Old City Bar
Author's note: (There are obvious nods here to older stories, like the best Christmas traditions, but some acceptance of new, as well. Also, this draws on only FF7 itself and Advent Children. Other parts of the Compilation--which are described even by their creators as fluff to market the 'brand' outside the original fanbase--are not referenced. I have conceded the spelling of certain names for the sake of clarity, but you'll never get me to accept 'Tuesti.' Not ever.)
"Fold," Reno said, tossing his cards down on the glass coffee table. "Shiva, what a lousy night."
The main room of the lodge was cluttered with too many empty beer cans and not near enough full ones, an assortment of discarded suit jackets, and the three bored Turks who weren't wearing them. Outside, the hills around Kalm were carpeted in a sticky layer of snow. Rude had rigged up an old car stereo to pick up radio signal from Midgar's Edge City; it spat out static and interference and the rare snatch of holiday music.
"It would be better if this was worth anything," Elena said, raking the pile of gil towards her. For the most part the bills were brightly-colored scraps of paper printed with Jack ShinRa's profile against the company emblem, leftovers from a world before meteor. Only WRO-produced bills were of much value now, that and the hard gold that backed it up (of which Rufus maintained a considerable share, tucked away in various vaults in Junon and Costa del Sol). Except for the rare Rufus Certificates, printed in the fleeting days of his presidency and prized by collectors, old ShinRa money wasn't good for much more than gambling chits.
Reno shouldn't have been sad to see it go, but its loss only underscored a larger problem.
"Tifa called again today," Elena said, sorting her winnings into tidy piles as Rude shuffled the cards for the next round. There was no question that they would play again; there was nothing else to do. "Wanted to know if we'd be coming over."
"It's cold out there, but I don't think the lifestream has frozen over yet." Reno flopped back onto the leather sofa, bored and annoyed in equal measure. "No way Rufus is going to let us go over and knock back eggnog on the clock--"
"Gentlemen." Rufus' voice, unexpected from the office doorway, brought them all to their feet. Since discarding his wheelchair, Rufus had resumed a kind of unnerving natural stealth, one he used most often when his employees were talking about him. "I realize I'm not paying you much these days, but I am still paying you, and it's not to sit around idle."
"It certainly isn't very much, either," Reno muttered to Rude, knowing that if Rufus wanted to fire him for insubordination that he'd be hired back again within fifteen minutes.
"I'm sorry, sir," Elena said, still standing at attention. While not a gentleman in the strictest anatomical sense, Elena knew by now that Rufus was not the sort to tack on and lady for political correctness. Nothing about being a Turk was particularly ladylike, anyway. "We've checked the lodge perimeter, and there's no sign of any trouble."
"No sign of anything," Reno clarified, "Except for shrubs and rabbits. There's no assassins, no spies, no strange Sephiroth sprouts, no bars, no civilization, and certainly nothing resembling a good time."
"I'm not talking about security here." Rufus reached both arms behind him and suddenly Tseng was there, holding out the president's coat for Rufus to slide into it. "But I have a meeting this evening with several members of Cloud's group, and I would prefer to take precautions. You are still my bodyguards, I believe."
Reno made a strangled noise of surprise. "You--you mean--"
"Go and start up the car, Reno," Tseng said, his face devoid of even the tiniest hint of a smile. It was too late now, though, the truth was out. "We don't want to be late."
" yes!" Reno crowed, snatching up his jacket and nightstick and rocketing down the snowy steps with his sleeves trailing. Rude and Elena followed after him, with somewhat more dignity but with equal enthusiasm. At least, Elena was smiling. With Rude it was hard to tell.
"You realize," Tseng said, letting his smile show now that they were gone, "This hardly requires all of us. We should leave someone behind."
"I'd rather not antagonize the only decent help I've got left," Rufus answered, checking his shotgun before it vanished into the silk lining of his suit jacket. "Besides, this is AVALANCHE we're talking about. One can't be too careful." Anyone else would have missed the wink, as it was little more than a tiny twitch of Rufus' left eye, but Tseng had not reached his position in life by being anyone else.
"Of course not, sir," he demurred, and moved deftly in front of his boss to open the door for him.
The neon light of Tifa's bar spat intermittent flashes of red and blue through the wet heaps of snow, casting bright shadows all over the snowy rooftops. The winter weather gave the piecemeal city its own kind of beauty, the falling snow veiling the ruined bones of Midgar above it. Even though the shattered beams of the ShinRa building could barely be seen, Rufus still made a point to avoid looking in its direction.
7th Heaven's sign was flipped to CLOSED, but the foggy windows were all lit. Someone under the age of ten had written, on notebook paper in green crayon, a notice that read: Private Party Tonight.
Rude had hardly managed to knock on the door once before it was open, and a small pigtailed blur was hugging him around his knees. "You came you came you came! Tifa, Tifa they came!"
"Well don't leave them standing in the snow, Marlene, let them in--oh!" Tifa broke off with a small noise of surprise, looking up to find her bar suddenly full of suits. "Sorry! I thought you were Barrett and the others!" She edged out from behind the bar, a tighter fit than usual. Her apron was tied low to compensate for the firm curve of her belly, but she was not yet far enough along to require more than undoing the top button of her jeans. "Take their coats, Marlene, remember your manners."
"Congratulations," Elena said, enthusiastic but not a bit wistful. "When are you due?"
"Midsummer," Tifa said, flipping beer bottles onto the bar with the deftness of long practice. "Cloud says he's hoping for a girl, but I think it's a boy."
"That's only because Cloud says he doesn't want a boy to be as messed-up as he is," Marlene interjected, from underneath a pile of somber overcoats, and Rude's fedora. "He's a big stupid-head."
"Yes," Cloud said, emerging from the stairwell, "he is a big stupid-head. Run and take those upstairs, Marlene."
Marlene sighed at being separated from the grown-ups, especially such interesting ones, but she trudged up to do as she was told.
"Way to go, Strife," Reno said, with a ribald little whistle at Tifa. "Now when are you going to marry her?"
"Er--" Cloud began.
"I've decided not to make an honest man out of him," Tifa said, passing the drinks around. Without taking orders, she had brought beer for Rude and Reno, white wine for Rufus, rum and coffee for Elena, and a delicate pottery bottle of Wutai sake, for Tseng. "It would ruin him."
"Thanks for coming," Cloud said, as though eager to steer the conversation away from his personal life. "I know there are some things Barrett wanted to discuss, but he's running late out of Kalm."
"I'm in no great hurry for business tonight," Rufus answered, tilting up his wine glass in a slight toast. "If you don't mind us imposing on your hospitality, that is."
"You're not imposing, you're invited," Tifa said, firmly. "We're expecting people to drop in as they can, so if you hang around you should be able to see everyone."
"Lady, I have been waiting all damn day to just hang around," Reno said, thumbing the cap off his beer bottle.
"Sit down," Tifa said to Cloud, flicking her apron at him. "You look like a waiter, and then I'd have to pay you."
Cloud, visibly uncomfortable at so much social interaction, sat down on a barstool safely between Tifa and the Turks' table. Rufus and Tifa kept most of the conversation going between them, mostly about improvements to Edge City's infrastructure and far away from dangerous subjects like past allegiances and babies. The buzz of Cloud's cell phone was an obvious rescue. His pale brows drew together as he listened to the caller, his noncommittal noises becoming ones of concern.
"...No, I'll come and help. Just stay put."
"Something wrong?" Tifa asked, bringing over fresh drinks for the Turks.
"Nothing huge. Barrett's truck got stuck on the road."
"In an avalanche?" Tseng asked, with a tone that very nearly approached teasing.
"Was that a joke?" Reno squinted at their reserved leader in something like accusation. "It sure as sounded like a joke."
"Must be a special occasion," Rude muttered, one beer enough to loosen his tongue a little.
"Are they all right?" Tifa asked, as Cloud pulled on his coat and hefted his sword down from its mounting above the bar.
"Yeah. This is just in case." He shouldered the weapon and nodded to their guests. "Sorry to put the party on hold. Be back in a few."
"Let us know if there's any way we can be of assistance." Rufus' voice never approached anything like cordial warmth, but he was more than capable of being polite.
Cloud's pause was just long enough to demonstrate how little trust he had for Rufus ShinRa, polite or no. "Sure," he said, opening the door. "I'll do that." The bells on the door handle jangled in Cloud's wake, and Tifa sighed.
"Sorry. He's still not very good around... company."
"I think you mean the Company," Rufus corrected. "I'm sorry if we've put a damper on your holiday."
"Not at all," Tifa mustered up her best smile. "Really, it's a relief to talk with you all in a less, erm, antagonistic setting. And it's the holiday, after all. Not much fun out in Healin. Have you considered setting up headquarters closer to Midgar?"
Rufus studied the rim of his wine glass, frowning slightly. "I don't feel that would be... politic at this juncture. These people are trying to rebuild their lives, and for ShinRa to make a public presence felt now would only stir resentment and expectation. I prefer to offer Reeve our assistance until we can return to new business. Barrett is willing to deal with him, he is not so much with us. I had hoped to breach that mistrust tonight, in a more relaxed setting like this." He took a delicate sip from his glass. "Thank you for offering the opportunity."
"Barrett needs you, your backing and your connections." Tifa pulled up a chair near their table. "But for some things he's going to have to let bygones be bygones. The world has changed. We've all changed. And we've all suffered."
Rufus did not answer, but he put his hand on his right arm as though in memory of past pain, feeling again the slow, aching death of geostigma in his flesh. It was gone now, but his body would always remember the battle, as much as the planet remembered its own.
"You're right about wanting new headquarters, of course," Reno said, when the silence grew too heavy. "Healin is a pit. Not a damn thing for miles. Privacy, sure. Amenities, not so much."
"It is property owned by the Company, Reno," Tseng reminded him. "We cannot be choosy now."
"Still, it would be nice to have a place that feels like home again," Elena said. It must have been the rum in her coffee that prompted her nervous confession as she added, "You know, it's kind of strange, but I have a little foolish daydream about going to Nibelheim and fixing up the old Mansion. It's Company property, too. I always thought it was pretty, and it wasn't its fault that so much happened there."
"It used to be pretty," Tifa said, softly. "All of Nibelheim used to be pretty, once."
"You're from there, aren't you?" Elena asked. "I always forget that, but I guess you've still got your accent. You're just so devoted to this place, I thought--"
"I'm devoted to a place that needs me," Tifa said, almost to herself. "The Nibelheim I was from no longer exists. Sephiroth took it from me, and I will never forget that." She flashed a quick smile at Reno. "Damn, I wish I could have one of those beers right now!"
"I never did figure out how that dump became Company property, anyway," Reno said. "It was way before the place burned, wasn't it? Back in Valentine's day. Did we buy it when we built the reactor?"
"No," Rufus said. "The mansion was the ShinRa family home, once. My grandfather built it with profits from the early weapons business. He had some ideas about a mountain chateau, or something. It didn't really last, so he and my father used it for any projects they didn't want too close to Midgar." Rufus lifted one white-suited shoulder in a shrug. "It kept Hojo out of their hair. When Nibelheim burned and was rebuilt by the Company, the Mansion was recreated from the original blueprints, even down to the false walls and passages. The basement remained intact, of course, but the main building was made to look like a ruin."
"That was only seven years ago," Elena went on, her hands tightening on her mug. "The structure's got to be stable, and there's plenty of room, and..." She trailed off, uncomfortable with her own enthusiasm. "Well, I said it was a foolish daydream."
"Nibelheim does still have the reactor for salvage, decent infrastructure, considerable natural resources, and a number of ShinRa-loyal employees remain." Tseng was thoughtful as he poured more warm sake into his cup. "I would not call it foolish, Elena."
Elena went pink. "Well, maybe not, but the idea of having everyone up there for the holiday next year certainly is!" She smoothed her thumb over a droplet of sloshed coffee on the polished table. "With a big tree in the foyer," she added, dreamily. "And a piano in the front room, and candles in the windows." She jumped as something landed near her mug, hitting the table with a metallic clatter. It was a ring of keys, including an old pass-card for the now non-existent upper levels of the ShinRa building.
"Make it happen," Rufus said, his smile in his eyes if nowhere else. "It's useless to us as it is, and while Reno's complaint seems to center around bars, we do need a more functional base and a better presence in that region. Call Reeve for anything you need. I want it ready to go by spring."
Elena looked at the keys, and at Rufus, her face going through quick changes of surprise and delight. For the briefest moment she forgot herself, as Company policy was abandoned in favor of leaping to her feet and flinging her arms around a startled Rufus. She let him go almost at once, aghast at her own unprofessionalism. She had shed plenty of blood and endured torture for the sake of her boss; her loyalty to him and to the company went above and beyond mere employment and was more like the bond of a family; but hugs were quite out of the question.
"Aw, man," Reno said, over Elena's horrified apologies, and Rufus' arm's-length acceptance of them, "we're gonna be forced to look at wallpaper patterns now for months."
"It's about time you did something useful," Tseng replied.
"Thank you so much, sir," Elena said, once Rufus had convinced her that she wouldn't be shot for touching him (provided she didn't do it again). "I've loved that house ever since I was a little girl--I won't let you down."
"I would have set you on it sooner, if I had known," Rufus said, wry. "Next time you have good ideas, Elena, don't keep them to yourself. I need all of them I can get."
"I--I will!" Elena turned to Tifa, keys still in hand. "Can I borrow your phone?"
Tifa pointed her towards the stairwell, where Marlene had been waiting in patient silence for Barrett to come back. "Take her up to the office, would you, sweetheart?"
"It's up here," Marlene said, taking Elena by the hand. "You want to see my room?"
"I hope you don't mind," Tseng said, following Tifa's gaze to the bar. Framed above the shelves was a dog-eared photo, in pride of place where Cloud's sword usually rested. Tifa was looking at her younger self in the photo, at the ShinRa mansion behind her, and at the two men flanking their guide. "Nibelheim has bad memories for everyone."
"It has good memories, too," Tifa replied, turning away from the shooting star of Sephiroth's pale hair, and the affable smile of one Zack Fair, SOLDIER first class, M.I.A. "I'd like to see some more good ones made."
"I will do what I can," Rufus said.
The choleric rumble of a vehicle outside intruded on the mood of quiet reflection, to Reno's obvious relief. "Sounds like Cloud's back," he said, getting up to open the door. "They're bringing the food, right?"
Barrett came through the door, rather like an avalanche himself, roaring profanity at the shitty roads, his shitty truck, and the equally excremental weather. He broke off at the sight of Rufus and the others, even as Denzel and Cloud came in after him, crates of supplies and canisters of fuel in tow. "So!" Barrett crossed his arms, and by seeming chance the gun on one was cocked not-so-subtly in Rufus' direction. "Showed up, did you?"
"I never miss a business opportunity," Rufus said, setting his wine glass aside as though to demonstrate that the pleasantries were concluded. "I understand you want to set up an oil rig offshore of Juno. I'm interested in your proposition."
"Well," Barrett began, still wary. He got no further as Marlene rocketed down the stairs and into her adoptive father's arms, both the one of steel and the one of flesh and blood.
"They came!" she declared, as though personally responsible for the Turks' presence. "This means you can get all that oil up out of the ground, right, Daddy?"
"Kid, you sure know how to ruin a man's bargaining position." Barrett easily hoisted Marlene up on his shoulder, though she was much too big now for anyone else to manage the feat.
"You're the one who said you could light up half the planet if you just had the goddamn money," Marlene said, innocent.
"Told you to watch your mouth around her," Cloud said, kicking the door shut after Denzel.
"Don't you tell me how to raise my own goddamn kid, spiky!" Barrett roared, to Cloud's supreme indifference. "Marlene, honey," he said, in a gentler rumble, "Don't repeat everything Daddy says, okay?"
"We went into a ditch," Denzel said, as though there was no entertainment more sublime. His messy hair was damp with snow, cheeks red from the chill and enthusiasm. "I learned all kinds of new words."
"Then at least watch your mouth around my goddamn kid," Cloud said, in a friendly growl, as he caught Denzel's neck in an arm-lock. To Denzel, he said, "You're not repeating any of those words until you're eighteen, got it?"
"Got it!" Denzel said, squirming away. "I'll have to ask Uncle Cid what they all mean, anyway."
Cloud shot Tifa a look of utter despair. "And you wonder why I hesitate at bringing another kid into the world."
"Oh, relax," Tifa said, beaming. "They're kids, not Wutai porcelain urns. Some dirt's good for them." She scooted her chair forward for Barrett to take. "Have a seat, you two. I'll bring over some drinks and get this stuff put away. Denzel, come give me a hand, sweetheart."
Barrett had barely gotten into his outline for mining equipment when there was an urgent knocking on the bar door, followed by an equally urgent-looking former Secretary of Urban Development, his striped scarf hastily knotted and his beard dotted with frost. The sight of everyone calmly enjoying their drinks was something of a shock.
"Oh! Uh, is everything all right, then?" Reeve looked around the room in confusion.
"Shouldn't it be?" Rufus asked, arching an eyebrow.
Reeve tugged at his scarf, scattering chunks of ice on the doormat. "Well, what's the big deal, then? I just got a call from Elena. Our connection was bad, but she was all in a tizzy about Nibelheim and something that sounded like wallpaper--I thought a reactor core was exploding somewhere."
"The only thing exploding was Elena's enthusiasm," Tseng replied. "But I'm sure she'll be glad to see you."
"Oh, well," Reeve said, with a brief, longing glance at the buttered rum Tifa was mixing up, "I wouldn't want to crash the party... lots to do back at HQ, you know..."
"Sorry!" Elena said, on her way down the stairs. "I tried to reach you again with a better connection, but Cait said you'd already gone." She paused. "At least, that's what I think he said. Can't you program him to have a dialect people can understand?"
"He's out of my hands now, Ma'am," Reeve said, in grave apology. "I left him in charge while I was gone."
"Well, you're here, so you might as well have a drink." Tifa nudged the mug in his direction. "You look like a Shiva sandwich."
"Well, thanks very much." Reeve looked around the room, pleased at the sight of so many familiar faces. "Gang's all here, is it?"
"Not quite," Tifa said, frowning. "We're still missing a few."
"Aren't they going to come, Tifa?" Marlene said, spinning in circles on her bar stool.
"They've probably got work to do tonight, Marlene," Tifa said. "Important work for Mr. Reeve."
Marlene turned big brown eyes on Reeve, and Reeve, being only mortal, could not resist the plea in them. "Well, maybe I can do something about that," he said, digging in his coat for his phone. "Here. Why don't you press this button for me. That red one."
Marlene had never seen a button so red or so shiny, and she did as she was asked. Immediately the bar filled with a low hum of alarm, and Reeve's phone erupted into radio chatter. He winked at Marlene, flipped open the receiver, and said, "Attention units three four two Tonberry we have a code blue at my coordinates. Repeat 4-3-2 Ton to me." He snapped the phone closed and picked up his mug with an air of smug satisfaction, thoroughly enjoying the expectant silence.
"What's that do?" Denzel asked.
"Wait," Reeve said.
Cloud sighed, got up, and unlatched the front door. He was an indifferent handyman, and he didn't want to have to replace the hinges. Ten seconds later the air above the bar was shredded by the howl of propeller wings, searchlights tearing through the windows and scattering wild shadows along the walls. Yuffie burst through the front door with shuriken ready, Cid and Red XIII hard on her heels. A swarm of red cloth streaked down the stairwell, at last resolving into Vincent Valentine with his claw bared and gun drawn.
"That's what it does," Reeve told Denzel. "Thanks for coming, guys. Drinks are on me."
Reno leaned over to Elena, who was staring at Reeve in smitten awe at such well-oiled competence. "You might want to button it up, 'Lena," he said. "Before you start drooling."
Elena shut her mouth with a snap, and slapped Reno on the arm so hard that he jabbed himself in the mouth with his beer bottle.
"The hell is this?" Cid demanded, as the others gradually realized there was nothing more threatening in the room than Marlene's stuffed moogle. "Did you call a code blue for a damn party?"
"I did," Reeve said, unperturbed.
"Well thank god for that," Cid said, chewing on his cigarette. "Shera's been trying to get us all to go over there after shift, and what that woman does to a turkey is inhuman."
"It's certainly indescribable," Vincent added.
"And inedible," Yuffie put in.
"I thought it was rather tasty," Red said, to no one in particular. "But I like my birds burnt on the outside and raw in the middle."
"Shake up a martini for me, darlin'," Cid said, propping his spear on the bar. "And make sure this jerk pays for it." He jabbed his thumb in Reeve's direction.
"Nobody's paying for anything tonight," Tifa said, delighted. "This is a party, after all."
Very little was decided that night on behalf of the WRO, or on Barrett's plans, but nobody really had the heart to talk about hard work. It was nearly midnight when Cloud insisted that the kids, at least, should go to bed. Marlene was asleep on her father's lap, and Denzel was nodding over his chocolate milk, trying to stay awake long enough for Cid to finish telling the story about Cloud winning the chocobo-racing championship at the Gold Saucer.
Marlene didn't stir as Barrett carried her up to bed, and Denzel was asleep on his still-made bed before Cloud had finished getting his shoes off. Cloud pulled the blanket up over him and for a moment he stood there, enjoying the quiet warmth of the shabby little room, the distant murmur of good cheer downstairs, the reassuring sound of Denzel's even breathing. The snowy window cast a bluish, clear light into the room, throwing Cloud's shadow across the patched quilt. He was not at all surprised when two shadows joined his in the patch of moonlight, one taller and broad-shouldered, the other slight, feminine.
"I've always been scared of the future," Cloud said to them, softly. "But now that I've got real reason to be scared of it, I'm scared of stupid things. Will they be happy, when they grow up? ...Will they like me? I should be worried about feeding them, but instead I just hope they don't think I'm a loser."
"He thinks he's a loser," the taller shadow said to the smaller one, shaking spiky hair. "You're impossible, Strife, you know that."
"Eventually you'll just have to accept that you're the hero," the girl said, with a small laugh like shaken bells. "These children accept it without question. Why would your own children be any different?"
"They won't remember any time before this one, Cloud." Zack's shadow put a hand on Cloud's shoulder, but Cloud felt nothing there save the cool winter air. "They won't know struggle the same way you do. All they'll remember is the better world you're giving them."
"This is the life you fought for, and won." Aerith leaned her head against him, the fall of her hair distinct even in shadow. "Live it."
"And don't look for us all the time," Zack said, teasing. "We've got other places to be, you know?"
"Where else would you--?" Cloud began, but he made the mistake of trying to look at them directly. The nursery window was empty, and only his shadow stretched across the bed.
"Talking to yourself, Cloud?" Tifa was leaning in the doorway, arms folded across her breasts, her smile fond. "That's not a good sign of sanity."
"I never claimed to be sane," Cloud answered. "What are you doing up here?"
"I thought I should tell you that Reno has taken advantage of the season to ambush Rude in the stairwell, and Yuffie was taking cell-phone pictures of the carnage." In her brief pause, Cloud could hear the hoots and cheers coming from the first floor. "With your cell phone," she finished.
"Yuffie." Cloud stomped towards the door, but Tifa stopped him with one well-placed hand in the middle of his chest.
"Actually, Vincent asked if we'd had names picked out for the baby, and I realized we hadn't even talked about it. Got any ideas?"
Cloud looked back over his shoulder at the window, and the stars visible through the clearing clouds. Other places to be. The cycling of souls, the lifeblood of the planet. "...lifestream."
"I mean, I've thought of names," Cloud said, more clearly. "For the baby."
"I suppose I don't even have to ask," Tifa said, stepping closer to slide her arms around his shoulders, her cheek against his neck. "I'm guessing it's not 'Cloud Strife, Jr.'"
"Ugh, no." Cloud hugged her against him, liking the way she felt, just so, against his shoulder. It was much nicer than the weight of a sword. "You don't think they'd mind, do you? Zack ...and Aerith."
"I think they'd be touched," Tifa answered. "But really, you're the one who talks to them all the time, why don't you ask them?"
"I don't think I'll be talking to them for a while," Cloud said. "Not like that, anyway. Next time I see them, it'll be a little different."
Tifa looked at him, a puzzled line between her eyebrows until Cloud bent down to kiss it away. When they parted, it was Cloud who led Tifa back downstairs to the party, away from his past and towards the life he had fought for, and won.