After she was released from the hospital, Tifa was driven by a woman in a blue suit to a gray house near the edge of the plate, smaller than the ones near the center, with a postage stamp of the yard. Her foster home. Mr. and Mrs. Parker were her foster parents, and they were nice enough, but they didn't really act like parents and Tifa refused to think of them that way. She'd had a mother and father and if she thought about them sometimes she felt like the world had stopped and would never move again, and there were no replacements for them, none. Mrs. Parker never corrected her when she tried to call her Mrs. Parker or ma'am. Mr. Parker did – "call me Gary," he'd say, and he'd put his arm around her, which Tifa thought might have something to do with the way Mrs. Parker expected her to do the dishes without help and snapped at Gary if he offered to dry them.
They got a stipend for taking care of her, but it didn't come in till the end of the first month, so they took her to a store to buy her secondhand clothes. It wasn't that the clothes were bad, but at school it was really obvious they were secondhand, and she didn't look like anybody else. None of the girls would talk to her; the boys would but she soon learned she didn't want to talk to them at all. She cut class one day, after about a month of never speaking at school and barely speaking at the place she had to call home for want of a better word. She was scared to death and sure something awful would happen, but she was lost in her classes anyway and she didn't have a book report ready, so she rode the train to the department stores on the inner plate, tall, tall buildings with rotating doors. It looked like the movies, all of it, even the trains, and she was so excited she forgot to worry about anyone finding out she'd skipped school.
But she didn't get in trouble. She kept skipping, and one time she forgot to get off the train and rode down below the plate. She wandered around for a bit to kill time until the next train, clutching her purse and not making eye contact with anyone, and noticing that here, unlike in the stores on the plate, she could actually afford some things, and nobody laughed at her shoes.
Thinking of affording things, she went down below the plate again, looking for "now hiring" signs in windows. At one door a huge black man grabbed her arm before she could hurry past him, and she startled both of them by twisting out of his grip and settling into a defensive stance despite the gun on his other hand. He explained he was the bouncer, that he'd heard her looking for a job and just wanted to get her attention since they were hiring. Then he asked her age and decided to talk her back out of it. She kept herself from looking at the gun on his wrist as they introduced themselves and fell into conversation about living down below, about the cost of life on the plate, about setting out on her own.
"Just find a vacant lot and it's yours," Barret said. "Set up a tent. It ain't like it ever rains down here." That was easy for him to say, she thought. He had built-in weaponry and wasn't a fifteen-year-old girl who had to slouch to try to make her chest look smaller.
Squatting out in the open didn't sound like a great idea, not exactly, but a job did, and he helped her find one. She started going to school again, most days, and rode the train down after classes to wait tables. She served drinks, too, even though she wasn't old enough to buy them legally, and once when she tried to say no to some boys younger than her who wanted beer, her boss came steaming across the room to apologize to them. He called them "sir," even though one looked like he was twelve at most. The place paid her in cash, though less so after the time she tried to ask for ID, and she hid the money under her mattress.
When she had the chance, she'd spend some time with Barret and his shy little daughter – "adopted," he told her once, but that was all he said on the subject – because with him, she could admit that her throat closed up with loathing when she saw the Shinra uniforms and logos, let alone the big tower in the center. One time, he mentioned what Shinra had done to Corel – just a mention, scorn in his voice as he spoke of a "reactor fire" and thumped his gun-arm on the table – but it was enough to send words spilling from her, incoherent, that Shinra had killed her father and nearly killed her, that she couldn't go back home and they should all die, all of them. She ended up sobbing on his shoulder and sleeping on his couch that night, and the Parkers said nothing about it the next day.
Then one day Gary helped her dry the dishes. He didn't do anything to her or even say anything much – he talked about the weather, and a soccer game – but it made her so uncomfortable she went to her room and counted up her savings and then the next day went looking for apartments below the plate. She never told the Parkers what she was doing – maybe they'd notice eventually. Maybe they'd keep getting the stipend for a while and that'd make up for the clothes she was putting in her bookbag, basically stealing.
She found a place, a tiny fourth-floor walkup that looked out over an alley. The stairs smelled like toilet and creaked ominously, but she got the first month's rent free in exchange for hauling away the mounds of trash the last tenant left. Barret helped, and then they commandeered the dancers' locker room at the club where he worked so they could both have hot showers. Barret helped her find a mattress in a dump and carry it home and then spray the place for bugs. They inspected an abandoned building and talked about starting a restaurant or a bar there, someday. Back at the apartment something crunched the minute she stepped through the door, and she shrieked and he went to the bar across the street to borrow a broom.
"At least you know it's okay now," he said.
"I want a bed frame," she retorted, but that wasn't the kind of thing people threw out much, down below. They went exploring to find a place to buy food, and picked up his daughter from the neighbor who'd been looking after her. The Parkers had talked like the slums were absolute chaos, but she was starting to be able to ignore the dilapidated buildings, the trash on the streets, and just see stores, schools, and homes, people going about their lives among the disrepair and dirt. She'd get used to the stairs in the building.
Marlene and Barret already seemed to be. "Can we stay here?" Marlene, still a bit shy, asked her father, and Barret said "That's for Tifa to decide."
"You'd be welcome to. I think that guy on the second floor was selling drugs when we came up, though. I mean, that's kind of why you'd be welcome to, but you might not want to bring Marlene here..."
"Shit, better than our place. We probably get evicted soon anyway, landlord's tryin' to act like I ain't paid the rent just 'cause I happened to mention Shinra's a bunch of murderin' scum and his son in they military."
"Well, I guess that was a bad idea," she said.
"Whose side are you on?" he demanded, and laughed.
He left Marlene with her while he went scavenging for lamps she could use. The little girl played on the floor with a few toy trucks – Barret hadn't seemed worried about the floor, so Tifa tried not to be either. She put her bookbag's worth of clothes on bent, mangled wire hangers in her new closet, and tried not to feel like she was moving in at a summer camp. She closed the door and looked around the single room. For all the stained walls and the cracked bathtub and the still-bare mattress, this place was hers, her new life. She was starting out fresh.
Eventually Barret came back in with an armload of lamps and a box of lightbulbs, and Tifa caught Marlene jumping on the mattress till puffs of dust came out of it. She scooped the girl up and tickled her, and Marlene just squealed with laughter, not alarm, and Barret grinned and then crowed in triumph as one of the lamps actually switched on when he put the bulb in, and Tifa realized she was happy for the first time since she'd come to Midgar.