Tifa Lockhart stood on the cart, hoping desperately that this really was a good plan. She'd stopped Barret from doing anything too rash, but the implications of the slum lord Don Corneo prying into the whereabouts of Avalanche and its membership at the behest of the Shinra Electric Company was too frightening to ignore. She could scarcely believe she had suggested posing as one of the candidates for the Don's wife; if only to get close to the man and find out what she could. And here she was wearing an absurdly provocative blue dress; her face painted with makeup as she desperately tried to act weak and demure. She wasn't sure she could go through with this. Her hand involuntarily went to the flower tucked into her hair; where had Cloud found that? Such an amazing and rare gift that he'd sheepishly handed to her once he and the rest of Avalanche had returned from their successful assault on the Shinra company.
Their first success, and a tremendous one at that; the destruction of a Mako reactor. Avalanche had formed out of environmental concerns over the still relatively new technology of Mako power; Mako energy, a thick glowing green substance drawn up from beneath the Planet's crust and compressed. The process produced both electrical energy and a crystallised form of Mako known as materia. This granted the wielder the knowledge and skills of an Elder race, known only as the Ancients. It unlocked the power of magic, heavily used by Shinra in it's successful war against the country of Wutai, the army skilled at combining the old spells with devastating new tactics.
Avalanche's concerns had first been voiced after the founding of Midgar; the fusion of eight smaller settlements into the Mako powered city of the future. At first the new city drew in prospective dwellers, all too eager to experience the land of free, cheap and clean energy, but all too quickly the trap that awaited the poor became clear. Unable to afford the high quality of life Shinra was now branding and selling, workers would find themselves relegated to the dingy slums beneath the gigantic plates that formed the city of the company's dreams. The land beneath them withered and died and a creeping desert began to form around the once technological wonderland.
The Avalanche founders quickly made the connection by the increased uptake of Mako via the gigantic reactors that now ringed the city and the poor quality of the land. Goods were increasingly flown in from outside of Midgar's borders, easily available to the dwellers on the upper plates but hard to acquire for those below. The inhabitants of the slums made do with what they could, paying outrageous prices for meagre scraps. Avalanche demanded answers and Shinra responded with force. Public demonstrations were banned, and the grisly fate of those who had spoken up were now infamous throughout the slums. It had only made Barret Wallace, now assuming control of the group, more determined to oppose the company.
Tifa caught one last despairing glance from Barret as the chocobo drawn cart passed through the Sector Seven gate. She was on her own and heading into one of the most infamous places in the lower city of Midgar. The cart behind her bustled with other girls, drawn from the dwellers in Sector Seven. Each had been promised a life of luxury and comfort and each was seemingly oblivious to the darker whispering of what would occur to the poor souls actually selected and even those who were not. She'd been a late volunteer and as such forced to stand at the back. She didn't mind; she was in what passed for the open air down here and at least she had a moment to herself before she had to play her part.
The cart turned, heading towards Sector Six and two colours caught her eye. Purple and pink. The man who called himself Cloud Strife, dressed as always in a SOLDIER uniform, was sat in a children's play-park beside a girl in a pink dress. Her gaze locked with the girl's despite the distance, the blonde man forgotten; she saw only emerald green eyes. Tifa found herself leaning forward, straining to look at the woman sat beside the SOLDIER. Her brown hair was tied back into a long braid with an oversized pink ribbon and she stared back at her as the cart rolled on.
She wanted to cry out as a building cut off the vision. Cloud was alive. She should take solace in that but something didn't feel right. It had looked strange how comfortable he looked sat beside the beautiful girl in pink. She had looked so out of place down here in the slums - she'd never seen anyone like her. A girlfriend?
Tifa shook her head. There was nothing between them, had never been anything between them. She'd found him barely coherent and weakened by chance on the Sector Seven station a few weeks previously. He was the one she'd once coaxed a promise from; that he would come to her rescue should she ever need it. A promise he'd broken. The martial artist could not really hold that against him; she hadn't seen him in years, and she was not prepared to abandon him to the dangers of the slums. She nursed him gradually back to health, helping him regain coherence and motor skills. With that came that hint once again that he liked her, liked her in that special way that had given her such a thrill when she'd asked him for his promise. But something was different now; she realised she didn't like him in that way. She was not yet ready to reject those feelings. The timing wasn't right, and Avalanche needed him. She couldn't add to his desire to leave; not now, just as the organisation had started to make its presence felt. It would be easier now though. He'd found someone else, as improbable as that seemed. He'd met her sometime in the last day after tumbling from a gantry between the upper plates in the aftermath of their botched but still ultimately successful assault on Mako Reactor Five. It would at least take the pressure off of her.
But something burned in her chest. Was this... jealousy? Tifa shook her head, confused. She'd never had time for relationships; there had been so few boys in Nibelheim, and merely struggling to survive after she wound up in the city had given her little desire to open up to someone else. But even then none of those boys back home had ever really appealed to her. None of the men who frequented the Seventh Heaven either; even the ones who didn't openly gawp and leer at her. Jessie claimed she was too picky, that she just needed to loosen up, have some drinks, pick a guy - one she liked the look of naturally - and... take him home and forget her worries for a while. The thought had rattled her. She recalled all the men she'd known. Oh, some she loved; Barret, Wedge and Biggs, but not once had she entertained the thought of kissing any one of them, let alone allowing one into her bed. The other men she met seemed solely fixated on her body and she failed to see anything appealing in them.
When she had presented Cloud to them, Jessie jumped to an immediate conclusion and congratulated her with a wink. Not only had she finally found someone, he was also a former member of SOLDIER. The martial artist had smiled mirthlessly, too tired from caring for the blonde man to refute the implications. Interacting with him had left her feeling cold every-time, the contradictions and omissions in his memories screamed that something was badly wrong. Unless... was it her memories that were wrong? Tifa remembered vividly the last days she'd lived in Nibelheim, her last days with her father before she woke up in Midgar. Cloud's strange memories made her worry; was she misremembering the situation? Was her version of events concocted within her own mind as she slumbered after her injury? Would she ever find out?
She'd found Cloud wandering some nights after he'd begun to improve, tugged away by some unknown impulse. During the day he fidgeted, seemingly desperate to be away, and with increasingly regularity he'd slip out at night, leaving Tifa waiting anxiously for his return until her nerves frayed and she sought him out. The Avalanche job was a last attempt to get him to stay, he claimed to be a mercenary after all. As long as they paid him he seemed much calmer and more willing to stick around. But they would run out of money eventually, and then he would leave.
Tifa looked back off the cart. Who was that girl with Cloud? The vision of the girl in pink with green eyes and brown hair danced in her head.
She waited, shivering in what looked like a dungeon. A glance around the room did nothing to comfort her and she eyed the glowing furnace with particular suspicion. It felt like those rumours were more uncomfortably true then she would have liked to believe. She took a deep breath and told herself to relax. She wasn't done for yet; she felt certain she could take the guards and get clear of the mansion. It might make things tense in the slums for a while, but it shouldn't be so bad if they avoided Sector Six. She'd hated the Wall Market on her previous visits; the seediness of the area was distressing, and that it should be so close to the place she called home was unnerving. However bad Sector Seven was, it was nothing compared to here.
A clumsy clattering drew her attention and she turned to the stairs that lead down to this dungeon. A tall blonde girl had stumbled in her heels. She was wearing a purple dress and heavy make-up like hers. Another one for Don Corneo? She sighed. The look of fear on the girl's face said it all. She pondered briefly suggesting to Barret that Avalanche do something about the Don and his vile ways when another set of footsteps sounded on the stairs - descending with a lot more grace and control. The girl was wearing a low-cut, long red dress, her brown hair loosely tied in place, and... Her gaze met those same stunning emerald green eyes. The raven-haired girl saw the brunette's eyes flick upwards for a moment before returning to her gaze.
"Tifa? I'm Aeris. Cloud's told me a lot about you."
The soft-spoken girl, Aeris, was smiling at her. She felt her own lips twitch and she smiled back, finding herself struggling to find her voice, "You... were with Cloud... in that park?" She winced. Could she not just have said 'Hello', or that it was nice to meet her? No, for some reason she'd leapt right to a confirmation of what she had seen with her own eyes; this was Cloud's new girlfriend.
"Yes! We saw you on the cart being taken here."
"Oh..." Tifa faltered, suddenly and confusingly dismayed at the confirmation of her own snap judgement.
"Don't worry," the girl in red was still smiling, "We only just met, there's nothing going on with us."
The martial artist felt relieved. A small voice whispered something... new in her head. She tried to ignore it for now. "'Worry?'" She smiled weakly, "We just grew up together, nothing more."
"Oh," Aeris replied, her gaze flicking up above Tifa's eyes once more. What was she looking at? The raven-haired girl brought her hand up and connected with the flower. The sight seemed to fascinate the brunette. Maybe she wanted it? She detached the flower and held it out.
"Would you like it?"
The girl with emerald eyes suddenly laughed, "Oh, no! No, keep it! I have so many at home..."
"You... have... flowers?"
"I grow them", she replied proudly. "And sell them. The one you're holding was sold to a customer two days ago. Isn't that right Cloud?" The flower girl called over her shoulder to the girl in purple, who looked around miserably. The martial artist looked at the girl with some confusion, and then suddenly everything snapped into focus; it was Cloud, heavily made up and wearing a carefully cut dress.
"Cloud!" She couldn't believe it. "Why are you... dressed...? What happened after you fell?"
"I... there... there was no other way we could get in here. I came to help you, to rescue you. Aeris helped me after I fell... she guided me back to Sector Seven when we saw you on the cart..." He broke off, uncomfortable. He shot Aeris a sidelong glance. She sighed theatrically.
"I'll just plug my ears then..." She brought her hands up to her ears and began humming. Tifa glanced at her amused. Cloud summarised briefly the events of the last day and then demanded what had lead his friend to the mansion. Aeris piped up as she was explaining the Don's process of choosing between three girls who had passed his subordinate's checks as she had and took one for himself that night.
"Sorry... I overheard... If you know the other two girls up for selection, then it won't matter who's chosen will it?"
Tifa was about to protest, when she caught the implication. The brunette was suggesting putting herself and Cloud up for the Don's inspection as well.
"No Aeris, I can't get you involved with this," the ex-SOLDIER interjected.
"But it's okay for Tifa to be involved?" She looked at him expectantly, her head tilted slightly.
"N-No! I don't want her involved either."
Tifa stepped around him and addressed Aeris. "You don't mind?"
The girl in red shook her head, "No. I grew up in the slums after-all; I'm used to life here." She looked deep into Tifa's eyes. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," the other girl replied without hesitation. A shout came from the top of the stairs; the Don was ready for them. The raven-haired girl carefully returned the flower to her hair.
"I probably don't need to ask... but the other girl is me, isn't it?" Cloud muttered with a worried glance up the stairs.
Tifa smiled. "You're right. There was no need..."
"...to ask," finished Aeris.