Forward: The following characters and settings do not belong to me but to the Japanese mega-giant Squaresoft. Tread lightly.
Inspired by Sheryl Crow's "Diamond Road", this is just a little bit of retribution for a woman of FF7 who's been dished a lot of applesauce.
Walk with me the diamond road
Tell me every story told
Give me something of your soul
That I can hold onto
I want to wake up to the sound of waves
Crashing on a brand new day
Keep the memory of your face
But wipe the pain away
Tilting her head to the side, Tifa Lockheart squinted at her reflection. She wasn't quite sure what to make of the young woman looking back with the same furrowed brow. Her smooth, round face was unlined, her jaw just a little tense. Above unpainted, pursed lips that were just the teensiest bit higher to the left, her slightly snubbed nose wrinkled. Only a few years ago had the last of the freckles faded. Despite long nights, the shadows beneath both eyes had faded, almost matching the paleness of her complexion. Her eyes were wide and dark. In that moment they were soft with doubt.
It was not a perfect face by any means. But it was a good one, a strong one. At that thought, she smiled. The move highlighted full cheeks. A dimple teased about the right side. The wariness dissipated. For the first time in over two years she was satisfied with what she found in the mirror. She had come a long way. It was time for the final step.
Behind her an older woman bustled. With her curly red hair and flushed complexion she was the exact foil to Tifa's straight locks and fair skin. She fiddled with the height of the chair until Tifa's head rested just below her shoulders. Sharp, narrow eyes as clear as water observed the younger female. One fist on one jutting bony hip, she struck a pose and nibbled the lipstick from her scarlet lower lip.
"Honey, are you sure you want to get rid of all this?" Bangles clattering, the woman reached out with a thin, bronzed arm to lift the mass of Tifa's chestnut hair off her neck. When she dropped her arm, the tresses fell, near covering the back of the seat.
"Absolutely." Straightening her shoulders, Tifa lifted her chain and met the eyes of the stylist. "Chop it all."
"Damn shame, I say." The woman shook her head and whistled. "When I was your age, I'd've killed for hair as fine as this. Must be a royal pain to maintain, eh?"
Not for the first time that day, the other female sighed. Her gaze travelled downward to focus back on her face. "More than you could imagine."
Erupting into a deep, husky laugh, the woman dropped her stance and reached for a comb and scissors. Tifa looked up, startled. The full-bodied sound did not reconcile itself well with the delicate frame of the hairdresser. But if she had learned anything throughout her jaded past, it was that appearances were seldom to be taken for granted. Especially in a place like Costa del Sol.
"So, what made you choose to take the plunge?" With brisk movements, she untangled the knots from the tips of her client's mane.
"I've been thinking about it for a while," Tifa confessed, toying with her fingers beneath the smock. Steeling her resolve, she ordered her nerves to settle. The shiny glint of the clippers in the mirror almost had her running from the salon and back to the safety of her home. Of all the challenges she had forced herself to undergo, deciding to cut her hair had so far been the toughest. On a half-laugh she lifted a shoulder. "Just had to get up the guts."
"I hear ya." The woman shared in her mirth. "Felt you needed to start over again?"
"Something like that." Inwardly, Tifa smiled and her eyes lit with a new sheen of determination. Exactly like that. Her long hair was tied to her past. A road of forgotten dreams and empty nights. She needed a look for the future. A journey that beckoned her with both hands.
When the scissors began their descent to make the first metallic snip, she did not even wince.
Proud of herself, she relaxed in the chair, listening with one ear as the stylist prattled on about the weather and the possibility of attracting cute new surfers to the area. Tifa knew the woman was trying to distract her. She appreciated the thought so she made the appropriate noises in response. But the other part of her mind drifted back to the conversation that had struck the ultimate chord in that day's resolution.
She had just wrapped up her final lesson of the day. Wishing her students a good night, Tifa waved as the last of them headed out the door in a burble of excited voices relating stories to indulgent parents. Just before she turned to fold up the exercise mats, he had materialized in the doorway. Tall and lean, with just the hint of muscle in his broad shoulders, she could have picked him out in a snowstorm.
Her throat went dry. Her fists clenched to cease the trembling and her arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her pulse leapt at her throat. Her brain was able to register only one thing.
Cloud Strife was back. Until that moment she had almost given him up for dead. But he was very much alive as he stepped into the dojo, sliding the door shut at his back. Alive, and real, and more handsome than she could have possibly conjured in her most vivid of dreams. Eyes wide, she longed to find something to say. Something witty that would hide the longing that still festered in the lining of her stomach.
"C-Cloud! Where did you—What are you doing here?" Her tongue seemed to be hinged in the middle and she could not stop babbling like a teenager with a crush.
"Well, this is my house." He smiled slightly at the light joke but appeared to feel just as awkward as she. His hands stuffed into his pockets and his eyes cast about the walls before they settled back on hers. She had yet to be able to turn away. "I like what you've done with the place."
Desperate to move on with her life after the changes the Shinra War had wrought, Tifa had settled in the coastal community. The small city had been different, much different, from her hometown in Nibelheim. The sparkling sunshine and unruly waves were polar opposites in comparison to the dingy streets of Sector Seven Midgar. Apparently sandy beaches had been just what her soul required to get over the past.
After the war she had possessed little direction as to where her future should lie.
The first month was spent moping in the rambling beach house. That was before a griping man at the local market had inadvertently given her a new purpose on which to focus her troubled thoughts. She had little practical skills and the last thing she wanted was to serve at yet another pub. But she needed something with which to distract her mind from its melancholy. A martial arts school had been just the thing.
It had been a simple enough job to tear down the walls of the bottom floor and convert the large space into a modern dojo. And the demand was certainly there. People more than ever saw a need to learn how to defend themselves. Though the war was over, the battles of the after period raged on.
Every week since opening she was inundated with requests to sign up. By adults and children alike. She could not recall any other point in her life that she had ever felt so vital. It was invigorating. Hectic as all get-out as she ran nearly three classes a day, four on Saturdays. But the ache in her shoulders and bones at the close of each day was the solid kind. The kind that reminded her she was alive.
"Oh, well…" All of a sudden defensive, her muscles went rigid. "You said I could have it. Two years ago in Midgar. Remember? You said I could do whatever I wanted with the house. You didn't want it anymore." Her tone was accusing. Overwhelmed with all of the emotions tumbling to the fore, opening wounds not fully healed, she dealt with the first one that boiled up. Anger.
"I remember." If Cloud was startled by her harsh tone his expression did not confirm this reaction. "Looks good. Really."
Silence stretched between them. Empty and stiff. Stubborn, Tifa was not going to be the one to break it. Her gaze slid to the panelled floor.
"You do too." He coughed and scratched the back of his head. "Look good, I mean. It's, ah, it's good to see you again."
She just nodded in agreement. Keeping her eyes on the refraction of light from the windows, she heard rather than saw him take a few steps forward. Trying to intensify her slippery grip on control, she looked up once more. Forced on a bright smile.
"So, how've you been?" The cheer in her voice was so artificial the hearing-impaired could have detected it.
"Good, good." His lips stretched in a smile just as false. He did not seem to know what to do with his hands any more than she did. There was another pregnant pause before he spoke again. "I missed you."
This time his voice was low and void of insincere joy. It was the exact voice that had repeated words of kindness and love over and over in her head the past zillion days. Love. She almost snorted at the thought. Who had she been kidding? Herself. Only ever herself.
"Don't." It came out soft. Touching a hand to her temple, she closed her eyes to regroup. When she reopened them she felt stronger and she took a deep breath before addressing him directly. "Don't Cloud. It's not fair."
"Tifa, please." It was the first time he had said her name in her presence in over two years. She was not immune. "I know I've been an asshole. I was stupid, so stupid. You have no idea how much I've regretted leaving everyone like that. I wouldn't have even come here today if it weren't for Cid." His voice trailed off into uncertainty.
"Cid?" The name ripped off her tongue. Her features sharpened. "What does Cid have to do with anything?" She wanted to yell, she wanted to throw things, she wanted to pound on his chest. Anything to get rid of that hurt, lost boy look on his face. It was the same expression that had done her in from day one.
"He told me." Hurt was replaced with hope.
Those three words were all that was necessary to send her heart dropping to her toes. Tifa chided herself for being so weak. Out of all the scenarios she had envisioned of Cloud's return, her falling at his feat had never entered the picture.
"That was a long time ago. You can't think things haven't changed since then."
"I hoped they hadn't."
"Cloud…" Tifa began then hesitated, not quite sure what she wanted to say. All she knew was, she did not want to give him the opportunity to speak. By the look in his eyes he would not be able to say anything she particularly wanted to hear.
"Please, hear me out. You can't hate me anymore than I hate myself right now." His tone was desolate personified. He shuffled his feet along the floor looking for all the world like a guilty child preparing to be scolded. "You've always been so good to me. Please don't tell me I've lost that. I-I couldn't bear it." He gave her a sideways glance out of the corner of his eye.
She caught the look and suddenly the sympathy she almost started to feel for him dissipated in a wisp. Never to be experienced again. Her altruistic days were long over, especially where the former love of her life was concerned.
"You listen to me." Her voice rose, brisk and unyielding out of trembling lips. Her treacherous heart thundered so that her bones nearly clattered at the joints. "Tell me the truth. You knew before Cid even spoke a word to you. You may be stupid but you aren't blind." At the very least he had the decency to look embarrassed, the pig. "So don't give me any rubbish about not understanding my feelings. You knew and you didn't care."
"That's not true!" His head shot up. "I've always cared. I just wasn't sure how to show it. That's all. You were so - so much better than I was. I thought you'd be better off."
Tifa closed her eyes to reign in her anger. Thrusting back her shoulders she geared up for the final showdown. "That's why you stayed away? You thought I'd be happier alone? Oh, Cloud."
"I admit, I was being selfish. But all I could think about this whole time was you. Even when I didn't know it. All I've ever thought about is you." Misery coloured every syllable.
She felt secure enough now to take a few steps forward. Searching his expression, she could see no signs of deception. She truly believed he was telling the truth as best he could. The notion would have been laughable if it the situation had been any less serious.
It was like a melodrama. Hero is unaware of the hopeless love of Old Friend. Hero worships perfect and beautiful Heroine. Heroine dies tragically. Hero goes mad with grief and turns to Old Friend for consolation. Hero realizes he was always in love with his Old Friend, not the Heroine after all. Old Friend welcomes him back with open arms and they live happily ever after. Only in this version the Old Friend was stepping out before the final act. Old Friend was performing in a new play. And this time she was going to guide the central action.
"Please don't say I'm too late."
Tifa shook her head. Six months ago - heck, a fortnight ago - she might have caved in. This was technically a dream come true. He was at her mercy. Waiting with bated breath for her reply as if she held his entire existence at the tip of her tongue. In a way, she supposed, she did. He had no where else to go. She was all he had left in the world. His consolation prize.
That did not mean she was without sympathy. Once upon a time she had been in the same position. Cloud had been all she had left of her childhood. It was only natural she clung to something solid and familiar. The world that had erupted after the burning of Nibelheim had left her alone and frightened. Tifa had always been terrible at being alone, or so she had thought. With Cloud she had seen a chance to rid herself of the unremitting solitude. To ease some of the burden. Yet now everything had changed.
The war had proven she was much stronger than she had ever given herself credit for. She had faced challenge after challenge without turning tail and hiding. Despite the fear that pervaded every step she had triumphed. When she had been brought close to execution at the hands of Shinra, she had not whimpered or despaired. Determined to live, she had saved herself. If she had not needed Cloud to rescue her from imminent death in the gas chamber, she certainly did not need him to get through life after the war.
After Cloud left her in Midgar to go on his quest for self-realization, Tifa went on a little journey of her own. Slowly she had discovered that maybe, just maybe, being alone was not the tragedy it had seemed. In fact, she found she liked making her own decisions and being independent. Having no one around to make demands on her time. She only owed herself.
Tifa chose her next words carefully, feeling the weight of them drift on the air. The next few minutes were going to require all the courage she had in her arsenal. There would be no going back.
"All I ever wanted was to make you happy. I loved you so much. So much." A wistful smile passed over her face. "I probably would have died for you at one point if you'd asked it of me. So many times I wondered if it had been me Sephiroth killed that day, would you have smiled a little more."
"That's crazy." Cloud cut in, shaking his head. "I never, ever--."
"I know. And I was crazy." Tifa gave a short laugh. "I was dead gone on you. So much that nothing else mattered. Including my own needs. Seems you weren't the only stupid one." When he opened his mouth to interrupt again she waved him off.
"After it was all over I told myself I'd support you in whatever you decided. But you chose to do the one thing I could not help you with. To go off alone, ever searching for peace. I was devastated for weeks. I came here because I thought that if you were to come looking for me, you'd try the house first. I wanted to be around to comfort you. But you never came and I stopped hoping."
"I'm so sorry, Tifa. I meant to. I really did. But I…I couldn't." He ran both hands agitatedly through his hair.
"I understood that. Still do. It was only ever a pipedream, Cloud." Her voice was firm. As much for her own benefit as his.
"No it wasn't! It can happen. We can start over." Closing in the distance between them, he rushed forward and reached out a hand. His eyes were sombre. "I promise this time I'll get it right. I know I don't deserve you but I'll make it up to you someday. We can still be happy."
"You can't actually believe that."
"But I do." Cloud took her hands in his and squeezed them tightly. Taking a breath he spoke the words she had told herself she would never hear. "I do. I love you, Tifa. Give us a chance."
It took a moment for the meaning to settle in. Once it had she knew his protestations did not make a difference. It was too late. She had already moved on. Tugging her hands out of his grasp she took a step backward and away.
His eyes widened as if in disbelief. "No?"
"No. You see, I am happy. I've figured it out on my own. And I'm not sorry, not for any of it." A new light glistened in her eyes. "You drained all the love out of me bit by bit until I wasn't sure I could feel anything but pain anymore. There's nothing left for you now. Loving you helped make me who I am today and I don't regret a second. But I'm not capable of those feelings any longer. Like everything that burns with that much passion, I guess. It's dead." She shrugged a shoulder as if to say it had been so for a while.
In a panic, Cloud focused his pleading gaze upon his old friend. The one person who had always treated him with all the compassion the world had to offer. The woman who had remained by his side even as the sky fell around them. Who had followed him into the Lifestream and back and never once demanded he give anything in return.
"If that's true, then what am I supposed to do? I can't live without you."
"I don't know, Cloud." She tossed him a smile filled with the radiance of the sun. "For once I don't care. You were right from the beginning. You don't deserve me. And I don't deserve you."
"All right, you can open you're eyes, sweetie. We're all done."
The first thought that entered her mind was how much lighter her head felt. At the nape of her neck several hairs prickled at the sensation of direct air. Covered up for so long they had never known what it was to breathe.
Biting her lip and catching her breath Tifa opened her eyes to view herself in the three-way mirror. She very nearly gasped at the vision. Her straight brown locks were cut to just below her chin. The sides swished against her cheeks as she turned her head back and forth. At first she barely recognized the woman staring back. Her cheekbones now stood out in high relief, emphasized the smooth bone structure of her face. Her eyes appeared even larger, her brow more refined. She discovered the cutest dimple in her chin.
Hands on hips, the stylist stood back and admired her handiwork with a proud grin. "I gotta say, it's one of the best jobs I've ever done. I didn't mean to go that short but the scissors seemed to have a mind of their own." Her eyes met Tifa's in the mirror and she winked.
"Honey, you look so stunning you're almost making me jealous."
Tifa could not get over it. Every few moments she would lift a hand to touch the glossy strands. She should have done this a long time ago. She had to resist the urge to hug the hairdresser once the smock was removed and she was standing up. The sheer lightness that went into movement was incredible. It was as if she could float.
After paying at the register and leaving her benefactor a healthy tip, Tifa headed to the rack and slipped into her light jacket. The cool breezes that drifted off the ocean in winter gave her a slight chill. Like a true resident, any drop in temperature sent her rushing to cover up. The small grin had yet to slide from her expression. She felt absolutely fabulous.
Bag in hand, she turned to leave the salon. But as she spun she bumped into someone tall and hard. Startled, she instantly looked up into dark blue eyes.
"Hey there, sorry about that. Guess I wasn't watching." His voice was friendly and open. As was his automatic smile. The twinkled in his eyes flickered. Tifa caught the definite look of interest that appeared there as he regarded her. "Maybe I should stop paying attention altogether."
Cocking her head to the side, Tifa smiled back. She had never been very adept at the flirting game but she was female enough to know when a guy was attracted. Taking a page out of her own book, she decided to go for it and venture into the unknown. The young man was unquestionably appealing.
"Maybe it's that you haven't been paying the right kind of attention. You're Tayler's uncle, right? I teach martial arts to your nephew every Thursday." Her eyes were laughing.
"You're Lockheart? Geez." Knocked for six, he ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. "You look so different. I mean, not that you didn't look great before but…Wow." He shook his head and laughed. "Sorry. I'm usually a lot more articulate. I'm Callin." Shaking his hand she found it warm and callused. The hand of a working man.
"Tayler's always talking about you, keeps threatening to kick my butt one of these days. I'm sure you could teach me a thing or two." Dazzling white teeth flashed, contrasting with his sun-bronzed complexion. The man was turning out to be very engaging indeed.
"Thank you. And I wouldn't doubt it. I offer adult classes Monday and Saturday evenings, if you're interested." Tucking back a strand of hair behind her ear, still revelling in the new phenomenon, Tifa slid her bag higher on her shoulder.
"I just might do that." He replied, voice light and eyes dancing.
Nodding, Tifa reckoned it was time to make her departure. "Seven o'clock. I'll see you then." She made a move to pass him but he stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm.
"It shouldn't take me long here." Callin gestured to where the stylist waited by the cash till. "Do you wanna grab a coffee or something? Maybe some lunch. Is it lunch time yet?"
"Very nearly." Feeling deliciously wanted, Tifa laughed. "I have a little spare time. The café across the street, say in half an hour?"
Brilliant. Liking the sound of it, she let the word roll silently from her lips as she exited the shop. That was exactly how she felt. As if sunlight shone straight from her fingertips. All she had needed was a little time. Everything she had ever wanted had already been in her hands, only it had taken her until now to know what to do with it all. She had a feeling she had crossed to the other side of life and what it could be. She was going to enjoy every bit of it. No regrets.
Looking up into the cloud-ridden sky, she saw nothing but blue.