STRIPES: CHAPTER TWO
A LEAVING

August 30, XXXX+5 7:47:38 PM

The stale metal doors of the old office elevator closed behind Tifa Strife as she reached the floor of her husband's office. The shouts coming from down the hallway denoted that Cid had reached his wits' end.

"God DAMMIT, Strife...!"

The cluster of Turks gathered around the door on the left side of the hallway put their hands in their pockets nonchalantly, fingering the triggers on their guns as Cid continued his stream of verbal abuse.

"You CAN'T outlaw science, you stupid dumbfuck chickenhearted coward! It's fine if you mess up your own goddamn life, but your stupid policies have had people using outdated machinery that's five times as dangerous as a mako reactor!"

Tifa stopped where the Turks accidentally barred her way. She recognized the feral look of quiet disdain Rude put on whenever Cloud rebuffed Cid's plans to upgrade technology. Reno had on his usual "Why do I have to be here for this part?" look. Elena was absent from this gathering. In her place were a couple of new recruits, doing their best to look intimidating as they could when they were really just hiding behind Vincent, who, as always, had on his scary, stolid blank mask.

It was Cloud's turn to speak: "We can't risk that kind of corruption, Cid!" "Why not? People are dying in hospitals because we can't manufacture medicine to cure the illnesses that were caused by the old mako machinery that you still force the populus to use! Look around you. Even your own office reeks because you're too cheap to hire people to figure out what removes the smell of urine from carpet!"

The Turks filed into the room after that outburst, and Tifa stepped in behind them to see the irate Mr. Highwind dangling her husband by the collar over his desk. Cloud's normally shy and smug countenance melted away into a scowl at the pilot's upsetting lack of cooperation. With an unnatural strength, he grabbed Highwind's left arm and twisted it backwards, pinning his wrist to the corner of the desk. With an incredulous look and a silent mouth movement of pain, Cid let go of Cloud's collar with his right hand and crouched over as the younger man held it to the desk. Somewhere in there was a slow crunching noise.

Cloud's voice lost all pretense of courtesy. "If you're going to declare war on AVALANCHE, declare war on AVALANCHE and not me personally. Or, if your problem is with me personally, don't waste my time at work."

Cid's face had contorted into a ball of leathery laugh lines and wrinkles as Cloud pressed his hand harder into the desk. If he opened his mouth, he was going to holler so loud that the ghosts of Midgar could hear him.

Seeing as he wasn't going to get anything more out of Cid tonight, Cloud released his grip. Cid lifted his hand from the desk and cradled it just in time for Cloud to push him to the ground. "Lock him up with the rest of them," he spat. Cid glowered up at him. 'Them' included nearly all of Junon's respectable citizens imprisoned for revolting against AVALANCHE or old ShinRa loyalists.

Cloud's neandertal-like look of non-amusement grated Cid's nerves. Fucking punk. Acting like he's older than me when he's really just a goddamn chicken. Being rebuffed by Palmer year after year was better than this shit.

"Go ahead, lock me up. Soon, the only people you'll have working for you are the scared little kids who don't know any better. I'm fuckin' tired of alla this. I hate the way yer terrorizin' Barret into being silent. I hate the way yer keepin' Tifa as a pet, and I hate the way yer smothering out every last bit of life in this goddamned city!"

"If Tifa and Barret have problems with the way I run things, I expect them to say so themselves," Cloud retorted slimily, shifting his eyes to Tifa, who was still standing in the doorway behind the Turks. "Well, what are you waiting for? I said, take him away."

The rookie Turks took Cid by the elbows to lift him up and the old pilot cried out in pain as they neglected to go easy on his damaged arm. "OW!! You're nothin' but a goddamn guinea pig behind those stupid muscles, ya punk! I hope you fry in hell!"

Tifa daintily side-stepped as the Turks dragged Cid out the door, and evaded the murderous look Cloud gave him, hoping it wouldn't carry over into her conversation with him. Rude closed the door in a rather upset manner behind the Turks, and they were alone.

Cloud didn't speak for a few minutes. Breathing rather hard as he clenched his teeth at the door, it was almost as if he didn't see Tifa there at all. Normally, this would not have upset her. Being free of Cloud and his emotional rollercoasters was a treat, especially since they moved from Kalm to Junon. But in this situation, she knew he would see her the moment she turned to leave.

Cloud sat down in his chair and swiveled it to face the window behind his desk, putting a hand to his forehead. This was his normal sympathy-get routine. Tifa could dance this dance very well. "Cloud..." she was expected to say, and did, running toward him like a sixteen year old girl and kneeling in front of his chair.

"Why don't they understand?" Cloud moaned through the hand on his forehead, index finger and middle finger flat against it, thumb tilted perpendicular, ring finger arched up, and pinky finger extended.

"They don't know what you've gone through, so they couldn't possibly appreciate what you're trying to spare them from," Tifa replied. It was a rhetorical question, but if she didn't answer in the proper fashion, things would only get worse for her.

Cloud came out of his misery quick today and smiled at her. "Thank you, Tifa," he said, brushing his hand across her forehead and wiping off the thin layer of sweat that had formed from the stress of coping with this latest argument. "You know, I've had thoughts of running away, just you and me, and never coming back here again," he said.

"I think that would be a great idea, actually," Tifa said, truthfully, hoping desperately that he was serious. She loved him, but the stress he put on himself with AVALANCHE had turned him into even more of a...creature...than he had been five years ago. Living for himself could be the best thing that he could do for himself at this point.

"So you don't think I can do it, either?"

God DAMMIT.

"That's not what I said, Cloud."

"You don't have to say it. I can see it just fine. You, Reno, Rude, even Vincent. Nobody thinks I can do this!"

Tifa stood up. "Maybe if you stopped chewing on your insecurities every day, you could get over this and move on. I think leaving this all behind would be a great idea. It'll be just you and me, and we can relax. ShinRa is gone. SOLDIER is gone. Sephiroth and JENOVA are gone. Nothing's going to pop out of the ground and get you. And even if it is, that's your personal problem and you need to take time out for it anyway. Outlawing science just because you got locked up by Hojo isn't helping ANYONE. Not everyone who studies science is a demented sociopath like he was. Doing away with science takes care of people like Hojo, but what about the people like Professor Gast who actually did some good in this world?"

"You're wearing taupe today," Cloud said evasively.

It was true. Cloud had recently bought her a set of business suits and skirts that were blazing shades of red and pink. He threw a fit because they were expensive, and made her look like Aeris. "You gonna lock me up, too, now?"

Cloud gave her a petulant, deadpan look, and snapped his fingers. A new and unfamiliar group of Turks rounded the corner.

Young, unskilled hands grabbed her by the arms. If she were anyone else, it would have hurt. "You left Nibelheim because you wanted to impress me. Now that you've impressed me, all I ever wanted to do was help you rest and leave the hard part to people who don't think it's so hard. But you don't want to rest. You want to do everything yourself. And you don't want me. You want Aeris."

Cloud's dead expression didn't change, and Tifa's voice remained level.

"And that's fine with me. I'm just sorry I didn't realize it sooner so I could have avoided this situation in the first place," she said. The Turks began to walk her out, but she didn't feel like being sheepish today. She easily tripped them up and slammed them into the floor with her elbows. Cloud was barring the door in a blink.

"If it's a fight you want with me, fight with me and leave those poor kids alone." Tifa was happy to oblige, and socked him in the face with the wedding ring he gave her. His face to one side, Cloud opened his eyes and said to the closet, "I knew I should have gone with something without a stone in it."

A right hook found Cloud's diaphragm and knocked him out into the hallway. "If it's really Aeris you wanted, you should have stuck to your imagination instead of trying to convert me into her."

Finding his breath and putting his head up against the hallway wall, Cloud replied, "Oh, so it's my fault for pursuing someone I've liked since gradeschool. And my fault for joining SOLDIER to impress her and expecting something back after all the pain and humiliation I've been put through."

"Pain and humiliation is braids and pink business suits. If you're going to mess up your life, do it on your own terms," Tifa replied with another vowbreaking left hook.

Cloud's face was red with rage. "I'm not going to go easy on you just because you're a girl, now, you know."

"I have never found anything about you easy to deal with," she said, kicking her heels off and bracing herself.

Boys have heavier fists than girls. It's an unfortunate fact, but true. All the womens' rights legislature in the universe can't change the fact that someone born with the musculature to fix cars and kill boar for dinner can cause a lot more damage to someone who was born to have children. Even a trained athlete like herself could take serious bruises. And Tifa let Cloud get a good, clean shot. In a way, he deserved it. In a way, she had promised to help him. But in a way, Cloud had not done his part enough to deserve her help. So in a way, he could still go to hell and learn to stand on his own if he was so obsessed with moving forward on his own to stop and let her have any sort of effect on him.

And yet, he still called after her as she ran for the elevator, and forced his fingers through the door at the last minute, but was too late. She looked up at the closed doors as the elevator descended, and he knealt down until he couldn't hear the creaking of the cables anymore.

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