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Variations Chapter 6

A Major Interlude

Midgar is truly a beautiful city. I lived most of my life in Lower Midgar, oblivious to what was above me, but the city truly is a wonder. It's a marvel of engineering, to say the least. Whoever had the idea of putting all the utilities and things that normally pollute and dirty a city beneath a plate...well, it isn't so good for the people who are forced to live there, but it sure makes for a beautiful city on top. The architecture of some of the buildings is second to none and those in charge do everything they can to keep the city as beautiful as possible.

The parks of Midgar are incredible. Entire landscapes have been built on top of the plate, rolling hills, forests, even rivers. They're all artificial, of course, but it makes them easier to manage and no less beautiful. In autumn, the leaves burst into the colors of flame and the last dying flowers all come together to create what's quite possibly the most colorful landscape in the world, all under a sky that's never touched by smog and is always a  different pale shade of blue. It was another lull. Avalanche weren't trying to destroy the lives of thousand people and I was so thankful that just about everything was beautiful.

One evening, during this beautiful lull, Cyr came by, dressed in jeans and a sweater, to invite me to come have a picnic in the Shinra Memorial Park next to our building.

"We're all just going to bring a few things and have some fun," she explained, a heavy picnic basket on one arm. "It's wonderfully childish, don't you think?"  

"I've never been on a picnic," I confessed.

Cyr blinked at me. "Really?"

I shrugged. "My family didn't really do things like that. After my mother died, it was just my dad and me, and he stuck me in military school at the first chance he got. In any case the slums of Midgar aren't really very scenic."

"What a shame..." Cyr murmured sympathetically. "Well, then, we'll make sure this one is nice for you. Come along, Rosalind. Do you have anything in your fridge you'd like to contribute?"

"Umm..." I hesitated. I really don't cook much. "Well...I don't have much, but I did pick up a chocolate cake at the store yesterday. I'd be glad to share that."

"Oh, wonderful," Cyr approved. "You can't go wrong with chocolate. You may want to grab a jacket though. Midgar is chilly in autumn. Come on, now. They're waiting for us down in the parkade."

"All right. Just a minute." I closed the door and ducked into the kitchen, opening the fridge and retrieving my cake. I probably wouldn't have been able to eat it all anyway. I grabbed a denim jacket and pulled it on over my t-shirt, following Cyr down the hallway to the elevator.

Cyr smiled at me, lifting the lid of the basket. "Put it in there. Samantha has the other basket. I wonder if it will be enough, given the way the boys eat."

"I'm sure it will. I mean...they can't eat all that much, can they?"

"Well, you've never been on a picnic." Cyr winked at me and headed for the elevator. "You'll see."

I'm very fond of Cyr. She's a wonderfully free-spirited person and very nice. We were talking in the lounge, once, and I learned she's from Mideel, like Samantha is. Except she's a native of Mideel. Samantha lives there because her family bought a big old manor house, from back in the days when it was a colony of Midgar. Cyr was born and raised there and has a beautiful, rich Island accent, dulled only slightly by her years in Midgar. It's almost hypnotic to hear her talk. She's been a mercenary since she was sixteen, taking down poachers in the jungle. For someone as young as she is, she's had an incredible life. And she knows a lot of things about people.

"Do I need to bring a blanket or anything?" I had this image in my mind of a family, picnicking in a park with a blanket. I'd never had the experience. It's lucky I'm not a melancholy person, or thinking about it might've made me tear up.

Cyr shook her head as we rode the elevator down. "Reno took care of that. He couldn't cook to save his life, so he said he'd bring anything extraneous."

"If he doesn't cook, how does he eat?"

"People give him things, mostly." Cyr shrugged. "A lot of people like Reno. He tries very hard."

I arched an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Cyr glanced at me. "You learn things, watching people. If you watch him, you can see he very much needs to have people like him. He covers it up very well, but his self-esteem is rather weak."

"It really doesn't show."

The elevator chimed and the doors opened as we reached the parkade, so Cyr just nodded. Two sleek black SUVs were pulled up right in front of the elevators and the back door of one opened up. Reno appeared through the sunroof, beckoning to Cyr and I. "Hey, right on time! C'mon, the other car's full."

"Reno, you sit down," Cyr ordered as she loaded her basket into the back. "You'll get stuck." Sometimes, Cyr can be very maternal. I suppose it comes from living in the type of society that Mideel has.

Reno grinned at her. "Yes, Mom. C'mon, rookie, and meet the new guy!"

I climbed into the back of the SUV with Cyr close behind. Tseng was driving and he smiled at me in the rearview mirror as he followed the other car out of the parking lot. In the back was a new Turk, older than me, in a polo shirt and dark cargo pants, he smiled at me shyly as I buckled up. "Hello. I'm Rafe."

I liked him immediately. There was something about his smile that made you feel comfortable. He had darker skin and hair, spiked in the front. To say nothing of the fact that he was as least as well-muscled as Rude, if a little stockier. "My name's Rosalind."

"She likes you," Reno informed him, glancing in the rearview mirror. "She didn't call you 'sir.'"

Rafe's smile broadened and I blushed. "I'm glad. Who's the pretty lady beside you?"

Cyr smiled warmly. I could tell she liked being called a lady. I'm sure "pretty" didn't hurt either. "I'm called Cyr. It's a pleasure to meet you, Rafe."

"What do you do, Rafe?" Of course, I knew what he did. But that's the way you ask what a Turk fights with. It sounds better than, "How do you like to kill people?"

"I'm a pugilist, through and through," Rafe informed me.

"Really?" Nothing captures Cyr's interest more easily than a fellow fighter. Their conversation drifted into the waters of different martial schools and techniques. I only half-listened until we reached the park and Tseng had pulled into he parking lot.

Rafe climbed out and held the door for Cyr and I. I don't think anyone's ever held a door for me in my life. "I'll get the basket you brought, Cyr." Rafe is definitely a gentleman.

The other SUV pulled into the parking lot and Rude climbed out of the driver's seat. "Did you have a second picnic basket in your car? We didn't, and just one won't be enough."

"Yeah, Cyr brought it," Reno announced, unloading the back of the car we'd taken, passing a pile of old, faded blankets to Tseng and picking up a cooler himself. "Did you get a football or anything?"

St. Andrew tossed a football from hand to hand and grinned. "Absolutely. You ready to have your ass kicked?"

"By you? Fat chance."

Samantha climbed out and latched onto Rod's arm, looking up at him and giggling. I blinked. This was a new development. I guess they must have been going out or something, because Rod didn't make a move to shrug her off. "Are you going to play football, Rodney?" she asked kittenishly.

Rod nodded once. What a strange couple they make. I can't imagine what Rod sees in Samantha. "Let's go."

Cyr swept her long dark hair into a ponytail and sighed, relieving Rafe of her picnic basket. "Come on, Rosalind, Samantha. Let the boys tear each other to pieces. There'll be more for us to eat anyway."

"Aww, come off it, Cyr. We just wanna have a little fun," St. Andrew protested, passing the football to Rude as Reno made a grab for it.

 "Oh, of course. And leave us to do all the work," Cyr sniffed.

"You're women. You're used to work."

Another thing about Cyr is her extremely volatile prejudices. I'm fairly sure St. Andrew was teasing when he said it, and didn't really deserve to be kicked in the stomach, but Cyr knocked him down and planted a running shoe on the side of his head anyway. "Andrew, dear," she began sweetly, "because you've been in an environment where women are subservient and adhere to your every whim for so very long I'll assume you're obviously unused to the true workings of the world and be nice about this. Don't be a chauvinistic pig. I don't like it. Understand, dear?"

"R-right. Sorry, Cyr."

Cyr helped him up and even brushed the gravel from the front of his sweatshirt. It hadn't been an unfriendly confrontation. It was just Cyr making a point the best way she knew how. Maybe that's one of the reasons Turks do better with their own kind. Our conduct would be looked on as unacceptable on other fronts of society.

"Well! There's absolutely no reason why women can't play football," Reno declared brightly. "Cyr, angel, would you be on our team?"

"Involve myself in some Neolithic, testosterone-imbued skull-bashing contest with you sweaty, stinky males?" Cyr wrinkled her nose distastefully. "No, thank you. Come along, Rosalind, Samantha."

I couldn't help but smile as I followed Cyr down the hill from the parking lot and to a shady, wooded area, next to a pond. The air smelled so wonderful. It was cool out, but not cold, and I was warm in my sweater. Leaves carpeted the ground and would be nice and soft beneath the blankets we'd brought.

Cyr took charge immediately, organizing things. "Take off," she commanded imperiously when Reno strayed a little too near her picnic basket. "You'll eat when we're ready."

"Does Cyr remind anyone else of a drill sergeant? We just wanna help set up..."

"Oh, go on and play," Samantha urged, giggling. "We can handle this. You boys go have fun."

St. Andrew grinned. "Don't need to tell us twice."

"Hey, wait!" I yelled as the six of them took off for the field at the edge of the forest. I looked at the tangled heap of blankets that had been dumped on the ground, the two stuffed picnic baskets and the cooler. "They could have helped us out..."

Cyr shrugged and picked up a blanket, shaking it out and lying it on the ground. "Oh well. The lulls never last. We may as well enjoy the peace while we can."

Samantha tossed her hair and stretched out on the blanket Cyr had laid down. "I agree completely. Midgar is lovely in autumn."

"Mmm. Rosalind, start unpacking the picnic baskets. I want to see what we have."

I obeyed, kneeling down on a blanket and carefully unloading the contents. There was an awful lot of food, all of it picnic type things. "Do you go out for picnics, often, Cyr?" I asked. Unpacking her basket made my mouth water. "You seem to be a very good cook."

Cyr smiled, pinning down the corners of the blankets with rocks. When she'd finished, we had a soft little island, with room for all of us to be comfortable. "I enjoy spending time with my friends."

Samantha squealed as she opened up the cooler. "Ooh, someone brought wine. Oh, let's have a glass! Please, it so reminds me of home...sitting on the verandah with Mum and Daddy, having a nice white zinfandel..."

I don't understand half the things Samantha talks about. A zinfandel sounded like some sort of airship. Regardless, she'd already retrieved three glasses and was pouring a pale pink wine for each of us. "Here you are, Cyr..." Samantha glanced at me. "Did you want some, Rosalind? Or does wine make you sleepy?" She giggled. I refrained from scowling. So what if it makes me sleepy?

"I'll have half a glass, thanks. I've never been all that keen on alcohol." I'm really not. I avoided alcohol and drugs religiously when I was growing up. I'd seen what it could do to people. It's too big a risk to get mixed up in something like that, living in the slums. It might take the edge off living in a hellhole, but it's not worth what you pay.

"Mmm...what a charming bouquet this has." Samantha took a deep breath and sighed lustily. She makes no sense. In my world, a bouquet is flowers. "Probably about an '87, from somewhere near Gongaga...wouldn't you agree, Cyr? Isn't it just thrilling?"

"It's lovely, yes," Cyr murmured, shooting me a brief smile. "But I picked it up at the liquor store down the street. It's only five years old and from a vineyard near Kalm. Friends of mine own it. I'll tell them how much you enjoy it."

Samantha blushed delicately, then laughed. "Oh well. I never was really all that good at wine tasting. My daddy was, though. He said it was the mark of a cultured man to enjoy the delicate kiss of Chardonnay, or the throaty resonance of Bordeaux."

This didn't offend me. I knew my father wasn't cultured. My father was a military man. Military men, to the best of my experience, aren't cultured. As such, my father drank hard liquor. Bourbon, mostly. "My father liked his liquor hard. He always said wine was for men who couldn't handle the hard stuff."

I hadn't meant this offensively. After all, it had be something he'd said to me when I was younger. I probably should've thought before I said it, because I think Samantha took it the wrong way. Naturally, she answered in kind. "Well, I suppose, if my daddy had had a job like your father's, I'm sure he would've been drinking too."

"My father is a colonel in Shinra's military," I answered coolly. My father and I might not be close, but he's still my father and I didn't particularly like Samantha's tone.

Samantha laughed airily. "Well, of course he is, but it's more of an honorary title, these days. I mean, since the war, he's worked a desk job in promotions, hasn't he?"

I don't know how Samantha knew these things. Yes, my father works behind a desk now, but that did nothing to detract from what he'd done when the world had been war torn. I hadn't the slightest idea what her father did. But I sincerely doubted he'd helped fight wars. "What does your father do?"

"Oh, darling, you must be joking!" Samantha exclaimed, laughing at me again. "My father is Richard Emerson Hartigan the Third, owner of Hartigan Steel! He's been Shinra's primary supplier for years and years now."

"I've never heard of him."

Samantha arched an eyebrow at me, but shrugged. "I suppose, knowing where you grew up, you might not have..."

This was too much. It was one thing for her to insult my father, but it was entirely another for her to know and be disdainful of me because where I grew up. It wasn't my fault I'd grown up on the streets of the urban third-world. I was going to say something and it wasn't going to be nice, but Cyr interjected smoothly.

"My father was a fisherman. I grew up in a tiny village on the edge of an island with nine brothers and five sisters. We were very poor, but we were very happy. I have no idea who Richard Hartigan is either."

That made Samantha shut up. It made me feel a bit better, too. I didn't know Cyr had come from a background of poverty. It wasn't quite the same (she'd had a family to share it with), but it was nice to know she knew what it was like to be poor.

I didn't know where to steer the conversation from there, but it turned out there was no need, as Reno suddenly ran up, vaulted over the three of us, and scrambled up a tree.

St. Andrew and Tseng caught up seconds later, wheezing and panting. "Wh-where'd he get to?" St. Andrew demanded, doubling over with his hands against his knees and gulping air.

Cyr shrugged and sipped at her wine. "Where did who get to?"

"Oh, come on, Cyr! Reno's got our football. Now where's he gone?"

Samantha giggled and pointed at the tree. I shot her a dirty look. If Cyr hadn't said anything, I certainly wasn't going to.

"Ah. Right. Thanks." St Andrew went over to the tree, a big old monster with low, thick branches, and squinted up into the canopy. "C'mon, Reno! Get out of there!"

"Hell no! How come whenever I get the ball it's all of a sudden tackle football?"

St. Andrew sighed exasperatedly. "Because you run damn faster than any of us!"

"And you think having the three of you tearing after me, out for blood is supposed to give me incentive to slow down?"

Tseng sat down on the blanket next to me to catch his breath. "He does run very fast," he told me, massaging a stitch in his side and accepting the glass of wine Cyr handed him.

"Well, that's not my fault," Reno protested. "And I'm not coming down until Rodney learns that there are no switchblades in football."

"He didn't have a switchblade!"

Reno snorted derisively from up in the tree. "Oh, right. I saw it. He's got a switchblade and he's looking for an excuse to stick it in me. I'm not coming down."

Rude and Rafe climbed up the low slope to where we were sitting, evidently having realized how futile an endeavor it was to chase Reno. "When do we eat?" Rafe questioned, sitting down next to Cyr.

"Now, if you boys are done with your game," Cyr answered, handing out more wine to Rafe and Rude.

St. Andrew kicked at Reno's tree sullenly. "Well, we've got no choice, if Reno's not going to give back the football."

"You want the football? Well, why didn't you say so?" Reno pelted the ball down at St. Andrew. I'd like to think he wasn't really aiming for him and that the football bouncing off St. Andrew's head was a fluke, but I don't believe that was the case.

Rod had joined us, sitting down next to Samantha and putting a hand on her hip. She giggled and looked up at him adoringly. "Would you like some wine, Roddy?" she asked girlishly.

Rod shook his head and took a flask from his jacket, unscrewing the lid and taking a long drink from that. I suppose a girlfriend like Samantha would make me reach for the hard stuff too.

"Well, I'm hungry," Tseng declared, glancing up at the sky. "The sun's already starting to set. We might as well eat while we can still see what we're eating."

"Agreed," Rafe added, reaching for a piece of fried chicken.

Cyr beckoned to St. Andrew, who was still glaring up at Reno. "Come on, Andrew. Reno isn't going to come down with you glowering at him like that. You may as well come eat."

"Hmph." Reluctantly, St. Andrew came over and joined us, sitting down beside Cyr and rubbing his head. "Throw a football at me," he grumbled, accepting a glass of wine. Cyr had opened a bottle of something dark and red. "He can stay up there 'til he starves for all I care."

"I'm sure he'll come down sooner or later," Cyr said placidly, helping herself to coleslaw and potato salad. "And you leave him alone when he does."

St. Andrew rolled his eyes. "Yes, mother."

"I'm not your mother, St. Andrew. I'm sure you've heard the expression, 'the face only a mother could love?' Well, I am not particularly fond of your face, and thus, I must not be your mother."

Rafe chuckled. "And so, through a series of logical proofs, we learn that Cyr is in fact not St. Andrew's mother."

We all ate in silence for a while, until Reno finally climbed down and came over, sitting beside me and eyeing St. Andrew cautiously. "It's cold up there."

Cyr smiled benevolently and continued to pour wine. "It's getting kind of chilly, yes. Maybe we'll have a fire, when it starts to get dark. Midgar is very beautiful at night."

Samantha giggled. She was on her second glass and I don't think she's entirely used to a strong red wine. For me, even the pale stuff had been a little heady and I'd quickly switched to water. "Who's heard about the party Shinra's giving?"

Tseng arched an eyebrow. "You know about that?"

"Darling, I've known for ages," Samantha laughed, waving a hand. I thought I heard Rod sigh. Once again, I wondered why on earth they were together. "I get all kinds of news from Daddy's executive friends."

"Oh. I only found out yesterday. Well, yes. Shinra are throwing a small dinner party for the exec. We're all invited."

This was news to me. There had been nothing party-going in my job description. I couldn't think why we'd been invited. None of us had anything to do with executive decisions. "Why are we invited, sir?"

Reno grinned at me. "Because we're armed and dangerous, but we look good. Parties are good targets for terrorists. Sure, SOLDIER are tough, but they really detract from the atmosphere of a party."

"Oh. So we just go in uniform and patrol?"

"Well...I guess you could go in uniform if you wanted, but a little black dress would be a lot cuter. You'll be expected to mingle and make conversation."

"You're kidding aren't you, sir?" I asked skeptically. "Where would I put my gun?"

Reno shrugged. "Wear it in plain sight. Get a dress holster."

St. Andrew nodded in agreement. "Something simpler and less bulky than a regular holster," he clarified. "They make some pretty nice ones for ladies."

Samantha giggled again. "Rufus Shinra's going to be there. He's so gorgeous."

I glanced at Rod, but he didn't seem bothered by this. Maybe they weren't actually a couple and Rod just had his hand on her leg to be friendly.

"It's not really a party for us. It's more like a standard job," Tseng explained. "You'll be briefed, just like anything else."

Cyr shivered and looked up at the sky. "I would say it's dark enough for a fire. Let's pack all the food up."

Tseng cleared his throat. "Hang on a minute, Cyr. I suppose now is as good a time for this as any..." Tseng reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a gray jewelry box, passing it to Rude. "Congratulations on second class, Rude. Sorry I wasn't very official about it, but you know how things are."

Rude accepted the box and nodded. "Thank you, Tseng."

Cyr laughed and saluted. "So you're Rafe's commander! Well, a toast to Rude, then!"

Samantha clapped delightedly. "Oh, how delightful! A second-class commander will look wonderful on my record. Congratulations, Rude!" She nudged Rod in the ribs. "Say congratulations, sweetie."

Rod grunted noncommittally. "Congratulations."

St. Andrew reached over and shook Rude's hand warmly. "I was wondering how long it would be before you were promoted. Good work, Rude."

"Thank you everyone. But it's really not that big a deal," Rude said firmly.

"Aww hell, Rude. Of course it is. You've been waiting a long time for this, partner. You deserve it. I'm happy for you."

I glanced over at Reno. You wouldn't have been able to tell from the sound of his voice, but there was something decidedly melancholy in his eyes. I remembered what Rude had told me in Costa del Sol. I guess this must have been hard for him.

"Thanks." Rude cleared his throat in the awkward silence that followed. Samantha looked a little confused, but seemed to at least have the sense not to say anything.

Cyr drained her wine glass, sighed, and resumed tidying up. "St. Andrew, if you'd be so kind as to go get some wood?"

"No, it's all right. I'll go," Reno volunteered, getting up.

"Do you want some help, sir?" I asked, half-standing.

Reno hesitated. "Nah...it's okay, rookie. You stay here, I'll be back."

"Oh. All right, sir." I sat back down and Reno headed for the trees, moving out of sight in the darkness.

Rafe got up and helped Cyr move the blankets around, closer to a low fire pit, lined with stones. "Am I missing something, here?" he asked lowly. To his credit, he picks up on things very well.

Cyr shrugged. "It's a complicated thing. Don't worry about it. You and St. Andrew go get some wood."

"But I thought Reno went...?"

"No. He wants some time alone."

I've mentioned before how it makes people feel lousy when Reno's depressed. I felt the beginnings of that starting. I'm sure everyone else must have felt it too, because of the silence that had fallen.  I got up. "I'll go talk to him."

Tseng glanced up at me. "Are you sure, Rosalind?"

I nodded. "It couldn't hurt."

"All right."

I got up and headed in the same direction Reno had taken. It was darker beneath the trees, and quieter. This was a manmade forest, but you'd never know it. The trees were tall and thick, and the ground underfoot was carpeted with leaves that whispered and crunched as I walked. I caught up to Reno at the edge of the woods, wandering down a concrete pathway, shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. "Sir?"

He looked up sharply, then relaxed when he saw it was only me. "Oh...hey, rookie."

"What are you doing, sir?"

He shrugged. "Just...walking, I guess. Clearing my head."

"Oh...well, could I join you, sir?"

"If you want to, I guess."

I caught up and walked alongside him, up the winding concrete path. It was one of the trails that cyclists used, during the day, and it just led deeper into the park. It was quiet, except for the faint chirping of crickets, the occasional rustle of the wind in the trees, and the muted noises of traffic across the park. Eventually, I spoke up.

"Sir?"

"Mmm?"

"I just had a question, sir."

Reno glanced at me. "All right, rookie. Shoot."

"Your dog tags, sir. I noticed when we were playing poker, the other night. They just have your first initial, not your first name..."

"Yeah, I know. It's legit. Didn't they ask you when you got yours whether you wanted your full name or not?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir, they did, but that's not my question. Well...if you don't mind me asking, what is your first name?"

Reno gave me another sidelong glance. "You want to know my name? No one's ever really asked me that."

I was surprised. "No one, sir?"

Reno shrugged. "Well, a few people. I've never told anyone, though. Did you want to know?"

"Oh...well, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, sir," I objected. "I was just wondering, is all."

"No, it's all right. I don't mind if you know. What do you think it is?"

"It begins with J, right sir?"

"Yeah, that's right."

"Hmm..." I squinted at Reno. There are certain names that fit certain people. For example, I don't think Reno looked like a "James." Rude could maybe be a James, but not Reno. "Jason?" I guessed.

"Nuh uh."

"Jeremy?"

Reno shook his head. "Do I look like a 'Jeremy' to you?"

For some reason, it pleased me that he understood how different people fit their names. "All right...Joshua?"

"Eww...Joshua? Really?"

"Well, I don't know all that many J names, sir," I objected, smiling.

"It's an easy one."

I don't know what he meant by "easy" exactly, but I kept guessing. "Jack?"

"Nope."

"You kind of look like you could be a Jack, sir."

"Maybe in another life."

I was really running out of J names. "Umm...John?"

"Jonathan. Never John, never Johnny."

"Jonathan," I repeated. It hadn't been entirely what I was expecting, but it suited him, somehow. I would've expected Jonathan for someone a little quieter, a little less assertive, but it worked for Reno. "Why don't people call you by your first name, sir?"

Reno shrugged. "Same reason people don't call St. Andrew by his. They don't know it. No one I felt like telling ever asked; I've never felt the need to tell people. Honestly, rookie, the only person who ever called me by my first name was my mother."

"Is she...I don't mean to pry, sir, but is she...dead?" I questioned.

"Dunno. I woke up one morning and she was gone. Never saw her again. She wasn't really much of a mother. And I've never met my father."

"Oh." I could kind of relate to that. My father had nothing to do with me, when I was growing up. The first time I met him was after my mother died, when he came to pick me up and drop me off at the military academy. "My father was in the military, when I was younger."

"Guess your dad wasn't home much, huh?"

I shook my home. "Never. He...didn't live with my mother and I. I grew up in the slums."

"Oh." His eyes narrowed shrewdly. "The slums...so your mom was a...?" he trailed off and left the end of the question open. I knew what he meant, though.

I nodded once, shortly, staring down at the concrete path. "Yeah."

"Oh." Reno was silent for a few moments. "Mine too."

I looked up. "Really, sir?" I asked tentatively. I wasn't entirely sure he knew what I'd meant. It's hard to find people who know what it's like to have a prostitute for a mother. No one ever wants to admit it and if you tell anyone, they look at you differently. My mother wasn't a bad person. People have to resort to desperate things to survive in the slums of Midgar.

"Yeah. I grew up in Sector Seven, beneath the plate."

"Sector Eight," I admitted.

"Really, rookie? A nice kid like you?" he asked dubiously.

I shrugged. "Not so nice, back then, sir. You've seen my record."

"Well...I guess, but you can't really've been that bad if you cleaned up so well. I mean...goddamn, rookie, you're a sweet kid. I've still got sharp edges."

I shook my head. "So do I, sir. I lose hold of my emotions far too easily. I cry too much and I lose my temper with...uh...with the wrong people," I finished, remembering my past shouting matches with the President. "I need to work on that."

"Ah no, rookie. Don't change. I like you the way you are. People should let others know what they feel. It's a very rare quality," Reno told me sincerely.

I blushed. "W-well...I suppose so. I like how you are too, sir."

"Mmm."

I was quiet for a little while, glancing back down the pathway. We'd walked quite a long way, just talking. I didn't recognize where we were. "Sir..."

"Yeah, rookie?"

"I'm sorry you can't get second-class."

Reno was silent for a few minutes then sighed. "Rude told you, huh?"

I nodded, not sure what to say.

"It's not that big a deal, I guess. I mean...I can't do the stuff I'd need to be able to, for second-class. I know I can't be promoted and I'm all right with that...but it still feels like I'm getting passed over all the time. You know Loretta, rookie?"

"The woman you want to marry, sir?"

Reno laughed. "I don't really, rookie. Loretta's just an old friend. We were in the Academy together. She came in at fifth class when I did at third. And in two years, she passed me. And...I don't mean to sound like this, but I'm just as good as she is, probably better. But she gets more money, she gets a better apartment, and I'm the exact same place I was two years ago. I've never been promoted."

That made me feel bad. It's a wonderful feeling to be promoted. No Turk with Reno's skill and capacity (he had to be pretty good if he'd entered the company at third class) should've been denied it. By all rights, he should've been first class by now. "Why do they make the administrative duties mandatory, sir?"

"The company needs strategic administrators. People...like Tseng...who have worked in the field and know how to get Turks to perform. A second class Turk has the experience needed to do that."

I blinked. "If that's all it is, then surely you have that experience. I mean...I haven't worked with you for very long, sir, but I can tell you know what you're doing. You've been a Turk for five years, haven't you? And they won't promote you just because you can't manage paperwork?"

Reno spread his hands helplessly. "It's the way the company is, rookie. I can't change it."

"Well, I don't think that's fair, sir," I declared.

"I appreciate your support, rookie, but there are a hell of a lot of people who question the justice of it all and it's not like it does any good." He shrugged. "Nah. It's just something that gets to me every once in a while. It's all right."

"But..."

"Hey, don't go getting all bent outta shape on my account. I'm okay, rookie. Like I told you, I was just clearing my head. It helps to have someone to talk to. Thanks."

I was a little surprised by Reno's willingness to move past this, but I guess he's used to it. I was still stuck on the issue. "Well, you're welcome, sir, but..."

"Rookie, you can drop it," Reno told me, not sternly, but with a certain amount of firmness. "I think it's very sweet that you're ruffled by the whole thing, but drop it. It's not really such a big deal."

I started to protest again, but fell silent. Reno was fully aware of the injustice of the situation and my being indignant about it probably wasn't going to make him feel any better. "All right, sir."

"That's a good rookie," Reno approved. "C'mon, let's head back. It's getting kind of late, and everyone probably wants to head home. Believe me, they have no problem with leaving without us."

*

I went straight to bed when we got back from the picnic. We had gotten back just as everyone was starting to pack up. Samantha had fallen asleep and was snoring loudly. Rod picked her up and loaded her into the back of one of the SUVs. Cyr was wearing St. Andrew's jacket and St. Andrew was trying to look like he wasn't cold. Tseng was on the phone, telling his daughter a bedtime story, and Rude and Rafe were each driving.

I was surprisingly tired from a day full of indolent lounging, but I spent half the night awake, still upset by what I'd learned from Reno. I woke up the next morning and I was still upset. I stayed upset as I got up, showered, dressed, ate, watched some TV, tried to read a book, then finally decided that maybe going for a workout might take my mind off things. It didn't, so I decided I had to go talk to someone.

My father does work a desk job with Shinra. He's on the thirty-ninth floor, in the Promotions department. I haven't seen my father since he gave me a cursory congratulation at my inauguration. We really aren't close. Nevertheless, after an hour or so of training and a quick shower, I went down to his office to have a word with him.

He handles promotions. For company officials, for the military, for SOLDIER, for the Turks. He's one of a dozen other former officers who have stayed on with Shinra, and been shafted off into various pencil pushing jobs. I felt for him, but there was really nothing I could do. He wasn't cut out for today's military.

In any case, his office is a small, cramped space, with a stuffy waiting room and a snotty secretary. I came in around one in the afternoon and went to talk to his secretary. "Excuse me, miss? Could you tell Colonel Kramer that Rosalind is here?"

The secretary, a thin woman with a narrow face, looked me up and down appraisingly. I glanced down at what I was wearing. It was just jeans and a baby doll t-shirt, but apparently this made the wrong impression.

"Hmph," she sniffed. "If you're another one of those call girls, come to beg more money out of the colonel, I suggest you leave now, or I'll call security."

Call girl. I've been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. I sighed. "I'm not a call girl. I'm a Turk. Please, just tell him I'm here."

"There are other people here, who have been waiting for their appointments with Colonel Kramer. You have no right to jump the line," she informed me huffily. "You can either make an appointment or wait and see if the colonel has the time to see you."

I rolled my eyes. "I'm telling you, he'll want to see me. Just tell him I'm here."

"Oh, I'm sure he'll want to see you. Colonel Kramer is immensely fond of young women, but he has no right to call them to this office! Now leave, you wretched young hussy, or I will summon security."

"Hussy" was also a new one. I pulled my dog tags out from beneath my t-shirt and displayed them. "I am a Turk and I want to see Colonel Kramer! Please, it will only be a few minutes. Just tell him that Rosalind is here."

The secretary snorted. "I don't care who you are. You can wait your turn. Now there is a chair by the door. I suggest you go wait there."

I sighed and reached over, pressing the intercom button on her phone. "Colonel Kramer, it's me, Rosalind. Your secretary won't let me in."

The woman's eyes bugged and she swatted my hand away furiously, picking up the receiver. "Oh, you're in for it now, missy," she snapped.

"Send her in, Bernice," my father ordered gruffly.

"Thank you," I said triumphantly as the secretary's jaws worked the air furiously. I ignored her and proceeded into my father's office, small and lined with shelves of personnel files. He didn't look up from his paperwork as I entered.

My father is about fifty-six years old, with graying brown hair, a thick body, and a decidedly brusque manner. He treats everyone as though he were still in the military. It was he who taught me the appropriate precursors of rank.

"Hi, Dad," I ventured, sitting down in a chair in front of his desk.

"What is it you wanted, agent?" he asked shortly. He doesn't treat me like a daughter, when we're both at work. He doesn't even treat me like a daughter when we aren't. I don't think he ever wanted children. He has a wife, I think. I'm sure she's a nice lady, but frightfully naive if she doesn't know about all the affairs he has. My mother knew from the first time she saw him that this was not a man who would be tied to one woman.

I decided to get right to the point. There's absolutely no point in beating around the bush with my father. "I'd like a promotion, sir," I told him, lapsing back into the familiar formal address. It sounded more fitting than "Dad."

"Denied, agent," he answered, not bothering to look up from his work. "Was their anything else?"

"But, sir, I..." I began, but he cut me off.

"Rosalind, I cannot do 'special favors' for you, merely because of our relationship."

'Our relationship' was how he referred to the fact that I was daughter. If someone overheard, I guess it would be better for them to think that I was a call girl than his illegitimate offspring. "Please, sir, I don't ask you for much," I persisted.

"If you want a promotion, you can earn it, just like anyone else."

I shook my head. "No, sir, it's not for me. It's...it's for a friend of mine."

My father snorted. "Oh, well, that makes all the difference. If he wants it, he can work for it."

This was getting irritating. "He has worked for it. This company has passed him over dozens of times and promoted people who aren't half as deserving. All I'm asking is for you to consider it. Please, sir, I'm begging you..."

The colonel rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine. Who is it you had in mind?"

"Reno, sir. My superior," I answered eagerly. I hadn't honestly expected results this quickly.

My father muttered something and heaved himself out of his desk, going over to a shelf and taking out a binder, bringing it over to his desk, sitting down, and thumbing through it. "Reno...Reno...J. Reno?"

"Yes, sir. He's third class, but he's been so for two whole years now. He really, really deserves second. His partner just got promoted and he's terribly depressed about the whole thing."

Taking a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, my father quickly skimmed the record, muttering to himself as he read. His eyes skimmed the lines several times over, before he snapped the binder shut. "Nope. Sorry. Can't do it," he refused bluntly.

"What? Why not?" I demanded.

My father sighed and reopened the book, running a finger down Reno's profile. "Right here. He's mentally unfit for command and the responsibilities of a second class Turk are beyond his capacities. Now, I have an appointment at one thirty and I'm nowhere near prepared..."

"But, sir, why couldn't you just strike the administrative duties from the promotion requirement? There are plenty of commanders out there! Please, sir, he really does deserve this..." I pleaded.

"No, Rosalind. This discussion is ended," he said firmly. "Now, get back to whatever duties you have."

I got up, but didn't leave. "Dad, please..."

"Go, Rosalind, or I'll call security," my father threatened.

I clenched my fists angrily. I wasn't beaten yet. I was positive I was justified in my request, and I wasn't leaving until I made sure of that. Concentrating hard on the injustice of it all, I felt tears spring into my eyes. "I'm not leaving, sir," I refused bluntly.

My father sighed and got up, placing his hands on my shoulders and propelling me out the door. "I can't help you, Rosalind. I'm sorry," he told me curtly.

He slammed the door behind me. Perfect. I hadn't really intended to cause a scene when I came in, but I had thought of it as a last resort. I whirled around and pounded against the door. "You can't help me? Or you won't help me?" I shouted angrily, loud enough for my father to hear, and definitely loud enough for the rest of the people in the waiting room to hear.

"I don't ask for much! Not much at all! I think about you all the time, how my life would've been if you'd stayed to take care of me! But do I ever ask for anything? No, I don't!"

I was definitely giving the people in the waiting room a show. The intercom on Bernice's desk buzzed sharply and my father shouted for her to call security. Oh, dear. I didn't need anything like that. I decided to wrap things up.

"It's bad enough that you went and knocked my mother up, but you could at least have the decency to provide for me! You've been a damn lousy father and I..."

The door opened and my father yanked me into the room. He was furious. "This is blackmail," he hissed angrily.

"Call it what you like, Father."

My father scowled at me. "Fine, I'll give your stupid friend his promotion, but if he doesn't have the capacity to hold onto it, it isn't my fault."

"I want the administrative duties taken away," I declared stubbornly. "And I want you to rush this one. I want him to know by this evening."

My father spluttered indignantly. "I can't do that..." he began. I interrupted by screaming at the top of my lungs. He started violently and clapped a hand over my mouth. "All right, all right! I'll rush it! Now get out of here, and don't come back!"

I beamed at him. "Thank you, Father."

He scowled at me. "Did you learn nothing in military school?"

I shrugged diffidently. "They taught it out of me when I went into the Turks." Pleased, I threw my arms around my father's neck and hugged him. "Thank you," I told him sincerely, then I headed triumphantly out of the office, ignoring the stares of the people in the waiting room.

It was much later when the news came. I'd spent the day worrying about whether my father would keep his word, and what I would do if he didn't. I considered telling his wife about his indiscretions, but I was already twenty-three years old. Something from that long ago wouldn't matter...unless my father had been married for more than twenty-three years.

We were all in the lounge...well, not all of us. Reno, Rafe, and Rude were shooting pool, Cyr was reading, and St. Andrew and I were watching a movie on the couch. Samantha and Rod were off somewhere. I wasn't really concentrating on the movie. I kept chewing on my nails and glancing at the clock. The mail was due to be dropped off in a few minutes time. We get it every night at midnight, delivered to our doors. It's an odd time to get mail, but then, Shinra's an odd company.

"Are you waiting for something, Rosalind?" St. Andrew asked, glancing at me.

"Oh...just wondering when the mail's going to come."

St. Andrew gave me a strange look and squinted at his watch, comparing it to the time on the wall clock. "At midnight, same as always."

I blushed. "I just want to pick up my letters, before I go to bed," I explained awkwardly.

"You can wait and get them tomorrow, you know," St. Andrew assured me. "You're up past your bedtime. Aren't you usually in bed by ten?"

"Well...yes, I am, but...uh...I just wanted to...watch a bit of this movie, I guess," I answered, trying to decide whether or not that had been a good excuse.

St. Andrew stared at me. I was sure he was getting suspicious. "You haven't paid any attention to this movie. I doubt you could tell me who's even in it!"

I shrugged. "I probably couldn't. I'm very bad at recognizing actors."

"Leave her alone, St. Andrew," Cyr admonished, not looking up from her book. "Maybe she just wants company tonight."

"Oh, well then why didn't she just say so?" St. Andrew grinned at me and winked.

Cyr threw something at St. Andrew. "Because your definition of keeping someone 'company' is probably less than appealing to her. Leave Rosalind alone."

"Aww, I was just kidding," St. Andrew protested.

I was spared from any further comment as the elevator chimed and the mailman stepped off. "Mail call!" he announced, digging in the canvas bag at his side and pulling out a handful of letters.

The mailman wandered over to St. Andrew and I, handing us each small handfuls of bills. I fidgeted nervously as he continued around the room, passing out mail to everyone. "Well, that's all! G'night, folks!"

St. Andrew snorted and tossed his aside. "All bills," he said disdainfully, glancing at the letters I had. "Did you get anything interesting, Rosalind?"

I blinked and glanced down at my letters. They were just bills. "Oh...uh...no, I didn't."

"Are you sure? You must have something, if you stayed up two hours waiting for the mail..."

"R-really, I don't..." I protested, inching away as St. Andrew leaned over.

"Leave Rosalind alone," Reno admonished distractedly, putting up his pool cue and squinting at one of his letters. "You want something interesting? I got a letter here from the thirty-ninth floor..."

This got St. Andrew's attention. "Our thirty-ninth floor? Well, open it up!"

Reno shrugged. "It's probably just a mission notice, or something...except I thought all our orders came from higher up floors."

"So open it!" St. Andrew urged.

I turned around on the couch and watched as Reno tore the end of the envelope open and tipped the letter inside into his open palm. He unfolded it and scanned it quickly. His eyes widened and I watched as he skimmed it again. "If this is someone's idea of a joke," he said finally, "it's not goddamn funny."

Cyr's curiosity had been aroused. She got up and went over, taking the envelope and examining it. "It looks legitimate...the thirty-ninth floor...hmm. What goes on there?"

Reno looked absolutely bewildered, reading the letter again. "This doesn't make any sense...I mean...goddamn, I don't get it. Rude? Could you take a look at this?"

Rude took the letter and examined it, reading it over quickly. "Hmm. The same as mine, except...well, I don't know. You're right. If someone's messing with you, it isn't funny."

This wasn't precisely the response I'd hoped for. I climbed over the couch and went over to the pool table. Reno looked troubled and confused. "What's the matter, sir?" I questioned.

"Well, I...the letter...whatever the hell it is...says I've been promoted, but it makes no sense because I can't be."

"But what if it's legitimate, sir?"

Reno rubbed at the back of his neck. "It'd be great if it were, but it's not. I mean...it can't be."

I shrugged. "Maybe they changed some things, sir."

"Goddamn, rookie, quit getting my hopes up. It's not legit. It can't be," Reno insisted, but I heard the note of hopeful doubt in his voice.

"Hmm...I don't know. It really does look official," Cyr pointed out, peering at the letter.

Reno looked over at St. Andrew who was grinning at him like an idiot. "Damn you, St. Andrew, if this is one of your twisted jokes and you've bribed everyone into playing along..." he said threateningly.

"Hey, I had nothing to do with this!" St. Andrew protested, holding his hands up. "And you think I could get any of these people to play along with one of my schemes?"

"I had nothing to do with it," Cyr declared.

"Me neither," Rude added, shaking his head.

I shook my head and suppressed a smile, even though I'd have everything to do with it. It was a little white lie.

Reno took the letter back and stared at it. "M-maybe we could call Tseng...I mean...if it were legit...and I'm not saying it is...but if it were, he'd know about it, right?"

"Yeah," Rude agreed. "That's a good idea. I think he's still up in his office..."

At that moment, the elevator doors opened and Tseng spared us the trouble of calling him. He had a similar letter in his hand and a slightly perplexed expression. "Reno, did you just...?" he trailed off, seeing the letter Reno was holding. "Huh. Well, I suppose this must be legitimate, then. Hmm. Oh well. Welcome to second class. Congratulations."

Cyr laughed delightedly. "Oh, how wonderful! Congratulations, Reno!"

St. Andrew vaulted over the couch and slapped Reno on the back. "Hey, there ya go! Damn, I hate having a shrimpy little kid like you outranking me, but...well, I'll get there. Way to go!"

Rude clapped a hand on his partner's shoulder. "Congratulations," he said simply, but I could tell he was pleased.

"I think you people are all losing sight of the issue, here. I can't be second class," Reno insisted. "It would be nice, sure, but I've known for years now that I'm not cut out for those kinds of duties. So it's gotta be a screw up. Sorry to get everyone worked up."

This was not at all what I wanted to hear. Though I suppose if Reno was so firmly entrenched in the belief that he couldn't be promoted, it could be a bit difficult to get the idea through his thick skull. "Well, what does the letter say, sir?" I pressed.

Reno shrugged. "It's just a standard promotion notice, I think."

"How would you know? You've never seen one," I pointed out. "Let Tseng see it."

"Mine looked legitimate," Tseng added, taking the letter and reading it over. "Yes...it's exactly the same as a standard promotion letter...except it exempts you from all administrative duties. It's buried in legal language and formalities, but the way I understand it, it's just like a regular promotion. I'll check with Commander Veld...but I think it' safe to assume this is legitimate."

"I say again, congratulations, Reno!" Cyr repeated, kissing Reno's cheek fondly. "We all know you deserve it."

He finally smiled. I think he'd been hesitant to celebrate before, because of the chance of it being wrong, but it made me so happy to see him accept it. "You really do, sir," I added.

"Well...shit. Talk about being blindsided by something, eh? Christ, I never would've expected this in a million years. Who put me up for it, Tseng?" Reno questioned.

I paled slightly. I didn't know Tseng would have the name of the promotion officer on his copy, but I suppose it only stood to reason. Quietly, I started to sneak away, back to my apartment as Tseng scanned the letter.

"Let's see...by order of...ah, here it is. By order of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Kramer."

The statement fell on dead air and I winced, freezing as I felt my colleagues staring at me. I found myself sincerely wishing I hadn't opted to take my father's name when my mother died.

"Rookie..." Reno said slowly.

I turned around and blushed bright red. I fidgeted and stammered and stared at my shoes. "W-well, s-sir...I j-just thought..." I trailed off. I hadn't counted on Reno finding out I'd gotten my father to finagle his promotion. I had a horrible thought that he might be angry for getting him a promotion he hadn't earned. "I...I'm sorry, sir," I mumbled.

No one said anything. My cheeks were blazing. I was so ashamed. I should've known it was a bad idea. Reno came over and put his hands on my shoulders. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the floor. "Rookie," he began gently. "I'm going to do something, and you'll probably get mad at me for it, but I really think I have to do it anyway, all right? Don't be mad."

I was sure he was going to lecture me. I nodded and closed my eyes tightly, bracing myself and praying I wouldn't cry. That's probably why I was thrown completely and totally off guard when he pulled me close and kissed me firmly on the lips.

I haven't ever kissed anyone before. Well, not seriously. I messed around with a few boys when I was growing up, but my mother caught me with a seventeen-year-old when I was thirteen and gave me the thrashing of my life. That helped me decide to put things on hold until later. Needless to say, this was a shocking (though not unpleasant experience for me.)

The bone-crushing hug he gave me left me slightly winded, but it had been better than a lecture. "Rosalind, you're the nicest person I've ever met in my life," Reno told me, grinning widely. "Thank you."

"A-any time, sir," I gasped, rubbing my ribs.

Cyr laughed softly. "Don't let Samantha find out about this," she cautioned teasingly. "We chided her for trying to use money to get promotions."

"I didn't use money!" I protested immediately.

St. Andrew apparently found the entire thing hilarious. "Well, then how'd you do it?" he demanded, chuckling.

I blushed. "W-well, if you must know...it was blackmail," I explained.

"Rookie, you're a gem," Reno declared.

"It wasn't really that big a deal, sir...all it took was a little pushing," I objected shyly. I glanced over at the clock. "I think I'm going to go to bed," I added.

"All right. Good night, Rosalind," Rude said, reaching over and shaking my hand.

"Right. See you in the morning!" St. Andrew continued cheerfully. "I knew it was past your bedtime."

I blushed. "Yeah, well...good night, everyone." I scurried off down the hallway to my apartment. I felt really good, as opposed to how lousy I'd felt going to bed last night. And my spine still tingled when I thought of having Reno's arms around me.

*

We were briefed about the party Samantha had told us about the next day. I'd expected to be called to Tseng's office, but he came to meet us in the lounge. From day one, things have been following a downward trend in terms of formality. We were all there, St. Andrew, Cyr, Reno and Rafe were shouting at the TV. More accurately, St. Andrew and Reno were. Cyr and Rafe were just watching. I think it was a football game or something. Rude was playing cards with Rodney, Samantha was reading a book (some stupid romance novel, from all the giggling she did), and I was flipping through a catalogue, trying to figure out what exactly one wears to a dinner party, when Tseng came down.

"Ah, you're all here. Good, good. I have your assignments for the party..." Tseng began.

"God damn it! Pass, moron, for the love of god, pass!" St. Andrew wailed, burying his fingers in his hair and closing his eyes.

Whatever St. Andrew was upset about, Reno was ecstatic. "That's fifty gil, Andrew! Hah!"

"Cyr, if you could turn that off, please," Tseng requested. "I have your assignments..."

St. Andrew made a grab for the remote as Cyr flicked the TV off. "Hey, no! It's not over yet! C'mon..."

"Lakeside is fifty points down," Rafe said firmly. "They aren't going pull it together in the last five minutes. Our assignments are more important."

"But..."

Rafe reached over and unplugged the TV. "Continue please, sir."

Tseng nodded his thanks and cleared his throat. "Right. Well, as you know, this is a pretty big deal. Shinra's parties are always strategic covers for business. This one is in regards to the current situation with Avalanche."

Somehow, this made me feel better. At least I'd have something to talk about. I've never been to a party, let alone a fancy Shinran one. I had no idea how to act or what to say, or how to treat the people I was talking to.

Tseng continued. "The party is going to be held at the Fort Condor embassy. Because of the militant nature of these insurgents, it's suspected that they may be part of another move by Fort Condor."

"Jesus Christ. Fort Condor again? Why in the hell would they make a move like that? We've been fine with Fort Condor ever since the war and with the Cannon...why would they do that?" Reno demanded. I wondered if this outburst was because of his memories of Fort Condor. I know I didn't want another war.

"All we have are theories," Tseng answered, shrugging. "And this is one of them. We think Fort Condor may be acting in this way to draw suspicion away from themselves. They're not giving us anything to point the Cannon at."

Rude had leaned back in his chair and looked troubled. "We're looking at the embassy in Midgar because...?"

"Because of their awareness of our move in Costa del Sol," Tseng answered. "And of other movements, of the Turks and of SOLDIER. According to some of the recovered candidates, Shears told them about specific details of the SOLDIER process. We don't know how they know this, but it points to a leak within Midgar, possibly a leak within Shinra."

"Goddamn," Reno murmured. "A leak?"

Tseng held up a hand. "Don't worry about that. At present, all we have are theories. You'll be informed to any changes in the situation as it progresses. For now, we need all of you concentrating on the party."

We all nodded. None of us said anything. This party was a bigger deal than all of us had thought.

"All right. Our overall objective is to get into the ambassador's office and perform a quick sweep for sensitive documents. We'll need to keep the majority of us in the room with the action. Two of you are going to head for the ambassador's office."

"Do we know who's who?" Cyr questioned.

"Your positions have all been established. This entire operation will be coordinated, from our entrance, to the distraction, to your movements in and out of the office. Everything. This is a very, very delicate procedure. Relations with Fort Condor have been tense since the war. We don't want to spook them into anything."

Reno arched an eyebrow. "This seems like a lot to risk on a hunch."

Tseng shrugged. "It's Shinra's decision." He shifted an armload of folders he'd brought, and started handing them around. "These are the details of your assignments. All of you have your assigned actions, positions, and duties."

He handed me mine and I thumbed through it quickly. It was exactly like the case study mission outlines for the tests we'd done in the Academy. These were reserved for more complexly timed and coordinated missions. Time tables, diagrams, written directives, and outlines filled the report. Each one was different. Mine related my directives according to who I'd be working with and what my goals were. I had a brief outline of what would be going on throughout the entirety of the mission, but no details regarding the jobs of anyone not in direct contact with me. That was good. There was enough to memorize already.

St. Andrew whistled lowly, skimming over the mission statement. "Good god. This seems like quite the length to go to for information we think might help us. You're bringing in a TDT?"

TDT is an acronym for Tactical Diversion Team. They're a team of professionals who stage all kinds of things. According to this mission statement, they'd be staging a hostage taking. I continued to read. I was glad I'd have little part in the actual strike. I'd get some kind of stage fright, I was sure.

Tseng nodded. "We want as much confusion among the diplomats as possible. We want everyone on the floor with their hands over their heads. We want security disabled. We want Shinra's special forces called in. And, of course, we want you to save the day. A few of you might even get shot."

"This seems terribly elaborate," Cyr murmured.

"Not to worry, Cyr. We'll run through it a few times for practice."

Reno snorted. "Yeah right, Tseng. We'll run through it like fifty times. I've done a few of these before. You'll be doing this in your sleep by the time we're done drilling."

Tseng cleared his throat. "Right. Well, we've got a mockup of the embassy set up on the training floor. Study your statements and we'll start rehearsing tomorrow. I want this thing timed down to the wire. No screw ups."

After Tseng had left, Reno cleared his throat. "There's a hell of a lot he's not telling us," he announced morosely, studying his assignment.

I was confused. Tseng had given us a mission. I hadn't gotten feeling he'd said any less than he'd needed to. "What makes you say that, sir?"

Reno shrugged. "Just a feeling. The higher-ups know more about this deal than we do, that's for sure. To me, it doesn't make sense to be looking at Fort Condor. The motivation behind this Avalanche attack is some kind of environmental thing, right? Regarding the use of Mako? Well, Fort Condor is just as bad for Mako usage as we are."

"Maybe it's a cover?" Rafe suggested, looking up from studying his assignment. "Maybe the whole environmentalist thing is just their way of diverting suspicion."

"Maybe," Reno agreed dubiously, getting up. "Aww...hell. I dunno. I just know I'm going to bed now, because we're gonna be drilling from dawn 'til dusk tomorrow. I hate these kinda missions. Too complicated and there's too much pressure. Oh well. I'm going to bed."

*

The party was a week later and we were all ready. Reno had been right. We'd drilled and drilled, every single day, until we knew what was going to happen in every possible situation, and even some that seemed impossible. Now came the hard part; the actual party.

"You look fine, Rosalind," Tseng assured me, as I tucked my hair behind my ears. It was about the twelfth time I'd done it, since we'd gotten into the limo headed for the embassy.

"I'm sorry, sir. I'm just very, very nervous," I explained, lifting a hand to chew on my fingernails.

Reno reached over and pulled my hand down. "Cut it out, rookie. You just had a manicure and you're gonna wreck it. Settle down. You really do look great."

Everybody kept saying it, but I sure didn't feel so. I wished fervently I could've just worn a Turk uniform, like the boys had gotten to, but no. Thankfully, the company had supplied the dress I was wearing. I really hadn't had any idea what I was going to wear. I suppose it could've been worse. Samantha was wearing a brilliant green cocktail dress that you couldn't have gotten me into, orders or no orders. She'd dressed it up by wearing a ton of jewelry, all emeralds and diamonds. She also had a silver barreled rifle. Rod had his hand on her leg. I really can't understand those two.

Cyr wore something a little more...well, a lot more daring. Her dress was dark red and tied around her neck, leaving her back, arms, and a substantial amount of her chest uncovered. She had swept her long dark hair up somehow or other (I really can't understand how people do these kinds of things with their hair. I can't get mine to do anything) and she really looked good. From the way he was staring, St. Andrew evidently thought so, too. Instead of the standard weighted gloves, like Rafe and Rude were wearing, Cyr had opted for two handfuls of heavy gold rings. She may as well have been wearing brass knuckles.

Whoever had picked out my dress was merciful enough to pick something modest. It was light blue, with narrow straps, and a pearl necklace and earrings to go with it. I had a silver chain around my waist, doubling as holster for my gun. St. Andrew had leant me a beautiful old six-shooter, with a mother-of-pearl handle. I don't know much about fashion and things, but I thought it went really well with what I was wearing.

"Everybody understands their objectives, right?" Tseng asked, peering out the window as we approached the embassy.

Rafe chuckled. "Yes, sir. We also understand everybody else's objectives. I could probably do Samantha's part just as well as I could do mine."

"Right. Well, people, just remember to act natural until we get the signal. And after that, I want things to be fluid. We aren't expecting any heroics from these people...they're diplomats and businessmen, after all...but all the same, sometimes they surprise you."

We pulled up the long driveway of the embassy, lined with topiaries and fountains. However rough and rugged Fort Condor was, the ambassador apparently wanted to show a little culture.

Tseng leaned forward as the car pulled to a stop in front of the main entrance. "All right, ladies and gentlemen. Best behavior, big smiles, and for god's sake, remember to be politically correct. Reno, that means you."

Reno muttered something under his breath and the door opened. Rude grunted and stepped out, unfolding his long legs and straightening his suit. Flashbulbs clicked and reporters shouted questions as he headed up the long red carpet to the entrance.

I paled beneath the make up I was wearing. "Th-there are reporters here?" I stammered, as Rod got out, Samantha close behind with her hand around his waist.

"Well, of course, Rosalind. It's a meeting of the leaders of two of the world's most powerful nations," Tseng explained as Rafe got out of the car.

"Don't worry about it, Rosalind," St. Andrew added, glancing at Cyr. "Shall we?"

Cyr smiled briefly. "Oh, if it makes you happy."

St. Andrew beamed at her and got out, holding out a hand to Cyr. She stepped out gracefully and allowed him to lead her down the red carpet, smiling distantly and nodding to reporters.

"Rookie, you're shaking!" Reno exclaimed, touching my arm. He glanced at Tseng. "Go on, I'll be out in a minute."

"I'm s-sorry, sir, b-but I didn't th-think there'd be reporters," I whispered as Tseng stepped out of the limo.

Reno patted my shoulder. "It's all right, rookie. Just get out and get it over with."

"I c-can't! What if I trip or something?" I was terrified. The thought of having my picture in the newspaper was absolutely abhorrent to me. So much of what the Turks do is done in secret. We're almost never seen and recognized in public. Let alone out of uniform. I couldn't be seen like this. Not in this dress, not with this hair, not with these shoes. I didn't look professional. "M-maybe I'll just wait until they're gone and slip in the back..."

Reno glanced outside. "No, rookie. We gotta go, they're waiting for us. C'mon. Me and you will go together, all right? You'll be fine."

"But, sir..."

"Rookie, you've been in firefights, you've taken down guys three times your size, you've stared the leader of Avalanche in the face and lived to tell about it...and you're scared of a few reporters? Nuh uh. I don't believe that. Now we're going in."

Before I could protest, he'd stepped out of the car and held out a hand to me. "Either you come with me now, or you go in on your own," he said softly.

That was a very cruel way of doing things, but it worked. Reluctantly I took his hand and got out. I was just about blinded by about sixty flashbulbs and I felt my knees start to shake.

"Come on now, rookie," Reno murmured, offering me his arm. I took it shakily and followed him down the carpet, eyes down. "This is easy stuff."

"If you say so, sir," I mumbled, positive my cheeks were flaming.

It seemed to take forever, but we finally got inside the building. It was bright and warmly lit and, honestly, to me it looked more like a hotel than an embassy. There were attendants everywhere, and a large mahogany front desk. The heels of my shoes sank into the deep carpet and I kept a tight hold of Reno's arm, praying I wouldn't fall. I knew I should've asked for flat shoes. And these were supposed to be low heels.

"Ah, more Turks," an attendant pronounced, sweeping over and directing us to the elevator. "The party is on the fourth floor," he informed us.

"Thanks," Reno answered graciously. "C'mon, rookie, we've got a party to crash."

"R-right, sir." I managed to keep my balance and walk over to the elevator. The doors slid shut behind us and soft music played as Reno pressed the button for the fourth floor. I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear the bright spots left on my retinas from all the cameras.

Reno touched my shoulder. "Rookie, no crying. Not now," he said firmly. "You'll wreck your makeup."

I nodded and blushed. "I'm just seeing stars from all the flashing, sir. I'll be all right."

"Good."

I sighed and looked up at the old fashioned dial, counting up the floors. Nervously, I toyed with the necklace I was wearing. I couldn't wait for the beginning of the mission. That would be something I could handle. Trying to mingle with a roomful of people of a higher social class than mine was going to be hard.

Reno glanced at me. "You really do look pretty tonight, rookie," he said encouragingly. "Don't worry. You'll be fine."

"I'll try, sir," I promised. It was the least I could do. I didn't think I was going to do well, but the least I could do was try.

The elevator doors opened. The party was already going. I saw some Shinra executives I recognized, standing off to the side with their wives on their arms, or waltzing across the dance floor, or clustered around the buffet table. I also picked out my comrades, all hanging discreetly around the President. The rest I didn't recognize, and these were presumably representatives from Fort Condor.

"Rosalind, honey, we have to get off the elevator," Reno reminded me gently, giving me a little nudge. "And I know you're nervous, but I think I'm losing circulation to my fingers. Relax, just a little."

I blinked and glanced at his arm. I was still clinging to him like a child to a toy. I blushed furiously and let go, promptly losing my balance as I stepped away and the heel of my shoe slipped on the hardwood floor.

"Whoa, rookie!" Reno caught my elbow and saved me from what would have been a terribly embarrassing fall. "It's all right. You've gotta calm down," he urged, leading me over to a chair by the wall and sitting down.

"I'm really sorry," I apologized, my cheeks growing hot. "I...I'm just..."

"You aren't used to all these aristocrats. I know." Reno crouched on the floor in front of me. "I've been there, rookie. It's disgusting how rich these people are. Me and you come from the same kinda background. I spent years of my life absolutely hating these kinda people for what they had and what I didn't."

I nodded. I understood perfectly. The first time I was brought above the plate in Midgar, the first time I saw the sky, I was absolutely awed by the people there. They were clean, they were well dressed, they walked the streets without fear. I felt nothing but awe and envy.

"But you listen, rookie, they aren't any better than you or me. They aren't gonna understand us, we aren't gonna understand them, and it doesn't do any good to try."

"Then what do I talk about, sir? If we have no common ground..."

Reno laughed. "Rookie, every Midgarian has some common ground. Talk about the weather. Talk about how great Midgar is, talk about how great Mako is, talk about the stresses of being a Turk...nothing confidential, mind, but blow a couple minds."

I felt a bit better. "You really think I'll be okay, sir?"

"You'll be fine, rookie," Reno assured me, patting my knee. "You just have to relax. Here, I'll go get you a drink. You stay right here, and I'll be back, and then we'll go meet some nice, docile trophy wives. How's that? They'll be all drunk and giggly and gush about your hair and your dress and how nicely you've accessorized your gun..."

I laughed. "All right, sir."

"Good, good. Okay. I'll be right back. Sit tight, rookie," Reno said, winking and standing up.

I sighed as he crossed the room to the bar. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. At least Reno was going to stay around and help me. I glanced up at a clock and pushed my hair behind my ears. We would move as soon as the signal came. At least I'd have someone for support.

"Excuse me?"

The speaker had a soft, smooth voice, with a sophisticated, lilting accent; I looked up sharply at Rufus Shinra. "O-oh...Mr. Shinra...uh...sir, I'm sorry...was this your seat?"

Rufus laughed. He was tall and had blondish red hair and startling blue eyes. He wore a white, tailored suit, with a black shirt and tie underneath. "Oh, no. I just noticed you were sitting alone and I thought I'd come introduce myself..."

I blushed. "W-well...I'm Rosalind Kramer, sir."

"So that's your name," Rufus smiled at me. His teeth were even, white, and perfectly straight. "I saw you, in Junon. I was very impressed with your work."

"Th-thank you, sir," I stammered.

"Please, Rosalind, call me Rufus." He paused. "If you would like...would you want to come and meet some of my father's associates?"

"O-oh...I don't know, sir...I hardly know anyone here and..."

Rufus held out his arm. "Please, Rosalind. It would mean very much to me to introduce you to some of these people. I'm not the only one who's wanted to meet you. You're a remarkably talented agent."

I blushed. "I just do my best, sir."

Rufus laughed. "Your best is rapidly becoming the company's best. Now please, come along."

"W-well...all right." I stood up and took his arm. He smiled at me and rested his hand on mine, leading me over to some executives, who were standing by the buffet table. Somehow I found myself in possession of a glass of wine, while Rufus regaled whoever happened to be listening with tales of what I had done in Junon. Every once in a while, I tried to protest, but Rufus always dismissed my objections as modesty.

Eventually, he whisked me away to the dance floor. I glanced up at the clock. Almost an hour had passed while we were talking. I blinked, surprised. It had seemed more like five minutes.

He steered my left hand to his shoulder and took my right in his own. Then he moved to the center of the dance floor and all of a sudden we were dancing. I'd never danced before in my life and yet here I was, soft jazz playing in the background, Rufus Shinra's hand on my waist, and I was dancing. I felt light-headed. I thought maybe it was the wine, until I spotted my glass, abandoned on a table, totally untouched.

"You know...uh..." Rufus trailed off and looked down, embarrassed. "I...well...I wasn't just watching your work for professional reasons..."

"Sir?"

"Rufus," he corrected gently, smiling. He blushed slightly. "I...uh...I didn't think this would be so awkward," he said sheepishly.

I smiled at him. I was comfortable. He was charming and kind and complimentary. "Go on," I encouraged. A shiver tingled down my spine. I was being coy. I was flirting. With the President's son.

"Well...I...er..." I was also making the President's son nervous. I seem to have some kind of effect on the Shinra family. "I...I think you're very attractive and...and now that I've had a chance to talk with you I...I'm...god, I'm embarrassed."

"It's all right, you're doing fine," I answered, still smiling.

Rufus flushed. "I...I really like you. You're sweet and charming and...and brave. I've never met anyone like you."

I laughed. "I haven't ever met anyone like you either."

"Would you like to...to have dinner with me sometime?" Rufus asked, looking around. "Not...not like this...I mean, just you and I."

"I'd like that," I agreed, very, very pleased with myself.

Rufus smiled warmly. "Great...just great...Rosalind, I..."

"'Scuse me?" Reno interrupted, tapping Rufus on the shoulder. "I'm gonna be cutting in here for a second, sir, just a second...need to have a word with my rookie, thank you."

Even if he is only the President's son, Reno really oughtn't to have shoved him out the way like that. Nevertheless, Rufus left, and Reno took his place, glancing around the room nervously. "Jesus, rookie, what the hell is your game?" he hissed. "We move in one minute and you're flirting with Rufus?"

"I was not!" I protested angrily.

"Oh, right," he drew the word out sarcastically, glancing at his watch. "Christ. We don't need complications right now, rookie. And you watch out for Rufus. He's a damn tricky bastard."

I was offended by this. Reno had absolutely no business involving himself in my personal life. "I don't like how you're talking to me," I said coldly.

"Just trust me, rookie, he's trouble," Reno answered, just as coldly.

I might have answered, but at that moment, about a dozen men, dressed in black and all armed with machine guns and rifles burst into the room, shouting at all of us to get on the floor. They shot into the air, bringing down a crystal chandelier onto the center of the dance floor, sending shards of glass flying everywhere.

Screams echoed from all around, as the fifty party guests all got down on the floor. I crouched down beside a table near the elevator with Reno, his body partially blocking mine, just like we'd rehearsed.

"All right, you're all hostages of Hurricane! Now, all of you get crawling to the middle of the floor, hands behind your heads!" one of them shouted. His comrades spread out, kicking at guests and herding them to the middle of the floor.

Obediently, Reno and I stared to move to the center of the floor, when one of the terrorists stepped in front of us. "You and you," he snarled, jerking his machine gun at us. "Get up, hands behind your heads."

I glanced at Reno and we both got up slowly, keeping our fingers laced together behind our heads. The terrorist grabbed my belt and gave it a solid yank, snapping the metal chain and throwing it to the floor. I gasped sharply. It hadn't actually hurt; the clasp of the belt had been weakened so it would come off easily. It was the only bit of acting I would have to do all night.

The man then removed Reno's nightstick from the front pocket of his jacket, tossing it to the ground. "Now move, both of you, to the elevator," he snarled.

"Wait!"

"Shit," I heard Reno breathe as all the guns in the room swiveled to point at Rufus Shinra, who had half risen from the ground.

"Leave her here, take me!" Rufus shouted, keeping his hands behind his head. My breath caught and I felt tears in my eyes at how noble he was being.

The "terrorists" glanced quickly at one another, then their leader nodded. "Take him too," he snapped. "Now move it."

One of the other men kicked Rufus solidly and he stumbled to his feet, having trouble keeping his balance with his hands behind his head. "Get to the elevator."

The man behind Reno and I nudged me in the back with his machine gun and I walked swiftly forward to the elevator and stepped on. Reno and Rufus followed shortly, and then the two terrorists.

"Rosalind, are you...?" Rufus started to ask as the elevator doors slid shut, but Reno interrupted him.

"Cram it, dumbass," he snapped, glancing at his watch. "Shit. If you throw a wrench in this thing, Rufus, I swear to god I'll kill you. Smith, we need the second floor. Jenson, Rosalind and I need radio links. Are the security cameras on loop?"

"Yes, sir," one of the "terrorists" answered swiftly, pressing the button for the second floor and handing me an earpiece, then clipping a microphone to my dress. He lifted his wrist to his mouth and said "Testing, testing...alpha, beta, Charlie...you good to go, ma'am?"

I nodded, wincing as the earpiece whined from the proximity of the radios. "Yes, I'm good."

Rufus was staring around the elevator, bewildered. "What...I...what's going on here? Does my father...?"

Reno looked up from clipping his microphone to his lapel. "Do us a favor, dipshit, and keep your mouth shut. God damn. Why couldn't you be a good old cowardly hostage, like the rest of them?" he asked, irritated. "We didn't run this one, that's for sure."

Rufus flushed angrily. "Now listen, agent! I don't know what is going on here, but I..."

The elevator chimed and Reno stepped off, into a plainly decorated hallway, ignoring Rufus. "Jenson, where the hell's that ladder?" he demanded, glancing around. "And give me some duct tape."

"Right here, sir! Sorry, sir!" Jenson opened a closet and pulled out a stepladder, unfolding it and setting it up in front of the elevator. The other agent, Smith, handed him a roll of duct tape, which he slid over his wrist.

Reno climbed up easily and pushed open a vent cover, hoisting himself inside. He reached down and one of the pseudo-terrorists handed him the cover. "You get down to the ambassadors office, Rosalind," he ordered sharply. "Smith, Jenson, patrol the corridor. When you hear sirens, disappear. We'll take it from there."

"Right, sir!"

Reno pulled the vent cover closed behind him, the two black suited men hid the ladder again and started patrolling up and down the hallway, and Rufus and I were left standing in front of the elevator, staring rather stupidly at each other.

"Well..." I began awkwardly, blushing.

"Ambassador's office, rookie," Reno told me shortly and static hissed in my ear. "Now."

I clenched my teeth and headed down the corridor. "Come on," I said, taking Rufus by the arm.

Rufus followed me, evidently still confused. "Uh...Rosalind...I had no idea what was going on back there..."

"We're on a reconnaissance mission. We're checking the office of the Fort Condor Ambassador for any kind of information pertaining to Avalanche," I explained quickly, glancing up at the ceiling. "Reno's going into the office through the vents and will let us...will let me in from the inside."

"Oh...why not just break the door code?" Rufus asked, reaching toward the keypad.

I caught his hand. "Because a wrong entry will trigger the security system."

Rufus flushed again. "I see...Rosalind, I'm sorry...I didn't know what you were planning or else I wouldn't have...well, I mean...I would have if I...I...I'm sorry."

"No, Rufus," I protested immediately, smiling adoringly at him. "What you did was...I thought it was very brave. I've never had anyone risk their life like that for me."

"Oh, for god's sake," Reno muttered in my ear. "I've done it. Please, rookie, this is tough enough already. Let's not add the induction of vomiting into the equation, mmm'k?"

I flushed angrily. "Maybe you should concentrate on your objective, sir," I said shortly.

"Is he always this difficult?" Rufus murmured.

Reno snorted irritably into the microphone; evidently he could also hear what Rufus was saying. "Yes, I'm always this difficult. Shit, Rosalind, stick the joker back on the elevator."

Sirens picked up in the distance. "Bye, ma'am!" one of the pseudo-terrorists yelled, and the pair vanished down the stairwell.

"Sir, special forces are coming," I said urgently into my microphone.

"I heard, I heard..."

Rufus paled slightly. "Special forces...our special forces? If we're caught here...tell him to pick up the pace, Rosalind."

 "Tell the asshole that I am in a fucking vent right now. Ask him if he wants to do this There's about ten feet of space between me and my objective and it's a little too cozy for my liking in here. So..."

I didn't hear the rest of what he said, plucking my earpiece from my ear irritably. I wasn't going to be the liaison in some childish little insult war. I glanced at Rufus. "I'm sorry about him, really..."

"It's all right," Rufus told me. "It's not your fault."

"He's just being such an..." I trailed off as Rufus put his hand to the side of my face and tilted my chin up, pressing his lips firmly against mine. Suddenly, the security alarm started blaring. It just about deafened me, but I really didn't care. I closed my eyes and felt his hand on my back. This definitely wasn't part of the plan.

The door of the ambassador's office opened. "Oh, Jesus...for god's sake could you two lay off?" Reno demanded angrily. "Rookie, get your ass in here and do your goddamn job."

Rufus pulled back and glared at Reno. "You really oughtn't talk to a lady like that," he began. "Honestly, if you had any respect for her as a person..."

"I don't care if she's the Virgin fucking Mary, we're here on business. Wait in the hall," Reno snapped, pulling me into the office and glancing at his watch again. "This whole thing is going straight to hell. We have three minutes."

I was absolutely fuming. I reached into the front of my dress and pulled out my cell phone camera, stalking over to the desk and snapping pictures of the documents. I barely noticed the beautiful old décor of the room. Reno went over the filing cabinet and thumbed through it quickly, snapping his own pictures of the file folders.

"The sirens are getting louder," Rufus announced, coming into the office. "I really think we should leave."

Reno ignored him, going over to the paper shredder and sifting quickly through the contents. Rufus went over to the filing cabinet Reno had been looking at and leafed through the contents curiously. I looked up sharply as I heard shouting outside. "Sir, we have to go, now!"

Snapping his cell phone shut, Reno tucked it into his front pocket and stood up. "We aren't going," he said shortly, crossing the room. He grabbed Rufus by the shoulder and spun him around. "I apologize for this," he said tersely, insincerely, and then punched Rufus squarely in the face.

"Sir!" I exclaimed, horrified, as Rufus crumpled to the ground. I moved to help him, but Reno grabbed my elbow and slipped the roll of duct tape from his wrist, pulling my hands in front of me and wrapping tape tightly around my hands.

"If you remember, rookie, we were abducted by terrorists," he explained shortly, opening a closet and ushering me in, taking the microphone from my dress and pocketing it along with his own.

"How could you, sir?" I demanded furiously.

"I actually kind of enjoyed it," he answered diffidently, tearing off a piece of tape and sticking it over my mouth. "My apologies, rookie."

I glared at him, furious, as he stepped in and pulled the closet door closed. My fingers clenched and unclenched and Reno took advantage of their unclenching to loop the roll of duct tape over my fingers and tape his own wrists.

"Thank you, rookie." He bent close to my hands and tore the tape off with his teeth, knocking it to the floor of the closet. "Now make sure you kick up a ruckus when the special ops get here, or we could be stuck in here for quite a while."

I don't know what I would've said if my mouth hadn't been taped shut, but seeing as I couldn't talk, I settled for twisting my arms in front of me, drawing them across my face, and ramming Reno in the forehead with my elbows.

However angry I might have been, this turned out not to be the greatest idea in the world, because the space in the closet was already limited, and when he managed a choked cry and collapsed, he fell against me rather than to the floor.

I was beginning to think that the embassy at Fort Condor was my unlucky city. After all, it wasn't actually part of Midgar and so far this had been just about one of the worst missions I'd ever done. Being trapped in a tiny closet with a hundred and seventy or so pounds of Reno leaning on me, what I thought was a golf bag with a five-iron poking into my back, and my hands and mouth taped was not my idea of a productive mission.

I thought I heard voices down the hallway, and started beating my hands as hard as I could against the door of the closet, hoping they would hear. This hadn't been part of the plan.

"In here! Oh, Christ, it's the President's son...get the paramedics in here, on the double!" a gruff voice shouted from outside. I pounded on the door again, praying the man would hear.

The door opened and I fell to my face on the floor, Reno's weight throwing me to the ground. I struggled and felt someone pull him off of me.

"Easy there, miss, easy," the gruff voiced man urged, sitting me up and patting my back. I twisted my wrists against the duct tape bonds. "Hang on now, hang on," he continued, taking a knife from his pocket and cutting away the duct tape. "Are you all right, miss?"

I pulled the duct tape away from my mouth and nodded. "Y-yes, I'm fine." I got to my feet and went over to Rufus. There was already a dark bruise forming on his pale cheekbone, where Reno had hit him. I winced and gently touched it.

Rufus flinched and opened his eyes. "R-Rosalind..." he stammered.

"Are you all right?" I asked, helping him sit up.

"I'm fine, yes...just a little dizzy," Rufus answered, touching a hand to his forehead. He stared around the room at the team of heavily armed special forces. "What happened?"

I shrugged. "The terrorists taped us up and stuck us in the closet. Then these men came to save us," I explained innocently.

"O-oh...right." Rufus stood unsteadily and I immediately put my hand against his chest to help him and he responded with his arm around my shoulders. "What happened to him?" Rufus questioned, gesturing at Reno, still sprawled on the floor.

"The terrorists hit him," I answered clearly, glancing over my shoulder. I sighed. "What an awful evening this has been," I said, half to myself.

"Would you like to go home?" Rufus offered kindly. "I'm sure I can get us through these crowds, if you'd like..."

I nodded fervently. "Oh, I would like that."

"Then let's go." Rufus spoke briefly to one of the special forces operatives and within minutes we were whisked down to the lobby and into his private car. We drove all the way back to the Shinra building, then he escorted me up to my apartment. The whole floor was quiet and dark. No one else was back yet, nor would they be back for a while.

"Thank you," I said softly, as he walked me to the door of my apartment. "I had a really..."

"Lousy time tonight," Rufus finished wryly.

I blushed. "Well, parts of it were good," I offered.

Rufus drew close and kissed me again. "Was that part good?" he asked.

"Mmm...yes, I enjoyed that part." I was ecstatic. I was numb all the way down to my fingertips. I shivered delightedly.

"Well, I should let you get in to bed. I'd like to make tonight up to you...how about I come by at seven tomorrow and pick you up?" Rufus suggested. "We'll go for dinner."

I nodded, pleased. "I'd really like that."

Rufus smiled at me. "Great. I'll see you then. Good night, Rosalind." He kissed me one more time, then left, disappearing down the dark hallway.

I sighed dreamily, then spent a few minutes trying to figure out why I couldn't get into my apartment. Then I remembered my card key. Fumbling in my purse for it, I pushed the door of my dark apartment open. I yawned as I put my purse down on the side table by the door. I hadn't realized how tired I was.

Stretching, I wandered across the living room to my bedroom, fumbling with the clasp of my necklace and pulling the earrings from my ears. They'd been clip-ons, because I don't have pierced ears, but I didn't think it had really made a difference. I reached back and undid the zipper of my dress, letting it fall to the floor. I stepped out of it and took my shoes off, pulling open a drawer and taking a t-shirt out. I tugged it on over my head and crawled under the blankets of my big soft bed.

I sighed heavily as I closed my eyes. The evening would have been absolutely wonderful if Reno hadn't been such an ass.

*

I'd never been so comfortable with someone of a higher rank than me. Rufus was sweet and charming and charismatic and every day we were together, he went out of his way to make me feel special. I passed the weeks that followed swept up in a wave of absolute euphoria. I was sure I was in love, or something very close to it. Never before in my life had someone given me this much attention. I had work to do, too, of course, but it was mostly simple patrols. The Fort Condor angle had given us nothing and Avalanche hadn't done anything more drastic than a few raids on some of our military bases.

Rufus was always so pleased to see me after my patrol work. It was just little stuff, but he made it out to be a much bigger deal than it was. After one mission, he took me out for dinner to one of the fanciest restaurants in Midgar. It was candlelit and romantic and the food was delicious. We had a private table by a window overlooking the city.

"Rosalind, if we didn't have people like you protecting our cities, I wouldn't feel safe to sleep at night," he told me, after he'd finished asking how the patrol had gone. "You're so wonderful."

"I'm not...really, I'm not. I just do my job," I insisted shyly. I can't even take his praise very well. Which is a dreadful shame, because he's very lavish with it.

Rufus reached across the table and took my hands in his. He's so handsome. "You're the best Turk I know of," he told me sincerely. "If all of your comrades were like you, I know we could beat Avalanche."

"We'll beat them," I asserted confidently. "Shinra are tracking their movements as we speak. If they would make just one more big move we could get them, I'm sure of it!"

Rufus laughed. "You've got such delightful enthusiasm. But...if only we could catch up to them before that...if we knew where they were, and could strike first..."

"Oh...well, there's always a chance we'll find them beforehand. I mean...they haven't exactly given us a clear target, but if we had one..." I trailed off. What would Shinra do, when they found the base of the Avalanche attacks? These were guerilla terrorists and there were hundreds and thousands of them, given the magnitude of their attacks.

"My father will send his troops to crush them," Rufus finished for me, picking up his glass of wine and sipping at it thoughtfully. "Rosalind...I've been thinking...and I want to ask you..."

He was cut off by a squeal from the other side of the restaurant. "Rosalind, darling! What are you doing here?"

Samantha swept across the restaurant, Rodney in tow. I suppressed a sigh. I didn't need this right now. Lately, my dates with Rufus had been getting a lot less private. Reno and I had been avoiding each other like the plague since the party, but I was seeing an awful lot more of my other comrades, often in very inconvenient places. A trip to the opera was wrecked by Rude's presence, a walk in the park by Cyr, a trip to the zoo by Tseng and his daughter...it's not that I don't like my colleagues, but I wanted a little private time with my boyfriend.

"We were actually just finishing dinner," I muttered, slouching in my seat. Under the table, Rufus rubbed my leg with his shoe sympathetically.

"Oh, well then Rod and I will join you for desert!" Samantha pulled up a chair and sat down next to Rufus, smiling at him adoringly. "You'll have to introduce me, Rosalind. I haven't formally been introduced to the President's son."

"You've certainly ogled him enough to merit an introduction," was what I wanted to say, but instead I just introduced her. "Uh...Rufus, this is Samantha Hartigan. She's a Turk, like me."

"Charmed," Rufus said politely, shaking Samantha's hand. "And who is your friend?" he asked, glancing at Rodney.

"Who?" Samantha blinked and looked over at Rod. "Oh, him? That's Rodney."

I rolled my eyes. I did not need Samantha Hartigan trying to steal my boyfriend. She had one of her own, though she really didn't seem to pay much attention to him. "Well, Rufus and I were just leaving," I announced, standing up. "It was nice seeing you, Samantha, but we've really got to be going."

"Oh, darling, stay for just a little while!" Samantha protested as Rufus got up and offered me his arm. "Had you tried the zabaglione here? It's simply heavenly..."

I swear, she lapses in and out of other languages. "No, I haven't, but perhaps some other time," I said firmly. "We've got to be going. See you later, Samantha!"

"It was nice meeting you!" Rufus called, as I pulled him over to the door and we left. "Do you not like her?" he asked, as the valet pulled his car up to the front door.

I sighed and got into the front seat. "It's not that I don't like her...well...no, I'm not exactly fond of her, but that's not the point. I'm getting sick of all these people showing up when we're trying to have time alone. I know, we haven't known each other all that long, but I want this to work out..."

Rufus nodded, pulling onto the main thoroughfare and driving back toward the Shinra building. "I know what you mean...we have had a series of unfortunate coincidences when it comes to our time together."

"Maybe I should stop telling people my plans," I mused out loud. "I mean...they're probably just keeping an eye on me...everyone knows you're my first boyfriend...so I suppose it would stand to reason that they be worried."

"Hmm. Well...let's try doing something unexpected," Rufus suggested, glancing at me. "How would you like to come up to my father's hunting lodge with me, for the weekend?"

I was surprised. "A weekend away...you and I? Already?"

Rufus shrugged. "Why not? Unless you're uncomfortable with it..."

"No, no...I'd l-love it. It j-just it seems so fast," I stammered.

"Well, if you don't want to, that's fine..."

"No! Let's do it!" I said impulsively. I was sick of being meek about these things. I was sure I could handle a weekend alone with Rufus. After all, I loved him.

Rufus smiled at me, reaching over and putting his hand on my knee. "Great. This weekend, then?"

I nodded. It was Monday. I could spend the week preparing and make sure Tseng knew I wanted the weekend off...though I had been taking a lot of time off to be with Rufus. I didn't think anyone minded, though. I'd done more than my fair share of tough assignments. "I've never been hunting...I've never even used a rifle."

"Well, then let's go to the shooting range," Rufus suggested, as we pulled into the Shinran parkade. He parks his car on the floor reserved for executives.

"Now?" I asked, glancing down at my clothes. I was wearing a little black cocktail dress he'd bought me. Not something I wanted to be getting gunpowder all over.

"Sure. We're being unpredictable, aren't we? You could change first, I suppose...but there's something kind of sexy about you, in a dress, with a gun."

I blushed and got out of the car. He's so sweet and charming. "I don't want to ruin the dress," I explained. "I'll just go up and get changed...and meet you on the range, all right?"

Rufus nodded. "All right. I'll see you then. Fifty-first floor, right?"

"The fifty-first floor," I agreed, adjusting the strap of my purse over my shoulder and heading for the elevator. I felt giddy. The spontaneity of the whole thing was really going to my head.

I hummed to myself, riding up to the forty-eighth floor. The fact that I was humming was another indication of how happy I was. I was practically floating as I stepped off the elevator and headed across the lounge.

"Hey, Rosalind!" St. Andrew called, from the couch. He seems to spend a lot of his time there. Reno was sitting in the chair in front of the TV, reading a newspaper. He ignored me and I responded in kind.

"Hi, St. Andrew," I answered politely, mildly irritated at the distraction.

"Nice dress," he commented. "Been out with Rufus?"

I nodded. "Yes. I'm kind of in the middle of something..."

He held up a hand. "Say no more, say no more. I'll see you later, right?"

"Sure. Nice talking to you." I walked quickly to my apartment to get changed. I wasn't exactly sure what to wear...if I were just training, I would've taken sweats and a t-shirt, but I was going to be with Rufus. I settled on a tight pair of jeans and a silk shirt, grabbing my sidearm as I headed out the door.

"Where're you going now?" St. Andrew questioned as I crossed the lounge and got back on the elevator.

"Just for some target practice," I told him shortly. "I'll see you."

"Oh. Right. Yeah, see you, Rosalind." I thought I heard the rustle of Reno putting away his newspaper as the elevator doors closed, but I didn't care about that.

The fifty-first floor is part of the fully integrated training system that Shinra has set up for us Turks. The fiftieth floor is a massive gym, for regular employees as well as us. We're all in excellent, shape, naturally, and we all have personal trainers who've tailored programs especially for our needs. Since Costa del Sol, I've found I enjoy going a few rounds with a punching bag. Nothing too extreme, but it's good for venting. The fifty-first floor has special interest equipment, a shooting range, obstacle courses, a track, a skating rink, and an Astroturf soccer field, among other things.

Rufus was waiting for me by the elevator, with a rifle in hand. Handguns are my strong point, but I can tell a nice firearm when I see one. Rufus's rifle was a beautiful old Remington, with a wooden stock and gleaming silver barrel.

"Ready to go?" he questioned as I stepped off the elevator. "You look nice."

I was pleased he'd noticed. "Thank you. I'm ready, yes. I'd like to shoot a few magazines of my own to get warmed up, though."

"Sure," he agreed easily, following me down the hallway to the shooting range. It's a long, empty room, fully articulated with targets and everything. There are about a dozen "booths" set up for practice and all were empty. I took one on the end, and Rufus took one next to me, loading and preparing his rifle.

I took a pair of earphones from a hook on the wall of the cubicle, and put them on. I really don't know why they provide them. No one wears ear protection in the field. I put on a pair of safety glasses, checked to ensure my weapon was loaded, then took my stance and started shooting.

It must sound foolish, but I love firing a gun. It's one of my greatest talents. I'm a brilliant shot and nothing makes me happier than honing my skills. The recoil of the weapon, the brief flash and burst of heat that accompanies each shot, and the ability to shoot patterns in whatever I'm aiming at all combine for a pleasurable experience.

I was halfway through my magazine, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I lowered my weapon and turned around, expecting to see Rufus, but only to find myself face to face with St. Andrew.

"Figured I'd come join you," he announced, spinning his pistol around his finger, as I took off my earphones. He glanced over at Rufus. "But it looks like you've already got company."

"Uh...well, whatever. We're just shooting. You can be here if you'd like," I said, though I was seething inside. Every single time. I was beginning to think this was some kind of conspiracy.

St. Andrew grinned at me. "Great. Well, I'll just be down at the other end, if you need anything."

I nodded and sighed. I had no intention of needing anything from St. Andrew, except to be left alone.

"Did you want to stay here?" Rufus asked quietly, coming into my booth. "We could go somewhere else, if you wanted..."

"No...we came here to practice and I intend to stay. Who cares if he's here? Now, teach me about a rifle," I commanded, determined to get around the obstacle of St. Andrew's presence.

Rufus smiled at me, leaning against the wall of the cubicle. "Rosalind...in the restaurant, I was trying to ask you something, but we got interrupted..."

My heart skipped a beat. I'd forgotten about that. "Yes, I remember. What was it?"

"Well...it's about Avalanche. I was just thinking...if we knew where they were, we could move to prevent their attacks, right?"

This hadn't been quite what I was expecting, but I nodded anyway. "Yes...we could, I suppose...why?"

Rufus paused and took a deep breath. "I think I might know where they are," he told me dramatically.

I arched an eyebrow. I couldn't help it. I was skeptical. "You...what?"

Rufus flushed slightly. "I know what you're thinking...how could I possibly know? Well...back at the Fort Condor embassy, when we were in the ambassador's office...I saw something in his filing cabinet that caught my attention."

"What was it?"

Pausing, Rufus reached into his jacket and pulled out a glossy, eight by ten, black and white photograph. "This. It's an image from Fort Condor's satellite. It's Cosmo Canyon."

I took the photo in my hands and stared at it. "It...looks like a fortified settlement at Cosmo Canyon." This was something. Fort Condor beat us in the space race. It's one of the reasons they're at odds with Midgar. While Shinra was making massive efforts to be the first company to launch a satellite into space, Fort Condor went around behind everybody's backs, piggybacking on Shinra's research, and beat them to it. We're currently working to have the first manned craft in space, but the fact remains that they gained a corner on the market, and currently maintain all kinds of different satellites. One of which takes photographs of the world from space. I could only presume that was what I was looking at.

Rufus nodded. "Right. I've researched it, and it must be the Avalanche base. But...I need someone to verify it for me."

"Why can't you just ask one of the company's pilots do a fly-over?"

"Well..." Rufus trailed off. "If I were to do that, I would have to go through my father and give a legitimate reason. I need to do this on my own, so it's more impressive when I present it to the hierarchy. If you could go to Cosmo Canyon and investigate..."

"Get proof that it's Avalanche, you mean?"

"Right. If you could do that...oh, Rosalind, it would mean the world to me. I'd finally be recognized by my father's executives, and I'd bet anything you'd get a promotion, too."

I hesitated. It would look good on both our records, and I did want to help him out, but going to investigate the Avalanche base camp was a pretty big deal. "Well...I don't know..."

"You don't have to decide right now," Rufus said quickly. "Later, after our weekend together, maybe you could go."

"Yeah...we'll have to see," I agreed. "Now, about teaching me to shoot a rifle."

Rufus smiled and put his arms around me, hugging me tightly. "Thank you, Rosalind. If anyone can do this, it'll be you." He gently turned me around and stood behind me, bringing the shotgun up and letting me sight down the barrel. "Now, put your hands on the stock and the barrel, like this..." he guided my hands to their appropriate positions.

"Right...and now what?"

He helped me line up my first shot, leaning close and nuzzling my neck affectionately. I giggled as he kissed my cheek and throat, his arms sliding around my waist and pulling me close. I had quite forgotten about learning to shoot a rifle by now, letting the gun drop and turning around, putting my arms around his neck and letting him kiss me.

"Hey, Rosalind!" Once again, St. Andrew interrupted, poking his head around the corner of the stall. "Oh, I'm sorry...could I interrupt for just a tick?"

Reluctantly, I pulled out of Rufus' arms. "Yes?" I asked, trying not to sound too exasperated.

"Could I get a few rounds of ammo from you? I'm fresh out."

I sighed and handed over my weapon. "Here. Use that. Just make sure I get it back."

"Well, thank you, Rosalind! I've been eyeing this little piece of yours for a while now," St. Andrew remarked, taking my handgun and hefting it. "Wow, is this ever light! Small, too. Definitely a lady's gun. Still, not bad for a concealed weapon, I should say. Does it come in any other calibers?"

Rufus had moved away and the mood had effectively been killed. I sighed. "It's a GLOCK-26. It might come in other sizes, I don't know. Talk to the guys in weapons."

"I might just do that," St. Andrew mused, rubbing his thumb up and down the barrel. "Lord, this thing is tiny. Practically a derringer. It's not at all like mine." He reached into his holster and pulled out a simply massive handgun. He held it out to me, beaming, presumably looking for my opinion. "It's a Desert Eagle. Beautiful, isn't it?"

I took the weapon gingerly, glancing guiltily at Rufus, who had folded his arms across his chest and was looking bored. "It's...uh...very nice, yes. Fifty caliber ammo, I presume?"

St. Andrew nodded. "Of course. I like to leave big holes in things. Now, nine millimeter ammo is all well and good, but if you really want to do some damage, you need some pretty hefty slugs. The recoil's a bitch, though."

"I'd imagine it would be," I agreed.

Rufus yawned, plainly demonstrating his boredom, but St. Andrew prattled on. "It's a fair tradeoff, though, once you're used to it. Not so good for firing continuously, though. Your hand gets numb after awhile."

"Yes, I suppose that makes sense..."

"I always used to pinch my hand in the slide, when I was first getting used to it. God, that hurts. You ever do that? I still have the scars, wanna see?" St. Andrew displayed his hand and the old silvery-white scars lacing it.

"That must've hurt..."

Rufus glanced at his watch and coughed pointedly, but still, St. Andrew took no notice. "Oh, that's nothing. Have you ever been hit in the face with a shell casing? Those things are hot! There's a bit of a scar from a burn I got on my cheek. I can't imagine what would've happened if I'd been hit in the eye. I'd probably be blind."

I was getting sick of trying to be polite, but I nodded anyway. "It can't hurt as much as being shot," I said, hoping it would end the conversation, but no such luck.

"Oh, I know. Have you ever been shot? I've been, once. Took a bullet in the shoulder for the Don. I never really imagined myself being a bodyguard. I mean, saving someone else's life is all well and good, but I'd really sooner stay living myself."

"Well, it's getting late and I really should be going," Rufus said finally, evidently out of patience with St. Andrew's rambling. "Have a good night, Rosalind. Think about what I said."

I nodded, immensely irritated with St. Andrew. "Yes...good night, Rufus. I'll see you tomorrow?"

Rufus shook his head. "No...I have work to do tomorrow. Maybe the next day."

"Oh...all right. See you." I wanted a goodnight kiss, but Rufus evidently felt it would be too awkward with St. Andrew around, so he left without a further word.

"Buh-bye!" St. Andrew called, waving cheerfully. "Anyway, Rosalind, I'll let you get back to your shooting. I'm out of ammo, so I'm going to head back up. See you around!"

He left before I could get a word out. I was furious. I didn't know whether this was something they'd all contrived as a means of keeping an eye on me, but I did know I was getting damn sick of it. I could take care of myself. Angrily, I emptied the rest of my magazine at a target at the other side of the range. All my shots went wide, except one, which pierced the bright red heart in the center of the human-shaped target. Still seething, I jammed my handgun back in its holster.

Stalking out of the shooting range, slamming the door closed behind me, I opted for the stairs down to the forty-eighth floor. I needed to calm down. Maybe a long, hot shower when I got home and a movie. I couldn't let this get under my skin. I had an important decision to make, and I didn't need something this trivial clouding the issue.

Reno and St. Andrew were talking when I came into the lounge. I was going to ignore them both, but I couldn't help glancing over as I walked over to my apartment. I stopped. This wasn't right. Money was changing hands. Reno handed St. Andrew maybe fifty gil and St. Andrew nodded briefly.

"You're doing this!" I exclaimed, loudly enough that both of them jumped. And here I'd thought Reno had been leaving me alone.

St. Andrew, who I suppose is accustomed to taking money to do other people's dirty work, recognized that me and Reno (or me, at least) were on the very verge of tearing each other limb from limb, and wisely retreated. "Uh...see ya later, Reno," he called, vanishing down the hallway to his apartment. "I hope," I thought I heard him mutter.

"It's been you! You've been having people follow me!" I accused.

Reno shrugged. "So what if I have been?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" I demanded angrily. "You've been wrecking everything!"

Reno apparently intended to infuriate me by staying absolutely cool throughout the whole thing. "I'm watching your back, rookie," he explained calmly.

I stared at him. "I don't need you watching my back!" I snapped. "I'm twenty-two years old and I can take care of myself!"

"Oh, please," Reno snorted. "No, you can't. You've never been in a relationship with anyone before, least of all an asshole like Rufus."

"Rufus is my boyfriend," I hissed angrily.

Reno rolled his eyes. "God, you're naïve. He's using you, rookie. I dunno what the hell he wants, but it's not a girlfriend."

"Shut up!" I yelled. He was making me so mad. I hate being treated like a child. "How would you know?"

He sighed exasperatedly. "Rufus Shinra doesn't date novice Turks. He dates lingerie models and strippers, with nothing but sex in mind."

"That's a lie!" Actually, I didn't know if it was or not. I just knew it was different with me. "You don't know Rufus! He's sweet and charming and intelligent and...and he cares more about me than you ever have!"

Reno's eyes narrowed slightly, but I still hadn't goaded him into breaking out of his role as the passive aggressor. "If that's what you think, rookie, then you don't know Rufus either. You think President Shinra is bad? Well, his son is worse, because he comes off as all 'sweet and charming and intelligent.' He doesn't care about you, rookie. You're just gonna get hurt."

"Who are you trying to be? My father?" I asked bitterly.

"You have a father, but he can't be much of one if he's just sitting on the sidelines watching while Rufus Shinra tries to screw his daughter over. I don't know what he wants from you, rookie. But I promise you, it won't be good."

"Shut up! I don't have to listen to you!" I shouted. I didn't like this. His arguments stayed cool and logical, but I was so mad I couldn't do anything but scream at him. "At least...at least Rufus has half a brain in his head!"

I sensed I'd touched a nerve. "What's that supposed to mean?" Reno demanded.

"My father was right about you! The company held you back for a reason! You wouldn't have gotten that promotion without me!"

Even as angry as I was, I felt a twinge of guilt for being as cruel as that. It didn't last long. "Watch it, rookie," he said quietly.

There was something in his eyes I should've recognized as dangerous, but if I did, I chose to ignore it. "Rufus is intelligent and clever and he takes me to operas and concerts and plays!" I continued ruthlessly. "He's brilliant. We went to an art gallery and talked for hours about the neo-classical period of Antonio Veredetti. But I guess you wouldn't understand something like that, would you?"

Reno didn't answer immediately, but I could tell the remark had stung. "You know what?" he said finally. "I don't need to take this from you. I don't care if Rufus plans to rape you and leave you for dead by the side of the road somewhere, because evidently you don't. Maybe you need someone to really hurt you. I kinda hope he does."

I suddenly didn't feel like arguing any more. I didn't like listening to what he was telling me, because I didn't want to believe it. I felt tears burning in my eyes. "You don't care about me," I accused, angrily wiping at my eyes.

"Right about now? Not so much," he answered coolly.

"W-well, maybe I don't care about you either!" I whirled around and ran to my apartment. I'd made up my mind right then and there to go to Cosmo Canyon for Rufus. Just to prove that it was different for us. I'd do anything for him. Reflecting on my decision later, I realized all I'd proven was that I was willing to go to great lengths for someone I thought I loved, even if he turned out to be a sleazy, lying scum bag.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I know I'm an emotional person, but I hadn't done that since my first year in reform school, after my mother had died. It had been a very painful time, because I'd lost the only person who really cared about me. Whatever I was crying about now, though, it's very unpleasant to fall asleep on a wet pillow.


Chapter 7

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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