3 days until the election.
"Tomorrow night. I don't want you forgetting." Tseng didn't bother to hide the smile on his lips as he spoke into the phone, his eyes lifting periodically to check the door. Reeve had said that Rufus had left a short while before Tseng had called, so he was due to come storming into the building at any moment. "Eight. I know where it is, Reeve. You're not the only one who remembers this city." He chuckled at Reeve's sputtering protest, that was not what he'd meant, but he didn't let Reeve continue for too long.
A flash of white, and he immediately composed his expression and murmured, "I'll talk to you then," and hung up the phone. Reeve was used to that, used to his sudden disappearances. It came with working for the company.
He smoothed the front of his suit just before Rufus's hand hit the door, sent it flying open with such force that at least one receptionist looked up and winced. Tseng fell into step beside him with a practiced ease, long since having grown used to the Vi— the President's moods. He signaled with a small motion of his hand for Rude and Elena to take off, to find something else to do for a while. They saluted with the tips of their fingers against their forehead, and Tseng turned his attention back to Rufus.
Neither of them spoke until they reached the elevator, and Rufus raked a hand through his hair. Tseng leaned forward to tap the button for their floor.
"I just spent an entire day beneath the damned plate, Tseng," he muttered, as though Tseng didn't know where he'd been the past several hours, as though Tseng hadn't assigned both Elena and Rude to shadow Rufus and Reeve. Tseng didn't react though, simply inclined his head. It wasn't a comment that actually needed a response. "And we have another one! He even wants to spend Election day down there."
"Five would be safer," Tseng said slowly. Rufus nodded sharply, and Tseng made a note to mention that to Reeve. A good edge-word about how difficult it would be to protect him adequately below, about the risks the Turks had to take, and Reeve would let up without hesitation.
"Speak to him about it, would you?" That hand was in his hair again, and Tseng's eyes narrowed. Rufus was more agitated than he was letting on. It had to do with more than just being below the plate.
The elevator doors opened and the two of hem walked down the hallway. Rufus was a step ahead of Tseng. When they reached the office, Rufus immediately crossed to stand in front of the window. He needed a few minutes to reorganize his thoughts. That was his habit.
Tseng shut the door behind them. He was just turning to speak when he heard a low, "Damn it! He— ... Tseng."
He walked over to the window and glanced where Rufus was pointing, where Rufus was viciously jabbing toward. The polling booth that had already been set up in five was noticeable, even from Rufus's office, because of the flags. It was set up in one of the squares in the sector, and flags lined all four sides of the squares, as well as right around the booth itself.
It actually took Tseng a minute or two to figure out just what about it had Rufus annoyed. Then he realized that the flags were alternating color. Red and white were Shinra colors. The company colors. Every booth in the city had been wrapped tightly with red and white. Except— and he cut his eyes across to to four to make sure that it wasn't only five— that now they'd taken down half of the red and white flags in favor of a dark blue flag with eight white circles connected with a vivid green stripe.
The Midgar flag.
Tseng hadn't seen it since the proposed design speech, and he hadn't recognized it at first. He felt the beginnings of a smile tug on the corners of his lips, but he carefully kept his expression neutral as he asked, "You don't approve of the Midgar flag?"
Rufus scowled, spun on his heel, and walked over to his desk. He fell back into the seat there, almost gracelessly, and rubbed a hand over his forehead. "You said he was easy to manipulate. You promised that he would do what I needed him to."
Tseng chuckled then, well aware of the unique frustrations that came with dealing with Reeve Tuesti. "He is, and he will. I didn't mislead you." He didn't move from the window, instead watching as some of the white flags in three vanished from sight. "You're over-thinking this."
"You're probably right," Rufus muttered, and he picked up a pen from his desk. He rolled it between his fingers, sighing. "This had better not all be for nothing. It took a lot to get us in this position."
"Yes, sir," Tseng replied. Rufus really had no idea just how much manipulation had gone into this. He'd provided funds and the almost unlimited access that he'd needed to do this job, but he had otherwise kept his hands clean of the entire thing. "Reeve can't lose the election."
"Exactly. If he loses—"
"You misunderstand. Reeve cannot lose the election. It's impossible." Tseng looked away from the window then, turning to glance at Rufus. "His name is the only one that's been in the press within the past few days, his name is the one that the other candidates keep repeating. When the voters look at the ballot, his name will be the only one that seems familiar."
Not to mention Rude and Tseng had already spent most of the last few days combing the obituaries and anything else that could give Reeve the edge he needed. Reeve wouldn't have approved, but it didn't matter. He could complain after he'd been made mayor.
Rufus looked up at him, and he smiled faintly. "Good. I'll be glad when this is all over, Tseng." He sighed as he glanced down at the rapidly growing stack of papers on his desk. "By the time it is, my desk will look like Reeve's." He took the first paper, glanced it over, and signed it. "What about the investigation? How is that going?"
No expression filtered over Tseng's face at the mention of it. He simply nodded once more. "Well. The detective is being handled." Manipulated as smoothly as Rufus had manipulated the previous President into his foolish five year celebration. Who planned a celebration with every single important person in Midgar in the middle of a reactor?
Furthermore, who did that without first posting adequate security?
Tseng never had been able to really understand the previous president.
"Good. Then... he's not going to be a problem." It was a strange phrase, a combination of a statement and a question all at once.
Tseng smiled slowly. "Not at all." He glanced back down toward three, now raising their new, dark blue flags. "He's exactly where we need him."
2 days until the election.
The restaurant was quiet when Reeve entered, and he spotted Tseng sitting at the sushi bar with little trouble. He smiled, waved to a few of the patrons that he recognized, and dropped, unceremoniously, onto the stool beside Tseng. His smile widened as Tseng glanced over at him, and when Tseng rolled his eyes— most likely because of Reeve's amusement— Reeve chuckled.
"Do you have to be such a child?" Tseng asked, and Reeve leaned back as Tseng waved the chef over and ordered for them both.
"But you indulge me so, Tseng," Reeve said with a grin. Tseng even ordered his favorites: eel and tuna. "Look at you! You don't even eat eel."
"Maybe I've developed a taste for it," Tseng murmured, but sure enough, the moment the sushi was handed to them, he slid it down to Reeve. He didn't even look at it. Reeve sighed as he shook his head.
"Missing out," he decided loudly, and several of the other patrons, the ones that knew him, laughed and clapped their hands in agreement. Reeve might have exaggerated his pleasure at the taste of the sushi, but only marginally. There was something special about sitting in the middle of Little Wutai, sharing a plate of sushi with Tseng. He pulled his fingers from his mouth with a happy sigh, but when he saw Tseng's expression, he lowered his hand back to the smooth surface of the bar.
The smile faded from his face, and he pushed the plate to the side. "What is it? You have that face on."
Tseng shook his head, raising an eyebrow. That face said, 'Whatever do you mean?' It was one that Reeve had noticed Rufus making. Briefly, he wondered who had picked it up from whom. After a moment, Tseng asked, "Why does it have to be something?"
"Just... you only make that face when it's something bad." Reeve's brow furrowed, and he toyed with one of the chopsticks, waiting for Tseng to give in, waiting for Tseng to just tell him.
Finally, he said, "I've got Elena scheduled for your protection duty during the election. Are you planning on spending the day under the plate?"
"I was. Why?"
Tseng simply shook his head, and Reeve swallowed. There was more to it then, far more than simple curiosity. Especially when Tseng knew full well that Reeve was planning on spending the day under the plate.
"I was just thinking that if you are, I should send Rude, too." Tseng shrugged, and he didn't add anything else (one moment of silence, Reeve counted in his head) as he picked up a piece of the tuna. (Two.) Reeve bit his bottom lip.
"Do you really think it will be that dangerous?" He had an image of her in his head then, smiling and waving. She was a pretty enough girl, adept at handling the press and crowds. The thought of putting her in direct danger was upsetting. Tseng's silence drove the point home, and he sighed. "Rufus said that five could benefit from my presence," he allowed, and Tseng offered him a smile.
"No, if you want to be under the plate—"
"No, no. It's not that big of a deal. I can work five. Or two. Two might be better, yeah?" Reeve smiled. "Five is full of Shinra employees anyway. We all know how they'll be voting."
Tseng smiled then, and Reeve breathed a very slight sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was to be a burden on someone charged with keeping him safe. "Two would be a good choice. Lots of independents over there." He sipped from his glass, and Reeve nodded. Two's numbers had been particularly indecisive.
"Well, then I guess I'll be in two, won't I?" He glanced back at his plate, pushing one of the pieces around on it. "Where will Rufus be?"
"Why are you asking?" Tseng raised an eyebrow again, but paired with his smile, it was less of an attempt to be innocent and more of a question in itself.
Reeve flushed and waved a hand, dismissing the idea. "Don't be foolish," he muttered, but the blush only got darker. Tseng laughed suddenly, and Reeve looked up at him, not used to hearing the sound.
"So, you did then. You and him?"
Somehow, the heat in Reeve's face intensified. "It's none of your business if we did. Or who I might spend my days with anyway."
Tseng snorted. "I know who you spend your days with. I'm more interested in those nights of yours—"
Reeve coughed loudly into his hand, cutting Tseng off, but when he looked back up, they exchanged grins. There was something to be said about simple camaraderie, about familiarity. He decided after only a moment that he'd had more than enough questions about his personal life, and instead, he asked, "How is Reno doing?"
The smile faded, and while Reeve regretted that, he was grateful that Tseng didn't pressure him. Tseng never did though. "He's well. Better. Had to move him to seven." Tseng sighed, running a finger over the edge of his plate. "He's already being a smart ass again, so that's good."
"Always. When will he be back at work?"
"Few weeks. Long enough to make sure that the materia used to stabilize him didn't create permanent weakness." Tseng shrugged, and Reeve nodded.
That was standard practice; using materia to keep a patient stable until they'd healed enough for proper medicine. The only problem was that bones and muscle knit back together from materia had a chance of not growing back properly. It could end in permanent disability, depending on how the individual reacted to the materia.
"I'll have to stop by to see him," Reeve murmured, and he took a drink of his tea. He couldn't imagine the spunky red head laying helpless in a hospital bed. Most likely, they had strapped him into the bed. "He's up for visitors?"
"Oh, yeah. He's giving the nurses hell already. To Reno's recovery." Tseng held up his glass, and Reeve smiled as he tapped the edge of his glass to Tseng's.
"To Reno's recovery," he agreed quietly, and he took another drink. They ate a few more things, but the talk died down to more standard fare. Gossip, the latest things being sold over in the market, the play being put on by the newest troupe of actors.
It was blessedly normal, and Reeve wondered just how many more nights of that he would have left. Between Rufus and Midgar, he was beginning to think that his time no longer belonged to him. He couldn't find it in himself to be annoyed though. He lived for Midgar, lived through her. And Rufus...
A smile touched Reeve's lips.
The day before the election.
Jessie had been avoiding her for two days. Tifa's eyes narrowed as she glanced across the room toward her, bent over the books with Marlene. They were both smiling, but Jessie's seemed different somehow. Restrained maybe.
Then, as she tilted her head down, Tifa's eyes widened. There was definitely a shadow of something hidden under her make-up. A bruise along her jaw that Tifa was pretty sure hadn't been there the last time Tifa had helped her with her make-up. She watched the two of them work some more, and then she stepped in, smiling warmly at Marlene.
"Honey, why don't you go up to your room for a bit and draw something for us?"
Without a question, Marlene bolted, clearly thrilled to be allowed to escape the tedium of studying in favor of drawing. Jessie looked away from Tifa, carefully keeping that side of her face away from her. Tifa frowned and reached out to catch Jessie's jaw in her hand. Her eyes narrowed sharply.
"Who hit you?"
But Jessie just shook her head, saying only, "It wasn't Elena, Tifa. I swear. I... I really worry about what she's going to do when she sees it." And then it was time to open, time to dance, and Tifa decided that it would be easier to work Jessie over after they danced for the night. Jessie was always easier to crack after she was tired.
Tifa didn't even have to wait that long. Soon as they both stepped out into the bar, Dyne glanced them over, his eyes lingering on Jessie in a way that Tifa was sure Elena would have hauled him across the bar for. As it stood, Jessie simply shrank back, almost hiding behind Tifa, and Tifa's eyes widened as she realized what happened. She wrapped her hand around Jessie's elbow.
"Dyne? Dyne's sorry ass hit you?" Her frown deepened, but Jessie desperately tugged her closer.
"Tifa, don't," she whispered. She hesitated, and then she added softly, "He might hurt Marlene, Tifa. I can't... I can't let you risk her safety."
And Tifa, so help her, listened. She spent the entire night glaring daggers at Dyne, at Barret, at the two bastards sitting with them.
"They're not going to stop until Shinra's gone."
Tifa wished more than anything that Zack was wrong; he was prejudiced against the slums, against the struggles they all had to endure living below the plate. He didn't understand what Shinra represented to those in the slums, particularly those from Corel or Gongaga.
Her eyes squeezed closed as she thought of Marlene, asleep in her bed. Pretending to be asleep because she knew Jessie or Tifa one would stop by to check on her before they opened the bar. She always pretended, but she was inevitably asleep by the time they closed, so Tifa and Jessie let her.
Tifa clenched the rag in her hand. She had to tell someone. Couldn't let another reactor explode, another let Dyne and Barret be one more excuse for Shinra to retaliate. Rufus's statements and quotes in the papers had been quite clear that the next reactor that exploded would force him to take action, no matter how much faith Tuesti had in the Midgar Police.
She couldn't let Dyne spiral even more out of control. He'd hit Jessie. Hit her hard enough to leave an ugly bruise along her jaw. If he'd hit Marlene with even a fraction of that force...
She worked the night, dancing and serving drinks and smiling as much as she could. Dyne must have known something was up, must have suspected that she was not as on board as she pretended to be, but he couldn't do anything. He and Barret left early once again, leaving Tifa to clean up after they closed, and she forced herself to leave the mess.
She felt a strange sense of peace stealing over her as she moved through the house, packing a light bag for herself and then walking into Marlene's room and packing one for the girl. Jessie stood in the doorway, watching her with wide eyes, and Tifa jerked her head to indicate that Jessie should do the same.
There was a brief hesitation before Jessie did. Tifa gathered up as much of Marlene's things as would fit in the two bags, and she shivered as she gently pulled the girl into her arms. Marlene woke only a little, exhausted from staying up as late as she could, and Tifa coaxed her into wrapping her arms around her neck.
The three of them stopped in the bar just long enough to pull the money from the register and safe, and then they left. Tifa's heart twisted painfully as she locked the front door, as she cradled Marlene to her, one of the bags in her hand and walked toward the train station with Jessie. The Seventh Heaven was quiet. Dark and alone and the sight made Tifa look toward the train, quickly blinking back the tears that welled up.
There was no telling what Dyne might do when he returned and they were all gone. The building might not even be standing when they came back.
If they came back.
She paid for their train tickets, and once they were stowed away on the back car, Jessie asked, "What are we doing, Tifa? Where are we going to go?"
Tifa swallowed back the lump choking her, and she smiled as evenly as she could. Her hand brushed down over Marlene's hair. "Somewhere safe," she whispered, and something in her expression must have made Jessie go quiet, because nothing else was asked until they stepped off the train in upper seven.
She froze for a minute, standing there under the open sky, with the stars and moon visible overhead. Jessie set one of the bags down in favor of laying her hand on Tifa's arm, and Tifa could understand why. It was as though they were going to fall into the heavens. Her feet were tingling.
But she shook her head; made herself focus. Tseng had said that Reno was in the hospital in upper seven. Zack had said that his partner was in there too. The blond. If anyone knew how to get in touch with Zack, it would be his partner. She supposed that she could have gone to the nearest precinct instead, but she felt uncomfortable with that.
Too many cops had raided Seventh Heaven before, knew her on sight. She didn't want to invite their ridicule when she knew she had someone specific to speak to. She braced herself and said, "Come on." She watched Jessie pick up the bag again. "We have to go to the hospital first."
So they did, and Tifa might have frozen at the desk had there been anyone sitting there who wasn't the nurse on duty. The woman there had a kind expression and a name tag that said she was 'Aerith,' and Tifa found that she could smile when she met those green eyes. They must have looked a sight, but she managed to make her voice even as she asked for Reno. The nurse cheerfully pointed them down the hall to one of the rooms, and Tifa headed down there after another hesitant smile.
Reno wasn't asleep, and somehow, that didn't surprise her. He did look shocked to see them though, and he even started to get up. Tifa held out a hand. "No," she said quickly, swallowing. "I ... I'm looking for Zack's partner. The... detective in the bar a few days ago?"
Reno went perfectly still at her request, and then he snorted and shook his head just a little. "Really? He ... He's down the hall. Two doors down. Cloud Strife." And then he fell back in the bed, chuckling and muttering something about someone saying she might come by.
He waved a hand. "Tseng said you might be by looking for him."
She shivered, wondering why the hell Tseng would think that she might be by to talk to Cloud, and went back in the hall, her arms beginning to ache from holding a four year old that was really too big to be carried for so long. She hesitated in the doorway, and Jessie stopped her.
"Go on. I'll hold Mar for a bit." She held out her arms, and Tifa transferred the sleeping girl slowly, careful not to wake her.
"Thanks," she murmured, and she ducked into the room, leaving Jessie with Marlene and the bags. She smoothed out her skirt, and she cleared her throat. The blond in the hospital bed jerked awake, and he stared at her for a moment, blinking and clearly trying to place her.
"You're... that dancer," he finally said, and she smiled a little, surprised that he remembered. He sat up in the bed a bit, hissing as he held his middle. Tifa tried not to look, tried not to think about the bullets ripping from Dyne's gun through his middle.
She failed miserably.
"What are you doin' here?" He sounded tired, and honestly, Tifa wasn't surprised. He was still healing.
"I'm looking for Zack," she said, and his eyes widened. She held up a hand to stop him from interrupting her. "I ... I have information that he needs. About the man who shot you."
He nodded a little, and after just a minute, he fumbled around on the nightstand. Tifa rushed to help him locate a pencil to go with the notepad he had sitting there. He wrote an address down and handed it to her. He smiled slightly. "I hope you can help him," he said quietly, and she felt her stomach sinking.
"Yeah." Her hand closed around the paper, and she started to leave, stopped in the doorway, and looked back at him. "Good luck," she finally added, and then she was gone, before he could say anything else to her. She felt the paper burning in her hand, and she bit back the tears that were welling up in her eyes. She was betraying Barret and Dyne both, betraying the family that she and Jessie-
The thought of Jessie stopped her in her tracks. Dyne had betrayed them first. She'd told him not to make her choose between protecting him and protecting Jessie. He'd made his bed.
She picked up two of the three bags, and Jessie grabbed the other. Marlene was still sleeping. Tifa was grateful.
A cab ride got them over to upper two, to the address Cloud had scrawled on the piece of paper. She paid the cabbie, and her heart was thumping in her chest, thumping hard as she headed up the stairs to the apartment complex. Jessie followed her, and when they reached the door, they exchanged glances before Tifa knocked. She knocked two more times before the door finally opened, before Zack practically tumbled out, his hair in disarray and a faded pair of pants pulled on over his hips.
She quickly pulled her gaze up as she realized he hadn't bothered to fasten them. His eyes widened at the sight of her, and he licked his bottom lip before he asked, "Tifa? What's wrong?"
She swallowed. Jessie fidgeted beside her, and then she made herself say it. Made herself spit out the secret she'd been hiding since the very first attack.
"I know who the bomber is. I know who shot Cloud."
Zack stepped to the side to let them all in, and Tifa hesitated. She added, after just a minute, "I need you to promise that he'll go to jail."
"Are you sure he's the bomber?" When she nodded, he smiled. "Then I'll get him in jail. One way or another."