Characters: Cloud/Tifa, Denzel, Marlene, Cid, Shera, Rufus, Tseng, Barret and Yuffie.
Rating: PG- A bit of sexual innuendo, language edited as usual
Word count: about 6800
Summary: "Those unfettered are able to progress with such enviable ease."
Nobody had expected an energy crisis.
Of course, power demand always peaked in summer- it took a lot of energy to cool buildings and keep refrigerators running. So the WRO, oil drillers and power plants all over Gaia had worked together to ensure that there was enough. Each plant made consumption forecasts, and oil was stockpiled and delivered accordingly. They had all been set for another summer season.
But when Channel 7 broke the news that the Mako reserves in Midgar’s old reactors had inexplicably vanished, it became obvious how much people in Edge -mostly relocated from Midgar- had looked on those reserves as security.
The man who caused the first blackout had run machinery day and night since the news broadcast. His business depended on the precision cutting of machines: What if he ran out of stock due to a power shortage?
Others seized upon that idea, and for a week, Edge was hit by a series of blackouts as the power net overloaded again and again. And each blackout seemed to prove that there wasn’t enough to go around, leading to more panicked overuse. Quite a few public officials cursed not only TNN’s sensationalist reporting, but also the blind selfishness of people in general.
Thankfully, the cycle slowed when announcements were made pleading for common sense and restraint. And once the power plant raised prices, people continued to mutter worriedly and grumble, but usage settled back to normal levels.
The plant set household quotas to deter future episodes as well: they just didn’t have enough oil to cope with another run. So using air-conditioners became a luxury- not only did it cost more gil than ever to have them on, but power hungry appliances also had a way of maxing out quotas quickly. More than one house had been plunged into sudden darkness after accidentally tripping over the limit. And then the residents were forced to wait for the quota to reset at midnight, huddled around candles in the humid heat as their ice cream melted in the freezer.
Complaints poured in from hot, disgruntled residents, but plant officials remained firm on the new policy. They pointed out that a few blacked out houses were better than making whole neighborhoods suffer.
So the smell of sun-baked concrete became the norm at 7th Heaven, with the breeze wafting in through the open doors and windows as the fans whirred. Cheaper than air-con, and they kept the bar a little cooler than the sweltering heat of the city.
But business had slowed. It was better to save the gil to keep the lights on than spend it on a meal out or a letter to a relative. Other prices were creeping up as well to compensate for the higher energy costs.
Cloud started supplementing his income by hunting more monsters, and Tifa cut the amount of groceries she asked him to buy and trimmed things from their lifestyle- showers instead of baths, cheaper cuts of meat, walks and picnics instead of dinner and movie dates. Barret scouted relentlessly for oil during the week, and looked grim on weekends if he had had little luck.
But they would survive. It wasn’t the first hardship people in Edge had weathered.
And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Cloud glanced at the caller ID before pulling over. He always answered the phone when it was a new number. His friends didn’t get the same priority treatment, but he figured he could reach them at his convenience. Paying customers came before nosy ninjas with random chitchat.
Still, occasionally he was unpleasantly surprised.
“Strife’s Delivery Service.”
“Yo, Strife. Got a package for you in Rocket Town.”
Cloud frowned automatically when he recognized that cocky drawl.
“You have a helicopter. Why do you need me to deliver it?”
“Hey, I’m just the messenger. Big package, fragile. You charge extra for that, right?”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. If it sounded like bait, and a Turk was offering it up…
“What does Rufus really want?”
Reno tried a different tact.
“Look, it’s right here next to me. And it needs to get to Edge. You want this job or not?”
Cloud debated briefly- the chances that this was only a special delivery were slim. But he had to admit that the extra gil would hardly go amiss. And since it was Rocket Town, Tifa was bound to have something to send along to Shera anyway.
“Fine. I can pick it up tomorrow morning.”
“Great. You need the address?”
“I think everybody on the planet knows where Shinra is based now.”
The new building had been the site of protests and vandalism more than once. Public views on Shinra Co. were still rather dim, despite the monuments and other public works it had financed.
“Yeah, I guess you know what it’s like to be famous. Marriage must have softened you up, Strife. That was easier than I thought.”
“Uh, right, sorry.”
Tifa had to admit that the kids were starting to drive her crazy. The storm brought a welcome reprieve from the heat, and the scent of rain was a nice change. But being cooped up inside meant that all that youthful energy had nowhere to go but crashing around the house.
She knew part of it was because she was tired and irritable. It was just so hot at night now that it was hard to do more than doze fitfully, her hair clinging damply to her neck and forehead.
Part of it, she also admitted, was that she had gotten used to the relative peace and quiet when she had the house to herself during the weekdays. There were customers of course, but they didn’t shout, bicker, or complain that they were bored.
She’d asked them to play upstairs when she’d realized that they were distracting her. Profit margins were more important than ever, and she’d continued to try to focus on the ledger when the argument over who would be the Captain (and who would be the deckhand) was audible anyway. She’d told them to settle it with a game of rock-scissors-paper when they’d come running, demanding that she should decide. And the crisis had been averted, judging by the, “Aye,aye, sir!” and “Land, ho! Make fast the sails!” she had heard a few minutes later.
She’d smiled and provided cookies when Denzel had come down to request “provisions” with a newspaper hat perched on his head. She’d even reflected on how adorable they were when Marlene, sporting an old bandanna, had dashed in a couple minutes later in search of “big treasure map paper.”
But it was becoming obvious that they needed more space. Squabbles were becoming more common- and more intense- and they had a hard time confining play to their bedroom now.
Thumps from upstairs were normal when the kids were home, but this particular one made her look up with concern because it was more of a crash.
Her eyes widened in horrified disbelief when their shouts were drowned out by the ominous sound of multiple rolling objects.
Multiple rolling objects rapidly thunking down the stairs.
Oh, please tell me he didn’t leave it unlocked…
She slapped her hand to her forehead and groaned when her desperate wish went unheeded, and a colorful cascade of Materia poured out of the stairwell, rolling merrily in all directions once it reached the floor.
She groaned again when the sound of them arguing started before the last of the Materia had even rolled to a stop.
She realized it was more than her irritability and their arguments as she helped round up the last of the “treasure” the pint-sized pirates had been trying to haul to their “ship.” She could see how they both sported fresh, identical bruises on their shins. Bumps and scrapes were normal for active kids, but they were obviously knocking into furniture- Denzel’s bed most likely. No wonder they preferred to play elsewhere.
They should rearrange the kids’ room. It would open up more play space for them as well, and she wished she’d thought of it earlier.
But that was just a short-term solution. They weren’t going to stop getting bigger. And in a couple years, the changes in their bodies would make the need for separate rooms truly pressing. They had to plan ahead.
And with the other exciting arrival this month lingering in her thoughts, she wondered how many extra rooms they should plan for.
She’d noticed just how uncomfortable Cloud had been when people had teased them about the possibility of “mini-Strifes” at the wedding. So she hadn’t wanted to press the issue. They already had kids, and just the two were obviously a handful. Making love for the sheer pleasure and emotional reinforcement was enough. And money was tight anyway.
They would have to talk about it eventually though, even if the idea was rather flustering. She half-wondered if he would object to the idea of raising more children. They were such a comfortable family unit now, and babies would change things.
But she couldn’t help wondering about what it would be like to see him hold an infant in that protective way of his. Or hear someone call her “Mama.” Little fantasies that had started simmering in the back of her mind.
For now though, she was glad she had just two guilty little faces to deal with. The kids hurried around collecting Materia in anxious silence, knowing a chastising was coming, and jumped at every boom of thunder from outside. Tifa kept her face stern and serious as she locked the chest.
“Well, that looks like the last of it. I don’t want to catch you playing with Cloud’s Materia again. Some of them are really valuable and powerful, and they’re not toys.”
They both nodded vigorously, eyes wide and hands behind their backs.
“We promise. It was just the right size for a chest of booty, see? And I didn’t know what was in it…” Denzel said, shooting a glare at Marlene.
Marlene pouted, scuffing her sneaker against the floor. She hated being caught in the wrong. But then she suddenly brightened and smiled winningly up at Tifa.
“What about if a bad guy has you? Can we use it then?”
“Using magic is something only adults-“
Realization dawned and she paused, her cheeks flushing slightly. “Oh. I’d forgotten about that.”
She fought to keep on track, propping her hands on her hips when Marlene grinned triumphantly.
“Marlene. I’m giving a lecture!”
“But we can throw it then, can’t we? And not get in trouble?” she asked cheekily, rocking on her heels.
Tifa threw up her hands, exasperated. “Oh, I don’t know how anybody is supposed to take anything seriously around here!” she cried, and tickled that gloatingly thrust out tummy. Marlene buckled, shrieking to Denzel for backup, and moments later they were all squealing in an all out tickle war.
A lecture coming from Cloud later would probably be more effective anyway.
Cloud was glad it was Tseng who escorted him from the entrance. He found the reserve of the older Turk much easier to take than Reno’s attitude.
“Thank you for coming, Cloud. The weather station reported storms in Edge.”
He shrugged. “Dried off on the way. Mind telling me the real reason you’re having me do this delivery?”
Tseng looked at him, a trace of doubt in his eyes.
“The President will explain shortly. This way,” he indicated, sliding a card key through a reader.
They entered a bustling lab, with dozens of scientists hovering over computers and cluttered workstations. Rufus Shinra was in intense discussion with a few of them over one of the stations, with Rude and Elena standing unobtrusively behind. But he looked up immediately when the doors hissed open.
“Ah. Our guest. Carry on with the modifications as specified.” He dismissed them with a wave of his hand and strode over, flanked by the ever-present Turks.
“Allow me to wish you congratulations on your recent marriage.”
Cloud smirked. Tifa might be sure that the other Turks deserved to witness their nuptials, but he was glad he’d put his foot down.
“Thanks. I’m a lucky man.”
There was a flicker of something in Rufus’ eyes before he smiled ironically.
“Indeed. Those unfettered are able to progress with such enviable ease.”
Cloud frowned. Talking to Rufus Shinra always made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. “Listen, I’m just here to make the delivery.”
“And I’m hoping the package will reach its destination. But first, a little information on its usage.”
“Unless you’re asking me to deliver something dangerous, I don’t need to know about the contents,” Cloud interrupted.
Rufus paused, exchanging a look with Tseng. But he raised a brow and continued.
“If I tell you it may solve Edge’s energy problems- will that intrigue you enough to listen for a few minutes?”
Rufus’ eyes gleamed with satisfaction when Cloud looked him full in the eye, stunned.
He gestured elegantly towards a model of a house, and they strode towards it as he continued.
“Everyone on the planet is aware of the follies of Shinra. We exploited the very lifeblood of our planet in our quest for power and profit. And the damage wrought by those sins cannot be undone.”
“Making Mako shortened the lifespan of the Planet. Avalanche had it right.”
Rufus nodded, seemingly unaffected by the smug superiority in his tone. “Our scientists have come to the same conclusion. It seems that our planet is not destined to be the home of future generations forever. But family legend has always held that the first Shinra…” He broke off when annoyance flashed across Cloud’s face.
“I digress. Suffice to say that our debt is a vast one. And now the people of Gaia suffer. We struggle to keep the very necessities of life running. Ironic after a golden age of advances, don’t you think? Mako helped us progress faster than any other period in history. We built a city full of lights that never slept. We plumbed the depths of the oceans. We even ventured into space. Astonishing, wasn’t it, what accomplishments were made when the power was available? And now our civilization has returned to a dark age, where machines sit unused and people labor. I’ve heard this darkness has become quite literal in Edge recently.”
Cloud gave a slight nod, still frowning.
The young President’s eyes lit with fervor as his speech gained momentum. “There had to be a solution, an exodus. And while a full atonement may never be possible, I believed part of our penance was to find it. I revived my company to search despite the public outcry. Oil is but a temporary stopgap- supplies are scattered and irregular. And like the Lifestream, the source is finite. But there are certain sources that never extinguish. You see; we no longer have to be serpents at Gaia’s breast if we harness the same power she uses to crown herself with flowers. We can thrive again at no expense to our planet. Tell me Cloud, do you know how much energy the sun produces?”
“No, but I’m guessing you’ll tell me.”
His rudeness only made Rufus chuckle. “You were always more astute than expected. The amount of energy that falls on the planet in an hour is equivalent to what our entire population uses in a year. So we constructed the means to harness that energy. What could possibly be more fitting than using the power of light to lead us from the dark? Just imagine never having to worry about your electric bill again- because you can provide for your home- with this.” He indicated the shiny panel on the roof of the model.
“Photovoltaic cells to be exact. They convert the energy from sunlight into electricity.”
Cloud scoffed. “It’s storming in Edge as we speak.”
Rufus nodded, unfazed. “Light passes through clouds even on rainy days, but the productivity of the cells does slow. However, a battery unit stores the excess produced in better conditions.” He pointed to the battery array inside the model. “They provide the power when the supply of photons is lower or even non-existent, like at night.”
“And it doesn’t hurt the planet?”
“That is our primary mandate.” Rufus turned to face Cloud again. “I spoke to you once of rebuilding our world. We need power to do so. Mako has disappeared- more quickly than expected, but that was always a given in our new reality. The oil supply has already proven insufficient to keep up with demand. But despite the discovery of a viable alternative, the people of Gaia do not wish to avail themselves of it. What used to be unshakeable faith in Shinra has turned to hatred that is just as deep rooted.”
Cloud shrugged. “Just desserts. It’s not my problem.”
For perhaps the first time in his life, Rufus Shinra hesitated.
And Cloud realized exactly where that delivery had been intended.
“Not interested! Find yourself another poster boy, Shinra. I’ve had enough of your company for two lifetimes,” he spat, turning. All activity in the lab halted as the researchers watched him stride angrily back to the exit.
Rufus made one last determined plea.
“The run on power in Edge slowed the moment people heard your announcement. You can use your celebrity to help them again. Think of how people would benefit if you showed them there was a way to power their homes without worry over quotas. A reasonable man…”
Cloud didn’t bother to turn around. “Well, I guess I’m unreasonable, then. I’m leaving whether you open this door for me or not,” he announced. Lips thin, Tseng hurried to slide the card through the reader.
Cloud resentfully noted all the panels on roofs around Rocket Town as he sped towards Cid’s. He had assumed they were some sort of local home improvement fad- skylights or greenhouses or something. The realization that it was evidence that Shinra was making its comeback was galling.
Especially when he saw one glinting on the roof of his destination.
It was rather a surprise for Shera when she opened the door to his scowl and crossed arms.
“Cloud? What’s wro-“
“What’s that thing doing on your roof? Have you forgotten what Shinra has done to the planet?”
She blinked at the unexpected outburst, cupping a hand over her belly reflexively. But she recovered quickly, chin up and eyes glinting with a hint of steel.
“Of course we haven’t. But I’m a scientist. And any decent scientist bases decisions on empirical evidence, not personal feelings. We looked at the studies and designs. Noted the results in application. And decided that popular sentiment was wrong. Using a solar panel cuts oil usage and therefore saves money. The fact that Shinra developed the technology is unimportant: it’s still good for the planet and us.”
“So past wrongs count for nothing?”
“I’m not saying that-“
The tense discussion was cut short when Cid barged in. He still smelled of the cigarettes he’d been smoking when he shoved his body between them, poking a finger into Cloud’s glowering face.
“Are you shouting at my wife, you spiky haired &!#? My wife that’s about to have a baby? I oughta-“
“Cid, he’s upset.” She put a small hand on the muscles bulging in his arm to restrain him.
“Upset? Upset? I’ll show you upset, woman-“
“Cid. Perhaps we should discuss this over tea. Before all this excitement puts me into labor.” Shera’s measured tone had the desired effect. He choked back the tirade, although his eyes continued to speak volumes.
Their words did make Cloud feel slightly abashed. He’d forgotten all about the delicate condition thing, although he could clearly see how big she’d become. But then he remembered why he was upset in the first place, and felt a new surge of righteous indignation.
“I’m sorry for raising my voice. But I’m not sorry about the Shinra bit. Didn’t expect that from people I respect.” He shoved the basket forward. “From us- don’t want you to worry about cooking when you’re so close to term.”
“That’s so thoughtful, Cloud. And we’re grateful.” She elbowed her husband, who grunted and took the basket obediently, but continued to skewer Cloud with a baleful glare. “There’s really no need to be upset about all this. If you could just come in and look at the studies... I’ll brew up a nice pot of tea and we can explain the-“
“Thanks, but I’m not interested. Got to do more monster hunting on the way back. Let us know when the basket’s getting empty,” he said as he stalked back to his bike. Moments later, he revved the engine and was off again.
Cid shook his head. “When’s he gonna learn that he can’t just keep running from !#&. Stupid stubborn little punk. Better call Tifa. Get her to talk some sense into him.”
“It can’t be easy. Shinra ruined his life in many ways, you know.”
“Course I know! It’s why I didn’t punch his lights out. Go sit down! What are you doing answering the door anyway?”
“You were out back smoking, remember? I’m having a baby, not on my deathbed. And watching you pace holes into the deck makes me antsy.”
“I keep thinking about it. Scares the &#& out of me, thinking of you hurting like that. Not being able to help.”
“Oh Cid. Just think of what we’re getting out of it. End results are worth all the trials, right?”
Cloud got home later than usual that night, battle weary and bloodstained.
And he headed out early and came home late for the next week. He told himself it was because he wanted to be sure they had enough to support the family despite the slow sales, and felt a sort of defiant smugness over the gil he earned. He brooded as he rode, found a vicious satisfaction in dispatching monsters in encounters.
He knew he was being contrary. But he couldn’t help seething over the situation either. Trust Shinra to find something else to taunt him over.
Tifa held her tongue on the subject for a week, not wanting to nag about such a sore point. But she’d finally had enough when he nodded stiffly over Cid’s emailed announcement. They were all invited to meet the newest member of the Highwind family on Sunday, and Barret was going to bring them all over in the Shadowfox. It wasn’t the whole gang- Vincent’s phone was mysteriously “out of range of reception;” Reeve was sending Cait in his place because of his workload; and Nanaki and Dinne had sent regrets, saying that it was more vital that they monitor the Lifestream. But Cloud’s grudging agreement to make the trip astonished her. So she determinedly broached the subject when they got ready for bed the night before.
“Listen. I know we can make ends meet without the panel. I’ve looked at our accounts and we can swing it. But it would give us some breathing room, room to grow in the future… You said he was giving it to us, free and clear. That’s the first time Shinra’s offered us anything. If they’re making reparations, I think we’re due one. Can’t you at least consider it? When we were in Avalanche we were fighting for something. We won that fight. So what are you still fighting for?”
“I just don’t want to support them! And you know why better than anyone! In fact, most of the planet feels the same way. So why are you taking their side?” he demanded.
Tifa sucked in a breath, cheeks blazing. “We’re in this together- that’s what these rings mean, right? And if we decide that it would just be too uncomfortable to be worth the savings, I will support that decision, one hundred percent. I’d rather you were happy than have a whole pile of gil, and you know that. But as your wife, I have to tell you when I think you’re making a mistake, too. And look at you. You’re cold and resentful even though our friends just had a baby. You’re late coming home because you’ve been hunting with such a vengeance. You brood the entire time you’re actually here. It makes all of us worry to see you like this. All I’m asking is that you look at the studies.”
“Fine. I don’t want to argue about this anymore, Teef. We’ve got a long roadtrip tomorrow, and I want to get as much sleep as possible.”
She sighed. She doubted either of them would sleep well now.
The windows were open, but the sheets were uncomfortably warm anyway. She could feel the heat radiating off his body, and wished they could cuddle away that upset feeling without waking up in a pool of sweat a couple of hours later. Another luxury they couldn’t afford now.
She relaxed a little though when he stroked a hand down her arm anyway, and she caught his fingers in hers.
It might make their hands a little sweaty, and the issue was still unresolved. But they both rested a little easier with that light contact established.
The kids were given first dibs to see Shera and the baby. The others didn’t mind waiting for their turn- the bedroom was too small to accommodate everybody at once. But Marlene and Denzel were rather disappointed by the sight of the newborn, just lying there sleeping and all wrapped up in blankets next to Shera.
“She’s so wrinkled and red looking.”
“Denzel!” The rebuke came instantly from both his guardians.
“I mean, she still looks like a baby and everything. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
Aghast, Tifa just turned pleadingly to Shera. But she chuckled and waved away the apology.
“Oh, he’s just being honest, it’s fine. I live with Cid. But I’ll warn you not to repeat that around the captain, Denzel. He’s rather too enchanted with her to hear anything but praise. Worse than when he’s commissioned a new ship,” she confided, smoothing the soft down on her head. She smiled at Denzel, who was now fidgeting awkwardly. “She’ll get fatter and more normal colored in a couple of weeks. She just hasn’t had much of a chance to eat anything yet.”
Marlene boldly crept forward and touched a tiny hand. “Why is she breathing so fast? It’s like she’s been running.”
“Babies are like that. And she has been through a lot recently, being born, right?”
“You’ll find her more interesting once she gets a little bigger and starts to talk, I think. But babies grow while they are sleeping, so she’ll be doing mostly that for awhile.” She tilted her head at Tifa, gazing at the newborn so reverently. “Want to hold her?”
“Oh, may I?”
“If we’re careful she won’t wake up…” Shera gently lifted her up, blankets and all. “Here. Make sure to support the head. She can’t hold it up by herself yet.”
Tifa reached out eagerly, but cradled the baby rather gingerly. It was such a little thing, and lighter than she’d thought. It was awing to feel that fluttering heartbeat, the slight movement of her chest with each breath.
“Is this right, Shera?”
“I think if she’s not crying, things are fine. She’s a Highwind, you know. Won’t beat around the bush if she doesn’t like something,” she assured her.
“Sounds like a Highwind, all right,” Cloud said, tilting his head as he watched. There was something about seeing Tifa hold a baby- and that look on her face- that was making him feel strange.
Maybe that stupid Turk was right after all.
Cloud sighed and looked through the documents on the table when they returned to the kitchen. Barret had already had a browse, and shrugged when he caught his eye.
“Cid explained a coupla things. If he says it works the way they say, I believe ‘im. Maybe all this overtime’s startin’ to get to me. Be nice not to feel so desperate when we’re out prospectin’. But I won’t complain if you don’t want a Shinra contraption in the house. Be sorta weird, ‘n all.”
He headed after Yuffie and Cait with that.
Cid was no Shinra salesman. But he knew the evidence made their perspective clear, and he was sticking with it. “Our electric bills, see? Both before and after. Studies and research papers. Brochures- the diagrams explain how the cells work simply enough. I’m not sayin’ what you should or shouldn’t do. This is just information. You can make your own decision based on ‘em just fine. And it is pretty good science. Shoulda seen Shera when she saw the initial patent application. Her ‘n her researcher friends speak a whole other language sometimes.”
“I’m not good at reading through science stuff.”
“I’ll be back in a couple minutes if you can’t figure something out. Shera’s probably goin’ down for a nap after everyone’s seen the baby though, and I wanna make sure she remembers to eat something first. Fool woman, wantin’ to show off the kid before she’s ready.” He grumbled, but the pride on his face belied his words.
He left them in silence when he carried off the laden tray.
Tifa watched Denzel and Marlene through the window as Cloud read quietly. The kids were both shouting as they pursued moths they stirred up, only to abruptly change course when they caught sight of a closer one, giggling if they collided. They both tumbled and slid more often than when they were playing on the grounds or in the street- grass was a novelty. She smiled to herself, recalling a time when her father had bemoaned the green stains on her clothes- stains she had been as oblivious about making as the two outside were.
Future laundry issues aside, it was nice to see them getting sun-browned and rosy-cheeked. Last summer had been so different- they’d both been pale little ghosts. Maybe the WRO could think about adding some parks to Edge. A bit of green grass made a much softer surface to play on. And the way they were now curiously crouched over a fat, feeding bumblebee made her wish they could play in a natural environment more often. She would have to mention it to Cait while he was here.
“Looks like having one saves a lot of money. And I guess they work,” Cloud said quietly, setting down the last document- the pamphlet with all the color diagrams.
“That’s what Shera said.”
“I thought they would be more expensive. This price has got to be missing a couple of zeroes.”
“Cid said Shinra’s selling them at just above cost. ‘Assistance to a beleaguered people.’”
Cloud rolled his eyes. “Can’t Rufus ever talk like a normal person?”
She giggled. “I doubt it. Must be something to do with being raised rich.”
“Snobby, more like,” he said, smiling a little.
She smiled back warmly, understanding.
A flash of movement outside caught her eye again, and she noted the way the kids’ T-shirts were starting to gain dark patches. “They’re going to be thirsty. I’m breaking out the watermelon.”
The others returned while Tifa was carving up the big chilled melon. Restless, Yuffie joined the kids outside, and the topic swung back to the baby and how expert Shera already seemed at everything baby related. Cid snorted at their amazement.
“Well she should be. Have a whole goddamn library on babies now.”
Cloud arched a brow, smirking. “You read any of those?”
“Well, sure! Can’t get a new engine without getting some idea of the specs, now can I?” He glared at the knowing smiles around the table. “Oh, shut up!”
Chuckling, Tifa knocked on the window and held up the platterful of slices.
The three outside burst through the back door seconds later.
“Hands,” Cloud reminded sternly, knocking away a grubby set of fingers.
“Hey! A little dirt never hurt anybody,” Yuffie huffed, but she crowded in at the sink with Marlene and Denzel.
They were still panting and hot, and both kids kept raising their arms to wipe sweaty faces on their sleeves. But they applied themselves to the watermelon enthusiastically, juice dripping off their chins.
On his second slice, Denzel suddenly sat up, inspired, and ran over to stand under the air-con.
“C’mon, Marly! This is the best spot,” he called.
She carefully balanced a new slice on her plate before she joined him.
“Oh good idea, Denz, this is the best! Hey! Aunt Yuffie!”
“Budge over, squirts. There’s room for all of us.”
Cloud watched them blissfully tilting their faces up to the stream of cool air, and Tifa smiled when she saw the thoughtful look on his face.
“Well, Cloud?” she asked quietly, “Isn’t it time you did the forgiving?”
He looked at her, startled.
“What did you just say?”
She blinked. “I said, ‘Isn’t it time-‘”
She stopped when he tilted his head back and laughed, making everyone around the table stare at him in puzzlement.
“Fine!” he said finally, still chuckling, “I get it. I’ve seen the light, already. We can pick it up before we go home.”
They were all suddenly distracted by a high-pitched squeal from the group under the air-con.
“Hey, don’t eat the seeds! We can pinch them at each other later. I can show you how, but you gotta save ‘em!”
“Besides, Daddy says a tree will grow in your stomach if you eat them.”
“That’s not true. That’s a bourbon legend,” Denzel scoffed.
“Like a story people tell when they’re drunk.”
They were both mystified when everyone suddenly roared with laughter.
Tseng arrived quickly after the gate guard phoned to announce that Strife’s Delivery Service was back.
“You’ve changed your mind.”
“You could say that.”
He gave him a curious look before leading the way back to the lab.
Rufus sat alone at a drawing board to the side of the room. Most of the lights were off, save for the lamp focused on the papers before him. Obviously, Sunday was still the usual day off for Shinra employees.
He looked stunned for a moment before he stood and smiled with his usual arrogance.
“Strife. You will never cease to surprise me.”
“It’s for my family. Just let me know how to install it.”
Rufus cleared his throat, looking away with a slight smile.
“We always send out a team of engineers to do the installation. To ensure prime photon collection, the best spot has to be calculated. An expert is also required to properly rewire the power distribution- a balance between your local power net, the batteries, and the cells themselves.”
Cloud narrowed his eyes.
“So the delivery was a ruse.”
“Would you have come otherwise?”
“You should try telling the truth sometime, Shinra. Save everyone a lot of trouble.”
“But how tedious that would be. Are we not all players upon life’s great stage? And if you arrive on time for the opening act, does the wording on the invitation matter?”
Cloud jerked his head.
“I guess it does to me. So we can just go home then?”
“Our installation team will be at 7th Heaven tomorrow morning. It should only take a few hours to complete.”
Cloud nodded, and turned to leave.
He turned, wary of receiving yet another flowery speech.
“…Thank you. It means a lot… that you will accept this.”
His eyebrows rose with surprise, and he studied Rufus’ startlingly sincere expression for a moment.
“You’re welcome. It’ll help us out.”
Rufus nodded stiffly.
They turned briskly away from each other, Tseng to escort Cloud back out of the building, and Rufus to return to his drawing board.
None of them noticed that they were all smiling to themselves.
So a short detour around the panels had to be made when they got the laundry a few days later. Business was already picking up because of them: now that they could air-condition 7th Heaven, customers were coming more often and staying longer. “Free air-con” also drew in new customers needing an oasis from the summer swelter. And as Rufus had predicted, more people in Edge started to consider Shinra’s solar solution once they saw it in use.
It was a relief to have a decent night’s rest again, and to enjoy the simple pleasure of holding each other as they slept. There were also other benefits to having a comfortably cool bedroom again, and Cloud had them firmly on his mind as he helped Tifa with the morning chores. The kids had left to play outside after breakfast, and he figured they had a good couple of hours before they were back for lunch and the bar had to open anyway.
But first there was something he wanted to say.
“I guess Marlene’s getting too big for these.”
She glanced over at the pair of jeans he was folding.
“Yeah- we’ll have to get her some new ones. The legs have been looking a little short on her.”
“I’ve been thinking… Maybe we could keep these. You know. To use in the future.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks reddened, and she felt suddenly awkward. “You mean like hand-me-downs?”
“Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked over at her. She was awfully focused on folding all of a sudden. “You know, someday. I mean, if you want to…”
She turned to him, smiling warmly despite the furious blush.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
His grin was a sudden blaze in the sunlight.
“Well, I was thinking we could go practice before the bar opens. I already have the bedroom nice and cool.”
She laughed. “We need more experience?”
He pulled her close, grinning. “It all adds up, right? And I love training.”
She chuckled, squeezing him happily. “Well, since you put it that way…let’s go train, Cloud.”
References: a line from Shakespeare’s “As you like it.” “Reading between the headlines” by motchi also used the idea of Shinra solar energy. And while we don’t have the generosity of Shinra Co. to offset the cost of a solar panel on boring old Earth, they really do reduce household electric bills by 50 to 70 percent. All the statistics I used in the chapter were from Wikipedia, or the links in its article on solar energy.
This may be the darkest chapter yet, although my original intention was merely to get on my environmental soapbox a little. I think all the stuff going on in the world today -and my life as I was writing it this month- made it turn out the way it did.
Feedback is always greatly appreciated, so please comment if you can spare a minute.