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going through the motions

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i.

She is eight, and her mother is dying. But she doesn’t quite grasp the concept of death yet, doesn’t understand why people stare at her with sadness when her mother is still there, and she knows her mother will get better. That’s what her father told her, and she trusts him not to lie. 

So she tries not to throw a tantrum when her mother can’t get out of bed for her birthday, because her mother looks tired, and her father asks her to be a good girl and understand. 

“Tifa, I promise we’ll go out and play tomorrow, okay?” her mother runs a hand through her hair, eyes shining with a guilt that makes Tifa feel bad. She averts her gaze to the floor and nods, and her mother murmurs another apology before bringing her into her arms. 

“C’mon, baby.” Her father’s voice is gruff, and he doesn’t look at her. “Let’s eat breakfast — it’s the most important meal of the day, and if you wanna grow up strong, you better not miss it.”

She nods and backs away from her mother’s embrace, watching her sadly. Her mother just sends her off with a smile and a soft “happy birthday,” tucking her hair behind her ear. 

Tifa grabs her father’s hand and is ushered downstairs to the kitchen, where a cake decorated with lit candles awaited her. Her previous disappointment is quickly replaced with excitement (she’s a child, and sometimes the simplest acts of love is enough), and it’s not like she didn’t expect it, but she hadn’t expected it so early in the day. 

“Suppose it wouldn’t hurt to celebrate early. But don’t tell mom, okay?” her father eyes her expectantly, and she nods eagerly, flopping on one of the chairs. “Now make a wish, baby.”

She pauses, and thinks of the wish she had prepared for this occasion alone — one selfish request. Clasping her hands together, she closes her eyes and hopes. 

I wish Mama gets better, so we can go out with her again.

Opening her eyes, she blows the candles with a smile. 

ii.

She is fourteen, and all the boys have left Nibelheim in search for a brighter future. And despite her pleas, her father denies her the choice to follow them. Says she isn’t ready to face the world, and she trusts people too easily. Little girl like you will be easy for them to take advantage of, he tells her after they argue, when all is well again and she’s forgiven him. I just don’t want you to get hurt.

Tifa is frustrated that he thinks she’s stupid enough to fall for obvious traps — she knows he didn’t say that, but he might as well have — and spends her days wandering around the small town. Checking the only general store they have, saying hello to her neighbors, and asking (well, begging) for some side job they need done. But one of the disadvantages of being a mayor’s daughter is no one wants your help, because they’re afraid of upsetting your father.  

From time to time, she checks the post office to see if she’s received any postcards, any sign that shows no one’s forgotten about her nor Nibelheim. But she overestimates how much free time her old friends have, so she’s the frequent recipient of a pitiful rejection from the lady that works there instead. 

She huffs and lies in bed on the day of her birthday, ignoring the fact that it’s well past noon and she’s already disrupting her daily routine, but she’s bored and frustrated. There’s nothing worth doing in Nibelheim, because now that the kids her age left, she’s stuck with middle aged parents and the town elders. And no one wants to invite a teenager to a town meeting. 

Her father peeks his head inside her room, no doubt aware of her bad mood. She sees him scratch the side of his neck awkwardly, and clears his throat once. “Tifa…?”

“Mrrph.” Her face is buried against her pillow, and she’s too petulant to look at him. 

He sighs and leans against the door frame (or at least, she thinks he did), “listen. I know you said you didn’t need any birthday presents this year, but…” that certainly piqued her interest, and she turns her head. “You’ve got a visitor downstairs.”

Tifa frowns, and sits up. “Visitor? Is it someone I know?”

“Er, no. It’s an old friend of mine — kinda called in for a favor, y’know.” Her father nods at her. “Consider it a birthday gift from me. Go get dressed, and don’t keep ‘im waiting, alright?”

Her frown only deepens, but he walks away before she can ask any more questions, and she closes her door to get ready. An old friend of her dad’s could mean anyone, but if it’s not someone from Nibelheim, then maybe…?

“No way,” she murmurs. He couldn’t possibly be allowing her to leave, was he?

She hurries to put her socks on and runs down the stairs, feeling a hopeful excitement creeping in her chest at the idea of a new adventure. She’s so excited that she nearly slips and bumps into a middle aged man with gray hair and an equally gray beard. Her father scolds her for being reckless, but she’s more unsettled by the way the man is staring intently at her. 

It’s not creepy, certainly not the way some guys have looked at her before her father caught on, but she nonetheless feels intimidated by his stare. Like he’s sizing her up and deciding her worth. 

Her father notices the tension and introduces them. “Zangan, this is my daughter, Tifa. Tifa, meet Zangan.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Tifa.” Zangan bows his head once. 

“Um… pleasure to meet you, too…?” she greets with uncertainty, looking at her father. 

“Zangan is a martial arts instructor.” Her father clarifies. “I asked him to come to Nibelheim and take you as his student.”

That is not what she was expecting. “What?”

“You’ve been wanting to get outta town — and don’t think this is my approval,” he cuts off before she could even entertain the thought, and she pouts. “You’re still a little girl, and turning fourteen ain’t gonna change that any time soon. But… you are getting older. And I can’t keep you in this town forever, even if I want to.”

Her father has always been awkward at expressing his affection, and he clears his throat. “So Zangan here will teach you self-defense, so you don’t get involved with people who don’t mean any good. And when Zangan thinks you’re ready, then we can talk about you leaving.”

It’s not the freedom she asked for, but it’s something — a step towards the direction to her independence. Tifa feels touched that he did this for her, and she expresses her gratitude by running up to him and hugging him tightly, receiving a soft oof and his ever protective arms around her. “Thank you, Papa,” she whispers, “this is the best birthday gift ever.”

He huffs. “We’ll see about that.”

She detaches from him, and meets the gaze of her newly appointed instructor. He smiles before turning serious. “I must warn you, the journey to becoming a good martial artist isn’t easy. Many couldn’t make it past the first week before giving up.”

Tifa feels uneasy again, but she thinks of returning back to her mundane routine, thinks of how all she’s done this past year is wait while the boys who’ve left have no doubt started their journeys to achieving great things, and she knows she’ll fall behind if she doesn’t act. 

“I can handle it,” she answers steadily, her fists clenching. “I’ll prove it to you.”

Zangan appears pleased with her response, and breaks into a grin. “Glad to hear it. Your training starts tomorrow morning — five o’clock sharp!”

iii.

She is sixteen, and her world had just erupted into flames.

The wound — still healing, even though it’s been months since he had struck her — throbs when she thinks of her hometown, thinks of the screams that haunts her nightmares and the smell of flesh burning. She doesn’t think of her father during that night, tries desperately to hold onto warmer memories of him smiling, laughing — but all she sees are his bloodied clothes and weak pleas, and it’s better she doesn’t think about him at all.

Tifa doesn’t know what to do then. She doesn’t remember how she arrived in Midgar, doesn’t remember making such a long journey while bleeding to death — unless Shinra took her here? Pretty ironic, if the people she hated the most were the ones who saved her. 

The train stops at the Sector 7 slums, and she steps off with a sigh, a box of cake tightly clutched in her hand. Even though she’s not in the mood to celebrate anything, eating cake on her birthday is a tradition in the Lockhart family, and she can’t cope with the idea of losing that, too.

Her feet drag her back to her apartment automatically — it’s ironic how she’s begged her father to leave Nibelheim for a year, and now that she’s forced out of it, she doesn’t even venture outside of her routine — and she avoids the landlord’s gaze when she climbs up the stairs to her unit.

In another life, Tifa Lockhart would have left for Midgar and lived in a similarly tiny room, working odd jobs here and there to make it through the month. She would have received a call from her father at the stroke of midnight, missed him beyond all doubt but nonetheless knew that that loneliness was something she had to learn to be accustomed to.

But life never goes as planned. No one would have ever predicted their hometown burning down in flames at the hands of a famous war hero, unstoppable in his might and lunacy.

She sets the cake down on her desk, not bothering to light up any candles (because setting matches and feeling the heat of fire is enough to make her anxious and reckless, and she doesn’t want to burn down the only home she has left), and she sits at the chair in front of it.

Tifa closes her eyes and clasps her hands together. I wish

I wish

Her hands start to shake, and she feels her lower lip tremble. Before she can suppress it, a sob escapes her mouth, and the tears start rolling down her cheeks. It’s not the same. Nothing will ever be the same again. Her father will never see her get older. Her father will never know she survived at all. 

She’s never going to see the Nibelheim she knew ever again. She’s not even sure she wants to see what became of her home, of the well centered around the town. Wishing is pointless, and she resists the urge to throw the cake away.

Maybe this tradition should’ve just died with her father.

iv.

She is twenty, and despite her losses, she’s slowly finding herself around her new world. 

It’s not to say things have been easy. The first few years of living in Midgar were horrible, and she doesn’t remember a day that made her happy. But she’s found herself spending her years worth of savings to buy a bar that was moments away from bankruptcy, found herself getting acquainted with a man who ranted about Shinra eating away at the Planet and planned to do something about it, found herself making connections around the slums until it became a community she was happy to say she belonged in.

She slides the tray on the table Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie have claimed and hands them all their drinks, because even though it’s her birthday, she’d rather focus on everyone but herself. “On the house,” she adds rather pointlessly. The trio cheers and whoops, high energy causing them to start clapping, for some reason. 

“Happy birthday, Tifa!” Jessie yells out, and the other two echo her words before clinking their glasses with much gusto and chugging the alcohol down. Tifa quirks an eyebrow at them — because, really. It’s her birthday, but they seem happier to celebrate than she does — before laughing it off.

“Thanks, guys. The pizza is still cooking, but it should be done soon.” They erupt into louder cheers, and she internally winces before heading back to the bar, but she’s intercepted by Marlene, who beams up at her and opens her arms in a silent request.

She crouches and carries the little girl in her arms, pleasantly surprised when Marlene presses a kiss on her cheek and hugs her as tightly as she could. (It’d never hurt her, but Marlene’s grip is getting steadily stronger — she’s growing up, and the thought of that warms her heart.) “Happy birthday, Tifa,” Marlene greets with as much love as a four year old could give.

“Thank you, sweetie,” she murmurs, returning the hug.

From the corner of the bar, Barret slams his fists on the table — not loud enough to startle anyone, but enough to get everyone’s attention — and clears his throat. She’s not ready for any sort of commemorative speeches, especially coming from someone sentimental and knows her like Barret does, so she moves to stop him, but he just lifts his beer and grins at her, “to Tifa!”

The rest of AVALANCHE practically howls, and she’s starting to feel flustered with all this attention on her. Barret pats her warmly on the back, and she just gives him a grateful smile. 

It’s been so long since her birthday was celebrated like this, by people she’s close to and who’ve shown that they were here to stay — not just pass by her like strangers. After losing everyone in Nibelheim, and struggling to contact the ones who’d left for Midgar…

This is safe. She finally feels a sense of normalcy (as much as a resistance group can offer, anyway) in her daily life, a comfort that tames her anger. For once, she finally allows herself to look forward to a future, where they fight against Shinra and come home for dinner as a family.

Even though there’s no cake this year, she clenches her fist and wishes — more desperately, this time — that this will last. It has to.

v.

She is twenty-three, and this time, she’s made peace with the demons of her past.

Tifa fought so hard to run away from them that she almost lost sight of herself — just like she witnessed Cloud almost lose himself to his guilt. And it’s not really living, though that’s a realization that was seven years too late. They can’t bring back the ones they’ve lost, but they still have loved ones who are there, in the present, and for now that’s enough.

She has the privilege to watch Marlene grow up, both with Barret and in Barret’s stead. To see Denzel’s own trauma heal, to see him accept his role in their family unit. To see Cloud learn how to cope with his grief, and figure out how to be himself.

There’s still gaps where her growth should be — moments when she questions whether she deserves a family after everything, which are ones that Barret scolds her for having to begin with, even though they both know he feels the same way. It’s by no means a perfect journey, but she’s determined to fight back against her own thoughts.

I will keep myself together this time, she thinks, because I want to. Not because I have to .

On the day of her birthday, she receives a call from Cloud. He says he’s going to be delayed, and apologizes for missing out on her birthday. 

“It’s fine,” she tells him, because it’s not an obligation — birthdays are birthdays, and he can always be there for next year’s. “Just have a safe trip home, okay?”

Okay.” He sounds pained, like the guilt of disappointing her was physically hurting him, and she reassures him for a second time. Then the call ends just like that, because goodbyes don’t sit well with either of them.

The rest of their friends arrange a birthday party for her — she doesn’t know who to blame, because everyone pointed fingers at each other when they all showed up at the bar. What matters is they’re making the effort, even if she suspects they just wanted to get drunk.

It’s a party that lasts all night long, even when the lights flicker from overuse and they have to drunkenly stumble around to fix the electricity. When Tifa’s had one too many shots, she decides to sober herself up by going to the rooftop to take a quick break from the chaotic atmosphere.

Breathe in, breathe out. The cold air fills her lungs, and she feels her heart gradually calm itself down. She probably shouldn’t have accepted a challenge from Cid, but she doesn’t regret living in the moment. Even if she feels a headache starting to form.

She leans against the railing and stares at the starless sky, thinking about how it was the same sky spread across their world no matter where she was. She thinks back to when she was younger and admiring the vastness of it all. Now, it’s just a peaceful reminder of one constant in her life, though she still misses the stars.

The door leading up to the rooftop opens, and she looks over her shoulder — or tries to, but she underestimates how bad that headache was, and briefly closes her eyes when her vision starts spinning. “Ugh…” she groans out.

“Tifa?”

Her brows scrunch up in confusion. Isn’t that Cloud’s voice? Just what did Yuffie put into her drink?

“Tifa?” the voice calls out again. It gets closer to her.

Hesitantly, she answers, “…Cloud?” 

She turns her head and sees his spiky hair first, then his concerned expression. “Huh,” she says in lieu of a greeting.

Cloud looks her up and down. “Are you drunk?”

“No… I mean. I did drink. A little bit?” A pause. “Wait. How are you here?”

He said he wouldn’t be home for a couple more days, and unless he time traveled just to get here on time, he shouldn’t be here. 

The blond looks sheepish, and she realizes she said her thoughts aloud. “I lied. But I’m still a little late. Sorry. I got you somethin’ to make up for it, though.” He whips something hiding behind his back, and presents it to her awkwardly: a single yellow lily in pristine condition, freshly cut from the garden. “Happy birthday.”

It’s funny how it takes her back to the past, but there’s no sadness that accompanies her memory; instead it feels like a lifetime ago, when she first received a present like this on a seemingly mundane occasion. She remembers how she tried her best to preserve its fleeting beauty, because a precious commodity in the slums should be treated with the utmost care. She accepts the gift, gingerly grabbing the flower by the stem and plucking it from Cloud’s hands. 

He seems pleased. “She said you would like it.”

Tifa bites her lower lip then. He has mentioned hearing her at the church whenever he visits, and whenever she wills herself to be heard. “Oh.” There’s a bitterness that pools at her stomach then, but it’s not the liquor that she chugged down, and she’s old enough to recognize that it isn’t jealousy. 

If she could reach out to us…

“Why hasn’t she talked to me…?”

Cloud seems as startled by her question as she is, because damn it, she didn’t mean to say it out loud. She hurries and backtracks. “I know, that’s a little selfish of me. It probably takes a lot to talk to the living.”

The blond looks at her guiltily, before he turns his head to the side, as if listening. “...maybe you should pay her a visit. Talk to her.” He takes his time to articulate his feelings, before continuing. “It helped me, a little. Being surrounded by something that meant a lot to her.”

When was the last time she went to the church? On her own, without Marlene or some enemy lunging after her? 

Maybe she is being selfish, expecting Aerith to reach out to her when she’s barely made an effort to do the same. And maybe, just maybe, she hurt her feelings, too.

She nods, looking up at the sky. “Okay.”

The two of them stand side by side, a comfortable silence surrounding them. She’s already poured her heart out to Cloud multiple times, and he’s done his best to be more open — to let her understand him, even when he couldn’t understand himself just yet. So when the time came for them to be alone, there was nothing else needed to be said. He plans to stay by his family, by her, for as long as he’s able to. And that’s all that matters to her. 

A loud crash sounds several floors below, followed by slurred cursing, and she sighs. “Happy birthday to me,” she says wryly, before pulling herself away from the railing. She needs to assess what damage was done by who before she got around to scolding, which is becoming a norm for her friends these days. 

She’s halfway across the rooftop when Cloud calls her. “Tifa?”

“Hm?”

He hesitates, before shrugging. “Just wanted you to know… we’re always gonna be here. For you.”

It’s unexpected, and her eyebrows shoot up in surprise. He seems embarrassed by her reaction, so she laughs kindly. “Thank you. You’re sweet when I least expect it, you know?”

Cloud lets out an exasperated huff. “Yeah, well… gotta keep you on your toes. I guess.”

Tifa lets out another laugh, before she heads down with Cloud in tow. 

She’ll be alright. She’s sure of it now.