On the Bubble
Every time he talked to her he said the same thing. And every time she answered, she said something a little bit different.
There was a little girl who lived with her foster mother in the slums, in a house far nicer than all the others around. She wore dresses and played in the flowers and laughed when she was happy, just like other little girls.
There was a man who watched her because he had to, but even if he didn't have to, he still would have. She reminded him of the daughter he might have had if he was ready to settle down and didn't have a job or he had more money and more time and more patience and the competence to be a parent. He liked to watch her because it made him happy. She played in a small sanctuary in her own little world, and she didn't know that outside of her bubble was a world where people would kidnap her and do horrible things to her in a heartbeat if they had a reason or a need. That's why sometimes he watched her just to keep an eye on her. Make sure nothing happened to her. And it wasn't because of his job. No, it wasn't.
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry I had to hit you. I needed to be brusque."
"I know," Aerith says. "And I'm sorry I told them about the girl. Is that what you want me to say?" She sounds so melancholy; it's so different from how he remembers her that he feels sick. She was always laughing and smiling, so why couldn't she be that way with him?
"Why are you sorry about that? I don't really care. Actually, I'm the only one who should be—"
The helicopter blades whirr and swish. He looks at the pilot as he's flying. Even over the noise of the helicopter, there's always the off-chance that the pilot will hear him. So he doesn't say anything.
"You're a very special girl, Aerith." That was what he had said. He explained who he was and why he was there. But the girl denied the accusations and her foster mother was appalled. After the little girl had run off, her mother had always done a good job keeping her composure, but she couldn't hide the fear in her voice when she told him to get out. He was sorry, of course. Sorry for a lot of things. He was acutely aware of all his sins.
Tseng always excused himself properly, like a gentleman. He knew that she stood at the top of the staircase and listened, and sometimes looked at him. Every time, before he left, he looked up at the top of the stairs and smiled on the off-chance that she was watching. Sometimes he saw her in the slums, a lone patch of color in a monochromatic world, talking to people. Sometimes she stood at the end of a big round pipe and just watched sadly as the sick old man inside suffered quietly. Sometimes she went to the playground near Wall Market and played. It was best if she didn't see him watching her there, in the dirty heart of the city. To her, he was always "the man at the door."
"I hope you're not angry at me," Tseng says. He keeps an eye on the pilot, but realistically, there's no way the pilot can hear him over the helicopter's heart beating and the ambient sounds of the junkyard below.
"I'm not angry."
Tseng bites his lip. Ever since Aerith was little, she has had trouble lying. She was always too honest to be a good liar anyway. And poor liars are poor at sensing lies themselves, so he tells her the truth.
"I don't believe you."
"Does it really matter?"
Tseng is a good liar. He wasn't born with it. He had to learn it. He had to earn it. There are some interests the truth just can't protect.
"…no, it doesn't. Sorry."
One day when Aerith was nearly eighteen, he had considered dragging her—kicking and screaming, if he had to—back to Shinra Headquarters. He approached her in the garden where she was tending to her flowers, and for the first time she looked like a young woman. He didn't intend for her to see him, but she stood up in her flower patch and called out.
He cleared his throat and walked up the stairs into her garden, a place so different than Midgar it may have been the Promised Land itself. He felt uncomfortable; he was never good at keeping promises.
"Hello, Aerith," he said. "Are you doing well?"
"I'm all right," Aerith said, brushing off her green dress. As usual, there was remarkably little dirt on the front for someone working in the garden the entire day.
"You know, you're a very special girl, Aerith," Tseng said. Aerith chuckled and walked over to him, brushing her hair with her hands.
"I know; you've told me before. You certainly seem to think so. Unfortunately, I'm really not all that special."
"On the contrary," Tseng said, a bit quicker than he would have liked, in retrospect. "You are special. Which is why I want you to come with me. Our scientific research—"
"I'm sorry," Aerith said, smiling sweetly. Tseng stiffened and covered his mouth with his hand. "I don't know much about scientific research. And I don't know why you think I'm so special, but…I'm not. Really. I'm sorry."
The worst part was that she really did sound sorry. Tseng swallowed hard. How many years had it been? He was lucky that Hojo didn't come down to the slums himself and pluck her by the roots from her garden; he would have been far less gentle with her than he was. Tseng swallowed and remembered Dr. Gast and his clean manila folders sullied with the blood of others. He almost said too much; instead, he bit down on his tongue until he could taste blood.
"Sorry to bother you," he said, and left.
"I suppose you were wondering why Shinra went to such measures to destroy an ornery little band of eco-terrorists, right?"
"No, I wasn't wondering about—"
"It wasn't my idea!" Tseng says. The pilot glancesback at him and returns to speaking with the other rowdy fellow in the front. "I wouldn't do something that radical!"
"I know," Aerith says. "I know, Tseng, I—"
He gasps. "You—you remembered my name?"
She looks at him strangely. "Of course I did."
His heart skips a beat. They say the worst thing to give a dying man is hope, and Tseng feels like someone with a sick sense of humor has thrown him a bone.
"Nothing bad is going to happen to you, Aerith."
She looks at him, and her eyes are looking into his, but her mind is elsewhere. He knows. Goddamn—he knows. She has more important things to worry about. For a moment he fantasizes that she's thinking about only him.
"I promise. I won't let them do anything to you."
"Tseng. What do they want me for?" she says quietly. He watches her in silence, watches as she turns away from him and turns in on herself.
"I don't know," he lies. The story of his life.
She looks away.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Aerith was almost twenty-one. Tseng went to her door and knocked, and Aerith answered. She was wearing a simple pink dress, very unassuming. She seemed older, more mature than she really was, Tseng noted. She had a very adult sensibility.
"Is your 'mother' in?"
"No, she went shopping," Aerith said. "Do you want to come in?"
"Sure. I have nothing better to do," she said, and they shared a laugh. He sat at the kitchen table and Aerith put on some tea.
"You know, Aerith," he said, and he had to stifle laughter. It was hard to take himself seriously when he said the same thing every time. "You're a very special girl."
"I would certainly hope so. I'd hate to think you were lying all this time."
Tseng watched her back attentively as she watched the kettle. She turned around.
"C'mon, laugh! It was a joke!" Aerith said, laughing.
"Ah—sorry." Tseng forced a laugh and tapped his fingers against the table. "You know I'm telling the truth."
"You know, if I didn't know any better, I might think you were making a pass at me."
He paused. Then, "But you do know better, don't you?"
She turned to look at him and chuckled again before turning back. Tseng waited patiently at the table until she brought two cups of tea over.
"So how's work?" she said casually. They hadn't spoken at length in more than a year. He realized that he had never even told her exactly what he did or where he worked.
"It's going—well, thanks," he said, after another pause. "There are a lot of things do to. But it's interesting. Thanks for asking."
"So, why do you want my services?" Aerith asked. "Do you really think I'd be cut out for SOLDIER? I'd have to stop wearing dresses."
Tseng laughed and fingered the handle of his teacup. "You're very important to—" Tseng paused again and swallowed, his hand clenching around the cup. "us," he emphasized. "We can make a lot of peoples' lives better with your help. Isn't that what you want?"
"Of course it is! But I can't just leave my home. You know how it is, don't you? If I left, I think all the poor flowers would dry up."
"Really?" Tseng said. He put his elbow on the table and removed it when he saw her look directly at him. "There's no one else to tend to them?"
"Well, I suppose Mom would," Aerith said. "But no one else here is good with flowers. I get the feeling that no one really cares about flowers anyway. You don't see many flowers around Midgar."
"You're right about that," Tseng said.
"The ones that grow in the church are incredibly resilient though. I barely water them at all, yet they're always so vibrant."
"In the church?"
Aerith nodded and drank. "Of course, who knows what would happen if someone accidentally stepped on them. If more people came to the church, there might be a problem."
"I see," Tseng said slowly. "I'll keep that in mind." He rose to his feet and straightened his suit. His tea sat untouched on the table.
"Leaving so soon?"
Tseng shrugged and shook his head. "It's—the job, you know?"
"I thought this was part of your job?" Aerith said, grinning, and then she laughed. Tseng's shoulders tensed. He turned around and put his outside face on. He tried to sound as stern as possible before he left.
"It's just a job."
There is a helicopter breaking into the crisp night sky above the Plate and a man and a woman sit near the back. The rotors are spinning and the sound reminds him that one day every good citizen of Midgar will return to the whirring machinery they were born from.
"Tseng…" she says, and he realizes that she's crying. "Who? Who am I?"
"You're—" The words get stuck in his throat, slowly, painfully. He clenches his jaw to stop himself from crying. "You're a very special girl, Aerith."
"I am, aren't I?" she says.
He watches her. Her shoulders are sunk and she won't look him in the eye. The helicopter makes a sharp turn and jerks the passengers to the left as it knifes through the darkness, but she doesn't seem to mind.
This is the only private side of her he was ever going to see. Her weaknesses. It's the only time he'd ever see the water swell on the edges of her bubble. He knew he could break her if he wanted. He could take her, he could have and possess her if he really wanted. Maybe he has that power. He could. But he can't. Maybe his contract didn't forbid it. But the young man watching the little girl play in the garden did.
Aerith's body shakes, and she chokes back a sob.
"Sometimes I don't want to be."
He closes his eyes and listens to the helicopter blades chop chop their way back to their home.
"Does that make me selfish?" she says, and her eyes are full of tears. She looks at him, trying to find answers in his face, but his face is inscrutable: it's the only way he knows how to be.
"It—it's—no," says Tseng, then, a bit more sternly, he says, "That's silly. Don't worry about things like that."
She looks out the window. He can feel the helicopter touching down on the helipad. He wants to stroke her hair, and he imagines comforting her, holding her in his arms, seeing her smile unconditionally like she did whenever he wasn't around. But he can't. He couldn't even tell her what she needed to hear, what he needed to say. He'll never be able to forgive himself for that. Ten years and he couldn't get through the bubble. Ten years and he's still who he always was: the man at the door.
A minute later and everyone is standing outside the helicopter door and the pilot is yelling at his ringing ears to get out of the damn chopper and all Tseng can say is,