Shards Chapter 7

The Confrontation

By Frank Verderosa

"Profits were down 3% for September and October, and the first week of November, but jumped up 7% this past week, possibly due to the influence of your little 'example’. But the year as a whole turned out pretty well. With the Christmas rush, I think we’ll see a net profit up somewhere near 22% over last year."

"Twenty two percent," Dulane repeated. "Even with the new profits from the casino? I’m disappointed. I was expecting to top 25%, at the very least. Are you sure your figures are right, Brant?"

"They’re right," Brant replied, sounding offended that Dulane would even ask. "Overhead on the upper plate is a lot higher than it is down here in the slums. That put a dent in the casino's profit margin. I warned you about that before you decided to open the casino there."

Dulane frowned.

"Yes, we went through this," he said slightly irritably. "Costs are higher on the upper plate, but people have a lot more money there. If you want to make a lot of money, you have to go where the money is, you don’t open a casino where the people are poor."

"I’m well aware of basic economics," Brant replied. "Of course it was the right decision. All I’m saying is that along with the greater profits there’s greater expenses. That’s the cost of doing business up there. If you want to increase profits, you’re going to have to cut down on your overhead."

Dulane did not reply for a moment. He declined to remind Brant that he was aware of basic economics as well. Instead he looked down the street ahead of them. It was a little after ten a.m. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic were both slowing down a bit after the morning rush. He liked to stroll around the neighborhood this time of day. Along with himself and Brant, two large men, walking a little behind them, completed their entourage. No one challenged Dulane anymore, not these days, but the habit of having a little muscle nearby was a hard one to break.

"And do you have any actual proposals as to how I might do that?" Dulane inquired.

Brant didn’t miss the sarcasm in his voice.

"There are a few ways," he replied evenly. "The biggest chunk is the protection money to the Turks."

Dulane hadn’t been expecting that. For a moment he did not reply.

"Are you suggesting we don’t pay them anymore?"

"It’s a possibility," Brant replied. "The Turks are in your way, Dulane. You’re going to have to confront them sooner or later. At least, you will if you want to be the top dog. And we all know you do. You’re doing very well. You’ve got a pretty big organization yourself. Maybe it’s about time you stood up to them."

Dulane did not respond for a while. He looked at Brant carefully.

"Why Brant, I’m surprised at you. I never expected you to come up with a plan that was so...bold."

A smug look settled on the other man’s face.

"Well, we all know this organization is growing. I just don’t like to see anything get in the way of your profits."

"And your own," Dulane added.

"Well of course," Brant replied. "I’ve always prided myself on being able to pick a winner."

Dulane nodded.

"I like a man who thinks big," he said. "On the other hand, I don’t like a man with a swelled head. It tends to prevent you from thinking clearly. Openly confronting the Turks will get us all killed real quick. They’re President Shinra’s pet project. Even I can’t take on the entire Shinra company. I haven’t worked all this time building up my organization just to see it crushed by some stupid scheme of yours. We’re doing fine just the way we are. I’ll decide when the time is right to do anything about the Turks. You stick to your economics and leave the big ideas to me."

The smug look disappeared from Brant’s face.

They walked past a two story townhouse, it’s red bricks long faded to a dull brown. A wrought iron fence ran across the front, enclosing the front steps. An old woman sat on the steps in front of the doorway.

"Good morning Mrs. Flannigan," Dulane said politely. "A bit chilly to be sitting outside, isn’t it?"

The woman looked up and smiled at him.

"I was never one to be bother much by the cold," she replied. She jabbed a finger behind her. "I need to get out of that stuffy house every once in awhile for a breath of air."

Dulane nodded agreeably.

"I see that the lock on your gate is broken again," he observed. "I’ll have someone come by to repair it."

"Why bless your heart, Dulane," the woman replied. "But you don’t have to go through any trouble for me."

"It’s no trouble at all," Dulane replied. "I know how hard things are around here. I know the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be, and it’s a shame. I may been doing okay now, but I grew up here. I feel a special fondness for this place. This is my way of giving something back."

"It’s a wonderful thing to see someone that still cares about this neighborhood," the woman replied gratefully. "I just wish there were more like you. You’re one in a million, Dulane."

Dulane modestly waved off her compliment and walked on. They turned the corner and headed east, closer to the river. The road was lined on both sides here with old apartment buildings. Dulane’s eyes focused on one, hoping perhaps to see if that girl Tifa was outside again. Every once in a while he found one girl that really stood out, one that he knew he just had to have. She was definitely one of them. She had all the necessary criteria. Youth, good looks, great body, even that air of innocence that most men found so attractive. She was perfect. Of all the girls he had, only a very few of them had all those qualities. Yes, he definitely wanted her, and, no matter how long it took, he always got what he wanted.

There was in fact someone standing by the door to the apartment building, but his hope was quickly extinguished when he saw it wasn’t a young girl, but Garren himself. He had been leaning against the door, but as soon as he saw Dulane he started purposely forward.

"Possible trouble," Dulane said softly.

Instantly the two men behind them closed in, until they were practically side by side.

Garren walked straight up to Dulane, ignoring those around him.

"You stay the hell away from Tifa," he snapped.

Dulane gave the appearance of being surprised by this sudden confrontation.

"Garren boy, calm down a bit," he said calmly. "I don’t know what it is that’s gotten your panties in a twist, but I’m sure it can all be worked out. It would help, however, if you could at least tell me what your talking about."

"Don’t give me any of that shit, Dulane," Garren said. "You know very well what I’m talking about. I’m not going to stand here and argue with you. I know what you’re trying to do, and I’m not going to allow it. I didn’t come over here to have a discussion with you. I’m here to tell you one thing. If you don’t leave Tifa alone, if you so much as look at her again, I’m gonna find ya and rip your goddam head off."

For a moment no one spoke. The two guards stepped forward, looking at Dulane, but he made no move.

"Garren," Dulane said, his voice sounding as if he were chiding a small child. "It really isn’t necessary to make such a scene. I’m sure you’re overreacting. All I did was have an innocent little chat with her. It was completely harmless. There’s no law against that."

Garren just stood there for a moment. Then, without warning, he suddenly lunged forward. Before the bodyguards could even react he had Dulane by the throat.

"Don’t give me any of your shit!" he exclaimed. "Don’t even try to tell me there’s anything innocent about anything you do. No law against it? Ha! That’s a laugh. Since when have you ever been interested in laws? I know what you’re trying to do, Dulane, all too well. It’s not going to happen. Do you hear me? It’s not going to happen!"

"Let him go!"

One of the bodyguards had pulled out a gun. Garren could fell it against the back of his head, but he didn’t seem to care.

"I’ll snap his neck before you can even pull the trigger," he said through clenched teeth.

"Still playing the commando, eh Garren?" Dulane managed to say. "It’s been a long time since you were in Wutai special forces. Aren’t you getting a little old for this?"

"Try me!" Garren snarled.

No one responded. The bodyguard looked at Dulane, looking for guidance, but Dulane and Garren’s eyes were locked on each other. Brant took a slow step back, but for a long time, no one else moved. Then suddenly Garren released his grip.

"I’ve said what I wanted to say," he said, then turned and without another word walked rapidly away. He looked down at his hands and saw they were clenched tightly into fists. For a moment there he had almost thought he was going to do it, was going to take out Dulane right then and there, and damn the consequences. God knows the man deserved it enough. It was something he should have done a long time ago.

He reached the front of his apartment and turned around. Dulane was talking with the others. He didn’t look Garren’s way, but one of the men with him did. Garren gave him a look he hoped was hostile enough. The man turned away. A few moments later they all walked back the way they had come.

Garren watched until they disappeared around the corner. He knew what he had done was probably very stupid, but he couldn’t help himself. He had been up all night, not able to sleep since he had heard from the neighbors that Dulane had been talking with Tifa. By this morning he knew he had to do something or he would have gone crazy. Maybe it was foolish to show his hand, maybe he had brought himself a world of trouble. But he couldn’t just stand by and watch while Dulane ruined someone's life. No matter what the consequences, he wasn’t going to let it happen again.

"Hey guys, whatcha doing?"

Wedge looked up from the table he, Biggs and Jessie were sitting at and smiled.

"Hi Tifa, glad you’re here. C’mon over."

It had been a week since Tifa had met the three of them. She had been to the Rat’s Nest several times since then. Biggs and Wedge were always polite to her and indeed seemed happy to see her whenever she came by. And neither one of them seemed like a jerk. Of course, Drake hadn’t seemed like a jerk when she first met him either. She was learning to be a little more wary, but so far these two were okay.

Jessie, on the other hand, still seemed to be giving her the cold shoulder. Tifa had done everything she could to be nice to her, to show her that she really was on their side, but it didn’t seem to have made any impression. She guessed she could understand the girls suspicion, but she was beginning to wonder just what it would take to win her over. She was hoping that in time they’d get to be friends, but how much time was it going to take?

Tifa walked over to the table. On it was a black box with a digital readout on it. The back was open and Jessie was doing something with some wires.

"What’s that?" she asked.

"A bomb," Biggs replied, looking up at her.

Tifa just looked at the three of them, wondering if he was kidding her.

"You serious?"

"It’s not something we’d joke about," Jessie said evenly without looking up.

Tifa didn’t reply. Wedge had already told her they were working on something like this, but she had only half believed it. She looked with trepidation at the black box once more. If that was a bomb, she was only standing a few steps away from it. If it went off it would kill her. Hell, it would kill them all. She had to resist the urge to ask Jessie if she was sure she knew what she was doing.

"Isn’t that like, dangerous?" she found herself saying.

"Of course," Biggs replied. "That’s the whole idea, isn’t it?"

Again Tifa said nothing. Yeah, she supposed that was true, but she still didn’t like the idea very much. Yes, they were supposed to be fighting Shinra, and yes, they had told her they had plans to make a bomb, but it never had really sunk in before just how dangerous their plans were. For the first time she was beginning to realize just how serious this was.

"Well, what are you planning on doing with it?" she said hesitantly.

"Set it off, of course," Biggs replied. He sounded excited about the idea.

"Well, obviously," she replied. "But where?"

"In sector six," Biggs replied. "That sectors even more run down than this one. There’s a whole street of abandoned warehouses there. This one’s just a test, just to see if it works right. Once we know that for sure, we can start thinking about really putting it to use."

Tifa just nodded. She was beginning to wonder if this whole thing was a good idea. The three of them seemed nice, but did she really want to get involved with this? Didn’t she have enough problems as it was? She had to be honest and ask herself if she was doing this just because she wanted them to be her friends.

"Jessie’s just about done," Biggs told her. "Then we’ll be taking it over to sector six. That’s why I’m glad you’re here. You’ll get to come along."

Great, Tifa thought. She didn’t share Biggs enthusiasm. She wondered if it might be better just to walk out the door now, go back to Garren's apartment and stay as far away from these three as she could get.

Jessie finished with the wires. She pushed them inside the box, then closed it, carefully screwing the back in place. Then she looked up at the others.

"It’s all set," she proclaimed. "Are we ready?"

"You bet," Biggs said enthusiastically.

Wedge nodded but said nothing. Tifa could see that he was a little nervous. Somehow that made her feel better. At least someone else was worried.

Jessie looked at Tifa.

"Are you coming with us?"

She asked it as if she expected Tifa to reply in the negative. Tifa hesitated a moment, then nodded. This whole thing seemed insane, but she had made up her mind. The fact that she had found some friends played a part in this, but it wasn’t the only reason she was here, in fact, it wasn’t even the most important reason. They were all fighting Shinra. That was what mattered. If she felt like changing her mind about this, all she had to do was remember what had happened at Nibelheim.

"Yes," she said.

For a moment Jessie just sat there looking at her. Tifa met her gaze, trying to let her see the determination in her face. Finally Jessie nodded and stood up.

"Well, let’s get going then," she said.

Jessie picked up the bomb and they followed Biggs as he led them out of the Rat’s Nest and into the tunnels. Tifa had been through the tunnels a few times now, enough to know how to get to their secret room, but not much more than that. She found walking around underground totally confusing, and knew it was going to take a long time before she could get the hang of it, if ever.

Biggs, on the other hand, seemed to have a natural knack for this sort of thing. Of the four of them, he had picked up the ways through the maze of tunnels the easiest. He was considered by all of them to be the resident expert on the subject.

In spite of her trying to keep track, Tifa was soon lost, and eventually gave up even trying to figure out what direction they were going in. Occasionally they came to an area that she thought she recognized, but she was never really sure.

Eventually Biggs led them up, coming out into the daylight in a deserted alley. Tifa looked around but did not recognize anything. Not surprising since she had only been in sector six a few times, and that was only on her way to or from Wall Market.

They walked out into a street that was just as deserted as the alley had been. Glass from a broken street light above them crunched underfoot. Rows of dilapidated buildings lined both sides of the street. The windows were smashed on many, and a few of them had boarded up windows and doors. The entire area looked completely abandoned.

"And I thought sector seven was bad," Tifa said softly.

They continued walking, Biggs still leading the way. Tifa found it hard to believe that all these buildings could just be sitting here abandoned. Surely there must be some use they could be put to. No one said anything until they heard a crash from their left, making them all jump.

"What was that?" Wedge exclaimed.

The all looked in the direction the sound had emanated from, but there was nothing in sight. It had sounded like a large piece of metal had fallen or been pushed down nearby. They stood in silence looking down the road, watching for any movement, but nothing happened.

"Probably just some animal," Jessie finally broke the silence.

"Yeah, but what kind of animal?" Wedge questioned nervously. "I’ve heard rumors that there are some kind of monsters roaming this area."

Jessie turned toward him.

"Monsters?" she said. It was the first hint Tifa had seen that Jessie wasn’t as calm as she appeared.

"Yup, that’s what I heard," Wedge said. "I’ve heard they’re supposed to have come into the areas since it’s been abandoned. A few people have been chased by them, and Donnelly told me his brother was attacked by one."

"You can’t believe anything Donnelly tells you," Biggs said dismissively. "I’ve heard rumors too, but that doesn’t mean they’re true."

"Yeah, but still I’d rather we’d done this somewhere else," Wedge stated.

"So you said when we were making up our minds," Jessie replied. "But you both know there’s no where else. This is the only place we can set off a bomb and no one’ll notice. And by the way, I wish you’d told me about this monster thing when we were deciding in the first place."

"I forgot about it, okay?" Wedge said defensively.

"What difference does it make?" Biggs cut in. "It’s all just bull anyway. You don’t really believe that stuff, do you Jessie?" Biggs looked at her shrewdly. "What, you scared of a few monsters?"

"It would be stupid not to be," Jessie snapped in return. "I don’t like them, okay? Creep crawly things. Ugh!"

Biggs turned toward Tifa.

"What about you?"

Tifa shrugged.

"There were monsters near Nibelheim before Sephiroth came," she replied. "I didn’t actually see any of them myself, but I knew some people who had. They were no rumors either. From what they told me, I wouldn’t want to run into any."

Biggs looked unsatisfied.

"So what, you all want to turn around?"

"No we don’t want to turn around," Jessie replied curtly. "It’s only rumors, like you said. I’m not going to let that scare me away. But if we run into anything for real, my vote will be to get the hell out of here as fast as possible."

Everyone seemed amicable to that plan of action.

"All right, so we're here," Wedge said. "Which building are we going to blow up?"

"So many buildings, so few bombs," Biggs muttered, looking around.

"It's not strong enough to blow up an entire building," Jessie said. "I'll be satisfied just to make a large hole in one."

"Aww, you're no fun," Biggs said.

"Can we just get on with this?" Jessie suggested.

For once Tifa was inclined to agree with her. She wasn't really too keen on the whole idea to begin with. She just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible so they could all get out of here.

"So which one's it going to be?" Wedge asked.

Jessie looked around.

"Biggs, you know the area better than any of us. You choose."

Biggs glanced up and down the street thoughtfully.'

"They're all pretty much the same," he commented. "I guess it doesn't make much difference. How bout that one over there?"

He pointed to a long two story building across the street.

"Figures you'd pick the biggest one on the block," Jessie observed.

"Well, you said it was my choice," Biggs stated.

Jessie nodded.

"Like you said, one's as good as the other. Let's go."

They walked over to the building in question. Like all the others in was in a state of disrepair. The windows and doors on the ground floor were boarded up, but when Biggs grabbed hold of one of the boards on a window and pulled, it pried away easily. With Tifa's help, he quickly pulled away enough boards for them to crawl through. A few minutes later they were all inside.

The room they entered was mostly empty. There was scattered debris on the floor, and a pile of what looked like old sacks in one corner of the room. A doorway, the door missing, led into a hallway that ran a short distance into another room, but they didn't go exploring. They weren't here for that.

Jessie set the bomb down by the doorway. She pressed some of the buttons on the keypad.

"I'm going to set it for a five minute delay," she pronounced.

"Five minutes?" Wedge said. "Do you think that's enough time."

"That's plenty of time," Biggs told him.

A moment later there was a beep and 5:00 flashed on the readout and immediately started to count down. Jessie stood up.

"Okay, all set," she said, excitement creeping into her voice.

"Let's get out of here," Wedge said.

They quickly scampered back through the window, Wedge in so much of a hurry that he got his foot caught and fell out onto the dirt outside. He scrambled to his feet and they all ran down the block. They stopped when they reached the corner.

"Don't you think we should get farther away?" Wedge asked.

"Don't you think this is far enough?" Biggs asked, looking at Jessie.

"I don't know," she said. She was looking down at her watch, trying to keep track of time. "The instructions said the explosion wouldn't be that big, but how should I know how big 'not that big' is? I think we're far enough away now."

"You think?" Wedge said, obviously not getting the reassurance he needed.

"Yes, I think," Jessie replied. "This is the first time I've done this, remember? It's not like it came with a device to estimate the blast radius. If you think we're too close, you're free to move farther away."

Wedge still didn't look too happy, but he stayed with them.

Tifa wasn't all that worried. It seemed to her they were more than far enough away. She had just been happy to get rid of the damn thing. Now that the dangerous part was over, she was actually beginning to feel a little bit excited herself about the whole thing.

They stood there in silence, looking at Jessie as she periodically told them the time to detonation. When it got under a minute she counted out loud, and all their eyes turned toward the building.

"", she said slowly.

At one she looked up as well.

Nothing happened.

For long seconds they all continued to look at the building in anticipation, but it was not rewarded.

"I don’t see any explosion," Biggs finally broke the silence.

Jessie shook her head.

"I don’t understand," she muttered.

Tifa kept her eyes on the building, just in case. For a moment she was disappointed, but then she decided that maybe they were better off this way.

"Looks like it’s a dud," Wedge spoke up.

"I don’t understand," Jessie said again. "I know I hooked it up properly. I don’t understand what could have gone wrong."

"Well, obviously something did," Biggs said, plainly disappointed. "Looks like your bomb design needs a little work."

"I know I did it right," Jessie said, sounding even more disappointed than Biggs.

"Yeah, but don’t worry about it. It was only your first try. If it were easy, everyone would be making them," Wedge said, trying to cheer her up. "So I guess we can get out of here now?"

"I have to get the bomb first," Jessie said.

"What?" Wedge responded. "What for? It didn’t work. Why do you need it?"

"I have to try to figure out what went wrong," Jessie replied. Without waiting for further conversation she started back toward the building.

"Jessie, are you sure that’s a good idea?" Biggs called out to her. "It’s still armed, you know."

"It didn’t work, did it?" Jessie replied. "If it were going to go off, it would have done so by now."

"Jessie wait," Tifa called out, starting after her. "I agree with the others. It’s too dangerous. What if it was just something with the timer. I think you should leave it alone."

Jessie stopped and looked back at them.

"I have to go get it," she replied. "That’s the only way I’m going to be able to figure out what went wrong. I could have..."

It was as if someone had fired a cannon in Tifa’s ear.

She was thrown backwards like a rag doll. For a moment she was completely disoriented. Then she found herself lying on the ground nearly ten feet from where she had started. She pulled herself up to her knees, tasting blood in her mouth, her head swimming in pain. Jessie lay not far away from her, motionless.

"Jessie!" she cried out.

She stumbled to her feet, just as Wedge ran up to her.

"Are you all right?" he said.

Tifa looked down at herself. She had never felt anything quite like that before. She felt like she had been caught between hammer and anvil. Her ears were ringing so badly she could hardly make out what Wedge was saying. She had a long scrap just below her elbow on her right arm, but other than that she appeared to have no serious damage.

"I’m fine," she reassured him.

They both ran over to where Jessie lay, even as Biggs stooped down beside her. When they got there Tifa was relieved to see that Jessie was conscious.

Conscious but dazed. She looked around as if she didn’t know where she was. Blood tricked from a cut on the side of her head. She blinked, then looked back at the building, which now had a gaping hole in it.

"It worked!" she exclaimed.

She staggered to her feet.

"Jessie, are you okay?" Tifa questioned as she reached them.

Jessie turned toward her, a look of joy on her face.

"It worked!" she said again.

"I guess she ain’t hurt too bad," Wedge commented.

"Yeah, it worked," Biggs stated. "But I think you need to work a little bit on the timing."

"Timing, who cares about the timing!" she said gleefully. "It worked!"

She was practically jumping up and down with joy. Tifa was surprised she was even standing. The blast had knocked her loopy and Jessie had been much closer. She was sure the girl was in serious need of medical attention. But except for some bruises and the cut on her head, which didn’t look too bad, she appeared to be okay. It almost seemed a miracle.

"Yes, it worked," Biggs repeated. "And now it’s time for Jessie to go home and have a nice rest."

Jessie did not protest as Biggs led her away. Tifa and Wedge followed.

"She sure seems happy," Wedge commented.

"Yeah, but I guess she has a right to be," Tifa replied. "I wasn’t sure this bomb thing was such a good idea, in fact, I’m still not. But at least we know now that we’re not just wasting out time. We got through the first test, which I would think, or hope, is the most dangerous part, and nobody got killed, so I guess you can call it a good day."

"Yup," Wedge agreed. "I’m not too thrilled with this whole bomb idea either. But if we can use it to hurt Shinra, it’ll be worth it."

Tifa looked at Wedge and nodded.

"Yeah," she said.

At first Jessie had been unsteady on her feet, but now she became more sure of herself, and Biggs let go of her. They were walking about ten feet in front of Tifa and Wedge. They had almost reached the entrance to the alley when they heard a snarling growl from their right.

Their heads snapped around. There was a pile of debris in front of one of the building there. Standing amidst it was what looked to be a large dog. At least, that’s what Tifa thought it was at first, but on closer inspection it was not like any dog she had seen before. It’s head was too large, it’s eyes a sickly yellow color, but the thing that really stood out was the large fangs protruding from it’s mouth.

They all stood frozen in place. It hadn’t made any sound before the growl, and they hadn’t really been paying any attention to their surroundings. It was barely fifteen feet away from Biggs and Jessie.

It snarled again, then sprang forward, straight at Biggs and Jessie.

Jessie screamed.

Biggs turned and ran.

Without thinking about it Tifa raced forward. The beast had apparently picked out Jessie as his prey, for it was lunging straight for her. It didn’t even seem to notice Tifa until her foot slammed into it. She had put all her strength behind the blow. The creature was big, but not well muscled. If they had stopped to notice, they would have realized that for it’s size it was quite thin, in fact, plainly malnourished. It let out a loud yelp and folded nearly in half at Tifa’s blow. It collapsed to the ground, snapping vainly at her as she leaped away.

It pulled itself to it’s feet, growling and turning to Tifa. But Wedge was right behind her now, and Biggs had reversed his initial reaction and was running back as well. Apparently deciding that it could find easier pickings elsewhere, the beast turned and loped off down the street.

"What the hell was that thing?" Biggs exclaimed as they watched it disappear.

"I don’t know," Tifa replied. She turned and looked at the others. "Is everyone all right?"

"Yes," Jessie said, her face pale. "Thanks."

Tifa nodded, but before she could say anything Wedge spoke up.

"Man, that was great Tifa!" he said. "You saved our asses. How’d you learn how to do that?"

Tifa shrugged modestly.

"We had a martial arts teacher in Nibelheim," she replied. "I studied with him for almost five years."

"Martial arts!" Biggs exclaimed. "Why didn’t you tell us?"

"It’s no big deal," Tifa replied.

"No big deal?" Biggs responded. "How can you say that? Now if we run into Shinra troops, we’ll have someone to take care of them!"

Tifa sighed.

"I’m not really that good yet," she told him. "I’m young, and I’m still just learning. I’ve never even fought an adult before. Not for real. Please don’t make this out to be more than it is."

"Can you teach us?" Biggs asked, his enthusiasm obviously unblunted.

"I can try if you really want to," she replied. "But it’s not something you can learn in a week. It takes years of dedicated work."

"Can we talk about this after we get out of here?" Wedge interjected.

Biggs looked at Jessie, who was still pale and obviously spent.

"Yeah," he said. "Let’s get back to the Rat’s Nest. Jessie, are you sure you’re all right?"

Jessie nodded slowly. She seemed to be feeling the effects of the blast more now that the initial euphoria of her bomb working had worn off.

"I’ll be fine," she said. "Let’s go."

They made their way back to the Rat’s Nest without incident. As soon as they got there Jessie flopped down on the couch. The others hovered over her until she assured them she was all right. Biggs and Wedge walked over to the table and sat down, Biggs still talking about what had happened to them, seeming even more excited than he had before they had gone, retelling the story with quite a few embellishments. Tifa had a feeling it would be quite a tale before he was done. She started to walk over to join them when Jessie stopped her.

"Tifa, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure," Tifa replied.

Jessie looked at her silently for a moment.

"Did you ever go out with a boy named Drake?"

Tifa had not been expecting that at all. She wondered why Jessie was even asking.

"Well, sort of," she replied. She recounted to Jessie what had happened to her and Drake on their little excursion to the upper plate.

When she was done Jessie was silent for a moment.

"So that’s what really happened," she said finally.

"What are you talking about?" Tifa said with a frown.

Jessie gave Tifa a sympathetic look.

"I’m sorry," she said. "I’ve misjudged you. I know I shouldn’t have, but you hear rumors about a person and you tend to believe the, even if they aren’t true."

"Rumors?" Tifa said, not liking the sound of this at all. "What rumors?"

"Drake has been telling everyone a story. He says you two used to go out, and that you were really nice and he really liked you. Things were going great until one day he found out that you were a slut and you made it with any guy that happened to walk into that bar you work at. And that how after you had sex with him you didn’t seem to care about him at all anymore and the only person you really gave a damn about was yourself."

For a moment Tifa just stood there in shocked silence. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

"He said what?" she blurted out finally.

Biggs and Wedge looked up at the outburst.

"I know I shouldn’t have put any stock in it," Jessie continued. "But you hear things and if you don’t know a person, you just...well, you just don’t know. That was the real reason I wasn’t too happy about you joining us. I thought you might start trouble. I wanted us focused on fighting Shinra, and I was worried you would be a distraction. But even though it hasn’t been that long, you haven’t acted that way at all. I let Drakes comments influence my feelings about you. I’m sorry."

Tifa didn’t reply, she was too furious at Drake to even speak. The nerve of that little creep! Of all the rotten slimy things to do! She should have known. She really should have known. As soon as he had had the nerve to blame the whole thing on her she should have realized he wouldn’t let it rest at that.

"That stupid jerk!" she blurted out.

By now both Biggs and Wedge seemed very interested in what was going on.

Tifa turned and stalked toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Jessie asked.

"I’m not going to let him get away with this!" Tifa snapped.

She stomped out of the room. Biggs and Wedge just looked at Jessie, who immediately pulled herself to her feet.

"Wait up!" she called out. "I’ll come with you."

Without a glance at the others she hurried out of the room. Biggs and Wedge looked at one another.

"I don’t know what the hell is going on," Biggs said, standing up. "But I’ve got a feeling this is something we don’t want to miss!"

With that he raced out the door, followed closely by Wedge

Tifa made her way back up on the street, following the path she had taken to get there in the first place. She thought Drake wouldn't be hard to find. She saw him often enough. This time of the day, he was usually hanging out with some friends down near the river.

She knew the others were following her. She didn't care much. She wasn't thinking about what she was doing. She didn't consider herself a vindictive person. If it up to her, she would have been happy just to put what had happened between her and Drake behind her, to forget about it. But he was going too far this time. She wasn't going to let him get away with ruining her reputation in a town where she hardly knew anybody as it was. She didn't know what his problem was, but she sure as hell wasn't going to let him build himself up by tearing her down. She had wanted to slug him the night she found out his true intentions, but she had restrained herself. Now maybe she thought she would have been better off if she hadn't.

It didn't take her long to find him. He was playing stickball in the street near the river, in just the place where he usually was.

"Drake!" she shouted.

He turned, a look of surprise on his face when he saw her.

"Tifa, what are you doing here?" he questioned, glancing over at his friends he was playing stickball with.

"What have you been telling people about me?" Tifa demanded.

"What are you talking about?"

"You know very well," she said. "You've been telling everyone I'm a slut. That I sleep around with every guy that comes into the bar. That I even slept with you! What kind of bullshit is that?"

Drake looked around nervously. Already some of his friends were looking at him and talking to each other.

"Tifa, get the hell out of here," he said. "We're right in the middle of a game. We can talk about this later."

"I don't think so," she replied. "How dare you say things like that about me! Who the hell do you think you are? The truth is you lured me up to the upper plate and then when I wouldn't go along when you put your hands all over me, you came back down here and made up a bunch of lies about me. Why don't you tell all the friends the truth?"

Drake stood there for a moment fumbling for words.

"Tifa, I don't know what you're trying to do, but it isn't going to work," he said finally. "We're through, okay? Why don't you just leave me alone?"

"I'd love to," Tifa replied. "I'd like nothing more than to never see your ugly face again. But you don't seem to be happy just leaving it at that. You seem to feel the need to spread ugly rumors about me. Well, I'm afraid it's time to the truth now. Go ahead. Tell all your friend here what really happened between us."

She waved her hand at the kids around them. All thoughts of stickball seemed to have left their minds. They had gathered round to watch the confrontation. To Drake's embarrassment, most of them looked greatly amused. Even kids who had not been in the game were coming over, attracted by the commotion.

"They already know what happened," Drake said angrily. "It happened just like I said it did."

"That's a lie!" Tifa exclaimed, stepping closer to him. "The truth is your pathetic ego couldn't handle the fact that I rejected you, so you had to make up some stupid stories in a petty attempt to get back at me. Go ahead, tell them. You know it's true!"

"It is not!" Drake exclaimed angrily. "Just shut up. I'm not going to stand here and listen to your bullshit. The fact of the matter is I dumped you, so get over it already, willya?"

"Bullshit!" Tifa yelled.

"It's the truth!" he snapped back.

Tifa glared at him.

"Oh yeah?" she said. "Well if what you say is true, if we did make love, then answer this. I have a scar. Where is it and what does it look like?"

Drake just looked at her for a moment.

"What?" he said.

"You heard me," she replied. "Where is my scar and what does it look like?"

Drake just stood there. He didn't say anything for a long time. He looked around and saw all his friend were waiting for an answer.

"I'm not going to play your stupid game," he said finally.

Tifa folded her arms across her chest.

"Just as I thought," she said smugly.

There was a murmur from the crowd around them. Tifa could hear a couple of them snickering.

Drake turned red.

"It was dark," he snapped. "I had better things to do than go looking for some scar. I didn't see it."

"Nice try," Tifa replied. "But I don't think you could miss this one even if you tried. No, you're full of shit, Drake, and now everyone knows it. Maybe that'll teach you not to go spreading lies about people."

She stepped closer still, until she was inches from him.

"But in case it didn't, let me tell you something. If I ever hear that you've been saying things about me again. I'm going to hunt you down and kick the shit out of you!"

She lunged forward suddenly, shoving him as hard as she could. He stumbled backwards, caught completely unawares, and fell roughly to the ground.

"You understand?" Tifa snapped.

Drake lay there for a moment, then lifted himself up, his face livid as he heard some of the others laughing out loud.

"Bitch!" he snarled.

Tifa didn't reply, just turned and walked away. She had said all she was going to say.

She had only taken a few steps when she heard Wedge's warning.

"Tifa, look out!"

But she hadn't needed it. She had already heard Drake coming at her. She suddenly spun around, driving her elbow back, striking right into Drakes midriff as he rushed at her. He let out a gasp of air and doubled over. She pivoted, grabbing hold of his arm and twisting it back, tilting him so that he fell sprawling once more.

She balled up her fists and stood ready, waiting to see if he got up again. It took him a moment to get his breath back. When he did he looked up at her with murder in his eyes, but he did not get up again.

Tifa lowered her fists just as Jessie came up beside her.

"C'mon," Jessie said. "It's over."

Tifa woke up to the sound of a door opening. Garren was home. It had been almost a month now, but she still woke up everytime he came in at night. Even on the nights where he didn't make much noise. Though they were rare, it did happen. But even when he was quiet, she always woke up, for some reason. It seemed funny now, almost like some kind of odd ritual. But she wasn't doing it on purpose.

She turned onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. It had been a good day. It had been a long time since she could say that. Not since before she had come here. All this time she had been living day to day, not really sure what was going to happen, not really sure what would become of her, whether she would be here long, whether she would find a way to fit in.

When she had first come here she had hated it. She had wanted nothing more than to get as far away from this place as she could as fast as she could. She had never in her life seen a more run down, squalid city. She couldn't imagine herself living here for any length of time at all. But now she wasn't so sure. She had found that even here she could at least find some sort of happiness. Maybe. At least, now she thought it might be possible. Maybe, just maybe, this place wasn't really as bad as it looked.

For some reason she felt so good about the day that she had the urge to get up and go tell Garren about it.

But then the sound of soft laughter reached her. Female laughter.

Esella was with him. That pretty much killed any idea she had of talking to Garren tonight.

Oh well, tomorrow was another day.

Once again she heard the sound of laughter, but it was louder this time, and suddenly Tifa stiffened.

That was not Esella's voice.

She heard the woman say something, something about dancing, Tifa thought, but she couldn't be sure. She heard Garren shush her, then the both of them talking in low voices. Tifa sat there in silence, motionless, trying to hear what they were saying, but she couldn't make anything out. Eventually she heard footsteps and knew they were going to Garren's bedroom. Their voices grew quieter, but after a while Tifa heard the woman again. She wasn't as loud as Esella, but she was loud enough. After listening for a while Tifa abruptly rolled over in her bed, deciding suddenly that she didn't want to hear this at all. It was none of her business, and it would be best if she just went back to sleep. But she found herself instead staring at the far wall, sleep now suddenly far away, and wondering just what to make of this latest development.

Chapter 8

Final Fantasy 7 Fanfic