Author's note: Regarding money, one gil equates to approximately one American dollar in my version of things. And while I hate to break up Cloud and Tifa, it needs to be done for the plot. Story takes place about four years after the game's end, and although I know it's spelled "Lockheart" in the game manual, it just doesn't look right to me, so once again I insist on my own spelling. This one's dedicated to DJ Akane – couldn't have written it without her.
He was off at another race when I decided. Things were a lot better when I travelled with him, but now I had the bar, and I couldn't just leave it. We were settling into a routine of sorts. He'd come home, and we'd be happy and loving for a while, and then I'd start with the half-joking jealousy, and then he'd start firing back at me, and then we'd get into a loud fight, and then we'd make up tearfully, and then things would be okay for a while, though not as loving as when he first came back. And then he'd enter the next race. We never mentioned Aerith.
But she was in all the fights, poor thing, even if we never named her. She wouldn't have wanted that, I'm sure. I couldn't help it. I was convinced he didn't love me, not really. That he loved me only because there was no one else handy. That I was the runner-up, that if Aerith had lived I wouldn't have him now. And I'd never, ever mentioned it, because I didn't want to seem clingy, didn't want him to know how insecure I felt, but mostly because I wanted him to decide on his own to tell me how much I meant to him. And he never did. Oh, he'd say "I love you," and I guess he meant it, but that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted him to assure me that he'd have chosen me anyway. And I wanted him to know he had to, without my interference.
And now he was gone, and rather than looking forward to his return, or missing him, or just feeling bored and flat because life was more interesting with him around, I was thinking about fights. I was hoping we might be able to avoid them. I was wondering how long it'd be before one of us snapped "At least I can be bothered to take out the garbage," or "Well it's good you two are getting along so well." So I knew what I had to do.
"Hey," he called out, as he stepped inside, and I got up to help him with his bags, keeping my head down so he wouldn't see that my eyes were red.
"Cloud, we need to talk," I said, my voice quavering a little. I looked up, and I saw from his face that he already knew what I'd say.
"Oh," was all he said.
I somehow got through the speech, all "It's not that I don't care about you, I'll always care about you," and "It's just not working out," and "I think it's better for both of us," and his face didn't really change. He looked kind of sad, but not surprised. "I can go stay with Brenna if you want," I said, and he shook his head.
"I'll go stay at the ranch. I'm already packed, and it shouldn't take long to get there. Sunset made it to S Class," he added.
"That's good," I said, trying to sound enthusiastic and faltering. Tears were welling up in my eyes. At least I'd made it through the speech.
"Yeah," he agreed, very softly, then rubbed his face wearily. "Listen, you can keep the house until you decide what you're doing next. I guess we'll need to work all that out later."
"Yeah. I guess so. I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
I was lying. I knew what I was going to do. I was going to sell the bar and move, probably to Junon; it was near the sea, and I'd decided that was important to me. I wanted to lose myself in a crowd, find a job where someone else signed my paychecks. I didn't like being in charge, because I was convinced I would screw up, and badly, at the first opportunity. I also didn't like being around people who knew we'd broken up. I guess I was depressed, but at the time, it just seemed rational. It was around then that I stopped returning everyone's calls. I let Yuffie know what happened, figuring that I could be sure it would get around, that way, and then I called it quits. More than a year passed after the breakup before I saw anyone I'd known from the fight.
It was one of the busiest nights we'd had in a while, and Maya was the only other waitress, so I might as well just say we were short-staffed. I was moving toward the other side of the room with a tray full of empty glasses when I felt a light tap on my arm. I paused, and then I heard him.
"Hey. Lockhart." The voice came from around my elbow, and I didn't recognize it, but that doesn't mean much. I usually make more of an impression on the customers than they make on me, and tonight was especially busy. I turned, carefully, and saw a fully-bald head. He leaned back until I could see his face, what wasn't covered by the sunglasses. Rude. I could have guessed him by reputation, even if I hadn't once gotten close enough to steal a ring out of his pocket.
"Hey, Rude," I greeted him with as much energy as I could muster. It seemed like a very long night, too. "What are you doing here?"
"Ordering a beer. Where'd the other waitress go?"
"I have no idea. I'll go get it for you."
He tilted his head by way of acknowledgment, though I suppose he figures he's too cool to completely nod, and I made my way between tables and then back to deliver it to him. "Is Maya around?" I asked Tir, the bartender.
"I don't know. I haven't seen her... in a while, actually. You might check the bathrooms?"
I went to do just that, and found her hiding in the hall near them. "Is he gone yet?" she asked me immediately.
"The Turk!" she squealed, irritable, peering over my shoulder for him and then ducking back into the shadows. How did she know what a Turk was? She couldn't point out Wutai on a map.
"Rude?" Dumb question – as if she'd know him – but I couldn't help it. What was so scary about him? Reno always seemed likely to explode at any moment, even when he was calm and sitting still. Elena, from my limited acquaintance with her, appeared to be crazy. Tseng had given off menace through his pores, though that was hardly an issue now. Rude was dangerous, of course, but he was the most normal-seeming Turk. Maybe Reno was around somewhere and he'd scared her. "The bald one in the suit?"
"Yes! He scares the crap out of me. Can't we get rid of him?" she whined. I searched her face – she did at least look frightened, and I doubted she was a very convincing actress. Just stupid, not, in this instance, lazy.
"We're sort of between bouncers, remember? And he's not causing any trouble." If anything, he was preventing it. No one would want to risk having him getting involved in a fight.
"What, are you, like, friends with him?"
I know we've got a weird relationship, Reno had said, sounding very tired. "Not exactly, but I know him. He doesn't bite."
"Well, I've already fucked up my tip with him—"
"I brought him a beer, so I guess I'm his waitress now. You can have the soldiers over in the corner." They kept trying to handle me, which I didn't appreciate; guys like that never tip you as well as you deserve for putting up with them, and if Maya was too much of a wimp to give the best-behaved Turk a beer, she could cope with them instead.
"Okay, that's fine by me. Thanks so much, Tifa," she burbled, and ran off.
He didn't talk much all evening, though he put away an amazing quantity of beer and I never once saw him approach the restrooms. He's probably too cool for that, too. He also stuck to beer, which was a bit of a surprise – I'd have guessed he'd prefer something manly and threatening-sounding, or just straight alcohol. That'd be likeliest. He'd have a preference, and probably strong opinions about including ice, except that he evidently didn't. "You own this place?" he asked once, so I answered no, and then he stayed quiet for quite a while. A few drinks later, he asked "When's your shift end?"
"I close tonight," I said, half-apologetically.
"You always close?"
"No, I work earlier tomorrow." The early shifts aren't too bad, from a tips standpoint. The way things are now, plenty of people start their drinking early in the day.
"Hn," he said, absolutely free of inflection, and I gave him a napkin to justify having stood there for so long and headed over for another table.
"Been working here long?" he asked when I came back with his new beer.
"I've been here a little over a month," I answered, distractedly, trying to locate Maya. One of her tables had asked me for refills on my way over. There was a big crowd at the corner of the bar, which might have been blocking her from view.
"Must've just missed you."
"You're a regular here?" I asked. "I'd never seen you." There she was, laughing with the soldiers.
"Sort of." He shrugged. "I won't keep you."
"I'm sorry, it's just... busy tonight," I said, wondering why I kept apologizing. To other customers, sure, it made sense, but he knew me in a way, and acquaintances usually forgive you for bad service. They may not tip very well, but when that's the case, they wouldn't have anyway.
"I could tell. Take your time."
He left around midnight – closing time is three a.m. here – and left me a fifty-gil tip. Maya took off with one of the soldiers, leaving me and Tir to close.