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Variations Chapter 7

Staccato and Fugue

I left for Cosmo Canyon the next day. Rufus had already arranged transportation for me and everything. I think he'd known I was going to say yes. A helicopter dropped me off in Gongaga and I prepared myself for a two-day trek across the rough terrain surrounding Cosmo Canyon. It was a big undertaking. Too big for me, as it turned out. I'm very ashamed to admit it, but I'm not a very talented wayfarer. To put it bluntly, I got lost.

Wandering alone through the gorges and ravines surrounding Cosmo Canyon gives one a lot of time to think. Really, really think. Especially if one is lost and eventually has to grudgingly decide, after two days of travel with no end in sight, to turn back and return home. I didn't have the supplies to make it for more than four days and I didn't want to risk running out of what I needed. So I hightailed it back to Gongaga, after deciding to tell Rufus that I couldn't do this on my own.

I'd also decided to apologize to Reno. Yes, I'd told myself, he had been a real ass, but only because he was trying to look out for me. Despite the fact that he was going about it like a callous, insensitive jerk, at least his heart was in the right place. He didn't know Rufus like I did, so it could be called excusable.

In any case, the long and short of it is, I went to Gongaga, headed for Cosmo Canyon, did some thinking, then turned around to head back. While this was happening, things were getting very, very badly messed up at home. I'd kind of just up and left, without telling anyone but Rufus where I'd gone. Naturally, this caused some problems.

I'd been gone for maybe two days when people finally noticed that I hadn't just locked myself in my apartment to sulk, I was really gone. Everybody freaked out a bit, but from what I understand, Reno was the most startled. I guess he figured he'd made me run away or something, and went to find out from Rufus where I'd gone.

Anyway, what follows here is an excerpt from Rude's journal. When he heard I was writing all this down, he offered it to me in exchange for what I'd written about my trek to Cosmo Canyon, because he was interested and because he felt that what had happened in my absence was something I needed to know about.

*

August 23rd

My partner, admittedly, isn't the most levelheaded person on the face of the Planet. Reno has an incredible capacity to fly off the handle at the wrong people. And so, after we'd all found out the Rosalind was gone; he grudgingly decided he had to go ask Rufus what the deal was.

I went along with him, to ensure he didn't do anything stupid to Rufus (everyone knew he was less than pleased with our President's son). It turned out my presence wasn't entirely necessary, however, as Tseng and Veld were already there, presumably for the same reason we were.

Reno passed Rufus' secretary without a word and barged into the office. "Where's Rosalind?" he demanded.

Rufus was behind his desk, looking very cool and calm and collected. Not a hair out of place or anything. "Rosalind? I don't honestly know. I haven't heard from her in a few days," he answered innocently. "You're her superior; shouldn't you be keeping track of her?"

"Don't start that, Rufus. Fast talk doesn't work with me," Reno responded shortly, eyes gleaming dangerously.

"Ah," Rufus nodded sagely. "Too slow for fast talk."

Surprisingly enough, he let that pass. "No one's seen her for two days," he accused. "You were the last person to see her. Now where the hell is she?"

Rufus examined his manicured nails disinterestedly. "I really don't know why you're coming to me," he said finally, sounding bored.

Veld cut in and Tseng made a motion that indicated Reno was to shut up. "One of my agents is missing. She's out of range of contact. Two days ago, you ordered a helicopter to make a trip to Gongaga. Obviously, you weren't on it. Is Rosalind in Gongaga?"

"Well..." Rufus squinted thoughtfully. "I did see her, a few mornings ago. She came to me and was very upset. Apparently, someone had been yelling at her." He looked pointedly at Reno. "I tried to comfort her, but she was terribly distraught. She said she needed some time alone to think. I suggested she go somewhere quiet, take some time off. I gave her a blank travel voucher. I suppose she must have gone to Gongaga."

Tseng's eyes narrowed. "She didn't apply for leave or anything like that."

"She was extremely upset. Maybe she was afraid you would deny her request, so she didn't ask. It's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission," Rufus said smoothly.

"Well..." Tseng trailed off. "I suppose it's possible."

Reno, who had been glowering at Rufus, shot Tseng a dark look. "Oh, come off it, Tseng. It's not possible! We're talking about Rosalind here. I've never met anyone so fixated on rules and regulations. If she wanted to go somewhere, she would've reported to Tseng. Or," Reno's eyes narrowed, "she would've asked someone to tell him where she'd gone."

Rufus shrugged. "She just told me she wanted to go. I didn't ask why."

"You know what I think? I think you sent her away so you could screw around with your strippers. What's the matter; did you get sick of playing the charming boyfriend? Or was she not giving you what you wanted? God, you make me sick, you..."

"That's enough, Reno," Veld cut in, staring shrewdly at Rufus. The Commander hadn't really said much through the course of the conversation. "Why Gongaga?" he asked, eyes narrowed. "Rosalind doesn't have family there, she doesn't know the area...and she's not checked into the hotel. Why would she be in Gongaga?"

Rufus was silent for a few minutes, toying with a pen on his desk. "I made the recommendation that Gongaga was nice and quiet. I told her if she wanted someplace to be alone and think, Gongaga was very peaceful," he explained finally, not meeting the commander's gaze.

"Hmm." The Commander kept his stony gaze fixed on Rufus. "Peaceful. It's interesting you should say that. You recall the party, a few weeks ago? At the Fort CondorEmbassy?"

"The one with the clumsily staged terrorist attack?" Rufus said dryly. "Hurricane. Really, how gauche."

Veld nodded briefly. "Correct. Staged or not, the officials at Fort Condor were very grateful for the assistance of Shinra's special forces, and the actions of the Turks in taking out the terrorists."

It had been a very carefully choreographed overthrowing. There were six of us being held "hostage" and we'd managed to pull off a decidedly believable retaliation against the "terrorists." The details were complicated, but between the six of us, we saved the other hostages. We had even planned it so St. Andrew ended up taking a bullet for the ambassador of Fort Condor, because he's the only one who knows how. It wasn't actually a bullet. It was a blank and it hit a blood pack in his jacket.

Veld continued. "As a token of their gratitude and being that many metropolitan centers are facing trouble from Avalanche, the government of Fort Condor were gracious enough to share images their satellites have collected."

Rufus had paled slightly. "Really? How interesting..."

"Very interesting, yes," Veld continued, eyes glinting dangerously. "Do you know what those images show, Rufus? It's quite a striking coincidence, but they show evidence of undocumented militant activity in Cosmo Canyon. They theorize, and we are quickly coming to realize this as the truth, that this may be the seat of the Avalanche attacks. In an area very near to Gongaga."

There was silence in the room as this soaked in. Tseng appeared stunned and Reno looked like he was starting to put the pieces together. Needless to say, he wasn't pleased. "You sent Rosalind to Cosmo Canyon?" Reno demanded, voice flat and dangerous.

Rufus pushed his orange hair back from his eyes. "Well, Reno, it's within my rights to send one of the company's operatives on a mission."

"You sent my subordinate...my rookie subordinate...to Cosmo Canyon, the seat of the Avalanche rebellion, without even telling me?"

"Easy, Reno..." I murmured, putting a steadying hand on my partner's shoulder.

Irritated, Reno shoved my hand away. "How could you do that to her? You bastard. This isn't one of the whores you usually date; this is a sweet, innocent girl who really thinks you care about her! It's completely beyond me to even think of asking Rosalind to do something this dangerous! How could you do that?"

"I didn't tell you because I knew this was how you'd react," Rufus said aloofly. "Besides, she's more talented than you think. She's not a 'rookie' anymore."

"Of course she's still a rookie! She's done a total of two...maybe three missions with this company. You don't send someone like that to the base camp of a merciless terrorist faction!"

Rufus blinked. "Well, she's very talented."

"No one is that talented. What are you counting on, that she'll be killed so you won't have to keep dating her?"

Rufus looked mildly affronted. "Of course not! If she comes back, I'll let her down gently. Maybe after we spend a weekend at my father's lodge."

Reno stared at the president's son for a few incredulous moments. There was a tangible silence in the room, a tension that made even Commander Veld uneasy. I know Reno's moods, and the telltale warning signs that precede a temper flare, but I failed to register the sudden, deadly stillness that came over him. "I believe I'm going to kill you," he hissed finally, before vaulting over Rufus's desk and doing his level best to strangle the young man.

I let him have a few seconds of strangling time before I heaved the desk out of the way and attempted to pull him off. I owed my partner that much. I like Rosalind.

"Reno!" Tseng shouted (a few seconds late, but then, he likes Rosalind too), darting forward to assist me in prying my partner off of the President's son. Even between the two of us, Rufus's face was turning an unhealthy shade of purple before I finally wrenched Reno's hands from around Rufus's neck.

Dragging Reno back, I pinned him against the wall and held him there with one hand. "Calm down, Reno!"

"Is he...dead?" Reno gasped, breathing hard.

I glanced over my shoulder at Tseng and Veld, who were helping Rufus into the chair in behind his desk. "No, you damned lucky bastard," I answered, slightly relieved.

"Then lemme go finish what I started!"

I grunted. "Hell, no. You're already looking at a court martial. Let's try and see if we can't keep you out from in front of a firing squad, hmm?"

Indignantly, Reno struggled out of my grasp and kicked me hard in the stomach. He doesn't act hostilely towards his colleagues on a regular basis and it was a testament to his anger that he did. Rufus managed a strangled yell and Tseng and Veld spun around, hands flickering to their weapons uncertainly. There was another long moment of strain, before Reno cursed under his breath and vanished into the hallway.

Tseng heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank god. I really didn't want to hurt him."

"Didn't want to hurt him?" Rufus demanded hoarsely, pushing away the glass of water Veld offered him. "He tried to murder me! Hunt him down! Send guards after him! I want his head!"

"If Reno had wanted to kill you, you would be dead. Reno wanted to hurt you." Veld glared coldly at Rufus. "Your position isn't nearly as unassailable as you think, Rufus," he said icily. "You are out of line here, and I happen to outrank you."

"Y-you do not! My father..."

"It was your father's idea," Veld interrupted, eyes gleaming dangerously. "He's not too fond of you, Rufus. You haven't been much of a son. There are, however, a few Turks he is immensely proud of and he should feel more remorse over losing them than he would over losing you. At least they're good for something."

"But..."

Veld silenced him by pounding a fist down on the desk. "Do you have any idea how valuable a Turk is, Rufus? Certainly more than your worthless carcass. There are Turks who earn six figure salaries. You are the President's son. You are not worth six figures."

Rufus's jaws worked the air for a few moments, then snapped shut. "It's well within my rights..." he began again.

"It is not within your rights to subvert novice Turks! These are my people, Rufus. You happen to have messed with two I am very fond of," Veld snarled angrily. "If it were up to me, I would punish you. I would punish you the way we punished people back in my days, with pain. Pain, and something more permanent...to serve as a constant reminder of their mistakes. If it were me, I would have one of your hands cut off."

That shut Rufus up. Veld touched his fingertips lightly to his temples and closed his eyes. He does this when he's thinking about a difficult decision. "Well, we can't very well send someone in to go get her. Too much Shinran interference in the area will tip Avalanche off to our knowledge of their presence," he mused. "For strategic reasons, I don't know that we want to do that."

Tseng was frowning. "We can't leave Rosalind alone there," he insisted. "She's only a novice; she hasn't the slightest idea how to infiltrate an enemy camp."

"I didn't ask her to infiltrate it," Rufus muttered. "I just asked her to get me proof to show to the Hierarchy."

Veld glared at him. "You stay out of this. You've caused enough damage," he said coldly. "Get out of here."

"It's my office!" Rufus objected indignantly. "If anyone's going to leave..."

"Now, Rufus," Veld snapped.

Rufus might not be the brightest bulb in the company, but he recognized that Commander Veld was in a dangerous mood. He had every right to be. The fact that one of our agents was either at or heading for the base camp of an extremely hostile terrorist group, whose members had numerous times expressed a desire to slaughter Turks, made me pretty edgy too.

Veld sat down behind Rufus' desk once he'd left and tented his fingers before him. "If her orders were to observe...and not to infiltrate, then it's entirely possible she'll pull it off. Rosalind has the makings to be one of the best agents in this company."

"So what do we do, sir?" Tseng asked.

I felt bad for Veld. There are times in this job when we have to make choices that can severely impact the lives of others. Commander Veld holds lives in his hands, every time he makes decisions like that.

The Commander sighed. "If we send someone else in, we risk their capture. However...if Rosalind isn't back in two days..."

"It shouldn't take more than four days to go from Gongaga to Cosmo Canyon, presumably on foot," Tseng cut in.

"If she isn't back by then...we'll send someone."

Tseng nodded. "All right. What do we do about Reno?"

"He'll cool off," I assured Tseng. "All he needs is to take some time."

*

As it turned out, he'd taken a bit more than just time. I got back three days after I'd decided to turn around and go home, tired, dusty, and decidedly bedraggled. I'd been two days walking back to Gongaga and then had to deal with an eight-hour plane ride, a four-hour layover in Junon, and then the three-hour plane ride back to Midgar. It was after midnight and I was exhausted.

By the time I got back to the building, all I wanted was a hot shower, some food, and a few days worth of sleep. I took the elevator down to the forty-eighth floor and headed across the lounge. St. Andrew, was, as usual sprawled on the couch in front of the TV, but this time, he was fast asleep. Snoring, with his face buried in one of the cushions.

I was just going to sneak past him, but then I remembered how terribly uncomfortable it is to wake up in the morning after sleeping on a couch. So I decided it wouldn't do any harm if I woke him up. Dropping my bag on the floor, I went over to the couch and nudged him in the ribs. "St. Andrew?"

He muttered something in his sleep and rolled over, right off the couch. He started violently when he hit the ground and cursed.

"Oh! Sorry!" I exclaimed, reaching down to help him up. "Sorry. I just didn't know that you'd want to spend the entire night on the couch."

"Rosalind! Hey, you're home! God, we were all so worried!" He got to his feet and hugged me tightly. "Tseng was just about to send someone after you guys."

I blinked. "Send someone after me, sir? I was just on a mission...didn't Rufus tell anyone where I'd gone?"

St. Andrew pushed me back at arms' length and stared at me. "Didn't...? Hey, Rosalind, where's Reno?"

"How should I know?" I asked incredulously. "I haven't been home for five days."

I didn't know why at the time, but this was apparently bad news. St. Andrew's gray eyes widened. "Shit. Oh shit. You didn't meet up with Reno?"

"No..."

"Shit." St. Andrew grabbed my wrist and pulled me over to the elevator. "We have to go see Tseng," he told me brusquely, pressing the button for the fifty-fifth floor. "Damn it. This is really bad."

I was bewildered. "What's going on? What's so bad?"

St. Andrew shook his head, tapping his foot impatiently as the elevator continued its ascent. "I can't explain it as well as Tseng can. We just have a problem."

The elevator stopped at the fifty-fifth floor and St. Andrew pulled me out, down the darkened corridors to Tseng's office. I was surprised. I'd never been here after the employees had gone home. It was very quiet and empty; the only sound the soft humming of fluorescent lights and the whirring of computers left on. Down the hallway, one door was half-open and it spilled light into the darkness.

St. Andrew made a beeline for this office, pushing the door open the rest of the way. "We have a problem," he announced, pulling me into the office.

"Rosalind!" Tseng exclaimed, jumping up behind his desk. Rude and Cyr were in the office too, in full uniform, as well a man I didn't recognize. Without a word, Rude swept me up into a bear hug. When he let me go, Cyr promptly embraced me, tears in her eyes. I couldn't understand this. Everyone was hugging me tonight.

"U-uh...hi," I stammered. "H-have I missed something?"

Tseng sighed and I could tell he was relieved about something. "Nothing important. You must be exhausted, Rosalind. We'll talk tomorrow."

"No, boss, we've gotta talk now," St. Andrew said grimly. "Rosalind's back. Reno isn't."

The relief faded from Tseng's expression. "He didn't come back with you, Rosalind?" he asked me, chewing his lower lip.

I shook my head. "N-no, sir...I never saw him. I didn't even get to Cosmo Canyon. I got lost and I had to turn back or I would've run out of supplies."

Silence fell over the room and Tseng sat down again, looking weary. "This isn't good," he said finally, interrupting the silence.

I looked around at my colleagues, totally confused. "W-what's going on?" I asked nervously.

Rude cleared his throat. "After we'd found out Rufus had sent you to Cosmo Canyon...well, we went to confront him about it. He admitted to it and...this isn't at all your fault, Rosalind, but there was no way in the world you should've been sent on this mission. You're a rookie. A mission like that...it takes years of training to be able to cross terrain like what surrounds Cosmo Canyon and infiltrate an enemy camp successfully. The odds were ten to one that you'd be caught."

I was stunned. Thank god I'd gotten lost. "W-well...Rufus couldn't have known that."

Rude hesitated and was about to say something, when Cyr interrupted, putting her hands on my shoulders. "Rosalind, honey, of course Rufus knew," she told me gently. "I hate to have to tell you this, but he's been using you. He sent you into certain danger and didn't care whether or not you got out alive. He's a terrible, terrible person and one of these days you and I will do something very painful to him, but now is not the time."

"Veld was going to give you a few days to get home on your own, but Reno took off after you. And now you're back, he's not, and we haven't got any way of getting in touch with him," Tseng finished, shooting a dark glare at the man I didn't recognize. "And thanks to someone, he's probably been wandering around Cosmo Canyon area for two days, looking for someone he's not going to find."

"Hey, now, let's not go playin' the blame game here," the stranger protested, holding up his hands. He wore thick, leather work gloves and a flight jacket, stained with dark grease. His blonde hair stuck up in sweat-slicked spikes and a pair of flight goggles were perched on his forehead. A pack of cigarettes was stuck in the band of his goggles and he had an unlit cigarette behind his ear. He was maybe thirty or so.

"You gave him a jet!"

"Well, I toldja when he didn't come back with it, didn't I? Shit, Tseng, it's not like I knew what the kid was planning!"

Tseng sighed. "I'm sorry, Cid. It's just terribly frustrating not to know where he is."

I was starting to get a little scared. "I...I didn't even get to the base camp. He wouldn't know that...Tseng, what are we supposed to do?"

Rude patted my shoulder comfortingly. "It's all right, Rosalind."

"I don't honestly know what we can do," Tseng admitted. "For now, until we can talk to Commander Veld, I suggest you all go get some rest. If we have the Commander's say so, tomorrow we'll send Cyr in. She's got the most experience in tracking."

Cyr nodded briefly. "Right. Rosalind, come along. You need to go to bed."

I felt Cyr's hand on my elbow, but I pushed it off. Things were starting to sink in and I couldn't just stand there. "B-but...but, sir, we have to do something soon! I mean...a ten to one chance of being caught...and I didn't even get anywhere near the base! What if...oh, sir...what if..." I couldn't finish the sentence.

Rude touched my shoulder gently. "We know, Rosalind. We've been asking 'what if' about the both of you for the last few days. You can't believe the worst."

I sank down into the chair in front of Tseng's desk, my knees weak. I couldn't believe it. Admittedly, Reno isn't the most restrained person in the world, but to do something as impulsive as going halfway around the world to the Avalanche base camp was beyond me. "God, sir, why would he do something like that?"

"You did it for Rufus," Cyr pointed out quietly.

Tears sprang into my eyes. I couldn't help it. The way I'd felt about Rufus was one thing. It had faded rapidly with a few days absence. Reno was probably the closest friend I'd ever had. Probably my first real friend. I started crying. I tried hard not to, but this was just too much.

"Oh, hey...Rosalind, c'mon. Don't cry," St. Andrew pleaded, patting my back awkwardly. "It's not as bad as all that, really..."

Cyr removed St. Andrew's hand from my back and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "Don't you listen to him," she told me firmly. "You cry all you want. You've been lost, you're tired, and someone very dear to you is missing. You have every right to cry. Come on. We'll go up to your apartment and put you to bed, all right?"

"B-but Cyr..." I managed, wiping at my eyes. "W-we have to...there m-must be s-something..."

"Right now, we can't do anything. You need to sleep, Rosalind." Cyr pulled me to my feet and rubbed a hand up and down my back. "Come on."

I barely registered it as she led me out of Tseng's office and onto the elevator. I was exhausted. I'd been awake for hours and hours, and all this news had done was drain me further. I wanted to crawl under my bed and cry for the rest of the night.

A door opened. I blinked. I hadn't even realized we were in my hallway. Samantha poked her head out. "Rosalind, darling, you're home!" she exclaimed, then paused when she saw I was crying. I wiped at my cheeks, ashamed of myself. "But...hey, what's wrong?"

Cyr removed my keycard from where it was clipped to my belt and passed it in front of the scanner. Opening my door, she steered me over to the couch and sat me down. I buried my face in my hands. I felt sore all over. My head was pounding and my face was hot. I must have looked like an absolute mess.

Samantha had come into my apartment and was looking around uncertainly. "What's the matter with her, Cyr?" she asked. I thought I was imagining it, but she actually sounded concerned.

Cyr was moving around my kitchen, fixing something. I didn't know what, I didn't particularly care. I was just glad she hadn't left. Being alone with my thoughts was the last thing I needed right now. She beckoned to Samantha and quietly explained. I didn't hear what she said, but I did hear Samantha's soft exclamation.

She came over and sat down beside me on the couch. I think she felt awkward. I know I did. "It'll be okay, Rosalind," she said softly. "You can't blame yourself, though, really you can't."

Of all the people to get to the heart of the problem, the last person I'd expected was Samantha Hartigan. Well, Samantha or Rod. "I...I just...I shouldn't have gone. I w-wasn't going to, b-but he just made me so mad...I wanted to prove him wrong."

Samantha nodded and rubbed a hand up and down my back gently. "Rufus?"

"Reno," I clarified, sniffling. Samantha wordlessly handed me a tissue from the box on my coffee table. "H-he was yelling me and I was yelling back...I said some very awful things."

"I know, dear. We all heard."

I flushed, embarrassed.

Samantha continued. "We all knew what Rufus was doing, of course...not to call you naïve, dear...it wasn't your fault. He's very charismatic. It wasn't just Reno, but he was probably the most upset about it."

Cyr came into the room with a tray of steaming mugs. She set it on the coffee table and pressed one into my hands. "He shouldn't have yelled at you," she said firmly. "I don't think so, at least."

I took a sip of what Cyr had handed me. Warm milk and honey, with a peculiar aftertaste. I felt a lump in my throat again. "I should've listened to him...he would never have asked me to do something like that."

Cyr sat down in the armchair across from me. "It isn't your fault, Rosalind. Reno is immensely loyal. He would have done it for anyone."

"I...I suppose he would've." This may sound strange, but that didn't make me feel as well as it should have. Maybe Cyr meant for it to alleviate my guilt, and I suppose it did, but for some reason, it also made me feel kind of sad. I had some peculiar feelings about the fact that Reno would go halfway around the world into the heart of an enemy camp for me, and finding out he'd do it for anyone was a bit of a damper on the whole thing.

"I told you, Rosalind, you really can't blame yourself," Samantha insisted.

"But I..." I trailed off. My eyelids were starting to get heavy. I was drowsy and a little dizzy, and the taste of whatever Cyr had given me still lingered at the back of my mouth. "C-Cyr...what was in this?"

Cyr shrugged. "Milk, some honey, and a particular tranquilizer from a plant back home on the island. I always have some on me. Remarkable how often it comes in handy. You'll be out in about five minutes. I suggest you come get into your pajamas."

This wasn't at all fair. I had expected to be up the whole night, worrying, blaming myself, and crying into my pillow. "Cyr, that's a mean trick," I mumbled, rubbing my eyes.

"I'm not the type of person to play fair," Cyr apologized contritely, helping me up and leading me over to my bedroom. She steered me to the bed and I sat down, only to have a pair of pajamas removed from underneath my pillow and pressed into my hands. "Get dressed," she instructed gently.

When she'd left the room, I clumsily pulled off my boots and grimy clothes, then got into my pajamas. Lacking anything better to do, and because the moonlight coming through the window was starting to blur and distort, I climbed into bed and pressed my face against the pillow. I wasn't going to drench it this night-sedative or no sedative, I was exhausted, but I did allow a few final tears to slip out, before I fell asleep.

*

Waking up the next morning to a bright apartment after eight solid hours of sleep did me at least a small measure of good. My head was clear and I wasn't being crushed under the weight of the negative thinking that being up for far too long past midnight brings. I got up, stretching and yawning, and went to have a shower.

Ever since the reform school and all the way through the Academy, I'd had nothing but cold showers. Well, that wasn't exactly true. A hot shower was a luxury afforded to us on our birthdays in the Academy. So I'd had five, since I was fourteen. That's five hot showers in nine years. I don't know what they were trying to do. Maybe they wanted to toughen us up, or maybe they just wanted to make us appreciate hot water. In any case, after a half-an-hour of luxuriating in the steam-filled bathroom, I felt much, much better.

I felt more positive. After all, I'd been headed for the military base at Cosmo Canyon and I'd gotten lost. There was no reason why the same thing shouldn't happen to Reno. I mean, in all honesty, he didn't seem like the type to be any good at navigating through the canyons. I had no idea he could fly a jet, though. I would have to ask Rude about that. I knew there were Turks who could, naturally. It was a course offered at the Academy, but I had never thought it would be one Reno would take. You have to enter it at the very beginning of your Academy training and it lasts the whole way through.

I got dressed and headed out of my apartment. I had to talk to Tseng, I had to talk to Rude, I had to talk to Cyr. For once, the lounge was empty. That was all right, I had intended to start with Tseng anyway. As it turned out, I didn't have far to go before I would talk to everybody.

I went up to Tseng's office. A few of the people, Reno's friends, waved at me as I went through the hallways. I waved back and forced a smile. Tseng's door was closed, so I knocked and half-opened it. "Sir?"

Everyone was there. Tseng, Rude, Rafe, St. Andrew, Cyr, Samantha, and Rod. They were crowded around Tseng's desk, all of them looking grim. Tseng looked up from his computer screen at me. "Rosalind..." he began.

"Aww, no," St. Andrew protested immediately. "Tseng, she doesn't need to see this. I can tell her..."

My positive mood slipped. There was something about the way everyone was looking at me that froze the blood in my veins. "W-what?" I stammered fearfully. "What's wrong?"

Tseng sighed. "Come here, Rosalind," he ordered gently, beckoning to me.

I came forward nervously and stood in front of his desk. "S-sir?"

He turned the computer screen around. There was a blank media window open. "A package came in this morning," he told me quietly. "It was from an unknown source in Gongaga. The company had it scanned for every conceivable threat, bombs, bio-toxins, the works, but there was nothing. All it contained was a video disk."

With a few keystrokes, he had it playing. I watched. I was terrified of what he was going to show me, but I think, deep down, I had my suspicions about what it would be.

The first shot was hazy, brought sharply into clarity as the cameraman focused. I drew a sharp breath as I recognized Fuhito standing before the camera, smiling. Behind him was the dusty red stone of the cliffs of Cosmo Canyon. He was in a fortified base, there was no doubt of it, from the tents and trucks behind him.

"Greetings, Shinra personnel. I know for certain this video will reach your screening rooms, and then be handed up through the company, from one disgusting leech to the other, until it reaches either your head of military operations, Heidegger...or the head of your assassins, your Turks, the honorable Commander Veld."

He said the word "honorable" with purest contempt. My hands clenched into fists. I still hated him.

"Perhaps this video will even reach your President, though-heartless slug that he is, it is doubtful he will care for it. It is certain he will do nothing, for, in truth, there's nothing to be done."

"Get to the point, you damned bastard," I heard Rafe mutter. I was vaguely surprised. I'd never heard him swear before.

As if in response to this, Fuhito cleared his throat. "However, I ramble on, and there are things to do. We are aware of your knowledge of our location, Shinra. We hadn't expected to be discovered so soon, but nevertheless, we were prepared for it. We are moving on. Doubtless, you will come to comb the remnants of our passing, but I promise you, we shall leave no trace."

The camera panned out. I felt a steadying hand on my shoulder, but I didn't know whose it was. My eyes were fixed on the screen. The shot had widened to include two Avalanche goons and a figure, kneeling on the ground between them, hands presumably bound behind his back.

"Oh...no," I managed. It was all I could say. Fuhito moved over to the two Avalanche members and grabbed a handful of Reno's hair, jerking his head back. I flinched and whoever had their hand on my shoulder squeezed gently.

"We will, however, leave you one thing," Fuhito continued, his eyes glinting behind his glasses. "The body is merely a vessel for spirit energy, the life-force of the Planet, the Lifestream. This energy, this force...the soul, if you will, though the word can hardly be used in the context of a Turk," he spat the word contemptuously. "With death, this 'soul' is removed from the body and leaves it an empty husk. We will leave you this. It is more than you have done with our fallen comrades, those who have bravely given their lives to heal the wounds you inflict upon our Planet. We understand that it is not the body that matters, and that clinging to something so temporal is a pitiful gesture."

Fuhito's loosened his grip and struck Reno once, sharply. My fingernails dug into my palms deep enough that I thought I felt them pierce the skin. "Go on, Turk. We are addressing your friends and comrades," he said softly, so softly that the camera microphone garbled his words slightly. "Beg for your life, for your salvation. If these people...if the Shinra...if they truly cared, they would deliver you."

Reno is a second class Turk. Whatever impressions his behavior and actions may leave, he's no coward. He's not weak, either. It's a terrible mistake to underestimate Reno.

He jerked his head up and twisted his body, wrenching free of one of the guards. For a few, brief seconds, he stared straight at the camera. "Don't come here," was all he managed, before the guard had thrown him to the ground and pressed a gun against the side of his head.

I felt a burst of pride, then cringed when Fuhito delivered a sharp kick to Reno's ribs. "Silence, Turk!" he barked. "Do you want your comrades to watch your death, as well? It would be quick, and not nearly so painful as what we have planned, but the manner in which a soul returns to the Planet matters very little. Take him away," Fuhito snarled.

The camera zoomed back in to Fuhito and my heart gave a little lurch. I'd been afraid that they would kill Reno on screen, but now that I couldn't see him, I was even more afraid. With a sinking feeling, I glanced at the date in the corner. The video was already two days old. They must have captured him almost as soon as he arrived. He could already be dead.

"He will die on midnight of August twenty-fifth. You may throw away your lives trying to rescue him, but I assure you, your efforts will be in vain. By the time this reaches you, it will likely be too late. My apologies, Shinra."

The video faded to blackness. The fact that he'd apologized was somehow chilling to me, but I couldn't place why. Maybe because it was so unexpected. I stared numbly at the clock on the bottom corner of Tseng's screen. "Is it really too late?" I asked. My voice was strained. I was doing my best to keep the emotion out of it.

Tseng glanced at his watch. "Given the time it takes to get to Gongaga from here...and the time difference Fuhito would've been working with...we'd be cutting it close."

"How close?" I demanded.

Tseng blinked. "Uh...within an hour or so, talking about the best case scenario."

"How unrealistic is the best case scenario?"

"Rosalind..." Rude said gently. It was his hand on my shoulder. I shoved it away irritably. If there was a chance, I was taking it, I didn't care what anybody would say to dissuade me.

"Tseng, tell me. What's the best case scenario?" I pressed.

"W-well... The time difference from here to Cosmo Canyon is four hours. It's nine o'clock now, so it's one in Cosmo Canyon. That means we have eleven hours. If we were to take a jet from here to Junon, then to Gongaga...with absolutely no delays...that would be nine hours. But that's just to Gongaga. It would take at least another day to get to Cosmo Canyon, even if we knew exactly where we were going."

"A day of travel on foot. There must be a faster way," I insisted. "The man who was in here earlier...Cid, you called him. He gave Reno a jet that must have gotten him to Cosmo Canyon in at least ten hours. Surely he has something that can move us that fast!"

Tseng hesitated. "He might," he conceded finally. "But, Rosalind, we haven't even considered the effort it would take to infiltrate the camp."

"Fuhito said they were packing up to leave! Almost all of them must be gone by now! Between the eight of us, we could do it...I know we could! Sir, why are you trying to talk me out of this?" I couldn't understand it. If there was even the slightest chance, we had to take it. It was better than doing nothing.

Tseng glanced down at the papers on his desk and shuffled them nervously. "We'd never get permission to go," he explained quietly. "Yes, if we got Cid's help, we could be on their doorstep in ten hours. I agree, they must have pulled out nearly all of their people by now. If we all worked together, I've no doubt we could do it. But the company would never give us permission to risk eight lives for the sake of one that's as good as lost. It's part of the company's military charter. It's far too great a risk."

I stared at Tseng incredulously. "B-but...we're being held back by some stupid rule? I don't care about the rules! It's my life! No one is ordering me to do this, sir. It's my choice. Maybe I'm throwing my life away, but I can't just sit here, knowing there's a chance. We break rules all the time. That's what they're there for. I don't care what Shinra says, I'm going."

There was silence in the room. I'd been yelling. My cheeks were flushed and my eyes were bright. Rude cleared his throat. "I'm with you, Rosalind," he said quietly.

"Me too!" St. Andrew declared. "That bastard owes me money."

Cyr nodded. "Rosalind's right. If there's a chance, it's wrong for us not to take it, no matter what the risk."

Samantha hugged me impulsively. "Count Rod and I in!" she declared.

"And me, of course," Rafe added hastily.

I looked at Tseng. He had taken a picture of his family in his hands and was staring at it blankly, running his fingers up and down the edge of the frame. I felt a twinge of remorse. The only thing we had to lose was a friend. He had a family. It was too big a risk to ask him to take. "Tseng..."

Tseng put the picture down and turned to his computer. His fingers flickered across the keyboard and the printer on the corner of his desk hummed and whirred, spitting out sheets of paper. He picked these up, stacked them, tapped them a few times on the desk, and paper clipped them together, then tucked them neatly in a folder. "I couldn't face my family, knowing I could've saved a friend, but didn't," he said finally. "Let's go talk to Cid."

"What'd you print?" St. Andrew asked curiously.

Tseng smiled briefly, standing up behind his desk and taking two slender, curved knives, in ornate Wutain sheaths from the filing cabinet behind him. "Nine letters of resignation. I'll have them delivered to Veld as soon as we're in the air. It's just so we can't be fired for disobeying the company charter."

"Oh. Right." St. Andrew took the file and a pen from his pocket, scribbling something on the front. "Ok. Everybody sign this."

He passed the file around and everybody read it over and signed. I skimmed the message he'd left quickly, and managed a smile.

Dear Commander Veld,
            Gone to go get Reno. Our apologies for quitting. If we come back, please rehire us.
            If we're killed, please nuke the Avalanche base.

Thanks,
                        St. Andrew                  Cyraieth          Tseng Yuen Lee
                        Rod                              Rude                Rosalind J. Kramer
                        Samantha Hartigan    Rafe Dumont

PS: Wish you were coming. We really, REALLY wish you were coming.


Chapter 8

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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