Bells in Eden
Disclaimer: Sadly, I don't own any of the Final Fantasy Series
Warnings: Mostly canon-compliant (if you squint and assume certain things about Nibelheim)
Companion to Eden in Mourning
Zack is his friend. Tseng didn't intend it. He isn't even certain when it happened. Somewhere between missions and watching Zack from both a distance and up-close.
He always smiles when he sees Tseng. Face brightening like a puppy whose master has finally come home. Always seems thrilled. Figurative tail wagging behind him. Is always relieved. Canine ears relaxed around his muzzle.
Which is not at all the normal reaction Tseng receives.
Turks don't have friends. They have acquaintances. Allies. Occasional liaisons.
But no friends. And certainly not families.
Only… that didn't apply to Veld, it seems.
And in the end, it doesn't apply to Tseng either.
There's a reason Aerith remains free after all. A reason he allows Zack to see her time and again. And Tseng thinks that this secret, like so many others, will go to his grave.
Aerith knows that he's there. She always has.
Zack does, too. He's a Soldier after all. And all appearances to the contrary, he's one of the best. Second only to Sephiroth, truth be told.
But Tseng pretends. They all do. The pair of them act as though they don't know their Turk shadow is there as they go about selling flowers. Nor do they comment when a select few go missing from her cart and money mysteriously appears in their place.
Tseng can still see Zack's grin though. Still feel those blue eyes as they itch to seek him out.
But Zack plays the part surprisingly well, and Tseng can almost pretend he isn't hiding in the background. That he's standing there openly with them. That this isn't Midgar. That he isn't with Shinra and Aerith isn't supposed to be hidden. That life's as beautiful as the flowers the pair of them sell.
It isn't until the end that Zack breaks the illusion. That he goes off script. That reality rears her ugly head once more.
Zack asks him to look after Aerith.
He never thinks to ask the same for himself.
He's probably one of the first to know of Nibelheim. To know of Sephiroth's madness. Of the slaughter. Of… other things.
He isn't the first to arrive. Other Shinra personnel are closer. It's natural they beat him there.
But they gawk while he springs into action.
He still can't find Zack or his trooper friend anywhere, however. The town is little more than cinders, bodies, and cowering survivors. He still searches though. Tears through the remaining buildings with an intensity that surprises all but his most loyal subordinates.
He never finds them. Not as he goes through the inn. The general store. The mayor's house. All the other buildings. Each and every single place left standing.
Zack isn't there. Isn't anywhere he looks in town.
Hojo, however, makes it to the reactor first.
Tseng will regret that for the rest of his life.
Weeks turn to months and into years that are a lifetime when each day drags on. Longer than the previous. Stretching out into eternity as Aerith writes letters and Tseng continues to promise delivery.
It's a sad thing really. The reality of this lie. Of this illusion that he maintains for her sake, if not his own.
But Tseng is many things. A fool isn't one of them.
He knows that Zack has to be dead. He knows Zack. Knows he wouldn't have run. Wouldn't have fled while Sephiroth raged. Wouldn't have left all those people to die. Not finding a body is meaningless when half the town was little more than ash and bone, and that was even before Shinra got to them.
There is no telling what Sephiroth did to him. If he fell in the reactor and was consumed by the mako. If it was truly the fire that did him in.
Tseng doesn't know.
That's worse than anything.
His mouth burns with bile, and only decades of painfully gained self-control keep him from raging. From throwing his phone and his chair and even his desk. From tearing the place apart. From screaming.
One look at his face though has Reno paling and taking a step back. Rude just stands deathly still. As if terrified to move.
Turks, however, are never afraid. They are never angry. They are always calm. Controlled.
His hands are fists, but he forces them to open through sheer willpower alone. Forces himself to breathe. To think.
To plan out his next move even as his thoughts race and his heartbeat follows suit.
Rages burns in his belly, however. Betrayal scorches his bones. And regret coils in his chest.
He didn't know, which is the worst part.
The fact that Hojo had held Zack for four years.
That the president had ever allowed it.
That Tseng himself hadn't even suspected.
Zack is his friend. Quite possibly the only one he's had outside of his own subordinates and a girl he's not even supposed to know. Someone who thinks – thought – the best of him all evidence to the contrary. Someone who trusted him with the person he valued most. Someone who trusted him period.
Zack is his friend.
The Turks are his life.
He isn't Veld. With a dead wife but an adult child who so desperately needs him. With ties outside of those Shinra has provided, even unintentionally. With a life and a purpose beyond orders.
This is all he has. All he's known since Wutai and words and things that will never be taken back. This is his everything. Shinra is…
Tseng shakes he head. Stands in the shadows of the church and breathes in the scent of flowers.
The letters are a heavy weight in his pocket.
Aerith's gaze is heavier still. Green and glowing and making his heart beat painfully in his chest. And not for the reason it usually does.
His face shows nothing. Gives nothing away.
She still knows nonetheless.
In the end, it isn't even that hard of a decision. His Turks will find Zack. They will bring him back.
It's a simple thing. A simple order.
What will come next is something of a problem. He isn't Veld. Zack was never one of them. Nobody would ever mistake him for a Turk.
And Hojo holds the president's favor and ear as he always has.
Not even Rufus will be able to stop him.
Sephiroth, after all, was the people's hero and Shinra's poster boy. But he was so quickly dismissed at Hojo's whim, and the president didn't even bat an eyelash.
Zack and his companion won't be so fortunate.
But Tseng plays through the scenarios even as he sends out his best. Reno and Cissnei and Rude. As he empties the proverbial gables and activates agents he hasn't even seen personally in years. Sends them to the four corners of the world and chasing down every potential lead. No matter how miniscule. No matter how unlikely.
His phone never leaves his hand.
He doesn't need to see the body to know. The army is already self-congratulating and acting as if they have singlehandedly saved the world from some terrible fate.
Reality is a bitter drink. A slow poison that snakes through his belly and curls into his veins.
He doesn't shake. He's too composed for that. Doesn't do anything but lock each and every memory away. Each grin. Each laugh. Each show of camaraderie and trust.
He wraps them up in a box with a bow and stores them away with all the precious parts of himself. Until he can keep his face blank, his eyes unnarrowed. His fingers from reaching for the trigger and taking out the entirety of the Shinra executive board.
Heidegger to Scarlet. Hojo. President Shinra himself.
He doesn't though. It's a near thing. Only stopped by the way Reno and Rude stand on either side. By how Cissnei stares at the floor as she stands behind him.
By the fact that they need him now that Veld's gone and their world is growing smaller by day.
By thoughts of Aerith. Her eyes. Her heartbreak.
He doesn't tell her though. He simply sits with her as she cries.
There's no memorial. Why would there be?
Shinra barely even recognize the deaths of Angeal and Genesis. Sephiroth only got one because the populace expected it. Zack is little more than a footnote in the company ledgers. A tally to mark another enemy defeated. His trooper friend probably wasn't even mentioned.
Tseng has better ways of remembering anyway.
Aerith has finally gone home, and the church is quiet around him. It's late. Long after he should be in bed. But Tseng sits in the first pew and looks at the flowers. Glances from one of the carts to the next. Thinks of watching them being built and how he'd shaken his head at the first two.
His mind drifts from there. To Banora and the scent of burning. Modeoheim. The beach. To all the places that shouldn't mean a thing to him but do.
Memories are all that remain.
It isn't enough, but it's all he has.
Life moves on.
Only not nearly the direction he intended. And really, this shouldn't surprise him at all.
Tseng would recognize that hair anywhere. He might not know the trooper well, but there is a connection between them. A red ribbon of fate that ties them to a man with a carefree smile and a spirit that remains unbroken even in death.
He knows this man. Recognizes the blond spikes and the firm mouth. The sword is the giveaway, however.
Zack hasn't even been dead a month. Tseng hasn't seen him in years before that. But there are some things stronger than time or obligation or organizations.
Tseng fights not to stare. To laugh.
He watches Cloud Strife as he moves through the slums after a girl with long dark hair and too short a skirt. Watches as they come closer and then pass him by without a second glance.
Tseng gazes at them for a moment. And then, he does what he always has when it comes to Zack or Aerith or anything that's ever mattered to him.
Look the other way.