Shards - Chapter 3

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Chapter 3 - "The Bar"

Garren led them back the way they came, back into Sector seven, west past the train tracks, into an area where the roads were narrow and twisted like drunken snakes. The bar was situated between a deli and an office supply store. A simple sign above the door proclaimed it as Maralee's Heaven. If Garren hadn't led her there, she probably would have passed by it without even noticing.

Inside the place was bigger then it had looked from the outside. Not very wide, but it seemed to go back a long way. She couldn't really tell how far because it was so dark inside. Two very small windows out front let in hardly any light. A single fireplace was the only other source, and the haze from the smoke, whether from the fire itself or some other source, just about offset any light it was giving off. The walls were covered with dark pine paneling. Tifa wrinkled her nose at the smell of burning wood mixed with the odor of stale beer.

A bar ran along the wall to her left. A man stood behind it, cleaning some glasses. He wore a white shirt and had dark hair and a mustache. He looked up and nodded a greeting as they walked in.

There were ten or eleven small tables in front of the bar. Only one of the tables was occupied, a couple sipping out of what looked to be glasses of wine. There were also two men seated at the bar. It was still early, Tifa assumed the place would become more crowded later. A girl with long blonde hair was mopping between the tables. She wore a white shirt as well, and denim shorts so short that the pockets hung out the bottom. She smiled at Garren.

"Hello boss," she said cheerfully.

"DB," Garren grunted in reply.

DB stopped her mopping, looking thoughtfully at Tifa, but she didn't say anything.

"This is Tifa," Garren introduced her. "She's gonna be working in the kitchen. Tifa, this is DB."

The girl smiled at her.

"Nice t'meetcha," she said.

"And the gent behind the bar is Kantrel."

The man nodded to Tifa, but said nothing.

Tifa looked at them both and smiled shyly.

"C'mon into the back," Garren said. "I'll show you the kitchen."

Tifa nodded and followed Garren as he led her behind the bar. DB went back to her mopping, but the bartender continued to look curiously at Garren. Finally he shrugged just as they disappeared into the doorway behind the bar.

Compared to the room outside, the kitchen seemed positively tiny. Which made the huge man standing in front of the grill that much more imposing looking. He turned toward them as soon as they entered. He had fiery red hair, and the full beard and mustache made it even more noticeable. His dark eyes looked at them both with a frown, as if wondering who would dare barge into his kitchen without warning, but it immediately softened when he saw Garren. He wore a soiled apron covering grey work overalls.

"Garren, good ya here, man," he said. "The fry vat's on the fritz again. I keep turnin' the dial but it never get's 'ot. As if I don't have enough to deal with!"

"Calm down, Dygus, I'll take care of it," Garren said reassuringly. "It probably just needs the nob replaced, again. You've got to be more careful with those huge paws of yours. It's a delicate instrument, you've got to treat it like one."

"Treat it like one?" Dygus said in disgust. "The things a piece a junk. The trouble is they don't make things these days to take a little manhandlin'. You just touch the damn thing and it falls apart. People used to take pride in their work, they used to make things sturdy, so that they'd last."

"It's a different world," Garren replied resignedly, but he turned to Tifa and looked at her with a half smile on his face. She had a feeling that these sort of complaints from Dygus were quite common.

Dygus seemed about to continue when his gaze suddenly fell on Tifa, as if noticing her for the first time. His frown returned, and he stepped forward and leaned down in front of her, his large bulk towering over her and blocking out everything behind him. Without thought she took a step backwards.

"Who's the lass?"

"Her name's Tifa," Garren responded. "She going to help you around the kitchen. You've been complaining that you needed some help, among other things. Well, now you have some."

Dygus stood up again, his frown was replaced by a look of skepticism.

"This scrawny little thing?" he exclaimed. "Why, she no more than a toothpick. She's probably not even strong enough to lift up the plates, much less wash them. She'll be no help at all."

Garren just shook his head.

"She'll do," he replied. "Be happy you've got any help at all. Just take her around and show her what you need done. I'll be back later to take a look at that fry vat."

"Well, you better hurry," Dygus replied. "The dinner crowd is gonna be comin' in soon, and we're gonna need the fry vat, less you wanta explain to them all why they can't have fries with their burgers."

Garren did not seem phased by Dygus' threat.

"I'll be right back," he repeated. "And Tifa, might be a good idea if you stay back here for the evening. I don't want you coming out front. There's really no need for you to do that, and things can get pretty wild out in the bar some nights. Well, most nights, actually. I don't want to have to worry about you getting into any trouble. We don't exactly get a high class crowd in here, and after some of these people have had a few drinks, they can get pretty obnoxious. It might be better if you stayed out of sight for a while, since this is probably all new to you and, takes some getting used to."

He stopped and looked at her. She just nodded, not completely sure what he meant, but thinking she had the general idea.

He nodded slowly, then turned abruptly and walked out the door.

Tifa turned to see Dygus looking at her with a critical eye.

"Well, let's get to it then, lass," he boomed. "Might as well put you to some use, as long as you're here. Maybe by the end of the night, we'll get some muscle on those bones of yours."

Dygus gave Tifa a quick tour of the kitchen, just enough to give her an idea of where everything was, before he started her to work on the dishes. There weren't many of them, it still being early, and it didn't take her long to finish. Dygus mumbled and grumbled to himself the whole time, and even though he seemed to be busy with his own work, she could tell he was keeping a close eye on her.

Along with doing the dishes he soon had her cleaning and fetching supplies. It was all menial work, but she did as she was told without complaint. She didn't care what she was doing, she was just happy to be out of that apartment.

It got busier about an hour later, as the dinner crowd came in. Garren had come back in earlier and fixed the fry vat, which gave Dygus one less thing to complain about, not that it slowed him down much. Even when it wasn't busy he seemed constantly to be in motion, always worried that something wasn't quite right. To Tifa, the busier it got, the more disorganized things seemed to be. Yet no matter how confusing it became, Dygus always seemed to know where everything was and what to do. He obviously had a method, probably developed through long years of experience, but Tifa couldn't follow it. She had done some cooking at home, especially after her mother had died. In fact, she was quite proud of her cooking skills, but that had just been for her father and her. She realized it was just a bar, and probably didn't get the kind of dinner business a regular restaurant might, but for her, who had never had to cook for more than two or three at a time, it looked overwhelming.

It wasn't difficult to keep up with the dishes. DB was in and out constantly, bringing in the dishes from the tables she'd cleared and taking the orders out to new ones. Tifa was kept fairly busy, but even so there were short periods when the dishes were done and she had nothing to do. Dygus was too busy to give her other things to do, so she just tried to keep clear of Dygus. She offered to help with the cooking once but he just snapped at her to stay out of his way. She didn't ask again.

Eventually, some time after eight, it started to slow down, at least, in the kitchen. Finding herself with no more dishes to do, Tifa wandered over to the door and looked out. It might have slowed down in the kitchen, but the bar outside was as busy as ever. Most of the customers were men dressed in casual clothes or blue collar work clothes, although there were a few women scattered among them. The juke box was playing in the background, but it was not very loud. A typical bar scene from the lower class part of a town, but it was all new to Tifa. She looked at the faces of the men lined up along the bar and couldn't help but wonder why they were here, what they were thinking. Were they just here to unwind after a tough day at work, or were they here to drown their sorrows for other reasons? The people at the tables were having conversations, but for the most part the man sitting at the bar were silent, except perhaps when they ordered another drink. Their faces were serious, all business.

So absorbed was she in her observations that she didn't see DB coming through the door with a tray of mugs, nearly knocking them both over.

"You have to stay outa the way," DB admonished.

"Sorry," Tifa replied.

"So'kay," DB responded. She placed the mugs down on the counter.

"So how you doin' kid?" she asked, pushing her hair back behind her. "Dygus isn't runnin' you ragged, is he?"

Tifa shook her head.

"Never mind about her," Dygus interrupted. "Here's the orders for table eight. And I've got the appetizers for eleven ready."

"Yeah, yeah," DB replied, taking the plates Dygus was proffering. "I hate Fridays. It's always busy and the cheapskates around here never give you a decent tip."

She turned and pushed the door half open with her body. She looked around, then at Tifa.

"Hey, if you're not doing anything, could you go out and clear off table three? There's people waitin' and I kinda got my hands full."

Tifa looked out the door uncertainly. She hadn't forgotten that Garren had told her to stay in the kitchen.

"I don't even know where table three is," she said slowly.

"Right over there, to the left. Right in front," DB replied with the nod of her head. "It's the only one that's empty. Thanks a bunch."

Before Tifa could protest further DB was out the door and walking away.

Tifa stood in the doorway, hesitating. Garren had told her to not go into the bar proper, had given her the impression that the bar would be filled with a bunch of drunken wild men. Yet looking around, the place was downright peaceful. Most of the men were rough looking, but they all seemed to be minding their own business. She had a feeling Garren was being a bit overprotective. Surely it wouldn't do any harm to go out and clean off one table. After all, she was working here, and DB had asked her to do it.

She looked over at Dygus, but he was busy with an omelet on the grill. He wasn't paying any attention to her anymore.

She looked out the door once more. Kantrel stood at the end of the bar, passing out more drinks, but she still didn't see Garren.

Making up her mind, she grabbed a tray and walked out the door. As she made her way over to the table she couldn't help but notice quite a few of the men looking up and staring at her. She glanced around nervously. Some of the men turned away when she looked at them, but most continued to look right at her in a way that made her very uncomfortable. She quickly lowered her gaze and looked at the floor until she reached the table.

She started picking up the mugs and placing them on the tray, keeping her eyes on the table. Two men walked by behind her. She moved over to let them pass. She leaned forward to get the last of the mugs. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she suddenly felt a hand grab her ass and squeeze it hard.

She yelped and jerked away, some of the mugs tumbling off her tray onto the floor, with her not far behind. She spun around, sitting up and gawked at the man standing over her with a leer on his face.

"A bit sensitive, now ain't we darlin'?" he questioned

The man with him laughed, and she heard several other patrons chuckling as well.

The man extended his arm to her.

"Can I give you a...hand?" he asked.

They both laughed again, and then turned and walked away. Tifa sat there for a moment, her face crimson. She felt as if every eye in the place was on her. Since there was no convenient hole to crawl into, she got up and picked up the mugs, not daring to look around at anyone else in the room.

As she walked back to the kitchen she suddenly heard Garren's voice.

"What's going on?"

It nearly made her drop the mugs again. She turned to see him staring at her sternly.

"I thought I told you to stay in the kitchen."

"I...I'm sorry," Tifa stammered. "I was just...that is...DB asked me to clear off a table."

"DB huh?" Garren said, frowning. He looked around and spotted the blonde girl in front of one of the tables near the back.

"Tessa!" he called out.

DB looked up and Garren waved her over.

"No," Tifa protested. She didn't want to cause any trouble. She felt like she needed all the friends she could get. "It wasn't her fault. I volunteered."

Garren looked at her skeptically.

"Yeah, right," he muttered.

"No, really," Tifa pleaded. "She didn't know. Don't yell at her. Please?"

Garren looked at her doubtfully for a moment, until DB walked up beside them.

"Whatssup boss?" she questioned.

Garren hesitated a moment. Finally he pointed.

"I think the people at table six are ready to leave," he said finally.

"Okay," DB said and walked away.

Garren cast his gaze once more at Tifa.


Tifa nodded.

"Thank you." Tifa nodded again, forcing a wan smile. She walked quickly back to the kitchen. She stopped to glance around just once, right before she went through the door. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying attention to her anymore. At least, that was what she thought until she noticed one man, by himself at a table along the far wall, with his eyes locked on her. He was leaning back in his chair, a drink in one hand. He was wearing a dark colored trench coat, but she couldn't make it many details in the dim light.

Quickly she turned away and walked through the door.

"The dishes are piling up," Dygus commented as she reentered the kitchen.

She nodded and got back to work, which she was more than happy to do. She wanted to forget as quickly as possible what had happened outside.

But a few minutes later DB came back into the kitchen and was kind enough to remind her.

"What happened to you out there?" she asked.

Tifa felt herself blushing again.

"N...nothing," she said softly.

DB eyed her.

"Did one of those guys get a little free with his hands?" she questioned.

Tifa said nothing. She really wished everyone would just forget about it. Finally she gave a curt nod.

"Sorry, shoulda warned ya," DB said matter of factly. "Happens a lot around here."

Tifa looked at her.

"And it doesn't bother you?" she asked.

DB smiled.

"Hell no," she replied. "I kinda take it as a compliment. Least it shows they're interested. Besides, if it bothered me, I sure as hell wouldn't be workin' here, you know? Kinda goes with the territory. If you hang around here long enough you'll get used to it."

Tifa sincerely hoped that wouldn't be the case.

"Anyways, I'd like to thank ya for not rattin' out on me to Garren," DB continued. "He told me that you was supposed to stay in the kitchen. I just forgot. Honest."

Tifa shook her head.
"Those dishes aren't going to clean themselves," Dygus interrupted.

Tifa realized she had been neglecting her duties. She gave DB an apologetic look and turned back to her chores, but DB came up beside her.

"Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you," she said, glancing over at Dygus to make sure he was no longer paying attention. "One of the customers was askin' me aboutcha."

Tifa looked at her in surprise.

"Asking about me?" she said. "Asking what?"

"You know," DB replied. "Who you were and what you did here. He wanted to know if you could be his waitress."

Tifa remained silent. She didn't know what to say, but one thing was sure, she didn't want anyone she had seen tonight to have any interest in her in any way.

DB just stood there, obviously expecting some sort of response. When none was forthcoming she continued on her own.

"Well? Don't you even want to know who it was?"

Tifa still hesitated. She had a feeling she didn't want to know, but she had to admit to a certain curiosity about it. Finally she nodded.

DB glanced once more at Dygus, then pulled Tifa quickly over to the door.

"The guy right back there," she said, nodding with her head. "Sitting my himself along the wall, with the trench coat on."

Tifa didn't reply. It was the man she had noticed staring at her earlier. She stepped back. DB just looked at her, again waiting for a response and again was disappointed.

"So whaddya think?" she finally blurted out.

Think? What did she think? She was tempted to laugh. DB seemed to be taking this so seriously. She'd been out with some boys in Nibelheim, but nothing that had ever been serious. The customer DB was pointing out was a grown man!

"I don't think he's my type," Tifa said slowly.

DB frowned. She looked out the door once again.

"Really?" she said. "I think he's kinda cute."

Tifa had no idea how to reply. She was flattered that the man had asked about her and a little curious, but she wasn't going to take any of this seriously.

"I really better get back to my dishes," she said.

She started in on the dishes once again. DB stood next to her for a few moments, then shrugged.

"Suit yourself," she said. "But I think you might be missing out here. You only live once, you know? You might was well enjoy yourself while you can."

Tifa just continued doing the dishes. She was pretty sure she didn't want that kind of fun just yet.

Dygus suddenly noticed that DB was still there.

"Would you quit pestering my help?" he snapped. "Here's the orders for tables six and twelve. Get a move on before they get cold."

"Yes your highness," DB said sarcastically. Nevertheless, she picked up the plates and sauntered out.

Tifa went back to work, hoping for no more interruptions. She felt a little better now that she had something to think about besides what had happened when she had been clearing off the table. It was true, she had been out a few times with boys, but she thought using the term date would have been generous. For some reason none of the boys in Nibelheim had ever really struck her fancy.

Without realizing it at first, her thoughts drifted back to the night at the well. The night she had said goodbye to Cloud.

He had been such an interesting boy. Shy and withdrawn, but there had been something about him, something she could never really put her finger on. Most of the boys she had met had been so shallow, thinking only about themselves. Cloud had always been different. He seemed to see things in ways no one else did. Despite his shyness and the wall he had built between himself and the rest of the world, she had occasionally caught glimpses of a unique and creative mind. In all the boys she had met since then, she had never found that again.

As she placed the newly cleaned mugs on another tray, she couldn't help but wonder, once again, where he was now.

She abruptly shook her head to snap herself out of it. What was she thinking? What kind of fool was she to pine over someone she hadn't seen in years, who hadn't sent so much as a single letter in all that time.

Besides, they had hardly even known each other. None of her friends had liked him. Even her father had not cared for him. They had never gone anywhere together. Just had talked sometimes when they had met on the street. She had been twelve years old! You couldn't fall in love at that age.

Could you?

Perhaps it was just a dream. It was easy to see his good points from afar, now that he was gone, and just as easy to overlook his bad. Perhaps if she had gotten to know him better he would have turned out just like the others. Perhaps after he had left she had turned him into her idealized man, someone no one else could compare to or compete against. Maybe she was just chasing a fairly tale.

In which case, wasn't it about time she grew up?

Besides, even if she did meet him again someday, who's to say he would feel the same? What were the chances he would even remember her? With her luck, he'd probably be married to some gorgeous girl.

Her hair hung limply in her eyes, wet from the steam of the dishes. She lifted her head and brushed it aside.

What a stupid thing to dwell on.

DB came in again, with another load of dishes and mugs. Tifa started in on the next batch, trying to will herself not to think at all.

The night was pretty steady after that. Around ten o'clock Dygus told her to take a break and have something to eat, which he whipped up for her, free of charge. The food was surprisingly good. Dygus was an excellent cook. She wondered why he wasn't working in some nice restaurant instead of this place, but she never came out and actually asked him.

After she was done it was back to work. It was almost eleven o'clock now and she was beginning to get tired, both physically and mentally. She still wasn't up to full strength. But she just gritted her teeth and kept on working. She was determined to prove to Dygus that she was tougher than she looked.

As the night wore on she noticed that the volume of noise that filtered in from the bar seemed to increase. When she looked out the doors later it seemed about as busy as it had been earlier, but that the people themselves seemed to be talking much louder, at least, the one's that were talking at all. She supposed it had something to do with the alcohol. By this time many of the people had been here for hours, more than enough time to get fully stewed.

A couple of times she heard shouting as an argument broke out. Each time Dygus would stop and stand still, tensing and obviously listening. But each time the shouts died down rather quickly, and Dygus went back to what he was doing. But just after midnight she heard more shouts outside, and this time, instead of dying down, they seemed to grow louder, until suddenly she heard a thud and the cracking of wood.

"Here we go again," Dygus growled. He turned and grabbed hold of a huge frying pan that was hanging by the door, then, belying his large bulk, barreled past Tifa into the bar.

Tifa ran out behind him to see that some people were fighting by the tables to the her right. She couldn't exactly see how many there were, since it was hard to tell who was fighting and who was just trying to get out of the way, but it seemed to be at least four or five people directly involved. Kantrel had already jumped over the bar and was struggling with one of the men. DB was crouching behind a tray near the back of the room, trying to stay out of the way. With a bellow Dygus ran forward. One of the men turned to face him and was rewarded to have the frying pan crack across the top of his head. He dropped to the ground instantly. Dygus waded in, bellowing curses. The sight of the huge man wildly swinging his weapon of choice was enough to get almost all the others to stop.

Except for one man, who dodged around the pan and suddenly pulled out a knife.

There had been shouts from the crowd, some of the curses, some of them yells of encouragement, but when the knife appeared they all suddenly fell silent. Suddenly things had gotten serious.

Dygus raised his weapon, and appeared about to leap forward, when Garren suddenly appeared beside him and grabbed hold of his shoulder to stop him. Dygus stood still, his frying pan ready to strike, while the man eyed him narrowly.

"I really think you should put that down," Garren said calmly. "I'm afraid I can't afford to have you skewering my cook. A good one isn't that easy to come by, you know."

The man did not reply, but he didn't lower the knife, either. He just stood there, a bit unsteadily. It was obvious that he had had quite a bit to drink.

"C'mon," Garren said. "Put it down. Nobody here wants anyone to get hurt."

The man still did not reply. He stood there a moment more, then seemed to make up his mind. He suddenly lunged forward, aiming the knife at Garren.

Garren easily sidestepped the clumsy blow. He grabbed hold of the man's arm, twisting it and wrenching the blade from the man's grasp. In a moment Kantrel had come up behind the man and pinned his arms behind him.

"Get rid of him," Garren said. Kantrel nodded and escorted the man from the premises. Garren looked around at the others in the bar.

"All right, shows over," he stated.

Almost immediately the volume level returned to where it had been before the altercation had begun. Satisfied that his work was done out here, Dygus walked past Tifa back into the kitchen.

"I haven't seen you around here before."

Tifa turned, startled, to see the man she had seen earlier in the trenchcoat standing beside her. A shock ran through her. He was obviously expecting an answer, but she was so unnerved she just stood there.

"What's your name?" the man asked.

For a second Tifa did not reply.

"Tifa," she said finally.

"I'm Dulane," he said. He didn't take his eyes off her as he spoke. She found that made her very uncomfortable, as if she wasn't uncomfortable enough as it was. "You just move into the neighborhood?"

"Umm, yeah," Tifa replied. She wasn't sure she should be talking to this man, much less answering his questions.

"I thought so," he replied. "I hadn't seen you around. I know most of the people in the neighborhood. Do you live far away?"

Even though Dulane seemed harmless enough, that still wasn't something she was going to be specific about.

"Not far," she replied.

"Really?" he responded. "Well, I hope to see you around the neighborhood then. It's nice to see a new face around here. If you have any questions or need someone to show you around, I'm pretty easy to find."

"Thanks," Tifa responded, though she thought it extremely unlikely she'd ever take him up on the offer.


She turned as Garren walked up to her. He put his hand on her shoulder.

"C'mon, I need you in the kitchen."

Tifa gave Dulane an apologetic look as Garren steered her into the other room. He stopped once they were through the door.

"What did that guy want?" Garren questioned.

"Nothing really," Tifa replied. Something in the Garren's voice made her think something wasn't quite right. "Why?"

"I want you to stay away from him," Garren stated.

Tifa looked at him. The man hadn't done anything untoward. But before she could question him, Garren continued on his own.

"The man's a pimp. In fact, he's not just any pimp. He's the pimp. He runs the largest prostitution business in Sector seven. Even larger than Don Corneo's organization over in Wall Market. And he didn't get that way by being nice. Oh, he knows how to sweet talk when he has to, but he's also into extortion and murder. There's only one thing he'd want from a girl like you. You catch my drift?"

Tifa nodded slowly, though she could hardly believe what Garren was telling her. The man hadn't given her that impression at all. He had just seemed like an ordinary guy. He hadn't even had the lecherous look in his eye that most of the other men in the bar seemed to possess. She would never have guessed.

"We were just talking," she said. "DB didn't seem to think he was dangerous."

Garren's face pinched into a frown.

"DB's an idiot," he said bluntly. "Don't listen to anything she tells you. The girl's in another world. The only thing she's interested in is finding the next guy she can connive into buying drugs for her."

Tifa's eyes widened in surprise.

"She' addict?" she said slowly.

"She does have a taste for heroin, yeah," he said. "And just about anything else she can get her hands on."

Again Tifa was taken totally by surprise. She had just met DB, but even so she would have never suspected such a thing. It seemed almost impossible to believe that she could be so wrong about all these people. She didn't consider herself an expert at sensing other people's character, but she thought she should have had some clue.

"But...then...if everyone knows about it, why doesn't anyone do anything? Why doesn't anyone help her?" she questioned.

Garren leaned back against the counter behind him, his face serious.

"I tried, once," he replied. "But you can't make someone stop doing something just because you know it's wrong. They have to want to do it themselves. People see what they want to see. If someone refuses to believe they have a problem there's not a hell of a lot you can do about it."

Tifa didn't know what to say. She was about to ask another question when Garren cut her off.

"Midgar's a dangerous place, Tifa. Especially here in the Sector seven slums. Almost no one is who they seem. I don't mean to scare you, but there are plenty of unscrupulous people around here who would just love to get their hands on a pretty young girl like you. I can't watch over you every minute. You've just going to have to be careful. If you want to walk alone down the streets in the middle of the night, that should be your right, but you'd be crazy to do it nonetheless. I know it's not fair, I know it's not right, but that's just the way it is."

Tifa remained silent. She had been bored being cooped up in Garren's apartment. She had thought he was being overprotective when he hesitated to let her leave the place. But now his apartment was sounding more and more appealing to her.

"For someone who's not trying to scare me, you're doing a pretty good job," she told him.

She got the faint hint of a smile for that.

"Sorry," he said. "But that's the way things are around here. And the sooner you realize that the better off you'll be. But I think I've scared you enough for now. The dishes are starting to pile up. You better get back to them before Dygus has heart failure."

A snort from the big man indicated that he had overheard the comment.

Tifa nodded and got back to her dishes as Garren walked out. She had to admit, if nothing else, it was turning out to be an interesting night.

Things slowed down not long after that. Dygus kept Tifa busy, cleaning up and putting supplies away, getting ready to close up. Occasionally Tifa would glance out the door. There seemed to be fewer people each time she looked. The last time she did she could only see one or two customers at the tables. She spotted Garren sitting at the bar, with Esella perched on his lap, chatting merrily away.

Tifa was surprised once again. After the fight they had the night before, Tifa had been pretty certain they would never speak to each other again, yet here she was, talking and laughing as if it had never happened, just as Garren had predicted. Tifa shook her head slowly. Wasn't there anybody here she could understand?

DB came in a few minutes later.

"We're closing up," she announced, looking at Tifa. "Garren said it's alright for you to come out and help me clear off the last of the tables."

Tifa hesitated, remembering what Garren had told her. But then she nodded. Garren was right outside the door, sitting by the bar. If DB was wrong or mistaken or whatever, she'd know right away.

She followed DB out the door. Garren was still at the bar, smoking a cigarette. Esella turned toward her and her eyes opened in surprise, then quickly darkened.

"What's she doing here?" she exclaimed.

She didn't see Garren's eyes roll heavenward, but Tifa did.

"She's working here," he replied.

"Working here?" Esella sputtered. "Now she's gonna be here too? Can't we have any privacy at all? What, you gonna take her on our next date too?"

"Esella, don't start in again," Garren said resignedly.

For a moment Tifa was afraid the argument from last night was going to start up all over again. For a moment the anger was plain on Esella's face. But then it melted away.

"Sorry Garren," she said sweetly. "It's just that we haven't spent a lot of time together lately, just the two of us. You know?"

Tifa walked over to the tables, drifting out of earshot. She couldn't help but glance over at them every now and then. She wished there was some way she could make Esella understand that she wasn't a threat. She had no romantic feelings for anyone right now, much less Garren. All she wanted was for everyone to leave her alone so she could get on with her life.

Esella didn't seem upset anymore, however. She was smiling and laughing again, so maybe things were okay. Tifa helped DB bring the last of the glasses and mugs into the kitchen. She cleaned the last of them, then helped Dygus finish straightening up. When Garren came in and asked if they were ready to go they were just completing the job.

Garren had already gotten Tifa's jacket. They all walked back out into the bar. DB stood by the entrance, beside a man Tifa hadn't seen before. DB waved and said goodbye, then walked out the door with the man. Tifa looked around, but the only people left were her, Garren, Dygus and Kantrel.

"Where's Esella?" she inquired.

"She took off," Garren replied.

Tifa looked at him questioningly, but he didn't seem interested in saying anything further about it.

They walked out the front door, an icy cold wind immediately whipping around them, setting Tifa's teeth on edge.

"See you all tomorrow," Garren said as he locked the door.

"Can hardly wait," Kantrel commented.

"Goodnight Garren, Tifa," Dygus said. Then, after a moment. "You did a fine job there, girl."

Tifa smiled.

"Thanks," she said as Kantrel and Dygus strode into the darkness.

Tifa followed Garren as he led her back toward his apartment. She pulled her jacket tighter around her, but she still shivered. It was well after one in the morning. The sky was clear, a three quarter moon hung suspended in the south, casting a silvery light on the roofs of the buildings around them. But for the most part the streets themselves were dark. A few of the windows they passed were illuminated from within, but the light did not lessen the darkness of the streets outside. A few street lights were the only other source of light, but they seemed surprisingly far apart, and many of them were not working at all. Inky pools of blackness surrounded them, and in every one of them Tifa imagined malevolent eyes watching them. She didn't need Garren to warn her, she stayed right beside him. In Nibelheim she had often been out after dark, walking in the forest, and had never once worried that something might happen to her. Here, every shadow, every darkened entranceway, seemed a threat.

She decided conversation might help her not dwell on that.

"How come Esella left? Did you have another fight?"

Garren peered at her in the darkness.

"Nah," he said. "Not really."

They were silent for a moment. Garren's 'not really' hadn't sounded very convincing.

"I'm not causing problems between you and Esella, am I?" Tifa pressed. "I'm not trying to."

Garren shook his head.

"I know that," he replied gruffly. "Don't worry about it. That's just the way Esella is. There's nothing anyone can do about it. If it makes you feel better, we'd had worse fights in the past."

Tifa thought about that. It did make her feel a little better. Maybe she was overreacting about the whole thing. Still, if they had had worse fights, she could't imagine how they had been.

In any case, from the look on Garren's face Tifa suspected this was a subject that was better dropped.

"Is the bar usually like that?" she asked.

It took Garren a moment to shift gears along with her.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Are there fights often?"

Garren shrugged.

"Pretty much," he replied. "That's the kind of people we get around here. There's always a few customers blowing off some steam. Usually doesn't amount to much."

"It seems pretty dangerous," she commented.

Garren did not reply.

"Earlier you called DB Tessa," Tifa changed subjects once again. "Why?"

"That's her name."

"Then why do you call her DB?"

Garren smiled.

"That's her nickname. It stands for dizzy blonde."

Tifa bit off a smile of her own.

"Why is the bar named Maralee's Heaven. Who's Maralee?"

The smile vanished from Garren's face immediately. He turned toward her.

"You're asking a lot of question tonight," he proclaimed. "I think this is the most you've talked since I met you. What's gotten into you?"

Tifa shrugged.

"I don't know," she said. "I just thought talking might take my mind off all this darkness around us."

Garren was silent for a moment, then nodded slowly.

"Maralee's someone I used to know. Maybe I'll tell you about her someday," he said, as if that explained it all. The tone of his voice made it quite plain that this too was something he wasn't in the mood to discuss.

They walked on in silence for a while. Tifa noticed that they were back by the river. Not far to go now.

"Dygus is an awfully good cook," she stated. "Don't take this the wrong way, but why isn't he working in some nice restaurant?"

"He was once, but he had a run of bad luck."

"Bad luck. What do you mean?" Tifa said.

The rumbling of a train could be heard from the tracks to the west.

"He's an alcoholic," Garren said. "Not that most of us wouldn't fit in that category. It pretty much wrecked his life. He's never been able to hold a decent job."

Tifa looked down at her feet. Another sad story. Did everyone in this damned city have one? She lifted her head again.

"What about Kantrel?" she said. "What's up with him?"

"He killed a man," Garren said immediately. "Caught the guy with his wife. It was in Mideel. Apparently the guy was some sort of big shot, and his friends came after Kantrel with a vengeance. He's been on the run ever since. The slums of Midgar seemed a good place to get lost."

Tifa just sighed. At this point she had been expecting something like that, or worse. What a strange place this was. It seemed as if every misfortunate or misfit had somehow gravited here .

Suddenly she stopped short. Garren stopped too and turned to see her looking at him curiously.

"What about you?" she said. "DB's an addict. Dygus an alcoholic. Kantrel's a criminal. I'm a lost soul. But you seem like a smart enough guy. You seem to know what's what. What are you doing here?"

For a moment they just stood there looking at one another in silence. Finally Garren shrugged.

"I think I liked you better when you were quiet," he muttered with a smile. "That's another story I might tell you about...someday."

End of Chapter 03

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