Characters: CloudxTifa, Denzel, Marlene, Aeris
Rating: PG-13, non-explicit sexual situations
Word count: about 5000
Summary: Geostigma still exists in DoC. How do Cloud and Tifa react when they realize that victims still remain all over Gaia?
“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” Og Mandino
For the next few weeks, 7th Heaven was a perfect name for the place they called home.
The kids went back to school with a relish, bursting to tell their classmates all about their fantastic holiday. Whenever their friends came over to play, the holiday snaps came out until everybody knew which picture went with what story. Even the new toys they’d received and juices and snacks that Tifa served were overshadowed for a short time.
Tifa and Cloud were back to being besotted with each other again, although they both made a visible effort to stay attuned to their responsibilities. But everybody understood when they would catch Tifa smiling at her new ring while pouring a beer, or dreamily leafing through a bridal magazine behind the counter if there was a lull in business.
Cloud was also in a palpable hurry to be on the road home again when he arrived on scheduled deliveries, although he would stamp slips, count gil, and unpack and re-pack Fenrir with his usual care, if rather quickly. And if he got home earlier than usual, Tifa didn’t scold him for speeding. His unseemly eagerness to usher the last customers out of the bar at closing time also caused good-natured winks among them- it was hard not to feel indulgent in the face of young love.
But bliss never came easily, with pasts as murky and painful as theirs. Particularly when one uninvited guest simply insists on lingering...
“7th Heaven and Strife’s Delivery Service. How can I help you?”
“Hello?” The woman’s voice was tentative, as if unused to speaking on the phone. “Um, well, we got this number from Bennett and Sons. You see, we have a request but we’re not sure if your delivery service covers this sort of thing, so we thought it best to ask…”
“Oh, Cloud can handle anything,” she said proudly, feeling her cheeks warm. “We deliver anywhere connected to the Midgar area.”
“It’s just that…Well, you see, we don’t want something delivered to somebody else…we want to see if you’ll pick up and deliver something to us.”
Tifa paused and tilted her head as she picked up a pen, testing it on the edge of the receipt. “Oh. Well, we don’t usually do cash on delivery. We’ve found that it’s better to take the fee upfront… But I can always find out if he will be amenable. What kind of delivery is it? Fresh produce, letter mail, parcel…”
“Oh, I’m not sure. You see… we were hoping to get a bottle of the water from that church. We heard people were healed from the Stigma in it, and we just can’t afford to travel to Midgar…”
Tifa stopped fidgeting with the pen abruptly, eyes wide.
Why didn’t we ever think of this? If only that rain had been Gaia wide…
“And my sister, you see, she’s got a child as well and her husband, he... We just can’t scrape together enough gil to pay for transport and inns and…We’ll pay for the delivery, of course, it’s says on the brochure how much it is for the special delivery and we have enough-”
Tifa shut her eyes and interrupted her nervous ramble. She was pleased by how steady her voice sounded, despite the brittle way she suddenly felt.
“I’m sure the delivery won’t be a problem. I’ll try to pick it up myself. I have to warn you that I’m not sure if that water is still there… We were so lucky here in Edge a few months ago, so nobody… Anyway, if you could give me your contact details, I’ll get back to you to let you know if we can deliver.”
The professional veneer held as she took down the number and address amidst the women’s profuse thanks, although her disquiet was deafening in the stillness left after she replaced the receiver.
Guilt and loneliness crept up again as if they hadn’t been banished for months. How she could be so thoughtless? Did she really deserve to be so happy when others were still suffering?
She fiddled with the interlocking bands on her finger as she considered the question, and then stood and strode to the closet when she came to a decision.
Sitting here brooding would hardly answer her questions, and if she hurried, she could fetch that water now.
Maybe her actions wouldn’t redeem her, but they were a start.
The church was much as she remembered it. It was beautiful despite the obvious neglect, the crystal clear pool serene and unruffled amidst the broken pillars, piles of rubble, and misaligned benches. The windows stained the ground with patches of color and dust motes danced in the sunshine that peeked in through the hole in the ceiling. Her flowers were making a comeback around the edges of the pool. Their fragrance was soothing- Midgar smelled of rust and decay, and walking through the broken shell of the city had reminded her sharply of her crimes.
It was never easy for her to come here, and the first time Marlene had badgered and pleaded for days in order to persuade her. It had felt like an intrusion on the place he had claimed- their place. She had been trying to avoid confronting him on his reason for leaving them, knowing that the answer might be something too bitter to swallow. But Marlene had been determined to bring Cloud home despite Tifa’s evasions and excuses. Finding the place where he’d made his bed and the proof that he was on his way to see her at last had been the final nail in her small box of hopes. She’d given up that dream long before that day, but seeing the evidence had still stung.
Even now, the memory of that moment brought up a sharp pang, and she knelt hurriedly and dipped the bottle into the pool. The sooner she could get back to work, the sooner she would be too busy to reflect on such things.
But she smiled wanly when her ring clinked against the bottle as she switched hands to stopper it, and she looked up in surprise when the echo sounded like the ripple of laughter. She looked around and then rocked back on her heels, smiling sheepishly.
“I know. But give a girl a break. Can’t wear down two years of feeling inadequate so easily, right?”
As she stood, looking around more slowly, an idea started to form in her mind.
She felt a little less troubled when she turned her gaze back on the quiet scene from the doorway, clasping the bottle in her hands.
“Thanks, Aeris. I’ll be back soon,” she said softly.
Cloud looked up from his magazine when she unlocked the door, and moved quickly to greet her with a wolfish grin.
“I thought I’d come home for a hot lunch rather than cracking open the lunch box. Hard to chip the food out of that thing when it’s frozen.”
She couldn’t help laughing when he pulled her close, obviously hungry for something other than food.
“Well, anyway, you can warm me up. And we can eat after,” he chuckled, pressing a kiss to her neck. But he jerked his head back in surprise when he caught a whiff of something familiar.
“You were at the church just now?”
She was relieved that he seemed puzzled, but not upset. She hadn’t realized that she’d been anxious about that until she’d seen him. She had been right to laugh.
“Yeah. A delivery service customer asked for a bottle of water from there. She’s hoping it’ll cure her sister’s Geostigma,” she said softly. He sobered as she spoke, taking the proffered bottle from her.
“Near Fort Condor. The details are on the receipt book upstairs. I wanted to find out if the pool was still there first. I didn’t want to promise them and then…but she wouldn’t do that, would she? I wish I’d thought about it sooner.”
They were both quiet as he stared at the bottle, turning it slowly in his hands. He could recall well the excruciating pain of the seizures, the horror in knowing what that black scar meant, the shame over the helplessness that would come with the last stages.
“Tifa,” he said finally, “Do you mind if I try out the lunchbox after all? I might be back a bit later than usual, but I think I can swing both deliveries this afternoon if I leave now. I- I really want to do this delivery.”
She smiled and tiptoed to kiss him encouragingly.
“Sure, no problem. I want to know if it works, too. If you run up to get the receipt, I’ll warm up your lunch for you.”
That pulled him out of his solemn mood, and he shot a cheeky smile over his shoulder as he headed for the stairs.
“Naw, you don’t need to. It keeps warm just fine in the compartment next to the engine.”
Tifa kept her phone in her pocket as she prepared the night’s special during the slower period for the bar in the afternoon. Chocobo Farm Chili and the accompanying tortilla chips were relatively quick and easy to make- the former needed only a long simmer to bring out the zesty flavours and the latter just had to be toasted prior to serving. She loved putting chili on the menu for two other reasons: hot, hearty food was great for winter, and the combination of spicy and salty always helped her sell more beer. The Gysahl greens to go with it would be best prepared just before the dish went out, so once they were washed, trimmed and set aside, she found herself with a great deal more free time than she wanted.
She usually liked getting the meal preparation out of the way, so that she could catch up on other things like mending, looking up new recipes online or looking at wedding dresses and venues in magazines. But today she found herself fidgeting and unable to focus on her recipe cards, inventory or any of the “quiet time” tasks she usually set for herself. Even the magazine garnered an impatient huff from her before she slammed it shut. She was relieved every time a customer came in, because it distracted her from obsessively checking her phone and debating about whether to text him about which delivery he had done first.
Once it got past 3 though, she admitted that he had probably gone on the scheduled delivery first, so she sighed and got working on a list of things that were running low. By the time Denzel and Marlene burst through the door, she was humming as she counted the tallies she’d made, although she did worry a bit when he didn’t show up by 6. By 8, the dinner rush was over and her worry had shifted to alarm, so she phoned, only to blink in surprise when it routed to his voicemail for the first time in months.
“Cloud? What happened? We’re worried. Let me know if you’re alright when you can.”
The kids- especially Denzel- kept casting worried looks at the door and Tifa as they tried to do their homework. Marlene whimpered when they watched her close her phone with that pensive look on her face. They looked at each other and then at his empty seat. It was just like last summer.
Marlene’s face slowly acquired the determined expression that Denzel called “her mad look,” and then she called out.
“Tifa? Where’s Cloud?”
She bit her lip and looked away for a second, but then looked straight at them when she answered.
“I don’t know. He said he’d only be a little late. I hope he’s OK.”
Minutes later, her phone finally rang, and they both sat up straight as they listened anxiously to Tifa’s side of the conversation.
“Oh, Cloud, I’m sorry…”
She shut her eyes, pressing a hand against her stomach as she listened.
“I will. Be careful.”
She exhaled raggedly after she closed the phone, lost in thought until one of the regulars raised a hand apologetically.
“Sorry to bother you, Tifa, but I’d like to head home now…”
“Oh, sorry. Cloud. I’ll get your bill.”
He studied her as she tapped out the figures into the register.
“You know, he’s your fiancé and a hero and all that. But say the word and we’ll all pitch in to teach him a lesson if he’s upsettin’ you again.”
She smiled at him, touched.
Having good customers was wonderful. But having good regulars was a balm to the soul.
“He’s not. But thanks. I appreciate it.”
He nodded stiffly, cheeks a little flushed as he waved away the change.
“Don’ mention it. See you tomorrow.”
“Have a good night, Rhys.”
She surveyed the other customers- all of them still looked fine with their drinks- and then moved to join the kids, still studiously trying to focus on homework although they were obviously distracted by the empty spot at their table. Two solemn little faces turned up at her as she approached.
“Hey guys. Cloud says he’s sorry, but he’ll be late tonight. He’s coming home now.”
They both gave brief smiles, nodding, and then bent back to their tasks with less fidgeting than before.
He couldn’t speak of it at first; evading her questions and bolting his dinner with that familiar haunted look on his face, his eyes shuttered and posture slumped. They filled the silence with an almost friendly conversation on things like what time the kids went to bed instead, the supplies the bar needed, the sales total. Safe topics that wandered nowhere near what was really wrong.
It disturbed her to feel the distance stretching between them again. It disturbed her even more to remember that they had had conversations like this all the time before he left, and she’d refused to see that anything was wrong. The eerie sense of déjà vu shadowed their actions as they got ready for bed, and she showered alone as he unpacked Fenrir; lay quietly in the dark with her thoughts as he took his turn in the bathroom. She knew she should say something to shake him out of it, and turned to do so when he slid into bed next to her.
But she never got the chance- he swallowed her words with a needy kiss, groaning as he pulled her roughly to him.
She’d never felt him so desperate, so hungry for solace. There was no trace of her lover of lazy mornings and quiet nights, the man she laughed with as they gave each other fulfillment and starbursts. But she’d always known about this other side to him, the one that she had pieced together, soothed and challenged in turns. So she gave him what he needed wholeheartedly so that he could find a way out of the darkness howling inside him.
And when he lay panting and trembling, the doubts and demons falling back in the radiance of the afterglow, he finally found the words.
“God, Teef, sometimes I think I don’t deserve this,” he said brokenly. “I couldn’t do anything. I tried.”
“I know, Cloud. I’m so sorry. It seemed like such a good idea.”
“Nothing happened. It was just water. They were all so crushed. I didn’t know what to say or do.”
“It must have been so hard. I wish I hadn’t answered the phone this morning.”
Hearing the regret in her voice jogged him out of his self-pity, and he raised himself off her, studying the troubled expression on her face as he struggled to catch his breath. She obviously needed some soothing herself.
So he bent and kissed her with his usual tenderness, and took heart when she sighed and tightened her arms around him.
He might be a failure sometimes, but he thought he could fix this, at least.
The next morning Tifa arrived at the church armed with cleaning supplies. For the next couple of hours she removed rubble, swept out dust, polished windows and wiped down benches, all the while thinking about what Cloud had gone through the previous day.
When the bottle of water had had no effect, the women had been understandably disappointed, questioning if it was really the same water that they’d heard about. Cloud had assured them that it was, that he and numerous others had been cured by the same stuff months ago. He was as much at a loss over it as they were.
And then the victim had surmised that it had just lost its miraculous powers on the journey. Maybe the bottle was dirty, or the journey in the cold weather had done something to it.
She’d given him a desperate look as she told him she would do anything for the chance to see her son grow up.
And then she’d asked him how much it would cost to take her to Midgar on the back of his bike.
“You know what I’m like, Teef. Before I could figure out what to say she was offering me a stack of gil. Said it was worth the risk. The sister was crying, then the baby was crying. So I just said yes. Told them if it helped heal her, that was payment enough. And then she bundled up and got behind me on the bike.”
He’d grimaced as he told the next part. “She didn’t know how to ride. Sat stiff as a board and leaned against the curves instead of into them. Had to stop so I could tell her. And just as she seemed to be getting the hang of it, we were attacked by a group of Formulas. She was really upset by that. I could barely focus on fighting with her screaming and clinging. And they kept sweeping in from all sides.”
He’d closed his eyes and squeezed her close, inhaling the clean smell of her before continuing. “Her strong reaction triggered a seizure. I had to drop a sword just to grab her before she fell off. Finished them off at a standstill, then made camp so she could recover. When she woke up she asked if it was likely that there would be more attacks on the way. I told her probably…there are always monster encounters, you know that… So she apologized and asked if I could just bring her home instead. Said she’d rather die in familiar surroundings than out on the plains. So I did. We were delayed again by another attack, but I got her home, at least.”
Her heart still ached for him when she thought of it. How he hated letting people down, how he tended to blame himself. But he’d told her he’d been able to sleep through the night as she tied on his ribbon this morning, and he’d been visibly cheered by the affections the kids had heaped on him as well, even if Marlene had delivered her hug with a scolding for not calling sooner. He definitely seemed more like himself again before he’d left the house. But Tifa expected to see him show up at the church sometime this morning anyway.
Well, then he can help me move those pillars. And bring his things home already.
She’d been half amused and half exasperated to find his (now moldy) bedroll, and his (now rusty) camping lamp and thermos along with his camping chest.
Cloud’s belongings fell into two categories. The few lucky ones, like Fenrir, were always carefully polished, maintained, and put away. Everything else he treated with casual disregard, and if he couldn’t find something, he would just go out and buy another. She’d given up trying to maintain order on his desk, although now that his room was their room, there was a marked reduction in the random appearance of objects there.
She dipped a pail of water and then started to mop, noting that even though it couldn’t wash away the black stain of Geostigma, it still did a nice job of getting the dirt off the floors. And she would forever remember that morning in the pool, where Cloud had been miraculously resurrected, where Denzel and all the others still afflicted had been healed. In this place, her tearing grief and anxiety had changed to hope and blinding joy. She was deeply grateful, and sorry that she hadn’t thought to show it before. But she was positive that Aeris would be understanding.
Better late than never, right?
She finished off the morning’s work by washing her face and hands with the water, gasping at the icy winter temperature of it. Then she turned to survey her handiwork, rotating her wrists and stretching before clasping her hands behind her back.
She smiled when she heard the low rumbling of an engine.
His eyebrows lifted in surprise when he walked in, and they regarded each other hesitantly, and then spoke at the same time.
“I’m not hiding. I just wanted to check something.”
“I’ve just finished up here if you need time alone to think.”
That made them both laugh at their own foolishness, and he quickly strode to join her.
“I can’t believe how good this place looks. Did you do this all today?”
“Yeah. I thought she would like it. I forgot to say thanks, and it seemed a good way to do it.”
He smiled, tilting his head to give her an appreciative glance before the items on the front bench caught his eye.
“Hey! My stuff. I completely forgot.”
“Uh huh,” she said drolly. “We’re going to have to toss the bedroll, but you can probably still use the others.”
She sat, watching in amusement as he inspected the lamp and then the bedroll, shaking his head over the state of them. Shrugging, he sat down beside her and slid his arm around her as she leaned her head on his shoulder. They just sat looking at the pool for a minute, relaxing in the serene atmosphere.
“You know,” he finally said quietly, “When I was watching her sleep off that seizure, I wondered if the virtue had gone out of this place. If maybe she’d left us for good. Pretty unfair that we were cured, but too thoughtless to share. I’d hoped that I could make it up by delivering bottles of this water like it was Elixir and Remedy all in one.”
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it had worked? How many lives could we have saved? But I guess the magic that Aeris worked on it is gone now,” she said regretfully.
“Is it? Look at the flowers. They still don’t bloom anywhere else in Midgar, you know. I just wanted to check.”
She inhaled sharply as she considered that.
His head jerked suddenly then, and he turned towards the door. A moment later, Tifa heard the sound of voices and footsteps.
A man walked in, and then frowned and held back his companion when he saw them sitting there. Judging by his clothing, he was obviously fairly well off. From the tan, it was likely that he came from Costa del Sol. Mideel folk were usually sun-browned as well, but they spent most of their gil on rebuilding, like folks around Midgar did.
“Hello. You’re the heroes of the Jenova War, aren’t you? Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart. We heard about this place from some associates in Junon. Is there some sort of fee?”
Their eyes widened in horror.
“Definitely not. And I don’t know if I can call myself a hero. Jenova still plagues our planet- her cells are the reason you’re here now. We haven’t been here since the healings this summer, so we’ve come to check if the water can still heal the Stigma.” Cloud said quietly.
His face fell at that, so Tifa hastened to add, “But we have reason to believe that it will. We’d just like to see for ourselves, if you don’t mind us watching.” He nodded slowly as he looked at their earnest expressions, and led a woman carrying a small, sleeping girl in behind him. There was a painful looking black scar down the back of her wrist, and one on the jaw of the girl.
“My wife and daughter,” he said, and they all murmured greetings.
“Do we just drink the water?” she asked.
“Well, when we were here people stood in the pool and poured the water over their scars…but I have to warn you that the water is much colder now that it’s winter. Maybe you can just pour it on the scar,” Tifa said, frowning. How awful it would be to immerse yourself in that frigid water after months of being ill.
The woman was thoughtful for a moment, but then decisively shook her head.
“No. We haven’t come so far only to do this halfway.” She turned to her husband, shifting the child in her arms. “Karen’s sleeping so well now- why don’t I try it first?”
I’ve got her,” the man murmured, and the girl whimpered, but didn’t wake upon the transfer.
“Wait.” Cloud stood up abruptly and went to the chest. He pulled out some bandages and packaged food as he dug through the contents before his eyes lit up. “Here. Let’s see if it still works.”
He set the kerosene heater on the floor and grinned when it rattled to life and started to blaze upon the second click of the switch.
“Can’t take the chill out of the water, but this way you’ll be able to warm up after.”
Their warm thanks and Tifa’s proud look made him blush and rub the back of his neck as he retreated to where she was, leaving the family to carefully step through the flowers.
The woman sat and gasped at the chill in the water when she tested it, but pressed her lips together with resolve and then slid in with a gasp. “I thought it would be wiser to get it over with quickly,” she explained, her teeth already starting to chatter. “Oh, Goddess, already! Look, Allen!” she gasped exultantly, holding her wrist proudly aloft for him to see.
Tifa and Cloud squeezed each other again, hard. But this time, it wasn’t out of a need for comfort.
“Oh, I’m just so glad you were right,” she exclaimed once they were outside, fighting the urge to skip and swing the chest they held aloft between them, although she let the laugh bubble out of her.
“It wasn’t my idea. It was actually something you said that got me thinking. She wouldn’t do that, would she? There’s no way that she’d let him slowly corrupt the Lifestream, take away more lives before their time,” he said firmly. “And then I thought of the flowers, and…”
He shrugged and smiled at her, leading the way to Fenrir. She turned and looked back at the church as he expertly loaded up the bike.
“You know, I never expected this place to give me happy memories,” she admitted softly.
“Me neither,” he admitted, eyes distant as he remembered, closing up the last compartment.
“It has though, twice now,” she said softly.
That made him pause and look at her, hands clasped behind her back as she regarded the building. So he reached out and took her hand, running his thumb over the duel bands that swirled around her finger. When he tilted his head as their gazes met, letting his eyes ask the question, she smiled and nodded.
“I think it would be lovely. And I just know she’ll be able to join us, somehow, if it’s here.”
He smiled, remembering the last time he’d stood in that pool.
“Yeah. I think so, too.”
They dispensed with the ribbons from that day forward. They realized that there was no need to be physically bound to her memory, when her spirit was so obviously still here with them. Instead, they made regular visits to the church. They would bring kerosene and fresh towels when they made the journey. Wipe down benches, remove discarded bandages and tend to the ever-widening ring of flowers surrounding the pool.
Lives could never be replaced, or sins forgotten. But every time the church was left gleaming, it seemed as though more than just dust had been washed away. And the smell of the flowers they brought home would grace 7th Heaven for days afterward.
A/N: This chapter was a lot more difficult to write than the others, with all the stuff that I wanted to convey. Metaphors, symbolism, and flower girls, oh my! But I thought a darker chapter was in order after the full on fluff in the last one, and I needed to set up the next chapter as well.
The idea of regression developed from something Pied Flycatcher said after I reviewed her “Fragility;” that Cloud and Tifa’s relationship moves 2 steps forward and then one step back. While my view is obviously more rose-tinted, I found the idea intriguing and wanted to try my hand at writing something other than rainbows and cotton candy.