Title: Symbiosis (November)
Characters: CloudxTifa, Denzel, Marlene, Reeve, Reno
Word count: about 4800
Summary: Working together in sync. Inspired by that yin/yang way they were depicted in the church.
He spooned her after their morning lovemaking, trying to forget the problems he’d had yesterday by distracting himself with the clean smell of her hair, the slight dampness of the skin on her neck. Tifa cuddled warmly against him as he lazily wandered his hand over her, their heartbeats calming as autumn rain splattered against the windows. But despite the powerful satisfaction thrumming through his body, and the fact that he had purposely made this time to spend with her, he kept dwelling on his work.
His delivery service was something that he enjoyed doing most of the time. From mapping his routes with his two little assistants, to the self satisfied pride he felt when a customer’s eyes lit up upon receipt of a package. Everyone always looked so happy to receive things, even if they were just non-personal deliveries like machine parts or vegetables.
He also loved just being on Fenrir, drinking in the beautiful landscapes all around Gaia as the bike growled powerfully under him, revving and shifting smoothly at his command. Sometimes he stopped to try to capture a particularly striking scene on camera, to join the collection he had on the walls of 7th Heaven. Sometimes he picked a small bouquet in tribute when he was reminded of Aeris by the sight and smell of blooming wildflowers. He was his own boss, and he could determine his own pace of travel, and his destinations by picking and choosing jobs. He’d become a delivery boy just to help out Tifa at first, but it was funny how well the job suited him. He could have the freedom of the open road, indulge his obsession with bikes, and help people all at the same time. But there were drawbacks to the job as well, which had all seemed to come to a head yesterday.
He’d been on his way home, well after dark, when he’d gotten a call with a request to deliver some foodstuffs this morning. He normally found some way to do perishables, knowing the customer would have few other options, but he was loathe to deny himself both that night and this morning with Tifa. So he’d apologetically explained that he had prior engagements, asking if the delivery could be deferred to late afternoon.
To his surprise, the man had gotten angry rather than agreeing to the compromise. He’d scolded him for not doing his job to the customer’s satisfaction- after all; they were paying him, weren’t they? He should accept the customer’s demands no matter what, like he had done when he had first opened the delivery service.
Cloud rarely got upset with strangers, but something in that statement had touched a nerve. He’d pointed out that most customers made their requests well in advance, in order not to risk the shelf life of their item. He’d also coldly pointed out that the gil sometimes made paltry compensation for a lack of sleep, reheated dinners eaten alone, and being unable to fulfill his responsibilities at home. He’d stated rather vehemently that his family was his first priority, and that he would rather forgo a delivery than jeopardize that. And then he’d snapped his phone shut and glared at it, realizing that he’d just lost a customer for the first time.
He’d gotten home well after midnight, and while he’d been pleased that Tifa had stayed up to welcome him home, he’d felt guilty each time she yawned as she kept him company while he ate. They were both so tired this morning as well, and he kept wondering how yesterday would have played out if he had done only the Wutai job, or only the Kalm one. All that and Yuffie’s lecture made him start to wonder if he was in the right profession.
The fall weather didn’t help either. Who in their right mind would choose to be out there in the wet and cold when he was so comfortable right here?
Someone who people can depend on rain or shine, his conscience prodded him, and he frowned and sighed.
“You’ve been brooding all morning,” she prompted softly, working her fingers through his.
“Why would anybody want to be out there working in the rain instead of in bed with someone they love?”
She looked at the window as rain gusted against it with a sudden staccato burst, and then hugged their clasped hands close as she struggled with her own conscience. On a normal day, she would have been out there too, scouting out the food at the market and buying ingredients for 7th Heaven’s dinner menu or to make more wine.
“Um…because they aren’t as lazy as us?” she said with a self-mocking laugh.
She usually kept the household and bar running in spotless order, but the bare bones maintenance they had been receiving was starting to show. The bar floors were in dire need of a mop, and dirty clothes were actually piled around the overflowing laundry basket. She and Cloud had had to scramble to get out the winter things this morning because Marlene had run out of clean socks and the only ones left were the wool ones in storage. Which she should have brought out last week anyway, seeing as how it was getting too chilly for cotton. Marlene had shrugged and said that a lot of the other kids hadn’t changed into winter clothes either, but Denzel had pointed out that it was probably because they didn’t HAVE any winter clothes.
Most of Edge’s residents were originally from Midgar, and were still rebuilding their lives. Not even all of Edge’s children attended the new school, as their parents needed them to work to support the family. In Meteor’s aftermath, many Midgar citizens had suddenly had to learn new trades, as their professions had disappeared when the city had crumbled. Unemployment was still a problem, but people did what they had to in order to survive, even if they could remember times when they could afford finer food and clothing and their work had been less laborious.
Similarly, the WRO school budget covered little more than the salary of its teachers and teaching materials like textbooks and chalk. The high cost of energy meant that the buildings would remain unheated until winter truly set in. There had been something about a fundraiser in the last PTA notice, but she’d only glanced at it before promptly forgetting about it.
Tifa cringed inwardly with guilt, thinking of Marlene trying to study while her toes were curled up with cold in her canvas hightops. Well, she had wool socks on today, and they were going on a shopping trip after school, to get winter things for both of the kids. The children needed them to be more responsible, and she was a little ashamed that she had let them down, even if no lasting harm had been done.
“The past few weeks have been like living a dream. But I think everyone needs us to wake up already…” she said with a chagrined smile, twisting to face him. He was still frowning, so she kissed the tip of his nose playfully, trying to get him to smile back. He always took everything so seriously, although there was a lighthearted part of him that he had shown more and more recently.
“What about what we need? I feel like I’ve just woken up myself,” he argued, not wanting to be swayed into bantering about something that he felt so strongly about. “It’s not worth the gil to be away from home so much. I’ve realized that it’s hard on you and the children. And I miss you,” he admitted, smoothing her hair behind her ear. “I can’t keep taking care of my customers but not the people I care about.”
“Or yourself,” she teased, and he finally smiled sheepishly at that. He liked having what he wanted, even if it was selfish of him.
“Seriously…I can earn enough just monster hunting to make up for the loss of income if I shut down the delivery service. That’s mostly how we made money when we were on our journey, and it still works fine. The delivery service is just getting too popular. It’s impossible to get time off without letting down customers now. And making deliveries all day means we won’t have time alone together. I turn down so many requests just so I can come home early enough to spend time with the kids. I got a complaint yesterday. Something has to change, or someone will always be unsatisfied.”
“But…how will people send things if you shut down your service? I thought you liked making deliveries,” Tifa said, her eyes wide as she considered the implications. She’d never have guessed that he would consider closing the service. People depended on him.
“I do, but…I don’t know…maybe they can use chocobos. Maybe I can do some deliveries still. I haven’t really thought it through,” he said, grimacing. It was so cowardly, somehow, quitting the service. “If I had some help, it wouldn’t be so bad. I could buy another bike. Think Vincent would be interested in a job? He’s strong enough to deal with monster encounters while alone on the road.”
Tifa grinned at the incongruous image of the brooding gunman holding a brightly wrapped birthday parcel on someone’s doorstep.
“I don’t know- pretty hard to ride a bike with those pointy shoes of his,” she chortled, and he groaned and swatted at her.
“Ok, bad idea, but I’d need someone I can trust.”
“Well, we could put out the word, do interviews…”
He frowned. Talking to strangers was not high on the list of things he enjoyed.
“Or…and this is just an idea…I mean the Wutai people put all their deliveries into one bundle, right? To save on the cost of the delivery. And then people go to the place that one delivery goes to get their package.”
“So why don’t you do that with everybody? Have collection points and a schedule of some kind. Then you can just go to one or two places a day rather than having to drive everywhere all the time. You wouldn’t have to turn down requests either. We can store the packages in the spare room until the scheduled day for that delivery location. Since it’ll be slower than your door-to-door service you probably can’t charge as much. But then I think more people will use the service too, because it’ll be more affordable.”
“I have to charge so much for gas now… The fresh produce wouldn’t …but I guess I could still deliver them the way I do now.” His eyes were thoughtful as he considered how it would work. “It’s a good idea, Teef.”
“Thanks. I mean there are lots of things to decide. The schedule, and pricing, and where to collect packages…”
“And how to collect my fare.”
“Right. But…it could work, right?”
He nodded slowly.
“Yeah…it could.” He tilted his head at her, smiling knowingly. “You’ve had this idea for awhile now, haven’t you?”
“It just seemed more practical to me.”
“You should have said something. You’re better at thinking of business ideas than me.”
She smiled at the compliment; her eyes warm with pleasure before flashing deviously as she had another idea.
“Well, you can thank me by helping with the laundry. I’ve got a tonne to do, plus the mopping today. If you help me, it’ll be finished faster…and if it’s finished faster, we might have time for some other things…” she said suggestively, leaning in close.
He chuckled, and then laughed as she ducked away from his lips, scrambling out of reach and tossing his shirt into his face with a giggle. Obviously she wasn’t going to let him “persuade” her to stay in bed.
“Fine. You win. You’re sneakier than me too,” he said, pulling the shirt off his face, but his eyes glowed warmly with humor and a hint of those “other things.”
Tifa’s eyes widened in disbelief when she opened the door at 5 to turn the sign to “Open.” There was a queue of people down the stairs, all looking expectant and eager.
“Heard you’re serving Wutainese food tonight, yo,” Reno called from his position in line. She nodded dumbly, propping the menu board (“Wutainese wontons in noodle soup”) in its usual place as an afterthought as she assessed the members of the line- all four Turks, some people she didn’t know and a few regulars.
She was going to run out of food if business kept up at this rate.
“How did you know?” she asked in bewilderment, hastily trying to think of how she might stretch the supplies, what else she could whip up if people were still hungry and she ran out of the special.
“Reeve called old Tseng here, figuring he’d be interested. He must have spread the word at the WRO too,” he said, nodding at the people in lab coats.
“He did. It’s been ages since we’ve had Wutainese food. He says he’ll be by for dinner later once he finishes up at the office,” said a woman in glasses, one eye shut as if in a permanent wink.
Marlene and Denzel looked up from their homework in surprise as the line of customers filed in and took seats. Tifa looked worried as she hurried to the bar area.
“Tifa? Can I do my homework later? I can help you now, if you want,” Marlene offered, and Tifa flashed her a relieved smile.
“Oh, could you? I know what I said about homework, but...” her voice trailed off helplessly as she looked around the bar.
“Sure. I’m your number one waitress, right?” she said, and bounced over to the table the Turks had occupied.
“I can help too, Tifa,” Denzel offered quickly, only too happy to put off his homework, and he received another grateful smile.
That was the first time Cloud came home to a packed-to-the-gills 7th Heaven. His eyebrows raised in surprise when he opened the door to see that every table was full, and every seat at the bar as well. Marlene was carrying a couple of drinks over to a table, and Denzel was stirring something on the stove as Tifa, barely visible between the backs of the customers at the bar, mixed drinks.
His eyes narrowed briefly as he noticed the Turks, who were seated next to Reeve and a few people in lab coats. They were all talking animatedly, and since he knew it would be churlish to ignore Reeve just because of the company he kept, he reluctantly walked over to greet him.
“Ah, Cloud, thanks for bringing in the wonderful foodstuffs. We were just saying how long it’s been since we had good wontons.”
“Reeve,” he acknowledged, nodding. He inclined his head briefly at the Turks as well, ignoring Reno’s smirk. He didn’t like them, anything to do with Shinra, really, but they’d helped out against Kadaj’s gang, carried him and Tifa home. He couldn’t bring himself to be friendly, but he could settle for a truce.
“Oh, Cloud, welcome home,” called Tifa, looking a little flustered but with a certain excited sparkle in her eye. He hugged Marlene’s head briefly when she greeted him with a hug and then dashed off again to grab the next few drinks for customers.
“You’ll be here for awhile?”
“Sure, I can stay for a couple of drinks,” Reeve said, easing back in his seat. It was nice to have good food and relax in the company of others for a night. Infinitely preferable to going back to his bachelor’s apartment, even if the meal cost more than the usual cup of soup and sandwich that constituted his usual dinner.
“Tifa looks busy. We’ll talk later,” Cloud said, and Reeve nodded.
Tifa was busily chopping vegetables when Cloud joined them behind the bar.
“Hey, Cloud,” Denzel said, waving his free hand. He was perched on a stool as he stirred at a pot of egg drop soup.
“Hey. Didn’t know you could cook too.”
“I can’t. Tifa’s telling me what to do. But it’s pretty easy so far.”
“Denzel, that should be good for now. Can you take the till for a bit?” Tifa said, smiling at the man waiting to pay his bill.
“Sure,” he said, grinning as he hopped down. He loved handling gil, and this whole evening had been kind of an adventure.
“It’s almost as busy as Geostigma night,” Cloud observed, unbuckling his sword holster and propping it in the corner.
“The kids have been so helpful. I don’t know how I could have kept up otherwise. Yuffie called Reeve with the news that we were having wontons tonight, and he spread the word. I think we’ve already broken 10000, and it’s only 6:30,” she reported, her eyes glowing at the idea of all the cash in the till. “If you could handle the bar for a minute, I just want to finish this up. We’ll be out of the special once you guys have dinner, and I need to have something to serve.”
“Just tell me what to do,” he said, pulling off his gloves.
10000! We should serve Wutainese food more often.
Cloud was still thinking about that when the dinner crowd had petered out, and he was finally sitting with Denzel and Marlene at the usual table. They were finishing off their homework, and he was considering his maps in what was supposed to be the usual “route planning” he did at night. Instead, his mind was a jumble of thoughts about how to implement a schedule system with collection points, wondering what the sales total would have been if he’d bought larger amounts of food for Tifa in Wutai. Ginger root, Wutainese mushrooms, dumpling wrappers and…
His head snapped up when he suddenly realized there might be a way to combine what his delivery service needed with a way to help 7th Heaven get special ingredients at the same time. He grinned as he thought of how obvious the solution was, making Marlene and Denzel stare at him in puzzlement.
“Maybe both of us can have good business ideas.”
7th Heaven had always done decent, but modest business. The food was simple, but good and hearty, and alcohol always sold well. The customers were usually single men, who had the money to spend on meals they could cook themselves, but were too lazy to. After all, the ingredients were all available at the local market, but it was a hassle to cook only for yourself, and sometimes with poor results, even if the price was cheaper.
Cloud was also aware that being able to look at Tifa was a big draw for a lot of them. He had actually scared off a few customers recently by staking his territory, bristling at any competition obviously sniffing around.
But it seemed pretty profitable to fill the demand for foreign food as well, if tonight was any example. There had been quite a few women in the crowd tonight, willing to shell out the extra gil for a meal that wasn’t everyday fare.
He got up abruptly and went over to the bar, making Denzel and Marlene exchange ‘Boy, has Cloud ever lost it’ looks. Tifa was working at the pile of dirty dishes, which she usually left to soak overnight and did the next day- but the sheer volume today left her no choice.
“Hey, want a hand?” he said casually, fighting the urge to blurt out his brilliant idea.
She smiled gratefully and nodded at the dishcloth a little wearily. “No profit without pain, right?”
“You did really well tonight,” he said, picking up the dishcloth. Just play it cool. She’s going to love this.
“Thanks to Yuffie and Reeve. I was wondering what would happen if we made Wutai night a regular part of the menu,” she said, eyeing him thoughtfully as she handed him a rinsed plate. The only regular contact between Wutai and the rest of the world was usually by PHS- or Strife’s Delivery Service. But the cuisine was obviously popular, and with a bit of advertising, 5 figure nights could become a regular occurrence at 7th Heaven.
She thought longingly of the pair of boots and cute sweater dress that she’d seen in the shops today. They did well enough to provide for their family now, but luxuries like that cost more than she could rationalize to herself, especially with the sales slump they'd recently been in. It was much more important that the kids had warm new clothes, although with a few more nights like tonight, she thought she might be able to treat herself as well.
“I was thinking that too. And about what we talked about this morning.” He couldn’t resist any longer. “What if I set up partnerships with grocers again? Like we did before I started the delivery service, when 7th Heaven needed supplies and there was no market in Edge. But instead of local grocers- we go Gaia wide,” he said.
Tifa’s eyes went round as she followed his line of thinking. She’d been wondering if she could make some sort of discounted delivery deal with him, but this was much, much better.
“They could take the fares for you, store and distribute the deliveries. They’d get more customers themselves for having the extra traffic. Maybe give you groceries at a discount rate if we bought enough,” she said, her eyes glowing with excitement as she considered the possibilities.
“And you could get ingredients from around the world. Have other crazily busy nights,” he said, grinning.
“Oh, we do good thinking together,” she squealed, forgetting about her soapy hands as she leapt to hug him, laughing. Cloud was usually embarrassed by public displays of affection, but this time he didn’t stiffen at the contact, and he even kissed her on the cheek briefly, although his own cheeks were flushed.
“Well, among other things,” he murmured.
As they had anticipated, the new delivery system was an immediate hit, with the lower prices making it possible for even those who were still struggling financially to send letters or packages. Those who needed rush deliveries still had the option of requesting his door-to-door service at the previous rate, although most people went with the “discount” service. Everybody likes to think that they scored a bargain.
It took awhile to work out the best schedule, as some places were simply more popular than others. Rocket Town was in such a boom at the moment, and so difficult to get to that it was featured more often than Junon, which had a bigger population but could be reached by train from Midgar. At first, it felt like they made changes to the Strife Delivery calendar, posted on the wall by the stairs (and relayed to partner stores by PHS), every couple of days.
But Cloud was surprised and pleased to discover that he often still had a couple of delivery-free mornings a week to spend with Tifa and a fixed day off for them to spend as a family, all while earning more than he had previously because the number of packages to be delivered increased dramatically with the lowered price scheme.
The kids volunteered to help when they had their family meeting about the changes, and took on their new responsibilities with a relish. They were both proud to know that they were helping out the family businesses. While Tifa still worried that Denzel felt the need to earn his keep at first, she relaxed when she saw Denzel blush and shrug when Cloud praised the way he'd handled a customer one night. It just pleased him to contribute, especially because he admired Cloud so much.
The mailroom became a new place for them to play, and they would often try to guess what was inside the boxes or envelopes. Marlene also enjoyed labeling the ones that required special handling, carefully penning, “Fragile” or “Heavy” with a thick black marker on them before putting them into the appropriate container. They both loved the satisfaction that came with giving someone a highly anticipated package as well, or assuring a customer that their package would arrive on a certain date. So Tifa would defer to them when a delivery customer came into 7th Heaven. It was so charming to hear their childish voices as they “talked business.” (“Here’s the letter you were waiting for, ma’am.” “Strife Delivery service goes to Gongaga on the 13th. But for 2000 more gil, we can have it there for you tomorrow.”)
7th Heaven was making a tidy profit as well. Tifa had to open shop by noon to accommodate the people dropping off and picking up packages for Strife’s Delivery service. But they often also became Tifa’s customers as they stayed for a drink or a bite to eat after that errand was complete, and she no longer had to go to the market for ingredients.
That was Cloud’s job again, and he’d had to learn a whole new set of words to go with it, but he didn’t mind. The daily “Tour of Gaia” special was so popular that people would often call in just to check the specials that were likely to come up that week. It was simply too expensive to get ingredients from far away places, so Edge residents quickly discovered that they could sample these foreign foods only at 7th Heaven. Some nights still saw a line down the stairs as people waited for a table to open up. But with the kids and Cloud home in time to help with the dinner rush, Tifa could manage to get everyone fed and watered without having to stress or make customers wait too long.
“It’s so nice that we’re working together like a real family,” she said to Cloud one night, settling into his arms to sleep. She smiled with satisfaction as she thought of the new sweater dress hanging in the closet, the new boots sitting next to the bed. She was going to wear them tomorrow when they went to the amusement park with the kids, another little luxury they could afford now.
“Yeah. Like a real family,” he echoed, thinking of the small box he’d secreted in his desk.
A/N: Something Reeve said in AC really struck me as true- How DOES Cloud earn any money at all? So I tried to make his service a bit more practical. (Not completely though. I mean, Gaia is made up of a bunch of islands and yet Cloud can drive to the Forgotten City from Edge on his bike in AC.) Another thing that bothered me was how Tifa is always helping Cloud out with his business by taking all his messages, but he had stopped getting her supplies for hers. So I thought he should help her out as well, in a way that only he could, and in a way that brought him back to where they had started. I also thought the way Nojima had 7th Heaven providing only ordinary food was a crappy way to earn money. I know it’s a bar, but good izakaya (Japanese style bars) always offer really great food to go with the drinks. Usually stuff you can’t easily make at home. So with my love for foreign cuisines, the idea for this chapter (and Interlude, actually) was conceived.