Characters: CloudxTifa, Denzel, and Marlene
Rating: PG-13 non-explicit sexual situations
Word count: about 3500
Summary: How can you sweeten the bitter taste of returning to the place where it all went wrong?
It was a place that, by unspoken agreement, they never talked about. And being the tiny, isolated blip on the map that it was, it was easy to avoid. After all, who really thought much about the little town of Nibelheim?
The day was like any other. Denzel and Marlene came barreling in through the door at 4:59 with breathless shouts of “We’re home!” With the days getting longer and hotter, they usually stayed after school to play now, despite the popularity of the juice and snacks that came with everyone trooping to Seventh Heaven instead. They bolted their after-school snacks, starving after all the activity, and needing something to tide them over until dinnertime. It took a little while to modulate their playground voices back to indoor ones as they regaled Tifa with their news, still red-cheeked and sweaty. Exciting blow by blow recounts of a game Denzel and his friends had invented, what amazing new feat somebody had managed at jump rope, or today, why someone had gotten sent to the principal’s office.
All the hottest gossip in town always gets discussed at bars, Tifa thought with amusement, as Denzel enthusiastically described the way the girls had reacted when Peter Jones had let loose a lizard in the classroom.
“It sounds like he started quite a panic.”
“They were screaming so much we could hear it in our class,” Marlene chimed in.
“Yeah, and then all the boys tried to catch it again, and Lee almost smushed it ‘cause he fell over his chair and his hand came down, like, this close! But then Taka got it in the corner and Mr. Mirrim made him throw it out the window. And then he got sooo mad! I thought Pete was gonna get suspended or something!”
“You can’t get suspended unless you actually break something,” argued Marlene.
Further discussion about grounds for suspension halted when the phone rang, and Denzel put down his juice and slid off his bar stool.
“I’ll get it!”
Marlene took the opportunity to change the subject once he disappeared upstairs, hastily pulling a roll of paper from her backpack.
“Look! I got a gold star!” she reported, proudly unrolling the thick white paper, seemingly unaware that she had battered the edges and put deep creases into her artwork by cramming it into her schoolbag. But it was a charming picture anyway, obviously the Chocobo farm they were planning to visit during the summer holidays, done in vivid crayon colors.
“Ohhh…it’s beautiful sweetie! The chocobos look just right. And so does Cloud’s hair,” she added mischievously, and Marlene giggled conspiratorially with her.
“Miss Wilson said-“
“Tifa! What zone is Nibelheim in? I can’t find it on the map!” Denzel called.
It was as if a ghost had walked into the room.
“Tifa?” Marlene said hesitantly, bewildered. She'd never seen her look like that before.
Denzel thundered down the stairs, holding the map in one hand and the handset in the other. He dropped the map on the bar in front of them, oblivious to the sudden change in atmosphere.
“Tifa, I can’t find this place called Nibelheim, but there’s a customer who wants a special delivery.”
It took another second, but she inhaled quickly and bent so that her hair covered her face as she pointed to the spot on the map.
“It’s in Zone three. It’s right at the inland tip of this mountain range, on the south side.”
“Are you sure? It isn’t even on the map,” he said, inspecting the unlabeled spot dubiously.
“Denzel!” Marlene hissed.
He looked up at Marlene in surprise.
“I’m sure,” Tifa replied quietly.
Needing a moment to collect herself, she turned to affix Marlene’s masterpiece onto the fridge. Denzel frowned as he took in the stiff way she held her back, the way her fingers trembled as she snapped the magnets into the corners, the glare Marlene was leveling at him.
“Is it a bad place?”
She thought back, her eyes not seeing the vibrant yellows and greens on the paper, but the white of snow capped mountains, the dance of fall colors in the wind, and the dirty gray of the overgrown cobblestones. She could hear the tinkling murmur of the fountain, the howling wind through the mountain paths, the crackle of flames, and screams…
She shut her eyes and forcefully pushed that image away. They had been to Nibelheim twice since that night. It was just a surreal copy of the town they'd actually lived in. Still…
We should have known it would happen eventually. It’s not like it could just disappear. Maybe it’s time to stop running away.
“No, it’s not a bad place. Cloud and I grew up there,” she said finally, and then she turned back to them.
Denzel’s eyes widened. He’d always assumed they were from Midgar, like everybody else in Edge.
“Then why don’t we ever… Should we turn down-“
“No. But if you don’t mind, I’ll call Cloud myself to ask if he can schedule this one in.”
Frowning, Denzel complied, but he cast a worried look back at her as he recited the price system and collection spiel to the customer on his way up the stairs again.
“Marlene, could you and Denzel keep an eye on the bar while I call Cloud? Just seat people and take orders. I won’t be long.”
“Sure.” She frowned at the menu board. “Is the daily special made with gum?”
She whipped her head around to study exactly what she had written, and let out a surprised laugh. “Oh no, sweetie. Gumbo is like seafood stew on rice.”
“Oh, Ok…Tifa?” Marlene’s eyes were full of concern and questions.
“We’ll be fine Marlene,” Tifa said. Her smile became less hesitant as she continued to stare at that old chalkboard above the bar. “I’ve got an idea.”
Cloud couldn’t believe he’d agreed to this. She knew how depressed he could get. She knew they could have spent their morning being newlyweds, instead of up early and out on the road. Even now that denial smarted- he had special deliveries lined up every morning for the rest of the week, date day wasn’t ‘til next next Sunday and he’d been keenly looking forward to a few hours spent alone with her. They were also probably losing sales; Yuffie's sign was rarely trotted out because respectable businesses were responsible about opening hours. But she’d insisted that it was important for them both to do this.
They’d argued. She’d said she was sure it would be uncomfortable to see Nibelheim again, but it was wrong to keep avoiding it. He'd thought they’d gotten along fine so far without having to go anywhere near there, and said so. They had both regretted the trip that last time, hadn’t they? How could she go back on her words like that? She’d argued that things were different now; they were different now. Opinions could change, couldn’t they? And so on. In the end she had asked if he really was going to be a coward about it, and he’d had to agree to the delivery.
His own wife calling him a coward. He was still sulking about that.
They’d lain like logs in the bed last night, both of them stiff and unyielding, until he’d felt her lay a tentative hand on his arm. And then he’d sighed and turned to her, unable to begrudge either of them the comfort.
It hadn’t been like usual, the stormy emotions giving a kind of desperation to their kisses, a regretful tinge to the way they touched each other. Even the final peak was a dissolving of tension rather than the usual mind-blowing explosion. Her eyes were wet after, and he’d asked her why she was doing this to both of them.
“We have to stop running away. Don’t you ever get homesick? I mean for the good parts. Water that doesn’t taste rusty. Being surrounded by trees. Smelling really clean air.”
“My home is here now.”
“Mine too. But we can’t avoid Nibelheim forever. So let’s face it again together. We’re family now, right?”
“Of course. I’ll go. I just don’t see how anything good can really come of this.”
She’d smiled and kissed him.
“Trust me on this one.”
So there they were, attracting stares as he steered his bike through the cobblestone streets. It was hard not to stare as well, knowing that the buildings were eerily accurate reconstructions. Shinra had done a good job of duplicating the place, although they had missed a few details. It was strange to look around and note the little flaws- too few chimneys here, missing signs there. But maybe that was because the town was growing and changing anyway. They’d passed a couple of construction sites, with men hard at work putting up building frames in the summer sun. There were new cottages and shops that had sprung up in the last couple of years as well. It seemed nothing- not even replicas- remained frozen in time.
Which became all too clear when one of the shortcuts Cloud had chosen became a dead-end due to some sort of sitting area. Instead of the expected space between shops, there were park benches, flowerbeds and a couple of young women gossiping as they rested their feet.
“Do you remember that being there?”
“No! They must have put that in recently. Well go around the Hobb’s then.”
“I know,” he said, rather irritated by the advice.
They picked up the package with no further problems. The customer had a cousin in Edge, who had recommended the service to her, and relayed the number. She was just tickled pink to be asking a real life hero to courier her package.
And then they stopped at the market to scout out ingredients. And the feelings that had been pressing on both of them since the familiar silhouette of the Nibel Mountains had come into sight became even heavier there. Memories haunted them as they walked past the stalls. He could remember carrying the basket as his mother made purchases, hopefully requesting a slice of honeycomb as he tagged along behind her, the excitement of buying his first snowboard from a shop down the aisle. She could remember learning how to pick a good potato from her father here, squatting on a tarp selling mushrooms she and her friends had picked for a little extra gil, being greeted by the stall owners as she bought ingredients for dinner. Now the place was an enclave of strangers, although the sights and smells were eerily familiar. They really didn’t belong here anymore.
But it was reassuring not to be alone as they strolled through the market.
As Tifa chose ingredients, sniffing the stems of some vegetable or examining the skin of others, Cloud stood awkwardly to the side, feeling the curious stares of the residents. Nibelheim was so small that everybody knew everybody else. It was strange to be in the spotlight here, rather than being purposely ignored. He wasn’t sure which was better, especially when he heard a gasp of recognition.
Two women had stopped in their shopping and were obviously discussing them excitedly. The Jenova War had been more than two years ago, but the media coverage on their role in it had been worldwide. He still winced when he heard squeals of recognition and had to deal with excited young women on occasion. But they didn’t approach, just smiling and bowing before continuing on and tittering to each other, and he relaxed. Maybe being stared at was a little better than being ignored after all.
Tifa was starting to wonder if she’d been wrong. The more she handled the familiar produce, the more she felt like crying. She couldn’t help thinking that the last time she’d chosen potatoes at this market, the meal that she’d made with them had not been eaten. She’d seen the flames and smelled the smoke, and dashed out to find her father…
“It’s not often we get visitors,” the vendor said, making her look up in surprise, “even less that know how to choose a good potato.” She nodded her approval of the pile Tifa had chosen.
“I used to… My father taught me how.”
“A smart man, your father. You folks here to visit the memorial?”
“Shinra set it up. There was some sort of disaster here a few years ago, and a lot of people died. Turns out it had to do with that Sephiroth.”
She continued rather defensively. “A lot of the townsfolk were relocated here by Shinra after that, so we don’t know much about it. Makes people uncomfortable when visitors start asking questions, because we don’t have any answers. Most of them are a lot older than the two of you, though,” she finished reflectively, eyeing their stylish clothing. Young people never seemed to understand the concept of symmetry these days. “You just here to enjoy the mountains?”
They looked at each other. It seemed to be a sore point here as well. Cloud tilted his head and half-smiled. She took his hand, squeezed and smiled back.
“That’s right. It’s so nice to be in the fresh air away from the city. And the food here looks so delicious.”
That did the trick. The woman swelled with pride. “All locally grown. When I first moved here I noticed the difference in flavor right away. You’ll never have better food, I guarantee it.”
That made Tifa think of something her father had said before it had all gone so horribly wrong. It was funny how bad experiences always seemed to overshadow everything else. “As good as anything your mother ever made. You’ll make some man a good wife one day, Tifa. Ha! And fat children!”
She gave a determined nod, and looked the vendor in the eye with a smile. “I’m sure you’re right.”
They stayed only a short time at the memorial. They tidied it up a bit and then knelt to offer their prayers. Although Cloud had still seemed ill at ease at first, he knew the rituals, and knelt when she did. It was a few minutes before Tifa opened her eyes again, and she was relieved to see him staring up at the sky and smiling.
“You know, I think she would have been happy that I married a local girl. She thought I’d gone to the city to meet some more sophisticated ones.”
“Are you calling me unsophisticated?”
“No, that’s not what I-“ He broke off when he turned to look at her. “Teef.”
They both rose lightly to their feet, grinning.
“C’mon. Let’s go home.”
Tifa had to hurry in order for the food to be ready in time. She made marinade and settled the meat into it; she pared potatoes, and washed and cut vegetables and mushrooms. If at first she felt a little sad as she thought of a time when she’d done the same actions in another kitchen, the feelings faded as she focused on the work. By the time the kids got home, the smell of roasting meat filled the bar and she was putting out the menu board.
She turned and waved at them as they raced home.
Marlene slammed into her with a delighted squeal once they got up the stairs. “You’re late today!”
“I went with Cloud on the delivery, so I’ve had to hustle. You had a good day?”
“Wow, smells really good!” Denzel shouted when he opened the door, and both kids dumped their packs unceremoniously against the bar before running upstairs to wash their hands and faces. A couple of customers came in right away, so Tifa was busy serving by the time they came back downstairs.
“We could smell that cooking all the way down the street! You’re in for a busy night tonight,” one of them warned. He leaned back in his seat and surreptitiously eyed the fine form of the barmaid as she bent to place frosty mugs of beer before them. That Strife was a lucky man.
His buddy nodded in assent. “Wouldn’t surprise me if half of Edge came down.”
As if to prove his point, several more customers- WRO, still in uniform- came in the door.
She hoped she’d bought enough to serve. She hadn’t thought that “Nibelheim Nostalgia” would sell so well.
When Cloud got home a couple of hours later, the bar was packed. The kids were carefully carrying drinks or a serving of the daily special out to customers, and Tifa was busily mixing more drinks and dishing food onto plates. But she spotted his distinctive blond head as he made his way past the tables, and he smiled and answered when she called out his welcome home.
“Busy,” Cloud commented, joining her behind the bar. He pulled off his gloves and adjusted his ring when the action shifted its position on his finger. He was almost used to wearing it now, but it still gave him a jolt of pride to see it.
“Apparently the smell of the roast cooking was really effective advertising,” Tifa said with a chagrined smile, although she never complained about things like a full till. “Could you help me bring these to the corner table?” she asked, nodding to the drinks on the counter. Carrying the plates after him, she grinned at the surprised looks on the faces of the customers when he approached. He’d forgotten about the First Tsurugi, and it wasn’t everyday that a man holstering a huge sword brought you your cocktail.
“Cloud! You’re home!” Denzel ran up to greet him, still holding the empty tray. Marlene bounced up and down by the bar and waved as they made their way back. “We’ve been slammed!” she reported with an obvious relish. It was her new favorite word, and she loved having the chance to use it.
“It should ease up. We’re officially sold out of the special now,” Tifa said, hurrying to grab the chalk from behind the counter so that she could change the menu board before more customers walked in. Denzel made a noise of dismay.
“Silly. She saved some for us,” Marlene giggled, which earned her a light shove.
It was a while before business tapered off enough to let them sit down for their own dinner. Denzel watched anxiously at her elbow as she carved the remainder of the roast, but looked satisfied by the amount on his plate when he carried it to the table. Marlene kicked her legs impatiently as she waited. Cloud had kept a carefully blank expression on his face ever since recognition had sparked in his eyes as she’d set down the special in front of the customers. So Tifa watched him anxiously when they started to eat.
His eyes widened a bit at the first mouthful. He chewed slowly, and when he shut his eyes as he swallowed, she wondered if it had been a big mistake after all.
Then he opened his eyes and looked up at her with a smile.
“This is delicious.”
The kids clamored to add their opinions of how good it was and that they wanted to have it again. Tifa flushed and smiled. It was so nice to give them a taste of home.
A/N: No light without shadow, right? But hopefully they’re better equipped to deal with it now… It was a relief for me to get away from all the fluff as well- hard to write a story without any real conflict.
motchi’s “Too Late” and my husband inspired this chapter. The last quote in it is something that never fails to make me feel utterly pleased when he says it, (“Ah! -chew, swallow- Kore oishii!”) albeit a little more exuberantly than Cloud would. My original idea was to have Cloud just bring Tifa the vegetables, in a silent request for the dishes from his childhood. But then I read "Too Late" and thought it would be a good way to take the sting out of a return visit to Nibelheim instead.