Author's Note

1. Overture
2. Rubato
3. Scherzo
4. Vivace et Affettuoso
5. D.S. al Coda
6. Dolente
7. Harmony and Dissonance
8. Impetuoso
9. Morendo

And the next day we went back home. Nothing came of anything that had happened in Icicle, except some kind of fling between Samantha and Rodney, and I only knew about that because Cyr told me. I guess our places are more removed from the real world than we think they are. Everybody just went back to where they’d been before Icicle. In a way, it was depressing, but in the same breath I guess I was also kinda relieved. I still don’t honestly know what I’d have done if anything had happened.

Tseng called me and Rude to his office the same day we got back. There were rumors about a run to Costa del Sol. I didn’t know why or what for, but that was what I expected the mission to be. That was good. I needed something to clear my head.

So anyway, Rude and I were waiting in Tseng’s office for him to arrive with our mission statement. He was standing at attention in front of Tseng’s desk; I was wandering around the room, trying to occupy myself. There’s really not much to hold a person’s attention in Tseng’s office. So I attempted to engage Rude in conversation.

“Hey, Rude…what do you think of Rosalind?” Yeah, so much for clearing my head.

Rude’s one of my best friends. I’ve known him for ages, and I know him better than I’ve ever known anybody, really. We don’t really act like close friends, I guess, but we are. I don’t think anyone else knows Rude as well as I do and that’s really saying something, because nobody knows Rude terribly well. He knows me backwards and forwards, but then, a lot of people do. I’m not hard to get to know, provided you wanna make the effort.

Despite all that, though, he’s pretty damn dense. “I think she’s a very capable agent. She’ll go far in this company.”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s been well-established that Rosalind’s a great Turk. She’s going places. What do you think of Rosalind, though?”

Rude shrugged. “She’s…nice.”

He’s got a hell of a way with words, Rude does. “Nice. Shit, Rude, she’s more than just nice. She’s cute and sweet and funny and kind…”

“All of which are major components of ‘nice.’ Evidently you think very highly of Rosalind,” he observed pointedly.

“Well, of course I do! She’s my…well, she’s my rookie. I’m damn proud of her. Aren’t you proud of your recruits?”

Rude shrugged. “I suppose I am. No more than I should be.”

“Sometimes, Rude, I really don’t get you.”

“It’s all well and good to be friends with your colleagues. But don’t take things too far.”

That came out of left field. “Uh?”

It’s a rather unlucky thing that Rude is one of the few people in life who know I’m not nearly as stupid as I seem. Rude gave me a penetrating stare from behind his sunglasses. “You know perfectly well what I’m talking about. There are serious consequences for things like this. Last year one of the higher-ups was caught in a tryst with his secretary and they both got fired.”

Both of them?”

Rude nodded. “Yeah. So watch yourself.”

“For what?” When all else fails, it’s really best just to play dumb, even if he knew otherwise.

And then Rosalind came in. I hadn’t been expecting her to show up, but I was glad to see her. (Well, obviously.) That was assuming she was there for the mission, of course. “Rookie! Hey, Tseng wants you on this one too?”

She shrugged. “I suppose so, sir. I wasn’t told what the mission was, I was just told to report to his office. Have you any idea what the missions is, sir?”

“Nah, rookie. I don’t think it’s any kind of trouble, at least, nothing I’ve heard about…”

“Do you suppose the company are making a strike at Avalanche, sir?”

“Maybe. But I doubt it.” It wasn’t likely, really. We were still fairly early in the game. Of course, the company was moving as fast as it could to stifle the Avalanche threat, but there’s only so much we can do. To me, it was too early for us to know enough to make a move. But then, I’m just the highly trained special ops guy, what would I know? “What do you think, Rude?”

Rude shrugged impassively. “We’re awaiting orders. We’ll find out what we need to know when we’re given them.”

I really can’t understand Rude’s capacity for waiting to be given information. I can’t do it. I’m fully aware of the fact that we don’t get told the whole story. The information that actually reaches us Turks is only a shadow of the full truth. It’s compromising if we know too much. But, on the flipside, a Turk is a special agent. Brains over brawn. We know more than most people think we do, even more than the Company thinks we do. “Jesus, Rude. Aren’t you just the least bit curious? If you wanted to be dumb muscle, you should’ve gone out for SOLDIER when you had the chance.”

Rosalind’s eyes widened. “You could’ve gone into SOLDIER, sir?”

Rude shrugged and grunted, so I answered for him. “Of course he could’ve!” It was true, after all. After graduating from the Academy, at around the time the SOLDIER project was getting its start, Rude was approached and asked if he wanted to join SOLDIER. That’s one hell of a compliment. They only consider the strongest, toughest recruits, and of those they rarely even pick half. Or at least, that’s what I’m told. I wouldn’t know the exact numbers. I’m glad he chose the Turks, though. Otherwise I would’ve been without a partner. Then they might’ve given me Loretta and that would’ve just been hell. She’s a good friend, but when the both of us are in the field together, people get injured and they’re usually not the people we’re trying to injure. “Rude’s got all the dumb muscle SOLDIER could ever want. Show her, Rude.”

Not many people would suspect this, but I know my partner; I know he’s a showoff. I think all bodybuilders are. They like lifting things. That’s weird, to say the very least. I, like most normal people, avoid lifting things if I can help it. Especially heavy things. But a bodybuilder just dives right in and does stuff like picking up Rosalind, chair and all.

She shrieked a little and grasped the sides of her chair tightly as he lifted her up. “Th-this is really quite unnecessary, sir!”

Then Tseng came in the room, clearing his throat. “Yes, Rude, very nice. Now put Rosalind down.”

Rude cleared his throat and put Rosalind down, apparently embarrassed. He hates being caught showing off. “Our assignment, sir?” he asked gruffly, gesturing at me as Tseng sat down behind his desk and shuffled through some papers.

Right down to business. “And Rosalind’s too, if you want to bring her,” Tseng added, thumbing through a file folder for some forms.

“Hey, yeah!” I guess that sounded a bit too enthusiastic, because Rude shot me a look. “Well…erm…that is, only if you want to come, rookie…”

“Yes please, sir,” Rosalind agreed, nodding.

Tseng chuckled. “Good to see you’re ready and willing. When Reno doesn’t want to do something, it’s absolute hell to try and make him. Especially since, legally, we can’t force him.”

That’s true enough. That’s the thing about this business. We can’t be called strictly military because we reserve the right to refuse orders. It’s called Article Thirty-Six, but we call it the Genius Clause. We call it that because back when the deal was drawn up for the merger between the Turks and Shinra, some genius threw this clause in. Personally, I think it was Veld. We don’t use it often, but we will if we feel we have to. I mean, come on. We’re not soldiers. We don’t go charging into our battles in full body armor, toting machine guns and screaming. That’s not the Turks. If some stupid higher-up tells me to go charging into any situation I don’t feel I can deal with, I reserve the right to laugh in his face. That’s the Turks.

“It’s okay, Tseng, I wanna do this one. I think. What’s the job?”

Tseng cleared his throat. “Well. As you may have heard, over the past week or so, the Company has been stepping up SOLDIER recruitment. The projected territorial expansion into other areas has been accelerated. We need you three to head down to Costa del Sol and investigate rumors of a place called ‘Club Duel’…”

“Rumors, Tseng? Rumors…hell, I’ve been there! St. Andrew knew about it so we went down to Costa del Sol one weekend and blew a month’s pay, gambling. Gotta wonder if it’s rigged, because St. Andrew totally cleaned out. Maybe I just can’t pick winners. Though…hey, Rude! Why don’t you get involved in Club Duel?”

That was a bit of a jab at him on my part. Rude had been involved in Club Duel. He was good, too. So good that they made him quit. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know the whole of it, but a few fights before he would’ve been untouchable, he got ganged up on and forced to resign. That’s a shame, but then he became a Turk and, as I stated earlier, if he hadn’t I would’ve got stuck with Loretta for a partner.

“What’s Club Duel?” Rosalind questioned, looking confused and a little embarrassed to be the only one in the dark.

“It’s an illegal fighting club run underground in Costa del Sol. The authorities in the area are rather severely corrupt, so it’s been overlooked for years. But, with Shinran influence moving into the police force, it’s liable to be closed down in fairly short order. So we want to move in on the participants and collect recruits for SOLDIER before they suspect anything. You have your orders.”

Rosalind and Rude both saluted. I don’t hold much with saluting, myself. I think it looks kinda stupid. I waved at Tseng instead. “Gotcha. Is there a plane waiting for us?”

“At the airport, yes.”

“Then I guess we’d better be off! I’ve been getting bored. See you in the parkade in a few minutes, rookie?”

She nodded again and smiled, saluting. “Yes, sir!”

“Rude, if you could stay back for a few minutes? I have some more specific instructions for you,” Tseng asked, glancing at me.

A few seconds passed and Rude cleared his throat, pulling back the sleeve of his jacket and looking at his watch.

“Oh. Right.” This was one of those discussions I get kicked out of the room for. “I’ll…umm…I’ll just go grab a car, then. See you in the parkade, Rude.”

“In about five minutes, yeah.”

“Roger.” I ducked out of Tseng’s office and closed the door behind me, heading for the elevator. You’d think I’d be used to it by now—the fact that specific orders aren’t conveyed to me because I can’t keep them straight––but it’s hard not to take it kind of personally. But that’s just life, I guess.

I headed down to the parking lot and picked out a nice sports car, pulling up in front of the elevator and blaring the horn as the doors slid open for Rude. He rolled his eyes and came over, pulling the door open. “I’ll drive.”

“Aww, but I wanna!”

“Reno, the last time you drove we ended up in a harbor.”

That had been a bad one. “But that was in Junon! Gimme a break!”

“You deliberately drove the car off a pier!”

“Well, it was on fire! What would you have done, jackass?”

Rude sighed. “I’d have pulled over, gotten out, and been spared the swim back to the docks, genius.”

If there’s one thing in life I can’t argue with, it’s logic. “Aww…shut up. Fine. You drive. See what you do if we catch on fire,” I muttered sullenly, unbuckling my seat belt and shifting over into the passenger’s seat.

“It’s a ten minute drive.”

“Well, we weren’t exactly on a road trip when the engine caught fire in Junon, now were we? What’d Tseng want?”

Rude sat down and adjusted the mirrors. “Just to clarify a few details,” he answered vaguely.

“Such as…?”

“The best ways to move through town, who to pick up…standard stuff. You know the drill,” Rude answered shortly.

I did. “Recruiting” is one of the things Shinra likes to leave to the Turks. The sight of armed soldiers swarming the streets of cities all over the globe, yanking people off the streets and shoving them into trucks doesn’t do much for PR. So Shinra sends us in under the cover of darkness, and we snatch whoever looks like they won’t be missed. Street thugs, mostly. Anyone who’ll lurk in the streets after dark, looking for trouble. There are ways to do it. I’d done it before, though, so I knew procedure. “Why’s he telling you that stuff, though?”

Rude shrugged. “Procedure is slightly different on this one. Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it under control.”

That meant he was lying to me. Or leaving stuff out, whatever. No one ever tells me anything.

The elevator doors opened and Rosalind came out. I waved at her and leaned into the back seat, pushing the door open. “Here you go, rookie. Rude’s driving. Just to make sure we don’t end up in any harbors.”

Rosalind climbed in and buckled up tightly, checking her watch. “We’ll be in Costa del Sol…at about midnight, sir?” she asked, after a few minutes of silent figuring.

“Yeah, rookie, around when it starts to get dark and things get dangerous.” I glanced in the rearview mirror at her. I really don’t understand how she dresses so neatly. Well, no. I guess I do. Rude does it too. So do all my colleagues, really. Except for maybe St. Andrew, who’s as heavily opposed to ties as I am (Got one caught in a revolving door. Guess where.) I guess it just takes a little effort. I don’t understand why, is what it is, maybe. I don’t like wearing a suit. It’s uncomfortable and stiff. So I’ve done everything in my power to make my uniform as comfortable as my street clothes. “You ever been to Costa del Sol, rookie?”

She shook her head. “No, sir, never. Is it nice, sir?”

“It’s gorgeous, rookie. Hot, though. Very hot. We’ll go there for a vacation someday. But this time around we’ve got a job to do.”

We drove to the airport, got on a chartered plane, flew over to Junon, then got on a ship and headed to Costa del Sol. That’s really all there is to tell about the trip. I slept the whole way. Rude was working on the deck of the ship of Rosalind for the trip across to Costa del Sol. She wasn’t going to be allowed to use her handgun, because they’d damage the people we were trying to bring back too badly. And she couldn’t use tranquilizers because there was no telling what sort of drugs these people might already have in their systems, and mixing drugs like that is rather unadvisable.

Thankfully, we’re all trained in hand-to-hand combat. Marginally, at least. Gunslingers are the least trained in martial arts, because they’re the least likely to need to be able to fight with someone hand-to-hand. That’s not to say they’re not good fighters—I knew for a fact that Rosalind was a black belt in judo. They just aren’t on the same level of people who normally fight in close quarters, with a weapon, like me, or without, like Rude or Cyr. Regardless, it was probably more than enough.

I’d been sleeping in a room in the hold. It was a cargo ship, not anything fancy or dreadfully comfortable, but enough. In all honesty, travel by ship makes me ill. Sleeping is the much-preferred alternative to throwing up over the side of the deck for all of eight hours.

It’s not even the motion that gets to me, really. I mean, I love air travel and I’ve never been carsick in my life. Maybe it’s the thought of being stranded in the middle of the ocean, with nothing but miles and miles of water in all directions, and being aware of the fact that if a jet came diving out of the sky with a missile or two, we’d have the odds of a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest when it came to survival. I’d just much sooner be below decks, in bed, where I can imagine I’m somewhere safe.

I woke up when I heard the engines slacking off as we got into port, though, so I rolled out of bed and took my nightstick from the shelf on the wall. I stretched a few times to loosen up. This was going to be a relatively easy mission. No terrorists, no armed insurgents, just some nice, easy kidnapping.

I headed up on deck, just in time to catch Rude and Rosalind finishing up their practice. “Hey, rookie! Getting some lessons from the master?”

Rosalind stretched and nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m quite well-prepared, sir.”

“That’s great, rookie. Now, I kinda figured you and me would cover the north and south ends of town, so which one do you…”

“No,” Rude interrupted, pulling on a pair of gloves. I wear gloves, too, but mine are weighted. When Rude throws a punch, it’s all him. When I throw a punch, it’s also a few ounces of lead. If that gets to be too heavy, though, I also carry brass knuckles. But then, that usually means blood on my hands and I don’t care for that. (Huh. That sounds ironic.)

“Uh…no?” I stared at him. “What the hell d’you mean, ‘no’?” I mean, really. I was trying to command here. It’s hard enough for a guy like me to have any kind of authority, never mind having people countermanding the orders I try to give.

“I mean no. Rosalind is going to Club Duel.”

“No!” My turn. “Rosalind is not going to Club Duel! Shit, Rude, are you kidding? She’s a rookie! I mean, jeez! If you don’t wanna go…well, that’s fine, but send me, not her…I’ll take Club Duel.”

Rude shrugged. “These are Tseng’s orders. He said you’d do this. Rosalind’s up to it.”

So that’s what he’d been talking to Tseng about. Well, that was just goddamned peachy. I get a recruit, sure, just so long as I don’t try to give her orders. “But…well, shit. I don’t know…I don’t mind doing it, really…I mean, technically, this is only her second mission…”

“That means nothing. She’s a Turk, she’ll handle it,” Rude asserted again.

I glanced at Rosalind. She was watching me closely, a slightly pleading light in her eyes. At least she had some sort of respect for the fact that I was supposed to be commanding her. She looked like she was waiting for me to give in. But, in the same breath, she was fully six inches shorter than me, a good deal slighter, and unused to close-fighting. There was no way she should be fighting in Club Duel.

“Goddamn, Rude, look at her! She’s tiny! You can’t seriously expect…” I broke off and paused when I saw how she was staring at me. “I’m sorry, rookie, I don’t mean to offend you. But some of these guys weigh twice as much as I do and…”

“She can hold her own against me,” Rude cut in again, folding his arms across his chest. “We really don’t have time for this.”

“But you weren’t actually trying to hurt her and…and…ahh…shit.” I looked at her for a long few moments. Club Duel is a rough place. But then, it wouldn’t be nearly so rough as Junon and Rosalind pulled through that okay. But then, she’d been allowed to use her gun in Junon. “Rookie? D’you really think you’re up for this?”

She smiled shyly at me. That didn’t help. Now I really didn’t want to let her go. “I’m sure I can do it, sir,” she answered, a ringing note of confidence in her voice. “I’m ready to go.”

I’ve mentioned that I can’t say no to Rosalind. That’s a very, very bad thing, especially in situations like this. I tried, I really tried, because if I told her no, she’d listen to me and Rude would have no other choice but to let me take Club Duel, but I just couldn’t. “Aww, rookie…hell. If you really think you can do it…then…” I stopped and sighed. “Yeah. All right, you go. But…and you listen to this, rookie…you be careful. Understand?”

Rosalind smiled again and saluted. “Yes, sir. Of course. I’ll be just fine. Please, don’t worry.”

“Yeah, right. God. Ugh…fine. All right, you…go to Club Duel. I’ll be…I’ll work the south side of town, I guess.” I was kicking myself for saying yes. As soon as I’d said it, about seven worst-case scenarios had arisen in my mind. “Rookie, if you need any help, call me.” I pulled my pair of brass knuckles from my pocket and handed them to her. “Here. Because you’re at a rather severe disadvantage. You want a little advice from me; forget everything Rude’s taught you and just fight dirty. Just…I don’t know, fight like a girl. Scratch their eyes out, or something. And for god’s sake, don’t forget you’ve got a gun. You can kill a few of the more dangerous ones, if you have to. I’m sure Shinra won’t mind. Got it?”

She nodded and patted my arm placatingly. “Please, sir, don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”

“Yeah, I know…” She sounded so confident, I couldn’t do anything but agree, even if it made me feel sick inside. I rubbed the back of my neck. Already, I was getting a tension headache. That’s remarkable. I’m usually more than halfway through a mission before the stress starts to get to me. I should’ve taken something. “Ahh…I gotta go. Right. Gotta get out of here. Watch yourself, rookie.”

“I will, sir. You be careful, sir.”

“Yeah.” I just had to leave and let her do this. She’d be fine. She’d call me if she needed me. I wouldn’t be far away. I managed to shoulder my nightstick and trip down the gangplank onto the docks. When I got on solid ground I broke into a jog, for fear that I’d turn around and run back, take back whatever I’d just said and lock Rosalind in the hold so she wouldn’t get hurt.

To my credit, I got into town and made it about half a block southward before the idea of her being raped crossed my mind, and I turned around and ran back.

Of course, I ran straight into Rude, coming down Main Street. I think he’d been expecting me.

“Changed my mind! Don’t want her in there! I’ll go do it!” I said quickly, trying to run past him. He grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back.

“Oh, no you don’t,” he grunted. “She’s doing this on her own. She’s fine.”

“But, Rude…”

Rude shook his head firmly. “No. You’re babying her. She doesn’t deserve that. It’s an insult to her capabilities.”

“Capabilities, hell! Please, Rude, for the love of god…if she was someone…if you had a…a…a little sister…would you let her go into a place like Club Duel?”

Rude grunted. “If I knew she could kick the ass of anyone in there, I would.”

“But you don’t know…”

“I know Club Duel. She’ll be fine,” he told me firmly. “Get to work.”

I kind of lost my temper with him at that point. I hate it when Rude does stuff like that to me. It’s like he’s pulling rank, except we’re the same class. Or he’s ganging up on me, except he’s only one person. Somehow, he gets the upper hand and there’s not a goddamned thing I can do about it. Well. Except get my EMR out and take a swing at his head.

He caught my nightstick before I made contact with his skull, but that was all I needed. Or all I would’ve needed if he hadn’t grabbed me by the throat.

So we were at a bit of an impasse. I wasn’t going to electrocute him and he wasn’t going to strangle me, but I did want to give him a bit of a healthy jolt and he did have the capacity to choke me senseless. On the whole, it was rather tense. My thumb was twitching on the trigger to shock him and his fingers were clamped rather tightly over one of the arteries in my neck. When we fight, it usually ends up more or less like that. It’s a wonder we haven’t killed each other yet.

We were stuck like that for a few moments. “So…you see the game on Friday?” I managed, trying to pry his fingers from my throat with my free hand.

Rude grunted and his arm twitched slightly. I hadn’t had a chance to charge up a shock, but there was a low current throbbing through my EMR anyway. If nothing else, he was going to have pins and needles all up and down his arm. “Missed it.”

“Shame. It was good.”

It was quiet. It’s always quiet in Costa del Sol at night. Then a soft ringing broke the stillness. “That yours?” I asked him.

“I was going to ask you the same.”

“Not my ringtone.”

Rude grunted and slackened his grip slightly as his phone rang again. “On three?”

“Yeah, all right.”

“One…two…three.” He let me go and I turned my nightstick off, rubbing my throat gingerly. I’d probably have a pretty nasty bruise, in the morning, but at least his arm was going to be twitching all night. That was fair compensation.

Rude answered his PHS, cupping a hand around the receiver. “Yes, sir…we have, sir…yes, I did…like dropping her off at daycare, sir. She’ll be just fine. We’re getting to work right now, sir. Thank you, sir.”

It’s so weird to me that Rude calls Tseng “sir.” I never call him “sir.” I never call anybody “sir” except for people I don’t like. Well, and Veld, too. But then, everybody calls Veld “sir” so it’s okay. I don’t think he’s the sort of person you couldn’t not call “sir.” Commander Veld is just like that, I guess.

Snapping his PHS closed, Rude straightened the cuffs of his jacket. “Get to work, Reno.”


“Get to work, or I’ll report you.”

That completely threw me. “You’ll…report me? Rude?” I’ve never been reported. That must sound kinda surprising, but it’s true. That’s not to say I don’t break the rules—I do. Frequently and with no small amount of pleasure. I guess I was even breaking the rules then. I break a lot of rules. But no one ever reports me. No one even threatens to. Least of all my partner. “You’re kidding, right?”

Rude folded his arms across his chest and sighed. “No. I’m not. Get to work.”

This wasn’t right. Rude’s my partner. He’s a good guy. He’s one of the few people I work really well with, because he understands that most rules and regulations baffle me, that I have a problem with authority, and that I’ll sooner take orders from someone I like, than from someone of a higher rank than me, which is why I listen to him. I’m like that with everybody. Hell, I’d take orders from Rosalind in a heartbeat. It didn’t make any sense that he’d threaten to report me. When Rude wants me to do something and I’m being difficult, he’ll threaten me with physical injury. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

He shook his head. “No. I’m not,” he repeated. “This mission is important. Especially to me. I don’t want any screw ups.”

“Wha…?” I stared at him. I didn’t believe what I was hearing. For the moment, I’d forgotten about Rosalind and Club Duel. I was trying to figure out what my partner’s problem was. “Rude, what the hell’s gotten into you?”

“Please, just get to work. We only have so much time.”

“Shit, Rude. You’re acting like…like…I don’t know…some sort of officer, or something. This isn’t right. ” I watched him for a few moments. “Did I offend you or something? Have I done something wrong?” I asked. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d said something that got him mad at me. But if I’d done that, I’d have expected him to slug me. “Was it what I said about Club Duel?”

Rude shook his head. “No. Not that. Just get to work.”

“But I have offended you?”

“No. Get to work.”

This was starting to get kind of irritating. “Get to work, get to work…is that all I’m gonna get out of you? Shit. Fine, I’ll get to work. I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but if I’ve done something wrong I’d sure like to know about it.”

“Just get to work.”

Fine. Call me when you figure out who jammed the rod up your ass.” It was a bit of a crude parting shot, but then, I was getting irritated. I stalked off down the street, steaming a little.

At least I wasn’t worried about Rosalind any more. That’s the thing about me, I can’t stress about more than one problem at a time. And, for the moment, my partner’s being a jackass had me more irritated than the fact that Rosalind was going solo, yet again. She could handle herself and I knew that, I was just concerned about the slim possibility of her getting in trouble. But if she did, she’d call me. So I focused on Rude and whatever the hell his problem was.

I didn’t think I’d done anything. If I had, I didn’t know what in god’s name it was. Rude’s weird about things like that. He wasn’t likely to tell me what I’d done wrong, if I even had done anything wrong. I wish people wouldn’t do things like that to me. I have enough trouble muddling my way through life without people making things complicated. That’s one of the things I love about Rosalind. There’s a lot of things about her that get me, but one of them is that she’s just straight about things. She’s not deceptive, she’s not coy, she just says what she means. If I ever did something to hurt her, she’d tell me. I hope.

My head twitched. It does that every now and then- just kinda snaps from one side to the other. I’m sure it looks like I’m on drugs or something. Really, all it means is I’m cold, or I just had a really scary thought. Things had been bad back in Junon. I’d been about a half step away from saying “screw the mission” and just chasing after Fuhito for what he did to Rosalind. Seeing her invalid, weeping and completely broken…yeah. My blood boiled. I would’ve raged if I had the chance. Tseng had called it “righteous indignation”. I call it revenge. And I know that if I ever brought tears to those big, beautiful, emerald eyes, I know right where the next ten thousand volts from my EMR would go.

I mean, let’s be completely honest here. By this point I was past the whole wondering phase. I didn’t wonder about her. I knew. I knew I wanted her something awful, but, still, I didn’t know what to do. Or what I would do if something were to happen. Yeah, it’d be great if she just walked up one day and threw her arms around me, flashing me one of those great smiles that puts everything right in the world. Then those gorgeous eyes of her would close, and she’d lean into me, the flavors of starch and honey holding me hostage. Definitely one hostile takeover I wouldn’t mind being on the receiving end of.

I would feel her arms tense up, pulling me closer, closer, even closer to her, until at last our lips would connect. It would be amazing, a thing of utter beauty and love, not at all like all the other girls I’d “known”. They’d just been objects, shiny pieces of metal in the sand. Rosalind, though…she was my emerald, my sapphire. My precious jewel in blue.

I hadn’t even noticed the time go by. I was somewhere in the southeastern part of town, close to the beach. It smelled delicious; salt and sea carp with a hint of honey. I paused and rested against a wall. I’d been jogging down the street the whole time; absolutely amazing that someone hadn’t taken a potshot at me from a window, or hit me over the head with a two by four. A Turk running down the street in the middle of the night has got to be a pretty tempting target for the kind of scum that infest Costa del Sol in the night. There are a lot of drug runners in Costa del Sol. Because of all the action it gets as a tourist hotspot, it’s hard for the authorities to keep a tight hold of the cargo that comes in and goes out. With the deal that had been cut with Shinra, hopefully things would tighten up and the flow of drugs onto the continent would be slowed a bit. The least I could do would be to keep some of the creeps off the streets.

I crept through the streets, never straying too far from the docks. It wasn’t hard to find “candidates.” Despite its appearances, Costa del Sol is a rough place at night. Especially down around the docks. There are a lot of drug runners in Costa del Sol. Because of all the action it gets as a tourist hotspot, it’s hard for the authorities to keep a tight hold of the cargo that comes in and goes out. With the deal that had been cut with Shinra, hopefully things would tighten up and the flow of drugs onto the continent would be slowed a bit. The least I could do would be to keep some of the creeps off the streets.

I was very lucky to stumble upon a whole parcel (what’s the word for referring to drug dealers in the plural? I’ve heard some weird ones, gaggle of geese, murder of crows, et cetera…a syringe of drug dealers? I dunno, I’ve never been good at word games) of these guys in a back alley, doing some sort of deal. Big fellows, all of them. Tattoos, piercings, gang markings, the whole nine yards. I really don’t understand why these guys go to such trouble making themselves look tough, and then make so little effort to actually be tough. I mean, a switchblade, sure, that’s impressive if you know how to use it. A handgun; good for you and your opposable thumbs, ya dumb ape, but can you actually hit anything? The weenie little two pronged, fifty-thousand volt tazer you’re packing? Not worth a damn against my EMR. Or the shock grenades I carry, for that matter.

They were all reduced to a moaning, twitching pile of tattooed flesh within seconds. I put in a call back to the ship for back up, requesting a few soldiers to come collect the heap of recruits and went back to my hunting.

I wonder what it’s like to be recruited. I wasn’t, not really. When Veld got me into the Turks, he was getting me out of the Army. Anything would’ve been better than that. Sure, I’m still risking my life, but I’m doing it my way, for something I believe in, and I have a choice. The Turks was an infinitely better choice for me.

I guess that’s why I can’t really relate to the people we’re catching. For the most part, they are criminals. Those are the only people Shinra recruits, actually. You’d think this was kind of a risky thing to do, but they’ve always made it work. Each candidate is cross-examined and everything, so if we ever accidentally grab someone who isn’t a criminal, they can be returned and paid compensation for the trouble.

All in all, it was an easy run and I sent a total of almost two-dozen recruits back to the ship, before deciding to head back. Rude would’ve gotten at least the same number and I would bet that Rosalind had a fair amount to add.

So I jogged back to the ship and up the gangplank, nodding curtly to Rude on the deck, then heading down to the hold to check on the prisoners.

They’d been corralled together in a big room, and were being held in a kind of electrified pen (again, love to the boys in Engineering. You gotta love whoever comes up with a fence comprised entirely of sparking blue electricity, but maybe that’s just my thing.) For the most part, they looked sullen and grumpy and there was a fair bit of cursing when I came in.

“Hello, there! You all comfy-cozy? Mind the walls, now, they’ll give you a pretty bad jolt if you mess with ‘em.”

They all seemed to have learned this, so I nodded, satisfied. “All right, then. Keep quiet and we’ll be in Midgar before you know it.”

I headed back up on deck and joined Rude at the railing. I didn’t say anything to him and he didn’t say anything to me, so I wasn’t sure if things were okay between us or not. Sometimes, if we just leave things, they work themselves out and we don’t even bring them up the next time we talk. I cleared my throat a few times. “Rosalind back yet?”

Rude shook his head. “No.”

“Still rounding people up?”

“Should be about done.”

“Yeah…provided…d’you figure she did okay?”

“I told you she’d be fine. If she can’t handle it, she’s not fit to be a Turk. This is a standard job.”

I winced a bit at the tone of his voice. Things weren’t quite worked out. There was still something bugging him, but I’d be damned if I knew what. “Just a day in the life of your average Turk…” I muttered, resting my elbows on the railing and leaning forward. “You still got a rod up your ass?” I questioned, after a few more minutes of silence.

Rude responded with frigid silence. I knew what that meant.

“Yeah, I thought so.”

I watched the steps leading up to the town of Costa del Sol for a few minutes, waiting for Rosalind, letting my stomach get tied in knots as the thought of something going wrong resurfaced. “I’m gonna take a walk,” I said finally, pushing away from the railing and stuffing my hands in my pockets.

Rude grunted and shrugged. I took this as a fair answer and headed down the length of the ship, walking slowly, trying to ease the worry I was feeling. She was a good Turk, and she could handle it, but there was always the possibility of something going wrong. If something had, I didn’t know what I’d do. The idea made me feel sick, like all my organs had liquefied. If she got hurt, I’d tear whoever had hurt her in two. I’d always felt that way, even as far back as when Fuhito shot her in Junon, but at least now I knew exactly why.

I reached the far end of the ship and looked down at the water for a few moments, watching it lap up against the hull. Then I sighed, turned around, and headed back up the deck.

I saw Rosalind before she saw me, herding a column of almost a dozen prisoners up the gangplank and surrendering them into the care of some soldiers. I hadn’t realized quite how worried I’d been, I don’t think. I mean, I knew I was worried. But I didn’t realize that worry was the reason that my head was pounding and my guts were liquid and my hands were shaking. Seeing her standing there, perfectly all right, made me feel so much better it was hard to imagine I’d ever been worried. “Rookie!”

Rosalind half turned around and gasped a bit as I ran up and hugged her. Finally, a proper hug. One of the best hugs I’ve ever had. Especially because she laughed, too. “Hello, sir,” she greeted me, when I let her go. “Where do I put the candidates I collected, sir?”

“Wha…? Oh! Right…uh…down in the hold, the guards’ll show you where. Way to be, rookie. I’m proud of you.”

She blushed, snapping her heels together and saluting smartly. “Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!” She turned to her prisoners. “You heard him, get below decks!” she commanded. Then she turned to me and saluted again. She was happy, I could tell from the way her eyes were sparkling. And if she was happy, then I was bouncing-off-the-walls euphoric.

I rejoined Rude at the railing and grinned at him. He ignored me, but I didn’t care. I could care less that he was mad at me or in a snit or whatever. He could have a battleship up his ass for all I cared, because Rosalind was back and Rosalind was happy.

She came back up on deck and came shyly over to the railing. I was going to say something, but Rude turned around first.

“Good job, Rosalind. You brought in a respectable number of candidates,” he told her quietly with the barest hint of a smile.

Rosalind shrugged modestly. “Not really all that many…”

“Not as many as me or Rude. But that’s fine. We’ve both got a couple years experience on you. You’ll catch up, rookie.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir, I know,” she murmured in answer, coming over to the railing and putting her hands on it, looking down at the water, ebbing against the concrete pier.

I looked over at her and had another attack of whatever it was I’d felt in Icicle. There’s something about her and moonlight that just floors me. Her hair goes sort of silver and gold and her skin is pale and somehow she looks so small. She is small. She’s a tiny little scrap of a thing and it’s a wonder she ever got into the Turks, but she did. For someone so small, she seems so strong. God, I was proud of her.

“Hey, rookie…listen, I’m glad you were up to tonight, I…Rosalind, I…” I stopped and just about choked on my tongue. I hadn’t realized I was actually talking until she looked up at me and tilted her head to the side curiously. Rude shot me another look over her head and I yawned. “I…er…think I’m going back to bed. Yeah. Wake me…I dunno, when we get to Junon, or if there’s an emergency or something.”

Rude nodded. “We’ll take care of it,” he said shortly, becoming distant again and turning his attention to the dockhands, loading cargo onto the ship.

“Sleep well, sir,” I heard Rosalind call softly as I stumbled down the stairs to the hold. I headed into the cargo bay, where the prisoners were still trapped in their electric pen. I was shaking. I was nauseous. I felt like my lungs were going to burst. My eyes wouldn’t focus. This was either love, seasickness, or a nasty combination of both.

“You’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” I managed, wandering over to their little prison. “But I’m afraid I have to do something rather upsetting.”

And, without further ado and almost completely on impulse, I threw myself against the outside wall of the electric pen. The subsequent shock was enough to knock me flat on my back on the ground and make my ears ring, and the candidates thought it was the funniest damn thing in the world, but I felt much better.

I pushed myself to my feet, waving away one of the guards who came over at the sound of the candidates laughter, and stumbled down the corridor to my cabin, collapsing on the bed. My muscles were tense and I was twitching a little, but I’d very much needed a solid shock to the senses.

I’d come dangerously close to blurting out something stupid. In front of my poker-up-the-ass partner, no less. Who was threatening to report me. Maybe that was his problem. He’d already seemed suspicious of how I felt about Rosalind; maybe he was just trying to look out for me. But that didn’t make any sense. We’re Turks, we don’t get in trouble for stuff like that. Samantha and Rodney were messing around and no one was bugging them, and St. Andrew was throwing himself at Cyr and no one seemed to care…and I won’t even start on what Loretta does during the average work day…I couldn’t see what was so wrong.

Plain and simple, I guess I just didn’t get it. That was okay. I don’t get a lot of things and I’m still fairly happy with life. I was kinda bugged by the fact that Rude was apparently mad at me, but it would straighten itself out. Rosalind was back and she was fine and we’d be heading back to Midgar soon, so I could sleep. So that’s what I did.

I’m good at sleeping. I guess that’s a strange sort of thing to call a skill, but I really think I’ve got a knack for it. I can sleep just about anywhere, under just about any circumstance. I’ve slept on all variety of vehicles, on ships, on trains, and in cars. I’ve slept in alleys, in ditches, in foxholes. I’ve slept in beds in hotels all over the world. I’ve slept at every hour of the day, I’ve slept through every hour of the day. I’ve drugged myself to sleep, drank myself to sleep, bled myself to sleep, bored myself to sleep. So, I’m quite familiar with sleeping. And that’s what I did, for what seemed to be only a very little while. Then things started getting noisy.

Now, I can deal with a little noise. I’ll sleep through it, no problem. As I mentioned, I can sleep just about anywhere, regardless of the conditions. However, if there’s noise in a situation where there’s not supposed to be any noise, that’ll wake me. When I woke, there shouldn’t have been anything more than the sounds of the ships engines and a vague sensation of movement. And yet the engines were silent and the ship wasn’t moving. What had woken me were sounds of combat from the hold.

For a few minutes I lay in bed, listening to the sounds of fighting, then it hit me that maybe I should go do something about it. I’m never too sharp when I first wake up. I got up and stretched, retrieving my nightstick yet again and heading down the hall to where the prisoners were kept. The place was deserted, except for Rude, who was picking himself up from where he’d been sprawled on the floor. “Hey! What happened?”

Rude grunted and got to his feet, dusting off his suit and replacing his sunglasses. “Nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing.” To me, it looked like he’d got the shit beat out of him, but I wasn’t gonna say that.

“It’s none of your damn business,” he answered shortly, looking at me. Then he sighed. “Sorry. The captives got away. Avalanche.”

“Avalanche?” I echoed, not believing him. “Avalanche are…? Do they know…? Huh. So they’re moving again, hey?”

Rude nodded. “It seems like it. You wanna start rounding up the candidates again? Rosalind’s gone to work already. I’ll…I’ll catch up.”

“Sure, I got it.” This was more like Rude. He wasn’t barking orders at me anymore. But maybe that was just because he was shaken up from having the shit beat out of him. I started to head up on deck to round up the prisoners, but I paused as I got to the stairs. “Hey…Rude, who did this to you?”

Rude didn’t answer, tugging on his gloves and straightening his tie, like I hadn’t said anything at all.

“Hmm. Well, all right. Back to work, then.”

I went back to hunting again. They hadn’t really had time to get far and I caught at least five before I even left the docks. They didn’t seem to be scattering very well, milling about in little groups, not straying far from the harbor. I was curious as to what their game was, because if I’d been in their position I would’ve bolted. It was like they were waiting for something.

Rude had mentioned Avalanche. A sneaking suspicion began to grow in the back of my mind. We’d been here for recruits, maybe Avalanche were doing the same. The nerve of those guys, trying to steal our rightfully captured recruits right from under our noses. Well, if I ran into any of them, I’d have something to say about it.

I continued down the docks, incapacitating recruits and radioing to the ship to have them collected. We were going to lose a lot of them, that was true, and I resented the sudden doubling of my workload, but it had to be done. It was frustrating, more than anything, to have to hunt them all down again, but it’s the job.

As luck would have it, I did run into a member of Avalanche. A familiar one. I ducked back into an alley when I saw him coming, because he was leading about half a dozen of our former candidates through the streets at a jog and I didn’t like those odds. Shears, again. He must be dumb muscle or something, because he gets all this grunt work.

I watched him pass, then leaned out of the alley and watched where he was headed. It looked like he was going down to the beach. Squinting in the darkness, I tipped my sunglasses down onto the bridge of my nose and switched the nightvision on. He was headed to the beach, all right, and there was a ship waiting for him, about a hundred yards out. So he was spiriting our captives away. Well, I’d fix him.

I pulled my cell phone out and punched in Tseng’s number. He answered promptly. “Reno?”

“Yeah, Tseng? Did you know Avalanche are in Costa del Sol?” I questioned. Tseng was coordinating this thing; these were the sorts of things he needed to be aware of.

“Yes, I did…we’re trying to figure out exactly how and why as we speak.”

I squinted towards the beach again. “Well, I figure they’re here to steal our candidates…as for how, they’ve got a ship waiting at the beach. And Shears is here. I’m goin’ after him.”

“A ship at the beach?” Tseng repeated. “Get on it.”

“Roger.” I snapped my cell phone shut and headed towards the beach. I was excited, suddenly. I hadn’t had the chance to finish Shears off, and it was evident that he’d survived the Junon incident. Which was regrettable, I would’ve liked to have had it end there, but I suppose I’d underestimated his will to live. That was all right, he’d underestimated mine back in Midgar. So we were probably pretty square, now.

I reached the stairs down to the sands, but stopped. The last time I’d faced Shears, I had come out the winner, but he’d been injured then. The time previous, we’d both been in good shape, and he’d kicked my ass. It suddenly dawned on me that that would’ve been what happened to Rude. Shears must have gotten onto the ship, stolen the candidates, and kicked Rude’s ass.

That kinda made me mad. Asshole or not, he’s my partner and one of my best friends. It gets a person kinda riled when someone’s got the nerve to beat the shit out of one of your friends. So I turned away from the beach, and headed back through town to find Rude. I reached the stairs that led up to the docks and stopped, leaning against the wall to wait for him. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve got a bit of a weakness for drama.

Sure enough, within minutes he came storming down the stairway, pulling on his gloves and spoiling for a fight. “Hey! You goin’ this one alone, or what?” I called to him, as he passed.

He stopped and didn’t answer, clenching his fists.

“Didn’t turn out so hot before, did it?”

I could almost hear him gritting his teeth. That’s the thing with Rude. I’ve mentioned he’s a showoff. He’s also a poor loser. I suppose all fist fighters are, really. It’s more personal with them, I guess. I mean, this isn’t sniping from five hundred yards away, or even going at it with blades, this is actual, physical contact, flesh against flesh. It must be hard not to make it personal.

“He kicked my ass, too. I’m still sore about that. Well. Not literally, of course. But figuratively, I’m still smarting from that.” I paused and cleared my throat. “You’re heading to the beach, right?”

Rude sighed heavily. I took this to mean yes.

“Why, what a coincidence, I was headed for the beach myself.”

“You do whatever you want. I don’t care,” Rude answered shortly, then broke into a run towards the beach.

I followed him, easily keeping pace. He’s not a fast runner, really. None of the big guys are. They’re slow. There’s a lot of ‘em to move, I guess. Rude’s easily a hundred pounds heavier than me. So I guess I respect the fact that he moves as fast as he does.

The beach was dark. Not pitch dark, because it was nearing dawn and the skies were starting to lighten. Besides that, there are electric lights from the town that keep it lit at night. But in the wee hours before the dawn, there wasn’t really much point to them, because the place was deserted. Well. Almost.

Shears was on the beach. He was standing near the shallows, watching a small boat full of our candidates chugging off to the ship, anchored about a hundred yards out. I suppose he was going to try and collect a few more before he left. Well, we were going to do our best to assure he didn’t manage it.

“Hey, Shears!” I yelled at him, drawing my nightstick and charging it up. It sparked and flashed in the darkness and I felt a strong adrenaline rush. Rude wouldn’t have yelled to announce our presence, but that’s the way I do things. I wanted to yell at him a bit before we got into it.

Shears spun around and grinned in the darkness. “Well, well! If it isn’t my favorite pair of weaklings! Come for another beating?”

I remembered to turn the current on my nightstick up to its newest setting, “Flash Fry” as it was playfully dubbed by the boys in Engineering who modded it for me. “Not this time, Shears.”

He laughed loudly and put his hands on his hips. “Yeah, sure, sure. I remember you—you’re all talk. You want another go? If it’s what you want, then I’ll finish this for you, here and now! Bring it on! I’ll crush every bone in your body!”

“You’re the one who’s talking this time, Shears.”

Rude cleared his throat. “We have no intention of losing,” he said quietly, smacking a fist against his palm.

And then things got started. He headed straight for Rude, apparently deeming him a greater threat. That was just fine with me; I’d prefer a literal kick to his ass, if I could manage it. I dodged back to let Rude throw a punch and get him engaged, then charged back in.

Before I could hit him, though, he’d managed a right cross to Rude’s jaw, and then backed off, as Rude dropped to his knees. Shears threw back his head, laughing again.

“Get used to it, Turks! Avalanche know secrets that will make us far, far stronger than you’ll ever be!”

Rude grunted and changed position slightly as Shears charged at him. “Strength…” he muttered.

I ran in behind Shears and hooked my nightstick around his neck, holding both ends and yanking him back. I couldn’t electrocute him, seeing as I was holding both ends of my nightstick, and if I tried I’d shock myself, too, but I did manage to divert his attention away from Rude. “Strength has nothing to do with it!”

This probably sounds kind of weird, but I knew precisely what Rude wanted me to do. No pansy little right cross will take my partner down, nuh huh. He was faking, getting down and readying himself to charge Shears. I just had to hold his attention for a few moments.

So I released my chokehold and charged at him, fully intending to dart out of the way when he moved to block me. And that was all Rude needed. He came barreling in and kicked Shears in the small of the back, sending him sprawling to his face in the sand.

He was only down for half a second, but when you’ve worked with someone as long as I’ve worked with Rude, you really don’t need much time to come up with a cohesive plan.

My nightstick was ready and fully charged, so I lashed out at Shears with about a million volts of pure electricity. And it still didn’t kill him. I was very, very disappointed about that. I was going to have to talk to the boys in Engineering, fiddle with some of the dials, see if we couldn’t work something out. It stunned him, though, and that gave Rude ample opportunity to grab Shears, lift him up in the air, and toss him at least ten feet into the water.

Shears thrashed around and scrambled to get up, panting and wheezing and twitching something awful. He stumbled back through the shallows. “You…you…this isn’t over, Shinra! I won’t forget this!” he shouted, gasping.

“I won’t either, Shears, you got one hell of an ass-whipping!” I called back at him, grinning and laughing. I flicked my nightstick out and pointed it at him. “Or did you want to finish this now?”

With a curse, Shears turned away from us and dove into the water, taking up a strong stroke towards the ship. Once again, I had to hand it to the guy. He’s sure got stamina.

I ran to the water’s edge and cupped my hands around my mouth. “Bye, Shears! Buh-Bye! We’ll see ya later, all right? Come back and we’ll kick your ass again!” I yelled him, waving. “G’bye, Shears!”

Rude snorted behind me, stifling a chuckle. “God, you’re such a moron.”

I shaded my eyes as the sun started to rise out across the ocean, squinting out across the water at Shears. “I’d go after him, but I just had this suit pressed.”

“You? Had a suit pressed? Goddamned liar, you did no such thing.”

“Fine. I’m just lazy, then. Besides, there’s always the possibility that he’ll drown. D’you think he’ll drown? I hope he drowns.”

“Yeah, whatever. We should’ve finished him properly. Stay out of my fight next time, all right?”

Your fight?” I turned to him and grinned. “Who the hell d’you think you’re shitting with this, ‘your fight’ business? ‘Your fight’, pfft. He’d have kicked your ass if I hadn’t been here! But between the two of us…hell, we ground Shears into a goddamned powder!”

Rude snorted. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“Whatever the hell you wanna call it, we thrashed him! C’mon, Rude, you’ve gotta admit you feel better, don’t you?”

Rude grunted. “Yeah. It was a good sort of thing to do. But, like I said, stay out of my fights. I didn’t ask for your help.”

He’s so goddamned thick, sometimes. “Yeah, but tell me honestly that you could’ve beaten him without me! You couldn’t have, plain and simple, so there!”

“Please, you make it out like it was all you. He could’ve thrashed you just as easily and you know it. Learn to be more careful,” Rude answered, a little stiffly. But it wasn’t the same way as before, when he was mad at me. He wasn’t mad anymore.

“What the hell are you telling me for?” I demanded, punching his shoulder. Carefully. The last time I did that I broke a few fingers. “You learn to be more careful! You were gonna go up against him all on your own!”

Rude snorted. “I was expecting you. I figured you’d join me. I’ve known you for years. You’re predictable like that.”

“No way!”

“Well, you are.”

“I am not!” I objected, grinning at him. It was probably true.

Rude grunted. “Sure, sure. Whatever you say, partner.”

“Aww, hell.”

The sun was up now, glinting off the water as the Avalanche ship started to move away. We’d contact the coast guard, of course, but they’re not really equipped to deal with an armed vessel, like what the Avalanche ship probably was. They wouldn’t be able to do much of anything. But, on the whole, Avalanche had probably taken fewer than half of our recruits. And maybe they’d gotten the ones who wouldn’t make it into SOLDIER anyway. So we were probably all right.

The both of us just stood for a while, watching the sunrise. I’m glad Rude’s my partner. It’s funny. He comes across as sort of a closed up guy, and I guess maybe he is, but he’s still my best friend, even though I’m such a wing nut. I mean, he really knows me. Not many people can say they really know me. I wonder what it is that makes us such good friends. Necessity, maybe. I couldn’t work with the guy if I hated him. I don’t think either of us have really made any supreme efforts to be best friends, we just sort of are. I think so, at least. Anyway, it’s just weird. But I’m thankful for it anyway.