Chapter 1: Running

Where am I?

What am I doing here?

What's going on?

The questions flooded the girl's mind, and unfortunately for her, they went unanswered. She desperately wished she knew the truth of what was going on here, but only minor, unimportant details came to mind. And they didn't even really answer any questions that were nagging her.

My name is Tifa Lockhart, and I'm lying here on some God-forsaken cot. Everything around me is silent, and even though my closed eyes, I can tell that there is some kind of faint light in this place. But what is this place? Why am I here?

"--stable now; the first time in days."

Tifa started at the voice, unaware that anybody was with her. She hardly understood what the words meant, and she desperately wished somebody would make things more clear. The young woman furrowed her brows slightly, trying to force her closed eyes to open. But at the first moment she did, a great pain shot through her head. Without thought, she whimpered softly, unable to keep her pain hidden. A moment afterwards, things were still silent. Hadn't anybody heard her whimper? If they did, they were being quite rude for not saying anything.

"Where am I?" Tifa murmured, having finally found the strength to speak. She sounded so groggy, and it was almost as if the pain from her headache came through in her voice. But before she could elaborate on that thought, a voice entered her ears once again.

"Oh, you're awake!"

Tifa's eyes flickered open, and she saw a female standing by her bedside. A nurse. Why?

"What happened?" Tifa asked, rephrasing her question from earlier. Why does my head hurt? Why am I in this place?

"You're in the Holy Midgar Hospital. You were fighting in the war with your people when a bomb went off near your camp. Most of your fellow warriors were killed, but you were fortunate enough to make it here for care." The nurse spoke kindly to Tifa, her soft voice soothing the headache the girl already had. She had a sweet aura about her; her bright blue eyes and short blonde hair making her look very young. But the wisdom in her eyes seemed to express just how much she had seen in her life, however long it had been. "How are you feeling, dear?"

Tifa took a moment before finally speaking, wondering exactly how she was feeling. Physical pain wasn't too bad, just the headache. And her arm....her arm was hurting a little bit. She hardly noticed that, though, as she drifted into a deep state of thought.

My name is Tifa Lockhart, and I'm in the middle of fighting a war. Not against the Turks or Shinra, but against a new class of Jenova bred soldiers. The Yuraks. I'm a class one hand-to-hand combatant, and was with my camp on the way to the battle front. But then.... Memories of the surprise attack flooded Tifa's mind, and she shut her eyes again. Her friends were dead, missing, or long gone. It was the way the group travelled. Every man for himself. You don't worry about your teammates. It was not a wise way to fight, but it was the style Tifa had gotten used to. After all, she hadn't fought with a team in over a year. And that was with an old group of friends, fighting Kadaj's group and his summoned beast when they terrorized the city.

It had been just over a year since Sephoroth's reappearance, and his quick defeat. And Cloud's revival as well. That day, it had been such a relief to see him alive again. She had smiled at him, and she could have sworn he smiled back. That was the first smile from him she had seen in a while. And one of the last, for that matter. Only a few weeks after that day, Tifa had left her home with only a few necessities. It wasn't because of anyone around her, just troubling circumstances. Something was haunting her...something from her past. What it was, she didn't know. She had left to find out. Without saying goodbye. Sure, she had left a note, but it didn't explain a thing. It was a simple note, and she had no trouble remembering the one line she wrote.

"I'm sorry it has to be like this, but I need to leave."

It was as simple as that. She had left the note on the pillow of her bed, and then snuck out in the middle of the night. For half a year, she had wandered the wilderness, going from town to town in search of some cure to her distress. But she found nothing. What stunned her, though, was how she had to move stealthily. On several occasions, she had heard of Cloud and their other friends searching for her. One time, she had to hide in an abandoned warehouse to avoid them.

In the middle of her wandering, she saw a group of soldiers marching toward the Western Desert, a new land mass that had appeared close to an old chocobo farm. When she asked the soldiers what was going on, they explained without hesitation.

Since the end of Shinra, a new group had been rising up deep in the west. They were the Yuraks, and they were a force to be reckoned with. With Jenova's blood in their bodies, they were elite fighters. They believed they owned the world, and they were starting a global war to defeat all who stood in their way. They were approaching Midgar and Nibelhiem at that very moment, using the Western Desert as their path.

Within an hour of hearing these soldiers speak, Tifa enlisted in the army. Not just any part of the army. After all, she was not a sword fighter or gun wielder (though she could have done either if she wanted to). She joined the Rebks, a top class martial arts section of the army. In the six months she had been in the army, she was already one of the top in the class. She had gone on many missions; killed many Yuraks. And for what? A small bit of satisfaction? Tifa was doing work again, and not just bartending. She was working at something that mattered. Then why did she feel so empty inside?

That night, it was late evening, and Tifa's group of Rebks had just finished setting up camp. They would reach the Western front early the next afternoon and fight in the largest battle they had ever been in. At least, they would have, if it hadn't been for a surprise bombing that night. Tifa remembered the horror of seeing her teammates fall, and she tried to run. But a fragment impacted her, and the last thing she remembered seeing was the burning campsite.

And then she awakened in the hospital. This was the story of Tifa Lockhart thus far.

"Dear?"

"I'm fine," Tifa answered absently, opening her eyes again to see the nurse. Physically she was fine, anyway. Emotionally, not so much. But the nurse didn't care about this, and Tifa didn't bother sharing. It was her past, her mission. She was on her own now, and she was going to keep it that way. "When can I leave?"

The kind nurse smiled. "You just woke up," she stated. "Give us a little while to make sure you're alright."

*~~~~~~~~*~~~~~~~~*
A day later, Tifa was released from the hospital. She had no serious injuries to keep her there, and her nurse proclaimed it was a miracle. Heh, miracles don't exist, Tifa wanted to say. But she kept that thought to herself. No need to create unnecessary conflict. And now, walking out the hospital doors, she was thankful she hadn't made a fuss. Her cooperation is partially why she was released so soon. That, and her strength. After all, she was trained as an elite fighter. And that's what she was.

Tifa reached up a hand and tucked back a strand of black hair. She looked down to the side as a tall blonde man walked past her and into the hospital. He seemed to be in a rush, but Tifa didn't bother thinking about it. After all, it was none of her business. Nor did she want it to be. She had to look out for herself now. If she didn't, nobody else would. The world was a lonely place, but it was something she couldn't change.

There was only one place she was going to go now, and that was to the Western Front. There was a war to be fought, and she wouldn't be left out of it. And besides, there was nowhere else for her to go now. Her home was the battle front, fighting to find a purpose. Or defend those who did have purpose. Whatever her duty was, she tried not to concern herself with it too much. Too much thought would only bring pain, as it had when she had left. Running away had been her only option when her emotions became so extreme, and it was her only option today as well.

Years ago, she had never run away from any problem or fight. She faced her problems head on with great courage. Often times, she acted simply to protect and watch out for her friends. But now that she was an individual, apart from the group, she acted very different. In fact, she didn't really know who she was anymore. It didn't matter. After all, who really answered the question "Who am I?" It was impossible to find out. A person could spend your whole life trying to figure it out, but in the end, Tifa knew it was a fool's mission.

It doesn't matter, she told herself. And besides, I'm not running away now. I'm running to the battle front.

Now a further distance from the hospital entrance, Tifa heard the automatic doors close, and footsteps a moment after that. "Gone again," a male voice said, his voice showing disappointment. But...it wasn't just any voice. It sounded so familiar. Even after days, weeks, and months of not hearing that voice, Tifa immediately knew who it was.

Cloud.

He's here?! Tifa panicked, though her physical features showed none of her nervousness. She had learned a long time ago to control her emotions so that others couldn't see what she was thinking. Her footsteps didn't even miss a beat as she kept walking away from the hospital. There was a park ahead, and there were just enough people and trees to keep her hidden. For a short while. Maybe she didn't even have to hide. Tifa looked different after two years; something she had worked hard on. Her dark hair wasn't quite as long as it was before, only going past her shoulders a little bit. Not only that, but she was thinner than before. The training she had received in the past months had really helped her change her appearance. And though she still was a fan of black, she now wore black jeans and a solid white quarter-sleeved shirt instead of her old black outfit. Of course; nobody would recognize her. She was invisible in this place. Still, Midgar was far too close to home. She wasn't going to stay.

The girl promptly moved behind a tree, very careful not to draw attention to herself. Scanning the area, she started to carefully lower herself to the ground, so her back was against the tree. And then, moments later, he walked by. From behind, he looked as if he hadn't changed at all. Except for his posture, which seemed a bit less proper than it had before. Stress?

Oh no... Cloud stopped a few feet in front of Tifa's tree, his back still turned toward her. What was he doing? Tifa didn't have to wait long for an answer, since Cloud reached into a pocket and pulled out a small object. A cell phone. Tifa's heart beat rapidly in her chest, and her eyes were wide as she stared up at Cloud.

"She wasn't there," the man said into the phone, disappointment and sorrow laced in his voice. Tifa quickly realized that she was being spoken about, and it made her heart skip a beat. After a moment of silence, she turned her head away and looked to the ground. "I don't know where she is now. Seems like I just missed her."

The sorrow in his voice...Tifa desperately wanted to get up and tell him she was right there. And that she wouldn't leave him again. But it was a promise she couldn't make. This was one battle she had to fight alone. Cautiously, she started to get off the ground, her suspicious eyes staying on Cloud. But he wasn't looking at her, his position the same as it had been before.

"I don't know," Cloud said, his voice tense. "The staff wouldn't give me any information at all. But I know she was there..." he trailed off for a moment, and then spoke again. "She has to be in Midgar. We should search the city. We can bring her home. I can bring her home," Cloud's voice was softer as he spoke that last sentence and Tifa felt her heart break. She wasn't sure why her emotions were so strong at that moment, and she tried to push them all back inside her, to a place she would never have to think about them again.

"But she belongs at home," Cloud pleaded into the phone, his normally calm and impassive voice full of emotion. There was a moment of silence before he spoke again. "Fine, if you won't help, I'll find her myself." Tifa heard the cell phone snap shut, and then she made her move, starting to walk through the grass, away from Cloud. Away from everything that she cared about.

Tifa Lockhart caught the next bus and left the city, planning to never return no matter what the circumstances. Fighting was her escape. No, there was something else. And though she wasn't willing to admit it out loud, she knew deep inside what was going on.

She was running away. Again.