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Variations Chapter 3

Molto Allegro

What Reno neglected to tell me when he briefed me about the situation was that I was going to be going solo again, through the Mako tunnels beneath Junon to the cannon base at the center of the city. He sort of eased me into the idea once I felt well enough to get out of the Branch Office.

"I'm sorry, rookie. Really, I'd go with you if I could. But...y'know, orders are orders," he apologized for about the fifth time as we came out of the building.

"It's all right, sir," I answered. And it was. I felt much better than I had, and I understood the urgency of the situation. Avalanche troops were flooding into the city. No one had realized there were so many of them. They were looting the streets and terrorizing the citizens, and every available military installment had been dispatched to deal with them, but there was a clear advantage and it wasn't ours. The company needed Reno topside, so that was where he had to be. I was sure I would be all right on my own.

Reno shifted uncomfortably and looked towards Main Street. The streets around us were deserted, citizens having fled into their homes. "Well...I guess we better split, then. I gotta go find some soldiers. I'll catch you around, rookie. Watch yourself, all right?" I could tell he was nervous about leaving me alone.

"Yes, sir." I smiled, hoping I sounded reassuring. "I'll be all right. You be careful too, sir."

Reno grinned. "I'm always careful. See ya, rookie."

I waved as he headed down the street, then ducked out of my view into an alley. Once I was sure he was gone, I set my shoulders and went over to a small building at the end of the street; the MTMC or Mako Tunnel Maintenance Center for that block. Heaving open the thick steel door, I stepped inside and promptly got a call on my cell phone.

"Rosalind, it's Tseng. Did you get your orders from Reno?"

"Yes, sir. I'm to go into the underground tunnels and make for the Mako Cannon. They won't expect me to come from beneath."

"Right," Tseng approved. "But I'll elaborate a bit. Avalanche have shot the President and seized the Mako Cannon..."

I gasped. "They shot the President? Reno didn't tell me that!"

"Reno doesn't know," Tseng informed me sharply. "And we aren't going to tell him until we're in a position to break it to him gently, because he won't take it well. President Shinra will live, but if Reno finds out, he'll blame himself."

I was stunned. If the President had been shot than that must have meant... "Sir, did Reno leave him before he was somewhere safe?" I asked in a shocked whisper. This was rather startling to me. Reno didn't do things quite by the book, but leaving one's charge in the middle of a hostile zone was the biggest mistake a person could make, short of shooting whoever you were guarding in the head.

Tseng sighed. "It's complicated, Rosalind. The President told him to go to the Mako Cannon or Midgar would be destroyed. So he did. Given the nuances of the situation, he did nothing wrong. If it came down to orders and it was the President or the city of Midgar, obviously, Midgar takes precedence. He's in the clear and there will be no ramifications upon his career."

That was different, I guess. I had made the assumption he'd just up and left the President. The thought had crossed my mind, after all. "Well, if he didn't do anything wrong..."

"You have to understand Reno, Rosalind. He'll feel like the whole incident was his fault. Really, it was a correlation of several very unfortunate situations, but he'll believe that the whole thing hinged on his actions. So we have to be careful how we tell him. For now, we've got him working in the streets against Avalanche operatives. He won't be in a position to find out until we tell him."

"All right, sir," I agreed dutifully. "I'm at the MTMC, where Reno said I should go. What do I do?"

Tseng cleared his throat. "Right. Well, as you're aware, Shinra have moved the security system from an A class breach to an S class."

"Meaning we've activated Shinra's failsafe security system." I knew all about this, of course. There are courses taught at the Academy about the sophistication of Shinra's security measures.

"Correct. Naturally, the Cannon is also in the highest level of lockdown that can be activated remotely. They're effectively shut out of the system."

I was relieved to hear this. "Well, that's encouraging."

"It is," Tseng agreed. "Our orders are coming straight from Veld, and he's on his way to meet with the President right now. I'll be relaying instructions to you as you go and keeping you informed of changes in the situation."

"All right. What do I do to start, sir?"

"To start, unlock the passage into the Mako tunnels. The serial number on your dog tags will grant you access. You can reach the underground control room on a straight path through the tunnels. Once there, I'll talk you through the initiation of the final lockdown sequence. The Cannon isn't entirely sealed. Its code can still be hacked from the central control room."

This didn't sound so bad. The worst I was going to run into in the tunnels were Avalanche members, and they'd proved themselves time and time again to be less than a match for me. "Yes, sir. You can count on me, sir."

"I know I can, Rosalind. Be careful and good luck."

"Thank you, sir." I hung up and keyed my serial number into the small access panel on the wall, and a hatch in the floor opened up with a pneumatic hiss. The Mako tunnels of any city are almost hermetically sealed. The air is re-circulated throughout them and there are lethal security features everywhere you turn. Knowing what I did about the system, I felt I was likely to be finding a lot of dead Avalanche members.

I ensured my handguns were loaded, then climbed down the iron rungs into the Mako tunnels, pulling the hatch closed after me and hearing various automatic locking systems engage again. I wasn't going to be getting out without keying in a password, either. The system traps anyone who has managed to get in illegally.

The tunnels, far from being dark and dank like sewer tunnels, are bright and clean. The walls are brushed steel and there are tubes and pipes running along them. Where I had climbed down was a junction between the tunnel that ran along this block, and the straight path to the central core reactor. The tunnels in Junon are set up differently than they are in Midgar, because of the varying ages of parts of the city. While Midgar's tunnels are arranged in rings, going outward from the Mako reactors at the edge of each sector, Junon's tunnels are more erratic and winding. It's easy to get lost, if one doesn't know where one's going.

Luckily, I was in one of the newer parts of the city and the path straight ahead of me would take me right to the control room. I headed down the tunnel, and inadvertently found myself considering the implications of Avalanche firing the Mako Cannon.

It was a staggering thought. The Junon Cannon is designed with the capacity to take out an entire city in a single blast. Shinra has never used it, except in a demonstration of its power. They fired once and wiped out a small, uninhabited island in the Northern Sea. I was about fifteen when they did it, and I remember sitting with my Geography textbook and scribbling out the little speck of Deacon's Isle. The Cannon was built as a deterrent of war, not as a weapon. No country whose leader has half a brain is going to attack a nation with that kind of power.

Since Shinra changed from a weapons manufacturer to an energy supply company, they've become strongly against war. Most of the company's militant forces are involved in defense and peacekeeping now. Ever since the war against Wutai ended, things have been changing. Shinra, as it isn't a country, doesn't have to side with anyone. If Gongaga were to up and decide to attack Wutai, Shinra would be right there, with their big Junon Cannon, discouraging the idea. War isn't profitable anymore. Now, it's bad for business.

In any case, the Junon Cannon works by drawing all the Mako power from everywhere in the city, and concentrating it into a single blast. Understandably, that's a lot of power. To think that that kind of devastating force was now leveled at Midgar was even more staggering than the thought of blowing up a Mako reactor. The lengths Avalanche was willing to go to get their message-a message they hadn't even made clear to us-across were absolutely terrifying.

These thoughts were probably why I felt a surge of grim satisfaction as I heard screams in the corridors ahead of me. I quickened my pace and entered a large chamber with various computers and machines that regulated the flow of the Mako in that block. Scattered about the room were the bodies of various Avalanche members, and at the far end were three bulky, greenish gray security robots, with spider-like legs and air rifle turrets on the tops of the scanners mounted on their "heads."

"Well, this is certainly an effective security system," I said aloud, starting to cross the room. "There's no way anyone's going to get past you guys. You're bigger than I thought you'd be. But you certainly know how to do your job."

As though in response to my statement (I'd felt a little foolish, talking to robots) one of the security robots rotated its scanner with a whirring hiss and directed it at me. I stood still, a little startled. Even if I knew the robot wouldn't fire (the voice patterns of all Shinrans with access to the tunnels are coded into their systems), it still made me incredibly nervous.

"Intruder detected," a synthesized female voice announced, echoing around the steel walls of the circular chamber.

The announcement was all I needed. My instincts realized what was going on before my brain did. I reacted before I understood, executing a rolling dive to the side and narrowly avoiding the bullet the robot fired at me and ducking behind a piece of machinery, breathing hard.

"Voice-recognition override!" I yelled up at the loudspeaker at the apex of the domed chamber ceiling. "Shinran Employee number four one seven three nine!"

"Elimination subroutine activated," the security system answered emotionlessly, and I heard metallic clicks as the robots started to stalk across the floor, looking for me. Needless to say, I was moderately unsettled by the fact that Shinra's own robots had turned against me. My mind raced through all different kinds of explanations. Maybe there was a bug in the software...except that was unthinkable in something as critical as this. Maybe my voice patterns hadn't been coded in yet, but, no, if my serial number had granted me access, then it must have been.

Pushing thoughts of explanations aside, I remembered vaguely that the robots put higher value on the equipment in the room than they did a shot at an intruder. As long as I kept a computer between me and the robots, I would be safe. Peering cautiously around the edge of the console I'd ducked behind, I jerked back as I heard the whirring of a scanner and a turret, and jerked my head back as a bullet ricocheted off the wall behind me. Reacting as I would in a normal gunfight, I returned fire.

I regretted it almost immediately, as the robot fell over in a shower of sparks and flashes. I'd just destroyed Shinran security property. That was probably going to be taken out of my pay. I started to tell myself to be more careful in the future, but one of the robots leapt up on the console above me and swiveled its scanner around, and again, I shot before I thought, rolling away as it crashed to the ground.

Sighing, I decided there was no help for it, and fired at the last one, which had whirled around at the sound of its fallen comrade and was scanning the room furiously for me, turret whirring and buzzing.

After all three robots had fallen, a door at the other end of the chamber slid open, but I wasn't immediately concerned with moving on. I was actually slightly irritated. Taking out my cell phone, I punched in Tseng's number. "Sir, this is Rosalind," I announced irritably when he picked up. "The security robots seem to be trying to kill me. Was it something I said?"

There was silence on Tseng's end of the line, except for the clattering of his fingers on a keyboard. From Shinra HQ, anyone with the right training at the right computer console can access all the information on all the Shinran systems in the world. It's actually kind of scary. "Damn it..." I heard him swear softly. "Listen to me carefully, Rosalind. The security system has gone a level higher than anticipated. It's attacking without discrimination. Acceptable targets are now anything that moves."

"So the voice recognition won't work," I surmised grimly, not pleased with this new development. "Sir, I've already destroyed three of these things."

"The Proto Golems? That's fine. You have my permission to continue to do so. The lockdown of the Cannon takes precedence. However, this is the most sophisticated security system on the Planet. You've got to be careful."

"Yes, sir. I think I'll be able to manage, now that I know these things are trying to kill me."

"Good, Rosalind. I know you can do this."

"Thank you, sir." I hung up and tried to stay positive. After all, I was only dealing with robots. Reno probably had it a lot worse in the streets up top, dealing with actual Avalanche members.

I continued down the corridor, through the door that had opened at the other end of the chamber. I went cautiously, ducking into recessed alcoves along the passage as various security robots crossed the junctions of corridors. I gave them as wide a berth as possible, and only actually had trouble with one or two.

I reached another doorway, into a room full of twisted scrap metal. I didn't understand the purpose of this, but there was a door on the other side of the room, so I started to thread my way through the wreckage. I was halfway across the room, when I heard a creaking groan from the wall to my left. I turned, slowly, and saw it moving towards me, pushing the metal with it. Suddenly I registered the scratches on the walls and realized what I must have stumbled into. "Trash compacter," I said aloud, turning back to the exit, only to find myself facing two robotic hounds.

These are the nastier of the security features in the Mako Tunnels. They're exactly what they sound like, robots designed in the form of hounds. They have razor sharp teeth and glinting red eyes, and I did not relish fighting them, though it appeared I had no choice if I wanted to get out. And then the door behind them slid shut, making the entire issue a moot point.

I backed up, painfully aware of the still-moving wall pushing the twisted metal closer and closer to the center of the room. "Nice doggies," I muttered, half-sarcastically, keeping my handgun trained on them as they moved closer, metallically growling at me. I knew it all came down to my reaction time versus theirs, so I had to allow one of them to make the first move. It's a very tense thing to wait for.

Suddenly, one of them launched into a flying tackle, razor teeth bared, and I shot him in midair, the bullet ripping through his chest plate and decimating the systems inside. The other hound moved followed suit and I took him down too, relieved that at least one of my problems had been solved. I was still trapped in a room with a crushing wall, but at least I wasn't trapped in a room with a crushing wall and two murderous robots.

I looked around, a little frantically, as the space I'd originally had in the room was now down to half of what it had been. I clambered up onto a relatively flat piece of metal as more jagged pieces began to meet in the middle, virtually eliminating the pathway that had once existed. There were two doors on opposite sides of the wall, but neither was open. Logically, neither one would open until the trash compacter had crushed the metal. Unfortunately, if the metal was all crushed, I would be crushed along with it, and that was an unappealing thought.

I climbed up the pile of metal, which was beginning to get quite steep, to the crushing wall, and began to feel my way along it for some kind of switch or something. I almost lost my footing once, barely managing to catch myself on the smooth metal wall, but that was when I spotted it. A small control panel high on the far wall of the room, almost covered by the moving wall. I didn't have time to climb over there and stop it, so I solved the problem as I solve most problems, and shot the panel out, praying the wall would stop moving.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the wall shuddered to a halt and the door on the far side slid open. I scrambled across the room and into the corridor, breathing heavily. Not a moment too soon, it seemed, as another load of scrap metal came crashing into the room from above. I'd have been crushed if I'd stayed in a second longer. I began to wonder if Reno really did have it worse...then I remembered the sheer ruthlessness in Fuhito's eyes when he'd left me to die, and decided I'd much rather be facing robots, even if they were part of the most sophisticated system in the world.

I continued down the corridor. As I went, the lights began to get fewer and fewer, until eventually I could barely see. I could sense that I was in a large room, and I heard the door slide closed behind me, throwing the room into complete blackness. I remembered the "sunglasses" Reno had given me and took them out of my breast pocket, pressing a button on the arm like he had done and looking around. It turned out to be lucky I had them, it appeared, as the large room before me became clear and I saw Proto Golems lining the walls. I started to walk forward when all of a sudden; searchlights blasted on and started beaming around the room. I jumped back, startled and pressed up against the door, holding as still as I could.

My PHS rang. I froze, then remembered that the guard robots didn't react to sound. Cautiously, moving slowly in the darkness, I answered it.

"Rosalind, it's Tseng. I've pulled up a map of the tunnel system. Where are you?"

"I'm in a big dark room, sir. With searchlights and guard robots." I took a moment to switch from my handheld phone to the headset Reno had leant me. I wanted both my hands free.

"Oh, dear," I heard Tseng murmur.

"Sir, you're failing to inspire my confidence," I said a little nervously, glancing around the room. "Is there something I should know about this room?"

Tseng paused and I heard his fingers skittering across the keyboard again. He types incredibly fast. "Well, you want to avoid getting caught in the searchlights. If you do, the Proto Golems will spot you and attack, and you'll have to fight them in the dark."

I winced. This sounded an awful lot like a drill we'd done in the Academy. The instructors would turn off all the lights in a large, empty warehouse, and be standing on scaffolding with searchlights. The recruits on the floor, about a dozen of us, would have to move around the room and avoid the lights. We each wore a wristband with a photosensitive panel. If we got caught in a light for more than three seconds, it activated a circuit, which gave us a minor jolt of electricity. I'd gotten to be quite good at it though, so it didn't worry me unduly. "All right, sir. Is that all?"

"Well, there are also the trapdoors."

"Trapdoors, sir?" I sighed.

"The room was designed to be partially psychological," he explained. "Some people will cautiously sneak through the room, and end up caught in the searchlights. Others will try and make a straight dash, and fall through the trap doors. Just avoid any straight paths to the door."

"Right," I muttered. "Thank you, sir."

"You can do it, Rosalind," Tseng encouraged. "Just be careful."

"All right, sir." I hung up the phone and braced myself. At least the night-vision gave me an advantage. Squinting at the floor, I could see the outlines of the trapdoors, and I knew what to avoid. I watched the searchlights for a few moments and got myself vaguely familiar with their patterns. Bracing myself, I decided on a rapid dash zigzagging across the room, and avoiding the paths of the searchlights.

I took a few deep breaths, stretched the kinks from my neck and back muscles, then squinted across the room again, establishing my route. And then I took off at a flat sprint. I don't run as fast as Reno or some other Turks in the company, but I'm not bad either. Reno's about on par with a world-class sprinter. I could probably win a citywide track meet. Sadly, the only sports events Turks are allowed to participate in are inter-company, and from what I've heard, Reno wins most of those anyway. The track meets, at least. I can't imagine him being terribly good at something like hockey or football.

In any case, I was probably across the room in about ten seconds. I pressed a button beside the steel door on the other side and darted into the next room as it slid shut behind me. I was breathing hard as I took off Reno's glasses and quickly scanned my surroundings for threats, and saw nothing but a machine on the wall and a tall glass capsule opposite me. I paused, uncertain. Was this a dead end? A control room or something?

"Oh, boy," I said out loud, very sarcastically. "I've been locked in another room. I wonder what's going to attack me this time? Robot dogs again? Or maybe the ceiling's going to fall in!" I was being rather foolish, but then, the whole thing was getting kind of old.

"Intruder detected. Commencing scan," the same synthesized female voice I'd been hearing throughout the entire mission announced.

The machine suddenly came to life and a scanner projected from a slot. I tensed up as a laser scanned across the room from left to right, passing over my entire body.

"Scan completion: twenty percent," the voice droned as the laser swept back and forth across my body again.

I was baffled. I turned about the room, trying to figure out what was going on. There was no visible exit. I was trapped, but I didn't know with what.

"Scan completion: forty percent."

I stared hard the walls. I could make out a barely visible hairline crack that might've been the outline of the door, but the only way I could've been sure was to go over and check, and I didn't want to move in case the machine decided to shoot me.

"Scan completion: sixty percent."

Hesitantly, I drew my gun. I didn't know what was going on, but this made me feel a bit better. I half-considered calling Tseng. He would know what the deal was with this room.

"Scan completion: eighty percent."

What was it scanning? Me? Maybe this wasn't a bad thing. Maybe it would recognize my profile and grant me further access. I had a sneaking suspicion that this wasn't true, but I tried to stay vaguely positive anyway.

"Scan completion: ninety-nine percent," the voice droned. "Scan complete. Commencing data transfer to Materia."

I froze. The most sophisticated security system in the world. There were things in this system that were found nowhere else on the Planet. I'd heard of this. Back when I was in the Academy, back when I used to stay after Materia Technology lectures to listen to my professor. Back when he had told me about...

A human form stepped out of the glass capsule next to the machine. I shielded my eyes from the bright light it emitted, but I knew what to expect. When the light faded, I was staring at a perfect replica of myself.

My professor had talked about the possibility of using certain pieces of materia to explore various avenues of cloning. He'd even let it slip that it was technology Shinra believed would be integral to defense one day. Apparently, they'd been correct.

"Intruder detected," the clone said. Even if she looked like me, she didn't have my voice. "Elimination subroutine activated."

I had my gun up before the clone did (she had my body, but not my training and reflexes) and hesitated only a millisecond before I shot her in the head. It is kind of difficult to shoot at yourself.

However, this didn't stop her. She didn't have my voice, she didn't have my training, nor did she have my obvious human weakness. She stumbled back from the force of the shot, then straightened up and raised her weapon again, completely undamaged.

I quickly ducked as I saw her aim her gun at my head, then fired a shot at her legs. Her shot missed and she fell to the floor. Then she picked herself up and fired at my legs.

"You're copying me!" I exclaimed as I dodged this second shot.

"Intruder detected. Elimination subroutine activated," the clone answered.

I held still, praying it wouldn't be my death. The clone stopped moving and matched my pose. This was stupid. Shinra's failsafe security system had all of a sudden disappointed me. I suppose most people would be too overwhelmed by a clone of themselves to realize it only mimicked actions. I would have to mention this to someone; it was a serious flaw in the system. Sure, the cloning idea was brilliant, but if the materia had the basic dysfunction of creating a clone capable of only mimicking, it was pointless, really.

"All right, blondie. What do I do to make you kill yourself?" I mused aloud.

"Intruder detected. Elimination subroutine activated," the clone responded helpfully.

"Yes, yes, I know," I answered absently, trying to think.

"Intruder detected. Elimination subroutine activated."

I suppose it was another psychological security measure to have the clone respond to any form of speech with the same frigid ultimatum. It irritated me, to say the least. I went over to the computer panel. The clone mirrored my action, and walked over to the opposite side of the room.

"There must be a way to deactivate this, or open the door..." I murmured to myself, scanning the screens and buttons on the control panel.

"Intruder detected. Elimination subroutine activated."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, shut up."

"Intruder detected. Elimination subroutine activated."

I fell silent. I didn't need her distracting me, especially because there was nothing in the panel to help me. I was stuck with this stupid clone and no door out of the room. I needed to get rid of her.

I concentrated hard and tried to remember everything the professor had said about the cloning process. He'd talked about how it wouldn't be possible to create an actual biological clone, but it would be possible to create something that projected a holographic sim onto an android, and equip it with the same weapon type as an intruder, as well as give it the capacity to mimic. So this thing wasn't necessarily modeled after an actual human. Again with Shinra's tendency towards psychological solutions.

And if it wasn't modeled after a human, then it likely didn't have human weak spots. This was perhaps a bit more brilliant than I thought. The natural response to a humanoid target is to attack areas where a human is vulnerable. The head, the chest, the stomach. The clone would be vulnerable in none of these areas, but would respond to these attacks in kind, likely eliminating its opponent.

I thought harder. If it was an android, then it was a computer, and if it was a computer, then it had a central processing unit. But it wasn't in a vital area, or anywhere obvious. But it had to be somewhere big enough to put a processor. Though if it weren't the head or the torso, where else could it have been?

I turned around slowly and looked at the clone. She pivoted as well and stared back at me, with the same puzzled expression. The head was out, the chest was too likely a target...where else was there? I paused as I had a thought. Hesitantly, I touched a hand to my waist and then to my hips. The clone mimicked me. This was stupid. And yet it was the only thing that really made sense. Lifting my weapon, and again, hoping my hunch was right, I fired at the clone's lower abdomen.

The bullet hit her about three inches below where my bellybutton is, and she stumbled back, this time sparking and smoking, a stream of unintelligible jabber coming out in her synthesized voice as she collapsed to the ground. The clone's body jerked and twitched on the ground for a few moments then was still. All in all, it was a disturbing experience. The only good thing that came of it was that the door I'd thought I'd spotted earlier slid open.

I stretched a kink out of my shoulder and turned on my PHS, speed dialing Tseng's number. "It's me again, sir. Just calling to give you a progress report. You neglected to mention the cloning machine," I informed him, a tad waspishly.

"Oh...they have that running? Last I heard it had been disabled because of some bugs...I suppose the activation of the security system would've brought it back online. I'm sorry, Rosalind. I didn't realize it would be working. Are you all right?"

"Yes, sir. I'm fine. Just getting a little edgy, I suppose."

"I know, Rosalind. The control room is just off the room you're in right now. You may not believe this, but things really are worse up top."

I paused. "Really, sir? Have you heard from Reno?" I asked.

Tseng didn't answer immediately. "No, not yet," he responded finally. "Reno will be all right, though. He always is. Don't worry about him."

"All right, sir."

"That's a good agent. You just concentrate on the task at hand. Don't get careless now."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." I hung up the phone, drew my weapon, and reloaded it. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, going down the corridor to the control room, but I heard voices through the wall as I approached the side door of the control chamber.

"At last, we come to Midgar's last day. The preparations to fire the cannon have reached their final stages," one pompous voice declared.

"We've waited so long for this day," another person agreed dreamily.

Angrily, I punched the button to open the door and entered the room. "All right, this ends here," I declared grimly, covering the men with my weapon.

"A Turk!" one of them exclaimed, startled. "How did you get in here?"

I smiled coldly. "The same way you did. Though I did it on my own."

"By...by yourself?" the pompous sounding man exclaimed, sounding awed.

"That's right. Now stand down and surrender your weapons," I ordered.

"Never!" An Avalanche member in the same red suit as the first assassin to attack the President declared. "She can't take all of us at once! Get her!"

They all carried blades, so it wasn't much of a fight. I took out the assassin first, then incapacitated the other two.

My PHS rang. I paused, wondering why on earth Tseng would be calling me now. I was just about to lockdown the cannon.

"Rosalind!"

I blinked, startled. Tseng sounded panicked. I'd never heard such emotion in his voice before. "Tseng? What is it, sir? Calm down." This was definitely a bad situation if I was the cooler head.

"The cannon's override switch has been activated. Avalanche can fire it."

"But I thought..."

"It doesn't matter! You have to go shut down the override, now!"

I snapped into action. "Yes, sir. How long do I have?"

"Less than two minutes," Tseng informed me bleakly. "Hurry, Rosalind. The control room is just ahead. Our lives are in your hands."

Perfect. No pressure. "Right, sir." I opened the door the assassin had been guarding and sprinted through a corridor of Avalanche guards, dodging and darting around them, shooting any who got unduly in my way. I had no idea how much time had passed. I only prayed I would make it in time. I burst into the control room and closed and activated the lock of the door behind me.

I stared around the room, stunned. There were bodies scattered all over, hacked to pieces. Blood made the floor slick and sticky, and there were deep gouges in the walls. I snapped out of my trance. Something horrible had happened here, but not nearly so horrible as what was going to happen to Midgar if I didn't hurry. I steeled myself against the carnage and crossed the room quickly, entering the control room.

I'd half been expecting someone with a bloodied blade and murderous intent in the room, but there was no one. The room was calm and empty and from the looks of the blank computer panel, the system was in lockdown.

My PHS rang again. Bewildered, I answered it.

"Good job, Rosalind," Tseng congratulated me, sounding warmly relieved.

"Uh...sir, I haven't done anything."

Tseng laughed. "False modesty aside, Rosalind. Welcome to the Turks, by the way. You can't really be called a member until you've saved a major metropolis from disaster twice in one day. You stopped the cannon, just like you did the explosion at the Mako reactor."

"N-no, sir, I didn't. I only just reached the control room. The system seems to be in override already."

"You just...now? Then...who...?"

I hesitated. "Maybe whoever was supposed to fire the cannon had a change of heart, sir. I mean...I came across about five dead Avalanche members before I came here. They were chopped to pieces, sir."

"Chopped...to...with a blade you mean?"

"Yes, sir. It must've taken an immense amount of strength. There were gouges in the walls."

Tseng was silent. "I suppose it's been taken care of, then. Strange...I never truly thought..." Tseng trailed off and cleared his throat. "Well. Report back to the surface, Rosalind. There are still Avalanche members in the streets, though we've started to push them back."

"Roger, sir. I'll make my way to the surface immediately." I hung up my phone and went over to the control panel. It was absolutely dead. Apparently, someone had shut it down before I did.

I heard footsteps behind me and whirled around, to find myself facing a tall, slender woman, with a long clean blade in one hand and murder in her eyes. "Shinra," she hissed. "You did this."

"Avalanche?" I said, startled. This was the first time I'd faced a female member of the organization. I wasn't entirely sure she was Avalanche.

"That's right," she answered coldly, seeing my stare. "What's the matter? Not used to seeing a woman get ahead in life?"

I took slight offense to this and raised my own weapon. "The Cannon's been locked down. You can't do anything to it. It will take a team of Shinran technicians a week of recoding and programming to bring it online again."

The woman glared at me furiously. "I realize that. I will have your head for slaughtering my comrades."

She lifted her sword and charged me. Naturally, I fired at her, but the shot ricocheted off some kind of barrier surrounding her. I darted to the side at the last second, rolling into a dive and somersaulting back to my feet. I backed off and circled around, feeling out her defenses. She kept her sword up and advanced on me menacingly.

I fired again, almost tentatively, but she didn't even flinch. She attacked me again and I tried to dodge, but her blade sliced my thigh. My leg gave out beneath me and I barely managed to roll to the side as she raised her sword to chop downward. I struggled to my feet, grasping the edge of the control panel for support and emptying the entire clip of ammo in my weapon at her. It did nothing.

The woman laughed. "Can't you see this is useless, Shinra? You're pitiful before me. I think I'll kill you now and end the embarrassment of your existence."

Fishing in my pocket, I pulled out a small shock grenade. There was a door in the wall behind me. If I could just make it through...

Hurling the grenade at the floor, I threw myself backward towards the sliding door as the woman stumbled back, covering her eyes against the bright flash. I fell back to the floor of the next room as the door slid shut behind me. I scrambled to retrieve a fire materia from my pocket and blasted the door with it, melting the metal and effectively sealing it.

However, I hadn't expected the surge of magic that came from the other side. A frigid wind blasted the door, making the metal brittle and hard. I heard the woman pounding against it and began to see the metal buckle. Horrified, I pulled myself to my feet, pressing a hand hard against my bleeding leg and stumbling across the room to a set of metal stairs.

Climbing up was agony, but I managed to drag myself to the top and force the door open, only to come out in just about the worst place possible. I was on the narrow walkway jutting out beside the cannon, only about two stories above the surface of the ocean with nowhere else to go. I heard a wrenching, tearing noise as the metal of the door inside gave way and ran down the walk, realizing I was trapped.

"Disgraceful, Shinra," the woman scoffed, coming up the stairs behind me, knowing just as well as I did that I had nowhere to go. "Come, face your death. Soon, your life force will return to the Planet, where it belongs."

I backed up to the edge of the walkway, starting to feel dizzy from loss of blood. I wildly considered taking my chances and jumping off the end of the walkway into the oily black water, but I knew it would only be a delay to the inevitable. I barely registered the feeling as my legs gave out and I watched the woman approach, sword drawn.

"Down with Shinra," the woman said softly as she came closer and closer. I closed my eyes and turned my face downward, waiting for the end.

"That's quite enough," a steely voice said. I jerked my head up as the woman whirled around, ignoring me.

The man who had appeared, apparently following the trail of bloodied footprints I'd left, had long, silver hair and a dark black uniform. He carried a blade of glimmering steel that was probably as long as I was tall. His eyes glinted coldly and I suddenly had the chilling feeling that it was him who had inflicted all the damage on the Avalanche members before the control room.

The woman had whirled around and was staring at my apparent savior with a look of sheer disbelief. "It...it can't be. From all our sources, you're supposed to be..."

The silver haired man didn't wait for her to finish and leapt at her in a vicious attack. The Avalanche woman barely had time to raise her sword in defense as her barrier was shattered, leaving a small crater in the ground around her.

"Impressive," the silver haired man laughed icily, pressing back easily against the force of the woman's blade against his own. "You blocked my attack."

The woman grunted, gritting her teeth and planting her feet, giving inches of ground anyway as the soldier forced his blade against hers. "So...so it is true..." she gasped, leaping back. "Sephiroth!"

Sephiroth laughed again, relaxing the pressure of his sword against hers. "Indeed. And what is your name?"

"I am Elfe," she stated haughtily. "The leader of Avalanche."

I was stunned. First, by the appearance of Sephiroth, who I half-considered to be a myth, and second that this Elfe woman was Avalanche's leader. I suppose it made sense, though. She was ruthless enough.

Elfe leveled her sword at Sephiroth. "Why do you fight?" she demanded.

Sephiroth didn't answer, frigid green-eyed gaze boring right into the woman.

"As I thought," Elfe declared smugly. "Join us, Sephiroth. The Planet calls you."

I shuddered in the silence. Sephiroth would never join Avalanche. The stillness was broken as Sephiroth slashed at Elfe, who hurled herself off the side of the walkway, executing a perfect dive into the water below. I crawled to the edge, and watched her swimming to a ladder on the far side of the harbor. Sephiroth came over and watched her go.

"She has exceptional energy," Sephiroth said, addressing me, but not looking at me. "Inform your superiors of her power."

"Y-yes, sir..." I stammered weakly. "Th-thank you, sir..."

Sephiroth moved his hand, almost as though he were reaching out to me. A warm, greenish glow emanated from his palm and spread through my entire body. The deep wound in my leg sealed up and I felt better. The glow intensified. My fatigue eased away and I felt more than better, I felt incredible. I got to my feet and saluted smartly. "Thank you, sir."

"Mmm." Sephiroth turned and walked away, paying almost no attention to me. "Fighting for a reason..." I thought I heard him murmur as he vanished back into the tunnels beneath the cannon.

I stood for a few moments on the edge of the walkway, watching the sunset fall over Junon, casting an eerie red light over the cannon. We'd had a very close shave today. I didn't want to have to experience something like that again.

Turning around, I made my way back up the walkway, stretching and tensing my muscles. I really did feel great. Whatever healing spell Sephiroth had cast had an awesome amount of power behind it. And he did it without even thinking. I reached a ladder at the edge of the docks and climbed back up, making for street level. Once there, I pulled out my PHS and called Tseng.

"It's me, sir." I proceeded to fill him in on what happened.

"Sephiroth..." Tseng murmured, almost disbelievingly, when I had finished. "Incredible. He's an extremely powerful warrior, Rosalind."

I remembered the ease with which he'd shattered Elfe's barrier. "I know, sir. He probably saved my life. Where do you want me to go now, sir? Have you heard from Reno?" There was a long silence on Tseng's end of the line. I felt a surge of worry. "You...you haven't heard from him, sir?"

"No. He's not answering his phone. We've pushed most of the Avalanche terrorists back, and I've got every agent in the streets keeping an eye out for him, but there's been no sign. If you could, Rosalind..."

"Where was he last, sir?" I asked crisply, glancing down the empty streets.

"The last I heard of him, he was holding the southern end of Main Street with some Junon soldiers. Go there and see if you can't find him."

"Right away, sir." I snapped my PHS closed and returned it to my pocket, heading quickly south. I was on the far western edge of the city, so I cut through back alleys and down avenues, making for the center of Junon. The streets were deserted. Junon still carries a militant legacy from the days of the war, and in times of trouble, all the citizens will go into their homes and huddle around their TV sets, waiting for the announcement from Shinra that the streets are cleared. The citizens are so conditioned to these drills; they practically hold themselves under martial law.

I continued down the streets, peering anxiously into the alleys I didn't enter, hoping I wasn't missing anything. I looked up at the sky as darkness started to creep in from the east. As I did, my eyes fell on the bright window of an apartment building, where a little girl was sitting, staring out over the streets. She was only about four or five and she looked like she'd been crying. I smiled up at her and waved. "Everything's safe now!" I called cheerfully. "The terrorists are gone."

She appeared startled that I'd called to her, but she smiled shyly and waved back. I continued on my way, remembering that protecting the public was why I'd gotten into this job in the first place.

I came out on Main Street, near the southern end of the city. Again, the streets were deserted, but here the corpses of Avalanche members were scattered about. I walked quickly over, and saw the bodies of several Junon soldiers as well. I crouched next to one of the Avalanche members. There wasn't a mark on him, but his eyes were wide open and his hair stood straight up. Reno's work.

I stood up again and looked around. Given his method of attacking, there wasn't much blood. Both the Junon soldiers had carried guns, and the spray patterns on the ground indicated that they had been shooting. Several of the Avalanche members carried blades, though, so I looked for indications of bleeding wounds.

One of the Junon soldiers had taken a slash to the throat and had bled out in a pool of sticky blood, while the other had been stabbed in the back. I backed away and circled around the group of corpses, looking for more blood. I found it, in the form of a trail of small drops, leading down an alley and away from the fight. I bent down and touched one. It was still sticky and wet, so it was moderately recent.

Torn between worry and relief, I headed down the alley at a jog, pausing every now and then to look for drops of blood. When the alley between the two buildings opened into a back lane, I followed the trail northward, then back towards the main roads through another alley. From here, the trail continued along the sidewalk, then veered off up a driveway into the ambulance lane of the Junon General Hospital. I sighed, relieved. If it was Reno I was following, at least he'd managed to get himself somewhere safe.

I climbed up the walkway and headed to the entrance of the hospital, the automatic doors sliding open before me and closing with a soft ding as I entered the main waiting room. It was a rather bleak scene, a triage of people injured in the Avalanche attacks, civilians and soldiers alike. All the chairs were taken by victims who could still sit up, while pallets had been rolled out on the floor for those who were unconscious, or too weak to sit. Doctors and nurses bustled around, checking on new arrivals, coordinating the movements of seriously injured patients inward to the hospital, and directing non-injured civilians who had arrived to volunteer.

Hesitantly, I threaded my way through the people, glancing around and looking for Reno. I felt my stomach twist with pity for all the civilians, who had likely been collateral damage in the firefights between Avalanche and our forces, and clenched my fists angrily. How dare they attack a city of innocent people?

"Hey, rookie!"

I spotted Reno immediately, sitting on the floor in a corner by the stairs and hurried over. "Sir, I've been looking everywhere for you! Tseng hasn't heard from you for ages! We all thought you were dead!" I was exaggerating a bit, but then, I'd been worried, so I presumed everyone else had been too.

Reno blinked at me. "Oh. Sorry. Hospital, y'know. No cell phones."

I crouched down next to him, frowning. "Sir, what happened?" I asked, indicating the bloody wad of gauze he had pressed against his forehead.

"This?" Reno grimaced and pulled the makeshift bandage away. A deep gash ran from the center of his forehead, across to the left side of his temple. "Uh...a minor bit of stupidity on my part."

"What do you mean, sir? What did that?" I pressed, examining the cut. I was no doctor, but to me it looked like it needed stitches.

Reno shifted uncomfortably and touched his fingertips to the cut gingerly. "It was a shovel, I think."

I stared at him. "A...shovel, sir?" I echoed, not sure I'd heard right.

"Yeah. Or a hoe or a rake or something. Some kind of garden thing. Pretty sure it was a shovel though. I was down at the south end, finishing off the last of the terrorists who'd been trying to break through, when all of a sudden this guy in civvies comes tearing out of one of the alleys, waving a shovel."

"Civilian backup, sir?" I asked. It wasn't uncommon. Sometimes, especially in cities like Junon, civilians do whatever they can to help. They throw boiling water out of windows, or toss down heavy things onto attackers. Some grab whatever weapons are handy and charge out to help defend their homes.

"Y'see, that's what I thought. I was glad to see him, up until the point he yelled 'Death to Shinra' and tried to take my head off." Reno rubbed his neck ruefully. "Probably would've killed me if I hadn't thought to duck. I got lucky. A glancing blow off the skull is better than a shovel in the jugular."

"It's still an awfully deep cut, sir. Have you had anyone look at it?" I asked, concerned. "You might have a concussion."

Reno shrugged. "I'm all right, rookie. There're people here who're worse off than me."

I bit my lip. "Sir, if it's serious..."

"Listen, rookie, I'm sure I'm fine. I've been here for half an hour and I'm just a little dizzy. Nothing serious."

"I'm going to go see if I can't get a doctor to come take a look anyway, sir," I said, starting to get up.

Reno caught my wrist and pulled me right back down. "Hell no, rookie," he said firmly, pointing across the room. "See over there, the little kid sitting with his mom?"

I looked where he was pointing and saw a little boy, curled up sobbing in his mother's lap, his bandaged wrist cradled in his lap and his head on his mother's shoulder. "Yes, sir..."

"He was here when I came in. Little guy got nicked by a stray bullet from a gunfight going on outside his house," Reno informed me grimly. "Far as I'm concerned, until things calm down to the point where he's got priority, I've got no business trying to jump the line. Understand?"

I nodded, almost ashamed of myself. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. We were all just so worried..."

"Yeah, rookie, I know. Don't be though. I'm fine."

"All right, sir," I agreed dubiously. "We should go find a payphone and call Tseng. He was rather worried and he's got people out looking for you."

Reno considered this for a moment, then nodded. "All right."

I got up glanced around the waiting room. There was no payphone in the immediate vicinity, and I wasn't about to go ask at the front desk. "Come on, sir, we'll go up a floor."

"Sounds good to me," Reno agreed, bracing a hand against the wall and standing up a little unsteadily. I moved to help him, but he waved me away. "I told you, rookie, I'm just kinda dizzy. I'll be okay."

"If you say so, sir," I answered, sighing and pushing open the door of the stairway. It was quiet and empty, after the bustling rush of the waiting room outside. "Can you manage the stairs, sir?"

Reno scowled at me and promptly started climbing the stairs. "Rookie, if you don't stop babying me like this, I swear I'll have you demoted."

I shut up for a few moments and contented myself with keeping a sharp eye on him as he climbed up the stairs. Maybe if he lost his balance and fell, he'd give just a little thought to the fact that he might be seriously hurt.

I jogged up the stairs ahead of him when we reached the landing and glanced at the door. "Sir, we have to be quiet now," I said softly, reading the name of the ward we were entering. "This is the maternity ward."

"Babies. Shit."

"Hush, sir," I scolded, pushing the door open softly. Again, the hallways were silent. I glanced left and right, spotting a payphone on the wall a ways up the corridor from us. "Come on, sir."

Reno followed me down the hallway, then sat down in a chair beside the payphone and wiped at the blood that had dripped down his cheek with his sleeve as I inserted a few coins and dialed Tseng's number.

"Hello, sir? It's Rosalind. I found Reno," I informed Tseng when he picked up the phone.

"Oh, good. Is he all right?" Tseng questioned, sounding relieved.

I glanced at Reno. "He's...uh...he says he's fine, sir," I answered hesitantly. "I'm not so sure. We're at the Junon Hospital. Things are pretty backed up here."

"I see. How do you think he's doing?"

"Well..." I ignored the fact that Reno was glaring at me darkly. "I think he could use some attention, sir. He got hit in the head with a shovel. But we don't want to get in the way of the doctors and nurses downstairs. They have more serious cases to deal with."

"Damn straight," Reno grumbled, folding his arms across his chest and slumping sullenly in his chair.

Tseng paused on the other end of the line. "Is he right next to you? If so, tell him to go down the hallway."

"Roger, sir." I held the phone away from my face and addressed Reno. "Tseng says you're supposed to go over there," I told him, pointing down the hallway.

"No!" Reno declined vehemently.

Tseng sighed. "Tell him if he doesn't go, I'll tell Rude he got clubbed in the head with a shovel."

I turned back to Reno, who was getting up. "Tseng says..."

"I heard, I heard! Damn Tseng," Reno muttered, heading off down the hallway to another chair, then sitting down and sulking.

"Is he out of earshot?" Tseng questioned.

"I think so, sir."

"Good. Now, Rosalind, I'm afraid I've got a bit of bad news...the President is at Junon Hospital. Commander Veld should be there soon, but from what I understand, President Shinra is in a terrible mood."

"Reno still doesn't know he's been shot, does he?" I asked worriedly. "Someone really ought to tell him, sir."

"We will, Rosalind. In due course. As soon as Commander Veld gets there, you and Reno take his chopper back to Midgar and we'll tell him then. All right?"

"I suppose so, sir. I'll see if I can't get him to see a doctor before we go, though."

"Good luck with that," Tseng said wryly. "It's probably not too serious. Reno has an awfully thick skull."

I laughed. "Right, sir. See you later, sir." I hung up the phone and went over to where Reno was sulking. "Are you feeling any better, sir?" I asked, trying to be kind.

Reno ignored me, except to stare the other way and mutter the word "snitch."

"Now, sir, that's uncalled for," I sighed. "Really, I'm just worried about you. Commander Veld is going to be landing here soon and we're going to take his chopper back to Midgar. That's a three-hour trip before you get medical attention. We really should make sure you're all right. I don't particularly want you having an intracranial aneurysm or something while we're over open water."

"Rookie, why is Commander Veld coming?" Apparently, Reno can't ignore someone for very long.

"Well, sir, this was a pretty big deal," I answered innocently. "He probably wants to do a damage report in person."

Reno nodded in agreement, wincing slightly. "I suppose so. But, really, he should be staying with the President."

"Yes, sir," I murmured, looking down at my shoes instead of at Reno. "Unless he was given other orders."

I was spared from further comment as a door halfway down the hall opened and a woman, presumably a doctor from the long white coat she wore, came out. She glanced down the hallway at us and then came over, looking down at the floor as she came. "Are you the one leaving blood all over my floors?" she questioned, raising an eyebrow at the sight of the cut in Reno's forehead and the small drops of blood on the linoleum.

"O-oh. Uh...sorry," Reno said sheepishly, getting up. "We came up from downstairs to use the phone. Didn't think anyone was up here."

"I'm the only one," the doctor clarified. "My name is Dr. Kindred. Everyone else is downstairs, subbing on triage. Every once in a while, they bring patients up to the empty beds. It's going to be a full house, tonight."

I sighed. "What an awful day this has been," I lamented, remembering how optimistic I'd been that morning. "Maybe there is something to what you said, sir..."

Reno grinned dryly. "Yeah. It's some kinda goddamned conspiracy."

"Did one of the nurses down below send you up here?" Dr. Kindred asked, examining Reno critically.

"Oh, no. We just needed the phone and we didn't want to be in the way. We'll go back down. Sorry," Reno apologized again.

The doctor shook her head. "No, it's not a problem. That cut looks like it needs attention. While you're here, I might as well stitch you up. My patients are all asleep for the night, and there isn't anyone on this floor who requires too much attention."

Reno shifted uncomfortably. "W-well..."

"Come, it's no trouble. I'm the obstetrician and gynecologist for this floor, but it's not like I can't do everything a GP can do. I'll just go get some anesthetic and sterilize a needle. You can go in that room over there." Dr. Kindred gestured across the hallway to a hospital room.

"Uh...great. Thanks," Reno muttered.

"I won't be a moment," Dr. Kindred assured us, bustling off down the hallway.

Reno sighed and went over to the room, pushing the door of the darkened room open and sitting down heavily in a chair on the far wall. "Thanks a lot, rookie," he grumbled sourly.

"You heard her, sir. She said it looks like it needs to be looked at."

"Well, of course it needs to be looked at! I'm not stupid, rookie, I know that. But...sheesh...a gynecologist. I'll never live this down."

I rolled my eyes. "A doctor's a doctor, sir. And she'll just be stitching up your head. Believe me, a gynecologist does far worse to me once a year."

It was dark, so I couldn't be entirely sure, but I almost thought I saw Reno blush. He didn't say anything though, so I continued. "Besides, maybe when we go back down we can send some of the more minor injuries up to her. They obviously aren't making very good use of their available people."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Well, at least it's not all that many stitches. Probably only nine or ten. It could be a lot worse, sir," I offered, trying to be positive.

Reno snorted indignantly. "Easy for you to say. I hate getting stitches."

"I've never met anyone who loved them," Dr. Kindred declared, entering the room with a small bag of tools and turning on the light. "But if you've had them before, at least you know the drill. Now, let me clean that cut out..."

I backed away to let the doctor have some space, glancing around the room as I did so. There was a bed on the far wall, at least, I supposed so, but it had curtains pulled around it, so I couldn't be sure.

"Ow! God damn it! Stop that!" Reno yelled as the doctor touched a cloth, presumably covered with antiseptic, to the wound.

"Sir!" I exclaimed, horrified. "There are babies on this floor."

Dr. Kindred laughed softly, firmly bracing a hand against Reno's shoulder as he started to get up. "Don't worry. They can't hear you from here, and even if they could, they wouldn't understand."

"Oh. Well, still. You oughtn't yell, sir," I admonished.

"The babies would be swearing too, if they were having peroxide poured on open wounds," Reno muttered darkly.

"It's not peroxide. It's called chloramine and it won't hurt you," Dr. Kindred said soothingly. "And I'm done cleaning it anyway. I'll stitch it closed now."

Reno flinched visibly. "Do you really have to?" he asked plaintively.

"Sir, what's so bad about stitches?" I questioned, perplexed. "I'm sure you've had far worse..."

"The last time I had stitches was during a war, with mines going off everywhere, with no anesthetic, little attempt towards sterilization, and they were done by a jittery medic. I don't remember the experience fondly," Reno answered shortly.

When he said "war" I immediately connected this with the war in Wutai. It had happened most recently and I could only imagine Reno meant he'd been a part of it. For the life of me, though, I couldn't think why. The war in Wutai had involved mostly brute military force, not the subtle operations of the Turks. "You mean the war in Wutai, sir? But...why on earth would there have been mines in Wutai? They don't use modern tactics in warfare and other countries aren't allowed to use such tactics against them, either. It's part of the Gongaga Accord."

"Not Wutai. Fort Condor."

"You were at Fort Condor, sir?" I murmured, surprised. "That was over seven years ago."

Reno shuddered as the doctor gently applied a topical anesthetic. "Yeah, rookie. I know. I was eighteen. No damn way I should've been there."

"Why in the world were you, sir?"

"I wasn't always a Turk, rookie," Reno explained, closing his eyes tightly when the doctor threaded her needle. "I started with Shinra as just a common soldier."

"Really, sir? You?"

Reno's grip tightened on the arms of the chair as the doctor carefully inserted the needle into the skin near the beginning of the gash in his forehead. "I was drafted, kind of. It wasn't my idea."

"What was it like, sir?" I asked, slightly awed by the fact that Reno had been at Fort Condor. My father had been at Fort Condor, when I was sixteen. But my father was almost fifty, and Reno was only two years older than me.

Reno opened one eye briefly to give me a very serious stare. "It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life. Ever. I am not a soldier."

"We're military, though, sir," I pointed out. "We're elite, but we're still military."

"Barely. Just barely. There's a world of difference between a Turk and a soldier. It takes a few months of training to be a soldier. It takes years to be a truly good Turk. The two mindsets are entirely different. A soldier is conditioned against slaughter and death and mass murder. A Turk isn't. I wasn't cut out for war."

"My father was in the war at Fort Condor. Lieutenant-Colonel Kramer. Did you ever see him, sir?" I questioned, immensely interested. All I knew about Fort Condor I knew from my father. He'd told me stories of what a wonderful conquest it had been, what a romantic war. I used to listen with wide eyes and baited breath to his chronicles of battles and tactics. These memories of reliving his glory days with him were some of the few close moments I've had with my father.

"I don't know. I don't remember. I wasn't anyone of enough importance to know the names of the people with ranks any higher than 'captain.' I was just a soldier."

"Well, surely you remember some of the battles?" I asked eagerly. "What about the attack on Zemzellet Ridge? Or the air raid on the southern face and the capture of their General? Or...or the defense of the supply tunnels?"

Reno didn't answer immediately. I couldn't understand why. "All I remember," he said finally, quietly, "is a lot of shooting, a lot of dying, and that I shouldn't have been there."

"But, sir..."

"Listen, rookie. I don't know what it is that's got you all excited to hear about the war with Fort Condor. Maybe it's your father who's told you all this stuff, and in that case, I'm sorry, but he's a goddamned liar. He wasn't there. Not really, if he's telling you stories about it being a great thing. I can't explain it, and I don't want to try, but until you've actually been a soldier, fighting for something that has nothing to do with you, don't believe anything he's told you."

I fell silent for a few moments. Obviously, the subject was closed. I could tell from the finality in Reno's tone that he didn't want to talk about it anymore. When my father had spoken of the war, it had been with pride and fondness for the memories it had given him. The brilliantly executed strokes of tactical genius that got him where he is today. Hearing Reno speak of it, with a fervent abhorrence in his eyes, made me wonder whose word I should take. Somehow, though I didn't feel guilty for it, I almost felt more inclined to take Reno's word. "I'm sorry, sir. I shouldn't have brought it up," I apologized.

Reno shrugged. "Nah. It's all right. Just something I don't particularly like to think about."

"If you say so, sir."

"All done," the doctor announced, cutting the thread she'd been stitching with and picking up a piece of white gauze and taping it down over the gash. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Guess not," Reno conceded grudgingly, touching the bandage lightly. "How long before I can feel my forehead again?"

Dr. Kindred shrugged. "It should wear off in an hour or so. Now, it might sting from time to time and I advise that you clean it with warm water every day and change the dressing every three, but it should be fine. In about two weeks go to have the stitches removed."

"All right," Reno agreed, getting up. "Thanks, Doc."

The doctor smiled warmly. "Any time. If you see any signs of infection..." a buzzing of her pager interrupted her and she reached into her pocket, pulling it out and glancing at the small screen. "Ohhh...no. Him again," she exclaimed exasperatedly.

"Him?" Reno echoed. "What're you doing with a 'him' in the maternity ward?"

Dr. Kindred waved a hand petulantly. "A 'high-profile' patient." She snorted contemptuously. "He came in earlier today and they moved him down to my floor when the upstairs wards started filling up with victims of the attacks. High-profile. I don't care who he is, he has no right to be so cranky and irritable and difficult when there seriously ill and injured patients in this hospital."

I got a sudden, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when she said "cranky and irritable and difficult", remembering what Tseng had told me earlier. I grabbed Reno's elbow. "Well, good luck with him. Come on, sir, let's go downstairs and see if we can't help out," I urged, tugging Reno towards the doorway.

"Hold up a minute, rookie." Reno moved my hand and folded his arms across his chest. "Difficult, eh? Well, if you'd like, I'll go straighten him out for you. It's the least I could do. The guy shouldn't get priority, just because he's got cash."

"Sir, I really don't think you should be bullying patients," I said hastily, grabbing Reno's arm again. "Now, let's go help..."

Dr. Kindred nodded in agreement. "She's right. Besides, I don't think anyone in their right mind tries to 'straighten out' President Shinra."

Reno blinked, startled. "President Shinra's here?" he asked, evidently bewildered.

"Oh, yes. Would you like to come see him?"

"No, we're fine," I interjected, before Reno could answer. "If he's resting, we really shouldn't bother him."

"What's gotten into you, rookie?" Reno asked, glancing at me suspiciously. "I mean, I know you don't like the guy, but we work for him. C'mon, let's go."

Dr. Kindred nodded and headed down the hallway. "He's just down here. Perhaps you'll be able to calm him down. He's been in a terrible mood."

"I'll do what I can. He likes me, anyway," Reno answered diffidently, following Dr. Kindred to the President's room. I trailed along nervously, hoping things might work out. Maybe he'd heard about the terrorists in the city and would cut us some slack.

As we entered the room, though, it was apparent that this was the wrong time to hope for mercy from the President. "About damn time you got here!" he shouted at the doctor, beefy face red and angry. "What kind of bloody hospital is this, not giving service to an injured man?"

Dr. Kindred was about to respond, when the President spotted Reno, still looking utterly confused as to what his boss was doing in a hospital bed. "Turk," he snarled angrily.

Even in a polka-dotted hospital gown, the President in a rage is still an imposing sight. Guiltily, I skulked near the doorway as Reno addressed the President. "What are you doing here, sir?" he asked, sounding a little worried.

"Goddamn you, Turk, what do you think I'm doing here?" the President exploded. "I've been shot. And it is entirely, irrevocably, unforgivably your fault!"

If it had been me being lectured, I probably would've had a hard time keeping myself from crying. I felt absolutely awful, even just hearing him yelling at someone else. Reno stayed completely cool, though, except for paling slightly. "All right, sir," he answered clearly.

"All right? What the hell do you mean, 'all right'? I might have been killed, don't you goddamn understand that?"

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."

I really felt for him as the President launched into another furious tirade. I could understand President Shinra being angry-he'd been shot, after all-but he was completely disregarding the fact that he'd ordered Reno to go take out terrorists. Faced with direct orders from the President, what else was he supposed to do? Tentatively, I cleared my throat. "Sir..."

"You stay out of this, blondie," the President snapped, glaring at me. "I'll deal with you later."

"Go wait in the hall, rookie," Reno told me quietly.

I hesitated, feeling like I should at least stay and offer some measure of moral support, but the President's furious gaze boring into me made me slip reluctantly into the hallway and close the door softly behind me. I winced as he started shouting again. Even outside the room, it was awfully loud. And all Reno could do was stand there and take it.

Dr. Kindred was waiting in the hall, looking slightly aghast. "What on earth did the poor boy do?" she asked incredulously.

"Nothing wrong," I answered truthfully, sitting down in a chair outside the room wearily. "Is...is the President really that badly hurt?" I asked, more worried about how badly Reno was being dressed down than about President Shinra's health.

The doctor shook her head vigorously. "No one capable of that kind of anger is badly hurt."

I sighed. "I wish I could've said something. Mr. President thinks very little of people's feelings."

Dr. Kindred winced as the President screamed a particularly vile insult. "That, I think, is evident."

One of the doorways down the hall opened and a woman in a housecoat poked her head out. "Dr. Kindred, who on earth is yelling?" she asked sleepily.

"The President of Shinra," Dr. Kindred answered dryly. "Venting some spleen at the first person he could find who wasn't a pregnant woman, new mother, or baby."

"Who's he yelling at?"

Dr. Kindred gestured at me. "One of this young lady's colleagues. Another Turk, one of the one's who've been pushing the terrorists back from the city."

"How dreadful," the woman murmured. "Well...I suppose I'll try and read, then. I do hope he quiets down soon."

"With any luck, he will," Dr. Kindred answered kindly. "Try and get some rest, Mrs. Owens."

The woman retreated back into her room and I slumped a bit in my seat as the President continued to rant.

"I'd best go make my rounds," Dr. Kindred murmured after a few minutes. "The yelling has probably upset some of the other patients. I just hope it hasn't woken any babies."

I nodded as she left and sighed dejectedly, trying to shut the sound of shouting out. I couldn't do anything about it, except feel badly. Well, I could get angry, too. And I did that, for about five minutes, seething resentfully at the President every time his tirade reached a climax. Eventually, though, the anger got to be draining and only succeeded in making me feel worse. So I picked up a pamphlet from the table beside me and read about why I shouldn't smoke during pregnancy. I don't smoke and I have no intention of getting pregnant anytime soon, so it didn't really interest me all that much.

In any case, about five minutes later, the yelling ceased, the door opened and Reno came out, looking ashen pale and suddenly exhausted.

I stood up. "Sir..." I began as Reno slumped wearily into the other chair beside the door, burying his face in his hands.

"Blondie!" the President yelled from inside the room. "Get in here!"

"Don't go, rookie," Reno murmured, not looking up. "I didn't deserve that kinda abuse and I screwed up. He'll be just as bad to you and you haven't done anything wrong."

I felt a surge of anger and clenched my fists. "I'll be just fine, sir," I answered coldly. "He can say whatever he wants to me and I'll just yell right back. He can't call me anything worse than I can call him."

"You've got guts, rookie. That's not a good thing."

I ignored this and pushed the President's door open, stalking up to the bed and standing at attention. "You, sir, are a cruel, ignorant, self-centered, money-grubbing, arrogant, cowardly, lecherous, old bastard," I declared loudly, before the President could say anything.

"Blondie!" the President exclaimed, looking shocked at me.

"To say nothing of ungrateful!" I continued, ignoring him. "We've followed every stupid order you've given us on this stupid mission and saved your precious city twice! Never mind your life. Considering that there were about a hundred people in this city out for your blood today, don't you think that our only letting one past is a pretty decent average?"

The President's jaws were working the empty air. Whatever words he was looking for, he wasn't finding them.

I was picking up steam now. "You've got some nerve, sir, chewing out my boss for following an order you gave him! What kind of leader are you? There're a couple things you need to learn about Turks, sir. Commander Veld has twice the sense you do! Damn it, sir..."

"That will be quite enough, agent," a voice said firmly from behind me.

I fell immediately silent, startled. I knew the voice. Commander Veld had arrived. I whirled around and saluted as best I could. "S-sir..." I stammered, embarrassed.

"At ease, Rosalind. I'll take over shouting at Julius," Commander Veld said smoothly, taking me by the arm and pulling me away from the bed. "He has acted most reprehensibly, cursing and shouting in a ward full of women and children."

The President scowled, but didn't say anything. Commander Veld is probably one of the few people who he listens to.

"Now, Rosalind, my chopper is up on the roof," the Commander informed me, ignoring the President. "I strongly suggest you and Reno head home. You've done very well in these past twenty-four hours and you deserve a good long rest. You'll be debriefed on your arrival in Midgar, but Tseng has instructions not to detain you unduly."

"Y-yes, sir." I hesitated, glancing at the President. "I said some pretty bad things to him, sir," I said in a hushed whisper.

"Not nearly so bad as what I'll say to him," Commander Veld said grimly. "The Turks are my people, Rosalind. If anyone will dress them down, it will be me. Julius has overstepped his bounds. We will discuss this."

I have to admit, it made me feel good to think of Commander Veld shouting at the President. I even smiled. "Put in a good word for me, sir."

Commander Veld nodded. "Of course." Glancing at the door, Commander Veld drew me aside. "Have you ever heard the phrase 'someone needs a hug', agent?"

"Uh...yes, sir."

The Commander gestured towards the doorway. "Someone needs a hug," he instructed wisely.

I nodded. "Yes, sir. See you back at HQ, sir."

"Have a safe flight, agent."

I slipped out into the hallway. Reno hadn't moved from where he was sitting and I touched his shoulder awkwardly. "Time to go home, sir."

He sighed and nodded. "Yeah. I guess so."

I felt awful. Reno has a strange kind of effect on people. If he's cheerful, like he usually seems to be, it helps your mood too. If he's morose and depressed, it has an effect on those around him. "Sir, please cheer up," I appealed as we got on the elevator, hitting the button for the top floor. "It wasn't your fault, really..."

Reno didn't answer, staring at the floor of the elevator the entire trip up, then sighing again as we reached the top floor and wandering down the hallway to the stairway up to the roof. I followed him, still feeling wretched and depressed myself.

The wind from the helicopter blades whipped up a torrent of wind and I instinctively kept low as I approached the chopper. The pilot recognized Reno and shouted a greeting as he climbed in, but I guess Reno didn't respond, because the pilot looked confused and just a little depressed. I climbed into the helicopter and pulled the door closed behind me.

Sitting down on one of the comfortably padded seats across from Reno, I looked out over the lights of the city as the helicopter lifted upward. "What a beautiful view," I murmured.

"Damn stupid city," Reno responded darkly, staring out the window. He was quiet for a few minutes, then he spoke up. "You know, what makes the whole thing so much worse is that I stopped. We got through the passage, and out into a safe building. I called Veld and told him what was up, and he asked to speak to the President. I guess that's when he found out about the cannon. So he told me to go stop it."

I nodded, not sure what I was supposed to say.

Reno apparently didn't need all that much of a response, as he continued. "And...and I told him, no, I was supposed to stay. I knew I wasn't supposed to leave him, no matter what he told me...but then he said if I didn't get out of there, Midgar was going to be completely leveled...what the hell was I supposed to do?"

"You did the right thing, sir," I answered honestly. "Tseng and Veld both said so."

"The President still got shot."

I didn't have an immediate answer for that. "Well...sir, that's not really your fault. If you think about it, it's mine."

That got Reno's attention. "Rookie, how in the hell could it be your fault?"

"I didn't take down Fuhito. I knew he was an assassin and I knew he was going to go after the President and I couldn't take him down. If I'd managed to...the President wouldn't have been shot," I explained.

"Goddamn, rookie, he paralyzed you. What were you supposed to do, blink at him?"

I shook my head. "No, sir. I shouldn't have let him shoot me in the first place."

Reno glared at me. "Rookie, I know what you're trying to do. Shut up. You can't make this out to be your fault. I should've sent you with the President and stayed to deal with Fuhito."

"No, you were already with him. It wouldn't have been practical for us to switch. Maybe I should've asked you to go check on the generator while I stayed with the President," I countered, smiling just a tiny bit. "Although I didn't know about the passageway out."

"I shouldn't have left the both of you in the first place."

"I should've spotted the bomber in the window. Then we wouldn't have been split up," I pointed out.

Reno paused. "Well, I could've spotted him, too. I should have found a way to get back around the big damn hole in the road, instead of going after Shears."

"Well, I should have finished Shears back in Midgar, sir."

"I should've finished Shears back in Midgar." I may have imagined it, but I thought I saw Reno's eyes glint, as though with laughter, but he looked away before I could be sure.

"I should have gotten to the reactor sooner."

A definite hint of a grin crossed Reno's features. "I should've gotten there to help you out sooner."

"I should have told Tseng I couldn't handle it on my own," I countered.

"I should've known you couldn't handle it on your own."

I smiled. "I should have introduced myself to you beforehand, so you actually could have known I couldn't handle it."

"Nuh uh. I should've introduced myself. You're my rookie."

"You're my superior, sir," I replied.

"Well, I never should've asked for a subordinate."

"I never should've become a Turk," I declared triumphantly.

"Oh, hell, rookie, you're a natural. You were born to be a Turk!"

I winked. "Well, then maybe I should just never have been born."

"I don't think you really had much choice about that," Reno pointed out, glancing out the window as we left Junon airspace.

"In that case, this whole thing is my parents' fault. Presdient Shinra can yell at them."

Reno laughed and I felt a thousand times better. "Shit, rookie. I've never known anyone who could wreck a perfectly good bad mood as well as you can."

"I try, sir," I answered modestly.

"Aww, rookie..." Reno sighed heavily and lapsed back into a dejected slump. "It's still a pretty damn big screw up. And...god, half the stuff he said...I mean...I know, I'm a Turk and I'm supposed to be able take this kinda abuse...but, shit, he sure knows what hurts."

Maybe it's the fact that Reno's usually so happy that makes seeing him sad such a heartbreaking sight. "Oh, sir..." I remembered what Commander Veld had told me. I wasn't entirely sure how to go about it, but it was worth a try.

Pushing myself up, I sat down next to Reno and awkwardly attempted a hug.

"Rookie, what in the hell are you doing?"

I blushed and pulled back quickly, very embarrassed. "Commander Veld said you needed a hug, sir."

Reno stared at me. After a few minutes, he smiled. "You know, rookie, you're kinda weird and I wish you wouldn't call me 'sir' all the time, but you're probably one of the nicest people I've ever met. Thanks."

That made me feel about a million times better.


Chapter 4

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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