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Variations Chapter 4

A Minor Interlude

When we got back to Shinra Headquarters, Tseng was on the helipad, presumably waiting to debrief us. "How'd it go?" he shouted over the beating the helicopter blades.

"Fine!" I yelled back, climbing out of the helicopter and stretching. I'd attempted to sleep on the helicopter, but hadn't had too much luck, as the ride over wasn't nearly as smooth as it was on the company jet.

"Good! Now go to bed!" Tseng instructed, pointing to the private elevator down to the forty-eighth floor.

"Don't you want to debrief us, sir?" I asked, the helicopter blades whipping my hair around in front of my eyes. I brushed it back irritably.

Tseng shook his head. "I just did. I'll get the details tomorrow. Go get some rest. You did well today."

I almost thought about protesting, but fell silent. It felt like midnight, though I didn't know what time it was in Midgar. I was tired. Waving to Tseng, I jogged across the roof to the private elevator and stepped on.

"Some first day, huh, rookie?" Reno asked wryly, yawning. "God, I'm tired."

I nodded, rubbing my eyes. "I hate to ask you this, sir, but do you happen to know where my apartment is?"

That's what the forty-eighth floor is. It's like one floor of an apartment block. There are about two-dozen apartments, for about eighteen or so Turks. Five of us, including me, are relatively new recruits. They stagger the rate at which we enter the company though, so we aren't all doing the same first mission at the same time. I guess I was the last of the six, and I had no idea where my apartment was. Honestly, this would be my first time living alone. I'd grown up with my mother in Sector Seven, then had gone to reform school when I was about fourteen. Then I'd entered the Academy five years later and lived in a small military barracks for four years.

"Shit, rookie. I don't. Do you have a card key yet?"

"Yes, sir. I just don't know for which apartment."

Reno rolled his eyes. "Damned company always forgets the details. Well, I'll help you out, I guess. It won't be too hard. All the newbies are in the south end anyway, down the hall from the lounge. You'll be in one of the six apartments there."

The elevator chimed as we arrived on the forty-eighth floor. The doors opened into a moderately sized common room, with couches, tables, and chairs, as well as a big screen (a really big screen) TV on one wall, bookshelves, and a gas fireplace.

"The lounge," Reno specified. "Or that's what we call it, at least. It's just a place to sit around if you aren't doing anything and don't wanna be not doing anything alone."

"Uh...right."

Reno gestured to a hallway on the far wall, next to the TV. "Down there are the apartments for the fifth and sixth classes. That's you. Off the lounge, down the hallways on either side, are the third and fourth classes. That's me and Rude. And back there," he gestured over his shoulder to a hallway next to the elevator, "are the first and second classes, like Tseng and Loretta. Commander Veld lives somewhere else."

"Ok, sir. Which apartment is mine?" I asked, following him as he headed down the hallway to the fifth and sixth class apartments.

"Hmm..." Reno squinted at each of the doorways. "Well, I know the one in the corner is Rodney's. And next to him is Samantha...so all the sixth classes are on that side, because St. Andrew's across the hall."

"But I thought I'd been promoted, sir."

"Oh. Well, in that case, don't get too comfortable, because you're gonna be moving across the hall pretty soon. Someone will probably drop by with your new card key tomorrow, probably. Soon as your promotion goes through."

I nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Well, good night, rookie. See ya later."

"Good night, sir," I answered, stifling another yawn and passing my keycard in front of the scanner beside my door. I heard a click as it unlocked and pushed it open. It was dark inside and I was unfamiliar with the layout of the place, so I flicked on the light switch beside the door. The place looked fairly standard; hallway, kitchen, living room, and the bedroom and bathroom in the back. It was all furnished too, in a tastefully understated kind of way. I suppose most Turks come from a background where they don't own much furniture of their own. Needless to say, I'd never owned a couch in my life.

I wasn't overly concerned with furniture, however, as I turned the hall light off again and wandered back to the bedroom. The bed was a single and the narrow closet had six other uniforms, all hung neatly. Tugging off my jacket, I sat down on the bed and kicked off my shoes. Throwing my jacket onto a chair in the corner, tugging off my tie, and pulling off my dress pants, I yawned widely and crawled under the blankets, curling up and falling almost immediately asleep.

I woke up to bright sunlight and a persistent banging on my door. I rolled over and stared up at the east-facing picture window over my bed, which I had forgotten to close the curtains of last night. It was a lovely feature, but at the moment I didn't appreciate it very much. Pushing myself up, I brushed my bangs out of my eyes and stretched. The pounding on my door persisted and I groaned, getting up out of bed and padding across hardwood floors in my stocking feet to answer the door.

"Welcome wagon!" my neighbor announced brightly when I opened the door a crack.

My neighbor is Samantha Hartigan. I was in the Academy with her. She's one of the people who enters the Turks from a wealthy, opulent background and, as such, gets to bend some of the rules. I don't particularly like her. She's a snob and exhibits an air of thoughtless superiority wherever she goes. Standing in my apartment doorway in only my underwear, socks, and dress shirt, I felt more than a little out of place next to her designer jeans, jewelry, and this gauzy little silk number I presume she called a shirt. "Uh...hi, Samantha."

"Oh, darling, did you just get up?" Samantha asked, her eyes wide and innocent. "I'm sorry, I thought you would've been awake by now. It is half past nine, after all...I've been up since six doing my yoga."

"Mmm hmm. Well, I got in at three last night from a mission in Junon. I was rather tired."

"Well, I am sorry, dear. I just came with a little welcome basket of things. Would you mind if I stepped in?"

"Uh..."

Samantha pushed the door open and brushed past me. "My, my, but your apartment is bare, dear. I had our interior decorator from back home in Mideel come and do mine. Daddy even footed the bill as a housewarming present, so I wouldn't have to delve into my own hard-earned funds. Would you like his card? He's a charming fellow."

"I'm all right, thanks," I answered, following her into the living room. My living room. "I only just moved in last night."

"Oh well, then I'm sure you'll dress the place up somehow. Though on a sixth class salary, that would be rather difficult. I like to think my apartment is rather original. But then, I've got some decent credit cards." Samantha busied herself arranging the contents of the basket. "Now, there are a few things in here, to tide you over until you get a chance to go shopping for yourself...let's see...a gift certificate for the exec restaurant on the fiftieth floor. You really must try their tiramisu, love, it's simply divine. Though I'd hardly ever consider using a gift certificate. Not when I have the means to pay for a meal myself."

"Uh, yeah." I don't even know what tiramisu is.

Samantha started setting various items on my little coffee table. "Let's see...shampoo, conditioner, soap...the showers are lovely. Massaging showerheads. Not like the Jacuzzi we had back home, but still, rather nice."

"I'm sure it's better than the ice cold showers we had at the Academy," I pointed out, spotting something on the table in the hallway.

Samantha giggled. "Actually, dear, all it took was a little flirting with the instructors and I was taking my showers in the VIP bathrooms."

"Oh." I wandered over to the hallway and noticed a golden-brown manila envelope with my name scrawled on the front, just in front of the door. I picked it up and tore it open, only half-listening as Samantha continued to prattle about the contents of the basket she'd brought and dumping the contents into my hand. A plain white keycard and a small jewelry box fell out, along with a handwritten note.

"Samantha," I interrupted, skimming the note and smiling. "It's really sweet of you to come over and all, but I'm only in this apartment temporarily. I'm going to be moving across the hall."

That halted Samantha's babbling and she blinked at me. "No, sweetie, that's for fifth class Turks," she explained, still managing to sound patronizing.

"I know. I am one."

"But you graduated at the same level as me!" Samantha protested. "You couldn't possibly have..."

I opened the jewelry box, displaying a pair of shiny obsidian cufflinks, the indication of rank in the Turks, and handed them to Samantha. The sixth classes have plain cloth covered buttons. "Dear Rosalind," I read aloud, picking up the note. "For your commendable efforts in averting the crisis in Sector 8 and your aid in disabling the Junon Cannon, the administration has rushed your promotion to fifth class. Congratulations and again, welcome to the Turks. Sincerely, Senior Commander Veld."

Smanatha was stunned into silence for a moment. I can't put in words just how happy that made me. "W-well, how lovely for you, darling! Naturally, the first promotion isn't really that important, but still..."

"Oh, I know," I said modestly. "But Reno said that the first one usually takes a few months of grunt work."

The large, fake looking smile Samantha's face had frozen. "Isn't that lucky," she said finally. "How nice you get to skip all of that."

"Well, I'm sure I'm missing out on a lot of valuable experience gained from all the patrol work sixth classes do. It's very character building, if nothing else." I couldn't resist that final jab. "Now, I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me, but I've got to get packing. It's a short move and I don't have much stuff, but still."

Samantha got up, still smiling. "Indeed. Well, I'll leave you to that, then. See you later, dear."

"Ta ta!" I waved cheerfully as Samantha let herself out, still standing in just my socks and dress shirt. I was feeling shamefully good. I reread the note Commander Veld had included. I considered having it framed. Turning it over, I saw another message scrawled on the back.

Hey, rookie, congrats on 5th class. I wasn't sure the Commander was serious. Glad he was though. You deserve it.

From Reno, obviously. No one else called me rookie. Actually, I didn't really know anyone else, so it had to be from him. It made me feel even better. I folded the note and tucked it snugly in the jewelry box. Then I went to go pack my things.

I found some boxes in the closet in the bedroom and tossed a few pairs of shoes from the bottom of my closet in, then started to unload the clothing from the dressers. It was the only thing that was actually mine; leftover clothes from the academy. Mostly shorts and t-shirts with the Shinra logo on them, for training. Some sweatpants for sleeping in, as well as socks and underwear. I don't own all that many clothes, so I didn't manage to fill the box. Hesitantly, I added the rumpled jacket and pants and the combat boots I'd changed out of the night before. The ones in the closet were freshly laundered and pressed, so I didn't want to be folding them and putting them in a box.

Reluctantly, I decided to make two trips. I made the bed neatly, then picked up my box and carried it into the living room, grabbing my new and old keycards and cufflinks, throwing the old card and the cufflinks in the box, clamping my new card in my teeth, and shouldering the door open.

It was only three meters across the hall, but I really would've sooner made the trip without an audience. However, as soon as I stepped out, an unfamiliar voice greeted me. "Hey! Here, let me help you with that."

My box was removed from my arms and I was left staring (rather stupidly, I thought) at the tall, good-looking fifth-class from across the hall. I still had my key card in my mouth. I spit it out promptly and blushed. "Uh...hi, sir."

"Hey. Are you Rosalind?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

He laughed easily, shifting around so he braced my box against his hip and proffering a hand. "Not 'sir.' You're fifth, too, aren't you?"

"O-oh, yes, I suppose I am, uh..."

"St. Andrew," he supplied, smiling.

I accepted his handshake, still embarrassed. "St. Andrew. I think I remember you, from the Academy."

St. Andrew laughed. "Right. Not many people forget this hair." He gestured at his head.

I didn't really know how to answer that, because that was how I'd recognized him. St. Andrew is about thirty, tall, attractive, and devilishly charming. It's hard to explain St. Andrew's hair. It's bluish-black, for starters, but that's not what makes it distinct. On one side, his hair is combed down and slick, perfectly in place. On the other, it's...not. It's like it's just been allowed to do its own thing, and that happens to be sticking out in all directions, and falling in a thick shock over the right side of his face. "Well...it does stick out."

Again, St. Andrew laughed, apparently pleased with this. "Well, that's what I was going for. You're cute, kid. Are you moving in?"

I nodded and went over to unlock the door. "Yes."

"Do you usually wear this many clothes?"

The realization that I was still only wearing my white dress shirt and socks came crashing down on me and I blushed bright pink. "Oh! Uh...yes...n-no! I mean...well, I...I j-just got up...uh..."

St. Andrew winked. "Well, then I'll have to try and catch you in the mornings, I suppose."

I blushed harder and unlocked the door of my new apartment. Far too many people were getting their first impression of me in my underwear.

"Where would you like your box?" St. Andrew asked, stepping into the apartment and glancing around. "Yup. Exactly the same as mine."

"Just anywhere," I mumbled, tugging on the bottom of my dress shirt, wishing it was longer.

St. Andrew seemed to sense my embarrassment and set the box down on the floor. "Well, it was very nice meeting you, Rosalind. I'll see you around."

"Y-yes, uh...thank you!"

"Hey, no problem. You call me if you ever need any help."

I nodded. "Yes, I will. Thanks."

I felt better once he'd left and I was alone in my socks and underwear again. Hastily, I pulled on a pair of shorts and exchanged my rumpled dress shirt for a plain Academy T-shirt. Brushing my hair back, I pushed the box across the slippery hardwood floors, through the living room and into the bedroom. The layout of the apartment was basically the same, except everything was bigger. The bedroom was larger, with a bigger closet and a double bed instead of a single. In addition there was a desk next to a chest of drawers. I poked my head into the ensuite bathroom. This had a shower, bath, toilet and sink, with ample counter space and a wide mirror.

I wandered back into the living room. I liked how the entire place had hardwood floors, though I would definitely need to pick up some rugs somewhere. Just to add a little something. The walls were a soft taupe color with a dark colored wood molding along the bottom. The couch and chairs were a darker gray-brown and the coffee table was of the same wood as the molding. The TV was of a fair size, about thirty-six inches. I don't watch too much TV, but it might be good for exercising.

I glanced over at the kitchen, which was separated from the living room with a counter. I don't do much cooking, either, but with a kitchen like that, I considered starting. There was nothing fancy or unnecessary, but definitely state of the art appliances. It was probably one of the nicest kitchens I'd ever seen.

At that point I remembered I still had to retrieve my other six suits and Samantha's welcome basket. I went back to my room and dug a pair of running shoes from the bottom of the box, pulled them on, crossing the hall quickly and retrieving my basket and suits. I hung my uniforms in the closet, then set the basket on the low coffee table in the living room, rummaging through the contents on my own. I took the various toiletries and brought them to the bathroom and started sorting through the other items.

A handful of gift certificates, the values of which made my eyes bulge. A thousand gil to spend at a clothing store on Main Street, a voucher from a tailor in the building for alterations to any of my uniforms, free tickets to sporting events all over the city, tickets to concerts, a universal parking pass, and free meals at countless restaurants. There were definitely benefits to being one of Shinra's elite.

In addition there was a box of nine millimeter ammo (my favorite), a brand new silencer, and a kit for gun cleaning. I was pleased. Someone obviously knew my weapon of choice.

Another person knocking on my door interrupted me, though I really hadn't been doing much of anything. I got up, glanced down to ensure I was fully-dressed, and then went to answer it.

"Hey, rookie," Reno greeted me cheerfully, wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt. "How's your new place?"

"Oh, it's very good, sir. It's kind of empty, but I have a lot of shopping to do, I think," I answered, displaying a handful of gift certificates.

Reno nodded. "Sounds great. You busy with that?"

I shook my head. "No. I'm not really doing anything right now."

"Gonna go train?" Reno questioned, gesturing at my shorts and t-shirt.

"No. Just...sort of sitting around, I suppose."

"Ah. Well, Tseng wants to debrief us, but there's no rush. I told him we might been in his office around ten, if he wanted to talk to us."

I stared at him. "You didn't make a definite appointment, sir?" I asked, stunned.

Reno shrugged. "Nah. If we're there, we're there. I was kinda gonna go run around the track a few dozen times, but if you wanna go now..."

"W-well, if he's expecting us, we'd better go!" I exclaimed. "I just need to get changed into a clean uniform...I haven't even written up a mission report yet...what time is it?"

"I dunno. Quarter after?"

"After what, sir?" I asked anxiously, glancing around my apartment for a clock. There was one above the stove and I gasped. "We're already late! Do you think he'd let me write a mission report after being debriefed? I need to get changed. I'll just be a minute..."

"Rookie, it's just Tseng. He doesn't care what you're wearing. You could go naked, if you wanted. It's casual Friday."

"Sir, it's Tuesday," I protested as Reno took me by the arm and pulled me out into the hallway.

"Oh. Casual Tuesday then. It doesn't matter. C'mon, rookie."

I couldn't explain. Not to Reno, at least. I couldn't present myself to one of my superiors out of uniform. It simply wasn't done. It was both disrespectful and against company policy. "B-but, sir..."

Reno sighed. "Rookie, if you get in any kinda trouble for appearing out of uniform, I'll take the heat. Now, c'mon."

Hesitant but relenting, I allowed myself to be dragged along to the elevator. "You really don't think he'll mind?" I asked nervously, as the elevator rose up to the sixty-third floor, where Tseng's office was located.

"Nah. He's probably not in his office yet anyway. Things are usually slow after big missions, so he probably spent the morning at home."

"At home? He's still in his apartment, you mean?"

Reno shook his head. "Nope. Tseng lives in Sector Three with his family. He only uses his place on the forty-eighth floor when we're running overtime, for big missions, and he needs to catch some sleep in between crises."

"Oh." I was surprised. I didn't know Tseng had a family, but then, he was my superior, so his personal life was none of my business.

The elevator chimed and we stepped off, Reno leading the way through the hallways to Tseng's office, greeting just about everyone he passed. All the secretaries waved at him and giggled, higher-ranking Turks called good mornings, and anyone else smiled or nodded in acknowledgment.

"You know an awful lot of people, sir," I remarked, shyly returning the obligatory greetings that were passed on to me, frankly amazed.

Reno shrugged and grinned. "Doesn't take much. They all see me from time to time and you just have to say hello once for it to become a routine. This is Tseng's office."

I followed him through an oak door with Tseng's name on it, into a medium sized office with a desk and filing cabinets, comfortable chairs, and papers and files scattered all over the desk beside a computer. Tseng wasn't there, so I sat down in a chair in front of the desk to wait. I glanced up at the clock. It was twenty after ten. "Do you suppose we missed him, sir?"

"Nah," Reno answered, shaking his head as he wandered around the room, looking at the maps on Tseng's walls. "He'll be here by ten-thirty. If not, we'll catch him later."

I nodded absently, glancing over the things on the desk. There were several paperweights, rocks painted in bright colors, a nameplate half-covered by papers, and at least a dozen pictures of Tseng with his family, a blonde woman and a little girl of about five. I glanced up at the bulletin board above his desk. Most of it was covered with schedules and data and statistics, but the bottom corner seemed reserved for drawings from his daughter. I returned my attention to the pictures on the desk. He certainly had a beautiful family.

I looked up sharply as I heard Reno pulling open one of the drawers of the filing cabinet. "Sir! You can't go in there!" I protested, looking over my shoulder, expecting Tseng to walk in any minute.

"Pfft. Not locked. I just wanna know what's in here," Reno explained unconcernedly, rifling through the files. "Hmm...oh, hey! These are personnel files!"

"Then they're private! You shouldn't look at them," I exclaimed, horrified. This was definitely breaking company rules.

Reno ignored me and pulled out a brown manila file. "Hey, here's your file, rookie! Let's see what the boss people have to say about you..."

I jumped up and made a grab for the file, but Reno was too quick for me. "Sir, give that here!" I demanded.

"Oh, hush, rookie. Probably clean as all hell, knowing you..." Reno scoffed, flipping the file open. "Rosalind Jessica Kramer, twenty-three, five foot six..."

"Give that back," I pleaded, grabbing at the file again.

Reno dodged across the room easily, and continued reading. "You're my recruit, it's my job to know what's what with you," he declared righteously. "This is a really cute picture, by the way. Your hair was shorter then. It's nice."

"Sir, please don't look at that." I was begging now. There were things in my record I really didn't want Reno to know about.

"Rookie!" Reno exclaimed, flipping to the next page of my record. "You've got a rap sheet! What'd you do, get a parking ticket? Walk on some off-limits grass? Or go sixty-six in a sixty-five zone?"

My cheeks flamed red and I hung my head as he sat down on Tseng's desk and skimmed through the contents. "Don't look at that..." I begged half-heartedly.

Reno was silent for a long few moments, then he whistled. "Good god, rookie. Disturbing of the peace, disorderly conduct, vandalism, perjury, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, bribery, petty theft, burglary, joy riding...and the list goes on! You've got everything but grand theft auto on here!"

"There's a second page," I muttered.

Reno flipped the page and skimmed through it quickly. "Rookie, rookie, rookie..." he murmured, shaking his head.

"I was young!" I objected, ashamed of myself. Growing up in the slums of Midgar didn't offer many wholesome distractions for a girl my age. I was a rather rambunctious teenager. "I'm not...proud...of my past. My father put me in reform school when I turned fourteen. I straightened out after that."

"That's the thing, rookie. You were still a minor when you did all this. I wasn't more than eighteen before I started committing my first felonies. Had a lot of misdemeanors. No felonies though."

"Y-your first? You have a record too, sir?" I asked incredulously.

Reno laughed. "Hell, rookie, mine's longer than yours! Not by much, though. Most Turks have criminal records. It's only us talented ones that Shinra gives the choice of work or jail to though. Let's us turn our lives around. I was a thief, mostly. If you were ever robbed in Sector 7, I apologize. Tseng used to be a computer hacker and a pirate. Rude was an extortionist. That's like a contortionist, except he tied other people in knots for money. There are rumors that Commander Veld was an axe murderer."

"I...I don't do things like that anymore," I explained, embarrassed. "Really, I don't. I just..."

I didn't get a chance to give any further explanation as Tseng came into his office, briefcase in one hand, lunch bag in the other. "Good morning, sorry I'm late," he apologized brusquely. "Off my desk, Reno. And stay out of my filing cabinet."

Reno obediently returned the file and winked at me. "Sorry, Tseng. Just getting bored of waiting."

"Mmm," Tseng acknowledged distractedly, sitting down at his desk and straightening some papers, setting his briefcase down and popping it open, rifling through it and taking out some papers. "Traffic was wretched this morning."

"Oh, I know," Reno agreed fervently, rummaging through Tseng's lunch bag and swiping an apple.

Tseng gave him a mildly patronizing look. "No, you don't. And stay out of there, too," he chided, taking his lunch and dropping it in a drawer.

Reno grinned and tossed the fruit from hand to hand. "So what'd you need to know, Tseng?" he asked, dropping into the chair next to me and propping his feet up on the desk.

"Just details, mostly. We know most of what happened. A few things just need to be clarified. First of all, why'd you run off after the bomber?"

"Thought he was Shears," Reno explained languidly, attempting to spin the apple on his fingertip. "Wanted...y'know, to beat the shit out of him."

"Mmm...hmm...agent recognized ringleader of aforementioned terrorist group...took opportunity to dispatch him," Tseng muttered, writing this down.

"Didn't get him, though." Reno shook his head regretfully. "I would've, if he hadn't taken the rooftops. Damned bastard."

Tseng nodded absently. "Agent...failed...in termination of terrorist," he said aloud as he wrote.

"Failed is such a harsh word," Reno protested, biting off a chunk of apple.

Tseng shrugged. "It's true, though. You'll get him next time."

"Yeah, I guess. All right, what else?"

"I really don't have all that many questions for you. About the man with the shovel though...was he a civilian, do you think, or an Avalanche who'd stolen civilian clothes?"

Reno paused to consider this, chewing thoughtfully. "I really don't know," he said finally. "I'd originally thought it was the latter, but I suppose it's possible that he could've been a member of the Junon populace. Shit, though. Do you think they've got supporters within the general population? How could they? They're bloody murderers!"

Tseng shook his head. "Shinra is just piecing together a general study of Avalanche. We don't know much of anything yet, but we're working on it. When we've got more information, we'll brief all of you."

"Gotcha," Reno nodded, apparently satisfied.

"Now, Rosalind..."

"Uh...just a second, Tseng," Reno interrupted hesitantly. "About...yesterday, with the President..."

Tseng shuffled the papers on his desk briskly. "Not your fault," he said firmly. "He gave you a direct order in the interests of the safety of Midgar. Any Turk in your situation would've done the same."

"W-well...yeah, I guess, but he said..."

"The President said a lot of things he didn't mean," Tseng answered, before Reno had a chance to finish. "None of it will reflect on your career. He was angry. He didn't mean anything he said."

"He didn't have to say half of it," Reno muttered bad-temperedly, slinking back into a dismal mood. "I don't care what he meant."

Tseng sighed and didn't answer, turning to me. "I only have a few questions for you as well, Rosalind. Just a bit of clarification. On estimate, how much damage do you think you did to the underground security system?"

I blushed. "W-well...I did try to hold off a bit, sir, but it was kind of difficult...I probably wrecked about a dozen robots and the trash compacter. Though I don't think I did any damage to the computers."

"A dozen robots, rookie?" Reno echoed, bad mood dissipating. "Shit."

Tseng smiled. "We just need to know some details about how you took them down, so we can design better ones in the future."

My jaw dropped. Better robots? "Only on the condition that I don't have to go back down there, sir."

Tseng laughed. "No, certainly not. Security is being upgraded. The situation shouldn't arise where you have to go back down there again."

"I hope not, sir. I shot most of them, but the clone was kind of tricky."

"CPU in the lower abdomen?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir. Once I realized she was just mimicking me, it really wasn't difficult to take her down."

"Uh...huh. I'll get my notes down to engineering. It's possible they'll want to talk to you too."

"All right, sir. Really, sir, I didn't do all that much. It was Sephiroth who..." I trailed off, remembering. "Elfe! Sir, in the control room, before Sephiroth got there, there was a woman. Her name was Elfe and she claimed to be the leader of Avalanche."

"A woman?" Tseng frowned. "These attacks are ruthless. Our psychologists hadn't attributed them to a woman. What's she like, Rosalind?"

I shuddered. "Terribly strong. She would've killed me, if Sephiroth hadn't come. He said she had great energy. I was supposed to inform my superiors of such."

"Sephiroth's a freaky bastard," Reno declared.

"He's also the strongest warrior this company's ever seen," Tseng pointed out. "The First Class SOLDIERs are in a whole new class of military prowess."

"Screw military prowess. The Turks are a hundred times more subtle than SOLDIER," Reno maintained. "There are Turks who were better than he'll ever be!"

Tseng sighed. "The two classes are entirely different. You can't compare the SOLDIERs to the Turks, because the two factions have entirely different means, motives, and methods of operating. We'll probably need more and more of them as the situation with Avalanche progresses."

Reno snorted indignantly. "You've got to be kidding me. All you can tell SOLDIER is 'Go there. Smash that.' That's not the way to win something like this. You've gotta take it apart, piece by piece. Using SOLDIER...it's like trying to fix a watch with a sledgehammer."

Tseng rolled his eyes and stared up at the ceiling for a few moments. "Don't worry. We're not being replaced."

Reno snorted again but fell silent.

"Is there anything else you need to know, sir?" I questioned, fidgeting slightly.

"No, that's pretty much it. We knew most of what was going on. Thank you very much for your time, agents," Tseng said politely, straightening the papers on his desk.

"Oh. All right, sir. Glad I could help," I answered, getting up and saluting.

Tseng stood up and shook my hand. "Congratulations on your first mission, Rosalind," he said sincerely. "Watching you work almost makes me wish I was back in the field again."

"You're not a field agent, sir?" I asked, slightly surprised. I had thought Tseng only worked part of his job from behind his desk. I didn't think his position was completely administrative.

Tseng shook his head. "No. I've no business being out in the field when I have a wife and daughter at home."

I nodded. That made sense. "I understand. I saw the pictures of your family, sir. Your daughter is beautiful."

Apparently this is the easiest way to get on Tseng's good side, because he absolutely beamed at me. "Isn't she? She looks just like her mother. She'll be six next month."

"What's her name, sir?"

"Dakota. She wants to be an artist. Her mother has a fantastic talent for painting, so she's been nudging her in that direction ever since she could hold a paintbrush. Before that, even. Some of these are finger paintings."

I laughed. "I noticed, sir. Well, she's a beautiful little girl."

"His wife's hot, too," Reno remarked, grinning at Tseng. "Gonna have any more kids?"

Tseng glared at him, but I don't think he was entirely serious. It's hard to be mad at Reno. "You shut up, or I'll break your legs."

"Duly noted, sir." Reno threw a snappy (and completely mocking) salute.

I blushed slightly and attempted to excuse myself. "W-well, I've got some shopping to do, so I'd better go...I'll see you later, sir."

"Yeah, I gotta go do some running," Reno agreed. "You in for Friday, Tseng?"

Tseng shook his head. "Can't. Dakota has a piano recital. I'll be there in spirit, however."

"It's not really spirit that counts, now is it? Oh well. In that case, I'll see you when I see you."

I'd waited for Reno to finishing saying goodbye to Tseng, because I had some questions. I voiced the first once he came out. "Uh...sir? Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, rookie. What's up?"

"I need to go do some shopping," I began, fidgeting slightly. "And I don't have a car. Could I maybe borrow yours, or something?"

Reno shrugged. "No can do, rookie. Don't have one. None of the Turks do."

I blinked. "We don't, sir?"

"Nah. Don't need 'em. There's no commuting in this business. If we need to go somewhere, we borrow company cars. There are a bunch of cars in the company parkade. The fourth floor has vehicles for us. Anything black is pretty much ours. SUVs, sports cars, sedans, convertibles, minivans, motorcycles...anything you want to drive."

"Oh. Well, that makes things easier for me, I suppose. How do I borrow one?" I questioned, relieved I wasn't going to have to buy a car of my own.

"Go down to the Parkade, D Level. Talk to Lloyd. He'll have something cute for you. Sign it out and tell him how long you think you'll be gone. Just so he has an idea of what you'll be up to."

"I'm just going shopping, sir."

Reno grinned as we reached the elevator, punching the down button, stepping on and pressing the button for a floor eleven stories down, and then another for the parkade. "Well, don't tell me, tell him! I'm gonna do a few dozen laps around the track downstairs."

"Oh. Well, all right, sir. I'll see you later, sir."

"Yup. Have fun, rookie."

"You too, sir."

*

One of the good things about being part of the Turks are the long periods of inactivity between missions, during which we're free to train, enjoy the company of other Turks, and basically do whatever we want. I'd spent the first little while of my free time shopping. Although it wasn't really shopping as I spent very little money, mostly using gift certificates. I'd very nervously gone to the clothing store that I'd received a certificate for, hoping to pick out some jeans and maybe a new tie, only to be whisked away by a personal shopper, who loaded me down with everything from evening wear to tiny little pink pajamas I could hardly imagine myself wearing (I've spent the past decade of my life in uniform) to designer sweaters. I couldn't very well say no to the woman, after she'd done all that work picking out clothes for me, so I took it home. At least most of what she'd picked was comfortable.

Another thing I discovered is that, outside of the company, most Turks don't really have all that many friends. Certainly, within a company of ten thousand employees, it's not to say we're all socially dysfunctional, we just don't function as well with people who aren't Shinra. We don't even do well with people who aren't military. So I guess that's why most of the friends I made in my first few days are fellow Turks. As such, I found myself participating in all kinds of different friendly activities. Once I got used to it, it was quite fun, but the first incident might not have been the best way to get me involved with my colleagues.

It was around ten Friday night, a few days after the Junon incident, when there was a knock on the door of my apartment. I was bewildered to who it could be, but I pulled on my housecoat (over my tiny pink pajamas, which consisted of shorts and a tank top) and slippers and went to answer the door anyway.

"Heya, rookie," Reno greeted me cheerfully when I opened the door.

"Good evening, sir," I answered politely, more out of surprise than any real need for formality. I wouldn't normally have been surprised, except that Reno wasn't wearing anything except his midnight black dress pants. No shirt, tie, shoes, socks, sunglasses, or watch.

"What's up?"

I was a little flustered. I'd since gotten a bit better at talking to Reno, but that was when he was fully clothed. He seems as casual about clothing as he is about rank. "W-well, nothing much, sir. I was just reading a book, actually."

Reno nodded vigorously, but I could tell he wasn't standing half naked in the hallway because he was curious about my habits before bed. At least, I hoped he wasn't. "Oh, that's nice. Is it a good book?"

"It's a manual on how to clean and maintain an AK-47."

"Oh." I think I sometimes disappoint Reno. When he says "book" he thinks "novel." When I say book, I think anything with two covers and pages. "Did you need something, sir?"

"Uh...oh, yeah. I had a question. You ever play poker?"

"Poker, sir?"

"You know, the card game? Five-card stud, seven-card draw, penny ante, straight poker? Ever played?"

I shook my head. "No, sir, not really. I mean, I kind of know how to play, I suppose, but I've never actually..."

"Oh, that's all right! It's not hard to pick up, really. You wanna come play a few rounds in the lounge?"

"Uh...well, I don't know sir. Who're all playing?"

Reno waved a hand diffidently. "No one important. Me, Rude, Cyr, Samantha, St. Andrew, and Rodney."

That didn't sound so bad. Only three of the six out ranked me. Rude and Reno were third. Cyr was a fourth. St. Andrew was a fifth class, same as I was, and Rod and Samantha were still sixth. "I suppose I might, sir. Except I haven't got any money on me right now..."

"Oh, that's all right too. We don't play for money. So are you in?"

"Uh...I guess so, sir."

"Great!" Reno approved, beaming at me. "One more question."

"Yes?"

"You wearing underwear?"

This caught me off guard. "Sir!" I objected, embarrassed.

"It's just a question, rookie."

"W-well..."

Reno rolled his eyes. "C'mon, rookie. Lighten up. Tops? Bottoms? Both? Neither?"

"B-both, sir," I answered, cheeks flaming.

"Oh. Really? Isn't that terribly uncomfortable to sleep in?"

"I manage okay, sir," I mumbled, starting to regret my decision. I didn't know what was behind these questions, but I certainly didn't like them.

"Oh. Well, good, I guess. You'll be in the game longer." Reno took me by the wrist and pulled me into the darkened lounge, grinning at the other Turks, sitting around one of the tables. "See, I told you she'd come! My rookie's a trooper!"

There were various murmured greetings from around the table. The lights were low, so it was hard to see everyone. I sat down nervously, next to Reno. "Uh...hi," I said shyly.

Someone flicked on a lamp and I could see the faces around the table clearly. St. Andrew beamed at me from the opposite side. "Good evening, Rosalind. Nice pajamas."

I blushed. "Thank you."

"I think introductions might be in order, Reno," a rich-voiced woman with long, dark hair and big, dark eyes said, with a trace of a foreign accent in her speech.

"Oh! Hey, I guess you don't know most of these guys, hey rookie?"

"Just St. Andrew and Samantha. And you, sir," I answered timidly.

Reno gestured around the table. "Well...let's see...next to you, there, is Rude, my partner. Say hello, Rude."

Rude grunted and held out a hand in greeting. I was a little bit shocked. I couldn't tell for sure, since I was sitting down, but Rude was probably about a foot taller than me. I could see muscles bulging underneath the jacket of his suit, his skull shaved bald, and his eyes hidden by dark glasses. The hand that swallowed mine when we shook hands was rough and calloused, and I could tell he was being careful not to squeeze my fingers too hard. "A pleasure," he said finally. His voice was surprisingly quiet. "Reno's been babbling about you for a while now."

"Reno babbles about a lot of things, sir," I answered, not thinking.

"Hey!" Reno protested.

Rude smiled at me, just a little. "How true."

I covered my smile with my hand. "I didn't mean it quite like that, sir," I apologized.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Anyway, next to Rude is Rodney. He doesn't talk very much, but you might've seen him in the Academy. He was in the same time you were, weren't you, Rodney?"

The young man looked up with no expression on his features. And yet somehow, he seemed to convey a definite air of malice. I shuddered slightly. I remembered him. I remembered his violent bursts of temper, his mouthing off to instructors, his overall unpredictable personality. He was about my age, lean and hard, and his eyes glimmered brightly beneath the bangs of his shaggy reddish brown hair. Those eyes were too hard and cold to forget. "Let's just play some cards," he said softly.

"Right, right. We will, just as soon as Rosalind knows everyone. Next to Rodney is St. Andrew, who you appear to be acquainted with...then Samantha, you know her, of course...and here we have Cyr. A veritable blossom of sparkling feminine beauty if I've ever seen one."

"Charmed, I'm sure, Rosalind." Cyr chuckled throatily. She was a beautiful woman. Tall and exotic looking, around St. Andrew's age, a very good-looking thirty. Well-muscled, but not bulky. "And ignore Reno. He's been saying things like that ever since my shirt came off," she added demurely.

With that remark, I seemed to realize that everyone at the table were in various states of undress. Cyr was sitting, quite unconcerned, in only her dress pants and a lacey black bra. Samantha was giggling vapidly next to her, her shoes and socks abandoned with her suit jacket on the couch behind her. St. Andrew was missing his white dress shirt and shoes, and Reno had only his pants on. Only Rude and Rodney appeared fully clothed. I was suddenly very nervous. "Uh...er...sir, just what kind of poker game is this?" I asked anxiously.

"You didn't tell her?" St. Andrew asked, looking affronted. "That's awfully bad form."

"She didn't ask!" Reno countered, smiling disarmingly at me. "It's strip poker, rookie. And I don't think you have anything to worry about, because aside from Rude and Rodney, you're the most dressed person here."

Rude shuffled a deck of cards. "Have you ever played poker before, Rosalind?" he asked politely.

"Umm...n-no, not really, sir," I stammered. "I mean, I kind of know the rules...but..."

"Dirty trick, Reno, bringing in a rookie player," Cyr chided. "You only did it because you're losing."

"She'll pick it up!" Reno asserted staunchly. "I brought her because I think she'll have fun. You should know I have absolutely no objections to full or partial nudity."

Cyr snorted. "Oh, of course, just so long as it's on the part of anyone else."

"No, I'm perfectly and totally comfortable with being naked. I think it's something that everyone should indulge in. I think if everybody were naked all the time, the world would be a much better place."

For some reason, that made me far more nervous than the idea of losing any of my own clothing. "I really don't know about this..."

"Aww, c'mon, rookie...please?" Reno begged. "Just a few hands...you can leave as soon as you're uncomfortable, that's the rule."

I fidgeted. "I'm kinda uncomfortable now, sir."

"At least give it a try. We'll go easy on you, we promise."

I gave in. After all, one round couldn't hurt. No one was close enough to nakedness for it to be that big of a risk. "All right, sir. I'll try my best."

"That's the spirit, rookie! You'll have fun, I know you will."

"Can't we just play the damned game?" Rod muttered from across the table.

Rude cleared his throat and shuffled the cards several times. I could tell from the way he handled them that he was a pro. "All right," he began, dealing the cards around. "Five card draw, threes and tens are wild. Ante with whatever you feel like."

I swallowed. I had only the vaguest idea what that meant. I scooped up my hand and stared at it blankly. Everyone else was shuffling their cards around, organizing them. Hesitantly, I moved mine around until they were in numerical order. I had a three, a four, a six, an eight, and a nine.

"All right. Everyone good? Rod, you open," Rude directed.

Rod tugged on his tie and everyone around the table nodded in acknowledgement. Samantha, sitting next to Rod, giggled and tugged on her tie too. I rolled my eyes as the betting moved to St. Andrew.

"Umm...my socks, I think," he said, after studying his cards. "Not risking too much of my dignity on a hand like this."

Cyr smiled and toyed with a strand of her long dark hair. "Mmm. I like what I have. I think my pants shall go next."

St. Andrew smiled slyly at her. "You're pure sin, Cyr, you know that?"

"Yes. I do. Reno? Are you in?"

"Well, if the stakes are that high I damn well have to be, don't I?" Reno studied his cards, brow furrowed. "Hmm...do I have to match Cyr?"

Rude shook his head. "Considering how lousy you are at this game, no. We'll let you off this time."

"Good. My dog tags, then."

"Rosalind?" Rude prompted me gently. "What do you want to open with?"

"O-oh...w-well, I don't know...my housecoat?"

Rude nodded. "All right."

Reno tapped my shoulder. "See, rookie? Not so bad, is it? Now, this is the point in the game where we all talk, because, as you'll notice, Rude takes absolutely forever to decide what to bet."

"You'll also notice that, while Reno is half naked, I haven't lost an article of clothing yet," Rude commented, staring at his cards from behind his sunglasses.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. When'd you meet St. Andrew, rookie? I didn't know you knew each other."

St. Andrew scooped a handful of pretzels from a bowl in the middle of the table and bit one in half. "I met her when she moved in. Helped her with some boxes. A box, actually"

I nodded, thankful he hadn't mentioned that he'd seen me in even fewer clothes than what I had on now. "R-right. I remembered him from the Academy."

"Ah, right," Reno nodded. "Of course, you weren't in there long, were you?"

"Who me? Nah. I had enough experience from previous work."

I was curious. "What did you used to do?"

St. Andrew shrugged. "Bodyguard for Don Corneo."

"Don Corneo!" I repeated, shocked. "That disgusting lech? He sells Shinran secrets! Probably to terrorists!"

"I know, I know," St. Andrew said, nodding and holding up a hand. "But you know where he gets those secrets? His girls find them out from Shinra Exec. So he's not entirely to blame."

"But still!" I continued, feeling strangely righteous. "I mean...why would you continue working for someone like that, if you knew he was involved in something so immoral?" For me, it's more immoral to sell Shinran secrets, than it is to promote prostitution. I grew up in the slums. There, it was considered as much of a job as begging or stealing.

St. Andrew grinned mischievously. "The benefits were really, really good."

Reno laughed at this, but I remained unconvinced. "Still..."

"Hey, it's no big deal, Rosalind. I'm on the right side now, aren't I?" St. Andrew glanced at Cyr again. "And the benefits aren't so bad here, either."

Cyr stared at St. Andrew, dark eyes smoldering. "I don't really think you could handle me."

Rude grunted. "And before things heat up any further, I believe I will wager my jacket. Now who wants cards? Rod?"

Rod shook his head and laid his cards face down on the table. "I'm out."

"Samantha?"

Giggling again, Samantha held up two fingers. "Two please!"

Rude laid two cards on the table in front of her, and took the two she'd discarded. "All right...St. Andrew?"

"Three."

The cards were exchanged and Rude glanced at Cyr enquiringly. "Still feeling good?"

"I feel simply wonderful," Cyr said, smiling. "I'll keep what I have."

"Reno?"

"I'll take two."

"What about you, Rosalind?"

I stared at my cards blankly, and hesitantly removed the nine, laying it down in front of me. "I guess I'll take one."

"Just one?" Reno questioned, leaning over to peer at my cards. "Whatcha got?"

I hastily pressed my cards against my chest and Rude reached over and jammed his thumb in his partner's eye. "No peeking," he said firmly, handing me my card.

"Hey! Ow! Jesus!" Reno swore, clamping his free hand against his eye.

"And the dealer takes two," Rude said placidly, ignoring his partner.

"Ow! Hey, bastard, that hurt!"

"Oh, get over it," Rude scoffed. "Samantha? Fold, stand, or raise?"

Samantha glanced at her cards. "Mmm...I believe I will raise." She paused dramatically. "But I'd like to sweeten the pot a little." Another dramatic pause. I took the opportunity to roll my eyes again. "My father is very well acquainted with one of the promotions officers. I'm sure it would be no trouble for him to finagle a promotion for whoever wins this hand."

St. Andrew whistled lowly and a silence fell over the table. I sensed something more to this, as Rude glanced at Reno, who was staring blankly at his cards. "No," he said finally. "We don't bet like that. Revoke it."

"It's not like it's anything I can't afford..." Samantha began.

"Samantha, we aren't playing that kind of game," Cyr interrupted firmly. "Our promotions should be earned. Not bought."

"Oh, phooey," Samantha pouted, putting her cards down. "I'm tired. I don't want to play anymore." Pushing her chair back from the table with a loud scrape, she scooped up her clothes and stalked off to her apartment.

For a moment no one said anything. Then Reno spoke up. "Heh. Touchy, isn't she?"

"Just a little," Rude agreed shortly. "St. Andrew?"

"Huh? Oh...yeah...I think I could stand to risk my jacket."

"Cyr?"

"Mmm...I'm going to stay. I'll save the bra for a hand I know I can't lose."

"What about you, Reno?"

Reno shrugged. "Stand."

"Rosalind?"

"O-oh...I'll stand...stay. I'm good."

"Uh...huh..." Rude glanced at his cards. "And I believe I'll call. What's everybody got?"

St. Andrew made a face as he laid his cards down. "Measly pair of tens."

Cyr was practically purring as she displayed her hand. "A full house."

"I almost have a straight. Does that count for anything?" Reno asked hopefully.

"I've got two pair. Sevens high. Rosalind?" Rude prompted. "What have you got?"

I blushed and glanced at my cards. "Nothing, I don't think," I muttered, embarrassed, laying my cards down.

Rude leaned over and examined them. "Rosalind, what you have is called a straight flush," he informed me.

"What?" Reno exclaimed, staring at my cards. "Shit. Oh, shit. She's a natural."

Cyr laughed delightedly. "Seems your plan backfired, Reno. Take his dog tags, Rosalind. I get to peel St. Andrew out of his jacket."

"Uh?" I glanced at Rude for clarification.

"The two highest hands get to take the wagered pieces of clothing from the two lowest hands," Rude informed me. "Unless they choose to let the losers take off their clothes on their own."

 I glanced over at Cyr, who looked to be having a thoroughly enjoyable time removing St. Andrew's jacket, taking her time. I looked at Reno and blushed.

"Oh, go on, rookie. It's just my dog tags." Reno cast a glance at Cyr, who was busy with St. Andrew's chest. "Unlike the synchronized strip team over there."

"Hey, she's the only one enjoying this," St. Andrew objected, as Cyr rubbed her hands all over his back.

I grinned awkwardly and reached over, lifting the long chain of Reno's dog tags from around his neck. They were still warm from being against his bare skin. I made to hand them back to him, but he shook his head. "Nah, you hang onto them for now. I'll just forget where I put them. I really hadn't counted on you being a natural, rookie."

"I'm sure it was just a fluke, sir. I'll probably start losing in fairly short order."

Unfortunately, this turned out not to be true, because after three more successive hands, during which I lost only my housecoat, St. Andrew, Cyr, and Reno all lost their pants and were sitting in their underclothes, Rod forfeited his tie, and even Rude lost his jacket.

"I'm really sorry. I really don't know how this is happening," I apologized nervously, adding St. Andrew's dog tags to the pile of clothing behind my chair. "It's just luck, I guess."

Reno shivered. "Y-yeah. Luck. Is it cold in here, or is it just me?"

Shuffling the cards again, Rude chuckled. "It's just you."

"No, I think the air conditioning just kicked in," St. Andrew explained, rubbing his fingers up and down his bare arms. "Definitely cold in here."

Cyr just smiled. "I'm quite warm, actually."

St. Andrew reached out and touched her arm. "Good god, you are. How do you do that?"

"Your hands are cold!" Cyr exclaimed, slapping St. Andrew's hand away. "Don't you touch me."

"Are we gonna play another hand or what?" Rod growled. I really don't know why he was there. A friendly game of strip poker doesn't seem like the sort of thing that would appeal to him.

I glanced over at Reno. "I think I might go to bed, actually..." I said slowly, standing up and stretching. "I'm kind of tired."

"Oh. All right. Well, good night, Rosalind. It's been fun playing with you," Rude said courteously. "You really do have a knack for the game."

Cyr laughed. "Indeed. I look forward to the next time we beat the pants off the boys."

"G'night, Rosalind," St. Andrew called cheerfully as I gathered up my housecoat and pulled it on.

"Yeah, have a good sleep, rookie. Hate to say it, but thanks for leaving!"

I laughed. "Right, sir. I'll see you tomorrow."

I headed down the hallway to my apartment. I felt good. It had been fun playing with Reno's friends. My friends too, it seemed.


Chapter 5

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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