Tifa woke up in her bedroom.
Not the familiar, comfortable one above the Seventh Heaven, with photographs of her family and friends at the bedside and a collection of powerful gauntlets and levelled materia stashed in a trunk under the bed.
The bedroom she’d had in Nibelheim, a child’s bedroom for a sixteen-year-old girl.
Kidnapping was her first thought, because she’d visited the horrifyingly detailed recreation of that room more than once and there was always some crazy bastard trying to mess with the last two Nibelheimers’ sense of time and identity, it seemed like. But then she sat up, and the weakness in her limbs wasn’t drugs.
Unless it was the hallucinatory kind, she guessed, but. She didn’t think so. The scars on the backs of her hands were almost all gone, and the deep one across her chest that she had felt faintly with every breath she drew since the burning of Nibelheim. She formed a fist. Threw a punch into the air, still sitting up in bed.
The wind from her punch made a few loose papers flutter. Enough strength to beat a Nibel wolf still, probably a northern Bandersnatch too. She wouldn’t want to face a dragon. She couldn’t hope to face Sephiroth.
Tifa sat very still in her bed tasting the Nibel air in her lungs, and trying to cope with the near-certainty that this was not a dream.
Because, if what it looked like had happened had really happened, for whatever mad reason…she was sixteen again. Sephiroth was coming soon. (I will never be a memory, he had told Cloud.)
Tifa couldn’t let him kill everyone.
Even if she was caught in an illusion or a dream, she had to do everything she could to make it turn out differently this time. She couldn’t live through standing by helplessly while her home burned, not again. Everything in her trembled and raged at the idea.
If it was a dream, maybe making it go right this time would put some of her demons to rest and let her put Nibelheim behind her completely. For the most part, she already had—was over her father’s death just as much as she ever had been over her mother’s. But still. The ghost of it clung. The shame. The blame that went along with surviving. So maybe that was all this was. Like the fractured map of Cloud’s psyche the two of them had blundered their way through, after they fell into the Lifestream in Mideel. A self-reckoning.
Maybe she’d died in her sleep and this was the Lifestream giving her a chance to make peace with her regrets. Maybe, if she made it through this, she’d turn around and the Turks would be priming the charges to drop the Sector Seven Plate, or she’d be descending the impossibly delicate stairway to the spires of the true, hidden Ancient city where Aerith had died.
But she was going to act like it was real, just the same as she had with Cloud years ago when she found him in a train station in under-Midgar's gloom, twitching and confused and potentially dangerous with his giant sword that he sometimes raised for a blow without seeming to know why… She was going to act like it was real, because just in case it was, she couldn’t waste the chance.
That meant not repeating old mistakes, first of all.
Decided, Tifa flung her comforter aside and swung her feet to the ground. Ugh, cold floor. She’d gotten too used to Midanyeard weather, all the other Nibel teens would laugh at her for finding this chilly. Still, she could handle the Northern Crater, if she needed to. This was fine.
She changed out of a pretty little nightdress she had legitimately forgotten the existence of until she saw it into real clothes—not the brown skirt and vest set that had been her favorite in these days, of course; bad memories.
She didn’t own any black.
Blue skirt, she decided, turning her way through her wardrobe, a little long for her taste but it was side-slit so she could move in it without having to worry about too much extra material getting in the way—though she’d been getting better at dealing with that anyway; if Cloud could handle it so could she, even if he didn’t rely much on kicking. And a stretchy dark-green top that her father would say was too small for her, but she didn’t mind it ending inches above the skirt’s waistband; the important thing was that it gave her freedom of movement.
Tifa stared at herself in the mirror. A child gazed back, twice Marlene’s age but in so many ways so terribly much more ignorant. Sixteen was old enough to marry, more than old enough to work; sixteen wasn’t a child. But from the viewpoint of twenty-six it was, and that was what she saw in the mirror.
Green wasn’t her best color, but it brought out the brown of her eyes and hair and made her skin look warmer. Made her look more like her mother. It didn’t matter what she looked like. She knew who she was.
She wore the boots with the heels. They were black.
The kitchen downstairs turned out to be fragrant with chocolate-chip cookies baked last night, and she munched one absently as she tried to remember where the glasses were. Right. In the cupboard under her mother’s china. She wouldn’t have thought she could ever forget the layout of the house she’d grown up in, but…anyway, milk. From the refrigerator on the left.
Milk and cookies was a completely acceptable breakfast. She didn’t have small children to care for anymore, and that was actually extremely awful to consider but at least it meant she didn’t have to set a good example.
She’d never realized until she came back to find Shinra’s recreation just how many of the things around the house had been her mother’s, even eight years after she’d died.
The vases Shinra had placed in those spots had been similar, in some cases probably items manufactured in the same place around the same time, but none of them had been her mother’s vases. The pattern of painted roses had been almost correct, but the brush strokes just a little different.
She’d never understood why they’d made such an effort. Any out-of-town visitor able to notice that the decorations and furniture had been exchanged for new would also have noticed that the Lockhart family was missing. There was a horrible suspicion it had all been for her, that Hojo had known somehow about her narrow escape.
More likely it had been for Cloud, but he’d been underground in a mako tank when the town was rebuilt. And Hojo hadn’t meant to let him go unless his mind collapsed and ‘Cloud’ disappeared. Maybe it had been part of the clone experiment as a whole, testing how much of Nibelheim's survivors remained in those rocking chanting husks, by how they reacted to their homes.
There was even less point to trying to puzzle out the nonsense evil decisions of the Shinra now than ever, and it was ruining the taste of her milk and cookies. She shoved a cookie into her mouth whole just in time for her father to open the front door and come into the house.
Tifa rushed to the kitchen door to greet him, then sort of waved awkwardly as he stomped his feet just inside the door to get any possible dirt off, before continuing forward across the parlour. She fell back out of his way to let him into the kitchen, which made him smile. “Morning, Tifa,” he said, and made for the coffee-pot.
She smiled back with lips pressed closed around her mouth crammed full of cookie. She passed him the milk.
Her father gave the green top a look askance, but didn’t actually say anything, so Tifa happily pretended obliviousness. He’d obviously already eaten breakfast, and probably been out working for a couple of hours.
It was a point of pride for him that his business was too successful for Tifa to need to work—even a lot of the housekeeping was done by a couple of the town widows who came in twice a week—but sometimes his work ethic clashed with the lazy adolescence that was part of the modern middle-class lifestyle, and it had always been awkward. That was part of the reason Tifa had taken to the Zangan with such discipline, really—school only ran in the three months of deep winter, and she’d needed something to work on, to make the passing days feel worthwhile.
Raven Updike had been marrying Sable Broom, she remembered suddenly. They’d saved up and taken out a loan from Raven’s father to commission Tifa's dad’s little construction company to build them a brand new house of a modern design, and he’d been out surveying the ground to plan the foundations for all of the week leading up to the massacre. Bits of grass were stuck to his shoes, matching the slivers of green sock that showed under the hems of his trouser legs. He’d been out surveying this morning, and green socks meant today was Odinsday.
Tifa started on another cookie, trying to plan ahead without thinking too deeply about the situation. What were her resources, besides herself?
“If the Shinra people come today, try not to bother them too much,” her dad said.
“Yeah, okay,” Tifa agreed absently, then blinked. “Wait, what? Daddy, what did you just…?”
…he was wearing his green socks. He’d died wearing his green socks. On an Odinsday, seven days after Sephiroth came to Nibelheim.
It was today.
“I know you’re interested in SOLDIER, honey, but soldiers aren’t all patient men, or even decent ones. Just…ask polite questions and don’t get too political. And don’t let them get you alone!”
In spite of everything, Tifa’s smile was a lot softer and gooier than the irritated one she’d probably have worn the first time she’d lived through today, if she’d worn such a tight top then and provoked this lecture. She’d been on the other end of the fretful scolding now, she knew just how much it meant he loved her—and having her Dad try to hem her in to keep her safe wasn’t suffocating the way it could be when Cloud slipped up and tried it.
After all, she knew she wasn’t immortal, now, knew how bad people could be…knew that her father’s restrictions had an expiration date, and didn’t threaten to box her in for the rest of her life. Knew she could leave whenever she wanted. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “I’ll be careful. You want a cookie?”
She excused herself before she could make herself sick on cookies to go visit Master Zangan, who should be in town right now, since he had been last time. Found him in the kitchen at the inn and got him to take her out into one of the uphill pastures to run her through a rigorous training session, by the end of which she felt like she had a pretty good grasp of where her power was now—pitifully, horrifyingly low, but her teacher praised her forms, at least. She hadn’t grown enough between now and adulthood for her balance to be hard to find in the body she had now. She wasn’t sure she’d really grown at all, except for muscle bulk.
Zangan proceeded to teach her a kick she’d already learned, in the not too distant future, after he’d gotten her away from Nibelheim and healed up, but before he’d left her to fend for herself. He didn’t notice she already knew it, just praised her quick learning.
Having him in town used to make her feel like nothing bad could happen. He’d been the strongest person she knew.
When Nibelheim burned, he’d been there to help her afterward. But he hadn’t even tried to protect everyone.
The Shinra team had come in the late afternoon last time—nearly evening, really. Tifa finished training, brushed down her skirt and boots, went home, sponged the worst of the dust and sweat off her face and the back of her neck and under her breasts, and ate a sandwich.
The normalcy of it all was surreal, almost hypnotic. As if perhaps all her life since yesterday had been a dream, all the strength and blood and victory and ashes, and she wouldn’t have to do anything heroic, but could just keep living like this, peaceful days succeeding one another endlessly into the future forever.
Of course, even if her world hadn’t burned down, she would have had to grow up soon, anyway. Or if she hadn’t, she would have been sorry.
She got out into the square in plenty of time to see the Shinra delegation arriving. They’d come by truck, which was technological marvel enough for this backwater, and they paused along the road, between the one truck that actually belonged in town (and didn’t actually work) and Old Man Hilgrid’s big water tanks, while their leader turned and…addressed the troops.
It looked pretty formal, even with the other SOLDIER in black standing at conversational ease, but she’d seen this moment from Sephiroth’s perspective and replayed in Cloud’s, and heard about it from Cloud’s garbled recollection before that, so she knew they were actually talking about hometowns and parents and what it felt like to come home.
Across the square, Sephiroth’s shoulders shook with laughter in a way that…really wasn’t humanizing at all, possibly because it accentuated the otherwise pretty nonexistent family resemblance to Hojo, but Tifa found herself ignoring him, in favor of looking past and studying the faces.
The dark-haired SOLDIER looked a little concerned under his easy confidence, and it only took a second to spot Cloud among the hidden faces. It was partly how well she knew his movements after all the battles they’d been through together, even if she could already spot ways they were different now before he began to be ridden by the ghost of Zack Fair, and partly the way only one of the troops seemed like he was hiding inside his uniform.
Corporal’s stripes, she noticed, and ducked behind the wooden cistern as Sephiroth moved on into the square. She’d learned Shinra rank insignia in her early days as a terrorist. Not that their AVALANCHE had ever favored tactics like precision strikes against command, but it was still good to be able to identify who was giving the orders at a glance. She hadn’t known Cloud was an NCO, probably because he didn’t remember either.
The other two troopers were unremarkable, she couldn't even tell which one had fallen to his death last time, and Fair lingered at the back of the formation with the one left on guard as the Shinra unit swung back into motion. Tifa lurked in the shadow of the cistern as Sephiroth strode into the town square, expression bland—not quite irritated, but possibly irritable.
It was never safe to make assumptions with Sephiroth, but she was fairly certain this wasn’t the one she knew. The way he moved was wrong, somehow, the way his eyes slid over things. Still dismissive, still cold, but the Nightmare…that Sephiroth burned with cold, cared for nothing but at the same time was afire with the will to possess it all.
This was only the chilly, foreboding individual that had so failed to impress her ten years ago, when he’d arrived with no sign of Cloud. Even the familiar scornful motions of his laugh had seemed just different enough from the laughter he had turned on her and her friends that she would be shocked if he remembered the future she came from.
This Sephiroth didn’t know anything.
Tifa would have to make sure it stayed that way.
He paused without entering the inn, possibly waiting for Fair but looking more as if he'd frozen in a moment of abstraction, and Tifa stayed still. If he attacked her here in the square, at least no one else would be in the way of his sword; otherwise, she was still on reconnaissance. But since she was her entire team so far, she was simultaneously plotting.
She knew roughly how the next day was going to go.
Sephiroth would ask the innkeeper about hiring a guide; Old Man Hilgrid would tell the General that the best guide in town was young Tifa Lockhart, and he’d speak to her father about hiring her. Her father would agree, of course. He was protective, but it had been years since he’d been able to stop her rambling Mount Nibel, fighting monsters and discovering hideaways; it could only be safer with an armed escort, as well as more profitable and prestigious.
It had never bothered Tifa as a girl that Shinra didn’t keep any staff on-site to keep the mako reactor in repair, but looking back it was another sign of how rotten the whole company was. There’d been reactor faults in Corel and Gongaga, the latter of which had blown up the town, though admittedly that hadn’t happened yet; the things needed maintenance.
And even now they’d sent a combat team to handle the monsters and reactor malfunction without a technician or scientist in sight. Maybe Sephiroth was an expert in reactor mechanics, or something, but even so…
This really had been a setup all along.
They’d known that; it had Hojo’s slimy fingerprints all over it. And yet. Seeing it all again from this perspective. It stank.
SOLDIER Fair caught up, and he and Sephiroth spoke briefly; Sephiroth seemed to issue some general commands before finally disappearing inside, followed by the two troopers. Cloud looked like he was wishing he could jostle the General aside to get out of the square faster, but probably only if you knew he was hiding.
Fair was standing alone.
Tifa had a decision to make. Not whether to interfere—that was already made. How. There was Cloud, of course, just vanished inside, but he wouldn’t be able to do any more than she could, yet.
She knew one thing that was making her hesitate, and shouldn’t: Without being kidnapped into the Jenova Project, Cloud would probably never become the hero she’d known, with the strength to save the whole world in his sword. That was more than worthwhile, if he was happy. His dreams of strength had been founded on dreams of not being alone anymore, after all. And to be strong enough that he could have saved Tifa, when they were small and she fell like an idiot. There’d always been more to him than his power, and just because he stayed fully human didn’t mean he couldn’t be a hero.
He’d have died for the sake of Aerith and the Planet without a second thought, he’d have gone through hell as many times as it took; if she’d thought they needed him to become the strongest in the world to save it she might have felt like she had to honor what his wishes would have been and let Hojo have him, even though it was the last thing she wanted. She would have lived with herself somehow.
But if keeping him from being tortured was part of a plan to save Gaia from going through all the calamities they’d all only barely gotten the Planet through alive? There was no decision to make.
She would miss him, her Cloud. But it was too late to get him back, so she had no regrets about protecting the Cloud within her reach. Her fingers smoothed across her skirt as the tension between her shoulders eased, and she stood straighter.
Time for another go at saving the world.
Tifa stepped forward.