"Excuse me sir, would you like to buy a flower? Only 5 gil!"
It was surprising to see any bright colors in the lower levels of Midgar. The predominating shades were of brown silt, the dark gray of steel corroding with rust. Occasionally the monotony was broken up by the rainbow-scrawl of graffiti on the side of some building or a garish neon sign, but these colors were harsh, unnatural. The tones that had caught the passing man's eye had been neither garish nor man-made, but natural, like grass and the sky -- things rarely seen in the Sector 5 Slums.
Turning to find the source of the voice and the unnatural display of color, the passing businessman came face to face with an exhausted-looking flower girl. Her face was streaked with dirt, the pretty dress she wore frayed at the edges, but there was still something fresh and pure about her ... Innocent even, a commodity found under the plate even less than rainbow-shaded palettes. Smiling politely at her potential customer, she held up the source of the refreshing colors, a shabby basket full of rapidly fading flowers.
"Buy one, sir?" the girl intoned again, voice cheerful and lilting despite her exhausted appearance.
The man wondered how many times a day she must ask this question to the uncaring crowds, and how many times a day she was ignored.
What a brave girl she is, he thought, and with a kind smile he dug into the depths of his pocket and produced a 10-gil piece.
"I'll take two, please."
The girl's eyes lit up like twin nebulas.
"Oh ... oh, yes sir, yes sir! Thank you very much, sir!"
Nodding frantically, she picked two of the best flowers from her basket and handed them to the businessman. Pocketing the two slightly wilted pink roses the girl had given him, the gentleman gave her a courteous nod and continued on his way, soon disappearing into the innumerable crowds of people that filled the slums.
The flower girl watched him until he was well out of sight, then picked up her basket of wares and took her own zig-zagging course through the crowd.
The smile disappeared from her face, the look that replaced it one of a hunted animal. Eyes darting this way and that, the petal-merchant rushed through the evening traffic until she reached a darkened alleyway. There and only there did she allow herself to relax, leaning against the grimy concrete surface and panting. A look of relief crossed her face.
"I did it! I got away this time!"
She allowed a small smirk to creep across her face and turned to exit the alleyway. As she did, another voice echoed out of the blackness, causing the young woman to freeze like a terrified rabbit.
"Oh did you now?"
The flower girl's expression changed to sheer terror.
As if summoned by the speaking of her name, out of the shadows stepped yet another teenage girl, carrying a large staff. She looked slightly older than the other girl, and, also unlike her, the expression written on her face was not one of fear, but of smugness. A face used to getting her way.
A casual onlooker would've thought her as fresh-faced and innocent as the first flower-seller, possibly even more so. But what they wouldn't notice, what they never seemed to notice, was the hooded look in her jade-green eyes, the look usually camouflaged by a sweet expression of fealty.
Money? Oh my no, I sell my flowers to make people happy! The smile said. To make YOU happy, of course!
But underneath it, like an eel in a dark cave waiting for unwary minnows, was a cunning and calculating look - much less becoming, true, but much more honest.
Aeris was no fool. She knew that to survive under the plate one had to make money; to survive in comfort you had to make more. There were several ways to do this in the Midgar Slums, and most of them were unpleasant to the extreme. In fact, flower-selling was one of the more lucrative professions, if you could make it pay out. It all depended on having the right face, voice, attitude, etc. And Aeris seemed to have each and every one of these attributes in spades.
There was one problem with this state of affairs. If even one competitor began selling her wares in your vicinity, it could drastically reduce profits. And when the other slum girls had seen Aeris making so much money simply selling flowers, they had understandably wanted the same for themselves.
However, none of them ever succeeded. After two or three attempts none even attempted the feat anymore; the ones that were persistent in trying to sell their grubby, faded petals began to disappear at an alarming rate. Rumors began to circulate about Aeris, unflattering rumors. To them all she responded with an innocent shrug and the ever-present sunshine smile. But as always, lurking under the smile and the innocence was a business shark as ruthless as any Turk.
Yes, Aeris was the undisputed queen of the flower girls. And if someone dared to challenge her, they paid -- with gil, or with their health. Which one this unfortunate bud merchant would tithe remained to be seen. At the moment she was on her knees, clinging frantically to any part of Aeris she could reach.
"Oh please Aeris, please let me go! I just wanted a little spending cash, I won't do it again! Honest!"
The girl clutched at the hems of the older girl's skirt in desperation, whining and cringing like a subservient dog. Disdainfully, Aeris pushed her away with the toe of one of her spotless suede boots.
"I would have mercy, you know I would, but this is the third time I've caught you selling in my territory. I let you off the last two times -- I can't do that again, now can I sweetie?"
The saccharine tones in Aeris's voice didn't warm the cockles of Kelly's heart; she knew what the veiled threat behind the sweetness meant. The sadistic smirk on the pink-vested business shark's lips didn't help boost confidence either - things were not looking good. And sure enough, the smile turned to a snarl as Aeris wrenched the girl up by her bobbed hair.
"Listen you," she hissed, "You give me all the gil you've made off of trolling my territory, and I'll let you go home with all your teeth intact. If you don't ... " and here she twirled her staff menacingly "... then I'll just have to take the price out on your head. So what's it going to be then, eh?"
Kelly began to sob, tears leaving twin trails down her grimy cheeks. Aeris's expression didn't change; mercy was not a word located in her lexicon when it came to the flower-selling trade. She made a menacing movement with her staff in the younger girl's direction, and with a final burst of tears Kelly grudgingly deposited all her gil into Aeris's outstretched palm, the earnings of a day's full work.
Counting the gold pieces carefully with one eye while watching the flower girl with the other, Aeris gave a curt nod.
"Get out of my sight, and stay out of it," she muttered, still greedily fingering the gold coins, finally pocketing the other girl's earnings with a professional slide of the hand.
As Kelly turned to leave, half-blinded with tears, she tripped over a loose brick, stumbling to the ground with a cry. As she caught herself, something else fell from the front of her dress. A small leather pouch dropped into the dust with a soft thud, and before Kelly could react, Aeris had snatched it up and dumped the contents into her lily-white hand.
Gil pieces. 30, to be exact. Aeris looked at the money slowly, then back at Kelly, then back at the money.
The other girl gave a strangled squeal, like a rabbit being shaken by a dog, and backed against the brick wall, opening and shutting her mouth silently in fear. Aeris slowly put the money in her pocket while never taking her eyes off the girl, very slowly picking up her staff and advancing.
"Thought you'd just give me half and keep the rest, huh? Because I'd never find out, right? Well, that's not how it works. I always find out. The Planet's on my side. And now my friend, I have to charge you double. I have to make sure no-one wants to buy flowers from you again."
She lifted the butt-end of her staff in one fluid motion and in the time it took to blink had rammed it into the girl's mouth. Almost at the same time she switched ends and slammed the blunt pole into the girl's nose, making the bone crunch sickeningly loud. Panting, she paused and looked briefly at the victim of her anger.
The girl was now writhing on the ground in agony, hands squeezed to her crushed nose in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. Streaks of red squeezed through her fingers, and she spat blood and teeth from the mutilated orifice of her mouth. Aeris surveyed the destruction she had wrought with some satisfaction.
"Hrmmmmm..." she mused quietly "Good, but not good enough. I'm definitely not done with you yet."
The girl's eyes widened with terror, and in a panic she began crawling towards the far end of the alleyway, futiley attempting to lose herself in the darkness. A trail of blood snaked behind her, dripping into the dust and grime, leaving a clear trail of her passing. Aeris's smirk grew larger by a fraction, and with a grim chuckle she followed Kelly into the blackness of the passageway.
No-one ever found out the truth about what had happened to Kelly. The poor girl was found in an alleyway, face beaten to a pulp, her gil and flowers competely gone. The authorities assumed that it must have been one of the roving gangs that populated the slums preying on the weak, and since Kelly had lost the ability to speak since the incident, this theory was never challenged.
"Would you like to buy a flower? Only 5 gil!"
An old woman, passing through Sector 5 on a visit to her son, paused at the bright display of color by the side of the path. A lovely young girl, all freshness and innocence, was selling flowers from a small basket she carried on her shoulder.
What a pretty young lass, the old woman thought. I wonder how she survives in this wretched place, poor lamb.
"I'll take 3, please..." the old woman said, opening a small coinpurse to retrieve the needed money. Taking the proffered lilies, the senior citizen smiled at the girl's astonished thanks and continued on her journey.
"Why can't more girls be like her? Such good manners. It's a pity there aren't more like that," the woman muttered as she wobbled her way down the path, soon disappearing into the crowd.
And Aeris counted her gil and smiled.