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Variations Chapter 5

Duets and Solos

However much I enjoyed the lull between missions, the period of time where both Shinra and Avalanche pulled back to plan their next moves, I was glad to be called up to Tseng's office for another assignment. Once again, Tseng was absent, but Reno and Rude were there, Rude standing in front of Tseng's desk, patiently at attention, Reno wandering around the room.

"Hey, rookie!" Reno greeted me brightly; evidently glad for someone to talk to. "Tseng wanted you too?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir. Have you any idea what he wants us for?"

Reno shook his head. "Nope. Dunno what's up. I hadn't heard about any kind of trouble with Avalanche..."

"Maybe the company are making a move, sir," I suggested, though I was bewildered myself. I had expected the company's dealings with Avalanche to be primarily reactive, for the first little while. Maybe we had more information than I thought we did.

"Mmm. Maybe. What do you think, Rude?"

Rude grunted. "I think we should wait for our orders."

"Pfft. Y'know, Rude, you really should have gone into SOLDIER," Reno scoffed. "We're Turks because we know how to think for ourselves. Otherwise, we're just glorified mercenaries."

"You could've gone out for SOLDIER, sir?" I asked, glancing at Rude. Really, though, I wasn't surprised. Rude is probably the most powerful Turk we have. Once, I was training at the same time as he was, and I watched him bench press at least five times my weight. Now, I know I'm a very petite person, but still, the capacity of someone to lift six hundred pounds is not something to be scoffed at.

Rude answered with a noncommittal grunt. One of the impressions I've gotten about Rude is that, while he's very polite and courteous, he's also closemouthed. It's just about impossible to get information out of him.

"Oh, hell yeah!" Reno confirmed, grinning. "Rude's a goddamned powerhouse. Go on, pick Rosalind up."

"R-really, sir that isn't necessary," I started to protest, but Rude just bent down and picked up my chair, lifting me in the air easily.

Reno beamed at me. "See? Of course, you're just a tiny little thing, so it's not really much trouble..."

"Very impressive, Rude," Tseng commented dryly, coming into his office. "Now if you would be so kind as to put Rosalind down, we can get down to brass tacks."

Rude gently returned me to the ground. "You have a mission for us, sir?" he questioned, gesturing at Reno.

Tseng nodded, sitting down behind his desk and tenting his fingers. "Yes. Rosalind too, if you should choose to bring her."

"Fine with me." Reno shrugged. "You wanna come, rookie?"

I nodded vigorously. "Yes, sir. I would, please."

Tseng smiled. "It's nice to have such a willing and eager agent. Anyway, as you may or may not have been aware, we've been stepping up recruitment rather heavily this past little while. We've been pushing our agents all over to pick out SOLDIER candidates. We need you three to go to Costa del Sol and round up the members of the alleged 'Club Duel' and..."

"Hah. It's not 'alleged', Tseng. I've been there," Reno interrupted. "Hell of a way to spend a vacation. Hell of a way to blow all your money, too. Hey, Rude! Why don't you get involved in Club Duel? Then I'd know who do bet on."

Rude grunted again. He doesn't seem to talk much. But he sure grunts a lot.

"What is Club Duel, sir?" I asked. I'd never heard of it, myself.

"It's an underground fighting club. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts...any kind of hand to hand fighting goes," Tseng informed me. "All strong, healthy young fighters. Just what we're looking for to draft into SOLDIER."

"All right. When do we go?" Reno asked, stretching languidly. "It's about time I had another run. I think my blood's starting to thicken up."

"There's a ship docked at the harbor in Junon. It will be departing at nine o'clock in the morning, Junon time. You'll be taking the company jet over to Junon. With the time shift, you'll get there just in time for its departure and then a day's journey across to Costa del Sol. Be at the airport in half an hour."

And so, within twenty-four hours, we were coming into the harbor in Costa del Sol. During the ride over, Rude had given me dozens of pointers about close fighting, because I wouldn't be able to use my guns, as they'd inflict too much damage on the people we were trying to capture.

"Just remember, you have more training than they do," he told me in closing as we came up to the dock. "They've never come up against a trained professional. They fight for show. You fight with the intention of taking them down as quickly as possible. You'll be able to win without any problems."

I had had formal training in close fighting...all Turks are black belts in at least one martial discipline. I knew standard judo, but that was about it. Most fist fighters have perfected a seasoned blend of styles. Rude's primary advantage is his strength and size. He could probably punch out an ox. He uses a technique based on boxing with a few Oriental variants. Cyr, who also uses martial arts, is light, quick, and fast. Flying kicks and sharp jabs are more her style, so her basis is in ninjitsu, with some dance moves. "Yes, sir."

Rude nodded. "Now, what are the principles I've taught you?"

"Keep breathing, align my body, and always follow through," I repeated dutifully.

"Good." Rude paused and looked at me closely. "It's different, fighting with your fists, Rosalind. It's a lot more intense, a lot more personal than fighting with a gun. You're going to want to beat these people. Don't get carried away with your emotions."

"I won't," I promised.

"Hey, rookie. Rude giving you some tips?" Reno questioned, coming up the stairs from below decks and yawning. He'd slept the entire trip across, while Rude and I had been practicing on the deck.

I nodded and stretched. "Yes, sir. I feel ready to go."

"Well, good. Now, me and you are gonna cover the north and south sides of the place..."

"No, Reno," Rude interrupted. "Rosalind is going to Club Duel."

Reno blinked at his partner. "Rosalind is...? Hey, Rude, no. She's just a rookie...I'll take Club Duel..."

Rude shook his head. "Tseng's orders. Rosalind can handle it."

"But..." Reno trailed off and glanced at me. "I don't know...I'll do it, I don't mind. It's only her second mission and..."

"And she's a Turk, so she can handle it," Rude said firmly. "Rosalind will be just fine."

I could see Reno was uncertain about this. "But...I mean, look at her. She's just a tiny little thing. No offense, rookie, but some of these guys are like three hundred pounds and..."

Rude folded his arms across his chest. "And I've seen her fight and I say she'll be fine."

"Well..." Reno looked hard at me. "Rookie? You think you're up for this?"

I shrugged. "I think I can do it, sir," I answered, trying not to sound too confident. Truth be told, I was pumped. There was something in the air that was getting the adrenaline in my body going. I wanted my shot at these guys.

Reno chewed his lower lip for a moment. "Aww...hell. If you think you can do it..." he trailed off again and sighed. "Ok. All right. You be damn careful, understand?"

"I'll be fine, sir," I promised. "Don't worry."

"Yeah. All right. I'll take the south side of town...you need help, rookie, you call me." Reno glanced at Rude and dug in his pocket, pulling out a pair of brass knuckles and pressing them into my hands. Then he braced his hands against my shoulders and looked me up and down. "I don't care what Rude's told you. Fight dirty, take cheap shots, and for god's sake, remember you have a gun. Kill the bastards if you have to. Got me?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir. Please, sir, don't worry. I'll be fine."

"I know, I know..." Reno dropped his hands from my shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay. Yeah, okay. You watch yourself."

"Yes, sir. You too, sir."

Reno sighed again and shouldered his nightstick, heading down the gangplank onto the dock, then breaking into an easy jog and vanishing into the dark.

Rude cleared his throat. "Come on, Rosalind. I'll take you to the club. I'll be on the north side of town. There are soldiers on board who'll help collect the people you recruit. Try and be back here before dawn, all right?"

"Yes, sir."

The moon was huge over Costa del Sol and the sky was sprinkled with stars. I followed Rude down to the dock, and then into the city. Costa del Sol isn't really a city. It's closer in size to a town, but there are always a lot of people there. Even now, at night, there were a few tourists on the streets, laughing and talking beneath the streetlights. Rude beckoned to me from an alley between two buildings, stepping into the shadows and looking up at the moon.

"Club Duel is just ahead," he told me. "Down a short flight of stairs and through a doorway. There's only one rule in this club; do whatever the King says."

"The King?"

Rude nodded. "The top fighter. Power is what determines rank in this place. If you can beat King, they'll do whatever you say. Even if you tell them that they're going to go down to the docks and get on the Shinran boat."

I arched an eyebrow. "Really, sir? If I beat King...they'll just go?"

"That's the way it works."

"But..." I didn't understand. If I were a member of a Club Duel and some Turk came in and told me I was going to be recruited by Shinra, just because he or she'd beaten the leader, I wouldn't go.

"Trust me Rosalind. I know Club Duel."

"All right, sir," I agreed dubiously.

Rude squinted up at the moon again. "You be back at the ship before dawn, Rosalind. Remember what I told you, and stay confident. No kittenish meekness in there. Just business, all right?"

"Right, sir." I felt a familiar surge of adrenaline that precedes any kind of contest. I hadn't exactly told Rude about this, but back in the Academy and even before that, I'd been fiercely competitive with my peers. Nothing thrilled me more than the validation of winning. I only hoped I was good enough to earn it.

"Good. Take care, Rosalind. I'll see you later." Rude turned and headed quickly up the alley.

I stretched a little and shook a kink from my shoulder. Brushing my hair back from my face, I strode purposefully down the alley and rapped on the door. A panel slid back from an opening at eyelevel and a pair of squinted eyes peered at me. "What's the password?" he growled.

I remembered what Rude had said and calmly drew one of my handguns. Leveling it at the opening, I smiled coldly. "I believe it's 'open up or I'll shoot you.' I'm a first-timer. Let me in."

The panel slid rapidly shut and I worried that my brashness might've scared the man into denying me entry, but the door opened soon after that. "Come right in, miss," the doorman urged, fawning shamelessly.

I returned my handgun to my holster and did just that, sweeping past the man without a backward glance, through a dimly lit hallway. I could hear cheering and shouting up ahead. The lights spaced along the walls were grimy and intermittently burnt out. Beneath my feet, I could feel that the floor was no more than hard packed dirt. The smell of human sweat hung heavily in the air. I wrinkled my nose distastefully. What a hovel this place was.

As I came to the end of the hall, I saw six bouncers hanging around in front of a door. One of them leered at me and jabbed one of his colleagues in the ribs, provoking a salacious chuckle. I ignored this and peered into the rude stadium before me. Spectators, men and women of every sort, lined the walls, watching and cheering on the pair of duelists in the center.

I immediately recognized one as King, because of his massive build and the screaming of the crowd. "Get 'im, King! Get 'im!" a woman in one of the top rows shrieked again and again.

The "King" was a bulky man of maybe his late thirties. Muscles bulged and rippled impressively across his chest, covered by a tight muscle shirt. His hair was blonde and drawn back from his face in a tight ponytail. Tattoos swirled up and down his forearms. He also had a thick, blonde walrus mustache. Largely, I was unimpressed.

"So that's the King..." I murmured, starting to move into the room. A hand on my shoulder stopped me. I looked over to see the grinning face of the man who'd chuckled.

"You can't just come in here and watch, sweetheart. There's a measure of...payment, involved. You know what kind of place this is?"

I didn't particularly care for the way he'd said "payment." I stared at him coldly. "Don't touch me."

The bouncer laughed crudely and looked to his companions. "Ooh, she's a frosty one, isn't she? C'mere darling, let's warm you up..."

I grasped his wrist with my other hand and twisted. I'd learned (from Reno, actually, rather than from Rude) that it's not how much force you have when you're trying to break a limb, but where you grab the bones. The sudden slackening of his grip and the agonized scream he gave let me know I'd grabbed the right place. I released him and turned my back to the opening behind me. "I am not here to watch," I informed him, my hands before me, at the ready. "I'm here to fight."

The bouncers all stared at me, shock on their faces. I felt a wonderful thrill. Rude had been right. These people weren't used to trained professionals.

Behind me I heard a thunderous roar and a steady chant arose. "King! King! King! King!" the spectators howled.

I turned my back to the bouncers and entered the makeshift arena. King was parading around the ring, hands in the air, glorying in the audience's approval. Adrenaline flooded through my veins. I wanted that glory.

The King sauntered over to his downed opponent. Mercilessly, he kicked the man in the ribs. "It was a decent enough try," he said mockingly. "But isn't there anyone good enough to beat me?"

The audience roared again. Again, Rude had been right. This was nothing more than a show, little better than the staged wrestling matches on TV. King didn't really want a tough opponent. I smiled to myself. Truly, he'd probably never faced one. He just wanted someone who could take a beating artfully.

I stepped out into the middle of the ring and cleared my throat. Before I could speak, one of the thugs from the ringside rushed at me from the sidelines and attempted to usher me back into the shadows. "You can't be in here! Get up to the bleachers, girl!" he hissed.

Once again, the staff of this club had made the mistake of laying hands on me. I drew back a fist, aligned myself, like Rude had said, and punched him square in face. There was a sickeningly satisfying crunch as his nose broke and he stumbled back into the middle of the ring, toppling over backward in the dirt.

A stunned silence fell over the audience. Even King arched an eyebrow. I heard whispers of  "flattened with one blow!" and "who the hell hit him?" and "was that a challenge?"

King squinted into the darkness at me. "What's this, then? Someone got a challenge? C'mon out into the light...let me have a look at my next victim."

Squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin, I stepped forward. What happened next was rather embarrassing, as the entire audience burst out laughing. A delicate flush may have colored my cheeks, but I refused to allow myself to blush. I merely stood at the edge of the ring, calmly facing King, until the laughter died down.

"All right, sweetheart, you've had your fun. Now who punched out Knuckles?" King demanded, still chuckling.

I folded my arms across my chest and stood my ground.

King frowned at me. "All right, honey. It was cute; now get back to your seat. Rocko, shift the little bird."

"Rocko" approached and, once again, it only took one blow for me to level him. A shocked gasp arose from the crowd and I stared defiantly at King. "You are the King of this club?" I asked flatly.

"What, couldn't you tell?" King shot back, provoking laughter from the audience.

"Well, with all the posing you're doing, I wasn't entirely sure you weren't just the half-time show," I answered, arching an eyebrow.

This provoked a combination of nervous laughter and stunned silence. I didn't care. I wasn't here to entertain. King stared at me, stunned. Then he clenched his teeth and growled at me. What a stupid male habit, growling is.

"Do you have something stuck in your throat?" I asked innocently.

More laughter. I realized that I could use the nature of the club to my advantage. If these people wanted a performance, it was the least I could do for them, before I hauled all the players back to Shinra.

King's jaws worked for a moment, then his eyes narrowed. "Now you listen here, girly..." he began gruffly.

"Oh, poor dear. I might have some lozenges in my purse, just a moment..." I called mockingly. "You really should clear your throat. You're ruining your voice."

Laughter, jeers, whistles, and catcalls answered this, and one woman shouted, "You go, girl!" Apparently the members of the audience were of mixed feelings about me.

"Who the hell are you?" King demanded. "I don't like people waltzin' into my club and trying to make a fool of me, girl. I make the rules around here."

I shrugged. "My identity really isn't of consequence. And I believe the strongest person in the club makes the rules."

King stared at me. "In case you hadn't noticed yet, that happens to be me," he declared flatly. "You think punching out a couple lazy-ass thugs makes you tough? I don't know what they taught you in self-defense class, sweetie, but you've got nothing on me. I'm the strongest. I make the rules."

"That suits me just fine." I lifted my chin defiantly. "I assume the strongest person makes the rules. You assume that just because I'm a woman, I'm not strong enough to beat you. Fight me. Now. I'll go out on a limb here and assume that this club has never had a Queen."

There was a resounding cheer from the audience. I had the support of at least the female population. Sadly, they made up less than half the audience, but it still felt good to have someone at my back.

King scowled. He disliked the fact that I was stealing his thunder. "You know what, girly, I'm not going to dignify you with a fight. I'd kick the shit out of you anyway. Besides, things don't work that way in here. You've gotta get through the three strongest guys in here before I'd even think of fighting you."

I rolled my eyes and sighed exasperatedly. More laughter from the crowd. I was beginning to enjoy myself. "Fine, then. Send them out."

King beckoned to the sidelines and then retreated to a raised platform at one end of the ring. His "throne" I suppose. A burly man with curly brown hair approached, grinning wickedly at me. I didn't like the look of him. I had half-wondered coming into the club whether any of the patrons would have qualms about fighting a girl, but this one appeared to be looking forward to it.

Another man, an older gentleman in a white shirt and tie, some kind of referee, I guess, came to the middle of the ring and held up his hands for silence. "Standin' champion Lefty O'Callahan facin' unknown challenger!" he declared in an old creaky voice. "Get yer bets down quick, folks!"

The referee shuffled out of the ring and Lefty lifted his fists. I recognized this as a preemption to the fight and readied myself as well. I didn't move, but took a deep breath and steadied my nerves. A bell sounded and I immediately darted to the side as Lefty lunged at the space I'd occupied. He lurched past me, with a surprised grunt. This was laughably easy. He was slow and clumsy. How in god's name could he possibly be considered one of the strongest in the club?

I celebrated my good mood with a solid kick to Lefty's rear. He stumbled forward and hit the ground with a shouted curse as the solid steel toes of my combat boots cracked against his tailbone. The audience cheered. They didn't care who was winning, as long as it was entertaining. I spared a glance at the watch around my wrist. It was three-thirty. Later than I'd thought. I hadn't the time for these games, regardless of the fun I was having.

And so, when Lefty pushed himself up and whirled around to charge me, I was ready and waiting for him. A good, well-timed uppercut halted his advance and sent him to the ground in a heap.

The old referee blew a shrill whistle as soon as Lefty had been on the ground for five seconds. "First round to the challenger!" he announced to thundering cheers. He came into the center of the ring and lifted one of my hands above my head as two thugs dragged Lefty out of the way.

"If you don't min' me sayin' so, girly, that was pretty gosh darn impressive," the ref murmured in my ear. "You be careful now."

I blushed, pleased and kissed him lightly on the cheek. He released my hand and grinned toothlessly. "Second round! Roy Brooks versus the sweet little blond girl!"

"Next, please!" I called as sweetly as I could manage. "Send out the next guy!"

A thug even bigger than the first appeared at the other end of the ring. "Don't act so big, little lady," he snarled.

"You'd be next, then?"

"Damn right. You won't be able to stand when I'm done with you."

I clucked my tongue disapprovingly. "Chivalry must truly be dead," I remarked out loud. "All these men, so willing to strike a woman. Oh well. Come on!" My voice rang as I said this last part. Roy needed to know I meant business.

Roy chuckled. "You want to go? Then we'll go. I'm gonna finish this!"

The bell rang. He rushed me. I think he was anticipating a sidestep, like I'd used with Lefty, but I threw myself to the ground and rolled gracefully away and back to my feet. Roy whirled to face me and I connected with a thrusting kick to his midriff. He doubled over, gasping, and I brought my knee up, striking his chin. This was far too easy. Roy stumbled back, spitting out bloody teeth. I almost felt bad for him. It didn't last long and I took the opportunity to kick him in the side of the head. Far, far too easy.

Roy fell like a proverbial ton of bricks. I wiped the back of my sleeve across my forehead. I'd broken a sweat. It wasn't much of one, but under the glaring lights of the arena, what had I been expecting?

"Round two to the challenger!" the referee declared gleefully. I think he liked me. It was a shame I'd be putting him out of a job. He came forward and lifted my arm above my head. I flushed, embarrassed. I was sweating. The ref didn't notice, though. I suppose he'd probably smelt worse in his day. "Nice work, girly. Roy ain't been taken down since King got here."

I was pleased about that. I tossed my head and smiled at the audience as the ref released my hand once again and retreated to the sidelines.

"Send out Big Willy!" he cried.

Big Willy. This was getting to be a bit much. Another massive thug lumbered out into the ring. This one was huge. Bald, pallid, and probably about four-hundred pounds. He looked like a slug. Possibly a former Wutain sumo wrestler. Two times my size at least. He'd fall hard.

He grunted at me. Even more charming than the growl; the grunt. I rolled my eyes. "Come on then. I haven't got all night," I called impatiently.

The bell rang and Big Willy just stood there, staring at me. Oh, dear. This was a new and most unexpected development. I'd formerly relied on my opponents charging at me, and my size and speed allowing me to evade and counter. This wasn't at all like this. Big Willy apparently expected me to make the first move. So did the rest of the crowd.

I approached hesitantly. He was probably three times my size. I looked up at him. He looked down at me. He had at least two feet of height on me. I felt very small. Tentatively, I poked him in the stomach. I shuddered as the fat around his waist rippled. Any blows I struck wouldn't have much of an effect. I stepped back out of reach, in case he decided to try something, and considered the situation.

King had obviously beaten him at some point in time, and King wasn't all that much bigger than me. So there had to be a way of doing it. I glanced at Big Willy. He wasn't doing anything. I sat down, cross-legged in the dirt, rested my elbow on my knee, cupped my chin in my hand, and contemplated Big Willy.

Rude hadn't said anything to prepare me for Wutain sumo giants. The two things he'd told me about Club Duel were "King makes the rules" and "Anything goes." King's making the rules obviously wasn't the key to this problem. But maybe the fact that "anything goes" was.

I got up. I circled around behind Big Willy. He didn't even bother to pivot to face me. I got the feeling he was laughing at me. He didn't think I could touch him. I scowled. I didn't like the idea of him laughing at me. I glanced around the ring. There were a few folding chairs around the edge. Perfect. I went over, picked one up and folded it. Grasping it tightly in both hands, I hefted it a few times, then went back into the ring and struck at the fleshy knobs of Big Willy's knees. It was like I'd taken an axe to a tree. His legs jerked and gave out beneath him. He gave a startled grunt and I promptly crowned him with the chair. The blow stunned him and his eyes slid out of focus. I struck again, at the back of his neck and he collapsed onto his face with a ground-shaking thud. Too damn easy.

The audience went crazy. If Roy wasn't ever taken down, then presumably Big Willy wasn't either. Even King's supporters were impressed with me. King, however, was not. He glared at me from his throne as I turned and waved to the audience, smiling brightly. I pivoted once, then faced him. "Come out and fight, King!" I demanded. "I've met your conditions!"

King rose languidly. His muscles rippled. I had a fleeting sensation of nervousness. I'd just finished three fistfights. King was fresh and rested. Nevertheless, the feeling passed quickly. I stood my ground, defiant.

"So maybe there's more to you than there seems," King said finally, coming into the ring. "I came up the same way you did. No one really thought I could do it. But I've been King for a long time now, girl. I'm not letting you take it away from me."

"I'm sure that's what the King before you said," I answered coolly, stretching. "Let's go."

King nodded. "All right, girl. Entertain me."

The bell sounded. We both began to circle each other. He was King for a reason. I realized that right away. There was something about the smooth dexterity of his movements. He was strong and supple, probably fast too. I couldn't underestimate him.

He made the first move, a cursory feint and jab. I dodged it easily and countered with a sideways kick. He dodged this. We continued to circle, exchanging and dodging blows. I sensed his strategy, to wear me down. I couldn't let it work.

To my shame, he landed the first blow. A glancing hit to my shoulder that made me stumble back and gasp in pain. I could only imagine how much it would've hurt if he'd managed a true hit. I clenched my teeth. He wouldn't hit me again. No more of this circling. I charged him, feinted left and struck his chest as he attempted to avoid my attack. I struck a blow to his throat.

A strangled gasp escaped his throat. He was surprised. I took advantage of this and kicked him hard in the groin. Even if he was good, he couldn't very well ignore that. A blow to the back of the neck with my elbow as he fell forward and it was over.

The silence of the crowd was more penetrating than the applause. I could sense everyone silently giving the count of five. King didn't get up.

"This is it," I said softly.

"King...lost." The whisper rippled through the audience, repeating the obvious over and over. I guess it must have been quite a shock for them.

The referee came forward, solemn. He lifted my hand above my head once more. "The new K..." he saw my stare, "...er...the new Queen."

And now the audience cheered. They were on their feet, shouting, stamping, clapping. I was vaguely pleased as the referee led me to King's dais. "Queen" is the kind of title that goes to a girl's head. The fighter formerly known as King remained sprawled on the floor of the arena. No one tried to move him.

"Speech!" yelled someone in the audience.

"Speech! Speech!" the cry was taken up, reverberating around the walls of the small, makeshift stadium.

I hesitated, looking around as silence fell over the audience. "I'm tired," I said finally. "Unless there are any other challengers, go home, all of you. Except the fighters and staff of the club, I mean. You'll stay."

The audience rose silently and filtered out. I sat down in King's throne and sighed to myself. About a dozen thugs, King and his three henchmen included, remained as the last of the spectators left.

They all stared at me, waiting for something. A command, a declaration of some kind, a challenge. I cleared my throat. I hoped what Rude had said earlier would prove to be true. Everything else had. "You're all going to be coming with me," I began.

No objection.

"Down to the docks," I continued warily.

Still nothing. They just stared at me.

"Onto a ship bound for Midgar," I paused once more. I couldn't understand why they weren't objecting. "To become candidates for SOLDIER," I finished finally.

No response, except collective nodding. I didn't like this. So far, the parts I had expected to be challenging this evening had been easy. As any Turk knows, easy is not a good thing.

"All...all right. Uh...in a line, two abreast, and head down to the docks. Help out anyone I've beaten too badly to walk straight. And remember, I'm right behind you."

We must have looked a strange procession through the tropical night, two dozen thugs being herded along the streets to the docks. They didn't give me any trouble. I guess they knew I'd punish them if they tried anything. After all, I'd beaten their King.

I looked them over as we reached the ship and they proceeded up the gangplank. At least half of them wouldn't make it to SOLDIER. They would become regular Shinran grunts. Absently, I wondered how draftees felt about things like this. These men didn't look like the type who had homes and families...for the most part, they looked like ex-cons. I pushed these thoughts from my mind as two Shinran soldiers joined me and helped me usher the prisoners back on deck.

"Hey, rookie!" Reno appeared from somewhere and promptly swept me into an impulsive hug.

I blushed and laughed. "Hello, sir. Where do I put these guys?"

Reno grinned at me. "Below decks in the hold. The soldiers will help you get them down. Way to go, rookie."

"Thank you, sir." I saluted dutifully and turned to my prisoners. "You heard him. Let's get below decks."

They shuffled off down the stairs, single file, and the soldiers helped crowd the candidates into an electrified pen set up against one wall of the hold. Already, about two-dozen other candidates were inside, lounging around, talking quietly, and shooting dark glances at me.

King hesitated before going in and stared at me. I felt a kind of pity for him. It had taken me mere minutes to destroy all the fame he'd worked up.

I cleared my throat. "Please, get inside. You were a worthy opponent, King. SOLDIER will surely take you into their ranks."

King didn't answer, but shuffled inside.

I pushed the gate shut behind him. The pen was merely a series of posts, with brightly flickering currents of electricity arching between them. The freestanding gate was a woven mesh doorway. None of the prisoners could go near it without getting a nasty shock.

"Stay in there and be quiet. As long as you behave, we won't have any problems," I announced. "We'll be docking in Junon in a few hours time. You will receive further instructions upon our arrival."

I turned without waiting for a response and jogged back up to the deck. Reno and Rude were waiting by the railing, watching the dockhands get ready to start the trip back to Junon.

Rude turned when he heard me come up and smiled. "Good job, Rosalind. You brought in a good number of candidates."

Reno absolutely beamed at me. "Not as many as we did, mind. But, y'know. There's the whole issue of rank and experience and stuff. You'll catch up."

I nodded. "I know I will, sir."

Reno paused and glanced at me. "I'm glad you were up to tonight, rookie...Rosalind." I thought he was going to say more, but he stopped and yawned. "Well...uh...I'm going back to sleep. Wake me when we get to Midgar, but no sooner. Unless of course, there's a fire or we're sinking or something. Then you can wake me."

Rude nodded. "We'll take care of it."

Reno nodded and vanished below decks. I waited up on deck with Rude, wondering if he'd say anything. I looked out at the docks. The dockhands were loading up the ship with various cargoes. I wondered how long it would be before we left.

"So how'd it go?

I started to speak, but stopped. What would I tell him? That it had been easy? That everything he'd told me would happen had happened? I decided to ask about something that had been bothering me in the back of my mind. "I didn't...I didn't think we'd have to force them," I said finally. "I'd always thought entry into SOLDIER was voluntary."

Rude nodded, like he'd been expecting this. "We have to resort to force sometimes. It's not something we can change."

"Well...SOLDIER never really seems to grow all that much. You and Reno have done this before right? Surely you've collected more people than those who've entered SOLDIER. Why is it the ranks don't grow so much?"

Rude shrugged. "You have to be very strong for SOLDIER. We gathered about thirty candidates tonight. Maybe ten of them will make it into SOLDIER. Make no mistake, Rosalind, these guys are...as Reno said, a rough bunch of goons. SOLDIER is demanding."

"Is that why you decided to be a Turk, sir?" I'd asked the question before thinking. I flushed in the darkness. It was none of my business. I shouldn't have asked.

Rude took no notice, looking up at the stars. "No," he said finally. "SOLDIER...would've required me to make some choices I didn't want to. I opted for the Turks."

"Oh." I paused. Rude had told me something about himself. It was only fair that I reciprocate. "When I...when I left reform school...I could've gone on to be regular army, like him, or I could've been a Turk. I chose to be a Turk. My father wanted me to be a soldier. He'd never expected me to be in...in SOLDIER, but he wanted me to be in the military. I guess I disappointed him."

"There's no shame in our profession," Rude answered simply. "I've never regretted my choice."

I nodded. "Yes, sir." I hesitated then glanced over my shoulder. "Reno...was in the army for a while?"

Rude nodded. "Yeah. He didn't like it," he said shortly. "Veld got him out."

"Oh." There was a period of silence. I shivered. The wind had suddenly blown cool over Costa del Sol.

"He was really worried about you," Rude remarked absently.

"Commmander Veld?"

"Reno."

"Oh...why?"

Rude shrugged. "You're his only subordinate. You're important. Reno isn't really suited to command. He doesn't trust the people under him."

I felt indignant at that. "I can be trusted!"

Rude chuckled. "Perhaps I should rephrase that. He doesn't trust that if he tells them to do something they'll be able to do it without getting hurt. He'd sooner take the risks himself. If something had happened to you, he would have blame himself." Rude paused. "Well, no. First, he'd have blamed me. Then he would've blamed himself."

"I wouldn't have blamed him."

"Of course you wouldn't. You know it's your job to do what he tells you. He just doesn't think it's his job to have to tell you what to do."

I remembered something from an earlier conversation. "Is that...is that why Reno's having such a hard time getting second?"

"Second class?" Rude repeated, glancing at me. "He told you...? No...he wouldn't have. Well...there are a lot of reasons Reno can't get to second class."

"Like what, sir?"

Rude shrugged. "Up until a Turk reaches second class, the changes made with each promotion are merely with benefits and pay. That's why you're a fifth class doing missions with third classes. Rank changes according to ability displayed in missions. Upon reaching second class, a certain level of administration is required. You can't be a second class Turk without having at least five subordinates beneath you. Once a third has achieved this..."

"They get promoted," I ventured.

Rude nodded. "Right."

"You have four subordinates, sir. I guess you'll be getting promoted awfully soon."

Rude looked up at the sky, sheer blackness dotted with glimmering white stars. "I've got a fifth. New recruit from Gongaga. I'll be getting the official notice in a few days."

"Oh." This was news to me. Rude was going to be second class, only a level below Tseng. "Well...not to be offensive or anything, sir, but why don't they give this new recruit to Reno? I mean...if I'm his only one, then he's pretty far behind. They should let him catch up."

"Reno can't handle recruits. He wouldn't let them do anything. Besides, there's a massive amount of more menial work that comes with that level of administration. You've seen Tseng's office. He's responsible for the duty reports of all his subordinates. He does Reno's, he does mine...and he does yours, because Reno hasn't the slightest idea how."

"Well, I think he could learn."

"No. He couldn't. Reno's disorganized and forgetful and quick tempered. He calls you 'rookie' because he can't remember your name. He doesn't have nearly the patience required to learn administration."

I didn't believe this. With the right amount of discipline any skill can be learned. "But..."

Rude sighed. "I'm not going to try to explain it to you, Rosalind, because you haven't known him nearly as long as I have, but Reno has well...apparently it's ADHD."

I didn't say anything. I didn't know what I was supposed to say, if anything. Thankfully, I was spared from this, as shouting and screaming from below decks.

"What was that?" I exclaimed, going over to the stairs down. "I'll go check it out..."

"Hold it," Rude said firmly.

I stopped and turned around. "Yes, sir?"

"Be careful. Some of the recruits we picked up are rough customers. There's one you should specially watch out for."

I nodded briefly. "Yes, sir." I clattered down the metal stairs to the hold. I was shocked at what lay before me. Most of the prisoners were cowering in the corners of the pen, as close as they could get to the electrically charged walls without being shocked. At the back, against the wall, six or seven other prisoners sprawled at his feet and grappling with the former King was an absolutely massive man, wrapped in thick clothes, face hidden with a heavy hood. King held his ground for a few moments, then was thrown to the floor.

I arched an eyebrow and stared at the man. "What do you think you're doing?" I demanded.

He looked up at me. From beneath his hood, white teeth glimmered in a smile. "A Turk," he observed. His voice was low and grating. I shivered. "Come face me, Turk."

"Settle down," I commanded, going over to the wall and taking a tazer from a hook. It was a two pronged stun gun similar in nature to what Reno used, but much smaller.

"Come, Turk," he hissed. "I am Asul. The only time I truly live is in the heat of battle."

I hesitated, my hand on the door of the cage. This "Asul" looked like a standard Section Eight to me. "Do you want us to isolate you? There are solitary holding pens on the other side of the ship."

Asul bent down and grabbed two of his victims by the backs of their shirts. He lifted both into the air and then hurled them at the electric wall. They both hit with screams, then collapsed to the ground, twitching. "Face me, Turk!"

"Hey!" The shocks from the wall were non-lethal, but I couldn't allow this troublemaker to continue damaging Shinran recruits. I pushed the door open and closed it behind me. "Now you cut that out!"

"You are unworthy to give me orders!" Asul roared and charged at me. The blow took me by surprise and I stumbled back, losing my balance and falling down hard. How utterly embarrassing .I was lucky most of the people who'd seen me in Club Duel were sprawled unconscious on the floor.

I pushed myself up and retaliated, the tazer sparking in my hand. A flickering jolt of electricity crossed Asul's chest, but it only served to enrage him. He lunged at me again. I barely managed to dodge, tripping and falling to the floor.

I didn't like this. It had been easy before. Asul was hard. I'd never fought someone as quick and powerful. Well, except Shears. Asul wasn't nearly as tough as Shears had seemed, but he was manic. I narrowly avoided another attack and scrambled away from Asul. "You cut this out, right now!" I ordered, wishing I sounded more authoritative. He had me cornered.

Asul laughed. "You are not worthy of me, Turk! I should end your worthless existence. Come! Let me finish you!"

I cringed as he advanced. "You're crazy! Get away from me!" I don't know why I said it. It wouldn't do any good. I pointed the tazer at him and shot a jolt of electricity at him, but once again, it did nothing.

He laughed again and grabbed me by the front of my jacket. I screamed as he pushed me backward, into the electric wall. The sound died in my throat and the entire world lurched. The next thing I felt was the impact of my body on the ground. My eyelids flickered. I could tell I was on the very edge of passing out. Asul still towered above me, laughing like a madman.

His laughter was abruptly cut off with a gurgle. I managed to lift my eyes. Rude was there, a massive hand clamped around Asul's throat. I could tell he wasn't pleased.

"That's quite enough," he growled.

The cloaked man choked and scrabbled at Rude's hand. His eyes were rolling desperately. Rude's hand must have been directly over his windpipe.

"Not so easy when it's someone your own size is it? Let's see how you feel about the electric wall." Rude grunted and loosened his hold around Asul's throat, grabbed his collar, then thrust him against the sparking current of the holding pen. He held him there for a good ten seconds, watching him shriek and twitch and spark. He finally pulled him off the wall and threw him contemptuously to the floor.

"Now settle down," Rude commanded, bending over and scooping me off the floor. I twisted weakly in his arms, but he gave me a firm shake and I immediately relaxed. I might as well have been six years old, the way he carried me.

He brought me back out on deck and sat me down against the railing. The fresh air made me feel better. In a few minutes I managed to stand up and shake my head a few times to clear it. "Th-thank you, sir."

"We aren't here to fight, Rosalind," Rude told me, a note of reproach in his tone. "You should have taken him down with your primary weapon."

My hand went to my handgun, holstered at my side. I hadn't even thought of it. "I just thought..."

"Asul is far stronger than you are. He's trained for years. His kind of fighter cares only about fighting. You aren't prepared for someone like that."

"But, sir..." I couldn't continue. I didn't have a good reason for why I hadn't resorted to my handgun.

Rude shook his head. "I told you not to be carried away with your emotions, Rosalind. From here on in, I want you using your primary."

"But..."

"No objections, Rosalind," Rude said sternly. He might have said more, but his PHS rang. He answered it, crisp and military. "Rude."

He was silent, listening to whatever directives were coming from the person on the other end. "Understood, sir," he said, and hung up.

"Who was that, sir?" I asked.

"Tseng. Avalanche are coming."

I sighed. I knew it couldn't be over. How they had known about our presence in Costa del Sol, though, I didn't know.

Rude straightened his cuffs, his silver cufflinks glinting in the moonlight. Soon, they'd be the gold of second class. "I'm going to leave the ship. You stay here. Don't let them on," he told me firmly.

"I won't, sir." I hesitated. "Should we...uh...should we wake Reno?"

"There's no fire, is there? And the ship isn't sinking. Let him sleep."

Sometimes, Rude has a very strange sense of what I hope is humor. "Roger, sir."

"Good. I'll be back." Rude walked briskly down the gangplank and disappeared from my view. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself and stretched. The shock of the electric wall had cramped all my muscles. I walked around, loosened myself up, and drew my handgun. Avalanche members, I could kill.

I heard the first of them creeping up the gangplank. I glanced behind me. There were three doors to the hold below, but only one gangplank. I wouldn't let them past.

The first pair came up. I shot them as soon as they were in range. There were startled shouts from below. I don't think they expected the ship to be guarded. I snorted contemptuously. What kind of professionals did they think we were?

More came. Two took shots to the head, one to the chest. They were piling up at the top of the gangplank. This was pathetic. I went to the edge of the railing and saw that the five who had come had been it. All dead now. I glanced up to the end of the dock. Another contingent were coming. Almost a dozen more, all well armed. This wasn't so easy to shrug off.

I took cover behind a stack of crates on the deck. I had no other choice; they'd opened fire on me. I considered falling back to the hold and finding Reno, because I didn't think I could hold against twelve Avalanche members. I peeked up and fired a few shots, taking down the two with rifles.

"There she is! Kill her!" one of them, presumably the leader, ordered.

This was different. Up until now, I'd presumed that their primary objective was getting on board the ship. Now I had been trapped by ten Avalanche members, apparently hell bent on killing me. Needless to say, not a good situation.

"Rosalind!" Rude called. I whirled around. He'd come up from the hold. For a few minutes, I was bewildered as to how he'd gotten there, but I guess he must have gone to make the dockhands close the cargo bay and come up through the bowels of the ship.

"Rude, sir!" I was honestly very thankful that he'd come. Now we had a fighting chance.

"There seem to be intruders on board. Let's take care of them, shall we?"

I flashed a quick grin. "Certainly, sir!" I darted out from behind the crates and joined Rude in front of the doors to the hold.

"Only two of you? Not a problem! Attack!" the leader of the terrorists shouted.

The Avalanche members advanced on us. I raised my handgun, braced my other hand against my wrist, and opened fire once more. Rude rushed at those attacking him, lashing out with kicks and punches.

"Don't let your guard down!" he called to me.

I ducked underneath a sword slash of one Avalanche member who'd managed to get close and shot him in the stomach. "Right, sir!" Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of light khaki and almost imagined I saw Shears dart past me and below decks.

I was distracted by the advance of an Avalanche member wielding an axe. That was something new. I shot him anyway, regardless of his uniqueness.

The next thing I knew, it was over and Rude was once again straightening the lapels of his jacket. "Are you all right, sir?" I questioned.

"Of course, Rosalind. Don't you worry about me."

"Roger, sir." I hesitated and glanced behind me. "I...I thought I saw Shears go down to the hold."

Rude looked up sharply. "Shears? Dark hair, light khakis? I saw a man like that on the docks. Let's go!"

"Right!" I darted quickly down the stairs, and only barely avoided being trampled by a hoard of prisoners. Huh. Obedient to their "Queen" indeed. I'd told them to stay down there. "Rude, sir! The prisoners!" I exclaimed.

Rude managed to grab one and hurl him back to the bottom of the stairs. "Damnit," he muttered irritably. He looked up and glared at Shears, who was standing in front of the cage, grinning, his arms folded before him.

He hadn't changed since I'd last saw him; the sight of him was still enough to make my blood boil. "You!"

Shears smirked at me. "I see my men have once again failed to eliminate you. Hmm...aren't you my blonde friend from Midgar? Where's the redhead?"

I scowled at him. Lord, I hated Shears. "I'll go get him. We'd decided we were going to kill you together."

Shears laughed. "Isn't that sweet. If I didn't have other plans, I'd be looking forward to it. Oh well. You'll both die here."

Rude put a hand on my shoulder. "Go after the recruits, Rosalind," he ordered me.

"But, sir!" I dropped my voice. "This guy is tough, sir."

"Go," Rude commanded again.

I hesitated. The last time I'd left one of my superiors alone with Shears, he'd nearly been killed. But I nodded anyway. "Yes, sir."

Turning around, blushing at Shear's laughter in spite of myself, I ran up the stairs and down the gangplank. The prisoners couldn't have gotten far. I ran into the town. It was deserted at this time of night. A few lights still glimmered in the buildings, though. I crossed the street and entered a bar. "Pardon me," I asked the barkeep politely. "Did you see anyone who looked like they might be an escapee come in here?"

The barkeep shrugged. "Hasn't been anyone in here for the past ten minutes. Sorry."

"That's all right. Keep an eye out, please. Thanks anyway."

I left the bar, slightly discouraged. I was going to have to search every alley, every building. Resigned to this, I ducked into a villa. It was dark inside, but I heard a movement to my left. Reaching out I flicked on a light. The prisoner blinked in the light and backed up. "U-uh..."

"Back to the ship," I commanded firmly, grabbing him by the front of the shirt. I took a quick look around the villa and grabbed a length of rope coiled by the door. Quickly, expertly, I bound my prisoner. I didn't have time to escort everyone I recaptured back to the ship. "Someone will be by to pick you up soon. Now where are the others?" I asked, once he was securely tied.

"I don't know. I came here myself."

I sighed. "Oh, rats. All right. Sit tight."

I exited the villa and continued down the street. Most of the houses in Costa del Sol are vacant during this time of year. I'd have to search any that seemed suspicious. I came to another house and thought I saw a flicker of the curtains. That was enough for me, I went up to the house and knocked on the door. No response. I took my tie clip and picked the lock easily. Opening the door, I flicked on the light again and was greeted with the sight of two more prisoners trying to scramble through a back window. I recognized them from Club Duel.

"She's here! Go! Go! Go!" the prisoner who was waiting for his fellow to get through the window urged.

"None of that," I said firmly, crossing the room and leveling my handgun at the pair. "We're going back to the ship."

There was no rope in this house, so I tore the long curtains hanging from the window into narrow strips and bound my latest captives. "Someone will be by to pick you up shortly. Be patient until then."

I left this house, making note of the number, and continued on my way. I had almost reached the edge of town, when I saw someone dart from the shadows into an alleyway. I immediately gave chase. "Hold it right there!" The man turned and I found myself staring at King, trapped at the end of the alley. "Come on, now, back to the ship..."

King didn't move. "Please, you can't take me to Midgar..."

I sighed. "I have to. It's my job. Now, come. I don't really feel like fighting you again."

King cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not really a fighter. I just do it for the extra money. I work at the docks. Please, Miss, I got kids..."

"W-well..." This was a different King from the belligerent, arrogant lord of Club Duel.

"If you take me, my family's gonna starve," King pleaded. "My wife doesn't have work papers and my oldest boy's only twelve. Please, Miss..."

"Oh..." This was a difficult decision. I didn't want to recruit someone who had a family. But then, he could be bluffing. "How do I know you aren't just lying to me?"

King shook his head. "No, Miss!" He fumbled in his pocket for a wallet and opened it up, displaying a picture. A small, dark haired woman and three tow-headed little boys beamed from behind the scratched plastic cover.

I sighed. Well. I'd been bound to miss a few prisoners. There was no reason why King couldn't be one of them. "All right. Stay here until dawn. We'll be gone by then."

King grinned at me, relieved. "Thank you, Miss." He held out a hand in a gesture of thanks.

I returned the smile and the handshake. "You really are a good fighter, though."

King shrugged. "Not so much, miss. It's just a matter of knowing where to hit 'em. You're much better."

I laughed and reached into my breast pocket, pulling out a card. "Here. The police force in Costa del Sol is maintained by Shinra. Call this number and tell them you want to sign up. My number is on the back, in case they want someone to call for reference. They'll welcome you, I'm sure. And it pays much better than the work at the docks."

"Thank you, Miss. I won't forget it."

"Good luck, King."

"You too, Miss."

I felt good about myself as I left the alley and started to head back to the ship. One way or another, King would likely end up working for Shinra. I saw someone dart furtively into the bar. I pursued him immediately. The barman wisely vanished into the back room when I entered.

"Come on, now. We're going back to the ship."

This must have been one of Reno or Rude's prisoners, because he snorted at me. "You just try and make me, girl."

I glared at him coldly. "Let's go. Don't make me force you."

The prisoner just laughed, so I stalked up to him and punched him hard in the gut. He fell to his knees with a grunt. "Where are the other prisoners?" I demanded.

"Like I'll tell you!" the man wheezed.

I sighed and punched him in the nose. He yelped and his hands flew to his face. "All right, all right! They went to the dock! There's an Avalanche boat there."

"All right." I gestured to the barkeep, who'd peered out of the back room. "Give me some rope."

He immediately complied, and I bound my last prisoner. "Someone will be by to pick you up shortly," I informed him, then headed down to the docks.

I caught up to the last two prisoners, who were hanging around the pier, as far from the Shinran ship as they could get.

"Shit! It's her! Where the hell is the Avalanche ship?" one of them exclaimed, looking about frantically.

"I don't know, but it's not here. In the meantime, however, there's another boat for you to get on." I drew my weapon. "Hands behind your head and back to the Shinra boat. Now, gentlemen."

They were sullenly complying when my PHS rang. Keeping my weapon trained on the pair, I answered it. "Rosalind."

It was Rude. "Come on back to the ship, Rosalind."

"Rude, sir! You're all right!" I was relieved. Shears had just about killed Reno, so I could only assume Rude had beaten him.

"Yeah. Hurry back."

"I'll be there in a few moments, sir." I snapped my phone shut and hurried my prisoners along. Two Shinra soldiers relieved them from my care as I reached the gangplank, and I went up to join Rude on deck.

He was leaning against the railing, a dark bruise forming on his cheek, staring out at the docks. "Rude, sir?" I said tentatively, when he didn't look up.

Rude glanced up. Apparently he'd been distracted. "Ah, there you are. We've retrieved most of the candidates."

"We, sir?"

"Reno's up and roaming around. He'll be back soon."

I eyed the bruise on Rude's cheek. "Sir...did Shears do that to you?"

Rude's features remained impassive, but I sensed that he was angry. "It's not your problem."

I fell silent. This obviously wasn't a matter to be pursued. Rude's PHS rang and he answered it as always. "Rude...uh huh...right...Understoood, sir." He snapped the phone shut.

"Was that Tseng, sir?"

Rude nodded. "Apparently Avalanche have a ship at the beach. Shears is there."

"That's where it is! Then that's where the rest of the candidates must be! Let's go, sir!"

Rude hesitated as I turned to leave, catching my shoulder. "Rosalind..."

I turned to face him. "Sir?"

"I'm sorry. I have to do this alone."

"Sorry...?" Rude's grip tightened on my shoulder. My knees gave out and I collapsed. He caught me before I hit the ground. All of a sudden I was weak and dizzy. "S-sir..." I stammered weakly, before everything blurred and went dark.

The next thing I was conscious of was someone gently rubbing my wrists and dabbing at my forehead with a cool, rough cloth. I managed to open my eyes a crack and see a dark figure silhouetted above me. I groaned and the person backed off, letting me get some air. I pushed myself up and shook my head a few times to clear the cobwebs.

I stumbled to my feet and staggered to the railing, was violently sick over the side of the boat, then slumped against the railing, wiping my sleeve across my mouth. I gulped the cool night air for a few minutes and began to feel better. I rubbed my shoulder ruefully and turned to thank whoever had revived me, only to come face to face with Asul.

"Turk!" He seemed happy to see me. "Come and let me feel the heat of battle once more! Our fight was not yet finished!"

"Oh, not you again," I groaned. I was tired. I had a headache. I didn't want to fight Asul I wanted to go home.

Asul grinned madly at me. I'm positive he was insane. "Do not make me force you to fight, Turk. Would you sooner fight for your life, or beg for it?"

"Get below decks, Asul, or I'll make you regret it," I threatened. I wasn't kidding.

Flexing his muscles, Asul roared to the night sky. "Come! Come and face me!"

"No! Get downstairs!" I ordered.

"We will fight!" He charged me. I was ready. I whipped out my handgun, aimed for a non-lethal shot, and fired. He shouted in pain and clutched his shoulder as he stumbled back. I advanced and pistol-whipped him for a while, to make him more manageable and to myself feel a bit better.

He dropped to the deck of the ship. I patted my handgun fondly before returning it to its holster. Fist fighting might be fun, but there's nothing better than the efficiency and grace of a good handgun. I brushed my hair from my eyes and grabbed Asul's wrist, dragging him towards the stairs leading down to the hold.

"You have...no honor, Turk..." Asul hissed at me.

"I don't much care about honor, Asul," I answered coolly, hauling him over to the stairs and surrendering him into the care of two more soldiers. "Put him in a solitary pen."

"Right, ma'am."

I glanced over my shoulder as the first rays of the sun started to enter the sky to the east. "Would you and your comrades be able to hold down the fort for a few minutes?" I asked, squinting towards the beach.

The soldier nodded. "Yes, ma'am...uh...may I ask why, ma'am?"

"I have to go take care of something." I reloaded my weapon and strode down the gangplank. I reached the steps down to the Costa del Sol common and broke into a run down to the beach. I could see the Avalanche ship about fifty yards from shore. I stopped short at the top of the stairs Shears was standing with his back to the ocean, facing Reno and Rude. He was slowly backing up, shouting words I couldn't distinguish at the distance. This wasn't fair. I wanted my shot at Shears too.

I sighed. From this distance, I couldn't get the greatest shots in the world, but I took careful aim and opened fire. I saw Shears jump and flinch as my hail of bullets hit the water. Panicked, he splashed towards the ship until he was up to his waist, then dove in, stroking towards the ship. The sight of him retreating like a coward was fair compensation for not being able to kill him.

"Rookie!" Reno called joyfully as I ran down the beach. "Hey, rookie!"

I skidded to a halt, the soft sand covering my shiny black shoes. "Are you and Rude all right, sir?"

Reno beamed at me. "Just fine, rookie, just fine! Kicked the shit outta Shears."

Rude shrugged, a little more reticent. "Well, I wouldn't go quite that far."

"Sure felt good though," Reno cut in quickly.

Rude smiled faintly. "Yes. That it did. But I didn't ask you for your help."

Reno rolled his eyes. "Didn't ask for it. Sure as hell needed it, though."

"He just about floored you at least six times. Be more careful," Rude admonished.

"Oh, sure. You're trying to tell me he wasn't about to whip your ass once or twice? What would've happened if I weren't here?"

Rude paused. "I don't honestly know. But...I kind of expected you'd come."

"Oh? And why's that?"

Rude grunted. "Because I've known you for years. You're damn predictable."

"I am not!" Reno declared indignantly.

"Sure, sure."

"Aww, hell. You're just trying to get under my skin."

"Right."

Reno punched Rude's shoulder amiably. Rude reciprocated with a forceful shove that sent Reno sprawling in the shallow water. "Hey!"

I laughed out loud. The gleaming white sands of the beach in Costa del Sol, the rosy morning sun sparkling off the waters, and Reno sitting in the shallows, cursing, was too vividly amusing a picture not to laugh.

"Oh, you think this is funny, rookie?" Reno pushed himself up and kicked a spray of water in my direction.

"Ack!" He'd effectively drenched me. "Sir! This was just dry-cleaned! Now I'm soaked!"

Reno stuck his tongue out. "Nyah. I suppose you think I'm just a little damp, then?"

Rude glanced at the rising sun. "We'd best get back to the ship..."

"Thhbpht." Another spray of water drenched Rude. He arched an eyebrow at Reno, then calmly removed his sunglasses and shook the water from them. "You'll pay for that," he said finally.

Reno took off through the shallows with a yell and Rude immediately gave chase. Giving in, I sprinted after them, kicking off my shoes and sprinting through the shallows. The water was warm and we were all soaked within minutes. Rude had tripped on a sandbar and caught Reno's ankle, sending him sprawling once again. I caught up and kicked another wave of water at the two, until Rude grabbed my ankle and yanked my feet out from under me.

The waves were coming in, drenching the three of us further. We were all laughing and splashing like children. Sometimes, it's so much fun to be a Turk. Even if we did get some fairly strange looks from the tourists, arriving on the beach.


Chapter 6

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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