The Dreamer’s Plight

November 2nd, 0010
–Reeve

The office was small, grey and mostly empty except for the necessary furniture and a pot of yellowing plants to break the monotone.

Reeve was slouching in his chair in the WRO headquarters, eyeing the reports in his hand with solemn pensiveness. The sun had only reached overhead, but he was already running on evening fuel. He squeezed his eyes together as he ground his temple with a knuckle to delay a looming migraine.

It wasn’t so much a physical exhaustion, but rather a mental one that accumulated through months of restless sleep.

He could never seem to catch a break ever since WRO was founded. They were struggling to find volunteers, hard-pressed for an energy source that didn’t involve mako, and scraping around for an…alternate source of funding. And now, to add to the batch, Cloud was missing, and not because of another one of his I’m-not-coming-home episode like Tifa thought.

The blond was in hiding.

Reeve shifted in his seat, the worn leather squeaking against his clothes, as he thought about his last phone call with Cloud. It had been in the middle of the night that Reeve was roused from his sleep by the beeping of his PHS. Cloud had sounded frantic as his words quickly drained the blood from Reeve’s face. Sephiroth was back, Shin·Ra was helping Sephiroth, and Cloud was now being pursued by Shin·Ra.

With a hasty plea that Reeve looked after Tifa, the call had ended before Reeve could learn anything more.

There had been no further contact from Cloud since that night, the blond most likely having destroyed his PHS to avoid being detected, and Reeve was left in doubt. He felt bad that he was keeping this from Tifa, but all things considered, Sephiroth’s return wasn’t a knowledge he could pass on freely without knowing for sure what was going on. It would actually be irresponsible to tell without looking further into this turn of events.

In the first place, how had Sephiroth come back? Why hadn’t there been any sign of the ex-General? Sephiroth wasn’t one to stay low. Was it possible Shin·Ra was covering up Sephiroth’s track? But Sephiroth despised Shin·Ra, did he not? Reeve couldn’t see the two working together.

The integrity of Cloud’s information was also called to question at this point. Tifa said Cloud was hearing the dead Aerith’s voice before he left. A mental breakdown? Then, how lucid was Cloud when he’d imparted these alarming information? And where was he now?

So many questions, and Reeve was tired of not getting an answer to any of them.

The latest report from the search had yielded nothing. All traces of Cloud had vanished approximately two weeks prior, roughly the same time Tifa had lost contact with him.

So Reeve had lied to Tifa about calling off the search, but Tifa deserved to know.

Just not yet. There were still too many variables, and Reeve was already ashamed enough that he couldn’t help lighten the load for the poor girl. He needed something more conclusive before he went and added to Tifa’s stress.

He just feared it wouldn’t be for much longer, because, according to this report, Cloud had last been seen wandering the streets of Junon.

The muffled beating of a helicopter’s blades reached his ears then, and it didn’t take long before the shadow of a black chopper loomed into view, hovering disturbingly near the glass windows that they vibrated.

Speak of the devil.

As the helicopter started rising away from view, Reeve shook his head at the silhouette he could make out in the cockpit. Sliding the reports into his drawer, he left his office and took the elevator up to the roof.

By the time he and his men arrived at the helipad, the aircraft was already grounded, its rotors still spinning out powerful gusts that tousled the blond hair emerging from the passenger cabin and exposed how loosely fitted the thick layers were on the wearer.

Rufus Shinra descended from the platform, his most trusted Turk not more than a step away from him, all six feet of stone and cold steel.

“Rufus! Tseng!” he greeted, extending his hand to shake Rufus’s ever cold one and nodding at Tseng. “I hope the flight wasn’t too rough with the wind at this time of year?”

“Some turbulence, but my Turk made sure it was uneventful enough.” Despite the calm demeanor and softly-spoken voice that was barely discernible over the noise of the helicopter, his grip was firm like any textbook businessman.

“The same one that nearly shattered my windows?” Reeve joked, though not quite lightheartedly, as they headed back inside.

“Reno could use some more prudence, I agree,” Rufus nodded, but it didn’t feel much like a response to Reeve’s words as Reeve noticed the wire hooked in his ear and stretching down into his collar.

Once they were inside the conference room, Rufus wasted no time to start the meeting, but not before running a hand through his disheveled hair.

One had to admit what Rufus had accomplished at his age was no small feat. Every time Reeve gazed upon the shadow of the old Shin·Ra tower standing its grave that was Midgar, he was inclined to think Shin·Ra would remain a poltergeist of the past, malevolent but forever powerless to touch the world again.

After all, there hadn’t been much movement from Shin·Ra even when its mark of ownership over Edge – the Meteor Monument – was blown asunder, and even when Deepground was discovered and its already nefarious reputation plummeted across the world.

Yet there it was, thriving and expanding in Junon, so silently, so unlike Shin·Ra, that Reeve only noticed when it had once again grown large enough to be a menace. Right this moment, Shin·Ra had already owned most of the corporations in Junon, if not through mergers then by intimidation.

Reeve’s only solace was that, for now, they were working towards the same goal.

Still, things were complicated.

“Commissioner, while I don’t deny WRO’s contribution, I find it unacceptable you want to take control of the city, considering it was Shin·Ra that restored Junon from ruins.”

Reeve held back a sigh and kept his shoulders from slumping. Territorial dispute was what this meeting really was about, and Rufus did not beat around the bush.

“Your worry is unneeded. We have no such intention.” The man hated seeing his authority challenged, while Reeve just wanted to make sure Shin·Ra didn’t gain any more influence. He wanted the power to be in the hands of the people.

“Hm, then might I advise you not to let your men spread their asinine propaganda in my town.” Rufus’s voice was light, an easygoing smile on him, but it was clear he was less than amused.

There had been no identifiable insinuation in his tone, but the demand for recognition of city ownership was vehemently implied. Reeve was under no illusion that Rufus rebuilt Junon merely out of the goodness in his heart—if he even had one. And, by Gaia, promoting democracy was ‘asinine propaganda!’ Reeve sensed it wasn’t merely an insult, but that Rufus truly believed it was a foolish notion.

“Rufus, the WRO only wants to help the people of Junon.” Reeve chose his reply with care.

“So does Shin-Ra.” His smile widened by a fraction of an inch, and while it would have looked amiable on any other man, the smile only looked sinister on Rufus. “We want nothing but the best for Junon.”

He didn’t say ‘people.’ Did he even care about all the lives he had in his palms? Reeve had had high hopes when Rufus had proclaimed to want redemption, but it was soon obvious the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Though the last time Reeve even hinted the thought, Rufus had not been pleased.

“I will see what I can do,” Reeve didn’t disguise his sigh this time. “But keep in mind that despite my position, I hold no more power than the next member. They’re volunteers, Rufus. They are free to express their ideals.”

There was a chuckle that couldn’t be anything other than mocking.

“My, my, I’m amazed WRO can function so well with such a system. That’s certainly admirable. But I’m sure your words hold some weight regardless. We’d greatly appreciate any effort on your part to…revise your current policies in Junon. A gesture of good faith, if you will.” Rufus set an elbow on the table and rested his chin against his thumb. “After all, Shin·Ra has respected your presence in Edge thus far. We only ask for the same from you.”

Reeve felt something inside himself bristle. Rufus saw WRO as no different from Shin·Ra, and that was perhaps the most scathing aspersion that could be cast at Reeve.

WRO was his child, the first step to his dream of a fair world where everyone was treated equally, where people could live their lives in harmony, unencumbered, without war or disease. Most of all, a world where their voices mattered, and no dictatorship reigned over them with cruel, selfish oppression. A world without the likes of Shin·Ra.

Yet since WRO’s founding, there had been Geostigma, then Deepground, and now here he was working with the one power whose name was synonymous with tyranny. He wasn’t getting any closer to his goal, was he?

They were supposed to be of equal standings. WRO helped with Junon’s development, and in turn, Shin·Ra provided all the energy WRO needed at a more than generous price. However, Shin·Ra was secretly funding WRO on the side – and Reeve used the word secret loosely because while Rufus never mentioned his anonymous donation, the man didn’t go out of his way to cover up the money’s track either. And with Rufus holding Edge over Reeve’s head like it was a favor Shin·Ra was doing, WRO was at a severe disadvantage.

It pained Reeve as he brought himself to nod.

“Very well. WRO will refrain from taking a stance or making any official statements regarding Junon’s politics.”

Unofficial ones, however, were fair game. The fleeting crinkle of Rufus’s eyes told Reeve that notion did not escape the younger man.

“I’m glad we could come to an understanding on this matter. Let’s move on to the next topic of this meeting.” Again, wasted no time.

“Yes, you wanted to propose a new project?” Reeve kept the apprehension out of his voice.

As he listened to Rufus, his migraine became a full blown headache. His fear was no longer unwarranted. Rufus intended to clear the ruins of Midgar and was asking WRO to facilitate Shin·Ra’s operation. Just formalities, of course. Reeve knew Shin·Ra had enough resources to clear Midgar ten times over on its own.

What Rufus wanted was WRO’s invitation to be in Edge, no doubt one step in his grand plan to reclaim his lost throne. And with WRO’s name slapped next to Shin·Ra’s, likelihood of sabotage would also decrease, just like in Junon.

They were being thoroughly used to further Rufus’s cause.

“Now that Junon can function on its own, I believe there is no better time to start. Shin·Ra was vastly responsible for the devastation of Midgar. It’s only right that we are the one to clean it up. However, considering our absence in Edge thus far, Shin·Ra might be ill-informed, and we don’t want to step on any toes.”

Reeve maintained a straight face, nodding, but all he wanted to do was scoff.

“Naturally, we don’t expect WRO to be doing charity work for us.” Rufus gestured for Tseng, who promptly place the briefcase he’d been holding before the President. A stapled contract was soon pushed towards Reeve.

“For the duration of the operation, Shin·Ra’s services will be at no charge to you.”

And there it was. The discussion was over, though admittedly there was never one in the first place. The young heir of Shin·Ra was too good at utilizing carrots and sticks.

Reeve knew refusing would hurt WRO’s relations with Shin·Ra as well as leave room for some bad words to spread to the public. On the other hand, if he agreed to this deal, the money they would save on electricity could be used elsewhere, on people still living off the rubbles on the streets, on towns and villages still in ruins. There was no drawback—aside for the fact that Shin·Ra was going to be in Edge.

The meeting ended with them deciding on the starting date and estimated length of the project, as well as establishing what Shin·Ra could and couldn’t do. There were disturbingly few of the latter, although considering the nature of the operation it made sense. Didn’t mean Reeve had to like it.

To add salt to the injury, the pace of the entire meeting was set by Rufus from beginning to finish. And by the end, Reeve felt bruised and weary, like he was a ragdoll that Rufus had dragged around on a string.

“By the way, how is Cloud Strife?” Rufus asked when he stood to leave, and Reeve just knew the question wasn’t as offhanded as the man had made it sound.

“Cloud? He left and hasn’t been around for a while now. Why do you ask?”

“Indeed? I was just wondering about what the hero of Gaia was up to, but he can’t seem to stay still, can he?” Rufus straightened his jacket as they started walking to the elevator. “He is keeping in touch though, I hope?” His eyes when their gazes met were splintered ice, sharp enough to cut, and most likely dissecting Reeve for information.

Ironically, Reeve was thankful he didn’t have any information on Cloud for Rufus to extract.

“He’s not.” Reeve shook his head, the disappointment on his face didn’t need to be forced.

“Hm, not even a single call home? How cold.”

Says the man with ice for blood. “It’s typical of Cloud, I’m afraid.”

“Then, I suppose it’s too much to hope he’ll say hello to us, huh Tseng.”

“I suppose so, President.” The dark Turk spoke for the first time since he’d gotten here, though he made no attempt to match his master’s playful attitude.

“Well, Reeve, I look forward to our cooperation.” When they reached the windy roof, the sky was dark and the chopper was ready for take-off. Rufus’s extended hand was immediately seized, still cold. “It’s always reassuring to have the WRO’s help.”

If only he could say the same for Shin·Ra. Reeve gave a quick laugh. “Seems a storm is forming! Perhaps you’d want to delay your departure?”

“I thank your hospitality, but there is still work unfinished. I have complete trust that my Turks will get me back in one piece.” Rufus paused, eyes drifting, before he smirked, most likely at whatever he was hearing from his earpiece.

“Good day, Commissioner.”

And so, Reeve stood back and watched the two men disappear into the helicopter, and then the black helicopter that disappeared into the rolling grey clouds.

An ominous exit befitting Shin·Ra.

Walking back inside, Reeve pulled out his PHS and dialed a number.

No reply. Growing a little worried, he tried a different number and let go of a breath he didn’t realize he was holding when the other side picked up.

“Hey…I’m sorry, were you sleeping?” he paused to hear her response, as well as collect his wit. He still needed more information, but Shin·Ra was clearly involved in this race. Tifa needed to be warned, though a little cherry-picking was probably in order.

“Can we meet? It’s about Cloud.”

 

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The Fighter’s Melancholy

xxx xx, 0009
–Aerith

She held her love’s hand, feeling the strength in his grip flowing into her. His kind blue eyes gazed at her beneath strong, dark brows, a boyish aplomb in their depths. The lone lock of hair that fell before his face swayed in the gentle wind, and she raised a hand to brush it away, only for it to fall back in place.

“Ready?” he asked with a jerk of his chin.

She nodded, facing in front, head held high. By his side? “Always.”

So together they walked. Through the hill of summer lilies, through the fair sky of spring, through the gentle, melodious ebb and flow of life, and towards the wintery forest in which the fallen angel ensconced himself.


October 31st, 0010
–Tifa

It was coming onto two months since Cloud had left, and two weeks since he’d stop answering his phone. The children were getting antsy about his absence, Denzel especially, and she was running out of reassurances to console both them and herself.

For the first few weeks, he’d picked up the phone, never once letting her calls go into voicemail. That had been her one relief, because it meant he wasn’t pushing her away.

He’d been few of words as usual, though, and the phone calls never really lasted for long. She didn’t dare call him too much, afraid he’d find her annoying and stop answering at all. She did try to find out more about his…quest, but he was evasive and didn’t elaborate much, just that he was headed for the Forgotten Capital, convinced Sephiroth was back and plotting.

The last time they talked, she’d attempted to persuade him to come home. He hadn’t found anything in the Forgotten Capital anyway, and if Sephiroth really was back, she and their friends could help. Of course, always trying to do everything by himself, Cloud had dismissed her suggestion.

The next night when she called his phone again, it’d rung twice before the line was terminated. And now his phone was offline.

Tifa couldn’t help but fear she’d somehow offended him into silence.

He hadn’t sounded mad, but with his voice a permanent moody drawl, who could tell, really? And if he wasn’t ignoring her calls on purpose, if his PHS really was flat, then what had happened to him? Was he hurt? Incapacitated somewhere in a coma? Or, Gaia, dead?

Tifa had contacted all their friends, hoping that they had at least seen him around, but no one knew any better. Barret said he would kick Cloud’s behind if he saw the blond, Yuffie promised to steal all of his materia so he’d have no choice but to return, and Cid swore to have Shera drug Cloud’s tea and drop him off at her door.

They were all trying to cheer her up, and though the lighthearted jokes had pleasantly tugged at her lips at the moment of cracking, in the end she still had no idea where Cloud might be.

Vincent and Nanaki, on the other hand, expressed their sympathy and said they would inform her if Cloud came by. Vincent had also asked if she thought Sephiroth was back. She only gave a wry shake of her head and, realizing Vincent couldn’t see her, said no. Sephiroth and his god complex would have burnt down a town or two already. So no, she didn’t think the monster was back, but…she could.

If the peaceful life was too humdrum for Cloud, and if believing that a great evil was threatening the Planet again could give him a purpose in life, then she’d believe together with him. She’d stand by his side and believe the heck out of it.

She wanted to be out there chasing after him. She’d do it on foot if she must, but she wouldn’t rest until Cloud turned up safe and sound.

But alas she was stuck pacing the premise of her home. Denzel and Marlene needed her. They needed a constant parental figure in their lives, and clearly Cloud wasn’t going to be that figure.

It was times like this that she wished Shelke was still around. The young girl had disappeared ever since Shalua passed away, and Tifa could only tell herself Shelke was okay. Because between the children and the bar, and now Cloud, she couldn’t afford to worry about another person.

“Tifa, truly, we can spare some personnel to keep looking.” Reeve insisted, sitting at the bar swirling his drink thoughtfully.

But Tifa couldn’t let him use any more of WRO’s limited resources. The world had suffered crisis after crisis, and it needed all the help they could give.

She shook her head and kept her gaze strictly on the glass she was polishing. “No, Reeve. I’m sure Cloud just lost his PHS fighting a monster or something. He’s strong. He’ll be okay. This isn’t the first time it’s happened.” She was trying to convince herself, more than anyone, of those facts.

“Look—”

“Refill please!” A customer came up to them with empty beer mugs and crumpled notes of gil, slurring his words a little. His high cheekbones made the drunken blush all the more prominent.

She excused herself for a moment to take the mugs from the man with a smile, thankful for the interruption. In all truth, she was of two minds. The ambiguity of Cloud’s welfare was eating her alive, but the thought that a report might come back with the worst absolute terrified her into idleness.

When she returned, Reeve’s sigh was audible over the noisy bar as he scratched his bearded jaw. “One team,” he bargained. “I’m worried about him, too.”

“He’s a grown man, Reeve.” A grown man that still had an imaginary friend. Okay, so maybe Tifa was bitter. But he’d lied. He’d promised to stay in touch. “Cloud can take care of himself. I just forgot…how he is. He was picking up at first, so I just thought— I guess he found it too much trouble after all, and I overreacted.”

Tifa felt Reeve’s large hand place over her knuckles and realized she was clenching her fists. She didn’t trust herself to look up, knowing his dark eyes would be full of concern. If she saw it, she might just break down and rely on him again.

Reeve was too kind. She couldn’t keep on bothering him like this.

She breathed, gathering her bearings, and withdrew her hand as she met his gaze. “Thanks. I’m okay. You should focus on Junon. And!” she held up a finger to stop Reeve from speaking, “If I find out you’re still looking for Cloud, you’ll be answering to me. Got it?”

He frowned, a sort of pout curving his mouth.

“I don’t hear a ‘yes,’ Tuesti.” She laced her tone with mock indignation, folding her arms in front of her chest.

“All right, all right, I’ll call off the search.” Reeve held up his hands, leaning away from the counter. “I’d like these old bones to be intact for retirement.”

Tifa laughed for the first time in two weeks.

Yes, just like this. She had to keep her spirits up and believe Cloud would come back to her. He always did, eventually, and it was her role to welcome him back with a smile. Tifa loved Cloud, and nothing was going to change that. One day, he too would see her in the same light, but until then, she would wait.

Until then, as long as Cloud was okay, it was all that mattered.


November 2nd, 0010
–Tifa

Cloud may be okay, but she was not.

Tifa sat on the bed in Cloud’s room, leaning against the wall and staring blankly at the fragmented sunlight on the dreary grey paint before her. Her knees were bent, upon which she rested her arm, twiddling her cold fingers in idle silence.

She didn’t care to go through the miscellaneous things Cloud had left behind to look for some sort of hint of his whereabouts. She’d exhausted that option on the night he stopped answering the phone. Cloud didn’t keep that many personal effects, anyway. The man could never quite seem to shrug off his minimalistic tendencies from the days of training for SOLDIER. No surprise, really. He wasn’t exactly adept at letting go.

She didn’t want to look at the scrapbook-ish project he had on the wall at her back, with pictures of the places he’d visited on his deliveries and the little notes expressing his enthusiasm for them. It would only remind her just how much his heart wasn’t here with her, make her feel like the villain sometimes for caging him in this dull, boring life, and wonder if she’d pushed him so hard that he went into psychosis just to get away.

Though, it made no difference that she didn’t scrutinize the pictures today. With one glance, she could point out the newer additions to his collection, and perhaps even name the chronological order to some of them.

Tifa had already memorized the whole thing from all the times she’d stared at it in jealousy.

All these places he’d been to, whereas she couldn’t remember the last time she’d wandered on a chocobo’s back. All these photos of towns and nature she recognized, but never got a chance to enjoy for the quest to save the world hadn’t allowed leeway for sightseeing. All these people caught on camera during their daily routines, but not a single picture of her.

Oh the irony that after losing her biggest rival for Cloud’s heart, she was now envying strangers and locations.

So yes, she had been into Cloud’s room when he was out more times than was healthy.

This little habit of retreating to his room had formed long ago, even before his departure. It was her swift respite for the day, when the kids had been sent off to school with their packed lunches and she was left all alone in the vastness of her house.

When Cloud had just left, she was careful not to disturb anything in the room, only stood around, taking in the way his personality had shaped the room, in case he came back to her. Every day that passed was one less thing she bothered putting back before leaving, and roughly two weeks in she had already displaced just about everything in the room.

So here she perched boldly on his bed, tipping her head back to take a deep breath.

Because all the windows were closed, the air was a little bit stuffy, coming onto stale. She kept his room clean without the aid of cleaning products to preserve his lingering scent for as long as she could. It was sad, creepy even, but she was long past caring.

Cloud’s scent was that of warmth and dirt. Simple and musky, mingling with smells from whatever he’d been doing before she happened to catch a whiff.

Sometimes it was tinged with the sharp jab of oil and grease from working on Fenrir. Sometimes it mimicked her own smell when he ran out of shampoo and forgot to buy more, making her pulse thrum nervously. Sometimes it carried that ephemeral sweetness back from a certain dilapidated church that left her with a heavy heart.

But in this room, his scent was purely his alone. And that scent was waning all too quickly.

She was not okay.

“Cloud, you idiot…” she muttered to the empty space. “Come back already.”

Tifa lay down on the bed and buried her face into his pillow, eyes closed, letting thoughts of Cloud fill her mind.

The seconds and minutes, and maybe even hours ticked past.

The phone down in the bar started ringing, and she stirred but chose to ignore it. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, and usually only telemarketers called her landline. However, after the ringing stopped echoing up the stairwell, it didn’t take long for her PHS to vibrate with a cheery tone that jarred against her disheartening mood.

She cracked her eyes open and peer at the phone, had half a mind to ignore it. too, before she read the name on the screen.

“Oh, hi Reeve…No, I wasn’t. I’m, um—Anyway, what’s up?”

His next words got her bolting up straight, “Can we meet? It’s about Cloud.”

 

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Semi-hiatus on GoT

So yeah…Glass of Time is on semi-hiatus.

What. The. Hell do you mean, semi-hiatus!? If you’re putting the story into hiatus then just own up to it!”

I know, I know you’re mad. And thank you for caring enough to be mad! However, I think there’s a difference, personally. Hiatus means I’ll take a break from it with complete emancipation, wipe it from my mind and all. With semi-hiatus, I’ll still be writing, albeit nowhere as prolific (pfft, like I was ever) as before, or at least still be thinking about how to advance the plot.

I’ll be bouncing back and forth between GoT and the new DH. When life is gray, I’ll follow my muse for any self-indulgence I can get me hands on.

All in all, thanks for reading, and following my story after all this time. You all are awesome.

Please, have a nice day~

Prologue: The Fool’s Calling

September 6th, 0010
–Cloud

Cloud…

It started as a whisper. A transient whisper. The kind that drifted up to him from behind. The kind that was heard an infinitesimal moment too late, and one that would have gotten caught and carried away by the wind by the time he turned around, looking at the horizon afar.

Too familiar. The soft voice that spoke. The way his name was sounded.

And even though he told himself it was just his mind playing tricks, emotions would still grip at his chest, and threaten to burn through the stolid façade he tried to put up around his friends. Nostalgia, emptiness, grief; the deep regret that came with twenty-twenty hindsight, but he’d come to terms with the fact that there had been nothing more he could have done. And then…the longing.

He missed her terribly. He missed the smile on her dainty lips, her eyes that reminded him of a verdant summer, her small little nose, and hair that softly framed everything together.

Most of the time, it was a solemn gloom at the back of his head, not quite nagging, but there nonetheless, as he talked and laughed with Tifa and the kids. It was a little more unbearable in solitude, like when he tore through the wasteland on Fenrir for a delivery, or when he drifted into sleep in a full house, yet still felt inexplicably alone and hollow.

He missed Aerith. But after everything that had happened, Cloud knew he could keep going with all of his friends at his back, and she, and Zack, would be watching over him. And they would be proud of him from now on, he’d make sure of that.

Cloud.

Today, again, her voice came to him. He still flinched and turned around, gazing into the distant sun sinking behind the rocky cliffs. The same sky he looked up to every day was dyed in warmth. The same emotions swelled heavy in his heart.

Surely they’d forgive the occasional backslide?

He led his motorcycle into the garage then headed into the bar, where Tifa was setting up a line of glasses with Marlene’s and Denzel’s help. The scene was routine for him after coming back from delivering, and the familial feelings he got from it soothed away the ache and wear of the day.

At the sound of his footsteps echoing on the tiled floor, his childhood friend looked up from the children and smiled at him, tucking a dark lock behind her ear. Her hair had grown longer, though nowhere near the length it had been before during Meteor.

He had honestly been surprised when he’d first brought Denzel home and found the obsidian fall half the length it had been, but never commented on it at the time, too caught up in himself. Now, more than one year after the day, he’d been lectured by Yuffie, of all people, of its significance.

“I’m home,” he announced, lightly mirroring her smile.

“Clooud!” The children ran up to greet him, and he accepted Marlene’s hug while ruffling Denzel’s bird nest of a head.

Soon after dinner, the bar was opened and the customers started shuffling in, by ones or by groups, until the small bar was packed and Tifa was forced to let him help with bussing.

“Remember,” she wagged a finger at him like a mother would her son, “Take the bill at least, if not the tip, before you throw them out for complimenting you. And don’t destroy our properties as you do so.” The last words were said in haste before she left him with the tray and hurried back behind the counter to mix more drinks.

Tifa’s worry was uncalled for. He knew better than to repeat past fumbles.

The bar was pretty much vacated by midnight, with only the handful of intoxicated grumps who couldn’t give more of a damn holing up in the corners. As their cook cleared away the broken chairs and mopped up the messy mix of beer and wine and vomit on the floor, he awkwardly scratched the back of his head in front of a cross-armed Tifa.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

“…I got the tip.” He showed her the wad of gil. It wasn’t his fault he’d retaliated when the burly man grabbed his behind after he’d accepted the money.

After ushering the last few drunks out, calling them a taxi, and dismissing the cook with the night’s pay, they closed up early. He left Tifa alone to wash the glasses after she gave him a warning glare about touching them and went up to check on Denzel and Marlene. The kids had somehow slept through the commotion, but he supposed one would have to be capable of this much if they grew up sleeping directly above a bar with paper for walls.

Cloud came down the stairs to join Tifa as she was polishing the glassware. He seated himself on one of the bar stools in front of her.

“Hey,” he paused, trying to catch her eyes. When he couldn’t, he pushed on anyway. “I’m sorry.”

She didn’t look up from the tumbler in her hands right away, but when she did, a tired smile crossed her expression. “It’s okay. I don’t mean to be so mad, Cloud, but we really need all the money we can get.”

“I know. And I understand.” He leant his elbows against the counter and breathed a sigh. The children were growing, and along with that, their clothes size and appetite. And then there was schooling. Barret could take care of Marlene’s part, but they were on their own with Denzel. “I’ll do my best tomorrow.”

Tifa nodded, placing the last glass down next to the others. “If you’re talking about deliveries then I’m with you one-hundred percent. But I’ll have to sleep on it if it’s about letting you wait the bar again.” A playful glint was in her wine-colored eyes, and he chuckled along with it.

Her gaze softened as her smile widened, and she reached over the counter to brush her fingers across his cheek. They were cold from the water. “You finally laughed.”

It was as if he’d been caught red-handed, the humor dying in his throat.

What was he expecting? Tifa knew. No matter how hard he tried to hide his inner turmoil before his friends, Tifa always knew. She saw right through him, said that his eyes gave him away, and that she understood he needed time to heal. She told him that he was making progress—great progress.

Was he really? Wouldn’t hearing Aerith’s voice mean he was still stuck somewhere fairly early in the stages of grief?

But the way Tifa looked at him, he saw not a shred of doubt. So he, too, believed.

How dependent he was being. “Thanks, Tifa.” For always being there.

Listen…

Lying in the silence of his room, her voice was even clearer, and he could almost hear urgency in it. Urgency that unsettled him to the point of restlessness.

He rolled over to his back and rubbed a thumb between his furrowed eyebrows. He hadn’t told Tifa about this, and perhaps he should. Perhaps talking about it would resolve whatever issues he was having to be hearing things. Or perhaps Tifa would get angry that he’d kept it from her and kick him hard enough that he’d snap out of it. Either way, talking to her would work.

Cloud smiled at the thought, his unease curbed by the knowledge of Tifa’s presence in his life. He spent a few more moments watching the familiar shadows imprinted onto his wall by the streetlight slicing through the curtains, before closing his eyes and allowing sleep to take him.

Coming…

The darkness was thick, weighing down on him like drying tar, smothering him. His breathing became labored, heart quivered with bleary fear. He struggled, limbs flailing as though with enough force he could pull himself to the surface of this lightless, soundless ocean.

Then he heard it, the echo of a droplet hitting clear water. All around him, the world was painted in white, that single sound washing away all the umbra, and along with it his dread, releasing him onto an endless field of lilies.

He stumbled among the flowers but regained his balanced shortly.

He froze when he realized a small back was pressed up against his.

“Can you hear me now?”

He caught his breath, shoulders stiff, body taut, afraid to move.

“I’m sorry, Cloud.”

“He’s coming…”

Before he could understand what her words meant, she yelped, and he felt her warmth disappear from his side. He shouted for her, but no sound came out.

Darkness took over his vision. No. Black. Black like the coattail trailing across raging fire. Hot. Scalding. Rippled pond in the luminous forest.

To the Forgotten Capital. For the forgotten one.

Mane of liquid moonlight. Like silver. Like madness. Chatoyant eyes of madness.

He’s coming back.

Cloud shot up from his bed, cold sweat rolling down his neck, heart banging for a way out of his ribcage. His eyes were a saccadic, glowing blue.


A crash startled Tifa out of her shallow sleep, and she kicked back her blanket, sprung to her feet and assumed a fighting pose, ready to take on any adversary through sheer reflex alone as her vision was still fuzzy.

When she sensed no incoming danger, her posture relaxed, and she allowed herself a few seconds to collect her muddled mind. As soon as she could think clearly enough to realize the kids might be the one being threatened instead, Tifa bolted out of her door, slamming her fist onto the switch out in the corridor and let light flood the narrow space.

To her momentary relief, the door to their room remained closed. However, Cloud’s were wide open.

Before she could think anything of it, clattering noises got her turning towards the stairwell. They were coming from below.

Tifa took a deep breath to calm herself and made her way down to the bar, careful not to make a sound just in case.

“Cloud?” she called from the threshold as she found him scrabbling around the place, stopping him in whatever he was doing. His back was to her, and he was wearing his travelling clothes. With growing alarm, she saw the heavy belt of holsters lining the length of his back. He rarely ever used that anymore, unless he was headed to a dangerous area. And that thought deepened her worry.

When he didn’t turn around, she called again. “Cloud, what’s wrong? Where are you going?” She hugged her pajamas to herself, the action having little to do with the chilly weather.

As though her question snapped him out of his stupor, Cloud resumed rummaging through the shelf he was facing. “I-I need to leave.”

“What? Why?” She walked fully into the bar, confusion laded her voice. She didn’t understand. Did something happen? This was too sudden. Was this about Aerith? Would the flower girl ever release her hold on him? He was doing fine. Why now? He was doing so well—Was it all in Tifa’s imagination? An illusion she’d woven around her wishful self, so that she may keep thinking Cloud would one day look her way?

“Aerith…” The name that escaped his lips wounded her. She’d expected it, but it still hurt more than she could bear—and almost every bone in her body had at some point been broken during their quest. “She called for me. She needs my help.”

“This again. Cloud, Aerith is dead!” The words came out more spiteful than intended, but she didn’t care right now. “She couldn’t have called for you.”

He shook his head, back still turned, and she was getting angrier the longer she spent looking at it. The least—the very least he could do was look her in the eye before leaving her stranded again. “You don’t understand. She’s been…I’ve heard her voice over the week. I thought it was just me, but it’s not.”

He’d been hearing voices! That explained his moody bum these past few days. “You are not thinking clearly. Look, let’s calm down. Go back to bed, and then we can figure things out in the morning, okay?”

Cloud ignored her and took out the emergency kit of materia and potions they hid behind all the miscellaneous jars, going through it in an impatient clip, but Tifa wouldn’t have this anymore. She strode up to him and grabbed a handful of his sleeve, forcing him to face her.

“Cloud, for Gaia—” The mako eyes that stared back at her startled her into silence. Did his irises just narrow into slits? Her grip on him faltered, and he freed himself with a shrug. The emergency kit closed and tucked under his arm, he gave her a look so determined she was almost convinced he was every bit as rational as he believed himself to be. Almost.

“Sorry, Tifa,” he had the decency to look guilty, eyes downcast as he muttered, “He’s coming back.”

“W-who?” she asked, but at the back of her mind, a voice already answered: Sephiroth.

“Take care of Denzel and Marlene. I promise I’ll be back as soon as possible.” Cloud sprinted past her, and she made to stumble after him, but her baggy pajamas had gotten caught by one of the sharper corners of a drawer. She hissed in frustration, dislodging the fabric, and chased Cloud to the garage, where he was already leading Fenrir out the door.

“Wait, Cloud!” She caught up to him, barefooted out in the street, as he mounted the bike and pulled his goggles down. “Wait until morning. I-I’ll come with you.” If he was having a manic episode then she just needed to bid her time.

“You can’t. It’s too dangerous. And who’ll watch the kids?” He pointed out with a raised brow like she was the one talking crazy.

“I can call someone.”

“I’ll be fine, Tifa. I’ll keep you updated.” He reached for her face, gloved thumb stroking her cheek, his warmth radiating through the leather ever so fleetingly. Liar! Or was he telling the truth? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t see his eyes. The goggles were obscuring his beautiful eyes.

It was only when the roar of engine faded around the corner of the dark street that Tifa allowed a hot tear to trickle down the side of her cold cheek. Even then, embarrassment still knotted in her throat. She didn’t want to be so weak. Once again, she couldn’t keep him from leaving, didn’t know how to, though intelligently she knew the tears freely rolling down her face right now would have been more than enough.

But she couldn’t, still too proud to resort to cheap feminine wiles. She supposed this was what set her apart from Aerith.

And she supposed, this was the reason why Cloud’s eyes would never linger on her.

Next Chapter

Chapter 34.5: Cowardice

The house was dark when Scarlet entered through the door, and quiet enough that she felt the need to tiptoe her way around. So she did. Closing the door, she felt her way into the dimly lit living room, where her nose picked up the bitter scent of smoke and her ears tuned in to a soft sound of snoring.

It was rare that she could catch him in such a mundane activity, and the fact that he was sleeping soothed the knot of dread in her stomach. They didn’t have to talk. Not yet.

She walked around the couch to find his gaunt frame nestled in its lap, unkempt hair in his face, clothes disheveled and an open notebook in his arms, some worn pages crumpled by the hug. Work kept him up for days, and only work could force rest onto him. It was so typical of him to let work rule his life.

He hadn’t even taken his glasses off.

Scarlet knelt down next to his head and slid them from his face with practiced stealth. She had done this many times over the years living with him. Nicholas never looked after himself. It was a wonder how he ever made it through the days before she came around.

She folded the glasses up and placed them on top of the jagged stack of books he’d left next to the full ashtray. Then she arranged the book stack into a neat column, knowing he’d be cursing a string if he roused and knocked them over in his groggy shamble.

Turning back to him, Scarlet let a small smile onto her lips as she brushed the knotted dark locks from his face. He was at least cleanly shaven today. She often asked herself what she saw in him. He was a slop, insensitive and apathetic. He wasn’t particularly handsome, and was out of shape enough that she wouldn’t trust him with a grocery bag. And yet everything about him she found dear.

He was scowling in his sleep, the dark circles under his eyes contrasting his pasty skin. She wouldn’t be surprised if he was running on coffee and cigarettes alone the past few days she hadn’t dropped by. He was a mess without her. Perhaps that was why…

Scarlet traced the bone of his cheek, lost in the shadows shading his face.

She felt entitled…

To him.

His grunt startled her and she yanked back her hand as if he’d burnt her. The few seconds that he stirred, she held her breath in prayer, her pulse thrumming her ears, and was relieved when he didn’t wake.

This was stupid. She shook her head and clambered to her feet to leave.

“Not gonna even say bye?” His gruff voice froze her at the threshold, but she willed her heart to shush.

“You were sleeping.”

She turned back to find him getting up to stretch.

“My bad.” Nicholas ran a hand through his hair, yawning, and rounded the couch to tower over her. Too close. She could smell his breath fanning down at her, like smoke, sweet pungent heaven. Her mind was shutting down, her eyelids threatened to close and it was only by sheer will that they remained open to challenge his languid gaze. Damn him! He knew too well how much he affected her. And damn her. She was too stubborn to back away.

“So where do you wanna go for dinner?” He muttered in his lazy voice, the drawl in it lulling her mind further into reverie before she caught herself.

“Excuse me?” Did she sound pissed? She hoped she did. “You called me here to talk.”

His brow quirked a confused look for a moment before he replied, “No, I didn’t.”

“Yes you did! No, no, I’m staying right here.” She shoved away the hand that he placed behind her hip to guide her back inside. “You said it was important.”

“This is important. Or is spending time with your dad not important to you anymore? That’s cold, you brat.” There was a smirk on his face as he crossed his arms and leant against the doorway. The kind of teasing smirk that told her he wasn’t taking this seriously.

Her jaw set into a defiant clench, she curled her hands into fists by her sides. “Don’t act like nothing happened between us!”

Nicholas frowned; though Scarlet wanted to tell herself he was merely squinting without his glasses. The look of anger he directed at her hurt, but at least she’d wiped him clean of mirth for the night.

Nothing happened between us,” he all but grated the words out and turned away, but she stood in his track.

“Something did and you’re just too damn cowardly to accept it!”

He audibly growled, and she could see the cogwheels turning in his head, no doubt thinking of a way out. And he’d hurt her if he must.

“Right in this house. Right on this floor! We—”

“Well too bloody bad, I don’t remember shite to save my life. Sure you didn’t just delude yourself as you rode some other poor, unfortunate bloke?”

There it was. She felt the tears beginning to form a glaze over her vision, and she cursed herself for letting him wound her so easily. It hurt. It hurt so much that he denied that night, denied her every chance he got. That he scorned her for sleeping with Garry even when he knew she only did it because she found them similar. And they weren’t even all that similar! She was just that desperate.

Nicholas saw whatever face she was making, and had the decency to look guilty, his expression softening. “Scarlet, I’m bored of this childish squabble. Let’s just put all of this behind us.”

The nerve of this man! “Childish? Childish!? Says the grown man who can’t even admit he loves me.”

“Well, that’s mighty presumptuous of you,” he snorted with toxic humor, “but I suppose as daughter—”

“No, no! Don’t you dare pull that paternal bullshite, you coward!”

Her head was spinning from all the rushing blood. They were both running on the spur of the moment. It was only a matter of time before one of them said something that couldn’t be taken back, and she had a terrible feeling that she would come out of this more crippled than before. Damn him for calling her over. Damn her for thinking he’d finally own up to it.

She jabbed him on the chest and found a smidge of satisfaction when he winced from it. “You never saw me as your daughter.”

“Oh, boo-freaking-hoo, like you ever wanted me to be your father!” Nicholas was shouting now, hand waving around in an angry fit. He rarely ever shouted. He was losing his temper with her. “Acting like a bloody martyr. If you’re so courageous, I’d like to see you renounce the family name. Yeah, go get another family to adopt you, then come back and I’ll indulge your little crush as much as you like. Until then – no, do not interrupt me – Until then, you and I are child and parent. You’d do well to banish those silly delusions and stop getting on my nerves. You fancy yourself the special little snowflake in my life, don’t you? Well, news flash my dear, you’re only still around because your petty antics weren’t worth my time, and oh are you making it increasingly difficult to see them that way. I am not a patient man, love. Test me any further and I will disown you myself!”

Her heart quivered violently at the threat, and she knew he’d honor his words to save his own hide if shoved hard enough. He won. Scarlet was exhausted, her tears spilling. He knew why she didn’t dare leave the family. If he was scared, then damn it she was allowed to be afraid, too. What if things between them didn’t work out? What if he became bored of her, like he became bored of so many other things? What then? They would no longer be a family, nothing to tie them together.

She’d lose him forever.

Scarlet let her shoulders slump as she wiped her cheeks and brushed past him. “Go wherever you want for dinner. I’m not coming.”

“You still don’t think you did anything wrong, do you?”

His words halted her steps in the corridor, but she didn’t turn around. Scarlet tried to push down the stone in her throat as she wracked her brain for a comeback, but found that she no longer cared about being right. If she admitted to being wrong, would he at least talk about it with her?

“Suit yourself. Come back when you’ve calmed down. I still want that dinner.”

Footsteps walked away from her, and she knew they were heading back to his study. The notion infuriated her. He grew bored of everything but his work.

“Oh and, stop seeing that Garret boy.”

Her heart jumped at that. This wasn’t the first time Garry’s name came up in their conversation, but Nicholas had never been the one to start the topic. It was always her, to rub the relationship in his face and perhaps elicit some form of jealousy. It never worked though, because she was just deluding herself after all.

Scarlet turned around to find him halfway up the stairs, his face obscured to her by the darkness. “Are you telling me that as a father?” Or are you jealous after all? She swallowed those last words, chiding herself for even forming them in her head.

“…I’m talking as a person who knows he’s trouble.”

She was finally left alone, and her tears bled anew as she hung her head. “I hate you.” A whispered lie.

Her phone started ringing then. It was Garry.

Maybe he could turn that lie into truth.

 

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Chapter 34: Madness

Madness.

This love he had for her was madness. It was illogical. Nonsensical.

What was there to crave about a child’s body, whose curves had barely developed, and limbs so frail that even a casual hug demanded caution? Evolutionarily, it didn’t make sense. Socially, it didn’t make sense.

Personally, it didn’t make sense, either.

Yet still everything about her convinced him further that loving her was only inevitable. The blink of her beautiful eyes that bore no guile. The smile on her face could give colors back to any gloomy sky, and her rare laughter was the sweetest music that ever drummed his ears. Her tiny stature that simply belonged in his arms.

Hesitant fingers that brushed the length of his jaw.

She was nervous. The tentative kiss was too light, too much of a tease that it only whet his appetite for more, and he grew impatient.

He had to resist. Push her away. Make her leave.

“Y-you need to go,” he said breathlessly, sinking further into the armchair to distance himself from her. It wasn’t by much, but he didn’t trust his hands to move.

She was still too close, the displeasure clear in the way her lips pursed; pink, soft, and was on his just moments before. “No.”

“Ib,” he growled, didn’t mean to. If Ib was startled, she didn’t show it. “Please get off. This isn’t something to be stubborn ab—”

His words were cut off as her lips met his again, surer this time with a hint of defiance. Garry nearly jumped out of his skin as he felt something wet brushed up against his lips. His eyes were wide, and as his jaw slacked, she wormed her tiny little tongue into his mouth. Clumsy, but, by god, each stroke was debilitatingly delicious.

Garry could barely hold himself back, squirming under her, felt the reigns slipping from his worn, bloodied hands as her body stayed so readily on him, enticing him further. It hurt so much. He wanted her so badly. But he couldn’t allow himself to make the same mistake again.

He grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her from himself. That split second he saw Ib wince from his grip. Her surprised, fearful eyes looking back at him. He didn’t have the mind to address any of that.

“You…” he started but failed to form any coherent thought. His heart continued to bruise itself against his ribcage. His hands were clammy, and his breaths shallow. She was beautiful, his Ib. His innocent Ib. Her kiss. She shouldn’t have. Oh god, he’d been the one to corrupt her. She was so beautiful still. His innocent Ib. He couldn’t.

He couldn’t.

His lips came crashing against hers, their teeth hitting each other and all.

She was giving him permission, offering herself to him. How could he refuse?

It was messy, primal, as he forced her mouth open, found her tongue and delved deeper still.

Warm. So delectably hot. Her steamy breath tickled his cheek. Her sweet nectar slaking his thirst, and he wanted more. A lot more.

So once again, he’d succumbed.

There was something wrong with him. Of course, there had always been something wrong with him. This was madness. But why should he care when just her mere presence in his arms made everything feel so damn right?

A part of him warned him to be gentle. The part that was terrified he was going to scare her again. Scar her. The part that was quickly drowning in the savage tides of his passion for her.

His hands began to roam. Down her wee back and up her belly. Her hands weakly followed his, holding onto them but powerless to influence their courses. She was becoming taut underneath his touch, heart thrumming under his palm. Whatever squeak she produced, he greedily swallowed. Sliding under the fabric of her dress, he felt the smoothness of her thigh and rounded to her hip, pulling her closer, keeping her there.

Ib whimpered as he parted for breath, and their feverish sighs mingled. Her face was flushed. He could feel her start to tremble, and there was the hint of tears dewing at the corners of her eyes that he chose to ignore. He buried his face into her neck, kissing her tender flesh and relishing the sunny scent from her soft locks.

You’re scaring her again.

Well, isn’t that just perfect. His other side hissed back.

If she started screaming and running away from him now, he was sure he wouldn’t chase her. Would never meet her again, either. He was much too tired, too wounded. And it would be for the best.

Whom was he kidding trying to fix this fraudulent friendship and act as if nothing had happened?

Hurry.

She strained against the hand he had behind her neck, sending broken, sultry breaths brushing his jaw, further igniting his desire as he heard her cry his name in the quietest snivel. The pain from where her fingers dug into his chest was his final and quickly crumbling anchor to sanity.

Yes, like that.

He ran his thumb over her lips and kissed her once more.

Just a bit more.

It was a great struggle that he managed to wrench himself from her seductive mouth, trailing kisses to her ear. “Ib,” he muttered, earning a startled sob from her, and even as his stomach turned at the sound, he continued to crave.

Stop me, please.

He kissed her ear, crushed her to himself and shuddered at perverse pleasure from having her against his crotch. She was stiff from fear, but would not fight him. He was going to hurt her again.

And he didn’t want that.

That time she’d run from him.

God, he didn’t want to feel like that again. Didn’t want her to have to be that frightened again.

He loved her so much. Wanted her so much. And she was giving herself to him, said it was okay.

“Say no, Ib.” He rested his head onto her trembling shoulder, holding onto her, unwilling to let go even as he said, “Just say no and I’ll stop.”

As he felt Ib shake her head, his heart tightened with both sickness and glee. He was disgusted, so tired of fighting, frustrated, exhausted, so confused, so happy and so damn scared of what was about to come.

And what was about to come, even?

“I…” It was his turn to flinch at the sound of her voice, choked with the tears she wiped into the crook of his neck, as she snuggled even closer to him—if that was possible still. “I don’t want you to leave me. So…”

“Do them with me.”

His eyes went wide.

“The things you do with Scarlet—I’m fine, so…” Her breath hitched with a sob, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Do whatever you like. Just don’t leave me.”

It broke his heart that even now he was hurting her. The only way he knew how not to hurt her was still hurting her. What was he supposed to do? Their relationship – what was left of it, anyway – was so broken beyond repair. They were never meant to be. That gallery sure had played one cruel, twisted game bringing them together.

If he’d never been saved…

If he’d never met her…

“Please, Garry.” The hurt in her voice clawed at him, and like an instinct, he tried to soothe her, rubbing the small back at his palm.

“Ib, I’m not leaving you.”

She shook her head. “You will,” she said with so much conviction, and it sickened him that she was right.

“Listen here.” He tried pulling her from him and was met with resistance before she finally complied. The sight of her tear-streaked face only made the guilt all the more nauseating in the pit of his stomach. He cupped her face and dried away what droplets that still glazed her beautiful, beautiful red eyes.

“I love you, Ib.” Though she would never know how much. She’d come to despise it even. “I will never leave you.” He smiled the best smile he could, heard his own voice beginning to crack. Another lie to add to an ever-growing list. Drop in the bucket, really.

Ib leant her face into Garry’s warm hand as she stared back at him. His smile was so dear, so precious, and somehow very wrong. Once again, it didn’t feel like one of his normal smiles. His voice had slipped back to that unfamiliar timbre, and she had felt something shudder inside her chest, almost like a resonance with his words.

She loved him, too; though distrust at his sincerity allowed no confession on her part.

She didn’t want to lose him.

Ib let go of the handful of his shirt, the fabric now wrinkled from her sweaty palm, and held up her pinky. “Promise?”

“Of course, it’s a promise.” He locked his pinky with hers quickly. Too quickly.

Yet still, through the blur of renewed tears, a smile came to her lips. “Thank you, Garry.” She leant forward and kissed him on the mouth, feeling him becoming rigid underneath her.

Now, it puzzled her greatly that he would have such a reaction. Ib had thought he wanted these things, and that he would be happy if she kissed him. Would smile at her, and would stay hers forever.

As she pulled back, her heart was pounding heavily in her chest. Her entire being was trembling, weak from exertion and weary from fright. She was scared. But it was Garry, so it was okay. These things adults did were disgusting. But because it was Garry, they weren’t all that bad.

“Let’s…um…honey,” Garry stuttered, holding up a hand. “Y-you don’t have to—”

She claimed another kiss. He was holding his breath now as she ventured with her tongue once more, pushing between his lips, mimicking how he’d done it.

Not bad at all. It was sweet, even. Unlike the sour-tinged lemon candy once upon a gallery, unlike the rich chocolate macaron after a certain reunion. There was no real way to describe the flavor that rolled across her senses, but if she had to give it a name, it would be his. Garry’s taste.

“You won’t leave me, right?” she muttered close to his lips, searching his smouldering blue eyes for reassurance.

He put his forehead to hers. “I won’t, Ib.”

Garry was such a bad liar.

But because she loved him, she was more than willing to be deceived.

Ib snuggled up against him, heard her own noisy heart beating out of rhythm with his, and felt his large hand rub gentle circles into her back. Closing her eyes, she immersed herself in the comfort of his scent.


Ib had returned home two hours ago, but the taste of her lips still lingered on his with nagging intensity. The events that had transpired earlier that evening had been stuck on replay in his head, some moments in greater details than others, but they all ultimately left him in both wonderment and fear.

But as lost and confused as he was, there was still one thing that must be done.

So, as Garry lay on his bed listening to the first drone of dial tone in his phone, he had never felt less eager for the other side to pick up.

“Garry, hey…” Scarlet answered on the second ring, much to Garry’s chagrin, and the way her voice sounded—the girl was crying. He silently cursed the part of him that still cared for her. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to care for her, just that that kind of sentiments was making this so much harder.

He emitted a long sigh before he began, “Look, Scarl…”

“Hey, Gar, I know we just argued and all but,” she sniffed, her voice quiet, “can I come over? Is Ib gone?”

He wiped his face and shook his head. “No, no, Scarl, I…” he hesitated.

“Later is fine, too.”

“No, look. Let’s stop this.”

There was silence on the other side, and not even the sound of breathing could be heard.

“Scarl, you there?”

“Wha-What do you mean?”

“I mean we should stop this thing between us. We are never going to work.”

“Don’t. Don’t. You can’t do this.” Her tone turned desperate, and Garry was abundantly glad he wasn’t there to witness whatever state she was in. This didn’t need to get any more complicated. “If this is about the little girl, I can explain. I’ll tell you so—”

“Do you love him?” His interruption brought her to silence again. He listened to her uneven breathing, taking in a breath of his own before continuing. “I love Ib, Scarlet, and we can’t keep doing this.” He stared at the ceiling, feeling the weight in his chest intensify. It wasn’t like Scarlet didn’t know, but admitting this little fact out loud for another person to hear was an entirely new step. “It’s not doing either of us any favor, and I’m tired of telling myself otherwise. Aren’t you?”

“No!—No,” she brought her voice back down to a hiss, as though to keep someone else from overhearing. “We are not doing this over the phone.”

“Look, we’ve been doing this for two years. Don’t you think it’s about time we stop deluding ourselves that things are going be any different? I’m not going to stop loving Ib…and you still call his name in your sleep, you know.”

There was a clack on the other side – a door being closed. A sob. And another.

“I hate him, Garry,” she cried, “I hate that I love him so much.”

Garry closed his eyes, heart becoming frantic. She was so much like him that it was like hearing himself talk. And he sounded miserable. “Work it out with him, or move on, hon. I’m not the answer to your problem, and…” he paused, wiping his face again, “Just…Thanks for everything. I’m sorry I can’t be a better friend.”

She didn’t reply for a while, and he was about to hang up when she said, “You’re a jerk, Garbear.” Her voice was chiding, but soft.

“I know.”

“But I love you, anyway—Goodbye, then.” And the line went dead before he could respond.

“Back at you, hon,” he mumbled into the phone, listless.

 

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