God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Disclaimer: None of them are mine, not even Maryn and her aunt. They belong to my friend LuckyLadybug, so of course thanks go to her for letting me play with her characters! Maryn first makes her appearance in the fic Just a Simple Mission. I touch briefly on Maryn's background in this story, so if you haven't read Just a Simple Mission, you should still be able to understand everything that's going on here. But you really ought to read it if you haven't; it's a great story that gives a lot of insight to Zack and Sephiroth pre-Nibelheim.
Notes: Happy holidays, all! This is my annual "Christmas fic". It's vastly different from what I originally wanted to do for a Christmas fic. My original plan was much more ambitious (and much more directly related to Christmas) but that darn thing called "real life" got in the way. But this story does deal with the idea of family, which is so important this time of year.
The girl stood in the midst of unfamiliar streets, snowflakes catching in her curly hair, debating what to do next. Perhaps if she remained where she was, her aunt would find her. But it was winter now, and it got dark so much earlier in the day. The girl, Maryn, shivered a little and pulled her overcoat closer as the streetlamps around her came to life, casting an eerie orange glow on the snowy sidewalks. She would much rather be at home, watching the snow from inside, sipping hot cocoa with her aunt.
This certainly wasn't where she was supposed to meet her aunt. Her aunt Trista had been in the city looking for a new home for them, because the job opportunities in Edge were much better than those in their hometown of Kalm. The plan had been for Maryn to take the train into the city after school – she had insisted to her aunt that she could handle it just fine, and perhaps she could have, but the train maps were so confusing, a jumble of colored lines and dots, and she'd gotten off at the wrong stop. The man at the train station had been unfriendly, insisting he was too busy to help her.
And now she had no idea what to do or who to ask for help. She swallowed back the lump in her throat. She was all of thirteen years old and she was much too old to cry over something like this. Instead she thought of an old friend, a very brave person.
She took a deep breath. Her aunt had a cell phone. All she had to do was find a public telephone.
But she was interrupted from her thoughts by a tall man in a dingy gray coat. "What do we have here?" he drawled. "You lost, honey?"
Maryn shook her head earnestly, red curls bouncing. "N-No, I'm fine."
"You look pretty lost to me," he said, leaning in close. His eyes were bloodshot and his breath smelled terrible. Maryn recoiled. "Let me help you out."
Both turned to look. There was a young woman, one hand on her hip and one hand around a bag of groceries. She came over, frowning. "Is he bothering you?" she asked Maryn, who nodded, her eyes wide.
"I didn't do nothin'!" the man scowled. Without a word, the woman set her groceries down on the sidewalk, and delivered a swift kick to the man's jaw. He stumbled back and collapsed on the ground like a sack of potatoes.
Maryn stared, agape, at her rescuer, then back to the man. "I-is he dead?" she asked, finally finding her voice.
The woman laughed at this as she bent and picked up her groceries again. "No, he'll be okay." As if on cue, the man twitched and groaned a little. He stumbled almost drunkenly to his feet, took one terrified look at the woman, and bolted.
"Are you by yourself?" she asked, changing the subject and turning to Maryn.
Maryn nodded. "But I'm not supposed to be. I was supposed to meet my aunt, only I got off at the wrong station..."
"Okay," the woman smiled. "Tell you what – I was on my way home, so why don't you come with me and we'll call your aunt? I'm Tifa, by the way."
Despite the fact that this Tifa had just knocked a man unconscious with her foot, there was a gentle, mothering way to her that made Maryn trust her. "Okay. ...I'm Maryn."
"Maryn," Tifa repeated. "That's a pretty name." Tifa began to lead the way home.
"T-thanks." Yes, Maryn definitely liked Tifa.
"So, Maryn, you don't come to the city often?"
Maryn shook her head. "My aunt Trista and I live in Kalm. But we're thinking about moving to the city, because there are a lot of good jobs here."
Tifa nodded. It was true – what she had euphemistically titled the "Kadaj incident" had brought a lot of job opportunities as Edge put itself back together.
"Have you always lived in the city, Miss Tifa?"
Tifa smiled. "Just 'Tifa' is fine. And no, I grew up way out in the country. When I was a few years older than you, I had to leave. I've lived in Midgar and Edge since then."
Though her words had been nonchalant, there was a slight hesitation in Tifa's voice when she mentioned having to leave her hometown. Maryn wondered what had happened to force her to leave.
The snow was falling faster now, in big fat flakes that tucked themselves into Maryn's long curls. Luckily, they did not have far to walk. They approached a plain, unassuming square building, nestled up against other shops. A sign hanging on the building read "7th Heaven".
"Home sweet home," Tifa smiled.
"This is where you live?" Maryn asked. It certainly didn't look like any house she'd ever seen before.
"Mm-hm. Well, upstairs, at least," Tifa answered, pushing the door open with her free hand.
Maryn looked around. The inside was about as plain as the outside, though it was warm and inviting compared to the snowstorm brewing outside. It was a bar, but it seemed quiet and intimate. It was early enough that there weren't many people there, and those that were there kept mostly to themselves, nursing their drinks, or talking hushed voices. A television in the background faintly broadcasted the news.
Tifa sighed a bit as she surveyed the place. 7th Heaven (in both of its incarnations) had always been a quiet place, but it had been even worse ever since Kadaj and the damage those summoned monsters had done to Edge. A good number of Tifa's clientele had lost friends and loved ones that day.
It made her more thankful each day that she had not.
"Tifa, you're back!"
Both Tifa and Maryn turned their attention to the counter. Marlene had whirled around on her barstool, holding up a piece of paper. "Wanna see the drawing I made?"
"In a minute, sweetie. Will you help me put the groceries away?"
"Sure!" she chirped, hopping down off the barstool. By now, she and her companions at the bar had noticed Maryn. "Hi! What's your name?" she asked as she approached.
"I-I'm Maryn," came the reply. Maryn was a little taken aback by the little girl's friendliness.
"She needs to use our phone," Tifa said by way of explanation.
"Oh, okay! It's this way," Marlene said, taking charge and leading Maryn towards the back room. "That's my Daddy, Barret, by the way," she said, gesturing towards the large man who'd been sitting next to her at the bar. In reply, he gave Maryn a little wave, his artificial arm glinting in the florescent light.
"Don't worry about him; he looks scary, but he's really nice," Marlene added matter-of-factly. "And over there is Denzel," she said, pointing to the little boy on the other side of Barret. He held a pencil in one hand, and was bowing intently over a sheet of paper.
"We can't bother him now, because he's doing his homework," Marlene explained.
"Marlene, you're going to talk the poor girl's ear off!" Tifa said, as they entered the kitchen.
Maryn shook her head. "No, it's okay. I don't mind."
Tifa just smiled. "The phone's over there," she said, nodding towards a wall unit.
Maryn took the receiver and frowned a moment, trying to remember Aunt Trista's cell phone number. She was pretty sure she had it right... Maryn punched the number in, biting her lip as it rang.
As she waited, she watched Tifa and Marlene putting away the groceries, Marlene chatting away about her day. Maryn loved her aunt, and they got along very well, but of course there were still times when she missed her parents. And she often wondered what it would have been like to have a sibling.
Finally, she heard the click of the receiver. "Hello?" came her aunt's worried voice.
"Aunt Trista!" Maryn exclaimed, relief washing over her.
"Maryn! Goodness, what happened to you?!" Judging from her aunt's tone, the relief was mutual.
Maryn shifted around in embarrassment. "The train maps were really confusing, and I...sort of got lost. But I'm okay, though!" she jumped in quickly. "I met some nice people, and they let me into their house to use the phone."
"Are you sure that was a good idea?"
Maryn could just see the worried frown on her aunt's face. "It was, I promise."
"...Okay. How about I come pick you up before this snow gets any worse?"
"That sounds good," Maryn answered, sighing in relief.
"Where are you?"
"The address is, um..." Maryn trailed off, looking helplessly at Tifa, who had finished with the groceries and was leaning against the wall near the phone. She nodded and told Maryn the address, who repeated it to her aunt.
"I'll be there as soon as I can," Trista promised.
"...But be careful," Maryn countered.
"Of course." With that, they hung up.
Maryn looked up at Tifa. "So... is it alright if I stay here until my aunt can come get me?"
"Of course it is," Tifa smiled. "Come on, we'll wait out in the front room."
Marlene came bounding over then, grabbing Tifa's hand. Though, when they entered the front room and she saw the snow coming down through the window, she frowned. "When's Cloud supposed to get back?"
Tifa glanced at the clock on the wall. "Soon, hopefully."
"Will he be okay in the snow?"
"He'll be fine," answered Barret, and Maryn found his voice was just as gruff as his appearance. "He's good on that deathtrap of a motorcycle."
Maryn blinked. "Cloud?" Was that a...person?
"He lives here with us," Denzel spoke up.
"Yeah, and he's really strong, too!" Marlene added, hopping back up onto the barstool next to Barret. "He used to be in SOLDIER and everything."
Maryn felt her heart skip a beat. "SOLDIER..."
Tifa, who had gone behind the counter to dry glasses, looked over at her. "Maryn? What's wrong?"
Before Maryn could answer, the door opened, letting in a gust of cold air and snow as well as a person.
Once again, Marlene whirled around on the barstool. "Cloud!"
Cloud stood in the doorway, giving them all a brief nod in greeting, before shaking the snow out of his blond spikes.
Maryn just looked at him as he approached Marlene, who showed him the drawing she'd been working on earlier. He had those same eyes...
Finally, Cloud noticed her gaze and turned toward the unfamiliar girl.
"This is Maryn," Tifa said quickly. "She's waiting here until her aunt can come pick her up." Tifa was confused and a little worried: Maryn had become so quiet as soon as Marlene mentioned that Cloud had been in SOLDIER.
Cloud only nodded, wondering why the girl was watching him so closely. But as he began to head for the kitchen for something to eat, she stopped him.
"Excuse me," Maryn said quietly. "Were...were you really in SOLDIER? Marlene said you were..."
Cloud turned slowly. Definitely not what he would've expected her to say. "Why do you ask?"
"Did you ever know Sephiroth?" Maryn burst out. Everyone in the little group stared at her. "I'm sorry," she murmured, studying the floor. Maybe she shouldn't have said anything...
"No...it's okay," Cloud said, his tone cautious. "Yes. I...didn't know him very well, but I knew Sephiroth when I was in SOLDIER."
Maryn looked up at him again. They were all still looking at her, even Cloud; his face and his whole body, even, were tense. Maryn had heard terrible rumors that Sephiroth had been responsible for Meteor, but she had never known what to think. But everyone was so quiet all of a sudden... did they know something she didn't?
"It's just that," Maryn began, "when I was little I lived in this awful place called Dismal. It was run by this terrible man who didn't care about anybody but himself, and he wanted to start a rebellion against Shinra. Shinra sent Sephiroth there to try and stop it. He was...very nice to me." A knot began to form in the pit of her stomach. If she didn't ask now, she'd regret it forever.
"Is it true?" Maryn asked. "Did he really try and destroy the world?"
"Yes, it's true. He was the one who summoned Meteor," Cloud answered carefully, wondering how she would react to the information. She stood still, looking at the floor.
"Um...can I ask you one more question?" she said, after a moment of silence.
Maryn looked up at Cloud, taking a deep breath. "You probably won't have any idea who I'm talking about, but I have to at least try. When Sephiroth came to Dismal... There was another SOLDIER with him. They were best friends, and he was very sweet and treated me like a little sister. His name was Zack, Zack Fair. Did...did you ever know him?"
No one was looking at Maryn anymore. Now they had all turned to Cloud, who had become very still. Tifa could hardly believe what she was hearing. Out of all the people she could have met that night – a young stranger with a connection to Zack? What were the odds of a coincidence like that?
Maryn was frightened by Cloud's lack of response.
"Yeah," he said finally. "I knew Zack. He was my friend."
Maryn's eyes widened. 'Knew?' 'Was?' "H-he's really gone, then... He used to write me letters, but when none came for such a long time, I started to think something awful had happened..." She trailed off, tears blurring her vision.
Cloud was torn. He wanted this conversation to be over. Did he tell her what had happened? He'd never spoken about it aloud before. Could she handle it? Could he handle it?
He'd want her to know the truth...
"It was seven years ago," he began. "Zack, Sephiroth, and I were sent out on a mission. It...went wrong, and we believed Sephiroth was dead. Zack and I were captured, and they...experimented on us for four years. It made me sick, but Zack was okay. He got us out, and we were on the run for a year after that. ...Two years ago, we ran into Shinra, and Zack was killed trying to protect me."
Maryn didn't respond, still struggling to process everything she'd heard. Everything had gone quiet, as if the whole world had stopped to listen in. The rumors about Sephiroth were true... but what was it that made him do such terrible things? He had been a truly good person when she had known him.
And Zack... deep down, she had known for a long time that he had gone on to the Lifestream, but at the same time she had always hoped that she'd get another letter from him...
She was suddenly aware of a hand on her shoulder. "Maryn?" Tifa said softly, her eyes worried. "I think your aunt's here."
Maryn looked up and out the front window. The familiar blue car was parked outside 7th Heaven.
Maryn took a deep breath. Now wasn't the time to fall apart. She had to be strong. She gave Tifa a weak smile. "Thank you for everything." She looked around at all of them. "All of you – thanks a lot."
With that, she turned and left 7th Heaven, her movements calm.
Cloud hesitated a moment, before hurrying outside after her. "Maryn?" he called.
She turned back. Surely there wasn't still more he had to tell her?
Her face broke into a smile, and she nodded. "I don't know. But...I know I will be." But she bit her lip. He looked sad, standing there in the snow. So she hurried back, away from her bewildered aunt, still waiting in the car, and threw her arms around an equally bewildered Cloud. "Thank you for telling me. At least I know now." At this, her voice caught in her throat. She stepped away from Cloud, giving him a sad half-smile. "And I'm sorry I made you talk about it. But...you're a good person, Cloud. I'm glad that Zack saved you."
With that, she turned and hurried over to the car. She opened the door and slipped into the passenger seat, giving Cloud one last wave as the car drove away.
He watched it go, until he could no longer hear the engine. The snow blanketing the ground seemed to muffle the sounds around him as well.
Without even turning to look, he knew the others were staring out the window at him. And he knew they would worry. But somehow, he felt that if he went back in there, the weight of the memories flooding his mind would crush him. So Cloud turned and began to walk down the street, desperately needing to clear his head.
Back inside, no one really knew what to say. Marlene looked at Denzel, who gave her a half-shrug with wide blue eyes. He didn't really understand what had just happened either.
"Is...is Cloud sad again?" she asked.
Tifa turned to look at Marlene, the innocent question echoing in her mind. She tried to smile. "I'm sure he'll be back later," she said, not only to reassure Marlene, but herself as well.
And Cloud did come back, not long after the kids had gone to bed.
It was a strange repeat of a few hours ago – Cloud came in, shutting out the cold behind him, dusting the snow out of his hair.
"Still comin' down out there, huh?" Barret quipped, as though Cloud had just been out to get the paper, rather than wandering around alone in the dark during a snowstorm for the past few hours.
Tifa watched him take the seat at the counter next to Barret. "You're back," she said carefully.
"Did you think I wouldn't come back?" he asked, his tone almost sarcastic...as if he'd never done anything to make her think that.
Tifa frowned and was about to chide him for that, when he finally looked up. He looked exhausted, and any annoyance with him was forgotten immediately, replaced with worry.
"...Y'okay?" Barret asked gruffly, but the concern was there.
"Yeah," Cloud sighed. "I'm alright." And to his surprise, he realized he wasn't just saying it for their sake. He meant it. "It's just...sometimes I forget that he saved a lot of people besides me."
"I 'member hearing about that Dismal place, because they did the same thing to Corel," Barret said then. "Shoot, that uprising she was talking about...no place for a little kid to be. No place for anybody to be."
Tifa nodded absently, but Cloud remained silent for a moment.
"When we finally got out of Nibelheim, I had mako poisoning. Pretty bad, too."
Tifa leaned on the counter, engrossed. Cloud had never spoken about the five years between the Nibelheim incident, and when he joined AVALANCHE, and Tifa had not dared ask.
"I always thought that was why I didn't remember anything about being on the run. But ever since Kadaj, I've...been remembering some of that stuff. Zack was always talking to me, even though I never answered. I think...I think he told me about Dismal once. He said Sephiroth almost died there, he..." Cloud trailed off, deciding the moment should remain unspoken. Zack had been crying. Sephiroth had been his friend, and he'd lost him at Nibelheim.
Is that why you died to save me? Because you couldn't save Sephiroth?
Cloud ran a hand through his hair. "I just...I was right there the whole time." Why hadn't he been strong enough to break through the mako clouding his mind? Had some part of him, deep down, wanted to remain like that? In a place where there was no pain, no memories of Nibelheim, but no joy, either?
"And that's the worst part, innit," Barret said then. "Thinkin' about the stuff that you could've or shoulda done, but you didn't."
"Yeah," Cloud said quietly.
And then Barret surprised them both, by picking up his glass. "To Zack. Sounds like he was a cool dude, even though I never met him."
At this, Cloud smiled a bit. Barret and Zack probably would've gotten along just fine.
But Cloud sobered a bit. And to Sephiroth, he added silently. That was the other hard part – accepting that Sephiroth had probably been as much of a victim as any of them.
"What are you thinking about, Cloud?" Tifa asked, pulling him back to the present.
"There's a lot of stuff I know now that I wish I'd known then." He frowned. "Aerith...knew Zack, you know. She tried to tell me about him once, but I didn't understand." And she'd been in love with him, too, so yeah, there was that...
"There's just so much I wish I could've told them," Cloud sighed.
"Oh, Cloud," Tifa murmured, placing her hand over his. "They know. I'm sure they do."
To everyone's surprise, Cloud didn't recoil. He looked at Tifa's hand over his own and nodded slowly. "You're right."
"...We're proud of you, Cloud," Barret said then. "While we're all bein' mushy and stuff," he added quickly, when Cloud and Tifa both fixed him with quizzical looks.
"I think you've had too much," Cloud said then, nodding towards Barret's half-full glass of beer.
At this, Barret gave Cloud a mild shove. "Aw, shut it, you smartass," he groused, but there was a hint of a smile on his face.
And Cloud was smiling a bit too. Tifa pulled away, glancing at them both, content. She felt as though they'd dodged a bullet.
But, well, maybe not. Maybe she just didn't need to worry about Cloud so much anymore. It felt as if he'd passed some sort of a test or something. Either way, she liked it.
Maryn meeting Cloud had helped both of them, Tifa decided. And perhaps... that really hadn't been a coincidence after all.