He‘s wearing white when he meets her.
He’s five and his mother dressed him head to toe in white, just like she had herself. He thinks she must’ve made a mistake because everyone else they pass wears black. She takes his hand in hers and together they follow the men carrying the box that houses his father, leading a parade of black-clad people behind them.
They follow until they stop at a field at the foot of the mountain, and he watches as the box is lowered into the ground and then buried. He wants to yell, to tell them to stop, to wake his father up, but the words catch in his throat and choke him. Beside him, his mother cries and cries, and he wonders why he can’t do the same; why the tears won’t come and the words remain mute. So instead, he watches as each shovelful of dirt is thrown, separating him ever further from his father.
His father is dead. He is now buried, and he’ll never see him again. Cloud thinks maybe if he just spoke up, just told his father to wake up he would, because his father always did as he asked. But the words suffocate him, so he doesn’t speak and simply watches.
He watches until the hole is filled, and he watches as everyone leaves. Some approach his mother with apologies and one man puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him it’s okay to cry. He nods—his mother is still crying—and the man’s smile strains as he continues to stare dry-eyed. No one else approaches him.
They stay until everyone leaves and then it’s his turn to take his mother’s hand and guide her home. She holds him for a while, before leaving to hide in her room and cry some more. He stands and watches until she’s safely behind her door and then leaves. He heads outside, into his backyard, where he sits and stares blankly ahead.
That’s where he meets her.
She’s four and wearing a purple dress covered in ribbons. The dress itself is actually pretty ugly, but it’s the first thing of colour he has seen on anyone today. She’s leaning over the fence separating their yards and sends him a smile.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Tifa.”
He watches as she climbs over the fence, taking a tumble when she reaches the other side. There’s a bouquet of dandelions in one hand that she thrusts in his face upon reaching him.
“Mama told me your papa went to Mt. Nibel,” she says. “I got you flowers!”
He doesn’t know what to do with the dandelions shoved in his face, but she smiles oh-so-prettily when he takes them. He clenches them in hand as he watches her because that’s all he seems to know how to do, but his stare doesn’t make her squirm the way it had everyone else. Instead, she sidles up next to him, takes his free hand in hers and smiles genuinely.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Mama says after Mt. Nibel is para...para—a really good place, so your papa will be happy. And he’ll be waiting for you! Mama says we all see each other in the good place!”
She pulls him down until they’re seated on the ground next to one another. She keeps his hand in both of hers and rests her head on his shoulder.
She regales him with story after story about anything and everything and doesn’t mind his continued silence. She doesn’t move, except once to pull him down until they’re both lying on their backs so she can continue telling stories from the shapes she finds in the clouds. She stays until the sun starts to set and her mother calls for her from the porch. She waves goodbye as she climbs the fence, falling on the other side when she misses a foothold and runs to her mother before giving one last wave in his direction.
He watches her go and waves back, earning a brilliant grin he can spot from where he stood, and his heart lightens at the sight.
Cloud’s first encounter with Tifa Lockhart can be narrowed down to one ugly dress, a pair of grass-stained pants, a handful of weeds, and a plethora of inane stories, but he doesn’t think he could’ve been more intrigued if he tried.
From then on, she burrows her way into the recesses of his mind, becoming a permanent fixture he couldn’t be rid of even if he wished it. She boards every train of thought, moving up the cars until she stands at the forefront of each one. He wonders, sometimes, if she thinks of him half as often he does her and finds himself wishing she did.
He doubts it, for as often as he spends watching her, he never catches her watching him in turn. She’s busy, unlike him—constantly moving, always in the presence of others—she doesn’t have time to sit and simply watch. She flits from person to person, brightening one day after the other, and he can’t begrudge her for it when he sees others need her cheer just as much as he. Instead, he takes what he can get: cherishing every catch of the eye; relishing every whisper of his name; enshrining every twitch of the lips.
He makes a game of it, racking up points based on their interactions. Two points for a smile, four points for a wave, five points for an exchange of words, and so on. He tallies up the scores and compares them day to day, telling himself if he just scores high enough, she’ll look at him the same way he does her. He leaves the goal nebulous, keeping it always just out of reach, simply enjoying the moments they share however minuscule.
He’s seven when he starts to notice how Dan’s cheeks stain red when she talks to him, or how Meiday lingers in her presence, or how Wel pulls on her hair and pokes her sides for attention. It’s then Cloud realizes he’s not the only one playing the game, and if he compares their scores, he’s the one losing.
That all changes during the first snowfall of the season.
Cloud’s watching from his bedroom for the moment Tifa wakes up. Her back door slams open, and she laughs as she runs around the yard, wearing little more than her slip of a nightgown. He watches, entranced, as she leaves her mark in the snow blanketing her yard, hair an unbrushed mess trailing behind her.
She does this every year. Too excited to bother changing, she runs out woefully underdressed and barefoot, giggling as the snow melts against her feet. She would continue her run until one of her parents notice, and chase her down with a large wool blanket they’re quick to wrap her in when she’s finally caught. Mrs. Lockhart is never impressed, grumbling complaints as she carries her daughter inside, but Mr. Lockhart treats it as the game it is, tickling her sides and lifting her upside down as he does the same. Her laughter always dissolves into shrieks as she pleads mercy, but it never stops her from doing it again the next year.
This year, Mr. Lockhart was out of town, having been called to the city for work, so it fell to his wife to usher their daughter back indoors. Only, she doesn’t show. Tifa runs, and laughs, and falls into the snow, making angels one after the other, but her mother never so much as sticks her head out. Tifa’s rolled through the entire yard when she finally stops and sits up, nightgown nearly transparent as it clings to her back. She watches the door she had left wide open, but Cloud can’t see any activity beyond its threshold. She waits a few minutes before she, for the first time of her own accord, stands and reenters the house, closing the door behind her.
On days Tifa gets sick, she would sit on the sill of her window and watch the world outside with eyes heavy with longing. She always leaves the window open, no matter the temperature outside, and Cloud has taken to doing the same, offering what silent comfort he can. She’s always so miserable when it happens, letting out sighs loud enough to be heard from his own bedroom. She usually stays like that until Mrs. Lockhart shoos her back to bed and shuts the window, though never completely knowing it would just tempt Tifa out of bed quicker to reopen it. On the really bad days, the ones where Tifa’s unable to leave the bed herself, Mrs. Lockhart would sit at the piano and play, the beautiful notes being the only saving grace for such inauspicious days.
That day, he doesn’t see Tifa outside again, not even when the neighbourhood boys show up at her door to play. She sends them off, and opens her window, and for a brief moment, Cloud fears her little stint outside got her sick, but when the piano starts to sound it’s not from Mrs. Lockhart’s graceful playing. Instead, the notes are clumsy and halting, full of mistakes and attempted corrections, but it is continuous, accompanied by laughter and singing. The playing is subpar and unrefined, but it’s clearly Tifa’s and it fills him with a warmth her mother’s could never achieve.
Five points for hearing Tifa play, he decides and adds to his tally.
It’s hardly the last time he hears her play. She begins to play more often as her mother’s health wanes, as though attempting to entertain the illness away, and soon she’s playing every day. Cloud is the only one who gets to hear—she refused to play for the boys when asked, saying she was not yet good enough—so he wracks up points the others can’t and soon, he’s no longer losing.
He can’t even feel happy about that, because each day that goes by without her mother recovering, Tifa recedes a little further into her shell. Her smiles dwindle, and the light of her eyes diminish until they are almost things of the past.
He may be winning the game, but he’s losing Tifa. And he thinks to himself that no amount of points is worth that.
In the end, Mrs. Lockhart’s illness never truly goes away and, after many hard months, it claims her.
Cloud is eight, and her funeral is his first since his father’s. This time, his mother dresses them in black and tames his hair with copious amounts of gel. He doesn’t particularly like the outfit—it is ill-fitting; too tight around the chest, too long around the ankles, and just plain stupid looking—but he knows better than to complain. This is for Tifa, and he is willing to wear anything, no matter how ridiculous, if it was for her sake.
Tifa, on the other hand, looks beautiful in her mourning attire. The bodice of her dress is embroidered with flowers, and the skirt’s a mix of tulle and lace that stops at her knees. She wears sheer tights and white ballet slippers, and her hair is twisted and held back with an ivory hairpin that once belonged to her mother. She is beautiful, but her eyes stay glued to the floor and he decides he much prefers her in ugly purple dresses than pretty white ones.
He can’t approach her while they’re standing on ceremony, so he watches her from afar and thinks about what he’ll say when it’s his turn to give condolences. He thinks of the monotonous apologies he received all those years ago and knows they’re not worth anything. He wants to give her what she gave him back then: hope and good cheer, alongside colour and a handful of weeds.
He wasn’t wearing any colour, and he didn’t have any dandelions on hand, but he could at least say something .
Now, if only he could figure out what to say. He forces his mother to hang back as they let the others express their condolences first, trying to figure out just what he needs to say. They wait until the others clear out, until it’s just them and the Lockharts and they can’t wait any longer. His mother forces them forward, but Cloud drags his feet because he hasn’t yet figured out what to say.
He doesn’t think it would’ve mattered in the end, because when Tifa catches his eye and he notices the tear tracks down her cheek, his mind blanks.
“I’m sorry,” he ends up saying.
She nods, but her eyes remain sad and she doesn’t even attempt a smile. His mother leads him away before he can say anything else, and he realizes that he didn’t give her anything special, just the same old words she was probably sick of hearing.
He subtracts ten points for not being there for her when she needed it most.
It’s hours later that he decides he wants to try again. He hangs around the Lockhart’s house, staring up at Tifa’s window as he tries to psyche himself up. He has white stargazer lilies in hand, courtesy of his mother who had caught him picking dandelions and told him—with no small amount of amusement—that those were weeds and not flowers.
As though he didn’t already know.
He didn’t think the lilies would have the same significance, but he will admit they look nicer. Besides, his mother refused to let him leave with the dandelions, so he settled with hiding a few within the bouquet and hoped that would be enough for Tifa.
He knocks on her door and Mr. Lockhart answers, who takes one look at him and lets him in. The man looks devastated, and his eyes are rimmed red, but he gives Cloud a smile reminiscent of Tifa’s best and he’s reminded where she got them from.
“Tifa’s upstairs,” he says, then reaches for the flowers. “I’ll put these in a vase.”
Cloud panics as he reaches for the flowers, and for a moment, he considers holding on to them. They’re meant to be for Tifa, but the man is just trying to be polite and he doesn’t want to be rude so he lets go of them reluctantly. He shucks off his shoes and heads up the stairs.
It’s his first time in Tifa’s room. He’s thought about what he would do if he ever got invited up a million times, but he never imagined it would be for such a macabre reason as this. He takes a moment to appreciate his surroundings. The walls are a warm cream colour and a matching rug feels plush beneath his feet. In one corner of the room is her desk, and opposite it is her bed. The piano he’s heard every day for the last several months stands beside it.
He’s more interested, however, in what does not belong in her room.
Crowding around Tifa, who sits on the floor at the base of her bed, are Dan, Wel and Meiday. They stare at him, but he ignores them in favour of Tifa. She’s changed out of her mourning attire and he’s thankful to see her in colour once more. More than that though, she looks determined, a far cry from her despondency this morning.
“Cloud,” she says by way of greeting. She stands and dusts herself off. “We’re going to Mt. Nibel to see Mama.”
He doesn’t like the sound of that. Mt. Nibel is dangerous. Mt. Nibel is a desolate land. The vegetation had all died, leaving the animals and monsters no choice but to feed off one another. The weak didn’t survive long, and the strong were always in search of food. Five children, weak and defenceless, would make for an easy and satisfying meal.
He looks to the boys for help, but they stare back just as scared.
“Tifa,” he starts, but he doesn’t actually know what to say, so the name hangs unaccompanied in the air.
She looks at him, eyes large and pleading, but with steel will behind them, and he knows she’s not going to back down. He sighs—he’s the oldest of the five of them, so he guesses that put him in charge and responsible for them.
“Fine, but let me get some things first,” he says.
He has every intention of telling Mr. Lockhart about Tifa’s plan—he may not be able to stop but he’s sure her dad could. It is his intention, but in practice, it is much more difficult as the man seems to have disappeared. He spots the vase of stargazer lilies he brought over—dandelions unfortunately found and removed—but the man himself is missing. He checks outside quickly, but he must have gone out because he’s not in the yard.
His next course of action was going to be to tell his mother, but he notices how quiet it is upstairs. Tifa’s group is never quiet, and the silence sets him on edge. He checks her room to find it empty. He peers out the window and he can just make out the tail end of the group as they leave town. Muttering a word he knows his mother would disapprove of, he quickly scribbles a note for Mr. Lockhart and chases after them.
He runs into Wel first. The boy is running away from the mountain, clearly rattled, and Cloud worries that they ran into something. He doesn’t even seem to notice Cloud as he runs past him. He calls out to him, but Wel doesn’t bother to stop, seemingly lost in his own word, so Cloud leaves him be and looks ahead. In the distance, he can see Tifa leading the other two boys through the meandering paths. There’s nothing harassing them yet, but Cloud knows it’s only a matter of time—there’s a reason their parents warn them away from the mountain, and he doesn’t want to meet it. He picks up the pace and follows the path after them.
He comes across Meiday and Dan next, the boys having turned around on the bridge when they decided they went far enough, leaving Tifa all alone. He grits his teeth because he wants to yell at them, but Tifa needs him more so he continues to chase her down. She’s just ahead, having crossed the bridge already, and he’ll catch up to her any moment now.
“Tifa,” he calls out just as he’s about to reach her.
It was the wrong thing to do.
Tifa turns at his cry, but she’s already lifted her foot and is near the ledge. She sends him a smile and he’s just about to add to his tally when she puts her foot down. The ground is loose beneath her and it gives way under her weight. He can only watch as her eyes widen and her body tilts, her center of balance over a foot that has no purchase. She waves her arms in an attempt to steady herself, but it doesn’t work.
“Tifa!” he cries but it doesn’t do a thing.
He follows after her.