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Shadows of the City

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Tifa doesn’t know why she’s nervous. Even through the haze of pain, she’s finding it difficult to concentrate on anything except the coiling and uncoiling sensation in her stomach. But before she has a chance to overthink her anxiety, the door to the room opens and Aerith walks in.

“It’s been awhile,” Aerith says. It’s hardly an exaggeration; they haven't seen each other in months. Aerith sets down her rucksack and fishes out a beat up first aid kit and two green orbs of materia.

“I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner.” So far, Aerith has only acknowledged her through speech and hasn't looked at her once. Even though they're not exactly friends (are they?), a small part of her can't help but feel hurt.

“What took you so long?”

Aerith still doesn’t look up as she rifles through her kit. “My mom caught me sneaking out. I had to come up a believable excuse. And it’s three in the morning, Tifa. There are hardly any trains running this late at night.”

She doesn’t sound angry, just tired. Tifa immediately regrets her impatience.

After clicking the materia into her silver bangle, Aerith pulls up a chair and finally looks at her square in the face. Tifa had forgotten how green her eyes were.

“Oh, Tifa …” Aerith gently grasps her chin and turns it from one side to the other to examine the wounds on her face.

Tifa doesn’t tell her that it feels just as bad as it looks. She’s pretty sure her left cheekbone is fractured—there’s bruising and swelling below her eye, which itself is blotchy with red sclera. Her bottom lip is badly split. Talking makes it worse, every spoken word accompanied by the sharp taste of blood. Which is fine, because she’s in no mood to talk.

“What happened?” Aerith has moved onto the long gash down her right thigh. Tifa knows it’s deep because the bleeding hasn't stayed. Fucking SOLDIER. One inch to the left and the carbon steel blade would have severed her femoral artery. If not for her reflexes, she wouldn't be here right now; she'd have bled out on that miserable, dirty floor.

“Barret didn’t tell you?”

Aerith soaks a piece of cotton with antiseptic. The chemical odor prickles at Tifa's nose. She braces herself on the edges of her seat. This is going to hurt.

“He never tells me anything. You know that.”

The sting is sudden and hot. The pain makes her stomach churn and her head feel light. Tifa grits her teeth. “He’s just trying to protect you. The less you know, the better.”

Aerith cleans the cut for what seems like an eternity until she finally sets down the blood-soaked gauze and begins threading a needle for what Tifa can only assume are stitches. The laceration is severe, nearly bone deep. Even she knows restore materia isn't capable of repairing deep tissue wounds. “But I do know. I watch the news.”

The needle punctures skin and Tifa can’t keep the anger from bubbling up her throat. “The news isn’t always right!”

“You think I don’t know that?” Aerith snaps back. “And please, hold still.” Impatience has added an edge to her normally pleasant voice.

She resumes carefully stitching the cut. Her hand is careful, light. Still, it hurts. Tifa hisses. “I’m sorry,” Aerith says quietly, her tone softening. There’s never any anesthetic in Aerith’s kit as she isn't exactly a licensed medical professional. And as far as Tifa knows, there’s no materia that helps dull pain. She half-wishes she’d brought down a bottle of brown liquor from upstairs.

“So will you tell me what happened?”

Tifa takes a shaky breath. “Shinra’s started setting up recruitment centers in the sector school districts—the poorest ones. They only just finished construction on the first center a few days ago. We wanted to get in early, do something about it.”

Aerith hums knowingly and snips the loose ends of knotted thread with tiny scissors. The soothing sensation of curative magic warms over Tifa's skin. “I thought you were being taken off the field, though. At least that’s what you promised last time I saw you.”

She’d been in bad shape then, too. Though not nearly as bad as tonight.

“I know. But Jessie was nervous about her new prototype and asked me to come. I couldn't say no.” Tifa knows she needs to choose her words carefully. Aerith has never been one to miss a thing. She's learned that much over the past two years.

Spikes of intense cold needle into her broken cheekbone. When she looks up, she finds Aerith staring at her with an intensity that cuts through the sickly green glow of the ice and restore spells working in tandem. “New prototype of what?” Nothing ever gets past her.

Tifa feels the bits of bone in her face slide into place and knit together. She takes a deep breath. “A bomb.”

“What?”

The words come pouring out of her mouth all at once. “Aerith, raids aren’t enough. We need to think bigger if we want to make a real impact. Barret says that if we want to cripple Shinra, we have to hit them where it hurts—cut off resources, destroy investments before they have a chance to see any returns, because if they care about anything at all, it’s money—”

Aerith shakes her head and holds a finger to her lips. “Okay, okay. Just ... stop talking so much. You're making your lip worse.”

“Then stop asking me questions!” Pain cuts through her mouth like a thin blade and leaves the taste of iron heavy and wet on her tongue. Fresh blood trickles down her chin. “Ow …”

Aerith dabs at her lip with gauze. “I want you to stay pretty, okay? Please.”

Green light undulates once more. “Please yourself.” Tifa knows she’s being difficult. “You just want me to shut up.”

For the first time since she’s arrived, Aerith smiles. “Why not both? Anyway, Barret’s right. Shinra certainly doesn’t value lives, at least not beyond their monetary worth.”

As Tifa is shrugging off her jacket to reveal the two gunshot wounds below her left collarbone, Aerith asks another question: “Do you?”

“Do I what?”

Aerith helps her peel the bloody undershirt up and over her head. “You know what I mean.”

Tifa crosses her bare arms. A chill runs down her spine. She shivers. “I do,” she says quietly. “You know I do.”

Aerith doesn’t respond, her attention turning towards the more pressing issue of Tifa's wounds—two clean holes wet and oozing with red. She’s lucky the bullets went straight through. Aerith blots more gauze with antiseptic. As she moves to press it to her injuries, she freezes. Green eyes flicker down to her chest and Tifa watches as they follow the diagonal path of the ugly raised scar that stretched from collarbone to hip. Tifa realizes Aerith's never seen her scar before. Neither says a word.

Aerith resumes blotting, dabbing, wiping, healing. Her body has endured enough pain in one night that it eventually plateaus into an unpleasant throbbing sensation. When Aerith speaks again, her voice is quiet, resigned.

“You still haven’t told me how you got in this state.”

It was simple; their plan had gone wrong. So wrong that frankly, she's lucky she got out alive. The pain is nothing if she still has her life.

“We ran into SOLDIERS. Two of them. We didn’t know but I guess they’d planned a late night shipment of mako and materia for the Sector 3 recruitment center.” Tifa doesn’t have to explain the value of the cargo or why Shinra needed so much muscle for a single delivery. “We had no idea. After we planted the bomb, we got blindsided as we were leaving. One SOLDIER is bad enough, but two? Jessie’s never been great in the field. We didn’t have any back-up. It was just me.”

Aerith clucks her tongue in disapproval. “So, no one else got hurt?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think?”

“Aerith, we staked out the place for weeks. There weren’t supposed to be any guards or construction workers in the building when we … we had no way of knowing. I don’t think anyone got caught in the blast.” The combined weight of fatigue and pain was slowly but surely wearing her down.

“What are you going to do if Jessie asks you to help again?”

Tifa meets her gaze. Making eye contact brings a new onslaught of guilt and it’s almost enough to make her regret it. “I don’t know.” She’s being honest. She really is.

Nimble fingers tape down strips of clean gauze over her still-tender injuries.

“What about you? As far as everyone in Avalanche is concerned, you don’t owe us anything. Not anymore. You don’t have to be involved.”

“I am involved. Whether or not you like it, that much is true."

“And I’m saying you don’t have to be.” Even though she feels a little bit crazy and a little bit raw, Tifa needs her to know this. This time it’s Aerith who avoids her eyes. “Aerith, it’s been years. I know how you feel about all of this. So why are you still here?”

And as though she’d willed it, Aerith looks up at her. Something curious dances in those clear green eyes and her expression is unreadable. She opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Tifa hears the medical kit close with a soft click.

Aerith reaches out to touch her face, examining her handiwork.

“I’m happy to help.”

“Are you?”

Aerith’s hands fold over her own. They’re stained in places with her own blood, but they’re warm and soft.

“As long as you need me, I’m here.” She smiles sadly. “But that doesn’t mean I like seeing you like this.”