Tifa ducked back around the corner of the building before they saw her. The station was already crawling with Shinra soldiers.
On the other end of the square she'd come through, she could just make out a large clock, its hands nearing midnight. She had minutes before the last train out of Sector 8 left the station. She could risk it, maybe, on the chance that the soldiers might not think she looked like a member of AVALANCHE.
She looked down at her fingers, smudged with soot from the blast Jessie had rigged to clear their way out of the reactor. Probably the rest of her was, too. Even with the reactor down, the station's power was steady, and it was too well-lit for them not to notice.
Had the others made it? she wondered. Biggs and Jessie knew the city better than any of them, she was sure they had. Barret wasn't good at doing anything in a circuitous way, he'd probably come straight here. And Wedge... Who'd suspect Wedge of anything? Even if he missed the train, she didn't think he'd be apprehended. She hoped not. She hoped none of them would.
The train whistle blew, sounding its final call. Tifa risked another glance around the corner. The soldiers had detained a man trying to board the train. His anxious voice and their sharp commands echoed down the platform. He wasn't anxious because he'd done anything wrong; he was anxious because he'd been only a few blocks from the explosion. Much closer and he could have been struck by debris, or been trapped in one of the neighboring buildings that had caught fire.
The explosion had been so much bigger than they'd intended.
Tifa closed her eyes, took a calming breath, and turned away from the station. Behind her, she could hear the slow chug of the train departing. The soldiers were still interrogating their hapless detainee. She'd have to find another way back to the slums.
She moved back across the square, keeping her eyes down and forcing herself not to run. No soldiers here, but enough other people, people who'd be on edge, alert for anything out of the ordinary or frightening. She needed to be nondescript, just another bystander hoping to get away from the disaster.
"Excuse me," said a woman. "Has the train left already?"
Tifa looked up.
This woman had no business being in Midgar, was her immediate thought. There was something almost ethereal about the way the streetlight caught in her hair, and her eyes were warm, inviting--although, maybe not open. She looked like someone with a secret.
"Y-yes," Tifa stammered. "Just a minute ago."
The woman clicked her tongue in disappointment and adjusted a basket on her arm. Tifa stared. A basket of flowers. When was the last time she'd seen flowers in Midgar? Had she ever?
She nearly asked about them, but then her eye caught the clock on the wall ahead, and she heard boots enter the square from the direction of the station. Soldiers, walking in step. Her back stiffened.
The woman glanced past her, and then smiled at her. "You know, the trains run later out of the Sector 1 station. Why don't I show you the way?"
"Sure," Tifa found herself saying. "I'd appreciate that."
It was hard not to look behind her as she fell into step beside the stranger, headed out of the square. The sound of footsteps didn't fade; the soldiers were following.
"We'll lose them in a minute," the woman said confidently. She turned right at the next intersection and hopped the gate into a small yard with more ease than Tifa would have expected. They ducked behind the steps leading up to the house's front stoop, concealing themselves in shadow.
Tifa held her breath. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped.
"Which way did they go?"
"I don't know. I don't see 'em."
"Well, they couldn't have just disappeared! Let's try this way."
Footfalls receding. Tifa waited until she couldn't hear them anymore and then cautiously lifted her head above the stairs. The street was empty.
"I think we're in the clear," said the woman. "I'm Aeris, by the way."
"Nice to meet you."
Tifa looked back at her. "Why are you helping me?"
"Let's just say there's a reason I know a thing or two about dodging Shinra soldiers. Besides, I have a hunch you might be one of them. The... 'protectors of the Planet'?"
Tifa hesitated to confirm it, but if Aeris had come this far already assuming she was a member of AVALANCHE... "I didn't think we had many supporters."
"You've got at least one. Besides, I just found out you're the owner of Seventh Heaven. It's gotten kind of famous in the slums, and it'd be a shame if I missed the chance to check it out."
Tifa bit back a laugh. It was absurd, an absurd thing for her to say right now. "You've heard of me?"
"Just that your food is good," Aeris said.
"Well, if you ever come by the bar, it's on me." Leaving their hiding place, she hopped the fence back out of the yard and offered her hand to help Aeris over. She took it with a smile.
"Oh, I'll definitely come by. I have to get you home, after all."
"I thought you were just getting me to the train station."
"Are you telling me I'm not invited?"
"I didn't say that..."
Aeris laughed. "You don't have to take it so seriously. We can say our goodbyes at the station if you want. I know we're still strangers."
"It's not that," Tifa said. Somehow, she trusted Aeris. "I just want to make sure you know, you don't have to get any more involved. I can take care of myself."
"So can I," Aeris said, with a touch of defensiveness. "I... might not have the muscles to prove it, but you're making some assumptions about my life, Miss Tifa."
"Maybe I am. But you sure don't look like..."
"Sorry, poor choice of words."
"No. That is what they call us, after all."
And maybe it wasn't entirely wrong. Innocent people had died tonight, because of them.
Aeris met her gaze solemnly. "I don't know if I can condone your methods," she admitted, "but... Shinra is killing this Planet. I can feel it."
Tifa hesitated, but she nodded. This whole city felt wrong to her, it always had. But she wasn't sure sometimes, how much of that was her. The anger and loss she carried inside of her, the likes of which she hadn't known in her youth, a fury that had ignited back in Nibelheim but never had the chance to take root until she was here. How could anything feel right, when that was the background radiation of her life now?
But there was something about Midgar, about the mountains back home, the lifelessness of any place that Shinra touched. She'd heard it from Barret and from others who'd come to Midgar from places no one had heard of: their lands were dying. It wasn't just her.
Her attention came back to Aeris's flowers. The blooms still looked fresh, as though they'd been picked only hours ago.
"Where did you get those, anyway?" she wondered. She could imagine people on the plate being able to get flowers, but they had to be expensive, she thought. Imported. They'd never grow in Midgar, even on the plate. The rain would poison them, and they'd never see the sun through the smog.
"Oh. We didn't get to that part, did we? I'm a flower girl. I grow them."
Aeris smiled. "I know. It must be the last place they'll grow, but they do. I think it's because of the old church. It's a holy place."
Tifa shook her head incredulously. It had to be some kind of magic for sure, to grow plants that healthy.
"Hey, what's your fake name?" Aeris asked suddenly.
"On your ID. I'm assuming it's not Tifa, and I don't want to slip up."
A sign ahead pointed them to the Sector 1 station at the next intersection, and she could just make out a uniformed sleeve around the corner. More soldiers.
"Lila Sturgis," she said, not taking her eyes off of him.
Aeris touched her arm to stop her, and reached into her pocket for a handkerchief. "Don't worry," she said as she leaned up to wipe soot from Tifa's face, "we're farther from the action now, I'm sure this is just a routine check. There. That's better."
Tifa tucked her hair behind her ear. "You're sure you want to go through together? If they make me..."
Tifa nodded and didn't ask again.
There were half a dozen soldiers around the station, a heavier presence than usual but most of them looked bored. A handful of people were queued up to board the train, and one soldier was checking IDs but not asking many questions. These men had been ordered here, but she didn't think they'd witnessed the bombing for themselves.
Tifa stepped into line ahead of Aeris. The people in front of her made it on, and the soldier glanced at her wearily.
She offered it to him.
"Lila. What were you doing out so late?"
"Meant to catch an earlier train," she said, "but we lost track of time and there's all that commotion over in Sector 8. Do you know what's going on?"
The soldier shrugged. "It'll be on the news. What were you doing in Sector 8?"
"Visiting a friend," Tifa said.
"She just moved up here," Aeris chimed in. "I thought it was supposed to be safer on the plate, but it's been pretty scary tonight. Still, at least you all are out here. That makes me feel better leaving her on her own."
The soldier hesitated, but he motioned Tifa on ahead and held his hand out to Aeris. "ID?"
Moments later, Aeris joined her in the train car, and they found seats at the far end where Tifa had a clear view of the other passengers.
"I think we can relax a little now," Aeris said, sitting down opposite Tifa and setting her flower basket down on the empty seat beside her. "You'll be home in no time."
"I don't know. They'll probably be deploying more men to the slums, too."
"Maybe, but not yet. It hasn't even been an hour since the bombing, and they're still doing damage control. It'll be a little while before they can mobilize in the slums."
Tifa looked at her thoughtfully. "You seem to know a lot about this."
"I grew up in Midgar. You get used to it after a while."
"Guess I'm not quite as used to it yet as you are."
"Where are you from?" Aeris asked.
Tifa glanced out the window. The door had shut and the train was beginning to move. "A village out on the Western Continent," she said. "You wouldn't have heard of it."
"That small, huh? It's hard for me to imagine. Midgar is so crowded with people."
"It was definitely quieter. But, you know. Nothing exciting going on."
"I'm guessing Midgar didn't really live up to your expectations."
"It seems that way for everyone, really."
How had she imagined it when she was younger, when all the boys in the village were first leaving to come here? She'd been full of their excitement for the big city--fast pace, new people, the opportunity to do more than take over their parents' shops and farmlands.
But then she'd read their letters. They never wrote about their disappointment, not in so many words, but it had been plain as they related their struggles to find their dream jobs, and then decent jobs, and then any jobs. The spartan descriptions of their living spaces, accompanied by hurried and unconvincing assurances that they'd find better places soon. That was the Midgar she would have expected, if she'd known she would ever come here.
The train passed into a tunnel, and the intercom chimed on. "Good evening, and welcome to Midgar Lines. Due to temporary power outages at some of our stations, our final stop will be Sector 4, lower city. Expected time of arrival is 1:07am, Midgar Standard Time."
Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris.
"Well," said Aeris, "that's a little inconvenient. Do you want to stay at my place tonight? I live in Sector 5, it won't be so far from the station."
"I don't want to impose..."
"No imposition. It's an invitation."
Tifa hesitated. The time of day was largely meaningless in the slums when you couldn't see the sky, so daytime wasn't any safer, but the power outages might make it a different story. On top of that, she was tired. Did she really want to cross three sectors in pitch dark after the day she'd had?
"I guess I'll take you up on it then. Thank you."
The Sector 4 station wasn't far from the wall that divided it from Sector 5. They passed through the crude gate and into a world in darkness. Bad as they were in other ways, the slums were usually well-lit, both by the huge lights on the underside of the plate and its supports, and by the array of screens and lights and neon signs scavenged by the inhabitants below. All of those had gone dark, replaced by a dim red haze from trash fires people had started after they'd lost power. They put a foul smell into the air that never really would have seemed out of place.
Aeris knew the way, but visibility was bad, and they walked slowly. They never saw anyone clearly, but sometimes shapes moved on the edge of the light, and Tifa held her fists ready. They were nearly there, Aeris said, when the electric lights started to buzz and flicker back on. A man poked his head out of his house to see what was happening, gave Aeris a nod when he saw her, and ducked back inside.
"That's a little better," Aeris said, letting out a breath. "Come on, this way."
Aeris's house didn't belong in Midgar either, not anymore. It must have always been here, since before the plate was built, before Sector 5 was Sector 5, before it was even a town. It was a house for a smaller, more peaceful world, like the one Tifa had grown up in what felt like ages ago. It made her heart twist.
"You all right?" Aeris asked.
Beyond the house were flowers, whole beds of them, blooming in the heavy spotlight glare from above as though it were sunlight. Tifa had seen attempts at garden plots in the slums, but she had never seen more than a few scrappy weeds struggling up through the earth.
"It's like you live in a dream," Tifa said.
Aeris laughed. "I don't know about that," she said, "but it's home."
She opened the door, and Tifa followed her inside.
"Mom, I'm home," Aeris said, and almost before she had gotten the words out, an older woman was embracing her.
"Thank the gods, I was so worried. I heard from Jo there was some sort of attack--"
"I'm okay, Mom. Tifa helped me out."
Only then did Aeris's mother notice her. She stepped back, blinking. "Oh," she said. "Thank you, Tifa, for getting my daughter home safely. I'm Elmyra."
"It's nice to meet you," Tifa said, "but it's really more the other way around."
"Well, she needed some directions," Aeris said, "but I felt safer having her with me."
Tifa glanced at her, wondering if any part of that sentiment were true. Aeris had exuded confidence and calm almost the entire time.
"Anyway, I told her she could spend the night here."
"Of course," said Elmyra, though she gave Tifa a look of appraisal as she spoke. "This is no time to be out and about."
"Thank you," Tifa said. It wasn't easy letting a stranger into your home in a place like this.
"This way," Aeris said, motioning her to the stairs. There were flowers everywhere inside of the house, too, in vases and pots atop every available surface. Their scent hung in the air, a respite from Midgar's usual smells on any day, and nearly an overwhelming relief now.
The floorboards creaked beneath their feet as they would in any old house, and Aeris showed her to a small bedroom at the end of the hall.
"Oh- Sorry it's a little messy in here," she said.
The bed wasn't made, and a few boxes of junk cluttered the floor, but Tifa shrugged. "It's fine," she said. It was lovely.
Aeris smiled. "Get some sleep, okay? We'll get you home in the morning."
Tifa nodded. "Thanks, Aeris. For everything."
"Don't mention it."
Aeris stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her and leaving Tifa alone in the room. She sat down on the bed, feeling the weave of the blanket beneath her fingers. Something out of another time, another place. A bittersweet sense of calm.
She lay down and closed her eyes.