Shasta noticed that her hands were shaking as she removed her white top and set it inside the locker that had been assigned to her for the duration of the evaluation period. She tried to still the tremours as she pulled on the grey t-shirt that had been provided for the physical part of the testing regime, reminding herself that it couldn’t be any worse than the psych evals and the seemingly endless physical exams. She had made it through the background checks and the convoluted company policy quizzes, so there wasn’t any doubt that she could take the upcoming beating. After all, she had survived three older brothers. Three very large, demented brothers.
"You think they’re really gonna pair us up against the guys," Leanne asked her as she bent over to tie on her sneakers, her blond hair brushing against the bench. That reminded Shasta that she wanted to tie back her own hair in a bun rather than present any of the other recruits with a nice target during a sparring match – she heard that anything went during training sessions.
"I don’t see why not, it’s not like we’re going to be given a choice in targets when we’re out on the streets," she remarked while she twisted her hair back until none of the dark strands were out of place.
Leanne grimaced as she straightened up. "I meant all the time. I heard that during the last batch of new recruits that they had it all guys against the girls until they were down to just two women at the end." She tugged on the hem of her grey shirt and glared over at the guys’ side of the locker room. "I’m not gonna let a bunch of misogynist assholes mess things up for me this late in the game," she promised, an almost feral gleam in her green eyes.
"I heard that they had everyone go up against veteran Turks, so I’m thinking they might have told us all different stories," Shasta offered as she finished tucking pins into the bun. They should keep the hair out of her way, and in a pinch serve as weapons if she needed them. "They do like to keep us on our toes."
That earned her an assessing look from Leanne for several seconds, before her friend laughed. "Trust you to figure things out, Shay." Leanne shook her head before reaching into her locker for something to contain her hair into a neat ponytail. "How much you want to bet me that the guys will be told just enough to be willing to pound us into the mats, hmm?" She didn’t sound too upset about the prospect, but then again, she’d been taking self-defense classes since she was six years old.
"Hey, there’s a good chance that I could be wrong. I just think that after what they put us through with the psychologists, we shouldn’t take anything at face value." Shasta closed her locker before turning around to rest against it. "They say that about half of the new recruits wash out now," she warned, not for the first time. And just like each time, she swore to herself that she wouldn’t be among those who failed – especially after making it this far.
Leanne rolled her eyes as her hands dropped back to her side. "And we’ve already lost at least a fourth of the class from what I can tell. I figure if you and me made it this far, the physical stuff should be the easy part. I mean, we survived your brothers’ lovely teaching style, right?" she pointed out with a smile. "How much worse can a bunch of deranged Turks be?"
Shasta had to laugh at that brilliant point of deduction. "Okay, you just may be right. But it’s rather frightening to think that the Turks don’t have anything on my older brothers."
"Shay, I love you and your parents dearly, but I think your brothers were dropped on their heads way too often or something," Leanne informed her with a bemused smile. "That or they were Mako-addicts. No one should have been that turned on by beating each other up."
To give her brothers’ credit, her family’s dojo had become their life, and they were doing a great job in running it now that their dad had decided to retire. She just wouldn’t want to come across any of them in a dark alley one night without a knife or gun to give her a little bit of an advantage to make up for the foot of height that they each had on her or the hundred pounds of weight. "Just as long as none of them have secretly signed on as Turks, we should be good."
"You got that right!" Leanne finished fussing with her uniform and waved her on toward the gym, where their last trial by fire awaited. "So, we got each other’s back unless they call for everyone for themselves?" she asked.
"That’s the plan." They had known each other long enough that Shasta figured she could count on her friend that much – they would need the support to get through the other recruits, and it could be a mistake to prove to be completely untrustworthy by turning on each other without just cause. Judging from the lopsided grin that Leanne was giving her, she’d say that her friend was thinking much the same thing. "Here’s to getting through this with our dignity intact," Shasta offered as she held out her right hand.
"I’m hoping for a bit more than that, such as my spine and skull, but yeah, it’s a nice dream." Leanne shook on it before they entered the gym.
As they headed toward the group gathered in the center of the room, Shasta realized she may have been optimistic in thinking that 3/4ths of the class had made it through the selection process. She remembered about fifty people showing up for the initial exam two weeks ago, and now there were only twenty people gathered in the gym. Leanne flashed her a confused look as they took in the other people, almost evenly split between men and women, and all she could do was shrug in return.
Had the remaining class been split in half? Somehow, Shasta didn’t think so; from what she had heard, the sparring exam was the final part of the Turk selection process. If you could prove that you were loyal, intelligent and… well, relatively sane enough, then the last thing to do was show just how tough you were. The only exception was if you were hand-picked to be a Turk, and then it was because of some rare quality that the head of the department or SHINRA’s president felt made you belong to the elite organization. So this had to be what was left of her fellow candidates, and most likely over half of them would be eliminated by the end of the day.
Everyone began to shift about and size each other up, and Shasta noted the way that several of the male recruits eyed her and Leanne with a smirking attitude. Yes, they weren’t the tallest or the most physical imposing, but they had spent the last fifteen years learning how to fight – and more importantly, how to take down targets almost twice their size. They might not have come from Below-Plate, like the three candidates who stood grouped together, their slight bodies positioned with their backs together and with a deceptive looseness to their joints that warned Shasta to let some other idiots try taking them down first, but neither she nor Leanne were to be dismissed out of hand.
One of the broader men, who looked as if he was from Costa Del Sol, began to leer at Shasta when the doors on the other side of the gym opened. Everyone turned to watch several Turks in black suits enter the large room, and Shasta wasn’t the only one to catch her breath when she recognized the man leading the small group.
Tseng was even more impressive in person than he was in the videos or in pictures - his tall height appeared added to by his impeccable posture and the proud lift of his head. Behind him and to his left was an even taller Turk, his dark skin gleaming under the overhead lights and broad shoulders straining against the material of his black jacket. With two such impressive men striding forward, it was almost easy to overlook the shorter, slighter figure to Tseng’s right, except for the man’s pale skin and brilliant red hair. Shasta recognized him from all of the news footage regarding President Shinra, and was amazed at how much brighter his hair and eyes shone in real life. Bringing up the rear were two women, a slight blonde who was as immaculately put together as Tseng and a taller blonde who possessed ample curves.
"Good afternoon," Tseng called out as he approached the group. "You are the final candidates for the thirteenth orientation class of the Turks." His voice was rich and deep, with a slight accent that made it unique rather than difficult to understand. Shasta found herself standing up straighter beneath his regard, as if she was afraid of letting him down by slouching in the slightest. Around her, she noticed that everyone else was doing much the same.
The redhead came to a halt between Tseng and the tall, bald man and leaned against the other Turk as he snickered. "Oh yeah, lucky thirteen. We gonna star’ tha bettin’ pools now?"
"And there goes any hopes of them holding a respectable image of us any longer," the shorter blonde muttered as she flanked Tseng’s left side. "Thank you, Reno." Shasta wouldn’t swear to it, but she thought she saw the outline of at least two guns beneath the woman’s black coat.
"Aw, ‘Laney, don’ be like tha’. They sha’ know better by now if they go’ this far!" Reno rolled his eyes as he all but draped himself along the side of the large Turk, who merely folded his arms over his chest and acted as if he was a piece of unmoving, unthinking meat.
Busy watching the way the redhead acted, Shasta nearly jumped when Leanne nudged her in the side and turned to look at her friend. Leanne made a slight motion toward the small group of Below-Platers, who were watching the way Reno behaved with a slight smile on their faces. Confused at their reactions, she was distracted when the petite blond, ‘Laney’, made a hissing sound out of what had to be frustration.
"Let’s hope they all get some concussions during the fight so they can forget about your lack of professionalism!" She stomped her foot as if behaving like a small child.
Reno leaned in her direction and opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by a curt wave of Tseng’s hand. "Enough of that. We didn’t come here to engage in petty squabbling. We came here to speak to you, the final candidates, before you take part in the last test to determine if you will become Turks." His tone was even, almost bored, as if the outcome of their fight didn’t matter to him at the least. "I wanted to make certain that you understand what it is that you’re fighting for."
When several people began to shift around as if to answer him, Tseng once more made a curt motion with his left hand. "That was not a question. You are here to be Turks. You have one last chance to prove yourself worthy of that distinction. Within the next few minutes, you will either be successful in that endeavor or fail. The only thing that concerns me is if you succeed. And if you do, there will be consequences." He paused as he looked at all of them, his gaze lingering on each of them in turn. Shasta shivered beneath the regard of his dark, cold eyes and slumped against Leanne when they moved on.
"Your trials won’t be over once you win. You will be considered a rookie Turk and will have to prove yourself to your betters. You won’t be allowed the luxury of making mistakes because too much is at stake in what we do. It’s not an issue of you being fired if you mess up, but one of life and death. Don’t think I’m joking when I say that a mistake can mean a bullet." He paused again and turned his head to the right, just the slightest bit. "Isn’t that right, Reno?"
The redhead laughed and began to tug up the wrinkled white shirt he wore, his uniform a stark contrast to the other Turks in its disheveled state. "Nah, ya never shot me." He grinned as he rubbed his left hand along his abdomen, his head tilted to the side and his eyes heavy-lidded. "Nah," he repeated in an amused tone as he continued to lift up his shirt to expose pale, scarred skin. "Ya jus’ stabbed me tha one time for disobeyin’ a direc’ order an’ broke a few ribs for messin’ up tha mission in Nibelheim." He paused for a moment, the smile still on his face. "Oh, an dislocated ma jaw twice for breakin’ radio silence, even though ya apologized later when ya found out abou’ tha plant." At no point during the list did he sound angry or upset. "But ya never shot me. Complained it was a waste o’ bullets."
Tseng nodded as if being reminded of a series of daily tasks. "We have a better budget now," he explained in a calm manner. "No need to spare the bullets."
The heavy-set guy with the crew-cut to Leanne’s left turned pallid and began swallowing several times, as if he was trying hard not to throw up. For herself, Shasta found it difficult to believe that someone who was… associated with the president had been put through such abuse. It only drove home how strict the Turks were with themselves, how high the bar was that they held themselves to… and she still wanted to join. It would only make being part of them that much more special. And, well, three older brothers. She wasn’t that fragile, or stupid.
The taller blonde Turk giggled as she bumped shoulders with the other woman. "See, that’s what they get for playing so rough." She spoke in a girlish voice that suited her mannerisms. "Let’s hope some of the newbies are equipped to go undercover so we can have fun." She smiled at Leanne and a couple of the other female recruits.
On the other side of Tseng, Reno made a gagging sound. "Any excuse ta take ya clothes off an’ leave tha real work ta us." He shared a look with the silent behemoth he was using as a personal leaning post – or at least, it appeared that way, as the large man was wearing a pair of dark shades that hid his eyes.
The curvaceous blonde pouted and tossed back her long hair. "Says the man who thinks blowing things up is fun." While they traded barbs, the class paid close attention, with most of the men openly leering at the two blonde women. Shasta noticed that the two Below-Platers were among the few exceptions to this, and that a lot of the other female recruits suddenly appeared nervous or angry. Had they gone through all of the tests, poking and prodding, background checks and everything else to find out that they would be treated like pieces of meat?
She had just taken a step back when Leanne grabbed hold of her left wrist and, once she had her attention, gave a slight shake to her head. She mouthed the Head of the Turks’ name, which made Shasta pay attention to the Wutian once again and not the three Turks trading insults. He stood there, almost as impassive as the large, bald Turk next to him, his dark gaze flicking minutely over the gathered candidates. After another minute of impressive swear words and put downs between the redhead and the shorter blonde woman, he cleared his throat.
"I’m about to use up a few bullets now if you don’t shut up," he commented in a quiet voice, and the way that the squabbling Turks were quick to fall back into their places with their mouths shut only reinforced the suspicion that this was yet another trick on the Turks’ part, some sort of mind game or trap. Shasta wasn’t sure what game they were playing now, but half of the candidates appeared shook up to see their future colleagues behaving like children while some of the men still had leers on their face.
"Thank you." Tseng nodded once and then motioned for the Turks to move back. "Now, the objective of this next test is very simple. When I give you the word, you will fight amongst yourselves for the next five minutes. There are no weapons allowed and no rules other than no permanent damage or death. Whoever remains standing at the end of the five minute period will begin a six month probationary period as a Turk." He stepped backward as he spoke, his motions graceful even without seeing where he was going. As soon as he and the other Turks cleared the mats, he nodded again. "Begin."
Sparing a glance at Leanne to be certain that her friend was still willing to guard her back, Shasta then lashed out at the nearest person with her right fist with the intent to break his nose.
Shasta rested her back against Leanne’s and tried not to slide to the ground. Her right side ached in a way that warned her that a couple of ribs were probably cracked and at least two of her fingers on her left hand were broken, but it had been worth it to take down ‘tall, broad and leering’ there at the end. While she tried to slow her breathing to keep from passing out, she noticed that the only other people even remotely standing just then were the three Below-Platers and a guy who looked as if he was solid muscle. All of them were bloodied, out of breath and a bit wobbly on their feet, but they were technically still standing. Scattered on the mats around them were the rest of their ‘class’, some still conscious, some not, with one or two struggling to rise to their feet. It didn’t matter, not since Tseng had called an end to the five minute free-for-all.
He approached the mass of bodies with the Turks once more at his back. However, when he came to a stop, this time the redhead wasn’t draped over the bald behemoth, nor was the tall blonde giggling and playing with her hair. All of them appeared serious – well, the redhead, Reno, was slouching a little and had a slight smirk on his face.
"Welcome to the Turks," Tseng said to them with a slight bow of his head. "Medical will be along shortly to attend to you and… your former colleagues." He looked up, over their heads, a slight smile curving his lips. "Would you like to say anything, President?"
Shasta almost fell flat on her face in her haste to turn around to look up in the direction he was staring at, and only then noticed the small balcony high up on the gym’s western wall. There was a spot of white that came into focus, flanked by two dark blurs. "I see that you’re welcoming six out of fifty into your ranks. If I didn’t know the effort you put into picking your people, I’d make a comment about overkill." Rufus Shinra’s deep, cultured voice sounded almost bored.
"I do have to be certain that they’re up to the training, Sir." Something about the amusement in Tseng’s voice and the way that the president smiled set off warning bells in Shasta’s head, but she was too tired to run away just then.
"Yes, certain people do look forward to breaking in the rookies." President Shinra smiled at Tseng for a few more seconds before he resumed looking over at them. "Most of you showed a willingness to work together to survive the fight. That mindset will prove valuable during your time with the Turks." He looked back in Tseng’s direction again and motioned to the side with his head before fading back into the shadows.
Shasta watched him disappear before focusing her attention back onto the Head of the Turks, and was surprised to see the redhead, Reno, slinking away from his associates. Tseng seemed to notice her wandering attention, since he cleared his throat in a loud manner. "Don’t worry, you’ll be seeing Reno again soon, once you’ve been cleared by Medical." For some reason, there was an expression resembling pity on the smaller blonde’s face at that remark.
"Oi! Are ya done wit’ tha mind games?" One of the Below-Platers asked, the smaller of the two men. One of his eyes was swollen shut and he couldn’t seem to put any weight on his left leg, but his jaw was clearly working.
The question prompted laughs from the two blonde Turks and even the tall, silent Turk’s face broke into a grin. Tseng was quiet for a moment before he smiled as well. "There’s *always* mind games with the Turks, Dare. We do usually reserve them for our targets, but one has to develop the skills somewhere. Get used to it and learn quickly."
He glanced over his shoulder when the gym’s doors opened to admit several people dressed in pale blue scrubs. "Ah, I see that the Medical department has finally arrived." He turned back to face them and motioned to the two women. "Training will resume in two day’s time. Elena and Kali will be in charge of your orientation while Rude and Reno will handle any… special instruction." Without any further clarification, Tseng turned about and left.
The taller blonde sauntered over to the large Turk and draped herself along his side in a similar manner to what the redhead, Reno, had done earlier. "Who’s in charge of setting up the betting pool on which of these little darlings breaks down first, hmm?" She didn’t sound like a breathless bimbo anymore.
"Cyn," the bald Turk rumbled, speaking for the first time.
"Whose bright idea was that? She won the last two betting pools!" The smaller blonde unbuttoned her black jacket, revealing that she did indeed wear two guns holstered beneath it. "Hey! Could you hurry it up," she snapped at the medical staff. "It’s annoying to hear all of the whimpering and crying," she complained as she waved her right hand at the wounded people.
One of the medics, a thin man with grey-shot dark hair, finally reached Shasta and helped her over to a waiting transfer bed. "You know, you don’t really have to go through with this," he mumbled under his breath while she was sitting down. Before she could say anything, he took off to go help someone else.
Leanne was half-carried over to the same bed a moment later; the medical staff appeared to be getting the less injured people out of the way so they could focus on the unconscious ones first. Shasta had a feeling that they were used to situations like this, especially with the way they ignored the three joking and complaining Turks.
"I’m beginnin’ to wonder if maybe we shouldn’ have jus’ taken up tha’ offer from your dad to teach a’ his dojo," Leanne commented, her words a little slurred from her split bottom lip. The entire right side of her face was swollen and she had been favoring her ankle as well, but she seemed able to breathe all right.
Shasta considered that and what the medic had said. She also took into consideration what was most likely going to be some very tough weeks of training. Then she thought of settling, of the safe life her parents had planned for her, of never knowing what her true limits were. "Yeah, but we’ll look so kick-ass in black," was all she said.
For a few seconds Leanne was quiet, and then she began laughing, which was followed by her wincing and smacking Shasta on the shoulder. "Ow, tha’ hurs ma face." She settled for a lop-sided smile. "Bu’ you’re righ’, we really will."
They leaned against each other for comfort and watched the small blonde Turk boss about the medical staff.
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