Tifa wasn't certain if she was awake or asleep. She hoped it was the latter, for it was comforting to think she could dismiss what was happening to her as a bizarre dream.
Although her eyes were closed, she could clearly see the room she was in and the pattern on the coverlet upon which she lay. She could also smell the lemon oil that had been used to polish the piano, and hear the soft humming of the woman seated beside her, feel her hand stroking repeatedly over her long hair.
If she were dreaming, her surroundings had been dredged from deep in her memory and recreated with startlingly vivid detail. This was her room in Nibelheim, complete with childhood trappings and much beloved parental figure.
If she were awake, she must be going insane: her mother, the room, and even the town were all long gone.
The soft humming slowly faded away. "Hold on, Tifa," her mother said, her voice gentle and encouraging, and so real that it brought tears to Tifa's eyes. "Your young man is coming." There was a hint of laughter in her tone, and a great deal of approval. "He's a bit ahead of schedule, actually. Gethin is in a snit over having to step up his plans." Long fingers brushed her bangs back, stroked over her forehead as if checking for fever. "So you have to hold on, and keep fighting." The fingers shifted to her shoulder, lifting her into a sitting position, her back supported by a mound of fluffy pillows. "Come on now. I've brought you some soup to help get your strength back."
Despite how surreal it all was – the room, her mother, knowing that none of it made sense – Tifa found herself allowing the older woman to help her eat, obediently opening her mouth for the waiting spoon. Common sense argued that the scenario was wrong, was skewed... but it felt right. She believed her mother – whether dream or memory or drug-induced figment: Cloud was coming. He was even going to be early. That news eased some of the fear that had been ever-present since she awoke to find she'd been abducted. And so she ate, and then let herself drift off into deeper sleep. Around her, the room and her mother both slowly washed away in a tide of green.
In her cell in Gethin's compound, Tifa stared blankly at the wall, sightless eyes aglow with the telltale green of a sand storm – a brief mako surge produced as her body struggled to disperse the drug from her system. Such mental spells were common among those suffering from an overdose, and thus went unremarked by the teenager patiently spooning soup into the fighter's waiting mouth.
Nate was understandably alarmed to find two WRO peace keepers waiting outside his home, especially considering it had only been a matter of hours since Gethin had kicked him to the curb.
Someone certainly wasn't wasting any time.
He'd spent the night drinking at The Underground – a bar run out of a basement just inside the Midgar ruins. The clientele was rough and the alcohol just a shade away from paint thinner... but the bartender didn't ask questions or attempt to make friends, and every single patron specialized in being deaf, dumb, and blind. Which had suited him fine: an occasional bully rather than a professional thug, he was in way over his head, and had needed to disappear for awhile to figure out what to do next.
When the place closed around four in the morning, he had nothing to show for his efforts but a pounding headache and the certainty that staying in Edge after having participated in the kidnapping of Cloud Strife's lover would be hazardous to his health. Muzzily thinking he would pack a bag and then go somewhere – even if it was just a hotel to buy himself some time to come up with a better plan – he headed home.
In his frustrated and inebriated state, it didn't even occur to him that he might not be the reason the officers were in the hallway of his apartment building. No, his immediate assumption was that his erstwhile partner had turned him in, disposing of his accomplice like so much trash.
Of course he tried to run.
Motions far from smooth, he swayed dangerously on his feet as he turned and stumbled away. They were on him before he'd made it more than a hundred paces, his drunken voice raised in protest as he struggled clumsily to escape.
"Commissioner Tuesti said to see if he knew anything?" one officer asked the other, and upon receiving a nod, broke into a grin. "I think it's safe to say he does."
"Yeah, but does it have anything to do with what we came here to ask, or has he been up to something else?"
Glancing down at their captive's sullen expression and glassy eyes, the first man could only shrug at his partner. "Dunno. Let's get him back to the office and sobered up, and see what he's got on his guilty conscience."
The drive itself seemed to have a fairly sobering effect, and the man they led into lockup was far more subdued than the one they'd forced into their car. By lunchtime, elixir-laced coffee had finished the job, and while his appearance was unkempt, his footsteps were steady when they escorted him into the interrogation room.
Looking up from the folder spread open on the table in front of him, Reeve watched as Nate settled into the seat opposite. This wasn't the situation either he or Cloud had anticipated: he knew Nate irritated the swordsman in a minor way virtually every time they met - much like a gnat or other buzzing insect - but there had been no suspicion in Cloud's tone when he'd suggested that his self-styled rival might have seen something useful. The fact remained, however, that innocent men didn't – usually – run from the peace keepers.
Now he had to choose whether to be confrontational or apologetic in his questioning. Considering that Nate wasn't really working with mastered materia (as Yuffie would have put it) either approach had a likelihood of getting the man to reveal more than intended. However... Nate was also overly belligerent and easy to antagonize; while anger would loosen his tongue, it would also result in a lot of blowhard chatter that would get them nowhere.
Best to continue as originally planned, and switch tactics as the situation warranted.
As the primary detective on the case, Fiona Hayden, settled in the seat beside him, Reeve let his features assume a conciliatory expression. "Mr. Kysely, I must apologize," he said with expert sincerity. "It seems some sort of mistake has been made, as it was never my intention to have you arrested."
Folding his arms and slouching in his chair, Nate scowled back. "What were the officers for, then?" he demanded, angry and suspicious.
"You mean no one told you?" Reeve asked, feigning surprise and distress. "One of Edge's most prominent citizens disappeared last night! As you are known to be a friend of the victim, we were first and foremost concerned that something might have happened to you as well – especially when there was no response at your home." Skillfully, with just a few sentences, he stroked the other man's ego and implied that the thought of Nate as having some part in Tifa's abduction was a non-issue.
Nate pondered that for a moment, his thoughts obviously moving in slow motion. Reeve shared a glance with Fiona as both noted the way the construction worker relaxed slightly, a faint, relieved smile flitting across his strong features. "I see," he responded finally, having adopted a wounded but forgiving tone. "I don't see why your officers felt the need to apprehend me, but – in light of your concerns, and your quick response in sending someone over – I will refrain from pressing charges."
Reeve sighed with exaggerated relief, while internally labeling the other man both a horrible actor and a first quality jackass.
"How long has Ti– um... this friend of mine been missing? Who is she?"
Fiona tucked her chin and shuffled the papers in front of her to disguise her amused satisfaction. "Since last night," she replied. "Shortly after the Seventh Heaven's normal closing time, Tifa Lockhart disappeared. We have very little information regarding what happened."
"Yes," chimed in Reeve, "which is the other reason the officers were waiting. We understand that – as a loyal and regular customer at Seventh Heaven – you often stay until closing. It was my hope that you might have seen something that could help us." Nate was already shaking his head, and Reeve held up a hand in a placating gesture. "It might have seemed unimportant at the time, such as an unfamiliar face...?" he prompted.
"This is horrible!" the other man exclaimed, leaning forward and bracing his hands on the table. "I can't believe anyone could..." he shook his head, obviously striving to pretend surprise, "I've seen Tifa hold her own against all comers." Shaking his head again, he ran a hand through his hair, the picture of frustrated worry. "Unfortunately, I can't help you. I'm sorry... but I wasn't at the Seventh Heaven last night."
"Really?" Fiona glanced up briefly to focus on Nate's face, and then glanced away, frowning. "Damn." Slumping in her seat – and doing a much better job of faking frustration – she began paging through her notes.
"Are you certain?" Reeve asked. "If you'll forgive my saying so, it was apparent from your state at the time of your... accidental arrest that you'd been drinking quite heavily."
Flushing, Nate nodded, albeit somewhat nervously. "Yes, you're right. It was a long day, and I had several errands after work. I didn't start drinking until Seventh Heaven had already closed." His feet shifted under the table, betraying additional discomfort with the current line of questioning.
"Ah, here it is," Fiona commented quietly, turning her notes toward Reeve (revealing an itemized list of the lies Nate had told so far), "I knew there had been a report filed."
"Yes, I see," Reeve agreed, moving the paper in front of himself as if to get a better look. "Are you certain of your facts Mr. Kysely? We have here a report from a very reliable witness, stating that you were in Seventh Heaven as late as twenty minutes before closing."
"Really?" Nate shifted uncomfortably again, "I'm afraid your witness is mistaken."
"No," Reeve answered, shaking his head and deciding to indulge in a little name dropping, "Cloud Strife is positive you were at Seventh Heaven last night."
Nate pushed himself away from the table almost violently, his chair scraping against the floor. "Strife?" he demanded, his jealousy for the swordsman loosening his tongue, "How could he witness anything? He wasn't even home last night!"
"And you would know that how?" Fiona asked coolly, pen poised as if to take down his answer.
He fumbled for a moment, opening and closing his mouth a few times before finding one. "I... I just assumed. Surely nobody would attempt an attack on Seventh Heaven if he were home...?"
"Hmmm," she responded, turning her attention back to the pad in front of her and jotting something down, much to Nate's anxious dismay.
"Be that as it may, Mr Kysely, Cloud Strife states that he could hear your voice in the background when he spoke to Ms. Lockhart on the phone. Perhaps you are unaware, but as a result of the experiments he was subjected to some years ago, Strife's senses have all been enhanced to the degree that we have no choice but to accept his report as factual." Which wasn't strictly speaking true – they were following up on the report more because it was Cloud rather than due to any sort of standard procedure – but it sounded impressive and intimidating. "Do you have any explanation for why he would lie?"
As expected, Nate jumped at the dangled bait. "Strife has always been a suspicious and jealous man. Maybe he feels threatened by my friendship with Tifa."
"It is true that you have been involved in several small altercations with Mr. Strife," Fiona agreed, "however, our sources indicate that you are usually the one at fault. Ms. Lockhart has also reportedly asked you to leave the Seventh Heaven on more than one occasion." She again made a show of looking through her notes, tapping pen against paper as she pretended to read from a non-existent file: "I have here several complaints stating that you are both disruptive and prone to unwelcome advances." It wasn't exactly a lie – Tifa had made the 'complaints' herself, as part of general conversation the last time Reeve had stopped in for a drink.
"It sounds as if you aren't as friendly with Ms. Lockhart as we initially thought," Reeve stated, sitting back and folding his arms, gaze hard. "Your failure to correct that error calls the truth of all your subsequent statements into question – and I have to say, with such an important figure missing, it doesn't look good when innocent people lie. Would you like to start again from the beginning Mr Kysely?"
Off balance and palms sweating, Nate swallowed air in nervous gulps. "Fine, fine," he agreed, "I'm sorry, I just... okay, I was there last night. But I had nothing to do with her disappearance! I swear!"
"How late did you stay?" Fiona snapped the question.
"Was anyone else in the bar?"
"There was a young couple. Barely more than kids. They left at closing, too."
"Would you recognize them if you saw them again?"
"I ... I don't know."
Reeve sat back to watch Fiona work. She was truly exceptional at her job, and with Nate already off-balance, the rapid-fire questions had his thoughts spinning trying to keep up. He was answering almost on automatic.
"How long were you there?"
"An hour, maybe...?"
"Did you speak with Ms. Lockhart?"
"Some. Mainly just to order my drink."
"What did you have?"
"Just the one?"
"Did Ms. Lockhart have anything to drink?"
"She was making a spritzer when I arrived."
"Did she finish it?"
"No. She only had a little."
Reeve's eyebrows went up at that, and Fiona hesitated in her questioning for just a second. If Tifa had drunk less than they expected, it would indicate her reaction might be even more severe than they already feared. The fact that she'd passed out in the middle of bussing tables had already led them to believe that the drug had hit her hard and fast, with no preliminary dizziness or drowsiness. That, along with her lifestream exposure and experience with materia, were the reasons they were preparing to deal with overdose symptoms. However... if she hadn't actually imbibed much, Shelke would need to adjust her withdrawal time table.
"How much is a little?" Fiona pressed, "Two fingers? Half a glass?"
"I don't know... maybe a third? I don't know!"
"Alright," Reeve interrupted, making calming motions with his hands, "knowing she didn't finish her drink is very helpful." Nate relaxed a bit at that, offering them a relieved smile as he smoothed his hair back.
"Good," he said. "Is that all you need then?"
"Just a few more questions, Mr. Kysely," Fiona assured him, "and then we'll be through here." He nodded, obviously not catching on that being finished here didn't necessarily mean he would be allowed to leave. "Did she have anything to eat?"
"Do you remember Mr. Strife's call?"
"Yeah," the answer was grudging.
"To whom were you speaking while Ms. Lockhart was on the phone?"
"Nobody." Both tone and expression had turned sullen.
"Nobody?" One auburn eyebrow arched skeptically.
"I was... teasing her about ignoring paying customers to talk to him."
Complaining that she was ignoring you, you mean, Fiona thought, but left it unvoiced. "When you were heading out, did you notice if she'd started clearing the tables yet?"
"Yeah. She always starts bussing the empties at last call."
"So it was business as usual?" He nodded. "And the couple that was there, did they leave immediately after last call?"
"But you stayed to finish your drink?"
"Well... she was alone and it was late. I wanted to keep her company until she was ready to lock up." Nate's voice was falsely sincere, no doubt thinking that professing concern was as good as proclaiming his innocence.
Looking up from her notes, Fiona cocked her head at him. "So you watched her bus the tables?"
"The one the kids were at, yeah. The others were clear."
"And then you left immediately after?"
He hesitated, clearly starting to feel uncertain again. "After... after I finished my drink, yeah."
Fiona smiled. "That's very good to know," she said, "it helps our investigation immensely."
Nate smiled back, even as he wiped his hands on his work pants. "Does it? That's a relief. I don't want anything to happen to Tifa."
"Yes, this information is very helpful, Mr. Kysely," she replied, standing up to walk around to his side of the table. Once there, she propped her hip against the steel surface and leaned down into his personal space. "You see," she explained in a voice leached of its earlier friendliness, "you just admitted to being the last person to see Ms. Lockhart."
"What?" Eyes wide he made to stand, but her slim hand kept him planted in his seat. "No I didn't! I told you I had nothing to do with it!"
"You also said you watched her bus the last table, and kept her company afterward."
"So? What does that prove?"
"Her bus box was found on the floor near the bar. The dishes inside were broken, but it contained two plates, two beer glasses, and two sets of silverware – no doubt the remains of the couple's meal. An empty wine glass was on the bar, along with a spilled drink which the lab tells me is a white-wine spritzer. Piecing the evidence together, it appears that Ms. Lockhart passed out as she was returning the bus box to the kitchen, and knocked her drink over as she reached out, trying to keep from falling. Which means," Fiona concluded, "that if you finished your drink after she cleared that last table, then you were both the last person to see her, and very probably there when she passed out."
"Which also explains why you ran from the peace keepers," Reeve inserted into the silence following her summation, "which is a topic we have yet to address." He waved a hand at the file Fiona had been paging through for show. "While from all accounts you're not the best or friendliest of employees, your work history makes no mention of you operating machinery while under the influence, or appearing on site less than sober. Thus I gather that the inebriated state in which my officers found you is not customary. Care to explain why you would choose to drink yourself into a stupor on third-rate whiskey shortly after leaving the Seventh Heaven?"
Nate glanced from one set of determined features to the other, mind searching frantically for a cover story, even as he realized it was futile. It was the mix of lies he'd told that had tripped him up in the first place. That and his temper. Taking a deep breath, he met Reeve's gaze and nodded.
"I want your guarantee of protection," he said, tone emphatic.
"From your partner or partners?" Fiona asked, not in the least surprised to learn Nate hadn't acted alone.
He laughed, the sound mirthless and hollow. "No," he replied, placing shaking hands side-by-side on the table, the reality of his situation stripping away all bravado. "From Strife. He's been looking for an excuse to gut me for months, and now he has one. The fact that I was just the muscle in this operation, not the brains, won't stop him."
As if to prove his point, the door slammed open, revealing one icily furious Cloud Strife. He crossed the room in two strides, hoisting Nate out of his chair by the throat and slamming him into the mirrored wall behind him. "I've got a different deal for you," Cloud stated between clenched teeth, blue eyes gleaming with cold fire. "Tell me what you know, and I won't kill you right here."
"No, Reeve." The refusal was punctuated by a small shake of his head, those frighteningly intense eyes never leaving Nate's face. "I'm being perfectly reasonable. This little self-entitled bastard wanted Tifa, and wouldn't take no for an answer. Now he's gone to extremes to get her, putting her life in danger in the process."
"I wouldn't have hurt her!" Both hands wrapped around Cloud's forearm, feet flailing a few inches above the ground, Nate's outrage briefly overcame his fear, allowing him to find his voice.
"I'll let Detective Hayden explain all the ways in which you already have," Cloud told him, unmoved, "assuming you cooperate. Now: Where. Is. Tifa?" With each word he tightened his grip a bit more.
Pale and frantic, Nate gasped his answer.
"Gethin," he panted, "Gethin has her."