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28 January 2008 @ 07:03 pm
[Fic] "Two Guys and a Girl" part 9 -- Final Fantasy 7 (Mercverse AU)  
This story is set about ten years before main mercverse canon, insofar as this AU can be said to have any canon. :-) So. "Two Guys and a Girl," in which I bend, staple, and otherwise mutilate normal game canon involving trips to Nibelheim, because seriously, what's the point of crack AUs if you can't play around like this?

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Two Guys and a Girl: Part 9
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Zack found Tifa in Lady Shinra's room the next morning, curled up on the dusty counterpane with her fist pressed against her mouth. "Hey. Are you okay?" he said, shoving gently at her knees.

Tifa blinked dried tears from her eyes and shook her head.

"Want to talk about it?"

Tifa shook her head again.

Zack shrugged. "Later, then. But you'd better wash up before Cloud sees you, or he'll start plotting ways to make you spill your guts for your own good. He's sneaky like that. And don't worry about the bathroom -- I hung up a spare towel for you, and I kind of scraped down the shower while I was using it, so it's not totally disgusting anymore." He held out his hand in a silent offer.

Tifa wrapped her fingers around his and let him pull her to her feet. "I bet you still forgot to put the toilet seat down."

"Oops." Zack's grin was unrepentant, and Tifa couldn't help smiling back -- a bit weakly, like her mouth didn't want to move that way, but not just putting a false face over turmoil.

"Thanks," she said, and ducked back into Zack's room to grab her clean clothes.

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Tifa couldn't bring herself to look at Cloud. That didn't matter while he was fixing breakfast -- the power had been connected overnight, probably her father's attempt to curry favor -- because he had his back turned to the table while he boiled porridge and scrambled half a dozen eggs. But once they sat down, and she still looked down at her plate or off to the side when he tried talking to her...

"Did something happen last night?" Cloud asked.

"No!" Tifa said. She pushed her eggs around her plate, trying to convince herself to eat them.

Cloud tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. "Contrary to popular opinion, being old doesn't automatically make people stupid. What's wrong, Tifa?"

"Told you," Zack muttered, and Tifa kicked his ankle under the table.

She couldn't tell Cloud about his mother's ghost. She just couldn't. But she had to say something -- and it had to be convincing. What else was she really upset about?

There was an obvious answer to that question.

"It's my dad," she said, and she didn't even have to fake the awkward tone in her voice. "Um. See, he probably won't figure out that I snuck out last night, but he might. And then he'll be mad, because he tries to act like a good father and worry about me, even though he doesn't ever try to talk to me and find out what I really want and stuff. And, well, you were being all nice to him yesterday and I was afraid you might tell him what I did. I had a nightmare about it."

Tifa glanced up at Cloud's face and did her best to look woebegone. She hadn't practiced that expression for years, not since her mother died and she realized she had to protect herself because nobody else was going to bother anymore, but it came back more easily than she'd expected. "Please don't tell my dad."

Cloud sighed. "You don't have enough perspective to understand your father, and it would do you good to run up against some serious consequences to your actions, but fine. I'll keep this one secret, since you've kept mine and Zack's so far. But don't expect me to keep bending the rules for you."

"Thank you!" Tifa said.

"I told you -- he totally likes you," Zack whispered into her ear.

"Shut up," Tifa whispered back. "He's old; he wouldn't like me." No matter how much she wished he might.

Zack flicked his fingers at her ear. "I didn't mean he likes you, likes you. I mean he actually sees you, instead of being polite and fair and forgetting all about you the second you go away. Cloud doesn't cut slack for just anybody."

"Stop whispering and finish eating," Cloud said before Tifa could figure out how to answer Zack. "We have to bury the demons' ashes, and then I need to send secured letters to their families. Since we have no food, we need to go into town for lunch anyway -- which means we can visit your father, Tifa, and you can ask his permission to spend the afternoon with Zack."

Tifa pictured her father's usual reaction to anything she wanted to do. Then she remembered the way he'd reacted to Cloud yesterday, and the way he always sucked up to any visitors with money or social status. A tiny grin crept over her face, and she set about demolishing her breakfast for real.

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"You should borrow one of the excavating machines from the mines," Tifa grumbled as she threw another shovelful of dirt over her shoulder. "We'd be done in ten minutes. Or you should try another spell -- it's not like dirt can set the forest on fire if it gets out of hand."

"True. But a lack of soil could undermine the foundations, or make several trees fall, possibly enough to block the road," Cloud said as he used the edge of his shovel to slice through a tangle of roots. "I try to avoid magic unless all the other options are worse."

Tifa made a sour face. Cloud had to have studied magic pretty seriously -- nobody got much further than Tinder and Point-Me without spending actual time and effort on lessons and meditation, and his fire spell had been strong even before it went out of control -- but what was the point of knowing cool spells if you never used them?

"It doesn't matter in any case," Cloud continued, "because we're finished digging. Start scooping the bones and ashes into the buckets and tip them into the grave. I'm going to find stones for a cairn; it won't be much of a memorial, but it's better than nothing."

Zack jumped out of the wide, shallow grave and pointed his shovel at Cloud. "No fair! You're making us do all the hard stuff while you goof off in the woods."

"I know how to deal with the animals in the forest. You don't, and I'd prefer not to annoy Tifa's father by letting her wander around alone," Cloud said, plucking the shovel from Zack's hands and jabbing it upright into the ground. "Get to work."

"Totally not fair," Zack muttered as Cloud vaulted neatly over the fence and vanished into the trees. "Okay, I'm a city brat, but I'm not stupid, and you don't need protection either, Tifa."

Tifa bit her lip. That was mostly true, but... "Dragons avoid people, and one wolf isn't usually a threat -- unless they're in packs, they like easier prey -- but nobody can predict the monsters. There's a reason most hunters die young."

Zack scrubbed a dirt-streaked hand through his hair. "Man, every time I think I have this place figured out, you and Cloud spring a new twist on me. On the other hand, I bet you'd be just as lost in Midgar -- you'd end up robbed or dead in a day -- so at least that's fair."

"Is Midgar really so awful?" Tifa asked as they headed toward the remnants of the pyre. "I want to get away from Nibelheim. Everything feels so small here, and people always know everybody's secrets, and nobody bothers to see me, just what they think I ought to be. I thought Midgar would be better. Master Zangan hates the Shinra, but he always makes Midgar sound so exciting when he tells stories."

"Yeah, if skipping town half an hour before the Turks track you down is what you're looking for, I think Zangan had exciting covered." Zack's smile twisted wryly and then faded as he shoveled bones and ashes into a bucket. "Seriously, people are people -- you always get good and bad mixed together -- but Midgar's not a friendly place. There are so many people, and there isn't always enough food or money to go around, so a lot of people take what they need from everyone else instead of earning it fair and square. What the yakuza don't pocket, the Shinra take as taxes.

"And you can't complain -- you never know who's planted bugs and cams, and even if you know how to fritz spy-tech with magic, there are always snitches willing to rat you out for a bit of money. If you badmouth the yakuza, you might lose your home or your business. If you badmouth the Shinra, the Turks come for you. If you're lucky, they kill you. Less lucky, and you'll end up with no clothes, no money, and a half-broken body -- easy prey for everyone else. Really unlucky, and you just disappear -- there are stories about what the king's sorcerers and scientists do with slum rats nobody will miss."

Zack dumped a bucketful of bones into the grave. "It's not always that bad -- you learn how to work the system, and if you have a gang or a neighborhood watch, you get protection against the sharks -- but if you don't know what to look out for, you'll get eaten alive as sure as if you tried hunting a dragon with nothing but a butter knife."

"Oh," Tifa said, tipping a load of ashes to sift over the bones. "How do you know that? I thought you were mostly at court."

Zack turned the bucket end over end in his hands. "I told you Cloud adopted me, right? Before that, I was a slum rat. I think I was about six when I met him. I didn't trust him for months, and then it took another few years until I really settled into his place instead of just crashing there when I needed a bolt hole. I thought I could beat the system on my own, but I slipped up and got indentured to one of the yakuza clans. Cloud found out when I didn't visit him for a couple months; he cut a deal with my boss and gave me his name to keep me safe."

He shrugged. "I just wanted someone to watch my back -- the title and the court attendance are the price for hanging with Cloud. Court's pretty stupid, but you always get enough to eat, and at least nobles are polite when they're plotting to kill you. Plus, now the Turks are on my side." Zack pulled a shaky grin from his pocket and tossed the bucket into the air. "So it all works out, right?"

"Yeah," Tifa said, brushing her hand over his shoulder -- to show she'd heard, but not lingering long enough to embarrass him. "It worked out."

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They finished filling and covering the grave by noon. Cloud drew a knife from a boot sheath and sliced open a section of the fence, wide enough to roll a dozen large stones into the yard. They made an uneven rectangle over the bare earth -- ugly, but enough to keep out scavengers, and an unmistakable sign that someone had died and hadn't been forgotten.

"May the earth welcome you home and the lifestream wash away your sorrows," Cloud murmured as he rolled the last stone into place. "You died with honor, and your families will soon know of your fate."

The air swirled. Unnaturally cold eddies whispered over the stones, danced around the three people, and then subsided, apparently satisfied. Tifa shivered.

"Was that a ghost?" Zack asked as they headed inside to wash up.

"Not a true ghost -- a full manifestation includes sight and sound, not just a bit of wind -- but that was definitely more than a simple death imprint," Cloud said. "The sudden temperature drop is a sign of restless spirits."

Zack nodded, and then spun around, scattering water from his soapy hands. "Hey! Is that why you feel like ice when--"

"Zachary."

"Sorry!" Zack turned back to the sink, flushing. "But I'm right, aren't I? I totally am."

Tifa looked between Zack and Cloud, wondering what on earth they were talking about. Why would Cloud feel like a ghost? He was immortal, or something awfully close, but he was alive -- he breathed, he ate, he slept, and his hands had been warm and solid when he'd touched her.

Maybe Cloud was being haunted? That might explain why he and Zack weren't freaked out by staying in a haunted mansion... but no, Zack clearly hadn't seen any ghosts or he wouldn't have asked about the spirit wind at the demons' grave. Maybe he was a medium? But that didn't make sense either, since mediums had to use magic and Cloud didn't like using magic. Or maybe he really was a mercenary, and sometimes he forgot to do purification rituals before he--

Wait. Last night, Lady Shinra had said she'd seen Cloud's corpse. Tifa had assumed that was a mistake -- that Lady Shinra had been so upset at seeing Cloud mangled that she'd decided he was dead instead of just injured -- but what if she'd been telling the absolute literal truth? What if Cloud had died... and then come back to life?

Wouldn't that make him a monster?

"Tifa? Are you feeling all right?" Cloud's voice and eyes showed nothing but honest concern. "I know dealing with death can be troubling, but there's nothing more we can do for the victims. And I promise not to tell your father where you spent the night."

Tifa twitched. "I'm fine, really I am! I trust you!" She did. Really she did. So what if he wasn't human? So what if he might be undead? He was still a good person. Really he was. Plenty of people got mixed up in tainted magic and didn't let it twist their minds... even if she'd never heard of any effects as unnatural as reversing death.

Tifa clenched her hands behind her back to keep them from shaking.

"I'm honored by your faith in me," Cloud said, with a slight bow, managing to seem graceful and courtly despite the streak of dirt on his face and the dishtowel in his hands. "I'll do my best to be worthy of that trust."

"Stop being chivalrous," Zack said, elbowing him in the side. "You'll make her go all girly and drippy."

"A fate worse than death, I assume," Cloud said dryly, and draped the damp towel over Zack's head. He smiled innocently at Zack's outraged yelp and offered a small shrug to Tifa. "He's young and stupid. Please forgive him."

Slowly, Tifa unclenched her hands and smiled back.

Yeah. No matter what kept him alive, Cloud was way too human to be a monster.

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End of Part 9

Back to Part 8

Continue to Part 10

crosspost at mercverse community

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Chapter 10 should be done Wednesday or Thursday... Friday at the latest.
 
 
Current Location: public library
Current Mood: coldmy feet are freezing
 
 
 
ChibiRisu-chanchibirisuchan on January 29th, 2008 02:04 am (UTC)
Yaaaay! More mercverse fic! I've been wondering how long Tifa would manage to keep Mama Strife a secret against those big blue eyes... amazed she held out this long. ^_~
Elizabeth Culmer, only a *little* bit crazy...: butterflyedenfalling on January 29th, 2008 09:51 pm (UTC)
Well, she went a fair portion of the game without calling Cloud on his obviously screwed up memories of Nibelheim's destruction, so I figure she can probably keep her mouth shut if she thinks she has a good reason. And she has a reasonable cover for being flustered -- her obvious crush and her issues with her father are distracting Cloud from looking any closer.
Raven: fangirlingyuenoclow on January 29th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)
YES! We have more of this! *dances* I is a very happy camper! I wondered if Tifa was going to be able to keep that secret from Cloud... sneaky of her. And it seems like Tifa might have a bit of a problem when she finds out that Cloud *dies* and then comes back to life... Not that I blame her entirely, it is pretty creepy. I just feel more sorry for Cloud.

"He's young and stupid. Please forgive him."

*snerk* I can't help but think that at Cloud's age, *everyone* seems young and stupid...
Elizabeth Culmer, only a *little* bit crazy...edenfalling on January 29th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)
I can't help but think that at Cloud's age, *everyone* seems young and stupid...

Yeah, pretty much. :-)

And I figure that of the various forms of immortality imaginable, Cloud definitely has one of the creepier options.