The Only Exception
Hello, new and old readers! Let me start by saying that I've written all my disclaimers and author's starting notes in my writing blog (aichioluv dot blogspot dot sg), so I suggest you take a look, don't say that I didn't warn you!
"The Only Exception" is one of my favourite songs and thus, here's a story on it (because we fanfic writers are just soooooo original). I shan't waste more time, I just hope that you will enjoy my little story!
Story 1 – Tifa
Chapter 1 – An Old Friend
Even though it was past midnight, seven-year old Tifa Lockhart could not sleep. Something was going on downstairs but she was too afraid to check it out. She pulled her blanket closer to her chin. She also grabbed her chocobo plushie, a gift from her mother who left for Midgar recently for a business trip. Tifa held the plushie tightly and tried to squeeze horrible thoughts of burglary and child-napping out of her head. Nibelheim was a safe place compared to the other towns, still the horror stories of children disappearing and never returning sometimes haunted her… especially in nights like this.
"Fall asleep, fall asleep." Her tiny voice commanded herself to sleep but she felt more awake than ever. The noises came louder downstairs. Bad person, go away go away! She thought inside. Don't hurt me and pap…
She suddenly sat up straight and stared at the door. In her fears of being hurt she forgot about whether her father was safe, or not. Her feet peeked out of her blanket and she wondered with her heart pounding. What if the bad person was going after her father instead?
She quickly got off her bed and slipped her small feet into her bedroom slippers. She bit her lip and summoned strength in her to face the worst sort of bad guy that was behind her door. Tifa was frightened, no doubt. However, the thought of her father in danger did not give her more room to care for herself.
The door creaked open and Tifa peered out. She sighed in relief when she saw that there was nobody standing behind her door. Her ears picked up what seemed to be a long conversation downstairs. Voices of a female voice, calm and composed and a man's voice, soft but definitely not composed. Tifa tip-toed down the narrow staircase and leaned against the railings softly, listening to the conversation in the kitchen.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Timothy Lockhart." The female voice said. "It was a very tragic accident. I could only wish that my message is false information."
"It's fine." Tifa heard her father croak. "Going to Midgar was never a good decision… I told her that, but she never did listen…" His voice gave way and he whimpered a little.
"Arrangements can be made for you and your daughter, if you need it."
"Thank you, officer."
"You're welcome." The female officer replied. Tifa could sense that the female felt awkward in the kitchen. "Should I… leave you alone, Mr. Lockhart?"
There was no reply, but the sound of the door opening and then closing again told Tifa that the policewoman left the kitchen by the back door. She frowned, not understanding what had just happened.
"Carifah…" She heard her father say to himself. "I told you that going to Midgar was not wise. Why didn't you listen to me? Why…?" He broke down and swore, banging the tables with his fists. Tifa was shocked to hear sobs coming from the kitchen. She has never seen her father cry before and she did not know what to do.
"Papa…" Tifa cried from the staircase. She ran down the staircase and hugged her father tightly. The man, upon feeling the embrace of his daughter, held her close and continued weeping. "Papa…" She asked. "Where's Mama? You said that I'll be able to see her tomorrow morning."
Timothy's grip on her tightened. "Little Tifa." He could barely choke out. "Mama won't be home tomorrow morning."
"Not tomorrow?" Tifa pouted. "She promised me that she would come back tonight."
Timothy paused, not knowing how to explain to his daughter that her mother could no longer fulfill that promise. "Mama is in a better place…" Timothy said quietly, not releasing his daughter from his bosom, as if Death was capable of appearing and taking his daughter away as well. "Mama will not be with us here anymore, only in our hearts."
"… Everything will be alright."
8 years later…
It was midnight, but fifteen year-old Tifa could not sleep. She no longer feared the nasty night terrors – she grew out of the childish dreams the minute she understood the reality of death.
It was almost 8 years ago that Dad… She pulled her lips into a tight line, not even wanting to mention it. Tifa was grieved to hear of her mother's accidental death in Midgar years ago, but she hardly mentioned her mother too often in front of her father.
She stuck her feet out of the bed and slid off it quietly. She opened her bedroom door and listened. The light downstairs told Tifa that her father was still awake. There was no one else in the family that could be awake, since there were only Tifa and her father left. Tifa stayed up at the top of the stairs, in case she disturbed her father who sounded like he was in the living room.
"Carifah…" Her skin tingled when she heard her father call her mother's name. "8 years have passed since you've passed away. Tifa has been a good girl and you should see her. She looks beautiful and all grown up. But you wouldn't be surprised, because she looks exactly like how you did when I first met you."
Tifa pressed her cheek against the cold railing, wondering how many times in the past 8 years did her father 'talk' to her mother like that.
"… Many things surely happened while you were gone. But my love, I haven't changed." His voice was tense and high-strung. "I've tried to move on and be a good widower. But I can't. Losing you had been the lowest point in my life, and I can't pick myself up anymore. Why… Why did you have to go?"
Tifa bit back a sob. How many times did her father cry and mourn over her mother? She quickly ran back to her room and hid underneath the blanket, crying softly for the pain that her father often concealed in front of her. It was not fair. Her father had barely begun his life with her mother before she was taken back to the Lifestream.
"Why are our souls so easily destructible?" She murmured. "It makes the love so easily betrayed…" She bit her lower lip, leaving the remainder of her thoughts unspoken.
So much for eternal love. It's not fair that we throw ourselves away in the name of love, because when Death claims the human… what amount of time we've spent with the special someone, what we've given ourselves in love…
… Are all in vain.
"Tifa!" Aerith's voice broke the raven-haired girl's thoughts. Tifa's head shot up and saw Aerith's smiling face.
"Hello, Aerith." Tifa smiled.
Despite her father's protests, Tifa insisted on going to a university in Midgar when she was nineteen, instead of continuing her studies in Nibelheim. She has never been outside of her little town so she was initially afraid. However, her landlady, Elmrya Gainsborough, was more than welcoming. She ensured that Tifa was well-taken care of, and her daughter, Aerith, soon became fast friends with her, since they were going to the same university together. Tifa did not want to burden her father further with her school fees so she had to earn her pocket money by taking a part-time job in Midgar's bar, 7th Heaven. She did not mind, though. She enjoyed what she was doing.
Naturally, Aerith became one of her best friends, but their friendship was a lot deeper than that. Aerith too, suffered a nasty experience with love, when her mother was abandoned by her own father. Their lack of faith in love was the common ground that they shared.
"Did you hear?" Aerith sat down across Tifa's counter. "KAI is releasing a new album next month!"
Tifa put down the glass cup that she was wiping. "Oh, Aerith." She smiled. "You're too smitten with him."
KAI is one of the newest singers in the entertainment industry. Tifa has to admit, the singer is good. He is not one of those deep, rich voices, but a young voice with sincerity to bring his songs to as many people as he can. Tifa loved his ballads, although she was not quite as smitten as Aerith. Aerith is a good singer herself, so Tifa understood that her admiration was not ungrounded.
For someone who swore she'll never fall in love… Tifa thought with a sly smile. She's falling in love pretty easily.
"Tifa!" Aerith pouted. "I know you're thinking that I'm in love with KAI!"
The raven-haired girl stuck her tongue out playfully. "Caught in the act," she admitted sheepishly.
Aerith groaned. "But I'm not, I'm serious! Crazy fans in love with KAI stalk him outside the building. I'm merely an admirer." She laughed. "Then again, what's there not to like about him and his songs?" She sighed. "If only we can see his face."
It was probably a marketing stunt, that KAI's face was never revealed. All images of him were only cartoon pictures of a man with burning red hair and a large studded cross around his neck. He also wore a ring that spanned across his second to fourth finger; a ring that spelled 'KAI' across the fingers. That became a very successful merchandise because everyone started to wear the KAI rings. Till now, close to a year after his first album, KAI had never had a concert, never been on a television talk show, never had his pictures taken by paparazzi. The singer was just as elusive as he was talented.
"Well," Tifa chuckled. "Sometimes, falling in love with a guy starts from the simplest admiration, you know." She regretted her words immediately.
Aerith glanced at Tifa with an expression that spoke more than it seemed. "Oh Tifa," she sighed. "You know that I won't do that." She was not referring to the admiration, but the fact that she will never be interested in falling in love.
Tifa was relieved when she saw someone entering the bar. "Good evening!" She said. Her face lit up when she saw a familiar face. He was one of the many friends she had made in university. "Hey, there!" She grinned.
"Hey Tifa! Oi, Aerith!"
Without even turning around, Aerith groaned and buried her face in her hands. "It's Reno, isn't he? I gotta split."
Tifa raised an eyebrow. "What's happening?"
"Don't run away from me, yo." Quick as lightning, Reno appeared beside Aerith and placed an arm around her shoulder casually. Aerith did little to hide her disappointment. "Come on, Aerith." Reno begged. "I really need your help for Christmas. Don't waste your talent like that!"
Tifa turned to the redhead. "The Student Union, huh?"
"Ain't you smart, yo?" Reno grinned at Tifa. "There's a mini fair visiting Midgar for two months and they've kindly allowed us to borrow some equips' for our Christmas celebration. It's like, tons of games, rides and a huge Ferris Wheel!"
"Sounds like fun." Tifa smiled.
"Totally. But it'll be even better if Aerith helps us out."
"I am not going to help you!" Aerith shook her head so hard, her chestnut curls threatening to drop off her head.
Tifa smiled. Aerith has a natural talent of singing. However, she really has something against love, because she has sworn off singing love songs since she was a kid. Nothing, absolutely nothing will convince her to sing love songs. That did not stop her from listening to love ballads from KAI, though. She had mentioned something about KAI being more sincere in his songs than the other mainstream singers.
"I won't sing!" Aerith said crossly, shaking her head once again.
"Why would you need her to sing love songs?" Tifa frowned. "Isn't it Christmas?"
"Exactly, I need her to sing love songs so that we can prepare them students for the Tunnel of Love!" Reno grinned and gave a thumbs-up.
"Tunnel… of Love?" Tifa raised an eyebrow. "Now THAT sounds corny. Besides, I don't think the Tunnel of Love is a suitable ride for Christmas…"
"Whatever it is, I'm not singing love songs. It's final." Aerith said, placing her hands firmly on the counter to emphasise her point. "I'll talk to you later." She waved at Tifa and strode off.
Reno watched the brunette walk off with pure disappointment. With Reno, it was easy to read his expression. He turned to Tifa with pleading eyes. "Tifa, couldn't you get her to-"
She shook her head. "I couldn't get her to sing love songs even when it's just the two of us. She's stubborn like that, and I'm not saying that I don't understand her." She glanced at Reno. "Why don't YOU sing?"
"Are you pulling my chocobo leg?" Reno groaned. "I can't sing even if you threaten me with a gun on my head, I'll sing so badly that the gun will malfunction. And please," he raised a hand in front of Tifa. "Don't even bring up that dude's name!"
Tifa giggled. "But you really look like KAI! At least," She stuck out her tongue. "The cartoon version of it."
"Alright, I won't tease you anymore. But…" Tifa smiled cheekily. "But won't you get a pint of beer? If not…" She pointed at the door. "I suggest you hurry back to the dorms, Reno."
"I'll do better. I'll do both." He smirked. "Gimme two bottles. Rude will need one himself." Within minutes, Tifa placed two bottles of beer on the table and accepted the money with thanks.
When Reno left, she looked around. The bar was not as full tonight, only the occasional womanizer and some business associates, but they were all seated at the back of the bar. Tifa picked up her glass cup and started wiping it again, musing about the conversation between Aerith, Reno and herself.
Unlike her 'backwater village' Nibelheim, Midgar is much more vibrant than her town. Most celebrations happen in Midgar, which is considered to be the capital city of the western continent. Despite Aerith's apathy, Tifa was excited to participate in the festivities. The university of Midgar had tons of parties and events to join. Tifa hoped that the celebration will be successful and enjoyable. As for Aerith…
"Hey, bartender!" The half-drunk business associate called from the back, breaking her train of thought. "Another bottle of scotch whiskey, make it snappy!"
"Coming right up!" Tifa responded. She set on preparing the decanter and the bottle, when she heard someone walking into the bar. "Welcome to 7th Heaven!" She announced, although she did not turn around to greet the customer (something that her boss will be mad at if he found out). "What would you like?"
A quiet, contemplative voice replied, "Orange juice, please."
Tifa almost laughed. Orange juice? In a bar? "Alright, got it!" She swiftly poured the drink into the glass, placed a straw and the paper umbrella. She turned around, saying, "I've got your orange juice right here…" She paused when she saw the face of the man sitting at her counter. The glass of orange juice almost slipped from her hands. "Cloud?"
The surprise on Cloud's face was mutual. "… Tifa?" He asked incredulously. "What are you doing here?"
"Hey!" The drunk business associate called, louder this time. "Ain't got the time for you to dilly-dally!"
"Coming!" Tifa hollered back. The blond quickly nodded her to deliver her drinks. Tifa barely registered what she did – setting the orange juice on the bar counter, taking the bottle of whiskey to the back of the bar, and walking back.
Tifa straightened her skirt and found herself feeling confused, curious and shy all at the same time. "Hi," mumbled she. "It's been a long time."
Cloud smiled. "Yeah. So… what are you doing here?"
Quickly, Tifa filled in the details of her arrival to Midgar and also the events that happened in Nibelheim in the last two years that he was not around. "Papa was worried, but I think he'll be fine." She did not need to explain about her mother – everyone knew the tragic carriage accident that happened on the way to Midgar too many years ago. Quickly changing the topic, Tifa asked, "How is Midgar doing for you? You left… all too sudden, all of us barely had time to say goodbye."
Cloud shrugged. "Midgar is hard to get used to, but you'll get the hang of it." Tifa noticed that he did not address leaving Nibelheim. "So, working here, huh?" He grinned.
Tifa decided not to probe for his answer. "Yeah, it's a pretty nice and comfortable job, contrary to popular belief." She gestured at the variety of customers in the bar.
"It's been a while since I last saw my childhood friend, let's catch up a bit, shall we?" He quickly added sheepishly. "That is, if you don't mind."
The awkwardness quickly dissolved as the two friends caught up on each other's lives. Hours melted away into minutes as they laughed and talked like before. Tifa could balance her bartending job and her conversation pretty well – exception of that already drunk executive who insisted that he had paid for something that he did not even order. Tifa barely noticed her fatigue. She was glad to see Cloud again.
A long time ago, they were friends in Nibelheim. It all started with Tifa stepping in to help a group of boys from bullying Cloud. The young Cloud had a beautiful, somewhat girlish face. That caused him to be the butt of many jokes. Tifa hated it. However, her interference was the start of their friendship. They had been good friends ever since…
… Until he decided to leave for Midgar without a second word. Tifa thought miserably.
She barely caught what Cloud said. "How long have you been in Midgar already?"
"Oh!" She gasped, wondering if he had caught her daydreaming. "About two months ago. My friend brought me to the shopping plaza, but all I really know is the way to school, the bar and home." She answered, striking it off with her fingers.
"Then you have not really seen Midgar yet." Cloud chuckled. "If you aren't busy, perhaps I can bring you around Midgar sometime soon?"
"Really?" Tifa beamed. "Aren't you busy with work?" Cloud paused. "I mean, if you are busy then I'll just bug my friend to bring me," she continued.
"Let me just check my schedule." He drew out an organizer and flipped through the pages, mumbling softly to himself. Finally, he snapped his organizer shut. "Nope," He smiled. "Seems like I'm quite free next week."
Tifa cocked her head, a little suspicious. There were many things that they talked about, but one thing he kept skirting on was what he was doing in Midgar. "I'm curious," frowned Tifa. She peered at him. "What are you doing, as a job?"
Cloud blinked. "Well, you know… This and that…"
"I want a more specific answer!" She laughed. Was it her imagination, or did Cloud look extra uncomfortable? Tifa felt horrible for being so demanding. She was only meeting him for the first time in years. "Look, I don't mean to sound pushy." She stretched her hands out. "I won't probe anymore."
"Hey, it's not that I want to skirt the issue…" He said apologetically. "Alright, I will let you in on this secret. And really, you are the only one who knows it." Tifa gulped. Suddenly, she was not sure that she wanted to hear his secret anymore. Then, Cloud leaned closer and whispered with a tint of mischief in his eyes. "What if I told you that I'm KAI?"
Tifa immediately pulled back. "You are pulling my chocobo leg," she quoted Reno, laughing. To think that she took him seriously!
"I'm not!" He paused, deciding within himself. "Okay, look," From his satchel, he pulled out something to put on his hand. "Look," he said quietly while showing her his hand. "The KAI ring."
"Cloud, everyone has it." Tifa narrowed her eyes. "I may be a village girl, but I'm not born yesterday." She made a face. "You don't have to make fun of me."
Cloud removed the ring to show her the engraving inside. Inside, it was engraved "KAI". "Only the real deal has this." He gave it to her to look at the engraving inside. "Look Tifa, I have been so secretive about everything because I don't want my identity exposed. The company desires that I stay anonymous."
"Then… Then why tell me?" asked Tifa softly, pressing the ring back into his hand.
The man's mouth twitched into a smile. "You wanted to know, didn't you?"
She coloured at how stupid her question was. "You didn't need to tell me, Cloud. Yet you revealed everything to me when I asked. Why?" Her unease grew. Where were they heading in this conversation?
Cloud gazed upon her. "Because I want to, isn't that reason enough?" Tifa blushed at his answer, but tried not to react. "Hey Tifa… would you still like me to bring you around? I may be busy and all, but I would love to go out and show you around. That is, if you are comfortable with that."
Why is he so serious all of a sudden? Tifa resisted the urge to squirm away. He looked so handsome up close… "Alright, alright," she relented, deciding not to think further about his looks. "Of course I'll love you to bring me around."
The glad look on his face was unmistakable. "Best thing I've heard all day, Tifa." He smiled, holding up his phone to exchange phone numbers. "Great, I'll give you a call to see if you're free soon, yeah?" He smiled. "It was really great to see you again, Tifa."
"You too, Cloud…" said Tifa, watching him walk out of the empty bar. "You too…"
Tifa Lockhart felt as though she and Cloud Strife had been friends forever. Being with Cloud was natural; neither of them felt awkward. True to his word, Cloud had been giving all his free time to Tifa to bring her around Midgar.
As for Cloud's secret identity as KAI, initially Tifa was skeptical. Cloud did not want to sing for her or even talk about his work. Tifa did notice, however, that Cloud was always on the phone. His 'job hours' were irregular and there were even times that he told her information that were revealed in newspapers a few days later. Tifa was confused, but then again, his job was not important compared to the fun times they had together.
Whenever they were out, there were a few topics that they often skirted, or mentioned very briefly. They avoided talking about Nibelheim, and also about his job as KAI. Cloud told Tifa that the company had wanted his identity to be a secret, so he would get into trouble if the public knew.
Tifa was not bothered by the suspicious behavior. She was having loads of fun with Cloud. "I still find it amazing," laughed Tifa after an anecdote from Cloud. "That we are talking endlessly now. What happened last time? When we are kids?" She giggled. "Don't be offended but I don't remember talking to you as much!" To that, Cloud smiled, shrugged and gave little contribution as an answer.
Truthfully, Tifa remembered how spending time with Cloud was like. She often stepped in to speak up for him when the other children did not want to play with him. She felt good doing so – she could not bear to see anyone else being left out or left alone. It was something that stuck as her personality in her growing years.
With Cloud around, Tifa never found a dull moment. He was a good tour guide and informant. He brought Tifa to the places with the best views and the shops with the best deals for chocobo plushies. He remembered that Tifa loved chocobos.
I can't wait to see him again…
Tifa blinked. Did she just express desire to see him?
"So…" Aerith teased, breaking Tifa's thoughts. "Daydreaming about you and Cloud Strife, huh?"
Tifa flushed. "You are sprouting nonsense."
"I'm not and you know it." Aerith teased, bouncing on her bed. "Or else you wouldn't be laying out that nice dress on the chair tonight."
Tifa rolled her eyes. "It's just Cloud bringing me to see the famous Sector 4 shrine."
"Yeah, so it's perfectly fine to take out your best dress!"
She smoothened out the wrinkle on her dress. "There's an end-autumn shrine festival that, he said, is a must-go because it's the last shrine festival before winter begins. They have the best fireworks of the season," Tifa said.
"Sure, sure." Grinned Aerith with her arms folded in pseudo belief.
"Aerith…" Tifa looked at her best friend.
Aerith shook her head. "No, I'm not upset that you've found someone that you like. In fact, I think it's wonderful!"
"I don't like Cloud!" Tifa persisted. "He's just a friend!"
"Well, let's just imagine that you do, alright?" Aerith grinned. "I feel happy for you." Aerith reached forward and held Tifa's hand. "We both suffered a lot and have a negative impression on love. Maybe, just maybe, it's time for you to face the idea of you falling for someone. And there's nothing wrong with that."
"…" Tifa looked away. "I can't like him. I can't like anyone."
"Tifa…" Aerith squeezed her hand tighter. "Will you allow yourself to be binded by your past forever? Now that you have that opportunity, why aren't you giving it a try?"
Tifa stared at Aerith's reassuring smile. She wanted to believe in that. She really did.
Aerith smiled back. "Give it a try. Everything will be alright."
Tifa's heart pounded. At those words, the memory of her father saying the same words, the image of her father crying over the photograph of her mother slammed hard into her mind, jolting her out of her hope. Tifa tensed, shaking her head. "They won't," she insisted, her voice cracking.
Her friend sighed softly. "No one is going to die just because you love them," Aerith said gently.
"And no one will run away from you because you love them too," Tifa blurted. Her words were like a cold slap to Aerith, who dropped Tifa's hand and clammed her mouth shut. Immediately, Tifa regretted it. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I didn't mean it that way-"
"No, you're right," Aerith said curtly. "We all have our demons. It was wrong of me to expect you to get over yours without considering mine." Aerith stood up. "Goodnight," she said stiffly before she left Tifa's room.
Tifa did not reply. But as the door closed, she curled up on the bed and closed her eyes. She felt horrible for saying such things to hurt Aerith. She was the only friend she had when she first came to Midgar alone. She was the only person who could understood at some level how she felt.
"Will my friends leave me alone, just like how you did, mama?" She mumbled to herself as she drifted into a dreamless slumber.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter! Please read and review!