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Castle on the Sand

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Everyone scrambled to fill in that void, when alcohol meant power and anyone with a bathtub and some grape juice could dream. It was like the gold rush all over again, only with all the advances the Great War had brought to the technology of killing people and the brutality that people were capable of. Advances in technology became advances in weaponry - the Model T became one of the new blunt instruments in the hands of those who needed to make accidents happen.

Rufus ShinRa couldn't exactly say that he loved it, but rather he enjoys the way that things fall neatly together. Prohibition hadn't made him rich; rather it had made him richer - by way of his father's untimely and violent demise. Amusingly enough, he hadn't even been able to raise a glass at his father's wake, just the year before in 1928, because the police had made a laughable appearance on the pretext of sympathy in part. They seemed to think it would clear them of blame if they made a public appearance there. Rufus finds that amusing, too.

Instead they'd had a drink afterward, at the private memorial where only those invited dared set foot. Just him and his thugs and his corporate goons (equally useful in the current climate). But they didn't drink to his father's life, behind closed doors. Instead they drank to his timely death.

"A shame you won't be around to see how much better than you I do, old man." Rufus said, lifting a glass that contained perhaps some of the last remaining of his father's brandy. Prohibitionists had come through and smashed all the kegs that his father had slaved so long to make perfect - his father had been so upset about it that Rufus couldn't help but genuinely enjoy watching it run down into the gutters like so much piss.

The others raised their glasses, too. Some looked anxious at the prospect, some looked downright excited. Hungry, the way he felt inside when he thought about the things he wanted most. Rufus had smiled as he drank that sweet malt, just like he smiled now when he remembered it. He had taken this opportunity and made it his own.

It was his father who had seized the opportunity to contract himself out for the armaments of ships in the tentative, war-ridden waters of 1915 – after the sinking of the Lusitania, even passenger ships were afraid to sail the waters unprotected. A lot of seafaring captains had feared to be put out of business while the triples – Alliance and Entante fought it out with splash over onto the rest of Europe. Fear could have crippled supply lines, starved nations. The seas were the highways of trade and no one was willing to let the U-boats make it their own.

Protection of course became defense, and defense turned slowly to offense – and in 1918, Rufus' father had made a fortune contracting for the navy's ships at Queenstown – not only installing upgraded weapons but maintaining the finicky, brand new long-gun technology. It was his father's idea to equip the smaller faster boats with rams to destroy the German u-boats that had everyone shaking in their well-shined military boots. It wasn't as successful at poking holes in submarines as it was in bolstering the navy's confidence again.

With that fortune, his father had returned home a new man – a rich man. Seemed War had made a lot of old men, and ruined a lot of younger men. Rufus had seen the soldiers come home, too. They'd gotten off his father's boat with hollowed, unseeing eyes and marched back into real life with no drinks to comfort them – while they were away fighting, the politicians had passed the unloved Volstead act.

That was what was currently making Rufus rich. All it had taken was a small investment – a word in the ears of some hardworking carpenters, a few arrangements to rework his father's ludicrous 'summer home' in downtown – a better use for it than his father had made, meeting his whores there where he could lie unconvincingly to Rufus about being on business.

With the basement reworked, Rufus extended the efforts to make himself appear a socialite. The other young rich all seemed to be living that kind of life, and no one bats an eye when people start coming and going from the place at all times. Of course the palms he greased at the local P.D. helped matters too. It meant that only friendly officers patrolled the neighborhood, that vigilante cops or those too loyal to the law never came close enough for there to be a conflict. Overall, it kept things clean in town – especially since some big names in Midgar were frequent customers.

That was how he'd gotten here, lounging in the back of his own speakeasy, securely tucked away behind a hidden passage in the basement of his father's old pleasure palace. It swung here, on weekends – ShinRa meant the best. Everyone knew that the ShinRa juice joint had the hottest jazz, the coolest drinks, and the dancers with the best gams in all of Midgar. The serving girls weren't hard to look at either, Rufus picked them himself as a matching set.

The birds worked, the men drank, and at the end of the day everyone paid or got paid. Things were smooth, because Rufus made them smooth. He never has to dirty his own hands for that – he employs the equivalent of two-legged dogs. They were thugs, but loyal for the money he paid them and the booze they got free for helping in its transport and the security of his establishment's prosperity.

He enjoys their company, too. It's something of a guilty pleasure. His father always warned him never to get involved with those he employed – it was that distance between his father and his father's men that had allowed Rufus to secure their loyalty for himself. What he couldn't buy with friendship, he'd bought outright.

"She's this real sweet dame, alright?" Reno is saying, in the middle of one of his famous anecdotes. There were four of them officially, and the bartender and the barfly unofficially – both working when it suited them or when they felt threatened. They're all less talkative than Reno, even the new girl.

"And I swear by Moses, I swear I don't know she's already got a daddy." Reno gestures with his cigarette, and Rufus debates internally pointing out that Reno's the least likely person he knows to mean a swear on a holy name. "This fly-boy, he gets home from the war just as I'm winning a round of struggle-buggy."

"More like losing a round." Rude is the second of a two-man team. He and Reno do the collection work, ferry the goods in from Canada or Mexico, or even the next town over if some basement brew house whips up something that doesn't smell or taste like piss. He is succinct, the big six of their two-man act. What Reno can't stop with foul language or a quick beating, Rude can finish with real force.

Reno shrugged, as if he were winning either way in his opinion.

"So he catches me, and swear to god if I didn't feel like shit when I saw him standin' there with his duffel and still in uniform from all his rush t'get home." Reno continues, pushing a hand through his messy red locks. He's an unusual, skinny little fellow, with a matching set of scars that had some kind of story but it changed every week. "But he forgives the broad, 'cause he's a real prince I guess. I gotta run away with my pants around my ankles though, 'cause I'm sure he doesn't wanna see my face twice."

"Nobody wants to see it the first time." The new girl quips. Elena's all business, trying too hard to make up the fact that she's an adorable little package that wrapped herself up in the smallest man's suit she could find. She wore it well, and spent a lot of her time attempting to look fierce. Rufus thought it made her cuter, but he'd also seen her tear men who told her that apart with nothing more than her bare hands and a few well placed kicks. "That's why you only go after the desperate dames."

"You're lookin' a little desperate yourself, baby." Reno leans over the table, pushing her buttons just to see her wind up. His eyes flick to the fourth of their party –currently at the bar. "When you gonna' make a move on, I wonder?"

Elena kicks him under the table, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at him in a way that confirmed everything he said. Reno grins and clutches his bruised shin, in a way that's more victorious than injured.

Rufus wonders when that development had come around. They'd been an unlikely match-up, the girl he'd wanted to keep close as an enemy and the chinaman he'd picked up for delicate work. Tseng is constantly underestimated – he looks just asian enough and keeps his hair long. Truth was, he was born and bred in San Francisco, spoke perfect English, and thought very little of his 'stuffy and overbearing' heritage. In fact, he couldn't even tell you what country his parents had boated over from – it was entirely possible his nickname was a misnomer.

Still, he was great at getting in and out of places and making the people inside inexplicably dead. At first, Rufus had expected them to get along poorly – she was a real bearcat, always all bristly to prove she was just as good as the boys were. Elena was too. Tseng isn't quiet, not the way Rude is, but he's reserved. He's fairly dignified and thinks far enough ahead that he never seems to say too much.

Currently, he's negotiating the next round of drinks from the bartender – another of Rufus' acquisitions, though a less interesting one. Vincent was supposed to be dead, and was about as interesting as a corpse sometimes. Rufus finds him useful – he knows how to mix every drink anyone could think of and is pretty sharp with a shotgun.

And Veld, the veteran who had come back with the war in his eyes, and now had nothing in them at all. He leans on the bar, with an attendant glass in whatever stage of consumption and a crystal glass he's used so many times as an ashtray now that it serves no other purpose. He's always smoking, usually drinking. He usually beat Rufus to the joint – he comes in with Vincent when he unlocks the place, the two had that kind of arrangement.

Elena just glowers at Reno. She knows exactly when to hold her tongue, because to protest would only make her look guiltier. Rufus knows better, now that he's looking. She doesn't want what she has, but that doesn't mean she's any less interested in Tseng. Rufus keeps to silence, drinking. The seven of them are the usuals – they're always visible because that way trouble never comes inside.

Rufus prides himself on keeping his joint stress-free. The patrons never have to worry about a raid – in fact several of the local police force frequent the place. They have an agreement – police enjoy their alcohol as much as the next bloke. They're also smart enough to value their lives. Rufus can't be tied to any of the blood in the streets – not him nor his pack of dogs – but anyone with some sense can see the theory of his involvement.

It isn't that there are senseless killings; just that anyone who tries to get in the way of his rising star tends to disappear if they can't be convinced that what they were doing was unwise. The system works well – lately people thought before they tried to cut in on his line of work, and usually realize it's a bit better to work within the existing system.

Tseng returns with the drinks, carefully balancing beer mugs. He still has to make two trips, the last with his and Elena's drink. Rufus watchs the silent interchange between the two and decides whatever becomes of that partnership is for the best. They are an effective team – though he doesn't see any such recognition in the Chinaman. Seems Tseng has walled himself off from that sort of emotion – or at least Rufus has never seen him express it.

"Here's to another beer!" Reno exclaims, the traditional blessing. At one point it had been traditional to toast to 'another quiet night' but that had been deemed a cursed item after trouble seemed to break out every time they lifted glasses to it.

Everyone raises their drink, even Rufus.

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Cops and mobsters are half again the same. If a guy is smart, he can get in with both. Information is just as valuable as liquor. Angeal works both sides of the equation carefully. What he hadn't counted on was doing such a good job as an officer that he would be saddled with the overenthusiastic rookie recruit that looks good enough in his officer's uniform to make Angeal reconsider his personal rule of not touching co-workers.

Zack has the brightest blue eyes he's ever seen, and is always ready to go, ever cheerful, and has a distinct brand of optimism that reminds Angeal – distinctly – of a puppy. He overdoes everything he possibly can, a point which Angeal tries very hard not to love him for.

Ultimately, he fails. So when Zack barged into his apartment one night on oversized paws of enthusiasm, Angeal had just resolved himself to behave as best as possible. After all he was the senior officer, and beyond that he valued the friendship of his younger partner too much to risk scaring him off with an unwanted advance.

Zack never seemed to notice when Angeal looked too long, the kid's attention span was probably too short for that. Still he seemed to sense the hole in Angeal's life – one that was shaped distinctly like a personal life, something beyond work – he stuffed himself into it because 'partners take care of each other'.

Angeal hadn't even realized the hole was there until Zack had shown him what it could mean just to just go out to a movie theater with a friend, and watch the latest Charlie Chaplin film. Zack was crazy about Charlie Chaplin, and insisted on dragging Angeal to The Circus a year earlier – while some pianist sat in the front of the theater, and the lights were dimmed, a story unfolded in motion picture. They sat in close and Angeal pretended he was looking at the movie, and not the way the grey tones flickering across the screen lit up Zack's eyes. Every so often they would dim, when the screen went black so that dialog could be displayed.

It was on the way home that everything had changed. Zack stretched out as they left the theater and grinned up at Angeal with his bangs hanging over his face in a way that made Angeal's heart twinge in his chest. He was grinning, Angeal remembered, he'd laughed like an idiot through most of the movie and almost loudly enough to be embarrassing, but the good spirits were infectious when Zack was involved.

"Hey!" Zack had said, pointing, still smiling. "You're grinning!"

Angeal realized he was, and arched his brows. "So what?"

"I just don't think I've ever seen you smile before." Zack pulled his features into a comical grimace. "Usually you're Mr. Bluenose."

"Says you." Angeal felt the smile fade quickly from his features – if only Zack knew what his evenings had usually involved before Zack had overlapped into them.

"Hey don't quit smiling – it suits you!" Stepping into Angeal's path, Zack lifted his arms behind his head and walked backwards, looking earnest. "I mean it, it's the berries."

Angeal had scowled further, reprimanding himself for relaxing so much. Of a sudden, he'd really wanted to scoot down to the speakeasy and get thoroughly ossified. Why couldn't Zack just get it, he wondered. The kid just couldn't keep his distance, had no concept of the way that people sometimes lied to each other or used each other. The kid didn't seem to realize that not everyone could be taken at face value. Even Angeal's interest hadn't been purely in friendship, though he thought himself decent enough to never act on it. The kid was going to get himself into real trouble that way.

"Hey, come on. I'm sorry, Angeal." Zack stopped suddenly enough that Angeal bowled into him. Zack's hands dropped to Angeal's middle and steadied them both as they tripped on each other. Angeal had just lifted his hands to Zack's wrists to pull them away, too occupied with where the kid's hands were going to see what was coming next.

Zack leaned up and kissed him. It was sudden enough that it took Angeal a moment to wrench the kid away by his arms. For a moment, they were both quiet – Zack looked genuinely worried, his blue eyes getting bigger. Both of them were breathing faster, and after a second, Angeal at last realized what had actually happened.

The hell with it, he's decided. They'd sort it out later if it genuinely needed sorting. Angeal pulled Zack back in, and the kid leaned into it, as the spark came back into his eyes – some little victory bell sounding in Zack's mind. Somehow, Angeal thought, Zack always got what he wanted. It didn't really matter with his mouth under Angeal's, willing and enthusiastic in this, too.

Zack's hands came up and gripped at Angeal's shoulders when he let go of the kid's wrists, refused to let Angeal draw back before he was ready to finish. It went on long enough for Angeal to know it wasn't an accident, wasn't something that Zack would reconsider later and decide it was a mistake. The kid had planned this, somehow. Taken all the steps leading up to it, maybe driven Angeal just crazy enough so that he had the least likely chance of being rejected.

It worked. He couldn't have said 'no' then even if he'd wanted to. Zack's mouth was soft under his, but not completely yielding. His tongue pushed against Angeal's, sliding under, and then against the roof of his mouth, to explore everything it could touch. The kiss tasted like popcorn, faintly. It was that, partially, that made Angeal remember that they were standing in the middle of the street in front of the movie theater – even if it was late enough that no one was really around.

He drew back, and Zack sighed, eyes closed for a second longer before he let them open again, long lashes sliding back to reveal the blue beneath. It was painfully Zack, the expression enough to get Angeal's blood going.

"Kid," He'd said, and they were both panting. "We gotta get out of the street."

"Yeah," Zack said, grabbing Angeal's wrist as they drew apart, dragging him forward. "Let's get a wiggle on."

Zack was smart enough not to let Angeal have enough time to change his mind. He hadn't let things slow down at all once they made it back to Angeal's pad. He was pushy for a kid, more than Angeal would have expected – Zack always gave off the impression that he was innocent and inexperienced, but his were the hands doing all the major advances.

It was Zack who pinned Angeal back against his own apartment door after the older man had finished locking it, and Zack who'd kept kissing him until he had no idea which way was up or down, save that he was pretty sure Zack's hands were headed south faster than he was really comfortable with.

Angeal pushed them away from the door, and Zack's hands locked on his belt. Zack refused to surrender his momentum to Angeal's slower and steadier pace – it seemed like the kid realized that giving Angeal a chance to think could shut this whole thing down.

Finding himself with his knees backed up against his own couch, and then his balance forced to the point where he had to sit, Angeal finally found the break he needed to get hold of Zack's hands. Their eyes met, and this time instead of hesitation, Zack's shone with azure victory. He knew he was going to get what he wanted – and that he genuinely wanted it was what stalled the question in Angeal's throat. He didn't have to ask 'are you sure', because it was written all over Zack's expression. Zack was positive.

"Alright." Was all Angeal said, finishing the conversation that hadn't taken place. Zack's smile turned into an outright grin, and he stripped off his suit jacket. Angeal watched him, hands turned upright on his knees. His own pinstripe pants were starting to feel a bit restrictive, despite the generous cut that was fashionable these last few years.

Zack didn't stop looking at him, pinning him with his gaze. His hands traced his suspenders up to his shoulders before he shrugged them off and began to pull on his tie. Angeal felt his patience actually begin to strain as Zack began to slow down – he looked smug. He was trying to get to Angeal – to cause the older man's patience to break at last.

"I thought you'd never let me do this, old man." Zack said, fondly. His fingers were clever on the tie's knot – he actually untied it rather than just loosening it and pulling the loop over his head. Angeal might have bet that Zack didn't even know how to tie a Windsor in the first place but he was beginning to learn that a lot of what he'd thought about Zack was probably wrong.

"Kid," Angeal answered, and he could hear the heat in his own voice. "All you had to do was ask."

Zack seemed satisfied – pleased, even with that answer. He's out of his shirt fast after that, then slides up over Angeal's lap. Angeal let his hands finally wander where they'd wanted – over the plane of Zack's stomach and the round of his thighs.

From there, it was a rush. Zack was in a hurry to get Angeal's clothes undone, if not off, while their mouths met again. The kiss made Angeal forget his resolution to take things slow. Zack drove them both with his enthusiasm, his hands almost everywhere at once.

Angeal broke the kiss with a wet sound when Zack's warm hands cupped his groin, finding how ready Angeal had become and giving an encouraging squeeze. Choking back his hiss, Angeal reached down, intending to slow the pace. Zack wouldn't be dissuaded.

"Hey," He said, forehead resting against Angeal's so they could look into each other's eyes. "Let me. Please?"

Zack must have realized the effect that had on Angeal since the kid's hands were on his cock as it jumped in response. He didn't comment, just went for Angeal's zipper and Angeal let him. There was probably no way he could have convinced himself to slow down at that point, not with Zack so close and so ready.

It had been a long time since someone else had touched Angeal – long enough that he leaned his head back along the top of the couch as Zack coaxed, controlling his breathing and focusing on the slow build of warmth that moved toward his center. It helped that Zack's touch wasn't completely inexperienced. He was sure of what he was doing and eager.

When Angeal was sure he wasn't going to last much longer, he went for Zack's zipper. By then the kid had his mouth fixed on Angeal's exposed neck and he didn't stop Angeal from undoing his pants.

Zack was just as hard as he was, just as ready. He groaned into Angeal's shoulder as the older man worked his length free to touch. Their hands were a confused tangle in the proximity, and Zack started to make pleading noises.

Zack hurried his pace in encouragement, ignoring the warning that Angeal hissed.

"Close." He tried again, his hips shifting up into the firm hand. His voice had sprung free from him without real thought, somewhere in his mind he hadn't wanted Zack to rush this to an end, but he couldn't have stopped then.

"Yeah?" Zack sounded pleased, breathless. Satisfied that he could do this to Angeal. He made an encouraging noise, sped his pace up to tip Angeal over the edge and Angeal couldn't have said if it was Zack's voice so close to his ear or his clever, insistent fingers that finally did the trick.

When he came, Zack didn't complain in the least or draw back from the sticky mess. Instead he kept stroking – the slide much eased now – until he's sure Angeal is done. The older cop found himself more relaxed than he had been in a long time as he came down, gathering his breath and his wits.

He didn't even realize he'd closed his eyes until he opened them again, to see Zack's dark eyes right there. All that was left of their brilliant blue is a thin rim around the black of his pupils. Angeal realized his own attentions had stilled and he had a flash of impatience with himself.

Pushing until Zack shifted his weight off of Angeal's lap and leaned back against the arm of the sofa, he resumed the motion to keep Zack from protesting, following Zack down until he could get his mouth on Zack's cock.

Zack sucked in a sudden breath; it locked in his chest for a long moment. Angeal could feel the kid's hips shifting against his flattened palm and felt his own victory when Zack's breath escaped in a loud, encouraging groan. The kid sounded more than ready, and Angeal pressed his tongue into the underside of the shaft as he drew his head back.

It didn't take much; Zack encouraged him with his voice whenever Angeal found something he liked – honest and easy to read even in this. Taking the encouragement, Angeal focused his attentions until Zack cried out that he was ready – at the same time his cum spurted along Angeal's tongue. He swallowed, sat up.

Zack stretched smug along his couch like everything was still the same. Angeal realized it was more than that – everything was okay, too. He could stretch out and Zack knew everything, but curled up beside him anyway. There was barely enough room on the couch, but neither had any complaints.

 

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Tijuana. You can get anything if you can get there. Thing was, no one really wants to live there. Sometimes, the boss sends them down to bring all the amenities back - once a year they have a Tijuana party. There wasn't much to celebrate, so any occasion that was out of the norm was a big hit. They almost always ran out of tequila.

Still the fastest way to get around anyplace outside of the city was horseback. They don't get stuck on holes, don't need to go on roads where cops patrol. They are quiet, go where you tell them, and could also go all the places flivvers went. Sometimes faster, with no winding or where the traction was bad.

That was how Reno and Rude wound up riding back into town late that night, though the sound of hooves clopping along on the cobbled streets is loud, it really isn't any match for the fact that Reno is complaining with every step. Things had gone sour at the border, and he cradles his arm close to his chest and Rude hovers just behind at a distance that keeps threatening to bump their horses together. It's wearing on the nerves of riders and steeds both.

Reno's horse – dark hide splashed with irregular white spots like spilled milk crawling snowflake patterns over the floor – is pinning its ears and threatening to kick. They get back late, and Tseng sees everything in how flustered they are. Reno is too loud, Rude is too quiet. He reaches up to take the reins from them.

"Rude." He says, and the darker man looks down at him, brows arching over his sunglasses. "Get Reno to the hospital. I'll get it inside."

"Thanks, man." Reno says gratefully. He's obviously not dying, but his arm is broken, and Tseng thinks the quicker that gets set the better it will heal. "Tell the Big Cheese we made it back, too, okay?"

He's starting to turn his horse, tired.

"Hey." Tseng says, and they both look at him. He can read how long the last few days have been. Even the usual synergy they have has worn thin. They're sick of each other, sick of things going wrong. They both could use a drink. "Take the car."

What a pair they would have made, trying to find some place to hitch their horses at the hospital. Reno looks at Rude. Rude looks at Reno, and they both chuckle. Tomorrow - later today, technically – is Cinco de Mayo. There's tequila in time for it now, and everyone's OK. In the end, Tseng thinks, that means a job well done. It was only when someone didn't get to enjoy a drink they'd worked hard to have because they were left holding the bag that Tseng started to worry.

"Yeah." Rude says, tossing Tseng the reins of his horse. "Tseng's right, we better take the other hayburner."

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Rufus bet the filly in the race, a fact that Elena knows is rare. She's grateful for it. She also remembers the day in 1915 when Regret won the Kentucky derby and showed all the boys how it was done. She thinks Rufus probably remembers that, too.

She was a distant cousin of Capone's, a black sheep in the family, though she knew exactly how to keep her mouth shut when it was important, she refused to play ball when it came to the matters of becoming some docile female trophy wife to be married off to cement some family friendship. Capone had sent her away from Chicago as much so he wouldn't have to look at her as his excuse to do so, which was so that she could spy on the ShinRa family. Rufus had bought her for a tidy sum and some respect, and she'd never looked back.

"My first love was a tommygun," She confesses, after they've all made it several drinks in. Reno sits back with his arm in a cast and assumes his best listening pose. It involves slouching and looking vaguely interested while he keeps his drink dear at hand to chase off boredom should she bore him. Thinking back on it, she recalls how the smooth wooden grip mounted at the front of the gun had practically begged to be touched.

Her father had caught her rubbing her fingers over the knuckle-spaced ridges at the front of the grip, and he'd picked it up and took her out back to show her what it could do.

"He showed me how to use it, but he had this look on his face, like he thought it'd scare me." Her father looked at every girl like a dumb dora, especially her mother. Elena hated her a little for putting up with it, hated her sister for letting Capone marry her off like a trophy, but her father she couldn't hate at all. "The boys laughed when I creamed a target with it, and I laughed too."

"Doll, you're one in a million." Reno says, half mocking, but it's alright. It's just ducky, in part because no matter how much Reno talks, he still looks at her like she knows which end of the gun to hold. As much as he goes on about how much he loves a flapper in a tiny skirt, he never tries to tell her that she should be one. "He let you keep shooting after that or did he realize his mistake?"

"He thought it was harmless. I remember one of the goons, McCoy - used to call him Real McCoy - he'd call me 'little Capone'." Elena had always loved that, she can't remember why exactly. Thinking about it brought up all the other memories she hadn't considered. Her family wasn't her family anymore, now she was paid to be in the ShinRa's pocket, and all those people from her past don't matter.

McCoy had been shot up by the cops, she remembers. They'd got it in their heads to take out one of Capone's torpedoes, or that they might get him to sing if they could take him, but they couldn't. Real McCoy had been quiet, she remembered, but a better shot than her father and better at listening too. Her dad and one of the other goons had come home in a whirl one night - she remembered all the shouting. Remembered that Real had been slung between them and there were all these funny red blossoms on the front of his shirt, like painted flowers with dark oozing centers. Her dad had made him lie on the tile so they could mop up the blood after he died, and he -had- bled, but hadn't made a sound besides a low, wet chuckle when he saw her at some internal irony he saw. 'This's what happens when you set your boyfriend on people, kiddo,' were some of the last words he'd said before her father made her go to her room. She hadn't liked the tommygun nearly so much afterward.

"Poor bastard." She says aloud, and the others know what she means without having to ask. To a man, they raise their glass and drink, even Tseng who barely ever drinks a drop.

----------------------------------------------------

"The old man's a tragedy," Reno says, not quite yet in his cups so much as he would like. "He was married before the war and when he came back turns out old man ShinRa had use for someone who could kill. Wife says war's changed the man - as if war wouldn't. Bullshit reason to leave him. She was fuckin' around; leaves just him and Dead Vic as companions. She's gone, he lets everything human about him go away with her."

"He didn't need it anyway." Tseng says, pushing his hat down over his eyes and leaning back like the smug Chinaman he is. His drink's barely touched. Rude keeps quiet on the matter. Might be a million versions of Veld's story but they all ended wit him at the speakeasy long before and long after the rest of the crowd.

Rude sees the way he measures his drinks, strings himself along on that razor-fine line of just-in-control and wondered just what Veld needed. It's either to give up, get sloshed and toss off with someone he'd never see again and surrender completely to self destruction or to clean up, straighten his suit, and try again.

"You are one cold bastard." Reno says, gesturing with the arm he's got in a cast, and then wincing. Rude thinks that's a bid for sympathy – Reno's had enough to drink now that it can't bother him very much. In fact, earlier Reno had said that the cast made him feel like a real sheikh, he was sure all the girls would want to hear about his daring caper.

"Dry up." Tseng answers, dry himself. "None of us really need any of that stuff – it just gives you a weakness someone can exploit."

Rude doesn't miss the way Elena's eyes slide toward Tseng when he says it, like her heart might be breaking a little. Rude spends as much time as he can watching, rather than talking. He thinks maybe that he knows the most about the way things go between all of them because he knows how to just shut up and listen.

For example, there are three girls up on stage, dancing away to the delight of most of the drunken patrons. Almost all the eyes are on them – except for the small circle of patrons at the back table. Rufus' table. The boss had put in an appearance earlier in the night, with that book keeper of his that could make some kind of magic on paper so all the profits looked legal.

All they have to do is sleep in a warehouse on weekdays and answer the phone the right way – if it ever rang. It rarely does. Reno and Rude share that duty, when they weren't running supply lines – a fact that most knew. What most people didn't know was that just last week before they'd left, all three of the girls up on stage had spent the whole day keeping the two company there. The phone hadn't rung in the middle, a fact that Rude was grateful for.

The girls – they often dance at the joint, long legs and no shame – were equally interested in seeing Reno and Rude entertain each other as they were in entertaining the boys. Reno was happy to oblige, he's more of a showman than Rude, in some way that always makes Rude feel less awkward about that sort of situation. He doesn't have to show off or try to make more out of it than the basest of acts. Reno does all that for him. And it usually means the girls fell into his lap instead of Reno's.

Reno makes a big show out of hating that, but in private he's said he'd rather have Rude's mouth on him than any of the girls.

There are two other sets of eyes that aren't on the girls. Vincent and Veld are talking to each other – Rude's never seen either of them so much as glance at the broads that come into the place. They both enjoy the jazz well enough, but not the women.

Then there's Elena, she's all eyes on Tseng. She's always all eyes on him, and Rude doesn't know how the guy hasn't noticed it yet. Tseng seems to want to be Veld, but didn't have it in him to gut out everything in his core and throw it down the gutter like so much upchuck. Rude is pretty sure he's got it just as bad for Elena; he just doesn't know it yet. The girl's easy on the eyes, even if she'd shiv you if you said it to her face. They were centimeters from figuring each other out, Rude thinks.

It'd be explosive when they did, he was pretty sure. He drinks again, and the bull session seems to have moved on from Veld.

"I hear tell that Reeve's been making eyes at that Sheba up on stage." Reno goes on, knowing full well that it's a lie. The book keeper was property now, Rufus' signature all over him like so many checks deposited in the bank.

"Baloney." Elena says, she has a good nose for sniffing out Reno's bullshit. "He's into blondes, they're all brunette."

It was a more delicate way to put things.

"Doll, you think hair color matters when they got gams like that?" Reno uses his one good arm to make a round shape in front of his chest. "The one in the middle's got it."

"Tifa." Rude says, he remembers her name. Reno, he thinks, genuinely doesn't. That's part of listening, too. Remembering.

"Absolutely!" Reno agrees. Elena looks vaguely disgusted with the pair of them, but it won't last. She likes them all well enough. Rude knows she wouldn't just stay for the money Rufus is paying her. Elena likes the respect.

Rude wishes she'd have left her book open just a little longer before she closed her bank to anyone but Tseng. He'd have liked to see how fierce she was in bed. She was such a live-wire, and he'd never admit it but that makes him all weak in the knees. It's part of what he was so fond of in Reno.

"You boys are real pieces of work." She says, but she knows Reno's just razzing her now. She's smiling. Tseng's back to being quiet. Reno is finishing his drink. Everything's good. Rude thinks there's only one place to go from here – up.

----------------------------------------------------

"So what'd they find when they got there?" Tseng sets himself up for a punch line well enough, even if he was a bastard.

"Umbrellas." Reno says, grinning hugely. "Boss wanted to make sure they knew they were gonna be all wet. Show 'em he understood."

Everyone is several drinks in. The hoofers have quit, the jazz is slowing down and losing quality as the musicians enjoy rounds between songs. Tseng's still on his first glass, still keeping his clear head.

"Umbrellas!" Elena snorts, past her limit now. She knows she's drunk though, has cut herself off before she gets totally tanked. She giggles into her water, both hands wrapped around the glass as it sloshes dangerously.

"You slay me." Tseng says – he's heard the story before. Reno thinks it's funnier every time, even though Tseng sets it up the same way. It's one of the signs between the four of them. Means the night should start winding down – drink wise. There's still enough patrons in the bar - it is a party after all – that they can't all knock off and leave the protection to Vic and Veld.

"Hoss," Reno says, fried to the hat "Let a guy have a little fun, huh? I mean I broke my arm gettin' the stuff here."

"Yeah." Tseng says. "Elena and I will stay today."

He glances at Rude, and behind his sunglasses, the other man seems to agree. Rude stands up, and hooks his hand under Reno's good elbow to help him out of his seat.

"Whoa, hey." Reno scoops up his glass before he goes, makes sure to empty it of the last sip. "Swell."

He leans heavy on Rude, one arm slung around the taller man's shoulder even though it's a bit of a reach for the redhead. When the glass slips in his fingers, Rude catches it barely. They both look un-coordinated.

"We better walk, huh?" Reno says, peering owlishly up at Rude. Rude rolls his eyes at the obvious statement, and Elena has to shove her hands over her mouth to stop laughing.

"Beat it!" She encourages them, as they head out of the bar. No one pays any attention. She's recovering well, and after they leave she just sits grinning and having long sips of water.

"Hey." She says after a moment, when Tseng's attention has wandered to where one of the three dancers – Aerith, he was pretty sure her name was – was flirting her way into free drinks in one corner of the bar. He glances back at Elena.

"How'd you get here?" She asks, and he can't help but be wise.

"I took a Jitney." He says, and feels his mouth even into a smile. He has another sip of the same warm alcohol.

She shakes her head, propping her chin in her palm and leaning her elbow on the table to look at him intently, refusing that answer.

"Baloney." She says. "You know what I meant."

"If you mean to Midgar, I took a train." He never cares to get into his past – it's not as interesting as everyone assumes. San Francisco wasn't the best memory. He didn't fit in with the people that looked like him – he didn't speak Chinese. He didn't fit in with the people that didn't look like him either, despite a common language.

She's still looking at him. It's one of those demanding looks Elena gets, and he resigns himself.

"I met old man ShinRa when he was traveling around shipyards selling his u-boat spikes. He tried to hire me as a translator, and I just took his money and made up nonsense. Didn't take him too long to see through the trick, but when he figured out I wasn't too shabby with a gun he figured he'd gotten a bargain anyway."

Elena arches her brows.

"That's it, honest. You know everything else." Tseng doesn't know why everyone seems to assume there's so much more to him. He lets them, usually. It was useful. Elena should know better by now – she's spent enough time with him.

What saves him from further questions is Rufus coming back downstairs with the book keeper half an hour prior to last call. When there are patrons in the bar, Rufus is always there for the end of the night. He sits down, and Reeve takes the chair beside him. Tseng notes that the book keeper's collar looks rumpled, the knot in his tie isn't as precise as it had been before they'd left.

"Is that the same drink, Tseng?" Reeve asks, looking at the suspicious lack of ice in Tseng's glass. Tseng nods, and Reeve shakes his head. It was strange, but Tseng has the strangest feeling that Reeve gets exactly what Tseng is – a job in a suit.

Rufus chuckles.

----------------------------------------------------

Reeve is slowly detailing for Elena exactly how the figures line up on paper to make every bit of money legal for Rufus. Rufus doesn't care how it's done, to be honest. He knows that it's water-tight, and if there's one thing he inherited from his father that he's most grateful for it's the book keeper.

Once Rufus had gotten past the man's shy exterior, the way he enjoyed only the simplest things in life – he'd really gotten to like Reeve. The guy had grown up in the middle of nowhere, but if anything that made him leaner, resourceful. He was also a prodigy with numbers, so Rufus paid him well and kept him close to his hand like a pet bird with an invaluable trick.

If he'd said that was all there was to it, he'd have been lying. At first Reeve had been a distinct challenge – painfully shy, unsure of what even he wanted. It had taken a lot of doing for Rufus to convince Reeve that it was him. A lot of careful dance steps – a give and take. A lot of compassion – and he found he had extra reserves of it than his nature would have allowed for anyone else.

His dogs are one thing, and he has affection enough for them. They're all unique, exotic. Reeve is neither.

"I route the money through some companies in other countries." Reeve says, and he grabs a napkin to detail how it works with some figures and a diagram that involves a lot of rapid scribbling, some boxes with letters in them, and arrows between.

It doesn't make the least amount of sense to Rufus, but he looks at them anyway, as if he's following along. It gives him an excuse to lean over Reeve's shoulder.

"They're just some guys we pay to pick up the phone and O.K. the transfers between here and there. Once the money's out of the states, they can't trace it, not that anyone cares." Reeve's diagram gains two dots and a curved line in the middle, indicating a happy face.

The guy is painfully, adorably, backwater.

"So like we have Reno and Rude pick up the phone in the warehouse here." Elena says, leaning over Reeve's other shoulder. It probably makes the guy a little uncomfortable, by the way he's shifted his weight into Rufus – who traps him there with some small amusement.

"Yeah, you're on the trolley." Reeve says. "But I don't let Reno and Rude touch the numbers."

"I wouldn't either." Tseng says. Now that the clock's winding down, he's having more of his drink. He looks over at the bar, catching Veld's eye. Tseng holds up his arm and points at his wrist, and Veld checks his wristwatch without any kind of expression.

He holds up three fingers.

"Last call!" Vincent agrees, in a ringing tone across the bar. A number of chairs scrape backward on the floor, voices exclaiming on how it's gotten so late all of a sudden. Some walk out easily, some shuffle up the stairs and then keep going up at the landing to sleep it off face-down in one of the beds upstairs. They know better than to try to make it past the front door obviously plastered.

"You want anything before Vic throws us out?" Rufus asks, amused, and Reeve glances up at him as he stands up. He nods, but doesn't have to elaborate. Rufus likes that in Reeve – he's easy to please. Lean farm living had stripped him of any pickiness he might have once had.

"You need a ride home?" Tseng asks Reeve, as Rufus is heading to the bar. Rufus can practically hear the guy blush.

"Nah." Reeve answers, surprisingly without stammering. He's getting better at the whole game. "I'm staying."

"I could use a ride home." Elena stuffs herself into the conversation – either eagerly seeking any excuse to get Tseng within fifty feet of her apartment, or genuinely trying to put the attention off of Reeve before the accountant turned an even deeper shade of red.

Vincent uses two of the glasses that match the ones upstairs when he pours Rufus and Reeve's drinks – brandy, and not the coffin varnish variety.

"Have a nice night, boss." He says, as he passes the glasses over, knowing Rufus will be taking them upstairs with him. Veld gives a faint salute, and Rufus knows that any of the lingering patrons will be escorted out by the pair in the next twenty minutes so that the place can be locked up behind.

Elena's getting up as he gets back to the table, and Tseng's shrugging on his coat. He pauses to make sure both of Rufus' other dogs are at the bar before he's ready to go. Veld isn't on the payroll – Rufus had offered, but Veld had declined on the reason that he didn't want to have to hold himself back for duty (Rufus couldn't imagine what else he actually held himself back for instead) – but he'd protect this place and Rufus just as loyally as if he was.

"See you tomorrow." Rufus says, and Reeve crumples up the napkin as he takes up the glass Rufus passes him.

----------------------------------------------------

Reno wouldn't lie. Life before ShinRa had been pretty shitty. The warehouse he and Rude lived in now wasn't exactly ace, but it was a roof. There were beds. Even an area walled off in back for a kitchen. Best of all there was Rude there, all the time.

Until Reno was ten, he'd had six sisters. Six constantly working mouths, six family members who could spend an hour in front of the bathroom vanity dolling themselves up or dolling each other up. He was the oddity, and while they all had their arguments with each other or their moments of obsession with each other's attentions – as it went in all families – none of them was in so much demand as he was. He'd have told you he hated the attention, but he loved it.

The problem was that any time enough girls got together, it reminded him of his family – they were chatty, dames. Each one reminded him of one or another of his sisters. They'd grown up in Boston, all Irish immigrants with hair in various flavors of red and neighbors with the same brogue, the same origins.

They were all dead. In 1919, Reno had been home with the measles, and then something as ridiculous as a giant wave of molasses had swept through the North End where his sisters and mother were bringing their dad his birthday lunch. He worked at the paving yard in north end, and they'd all drowned in a sweet, sticky wave.

He wasn't sure what had really happened, just that his life had practically ended and he had to get out of there. He still couldn't stand the smell of molasses, didn't like it when people other than him got too loud or chatty. It made him think of home, which made him think of the girls, or his mother.

"Hey are we there yet?" He's not looking up as Rude half drags him home. The bigger man's pace is patient with Reno's stumbling and fumbling. Reno is looking down at his uncooperative feet and wishing they'd just go straight and stop tripping all over each other.

"No." Rude answers. He's succinct, he's not anything like any member of Reno's family, and with a family the size that Reno's had been, that's hard. Reno likes it that way. Rude's his new 'home', his new 'family', so distinctly different from the old one that he doesn't have to worry about old memories or any shit like that getting in the way of it being jake again.

"Mmfh." Reno groans, feeling his stomach shift suddenly. "Hey, quit."

He gags, feels himself getting ready to throw up, and Rude just stops still, letting him work through the nausea without complaint. The cast is so awkward to work with, and Reno has his good arm around Rude's shoulders so he can only kind of lock his knees and press the round of the plaster to his stomach as he wills it to calm down.

Rude is patient and quiet. He's not girly at all, and Reno wishes he could tell the guy to his face how much that means to him, but he can't even really explain it to himself. Reno talks a lot, but he isn't so hot with words – but Rude understands him anyway.

"Okay," Reno says, wetly, but even as he says it he realizes it's no good. He's going to upchuck, and Rude can tell too.

Unpleasant business, Reno thinks distantly as he empties the contents of his stomach into the gutter. That done he shifts to pull his arm down off of Rude's shoulder so he can wipe his mouth with one sloppy, open palm. Rude keeps his arm down by Reno's midsection.

"Okay." Reno says again, and this time it's more confident. He feels a lot better, ironically, with nothing in his stomach. "Yeah alright. Let's get home."

 

----------------------------------------------------

 

Tseng is so used to seeing her in the suit, that when he turns and sees she's changed into a nightgown - if one could call it that – he's genuinely surprised. He schools his expression into neutrality, but feels like he's scowling. She isn't even looking his direction, fussing around inside her icebox while he waits for his water to boil and stares as if he's still a teenager.

It's mostly sheer, that's what catches his attention straight off - that and how very little of it there is. Not that Tseng has never seen legs before, just not -hers-. Flappers wore things shorter than this, and yet they don't capture his attention nearly as raptly - because he's finding out something new about someone who his life had depended on more than once. He feels a little like he's intruding.

"Do you take milk?" She asks, looking up at last as she latches the icebox closed. She's apparently satisfied herself that the block of ice inside is sufficient enough that missing the iceman today wasn't a tragedy.

"In... tea?" It seems an odd question. He's never considered it -he's never had a lot of milk. He hasn't picked up the habit on his own, preferring tea or beer where the situation allowed. The thoughts are slow to come, he feels distracted.

"Yeah, you add it with the sugar." She says, smiling a little. Elena has a way of making him feel distinctly alien at times - mostly because she's so comfortable with him that when she seems to think he was doing something strange, he feels it too.

"No thank you, I'll take it plain." His eyes refuse to stay on her face. The light shines through the hang of the nightgown, outlining her curves. She's compact – mostly legs, but those were well formed. She isn't heavy up top, but curvier than he's expecting from the way her suit sits on her. He keeps looking, and she catches him.

Elena cocks her hip and tilts her chin in a way that's more feminine than he's ever seen. "What?"

"I didn't expect your nightgown." The sentence wants to continue somehow, but Tseng clips it short. He isn't sure what he had expected – he's never thought about Elena in pajamas before honestly. Maybe a man's set, the same way she wears a man's suit. He decides he likes the look on her – on any other girl it might have been over the top, but on Elena it is exotic.

"Just because I want you boys to forget I'm a woman doesn't mean I've forgotten it." She shifts her hips a little, silk subtle. Tseng thinks he might be getting the hint at last.

Slow realization dawns on Tseng that she's wearing the nightgown for him. What it means after that is undeniable. He feels distinctly foolish for not realizing sooner. How had he come to be so blind or uninterested that he'd missed all the clues, forcing Elena to resort to this elaborate setup? She can't guess, he supposes, that all she has to do is ask and he'd be more than willing.

The nightgown begs investigation, his mind wryly observes. Tseng thinks it's sexier than complete nakedness – he imagines how it will feel in his hands, sliding over Elena's skin. Suddenly the tea doesn't seem very interesting. He turns and takes the water off, working the knob until the flow of gas stops and the burner extinguishes.

Elena pads up behind him and she understands what's going on in his mind – or dares enough to risk it. Her warm hands come around his waist, her body against his back in a suggestive press of curves. Tseng's body pays attention in a way that hasn't woken in him for a long time.

"You get it now." She purrs, half laughing and he turns around in her grip.

"Yeah." And Tseng knows he's had been blind, but what does that matter now? "I get it now."

He has to lean way down, but she goes up on tiptoes, too. When their mouths meet, he knows it's right somehow. His hands slide over her back, and the sheer fabric is silky, but with some catch under his fingers. He can feel the definition of the modesty panel that's sewn in to the top, and further down the lacy thin embellishments on her underwear. He can feel how heated her skin is underneath, how ready she must be already.

Elena's hands are everywhere – first on his lapels, then loosening his tie or working on his buttons. She yanks his suit jacket, and it slides off his shoulders, but catches on his elbows. She keeps pulling on it until Tseng drops his arms and his expensive jacket tumbles to the kitchen floor. He doesn't have time to worry about it. His shirt follows in a rush, and she's starting to yank at his belt buckle when he finally breaks the kiss to push her backward toward the kitchen table.

The space was small, cramped. It was a one-person place and the table was wedged into a corner of the kitchen. He slid his hands under her thighs and helped her boost herself up onto it. She's practically wiggling in anticipation, her eyes never leave his, but there's so much here to learn, he won't let himself be rushed.

Tseng runs the flats of his palms over her shoulders, down the sheer-silk covered arch of her back, and around to her soft belly. His thumbs brush just against the undersides of her breasts, and her nails slide against his neck as she pushes her hands into his open collar.

First he touches through the fabric, rounding his hands against her breast and feeling her nipples harden against the foremost part of his palm as he shifts fabric over them. She makes a noise, impatient, and flexes her fingertips high at the center of his shoulders, trying to push him.

Instead, he lifts the lace-weighted hem of her negligee, pushing it back over her thighs and then sliding his hands up beneath. His palms are callused from gunwork, but her skin is smooth enough to make up for it. Elena's hands leave his back and trap his wrists just as he's beginning to circle her breasts. She pushes them downward, opening her eyes and demanding with her expression. He obliges – but at his own pace, far slower than Elena would like.

She's wearing this lacy, thin pair of underwear that barely covers her. When Tseng brushes his knuckles along the center of it, he can feel how wet she is. When he pushes it aside and finds there's not a trace of hair it brings a thought foremost in his mind. Working his tongue along the roof of his mouth, he pushes Elena up onto her kitchen table and she sits obediently. Tseng drops to one knee and she looks down at him sudden, alert.

Elena's eyes are hungry, ready, and that's all the encouragement he needs to put his mouth on her. He holds the underwear to one side with his thumb, the angle awkward but not impossible. She's slick already, clean and hot and ready, the taste of close pressed cotton from the lingerie. He knows what he's doing – tries to remember if he's ever hinted at how much he enjoys this. At first the tastes he takes are broad, exploratory. His tongue slides over her cunt to help wet it – not that she isn't already.

She doesn't make a noise at first, biting her lip and arching her back instead. One of Tseng's hands curls around her thigh, which slides further out to give him encouraging access. One of her hands is in his hair, and when he lets his tongue circle her clit, her fingers tense sharply.

"Yeah," She pants, encouraging. His cock goes rigid at that, from its slow wakening interest to something much more ready. It was something about being so intimate. Tseng might say he enjoys this sort of control – this ability to give pleasure and retain a clearheaded attention – more than he even does intercourse. He can feel every twitch he causes in her muscles through his fingers, has a finer control over stimulation and pace.

Listening to her wind up slowly is the biggest turn-on he could have imagined. She seems impatient, in that way she usually does. He realizes she's holding herself back, attempting to behave herself and let him take the lead. When he keeps his place slow, she begins to roll her hips and he resolved not to break before she makeshim.

It isn't very long at all before her voice rises in encouragement, and her free hand slips down between them to help hold herself open to his mouth. Tseng leans back at that and she makes a noise that was half a snarl until he starts to help her get her underwear off. She followed it with her top, so he'd have no excuse to stop for it later, he thought.

When he leans back in it's with intent. She keeps her hand in place to guide his mouth and works her hips to his rhythm Elena certainly isn't as slow as some he's done this for – she won't let herself be, shifting and pressing or pulling on his hair until he's where she wants him.

She comes in a rush of gasps and the broken rhythm of her rolling hips. Tseng has to pull back and finish with his fingers, his jaw aching and scalp a little sore. He's not complaining about either. He stands up, planting his hands on either side of her on the table, and though she's panting and glassy eyed she doesn't even let him get all the way to his feet before she wraps her legs around his midsection.

Elena takes what she wants, and Tseng can't believe how much drives him crazy.. She's got her hands on his zipper – on him, and she won't be refused. He's not sure where she gets the condom from - might have been curled in her palm the whole time but she knows what she's doing with it as she rolls it on. Then she curls her hand around his length, shifting her hips up as she guides him home. The glide is easy, and he's ready for it – faster than he would have thought, he feels his control unraveling as she demands a quicker pace, sitting up with the table to balance herself on and wrapping her arms around his neck to moan in his ear.

He lets her set the pace – fast, unrelenting, and he can feel his release in the tightening of his muscles, the way his hands slide down to her backside to help her lift and thrust, then finally brace on the table as he leans forward into it.

"Don't you even think about stopping," She warns, just as he's considering slowing himself down, and he takes that order, too. It's so easy just to topple, his motions turning jerky and unsteady as he goes over. His whole body sags as he finishes, and he's glad for the table, and her warm, satisfied curves against his chest.

"Finally." She hisses into his ear, as she unwinds too, and he hears himself chuckle in a wry way that he doesn't feel.

"Yeah." He agrees. Finally.

--------------------------------------------

When it's over, they both cram into her tiny shower stall. It's intimate, which is good because she can only wrestle water she called 'barely warm' out of the tap. It isn't unusual for her place. He scrubs her back, and it feels heavenly. Just to have someone else there touching her, even something as simple as that.

"You..." It's was hard to find words to thank Tseng, without feeling like she might undo something.

He stops her, lifting a hand.

"Sweetheart," He says, and it should sound odd, wrong even from him - he looks so foreign. Except, Elena knows he'd grown up in 'Frisco, regardless of what he looks like. "I'd rather have you at my back than any man I know."

She feels good in a way she can't describe. Yeah she's a misfit, so is he, but there is at least enough place in the whole misfit nation of America for the two of them.

--------------------------------------------

"You're going to have to play it cool, kid." Angeal isn't entirely positive the best way to go about this. He knows he has to show Zack the ropes – on and off duty. Midgar is a city with balance. Things stay under the table, a careful house of cards. "Just promise me you won't get loud."

"Naw," Zack promises, looking as solemn as he can with excitement written all over his features. "I promise I won't embarrass you, sir."

"Quit with the 'sir' stuff." Angeal warns, without any malice. It's a little awkward – a reminder that he's let his work and social life overlap. He knocked on the door and it was Rude stuck upstairs doing the front man work tonight. He doesn't look too happy about it – not that he ever looks particularly happy.

"Officer Hewley," He greets coolly. Zack is stretching up on his tiptoes to look over Angeal's shoulder and see deeper into the house. Rude fixes him with a long look from behind his sunglasses, and Zack grins winningly.

"My new partner." Angeal explains, hoping Rude will take the whole meaning without further prying. "I'm showing him around town."

Rude doesn't say anything else, just stands aside and holds the door open for them. Zack steps inside just as Angeal is shrugging out of his overcoat.

"I'm Zack Fair," He says pleasantly, and offers his hand to Rude. The taller man looks first at Zack's hand, then up at Angeal, as if wondering if the kid was serious. Angeal can only offer a shrug.

"This is Rudolf." Angeal introduces, and Rude shakes Zack's hand with an almost amused expression. "We all call him Rude."

"Nice to meecha!" Zack says, giving Rude's hand an enthusiastic shake.

Rude takes their coats and Angeal leads the way to the back of the house.

"Kind of quiet for a party." Zack says behind him, obviously looking around for other signs of life.

"Everyone's downstairs." Angeal answers, pushing open the door at the top of the stairs. There's a landing there, one set of stairs ascending to the back bedrooms, the other leading conveniently down to the juice joint below. Angeal's heard that the setup was the failsafe against anyone leaving the house obviously spifflicated.

Faint jazz drifts up the stairs from below, the band starting the night with something quieter in the early hours of business. Zack perks up, following Angeal downstairs practically on top of his heels.

It's at the bottom that things go sour. Angeal steps out of the stairway, pushing open the last door into the main room of the speakeasy to look for an empty table.

In the far corner, Rufus and his security boys sit like relaxed cats. Vic raises a hand in welcome from the bar and is turning to pour Angeal's preferred drink when Zack – against his promise – gets loud.

"Holy!" Zack exclaims, causing Angeal to turn around rapidly in mortification. Zack's eyes are huge. He goes for his badge with a sudden motion and it's a miracle that no one shoots him then.

"You're all under arrest!" Zack thunders, before Angeal can stop him. Zack lifts his badge to the sound of scraping chairs and Angeal throws himself between Zack and the crowd. He seizes Zack's shoulders in a grip that pushes the kid back off balance, and squeezes enough to show he needs Zack's full attention.

"This for real?" Reno's voice comes from behind him, and he hears the click of a hammer being drawn back on a revolver.

"Ow, hey!" Zack's attention is on Angeal now, and he locks eyes with the kid long enough to make a silent threat of bodily harm should Zack keep opening his mouth.

"No," Angeal answers Reno, turning around into the angry glares. The musicians had stopped, and he holds up his hands apologetically. "The kid's a little confused. And an idiot."

Rufus is the only one at his table not standing. Vic still has a half poured shot of brandy in his hands that Angeal would have killed for right then.

"Put your badge away." He tells Zack tersely, turning back around again. "Upstairs."

He shoves bodily, not giving Zack any chance to refuse. Zack backs through the doorway with a thoroughly confused expression. Angeal lets him turn around at the stairs so he doesn't have to go up backwards, but he keeps shoving.

"Hey – what…" Zack keeps trying to start talking, to protest, but Angeal pushes harder whenever he opens his mouth or tries to stop. At the landing, the older man wheels Zack by his shoulders so that he continues up into the more private areas of the guest bedrooms above. By now he's more or less silent, finally starting to understand that he'd committed some error.

When they stop moving, Angeal's anger and embarrassment catch up to him. He sets his hands on his hips and huffs out an angry breath.

"What the hell was that!" It's not the most intelligent thing Angeal has ever said, but it's the closest to how he feels at the moment. How could anyone be that naïve, have that little regard for their own safety. The kid had been seconds away from death, walking into the hornet's nest and kicking up the bees. "You said you weren't going to get loud."

"That's a speakeasy down there!" Zack said dumbly. His eyes were cloudy with confusion and betrayal. "Did you know that it was there?"

"Yes, kid." Angeal can feel his voice turning cruel, upset more at himself, but he still can't believe that anyone – anyone could be this naïve. "This was where I spent time before I…"

He trails. The end of the sentence is 'met you', but Angeal can't blame Zack for that. It's a conspiracy of fate that Angeal is the worn down cop that everyone thinks would be the best – because he's been hammered so flat that he was the model of how to get along in Midgar. Angeal forces himself to take a deep breath.

"Kid." He starts, but it doesn't feel adequate. It isn't sincere enough. Not personal. "Zack."

"This is Midgar." Angeal says, but it makes him feel a little sick inside now, to look into Zack's eyes and try to make excuses for himself. A lot of the things that are wrong with the world are a result of a lack of kids with the ability to not get worn down. The world is cruel to people with eyes like Zack's, because everyone lets it be. "This is the way it works."

Zack looks hurt, crosses his arms over his chest defensively. He sits in disappointed silence, waiting patiently for the rest of Angeal's lecture.

"ShinRa runs this place – a known quantity, and one that's easy to work with." Angeal keeps his breaths even, lets his posture remain as challenging as Zack's was. He wasn't going to feel bad about saving the kid's life, down there. "We let them stay because if we take them out, that means a void forms."

Zack still looks hurt, like he can't really understand. Angeal lets his hand drop, and then pinches the bridge of his nose. Not because Zack is stupid, but because the kid has never seen what the power struggle was like. He's never stood over the bodies of bystanders, shot in the crossfire as two factions struggled to win all the customers, all the booze, all the guns to protect it.

"ShinRa came in and they hit hard and fast – with money and violence both, but just enough." Rufus took over before anyone could say otherwise. He'd just instinctively known where to hit, who to pay. Neither price – blood nor money – had been unacceptably high. "Before that there was chaos. People died in the streets, kid. Everyone wanted this spot, but no one could hang onto it."

The splash over hit indiscriminately. Women, kids, anything was fair game when there were no rules. Rufus had made rules, made the game civilized. Angeal wasn't sure that it was entirely an act of kindness or out of an aversion for blood, but because it made Rufus look completely in control. It discouraged further messes.

That suited the police fine. That and the money they were paid to not pay attention too closely.

"So you just let them break the law." Zack is looking at him critically. "You let them get away with whatever they want."

"Don't be like that." Angeal says, reaching out and putting his hands on Zack's shoulders. "God, kid. You can't solve every problem. You shouldn't even try."

"Only the ones I see, Officer Hewley." Zack shrugs out of his grip angrily. "I can only stop what I know about."

"Kid." Angeal stops him again, meets his eyes with as much honesty as he feels he can muster. "I wouldn't ask you to come into this part of my life if I thought it would make you less of a good person. This is just a part of life. You have to…"

Angeal stops himself.

"You don't have to do anything. I'm wrong. But don't run in there and get yourself killed."

"You really… I mean you really spend time here?" Zack is calming down a little. "I mean, even though you're a cop?"

"Yeah." Angeal rolls his shoulders. "They're decent people down there. Funny. And sometimes a guy who works hard just wants a drink, some decent music."

Zack looks like he's thinking about it. He's not so young that his family hadn't had probably had wine at the table on holidays. He knows alcohol isn't the root of all evils, like the government had decided. And the kid's just adventurous enough – Angeal hopes – to give this a shot. Angeal knows this isn't just for the kid's sake, either. It's a part of his life – one he hopes he won't have to hide. Honesty was a better way to build a relationship.

"I probably screwed things up pretty bad down there, huh?"

"Yeah." Angeal says, with good humor. "We can fix it, though."

Zack looks a little skeptical, but his enthusiasm is returning. He nods once, pumping his fist in determination to make things right.

"Yeah. I'll apologize." He says, and Angeal can't resist putting a hand on Zack's head to muss his already disheveled hair. When the kid made up his mind at least he was too eager for pride to get in the way. An apology would go far.

"Good. Let's go downstairs and enjoy some jazz." Angeal found himself smiling in response to Zack's grin.

"Wait. While we have some privacy.' Zack leaned up on his toes suddenly and kissed Angeal by way of forgiveness.

--------------------------------------------

Vincent is sort of an enigma himself. Consensus is that he slept in some back cellar of the bar, among the casks and kegs. He serves double time as a tender and guard for the goods. Seems like for all he'd never cut a guy off, he never has a drink himself. Veld knows better. The slow nights, just him and Valentine, Vic puts two shot glasses on the bar and a bottle between them.

"To Marriage." He starts, pouring them both spirits as ferocious as the deed itself. Vic had never been married, but he'd proposed once. He had been the best man at Veld's wedding – before the war, in happier times. His own proposal had been rejected, and it had turned him bitter – cynical. Different. Before, Vincent had been deeply interested in family. Now he wasn't interested in even looking at women.

Veld likes him better this way – they've both learned their lessons, and found each other the only company without the intolerable platitudes or assurances that someday love would find them and make their lives whole. They keep each other's secrets, both equally armed in that war and so it never erupted.

"To women." Veld agrees, as they finish the first drink and Vic pours again. The tradition stems from one long evening when both had wondered what the use was toasting things that one enjoyed. Neither drank to celebrate, or else they would never drink at all.

Tonight was one such. All of the other patrons have jumped ship early, even Angeal and his overenthusiastic tag-a-long. Veld isn't sure what to make of the kid. Zack had stars in his eyes and rocks in his head by Veld's best definition. He also had an overdeveloped faith in the law – a dangerous combination. It doesn't matter now, but Veld has seen some of the things Angeal lets the kid get away with. It isn't a good recipe.

"Love." Vincent ups the ante again. It was nearing 3 am, but neither have any place to be but here or alone or both. Vic sleeps in the back, one room away from the booze. The secret is Veld sometimes does, too.

Neither would call it desperation. It's not some sappy need for comfort or a matter of lonely hearts or any shit like that. It's about trust, familiarity. Both know enough about each other to wound – and badly. There is a security in that, and the fact that they aren't vulnerable to each other.

Veld expects Vincent to try to hurt him. He knows Vincent does the same.

With armor like that, guards can be lowered enough for them to really understand each other. They are basically compatible. Veld is solid, emotionless. Vincent is naturally driven to avoid the dramatic, and practical. Both are patient. Both are dangerous.

Both can hold their liquor.

The fourth shot is 'house, kids, yard'.

The fifth is to Volstead.

The rest descend into various dislikes, neither truly impassioned on the subjects. Veld's body feels lighter. When he closes his eyes, he can feel the faint gyroscope of intoxication spinning behind them unevenly. The last two shots will only half-fill each glass. Vic pours one whole shot when he realizes.

He takes half, then Veld picks up the glass from the bar top and puts his mouth where Vincent's had been on the glass a second before. He drinks the last of it and it's not as vile when he's had enough of it (enough of life) so he doesn't really care.

Vincent leans down on the counter as Veld lights another cigarette. The crystal-glass ashtray is near overflowing with half-gone corpses of its elders. Veld knows that Vic is watching the hands run on his wristwatch. Vic refused to wear one – said they were for women. He hates his pocket watch, too, dislikes the constant winding and fussing it requires.

The wristwatch is a habit Veld picked up in the trenches – one had to carry the time with them as there was never really enough. His pocket watch had been stolen when he'd been taken P.O.W, and he'd stolen the wristwatch in turn when he'd cut his way free again through a careless guard and his girlfriend. Seemed no one could argue with the practicality of not having to dig in a pocket for a watch.

"Last call." Vincent says, after a long silence while Veld smokes. He knows better, knows that Veld won't put himself past the limit of control. Vincent glances around, nods once at the empty bar and then lets himself from behind the counter and locks the door. Upstairs, whoever was on door duty was turning out the light.

Veld gets to his feet and helps Vic clear the last dirty glasses from the bartop, and run a wet rag over the tables. It's old habit. As they finish, Veld looks up and Vincent is looking at him strangely. This isn't routine.

"What." Veld doesn't make it a question. Of a sudden, he's itching for another cigarette, but he refuses the urge because he is in control of himself.

"Has it been more than ten years?" Vincent asks, and he's already moving for the bar again. None of this is routine, and Veld doesn't like the look on Vic's face. He doesn't need to ask what Vincent means. He's thinking about 1917, the trenches. It's taboo between them. Not worth thinking about. Another secret they shared, but one unspoken.

"Vincent." Veld warns, just one word.

"That kid of Hewley's," Vincent continues. "We were that age."

That kid – the dumb one with the big mouth and too much hair. Kid was made of the stuff that t he world crushed up and spit out on the pavement. Angeal thought he could protect Zack. Maybe he could. In the end, Veld wasn't sure if that was better for the kid.

"Vincent." Veld says again. They look at each other over the counter, Vic with his hands flat on the top, and Veld doesn't have to think about the threat in his own posture.

It's a natural response – they both instinctively become threatening instead of letting themselves feel threatened. Vic's eyes look almost red in the overhead light, dark save for one place where the light shines through the iris.

Vincent reaches below the counter, pulls out another bottle. It settles on the bartop with a challenging thunk and he has a dare written on his features. Veld shakes his head.

"Drink." Vincent orders, though he'd never had the rank that Veld did. He pulls the cork, his lip pulling back at one side of his mouth to show his eye teeth.

"I've got an edge already." Veld says, reaching for his cigarette case.

"Drink." Vincent states again, watching Veld's hands on the case, and letting the contempt come through his expression. He knows Veld's crutches, his vices. "I'm sick of your game."

The transfer of ownership implies it isn't Vincent's game, too. Veld knows better. The rules belong to both of them. He snaps shut the cigarette case without pulling one free. This is about the kid, about how everything could have ended today – all the uneasy truce between cops and mobsters broken by one death. When the shooting finally started, Veld and Vincent both knew it would never end.

"It's not over yet." Veld says, evenly. Vincent takes a drink straight from the bottle, then puts it back on the bartop, hard. Veld hisses faintly between his teeth. He can't back down now. He claims the bottle from Vincent, has his own measure from the neck. He knows it's a bad idea. He doesn't do this. Vincent doesn't do this.

"It could have been." Vincent comes out from behind the bar, sits down on the stool next to Veld. It changes their dynamic, makes something different in the relationship. Their shoulders are close, but not touching. "And neither of us would ever have gotten out of this time loop."

He drinks, pushes the bottle at Veld, who hesitates. But if anyone knows him, if anyone understands what's right for either of them, it's Vincent. Veld never let himself get over the edge, because that would have given him an excuse for anything. Given them both an excuse.

"You really want this?" Veld says, letting it be a question, as they push the bottle back and forth. He's miserly with his grasp of control, unwilling to release hold of it without a fight – or perhaps he simply tells himself that when he's just forgotten how to let go.

"Yeah." Vincent says, after the bottle has scraped across the counter several more times. This time, when it slides back to Veld, Vincent leans over and their shoulders touch. He puts his hand under the bottle as Veld tips it up to drink, pushing up on it to deepen the draft. "Attaboy."

It's vodka they're drinking, the long drink makes Veld's throat first feel raw, then warm and numb. His fingers are starting to feel clumsy, it's hard to focus. Once he's stepped past that ledge, it's easier to leap.

Vincent jumps with him.

--------------------------------------------

October had crawled around slowly, with things going more or less the same. Zack has become the biggest fixture in Angeal's life, with everyone too busy enjoying how well things were going in the city for anyone to notice that two cops are living together. The summer had stretched long this year, and the night was still warm enough for them to be sitting comfortably in Angeal's kitchen with the porch door open to admit the evening air.

Angeal spent less time in the speakeasy – to be honest he felt less like he needed to drink with Zack around. The subject is still careful between them. Zack had made a good enough impression to be allowed inside without incident, but everyone still remembered that his first words had been the biggest faux pas committed within the joint itself.

Instead, Zack has forced Angeal to see The Cocoanuts at least four times in the theaters. Angeal isn't nearly as fond of the Marx brothers as Zack was, but he is fond enough of Zack to enjoy them more than he would have on his own.

"We could go to the movies." Zack says, brightly. What he means is, they could go to Cocoanuts again, and Angeal isn't entirely sure he could stand to sit through the dance numbers again. Girls in scandalous bellhop outfits floozing around to big band music.

"I'd rather have a beer." Angeal says, frankly. He'd rather stay home, he thinks. The bed was closer that way.

"You mean out at the ShinRa joint?" Zack says, still surprised any time Angeal mentions it. "We haven't been in like… forever."

"Yeah we should get back sometime." Angeal muses, but it's more or less just thinking out loud. "Keep up relations."

"Oh I get it," Zack says slowly, as if enlightenment is creeping into his thoughts on cat's-paws – slow and deliberate. "You're undercover. Gaining their trust for the big bust, right Angeal?"

Much as he loves the kid, sometimes Angeal is seized with an overwhelming urge to strangle Zack. Angeal's patience always wins, in the end, but there is a long enough silence after Zack speaks for his enthusiasm to deflate.

"It's not like that, kid." Angeal says at last. "No point in busting 'em, just means there'd be a big power struggle over who gets that top spot. We've been over this."

Zack looks like his morals are warring against his respect for Angeal. It writes itself all over his features, before he finally decides the debate is too much, puts it away in his mind. Angeal knows he won't let it go, though.

Angeal delays any kind of further explanation by reaching into the icebox to fetch out the sun tea. The glass pitcher is frosty in his hands, and picks up a fine sheen of condensation almost as quickly as he pulls it free. When he puts his hand underneath the bottom to support it, it almost slips.

Zack is faster on the recovery than Angeal would have guessed. He leans his whole body in and has his hands up under the bottom of the pitcher before Angeal even realizes fully that it was about to fall. Angeal's nerves had all jumped to life without his bidding, and he stands tense and steady until he was sure that the crisis is averted. Zack's hands both covered his on the pitcher.

"Whoops-a-daisy," Zack says nonsensically. He looks up at Angeal, his focus shifting from the pitcher, and smiles in a way that could have lit up a room. Zack is equal parts infuriating and adorable at times – right now Angeal might have said the latter won out. He took his puppy paws away from the pitcher and turned back to fetch two glasses from the cabinet and Angeal pours them both a glass.

"You're not gonna flip out again if we go back, right?" Angeal asks at last, after they've both had a long drink. The tea is just a little bitter, the way Angeal likes it, and unsweetened – sugar was an expensive luxury. Zack's sip is smaller and he wrinkled up his nose when he discovers it's not sweet, or perhaps at the implication that he hadn't learned his lesson.

"Naw." Zack says, and grins winningly. "But can we go to the movies tonight instead? I gotta patrol all tomorrow night, and you can go then, right?"

He finishes his tea, and Angeal resigns himself to another night at the theater.

'Ah, no. You're my friend.' Angeal recalls a line from the movie, one that feels appropriate. 'I'd kill you for nothing.'

--------------------------------------------

Elena pushes the heel of her hand hard into the wound and tries not to think about the noise Tseng makes when she leans most of her weight on it to try and staunch the bleeding. He's a little pale, but it doesn't look dangerous yet. She's pretty sure people don't really die of being shot in the arm - not right away anyway. Between her and Reno they get him laid out on one of the long tables in back - the one they sometimes use for poker.

"Shit, we should be taking him to the hospital." Reno says, for all his bravo it looks like the sight of blood is making him paler. He covers his mouth after a moment, closes his eyes. Elena realizes he's trying very hard not to throw up.

"A hospital won't care Reno, look at him. Look at us." She's half covered in blood herself, the rest in alcohol from the dropped cases. "It'll just get him arrested, and I'm not gonna let that happen."

Reno exhales slowly through his nose, and then nods. "Okay. Okay. But we gotta call a doctor or something, he'll die."

"Go outside, Reno." She says, with more authority than she feels. He looks at her, and for a moment she thinks he's just going to tell her to shut up, what did she know – she was just a girl. Instead he hunches his shoulders, nods.

"Yeah, I'll call the boss. He'll need to know." He slinks away, one last look at Tseng enough to make him believe that the Chinaman is probably going to be O.K. if someone could just figure out what the best thing to do about the lead in his arm is. Tseng's eyes are closed; she thinks maybe he's focusing on catching his breath, calming himself.

Elena berates herself for how useless she is in this situation. She knows plenty about killing, but very little about saving. In a nervous motion she lifts her hand to her mouth, setting her teeth to her thumbnail as she feels the adrenaline start to fade – panic threatens just behind.

"The bullet won't kill him." A voice intrudes on her thoughts, and Elena startles out of her considerations. "But the secondary infections will."

Firm hands push her aside, and she looks up to see Veld. He has a black bag with him; she's never seen him with it before. It looks old, but not quite as old as the surgical tools he pulls out of it. He handles them with a familiarity that makes her stomach do a little, curious twist. It's some combination of his steady hands and the complete lack of emotion in his expression that causes the feeling, she thinks. He won't hesitate to use these for anything.

This time, though, he looks evenly at Tseng.

"You want some alcohol first?" He says, it's barely a question. It isn't anything in his tone - which is as even as ever - just that he's looking intently at Tseng when he says it.

Tseng shakes his head, and Veld shrugs a little. Vincent takes a cue that Elena couldn't even see and moves around to the other side of the table, his hip in close proximity to Elena as he leans over her partner's prone body.

"Sit still kid, I'm going to make sure you've got all of your shirt before I do anything else." Veld's fingers probe along the inside of Tseng's sleeve, one somehow sliding up the rolled cuff along Tseng's own arm. He's careful of the wound, but presses the shirt into a dozen configurations as he tries to decide if any considerable amount of it has been carried into the wound. The hole appears to match up evenly on either side, though there was a tatter that looked like it had come close to tearing free.

"Looks like it's all there." Vincent says, above her. Elena glances up and pretty much all she can see is how his hair was slowly sliding off his hunched shoulders and the underside of his chin. As embarrassingly close as he is, she refuses to move. "Better get the bullet out before he makes the table any dirtier."

Veld glances up, and his expression changes for perhaps the first time Elena has ever seen it do so. His brows arch, but the rest of his features remain immobile. It's close to amusement, she thinks – as close as he gets. His hands turn firm in their hold on the shirt and he rips the sleeve in half lengthwise, starting from the hole the bullet had torn. This done, he pulls the sleeve away all the way up to Tseng's shoulder.

The wound is dark, oozing but not pouring blood. The whole area is blotched by uneven bruising, though the wound itself isn't large, the surrounding tissue looks badly traumatized. She's seen worse – usually the exit wounds are larger and more torn than entry, but the bullet has lodged in muscle, possibly bone, and so Tseng is spared that at least.

"Alright, this is the part that will probably hurt." Veld warns far in advance, while he's still shifting the contents of the bag around in a chorus of metallic clinking that Elena would have otherwise found ominous. For some reason she trusts that Veld is entirely on their side in this matter – that he isn't going to hurt Tseng any more than he has to. It's more than he was like to get from a hospital in these times, considering his race.

Elena is fascinated by the precise movements of Veld's hands. Veld looks up at Vincent. The bartender wordlessly knows to restrain the arm. Vic pins it to the table, stretching it straight at the elbow between both his hands – but somehow he manages to lean back just right so he's out of Veld's light.

Elena takes Tseng's other hand but she has to look away when Veld pushes the forceps into the wound. Tseng doesn't make a noise, but his fingers tighten on hers. The forceps slide off the bullet twice with audible clicks as Veld pulls at it. He makes a noise that might serve for agitated, but the man's expression never changes.

"Surgeon's assistant died in my platoon." He starts talking in the quiet, and Elena realizes it's just what is needed to keep them all focused. His tone never changes, he never looks up from his work. One of his hands works the spreader holding the wound open while he fishes for the bullet with the bent tip of the forceps. "Surgeon picked me because I've never minded blood. It's amazing how much you can learn when there's nothing to lose."

He closes the Forceps inside the wound again, and Elena sees his knuckles lighten as he tightens his grip. Vic leans down a little harder. As he braces to pull, Elena thinks about what it must have been like to be the one wavering, uncertain line between life and death – when the mantra of 'do no harm' took on a more sinister meaning. She can't imagine that Veld's emotionless face would have been much comfort.

Tseng makes a noise shy of a snarl as Veld pulled. This time there is no metal on metal click, forceps sure on the bullet. Veld draws free a small, twisted slug of metal. He drops it into a shot glass that Vincent pulls out of the breast pocket of his suit. Both of them make an amused noise as it clinks to the bottom of the glass, the closest thing to laughing she's ever heard either of them do.

"Hand me the Kocher, Vic." Veld says quietly. "You don't have any fucking hemostats in there."

"The worst I've had in here was a few splinters." Vincent answers, the both of them chatting as if it's an average night at the bar. "You're lucky I have more than a pair of tweezers and a bottle of surgical spirits."

"You should still be ready." Veld says, twisting a small rubber band around the handle of the tool Vincent gives him where it is clamped on something inside the wound. "Didn't you learn anything before they threw you out of the army?"

Elena watches him work the needle inside the wound somehow, shifting and pulling in a way that makes Tseng's muscles jump against Vincent's hold. Veld's expression changes faintly, into something frank, and he glances up at his patient. Tseng is sweating now, probably regretting saying no to the alcohol. Beneath all her worry, Elena thinks the look that goes between 'doctor' and 'patient' is almost funny. Veld never had any expressions, but here he manages to look almost matronly, and Tseng is always so damn confident – he looks properly scolded by the look and steels himself for the rest.

"You were in the army too?" She finds herself asking, glancing up at Vincent – their eyes meet at an awkward angle, she has to peer under his outstretched arm and he twists his head down to look at her. He might be smiling but his mouth is mostly hidden by the angle – he is just eyes and that long, messy curtain of hair.

"I was," Vincent starts, before Veld cuts him off. Without looking up, Veld commandeers the story.

"He was drafted. Made it through basic, but three months off dry land and he was dishonorably discharged." Veld glances up, for a brief second, to see if Vincent will protest. When the bartender doesn't, Veld continues. "Faked his own death because he didn't like the food."

"What food." Vincent returns. "They gave us flour, not bread. A handful of raisins sometimes, or cold water and a teabag."

"There was never enough tobacco, either." Veld agrees, and pulls the wound closed with the last few stitches. "But some of us were men about it."

Vincent doesn't answer that, he just leans back to let Tseng up. Tseng's hand leaves Elena's and touches the stitches exploringly as he sits up.

"Thanks doc." Tseng manages after a moment. He already looks as if he's feeling better, though more tired than she's ever seen him.

"Was it the cops, kid?" Veld asks, wiping his hands of blood on one of Vincent's bar-rags. Vincent himself is looking at the blood on the table, possibly contemplating the best way to leech it back out of the wood top.

"Yeah," Tseng grits. "The new kid."

"He didn't know it was us, I don't think." Elena finds herself defending the kid for no reason she could tell. He has those blue eyes and seems willing enough to believe the best in people – so she hopes maybe she could believe the best in him. "I think we just surprised him and he panicked."

"Angeal should keep that puppy on a tighter leash if he's going to bite people." Veld says, his mouth firm. He pats the pocket of his vest, leaving a faint red streak on the material as he recovers his cigarette case from within. It's a fluid motion – he pulls the cigarette from the case, strikes a match on the back, and cups both hands around the flame with the cigarette in his mouth.

"He's goofy for the kid, I don't think he's properly teaching him how to behave." Vincent answers. Elena realizes that the conversation doesn't really include her or Tseng anymore, even though the two older men are looking at them – it's with speculation. She recognizes the look – they know there's business to be done.

"Vincent, pour him his victory shot and then we better let Elena get him home." Veld's tone is quiet.

"You survived." The bartender picks up the shot glass with the bullet in it and fills it with vodka. The bullet gives off thin streamers of Tseng's blood, and the bottom half of the vodka turns pink with it, slowly creeping upward toward the top of the glass.

Tseng strains the drink through his teeth, letting the bullet clink back into the bottom of the glass. He rattles it once, turns it back over to Vincent.

"Not gonna keep it?" Veld asks, exhaling smoke. "Good. Don't remember how you could have died, just remember how you're still alive."

"You're going to stay with him, right Elena?" Vincent asks as he passes the shot glass on. Veld considers the contents of it as he smokes, then tips his ashes in on top of the bullet. She nods, once, and helps Tseng up. He's so much taller than her that she can't even properly sling one of his arms over her shoulder to help him, so she just presses her hands to his middle, one on his belly and the other on his back.

Tseng doesn't complain.

"I'll call you two a cab. You want me to escort you?"

"No," Elena says, confident that she can protect him the short walk up the curb and into his place. "I got it."

On the way out, Reno's standing outside and smoking. There's a pile of cigarettes at his feet, and he rolls his shoulders nervously, eyeing Tseng sidelong as if the guy would fall over at any second.

"Boss says we aughta have a talk with the kid." Reno says, exhaling smoke when Tseng seems steady enough. "Maybe take him for a ride."

"I think Vic and Veld have that covered." Elena says shakily. "We're going home. You should too."

"Yeah, I gotcha." Reno looks down at himself, covered in booze and blood, and shrugs it all off. "Glad you're okay, hoss."

Elena's glad he's okay too, more than glad. The ride home is slow, the cabbie wisely doesn't say anything about Tseng's shirt or the crooked, oozing stitches, or the smell of booze.

Elena tips him an extra nickel before she helps Tseng up the walk and into his place.

--------------------------------------------

In the darkness, a shine catches Zack's attention. He looks around sharply, and two shadows resolve themselves into human shapes. He vaguely recognizes them from the speakeasy – one, the quiet bartender, the other the guy who smoked all the time. Some trick of the light cause that man's eyes to shine. His hands hang loosely at his sides, unmenacing, but some set of his shoulders tells Zack otherwise.

"Hey fellas," Zack tries, holding up his hands. He knows what this is about – that mistake. "Listen, tell Tseng I'm sorry. It was an accident."

They wear a matching lack of expression, moving silently. Zack finds himself backing up as his eyes lock with the shorter man's. He barely remembers the guy's name – it starts with a v, he thinks. Something in the depths there is hypnotic – some faint malice behind the entire nothing that hides everything about him. That it showed at all makes Zack's guts sink. He keeps backing up, then suddenly his back hit something unmoving.

Vincent had taken advantage of him looking only at the other ambusher, and quick, efficient motions of his hands locked Zack's hands behind his back, reversing his elbows somehow in some kind of lock. Zack froze.

"He's okay, right?" Zack isn't panicking, not yet. He regrets having shot at all, but when he'd come on two figures slinging a body into the back of a truck he'd thought the worst. It probably was the worst, but he'd stuck his nose right in it and seen that the ShinRa boys were frazzled too. Something had gone really sour, and the bruises on Reno didn't look like the other guy had been anything less than serious.

"You don't get it." Vincent says, in his ear. "He's one of ours."

The other guy's still coming, stops barely a step away, and that's about when Zack starts to panic. He knows an apology isn't enough here, but if he'd just run off on his patrol, it would have drawn more attention. The shorter guy has eyes that Zack would swear were black, and he's just looking straight into Zack like he can see everything the kid would ever be.

"Listen, I didn't mean to – I mean I'll do whatever you want to make up for it." Zack says, before he can stop himself. He doesn't want to fight these guys, doesn't want to disappoint Angeal like that again. At base, there's some small comfort when he knows at the root of it all, the law's on his side, and how messed up was it that he had to apologize to these guys. "There was blood everywhere; I didn't know what to do."

"Should have shut your eyes and plugged your ears, like your master does." Vincent says, evenly. The other guy doesn't say anything, hasn't said anything. Zack dimly remembers what he's heard about this guy, and he can't think of one fact aside from the fact that he'd been married once. Crazily, his eyes go to the ring the guy is still wearing, just in time to see that his hand's moving.

The guy's hand forms an open palm, fingers held together like a blade, and dig right into the join of muscle under Zack's pectoral, just beneath his heart. He never would have guessed before now exactly how much that could hurt. The pain is blinding, and he sucks in a breath that only makes things worse.

"It was an accident, we get that." Vincent says, and he sounds almost sorry about it. "So we're just here to warn you – "

"Hey, you son of a bitch!" Angeal's voice comes as a surprise, and then the pain stops. Vincent drags him backwards and Zack can see that Angeal's squaring off with the shorter guy in the alley they'd trapped him in. He's holding something as ridiculous as a bag lunch in one hand – and Zack thanks his luck for the older man's concern as he catches his breath.

"You keep your hands off him!" Angeal challenges again, and the other guy looks unimpressed, but at the same time like he could murder the cop. It's the way the light falls on his face.

"Your kid shot Tseng tonight, Hewley." The other man says at last, and when he digs in his coat, Angeal tenses up until he sees that its cigarettes the guy is going for. "You going to answer for that?"

Angeal takes a deep breath, then looks at Zack. He can see it's true on Zack's face, Zack can tell. His heart sinks way down in his chest – he's messed up bad, he can tell. But Angeal can't back off now – not now that it's escalated between him and the ShinRa boys.

They're backing themselves into a trap that neither side can escape, and everyone can feel it closing around their necks now, like a noose. Only the shorter guy, the one who was smoking now, doesn't look worried about it. He never looks anything about anything. Zack can feel how sweaty Vincent's palms are against his own wrists.

"He's alive?" Angeal asks after a moment.

A nod answers the question, and Vincent lets go of Zack's wrists, shoving him forward toward Angeal. Zack catches himself before he can stumble, and pushes his palm against his chest with a wince.

"I just… I panicked." He explains again weakly. But it's too late now.

The dogs had started to bark at each other, and now they wouldn't ever be able to lay down quietly together until they'd fought out dominance. Angeal's showing his teeth, and Vincent accepts the cigarette the shorter man passes to him.

"Teach your puppy some manners next time, and we won't have to do it for you." The shorter guy says, exhaling smoke. "Until then, I'd be scarce if I were you."

The threat makes Angeal suck in a breath, draw himself up. It doesn't intimidate either of ShinRa's guys.

"We can come after you any time."

"Just you try it." Vincent warns, quietly. He and the other guy turn as one to leave.

Watching their retreating backs, Zack can feel what's ending. Angeal looks at him, disappointed. It's a Monday night, Zack remembers it clearly. Monday, October 28th, and it's the night that the whole world ends.

--------------------------------------------

No one forgets, in the aftermath. Even in the shitstorm, no one forgets. The war doesn't happen right away – no, things almost get better for a while, Rufus thinks. The crash is bad business for everyone but the bars. For a time, even, conflicts are set aside so that everyone can drink, but the mood turns when everyone is drinking to drown their problems rather than because they had none.

It's not until things get really desperate, when they start to really struggle, that things get bloody again. Rufus doesn't lament the simpler, earlier times. He digs in, lets things go when he gets dealt a shitty hand, and banks for later. When the banks crash, he puts his trust in Reeve to get things together in foreign markets where a profit can still be made.

Weather it's the cops that go for his boys, or his boys that go for the cops, it doesn't matter too much when people end up in caskets. Zack disappears one night, and the cops blame ShinRa for it – and Rufus can't get any answers until years later when everything's so ruined he's going to have to build it all up from ground zero.

But he has four boys now, all loyal and quiet and tested by the ruinous times and found able to survive. In 1933, the public realized how much blood Volstead's act had helped to loose and they overturned it, and then Rufus turned his attentions to rebuilding his empire.

In Midgar he hears that there's a kid hanging around that says Zack hadn't died there, a kid who knows too much but is too blonde to be who he claims. The kid visits Angeal's grave and, Rufus goes to see one time.

"Thank god it's all over." Reeve says, next to him. There are gravestones here they could visit too, but Rufus doesn't bother. "I mean, now it can't all turn on its head again, right?"

Rufus chuckles darkly. Reeve's still an optimist.

"Tell me that when you see how much it's going to cost to buy back our property from the bank – or the government, or whoever owns it now." He hates his wheelchair, but tolerates it. It was easier than having to constantly lean on a cane or hobble around on crutches.

"Rufus." Reeve says after a moment. "If money was the only reason people stayed near you, you wouldn't have any friends anymore."

"I have the good looks, too." Rufus answers. Reeve doesn't disagree.

ShinRa was stronger than u-boats, stronger than prohibition. It made the rules when there weren't any, and then broke them when it had to. It could outlast crashing stock markets and rebuild after the devastation of an all-out war with the police. ShinRa survived, and that was the legacy Rufus had given to his father's name.

It was, he thought, a hell of a lot more than his father had ever done with it.

 

-End.