Elena pressed her finger down on the smooth counter in front of her.
As the corner of her right eye watched the glass being filled for the fourth time, she stared at her fingerprint left behind on the glossy, overly clean surface. It seemed to linger there, refusing to blur away into the rest of the glossed wood. She stared hard into it, perhaps thinking that she could stare it down or maybe will it away. It didn't.
"Too damn clean for a bar," she mumbled as she picked the glass up and took a not-too-small sip from it.
She hated this town. She hated the nearby ruins. She hated everything. What she wouldn't do now to return to Midgar. Back, maybe, to 6.
Back to 6 and its ghosts. Her ghosts.
The thoughts wrapped themselves around her, making her oblivious to the irrelevancies around her. She, therefore, didn't pay mind to the sound of the bar doors swinging open. She did, however, notice what came next. She frowned when she did.
"There you are," Reno's familiar voice said casually as he himself strode over to the empty seat next to her. "We're moving out in fifteen."
"Yeah," she almost seemed to dismiss him as she took another sip.
He looked at her and realized two things. One: she'd had, perhaps, a bit too much to drink. Two: she didn't exactly seem like the same insecure Elena that had been assigned to them at the beginning of the current project. Inebriation, it seemed, did wonders for her.
But now wouldn't be the time. Their work in Wutai was over. They couldn't exactly begin to indulge in the dismal little town's poor excuse of a bar and drown away whatever sorrows, real or imagined, they may have found around themselves. Certainly not Elena and her monumental inexperience.
"Fifteen and we move, Elena. Finish up and fall in."
"Yeah," she repeated absently as she pressed her finger on the counter again. Again, the bartender was quick to respond.
"How many is that already?" Reno asked with the faintest traces of concern.
"Don't know," she responded, even though the bartender raised five fingers in front of him for Reno to see.
"That's enough," he said as he watched her chug the whole thing.
"So now you need to tell me what's enough for me and what's not, is that it?"
Her voice had trembled. Not drunkenly. Not timidly. Angrily. Assertively.
"Yeah," she continued, the tone in her voice becoming more and more confrontational. "That's the problem with you and the others, isn't it. I never know what's good for me. I never know what to do. Why? Because I'm a woman? Is that it?"
"I really don't have time for this," Reno turned to the bartender and motioned for a shot of whatever it was Elena was having. "I don't know what your problem is, but we're moving out, and the last thing I need is for you to…"
"I'm sorry if I can't play the part of the damsel in distress more convincingly for you," she cut him off angrily.
"Is that what this is all about?" he tried to sound indifferent. The bartender poured his drink. The faint sound of the liquid splashing itself into the little glass almost seemed to echo within the awkward silence between the two Turks.
"See, that's what I mean," she shook her head and turned away. "I work hard to be where I am, and in the end all I'm reduced to is a damn cliché. You think that's what I want?"
"Corneo got the jump on you and that other girl," he shrugged. For some reason, it was becoming harder for him to keep up the façade. "Nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to the best of Turks."
"Don't give me that crap," Elena swatted her hand towards him angrily. "You know that had it been one of you guys, you wouldn't have gone through all that macho nonsense to save him. You probably would have let him figure it out on his own. But you come and rescue me, right? Why?"
"You were strapped to a stone statue standing over several hundred meters of nothing," he said a bit more impatiently. "Just what did you expect us to do?"
"You were supposed to let me get out of my own jam. But you didn't trust me. Why the hell not?"
He cursed to himself. This was, it seemed, about as good a time for an evaluation as any.
"You haven't shown you can handle yourself yet. Your overly aggressive but you don't think your options through. You rush into things and commit the kinds of mistakes a Turk can never make. You're more a caricature right now than a believable threat. You try and be this big tough woman, but you still seem more like a kid trying to act like a grown-up. You've got a lot to learn about being a Turk, Elena."
He waited for her to respond. He wanted to add how she displayed more confidence and assertiveness now, half drunk and completely uninhibited, than when she was sober. But he figured it wouldn't help matters. Not when she was in this particular mindset.
"You think I want to be like that?" Elena turned away and looked at her empty glass. "You don't think I try?"
"Whether you try or not isn't the question."
"I think it is," she cut him off again. "I go out and try my best. I always do. I get carried away at times, but that's only because I'm always trying to make sure I make the right calls. You know why?"
"No, Elena," he almost sighed. "Why?"
"See, you don't even know why I'm here, do you?"
"Not our policy to ask why we're here. For all we care, you're here because you like the suit."
"Imbecile," she snarled even as her eyes rolled towards him angrily.
Reno would normally be putting an end to this. Harshly. Turks prided themselves on their code of conduct, both without and within their organization. There was a good reason why they operated apart from the main Shinra divisions and even SOLDIER. They all accepted the fact that there was always a fine line separating justice from injustice, duty from transgression, social rights from social wrongs. That's why they had to stick to their own code of conduct. It gave them their only real sense of order and stability in a profession that would otherwise have them uphold the law one day, then murder someone the next.
So for Elena to take the liberty of insulting her superior like that was grounds enough for a reprimand, to be certain, a possible expulsion from the Turks if carried far enough.
But he knew there was something else to this. Elena's ordeal with Corneo had, he knew, been humiliating. For a Turk to be taken and held captive like that…He knew he couldn't be too upset at her. If anything, this little fit of anger now showed she had Turk mettle in her; a lesser candidate would have blown the whole thing off.
"We've got ten minutes before we leave," he said, taking a swig from his glass. "You've got three of them. What's on your mind?"
She looked at him as she would, perhaps, curiously look upon a stranger. There was a calmness to her look, a dauntless precision that bordered on authority. Reno thought that, if they could somehow keep her forever inebriated, she'd be as good as any high level Turk.
"It's not the usual story, you know," she began. "Not the usual, ‘tough girl trying to prove herself' cliché you're probably expecting."
"I'm not expecting. I'm listening."
"Yeah, right," she shrugged. "The thing is, I had a choice. I always did. I could have tried to become a Turk, or I could have done something else. And you know what? I chose to become a Turk. I wanted to be a Turk because I was sick and tired of people telling me what to do or what to believe in. You know?" She was growing more agitated as she spoke. "I was sick and tired of hearing it from people. Shinra this, Shinra that. We gotta do this, we gotta do that. I was sick of it. I was sick of it because at the same time, these same idiots spouting all this crap are busy scraping together a living without really doing much beyond scraping."
"You grew up in Sector 6, right?"
"Yeah," she nodded as her fingers began tapping the counter. "Grew up among the worst. Among people who wouldn't know what direction was if it came and bit them in the ass. People who found it easier to lecture and tell me how I was supposed to grow up rather than to lead by example. The thing is, I think they were scared of me. You know I beat up my first kid at the age of five?"
"Poor girl," he said indifferently.
"It was a boy. Four years older than me. Jerk was picking on me and some of my friends, and I gave him a bloody nose. You know what that does to a girl? It labels her. For life. She's no longer the kid with the blonde hair. She's the little tomboy that broke Milo's nose. Have you any idea what it's like growing up with a stigma like that?"
"Can't say that I do," he finished his drink. "Two minutes."
"Yeah, well it makes everyone have different expectations, you know. Suddenly, I'm not fit to think for myself. The thinking's gotta be done for me. Like I'm no longer a person because I don't fall into any neat little category. I'm not a flower girl, and I'm not an apprentice. I can't flirt with boys, and I can't go off and join SOLDIER. I'm Elena, the 6's tough girl, the one who'll beat the crap out of you if you mess with her. Pretty damn tough to make friends like that, you know. Pretty tough to know how to act when everyone's busy labeling you and expecting nonsense from you."
"I imagine so."
"Yeah, what would you know," she sneered as she signaled the bartender again.
"Last one," Reno warned.
"Yeah, whatever," she shrugged, doing her best not to slur her words too much. "Today. Today is like this big reminder for me. No matter what I do, it all comes back to me. Why the hell did you think I joined the Turks? Because I didn't have much of a choice. It was like, what else am I going to do? Do I stay in the slums and maybe become good buddies with the guys at the bar, or do I get out of there and go someplace where my strength won't be seen as a weakness?"
"And you thought the Turks were the answer?"
"Hell if I know," she said bitterly. "What you call immaturity, I just call trying to adjust to a profession where I can be me. For the first time, being a woman who can punch any guy's lights out isn't a bad thing. For the first time, it's like I'm respected for being strong. But now, I gotta deal with order, with the rigidity of an organization that's trying to control that strength. It's like I jump from one set of expectations to another. What would be inappropriate in one place is appropriate in the other, and vice versa. I just don't know if I can tell the difference anymore. I'm trying, Reno, I really am. I just need time to figure it out. I need time to figure out how the hell I'm going to bridge the gaps."
She looked up at the ceiling. Again, it was anger mixing in with nervous energy at this point.
"And today didn't help any," she finally continued. "I felt so damn helpless, so stupid up there on that statue, I felt like I was back in 6, being controlled by everyone because I didn't know how to act. Corneo pulls his crap, and then you guys all come with that macho agenda of yours like I'm some damsel-in-distress cliché. I don't even know anymore."
"Whatever," she rolled her seat away from the counter and looked at nothing in particular. "It doesn't matter anyway. I just hope that the next time, you'll let me figure things out for myself, okay? I'm a Turk now. Respect that."
"Yeah, you are," he said with that same indifference despite his own interest in not only her story but its several parallels to his own. "You might want to remember that too the next time you feel yourself getting a bit overzealous about knocking someone's head."
"Like I said," she now said quietly. "I need time to adjust. It's difficult going from one end of the spectrum to the other. It's like I've never known what role it is I can play because everything and everyone around me always wants me to play another."
Reno got up from his seat. He had to.
"We move out in 7, Elena. Get your stuff together." He paused for a moment. "And you'll do fine. You'll adjust."
"I'm overwhelmed by your encouragement," she said with absent sarcasm even as he began walking towards the exit.
"We'll be at the outer gates. Don't make us wait."
Reno, however reluctantly, left the Turtle Paradise. Part of him knew he had to uphold the command structure so sacred to the Turks; he simply couldn't start becoming overly friendly with Elena because it would be inappropriate, to say the least. But part of him also wanted to stay there to, if not comfort Elena, then at least give her a couple of more minutes in which she could lash out a bit more at him and everything. No. She didn't need to be comforted; he could see that now. Maybe what she did need was a good assignment, something to lift her spirits and make her feel more at home among them. If anything, he'd learned that much about her. Maybe he'd have to think twice the next time he wanted to reprimand her for her overzealous approach to being a Turk.
Elena turned towards him only after she heard the creaking sound of the bar's doors swiveling back and forth. She watched, through the gaps opening and closing behind the swinging wooden doors, as he walked away with that calm, precise walk of his. The walk of a Turk. The walk she'd emulate some day.
And when he appeared to be far away enough, she herself got up from her stool, paid the bartender her rather large bill, and did her best to not sway too much as she walked out of the bar.
The fresh air of Wutai hit her immediately afterwards in much the same way a splash of cold water would hit someone perhaps as drunk as herself. That was fine, she thought. It felt good. And it would sober her up. Eventually.
"That's what I chose," she said to herself as she headed for Wutai's outer gates.
The Turks. Choice one.
As opposed to the other.
"It's what wasn't expected of me," she said almost bitterly. "No one expected it. They thought I'd join Jessie."
Avalanche. Choice two.
Whether there was room for regret or not didn't matter anymore. The question had already come to a head when she had heard of Jessie's death in the destruction of Sector 7. What mattered now was whether or not she could make the most of that choice.
"Because in the end," she mused as she stopped and tried to regain her balance, "it was my choice. My actions. Just as they'll be now."
She almost grinned.
How would the rest of the Turks react if they knew she had been but a conversation away from standing on the other side of the battlefield?
How would they react if they knew she'd wanted to leave the Turks when she heard of Jessie's death? That she had conceived the thought of a secret war against them from within?
How would they react if they knew she'd carry those questions and thoughts with her for the rest of her days among them?