Aw yes, we're almost to Wall Market. I wrote this chapter up earlier than I would usually considering the wait for the last chapter was so huge, so there we go. Plus I just want to go ahead and get to the most wonderful bit. So close!
I'd managed to avoid Tifa speaking for quite a while, but, well. I can't really keep that going forever, can I?
Thanks for any reviews, they do help to keep me going while I do this. It's always easier to get more motivated when you know that there are actually people reading and enjoying.
"Cloud still hasn't come back."
Tifa's forlorn statement broke the heavy silence that she, Squall and Barret had been sitting in for quite a while.
The three of them had returned to the bar that morning after what had happened at the reactor ready to wait and see if Cloud was going to come back. Jessie, Biggs and Wedge had left to go and look for any information they could find about the blond's whereabouts, but had come up empty handed and had called it quits at around eight o'clock that evening. They'd left to return to their families. It was useless to search well into the night when they could try again, more refreshed, the next morning.
They'd expected him to come back. It was past midnight so it had been over twelve hours since the events that had taken place that morning.
"Dammit, we don't have time to waste waitin' around for him!" Barret's large fist bashed against the sturdy wooden bar, betraying his anger. How dare that cocky SOLDIER keep them waiting like this? He was obviously alive, or at least he better be after all the boasting about how indestructible his kind were. "If he drags this out too long I'll off him myself!"
The man growled, turning away and taking a deep breath. That may have been the wrong thing to say around Tifa. He turned back to her and muttered, "Maybe I'm overexaggeratin' a little, but damn! You'd think he'd be here by now."
"Just give him some more time... maybe he stopped to get some rest and he'll be here in the morning."
Squall was watching the two of them battle it out over the blond's current state of well-being in silence. He wasn't too worried. It wasn't as if this was the first time this had happened, after all, considering only a few days before on that train he'd lagged behind so that he could make a grand entrance. Knowing Cloud he was probably waiting around so that he could make everybody so relieved and awestruck when he just waltzed in, completely fine.
It was probably time to shut those two up, though. Arguing well into the night wouldn't solve anything.
"I'm going to head up and get some rest. You two should do the same."
With that he swept out of the bar and down to where he was sleeping while he was here, at least slightly pleased to hear that the small tiff seemed to have been broken up when he'd interrupted.
The brunet awoke in the morning to the sounds of a commotion upstairs. It was still incredibly early, which was easily discernible from a quick check out of the window to see if the street lamps that lit up the slums during the day had been turned on, so he immediately sat bolt upright on his mattress. Had somebody tried to break in? What if Shinra had discovered their hiding place. There was no point in thinking about it, that wouldn't solve anything. He had to go up there and find out what was going on for himself.
As he ascended to the bar proper and on the way he found himself close enough to hear what was going on up there.
"The hell you tryin' to sneak in for? I've seen your type hangin' round here for a while, and you better have a good reason!"
Barret seemed to be dealing with whatever the disturbance was up there quite well, but he definitely felt his own assistance would still be required.
Squall soon joined the others and quickly pinpointed what had roused them from their beds this early in the morning. Barret had a tight grip on a young man who was looking more worried now that he'd been caught by the burliest inhabitant of the bar. Tifa was there too, looking quite shocked that somebody had attempted to break in so early. They'd not even been in their beds for an hour and this had happened.
As Squall made his way closer to the group he got a better look at the man they'd caught. He was sleazily dressed with slicked back hair, and as the distance closed between them the brunet caught the distinct whiff of cigarettes in the air around him.
"You've got one minute to tell me who the hell you are and what you're doin' here." The way that Barret pressed his gun arm to the man's chest easily conveyed the fact that he wasn't playing games. Only a whimper from the man followed the statement, until a few seconds later when he started to babble.
"Hey man, the boss told me to look around here, y'see? I dunno why! I just gotta check for any funny business or whatnot. Thought it was closin' pretty early for a bar so there might be a mistake on the sign, so I came in to check it out!" The man's voice had risen by about an octave when Barret's upper lip curled into a snarl.
"Who you workin' for? Who's the boss?"
"Th-the Don! Corneo, in Sector 6! I dunno anything else, please, you gotta let me go!"
Barret seemed to grant him that last request, at least. After dragging him towards the door he slammed it open and hurled the shaking lackey out onto the street. "Get outta here, and don't come back! Tell your Don that we don't wanna see any of your type around here any more, or there'll be trouble, y'hear?"
Needless to say, the now terrified young man didn't need telling twice. He ran for the hills. Somehow Squall doubted he'd be going back to Corneo now that he'd gone and spilled his guts, but at the same time they couldn't be sure whether there were other men around and, if there were, how long they'd been watching the base. They could have been compromised.
There was one thing that confused the brunet, something that didn't quiet add up and hadn't been explained. Why had the Don been watching them? There was no understandable reason for him to do so, unless...
Unless Shinra were working with him.
That could be jumping to conclusions, but they had to be on the safe side. Squall felt it would be a good idea to have a discussion about this once they got inside, no matter what time in the morning it was.
Once the three of them had made their way back into the bar and shut the door after themselves, Tifa rounded on Barret.
"Why didn't you keep him for longer? He could've been lying, or withholding information! Just because he said the Don hadn't told him why they were watching us doesn't mean that he didn't know!"
Wow, she'd actually had the same idea. The brunet wondered if he should perhaps give her more credit from now on.
"Just leave it, Tifa. We don't wanna give 'em any more reasons to keep an eye on us, y'hear?"
"Oh sure, let's just sweep it under the carpet and pretend it didn't happen! This could be really important, Barret!"
"Keep it down, would'ja? Marlene's tryin' to sleep!"
Another argument. Squall sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose while he tried not to get frustrated with both of them. They were a group, a team. Them against Shinra. They weren't supposed to fight like this whenever something happened. Even Cloud was more agreeable than this, and that was saying something. He had to interrupt.
"You can argue all you want about this in the morning. I'm going to get some more rest. Somebody's gotta be prepared for whatever might happen tomorrow."
Rather than waiting for an answer he bailed on the entire situation. Even if the others wanted to carry on arguing, he was going to be the sensible one and keep himself fit and rested for any eventuality. Besides, his bed was calling him and he was hardly going to deny himself a few hours' peace.
"Squall! Leonhart, get your ass outta bed!"
Waking to the sound of Barret's yells wasn't the most pleasant experience, but the brunet was up and off his mattress in moments. After reaching for his gunblade, which he kept next to him while he slept so that he was constantly on guard, he looked to the leader to see what all of the commotion was about.
She'd left? That wasn't like her. What could she be doing that was so important? He tried to think, wanting to figure out if there was somebody, anybody who might know when she'd slipped out this morning and where she'd gone to. Well, there was somebody that Tifa tended to talk to, and would've been closer to her than he or Barret had at the time...
"Marlene was in the same room as her, she might know something."
Judging by the way the man's eyes lit up and the speed at which he hurtled off to the room the girls had been staying in Barret hadn't actually thought of asking her yet. With a sigh Squall went to follow him, wondering if the young girl would have any idea of what Tifa had been thinking. It still wasn't likely by any means, but it was worth a shot. Better than not asking at all.
By the time he'd made it into the room Barret seemed to have already posed the question to his daughter, perhaps wanting to ask her in an environment that was as non-threatening as possible for her since she wasn't really keen on anybody other than her father or Tifa. When the brunet entered the bedroom she looked a little bit shocked but didn't seem to clam up entirely.
"When Tifa left? I don't know... she put on a pretty dress and said she had to go for a while."
Squall's brow furrowed. A pretty dress? Whatever was she doing that meant she had to dress up all fancily before she left?
"I'll go get her. You stay here and keep an eye on what's going on around here."
The SeeD had a guess about where Tifa had gone, and the more he thought about it the more convinced he was that he must be right. Sector 6. The Don was well known for being a lecherous creep who invited the girls at the brothel in his Sector for a 'practice session' each and every night. What in Gaia's name was she thinking? He'd thought that something fishy was going on as well, but that didn't mean he'd gone and dolled himself up so that he could go and seduce Corneo. There were clearly more simple ways to go about finding the information that they needed.
Without waiting for Barret's reply the brunet left the bedroom and made his way to the front door of the bar. There was no point in waiting around, and since it still wasn't light outside he may still have a chance at catching up and finding her before the Don brought her in.
First Cloud, now Tifa. Why did everybody have to go and get themselves into messes and leave him to sort everything out?
"What rank were you?"
Cloud had been sat with Aerith in a small, dilapidated children's playground for a little while now, long enough to have settled on the top of a small slide with a dome surrounding it. They'd been sat in silence for a little while, just enjoying the quiet. It was nice to have some peace without it feeling horrendously awkward for once. Squall had always ended up intruding on most of his alone time back at the bar so it was nice to get away from it all for a little while.
When Aerith had broken the silence he looked over at her in mild surprise, his brow furrowing slightly as he tried to make sense of what she'd said.
The young woman laughed at the dumb look that he was giving her. She was going to need to give him a bit of a prompt to find out what she wanted to know, it seemed.
"You know, in SOLDIER. What other rank would I be talking about?"
"Oh..." Well, he felt a bit slow for not realising that right away. He had a good enough reason because, even if he was a SOLDIER, he couldn't be expected to run spectacularly well on only a few hours sleep in the last few days. What rank had he been? It was on the tip of his tongue...
A flash of white.
"First Class, of course."
"Just the same as him..." Aerith let out a soft sigh afterwards, smiling wistfully at a swing-set a few paces away.
"Him?" Cloud prompted her, wondering who she was talking about. Somebody close to her? He wondered if he would have known the man. It seemed likely considering that they were the same rank, a fairly high, hard to attain one at that.
"My first boyfriend. He was in SOLDIER, too."
"Oh, right." Perhaps he shouldn't have pried. Probably best to check whether or not it was the sore subject that he thought it was. "Were you guys serious, or what?"
"No, I suppose we weren't. I did like him for a while, though."Aerith shook her head, and the blond wondered what memories he'd managed to dig up. "But it doesn't matter. It was a long time ago, you probably wouldn't remember him anyway, even if you did know him."
They descended into another silence, but this time it was a bit more awkward for the both of them. Cloud did wonder if he should have pressed the issue further. It probably wasn't the most sensitive thing to do, to make her talk about a boyfriend who obviously wasn't around any more.
Just then, the enormous gates that led through to Sector 7 opened up. A gaudy, pink and purple carriage emerged from it, pulled by a chocobo that was being guided by the carriage driver. Merely looking at the exterior of it was enough to know exactly where it was headed: Sector 6. The blond was about to stop paying it any mind until he saw a girl leaning out of the back.
"Tifa?" He stood up, craning over to get a better look at the girl who was carefully applying lipstick as best she could as the carriage wobbled over shaky, uneven ground. What was she doing in there, dressed like that?
"You know that girl? She looked kind of, well... odd." Yeah, that was something he could agree with. A tight, short dark blue dress was never his friend's attire of choice, especially not with a large heart shaped strip cut out of the breast area which put more on show than he was comfortable with looking at. If she was heading into Sector 6 for whatever reason, she certainly looked the part.
The blond had been too busy staring in confusion that he hadn't noticed Aerith jump down off the slide and start to run towards the cart, nor had he noticed somebody else slip through the gates before they had closed again. When he looked around to see that she was no longer there he looked shocked for a few moments before jumping down after her.
"Hey, wait! What are you doing? I'll go get her, you should go home now." He wasn't going to get Aerith in more danger. It was obvious to him that her mother was really going to dislike him after this. Well, in his defence he'd tried his best to keep her safe at home, but she'd managed to thwart him at every turn.
It was clear that Aerith wasn't listening to him and was just running into the Sector at full pelt, so he was just going to have to catch up to her and keep her away from all the strange, leery men that were contained within as best he could while he rescued Tifa. He stopped, however, when he heard a voice.
"Took you long enough to get back, didn't it?"
He recognised that voice. When he turned around his suspicions were soon confirmed.
It was good to know that the brunet was already going to start making little comments about every little thing, including the fact that he hadn't made it back right away after being blown clean off a bridge.
"I've been busy. Things came up. What're you doing here?"
The brunet was actually quite taken aback by the fact that Cloud was already annoyed with him. He'd just been making an observation, not trying to be intentionally snide.
"Tifa took off this morning, I figured I'd better find her before she got herself into trouble. We don't need her mucking anything up."
Cloud snorted. Was that his way of taking control of the situation again? He had no idea what Tifa was thinking, but surely Squall could've made more of an effort to stop her beforehand rather than just waiting until she'd taken off. Why wasn't Barret here, anyway? Had he been told to stay home and look after Marlene?
"Fine. Guess I'm headed that way too." He would begrudgingly accept Squall's involvement, but wasn't going to just let him take charge like he'd been doing on the train before. He headed off in the direction that Aerith had run quite quickly, half because he didn't want the SeeD to go ahead and walk off ahead of him so soon after they'd joined together, and half because he didn't want anything to happen to Aerith after she'd run off by herself into what she had claimed during their travels was a rather dangerous place to spend time in. Wall Market.
He did wonder, in quite an exasperated fashion, just what they'd have to do before he could get back to the bar. Nothing was ever simple.