Title: Break Away, part 1/3
Warnings: Mild Violence, some language, and be aware that some characters have been inverted in their roles. Also, there's only a touch of romance, so don't kill me!
Word count:6000+(despite what ffnet says, it's less than 7000)
Prompt:Tifa: AU – Tifa is the Soldier First Class and Cloud owns the Seventh Heaven
Summary: She had been searching for her true purpose in life for a long time, and she found it after meeting a man who lived in Seventh Heaven.
A/N: This story was written for the "Are You Game," prompt challenge on IJ, and it took on a life of its own. The story is complete, so expect an update tomorrow, or the day after. I really hope this is to everyone's liking and that it's not too incomplete or choppy. Also, it wasn't beta-read, so I'm really sorry for the errors that I know snuck away from me. Just consider this fic Tifa's very own "Crisis Core." Enjoy!
Keeping her breathing even, ears sharp on any sound out of the ordinary, she crept silently through metal halls. The displacement of air to her left alerted her of something moving with amazing speed and she dove and rolled out of the way of a massive tail. In less than a second, she had drawn her sword and was blocking a swipe of claws from a huge monster.
Normally, she would've dispatched creature that looked like some sort of mutated behemoth. Its eyes glowed unnaturally and it's the visible skin had a sick gooey substance covering it. The thing had apparently escaped from one of the underground labs, and she had been sent out to dispatch it. Pushing the questions of what exactly type of experiments ShinRa was conducting in secrecy, she rushed the monster, ducking under it and slicing deep into its belly with her sword, using all the arm strength she could muster. The cold, blue-gray blade in her hand came away stained with blood nearly black in color, and she scowled when she realized that it would take some doing to get it clean once more.
The creature shrieked in agony and turned in her direction, rushing her and making her run towards the wall a few feet away. There she used the momentum to race up the wall, flip over the thing's head and land on its back. Activating the fire materia located on her gauntlet, she jumped off the massive, reddish back as it roared in anger and pain.
She was overconfident that her attack would distract it, but the monster charged at her, catching her around the middle with its head and slamming her right into the wall she had been standing in front of. The impact forced the air out of her and the coppery taste of blood rose from somewhere inside, signaling that she had suffered an internal injury, and it would be a miracle if her ribs hadn't been shattered with that one hit. Despite her strength and speed, she wasn't invincible, but it had been a while since she had been defeated in a battle. She wouldn't throw in the towel now.
Her vision swam for a second, but she managed to raise her sword and ram it into the monster's left eye, causing a spray of blood to hit her as it finally pulled back and released a painfully shrill scream of pain. She took a moment to catch her breath, but didn't get the chance to activate the cure materia. Not while the thing could still swipe at her with its claws. Her run was a bit slower than she anticipated, but she put her muscles into slashing at the massive throat in a move that made her look like a graceful dancer. More earsplitting noise and spray of blood followed, and Tifa fell to her knees, hoping that it was close to dying before she lost her strength and adrenaline, or lost consciousness.
This time, when the sweep of tail came, she didn't have time to block or roll out of the way. The force of the hit knocked the bit of breath she had managed to regain and sent her flying into the air with more force than she could've thought possible. She braced for the feel of the metal ground meeting her back and head, but it came worse than she had anticipated. Her eyes flew wide as she was sent right through the ground and down, meeting only air.
She was falling quickly and forcefully, the plate further and further away until she broke through what felt like wood and landed with a forceful, "oomph," over soft earth. She got in one good gasp of breath, and before she could wonder what had broken her fall, darkness began to encroach her eyesight.
The last thing she saw was worried blue eyes staring down at her before she was out cold.
It wasn't every day that he decided to sit around and do nothing. The plants had been watered, fed, and trimmed. He had taken his quota back to the shop and had come back just to lay in the warm rays of the sun coming through the few missing wooden panels of the church's ceiling. If he hadn't had his reflexes sharp from training with his best friend, the body falling through the ceiling would've landed right on him.
He'd jumped out of the way in time to see her land over his precious flowers—his because no one knew about them or had claimed them—with the wind knocked out of her. She was wearing a SOLDIER First Class uniform and was bruised and bloodied from either the fall or a previous fight. A distance away, a wicked, sharp looking sword landed on the flowers with a sharp 'snick.'
He stepped towards her quickly to see if she hadn't been killed in the fall only to see her eyes slip closed as he leaned over her. Feeling carefully for her pulse, he gave a shaky sigh when he found it. He knew it would take more than a fall to kill a SOLDIER, but she didn't look so well at that moment; the blood streaming from the corner of her lips made that obvious. Gauging her injuries, he made an exasperated noise when he turned her head and found that the greens underneath were stained red. He needed to help her quickly or SOLDIER or not she would bleed to death.
Pulling out his phone, he dialed the number that always seemed to get him out of trouble.
"Can you help me fix my braid? I can't do it by myself." There was silence, and Marlene looked up from the hair her tiny hands were battling with to her current caretaker. "Cloud?"
"I don't think I can help you with that," he said uncomfortably. "I don't really know about braids, Marlene."
The little girl pouted at him and Cloud sighed, pulling her up onto the bar counter. "Promise not to complain if it comes out wrong?"
"Promise," Marlene said with a bright smile. She waited patiently as the blond man who was watching over her for the day fumbled with her hair, making her wince as he clumsily pulled some of the strands sharply. "Maybe I should wait for papa Barret to come home," she said, pushing Cloud's hands away from her head.
Her gave her an apologetic look. "Sorry, Marlene." He helped her off the counter and allowed her to run off to play with her dolls in her room. Cloud took a look around his bar and let out a small sigh. It wasn't much, as with every other thing down in the slums, but he was doing something he had always wanted to do. He offered people a respite from their troubles, and he could handle any of the trouble makers that showed up at least once or twice a night. Though of a darker atmosphere, the bar was clean, spacious, and with a touch of personality. He'd hung up pictures of his old town of Nibelheim, and a few others of nature he had managed to snap on his trip to Midgar nearly two years ago.
At the short age of twenty-two, he was alone, but at least making a living by himself and managing to hang on. Walking around the bar counter to make sure that he had stocked up for later that night, he heard the familiar jingle that signaled that it was Zack calling. He answered on the repeat of the song and held the phone up to his ear with a sigh.
"Cloud, I need some help."
The blond frowned. Now that was a new way Zack started a conversation. "With what?"
"I need to hide a girl at your place."
"I think your mom would understand if you brought her home, Zack. She should know by now that you're a big boy who likes girls."
"Ha, ha, not funny," came the exasperated reply. "She's hurt, and I need to hide her somewhere that won't compromise my family."
"So it's better for me to get screwed over? I don't think so. I like my bar and I want to keep it in one piece. Besides, Marlene is here and Barret will attempt to dismember me if I put her in any kind of danger," Cloud replied, wiping the dust that had gathered overnight on the shelves where he kept the glasses and new bottles of beer.
"She's SOLDIER, but I don't know if someone will come for her. We need to heal her because I think she's really hurt. Please Cloud? We'll get her out as soon as she's up on her feet."
Cloud sighed heavily and realized that he really couldn't say no to his best friend, especially when he was getting into trouble. "Fine, bring her over. Just make sure no one is following you."
"Thanks man. I owe you one."
He already owed him plenty, but Cloud knew that he would never ask for those favors in return. He just hoped that this SOLDIER didn't bring trouble with her.
The feel of cool fingers sliding over her cheek alerted Tifa to the fact that she was conscious and that some stranger was touching her. Grabbing the fingers as she sat up with dizzying speed, her eyes snapped open. The first thing she saw was blue, a type of blue to put a ice materia to shame. The next thing she noticed was that she was cutting off the blood circulating his fingers, but that the face in front of her was gazing at her coolly, unbothered by the obvious pain.
"Who are you?" Tifa asked, letting go enough for her grip to not be excruciating.
"I'm the person who healed you," he replied, calm and collected.
"I didn't need healing," she replied, easing towards the foot of the bed after finally letting him go. "Where is my sword?"
"Downstairs, in the kitchen. My friend Zack brought you here because you were bleeding from a head wound. You fell through the roof of the church he likes to hang out in."
At the mention of falling through a roof, the rhythmic throbbing started up in her head, but when she felt for the wound, she found that it was gone. "Thanks," she muttered, getting to her feet. She eyed the man who had been kneeling at the side of the bed and slowly took him in as he stood to his full height.
He wasn't much taller than she was, but he was built like an agile fighter. She'd seen plenty men with his sinewy build, and that signified that he either trained in martial arts, or that he handled a sword. Maybe both. Aside from the blue eyes that had first struck her, his blond hair seemed to be spun from sunlight and his skin from the moonlight.
His gaze on her was faintly familiar, and there were no traces of the fear or awe that she normally encountered when people realized that she was a SOLDIER First Class and a woman. "If you would please show me to my sword, I can get out of your hair," she said quietly.
Cloud blinked at her and then hesitantly nodded, motioning towards the door. She looked reluctant to walk with him at her back, but he stepped to her side to at least reduce some of her unease.
Tifa took in her surroundings carefully, memorizing each detail as they walked down some stairs and into an area that was obviously a bar. The chairs were still up on the tables, but everything was spotless. It didn't look like much—or at least like the bars that other SOLDIERs frequented—but it was well taken care of. She followed the blond into the kitchen and watched him as he approached a gap between the refrigerator and the counter. He brought out her sword with an ease that confirmed Tifa's suspicion regarding his training.
"That's… uh, a nice sword," said Cloud uncomfortably. "What were you doing? You had other injuries that had nothing to do with the fall."
Tifa looked at him closely. "That's confidential, um…"
Blue eyes narrowed a fraction. "Cloud."
"Cloud, thank you for bothering to take me in and healing me. I honestly would've been fine," she said, uncomfortable under his penetrating stare. It was like—maybe he somehow knew her, but could it be that he… Tifa shook her head. "I need to head back," she said, accepting her sword and snapping it back into the sword harness on her back.
"Actually, since my friend brought you in, maybe you'd like to wait and thank him? I know he'll be worried," Cloud said, watching her pause by the back door.
Tifa let out a heavy sigh and shook her head. "Maybe I'll return another night. What drink would you recommend?"
Cloud smirked faintly. "A glass of Corel Sangria. It's a creation of mine."
The brunette nodded and offered him a small smile. "I will keep that in mind," she said before she was out the door.
Cloud let out a long sigh and leaned back against the kitchen counter, rubbing a hand over his face in confusion. That had been Tifa, even if she hadn't offered her name and had pretended not to know him. But… why had she? When Zack had brought her in, something inside of Cloud had panicked, instantly recognizing her, but upon her opening her eyes—the same wine hue, with the exception that now they glowed—there had been no recognition in them. Nothing but confusion and suspicion had been in her gaze.
"I'm ba-ack!" came Zack's voice from the bar.
Cloud stepped into the bar and shook his head when Zack began to question him about the girl. "She's gone."
"What?! Did you scare her away so quickly?" asked his friend, his own blue eyes curious.
The blond shook his head. "She said something about returning. I assume she meant back to ShinRa." He almost broke into snickers at the disappointed look on Zack's face. "Was it love at first sight for you?"
His friend glared. "I just really wanted to meet her while she was conscious. She seemed pretty cute while she wasn't."
Something in Cloud's eyes changed, and to hide it, he turned back to what he had been attempting to do before Zack had called and interrupted him. "You didn't miss much," he said flatly, hating himself for saying such a thing, but not truly knowing why he said it. "Well, she said that she'd see about coming back during bar hours."
"Well then… I'll just have to help around here more often, won't I?" Zack asked cheerily.
"Please don't. I can hardly take your presence enough as it is," Cloud said, grinning when the other man sputtered.
"That's just mean. Well, at least it won't be on our heads that we didn't help someone, right? I know you didn't want me to bring her here, but you're a good guy, Cloud. I know you would've helped her without hesitation if you would've seen her fall."
"Don't worry, Zack. One person may not make an impact in the world, but we can teach others to be kind and it'll be a start, won't it?" Cloud asked quietly.
Zack grinned and nodded. "How about I help you in the kitchen?"
"The last time you helped, everyone ended up with food poisoning. Just… hang out here and make sure that my bar is stocked for the night shift," Cloud said, moving into the kitchen to start on dinner.
Zack shrugged to himself. He'd get his chance to glimpse at the SOLDIER some day. He was sure.
Settling her sword over the table provided to her in her small, personal room, Tifa took a look around. In a matter of days, she would leave the issued Second Class room and would be able to move into a more spacious place, given only to First Class. There wasn't much in the room, except for a photo or two, a cook book, and a few other personal belongings, but she got the feeling that she would be required to do a lot more with her new living space.
Her face twisted into a frown as she began to remove her sword, the harness, and her belt. the thing she had fought before falling through the plate had not been a normal monster, she knew that much. But it also was painfully obvious that ShinRa had had something to do with the creation of something that could've killed innocent civilians. She had dealt it a killing blow that had been confirmed by the reinforcements that had been sent in after her accident. There were many question running through her mind, but it wasn't her place to question what experiments ShinRa was running behind the public eye. SOLDIERs were just required to clean up the mess, she thought bitterly.
There was a knock and she paused before removing her boots. Stadning and opening the door, she rolled her eyes when she was greeted by a cheerful grin, and a scowl. The first came from a short woman in a black suit, the second, from a tall man with blood red eyes. "Get ready. Vince and I are taking you out for drinks."
"I'd rather not," Tifa said, smiling and shaking her head.
"Why not? We have to celebrate your promotion and we know that your other SOLDIER friends are off on missions and can't celebrate with you right now."
Tifa turned to Vincent. "And you would rather spend your time babysitting Yuffie so that she doesn't lose consciousness in an alley somewhere?"
"Do I have much of a choice?" Vincent countered in annoyance.
"I guess you don't," Tifa said with a smirk, pulling on the things she had removed and grabbing her sword. "Aerith arrived an hour ago. We'll have to stop and check if she wants to join us."
"Cool," said Yuffie. "Reno and Rude told us about this place under the plate that serves some good drinks and has really hot guys serving."
"Reno told you about the hot guys?" Tifa asked.
"No, I badgered Rude until he finally told me that yesthere were hot guys there," Yuffie snickered, eyeing Vincent to see his reaction. He just looked bored and uninterested in what Yuffie was saying.
"Let's go," Tifa said in amusement, leading the way. She truly wasn't in the mood for a bar atmosphere, but she couldn't turn down her friends. Though not expected to socialize, Tifa was quite fond of a handful of Turks, and she had to admit that they did know how to have fun. Hopefully tonight wouldn't be any different.
It really hadn't been a surprise to Cloud to see that more than half of his clientele were females. He wasn't a stranger to his own good looks, but add Zack to the mix and business seemed to boom on certain nights. The jingling of the bell over the door alerted him to more customers coming in, but the sight that greeted him was unexpected. It was Tifa, accompanied by another SOLDIER, one even more dainty looking than her, and two Turks. A different set of Turks had arrived only ten minutes before and had commandeered one of the largest table in the bars. Cloud realized why they had done so now.
Zack sidled up next to him, drying his hands and looking at the group curiously. "Is that our SOLDIER?" he asked with a grin.
Cloud bristled at the our part and nodded. "Handle the counter, while I get their orders," he said before approaching the table. The two that had saved the table already had beers in their hands, but the new group looked just about ready to order. "What can I get you?" he asked by greeting, offering his friendliest face.
"Wow, Rude, you weren't kidding," said the shortest of them all.
Tifa hid a grin and gave Cloud a nod. "I guess I'll try that Sangria," she said.
"Good choice," Cloud replied, looking at the two other females and the tall, bored looking male. "And for you?"
"I'll have what Tifa is having," said the woman with the green eyes.
"I want something hard," said Yuffie with a wink. "Anything with a kick… or a punch."
"Red wine," the man cut in.
"Don't you need to write that down, yo?" asked one of the men who had arrived first.
"I have a good memory," Cloud said, tapping his temple lightly.
His eyes darted to Tifa for a few seconds, and she was left with the feeling that she was supposed to understand what he meant. Shaking herself of uncertainties and questions, she joined the friendly chatter coming from her friends. "Doesn't anyone find it ironically funny that L.T. here has more Turk friends than SOLDIER friends?"
Tifa rolled her eyes. "I never said anything about you being my friend, Reno," she said, joining the laughter of the others as Reno pouted.
"You know you love me, baby. You, Aerith, and Yuffie. Say… how about we discuss a foursome for my birthday?"
"How about you stop talking shit before I stick my shuriken up your ass?" Yuffie threatened, eyes blazing fire.
"If that's your idea of foreplay, then maybe I shouldn't include you in our group. I think Tifa and Aerith will be more than enough," said Reno, smirking.
Aerith wrinkled her nose delicately and shook her head. "I don't know where you've been, so I'll have to pass."
More snickers and some jokes were thrown around at Reno's expense before the drinks arrived. Before the night was over, Tifa had a nice buzz, courtesy of the drink Yuffie had shoved at her before taking her leave with Vincent, complaining and whining all the way. Tifa had a feeling that Yuffie would find a way to rope Vincent into staying the night at her place, and it was funny because neither imagined that their secret relationship was common news now, thanks to Reno.
While Aerith excused herself to use the restroom, and Reno went off for another beer, Tifa was left to sit with Rude, who generally didn't have much to say. He was tall, dark, and handsome, but with the addition of being a gentleman and a ruthless Turk all in the same package. "Are you happy with your promotion?" he asked Tifa after a few minutes of sitting quietly, enjoying a companionable silence.
Tifa nodded and smiled. "It's nice, but it brings ten times more responsibility. More dangerous missions on your own too," she said, reminded of her encounter with the monster earlier in the morning. "Rude, what do you know about the monster I was sent after today?"
"What do you mean?" Rude asked nonchalantly.
"It wasn't a normal monster. How the hell did it get out?" she asked him in a whisper.
"Those are things I am not allowed to talk about," Rude said stiffly.
Tifa just rolled her eyes and stood from the table, leaving him alone before making her way to the bar; she hadn't missed the wince Rude had given her at the glare she had leveled him with. When she got to the bar counter, she was approached by a tall, handsome man. He was faintly familiar too and it took her a moment to see why. "You're Zack?"
"The one and only. How's your head?" he asked cheerfully.
Tifa tilted her head to the side. "I honestly haven't been sane in years," she said, shrugging.
Zack chuckled and poured her a shot of a clear liquid. "That's on me," he said with a wink.
"Thanks for saving me," Tifa said, and before he could reply, he excused himself to approach a customer down at the other end of the bar. Downing the shot without a problem, Tifa looked up just in time to see Cloud come down from the stairs, a faint smile on his face. Something about him was familiar to some part of her Tifa hadn't even remembered, but it was hard to place where she knew him from. "Do we know each other from somewhere?" she asked when Cloud approached her.
The blond man gave her a calculating look and shrugged. "I can't recall. Why? Does it feel like we should know each other?"
Tifa nodded. "I can't place why, or how, but I feel like I should remember your face."
Cloud seemed uncomfortable with her words and busied himself with rinsing the glasses that had begun to fill the sink. Tifa watched him silently—the sink was right across from her, and Cloud still faced her—and examined his face closely. He was handsome, with features only slightly on the delicate side, but with the flexing muscles of his arms, and what she could see of his chest, it was obvious that he was anything but feminine.
Leaving? For Midgar?… When will you come back?
The voice of a young boy echoed in her mind, but no image accompanied it. She couldn't be sure that the voice belonged to a younger Cloud, but something inside of her was telling her that yes, it was him. That he was part of that missing gap. She had learned to file away the vague things that echoed in her mind from time to time, and write them in a notebook to analyze them later. She stayed long until the last patron had closed, not missing the suggestive looks that both Aerith and Yuffie had been sending her, and decided to help out. She collected the empty beer bottles scattered over the tables and took them where Zack had instructed her.
"So, you have a boyfriend, Tifa? Any of those guys you were with here tonight?" Zack questioned, starting to wipe down the tables.
Tifa shook her head. "I think a lot of guys are intimidated by the fact that I can snap them in half if I get mad," she said in low voice, staring Zack right in the eyes.
He gave her a serious look before he broke into a grin. "That's really awesome. Have you ever tried to?"
She laughed and shook her head. "We don't use our strength to hurt others." Though that wasn't entirely true. SOLDIERs had been ordered to more than one war, the worst of them all being the Wutai war. She'd hurt people and for what? To give a corrupt company that was making secret monsters more power? Wasn't a SOLDIER inhuman, a borderline monster too? When she blinked and looked up, Cloud was standing in front of her instead of Zack, who seemed to have disappeared.
"You appear to have a lot on your mind," he said, voice and eyes calm.
"I was thinking that maybe… maybe it's time to leave ShinRa," Tifa said, staring down at her half empty glass of wine.
"What do you see yourself doing if you do decide to leave?" Cloud asked, wiping down the bar counter.
Tifa shrugged. "Maybe I'd hire myself out as a mercenary."
Cloud just grunted in amusement and nodded. "Well, whenever you decide to actually go through with it, let me know and I'll see about helping you find some jobs."
Tifa smiled and nodded, noticing the way he looked away from her as she did so. His own smile fell, and he looked uncomfortable. She had been trained to read people, much the same way the Turks did, to find out when they were lying or withholding important information, and Cloud looked like he was doing the latter. The scrape of a chair made Tifa blink out of her thoughts and she turned to see Zack putting up the chairs over the tables. When she looked back to Cloud, his back was to her, and his posture did not betray what she had thought she'd seen. He looked relaxed.
She downed the last of her drink and pulled out some gil from her pocket, setting it under the empty glass. "See you later, Cloud," she said quietly, waving at Zack before he disappeared into the kitchen. He waved back enthusiastically and called out that he expected to see her again soon, or he'd go and protest in front of the ShinRa building for overworking its SOLDIERs. Tifa just smiled to herself and left, not bothering to glance back at Cloud.
A quiet curse managed to reach Zack's ears as he stepped out from retrieving the broom in the kitchen. "What's going on?" he asked with a frown.
Cloud showed him the tip Tifa had left and looked a little insulted. "Why would she leave so much gil?"
"Because she liked the place and the service? What's the big deal?"
"Well, I don't know," Cloud started in a tone dripping with sarcasm. "Only the fact that her tip will pay for an entire month's worth of our drinking supplies?"
Zack still couldn't grasp why Cloud was acting the way he was. "…And?" he asked slowly.
"The place isn't that nice. The atmosphere isn't the best either and the service was slow," Cloud said pointedly.
"Hey! Aerith was so coming onto me," Zack said in his defense. "This is an awesome place that deserves those kinds of tips. Just shut up and take it." He rolled his eyes.
Despite knowing that Zack was somewhat right, it didn't make Cloud feel any better. Why did it feel so wrong to have Tifa give him so much money? Sighing to himself, Cloud returned to cleaning up his bar and tried to shove thoughts of Tifa out of his mind for the time being. Too bad his brain was refusing to stop thinking about her smile, or the way her eyes seemed to glow that warm red-wine he remembered. There was also that one little fact that she was dangerous now. Trained to defend and destroy. There was nothing left in her of the Tifa he had known long ago, and maybe it was best if she didn't remember who he was. He could live with it.
The new recruits under her care were a rowdy bunch, but after a demonstration on how to respect their higher ranking teacher, they had finally started acting the way it was expected of them. As she sent them through another lap in the specially designated obstacle course, Tifa stood back and surveyed the stragglers.
"How many times have they gone through?" asked Aerith, coming to stand at her side.
"Three?! Are you purposely trying to discourage them?" asked her friend.
"No, but they do need to learn that I don't take kindly to comments being made about my ass. Besides, this will allow me to see the ones who will need some extra work. I won't work them this hard regularly, but they need to be prepared," Tifa said, finally taking pity on the newbies and telling them to hit the showers before getting to the rest of their duties. "We're in charge of these kids, Aer, and I don't know if I want to be," Tifa whispered.
"Why? Is teaching really so hard?" Aerith asked as she walked with Tifa towards locker room, where the few female recruits were going about their business.
Tifa made sure that there was no one nearby and that the water drowned out her voice a little. "I'm beginning to question what I'm doing here. The fight with the monster threw me off, and it makes me wonder what else ShinRa is doing in the basement."
Aerith's gentle green eyes—eyes that had seen death, war, and pain, just like Tifa's—watched her solemnly. "You know that I'll go with you right?"
Tifa smiled and nodded. "Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm not. All I know is that I don't see myself as a SOLDIER forever," Tifa said, serious.
"We can plan to fake our deaths," Aerith said with a giggle.
Tifa grinned, but then her smile dropped. "With those things crawling around loose, we may not have to fake it," she said, remembering the monster she had fought before meeting Cloud.
"Are you going to see him again?" asked Aerith knowingly, breaking her out of her thoughts.
"He's a distraction," Tifa murmured, shaking her head. "I can't afford a distraction at a moment when the company is mysteriously losing monsters."
"But you like him," Aerith said as they walked out of the showers and towards the floor that held their mission computer.
"It doesn't matter," Tifa said, shaking her head to clear the half formed images in her head. There were times when it felt like her mind was trying to recall something, but it only gave her a headache and made her cranky after she failed to remember what she had forgotten.
Both women stopped and turned, coming face to face with their superior. "General Sephiroth, sir?" Tifa asked.
"Prepare for an emergency mission. Sector Seven, underneath the plate," Sephiroth said. "Take Gainsborough with you."
Tifa refrained from questioning the revered General and nodded, watching him turn away with a smooth swish of his long, silver hair. She turned to Aerith, whose shoulders had tensed. "Am I missing something?" she asked, motioning towards the direction Sephiroth had disappeared to.
Aerith shrugged. "He's just mad that I don't swoon like every other woman he looks at," she said, checking her bracer to make sure she had equipped the right materia. "Shall we?"
Tifa nodded and stopped to restock some potions before she and Aerith set off into the darkness of Midgar.
"If what my contact is saying is true, then ShinRa is purposely letting these things loose in random places."
Cloud just nodded. "How can we know if your source is reliable?"
"Well, he hasn't been wrong so far," Zack defended as he and Cloud moved silently through the alleyways a mile away from Seventh Heaven. As they were rounding the corner into one of the many junk piles located around the sector, they heard a roar loud enough to make the ear tremble. Both men looked at each other and then took off at quick runs, drawing their weapons in case they needed to defend.
They both came up short at the sight of the two SOLDIERs already handling the situation.
While Aerith was graceful like a dancer, casting magic attacks, Tifa was a destructive powerhouse and just as graceful in her own right, never mind if she had her sword in her hand or not. Her fists were just as effective on the monster as the dangerous blade.
"Am I sick for being a little turned on?" Zack muttered.
"You'd be sick if you said the monster is turning you on," Cloud said, a smirk in his voice.
Zack grinned and shook his head. "Not the monster, no."
Both women jumped to the side when a large claw fell over the space they had been standing in, but the monster turned and charged towards Aerith. The brunette merely bent her knees and surged into the air, landing deftly on the monster's back with a smile on her face. She cast a flare spell while she took to the air once more. Zack and Cloud jumped behind a pile of metal rubbish as the air around them seemed to ignite with the power of the spell. When they moved out to see what had happened, the monster had been defeated and Tifa was inspecting it to make sure that it wouldn't be getting up.
"Should we be worried about ShinRa throwing monsters into the slums?" Cloud asked dryly.
Tifa looked at him levelly, not surprised to see both men standing there. "Do you usually take midnight strolls with your partner?"
"Hey!" Zack exclaimed, moving over to stand next to Aerith. "I'm single and straight," he said, waggling his eyebrows. "Besides, I think Cloud is the one with the crush on me."
"These things put a lot of people in danger. Were you aware that all you're doing is cleaning up ShinRa's mess so that they can make all new ones?" Cloud asked Tifa, crossing his arms over his chest to look a little intimidating.
Tifa was not impressed. She'd seen and done far too many things to be afraid of one man—even Sephiroth didn't impress her much anymore. "It's work," she said after a long moment.
"How do you sleep at night?"
"Quite comfortably," Tifa said, snide.
"Hey, is something going on here?" Zack asked. "You two argue as if you've known each other for a while."
"I don't know him," Tifa said automatically, averting her gaze from everyone.
"You weren't friends before?" Aerith asked.
Cloud stared hard at Tifa and shook his head. "I wouldn't be friends with someone who showed such disregard for people and for the planet. You do know that ShinRa is killing the planet slowly, don't you?" he asked both Tifa and Aerith.
Tifa stepped away to pick up her sword and gave it an arrogant twirl with one hand before snapping it onto her back. "I do my job and I'm good at it. I make no apologies for that," she said, voice flat and calm. She turned to Aerith and motioned with her head. Then to Zack she winked. "See you some day, Zack."
He managed his usual, cheerful smile and nodded. "Take care of yourself, Tifa. Aerith, call me," he said.
Aerith giggled lightly and nodded, turning to follow Tifa as she began to walk away.
"Did you really have to chew her head off like that? What do you think she would say if she knew what we did as a side-job?" Zack asked.
Cloud shrugged, disinterested. "We're trying to save the planet, not helping to kill it."
"Did you really not know her before?" asked Zack in curiosity.
"She's a stranger to me now," he said quietly, turning to go. ShinRa had officially killed that sweet girl he had known once upon a time, and Cloud had a feeling that he would never see that Tifa again. Sighing morosely to himself, he made his way home, trying not to ponder why that little fact made him feel so miserable.