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Fruit of the Poisonous Tree
She did her best not to reel at the question, narrowing her eyes dangerously instead, and she snatched his wrist in a paralyzing grip.
"You...You have no idea who I am. For real. Because so help me if you're lying..."
He backed away from her as much as he could, the fear and confusion in his eyes far more pronounced. "I'm not. Why would I be? If you know who I am, then tell me, please!"
You're a monster.
She wanted to stay angry. She wanted nothing more than to reach with both hands and snap the bastard's neck like kindling and toss the body down the cliff and watch it crash on the rocks at the bottom. But an even stronger part of her knew that would make her exactly the kind of evil creature that he'd been, and she stubbornly refused to be brought down to that level.
She released her grip, turning to the fire and pushing his hand away as if flicking away an insect. "I thought I knew who you were. I might be wrong. But let's just say...you remind me of someone."
"...Why did you save me, then? If whoever I remind you of makes you that angry?"
She hunched her shoulders, trying in vain to make up an answer. When nothing she could think of didn't sound completely lame, she just sighed, staring at the flames. "...I don't know."
He swallowed thickly as a silence settled over them, with a tension not even Masamune could've cut. He ventured after a few moments, as though testing the veracity of a thin ice warning.
She closed her eyes with a sigh, wondering for a moment if she should bother answering truthfully. If he was for real in that he couldn't remember anything, her name would be meaningless to him anyway. If it was an act, he'd know she was lying.
Not much to lose either way.
"Tifa," she said softly. "Lockhart."
He smiled wanly. "It's...a pretty name."
She fought not to do so herself. "Thanks. I think."
"So...where are we supposed to go from here?"
She looked up at him, blinking. "What do you mean we?"
"I...It seems you'll be likely to head to a nearby town or something. And since I have no idea where I am, I'd do best to follow you if I don't want to freeze to death."
Oh hell no.
He frowned. "You...don't want me to come with you, do you."
Fighting her immediate impulse to confirm his suspicion with the most venom she could muster felt like trying not to breathe for three minutes. Finally, she just sighed, getting up from her perch and sitting on her knees beside him, handing him her flask for some water.
"It's...complicated. For a number of reasons. Probably the biggest is that the person you remind me of...half the world wants him nailed to a pillar by his throat. So bringing you anywhere near civilization is going to be tricky."
He took an experimental sip from it. "Well...who was he?"
"You don't need to know," she snapped, more vehement than she'd intended.
He retreated visibly, holding a hand up as if in defense. "...I'll take your word for it, then."
She rubbed her temples. "Sorry, I just..." She growled under her breath, more to herself than to him. "Sweet Mother of Gaia, I did not sign up for this..."
His hand settled timidly on her shoulder. "You...don't have to take me with you."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" she retorted. "Leave you here to freeze? No point in saving someone's life half-assed. If I'm going to do that, I may as well have just left you in that snowbank."
He averted his gaze awkwardly. "You just...don't seem to want to do this. I don't want to make trouble for you."
"You're right, I don't," she snorted. "But sometimes, we humans have to do things we really don't want to. It's part of life." Her eyes slid closed in resignation. And for a fleeting, vindictive moment, she wished Cloud was eavesdropping.
He seemed to sense there was more to the words. "I see..."
She looked back at the fire. "We'll stay here for tonight. You can't travel the glacier after dark, it's too cold even for protective clothing. We'll start back in the morning. I have a change of clothes you can use. For now, we'll just try to get some sleep."
He nodded, watching as she laid out a bedroll of her own on the opposite side of the fire, biting her lip and wondering once again just what on earth she was getting herself into. She lay down into it, turning on her side away from him with the heat at her back. Right now, there was little to do except get some rest. She closed her eyes, curling up tightly.
She cracked one eye open, swallowing thickly but not turning around. "Yeah?"
"...Thank you. For saving me."
She blinked, not quite knowing how to respond, or if she even should. It was an awkward, but not altogether unpleasant feeling in her chest, and she wondered for the first time in a long time when she had become so unused to hearing things like that.
"...You're welcome," she finally managed, sighing and closing her eyes again. Somehow, the night didn't seem quite so long anymore.
The next day found them on the outskirts approaching the small resort town. His hair was both wet and frozen with blowing snow and ice, his cheeks flushed and windburned as he took long strides beside her, clad in the large overcoat shed brought and as many layers underneath it as she could spare. Even amnesiac and utterly harmless, his stature was still intimidating; he towered a little over a foot above her, and though his eyes were no longer the piercing Mako-green they used to be, his gaze was still alert and perceptive, as though not a detail escaped him even if he wasn't sure what he was looking for.
Luck had been with her, as she'd brought along a hooded, fur-lined overgarment that effectively hid his distinctive silver hair. But even then, she bid the inkeeper a nervous evening as she paid the difference for her extra guest, who was heading up the stairs.
"Wow, you sure know how to pick 'em," the woman murmured as she took the payment.
"Huh?" Tifa asked, jarred out of her thoughts by the comment.
"Come on, you check in alone and bring a guest back with you for the evening? There's only one reason a woman does that. And with a catch like that, it's obvious why."
Oh God why me?
She had to will the blood back down from her cheeks. "Mmm. I can think of a few other reasons. I...let's just say it's a long story."
The inkeeper scoffed wordlessly, but waved anyway as Tifa ascended the stairs to the room. She still felt as if she were trapped in some nightmarish surrealist painting. Nothing made sense anymore. Sighing dismally, she turned her key in the lock and stepped into the room.
He was seated on the end of the bed, the towel around his waist the only thing covering him other than the fine mist from the shower as he rubbed a second towel through his hair. Crazy world-destroying power or not, there was no denying he'd been given the body of a god at least. Lean and toned and beautiful, if in a terrifying way.
And now I'm thinking he's gorgeous. What the hell is wrong with me?
Which made the blankly innocent look on his face all the more disconcerting.
"So I guess the hard part's over, right?" he said.
It took her a minute to realize he was speaking to her, and she felt her cheeks flush at the thought of how obviously she was staring. "...Sort of. The next hurdle is figuring out what to do with you in the long run."
He took the comb swiped from the bathroom, pulling it through the ends of his hair. "I was...kind of under the impression I was on my own from here."
She averted her eyes. "As much as I'd love to agree...where exactly are you planning to go? You have no idea where you even are, nevermind how to get anywhere else. Plus, you step outside looking like that, and we'll have all hell on our hands."
He frowned. "Why...does it matter so much to you what happens to me?"
"For the same reason I saved your life at all. And well...let's just say I've been hanging around Barrett too long. There are few things I hate worse than a botched job."
"...I see. Barrett?"
"Nevermind." She shifted her weight to one hip, stroking her chin thoughtfully and looking him over. "First order of business is definitely going to be making you less recognizeable. That'll help us immensely."
"...Should I be afraid?"
She couldn't help the slightest hint of a smirk. "...Maybe." At his worried look, she chuckled. "Sit tight. I have some stuff to buy. I'll be back in a bit."
The next morning found her helping him into a black denim jacket with the sleeves rolled to the elbow, underneath which he was sporting a fitted black shirt and jeans held with a belt, and a pair of black mid-calf boots. His long silver hair was now a sleek blue-black, and fell in spikey layers to his shoulders.
"There," she said. "You look about as unremarkable as any Midgar citizen can get these days."
"The largest city on the planet. It's where we're going, because I can't think of many other places for you to blend in."
He nodded, apparently deciding to just follow along for the rest of the way and keep his mouth shut. Which was fine with her. The less he talked, the less she had to worry about making conversation, and the more time she had to step back and admire her handiwork.
Admire? I really am losing my mind, aren't I?
The trip back was both long and uneventful, a combination which led to near lethal levels of boredom. She drove, of course, and as the hours turned into days on the road and the scenery grew especially bleak between stops, she began to not regret her decision as much. If anything, she had someone to keep her awake at the wheel, and the more she talked to him, the more convinced she became that she was either mistaken, or else he really had been spit back onto earth without his mind.
It seemed like forever before they finally pulled up to the back lot behind her bar, and the small living quarters above it. She gathered the rest of her very light luggage, edging the door open with her hip. "It isn't much, but it's a place to stay. We'll sort the rest out later..."
She looked up as Marlene came running at her, dropping the duffel and letting the girl hug her leg. "Hey there, you. Your papa come back yet?"
She shook her head. "Nope. He's out late toni- Who's this?"
It was then that she realized that in the two days since she'd found him and the week she spent driving back to Midgar, she hadn't once thought of a name. Not one that he could actually use without setting off the greatest mass panic since Meteor's summoning. Her mind raced, and she swallowed hard as she tried to keep up with it.
"This is... This is Gabriel. An...old friend I knew back in Nibelheim."
Well that's one way of putting it.
Marlene looked up at him, blinking thoughtfully. "Oh. Are you staying here?"
"For the time being," Tifa said, stepping inside and bidding him to follow. He seemed to take the hint well enough, looking around in utter fascination at the modest space. Tifa headed for the stairs after picking up the duffel again, indicating with a tilt of her head. "C'mon, the extra room is up here."
He followed, leaving to wonder yet again if she would live long enough to regret this.
The night was quiet once they'd all settled down, after Tifa had made a very quick dish of noodles for the three of them, and then gone back up to her room to unpack and settle back in. He found himself in the spare bedroom now, the clock striking a solid three in the morning and him too wound to even consider sleeping.
He had no idea what to make of this new life. He at least counted himself lucky he had a name to go by now, but this woman's very obvious dislike and mistrust, despite her having saved his life, was unnerving. Whatever the person he reminded her of had done, he was both desperate and afraid to know. If only so he could find some way to patch the damage, if it was even possible to.
For what reason he didn't know why. Only that the look in her eyes when she stared at him made his chest hurt.
Deciding that lying in bed and staring at the ceiling wasn't going to pass the time until dawn any faster, he got to his feet, not bothering with a shirt for the evening was warm, and opened his door to head down to the kitchen for some water. Or that "tea" stuff she'd made after dinner.
He decided to heat the water in a pot instead, not wanting to risk waking anyone with a singing kettle. He looked back up the stairs as he waited, wondering how exactly he was going to "blend in" here when he knew next to nothing about the place. Though he supposed - hoped, at least - that she had a plan for that if she'd brought him this far.
He carefully measured out the water for the tea and turned off the stove, letting the leaves settle and steep as he carried the small cup back to the room. He'd have to ask her more questions in the morning.
And that's when he heard it as he passed her door.
A faint, frightened sound that even with his limited experience he knew was not that of a sleeping person. He stopped, putting his ear to the door. It was definitely her voice. But the sounds she made those of clear distress. Swallowing hard and hoping this was a good idea, he set the teacup down on the hall table and rapped softly on the door.
No answer. Not for him, anyway. Only more of those tiny sounds.
He took in a breath, opening the door slowly and peering inside. She lay in her bed, in her nightdress, curled up beneath the covers and shivering. But not with cold, as her face and collar were both drenched in sweat. Her expression was a grimace of fear, and she clutched the corner of the pillow.
He shut the door after himself, at her side in two strides. "...Tifa?"
She didn't answer, only huddled away further from him. He pressed a tentative hand to her shoulder, shaking it a little. "T-Tifa...you're dreaming, wake up..."
She flinched as if he'd struck her, eyes fluttering. Finally he pressed his other hand to her back, shaking her harder. "Tifa!"
Her eyes snapped open and she sprung upright with a strangled, breathless shriek, her hand pressed to the center of her chest as she panted and gasped for air. He backed away in alarm, letting her get her bearings before venturing a hand to her shoulder, smoothing her hair away from her face. "T-...Tifa? Are you okay?"
She closed her eyes at that touch, swallowing hard as her trembling body started to calm slightly. "...Yeah. Fine." She pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers. "S-Sorry if I woke you."
"I wasn't asleep, really." His hand settled firmly on her shoulder, in a way he hoped was comforting, not liking the way her hand clenched on her chest as though clutching a painful wound. "Are you...sure you're all right?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I'll be okay. Just go back to bed."
As much as he wanted to argue, he decided now was not the time. Not while she was already upset. "Okay. I...um...good night?"
She nodded again, silently waving him out.
He left, closing the door behind him, and turning to retrieve the teacup, his knees feeling shaky at seeing her so frightened. And so very obviously not okay, despite her insistence otherwise. But before he could turn to head back to his own room, another sound assailed his ears from behind her door.
The faint, yet unmistakeable sound of crying.
He frowned, his first instinct being to ignore what she said and go back in there. But he restrained himself, knowing better that such a thing would serve to make her more upset, not soothe her. He turned and took the heaviest ten steps ever back to his own room.
As he looked up at the ceiling, tea going cold and untouched on the nighttable, he closed his eyes. It was going to be a long night.
TO BE CONTINUED...