Author's Comments: Well hello there! Yes, it has almost been a whole year since I last updated this story, and for that I am deeply sorry. As the saying goes, though, better late than never, right? Aside from most of the story content I had been working on becoming completely inaccessible because my flash drive shattered, I think I needed a break to refresh my mind and focus on other things (like life). Though this chapter might not be as long or as humorous as past chapters, I really hope you enjoy reading it. Thank you for waiting!
Disclaimer: I do not own Kingdom Hearts or the random line from Starships by Nicki Minaj. I own Imani.
Today was going to suck.
He sighed deeply as he leaned against Fenrir in the parking lot of Tifa's apartment. There really was no getting out of this commission. Turning it down meant leaving Tifa alone to model with some stranger. From the personalities Cloud came across in the business, that stranger would be too stuck-up, too talkative, too flirtatious, or—he suppressed a shudder—too touchy-feely. Not to mention that the makeup artists tended to gossip too much and the photographers always, always got on his nerves with their eyes roaming and staring everywhere…Then there were the assistants who snickered and took pictures with their phones to show off to their friends and the costumers who never asked before fixing the clothes, no matter where the button wasn't done or the fold wasn't creasing correctly…
He lost count of how many times he'd asked himself why the hell he decided to try modeling in the first place. And why he actually stayed in the business.
Another sigh escaped his lips as he caught the light in Tifa's window—the second from the right and the fourth from the bottom—disappear. Damn, today was really going to suck. He could feel the dread building up in his bones.
The door of the apartment building opened with a squeak and Tifa trotted out towards him. "Morning," she said with a smile, her keys jangling.
He grunted in response, falling in step with her as they walked to her car.
She unlocked the car and slid into the driver's seat. "So, Mister Professional Model," she shut the door and started the engine, "got any tips for a rookie?"
He narrowed his eyes as his seatbelt clicked. Back out while you still can.
"C'mon. I'm serious."
And so was he. Call Hades and tell him you're not feeling well. Pinch your nose so you sound sick.
Add a cough or two. Make yourself sound unavoidably contagious.
Suddenly the hum of the engine died. She tugged her car keys out and turned to look at him. "You really don't like this, do you?"
He tightened his jaw.
"Cloud, look at me."
His eyes dropped from glaring at the stoplight and slowly—hesitantly—traveled to meet hers. Breathe in…breathe out…
Her eyebrows inched together. "Why are you so bothered by this?"
He blinked, tearing his eyes away. Did she remember…?
A few moments passed. She shifted slightly in her seat. "Is this about…that time?" she murmured gently.
He wasn't surprised. She did remember—the skipped meals, the intense workouts, the fainting spells, the smoking, the constant glances in the mirror, the obsession with looking perfect, the deterioration…All of that started with his first commission…with his first contact with them and their leering eyes that picked out every imperfection.
Thank God she was there to pull him out. Her opinion was really the only one that came to matter anymore. Tifa saved him.
Cloud studied her hand, resisting the urge to reach out and interlock his fingers with hers. "I don't want them to get to you," he almost whispered.
Silence rang in the car as she took in his words. Then, he watched her hand make its way to his and wrap around it firmly. "They won't," she assured him, "because I'll have you there with me."
He looked up to her and found her smiling at him. Peace worked its way through the knots in his shoulders and the tightness in his jaw.
"You'll protect me, won't you?"
He nodded slowly, squeezing her hand. Yes he would.
What a turnout! Demyx's grin widened with each face his eyes rested upon. It was one thing to say that everyone knew that Cloud and Tifa loved each other, but it was a completely different experience to actually see all the people who wanted them to realize their feelings for each other all in the same place, plotting a matchmaking scheme. The excitement bubbled in the pit of his stomach and a few giggles and cackles slipped from his mouth.
"No way, man! Star Seeker 3 is way better than Star Seeker 2!"
"You mind leaving some chips for the rest of us?"
"I'm so freaking tired. Couldn't you guys have planned this later in the day?"
"Terra, your laptop battery had better not die in the middle of this."
"Star ships were meant to fly-y-y-y…"
"Demyx," Zexion muttered, leaning towards him slightly with an impatient edge in his voice, "please hurry up and call this meeting to order."
He raised his hands defensively. "Okay, okay." Clearing his throat, he waved to the group sitting around the large table. "Um, we're going to start now, so…yeah. Stop talking. Please."
The chatter died down and all eyes turned to him.
"Thanks for coming, everyone," he began, grinning brightly. "So the reason we're all gathered here is to come up with a way to get Cloud and Tifa together. Before we get into that, though, why don't we introduce ourselves? Anyone wanna go first?"
Awkward silence followed his question. A few pairs of eyes darted away from him to stare at the tabletop or other parts of the empty Seventh Heaven.
"Okay, then, I guess I'll go first," Demyx chuckled. "I'm Demyx. I've known Cloud and Teef since high school. I used to be in a band with Cloud, too. Nice to meet you all." A murmuring among the group erupted quietly after he spoke and he turned to his left. "Let's go around in a circle. You go next."
Roxas' eyes widened. "Me?" At Demyx's nod, he cleared his throat and stuttered, "I-I'm Roxas. Cloud's my cousin. I uh, I met Tifa a few times through Cloud but I don't know her that well." He shrugged. "I only know they both like each other a lot."
Next to him, Namine waved with a sheepish smile. "I'm Namine. I met Cloud and Tifa through Imani."
"Kairi," the redhead next to Namine chirruped with a wave of her own and a bigger smile. "Ditto."
"Xion. Uh…" the girl paused, "I don't really know Cloud or Tifa…"
"But she's our friend, so ditto by association," Riku concluded.
"Zexion," his slate-haired friend said after taking a moment to roll his eyes. "I also met Cloud and Tifa through Imani."
The man sitting next to Zexion—a new face, Demyx noted—waved briefly. "I'm Terra. This," he pointed to the laptop screen facing the rest of the group, "is Ven."
"Cloud and Roxas are my cousins," the blond boy in the screen elaborated. "Ven and I met Teef through Cloud ages ago."
Demyx blinked in surprise. Dang, he looked a lot like Roxas. They could pass for twins!
He digressed as Axel took his turn. "Axel. A-X-E-L. I met Cloud and Tifa through Aerith."
A laugh almost escaped Demyx. He'd caught Zack clenching his jaw and fighting to urge to roll his eyes at the redhead.
"Zack. Cloud's practically my brother and Tifa's my cousin."
"Alrighty." Demyx nodded in approval, clapping his hands as if to close the subject. "Now that the intros are out of the way, we can jump right into the brainstorming! I guess if anyone has any ideas, they can just throw them out in the open and—"
"Handcuff them to each other until they confess their feelings to each other."
He blinked, his words dying into croaks. Handcuff them?
Zack shook his head at Riku's…uh…sudden suggestion, his blue eyes hardening into a determined, calculated glare. "No, too humane."
Demyx almost fell off his seat. What the—? Too humane?
"Lock them in a closet, then," Riku said…though it sort of sounded like a growl. "And handcuff them."
Zack shook his head again. "Too juvenile."
"Ship them to a deserted island and leave them stranded there until they confess."
He slumped in his chair, his shoulders sagging. Yikes, Imani. Who knew she was capable of such thoughts?
Zack hummed thoughtfully as Riku began to nod. "But we'll need a boat to get them there. Or a helicopter."
What? They were actually considering that?
"Getting them unconscious to transport them would be tough, too. They're both fighters."
"Then it's a good thing Terra's here. He can easily match Cloud."
He glanced at Terra and found the man watching the discussion with his jaw hanging slightly and his eyes wide. The rest of the group—everyone besides Zack, Riku, and Imani—seemed to have similar expressions.
"Ven's a fighter, too. I think the three of us could take Cloud."
"But what about Tifa? She's tougher than Cloud in some ways."
"We'll knock her out with chlorine or something, then."
"Why not knock Cloud out that way, too?"
"Or maybe we can slip something into their drinks?"
"Then we can handcuff them."
"What is it with you and handcuffs, Riku?"
Demyx couldn't help frowning slightly. This meeting was beginning to get out of hand…Zack, Imani, and Riku were the only ones contributing—passionately scheming, really—while the rest of the table watched the bantering uncomfortably. "G-Guys…" Demyx tried to cut in gently.
To no avail.
"Lock them in the boiler room of Teef's apartment."
"Do you know where that is?"
"Kidnap Teef and leave a ransom note with Cloud."
"That's asking for death, Imani."
A shiver rippled up his spine upon seeing dark shadows fill Imani's eyes. "He made this a war to the death," she hissed.
Riku and Zack absorbed her words, their own eyes darkening and snarls lacing their hums of agreement.
Demyx tore his eyes from the three of them. Sora, Roxas, Namine, Kairi, and Xion gave each other anxious glances, shrinking into their seats and towards each other for warmth against the sinister chill in the air. Terra and the image of Ven on his laptop both had their eyebrows raised close to their hairlines. Axel had a ghost of a smirk on his face, his eyes trained on Imani. Zexion watched the discussion with an amused glint in his visible eye and the lens of his Lexicon peeking up from the tabletop.
Then, Zexion's eye met Demyx. His eyebrow twitched at the dumbfounded look on Demyx's face. This is progress, isn't it? his look seemed to ask.
Demyx deflated even more into his seat, his gaze returning to the infuriated muttering trio. Yeah, he guessed this was progress…but damn, things were getting intense…or, at least, some people were.
"Cloud is going down," Zack vowed.
Man, did she screw up bad this time. The moment she introduced herself to one of the assistants, she'd been whisked away to a makeup station. Two hours later, she was sent to a dressing room having armfuls of clothes tossed her way. Another hour after that, she found herself standing awkwardly in front the photographer as his eyes raked over her in her uncomfortably short, shimmery maroon mini dress.
What the hell was she thinking, signing up for something like this?
Tifa clenched her fists and stamped down the urge to reach up and touch her lightly teased hair or her made-up face. Her nerves bubbled and leapt and fluttered uncomfortably in her stomach as she stood near the pristine counter of the newest bar in Hotel Agrabah. People bustled around her, adjusting equipment and positioning drinks and discussing lighting and whatever else it was photographers and their assistants did at photo shoots. The barely-contained adrenaline of her nerves sizzled in her blood.
She had to do something. She couldn't stand just...standing around. She turned to the nearest person—a tiny blond girl approaching with more drinks for props—and quickly blurted, "Um…I-Is there something I can do to help?"
The girl halted in her steps, staring blankly at her for a moment or two with her deep blue eyes. Then, she began laughing incredulously, a sound that reminded Tifa of bells. "Wow," she giggled. "Uh, no, not really. It's…nice of you to ask, though."
"S-Sure," Tifa replied, slightly disappointed. What the heck was she supposed to be doing, then? Just stand around and look pretty?
Well…That was kind of why she was here…
A groan of distress threatened to rumble in her throat. Where was Cloud?
"What's wrong? Are you bored?"
Her eyes darted to the girl who was eyeing her. "N-No…I just…"
The girl shook her bangs from her face and offered a slight smile. "Usually the models bring something to do between shots like crosswords or sudoku or a book. They get a lot of downtime."
She blinked. Cloud never mentioned that…but then again, Tifa had never asked…
"Is this your first time modeling?" the girl asked as she adjusted the drinks on the counter.
"Yeah. I'm totally new to this. Sorry if I seem really confused." Those drinks looked tempting. Maybe if she downed one, she wouldn't feel so awkward about being here…
"You know, you're different from the other models I've worked with."
Tifa tore her eyes away from the glasses, a little surprised at the sudden statement from the girl. "Well, that's probably because they're more experienced."
"Yeah, there's that." She shrugged, her bright green jacket rustling. "But…I don't know. You just seem more genuine than them. Not…jaded." Her smile widened. "I like that. It's refreshing."
Seeing her smile made the corners of her mouth rise in a grin of her own. She could feel the nerves in her stomach begin to settle down. "Thanks."
The girl took a step back and thrust her hand towards her. "Tink."
"That's my name. Well, actually, it's Tinker Bell, but lots of people call me Tink for short." She gave another shrug. "Either one works for me."
She nodded, taking her hand. "Tifa. Do you work at a lot of photo shoots?"
"I have my fair share. This is more of a part-time thing for me." She turned back to the counter to inspect the drinks once more. "I mainly work at Lionheart. What about you?"
"Tink! Come help me with this."
She rolled her eyes before shooting her an apologetic look. "Sorry. Let's talk more after!" she told her, jogging off towards the caller.
Tifa watched the girl leave, a tiny smile on her face. That had to have been one of the warmest welcomes she'd ever experienced. Hopefully there would be time to chat more with Tink. She seemed like a really nice girl.
"Making friends already, huh?"
Her heart skipped a beat. She whipped her head towards the voice…and felt her knees begin to wobble. A very, very handsome man stood next to her, his electric blue eyes sending shocks down her spine. His stormy gray collared shirt contoured his toned muscles perfectly. His blond bangs fell into his flawless face at just the right angles. The glint of his earrings seemed to illuminate his intense stare.
Oh God, she knew she was blushing.
A thin eyebrow disappeared into his bangs. "You okay, Teef?" Cloud asked quietly, taking a step forward.
Tifa did her best to smile calmly and to smooth out the jitters from her voice. "Y-Yeah, I'm fine. You just…startled me."
He watched her carefully for a moment before allowing a corner of his mouth to rise in a slight smile. "Sorry."
That smile sent her heart racing. She curled her hands into fists behind her back and breathed deeply. She had to work with Cloud looking like the physical manifestation of sex? Man, oh man, was she screwed.
"Zex, what do we do?"
Zexion didn't bother to look up from his Lexicon. "About what?"
"About those three's scheming!" Demyx hissed anxiously in his ear. "They're set on killing Cloud!"
"They're not going to kill Cloud."
"How do you know that?"
"How can you not understand that? You've known all three of them since middle school."
"This is emotional warfare! This is heavy stuff!"
He arched an eyebrow and sighed. "Isn't this what you wanted? Didn't you want to get Cloud and Tifa together?"
"And I thought we agreed on using this ploy to bring Riku and Imani together with their respective love interests."
"Those three are perfectly capable of holding their own in this emotional warfare."
Demyx tried croaking out a comeback…and ended up sighing. "Yeah…"
He kept his head bowed to his Lexicon but moved his eyes to peer at his dorm mate. Panic-laced voice, fidgeting fingers, tense shoulders, furrowed brow, deep-set frown, eyes staring off into nothing yet clouded with worry…He had all the signs of a nervous wreck. That was obvious.
Zexion couldn't understand why. Demyx should have been happy that his matchmaking schemes were going swimmingly. With the level of zeal being put into the plot to bring Cloud and Tifa together, there was no question that the two would realize each other's feelings and finally get a room. Really, Demyx didn't have to do anything—the three muttering lunatics at the other end of the table could handle things on their own.
Ah. That was it.
He set his Lexicon down and crossed his arms. "Demyx," he began, "are you concerned that the matter of bringing together two fools in love is slipping out of your hands and into theirs?"
He immediately began to protest, but whatever denial he intended to hurl at Zexion died on his tongue. Demyx deflated in his chair, his incoherent mumbling and slight nod of defeat confirming Zexion's suspicions.
Well. Who'd have thought Demyx could have a control complex.
He supposed he felt a little sorry for Demyx. His roommate had been looking forward to this meeting. The crash of disappointment was always harsher when the expectations had been risen high.
But Zexion had to cut the pity party short. No one could benefit from Demyx-in-a-slump, especially not Demyx.
Picking up his Lexicon again, he resumed his scheduling and researching. "Rather than stressing over whether their plans will succeed or fail without your direct influence, why not use this opportunity of unofficially passing the torch to focus your efforts on bringing other hopeless romantics together?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Demyx tilt his head thoughtfully.
"Not to completely abandon the cause, of course," he continued, "but to simply monitor things from afar and to arrange opportunities for development in their relationships with each other."
Demyx took a moment to consider his words. Then, the air shifted and the depressing mood sitting over his head disappeared. Demyx clapped his shoulder and told him, "You're the best sidekick a guy could ever have."
He smirked to his phone. "I know."
Cloud decided that he both hated and loved this commission.
"Someone turn the music down! I can't hear myself think!"
He hated how everyone stared at her. He knew the majority of those eyes were just watching or checking for the right angles, but there was always that one jealous makeup artist or that one lusty male assistant. He hated their whisperings and the way they scrutinized her in her really short dress. It sickened him.
But he loved that he had an excuse to stand tantalizingly close to her.
"Okay, now put your hand on her hip, Cloud."
He made sure to not comply too hastily, calmly lifting his hand to rest it on her hip. He felt her jump a little at the touch. "Sorry. You okay?" he murmured.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she answered under her breath.
"Tifa, put your hand on his arm and look at him."
He watched her swallow uncertainly as she hesitantly reached up to touch his sleeve. Her eyes slowly inched up to meet his. He could see the nervousness she was trying so hard to hide.
Damn, was she beautiful. He loved that he could stare at her with as much desire as he felt and not get questions about it from anyone…but part of him—the part he didn't like admitting existed—sort of wished he wasn't limited to photo shoots to look at her like this.
"Okay, now lean in to whisper in her ear, Cloud. Step closer if you need to."
Cloud complied, stopping next to her ear and letting his hand travel up to her waist. He felt her stomach clench at the unfamiliar touch. He heard her gasp quietly.
Dammit, Teef. She was turning him on.
"Just relax," he told her and himself. "They're almost done."
She sighed. "I hope so."
So did he. This gig was killing him.
Author's Afterthought: I'm going to make an effort to make sure the next chapter doesn't take another year to come out. Thanks again for patiently waiting for this chapter and for supporting this after a year has gone by. Please leave a review!