Tifa is alone in the bar again.
She collapses on a stiff wooden chair and heaves a heavy sigh.
He left for good this time.
Tifa's brows are pinched together slightly as she fills her head with trifling thoughts. Cloud left… Cloud left his room, his bag of letters, he left the bar, he left his hollow line of work, he left her… what is more important, he left the children.
She lets out an empty cry. What should she tell the children? How should she tell them? Can she even tell them? Especially Denzel. Your makeshift father left your makeshift family, deal. Her eyes are uncomfortably dry; Tifa closes them peacefully as everything around her evaporates into a calming darkness.
For the first of last times, Tifa tells herself it's okay to cry.
The children tell Tifa they've made breakfast on their own, so she has one less task to tend to today. Tifa only stares back at them blankly before mirroring their smiles.
She hugs the children cursorily ("Aw, thanks guys.") and lets go awkwardly. This isn't like her and the children can sense that. Marlene and Denzel exchange funny looks then race back outside—taking their air of mirth with them.
They only meant to bring her joy; they are thoughtful kids and Tifa knows that. Yet she can't help but blinks back the imminent tears.
Marlene waves through the window as Tifa waves back helplessly. She realizes that the children are the sunlight in her godforsaken life—something she desperately holds on to.
Tifa flashes the children a bright smile before running towards the dim staircase trying to catch her breath.
Once upon a time, Tifa cried in front of Marlene and Denzel. The little girl walked towards the blue Tifa, who was curled up on a wooden chair, sniffing. Marlene offered her a tissue box with a small smile.
Tifa sniffed again, she rubbed her watery eyes briskly before allowing herself to look at Marlene (and vice versa). She can feel Denzel looking at her from the staircase, soaking up her misery.
Tifa informed Marlene she was fine and thanked her for the tissues. After blowing her nose, she told them to go to bed.
"Won't you come with us?" Marlene asked.
Tifa replied, "I'll be there soon. Go to bed—both of you."
Marlene bit her bottom lip and in a small voice, she bid 'good night' to Tifa. Tifa only stared after the little girl blankly. Marlene held on to her gaze for some while. It was as if she expected Tifa to return the exclamation ("Good night, Marlene."), but Tifa did not give her the satisfaction of a reply.
It's Cloud's turn to read the bedtime story. She had thought.
There was that one time when Tifa finished an entire bottle of cheap red wine. She did not bother to pour it out but drank straight from the bottle. Tifa read the label between swigs—it was obvious shit no one ever ordered. Tifa left the drained bottle on the wooden table, stood up unwieldily and realized she was quite drunk.
She tiptoed upstairs carefully (the children were sound asleep) and passed by Cloud's room. His dark stiff door was grossly uninviting. Hesitantly, she opened it with an expression of pure exhaustion. Cloud had not been home in weeks and she did not care enough to straighten the mess he had left.
The 'family picture' rested under a mantle of dust. Tifa stared at it with hollow eyes. A heavy lump formed in her throat as she fruitlessly tried to ignore it. Tifa expected tears, but her eyes are waterless.
She took the frame in her hands as if it was a bomb ready to go off any minute. Tifa slid the photo out and held it between her rough fingers. She studied it for some while before placing the frame back.
Tifa slipped the photo absentmindedly into her pocket and left.
(The flowers Marlene picked out flared rustily.)
Cloud is willing to scrap his only chance at a normal life for a sheer memory.
Aerith appeared in Tifa's dream one night. She had looked beautifully pious.
Dreams can never look quite right despite how real it can seem. Snapshots of dreams always correspond to the question: 'what is wrong with this picture?'. To this day, Tifa cannot think back on that night without a slight shiver.
In the dream, she was looking into a dark pond in search of something, but she cannot remember what. The dark water steadily calmed and strangely, Aerith became her reflection. Tifa's face twisted in confusion before Aerith unexpectedly, yet gracefully emerged out of the water.
The expression on Aerith's dainty face was nearly identical to Tifa's: awash with wonderment. However, it soon melted into a soft smile—a smile Tifa knew so well, understated elegance, serene and tender: classic Aerith.
Aerith's skin glowed warmly and her thick hair was an odd shade of umber. Tifa was never one for details, but she could eerily recall the dark strings tied delicately around Aerith's neck.
The tips of their noses touched. Tifa could feel Aerith's soft breathing; she was tragically verymuch alive. Tifa could not stir herself away but succumb to her soulful green eyes. Gradually, Aerith inched closer and pressed her soft lips against Tifa's.
You. You were the only one who could right wrongs!
You died—yet you were the one who died.
Tifa instinctively responded by deepening the kiss.
She woke up abruptly, drenched in cold sweat.
Out of breath and sitting on her bed—alone in the middle of the night.
Marlene and Denzel are so out-of-the-way lately, Tifa feels guilty. She has a hunch that the children are feeling sheepish. It is not their fault and frankly, they are the ones keeping her sane.
Tifa makes her way downstairs and is surprised to find no one. It is seven in the morning—an hour before opening—and the tables are spotless and the chairs are already sat down. Tifa smiles to herself as the children's laughter rings through her ears; they are running around outside. She wants to thank them, but decides to do so later.
As she pours herself breakfast, her mind is occupied again with senseless thoughts.
Tifa wonders if Cloud will ever come home—if he can ever find his way home. Maybe Cloud wants to come home, but he became lost along the way. It is plausible; stranger things have happened. Did he bring his map with him? Knowing Cloud, probably not. Tifa should've reminded him. And they all complain that she nags too much. Paper map, primitive, yes, but it can work wonders… Tifa snaps out of her absurd stupor and gives herself a little head-shake, you are not only pitiable, you are being stupid.
She stands up, her eyes finds the children through the window (that needs a good scrubbing). Tifa slowly walks out the bar and inhales in the morning air, crisp and fresh. Denzel and Marlene both greet her 'good morning' as she returns their salute.
The sun is bright and immaculate. Tifa takes her time to enjoy it.
Birth of a new day, she thinks wistfully, (how pretentious). Tifa doesn't know if this is good or bad. Sunrise often signify a new beginning, another chance to right our wrongs in life. Yet sunrise can also symbolize our imminent death, your life is ending with every passing day and every sunrise brings you closer to the inevitable.
Marlene looks at Tifa curiously (her paper plane lays on the ground, forgotten), she then turns to look at the sun. Marlene wants to see what Tifa sees.
Maybe it is just the sun, she marvels, because she hasn't seen Tifa's eyes light up like this for the longest time.
Denzel launches his folded paper plane towards the sun, it glides in midair for a few seconds before crash landing. Denzel shields his eyes from the strong sunlight before running towards it.
"What do you see?" Marlene finally asks, unable to contain her curiosity.
Her small question catches Tifa by surprise.
"I see the sun." Tifa answers simply.
Clean and curt answers seem to be all that she offers lately.
Reno tells Tifa that the last thing we want might be the one thing we need. In response, Tifa tells him to stop drinking.
Reno's eyes slit into a pair of fine lines as he smiles knowingly.
"I know what I'm saying," He says.
Tifa looks at him disbelievingly. She deadpans, "Do you, really?"
Tifa concludes that Reno has too much free time on his hands. It's no mystery she is blue. The wise Reno takes this to heart and consults her like a common acquaintance would… unless he is just here for the free booze. Tifa decides on the latter. Reno will occasionally knock a few back at her bar—paying her back in generic pep talks.
It is well past midnight, the children are asleep (well, they should be), Tifa is cleaning up flasks by the sink and Reno makes himself at home by pouring himself a drink.
When will Barret come back? Where is Yuffie? Cid? For the love of Pete, Tifa will gladly takeVincent—she desperately needs a friendly touch; she is dying inside. Yet from the corners of her eyes, she spots a distasteful Reno gobbling down his 'complementary' drink. Where's Rude—the lesser of two evils?
Tifa asks Reno—with feigned nonchalance—if Cloud contacted at all him recently. Her question is met with a stifled laugh.
"Tifa," Reno pronounces her name oddly. "When does he ever phone me?"
She clears her throat—no way to redeem herself out of this one, nope.
"I was just asking to ask, Reno," she snaps, snatching the bottle of gin from him and puts it away in the cupboard.
"You know him best of all, does he do this often?" Reno asks casually before taking a sip from his flask.
Do I know him at all? Tifa thinks is staring into space, refusing to answer her own question.
"Occasionally," Tifa lies, "but never this long away from home."
Reno gives her a blank look, "Does he consider this place his 'home', then?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?" Tifa blanches.
Perhaps Reno has realized he had gone too far, so he picks up a paper plane lying randomly on the wooden table and studies it with seeming concentration. Reno cannot tell if Tifa is mad or upset, or both—yes, in all likelihood both.
Tifa kept painfully quiet; she can feel her body grow numb as she tries to answer his question in her head.
Reno meets her eyes and his impassive stare breaks off into a small smile, or a small smirk—either way. He places the paper plane down, clearly amused.
"Did you make that?" He asks nonchalantly—cool as cucumber.
Tifa gapes at him incredulously. After what seemed like a decade, she pulls herself together.
"No," she answers quietly, "the kids did."
"They're into paper planes?" Reno asks, oddly interested.
"Well, it's what they are into right now," Tifa replies. "Their folded planes are everywhere."
She sits herself on the stool opposite of him and twirls the plane between her hands gingerly. The corner of her lips instinctively twitches into a small smile.
Reno gathers that Tifa is willing to overlook his insensitivity prior. He'd like to apologize, but his unwarranted ego chooses to ignore that. Reno looks at her from the corners of his eyes as he plays with his now empty flask.
Tifa finds it difficult easing into sleep tonight.
She rests with open eyes as she counts sheep.
If Tifa tells the children they'd have to leave the bar one day, what might they say? Tifa wants to leave Edge very much… she wants, too, to be like Cloud, and abandon their hope of ever becoming a real family. She draws her knees up to her chest and curls up in fetal position, feeling more alone than ever.
But she is not bestowed with such freedom. She promised Barret she will take good care of Marlene and she promised herself she will love Denzel as her own. But she can't do it all alone. It's too much for her to take.
Denzel used to ask her every night when Cloud will be back from his delivery. Tifa only stared into his glassy eyes and painfully summoned her cheeriest smile. She informed Denzel "Cloud will be back very soon!" as the boy's face lit up—before dashing into her room to break down in tears.
Denzel isn't stupid. He had learned to stop with the hurtful inquisitions and knew to run outside for a decent cry whenever he misses Cloud too much.
Why did you bring him to us, Aerith? Tifa thinks bitterly. I cannot provide him anything else besides shelter. I know Denzel is miserable. I am miserable.
Tifa covers her face with her hands as she sobs quietly. Aerith cannot help her more than Cloud can. To her, they are both dead. Both sheer memories, meant to breathe only in your dreams.
Tifa reluctantly thinks back to that dream—that dream which borders on nightmare.
She feels her face burn up as she replays that little kiss in her head.
Reno tells Tifa that if she ever needs 'help', she should go to him. In response, she tells him to go to hell.
"Ugh—women," Reno groans.
He takes a swig from his bottle (classy) as Tifa glowers at him.
"That's not what I meant, Tifa. By 'help' I mean actual help. I can help to bring you out of your funk, help around the bar, or if you need some shit from Midgar, I can deliver that shit—or the kids—ugh, hope not—but yeah—y'know?" Reno explains, blabbing all the while.
Tifa looks at him with a critical eye.
"Do you need money, Reno?" Tifa asks skeptically.
"I guess I can offer you money if you run some errands for me…" Tifa gives some thought to his offer. Don't the Turks pay him enough?
Reno scowls, his flushed face is now as red as his flaming hair. He tells her (rather crossly) that wasn't what he meant. He does not need money, nor is he willing to become her workhorse. He is simply, plainly offering to help in the most literal sense of the phrase—that is, if she needs it.
Tifa smiles softly and pours herself a glass of wine. Reno's ego frees a dying screech, not worthwhile at all, he thinks to himself.
"You know what? I take that back," he says hotly.
"Yeah, fuck that. Forget I ever said anything,"
"Do you find it hard to redeem yourself?" Tifa asks, amused.
Reno pushes his flask away crisply. Through gritted teeth, he 'hmm-ed'. Reno runs a hand through his red hair and turns to leave. Oh, Jesus, shoot me now.
"I'd like that," Tifa answers from the bar.
Reno does not turn around, instead he replies, "Too late. I withdrew my offer."
"That's too bad, I was really hoping you'd bring me out of my 'funk'—isn't that what you said?"
Reno wheels around and faces Tifa, his expression rigid.
"I didn't say anything," he mumbles before finally exiting.
Barret unexpectedly arrives at the bar one morning. Tifa lets out a cry of joy before embracing her old friend. Tifa can feel her eyes watering out of happiness—now, that's new. Almost immediately, she calls down the children; they hop downstairs like rabbits.
Marlene's face lights up like a Christmas tree before bursting into tears. Denzel, too, jumps at Barret. Cloud had not been home in such a long time that the presence of a familiar friend can warm your insides like hot chocolate on a wintry night.
Tifa remembers to hang the 'SORRY WE ARE CLOSED' sign on the front door.
Barrett informs them this is just a short visit, that he will have to get back on the road by tomorrow morning. Upon seeing the children sulk, he winks and promise he'll be back for good in two months.
They spend their morning walking around in Edge. After being fed complaints about how paper planes don't glide well and are susceptible to water, Barret says he'll buy them a wooden airplane at Midgar.
"—but they need to be able to fly, papa!" Marlene explains. "Denzel, tell papa about how—"
"I'm aware of that, baby," Barret says warily, though smiling all the while. "I'll get you each a wooden flyin' plane."
They made their way to Midgar later in the afternoon.
While walking near the slums, Barret tells Tifa he is going to take the kids to buy their "flyin' toys"—and maybe some "snacks and whatnot". Tifa smiles and said she will join them later, she wants to check something out. Barret nods understandingly and leaves with the children.
Tifa eventually finds her way to Sector 5 and stands in front of Aerith's church.
The church is attered and ancient and unoccupied, yet its sanctified aura still holds. Tifa can't help but wince slightly at it. She walks in through the towering shabby doors, and the proverbial sweet smell of Aerith's flowers wash over her.
The sunlight seeps through the tattered roof, shining a knowing light upon Tifa.
She closes her eyes.
You are gone. And now Cloud is gone.
I can't hold on any longer, Aerith.
You've saved the world twice.
Why can't you save Cloud?
Help him move on. Help him find closure.
Help him see…
Help him see me.
"I know you loved him," Tifa whispers with blank eyes.
On the way back, Tifa fills Barret in on most things… how the bar is, the children, and the zany Reno ("Man, he's a character alright.").
Barret also shares anecdotes from his journey: the people he met, places he had been, the good and bad he had seen. Strangely (and suspiciously), Barret did not ask her about Cloud. Tifa told herself she is being paranoid—though does it even matter anymore at this point?
Once they reach the bar, Tifa debates whether to share her Aerith dream with Barret or not—what would he say?
"Damn, Tifa—that's messed up!"
Tifa shakes her head, she is being ridiculous. Sharing it with a friend is essentially elevating its importance, something she is determined not to do.
Yet that night she woke up gasping for air. That dream is suffocating her.
She brushes her fingers along her lips… it was real—it all felt too real for comfort—
why, why, why, why?
(there isn't one passing day when she didn't think about it.)
Reno tells Tifa that he is more than embarrassed by what happened in the bar last time—the whole thing with his "little" outburst. In response, Tifa tells him it was fine and it was nice of him to offer.
Reno clears his throat sheepishly and takes a drink from his bottle. It was just beer. Nothing hard. Tifa glances at the clock on the wall, it reads 8:40PM. Bedtime for the children in twenty.
They are doodling on the wooden table beside Reno.
Denzel and Marlene are relatively uncomfortable of Reno's sudden presence. Tifa can't say she is a tad surprised.
Tifa is watching the kids draw as Reno is smothered by the awkward atmosphere. Denzel would throw a dubious glance his way every so often. Reno clears his throat again.
"So," he begins, " I heard Barret bought you guys an airplane?"
Marlene abruptly looks up from her drawing, a big smile plastered on her sweet face, "Ah, no—I wish!"
She jumps off her lofty stool and darts to her room. She runs back with her wooden air plane.
"Papa did buy Denzel and I our wooden air planes," Marlene informs. "It really flies!"
Reno chuckles, "Yeah, that was what I meant—a wooden plane."
"Want to see it fly?" Marlene asks.
Reno sits his bottle down as he watches the perky Marlene bounce up and down. Reno laughs; he looks at Tifa as if waiting for her approval
"Wait—let me get mine!" Denzel pipes up and scurries to his bedroom for his plane to join in on the frolic.
"Denzel, come back," Tifa calls out sternly. "I'm sorry, guys, but it's almost bedtime."
Marlene mewls, "Tifa—"
"Marlene, we can all fly planes tomorrow," she explains.
"But Reno have to see what my plane does," Marlene reasons.
Denzel adds, "—and mine! Hey Reno, they go high like this—"
Tifa watches the children leap around the bar in a 'sugar high'-like daze. They sure warmed up to Reno quickly. One minute the are passing doubtful glances at him, now the man is practically their certified bosom buddy. She sighs.
"Hey, come on, kids," Reno says. "If the boss says it's bedtime, it's best for you to go to bed."
"But you have to—"
"I can come back some other time and then you can show me what your plane does," Reno says.
The kids returns to their chair crabbily while muttering something about what good is a toy if you can't show it off to people. Reno holds Denzel's wooden plane in his hands and studies it carefully.
"I had one just like this," he comments.
"Really?" Marlene asks.
Denzel presses on, "Did it fly?"
Reno laughs as Tifa rolls her eyes at them hopelessly.
"Mine didn't, actually. Back then, wooden planes are simply to look at," he explains, "like admiring it from afar and stuff."
"Well, that's not much fun," Denzel remarks flatly.
"Yeah, it wasn't," he shrugs. "But I can fold a bad-ass paper plane that will cap your wooden ones."
"Reno, watch it." Tifa snaps as she seizes his empty beer bottle and chucks it in the garbage can.
The kids jump off their chairs and clamor around Reno again. This time bombarding him with questions and challenges and all that jazz. Marlene asks him what his secret was—if he has one—that allows his paper plane to go so fast and far. Denzel bellows for Reno to "bring it on" since his triumphant wooden crop duster can beat his paper ones any time.
"Really," Reno smiles at Denzel, cocking his head slightly to one side. "Like to see you try, champ."
"Good lord, Reno," Tifa hisses. "You got them all excited again."
"The good lord's not on your side any more than Marlene here is," Reno says to Tifa. "Let's take them out—just this time."
Tifa doesn't fall for his rather pleading smile. Her stern frown stays still.
Reno's smile grows cheeky, "I got them excited and I can get you excited as well, Tifa."
He sort of… kind of… all right, without a doubt enjoys watching her dark eyes widen with pique. Tifa's lips are pressed into an angry line as her face flushes tomato-red, but before she can scold, Marlene and Denzel (obviously oblivious to the innuendo) chirp about Reno's "bad-ass" paper aircrafts.
Reno clears his throat and tells Tifa the children deserve to go out this one time, and she is depriving them of the good-old-fashioned, plane-flying fun.
Tifa really wants to call it a night, but (she looks at the children, then at Reno)—
The children had rarely gone out past their curfew. They now gape at the starry night sky with artless wonderment.
Reno folds his stupid plane with a scrap piece of paper rather dextrously and launches it into the sky along with the kids. As the three toy planes glide in midair, Reno's paper one soared distinctively higher.
Marlene tugs on Denzel's sleeve. "He's not lying, ah!" She squeaks.
"You can have it once it lands," Reno says. "Analyze that shi—uh, plane, yeah. See if you can fold one just like it."
Denzel looks up at him, "Really? We… can have it?"
Reno shrugs, "Yeah, why not. I might as well impart some wisdom or something. Need my help foldin' just let me know."
Tifa looks at Reno looking down at the children. She never realized he has blue eyes. Then again it's Reno from the Turks. Someone Tifa wouldn't normally look at twice.
Well, at least the kids are happy. She smiles to herself from the side.
Tifa absentmindedly slipped her hands into her pockets and feels something brushing against her right hand. She pulls it out—and it is the 'family photo' she had pocketed that night from Cloud's desk.
Tifa can hear the children laugh at one of Reno's inappropriate cracks. She rolls her eyes before fixating on the picture at hand.
The family that never was.
Tifa folds the photo in half, bends the top into a small triangle, and eventually fashions herself a little plane. The corners of her lips twitches as she sends her plane into the night sky.
Denzel and Marlene notice passingly and comment how her plane, too, soared relatively high.
Reno watches as Tifa's plane is dragged away by the nightly breeze… higher and higher up into the dusky sky. Denzel and Marlene race back to the bar, giggling and determined to emulate Reno's intricate paper plane.
It takes an awful lot of strength to hold on… but more so to let go, Tifa realizes. And it is an understatement to say she is so, so tired.
As the children's laughter echoed in their wake, Reno's eyes eventually finds the quiet Tifa, who all but offered him a warm smile of pure gratification.