So, a strange old man walks into a bar... (Pre-game.)
Jessie frowned slightly and wiped down another table, and kept looking at the lanky man at the counter as best she could out of the corner of one eye. She couldn't pinpoint what was making her so suspicious; she could just blame it on Barret and his constant assertions that they couldn't trust anyone who wasn't a member of AVALANCHE, but she didn't think that was all there was to it.
It wasn't that anything about the man was blatantly out of place. On the surface, he was just another poor old man from the slums, with his torn gray coat and his long greasy black hair. No, she thought as she stared at his back, it was more subtle than that. He slouched too hard, back curled too much, like he was trying to hide. She looked at his shoes, and they were dirty, scuffed and scratched; still, despite the damage, they looked better than anything sold in the slums. On the whole, he gave her the impression that he was trying very, very hard to fit in.
She walked back to the bar and poured herself a cup of lukewarm, metallic-tasting water from the faucet. It was horrible, but her mouth was horribly dry and she needed something to drink. She was watching Seventh Heaven for a while, and she hated being the only one awake. Biggs and Wedge were both crashed out in the secret room after a long recon mission the night before, and she couldn't wake them up without giving the secret away to everyone. Barret and Tifa were off meeting with a contact in Wall Market about something really important, and Tifa had left Jessie in charge of the bar because there wasn't anyone else they could trust.
In other words, she was going to have to decide if the man might be a threat. And she really didn't know what she should do - she hated to cause trouble, hated to throw out an old man who might just be trying to drink his beer in peace. Still, she was keenly aware that spies were everywhere. If any of them were to find out who she was, or exactly what they were hiding below the bar... the thought kept her up at night, sometimes.
She sighed and put her cup down. She didn't know anything about him, so she didn't know what to say or do. She'd have to talk to him first, nervous as she was about it. She wished that Tifa was there; Tifa was so much better at dealing with the customers. She wasn't afraid of anybody, and it showed. Jessie, on the other hand, was just too nervous.
She walked in front of the stranger, watching him closely. He didn't sit up; he didn't even move as she stood there. His head was down, his eyes fixed on the still-full bottle of beer.
After a few more uncomfortable moments she cleared her throat. "Excuse me," she said, trying to be polite.
"What!?" He looked up at her sharply. His face was dirty, his eyes black and narrow under smeared reading glasses. A lank black mustache dangled over his thin, colorless lips. "Can't a man sit in peace?" he snapped. His voice was reedy and lightly accented, and sounded strangely familiar.
Jessie blinked, momentarily startled. "Oh... I'm sorry, sir," she said, thinking quickly. "I thought you were someone I knew... but you can't be who I thought you were." The lie came quickly, and she could only hope she was convincing him of anything.
"Hm." He peered at her, then coughed and cleared his throat. "I've never been here before. And I've never seen you before in my life." His voice changed remarkably in those few seconds - it was rougher and deeper, and the odd accent disappeared entirely.
"Oh," Jessie said, trying to sound disappointed and innocent - that bright, innocent, energetic image of her that so many people saw had saved her quite a few times. She was grateful for it; something about that man was making her skin crawl, and she didn't know what. Maybe it was the odd smell that surrounded him, booze mingled with something else that stung her eyes and nose. "I'm sorry I bothered you, then."
"Hm." He looked more closely at her again, then smiled a bit. His teeth were stained brown but seemed to be otherwise intact. "Maybe you can help me, after all. You see, I've never visited this Sector before, and I could use a guide. There's something important that I need to find here."
"What do you mean, sir?" she asked. She didn't need to feign confusion at that. Why would he need a guide in the slums?
"Yes. You see, I'm actually here looking for someone. My long lost granddaughter, to be more specific. I haven't seen her since she was a tiny girl."
"That's horrible," Jessie said, because it seemed to be what he expected to hear. And it was horrible, if it was true.
"Indeed." He sighed and shook his head. "She was a very promising young lady, before her mother ran away and took her away from me. Very selfish of her, really. I've tried everything to get her back. I've even sent men out to look for her." She saw his fists clench around the bottle of beer. His voice started to change again, closer to what it had been when she'd surprised him before. "Those lazy bastards... they waste time and money in any cheap booze-hole they can find, and they won't lift a finger to help me! What the hell do we pay them for?"
"What... what kind of men are they?"
"Hmph, they might as well just be common scum for all the use I get out of them. A bunch of overpaid thugs, all bluster and no brains." His voice was fiercely, horribly bitter. "So I intend to take care of finding her myself. I know that she's somewhere in this area. But I need someone to show me the place, someone who knows where a girl might hide. She probably hates me now, if her mother has had any say in it." He looked up at Jessie again. "You must know something," he said, almost pleading. "Nothing I've done in the past thirty-five years means anything if I can't find her!"
"Sir, I don't..." she shook her head. "I mean, I want to help you." It wasn't exactly true. Jessie had never considered herself a liar, but Midgar had a way of changing that. "But I just don't know if I can. Maybe if I knew her name - "
"Name?" He blinked, as if the idea of her having a name simply had not occurred to him. "Well, maybe you'll recognize her. She has a rather unusual first name, I think. Her mother was always a little bit odd." He shook his head. "Her name is -"
The door of the bar slammed open before he could finish the sentence, and everyone in the bar turned to see who had walked in. He was a stranger, almost as skinny as the old man. He wore a black t-shirt and black jeans and dark sunglasses over his eyes. His face was pale and marked with scars, and his red hair was wild and spiked.
Jessie felt her knees go weak; she had to press her hands against the bar to keep herself from collapsing. It didn't matter how trusting she was - she lived in the slums, and she knew how to recognize trouble when she saw it. That man... he stood there like he owned the bar and the whole slum along with it, like he wasn't concerned about anything that might happen to him in there. That alone set off a million warning bells in Jessie's mind. She spared a glance for the old man, and was only slightly startled to see him shaking... it seemed he was as nervous as she was.
"Hi, folks," he said with ironic, deliberate slowness. His smile was lazy and utterly dangerous. "Sorry to interrupt the party. I just came by to pick up an old troublemaker." He walked up to the bar quickly. "I hope this senile old coot hasn't been bothering you too much-"
"Damn it, you bastard!" the old man snapped, and Jessie realized that she'd been wrong. He hadn't been trembling out of fear; he'd been shaking with rage. "Get out of here and leave me alone! You can't just interfere with me whenever the mood strikes you-"
"Why not? You're always interfering with us. You're doing it right now, in fact."
"I'm trying to find her!" He wasn't even trying to disguise his voice anymore, in his anger. His eyes were wild and staring, half-mad. "You... you idiots spend my time and money in every bar in the slums!"
"We're working on it," the redhead answered with a shrug, never once losing his cool. "It's not as simple as you think it is. I hadn't tracked you down here, you could've ruined everything. Why don't you just leave it all to us?"
"Because I need her, damn it!"
The stranger rolled his eyes. "Look, Gramps, I don't have time for this game anymore." And before Jessie could protest, he'd pulled the old man off of the stool and had dragged him to the door. "Get out there, and don't even think about running away from us. We'll be talking to the boss if you give us trouble."
The door slammed shut. Jessie was left staring dumbly as the redhead swore, shaking his head. Mentally she was kicking herself for not saying or doing something, but it had all happened so fast, and she wasn't like Tifa.
He muttered something too quiet for her to hear, then looked back up at her with that same lazy smile. "So," he said, "that old bastard didn't cause any trouble, did he?"
"No... no, he wasn't any trouble," she said quickly. "He just... just told me about his granddaughter."
"Ah, that poor old bastard. Real shame to see an old man losing his mind, ain't it?" The man laughed bitterly. "That girl died when she was five, she and her mother both. Tough world, huh? The old man took it pretty bad anyway. But lately he's gotten kinda wrong in the head - he got a little crazy, started sayin' she didn't die, just ran off. He won't even listen if I try to tell him the truth, just keeps babblin' about findin' her. Real pity, ain't it?"
Jessie stared. "But... he said he was paying you to look for her -"
He shook his head. "Oh, he thinks he is. But he's so damn senile he doesn't even know what he's sayin' most of the time. No, truth is, what's left of his family hired us to keep an eye on him. We let him think we're workin' for him; it keeps things simple." He flashed her a grin that might've been charming, but on him - with his pale skin and the strange scars on his cheeks - it was terrifying. "But I think I'd better get him home before he hurts himself. Take care, cutie. Maybe I'll see you again later."
He turned and walked out, and shut the door behind him.
Jessie sighed and slumped over the bar. Her mind was still spinning from the whole mess, and she couldn't seem to figure out what had just happened. She could tell that it wasn't just what they'd told her - probably the whole thing had been a lie - but what was it, really? It bugged her, mostly because she knew that she'd never find out.
She sighed, shook her head, and grabbed a towel. She hoped Tifa would get back soon.
"You know, old man, I've heard some lousy cover stories in my day, but that one ought to win a fucking /medal./"
The stooped old man tried his best to ignore the jibes, but it wasn't easy. He did have his pride, and at the moment it was badly wounded. He just kept walking, not looking at either of the men beside him - not wanting to look at them, the bastards. The company hadn't sent Tseng after him; Tseng would've had the courtesy to let him maintain a little bit of dignity. No, they'd sent the biggest troublemakers in the entire corporation after him. They'd eavesdropped on his conversation with the listening devices that he'd design, and then that idiot Reno had burst in and made him look like an utter fool.
"You're lucky that the girl was about as gullible as they come," Reno was saying, rubbing it in. "I mean, your granddaughter? Damn, all they'd have to do is look at you two at the same time to see through that one."
He refused to even dignify the young fool with a response. Balefully he looked at Rude, who was walking beside him; he had that smug look on his face, as usual.
They'd sent two Turks after him, as if he was some sort of criminal. What was the President thinking? Without him, Shinra would've been nothing, would've kept wasting their money on their foolish spaceships. And he couldn't even reprimand them, despite the fact that he grossly outranked them - not without ruining his disguise, which he thought had been rather convincing.
"And it ain't as easy for someone to get lost in a city like this as people from the Plate think, you know. You've got to have an ID to do just about anything. If you had enough money to hire us deadbeats to work for you, you'd have enough money to track everything she did." Reno stopped just long enough to take a puff from one of his damned cigarettes. "Not to mention -"
Rude cleared his throat. "C'mon, Reno. Give it a rest."
"Hmph." Reno snorted. "Yeah, I guess that Gramps here gets the point. Don't you, Professor?"
He took a deep breath. "If I find out that either of you are spreading this story around the company," he said levelly, "I'll personally see to it that you'll regret it."
"Sure thing, Professor." Reno laughed again. "My lips are sealed."
"Good," Hojo said, trying his best to sound threatening. He was starting to wish he'd had the presence of mind to bring the beer with him; he didn't normally drink, but at least the bottle would've been of some use.
"Hey, take it easy," Reno said. "We know where she is, all right? We've just got to wait for the right time to bring her in."
"You'll forgive me for not having the highest opinion of your abilities," he said sharply.
"You and half the company, Professor."
Hojo sneered and looked down at his ruined shoes. I was close, blast it, he thought sourly. That girl was eating out of my hand. I'm sure she would've helped me.
He kept brooding for the rest of the trip. If the Turks had any idea what was going on in his mind, they at least had the courtesy to keep their foolish mouths shut about it.
A/N: This was born out of a challenge. I don't know who first issued it; the person who told me about it didn't tell me where she got it from.
The challenge was basically to write down the names of five favorite characters from each gender on slips of paper, throw them into a hat, draw out one guy and one girl, and write a bar scene. The names I got for this one... well, it took me a while to think of an idea, suffice to say. Still, it was fun to do, and it seems like it would be fun for just about any fandom, so I hope it turned out well. Let me know what you think!