It was such a lovely word. Not so much as a place you live in but more of a sense of belonging. A place you belong to. A person you belong with.
Ever since Tifa left Nibelheim when she was fifteen, she never really had a place to call home. Her father was dead. Her town was burned to the ground. Sometimes, she wished Zangan hadn’t rescued her back then. Sometimes, she wished she had died with her father. Death felt like a better option than this crushing hatred, anger, and hopelessness she bore against the Shinra Company.
The Seventh Heaven bar she ran in the slums wasn’t much. It was only a deserted place of which someone needed to have their hands washed off. But Zangan had been about to leave and Tifa needed a place to stay—a place to work—because she had to move. She couldn’t stand still. Otherwise, she knew that one day, she would be consumed by these raging emotions she had locked deep within her heart.
So, Tifa opened the bar, and gained what little popularity the slums offered. Then one day, a man with a gun for his arm came and introduced her to Avalanche, an ecoterrorists set on bringing Shinra down.
“Aah~” Wedge sighed contentedly at the counter, a half-empty mug in his hand. “Home sweet home.”
Biggs, who was sitting beside him, smacked him across the head playfully. “Where do you think is your home, huh?” he said with a laugh, his own glass still full.
Tifa was filling Jessie’s glass when she chuckled at the interaction. “It’s all right. It’s everyone’s home,” she said. “So, do you want something to go with that?”
“Snacks, please!” Wedge’s hand immediately shot up. “Any kind is okay.”
Biggs shook his head at his friend with a click of his tongue, bringing his own glass of beer to his lips. Tifa just smiled and said, “Coming right up!”
Jessie, on the other hand, rolled her eyes and laughed under her breath. “You’re too kind, Tifa,” she said, drinking from her own glass. Tifa knew it was only a harmless comment, but for a split second, her hands stilled as she was about to take out plates from the cupboard, her fingers curling slightly.
She wasn’t kind. Not really.
The team had just returned from a covert mission above the plate. That was what they did: infiltrate bases, hack into computers, map out the reactors. Sometimes, Tifa would tag along. Most times, she would stay at the bar and gather what information she could glean from her patrons who had had a couple drinks too much, while also taking care of Barret’s six-year-old daughter on the side.
Tifa hadn’t come with them that day. From what she had heard at their meetings in her basement, they were planning to infiltrate and destroy the Sector 1 Reactor. She had actually come across Jessie building the bomb one night, and the sight of it had made her freeze.
Tifa despised Shinra. She wanted to see them burn for what they had done to her and her family. She still had dreams sometimes—of blazing fire under a scarlet sky, of heart-wrenching screams and dying wails, of her father lying in a pool of blood. She would wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night, her pounding heart in her chest felt like it would burst. Her body would tremble, and she would curl on her side, shedding silent tears.
She could still see the silhouette of the silver-haired SOLDIER. The tip of his long, thin sword. The maniacal look he had as he cut her down. The scar still smarted sometimes, even though it had recovered a long time ago.
Sometimes, she would go and get water in the kitchen. Other times, she’d go outside for some air. Tifa would look up, expecting the stars would soothe her restless heart, only to frown at the vast metal plate spreading as far as the eye could see. How could people even live here? Without seeing the sky; without feeling the sun; cooped up under some pretense of a utopia that was sucking out the life and blood of the planet.
If you get really famous and I’m ever in a bind, you’ll come save me, all right?
From the far reaches of her mind, the promise she had made with a certain boy came back to her, and the thought made her smile ruefully.
He never did come and save her. He never returned. Tifa had tried looking for him when she arrived at Midgar, but no one seemed to know him at all. It was as though he had fallen off the face of the earth.
Tifa pursed her lips and clenched her fingers over her coat, wondering where Cloud was and if he were all right.
At one point, Tifa had forgotten about it. Running a bar and being a member of Avalanche had made her busy that she didn’t have time for idle thoughts. Gathering information, equipment, and arms; looking for promising new recruits; helping the team form plans—and finally, in a meeting a day before the big day, Jessie came up and said, “Everything’s in place. We have the map, the guard rotations, and of course, the bomb. If we’re careful, we may be able to finish this unscathed.”
Nods and grins. They were confident in this. Tifa knew she should feel the same, but bombing a reactor…did they really have to go to such lengths? What if innocents were caught in the crossfire?
With no objections, Barret closed the meeting and wished everyone good luck and a good rest. Wedge immediately proposed some drinks, followed by Biggs’s “Here, here!” and Jessie’s “A glass for me!”
But Barret frowned and hit the table with his fist. “You dimwits! Drinking the day before your big mission?”
“Come on, Boss,” Biggs said. “One glass won’t do us harm.”
“Yeah,” Wedge added. “It might even pump our energy for tomorrow.”
Barret’s scowl deepened, then shifted his glare at Jessie, who just shrugged and gave a resigned grin. “We’ll have it really light.”
“Real light. Sure,” Barret scoffed. He looked at Tifa, who cocked her head and smiled inquiringly. Of course, she knew that drinking tonight would be a bad idea, but Tifa also felt like she should give them what they wanted. Their first big job—against a giant, billionaire corporation at that—of course they needed to wind down their nerves if they were to have their best performance tomorrow. Barret probably knew that she understood the stakes, and that was probably the only reason why he finally, begrudgingly consented their demands.
They returned upstairs, where Marlene was keeping the few guests in the bar company. Tifa knew she shouldn’t put the girl to work, but she’s actually quite the genius. Keeping the stove off and every knives and other sharp utensils out of reach, Tifa only needed Marlene to take orders for food that she had already prepared in the kitchen. Marlene understood that perfectly and she never once made a problem.
At the sound of their footsteps climbing the stairs from the basement, Marlene looked up from her seat at the counter. Her face split into a bright smile at the sight of her father. “Daddy!” she squealed, spreading her arms wide.
“There’s my little girl!” Barret exclaimed, scooping Marlene up to his arms and giving her a big bear hug.
“That’s probably the only time you’d see a great big goofy smile on his face,” Biggs muttered under his breath, eliciting chuckles and snickers from the rest of them. They went to take their seats on one of the tables, while Tifa walked behind the counter to prepare their drinks and meals.
“Thanks, Marlene!” she said as she passed the father and daughter. “I’ll take it from here.”
Marlene’s reply was a grin and a wave and Barret walked over to his team with her riding on his shoulder.
Behind the counter was one of her favorite places. Not too near the crowd that their chattering and laughter were deafening, yet not too far either that she felt lonely. The perfect in-between place and at times, she could lose herself wiping the glasses while listening to the hum of conversation in the background. Not now, though, as now she had to prepare a pitcher of not-too-strong-but-not-too-weak drink, something that could ease their worries but still had them sober through the night.
Tifa was busy concocting one such drink that she didn’t realize someone had taken a seat at the counter.
“You holding up good, Tifa?”
Tifa almost jumped in surprise when she heard Barret’s voice so close. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. For someone so big, sometimes he could be so stealthy—or was it because her mind hadn’t been truly present?
“What do you mean?” she asked, getting back to her work.
She could feel Barret’s eyes on her for a while. Maybe she did know what he was talking about. She had told him what a girl from a backwater town like Nibelheim was doing in a metropolis city like Midgar—the abridged version at the least. But she pretended not to know, and Barret finally grunted.
“Well, if you’re good then that’s fine.”
Truth be told, she was as good as could be. Avalanche’s presence in her life helped a lot. The bar was as good as their home with how much time they had spent together in it. They were practically like her family now if she thought about it. So yes, she was holding up quite good.
“And about our plan,” Barret went on. “Do you have anything to say about it?”
“Do you want me to say anything about it?” she asked.
Barret clicked his tongue in irritation. Tifa glanced at him from the corner of her eyes before getting back to preparing their drinks. She didn’t answer until she finished pouring everyone’s drinks in their respective mugs. “I’ve said it before,” she finally said. “I’m not too fond with the bombings, but I can’t think of any other way right now, so I’ll follow your lead.”
Barret huffed and offered no reply. Tifa took that as cue that the topic was closed, so she brought the drinks on a tray to their table, where they accepted their drinks graciously. Barret joined soon after while Tifa brought them their snacks. They had saved her a seat and Wedge was telling her to join but Tifa just smiled and said she needed to take out the trash.
It wasn’t much of an excuse, but she felt she needed to take a breather around the town for a few moments. Why she wasn’t too keen with their mission was that bombings meant fire, and fire reminded her of that day. Sure she told herself that she didn’t want innocents to get hurt, but was that really the reason? In her heart, Tifa knew that the real reason was she didn’t want another Nibelheim incident to happen.
The barking of a dog interrupted her reverie. When Tifa came to, she realized she had strayed from her neighborhood and reached the train station. A dog was barking at a man slumped over the sidewalk, with one of the station guards standing over him.
“Hey,” the guard called. The man’s reply was a groan. “Hey!” the guard called louder, shaking the man’s shoulders.
The slumped man seemed to wince in pain, followed by more grunting and groaning. The only response he could utter seemed to be just that.
The guard bent down to look at the man’s face. “Hey, you all right?” he tried again to no avail.
A drunkard? Tifa wondered. Maybe she shouldn’t get too close. But the man’s face was contorting in pain as he groaned and panted, pounding his head or clutching his chest. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t really leave him be, not now that the guard seemed to have given up and left him by himself. The dog started to whine, sitting on his haunches and nuzzling the man’s listless hand on the ground.
Tifa approached the man tentatively. On closer inspection, the blonde hair and the blue sleeveless garb seemed familiar. She crouched down before him. “Are you all right?” she asked, softly.
The man didn’t answer. He only grunted as he had his head down, his eyes shut, hands pressed over his head, fisting over his hair, as if there was a pounding headache he wanted to be rid of. Tifa pursed her lips.
Tifa gently touched the man’s shoulder again and slowly, quietly, said, “Hey.” She bent down her head to look at his face, and as the man slowly opened his eyes and met her gaze, Tifa froze, feeling a tug of familiarity at the face.
…you’ll come save me, all right?
That voice. It jogged her memory.
He shut his eyes again, his head falling back, his whole body tensing at some invisible pain. A silent scream followed by a groan, Tifa panicked when she saw him about to hit his head with all the force he had. She grabbed his arms and held him back. He was so strong that it took all the energy she had in her to stop him from hurting himself. She should call a doctor, but she couldn’t leave him here by himself. The guard was nowhere to be found.
Then before she knew it, his body went slack again, his chest heaving with exertion.
Tifa bit her lip. “Come on. You can’t stay here,” she said. “Let’s get you to a doctor.” She moved around to his side, was already moving to put his arm around her shoulder to lift him up, when an indiscernible mumble that sounded so much like her name stopped her.
She looked at him, at the hair plastered to his head with sweat, at the face slowly rising up to meet her, at the glazed yet glowing blue eyes. He was looking at her—really looking at her—as if he knew her. Clarity entered his eyes by the second, and slowly, his lips formed a wearied smile.
“Tifa,” he called again, somewhat weakly.
And in her mind flashed a memory of a water tower. Tifa! He’d called her. Seven years was a long time and boys had their voices change around that age.
“Cloud?” she asked tentatively.
The grin on his face grew and the pain and exhaustion she had seen in his eyes melted away until there was no more trace of them. She let go of his arm.
“Yeah, it’s me!” he said, and his eyes were bright, and his grin was lopsided, and it brought back all the memories she had tried so hard to lock away. But it wasn’t the fire nor the deaths—it was the warm and happy times, the smiles of the townspeople, eating dinner with her father, playing the piano in her room. Her friends, and…Cloud—the boy her age who lived next door, whom she would sometimes spot from her window. Before she knew it, tears sprang to her eyes and she had pulled him into her arms and hugged him tight.
All the pent-up feelings she had held for years came bursting out. She hadn’t realized it until she met him, but Tifa had come to miss him over the years, wishing constantly to find him somewhere, to meet him, to make sure that he’s all right. But now he was here, and she hugged him tight, fearing he might leave her again.
Cloud winced and groaned at the sudden embrace and Tifa leaped back, her hands up and eyes wide, forgetting how much pain Cloud had been in a moment ago. “Sorry, did I hurt you?”
“No, that’s OK,” he said, though she could see the grimace on his face as he tried to shift to a more comfortable position. “I mean, it’s been so long, right?”
That grin again. That boyish, lopsided grin. It pulled at her heartstring and made her eyes wet with tears.
Cloud cocked his head to the side, concern lining his face as he said, “Tifa?” She noticed the hand reaching up to her face just as a tear slid down her cheek.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, wiping away the tears and forcing herself to smile and nod. “I’m just—” so happy to find you here. The words were lodged at the back of her throat and for some reason, she suddenly felt embarrassed for thinking such things. “I’m fine,” she corrected herself. “Anyway, what happened to you?”
I looked everywhere for you, but I couldn’t find you anywhere.
Because she had noticed the hollowness in his cheekbones and a gauntness in his face. She had seen the pain in his eyes and the way his body seemed listless just a few minutes ago.
But all Cloud said was, “I’m fine,” and, “Help me get up.” And she did, and she watched as he leaned on that big sword that seemed familiar somehow, and maybe he was fine. Or maybe she just didn’t want to think otherwise. Because Cloud was back. Cloud was with her. And there was no word she could find that could describe how happy she was.
Cloud swayed on his feet, and Tifa immediately had her hand on his arm, only to feel how feeble he seemed. His muscles seemed to be wasted. He looked so thin!
Tifa bit her lip. Who was she kidding? No matter how she wished it to be otherwise, Tifa knew that Cloud was far from “fine”.
Cloud thanked her with a smile, but Tifa only tightened her grip. He looked at her and noticed her concern. “I’m fine, Tifa, really,” Cloud tried to convince her. “I just got dizzy. Nothing a meal couldn’t fix. Besides, we haven’t seen each other for years.” He paused, and for a split second, Tifa noticed his face contorting in pain again, before he said, “Five, was it?”
Five? If memory served her right, it had been seven years since they last met. Five years meant the fire incident. Did she remember wrong?
She looked at him and could find no deceit. Had he really been at Nibelheim at that time? She would remember if she had met him somewhere else, wouldn’t she?
Tifa had thought that having Cloud back in her life would mean feeling more like home. She did, for a short while. She was so happy to have her childhood friend back—she didn’t think she would meet anyone from Nibelheim ever again. Having him with her made her feel like she could finally breathe. The oppressing atmosphere was finally subsiding. Everything would finally go back to normal.
However, there was something different about Cloud. Tifa couldn’t tell what. An uneasiness about his behavior and inconsistent memories that she wondered if it were all her imagination and that she was the one with the inconsistent memory. And when he suddenly announced that he would be leaving the city the next day, Tifa felt that solid and warm ground she had finally found after all these years started to crumble once more and she did everything she could to make him stay.
Tifa told herself that she only did that because she needed to keep an eye on him, because he wasn’t well, but maybe that wasn’t all either. The uneasiness that had gnawed at her was only an excuse to be with him.
If she were truly being honest, Tifa didn’t want to be separated from him again. He was the last connection to her lost childhood. But, more than anything, she wanted to stay beside him, because not once in the five years she had lived in Midgar had she felt more at home than that moment she found Cloud delirious in the train station.
~ END ~