Sorry about the delay on updating this, but as promised, I will finish what I start. The writing muses had stopped singing to me for a long time, and then life had her own curve balls to throw in my direction. It was not a good combination.
If you find any glaring inconsistencies, let me know. There were a couple of points I had to check on, but I think I got them all.
Thanks to all who are still reading out there and for all your comments, reviews, and encouragement.
From Darkness, Light
At six thirty in the morning, Seventh Heaven was dark. It was, strangely enough, the quietest hour for the bar. It was the beginning of the lull between the end of the night clean-up and the restocking for the next night. It wasn't much of a break, but there was always an hour or two in there, early in the morning, when the dust got to settle.
Tifa didn't need lights to make her way to her room, which was dark as well, the window open to the freshness and quietness of the early morning air. If she didn't crash right away after a long night, she would sit up and enjoy these peaceful moments in a city that never seemed to sleep otherwise.
This morning, however, Tifa finally made it to her room and slumped to the floor in the corner of the room, pulled her knees up to rest her elbows on, and cradled her chin in her hands as she watched the sky outside brighten, preparing for a new day. She found no peace in this morning, nor had she found any in any morning for the past two months. She couldn't find anything outside the loneliness that had pierced her heart and wrapped itself around her soul.
Two months had felt like an eternity. Hell, every day felt like an eternity. But she held on, despite the loneliness and fatigue and worry, she kept waiting for Genesis to reappear. She held on to the belief that there was a good reason for his sudden departure, that there had been a good reason why he hadn't left some kind of sign, some message. She even wondered if somehow he had left a message and she had missed it. Was that possible? She had thought on numerous occasions to go searching for one, but caution had won out in the end. What if she was being watched? Reno had certainly suspected something, and she doubted he would give up so easily. If she went back to the old Shinra facility outside town and was found out, wouldn't that be like an admission of guilt? She had even thought of going back to the country, her secluded vacation setting, and checking there personally, but gave that a second thought as well. If she were being watched by Shinra goons, and she was sure she was, they'd be watching everything. It made her paranoia grow to the point where she didn't even want to pick up a phone to call Minna and Asa to see if they had found out anything.
The worst part was...hell, she couldn't decide what the worst part was. Was it that she had no idea what had happened to Genesis, or that he hadn't contacted her in any way since? Was it that she had to go through this alone, that despite her overwhelming feelings, she couldn't talk to anyone about this, and had no one to share her concerns and fears with, no one to help her make sense of it all? Was it that she knew Shinra was up to something, but she didn't really know what, and she couldn't really tell anyone?
Or was it that she would give anything for Genesis to appear through that open window and it just wasn't happening?
Keeping up this deception was taking its toll on her. Keeping a smile on her face and acting like everything was just fine while she felt like she was falling apart on the inside was exhausting work. She had to be so careful not to let any edginess or short-temperedness show, and it got harder every day. It didn't help that she was convinced that despite her best efforts, Yuffie and Marlene were watching her too closely, and that they were suspicious that something wasn't quite right.
In the meantime, while Tifa dealt with her issues silently, nothing else seemed quite right either. Marlene was more distant than ever, when she wasn't studying Tifa curiously from a distance. Yuffie didn't seem to be around as much as usual, and her surprise visits had dwindled considerably. Tifa counted that as a good thing; when Yuffie was there, she was also studying Tifa far too closely. Cloud seemed to be taking a lot of jobs lately that were keeping him on the road for at least a couple of days at a time, and when he was home, all he seemed to do was sleep. The only person in the house who seemed to be functioning anywhere close to normal was Denzel, who seemed to be running on remote, just going through the motions, and Tifa couldn't help but worry about that as well. After all, just going through the motions only lasted so long before it all went to hell, didn't it? Wasn't that always the way?
The sun was up, and Tifa didn't see a point in trying to get any rest. She took a quick shower and put on fresh clothes and headed down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Denzel appeared as the coffee was brewing, fishing through the cabinet for a quick something for breakfast.
"Have you heard from Cloud?" he asked as he shuffled a box of cereal out of the way in favor of the box of blueberry pop-tarts.
"Not in a couple of days. Since he left. Why? Is everything okay?"
Silence followed and Tifa looked up to find Denzel staring at her disbelievingly.
"What? What did I say?" She pulled a mug out of the cabinet and set it near the coffee maker.
"A couple of days? Are you okay, Tifa? Cloud's been gone for six days. He's never gone that long without telling us or at least calling."
Six days? Had it been that long? Tifa counted back the days, trying to differentiate one from the other in her head. They all seemed to blur together. No, she hadn't realized he had been gone that long. Had something happened? Was he all right?
"This is all your fault, you know," Denzel asserted, and Tifa met the accusation with disbelief and shock.
"My fault? What..."
"Cloud loves you and you act like he doesn't even exist. And then you go and have an affair with some guy..."
"It's true, isn't it? You broke his heart! He's been getting more distant ever since you came back from that vacation you took. And lately you've been unbearable, always quiet and sad looking and not paying a bit of attention to anything." He broke for a breath, his anger drying up a bit, as if he were realizing he may have said too much. "Haven't you noticed how much he's been gone?"
How could she do anything but gape at him? And Denzel didn't wait for an answer. Shrugging, looking disgusted, he took a package of pop tarts, left the box on the counter, and beat a hasty retreat.
What was that she had thought about good things going to hell? She felt as if by thinking it, she had asked for a real reason to worry about Denzel as well.
Had she really been that out of it? That she hadn't noticed Cloud missing for that long? Yes, she thought, it was possible. She had been worrying about another missing man, and had left everyone else to fend for themselves.
She took her cup of coffee to Cloud's office and sat at his desk. First things first. She picked up the phone and called Cloud's cell. No answer, and when it finally rang through to the message center, the box was full. She couldn't even leave a message. Hanging up, she went through the paperwork that was on the desk. The papers were dated seven days ago, yes, a run to a small town a few hours outside Edge. It would have been a two day run at most, three if Cloud really took his time. But, as Denzel had pointed out, Cloud would have told someone if it were going to be longer. Yes, there had been a time when he might not have, but Tifa, Marlene, and Denzel had finally taught him that people worried about him when he didn't communicate and Cloud had been really good about keeping in touch when he was on the road.
There was nothing else that Tifa could see. Sitting back, she sipped at her coffee, thinking about what Denzel had said. Was she to blame for this? No, she couldn't take all the responsibility. Her feelings had belonged to Cloud for years, even when it was clear he wouldn't return them, and although it seemed he was hurt when he found out she had moved on, was it fair for him to expect her to backtrack now that she had found happiness?
But where was that happiness now? The thought crushed the air out of her. She didn't dare consider that the happiness might have been so short-lived.
But Denzel was right about one thing. She hadn't been paying close enough attention. Cloud, with his wounded soul and dark moodiness, was her friend, and despite her romantic feelings turning elsewhere, she would not give up on him. But she had been so consumed with her own wounds that she had missed a few things. Like where Cloud had disappeared to for at least the past three or four days.
As Tifa was considering how serious this might be, the phone rang, startling her. She stared at is as it rang two, three times, and finally decided to pick it up. Who knew? It could even be Cloud. Maybe he lost his cell phone.
"Seventh Heaven, Cloud Strife's office," she answered the phone.
It was a friendly voice, pleasantly surprised, that Tifa recognized immediately.
"Reeve? How are you?"
"Just fine, Tifa. How are you?"
"I'm doing okay," she fibbed. What else could she do? Tell him how her SOLDIER boyfriend had disappeared...but, oh! She didn't need to tell about Genesis, but if anyone could help find Cloud, it would be Reeve Tuesti.
"Yeah, I'm okay, but listen Reeve, have you heard from Cloud recently? He's been gone for a few days, and I haven't heard from him. I'm beginning to worry."
"Hm." Tifa knew that sound from him. In her mind, she could see him leaning back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling as he considered what she had said. "It's funny you mention Cloud. That's why I was calling. I've been trying to reach him for the past few days, and I haven't been able to get in touch with him."
"I just tried to call him, but couldn't reach him," she chimed in, and was concerned at the brief silence that followed.
"Listen Tifa, have you heard anything about Shinra lately?"
Gut clenching, Tifa knew somehow that this was not a change of subject, but that whatever Reeve was talking about, he was concerned Cloud may be involved somehow.
"What do you mean, Reeve?"
"I don't know...anything. On the street. Or...from Cloud?"
She didn't know much, but how much could she tell without there being more questions.
"Well...I'm not sure this is anything important, but Reno was showing up here a while back, trying to talk to Cloud about something. I asked Cloud about it, but he didn't tell me anything."
"Yes, that could be what he was calling about. He mentioned Shinra in his message to me, nothing specific, but that he had some concerns. Maybe it was something Reno said that gave him the idea."
"Maybe. He could also be worried about the new mutants."
Uh-oh. Reeve didn't know about the new mutants that were wandering around Edge. Granted, Tifa had encountered one of them, but she had assumed that others had seen, that there had been talk, and Reeve had ears all over the place.
"Yeah," she had to be careful about how she explained this. Hopefully, Reeve wouldn't ask too many questions. "I encountered one in Edge. The Turks were there. They took care of it."
"Why didn't you let me know?"
Tifa couldn't help but laugh. "Honestly, Reeve, I figured you would have already known. I didn't realize it was such an isolated incident."
"No. No, I hadn't heard." He sounded tired. "I need to think about this, Tifa. Let me know if you hear anything from Cloud. I'll talk to you soon."
"Sure, Reeve. Talk to you soon." But the line was already dead.
Cloud missing, Reno seeming to butt into everybody's business, monsters appearing in Edge, Shinra apparently involved. And Tifa nursing a broken heart.
What was there to do now but study the desk and stare at her cold cup of coffee?
She finally let her brain off the hook, simply let it cast out, overlook, ignore all the darkness that had been building there, let it stop mulling over and worrying.
And as she stared blankly into the reflections in the cold black liquid, a horrible thought occurred to her.
What if Genesis hadn't simply disappeared? What if, like Cloud, he was missing as well? No, that wasn't right, but at least the wheels were turning again. If he had been missing, if Shinra had anything to do with it, Reno wouldn't have dragged her out to that old facility, wouldn't have been so upset when he found nothing there. But Reno had suspected. What if Genesis never got back in touch with her because Shinra caught up with him after that? What if...
The what if's took Tifa in a whole new direction, a direction she hadn't thought of before because she had been so absorbed in her own misery. But now...sitting up straight, she put the coffee cup on the desk, pushing it to the farthest corner. Opening the top drawer, she started pulling out papers and going through everything in detail, trying to see if Cloud made mention of anything that might give her direction. Just a little something, a small token that would prove that she was on the right track, that maybe, as in the past, everything was more closely connected than it seemed. And Shinra, she was sure, was at the root of that connection.
Paper after paper, a couple of file folders, some money in an envelope, and...jackpot. At the bottom of the drawer, a slim log book with the entry for Cloud's last run, with the notation "meet with Reno after?" next to it in Cloud's neat handwriting.
Looking back through the book, Tifa noticed a couple of other notations with Reno's name, simple things like "Reno stopped by".
Reno. Why did Tifa think that maybe Reno might have the answer to more than one puzzle?
Through the window that was ajar, Tifa picked up the sound of laughter, Marlene's she was sure. Closing the drawer on the ledger, Tifa looked out the window, and sure enough, there was Marlene. Walking down the street with Reno.
Speak of the devil.
Racing down the stairs, Tifa exited the building just as Reno and Marlene were approaching the door. Focus. That's what she needed. This was not about Marlene coming home in the morning, obviously having been out all night. It was not about Reno's arm around her, or about Marlene's arms wrapped around his waist, hugging him as they walked. It was not about Marlene flaunting in public a relationship that only a few weeks ago she hadn't wanted to admit to anyone. It wasn't about the lesson Marlene was about to learn about how out of control her rebellious behavior had become lately. And it wasn't about the very painful lesson Marlene was about to learn about being misled.
This, like everything else Shinra, had to do with finding out the truth behind the deception at any cost. And this was about Tifa protecting her own. Marlene. Cloud. Genesis.
At least Marlene had the good sense to step away from Reno after Tifa appeared. Hopefully there was a part of her that was thinking clearly enough to still realize that there was something so not right about this relationship.
Reno, on the other hand, as always, fell a bit short in the common sense department. Had he had an ounce, he would have known better than to smirk in the face of Tifa's anger and determination.
His smirk didn't last long. After all, there is nothing like a foot connecting with a jaw to wipe a smirk followed through with a hard punch to the gut and a spin-kick that dropped Reno to the ground like a rock. Marlene shrieked once, then went silent clinging to the wall of Seventh Heaven as Tifa pinned Reno to the ground, managing to fling his EMR to the far side of the street, and grabbed him by the ear, forcing him to look at her.
"Game's over, you bastard."