Chapter 24: family, a million pieces, and sharp edges

You'll never get this. Or if you do, you'll never read it. You haven't replied to anything I've sent you in the last two years. I don't know why you would now. You probably changed your email address. I think you're scared to read what I send you.

Did you know I used to keep a diary? I called it the Notebook because I felt like an idiot calling it my Dear Diary. I lost it at some point. Probably during the move to Midgar. Because, yes, I'm back in the big city now.

It's ironic. Back then, I always thought I'd leave you all behind in Nibelheim, and be the only one to move here. Turns out, I stayed behind, and you all disappeared. Or most of you guys. You were the first to leave. But you already knew that. I bet you think about it all the time; that seems like the kind of things you would do.

Do you know why I'm moving actually? I haven't told anyone the real reason. Vincent got into Midgar University; Cid got a job there, too. I didn't want to be left behind.

I'm lonely. In this huge city, surrounded by millions of people, living with my closest friend, I'm lonely.

I'm pathetic, aren't I? I don't know when I got that way. To be honest, I think it was after you left me. But maybe I was always this way.

Maybe I'm depressed. Maybe I never recovered. I tried. Maybe I didn't try hard enough. Because sometimes it's easier to stay unhappy than to face your problems. You end up being comfortable in your misery, and stepping out of the barrier you created around yourself is incredibly hard. You have to sacrifice one way of life for the other, and sacrifice is never easy. You couldn't do it. You ran away. You threw us away. Sometimes I want to do the same thing, because I don't think I can step out of my bubble.

I don't know when I got so emotionally dependent. There are days where I don't feel anything and I have to rely on other people to feel for me.

I also became a really good liar. I wonder if even you could tell when I'm lying now. You always were able to.

I wonder…How did you feel during all these years in Nibelheim? Were you lonely like I am right now?

Of course you were. We all are. It's such a joke when people talk about connections. There are no invisible ropes tying us all together; we're just individuals; we grasp at opportunities when we see them because we hope they'll make everything better, more perfect. That's what you guys did, right? You were "invincible".

The truth is that we are the same as animals in their cages at the zoo. We curl up in a corner in hopes of letting ourselves die-but, most of the time, we pace the limits of our cage, reaching out for the silver of freedom in between the bars, grasping for the hands that try to pet us.

You kept pacing in your cage, going in circles, never really breaking out. But I won't. Neither will I stay in my cage, behind the barrier, the invisible wall that separates me from the rest of the world. I will break free. And even if I can't, even if I'm unable to, I want to.

That's what matters. It might take a month, a year, a decade. But that's okay. It's a journey I'm willing to go on.

What about you?

Vincent and I live in this tiny apartment above a bar named 7th Heaven. It's owned by a friend of Cid's, who apparently used to teach at Nibelheim High. Barrett Wallace. The name does ring a bell, but I never had him as a teacher. Did you? Now I work as a bartender during the nights, and as a freelance piano teacher during the day. It's alright.

I have no clue where I'll be five years from now.

Will I even still be there? Accidents happen all the time. I think I realized how fragile and weak we actually are after Aerith died. She was the kind of person you'd think would live until she was a 100 and die in her sleep. Because why wouldn't she? As a matter of fact, why shouldn't we all? I guess this is what they mean when they say life is unfair. I suppose it really is. I would know.

Then again, would I? Is my life really that terrible? It's a subjective thing. I think my life could have turned out to be so much better. Some other person might think I've been extremely lucky. Another might pity me.

Why can't we all be objective? Impartial? Why do emotions blind us so much, make us hesitate when we shouldn't? Why did I hesitate when the detective asked me about you all, even after my father and Aerith had died, even after I'd almost been raped and killed? I should have said your names without thinking twice about it. I don't know what I would have said if Zack hadn't stepped in.

I saw Reno the other day. He was sitting at a table with friends from university, drunk as usual. I'm not sure he saw me. I didn't talk to him. We lost contact after he left Nibelheim. I don't think I wanted to talk to him.

Do you know whom I also met? Detective Reeve. I don't think you ever talked to him. He came in to have a drink, and he recognized me. He wouldn't tell me how come you guys got away with nothing, but once he was drunk, he let it slip that he liked his new job "much, much better", and that his boss's name was Fair. Zack had a brother who worked as a policeman, no? A last trick up his sleeve, indeed. I wasn't even surprised.

Did you know Zack died not so long ago? I don't even know when exactly. It was on TV: "Young soldier saves his comrades, dies a hero." I think he wanted to die. The last time I saw him, he wasn't the same guy. Like a body working on auto-pilot. No soul.

Sometimes I remember our days in Nibelheim, and I hate you. But I hate myself most of all. Because I could have stopped you.

I could have stopped you, damn it.

Vincent moved out almost three weeks ago. We didn't have a fight. He just moved out to place closer to university. It's weird living alone again. Vince and I were roommates for two years.

It's been four years since I last saw you. Since you disappeared.

I often wonder why I still care. The answer is so simple that it makes me feel stupid. But I still wonder. Why should I care?

Why should you?

I don't know if you do, obviously, but I like to think it's the case.

Denzel and Elmyra moved Midgar. I don't know if you live here too, and I'm sure you don't read these emails, but I figured you should know.

Denzel is already fourteen. He's going to be entering a high school near my apartment. They didn't want to stay there and have him attend Nibelheim High.

I understand the feeling. Sometimes I want to go back and burn down the school, the town, everything associated to it. Like it would make everything right. It wouldn't. It'd make everything worse.

Denzel is always over here; he spends more time with me than with Elmyra. I think she's come to dislike me, even if she won't admit it. It's like I'm taking away her last child; Aerith died, you left, Denzel is attached to me. It's partly your fault. Elmyra was in no state to take care of him, so I did. He's a sweet kid.

It's like I can't ever really let go of things. I still want to help you. I want to help Denzel. I want to help Vincent. Look where that got me in Nibelheim. Look at me now writing messages to a man who abandoned me and his family.

Why can't I ever let go?

I keep searching for you.

I can't help it. I don't even care about the pain it causes me anymore. I just live with it.

I'll be walking in a crowd, or going down the stairs in a public place, or at a restaurant, or every fucking time the door of the bar opens. I'll hear the chime, and raise my head; if it's man with blonde hair, my heart does this little thing where I feel sick and anxious. Of course, I'm always disappointed.

It's tiring.

I wonder when it'll end.

"It's really strange."

"What is?"

"The fact that you're always here. Don't you have a job?"

Cid rolled his eyes. "Of course I do. Only it's part-time." He waved his cigarette around. "I'm getting old, you know?"

"I noticed," Tifa mumbled.

"What was that, Lockheart?"

She chose not to answer, concentrating instead on washing the dirty dishes. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the bar was closed. Of course, that didn't stop Cid Highwind from coming over to pester her and eat for free. That had been their routine for nearly two years now. She liked to pretend it bothered her, not that he ever bought the act.

"How's Valentine, by the way?"

She shrugged. "From what I heard, good. Caught up in final exams, though, so I haven't seen him in a while, but we talked on the phone a week ago."

Cid grunted, apparently satisfied with her answer. He'd taken to monitoring her friendship with Vincent now that the latter had moved out, as if he feared they would lose contact if he wasn't watching over them. At first, Tifa had found him obnoxious—and still did—but she couldn't deny he had a point; she didn't put in as much effort as she could nowadays.

Tifa was about to ask Cid about his wife when Barrett stormed in, an enraged look marring his features.

"Fucking piece of shit!"

Tifa blinked. It wasn't rare for the owner to act this way. She wondered what had happened this time. Cid turned around, lighting up a new cigarette.

"Damn it, don't interrupt a perfectly good conversation."

"My truck broke down again!"

At this, Cid's eyes became even more alive. He could smell money. Tifa shook her head as they argued about price. She hadn't messed with a car in four years.

"Tifa, do me a favour, please."

She raised an eyebrow, not even bothering to look at Barrett. "What?"

"Can you bring the truck to the garage? There's this parent-teacher reunion at Marlene's school, and I can't miss it."

She grimaced. But she knew why he was asking this. Marlene, his twelve year old daughter, had been terribly disappointed when her father hadn't attended the last reunion. She glanced at the clock—it was currently 15:13, and Barrett needed to be there at four o'clock. She sighed.

"Alright."

"You goddamn bastard. I could repair it!" Cid drowned his tea in one gulp, slamming the cup on the counter. Tifa winced, afraid it would break.

Barrett ignored him. He wrote down an address, and gave the slip of paper to Tifa. "It's not far." His eyes narrowed. "Be back for five for the opening."

"Hm hm. Sure thing."

He left, muttering about taking the bus. Cid also got on his feet, shrugging his jacket on.

"Can't believe him."

"You charge way too much, Cid."

"Hey, a man's gotta live, damn it."

"Oh, spare me."

They exited the bar into the November air. Tifa groaned when she felt the drizzle of the freezing rain.

"See you, Cid."

"I still say he could have asked me," he yelled after her.

Barrett's truck was an old beat-up thing he couldn't bring himself to part with. She didn't see why he even owned a car in the city; he spent more time in the Midgar traffic then he did at work. She climbed inside, driving towards the garage. She was tempted not to, and to instead take a look under the hood to figure out what was wrong with the truck, but as usual, the impulse vanished in an instant.

The garage was situated on the corner of a boulevard; they had left the doors open despite the rain, and Tifa could see the guys at work. She got out, and one of the mechanics immediately spotted her. He grinned, and it was unpleasant enough to make her cross her arms over her chest.

She knocked on the hood of the vehicle. "Seems like it broke down again. My boss asked me to bring it so you guys could take a look."

The guy nodded, his smile not slipping. "No problem, doll. I'm kinda busy at the moment, but I'll call someone for you."

She resisted the urge to glare. "Thanks."

"Strife! Come over here!"

She went still. What were the odds, really? She didn't turn around as the sound of footsteps got closer.

"Tifa…?"

Tifa felt herself go numb, saw the world spin, heard the echo of his voice in her ears. She forgot to breathe. Her first instinct was to run away, and she was drenched before she realized that she had indeed walked out in the rain.

She clasped a hand to her mouth; her breathing was ragged.

"Tifa, wait!"

She could feel the heat of his body behind her, sense his presence, smell his distinct scent of fresh laundry and motor oil. Deep down, she was aware they were all memories.

"Just do whatever you need to with the car." Her voice caught on the last word.

"Tifa, please."

Stop saying my name.

"I'll call in a couple of days."

She rushed to the nearest bus stop, doing her best to dismiss his voice calling out to her. It was only once she was in the bus that she realized she hadn't even looked at him. She let her head fall against the window, closing her eyes.

She had been afraid. She wasn't sure of what. She had been afraid.

And angry—so, so angry.

But mostly, she wanted to cry.

She did her best to stop thinking about the encounter. She thought she had dreamed until Barrett asked her about his car, and she realized she needed to call the garage. It was a Tuesday evening, the bar was nearly empty except for a few patrons and Cid, and Barrett insisted she phoned them right now before they closed. Her hands shook as she searched for the number in the directory. She cleared her throat several times as the phone rang. Hopefully they were already closed—

"Thompson's Garage, can I help you?"

Damn it.

She inhaled deeply. "Yes, I'd like to speak to Cloud Strife please."

Cid spat out his drink. "Who?" He yelled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Yeah, just a moment."

Tifa clenched her hands tightly to stop the tremors.

"This is Cloud; who am I speaking to?" Her heartbeat picked up.

"Hi, this is Tifa Lockheart, I said I'd call you regarding the car I dropped off three days ago."

"I know who you are, Tifa."

"Oh, it's just that I wasn't sure you would recognize my voice." She could hear the malice in her words.

Cloud's breath hitched. Cid's eyes widened, and his jaw slackened.

"So?" She added, feeling both a little guilty and impatient.

"You can come pick it up whenever." His voice had become rough.

"Fine."

"Thank you for your business." He hung up. She did the same.

Cid was cleaning up the mess he had made. "You didn't mention you ran into that damn kid."

She shrugged, doing her best to appear nonchalant. She knew she wasn't fooling him.

She wasn't fooling anyone.

The following day, Cloud was waiting in front of the bar.

Tifa came to a halt; he pushed himself away from the wall. She wasn't sure, but she thought he had gotten slightly taller. His hair was still as messy as ever, though maybe a little shorter. She recognized his leather jacket.

"What are you doing here?" She blurted out.

He blinked, taken aback.

"I just wanted to talk to you."

She bit back angry words, more preoccupied by the fact that he knew where she lived.

"Did you trace my back through the phone number?"

His gaze slid to a point over her shoulder. "Not exactly."

"Then—oh, my God."

He had been reading her emails.

She knew she had mentioned working at 7th Heaven. Words caught in her throat, and she choked. "You—"

"Tifa, I want to explain."

"Move." She walked past him, bumping into his shoulder, and unlocked the door that led to her apartment. She went up the stairs, knowing he would follow. And sure enough, he did. He stood unmoving in the middle of the room, staring at her.

She leaned against the kitchen counter, doing her best to quell the wrath she felt rising.

"You know," she said, looking his way, "the only reason I kept sending these emails was because I thought that if you read them, you would have the decency to reply, to just fucking let me know you were okay!"

Cloud came to sit on the stool at the small kitchen island. He lowered his head in his hands. "I don't know, I…"

"I hope it was fucking worth it, Cloud."

"It wasn't," he whispered. She could discern the pain in his voice, but at the moment it didn't matter. This was her chance to speak.

"Believe me when I say I understand you needed to leave. Believe me, I do, Cloud, but you didn't just leave us behind, you erased us from your life! Would it have killed you to send me a text saying you were all right once in a while?"

Tifa wiped at her tears with her hands. Why did she have to cry so easily?

"Damn it, Cloud, I loved you, and you just abandoned me. You left me when I needed you the most. An-and it's not only me. What about Denzel?" She shook her head. "He lost his brother, his cousin, and Elmyra wasn't fit to take care of him. For him it was like one of your mother's game. Like he was waiting for you to come out from hiding and you'd pat him on the head, and life would return to normal. I-I just—"

She let out a sob, and slid down to the ground, crying quietly. They stayed silent, immobile for what seemed like ages until Cloud stood up, and left. The door clicked softly behind him. Tifa dried her tears, re-applied makeup, and went down to work when the time came. That night, she broke a couple of dishes. Barrett took her aside to ask if something was going on. She said no, thankful Cid wasn't there that night.

It didn't come as much of a surprise when, two weeks later, Cloud was once again waiting in front of 7th Heaven, blowing on his hands to keep them warm. Faintly, she wondered how long he had been sitting there. He got to his feet when she stopped in front of him.

"I went to see Denzel," was what he first said.

Tifa nodded. "How did it go?"

"Pretty badly, I guess."

She nodded again. "He'll come around as long as you keep on visiting him." She brushed past him, climbing up the first step.

"Tifa, I—" He began, rather loudly, only to stop. She turned to face him.

"Yes?" She made sure her features were unreadable.

He raked a hand through his hair.

"I did read everything you sent me, but I couldn't answer. Or I thought I couldn't. Leaving Nibelheim was easy, but staying away—that was different. I was sure if I began talking with you or Denzel, I'd waver, and…I couldn't do that, Tifa. I couldn't. I needed to get out. I don't know what would have happened if I had stayed. I'm not…I'm not saying I did it the right way. I mean, I've thought about it over the years, but it never really hit me until you began sending me those emails. I didn't realize how much it would…"

"Hurt me," she finished for him. Her muscles loosened a little, but her heart kept jumping in her chest.

"Yeah," he breathed out the word. "It didn't sink in. Because I was so focused on what I needed to do to stop hurting that I didn't think about what it would do to you. I was sure that if I ran away, all the problems, the responsibilities would stay behind." He pointed at his head. "But I realized they were here, always with me, and that moving from one end of the country to the other wouldn't change that. You and Denzel never left my mind, but I wasn't thinking straight. I thought I could do it alone. I thought I had to do it alone. When I got that I was wrong, I figured it was too late."

"It wasn't," Tifa said softly. A man came out of the bar, and she moved aside, her eyes never leaving Cloud's.

"I know. I should have known back then. I—I suppose what I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry I hurt so much. But I know words aren't enough."

"You never were that good with words."

He gave her that little half-smile she had always adored. "No, I'm not. I was stuck in my own mind; it was like I was drowning in there, unable to just…swim to the shore. I think I didn't really want to. Because it would mean facing my problems, and doing that hurts. But now, I want to; I want to move on." He took a deep breath. "So I guess what I mean is, well... I'm back."

He held out his hand. Tifa knew to take it was the first step in her journey, the first weakness in the barrier between her and the world; that, one day, it would shatter into a million pieces, each one a bad memory, a trial she had gone through—all things she wanted to forget. But she knew now that she couldn't. That she needed to gather those pieces. That, at first, the sharp edges of the glass would cut her hands as she picked them up, but that they would dull with time. That eventually their magnitude would wane, but never be forgotten.

And so she reached out, and she had the same thought as when he had first held her hand a long time agothat it was, unexpectedly, a perfect fit.

She smiled.

"Welcome back."

A\N: …It's done! *sheds a tear*

Before I go on, I want to say that I will be revising this story. Chapters 14 & beyond won't see much change, but before that, everything will be tweaked, some things entirely rewritten. However, it won't be for a couple of months. I'll also be putting up a FAQ, so don't shy away from questions! And now…

I want to thank all of you for the past five years. I know I made you wait, but you stuck with me, and it means the world to me. Thank you so, so much. Special thanks to my dear friend demonegg, without whom continuing this story might not have possible.

To all of you who ever reviewed, you don't know how much I appreciate the time you took to leave me a comment; short or long enough to fill an entire page (you know who you are!), your reviews are all equally precious to me:
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S.K. Evans. (01.28.2013)