chandeliers and sconces on the walls. "This place is nice."

"Nothing but the best for the President, rookie," Reno agreed, then winked at me. "That's why we're here."

He headed down the hallway with me on his heels, stopping in front of a door with two stiff looking guards in front of it. "Keep up the good work, gentlemen."

The guard nodded. "Yes, sir. The President is waiting for you, sir."

"Ah, good. Has he had his morning scotch yet? He usually sneaks it into his coffee."

"U-uh...I wouldn't know anything about that, sir," the guard stuttered.

Reno made a face. "Damn. I hope he has. He'll be an absolute bitch to deal with if he's not at least a little drunk."

The guard shrugged, looking embarrassed, and stepped aside to let Reno in. I waited and smiled at the guard. "Don't worry. Reno says whatever comes into his head. He makes everybody feel sort of weird."

"Yes, ma'am," the guard answered, smiling at me a little.

"Let us know if anything happens, please," I advised, then entered the President's room. I wasn't in there very long, but I remember being blown away by everything he had in it. This was a hotel room? I'd never seen such opulence in my life. My entire year's salary probably wouldn't cover just what filled the living room. The thing that caught my attention first was the massive flat screen TV on the far wall of the main room, broadcasting the latest news.

Reno was standing with the President, patiently pouring a shot of scotch into his coffee. "One shot, sir? Or two?"

"Make it a double, Turk," the President growled, still dressed in a maroon silk bathrobe and slippers. The President is a beefy man of about fifty, with reddish blonde hair and a bristly mustache. It was only about nine in the morning and he already had a cigar clamped in his jaws. He's imposing, to say the very least. But I didn't find him nearly as striking as Commander Veld.

"Turk," he addressed Reno, once he'd downed half his coffee, and jerked his head in my direction. "Who's the little blonde package over there?"

I stood at attention and saluted when Reno introduced me. "That's...uh...my subordinate, sir."

"Rosalind, Mr. President," I added. "Fifth-class."

"They gave you a subordinate, Turk?" The president chuckled gruffly. "I thought there were rules against that."

Reno flushed slightly and I could tell the remark had stung. "She's very good, sir."

"She'd have to be, if you're the one in charge of her." He squinted at me. "Come over here, blondie."

I glanced at Reno and he nodded slightly. I walked over to the President and saluted again. He looked me up and down a few times, then beckoned me closer. I stepped forward a few feet and he indicated I was to turn around. I was a little confused, but he was the President. As soon as I turned around, however, he reached out and pinched me.

I yelped (I'm ashamed to say so, but that's really the only word for it) and shied away as he laughed at me. It took all the training I had and all the years of having the President's portrait staring down on me in the Academy mess hall every morning not to kill him. "Oh, loosen up, blondie," he scoffed.

"S-sorry, sir..." was all I could manage, staring at the floor with my cheeks flaming.

"Maybe it's time for you to go get dressed for your speech, sir?" Reno suggested.

The President grunted. "Oh, if I must. Stupid dirty city. Oh well. Anything to keep the idiot masses happy." He heaved himself out of his chair and went off to the bedroom.

Reno waited until he'd closed the door, then stood in front of it like the guards outside. "I'm sorry, rookie," he said quietly. "He's not usually this bad."

"I-it's n-not your fault, s-sir."

"I know...but I should've said something. I swear, rookie, if he were anyone other than the President, I'd break his neck for you."

"If he were anyone other than the President, I'd break his neck myself!" I answered hotly, without thinking. I realized what I'd said a moment later and clapped a hand over my mouth. "I didn't mean that, sir," I whispered, shocked at myself.

Reno laughed. "Don't worry about it, rookie. It's an all too common sentiment."

"Do the public know what an...an..." I couldn't bring myself to complete the sentence. I'd already vocalized an open desire to do bodily harm to the President; I didn't need to make things worse.

"Asshole? Asswipe? Asshead?" Reno suggested, then shrugged. "I dunno. Probably."

"Why doesn't someone say something?"

"Sheer terror, rookie. What're you gonna say about the most powerful man in the world? Shinra's a nasty old man who'll crush anyone he doesn't like. Don't worry about it, rookie. It's the job. Just try and remember that you can kill him. You're not supposed to, mind, but you're perfectly capable of it."

"I'll try my best, sir," I promised dutifully, smiling a little.

Reno grinned. "I know you will, rookie. You'll do fine."

"Giving blondie a pep talk, Turk?" The President came out of his room at that moment, throwing the heavy oak door open and almost knocking Reno over. He'd dressed himself in a crisp maroon suit with a bright yellow tie and shiny black shoes. It was one of those moments that makes me feel glad I only wear black and don't have to choose my wardrobe.

"In a manner of speaking, sir," I answered crisply, looking straight at the President. I think I understood what Reno had said when he looked at me. He knew when he met my eyes that I could kill him and it was only who he was that prevented me.

It's a very wonderful thing to make the most powerful man in the world cringe, even if it's just a little.

"Veld sent you, did he?" the President growled, looking away from me. "Good thinking on his part."

"We'll be looking out for you from here, sir," Reno informed the President smoothly, going over to the closet by the door and getting the President's jacket. As he passed, he gave me a covert thumbs up and winked.

"Hmph," the President grunted, puffing away at his cigar.

I went over to the doorway to inform the guards we would be leaving soon, when the door flew open. I jumped back and drew one of my guns as Reno shoved the President into the closet and took out his nightstick.

The guards were both lying outside on the ground, dead or dying. In the doorway stood what I could only assume was an Avalanche member, in a bright red jumpsuit with goggles over his eyes. "Where is the President?" he demanded.

Reacting before I thought, I shot him once in the chest. He flinched and grunted, but I guess he must have been wearing a bulletproof vest because it didn't kill him. Then he rushed at me and aimed a punch at my head.

I ducked and felt the rush of air as he missed, rolling away to the side before he could recover. I fired at his legs (because no one makes bulletproof pants) and blew out his knee. He collapsed to the ground and I shot him again in the back of the neck.

"Nice going, rookie," Reno approved, still holding the closet door closed. "Sorry, I couldn't have been of more help, but..."

The President heaved the closet door open with a roar and started yelling at Reno. "What the hell was that, Turk? No one lays hands on my person, least of all to stuff me in some damned closet! I might've suffocated, d'you realize that?"

"Sir!" I interrupted, pointing at the Avalanche assassin.

"Don't you interrupt me..." the President began, whirling on me, but stopping dead when he saw the Avalanche operative. "Who's that?"

Reno crouched down and turned the man's body over. "Avalanche, sir. An assassin."

"One of the renegades from Midgar? How dare they..."

The TV on the wall suddenly flickered and the channel changed. Commander Veld appeared on the screen. "Mr. President, sir! Are you all right?"

"Oh, it's you, Veld." The President went over to the TV screen and folded his arms across his chest. "I'm just fine."

Veld cleared his throat. "Sir, in the interests of security, I really must suggest that you cancel your tour of Junon and return to Midgar where it's safe. If you proceed, you only make yourself an easier target."

The President's face turned purple and his mustache quivered. "No! We will proceed as planned! We must not let the people think we are afraid of a bunch of...of sniveling miscreants!"

Veld sighed. "I was afraid you would say that, Mr. President. Tseng, patch through the security camera footage throughout the hotel."

I heard the rapid clatter of typing and then the image on the screen changed. I felt my stomach twist as I saw Avalanche members stalking through the hotel. They were moving through the corridors, taking down the guards easily.

"Shit..." Reno muttered. "What the hell is this?"

Veld came back on the screen. "As you can see, several of their number have already infiltrated the building. This is the reality of the situation. Do you understand, Mr. President?"

The President ground his cigar between his teeth. "I 'understand' that you aren't doing your job, Veld. Fix it!"

"I'll do my best, sir. Within minutes I can have a helicopter from the Junon airport flying out to transport you back to Midgar..."

"No!" the President shouted, stomping his foot like a child. "We will proceed as planned!"

"Very well, sir. I'll send additional reinforcements from the Junon military."

The President grunted. "Not too many. You'll ruin the parade."

I heard a whirring and a camera above the TV swiveled to face me. "Rosalind, I want you to sweep the hotel and clear out whatever Avalanche members you can find. By our count, there are only five in the building."

"Yes, sir," I agreed, saluting.

The camera swiveled again. "Reno, you stay here and guard the President."

"Of course, sir," Reno agreed. "Rosalind won't let anyone past."

"I trust she won't. Good luck, agents." The TV screen flicked off and I turned to leave.

"Be quick about it, blondie," the President called. "I'm already late. I have a lot of things to do today, you know."

I nodded briefly. "Yes, sir. Be careful, sir."

Leaving the President's room, I headed right. At the end of a long corridor were two rooms. I drew my gun and entered the one on the left. I surprised an Avalanche member, who was rummaging through one of the drawers.

"A Turk!" he exclaimed, fumbling with his weapon. "Where's the President? If you tell me, I'll spare your life!"

I almost laughed. "Don't even try that with me," I answered coldly, and shot him in the stomach as he pointed his own gun at me.

I turned around and sure enough the commotion had drawn another man. A shot to the throat took him down too, and I stepped over his body and glanced down the corridor. It was clear, and I couldn't imagine that Avalanche would've placed all of their operatives on one floor, so I headed down.

I met two of them coming up the stairs, both carrying long blades. "Get her! She'll know where the President is!" the first one yelled, charging me. I took aim and fired at him, sending him tumbling back down the stairs into his partner. When both of them had crashed to the landing at the bottom, I fired once more for good measure, and reloaded.

"Four down, one to go," I said out loud, quite pleased with myself. But the last one is always the hardest. I headed down the stairs and down the next hallway, peering in rooms as I went. All of them were empty and that did nothing but add to my unease.

I heard the stairs at the other end of the hallway creak. I whirled around to see one of the Avalanche assassins ascending to the top floor, where the President was. I swore and took off down the hallway. "Stop!" I yelled, in an attempt to distract him.

It worked, because he spun around and fired at me. He had terrible aim, though, and every shot he took went wide. I lifted my gun and fired once, hitting him between the eyes before he got to the stairs. I kept running down the hallway and sidestepped his body, taking the stairs to the top two at a time. I reached the top just in time to see the President vanishing into an elevator. "Sir!" I yelled after him, running down the hallway and crashing headlong into Reno, who'd just run out of the President's room.

"Rookie!" He was on his feet before I was and pulled me up. "You okay, rookie?"

"I'm all right, sir. Where'd the President go?" I asked.

Reno paled slightly and looked around. "H-he's not out here? That bastard. He sent me back in to get his wallet from the bedroom. I told him to wait for me." Reno tugged at his ponytail agitatedly. "I'm gonna get in so much shit for this..."

"He took the elevator, sir. The hotel is clear, so he should be all right," I offered reassuringly.

"Yeah, yeah...c'mon, we gotta take the stairs."

Reno took off at a sprint. I've mentioned before how fast he runs and once again I was hard pressed to keep up with him. I had to slow down slightly on the stairs, to make sure I didn't trip and fall, but Reno was already a full flight ahead of me and taking full advantage of gravity in his descent. I was almost sure he was going to fall, but he never missed a step. I didn't catch up with him until he stopped in front of the elevators in the lobby, one hand against the wall to steady himself and breathing hard.

"I hate stairs, rookie," he informed me. "Too many steps."

I nodded, winded, and glanced up at the lights above the elevator, indicating the President's progress downward. "He's still only on the second floor, sir."

Reno stood up straight and pushed the pair of sunglasses he wears perched on top of his head back a little bit. "Oh, good. Well, straighten up, rookie; try not to look like you just fell down a flight of stairs."

I obeyed and tugged on the sleeves of my suit to straighten them a little. "This hasn't been too bad so far, sir," I offered optimistically.

Reno snorted indignantly. "Just you wait, rookie. We've barely been here an hour."

"Whatever you say, sir," I sighed as the elevator door opened. The President stepped out and brushed by the both of us.

"Turk, Blondie, let's go. I'm sick of waiting," President Shinra said crisply, swinging a cane he'd acquired somewhere.

"Yes, sir," Reno answered obediently.

I ran ahead to secure the entrance to the hotel, holding the door for the President. I stepped out behind him and Reno brought up the rear. I blinked in the light of the sun when we got outside and stared around the street. A contingent of four guards were standing near the hotel entrance, but other than that, the streets were deserted. "Where is everyone?"

"Waiting for me at the stadium," the President said gruffly, motioning to the guards. "The conference is being broadcast from the Junon Branch office. I trust you gentlemen will help get me there safely."

"Yes, sir!" the guards all answered simultaneously, throwing snappy salutes and clicking their heels.

Reno made a face behind the President's back and mimicked the saluting guards. I stifled a laugh and glanced at the contingent. They all looked good, decked out in their military finest, but something seemed off.

A horrified feeling came over me when I realized that these were the President's personal guard. They were trained, certainly, but mostly for show. I had been expecting Junon's military personnel. I glanced at Reno and he mouthed the words "I told you so" at me.

"Very well! Let's move out! Blondie, you take the lead. Turk, bring up the rear."

Reluctantly, feeling very exposed with a large, loud man who might as well have painted a target on his back, a contingent of toy soldiers, and Reno (who was convinced we were all going to be the victims of his terrible luck) at my back, I led the way. I kept the President close to me. It slowed our progress slightly, but I wasn't about to take any chances.

The first attack came about ten minutes into the journey, when a movement in the window of a building we were passing caught my eye.

"Remember this, Mr. President!" a voice called mockingly and I barely had time to shove the President forward to the ground and throw myself down as a small bomb plummeted earthward and blew up a sizeable portion of the street behind us. I sat up and opened fire on the window, but the man was gone.

I coughed as the dust started to settle and wiped the dirt from my eyes. "Mr. President, sir? Are you all right?" I called, crawling forward a bit.

"Y-yes...I'm f-fine, agent. But...the road..." President Shinra stammered.

I grimaced. The most powerful man in the world, upset by a little bomb. "We'll be all right, sir." Getting up, I looked down at the gap. The blast had blown out the surface road and left a huge gaping crater that exposed the tunnels below, at least four meters across. "Reno, sir?" I called hesitantly across the breach.

"Hey, rookie! You all right?" Reno called back, waving and coughing as the dust cleared.

"I'm fine, sir. So is the President," I answered, relieved. Reno had been lagging at the back of our little party, menacing the two guards in front of him about not going fast enough. I had worried he might've been caught in the explosion, but he was fine. I glanced over my shoulder. "I have two of the guards over here, sir."

"I think I've got the same...hey, idiots! Sound off!"

I heard a sullen one and two from the other side of the gap. "How are you going to get around, sir?" I called.

Reno didn't answer immediately. "I think the bomber might've been Shears, rookie. I'm going after him. You stay with the President."

I almost asked him if that was really such a good idea, but I stopped myself. "Understood, sir."

"You'll be fine, rookie."

I forced a smile. "Good luck, sir."

Reno grimaced and waved over his shoulder at his two guards. "Don't try to be funny, rookie. I won't be long."

I watched him vanish into the alley next to the building Shears had attacked from and sighed. "All right, sir," I said briskly, addressing the President. "We'd best move on." I turned to the two guards. "Flank the President. I'll scout ahead."

Once again, we moved on. The streets were eerily silent, absolutely emptied of people. I found out later that pretty much the entire city attends the annual public address, which is broadcasted live to the stadium at the heart of the city. I didn't know that then, however, and it made me anxious.

The next attack came from two masked Avalanche members, armed with knives. "There he is! Death to Shinra!" they shouted, rushing us.

"Do something!" the President shouted, scrambling back into a recessed doorway to try and get cover.

I took down one with a shot to the head, and the other fell in a burst of machine gun fire from one of the guards. I ushered the President back to a defensible position when he started to come out, then waited a few minutes to see if the gunfire had drawn any others. The streets remained empty and silent, however, so I slid my handgun back into its holster and gestured to the President. "All right, sir."

The President appeared to be trying to preserve some dignity, so he growled at me. "Next time, blondie, take them down faster!"

I kept my features expressionless. "Yes, sir," I answered shortly. "Let's move on."

We continued. My knowledge of Junon's streets came in handy as we navigated through the maze of alleys and side streets that would get us to the Junon branch office the quickest.

The second ground attack came from behind. The two assassins burst out of a building behind us, waving blades and shouting more Avalanche slogans.

"Hold them!" I barked at the guards, planting my hands on the President's shoulders and propelling him over to an alcove in front of one of the buildings. "Stay there," I said sternly, before running over to take charge of the fight.

The guards were firing ineffectually with their handguns (I would almost swear they'd never been trained), not hitting anything, but forcing the Avalanche members to take cover. "Quit wasting ammo!" I snapped, irritated at the waste. I'm sorry, but the firing of useless rounds is one of my pet peeves. If you're going to shoot, shoot to hit. Which is exactly what I did, taking each assassin out with a single shot.

"There he is! Get him!"

"Death to Shinra!"

More shouts echoed from down the street and I whirled around to see to men running at the President, who, naturally, had strayed out from the safe place I'd stuck him, from the opposite direction.

"Over here! They're over here!" the President screamed, his voice taking on a shockingly high-pitched note. Almost amusing, coming from the most powerful man in the world.

Cursing again, I sprinted over to the President and stood in front of him, opening fire on the two Avalanche members. They were down immediately, but apparently that wasn't fast enough for the President.

"You blundering idiot!" he roared at me, once the threat was eliminated. "Have you any idea how close I came to being killed? Do your job right, Turk, or you'll find yourself without it! So far, the only thing you've got going for you is a tight little ass. Now, let's move on! We've lost precious time. Guards, let's go."

I stood there for a moment, kind of shocked. Then something came over me and I lost a grip on my objectivity. "Now, wait one minute!" I shouted, starting to get angry. "There is only one reason you aren't dead right now, sir, and that reason is me. As long as you're still living, I am doing my job right. Do you want to try shooting down the terrorists, sir? Or what about managing a pair of incompetent stage guards who wouldn't know the tactical way to deal with this situation if it bit them on the ass? Or how about dealing with the pompous, arrogant, lecherous old coward who can't seem to understand that he's in the middle of a war zone? Now, unless you want me to decide I'm getting sick of this abuse and that desertion is the lesser of two evils, I suggest you lay off the insults! Sorry, sir!" I finished shortly, fuming on the outside, but having a small nervous breakdown internally. I'd just blown up at the company President. I was going to be fired for sure.

The President stared at me, slack-jawed, for a few moments, before storming off down the street, guards trotting along behind him.

I pressed my hands against my cheeks, which had flamed hot and red while I was yelling, and took a deep breath. I was sure I would be fired for it, but it had certainly felt good.

The sharp report of a gunshot reasserted the current situation and I looked up to see one of the guards collapse to the street. "Sniper!" I yelled, sprinting to catch up to the President and joining him inside the building where he had taken cover with the remaining guard.

"Damn it!" the President swore, covering his head with his hands. "You! Take care of that worthless insect! I won't feel safe until he's dead! We'll deal with your insubordination later."

I gritted my teeth. "Yes, sir. Be careful, sir." I ducked out of the building and pressed my body against the wall. The silence from above told me that the sniper hadn't seen me. I crept along the side of the building and into a narrow alleyway beside it. I spotted a fire escape ladder and scaled it quickly and silently. Once at the top I climbed over the low wall around the edge of the roof and dropped into a crouch. I spotted the sniper immediately, on the roof of the next building over, lying on his stomach with a rifle in hand. I snorted. He'd missed his first shot, so he couldn't be all that good.

Getting down on my stomach, I crept over to the side of the roof, braced myself, then stood up and jumped the gap between the buildings. The sniper saw me before I had my weapon drawn, but it's easier to aim a handgun than it is to aim a long rifle, so I made short work of him.

Then I heard a yell from the President below. "No! Get away from me!"

I swore and ran to the edge of the roof, looking down to see four Avalanche terrorists with more swords menacing the President's guard. I took aim and shot one in the head. The President had taken off running, leaving his guard to follow the best he could. The terrorists took off after them and I cursed again.

Glancing out over the expanse of flat roofs before me, I took off at a flat out run, leaping the gaps without even thinking and easily getting ahead of the President, running along the road. I skidded to a halt on one roof and scrambled down the fire escape, darting out and joining President Shinra.

"The guard's been killed," he panted as I ushered him over to the alley I'd come from.

I nodded. "Wait here, sir. I'll take care of them at once." I stepped out of the alley, gun drawn, and let the Avalanche terrorists get close enough for clear shots. I fired three times, and each of them dropped to the ground, dead.

A few minutes later, when I was sure the street was clear, I beckoned to the President. "All clear, sir."

"Thank you, agent. Let's move on."

I nodded warily. I was surprised that he'd thanked me. I was even more surprised that he hadn't called me "blondie" Glancing up at a street sign, I got my bearings. "We're almost there, sir. The Branch Office isn't more than a block away," I reported.

The President nodded a little wearily. For the first time, I felt a twinge of pity for the old man. He was a bad-tempered, arrogant lech, but he was also getting on in years. "It's not much farther at all. I'm very excited to hear your speech, sir."

"Don't humor me, blondie," the President snarled. "And don't pity me either."

I fell silent. An order's an order. We walked the rest of the way up the street in silence. I squinted ahead to the Junon office and saw guards stationed outside. Relieved, I ushered the President along.

"Hey, you!" I called to the guards. "Tell the people inside that the President is here!"

We continued up to the building as one of the guards scurried inside. The President pushed past me and ascended the stairs, two of the guards moving quickly to flank him. "They know I'm coming, blondie," he said huffily. "I won't require your services any further."

I almost replied, but my PHS rang and interrupted me. "Hello?"

It was Veld. "Have you reached the branch office, Rosalind?"

"Yes, sir, I have," I answered formally, still a little nervous about talking to the commander.

"Very good. But don't drop your guard. Is Reno with you?"

"Ah...no, sir. He went off after one of the Avalanche assassins. He believed it to be one of the ringleaders. Shears."

"Mmm. I knew he would, if he got the chance. Reno has never been one to let a thrashing lie quietly. It concerns me that he isn't back yet, though. I'll attempt to get in touch with him. For now, I leave you to the task of guarding the President."

I hesitated. The President had told me he wouldn't need me any more. "Uh...sir, he kind of dismissed me."

Veld chuckled. "That is the one order from the President that you must never take. Only I have the authority to remove you from an assignment. The President knows this; it's his rule. He just ignores it and tries to dismiss you anyway."

"So...what do I do, sir?"

"Scout the perimeter. Stay close, but don't crowd him. He's feeling babied and he doesn't like it."

"Oh. All right, sir," I answered, then paused. "Will...will this show up on my record, sir?"

Veld laughed again. "No. Don't worry about it, Rosalind. President Shinra has fired me on six separate occasions. After the first three, I stopped packing up my office because he always came crawling back. He needs us, agent, and he knows it."

That made me feel better. "Thank you, sir. I'll do my best." I snapped my PHS shut and strode into the office building purposefully. The President was waiting in the lobby, examining a painting of himself high on the far wall. I came in and sat down on a couch as far opposite him as I could get. I found it odd that no one had come to get him yet, but I shrugged the feeling off.

Two guards arrived in the room. "This way, sir," one of them asked gruffly.

"Hmm," The President acknowledged distractedly, following the guards.

I got up and followed after him, walking quickly to keep up with the guards, who were hustling the President along, weapons in hand. I found this odd, but I guess they'd been alerted to the Avalanche threat and weren't about to take any chances.

One of the guards held open the door to the conference room and ushered the President inside, while the other stood outside and turned to face me. "Your...uh...your boss wants you to go keep watch outside."

I blinked. "O-oh...all right. I understand."

I turned to leave and went slowly back down the corridor. Why hadn't Commander Veld called to tell me this? I sighed to myself. Perhaps the President had called him and told him about my insubordination. So I'd gained a rank in a day, but I was probably going to drop right back to sixth class again.

Angry with myself, I kicked at the edge of the carpet and heard a loud thunking noise. But it hadn't come from at my feet; it had come from behind the front desk. Curious, I drew my weapon and peered around. Two men were lying behind the desk, bound and gagged, and stripped to their undergarments.

I knelt down next to the first man and tugged the gag out of his mouth. "Who did this to you?" I demanded.

"A-Avalanche..." the guard stammered. "The President..."

"Oh, no..." I jumped up and ran down the hallway to the Press room.

I touched the handle, softly, the way I'd been trained, to see if it was locked and not alert anyone inside. It was locked, as I expected, so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and focused on my target like my instructor taught me. Even a solid mahogany door goes down pretty fast with a kick to its sweet spot from a steel-toed combat boot.

"Mr. President!" I yelled as I burst into the room, hoping to distract whoever was inside and praying that the president was still alive.

Three Avalanche members, all in the same red jumpsuits as the first assassin, all carrying knives. They had backed the President into a corner and I knew I had to get them away from him before I could shoot.

"Get them!" President Shinra ordered, looking (I thought) relieved to see me.

"Back off, Turk..." one of the assassins threatened, coming forward, his knife weaving back and forth in front of him. It was all the chance I needed. I fired once and hit him in the head. The other two flinched slightly, but held their ground.

I circled around, putting myself between the assassins and the President. It's interesting how two different people will react in the same situation. I faced two men, both of the same organization, both with the same motives, both with knives and facing me, a trained bodyguard. So what do they do? One jumps me, one runs.

Naturally, I took down the one that jumped me. I turned to get the other, took up my stance, lifted my gun to take aim, and...it jammed. I froze up. I'd never had a weapon jam on me before. I knew it could happen, of course, and I took ever step necessary to prevent it, but it still jammed.

The last assassin turned around, likely wondering why I hadn't shot him. I didn't understand what made him turn around then; he'd gotten all the way to the doorway and was halfway out, when something made him stop. He knew my gun had jammed when he saw me, and he smiled, slow and cruel.

There was a sudden crackling noise and his face suddenly contorted in pain and surprise. He stood for a few milliseconds, swaying, then toppled forward to the ground, revealing Reno in the doorway, nightstick in hand.

"Hello, rookie. Sorry I'm late." The way he spoke, he might've been referring to a dentist appointment. "Got held up in the hallways, though. Man, what has gotten into these Junon guards? Tried to goddamn kill me."

He pulled off an innocent expression so well I wasn't entirely sure he was kidding. I quickly remedied the jam in my gun, expelling the shell casing that had caused it to malfunction. "I'm very thankful you got here when you did, sir. I don't think I could take a man with a knife."

"Well, it's possible, but certainly not something pleasant. And I have the scars to prove it," Reno remarked wryly, glancing over at the President, who was shuffling through his notes on a podium at the other end of the conference room. "Mr. President, sir! Are you all right?" he called.

"Shut up, Turk! You've made me lose my place," the President growled irritably, shuffling his cue cards again. "Take blondie and go find the camera crew."

"The camera crew?" Reno glanced around the room, looking surprised. "The camera crew's not here!"

"Where do you think they are, sir? Avalanche didn't...they wouldn't have..." I trailed off. I couldn't imagine that the terrorists would have slaughtered an innocent film crew, but then, they had intended to destroy an entire sector. I walked over to the doorway, where the still-living assassin was lying; covertly reaching for the knife he'd carried. I kicked it away from him and crouched down. "Where is the film crew?"

He glared at me and didn't say anything. I reached for my handgun, holstered at my side and drummed my fingertips against it. "I'll ask you again, where's the film crew?" I demanded.

"Rookie?" Reno interrupted smoothly, coming over and tapping my shoulder. He'd been watching appraisingly for a few moments, but came over to politely intercede. "Much as I would love to watch you cut your teeth on working this guy over...and believe me, I would love it...in the interests of time, though, perhaps I'd better do it."

"Of course, sir." I stepped aside. I wasn't really sure what I'd been planning to do anyway.

Reno took my place next to the assassin. "I'm legally required to ask you the question once and give you an opportunity to answer before I do anything," he informed him cordially. "So where's the film crew?"

"I'll never tell you, Shinra," the terrorist hissed, then spat at Reno, who didn't take offense at the glob of saliva that landed on his sleeve. He laughed actually.

"All right, Avalanche. Can't say I didn't give you your fair chance." Reno's hand shot out and grabbed the assassin's wrist. He grasped the man's thumb firmly and gave it a sharp tug.

It happened so quickly I almost didn't realize why the man was rolling around on the ground, screaming, seconds later. "I won't tell! I won't tell!" he shrieked, writhing.

Reno watched all this calmly, not reacting. "Listen. You have nine more fingers, ten more toes, and after that...well, I'm a resourceful and creative person. Why don't you just make this easy on yourself? This is a big building. I can send my subordinate to find the film crew, while I stay here and try and get the information out of you. Which is going to take longer? Plus, when the film crew gets here, we can have them record a few minutes of this. We'll send a copy to your family."

I winced. I knew about Shinra's methods of extracting information from prisoners, of course, but I thought it was mostly psychological with a few prohibition-inhibiting drugs thrown in. Hearing Reno talking casually about torture like this was more than a little upsetting.

"The kitchen," the assassin muttered. "They're in the kitchen."

"Thank you," Reno acknowledged, getting up and dusting the knees of his pants off. "Stay here, rookie. I'll be back soon."

"Be careful, sir!" I called as he left. I looked around the room. Aside from the three assassins lying on the floor, dead or rolling around in pain, it didn't seem too bad. I glanced over at the President, who was standing at the podium, running through his speech and shuffling his cue cards.

I wandered over to a couch at the side of the room and sat down. It had been a rather harrowing morning, and I found myself considering just how many mistakes I'd made. There was a long list and I sighed to myself. I was sure I was going to be fired, or at least suspended. I wouldn't be surprised if they bumped me back down to sixth class. I hadn't even officially reached fifth, yet, and already I was being demoted. I sighed and buried my face in my hands.

I heard a thundering noise in the hallway and looked up, surprised, as about a dozen people came streaming into the room, shouting various things about hair and makeup and camera angles and such. In under two minutes, the room was full of people doing whatever it took to set up for the President's speech. In the middle of the chaos, Reno appeared and dropped down on the couch beside me, draping his arms over the back. "Crazy people. Nearly trampled me."

"Are you all right, sir?"

Reno shrugged indifferently. "Oh, sure. I'm fine. Just another day on the job, y'know? How about you?"

"Oh, I'm...I'm all right, sir."

"Good, good..." Reno fell silent and watched the film crew for a few minutes. "Something bugging you, rookie?" he questioned.

I didn't answer immediately; a little surprised that he'd picked up on my feelings. "W-well..."

 "Spit it out, rookie. What's the matter?" he pressed.

"Well, it's...sir; you're my superior, right?" I asked hesitantly.

Reno rolled his eyes. "Aww, rookie, not this again..."

"No, no," I said hastily. "It's not that...I just...can I tell you something, sir? Professionally?"

"Professionally?" Reno echoed, arching an eyebrow. "Well...uh...sure, I guess. I dunno if I'll be able to help, but I'll give it my best shot. What's up?"

I took a deep breath. "I...I'd like to report a Class C offense, sir."

"Class...C. Hmm. Class C." Reno rubbed the back of his neck a bit sheepishly. "Uh...what in the hell is a Class C offense, rookie? What'd I do?"

"Oh, not you, sir! I'm talking about me," I answered, embarrassed.

Reno stared at me. "You're reporting yourself?" he asked skeptically.

I nodded emphatically. "Yes, sir."

"On what grounds? What's a Class C offense?"

"Well...Class C offenses are offenses to senior officials within the company," I answered slowly. "Insubordination and things like that. I...oh, sir, I've done something really awful," I said mournfully.

"Hey, rookie, it can't be so bad...what'd you do?"

"I might've..." I closed my eyes tightly. "I might've yelled at the President," I whispered, covering my face with my hands.

Reno didn't answer for a long while. I bit my lip hard, figuring it must be pretty bad if I'd rendered Reno speechless. "I'm in big trouble, aren't I, sir?" I asked tearfully. "I'll be demoted for sure. Maybe even suspended or...or fired."

Reno blinked then looked at me strangely, like he'd been expecting me to say something more. "Oh, that's it? You yelled at the President? Well, I'm sure you had good reason. Adrenaline gets going; a lot of Turks find themselves shouting at each other during missions. No big deal."

"Sir, you don't understand!" I whispered, looking over at the President, who was having his hair combed by some makeup people. "I shouted at him. I said some very bad things."

"Yeah? Like what?"

I flushed, ashamed of myself. "I called him...a pompous, arrogant, lecherous old coward," I said quietly, glancing at the President again, afraid he'd heard.

Reno laughed and followed my gaze. "He is, isn't he? Sounds pretty accurate to me, rookie."

"Sir, this isn't funny!" I objected angrily. "It's one thing to say it behind his back, but it's another entirely to say it to his face! I'll be demoted!"

"Oh, rookie...no, you won't," Reno assured me, still laughing. "You're a Turk. This is a stressful job. People expect you to blow a fuse once in a while. You'd probably have to go in for a psyche analysis if you didn't."

"But at the President! Sir, why won't you listen?"

Reno grinned at me. "You know, rookie, I think you have a bit of a temper."

"I try not to, sir. But he was just being so difficult and mean to me..." I explained half-heartedly.

"The President is a very difficult person to work with," Reno agreed. "But don't worry about it. Yeah, you're probably one of the small group of people who've ever blown up at him," he saw my expression change to one of sheer despair and held up a hand, "but he understands that you were in a stressful situation and that you probably didn't mean what you said."

"I did mean it, sir."

Reno waved this away. "So what? He doesn't care, rookie. He's got bigger worries than some piddly little insults a fifth class recruit threw at him in the heat of the moment. Christ, rookie, you didn't even swear at him!"

"Are...are you sure, sir? I don't think he likes me."

"I'm positive, rookie. If nothing else, he likes me, so he won't give you any trouble as a favor to yours truly."

I was slightly confused by this as well. "How do you know he likes you, sir? He's very mean to you, too."

"I know he likes me because everybody likes me. Except Shears...who I didn't manage to catch up to, by the way. I also know because he's less mean to me than he is to others."

"But what he says does offend you, doesn't it, sir?" I asked, remembering the stinging remarks the President had made back at the hotel.

Reno looked at me for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, well, I'm touchy about some things, even if I know he doesn't mean what he says. Don't worry about it, rookie. You're all right."

"Should I file a report anyway, sir?"

"Good lord, rookie. Just let it lie. I'm not even sure you're allowed to report yourself. It's fine."

I was a little surprised by this. "W-well...could you report me, sir? I have committed an offense, and I should pay for it."

Reno stared at me again. I don't think he quite believed what he was hearing. "You're serious, aren't you? Holy shit. Are you into sadomasochism, rookie?" he asked suspiciously.

"Sir! No!" I cried, blushing bright red.

"Oh. It's just you seem like a bit of a glutton for punishment. Listen to me, rookie, I know about these things. The company doesn't care. You know where half those reports go? Into the fireplace in Shinra's office. Saves us on heating the place."

"My father was in the Shinran military and he's always taught me that regulations are the most important thing in the world," I answered a bit stiffly.

"Maybe in the military they are. Not in the Turks. We're not soldiers. We do the things that they can't get soldiers to do, because they're too damn highly trained. Maybe the military would've hung you from the highest gallows they could find, but the Turks won't. We get away with just about everything, rookie."

"Why would they make the rules if they don't enforce them?"

Reno shrugged. "Legal reasons? I think they make the rules so we can break them. Turks are very...special kinds of people. We don't feel right unless we're breaking rules."

I felt just the tiniest bit better. Maybe there was some hope after all. "Are you sure, sir?"

"Of course, rookie. Lemme tell you something. You think you have a temper? I have a temper. When I was just a new recruit, I punched Commander Veld in the face."

I didn't believe that. "No, you didn't."

Reno laughed. "Yeah, rookie, I did. Right in the nose. He had two great big black eyes for the longest time. I don't even remember what I was mad at him about, but we yelled at each other for about ten minutes, before I finally hauled off and hit him. To be fair, I don't think he was exactly expecting it."

"Were you demoted, sir?" I asked, still only half-believing Reno. "What did the Commander do?"

"He broke my jaw. Single blow. Textbook uppercut. Jesus, did it ever hurt. Compound mandibular fracture. I had my jaw wired shut for ages. It's a very humbling thing for someone like me not to be able to say a word for an entire six weeks. I probably came out a better person for it."

"What else did he do?"

Reno shrugged. "He came to see me in the hospital afterward and told me if I ever felt like hitting him again I should let him know beforehand, because he very probably could've killed me, just by reacting. He wasn't mad or anything. Very friendly, actually. Commander Veld likes me."

"That's it? You weren't demoted or anything? No punishment?" I asked incredulously.

"Rookie, don't you think spending a month in a hospital with a broken jaw is punishment?" Reno questioned, sounding just a disbelieving of me as I was of him. "Man...no offense, but I'm glad you aren't my superior. Dominatrix. Sheesh. A hopsital room is like a goddamn jail cell. I didn't need to be in there, in my opinion, but Commander Veld arranged that I stay longer. It was actually when they found out I..."

He didn't finish, so I never learned exactly what it was that "they" found out (well, not until later), because at that moment, the room was plunged into absolute darkness. I screamed, but I wasn't the only one, so I don't think Reno noticed. Most of the film crew started yelling and panicking.

I felt Reno grab my arm and bring his face close to mine in the darkness, so I could hear him over the noise. "Rookie, go get close to the President. I think my bad luck is starting to kick in."

"Right, sir." I got up. My eyes were starting to adjust and I could see the President standing by his podium, doing the smart thing for once and not moving. I pushed through the crowd of people to him, and lightly touched his arm.

"Who's there?" the President demanded, clutching my wrist blindly.

"Me, sir. Rosalind. Are you all right, sir?"

"What happened to the lights, blondie?"

I didn't get a chance to answer as a TV screen on the far wall flickered on, bathing the room in a pale bluish light. Commander Veld's face appeared on the TV screen, looking grim and menacing in the darkness. "Agents! Are you there?" he called.

I suppose the camera mounted above the television screen on the far wall couldn't see us in the darkness. "I'm here, sir!" I answered.

There was a crashing noise and a muttered curse as Reno tripped over something outside the circle of light cast by the TV. Most of the camera crew had fled through the door as soon as there was enough light to see by. "Yeah, me too, Commander."

"The Mako generators have malfunctioned. Is the President safe?"

Reno stepped out of the shadows and joined the President and I at the podium, rubbing his shin. "Everything's all right on this end, sir."

"Good. Reno, stay with the President. This is likely Avalanche's work. Rosalind, I need you to go repair the problem with the generator. The security cameras are running on auxiliary power, the same as this TV, so I'll be able to guide you through the corridors. Call me when you're ready to go."

The TV flicked off and the room was plunged into darkness again. I heard Reno stumbling around in the dark, then I heard him trip over one of the film lights and a whole lot of cursing.

"Are you all right, sir?" I called hesitantly.

There was some sparking and a few intermittent bursts of light from where Reno was crouched, over by the wall. Weak light suddenly illuminated the room again, from one of the set lights the film crew had been using. I saw Reno had somehow wired his nightstick to the plug in for the light and was using it for power. "I'm good, rookie. Just getting us some light. Last time I tried that, I just about electrocuted myself."

"You should be careful, sir."

Reno waved this warning away and came over to the President and I. "Well, rookie, you heard the boss man. I suggest you get going." He reached into his jacket and brought out a pair of earphones and a microphone clip, handing them to me.

"Will you be in contact with me too, sir?"

"Nah, rookie. Anything I said would just slow you down. I'll call you if I need you. Now, those hallways are dark, so I'm gonna give you my sunglasses, okay?"

"Uh...?" I didn't get a chance to press for an explanation as Reno perched the pair of sunglasses on my nose and squeezed a button on one of the arms. The room was suddenly clear, despite the dimness, in an emerald colored glow. Night vision.

"How's that, rookie? This is why I only ever wear my sunglasses at night. Actually, the term "sunglasses" is a bit of a misnomer, now isn't it? If I wore them in sunlight they'd blind me."

"Thank you, sir. I won't be long," I promised, knowing I was leaving Reno alone, in the half-darkness, with a jittery coward and no weapon. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my lightning materia. "Here, sir."

Reno accepted it and grinned. "Thanks, rookie. My favorite piece, how thoughtful. You better get going, though."

"Yes, sir. Be careful, sir."

"No worries, rookie. You watch yourself, all right?"

I nodded and smiled a little as I left the room. "Yes, sir." I found myself wishing that I hadn't broken the door down as I left the room. Locking it would've afforded at least a small measure of protection. But, as there was nothing to be done, I took out my cell phone and glanced around the bright green hallway.  Hitting Commander Veld's number on the speed dial, I waited patiently for him to answer.

"Rosalind?"

"Yes, sir," I answered immediately, removing my gun from its holster. For my own comfort, I attached a silencer. I didn't need to be alerting anyone I might run across in the hallways to my presence.

"I can see you on the security cameras. We have infrared. There are Avalanche operatives in the hallways, but it isn't far to go. It is possible to avoid them, but for safety's sake, they're probably best taken down."

I nodded to the nearest security camera. "Understood, sir. Where do I go first?"

"Straight down this hallway. The Avalanche operatives are moving around with flashlights, so you should see them long before they see you."

I almost laughed. Flashlights? As good as a big red target. "Right, sir." I headed down the hallway, my footfalls muffled by the thick carpet. Every corner and obstacle was illuminated clear as day. I had my gun in hand and the quiet murmur of the command center in my ear. The whole feeling was tense, but very exhilarating.

"All right, Rosalind. We're coming up to a junction of two hallways. I want you to turn right and stop, because there's an Avalanche member on patrol. Take him down as soon as he's close enough for a clear shot, then move on."

"Yes, sir," I whispered, creeping forward and peering around the corner. I spotted the Avalanche guard immediately, waited for him to get completely in my sights, then took him down with a single shot to the head. He fell as quietly as a body can fall, hitting the ground with a muffled thud. I smiled to myself as I continued slowly down the hallway. Textbook.

"Very good, Rosalind," Veld whispered in my ear. "You're an excellent markswoman."

I looked up and smiled at the camera, rather than risk an audible answer as I came to the next corner.

"Keep going, the corridor is clear. The generator room is just at the end of the hallway. The malfunction shouldn't be too serious, don't worry."

"Sir...if I may, sir...there don't seem to be many Avalanche operatives around. Are you sure it was their work? The one I ran into could've been missed when we first reached the hotel."

Veld paused. "True, Rosalind, but we need to treat this as though it's an Avalanche diversion."

"Of course, sir." I kept my weapon out as I stalked down the hallway to the generator room. "May...may I ask a question, sir? Off the subject at hand?"

"Certainly, Rosalind. What's on your mind?" For a moment, Commander Veld's tone was casually conversational, in a gruff, slightly commanding kind of way.

I hesitated. "Did you...did...did you really break Reno's jaw?"

Commander Veld laughed. "I did. In all fairness, though, he broke my nose. He used to have an absolutely vicious temper."

"Oh." I really couldn't think of what to say after that, as I pushed open the door of the generator room. I had been almost positive Reno had been leading me on, but, unless Commander Veld was doing the same, what he'd said was true. "I'm in the generator room, sir."

"Good, Rosalind. Now, there's no camera in here, so I can't keep an eye on you directly, but there are cameras on the door outside, so I'll warn you if anyone tries to approach."

"Right, sir." I pulled a small penlight from my breast pocket and shone it around the generator room. I didn't know the first thing about generators and I suddenly found myself wishing that I'd stayed with the President and Reno had come to fix the generator. Electricity seemed to be something he was familiar with. I was about to contact Commander Veld and let him know I hadn't the slightest idea how to fix a generator, when my flashlight played across something.

It was a large switch, with the words "On" and "Off" printed above and below it. And it was in the "Off" position. This seemed like an easy problem to fix, so I went over to the lever, hesitated a brief second before I touched it, then pulled it up to "On."

Lights flooded the room and I sighed with relief. "I've got it working, Commander," I reported. "Someone had turned it to 'Off.'"

"Avalanche!" Veld exclaimed. "Rosalind, get back to the President as fast as possible."

"Yes, sir!" I took off down the hallways at a sprint. I felt faintly nervous for Reno, who I knew was unarmed. I skidded to a halt in the doorway of the press room and froze.

Another man, in the same light-colored fatigues as Shears had worn was standing in the room, a handgun leveled at Reno, who had folded his arms across his chest and was standing stubbornly in the corner where the President was cowering.

"For the last time, Turk, move!" the man snarled. "I hesitate to shoot an unarmed man, but you are sorely trying my patience!"

"Nyah. What the hell kinda hypocrite are you supposed to be? The President is an unarmed man."

I felt the blood drain from my skin. Only Reno would taunt and stick his tongue out at someone who had a gun pointed at him. I lifted my own weapon to fire at the assassin, but I hesitated. He was standing directly between the President and I. I knew I was good, but at that moment, I wasn't too keen on testing my aim. "Hey!" I yelled instead, distracting the man.

The assassin whirled around and Reno grinned widely at me. "Howdy, rookie!" He reached a hand out behind him and thumped the molding running around the middle of the wall. A panel swung open and he gave the President an ungracious kick in the rear to get him to move. "See you later!" he called cheerfully, ducking into the passage and pulling the panel closed behind him.

The assassin stood there for a moment, stunned, then gave a howl of rage and ran across the room, pounding against the wall with his fists. The panel didn't open and I figured Reno must have latched it from the inside. Failing that, he opened fire on the door, emptying six or so rounds into the wall. It still didn't open and I was sure that Reno had moved the President along far enough to be safe.

"It was a good try," I called, a little mockingly, to the man.

He whirled upon me. "How dare you..." he hissed, eyes blazing behind wire rim glasses. He lifted his weapon and fired at me. I moved, just a little, and the shot went wide. Then I returned fire. I clipped his shoulder and his face became even more enraged.

A gunfight, while not entirely pleasant, is still an intense and exhilarating thing. Especially if you have a decent opponent. If it's just some idiot with a sniper rifle, things aren't very exciting, but if you're facing someone who's really and truly talented, it's a thrilling feeling.

We traded a few more shots, each of us taking partial cover behind pieces of furniture, each of us missing our intended marks. I stopped momentarily to reload, when I heard a buzzing noise from the other side of the room. Curious, I half stood up to see what it was, leaving my upper body briefly exposed. That was when it hit me. It wasn't a bullet, but a ray of some kind. I cried out and stumbled back as it hit my chest, impacting the far wall behind me. Before I could recover from my shock, I heard a gunshot and felt a painful stinging in my ribcage, just below my left breast.

I cried out again in shock and pain as the sensation spread across my chest and then I crumpled to my knees. I couldn't help whimpering a little as I hit the ground. I was so stunned I couldn't even tell if I was bleeding. I wore a bulletproof vest, like all Turks do, beneath my suit jacket, but at that range and with the bullets he was using, I wasn't sure it would've been effective. It hurt enough to make me almost sure it had penetrated.

"It was a good try," the man called mockingly, going over to the wall and turning the TV on. I closed my eyes and tried to curl up. I was positive he was going to shoot me as I heard his footsteps coming closer. Instead, he crouched down and turned me so I faced the television. I winced and gasped through my teeth, he wasn't being gentle.

He stood up and smiled at me. I hated these people. I loathed Avalanche. I don't think I've ever hated anyone more than I hated him that moment. "Well, Turk, I would love to stay and watch you die, but, sadly, I must depart. I shall be consoled by the fact that you'll enjoy a lovely fireworks show in your last moments."

"F-fireworks?" I stammered weakly, squinting at the television.

His smile grew broader. "Indeed. They'll be far too busy worrying about that to check in here. You could be here for days. Well, I have other matters to attend to, so I must bid you goodbye, Turk. Do take care of yourself."

And with that, he was gone. I was wrong in what I said above, I hated him even more for leaving me alone to die. For the second time since I'd started this job, I felt the cold, burning fear of death. But now, I was alone with the silence and time, just waiting. The ray gun attack had paralyzed me, I tried desperately to move, but couldn't. I could still feel every part of my body, which I took to be a good sign, but nothing responded when I tried to get up. I put every conceivable effort into it for almost ten minutes, before I gave up and started crying.

I don't know how long I lay there. I had no real way of measuring time, but I can't imagine it was very long. I would guess it was maybe another five minutes before I heard footsteps in the hallway and prayed it wasn't anyone from Avalanche, and if it were, that they would mistake me for dead. Thankfully, the former turned out to be true.

"God damn it, rookie!" I heard Reno swear and he was across the room and next to me in seconds. "I can't leave you alone for five minutes, can I? What happened?"

I was so relieved to see him, I started sobbing. I'd been sniffling and whimpering a little before, but I was really crying now. And I couldn't move, which made it far worse. I felt weak and absolutely helpless. "S-sir..."

"Aww, rookie..." Reno pulled me up until I was almost sitting and gave me a very tight hug. "Are you all right?"

"I c-can't move, sir..." I managed to stutter, wishing I could wipe the blurry tears from my eyes.

Reno pulled back slightly and gave me a puzzled look. "Can't move?"

"H-he shot me with some kind of ray...a-and now I can't move!"

I suppose I must have sounded panicked. "Easy, rookie, easy..." Reno said soothingly. "I've heard of this before. It feels scary, but it isn't serious. I can fix it, all right?"

"P-please, sir..."

"Of course, rookie. Hold still." I saw him reach into the pocket of his jacket for a piece of materia, then felt his hand move across my back. A warm sensation spread up and down my spine, then across my arms and down my legs. I shuddered slightly, then carefully tested my range of motion. When I was certain everything was moving correctly, I started to stand up, Reno's arm around my waist to help keep me balance and my hand tightly grasping his shoulder.

He helped me over to the couch we'd been sitting on earlier and I sat down, still shaky. "Th-thank you, sir."  I touched a hand to my side, where the assassin had shot me, and Reno immediately pulled my fingers away.

"Hey, any time. We're even now, all right?"

"Even, sir?" I echoed, slightly confused.

"Sector 8, remember?" Reno reminded me, gently probing my side with his fingers. "Rookie, did that Fuhito bastard shoot you?"

I nodded and felt tears in my eyes again. I'd been beaten so easily. The assassin, Fuhito, hadn't even broken a sweat taking me down.

"You're all right, rookie, the Kevlar caught it. You'll have a nasty bruise, but you'll be all right," Reno assured me quickly, seeing that I was going to start crying again. "Here, I can even get it out of the vest for you, if you want..."

I sniffled loudly. "It's not that, sir..."

"Oh...well..."

"Sir, he almost killed me! And it was so easy for him! The only reason he didn't was because he wanted me to see some kind of...of fireworks show! He was going to leave me here to die, all by myself a-and no one w-would know for d-days a-and...a-and...oh, sir!" I couldn't continue. I hated thinking about dying.

"Hey, rookie, it's okay...c'mon, don't cry. You're all right. I came to get you, didn't I? I would never have left you here. You know that, right? You're my recruit, remember? You're the only one I've got and they won't let me have another one, so I fully intend to take good care of you. Promise."

I sniffled again and coughed. "Th-thank you, sir," I whispered, starting to feel a bit better, and a bit embarrassed at the same time. "Why would someone want to do that to me? I...I was just doing my job..."

Reno sighed and gently pushed me back, meeting my eyes. "One of the hard truths you learn in this business, rookie, is that these people don't have reasons. Something allows them to see us as less than human, because it's our job to keep the public safe, even if it comes at the expense of criminals like themselves. You just have to get used to the fact that the people who're trying to kill you, hate you. You can accept it, or you can let it drag you down. What are you going to do?"

I hesitated a few moments, and lifted a hand to wipe the tears from my eyes. "I...I'm going to...to kill Fuhito," I hissed.

Reno laughed and grinned at me. "That's my rookie! Excellent, Rosalind, just excellent. You get Fuhito, I'll take Shears." He paused. "Though...if we're both going to be in the same neighborhood, it might be better to double-team 'em. Just...y'know, for safety's sake. We don't need to be stupid about these things."

I managed a weak laugh and wiped my face again. "Of course, sir."

"Good, good..." Reno fell silent and gave me a few minutes, during which he went to retrieve his nightstick and then sat back down. "You feel better, rookie?" he asked, after I'd cleared my throat and gotten myself calmed down a bit.

"Yes, sir," I answered dutifully. I did feel better, even if I was still a little weepy. "I...I cry too much, don't I, sir?"

Reno shook his head and smiled. "Nah. I think it's fine. You do it well. Your nose gets all pink. It's cute."

I blushed. "Do you happen to have a mirror, sir?"

"You're cute, rookie...adorable even, but trust me, you don't want one."

"Oh."

Reno stood up and stretched. "You are feeling better, right?"

I got up too and rubbed my arms and legs to feel the circulation in them again. "Yes, sir. Thank you."

"Don't thank me just yet, rookie. I've...uh...got some bad news," Reno said hesitantly, sizing me up.

I felt a distinct feeling of foreboding in the pit of my stomach. "What, sir?" I asked suspiciously.

"Umm...well...how about some good news first! Uh...the President's son...Rufus...was watching you on the cameras in the hallways and he thinks you've got talent," Reno informed me brightly.

"That's very nice, sir. What's the bad news?" I pressed.

Reno fidgeted and kicked at the ground, then mumbled something absolutely unintelligible.

"What'd you say, sir?" I demanded.

"W-well...it seems Avalanche might've gotten a hold of Junon's Mako Cannon and they might be pointing it at Midgar, and every militant part of the company might be supposed to get their asses in gear so we can move from an A Class threat to an S Class."

I sighed. "You don't mess around with bad news, do you, sir?"

"Nope. We gotta go, rookie. I'm sorry."

I was irritated, of course. I was tired and sore and I didn't really want to have to be one of the people to go protect Midgar from Junon's Mako Cannon, but I really didn't have many other options. So I sighed, set my shoulders and reloaded my gun. "Not your fault, sir. Let's move out."

"That's the spirit, rookie!" Reno grinned, relieved. "Let's get going."


Chapter 3

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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