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I am never sure exactly what it was about him that first... how should I say? Attracted me? Interested me? No... I'm so uncertain, I can't even describe what it was I felt!
Let me try again. What I felt for him was like a kind of magnetism, I suppose. But it wasn't like I was induced to be near him always, or inexplicably attracted by some silly notion of romance. No, it was not like that at all. At least not at first.
I think it was his kindness that did it. In the slums, kindness is as rare as my flowers, something to be cherished and savored whenever it can be found. When you're poor and hungry, there is little time to be charitable to others, because you're just too busy trying to scrape up enough to eat for yourself, never mind a family. That was always an understanding among the people under the plate. That didn't make it right, but that was the way it was. It was ironic, as well, for when you have nothing else, other people- friends, family- are what you need the most.
It was just another day for me, pacing down my usual walk, woven basket of bright flowers in hand. I had blue, I had pink, I had roses, I had daisies; I had whatever I could grow. Occasionally some Shinra guard or official would stop me and buy a flower for 'someone special.' I doubt any of them really appreciated the meaning of my flowers, but at least they were paying customers. Once in a while though, someone wanders along without hope or direction, eyes dark and empty like the plate above, and then sees my flowers... and suddenly finds a reason to smile. Flower-selling doesn't pay well, you know, but those smiles make it all worth it.
The air held its same musty, stale aroma of abandonment, one of those smells that you just get used to after breathing it in every day. The sky (if you could really call it that) was the same monotonous dark blur of smog and hazy lights. I never bothered looking at it anymore. A woman in my sector once told me that sometimes you could find interesting things if you looked down long enough. I know she was thinking along the lines of dropped trinkets and gil, but I look down and I see my flowers and that's good enough for me.
Don't get me wrong, my daily walk was not by any means fixed or boring. Even down in the slums, something is always happening. Someone's always getting shot, some building's always getting burned, some soldier is always running around trying to arrest people just because they dared to ask what was going on. You learn to block it all out, and work your way around all the minor catastrophes, because they never go away. Because if you don't, you either get killed or give up on everything altogether and die anyway.
I once saw a man throw himself in front of a train, with his wife and child grabbing at his jacket frantically, the wife screaming that she wouldn't be able to take care of their child, the child simply wailing in terror, too young to understand. He didn't care, just ran in front of the oncoming train and ended it all on the rails.
That was not the saddest part, though- what was sadder still was that not even the people standing on the platform cared. They stood and watched, like always. Maybe because they knew how he felt, or maybe simply because there was no reason to care. The wife and child couldn't have stopped that man, they weren't strong enough, but one or two strangers, just one or two to help, and that man might have been saved. But no. Not even enough kindness to save someone's life.
My excuse for not helping? I was on that train.
I guess that's part of the reason I sold my flowers. Maybe I saved somebody's life by giving them back that tiny spark of hope. And that's why it struck me so much that some stranger actually bothered to have a kind word for me. Struck me, I think that was the effect. It was such a simple thing, too. I suppose that was what made it all the more surprising. And... touching as well.
That night I stood in front of the movie theater to wait for the evening audiences to get out and, with any luck, sell a few flowers to them. Or maybe it was morning... it's so hard to keep track down there. An intermittent breeze kicked up the scraps of paper and bits of plastic littering the street. A few people drifted by, some like aimless leaves floating along a sleepy creek, accepting the gray drudgery of eking out a living; others like rock-hard ice floes rushing over a waterfall, checking over their shoulders all the while trying to scramble ahead in the world, yet never noticing that they're headed into the same bleak pit of a future as everyone else. It was never crowded.
I sound cynical, I know. But it's the truth. It's why I came out every day with my basket. No, I didn't plan on saving the slums with my flowers. I only wanted to make a living, like everybody else. So my methods were a little different, but then, I didn't want to end up in some light-forsaken pit of despair, whereupon I'd commit suicide. I actually wanted some joy in my life.
A stronger gust caught some twisted chunk of metal and dragged it across the street; the drifters hardly paid heed to its strangled screech. I had long ago stopped approaching people in my attempts to sell flowers, for I had learned that people bought only if they bothered to stop and look for themselves. They were always too busy with their own worries and heartaches; I could not possibly give them the kind of help they needed.
I waited silently by myself, thinking of all the tasks I had to accomplish before I returned home. I had to stop by the store to buy a few things for dinner... it occurred to me that on the way I could also pick up something special for my mother and surprise her. I liked making her happy. I also had to check on the flowers in the church, but I wouldn't have time to do that if I wanted to get something for my mother. I could check tomorrow; they'd wait.
Occasionally a motorcycle or automobile would careen by without a care for any fool who walked in the middle of the street, and my hair would be ruffled by its wake. I had to shield my basket on these occasions, for fear that the exhaust or the strong gust might damage them. There weren't very many traffic laws to prevent people from going wherever at whatever speed they pleased, but then, there wasn't that much traffic in the first place. It was cheaper to take the train or walk.
"Hey, sweetheart, how's about comin' home with me?" a drunken fellow called out from across the street, drool dribbling down one side of his mouth and his hair a disarray of greasy clumps. He began to stagger toward me, every step a monumental effort to get the sole of his foot back flat on the pavement.
I simply stood there and said nothing in reply; there was no reason to bother with, much less fear, a drunk, at least not yet. I had dealt with worse types, male and female. When you've had to dodge the Turks, the rabble of the streets becomes nothing more than a daily nuisance. A lot of things are like that, here.
"You're a pretty one," he slurred, still trying to wobble across the street. His brow furrowed as he glanced at his feet, probably wondering why they weren't listening to him. "Why don't you..." His left foot, unfortunately, decided to take a step at the same time as his right, and he collapsed in a heap on his back, moaning. A fly buzzed around him curiously, then touched down on his head to explore further.
I sighed. This pathetic man was one of the ones that would soon find himself dead.
A sudden noise from afar caught my attention. It was like a huge balloon popping, and rather than the air simply shrieking out of it, there was a distant roar as if a hundred dragons had burst from within. Glancing to my left, I could see a haze of orange flames licking the tops of buildings, but I couldn't tell where exactly they originated.
A few seconds ticked by. I yawned. Pretty soon there would be some kind of a ruckus, then the Shinra would show up several minutes later, like always, and scare everyone out of their wits again. So I was not taken aback when another explosion sounded, much closer but also much smaller, just a whoosh of air and the crackling of flames. A miniature stampede of people came charging around the corner, babbling and shrieking in panic as they ran about like a bunch of panicked ants. There couldn't have been more than five or so of them, but with the way they carried on, they sounded like a crowd of fifty.
One of them blindly barreled into me, pushing me off my feet, and was gone before I could so much as let out an indignant reprimand. Didn't matter. Poor thing was probably was hysterical that any words from me would only increase his hysteria.
Thankfully, my flower basket hadn't tipped over in my fall. I retrieved it, stood, and tugged on my dress until the seams lined up properly once more.
Hmph. No Shinra yet? Typical. I decided to stay where I was, because the low-ranking guards they'd send to investigate wouldn't really care about a flower girl, and besides, I had discovered something that captured my interest.
A young man came strolling into the street behind the confusion, coughing and scrubbing soot off his fair face. I watched him curiously as his strides gradually shortened and he finally came to a stop and looked around. There was no end to strangers in the slum, but the very way he moved immediately set him apart from the rest. His strides were neither long nor short, yet powerful and determined all the same. His back was erect, with the pride of a soldier, and his eyes alert. I couldn't see the color of them from where I stood, but I could study the rest of him as I pleased.
He had golden-blonde hair, done up in wild spikes pointing every which way, and he was dressed in blue pants and a matching sleeveless shirt. Metal gauntlets protected his arms and tough Shinra-issue boots covered his feet. A vicious-looking sword was strapped to his back, looking nothing as much as a gigantic meat cleaver. And by the well-developed muscles in his arms and shoulders, you could tell he knew how to use it. Not someone you wanted to cross.
Yet, other than the boots, which were quite common, there was nothing about him that said he worked for Shinra. Shinra folk had a lot of pride, and were very easy to identify, even by something so subtle as the way they glanced at the people in the slums. This one didn't have any such look on his face other than curiosity.
A soldier-for-hire, perhaps? Or a young man on his way up in the world, with a goal of applying to Shinra? That was what anybody who could fight did, or else sold their skills to the highest bidder. Which usually happened to be Shinra in the first place.
Well, since it wasn't glaringly obvious that he was from Shinra, he probably wasn't going to slice me in half for a simple question. I know I did say that such disturbances as explosions and killings do happen all the time, but that doesn't mean I completely ignore them. I like to be informed.
I took a few steps toward him, keeping the flower basket in front of me. "Excuse me. Do you know what happened?" I asked, attempting to keep a normal tone of voice. Being bold would just get me in trouble, but being too meek would get me trampled as well.
He looked at me and opened his mouth, then hesitated. I could see his eyes now. They were a brilliant blue, glowing uncannily like materia... for some reason that struck a chord in me but I did not understand the real reason why at the moment. The look in his eyes made my heart jolt painfully in my chest, and then start pattering wildly. Even my relaxed breathing couldn't slow it down. There was something familiar about those eyes! Yet I'd never seen this man before... I was sure I hadn't.
I filed away the reaction as simple fear. This was not like dealing with a Shinra guard, or a gang of thieves. This man was something I had never encountered before. Of course I felt a bit of trepidation. But nothing else about him told me that he was truly dangerous, that I should run away; otherwise why would I have dared approach him in the first place? I waited for an answer.
He licked his lips and nodded to himself. "All I can say is that you'd better get out of here," he said quietly, the solemn cast to in his eyes indicating that it was for my own good. His voice was just barely past tenor, calm and unruffled like the pleasing knell of a church bell, yet not so deep that you were struck down by the reverberations.
I was amazed by his concern, but at the same time vexed by it. I looked down at my flowers, not wanting to go, still curious about this man and what had happened, even though he had clearly implied by his answer that he felt I didn't need to know.
"Thank you, but I know how to take care of myself," I answered as politely as I could. I appreciated his concern, certainly, and didn't want him to think me rude or haughty. He was trying to be nice, I knew, but that could easily turn into patronizing. Too many people don't take me seriously when I say I can do fine on my own, despite the fact that I grew up in the slums. I wouldn't have survived this long if I didn't know how to take care of myself.
He sighed, but offered no argument. His eyes took in my flowers. "Don't see many flowers around here," he commented casually, belying the spark of curiosity in his eyes.
"Oh... aren't they pretty? Want to buy one?" I said, so happy that he had noticed them that I forgot I shouldn't ask him to buy. I held the basket up a little higher.
He glanced at the flowers, and the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly. Now that I had gotten over his eyes, I noticed that he was quite a handsome fellow. His features came together at pleasing angles, and his skin still held the smooth, soft texture of a boy's, although not without a few creases of experience.
The slight smile turned into a grin. "Sure, why not? How much?"
My eyes prickled with tears, but I didn't cry. No one had ever bought a flower when I asked.
"One gil." I smiled in return. No one had smiled at me like that before, so beautifully, not out of hope nor bittersweet memory; out of happiness. Not a stranger, not here.
He pulled a coin out of a pocket and held it out with one hand, selecting a blue flower and tucking it away with his other. As I took the coin, our fingertips brushed. A tiny contact, trivial at best, yet the warmth of his fingers sent a shiver up my spine. Maybe it was just that I hadn't had a boyfriend in so long. Maybe it was just that I hadn't lately run into any decent males, period. Maybe, maybe, maybe. You think you're grown up, and then something absolutely ridiculous turns you into a giggling child. Maybe that was what struck me. I still don't know.
"Thank you," I said, and bowed slightly at the waist. I feared looking at him might give myself away. Now was not the time to be acting silly over strangers, no matter how kind they were.
He turned away from me. Disappointment crept into my heart.
He glanced back as he started off. "Thank you," he repeated, as if unaware that I had said anything. "Now get out of here... please? Trust me on this."
I nodded mutely, but didn't move. I didn't want him to walk away, I had a million questions to ask him, not just about whatever had blown up, but about him as well. His name, for one thing. Where he came from. What he did. I didn't even care if I couldn't talk to him, as long as he stayed. No one else had ever bought a flower when I asked. No one.
He did not glance back again, though, but continued walking. The drunk had since rolled over in the street, and was now crawling aimlessly in the gravel, right in the young man's path. Nearly tripping, the young man cursed colorfully as he stepped back. I watched carefully to see what he did.
He made no move against the drunk, however; he simply shook his head and went around. I smiled to myself. He had a good heart. He looked quickly to see if I was watching, then smiled a boyish apology in the wake of mischief before running off into a side alley.
I swallowed hard, at once overcome by a powerful desire to follow him. It was more than likely I'd never run across him again.
But he had told me to go, and he had bought a flower. What did I lose by trusting him? A few surly customers, who wouldn't smile anyway. My heart told me that I should be thankful for the one encounter, the simple smile, and move on. It had stopped thumping uncomfortably by now.
I pulled my jacket snug around my shoulders and faced the opposite way that he had gone. Even if I didn't trust that young man, it was certain that something was up, and trouble would be quick to follow. I couldn't let his kindness go to waste. And if nothing happened... well, his smile had more than made up for it. I slung my basket on my arm and started walking.
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