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The bartendress was cleaning up. Her bar was closed for lunch now, and sloppy customers had, as usual, left a fine mess for her to clean up. Mugs littered the tables, crumbs scattered across the floor, beer spills everywhere, and there was still a man in the restroom, vomitting. The woman gathered the dishes into a pile at the sink to be washed, mopped up the spills, wiped away the crumbs, disposed of the food, and arranged the tables and chairs. She then asked the man nicely if he would leave.

          “Excuse me, sir,” she said politely, “The bar is closed now, and it’s time to leave. Please gather your belongings and go so I can finish cleaning up.”

          The man stood with difficulty, staggering with every step. “Ya know whah? I never noticed but you got the prettiest eyes I ever saw.” The man’s speech was slurred and uneven. “You’re twin’s pretty hot, too! You an’ I should go out someti-“ The drunk passed out. The bartendress sighed and dragged him out the door.

          The woman returned to the the sink and began to scrub away the filth. Her hands worked skillfully, repeatedly passing soap and water over the plates and mugs, then rinsing them and placing each neatly in the drying rack. She paused at one dish and stared at her reflection off the plate’s silver face.

          She nearly did not recognize the face staring blankly back at her. She was only 20, but somehow her face seemed to look older, overworked, broken. Her raven bangs parted to one side almost hid her scarlet eyes. But something about the bartendress’s own reflection made her draw back. Was this her? She must be tired from being up all night serving drinks. No… This job was making her less and less lively and beautiful each day. The woman thought back to her younger days of 15…

          A sudden terrible memory passed through her mind. No. Don’t think about that. She couldn’t even remember it all clearly… She continued with the dishes. This job was all she had. Besides, the business was good and it was the only way to make money around here. Still… She longed to get away from the scent of alchohol and dirty slum men. But she was lucky to have even this, after…

          She was thankful to have run into Barret. She had been all alone until a few months ago. She thought back to that day. The weather was… non-existant, as usual. A simple bleak sky of black. She had wandered about Sector 7 and came upon a little girl. She was sitting on a park bench, swinging her feet morosely. The woman had sat next to her to rest from her walk, and noticed her lonliness, to which she could relate.

          “Hello,” she had said, “What’s the matter? Why are you all alone?” The little girl had looked at her timidly.

          “Daddy said I shouldn’ talk to strangers,” the girl said quietly.

          “Oh… I’m sorry. It’s just that…” The woman paused. “Where is your father? Shouldn’t he be taking care of you? The slums are dangerous, you know.” The girl turned away and sniffed.

          “He gone away to tell people ‘bout how bad the Shinra are.”

          “…Shinra?” The woman repeated. Hesitating, she looked at the little girl again. What kind of father would abandon their child in the middle of the slums like this? How awful! Her father must have something to do with that rebel group that’s been on the television lately. Poor little girl.

          At that moment, a horrifying large black man with a torn vest and what looked like a machine gun for his right arm approached the woman and the child. “Marlene! Who’s this? I told you not to talk to strangers!”

          “’Marlene…’? Are you this girl’s father?” The woman stood.

          “Yeah,” the man said, annoyed. “Who are you?”

          “My name’s Tifa. Tifa Lockheart. How could you leave a child alone like that?!”

          The man was caught by surprise at her concern. She supposed not many people in the slums cared so much about children being alone, seeing as there were a number of homeless children, and even those with homes were left alone at times. “…Listen ‘ere, missy. I don’ wanna leave her alone, but I ain’t got no choice. Anyway, it’s my business. It’s fer the good o’ the planet!”

          “What do you mean, ‘for the good of the planet’?” The woman said cautiously. She didn’t want to get mixed up with bad people, but she was too intrigued. The man’s face changed.

          “Don’ ya know ‘bout what the Shinra are doin’?”

          “Well, besides manufacturing Mako energy to light the city, no.”

          The burly man held back his fury with difficulty. “Tha’s what everyone says! But it ain’t true, lady. You listen here.” He walked closer, obviously beginning a lecture. Marlene leaned against his leg. “You know where that Mako comes from?”

          “It’s extracted from the ground, isn’t it?”

          “Not just the ground, the earth! This planet’s got a life force inside it that gave birth to you and me and everyone else! Every time you turn on a light, that life get’s used up. And for what? #$(^%ing money! That’s what it’s all about!”

          Tifa looked skeptical. The man continued.

          “You un’erstand? The Shinra are killin’ this planet. And that’s why we gotta do something, or it’ll be the end fo’ all of us.” The man searched Tifa’s face for expression. There was a brief silence. “Ah, I shoulda known you wouldn’ understand. But if y’ever wonder, we’re called AVALANCHE. And we’re gonna be the ones to stop this planet from dying. The only way to do that is to stop the Shinra…” He began to leave, and gestured for Marlene to follow.

          “Wait.”

          The man turned back. Tifa’s face became an expression of inspiration and some kind of determination. “Don’t go. I want to join this… AVALANCHE.”

          Tifa was drawn back to reality. That was the last dish. She needed some air. A walk would be nice. Who knows who she’d run into next.

*

It was cold. Beggars lined the streets and she tried to avoid them. She should have brough a jacket…

          Eventually, her feet took her to the train station. She examined her surroundings and eyed the conductor. He was leaning over a person crouched on the sidewalk. She wandered near timidly.

          “Hey… you okay?” The conductor asked. The person did not reply. As Tifa came nearer, she noticed that the person was a man who was holding something… The conductor waved a hand in front of his face. There was no response. “Poor kid.” The conductor returned to the train and left the man alone. Tifa came closer.

          The young man’s head was bowed lowly and his eyes could not be made out. His hair was spiked blonde, and he held a large, silver, deadly-looking sword. He wore an elite Shinra uniform. He must have been from SOLDIER. Tifa stared at him a moment more. “Hello?” She said, “Are you alright?” The man raised his head slightly and groaned. He was alive. Tifa wondered what was wrong with him. There was something odd about him altogether, yet… familiar. She wondered why her heart was pounding.

          “……Ugh……” The man grunted weakly. He raised his head a little more, almost enough to see her face, then nodded again. The poor guy, she thought. If she could get him to an inn or something… Then he would be okay. But, he was with Shinra… Tifa shook her head. She’d help him anyway. Trying to lift him up, she placed one of his arms across her shoulder and her own under his. He blinked, struggling to look at her. His body twitched.

          “…Tifa……..?” The young man whispered between groans. Tifa gently let go of him for a moment and stared at him. Did she… know him? Something about him seemed to trigger a long-forgotten memory. She searched his upheld face for something to explain who he was. His eyes possessed an eerie, blue-green glow. She blinked uncertainly.

          “Tifa…?” He repeated, louder and more clearly this time, yet still weak. His face grew intense and he seemed to suddenly have more strength. The young man flinched once more, this time rising to his feet. She continued to stare. Something about him…

          “Tifa!” He shouted. Hearing his voice clearly now, she pieced together her memory. Of course! She knew that hair. It must be her old childhood friend from next door.

          “Oh! Cloud!” She exclaimed. He gestured, striking a cool pose. She half-smiled. Something was strange about him…

          “That’s right, I’m Cloud.” Tifa nearly drew back, despite impulses to embrace her old friend. No normal person spoke like that. The poor guy must have been really hurt, she thought. He’d probably lost his family in the accident back home and hasn’t seen anyone familiar in a long while.

          “Wow… I haven’t seen you in…” Tifa paused. “How long has it been?”

          Cloud clutched his head furiously half a moment, then returned to his casual stance. “Five years.”

          Tifa thought back… Five years ago. The accident. Flames. Her eyes windened at the thought and her legs nearly turned numb. She recovered just in time to stand properly all the while, but she had become suddenly pale. She became silent, her face hidden.

          “Tifa? What’s wrong?” Cloud seemed to be at full strength now and spoke normally. He regarded her curiously. His eyes drew hers like pollen-filled flowers draw bees. She gazed into them dreamily a moment and then smiled warmly.

          “……It’s really been a long time.” Tifa held back a tear and wasn’t sure whether it appropriate to hug him or not. She decided against it. It didn’t feel right. Cloud brushed himself off and shrugged. “So what have you been doing all this time?” She asked in attempt to begin casual conversation. Cloud waved a hand about as he spoke.

          “Well, I joined SOLDIER of course, like I said I would,” He began pompously, “And of course we saw eachother at Nibelheim five years back.” Tifa could recall no such event. She hadn’t seen him for seven years. And yet, Cloud seemed to think they had met five years ago? What was wrong with him? Tifa doubted she posessed a long-lost identical twin. This guy must have some kind of problem with his head. Hot as he was, he was acting too strangely for her comfort. Afraid of what to do, she humoured him with a nod. “After the accident,” Cloud proceeded, “I quit and became a mercenary.”

          “Oh, a mercenary?”

          “Yeah, I pretty much do anything for the money.”

          “Oh…” Tifa regarded him through unfocused eyes, her mind racing. The poor guy. He was all alone in the world now. Socially lost and mentally unstable. Though she couldn’t blame him, after what happened in Nibelheim five years ago. Almost all the survivors developed some form of a mental disorder or other. A deep sympathy and attachment for him grew from the bottom of Tifa’s heart, spreading like wildfire. Cloud… the boy who left town and never came back. The cutest boy, the one with the blonde hair. And now here he was, meeting her again in the most unlikely of settings. She didn’t want to lose him to the world again… No, she had to be with him. Watch him. But how…? He was his own man now, with a job that took him everywhere.

          “So what about you? What have you been doing?” Cloud said.

          That’s it! “I’ve become part of a rebel faction against the Shinra, and I run a bar around here,” Tifa winked cutely at this, implying that he would be invitied to come and have a drink after work sometime. But, she had also thought of something else that would bring him closer to her for a while. “Say… You said you’d take pretty much any job? You see, our rebel group’s been looking to hire someone like you for a few jobs bombing some reactors… You wouldn’t feel up to that by any chance, would you?”

          Cloud nodded. “Where is this bar of yours?” His tone indicated interest. Tifa smiled.

          “It’s just down the street. Here, come with me and I’ll show you.”

*

Tifa and Cloud made their way down the street that led through the ruins that were once Sector 7. How long ago it had been when I’d had a bar there… So much has happened. So much has changed. More than that, Tifa thought, we’ve changed. Cloud used to be torn up inside and I used to be afraid of what to do and where my life was going. I think, from all that’s happened, even though so much destruction has been caused, we’ve all become stronger. Tifa had only that reminder for contentment, save the company of Cloud.

          If it weren’t for Cloud… Tifa would probably be dead now. And vice-versa. Over the entire adventure of saving the planet and defeating Sephiroth, both became at ease for the moment. Tifa’s steps ceased.

          “This isn’t the way,” she said.

          “Then where did you want to go?” Cloud blinked.

          “The other way…”

          “Then why did you lead us here in the first place?”

          Tifa giggled. “I just wanted to stand here where my bar used to be. It brings back memories. But that’s not the real reason I wanted you to come with me back to Midgar,” she turned and took his hand, leading him back towards the Train Station. Cloud, confused, followed.

          They passed the Train Graveyard and made their way through Sector 6. Cloud was not permitted to ask any questions regarding the place to which Tifa was leading him. The two walked mostly in silence until they came to the Sector 5 Church. Tifa halted and smiled softly.

          “Here,” she said simply. Cloud blinked.

          “The church?” He asked hesitantly, “Did you come here to remind me of Aeris?” He sighed bitterly. Tifa nodded. The two of them both missed their departed friend. After a moment, Tifa took Cloud’s hand again. “Where now?” Cloud said, but she did not answer. She walked slowly nearer to the old building, silent, and as if in a trance. Cloud, leashed, followed her inside.

          The towering wooden structure had hardly changed despite the blows made in the city’s direction all through the adventure. It had always been an old and sacred place, as it had remained even now. It held an essence of peace, beauty, and the supernatural. Sun still streamed in through the roof, providing the small garden below with life. It was nearly evening now, as the sunlight told with its orange hue. Tifa took gentle steps further and further until her hair shone in its light. Cloud had proceeded behind her and she released his hand absently. She sat down by the flowers to gaze at them until their petals closed to sheild against the night. Cloud mimiced her, evidently lost in thought. No sound was heard save the wind and their breath drawing and releasing. Eventually, the sun had faded. The flowers closed up and Tifa’s eyelids half-shut.

          Cloud was about to remind Tifa of the time and suggest heading to an Inn or some place to sleep, but he decided to delay that urge and savour the atmosphere. At that moment, a very distant melody arroused, speaking of ancient and long-forgotten things. The toungue was foreign, if at all it were someone singing. Both Tifa and Cloud’s eyes searched for a source. There did not appear to be one. The song became louder, clearer, yet still both strange and sweet. It entraptured them, caged them. Then, a small orb of dim light appeared before them in the centre of the flower bed. The light danced and grew slowly as the melody seemed to be nearer and more vivid. Tifa and Cloud gazed simutaniously at the strange light as it continued to slowly expand.

          After a while, the light was no longer spherical. It had become an odd outline, almost star-shaped, then eventually resembled a woman. When the melody became quite loud, the figure seemed no longer to be merely a light. It was the exact size and proportion of a person, probably a woman. The body of light had no apparent features due to its rapid emit of the blinding light but as soon as the figure had perfected its shape, a large and sudden burst erupted from both the light and the song. The light escaped the figure completely, leaving only darkness, and the melody had subsided into fleeting echoes. The figure descended into the middle of the flower bed. Cloud and Tifa continued to gape at the entire occurance, consuming a moment more, before investigating the fallen figure.

          No light was left in the woman-like figure and the sky had become dark and filled with stars, the full moon looming bright enough overhead to make out surroundings. Cloud and Tifa moved nearer to the centre of the flower bed. The figure, now evident to be a woman for sure, stirred. She inhaled breath from around her and gently rose to her feet like one of the blooming flowers. She gazed half-fearfully at her surroundings, as if disturbed from slumber.

          The woman indeed was very much like a flower. She was not very tall, but slender and graceful. Her eyes were green as rainy spring and her hair a golden, earthy brown woven into braids behind, with two additions at the front. Her dress, the colour difficult to make out in the darkness, seemed to be pink under a red vest and her boots too were brown upon the flowerbed. The woman seemed to be an angel sent from above.

          “Where am I?” The woman wondered aloud, staring alarmingly at the awed Cloud and Tifa. “How did I get here?”

          Tifa was now too shocked for words. Only Cloud dared to speak. But even he did so timidly, as if approaching a small, frightened animal. “Aeris?” was all he could whisper. The woman suddenly responded at the name uttered and seemed to piece everything together.

          “…I’m Aeris,” she said with only sufficient certainty. This did not seem to thoroughly convince her. “Aeris? What? Where am I?” She stepped off the flower bed and searched her surroundings. “Oh,” she turned to Cloud and Tifa and nodded. “Then that’s it. I’m…”

          “You’re alive,” Tifa choked, her face pale and lost. Aeris regarded her and nodded again, taking in the situation.

          “Yes,” She said, then crouched down a moment in hesitation. “What... what happened, Tifa?” Tifa could not answer her. She bowed her head and wept. Aeris looked alarmed at this. She ran to Tifa’s side and embraced her as the old friend she was. “Please don’t cry.”

*