Shards Chapter 9
The White Roses
By Frank Verderosa
The slums of Midgar werent exactly a haven for wildlife. Unless, of course, you were talking about what went on in the bars at night. Not enough natural sunlight reached beneath the plate for plants to grow well. There was no grass, no trees. Except for the occasional houseplant (the kind that didnt need direct sunlight) that some people kept tucked away inside their homes there was no flora al all. And, in such an urban setting, there wasnt much chance for fauna to scratch out a living either.
Of course, there were some notable exceptions. Rats coming immediately to mind. Unlike most animals, the slums of Midgar offered almost a perfect environment for them. Sanitation was at a minimum, pickup spotty at best, with the result that open piles of refuse could often be found building up along the sidewalks and alleys around the projects. There were plenty of abandoned buildings as well for them to proliferate in without interference. As a result, you couldnt go out at night, and ofttimes in the day, without seeing a few. In fact, sometimes at night, there seemed to be more of them on the streets than humans. Not only that, but with few organized attempts to exterminate them, they had become quite bold, and would bare their teeth and chitter angrily if any human approached them. It was so bad that some streets couldnt even be walked at night because of them, and there were stories about unfortunate people who had tried, and only their bones, picked clean, had been found in the morning.
Tifa didnt know if that was true. She thought it was probably an exaggeration, but still, she had seen enough rats on her and Garrens trips home from the bar to know that Sector seven was overrun with the damn things.
Not that that mattered to her at the moment. It was just before noon, and there were no rats around right now. She was sitting on a cracked stone bench in a plaza about two blocks north from Garrens apartment. In front of her, in the center of the plaza, was a fountain with a statue in the center. The fountain was empty, no water ran in it anymore. She didnt know how long it had been like that. For as long as she had been here, at least. She suspected quite a big longer than that too, actually. She could see rust stains where the water had once dripped from the narrow pipes leading out into the fountain itself.
The statue was of a man on horseback, the horse rearing up on its back legs. She remembered hearing that you could tell how the rider had died, whether in battle or not, from how many hooves the horse had on the ground. But she didnt remember the criteria. She wasnt even sure if it was true. There as a small plaque at the foot of the statue, but it was written over with graffiti, and she could no longer read the words beneath.
It must have been a very pretty plaza at one time.
But even run down, it still had its attractions. It was quiet, cut off from the streets that surrounded it by buildings on three sides and an aging brick wall on the other. The sounds of traffic were muted. It was relatively clean, and it seemed to be the home of an abundance of pigeons, the only other animal life in the slums besides humans and rats which could be considered plentiful. Unless one counted insects, of course, which Tifa really didnt even want to think about.
She had found the plaza on her way to the Rats Nest one day, attempting to find a short cut. And she had come back often. She liked to watch the pigeons, and she wasnt the only one. There were always a few people there with breadcrumbs to feed them, and sometimes more than a few. She wondered whether there were so many pigeons because there were so many people there to feed them, or vise versa. Somewhat like the chicken and the egg thing, she supposed.
She didnt feed them herself. Just came to observe. She wasnt even sure exactly why. In Nibelheim she had always been just a step away from the forest. She had often played in the shadow of the trees, and spotting wildlife was as common as seeing the sun rise. These were only pigeons, but perhaps they reminded her just a bit of that. She hadnt realized how much she missed it.
She didnt have a lot to do right now. Both she and Garren were off from work tonight. He, in fact, had still been sleeping when she left the apartment. None of her other friends would be at the Rats Nest yet. They were all working. Jessie usually got off first, around three. Until then she really didnt have anywhere to go. Perhaps shed head down to Wall Market later to look around. She wasnt really a shopping fanatic, but she didnt have anything against it either, and it was a way to pass the time.
"You look thoughtful."
Tifa turned with a start to see Dulane standing beside her.
"What do you want?" came stumbling out of her.
Dulane raised an eyebrow.
"No need to be jumpy," he replied calmly. "I dont mean you any harm."
Tifa just looked at him for a moment. He was dressed in an immaculate grey business suit, with a matching black trenchcoat. He was smiling pleasantly, standing with his arms hanging loosely by his sides. Only his steel blue eyes gave a hint of coldness.
"Garren told me to stay away from you," she stated.
A cold wind was blowing from the east, as it seemed to every day since Tifa had come here. Dulane licked his lips to moisten them before replying.
"And do you do everything he tells you?" he questioned evenly.
This time it was Tifas turn to pause before answering. If he was trying to drive a wedge between them, it wast going to work.
"Its not just Garren. I dont want to talk to you either," she said bluntly.
Dulane looked pained.
"And why would that be?" he questioned. "Have I ever done anything to harm you in any way, or even been unpleasant?"
"I...no," Tifa began. No, he hadnt, but that didnt mean she was going to trust him. "Not yet," she decided on.
Dulane gave her a penetrating glance.
"Just because Garren doesnt like me doesnt mean Im some kind of ogre," he said. "Garrens not exactly a saint himself you know."
"I know what you did to Maralee," Tifa blurted out.
Dulane paused for a moment, but his expression did not change.
"I didnt do anything to Maralee," he replied.
"You took her from Garren," Tifa went on. "You turned her into a prostitute!"
Again Dulane hesitated. He shook his head slowly, then sat down beside her. She slid away to put more space between them.
"I didnt turn her into a prostitute," Dulane said calmly. "That was her own choice. I never forced her to work for me. I didnt kidnap her, or drag her away in the night. She came of her own free will, not because I made her, but because she wanted to."
Tifa felt herself becoming angry. Why was she even talking to this man to begin with? She should just get up and walk away.
"Thats not true!" she contradicted.
"Its not?" Dulane asked. "How do you know that? Did Garren tell you any different?"
"Garren didnt tell me anything," she replied. "I heard it from someone else."
"And how do you know what they told you was true?" Dulane asked.
"Ka..." she shut her mouth for a moment. Why was she even bothering to tell him this? "The person who told me wouldn't lie," she finished.
"Perhaps not," Dulane replied. "But they're still looking at it from their perspective, and if they're a friend of Garren that perspective is going to be colored in his favor. I didn't do anything to hurt Maralee, or Garren. She wanted to leave him long before I came into the picture. All I did was help her out."
"How can you say that?" she stated. "How can breaking up their marriage have helped them? How could turning her into a hooker have been beneficial?"
"Why not?" Dulane replied. "They were living in poverty. They had nothing. Now matter what anyone may have told you, Garren was a dead end drunk. He still is. Maralee was trapped, and I offered her a way out. She made a mistake, she should never have married him in the first place. She didn't really even love him, it was just what everyone had expected of them. Was it right for her to stay with him and pay for that one mistake the rest of her life?"
"So she was better off as a hooker?" Tifa exclaimed. "Lying in bed with men she never met before?"
"Yes!" Dulane said firmly. "You're young so you don't understand. To you it may seem like something special, but the truth is that sex is just like everything else. It's a commodity, to be used to your advantage, if you're smart. It's just another business, that's all. Look what it did for her! She was poor, she barely had enough gil to feed herself when I met her, and now she has everything she needs. If you possess something that can make your life better, it would be stupid not to use it just because of some silly morals."
Tifa was silent for a moment.
"What happened to her?" she said suddenly.
Dulane paused for a moment.
"Nothing happened to her," he replied.
"She's still alive?" Tifa asked.
"Of course she's still alive," Dulane replied. "I haven't seen her in a long time, but she's living in Costa del Sol. And doing quite well, I might add."
Tifa opened her mouth, but her sharp statement remained unsaid. How did she know he was telling the truth?
"I don't believe it," she said, much less forcefully than she wanted.
"Like I said, you're young. I never did anything to hurt Maralee. In fact, I did everything I could to help her. I can understand if Garren thinks differently. In his shoes, I probably would feel the same way he does. But that doesn't change the facts. He was the one who let her down. I know he'd like to think it was my fault what happened between the two of them, but the truth of the matter is, he has no one to blame but himself."
Tifa's jaw tightened. She wanted so much to tell him that everything he said was bullshit. She wanted to yell right in his face that he didn't know what he was talking about. But was that true? All she had to go on was a second hand account by one of Garren's friends and what she knew about Garren himself. She had to admit that didn't make for a very good case.
"No, I don't buy it," she said, as if trying to convince herself.
"Then ask Garren," Dulane said.
She looked up at him.
"Ask him what happened," he continued. "Ask him how things were between himself and Maralee before I showed up. He knows the truth. It would be interesting to see if he could lie to you about it For some reason, I think he'd have a hard time."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked. What was he trying to do now? Did he really want her to talk to Garren about it?
"Nothing," he said quickly. "So have you thought about my offer. For the job, I mean. It still stands. Just an escort. No sex involved. You didn't reject it outright."
"Well.." Tifa began, thrown off for a moment by this sudden change of subject. She lifted her head and looked him in the eye. "I do now."
He shook his head and sighed.
"You are being foolish," he said. "But I admire your convictions. I suspected you might reject the offer. So I have another proposal. I have a casino up on the upper plate. The Golden Gil. Just opened a few months ago. It's not like the prostitution thing. This is perfectly legitimate. But I'm a little short on waitresses. I'd like to hire you. You'd be doing exactly what you do now at Garrens bar, no more, no less. The only difference would be that you would have your own apartment on the upper plate. Oh, and I'll pay you three times as much as Garren gives you."
Tifa just stared at him. Again he had surprised her. She had never thought to hear an offer like that from his lips. For a long time she said nothing at all. On the face of it, it seemed more than reasonable. Garren had told her to stay away from him. Everything she had heard about him from others made her believe that he was a snake, a dangerous man who would do anything to get what he wanted. This had to be just another ploy on his part to get her into his fold. Sure, it sounded good, it might even be on the level. But where would it go from there? What kind of pressure would he put on her once she was working for him, once she was dependent on the income? The man was devious, he couldn't be trusted.
For all she had heard about him, he didn't seem to be a bad guy. It was true, he had never come on to her, or done anything more than talk. He seemed like a perfect gentleman. And everything he said sounded reasonable and believable. For all she knew, everything he had told her could be the truth.
She turned away, feeling suddenly frustrated. How could she even think about taking his offer seriously! Even if it was on the level, how would it make Garren feel for her to move out, to take a job with Dulane and her own apartment? It would be like Maralee all over again. Garren would be devastated. Perhaps that was exactly what Dulane had in mind. No, whether Dulane was telling the truth or not, even if he had no intention of pushing matters past her just being a waitress, it still didn't matter. She really didn't know Garren that well, but she did know he had taken her in when she had no place to go. And in spite of what he had told her, she believed he really did care for her. And she cared for him as well. The bottom line was, Garren was her friend and she wouldn't betray him like that, for any amount of gil.
"No thanks," she said, turning to meet his gaze once more. "I'm not interested."
She stood up.
"I really have to get going now."
Dulane stood up as well. If her rejection of his offer upset him at all, he didn't show it.
"I can't say I'm not disappointed," he responded. "I really thought you would have the savy to accept this offer. I don't see any downside to it at all for you."
"You wouldn't," she replied. "It doesn't have anything to do with business. I'm afraid that no matter what you may think, some things are just not for sale."
She turned and strolled quickly away. Dulane just stood there, looking at her until she disappeared through the gate of the plaza. Slowly a smile formed on his face. He had to admit, he wasn't all that surprised she hadn't accepted his offer. Apparently her ties to Garren were strong, though he couldn't for the life of him understand why. But that was okay. He had dealt with Garren before. He knew just what strings to pull. This could turn out to be more interesting than anything he had done in a long time. This girl was definitely going to be a challenge, but in the end she would come around. They always did.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"We finished the construction job early this morning," Biggs replied. "Guess I'll have to look for something else tomorrow.
"Oh," Tifa replied. She had heard Biggs and Jessie talking about this before. Biggs made good money in construction, more than any of them, but the work was spotty. Construction had boomed after the war with Wutai, but lately the business had slowed down. Inflation was up, and people weren't buying new housing. It was difficult for her friends to get by on what they made to begin with. They weren't exactly rolling in gil. The Rat's Nest wasn't a luxury hotel, but they still had living expenses. They had to eat and buy supplies for their daily lives as well as for their plans against Shinra. They didn't talk about it much, but Tifa knew that, just like everyone else in the slums, they were struggling just to survive. If Biggs was out of work for an extended period of time it would be a real hardship for them.
"I wish I knew how this thing worked," Biggs muttered, looking down at the materia.
"You still haven['t gotten it to do anything, eh?" she said. She knew Biggs had been playing around with the materia practically every free moment he had since he had gotten it, trying to get it to work, or at least figure out what it did exactly. None of them had used materia before, although a few had seen it in use, Tifa among them. She had seen the village doctor use a cure materia on a boy who fell from the water tower in Nibelheim once. The doctor hadn't said anything, just seemed to concentrate on the materia. But she had no idea exactly what he had done.
Biggs shook his head.
"Not exactly. It would help if I knew what I was supposed to be thinking about," he said.
"Aren't you supposed to picture in your mind what you want to happen?" Tifa asked.
"Yeah, but I don't know what the materia does, so I don't know what to think about. I don't think it will do much good if I think about lightning when it's a heal materia."
"Probably not," Tifa agreed. "But isn't there some way to tell?"
"That was what I heard," Biggs said. "I've heard that an experienced materia handler can tell at a glance just what kind of materia it is. The strength of the glow and the shade of the color, or something like that, but I haven't got a clue. Watch this."
Biggs fell silent, staring at the materia. Tifa came over and stood beside him, looking down at the orb in his hands. It gave off a soft faint green glow. At first she thought the glow was steady, but then she noticed that it pulsated slowly, glowing slightly brighter and darker at what seemed like a regular interval. She had never had a chance to study a materia orb up close, and she had to admit that looking into the stone held a certain fascination, but it didn't tell her how to use it anymore than it did Biggs.
After a moment the green glow suddenly brightened. Tifa looked at Biggs, but his face was a mask of concentration. She waited for something to happen, but nothing did for a long time. Finally Biggs let out a sigh and looked up at her. The color immediately began to fade in the orb.
"That's all I can get it to do," he said wistfully.
"Well, you seem to be on the right track," she replied hopefully. "At least you are getting it to do something."
"Yeah, but not much," he responded. "I just wish I knew what kind it was. I think that would help a lot."
"Well," she said, "It probably is a pretty simply type of materia. I don't think a guard would have anything too fancy. Maybe just fire or ice, or something like that."
"I know," Biggs replied. "I tried thinking of them, and lightning, and cure, and a couple of others, but nothing worked. Either it is something else entirely, or I'm doing something wrong.
"Can I take a look at it?" Tifa asked.
"Sure," he said, handing it to her in disgust. "I'm not getting anywhere."
The orb was a little smaller than a baseball, though it felt strangely heavy in her hand. It felt neither hot nor cold at first, but after a while it began to feel warm in her hand, and the glow seemed to brighten a bit. She looked around the room, her eyes settling on a bag of garbage set near the door for disposal. Her eyes dropped to the orb once again, picturing the bag in her mind. The orb flickered, and grew brighter still, and for a moment she felt a rush of excitement. But after a few minutes nothing more happened. Finally she gave up. It was starting to give her a headache. She handed the orb back to Biggs.
"I'm afraid I'm no better with it than you," she said.
He nodded ruefully.
"I need a drink," he muttered.
He stood up, turning toward the fridge. He was still pondering the orb, and as he took a step forward, his toe banged against the table leg. He let out a yell and turned angrily toward the table, while Tifa couldn't help but laugh. But her laughter changed to surprise when the table suddenly burst into flame.
She was standing right beside it, and as the flames leapt up she jumped backwards, almost falling over. Biggs would have laughed at her too, if he hadn't been too stunned. For a second they both stood there, just staring at the table burning furiously, as the Rat's Nest began to fill up with smoke.
"What do you do?" Tifa exclaimed.
"We've got to put it out!" Biggs shouted. He looked around wildly for a moment, then ran over to the pipe that supplied them with water. They had built a shelf beside it, and some glasses were stacked there. He grabbed one and filled it, then ran back to the table, flinging the water on it. The fire crackled and hissed, but it wasn't nearly enough water to put it out.
"You need something bigger than that!" Tifa yelled.
Biggs was frantically filling the glass again. He was only a few feet from her, but already the smoke was starting to obscure him from view.
"Find something!" he exclaimed.
Tifa's eyes darted around the room. They cooked here occasionally. There were some pots stored in a cabinet beside the pipe. But then her eyes fell on the couch and the blue and grey blanket that covered it. She whipped the blanket off the couch. The fire was burning brightly, but it still only covered the small tabletop, which was only about three or four feet square. She ran forward and threw the blanket over the flames, pushing down on it, trying to smother the fire. Even as she did that, Biggs threw more water on the table, but this time most of it struck her.
A moment later the fire was out.
Tifa looked at Biggs, her hair dripping from the water he had tossed.
"What did you do?" she exclaimed.
"I...I'm not sure," Biggs stammered. "I got angry at the table. I'm not really sure what I thought. I just wanted to see the damn thing mangled."
She stood up again, pulling the blanket off the table. Both it and the table were severely charred. The smoke still hung in the air around them, the taste of it in their mouths and making their eyes sting.
For a moment they both just stood there looking at each other. Biggs was the first one to break into a grin. A moment later he started to laugh, and Tifa couldn't help but join in.
"Well, you got it to work," she commented. "I'm just glad you didn't stumble over me."
Biggs flopped down on the couch, still chuckling.
"You should have seen your face," he managed. "Oh, it was priceless."
"The look on yours was pretty unforgettable too."
"So I guess I know how to use it now," Biggs continued. "I've got to try that again."
"Okay, but not in here!" Tifa responded. "Let's go out in the tunnel. I don't think you want to destroy anymore of your stuff."
Biggs stood up again.
"I agree," he said. "But you have to admit, it was..."
He stopped. Tifa turned and saw Jessie standing in the doorway, just staring that them with her mouth open.
"What the hell have you two been doing here?" she exclaimed.
Tifa and Biggs just looked at one another for a moment. From the eye contact, it was evident that Biggs was finally selected as the spokesperson.
"Nothing," he said, as innocently as he could.
They just stood there, in silence for a moment, and then Tifa and Biggs burst out laughing.
Only thing was, now she was bone weary. She had heard about that too, about how using materia could sap your strength. Although it was only late afternoon, and the sun had just dropped below the horizon, she wanted nothing more than to go in her room and fall into bed. She stepped into the apartment with just that intention, but stopped short when she saw Garren. He was sitting on a chair in the living room, a bottle in his hand. Two others were on the floor beside him, empty. He looked at her as she walked in, his eyes barely seeming to be able to focus.
"Garren, what..." she began.
"So you're finally home," he muttered.
He made no attempt to get up, or do anything more than look at her. She had seen him drinking before. In fact, it was uncommon to not see him drinking. But she had never seen him drink so much, especially not here in the apartment. He was obviously seriously intoxicated.
"Where have you been?" he demanded. His voice was harsh.
"I was out with my friends," she said slowly. Something was wrong. She could tell just by the way he was looking at her. He had never acted like this before. She looked around the room slowly, until her eyes fell on the coffee table beside the window. On it was a box filled with roses.
She walked over to the table. The box contained a dozen long stemmed white roses and a note. She picked it up and looked at it.
A little token of my appreciation
She spun around to face Garren again.
"Garren, it doesn't..."
"You saw him again today, didn't you?" he cut her off. His voice was savage.
"I...I was at the plaza," she stammered. "He found me there. I didn't want to talk to him, but he didn't give me any choice. I told him I didn't want to him to bother me again."
Garren pulled himself out of the chair, standing unsteadily, barely able to stay on his feet. The look on his face made her cringe backwards.
"He's never going to leave you alone," he snarled. "I'm going to have to take care of that son of a bitch. I'm going to have to do what I should have done a long time ago!"
He lurched for the door, stumbling and almost falling. Tifa ran up to him and grabbed his arm, a horrible feeling in her stomach. She didn't want him to confront Dulane at all, but certainly not like this! She was suddenly deathly afraid he was going to get himself killed.
"Garren, no," she said. "Please don't. He hasn't done anything to hurt me."
Garren stopped, then turned toward her so suddenly she almost let go of him.
"What do you mean?" he snapped. "Are you taking his side? Are you defending him?"
Tifa hadn't expected that kind of accusation. For a moment she was at a loss for words.
"Of course not," she rebuked. "I'm not..."
His hand came up and grabbed hold of her shirt, yanking her violently and almost knocking her over. She cried out in surprise.
"All this time, after all I've done for you, and this is the thanks I get?" he shouted. "Does what we have mean nothing to you? Are you willing to throw that all away, our whole lives together? Everything we've worked and dreamed for? You're going to just forget about that, and all because of that scum, Dulane?"
Tifa felt Garren's grip pulling on her shirt, twisting it until it started to tighten around her neck, his fingers digging into her flesh. She thought frantically for something to say to calm him down, but she could think of nothing. There was a wild look in his eye, more than just drunkenness, more like he had lost all grip on reality. She didn't even know what he was talking about.
"You're hurting me," she pleaded.
"Like you haven't hurt me!" he snarled, pulling her toward him, lifting her up until his face was right in front of her, until she could taste the smell of liquor on his breath. "Everything I've ever done, I've done for you! Every thought I've ever had, has been about you. We could have made it through this. We could have survived. But no, my love wasn't good enough for you. You wanted it all. You couldn't wait. You turned against me, Maralee. You stabbed me in the back. No, you've hurt me alright, you've given me more pain than I ever thought a man could endure. So how does it feel, to get a little of that pain back?"
If she hadn't been so upset, she might have been able to react in time. She saw his hand coming up, he didn't try to hide it. She had been trained in marital arts. It would not have been difficult to block the blow. Drunks are sometimes difficult to take down because they don't feel much pain, but their blows are usually very easy to avoid. But the truth was she was just too shocked to respond. Even as she saw his hand come up, even as she saw it rushing towards her face, deep down inside, she didn't believe he was capable of striking her.
It was only a slap. His fist wasn't balled. But still, he was a strong man, and he didn't hold back any. Her head was snapped around, and the world spun. She felt herself falling, her body somehow slipping out of Garren's grip. She crashed heavily to the floor. The whole side of her face felt like it was on fire. For a moment she couldn't think, couldn't speak. The entire room seemed to be spinning. For a second she thought she was going to black out. But she couldn't do that. She couldn't let herself. Who knows what Garren would do. Fiercely, in spite of the pain, she forced herself back to coherence.
She tried to stumbled to her knees. She looked up and saw Garren reaching down to grab her again.
She lunged out of the way, then scrambled to her feet. Spinning around to face him, she shouted; "I'm not Maralee! I'm Tifa!"
He mumbled something, but she couldn't understand it. It didn't seem to have registered.
She turned and ran for the door. She didn't know what else to do. She had to get out of there. She was afraid for Garren, she was worried he would do something stupid if she left him alone, but what choice did she have? In his present condition she couldn't control him. If she stayed, they might both end up dead.
She looked back when she reached the door. He hadn't pursued her. He was looking around as if he didn't know where she had gone.
"I'm Tifa!" she shouted one more time, then ran out the door.
She staggered quickly down the hallway, her head throbbing, trying not to think about anything. All she knew was she had to get away. By the time she reached the entrance tears were running down her cheeks. She opened the door and was met by an icy wind blowing down the street. She had no coat, but she didn't care. She plunged out into the darkness. The sun had set, though the afterglow still lingered on the horizon to the west.
When she reached the sidewalk she stopped, unsure of what to do. Before she could think about it a familiar voice spoke behind her.
"I told you he wasn't exactly a saint."
Tifa spun around, her teeth clenching, to see Dulane standing in the shadows of the building, a twisted smile etched on his face.
Tifa felt anger coursing through her. He had been out here all the time! He had just been waiting to see how it would play out. He had set Garren up, and Garren had fallen for it hook line and sinker. He had done all of this on purpose!
She felt her hands balling into fists. Right now she could understand exactly how Garren felt about Dulane. Nothing would have pleased her more than to tear the man to pieces with her own hands. She didn't want to be anywhere near him.
"You go to HELL!" she shouted, then turned and ran.
Final Fantasy 7 Fanfic