No matter how many times Zack walked under the plate, he didn't think he'd ever get used to it.
There was something eerie about being down there, especially after having spent the entire day above, shirt sleeves rolled up and digging through a twisted heap of screeching metal that seemed determined to continue catching ablaze long after most of the fires had been extinguished. He shoved his hands into his pockets, looking up at the dark under belly of the plate, wondering what it was like to live down here, to only see the sun in the earliest of morning and the latest of evening when it was below the edge of the plate.
Had she lived down here the past five years? That pretty doll with her unfashionably long, dark hair? He blew out a breath, and his gaze drifted to the large gates that divided under-six from under-seven. He wondered if they'd have time to stop by there again. Turks or no, he wanted to see her again, wanted to watch her dance, to see her laugh as she maneuvered through a bar packed to the gills.
"Zack—" Cloud snorted when Zack jumped, jerked back to reality, back to the present instead of the could-be-future. "Geez, you're jumpy tonight, aren't you?" He laughed at his partner, flipping the cover of his little notepad down.
"Oh, dry up. What did you find out?" Zack smiled though, well aware that they had precious little to laugh about given the current state of affairs. Two reactors down, rolling blackouts initiated to reduce the strain on the remaining six, and the election revving up, already on fire with racial slurs and mud slinging. "Anything useful?"
"There's apparently a number of fellas down here with prosthetic arms. Given the war and then the accidents in Gongaga and Corel both." Cloud sighed. "So, nothing really solid. We can follow up on a few of them though, see if they pan out."
Zack nodded and he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He'd given up on trying to quit. He tapped the pack sharply against his palm. "Right. What about Shinra's finances? Did you find anything out there?"
Cloud shook his head, and he held out a lighter when he saw Zack patting down the front of his shirt. "Not really. I mean, it's hard to dig deep enough to locate anything useful without raising attention, you know?"
"Yeah. We knew this wasn't going to be easy." Zack lit his cigarette and returned the lighter, blowing out smoke in the same motion. "Want one? No? Your loss." He stood there, in the middle of the street with Cloud, smoking his cigarette, trying to simply think. They needed another plan of attack, another way of looking at what was going on.
"Do you think Tuesti's really going to run?" Cloud's voice broke his moment of concentration, but honestly, he welcomed it. He seemed to be thinking in circles, incapable of looking at the problem from any angle except the ones they'd already gone over.
"Probably." He sighed again, reaching up to rake his hand through his hair, pushing it back from his face once again. "He has the know-how to run the city, at the very least, and he's getting a ton of good press with his involvement in the search and rescue ops. Did you see how many reporters were out there, getting pictures of him in the rubble like that?"
Cloud nodded slowly, and then he laughed. "I heard him saying that they needed to set up voting booths below the plate. Shinra didn't look too happy about that, but I think it's one argument that he's not going to win." He and Zack exchanged grins, and Zack finally shook his head.
"Votes from under the plate don't count though, do they?" He hesitated, thinking of that dancer again, and he wondered when exactly he'd managed to join the same thought processes as everyone else. When had the people in the slums stopped being real people to him? "I mean, how many of the laws cross over down here?"
"Technically?" Cloud raised an eyebrow at the question, probably uncertain if Zack was being serious or testing him, and then he shrugged. "All of them. Under the plate is still counted as part of Midgar, so any laws that affect the plate affect under it too."
"...Including the alcohol ban?"
Cloud smiled, but he shook his head. "Controlled substances aren't included in that. Most of those laws are worded to specifically refer to the plate only. ... Have you never read the actual laws?"
"I'm not a rookie like you," Zack retorted, but they both laughed. "No, I have; it's just been a long time." He flicked ashes off of the end of his cigarette and took another long drag, his eyes closing briefly in the motion. "Haven't read them since I was sworn in."
"Five years ago?"
"Nah. I moved here when the third sector sector went up. I was the fourth detective sworn in." Zack shrugged, but he didn't miss the look of admiration on Cloud's face. "So... it's been closer to seven years." He sighed and looked back up at the plate over their heads. "Come on, let's see what else we can find out, and then maybe we can hit up Seventh Heaven again."
"Even with the Turks there?" Cloud shoved his own hands into his pockets, and Zack's grin returned full force as he realized that Cloud had unintentionally managed to mirror Zack's own favorite stance. Or maybe he did it on purpose. Either way, Cloud was like a kid brother, idolizing and mirroring Zack's mannerisms.
"They're nothing we have to worry about." Zack waved a hand. "I mean, what are they going to do? Report us?" He chuckled and the two of them resumed knocking on doors and asking questions, being as unobtrusive as possible. Their badges stayed tucked in pockets, well out of sight, because flashing those under the plate only ended in someone getting hurt.
Zack stepped away from the fifth house he'd knocked at— another door shut in his face— and he was considering another cigarette when he spotted a man walking down the side of the street. "Hey," he called, his eyes narrowing as he noticed the metal glint on the man's arm.
Cloud turned at the words, spotted the fella at about the same time, and he jogged across the street, notepad out. He was closer to the man, and Zack glanced down the streets before he, too, started to cross. There was a moment of silence as Cloud looked down to write something, and Zack felt something cold spread over his stomach as he saw Cloud's badge glint in the light, visible because of the way his jacket had been swept just a little too much to one side.
He opened his mouth, maybe to call out, maybe to shout for Cloud to duck, but it didn't matter because before he could say anything, there was the loud cracking of gunshots. The man, the one with the gun arm, broke into a run, and Zack charged down the street, skidding to a stop only to check Cloud. The bullets had ripped him up, but he still had a pulse, and for a heartbeat, Zack watched the man run.
He couldn't leave Cloud like that though, couldn't let the rookie bleed out in the filthy street under the plate. He clenched his jaw, then pulled Cloud to him and muttered, "Don't you dare die on me."
He didn't really remember the trip back above the plate, although he did know that he had stormed the nearest train station, flashed his badge, and requested an override to the normal schedule. There had been a moment's delay as they cleared it with the station at the top, and then the train had jerked away from the slum station. The nearest hospital was in upper seven, and Zack had the train conductor request a car waiting for them.
That had been over two hours ago.
He paced, hands shaking, as he waited for something, for news, for the doctor or even the damned nurse to come out and say something to him. He hated the waiting more than anything else, the waiting and the knowing that they had had the bastard that the Turk had seen.
He was still pacing when the commissioner came in, and he nodded vaguely toward him before he sighed, raking a hand over his face, scrubbing at his face in a feeble attempt to bring himself back to the present. A hand touched his shoulder, and he stiffened before he looked up at the commissioner.
"What were you thinking?"
Zack's back straightened more, and he lifted his chin stubbornly. The chewing out was coming, he could feel it building in Lazard. He'd managed to avoid them since getting Cloud as a partner because somehow, even though Cloud went along with him on everything, they had simply had the best luck. Everything had worked out where even if Lazard wanted to chew him out, it wouldn't have necessarily been appropriate.
For once, their luck had not held, and Zack ignored the little voice that wondered if it was because they were chasing the wrong criminals.
"Under the plate with no damned back-up? You know better, Fair." Lazard wasn't yelling though, wasn't angry. He seemed more disappointed than anything, and Zack swallowed, feeling his stomach twisting at the feeling that expression sparked in him. Not for the first time, he was grateful that Angeal had taken over a different precinct. Zack didn't think he'd have been able to handle that expression from him.
"It was routine questioning," Zack replied, his breath hitching just a little. "Just talking. We weren't showing badges or guns or anything."
"Then what the hell happened? Why is your damned partner having emergency surgery?"
"One of Rufus's Turks reported seeing a man with a gun arm. We saw a suspicious fella down there and Strife went to talk to him." Zack put his hand on the wall, needing to feel something solid, something firm under him since it felt like his world just kept shifting around, spiraling desperately out of control.
"Why did Strife talk to him?" There was the unspoken question there, the accusation that Zack should have been the one talking to someone suspicious, not his rookie partner.
"He was closer. Got to him before I did. Strife went to write something, and the man opened fire and ran." The wall wasn't solid enough to keep his world from spinning, and Zack punched it sharply, biting back the guilt beginning to well up. "The bastard ran and I... I got Cloud back up here instead of chasing him."
Commissioner Deusericus stared at him for several minutes, and finally, he sighed, putting a hand on Zack's shoulder again. "I can't fault you for that, but Fair... this is bad. I don't have to tell you that."
"No, sir, you don't." Zack gritted his teeth, then sighed.
"... Take a few days."
"Sir?" He spun around to look up at Lazard, frowning. "I'm fine; I can work this case—"
"No." The commissioner shook his head, and he looked down the hall, toward the double doors where the doctor would come from. "I've got reports that you've been harassing Rufus Shinra instead of actually working the case, and with your reckless behavior putting your partner in such a state—"
"That's not fair." He was protesting, but Zack already knew that it had been decided. It had been decided the moment that Lazard found out he was investigating Rufus Shinra. Cloud being shot only gave him something concrete to point to. "I've been doing my damned job."
"You have. Now you can take a few days, take care of your partner." Lazard's tone booked no arguments, and Zack scowled at the commissioner's back. Anything else that either of them would have said though died on their lips the moment those double doors opened.
A doctor, his scrubs splattered with blood, came out, wiping his hands on a blue rag. "Zack Fair?" He took a clipboard from a pretty nurse walking beside him.
Zack immediately stepped around the commissioner. "Is he..?"
"He's sedated. We got the bullets out." The doctor sighed just a little, reaching up to rub his forehead. "He should be fine, but we're going to keep him for a while for observation and to make sure he recovers properly."
"Can I see him?"
"If you'd like. He is asleep now, but he should wake up in a few hours." The doctor managed a smile, and the relief that swept through Zack was enough that he had to sit down, had to work up the strength to stand once more. "He's been moved into a new room. The nurse will show you where. Miss Gainsborough, if you don't mind."
"Of course not, doctor." The young woman smiled warmly up at Zack and motioned for him to follow her. He cast one look back toward Lazard, but there really wasn't anything else for either of them to say. He followed the nurse.
Cloud looked pitiful and pale in the middle of the hospital bed, and Zack felt his throat tightening as he looked at him. There were bandages everywhere, and the room smelled faintly of disinfectant and blood. He hesitated, and he moved over to stand beside the bed, his hand absently reaching for Cloud's. He was cold.
Zack shivered and squeezed the hand before he let it drop back down to the bed.
"If you'd like, we could call you when he wakes."
He looked back up at the nurse standing in the doorway, and he shook his head. "No, I'll stay." He glanced around for a chair and reached up to rub his face once more. Just as he sat, the nurse handed him a pillow that she'd pulled from a small closet in the room. He smiled. "Thank you."
"I'll be back by to check on him," she promised, and he heard the under current of her words, the unspoken, and you.
He woke several hours later, to a persistent push that kept almost nudging his head off of the edge of the bed. Grumbling, he adjusted his position, and his eyes opened at the weak chuckle.
"You gotta move, Zack. My leg—"
Zack stood up fast enough that he knocked the chair he'd been sitting in over, sending it crashing to the floor. He winced, picked it back up, and scratched the back of his head sheepishly as he looked at Cloud. The rookie was rubbing his leg, where Zack had inadvertently laid his head at some point, but there was a faint smile on those lips.
"How long have you been awake?" Zack rubbed his eyes next, dislodging the sleep caked in the corners, and he stretched. Cloud shrugged and leaned back a little more in the bed, apparently having worked out the problem with his leg.
"No idea. I'm starving though. What happened last night?" He looked up at Zack, and he frowned, clearly trying to recall an elusive memory. "I mean... we were in Wall Market, weren't we?"
Zack shook his head. "No. We had finished up in Wall Market already. We were in the housing district between under-six and -seven."
"That's right." Cloud sighed as he looked up toward the ceiling, absently trailing a hand over his stomach. He winced a little, but it didn't stop him from prodding at the bandages all the same. Zack reached out and moved his hand, frowning.
"Stop that. That nurse is going to eat me alive if she comes in and you're—"
"What was he doing?"
The woman's voice made Zack bite his bottom lip, and he worked up his very best smile before he turned to look at her, all innocence. "Nothing at all, Miss Gainsborough."
"Nothing, eh?" She was smiling though, even as she raised an eyebrow at them both. Cloud had sense enough not to argue, instead doing his very best to mirror Zack, maintaining that look of complete innocence. "Somehow, I don't believe either of you."
"Aw, that hurts. We're detectives, you know. Upholders of truth and justice." Zack nodded firmly, and he wouldn't have had any problem keeping his expression straight had Cloud not laughed at the gravity in his voice. He smacked Cloud lightly on the back of the head, but his relief at hearing Cloud laugh far outweighed his annoyance at being busted.
"Oh, yeah!" She shook her head, and it was only in that moment that Zack even spotted the tray in her hands. "Well, in any case, it's time to see if Detective Strife here can hold down some food." She smiled as she handed the tray to Zack and moved to help Cloud sit up a little more. After she was satisfied with that, she took the tray back.
Zack watched as Cloud eyed the tray suspiciously, and at the first face that Cloud made, he snorted. Quickly, he held up a hand, pointing his thumb toward the door. "I'm going to stop by the precinct for a few minutes, but I'll be back by later this evening, yeah?"
Cloud looked up at him from the roll he'd been inspecting, and he nodded slowly. "Yeah. We can compare notes then."
Zack was careful to keep his expression on the level as he nodded. "Right. Behave yourself. Don't make Miss Gainsborough scold you too much." The moment the nurse's head was averted, he winked, and Cloud snorted to cover a laugh.
Zack ducked out of the room, sighing as he raked a hand through his hair. He couldn't bring himself to tell Cloud that they'd lost the case, that his foolish attempt to speak to Tuesti had led to Lazard finding out about the direction of their investigation. He lit up a cigarette the moment he was outside, and he stared up at the sun, rubbing his eyes one more time. He didn't even know what time it was beyond simply, 'morning.' He found a newspaper vendor, bought a paper, and frowned as he thumbed through it.
The headline was about yesterday's reactor explosion, of course, but it also had a letter printed, some organization called AVALANCHE taking credit for the bombings. They promised more if Shinra didn't immediately take the remaining six reactors offline. There was even a response from Rufus Shinra already in the paper, assuring the people that no rebel organization would be allowed to deny the people of Midgar their power.
What caught Zack's attention was the response from Tuesti that had been included. In it, he publicly condemned the loss of life as a means for proving a point, as well as assured the public that the Midgar Police Force was looking into the matter. He had complete faith that it would be solved as quickly as possible.
Zack smiled slightly, wondering how it was that the man managed to write things like that, things that cheesy and unbelievable, and sound sincere. Zack had no doubt that if he were to ask Tuesti personally if he really believed it, he would get an honest, if a little confused, 'of course.' Because Tuesti wouldn't really understand why he was asking.
He sighed, folded the paper under his arm, and flagged down a cab to take him back to Sector Two. He'd no more managed to stroll into the precinct house than he spotted something sitting on his desk. It was a small envelope, unmarked, and he frowned as he tore one end of it to slide the letter out.
He glanced around himself, then looked back at the letter before he slammed his fist against the top of his desk, not even caring that it caused almost every officer in the room to look at him. When he saw the commissioner looming in the doorway though, he offered a disarming smile, tucked the letter into a pocket, and disappeared out the door. He wasn't in the mood to get another chewing for not listening to orders.
He took the issued car to get home, the letter seeming to burn through his pocket to his very skin by the time he pulled up in front of the apartment complex. He leaned forward until his forehead touched the wheel, closed his eyes, and simply breathed, trying not to think of Cloud laying there on the streets in under-six, blood pooling around him. He tried not to think that he'd just waked in and out of the precinct house with Cloud's blood still staining his clothes.
He pulled the letter out once more, read through it, and he nodded sharply to himself. He'd gotten them both in well over their heads, gotten Cloud shot up because he was more concerned with trying to figure out exactly how Shinra had been involved in the explosions. He wasn't entirely sure how the writer of the letter had managed to duplicate his own handwriting so perfectly— he couldn't have shown the letter to anyone else because they'd have never believed that he didn't write it— but really, it didn't matter. What mattered was that they were right, that justice needed to be served.
Zack clenched the letter until it crumpled under his hands. He had seven days to figure out exactly who it was that had shot Cloud, seven days to be ready. Cloud would be avenged.
Detective Zack Fair,
It is with great regret that I must urge you to cease this line of questioning. Even if your suspicions are correct, there is not enough evidence in existence at this time for you to acquire in order to bring your suspect to justice. Instead, I humbly request that you direct your attention to a certain bar in under-seven. I know you are aware of it, as you have been seen inside at least once.
You might not be able to bring the one you would like to justice, detective, but you can bring someone to justice instead. You can bring the men responsible for those civilian losses that already number in the hundreds before they are allowed to add more to those numbers. If Commissioner Deusericus has already removed you from the case, do not allow yourself to worry about it. You will simply be able to move more freely through the city.
The election will be held in seven days, thanks to the urgency gripping the city with the terrorist attacks. On election day, all of the players will be assembled in a single location. Be at the Shinra tower, ready to fill your obligation to the city, detective.