Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Warning: Short violent scene.
Prompt: 139. Risk-taking, trust, and serendipity are key ingredients of joy. Without risk, nothing new ever happens. Without trust, fear creeps in. Without serendipity, there are no surprises. -- Rita Golden Gelman.
Summary: After Nibelheim, Tifa learns to live again.
Notes: Thanks to delladella, kimouski and everybody else who watched this story grow for making sure I posted a worthy piece, and to gehayi for running the ficathon in the first place. The title is taken from a line in Tori Amos's song "Silent All These Years".
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII isn't mine and the story isn't written for profit.
There were always strays outside the Seventh Heaven.
Most of the time, Tifa didn't even see them whenever she took the trash out through the kitchen doors. But she heard them as they moved around in the shadows, claws scratching against the ground, sometimes growling, sometimes whining. They were desperate sounds, and though she rarely saw the creatures that watched her, she knew the hunger they felt, how heavy it could be.
She knew, and felt horribly guilty about turning away.
Everybody else in the restaurant found that amusing, of course, smiling at the poor upper-plate girl (“Foreigner.” “Same thing.”) who was out to prove that she didn't belong here, that she had a heart, unlike the brutes and wenches around her. “If you feed them, you'll lure out more,” the cook warned her, making sure she saw him spray poison into the trash bags before closing them. “And when you lure out more, you'll lure out monsters. Those things won't be grateful.”
She gave him a resigned look, and he had been pleased with himself. She allowed them to think whatever they wanted.
During nights, as she tried to convince herself that a thin mattress on the floor made a comfortable bed, she listened to a dog howl outside. It still hadn't learned that it wasn't going to get anything from the house shared by Johnny and Tifa.
She tried not to think about how easy it was, to not to care at all.
The day she woke up in the hospital, all she wanted was to live to the next day.
She woke up with a slash on her chest that ached for months after it sealed, but unlike everybody else she knew, she was at least whole. When Johnny had come to see her, mumbling about the apartment he had in the slums and how she could stay there, she accepted his offer and ignored the hopeful look in his eyes. In the slums, it would be easier for her to just to disappear, to fade from Shin-Ra's eyes. In the slums, she would have no reasons to keep up pretenses or believe that things would be all right again.
In the slums, all she could expect was the next day, and as little as she liked that, she would be content with it.
The overall staff count of Seventh Heaven was small, and there was only one regular waitress. She got sick very often.
“Jessie should come here soon, but before that you're on your own,” the cook told Tifa, frowning when loud ring of laughter echoed its way to the kitchen. “Don't look anyone in the eye too long. That tends to be misunderstood.”
Tifa thought about all her daily walks between the restaurant and Johnny's house, how she excelled at not looking at people. “All right,” she mumbled, picking up the tray before she headed for the doorway. She hoped that the smells in the dining area would be enough to distract her from the food she carried and her mouth would stop watering.
They were, and instead it was her eyes that watered as she set about to deliver the meals to their respective tables. The restaurant was crowded and warm, and all the heat combined with the many scents made her feel ill, but she hid that behind her best diminutive smile. She tended to avoid waitressing as much as possible, preferring the peace of the kitchen. Though it wasn't immune to noise and other discomforts, at least she didn't have to pretend she was happy there.
“Here you go, sir.” Her voice called out, like some distant thing, and the grunt she got instead of a thank you sounded just as distant. Tifa didn't mind, she was used to it, but she wasn't used to somebody reaching out for her from the next table, thick fingers snatching around her forearm.
There was one bowl left on her tray, the soup within splashing a bit as Tifa tried to tug free, but the fingers held on, pressing fear into her. She turned to see a man staring at her intently, completely sober, but for some reason very angry.
“Where's Nora?” he hissed. His teeth didn't seem to part as he spoke.
“W-who?” she blabbered, frowning as she tried to seek a face for the name. She got nothing, which in turn lead to silence, and the man's hold tightened.
“I heard she works here,” he continued, a sharp hitch in his voice. Tifa watched his nostrils flare as he breathed, the pace picking up with every inhale. “She thinks she needs to hide from me.”
She tugged again, and this time she got away, trying not to shudder in relief. “She must've been here before me,” she said, desperate to convince her legs to edge her away. “I can ask about her, if anybody knows her. Okay?”
While the man seemed to consider, his gaze wandered. Taking this as an encouraging sign, she began to step backwards.
All she managed to see was a whirl of movement before a fist slammed to her cheek.
Tifa thought she could feel something shudder beneath her skin, perhaps the bone, but all that actually cracked was the soup bowl as the tray slid from her hands and clattered to the floor. The sound was quickly accompanied by more noise, shocked exclamations from the other diners, the man's own indistinct growl, and a woman's voice, sharp and angry:
But Tifa hardly paid attention. All she heard was the insistent, painful throb in her face, in the swelling flesh, in her own mind.
People were moving around her, so she took her unfinished step backwards, a full one after that, followed by another. Her upper lip felt hot, too, her teeth ached, and something felt slick. Had he knocked a tooth out?
“Let's get you out of here,” the woman said, the sharpness and anger gone. There were kind fingers on her shoulder, guiding her outside, away from the noise but not from the throb within her.
It was all she knew.
The moment she stepped outside, her arms seemed to be the only part of her to register the coolness, but as she was led from the restaurant, she began to shiver, the cold spreading everywhere but her face, still hot from the blow. It wasn't until Seventh Heaven was almost out of sight when the hand on her shoulder halted her, while a second reached for her face. “Let me see that.”
Tifa tensed, twisting herself out of reach. “Don't touch me.”
A hesitant silence followed, and Tifa took the chance to look at her savior - how easily that word still came to her - and was surprised to see that it was Jessie, face full of concern. Tifa's puzzlement quickly turned into doubt, and she backed up from the other girl a little. Jessie got over her hesitation at that moment, murmuring:
“Look, if no bones are broken, I think I can heal that. I have some Materia.”
“Why?” That didn't come out like Tifa had intended, meek instead of strong, a coward's whimper. She flinched, desperately trying to summon edges into her voice, but her next words came out worse, barely a whisper: “Why would you?”
In her previous life, she would've known Jessie's reply: “Because I care,” spoken in a tone that was passionate for show, not because it was actually sincere, a tone that was supposed to make her feel touched.
But Jessie sighed, almost frustrated, and stated simply: “You haven't given me any reasons not to.”
And after that she just stood there, waiting for Tifa to react. She had her other hand stretched out, a hand with calluses and blunt nails. All the people she had met here had hands like that.
No other hand but this had ever touched her with kindness.
“Okay,” she said.
Jessie smiled, and Tifa felt emotion swell inside her that she didn't dare to name.
Afterwards, they talked.
“What do you need Materia for?” Tifa asked. They sat outside the restaurant, about to have lunch. The sandwich she'd made for herself in the morning looked even less digestible now than it had been at the house. She decided against eating it, even as her stomach grumbled in protest.
“Materia?” The scruffy salad that Jessie had looked even more suspicious, but Jessie didn't seem to mind, catching something that resembled a tomato with her plastic fork. “It's just convenient. Not that they're selling any offensive stuff anyway.”
“But they will at some point,” Tifa pointed out. Her belly made another dissatisfied growl, and she clasped her hand over it, like it would quiet down from that. “Would that be convenient, too?”
She didn't get a reply, instead a chuckle. Jessie quirked her brow. “What, now you decide to find out if I'm as bad as they say?”
Tifa felt the blood rush out of her cheeks, and then back in as she began to blush. “That's not what I—”
“It's okay.” Jessie dismissed her embarrassment with wave of a hand. “In fact, it's good that you ask. Shows you have a brain.”
“Never knew that was a myth,” Tifa mumbled, resisting a smile as Jessie laughed.
The curious part of her wanted to keep poking at Jessie, find out the mystery that Jessie used as her shield. But she restrained herself, unwilling to drive away the first friend she'd made in the slums. Jessie wasn't one to allow just anybody into her life, and withdrawing from her would've been the easiest thing to do—a fast return to the null life Tifa had led so far. A return to sleepwalking, to not caring about anything at all.
It would have been easy, and she had hard time thinking of anything that terrified her as much as that ease did. There was no way to tell whether she might regret knowing Jessie or not, but she was sick of being too scared to find out.
“So, about violent customers.”
She couldn't remember the last time she had seen a smile drop that fast.
“Has something else happened that I should know about?” Jessie asked, eyes slitting.
“No, nothing's happened! I was just wondering.” Tifa hesitated, suddenly afraid of appearing naïve. Which was stupid - of course Jessie thought of her like that - so she shook the awkwardness off and added: “Have you dealt with them often?”
Jessie didn't reply right away, not entirely convinced that anything wasn't wrong.
“Sometimes,” she finally said, putting her salad away. Some of it was untouched, and Tifa thought she saw Jessie frown at what she hadn't eaten. The people in the slums were rarely picky. Maybe Jessie had lived somewhere else before, too?
“I got a bloody nose the first I ever intervened,” Jessie continued, her voice cutting through Tifa's thoughts, “but I improved after that. You will, too.”
Tifa grimaced. “I was hoping to avoid all confrontations altogether.”
“That's improvement, too.”
Jessie had spoken with a smile, but Tifa felt guilty anyway, staring down at her still untouched sandwich. She would have to eat, knowing it would do her no good if she fainted inside the restaurant, but now she could only look at her hands. They were dry all the time now, dry and frail-looking, but she remembered having strength in them once.
“I used to know how to fight,” she mumbled, mostly to herself.
Jessie, however, heard her well. “Really?” she asked, clearly surprised.
There came a pause after that, maybe an embarrassed one on Jessie's part, but Tifa only nodded. “A man named Zangan taught me.” She took the first unwilling bite of her lunch, relieved it tasted bland instead of rotten. “I've probably forgotten all about it.”
Jessie shrugged. “You might learn again.”
“Would you teach me?” Tifa knew she couldn't be the only person Jessie had ever helped, not with the way the other girl had so smoothly led her out of trouble back then. “I think that's what I need, to learn to fight again. To—”
“No, it isn't.”
She fell in astounded silence first, starting to frown. “What do you mean?”
Jessie began to get up at that moment, gesturing Tifa to stay down as she was about to follow her example. “Eat your lunch. You won't prove anything if you don't.”
“What do you mean?” Tifa repeated, voice hitching with irritation.
That didn't go unnoticed by Jessie, who just gave her a tired smile in return. “Learning to fight again won't help you if you really think that's all you need.”
Tifa watched her go back to Seventh Heaven, breathing fast through her nose. She couldn't remember the last time she was just frustrated instead of hateful, and the emotion was strange and prickly.
Usually when Johnny's parents visited him, Tifa excused herself and slipped away, envious of all the warmth and love they obviously had for Johnny. This time she stayed, and while the jealousy was still there, the pain she feared she would feel wasn't.
Instead, when thoughts of her own parents came to her, she only felt wistful, and, for once, she saw Johnny's mother there instead of her own, whispering proud words to her son.
Maybe she didn't actually need to hear that pride. Maybe all she needed to do was just stand, trust her own feet. Move forward.
Doctors in the slums tended to be expensive, shady more often than not. Jessie agreed to come with her, when Tifa told her she had an appointment, and remained watchful as they sat together in the waiting room. The only other people in the room were a young woman with her child, the child sitting in the mother's lap as they both snored together. Tifa couldn't tear her eyes off them, trying to recall any similar scenes between her and her own mother. One look at Jessie told her that the other girl was thinking about the same thing, her eyes wistful.
“I heard that an apartment freed up near Seventh Heaven,” Tifa said, keeping her voice down. She wasn't sure if that was even necessary. The mother and child had kept on sleeping just fine when a male patient bolted out of the doctor's room in great distress, wailing about lumps.
“Not surprising.” Jessie jumped a little when a spider dropped from above and landed on her knee, scattering its way to her pant leg with thready legs. She shook it off before continuing. “For some reason it's always more or less restless in that area. That's why families with kids stay farther away.”
“You live there.” Tifa didn't know exactly where, but it was a vague idea that other workers in Seventh Heaven shared as well, and Jessie seemed to do most of her grocery shopping in the store near the restaurant.
“You live in a more sensible neighborhood. If I were you, I would go even farther.”
Tifa inhaled quickly. This was it. “I'm moving in to that freed place.”
The doctor's door opened, and the mother and child were called in. The mother yawned, standing up slowly in order to not disturb the child who whined anyway, clasping her shoulders. After they left, Jessie spoke up.
“You sure about that?”
It was a familiar question. She had heard it in different tones, in different voices. Are you sure you want to be on your own? Are you sure you don't want to make your scar look better? Are you sure you want to start training with this wanderer? It's not an easy thing to decide.
Every time she hesitated before answering, second thoughts came flooding into her head. But no matter the question, the answer remained the same.
“Yeah.” Earlier when she'd shared her plans with Johnny, there had been a tremble inside her she'd struggled to keep from showing. Now she didn't feel that tremor at all. “I guess we'll be seeing each other more often,” she added, looking at Jessie.
Jessie didn't react much first, but Tifa thought she saw hesitation, uncertainty. Because of her? Jessie had come with her in case she had an unpleasant doctor to struggle with, but maybe she was just being thoughtful. Maybe she just didn't want to risk liking Tifa, living near her.
“Looks like it,” Jessie said, in a tone that was impossible to determine. Then, in equally even voice: “In fact, I would be living right opposite to you.”
And Tifa remembered how she'd looked outside the apartment through a broken window, wondering if she had to take care of replacing it with a new one herself. She'd thought she'd seen nice green curtains in the apartment across the street. Maybe...
When the doctor finally called her in, there was a beginning of a smile on her face.
In Johnny's apartment, she had grown used to the soft sound of Johnny's snoring. In hers, there was just silence. Her bed used to be a thin mattress; now it was a thick mattress with lumps inside. She hoped it wouldn't take her so long to learn to sleep this time, although her head was so full of thoughts now, fears and hopes about the future.
Outside, a dog was howling again. The one hungry moan among others she had come to recognize.
Maybe all those sounds had eventually melted together, and this wasn't the same dog that she had kept hearing during her time with Johnny. Maybe there had always been a different dog for every time, all of which she had chosen to ignore.
Her own hunger had always been stronger. But this time, there was something waiting on her desk. She picked it up before making her way to the window.
The poor thing flinched when something was tossed before it, then seemed to freeze in surprise when it realized that it was a piece of sausage. Tifa didn't stay to see its next reaction—she knew what it would be. The slums made you hungry and desperate, but not grateful. The little kindness that could be spared was delivered from the distance, not with an open hand.
That was something she had known before she ever came down here, and it had been the first lesson to stick in her head. It could have been the last.
She was too knowing and too hungry herself to do this every night, but maybe with luck, she would dare to take the risk once in a while.