Chapter 9: The Line Begins to Blur

After leaving the Turk's office, Marcus looked the two recruits over with disdain and said to Drake, "Okay, is Veld serious?"

Drake gave him a side glance but didn't reply. "I mean, we're just supposed to bring these two on, forgetting what they've done?" Marcus continued.

"Seems so. He requested it rather than public executions like the other three."

Ashe looked over to Kess and they exchanged a worried glance. Rosco, Siena, and Higashi's fate seemed set in stone. Unable to contact Morgan or the other leaders of Avalanche, how could they stop the plans of Shinra. Kess sighed and looked away. They were powerless to act with the threat of being taken out by the explosives in their necks. They both had to play the part if they wanted to survive this.

Stopping just before the elevator Marcus went on as Drake pushed the button. "These two are the enemy. They could be plotting to just suicide and take out as many of us as possible. And just like that, Veld puts them to work with us?!"

"Ooo, now that’s an idea," Ashe joked.

"Shut the fuck up, scrub," Marcus snapped.

The elevator arrived and Drake motioned for Kess and Ashe to get inside. Marcus followed. Before a floor could be chosen, Marcus' stomach growled. "Would you mind keeping your stomach, down?" Ashe asked. "Some of us haven't eaten yet."

"Yea well, that makes three of us," Marcus snapped.

He turned to Ashe, ready for more verbal sparring but caught Drake's expression. He decided to back off and instead said, "Actually yea, Drake. Can we hit the cafeteria first? I'm starving."

Drake sighed in mild annoyance. "Food and bikes, is that all you think about, Marcus?"

"You act like you don't know me."

"I suppose a quick side stop to shut everyone up would be fine."

Drake pressed the 61st button, hoping that the ride would be a quiet one. It was until Ashe piped up once more. "So what's the story on you two? I know that the Turks hand pick their guys, and gals. But like, it looks like they were scraping the bottom of the barrel for a few of you."

Drake 'tsked' with Ashe's insult but refused to face him. "Appearances can be deceiving. And it would be in your best interest to curb that attitude while you're here. You might offend someone with an itchy trigger finger."

He glanced over to Marcus who was shaking his head in disbelief. He could tell he wanted to respond but he spoke before Marcus erupted into anger. "I used to be a bodyguard for Don Corneo. Marcus used to steal cars. We don't all start on the highest rung of the ladder," Drake said to Ashe.

"Bikes, man. I stole bikes," Marcus grimaced.

Ashe raised a brow. "Are you two serious? You worked as a bodyguard for the fat man and you were a bicycle thief?"

"Motorcycles! Great, thanks Drake." Marcus scowled at him, throwing his gloved hands up and leaning on the wall of the elevator. "Hell, you think that's something; Shion killed like fifteen guys to rescue his brother. Poor guy had a gambling problem and owed a lot of money to the wrong people. So Shion went after them. Got his ass locked up for two years until Tseng bailed him out the Mythril Mines."

Ashe spoke up again. "So what about the other Turks? What did they do to get in?"

Kess edged her elbow into Ashe's ribs and he yelped in pain. He glanced over to see her shaking her head. "What? I'm curious about the other reformed criminals we're going to be working with," he said amiably. "I mean, are they the kind of people that we want to be seen with?" He thumbed between Kess and himself. "She and I have standards, y'know?"

Kess was unsure of what to make of Ashe's angle. She figured he was trying to dig out what information he could, but she wasn't sure when Marcus was going to cut him off. The elevator slowed to a halt and the group exited. Marcus turned away as if he wasn't going to answer any more questions, but he hung his shoulders in defeat. "Might as well tell you. You won't shut up anyway."

"Yea, pretty much."

Marcus thought for a moment then said, "Well, Veld has been with the Turks since they came into existence. He used to work with a team, back in the day, but they either got killed or retired or disappeared. He's getting pretty up there himself, which is why I think he's training Tseng. Tseng was in Soldier and saved Rufus when he was a kid from some pirates in Junon.. Right?" He glanced at Drake for confirmation and he returned a slight shrug.

"Hell. Anyway. He's a dead shot with a sniper rifle, as your friend found out. Becca is the daughter of some military teacher in Junon. Reginald Pierce, I believe. The whole family is military and it shows. Girl takes this job way too seriously."

Kess became interested in the conversation, having recognized the name Marcus threw out. Reginald Pierce was the name of her drill instructor back when she joined Soldier. "Samantha is from some hoity-toity family that lives in Mideel. The Baines's have a lot of stock in the Gold Saucer, mainly the chocobo races. They're also like a bunch of big game hunters. Years back, she and her dad bagged a behemoth and some dudes got it in their head that her parents would pay big bucks to get her back. Poor bastards didn't realize that she was the one who took down the behemoth. After she escaped, she walked the rest of the way to Midgar with like six bullets in the clip. Tough girl."

The small convoy rounded a corner and entered the cafeteria. The room was well lit with large bay windows facing Sector's One and Two. Red circular tables filled the space, each with half a dozen chairs. At the center of the room, a massive tree extended toward the ceiling. The large, green foliage stretching above was a welcome sight in spite of their situation. Kess wondered how the hell they got a tree into the building. Ashe seemed less than impressed and Kess guessed it was due to him having worked here previously.

The delicious scent of breakfast filled the large room and Kess' stomach growled at the prospect of a decent meal. Despite their grim situation, her mind was filled with the thought of eating something that wasn't beans from a can or wilted vegetables. Though Avalanche did their best to keep the troops fed, the menu selection was always lacking.

She followed Marcus to the back of the room, mimicking him when he picked up a tray and began to push it along the line of the buffet counter. Ashe seemed equally interested in filling his stomach. He picked up a tray and began to grab several small plates to fill it. Kess, still being wary, picked up one plate and filled it with scrambled eggs, a few sausage links, fresh fruits, and a small bowl of strawberry yogurt. Marcus had finished and was waiting by the checkout register. Kess stepped up behind him and glanced back to see Ashe still piling his plate high with eggs, toast, a couple of pancakes, a waffle, some bacon strips, and a few unknown items. He eagerly walked over once finished and asked, "Coffee's still free, right?"

Marcus thumbed over to the drink bar near where Drake had taken a seat at one of the round tables. "Hey man," he called out to Drake, "are they going to reimburse me for this?"

Drake shrugged, sipping at the coffee he had acquired. "Cheap bastards.." Marcus muttered while eyeing Ashe's plate. "You better eat all of that.."

"Oh, no worries there," Ashe replied, patting his belly through the jumpsuit.

"Right.." Marcus turned to the cashier and swiped his card for the food. "Geez-us." He groaned at the amount owed.

Once paid, the trio trotted over to sit with Drake. Ashe set his tray down and moved to the drink bar to prepare a cup of coffee. He returned with two in hand and Kess thought he meant to drink them both, but he handed one to her. She gave a silent thank you and took a sip. It warmed her and she closed her eyes at the strong but heavenly taste. Ashe took a sip and sighed in content. There were few things that he lamented losing when he left Shinra, but one of them was definitely the coffee.

He began to create empty plates as he stuffed pancakes slathered in syrup and butter into his mouth. Kess ate her meager meal, wishing she had grabbed more. But she didn't want to appear too eager to take Shinra's handout. "Good, right?" Drake commented before taking another sip of his own coffee.

Ashe acknowledged the man's statement by agreeing while continuing to eat. But after another bite, he paused and asked, "Alright. So what's with the bald guy and the redhead? They, uh.. An odd couple or something?"

"I assume you mean Rude and Reno. No they aren't an item, merely partners," Drake replied.

"Heh, alright. What kind of name is 'Rude' anyway?"

"It's his nickname," Marcus answered. "His real name is Aiden Rudinski. But he's a quiet guy, always has been. I guess he got the nickname as a kid. He was one of Zangan's students if that helps illustrate why you shouldn't fuck with him."

Kess' eyes widened a bit as if a connection was made. Of course she had heard of Zangan, the world famous martial arts instructor who traveled the world looking for students worthy of his training. He'd come to Kalm once around the time Grey left for Soldier, but no one was chosen on that visit. "Reno and Rude have been partners since before most of us joined. Reno was in some street gang, but tried to leave. They messed up his girlfriend real bad—"

Drake cleared his throat, indicating he was saying too much. Marcus took the cue. "Right yea, anyway. Don't fuck with him either. Kind of a loose cannon, if you catch my drift."

He changed the topic. "Tonya and Cissnei are orphans. Both lost their parents at a young age. Cissnei spent most of her time in an orphanage. Tonya was old enough to raise herself I guess."

Kess actually identified with the two women. She may have been old enough to take care of herself, but the loss of family was something she could sympathize with. "Max is the newest recruit. His family owns a lot of oil reserves up in Holloway near Bone Village. He may seem wet behind the ears, but best not to test him. I think he joined to prove something."

Ashe had almost cleared his multiple plates and Drake returned to the drink bar for a refill. Kess had finished and was sitting perfectly still, looking around the table. Outside, the sun began to brighten up the early dawn sky more and the shadow of the Shinra building began to shrink over the city. "Geez, who's left," Marcus pondered aloud. "Oh yea yea. August. He was a detective in Costa del Sol. I guess he was hired by Veld, specifically to track you fuckers down."

Kess turned her attention back to the conversation and raised a brow. Ashe laughed heartily into his coffee. "I mean Avalanche. Not you two specifically," Marcus reiterated.

"Right. So you're all one big family then? Scraped together from various walks of life. Through thick and thin, you guys have each other's backs." Ashe spoke before clearing the remaining food from his plates. "So.. I have to ask, because it's pretty obvious, but what's the deal with this Jale guy? He doesn't seem to share the 'one team one dream' ideal you all follow.."

Kess realized what Ashe had been doing and tried to hide her approval.

You sneaky little shit.

Ashe had been buttering up Marcus this entire time in order for him to spill information on Jale. And it appeared to have worked because Drake shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the mere mention of his name.

"Oh that guy's a real piece of work," Marcus began without hesitation, "Jale claims to have been in the Wutai Crescents, like we care." He made a jerking motion with his hand and rolled his eyes.

Ashe laughed and Kess couldn't help but smile. Even Drake had a difficult time holding back, his mouth twitched at the corner. "Yea, Jale is basically useless," Marcus continued. "He doesn't give a shit about anyone but himself. He almost killed me with the last stunt he pulled."

Ashe leaned in to hear what Marcus was about to say and Kess perked up as well. But Drake shook his head. "That's enough, Marcus. They don't need to know classified information."

Ashe grimaced. He worked too hard for the topic to die. But Marcus took the man's advice and instead whipped out his cell phone. "Well, that's about it then," he sighed, flipping through the photo gallery.

After a few minutes of silence, he laughed and held his phone out, showing something to Drake. "Oh man, remember that one? Took weeks to get the smell out."

Drake closed his eyes and sighed. "You saved a photo of it?"

Ashe stole a glance and saw a group of the Turks covered in what appeared to be dirty water. "Is that... sewage?" he asked.

Marcus faced the phone to him and smirked. "Yea, Midgar’s finest. Had to go down there to chase some dipshit. Caught him, but it did not end well for us."

Marcus thumbed a few more photos by, various images of the Turks spending their free time relaxing. A few more of the boys. Jale wasn't in any of them. Then there were a few shots of the women and Ashe choked on the last of his coffee. To his utter surprise, Morgan was in one of the photos. Marcus whacked Ashe on the back. "Careful there, man! Don't want you to die before you get to see some real action," he laughed.

Ashe pulled his hand to his mouth and coughed, his eyes fixating on Kess'. She looked over at the image, her eyes widening. She knew exactly what Ashe was trying to point out to her. Marcus turned the phone back to himself and kept scrolling. Ashe leaned over, trying to catch another glimpse of Morgan. The scrolling stopped on a scene in a bar, Reno, Rude, Drake and Morgan sitting around a small table. Morgan was sitting extremely close to Drake and so Ashe felt it was his moment to say something. "So we met all the Turks, eh?" he pointed at Morgan. "Who's that? We didn't meet her."

Marcus' eyes lit up, but then they flicked to Drake who was glancing at his own cell phone. "Uh... That's.... Morgan," Marcus said quietly.

Drake's eyes glanced up momentarily, but then went back to his phone. The silence began to grow uncomfortable. Ashe decided to break it with a rather blunt question he knew the answer to. "She dead?"

He looked to Drake for a reaction, but he continued to look at his phone and said nothing. "No. At least, I don't think so," Marcus replied as if trying to defuse the situation.

Kess and Ashe both knew that Morgan's past involved the Turks. But other than that, they didn't know anything else. But did Shinra know that she had joined Avalanche? Ashe raised his eyebrows and shrugged, inviting Marcus to continue. "Soo...?"

"So I don't know. Ask Drake, he--"

Drake snapped his cell phone shut with a loud clack and glared across the table. "Are we about finished with this gossip? We need to get going. They still need to get measured for their suits." His voice was cold.

He stood and walked to the drink bar to drop off his used coffee mug then moved toward the door. The others followed, emptying their trays and setting them above the trash cans. Exiting the cafeteria, they ran into Becca, Tonya, Samantha, and Cissnei. "Hey Drake, having fun with the prisoners?" Samantha sneered.

Drake's tone was serious. "I'm sorry, Marcus might have that information for you. You can both giggle about it while I get these two outfitted to do some real work."

Cissnei and Tonya snickered, but Becca kept a straight face. Samantha tossed her long ponytail in disgust and stomped towards the counter. Becca followed after a moment, but Tonya and Cissnei took longer. "Nice one Drake. She'll have something else to complain about while we eat," Tonya laughed.


It had been several hours since the evacuation. The large rebel faction now found themselves making a new home among the slums of Sector Seven. As before, there was a train station close by. It was accessible and made it quite easy to hide right under Shinra's nose. Several buildings that had been vacant were now housing most of Avalanche. The main base of operations was a large building that had once been a mill before the days of Midgar. A large, wooden wheel jutted out from one side but there was no longer any water to turn it. The windmill high above was tattered and worn, having ceased its movement over twenty years ago. The grindstone was cemented into place and this made an ideal meeting table for the leaders.

Shears sat deep in contemplation. He hated being so out in the open instead of protected by the thick walls of the old base. But he would make due. Morgan was off helping the other teams get settled around the area. She planned to lead a team back to the old base after Shinra left to see if anything else could be salvaged. Elfé was in the mill with Shears, taking a look around the structure. It was made of wood and steel, not ideal, but seemed to be sound. She banged on one of the old, rusty water pipes and listened to the echo.

"There was water here?" she asked Shears who sat across the room.

"Hmm?" He hadn't been expecting the question.

Elfé walked a few feet away and began looking toward the rafters. "Water. It seems like this place would never have had it. But this mill is proof," she replied.

Shears opened his eyes while uncrossing his arms. "This place didn't always have that metal pizza hovering overhead." He stood and walked over, looking up to the rafters as well. "Before Shinra came, Thrym was the place I called home. Polluted as it was, the air was so bad on some days, we couldn't play outside or go to school."

Elfé stopped before climbing the stairs upward. "Thrym.. Sounds like a nice town.."

She began to walk up. Shears smiled, which was rare for him. "It was.. When my grandparents were kids. But with the use of coal, the sky became a thick smog. Water wasn't safe to drink any more. We had to pull it from wells outside of town. Industrialization took the world over and attempted to choke the life out of it." His voice was soft as he spoke.

Elfé was used to his seriousness, but this was a piece of the man she had never seen. "What happened when Shinra came?" she asked, arriving at the top.

She leaned over the railing, looking down to him. "Well, for a while it was good. The facilities they installed helped keep the water from getting polluted. When the first Mako reactor sprung up, the air started to clear with less coal being used. But then construction on the city began. And soon, it blocked out the sunlight."

He climbed up the stairs after her and came to rest by her side. He leaned on the railing, pulling the green bandanna from his head and tossing it about in his hands. Dark brown hair with some gray peppering became visible. "My grandparents used to talk about how green the land was in their day. But by the time I was old enough to remember, it had always been a barren waste. Crops couldn't get the sunlight they needed as more of Midgar was built above. People were urged to move, even given incentive packages to do so. Many did. Most didn't. My family was one of the ones that stayed.." He looked across the poorly lit room and sighed. "Dad was stubborn. 'People still need bread.' he'd say.."

Elfé's eyes widened with the realization. "You mean..? This mill..?"

"Well, then the water stopped flowing. Dammed up by Shinra to help power the equipment being used to build the support pillars. But still we stayed." He pushed off the railing and put the bandanna back on his head. "We stayed until mom got sick and left us.."

He looked skyward and closed his eyes. "I always thought you were from Cosmo Canyon..?" Elfé asked.

"After dad died, I left. I was fourteen and after paying my family's debts, I had nothing. I sold the mill to be rid of it. I didn't have enough to move into the city, so I decided to try my fortunes elsewhere." He turned to face her. "I ended up in Cosmo Canyon. Seems like a lot of people travel there to get back in touch with their roots."

He grew quiet for a moment before continuing. "There were a lot of refuges there. Mostly fleeing the war. Others just wanted to live peacefully but it seemed an impossibility as long as Shinra was still in charge. So I decided to come back here and take matters into my own hands."

He turned to look back at her and saw her brow knitting in frustration. "We just missed each other," she lamented. "So you came back to Midgar.. And started fighting Shinra.."

He turned back towards the stairs and walked to the floor below without a word. When he reached the bottom, he glanced back up to Elfé who was watching him. "Yea, and then I got my ass kicked by a girl," he said with a smirk.

She laughed but then pulled her hand close, gripping the back. Pain shot out like tiny daggers and caused her to wince a bit. "I probably should go lay down.." She moved towards the stairs.

Shears was waiting for her at the bottom and helped her along. "Yea, it's been a crazy day," he seconded.


After Kess and Ashe had eaten, they were taken to a small room where an older man with a steady hand took the measurements for their new suits. They were then escorted to the living quarters. "You'll both be staying here. There are two bedrooms, one bath, and this living area. You're on twenty-four hour surveillance, so don't get any ideas," Drake instructed.

Marcus chuckled rudely and Drake shot him a cold stare. "Marcus, get your head out of the gutter."

Ashe took a sweeping glance around the room. "So.. No mini fridge? When do they come by for the turn down service?"

Drake shut the door in his face, the automatic locks clicking into place. The inside of the door lacked a doorknob or hinges, so escape was practically impossible. They stood in their spots, looking around the room. There were no windows, and two doors on either side of them. In the main room there was a television, a couch with some pillows, and a coffee table. The carpet was a dull gray while the walls were white.

"Well then," Ashe said, pretending to be offended. "not known for their amenities, I take it."

Kess moved to check out the left room, Ashe the right. There was a simple bed, a wardrobe, and an alarm clock on a side table. Her room had the bathroom. "I've got the toilet in here," she shouted out.

Ashe shouted back, "In your bedroom?"

"No dumb ass, I mean I have the bathroom."

Ashe's head popped around the side of the door. Indeed she had the bathroom. "So if I want to use it, can I—?" he began.

"You better knock first seeing as I'll be taking this room."

He put his hands up defensively. "Why Ms. Reignheart.. Don't you know that I am a perfect gentleman?"

He laughed and turned away, walking over to the couch. He threw himself face first into the cushions and laid there momentarily before flipping over and continuing the conversation. "No windows, sealed door.. This cell isn’t very up to code, if you ask me," he laughed then added, "weird to see Morgan in those pics, eh? Like I know this is what she did before, but damn. Surreal."

"Yea, and it seemed like Drake and her were an item," Kess replied.

"I KNOW, RIGHT?! Crazy shit," Ashe exclaimed. "Maybe I should shave the side of my head. Seems to be popular with the ladies." He poked fun at Drake's haircut.

"What ladies are you trying to be popular with?" Kess asked, leaning on the door frame to her bedroom.

"Just one," he muttered.

Kess pretended not to hear. She glanced upward towards the door, seeing a black bulb connected to the ceiling. "I wonder what poor sap got stuck watching us twenty-four seven," she joked aloud. "Think they can hear us too?"

Ashe sat up, looking over his shoulder at the camera. "Oh for sure," he agreed.

"So, how do we get these things out of our necks?"

"Without them blowing up? Impossible," Ashe responded matter-of-factually. "I never thought I'd be testing my own invention though. Kind of cool. Like I said, though. I never made them with this in mind. They were supposed to be on Shinra drones as self-destructive fail safes. Like in case Shinra tech fell into the wrong hands."

"I get it. You seem way too impressed by this. I mean.. You worked for one of the most ruthless corporate entities to ever exist, making explosives, and you never thought that they would stoop to sticking bombs inside people?"

"The thought actually never crossed my mind. I may have made explosives, but my main field was micro tech. The Sister Ray runs on silicone chips with like, thousands of microscopic fucking diodes and shit—"

She interrupted to mock him, "'And shit', you're so technical, Ashe."

He laughed and pushed himself up from the couch, his light brown hair sticking up from static. He pushed his hair down and received a small electric shock on his finger tip. He turned to her, his face had become serious. She looked away from the camera. "What?"

"Well. There is a way. It wouldn't require removing it. But it could short it out."

Kess left the door way and walked over so he wouldn't have to be loud. "I'm listening."

"If we could pass a huge jolt of energy through the disc, it would short out the circuit board and fry it."

She scoffed, "Hell, and us as well."

"There are ways to do it without getting electrocuted ourselves.. But it would have to be the right set up."

"So no way to do it any time soon," she sighed.

Ashe shook his head side to side. "Not presently.."

Neither one said anything for a long time. After a few minutes, Kess glanced over to Ashe. He was resting his head against the back of the couch, his eyes closed. She was about to turn towards her room when he spoke up, "So, no time like the present to get to know each other better…" he looked across the room to her, a quizzical expression taking over his features. "I never asked much, because your past is your business.. But I gotta know.. What the hell is Deepground?"

Kess froze, her features hardening at their mention. She watched him from her spot by the door, figuring she at least owed him an explanation. "They’re a special unit in Soldier. At first, it was where they sent wounded Soldiers to be rehabilitated. Over time, it became a place for Professor Hojo to flex his experimental muscle. Many saw it as a punishment, torture. Myself included."

He sat up a bit more, trying to get comfortable on the stiff couch. "Okay, indulge me. You said that you were sent there after.. You..well, y’know.. Are they the ones that put the hard drive in your brain?"

Kess looked away, trying not to snap at his sudden forwardness. "Why do you ask?"

He shrugged, and shook his head. "I dunno. Curiosity mainly."

"Yes.. They did install a micro drive. So that when I went out on missions and used my dive skill, I’d have a place to store the information."

"What skill?"

She folded her arms and walked to the edge of the couch. "Synaptic net dive." She rubbed the sore spot on her neck gently, looking upward. "I can sort of.. Send my consciousness into networks for information. If it’s a closed system, I have a retractable cable that I can connect with."

Kess reached behind her left ear and after a few seconds, produced a small wire to show him. He looked instantly impressed. "Because of my ability, I was sent on a lot of reconnaissance jobs. But I also had to neutralize targets.."

She tucked the wire away once more and awaited more of his questions. Ashe seemed satisfied by her answers. A little smirk had spread across his face and she wondered what he would say next. "Y’know.. That hard drive design likely came from my team’s research," he finally said. "Did you gain this ability from the experiments..?"

Kess shook her head and turned towards her room once more. "No.. It’s something that I found out about when I was in Junon.. Before Deepground."

The pain in Ashe’s neck had dulled enough that he could touch the spot and he became momentarily distracted. "Huh.. Feels like they went with the mythril one. For the stability and the size.." he muttered absentmindedly.

"Well, while you geek out over which model of explosives they used on us, I'm going to take a bath."

She left Ashe sitting on the couch and entered the small bathroom that was attached to her room. She closed the door and turned on the water to fill the tub. Undressing from the unflattering jumpsuit, she tossed it onto the counter top and stepped into the warm water. She lowered herself and stretched out. The soreness melted away and once the water was high enough, she turned the faucet off with her foot. She eased back amid the warmth, felt her eyes growing heavy. It only took a few moments for her to drift off.


She didn't want to open her eyes, sleep felt so wonderful and she knew that opening her eyes would be the end of it.


She cracked her eyes open just barely and was greeted with the sight of a young Grey rushing over to her. In his hands he held a purple apple. He presented it to her with a smile. "Hey sleepy head! Look!" he beamed, pressing the fruit closer.

It took a moment for her eyes to focus on the object. She smiled. "A Banora White.. Where did you find it?" she asked.

Grey turned and pointed toward a distant tree. "They're all over. Dad said this is the only place they grow, so obviously we're here," he explained what she seemed to know all along.


"Banora, of course!" He grabbed her hand, pulling her to her feet. "C'mon!"

He led her toward the tree which seemed so far now. They ran and ran, Grey laughing and Kess trying not to trip. They never reached the tree but they kept running. Grey eventually faded away and Kess was left standing alone in the darkness. She called out, but there was no answer. She saw that she was now holding the Banora White. Her knuckles began to turn bloodless from her grip on it, her fingers sinking into the apple as if it were made of clay. Black ooze began to seep from the holes she created and she dropped the apple in fear. A woman screaming in agony could be heard, a baby crying. Her ears seemed to fill with water, she was drowning.

"..a failure.." came a man's distant voice.

"Kess, wake up!"

Kess shot awake sputtering water. She pushed herself up and looked around seeing that she was still in the bathroom. The water had grown tepid and she realized she had been very close to actually going under. The voice in her head at the dream's end was familiar but not someone she knew. It almost felt like a warning. As if they knew she was about to go under the water.

She pressed a wet hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. "I feel like I'm losing my mind," she said aloud.

A heavy knock sounded on the door. "Kess?" Ashe's voice came from the other side. "They delivered our clothes."

"I'll be right out." She stood up and snagged a towel.

She felt his presence leave the door and she dried herself as the tub emptied. She opened the door a crack, a sliver of light from the bathroom spilling onto the bed where a few long bags lay on the edge. She saw that Ashe had closed the bedroom door as he left and so she ventured out to inspect the items. She tightened the damp towel as she unzipped the bags to reveal two pressed suits, both in black with white shirts and dark red ties. The second bag contained other essentials such as night time wear, undergarments, and socks. A box on the floor revealed a new pair of black combat boots. She dressed, feeling like each button fastened was another betrayal to Avalanche.

She went into the bathroom to look herself over and fix her hair. The suit fit perfectly. It accentuated her burgundy hair, giving her appearance a stark contrast. She fixated upon her reflection, staring into her own eyes. In her mind's eyes, she saw a flash of a man's reflection. The feature she discerned clearly were his eyes. They were the same as hers.

"Yo Kess, you ready?" Ashe's voice came from the living room.

Kess left the bathroom and went out to the main room. The television was on but muted. Kess spied Ashe leaning over to tie his shoes. When he stood up, Kess felt her heart leap; he wore the suit well. While she would never openly admit it, the look of a man in a slick suit was very attractive. He kept fidgeting with the tie, trying to loosen it from around his neck. "This blows," he sneered.

She snickered a bit at his tactless comment. "Looks like you tied it wrong."

She walked over and without being asked, began to untie the silk strip. "Hold still," she muttered.

Ashe froze on her being so close. His pulse quickened, but he did as told and didn't move an inch while she retied the knot properly. "There," she said once finished, "shouldn't be so uncomfortable now."

He released the breath he had inhaled and thanked her. Kess' eyes drifted over to the television. "Hey, turn this up," she demanded.

The sound crackled on, the voice of the news woman speaking. She was in the middle of a report. "Let's go to Bob Angelo who is on location at the Shinra Building."

The image changed to a man who was standing on the street. "Thanks Cindy. As previously stated, five Avalanche members were caught entering the Shinra Building late last night."

Images flashed on the screen, mugshots of Siena, Rosco and Higashi. "We would like to caution all citizens to report any suspicious activity you see to your local law enforcement; and please keep your distance. These people are armed and dangerous. Security has been tightened on the trains, so if you need to travel today, be prepared for checkpoints," he smiled. "Back to you Cindy."

Ashe shook his head while muting the television once more. "I wonder how they’re holding up?"

"And I wonder if Jale has gone crawling back to Avalanche. Notice that they didn’t say there were six people; only five." Kess pointed out. "That stands to reason that they may try to send him back to resume whatever it is he was doing."

Ashe agreed with her analysis and she added, "I swear to Minerva, that jackal is going to get what’s coming to him."

"Oh, speaking of," Ashe fumbled around his pockets for a moment before pulling out a note, "this was with our stuff."

He cleared his throat, doing his best impersonation of Tseng, "You are to report to the sixty-ninth floor at 5pm. Dress and be there in a timely manner."

"Like, they want us to just.. Show up?" Ashe asked, crushing the note in his palm. He tossed the crumpled paper toward a wastebasket but missed.

"It's a test," Kess spoke, "to see if we'll do what we're told."

As if on cue, the main door clicked and opened. They both turned to face the empty hallway and Ashe peeked outside. "Remote locks. Very nice.." He looked around the frame, sizing it up but saw no external hardware. "Hmm.. Magnetic."

He turned back to Kess. "Well, I assume if we tried to make a break for it, we'd get to the lobby before they figured it out and finished us both."

Kess walked past him into the hallway. "Guess we have no choice then."

They left the apartment, the door shutting and locking as they arrived at the elevator. The temptation was great, but Ashe pressed the button for the 69th floor. He began to whistle, looking at some of the ads that peppered the elevator's interior. Kess saw that one of the ads was for Banora White apple juice. She scrutinized the image until they stopped abruptly on the 51st floor. Ashe glanced to Kess before the doors opened, revealing a tall man with neatly combed blond hair. He wore a dark gray suit with a lavender shirt and a purple tie. It was Lazard Deusericus, the director of Soldier.

Without much mind to who was already inside, Lazard stepped between them and pressed the button for the 61st floor. Neither of them spoke, but then Lazard broke the silence. "It's too nice an evening to be inside, don't you agree?" He glanced over his shoulder to Kess.

He faced the doors once more and when the elevator stopped, he exited without so much as a farewell. Ashe commented as the ride continued, "Wonder who else we are going run into on this outing..?"

Kess said nothing and soon they came to level 69. When the doors opened, Marcus and Becca were waiting for them. "Geez, about time," Marcus chided.

He led them around a corner and up a large flight of stairs. Shinra logo banners draped on either side made it feel as though they were entering a fortress. They were on the 70th floor, approaching President Shinra's office. Ashe noticed that Veld was standing at the edge of the second set of stairs and Jale's words from their first meeting echoed in his mind.

'I wouldn't want to be you if Old Man Shinra came walking in right now.'

"Ah, good. The President is wrapping up his meeting," Veld spoke rather friendly despite the encounter earlier. "Do you have your badges?"

Both new Turks produced their plastic I.D. cards and Veld smiled. "Good, clip them inside your jacket. No need to advertise your new jobs."

He looked them over and appeared pleased. "Alright, up we go."

He turned and led the procession up the stairs. They waited by the receptionist's desk for the meeting to end. Little bits of the conversation were able to be picked up and a haunting laugh reached Ashe's ears. "Fuckn' A…" Ashe muttered.

Kess stole a glance into the room to see who was all present. Professor Kenjiro Hojo could be seen sitting at the end, scribbling notes into a pad of paper. Every now and then, he would glance up and then furiously scribble out a line on the page before turning to the next one and beginning once more. Scarlet Hargrieves sat to his left around the other side. She was leaned over, whispering something to Wilhelm Heidegger who, while keeping his eyes on the President, was also taking notes. Across from them sat Richard Palmer, the head of the recently bankrupt space program. He had been a pilot in his younger years, but sitting on the Shinra Executive staff had rendered him a pudgy lump of man. On his right sat Reeve Tuesti, the head of urban development and city planning.

At the head of the table, dressed in a dark red, pinstripe suit stood President Shinra. To his direct left sat Rufus, who was spinning idly back and forth in his father's chair. His head tilted towards the ceiling as he yawned. He glanced ahead, seeing Veld and the new recruits standing at the stairwell. "With Hollander's," Shinra coughed, "..recent and sudden departure, the science department should see an increase in funding since we are no longer purporting to support Project G. Also, Palmer, you will split the budget increase with Hojo. Despite our failings with the ShinRa 26 rocket, I would still like to see our air forces prosper. Annette!"

The receptionist called back, "Yes sir?"

"Get Highwind in here sometime this week to talk about his airship. He can't stall any more now that he is heading this project. I want to see his progress," Shinra instructed.

"Of course, sir," she replied.

"Anyway.. where were we..?" Shinra tapped his fingers on his desk.

"I think we've finished old business," Rufus piped up. "We have more pressing issues at hand."

He motioned to Veld who entered the room, Kess and Ashe being pushed inside by Marcus and Becca. "Ah, yes. That's right." Shinra scowled across the room to the new comers. "Right then, dismissed."

A sudden look of relief spread over Palmer's face as he jettisoned for the exit. Scarlet raised a brow and cackled, "Kya ha ha! I bet he's headed to the cafeteria! It’s passed his dinner time."

She turned to joke with Reeve, still not taking notice of who had entered the room. Professor Hojo shuffled up from his seat, cleaning his glasses on his sleeve as he passed by. Kess glanced at him but she looked away as he neared. Hojo returned the acknowledgment with an intrigued expression before disappearing down the stairs. Heidegger followed after him, giving no attention to the group of Turks. President Shinra beckoned them closer. "Come on over, Veld. Let's have a chat."

The remaining two executives moved passed the group toward the stairs. Reeve avoided eye contact, leaving quickly, but Scarlet giggled and smiled at Ashe. "Why, if it isn't Mr. Kincaid." She walked away, her high heels clicking against the tile floor.

Marcus and Becca followed Reeve back downstairs leaving them alone with Veld. "And then there were two," President Shinra chuckled.

He moved back toward his chair, shooing Rufus from it. Ashe's breath sharpened as Veld corrected his superior. "Well, in three days that will be true."

"Semantics," Shinra replied.

Rufus took to standing on the right side of Ashe where Reeve had been prior. "Been a busy morning, I've heard. You have both cooperated thus far." President Shinra lit a large cigar and puffed at the end to get it going. "But let’s get one thing clear. You are still here because of my good graces."

He cleared his throat and clasped his hands, the cigar poised between his fingers. "Ashley Terrance Kincaid, Junon Science Academy, weapons and science division. Specialized in micro technology and you worked on the Sister Ray. Impressive. No wonder Ms. Hargrieves is so fond of you."

He cleared his throat. "When you left, you destroyed your lab here in the building and stole a good portion of prototypes." He trailed off on noticing that Ashe was beginning to smirk. "Oh, you think this is funny now, do you? Think that this is a vacation; you miserable little cuss? You're going to lead us to your friends, whether you want to or not."

Ashe's expression hardened. "As I was saying," President Shinra shifted his gaze to Kess. "Kess Reignheart, 2nd Class Soldier, also known as Grise within Deepground. Your specialty was reconnaissance and information transport."

He flipped through a few pages of what appeared to be her dossier. He stopped after a moment and a smile spread across his lips. "All I see here are successful missions. Accommodations. Hmm… except for one." He tapped the page purposefully and Kess inhaled suddenly, her eyes widening. The words that came next were the ones she had been dreading the most.

"Not all glowing reviews.. Seems you let one get away. No matter.. You got him here, just the same." Shinra's eyes fell to Ashe. "Only took about an extra year to do it."

Ashe's gaze narrowed and he looked to Kess in surprise. "Oh, you didn't know, Mr. Kincaid?" Shinra mused with a smirk. "Yes, Ms. Reignheart was sent to kill you."

Kess shook her head, looking to Ashe. "Ashe, I.." She closed her eyes.

President Shinra continued. "But then you disappeared.. We were unable to find you. Until that stunt you pulled the other evening. We thought it was just Hollander that had broken in, not his failed experiment as well."

Now it was Kess' turn to be surprised. What did Hollander have to do with her? She searched her memory for any meaningful interaction with the man but had none. Shinra closed the file, satisfied with his cryptic sentence. "So now you've returned, sadly having joined Avalanche."

Veld's cell phone rang, causing Kess to jump and he stepped away to answer it. Shinra watched him momentarily before focusing back on the pair. "We can't simply welcome you back to the Company. You’re going to have to earn it." President Shinra's tone was intended to get a rise out of them, and it worked.

Kess' temper flared. "You think I'd come back, after what Shinra did to my family! After what you did to Kalm!?"

Rufus stepped away when she raised her voice, walking over to Veld. Ashe was also taken aback by the outburst but she wasn't finished. "You've built your company on lies, lined your pockets with the blood of innocents, and stepped on everyone to get where you are today! You murdered my family, an entire town, to stop a few company leaks."

Rufus reappeared at his father's side, his hand in his jacket pocket as if he meant to retrieve something. But he never removed his hand. Shinra tapped his fingers together as if in deep thought. He then pointed to Veld standing some distance away, still on his phone call. "You want sympathy? Veld lost his family as well. But that didn't stop him from carrying out his orders that day."

Pain and anger flushed her cheeks to a bright red. Kess turned to face Veld as he walked back over. Ashe was quick as he grabbed her hand, knowing full well that someone in that room, likely Rufus, had the detonator. She looked at him, tears staining her cheeks and he mouthed the word "Don't"

Veld rejoined the group. "Sir, Public Security has cornered some Avalanche members in Sector Six, at the train station."

Shinra waved his hand in dismissal. "Good. Take these two with you. I'm sure their comrades would love to see them," he said with a knowing smirk.

--End Chapter 9..